“Those Are The High Flying Cranes”


S. M. Darsh

“Correction of Erroneous Information Published on Islam and Muslims – The Case of the Satanic Verses”, ISESCO (1992)

Ever since the publication by Viking/Penguin in the summer of 1998 of The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie, interest in the origin of those so-called “Satanic Verses” was renewed. That episode, which was repeated by a good number of Muslim writers, historians and Qur’anic commentators (some accepting it, some rejecting it, and yet, some others modifying it) became a favourite topic of many Orientalists. It was called by one of them, Sir William Muir (the founder of the Muir Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies at Edinburgh University), “the lapse” of Muhammad, or the temporary concession to Arabian polytheism.[1]

But what is the origin of that story?

Part One

As mentioned above, it is a story reported in a number of Islamic sources. Al-Tabari, being the best-known Muslim exegete to mention it in both his history and his commentary, provides a full critique which will be given here.

In his commentary on verse 52 Chapter 22, he provides the interpretation of verse 52. “Never did we send an apostle or a prophet before you but when he framed a desire, Satan threw some (vanity into his desire), but All?h will cancel anything (vain that Satan throws in), and All?h will confirm (and establish) His signs, for Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom.”[2]

Ibn Ka’ab al-Quzari: When the Messenger of Allah (SAW) realized how alienated the Qurayshites had become, and how intensely they had persecuted his companions, Muhammad expressed the wish that a revelation would come so as to reconcile his people, rather than further alienate them. When, one day, he was sitting with some Qurayshites in on of their club houses around the Ka’abah, he recited to them the chapter of “al-Najm”. After reading the verses:

    Would you consider al-Lat and al-Uzza?
    As well as Manat, the third goddesses?[3]

He continued the recitation with the statement “They are the goddesses on high. Their intercession is worthy of being sought.”

He, then, proceeded with his reading of the Sura’ to the end. When he finished, he prostrated himself and all the attending Qurayshites also prostrated. Subsequently, the Qurayshites proclaimed their satisfaction with what the Prophet had read and said, “We have always known that All?h creates and gives life, gives food and resurrects. But our gods intercede for us with Him. Now that you have allowed for them a place in your new religion, we are all with you.” Thus the difference between Muhammad and the Qurayshites was dissolved. When the news of this reconciliation reached Abyssinia, the Muslims, who had migrated there three months earlier, decided to return to their beloved country and people. As they drew close to Mecca, they met some Kinnanah tribesmen who informed them that Muhammad allowed the gods a good place in his religion, reconciled Quraysh, and was now followed by everyone. The narrative has it that Muhammad reverted to condemning those gods, and the Qurayshites reverted to persecution. The returnees stopped to consider what their next move should be; however, they missed their relatives and next-of-kin so much that they went ahead and entered Makkah. Then Jibreel came to the Prophet (SAW) and said to him, “What did you do? You recited to people what I did not come to you with from All?h, and you said things which He did not say.” The Prophet was grieved and full of fear of All?h.

All?h, who was ever merciful to him, consoled him, lightening his burden and informed him that, when prophets and messengers before him wished, as he wished, or liked something as he did, Satan would throw in their wish?etc. Thus, All?h relieved His Prophet of his sorrow, strengthened his confidence, and rectified what Satan had put into his mouth (when the Prophet said of their goddesses that “they are the high flying cranes. And their intercession is to be sought”) by saying concerning al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat “How many so ever be the angels in the heavens, their intercession will avail nothing, except after All?h has given leave for whom he pleases, and that he is acceptable to Him.” The intercession of these goddesses is therefore of no avail.

Once All?h rectified the words put by Satan into the Prophet’s mouth, the Qurayshites said: Muhammad renounced the importance he assigned earlier to our goddesses. And it so happened that those two sentences concerning their goddesses became so much liked and repeated by every polytheist when they were rectified by All?h that the polytheists became more hostile than they were before.

This is the story of al-gharaniq as given by al-Tabari and repeated late on by most of the commentators, the Prophet’s biographers and traditionalists.

Part Two

Al-Tabari, from the various authorities he cites, makes it plain that the Prophet uttered these words concerning the goddesses.[4] A few instances of the phrase he used variously: Satan threw on his tongue: he [the Prophet] said: these high?: he recited to them: Satan threw in his recitation?: and he went on reciting to them: etc. Throughout these narrations concerning the account of the revelation of verse 52 and subsequent in Chapter 22, Al-Tabari refers to the feelings of the Prophet and his wish that All?h would reveal to him verses either to reconcile him with the Meccans or pacify them.

When it came to defining the verb tamanna (he hoped, or wished) Al-Tabari gives the meaning related to the inner feeling. However, since this meaning does not go with the narrations that stress the Prophet’s uttering of those verses, al-Tabari chose a definition which goes with the context: the definition of tamanna as “recited”. For illustration, he quotes ad-Dahhak, who states that tamanna means to recite, to read. Al-Tabari also finds that this definition is confirmed by the Qur’?nic verses: “But All?h will cancel and thing vain that Satan throws in, and All?h will confirm (and establish) His Signs.” The verses which All?h says that He is going to confirm are, no doubt, the verses which He subsequently reveals. It is clear, then, that the verses which Satan has thrown in are those which All?h has cancelled through rectification. The explanation of the words, then, is as follows: No prophet or messenger have We sent before you has read the Book of All?h or read or talked about Satan’s attempting to throw in phrases to alter their message. “All?h suppresses what Satan throws in,” All?h removes that which Satan has put into the mouth of His Prophet and has rendered it vain and obsolete.[5]

Part Three

The Theological Implication of Al-Gharaniq

Al-Tabari relates the story of al-gharaniq in his Tafsir and in his book on history. As a muhaddith himself, it seems that he was interested, from his own point of view, in the soundness of its isnad (the chain of narrators). He was not troubled by the theological implications of the story, or by the time gap which separates the revelation of chapter 53 (an-Najm) which occurred about the fifth year of the mission of the Messenger of All?h, and that Chapter 22 (al-Hajj), which occurred either in the thirteenth year of the Meccan period (according to one view) or in the early period of Medina (according to another view). He was interested, it seems, in seeking a reason for the revelation of verses 52 and following, which all deal with the same subject. The episode of al-gharaniq provided him with that. Strangely enough, with his great knowledge and theological insight, Al-Tabari did not refer to any inconsistency, or to the religious implication it raises. Besides, no one in Islamic scholarship accused Al-Tabari of inventing the story. He is described in the books comparing hadith reporter as a trustworthy muhaddith himself. The authorities upon whom he relied in relating the story up to at-tabi’un (the followers of the companions), are deemed by hadith scholars as trustworthy at least in two chains of narrations.

The Reaction of Muslim Scholars

1. Ibn. Khozayma

Notwithstanding the high reliability of Al-Tabari and his authority, other scholars rejected – outright – the whole episode as a forgery invented by the zindiqs. The first to condemn it outright was none other than the friend and admirer of Al-Tabari, his great contemporary traditionalist, al-Imam Muhammad ibn Khzayma. Ash-Shawkani writes that “Ibn Khozayma, the Imam of imams, said: ‘This story is invented by zindiqs”. This statement is the most forthright condemnation of the story. Other imams criticised the story on technical grounds. Al-Bazzar writes: “This is a tradition attributed to the Prophet (pbuh), but not founded on a continuous unbroken chain.” Likewise, Al-Bahhaqi states: “This story is not authenticated as far as al-isnad (the chain of narrators) is concerned.”

This point concerning al-isnad was taken up by a number of Muslim scholars. Some, like Ibn. Hajar, in his commentary upon al-Bukhari, somehow accept its reliability. Many others, on the other hand, judge it to be a fabrication by the enemies of Islam. But both parties agree that no theological implication follows from it.

2. Ibn Al-Arabi

Ibn al-Arabi, in his book, Ahkam-ul-Quran, discusses the implications of that fabricated story in detail. After reviewing what has been given as the reason for the revelation of verses 52, 53 and 54, of the Satanic verses, he proposes to deal with the whole question in ten points. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to go into details, the main points will be dealt with, considering that Ibn al-Arabi’s critique is the standard accepted in essence by the subsequent Muslim scholars who dealt with this question, whether from of Hadith, or Tafsir or theology.

Ibn al-Arabi begins his critique by establishing two essential theological points:

a. Allah has protected His Messenger (and for that matter all Messengers and Prophets) from disbelief. This is the consensus of all Muslims. Anyone who argues otherwise will be actually committing an act of disbelief.

b. The Prophet, by receiving Allah’s revelation through the Archangel, thereby receives the ability to recognise that particular Archangel. Without that recognition and certainty, Prophethood cannot be established. Once this recognition is established, the Archangel will be clearly distinguished from any other by the Prophet, and the way of the religion will be safe from any interference from outside.

