The Muslims Condition
Allah (swt) has decreed:
"InnAllaha laa yoghayyiru maa bi Qawmin hattaa yoghayyiroo maa bi anfusihim" [Ar-Ra'ad: 11].
“Allah will not change what is in any nation, until they all collectively make a change occur in what is in themselves” [TMQ Ar-Ra'ad: 11].
Many from amongst the sincere and insincere Muslims utilise this Ayah in an attempt to justify not working for the Khilafah by reviving the Ummah in a collective way. Instead, they claim, that one should perfect what is within oneself first, and only then can they look to the ills of society. Thus, they emphasise the perfection of the individual, as Allah (swt) has said that He (swt) will not change the situation of the people until they first change what is within their own selves.
Without de-emphasising the importance of tazkiyyat un-nafs (purification of oneself), it is necessary to eradicate the above false understanding, especially the idea that through tazkiyyah alone, one can revive the Ummah. In fact, such a twisted interpretation of the glorious words of Allah (swt) cannot be further from the truth. The following Tafseer of this ayah will explain its true meaning by breaking down the Arabic word by word with the aim of elucidating the collective nature of the Islamic Da'wa. At the same time, the Tafseer will refute the secular interpretation of those smitten by western individualism.
The nature of the ayah
The ayah in question is ikhbariyyah (informative), therefore it informs about when Allah (swt) will change the situation of a people. It does not provide a detailed method for revival and should not be used for such an understanding, just as no scholar has used this ayah for this purpose before. Imam ul-Qurtubi said in his Tafseer entitled ‘Al-Jaami'u li Ahkam il-Qur'an' that “akhbara Allahu” (meaning, ‘Allah informs') necessitates that it is an informative ayah (akhbara being the verb from which the adjective ikhbariyyah is derived) since it informs us on Allah's (swt) law regarding change.
Upon who does the change occur (maf'ool ul-fi'l)?
The verb (fi'l) under discussion is the change, and the instigator (faa'il) of this change is Allah (swt). So what is the object of the verb (al-maf'ool)? That is to ask, who is Allah (swt) going to change?
Allah (swt) stated, “…maa bi Qawmin…” meaning, ‘(Allah will not change) whatever is in any Qawm.'
It is clear that the change will occur upon the Qawm. What is the meaning of this word Qawm, and what is the nature of this change? The maa here is 'Aam (maa al-'Umoom), thus it applies to whatever is in the Qawm. Furthermore, the word Qawm is in the Mutlaq (unrestricted) form, and thus, it even applies to the Kafir Qawms. Therefore, the meaning is that Allah (swt) will not change whatever is in any Qawm.'
Please note that the word Qawm has been used, which means that the subject matter is the issue of collective change in society, not individual change. Qawm, in the Arabic language, means nation or sha'ab (people), and it can also mean Ummah. It does not however, mean an individual or even a collection of individuals. Fard or shakhs refers to an individual or a person respectively, and afraad or shakhsiyyaat are the plurals, meaning a collection of individuals or people. These words may be used to denote the work that treads the path of individual reform.
Allah (swt), however, used none of those words in this ayah; instead, He (swt) used ‘Qawm,' which means nation, or Ummah. Nation has a specific connotation. It means a group or collective of people, but more than that because this is merely afraad. The difference is that this collective, known as a Qawm is bonded by a common identity, having some form of common unifying force, which is why it can also be used to describe a nation unified by race, hence the noun qawmiyyah (nationalism). However, here it is not restricted to ethnic groups, as the Muslims are included in its meaning. Also, it is not restricted to ideological societies. The word Ummah would be better to use here, as ethnic groupings are not necessarily ideological, yet they are also known as a Qawm. Thus, in this ayah the word Qawm is used loosely, denoting any nation, not necessarily along racial or ideological lines; thus, it is Mutlaq (unrestricted) and applies to all collective groupings of people.
