Reflection No. 176 on Q 39:29 – Submitting to ONE Master
ضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا رَجُلًا فِيهِ شُرَكَاءُ مُتَشَاكِسُونَ وَرَجُلًا سَلَمًا لِرَجُلٍ هَلْ يَسْتَوِيَانِ مَثَلًا ۚ
الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ ۚ بَلْ أَكْثَرُهُمْ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
Dharaba-llāhu mathalan rajulan fīhi shurakā’u mutashākisūna wa rajulan salaman lirajulin hal yastawiyāni mathalan. Alhamdu lillāhi. Bal aktharuhum lā ya‘lamūn.
Allah draws and example: a man jointly owned by several contending masters, and a man belonging entirely to one man: are the two equal in comparison? All praise belongs to Allah! But most of them do not know.
(Sūratuz Zumar, No. 39, Āyat 29)
The Holy Quran abounds with parables, or examples. It is part of the literary devices used by the Quran to convey its messages. The word mathal is the Arabic word used in the Quran for parable, or similitude. Often the verse mentioning the parable will explain the purpose of using it. The Quran states: And Allah sets forth parables for men that they may be mindful (Q 14:25) and, We set forth these parables to men that they may reflect (Q 59:21).
Parables encourage people to reflect, think deeper about things. They make abstract things easier to understand. Parables also sound interesting, and can appeal to all groups of people. Visualization of the image that the parable creates helps in absorbing the message, and stays longer in the mind. The parable takes readers to a phase beyond mere reciting or just reading a passage ritually.
In the above verse, Allah compares a person who has one master to one who has many masters who conflict with one another. One master gives him an order, another tells him not to do it. The conflicting interests of the various masters leave him confused and frazzled. He has to please all of them and could very well end up with pleasing none of them. He has no peace of mind as he is constantly going back and forth between the masters. Also, one god might expect that his needs will be fulfilled by the other and vice versa, so the needs of the person could remain unfulfilled as he is passed around from one god to another.
On the other hand, the person who has only one master is at peace. His task is clear cut and straight forward. Once he understands the commands of his master he can follow them without being diverted and distracted by others. This one path leaves him with a clear focus and easily obtainable goals.
The example is similar to the difference between the Muwahhid, a person who worships only one God, and a Mushrik, one who has many gods. A believer who devotes himself to Allah, has only to follow the straight path to Him. His life is focused and his heart has room only for Allah. Diverse commands and demands do not control him and he has peace of mind derived from submission to one master.
A person who serves many masters, be they gods or subtle idols of desire, fame, people, etc., is similar to the person who has many masters. Conflicting demands of the many gods create internal unrest and uneasiness. It is difficult to serve more than one master and the person is deprived of the tranquility and satisfaction that comes from serving only one God. Thus Tawhīd in its purest essence, free from any associations with apparent or hidden deities, is the path to take for true fulfillment in life. This truth is also mentioned by Nabī Yūsuf in in Sūrat Yūsuf when he says: O my prison mates! are different masters better, or Allah, the One, the Supreme? (Q 12:39)
Life is easier when a person submits totally to God alone. Through servitude of Allah, a person gains true freedom as he is free of servitude to anything else. Recite this verse to remind yourself of how unnecessary it is to worry about pleasing others and striving to attain transient goals. All your efforts and struggles, worries and desires, should revolve around pleasing the One and only true master, the Almighty God. That is the natural way of life that brings with it peace and tranquility.
Āytaullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh.