Indeed Allah is not ashamed to set forth a parable whether it is that of a gnat or anything above it. As for those who believe they know it is the truth from their Lord; and as for those who disbelieve they say, what does Allah mean by this example? Thereby He leads many astray, and thereby He guides many. And He leads none astray except the transgressors.
(al-Baqarah, 2: 26)
Almighty Allah gives many examples in the Holy Quran. These examples help make things easy to understand. According to the above verse, these examples also serve to distinguish between the ones who are rightly guided and those who are not. The content of the example carries an importance that goes beyond the apparent matter discussed in the verse.
The Tafsir of this verse requires an exploration of its background. The verse refers to the attitude and behavior of hypocrites. One of the underlying factors behind hypocrisy is the search for excuses. A hypocrite looks for an excuse to criticize and condemn. He himself does not perform any action that is commendable but will always look for faults with the actions of others. Ayatullah Nasir Makarim Shirazi in his book Mithalhaye Zibaaye Quran (Beautiful Examples of the Quran) says in the Tafsir of this verse that if a community builds an Islamic centre which includes a mosque, a library, housing etc. a hypocrite will find fault and say the money could have been better used to feed the hungry who exist in the community. If the same hypocrite is among those who spend wealth to help the poor and feed them, he would insist that the money should be used to build a centre for Islam so that the propagation of the enemies of Islam can be countered. The hypocrite has no firm opinion on the matter. All he wants is to oppose those who do work that he himself cannot. He is intent on sowing the seeds of discontent and negativity, and would like to make people dissatisfied with the actions of others.
When the Almighty revealed certain verses with examples in them, the hypocrites started to find fault. Allah is greater than that He should give examples of weak and insignificant creatures such as spiders and gnats, or of inanimate objects such as fire, thunder, and lightning, they said. Their negative and skeptical message was that such verses cannot be from God. However if the verses would have been hard to understand and the examples were of things that were complicated and abstract, their response would have been that how can these be the verses of God when we cannot comprehend anything. Why could God not explain these complicated issues in simpler ways so everybody could understand? Such objections were found among the people of the other Prophets. The hypocrites during the time of Nabi Shuayb declared: O Shuayb, we do not understand much of what you say . . . (11:92)
Good examples are part of eloquent speech. They appeal to the audience and can bring subtle and complicated matters down to the level of the hearer. The size or status of the particular example has nothing to do with the status of the one who gives the example. Instead the use of appropriate examples according to the topic and situation illustrates the ability of the speaker. A skilled speaker is able to grasp the attention of the audience through the use of interesting and attractive examples. These examples could be of anything, the point is to make an issue more clear and understandable. Eloquence consists of beauty of language as well as depth of content. The verses of the Quran have both, and the examples of the Quran illustrate this form of eloquence.
Points to Ponder
1) Tiny creatures of God are amazing wonders of creation. In the Tafsir of the above verse, Marhum Tabarsi quotes the following hadith of Imam as-Sadiq (a): The reason that Allah has given the example of the gnat is that the gnat despite its small size, has all the organs and body parts that a large animal like the elephant has. In fact it has two organs that the elephant does not have.
2) Two veils block the human being from pondering over creation and realizing the greatness of all that God has created. One is the veil of continuous blessings, and the other is the veil of habit. Because human beings see so many small creatures, they do not realize the value of each one. If the gnat were to become extinct, and scientists could find just a few to study and analyze, humanity would realize its worth and understand its greatness. But because there are so many of them, the value is overlooked. Similarly, the veil of habitually seeing things without stopping to reflect and think, prevents the human being from understanding the true worth of creation.
3) According to this verse, Allah guides some people and leads some astray. The question that arises is how would God then reward the guided ones and punish those who are misguided, when both were granted that from God? Ayatullah Nasir Makarim Shirazi in the above quoted book gives the following example to explain this matter. He says that when rain falls on a land, all parts of that area receive the same rainfall. However different parts of the land react differently. The land that is salty and hard will remain barren and produce nothing but thorns and weeds. The land that is soft and fertile will produce lush vegetation. It can be said that the rain produced good growth in one part of the land and produced nothing much in the other part. However it is not the rain that is responsible for the different results, but the potential and capability of the land. Such is the human being. The mercy of guidance through the Divine messengers was sent to all human beings, but each heart accepts it according to its own capabilities.
Ayatullah Nasir Makarim Shirazi, Mithalhaye Zibaye Quran – Vol.1