This is what the word Qawm means in Arabic and even in the English language. So, from this it is clear that the meaning taken by some people that Allah (swt) will never change the situation of individuals until each one changes what is in his own self, is in fact a twisted meaning, rather than Allah's (swt) meaning. Shakhs (person) has not been mentioned, nor has people or afraad (individuals). If it had been, then the protagonists of such a fallacy might have had a case, as merely a collection of individuals does not denote a collective work. Thus, they may have been able to argue that each person should correct himself first and foremost, then convince another to change, until they become large in number and can go about individually changing others. Indeed, this fits the description of afraad or shakhsiyyaat, but it does not fit the description of Qawm. So clearly, in this ayah Allah (swt) is addressing change in the collective.
The final meaning, therefore, refers to everything in general in any Qawm (nation), whether Muslim or Kafir. The fact that it can be applied to Kuffar as well, is relevant.
What must the Qawm do?
Allah (swt) stipulates, “…hattaa yughayyiroo…” means ‘until they all change…'
These words are in the form of a conditional clause (seeghat us-shart), due to the use of the shart (condition) ‘hattaa' (until). This renders the meaning, ‘Allah will not change…(them)…until they all change.' The usage of the shart here means that the mafhoom ul-mukhalafah (opposite understanding) of this ayah can be taken. Thus, rendering the meaning that if the Qawm does not collectively change together, then Allah (swt) will not change their situation. So, a condition for change is that action must occur from the Qawm, and that means doing, not passively waiting for Allah (swt) to provide the change. Allah (swt) used the active verb ‘yughayyirooo,' so, in response, the Qawm must actively do something to be eligible for the change, without which they will not get it.
What is expected from this Qawm in order that they qualify for Allah's (swt) change to occur? Is it that each and every individual changes himself alone and then asks every other individual to change? No, Allah (swt) addressed the Qawm with the verb ‘yughayyiroo,' which means ‘until they change…' So, the nation must ‘yuhaghayyiroo' or act accordingly. This word is an active verb (f'il) in the plural (jam'a) third person (ghaa'ib) masculine (mudhakkir), and it is in the present tense (mudaari). Because it is an active verb, in order to qualify for the said condition, the Qawm must do something, not wait for something to be done to them. Thus, the fatalistic concept prevalent nowadays that encourages people to practice patience without action, whilst Allah (swt) brings change, is blatantly flawed. It being masculine means that it includes both male and female, as the masculine plural in Arabic means a mixed group unless indicated. In this case there is no indication, therefore it applies to male and female. The fact that it is in the plural form means that all individuals within the Qawm must do something, and it also reinforces the point that the Qawm, or a collective, is being addressed. Therefore, the plural masculine verb renders the meaning ‘until they all, male and female, collectively make a change occur…' Thus, is it 'Aam, and all people are required to make a change.
What do they have to change?
“…Maa bi anfusihim”
“…Whatever is in themselves…”
In this portion of the ayah, Allah (swt) informs us about the target for the change, which is “…Maa bi Anfusihim.” The maa here is maa al-'umoom, so again, it means everything must be changed in the specified target. Also, the ism (noun) ‘nafs' is used. This means oneself, not what is inside a person in any spiritual or mystic way. Rather, it simply means oneself, similar to the English usage of the noun ‘himself' when saying, “Zayd went by himself (alone).” This would be rendered in Arabic as “Jaa'a Zayd bi nafsihi.” Anfus is the plural for nafs. Therefore, Allah (swt) has decreed that He (swt) will not change the situation of any Qawm until they all collectively change all that is within themselves, as a nation, not as individuals, because they are addressed as a ‘Qawm,' rather than ‘afraad.' The verb came in the plural form, and so it is not addressing each individual alone, in fact it is addressing every individual in the nation, that Allah (swt) will not change their nation until they all make a change occur in themselves and in others.
What is the nature of this change?
The word Qawm being in the Mutlaq (unrestricted) form means that this khabar (news) that Allah (swt) has graced us with about the wisdom of how He (swt) makes change in societies is universal. In other words, it applies to any nation or group of people. This is the Sunnah of Allah (swt). Thus, my dear brothers, it cannot be taken from this that the Muslims must simply pray, fast and encourage one another, and then revival will come. This is because the Kuffar are also addressed by this ayah, and despite the fact that they do not pray and fast, their nations have progressed and revived (albeit incorrectly). Thus, the nature of the change needed cannot be restricted to ibadat, morals, clothing, Taqwa or even being Muslims. The word Qawm is Mutlaq, and it applies to the Kafir nations, or anything that can be described loosely as a nation. Indeed, we have witnessed that the Kuffar have progressed beyond us to the extent that they dominate us. This was despite the fact that these nations took the rebellion from religion as the cornerstone of their ideals, adopted immoral practice as their constitutional rights and have never ceased oppressing those who Allah (swt) loves: the Muslims. Indeed, they progressed despite all this. Therefore, the change mentioned cannot be moralistic, religious or ritualistic, despite what some may preach; for, the Kuffar of today are of the most immoral, atheistic hedonists that the world has ever witnessed.
So what change is being addressed here? It must be some form of change that is available for the Kuffar too. This change is the ideological change, the change that occurs in a nation when they unify around one common ideology (something Muslims or Kuffar can do). It is about altering the way in which they view life, the basis of their relationships and their ruling system. Thus, when the communists unified around Communism, they progressed. Allah (swt) changed their affairs, despite the fact that he despises those who deny him and reject his signs. Also, when the Europeans before them adopted secularism as their ideology, as did the Americans when they rebelled from the Europeans, they all progressed beyond bounds. Allah (swt) altered their affairs and they dominated us, even though He (swt) loves us and despises the arrogant deniers of his haakimiyyah (right to rule), the secularists. This was all done in accordance with the Sunnah of Allah (swt). That is why whenever any nation alters itself and bonds around a common basis, she progresses.
Alas, the Islamic Ummah has the best ideology, Islam; yet, she does not unify around it, nor does she make it her basis for solving all of life's problems. She does not change her Qawm (the Islamic Ummah) to bond upon it. She has the best ruling system, the Khilafah, yet she does not work for it. Thus, Allah (swt) will not change her affairs until she does. The result of understanding the ayah in this manner, means that when the Ummah returns to her ideology as a whole, basing her relationships upon its ‘Aqeedah alone, and governing her interests by its ruling system, only then will Allah (swt) revive her. This is just like when the Kuffar adopted a complete ideology, and Allah (swt) allowed them to revive, albeit on a false basis. Likewise, if she abandons the ideology, then she will decline, just as she did and just as the communists did when they dropped their ideology.
Imam al-Qurtubi, in his Tafseer entitled ‘Jami'u li Ahkam il-Qur'an,' is careful in explaining the ayah, as he knew that a twisted meaning would distort it:
“Allah informed in this ayah that he does not change what is in a Qawm until change takes place from them, whether it be from them, or from their supervisor (of their affairs - leaders), or from he who is (appointed) from them… So the meaning of this ayah is not that it was only revealed for individual punishment and to address nothing but progress from a sin. Instead, it has been revealed for the correction of others sins too. As he said (in the hadith), “…It was asked, ‘will we be destroyed whilst the righteous are amongst us?' He (saw) said, ‘Yes, if the corruption increases (beyond bounds)'” [Sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim, on the authority of Zaynab bint Jahsh about the Ya'jooj].
So you see, dear Muslims, al-Qurtubi demonstrates in his Tafseer of this ayah that it is not simply for the individual focus. His quotation on the hadith provides an admonishment, in the form of complete destruction, for the whole community if they leave others alone to practice corruption without addressing it, despite the fact that the righteous may live amongst them. Therefore, this ayah reinforces the correctness of the work of those brothers who work to alter society collectively, via their political work, to bring back the Khilafah. After this lengthy explanation, we may now revisit the final meaning of the ayah. It may be correctly rendered as, ‘Allah will not change what is in any nation, until they all collectively make a change occur in what is in themselves.' Please, dear Muslims, do not ever again use it to mean perfection of the individual alone, or Allah (swt) will ask you concerning this on al-Qiyaamah. Wa Barak Allahu Feekum.