If it were possible that the prophet could not distinguish between the Archangel and some other creature, he could not possibly say: “What I have received is from Allah”, and we, in turn, could not be sure that the revelation is from Allah. If it were possible for Satan to interfere with this process or to disguise himself as an angel, we would not be sure about one single verse; nor would we be able to distinguish truth from falsehood.

After establishing these two basic points, Ibn al-Arabi goes on to demolish the story of al-gharaniq. He states that “Those who say Satan said those words and the Prophet accepted them from him and was not able to distinguish tawhid (the Unicity of All?h) from disbelief, cannot fail to realize that this is an act of disbelief which could not come from the Prophet. How could the Prophet say that ‘they are the high flying cranes. And their intercession is to be sought’ when he know absolutely that they are dead stone incapable of any good or harm, and when Gabriel was coming to him day and night with these facts about idols like them? Those who accepted that story went on to claim that, when Gabriel came to the Prophet and corrected the revelation, All?h thereafter revealed the verses:

    Indeed they were seducing you from that We revealed to you, that you might forge against us another, and then they would surely have taken you as a friend. And had we not confirmed you, surely you were near to inclining unto them a very little. (Qur’?n, 17:73-74)

“Do not they know that these verses negate what they claimed? The Arabic structure of a verb preceded by qad means “almost” doing something or “coming near” to doing it, but it does not mean actually doing it. So All?h is informing us in these verses that they were about to seduce the Prophet but did not succeed. All?h protected and confirmed the unity and the knowledge of the Deity in the heart of the Prophet. So these Qur’?nic verses are absolute proof of the infallibility of the Prophet and therefore clear him of what they claim.”[6]

So far, so good. But what is the explanation of what happened, if indeed it happened at all?

Here Ibn al-Arabi gives an explanation which, in essence, amounts to acceptance of the reasons given for revelation of verses 52-54, in a way which, in his view, does not affect the infallibility of the Prophet. The words were uttered on the said occasion, not by the Prophet, but by Satan himself. The Prophet was in the habit of reciting the Qur’an in a very distinct, slow-paced way, and Stan must have taken advantage of the intervals, between one verse and another. He must have imitated the voice of the Prophet and uttered the verses of al-gharaniq unbeknownst to the Prophet. The disbelievers, not realizing this, must have been deluded into thinking that it was the prophet who spoke these words, and the chain of events, as explained earlier would have followed. The commentators who followed that story have accepted this account as the most plausible of the other explanations.

3. Al-Qadi Iyad

The critical approach of al-Qadi Iyad: It was left to the student and contemporary of Ibn al-Arabi, al-Qadi Iyad, in his compendium Al-Shifa bita’rifnhuquq al-Mustafa (The Satisfactory Explanation of the Rights of the Chosen One) to fully explain the theological implications and contradictions of the said story. Appropriately enough, Iyad’s treatment of the subject comes in the third section of his book about the requisites for Prophethood as well as miracles and immunities concerning Prophets. In one of the chapters within this section, he deals with the infallibility of the Prophet concerning his statements and actions. He says: “As far as his [the Prophet’s] statements are concerned, clear evidence shows that miracles necessarily imply his truthfulness. The consensus of the Muslim scholars, concerning the delivery of the Prophet’s message, is that he is infallible in what he holds from God. He cannot utter that which is not true about anything whether he intends it or not.[7]

From this basic rule, which al-Qadi elaborates and substantiates in detail, he moves on to deal with some questions disputing its validity. The first was that story of al-gharaniq . After stating the gist of this story, he gives its different versions. Al-Qadi Iyad then adopts two lines of defence in refuting, or even explaining the theological implications resulting from the story.

In the first line, of defence he mentions the technical criticism of the story commentators as it is given above.

The interesting part of this line of defence consists in the four rational arguments which point out the contradictions implied in the story and which express the keen insight of al-Qadi Iyad and his critical ability to explode the myth of al-gharaniq. The four arguments come as follows.

The first is that it is the consensus of the Muslims that All?h has protected His Messenger and made him immune from such evil as the wish that All?h would reveal to him verses that praise the Qurayshites’ idols. Such praise is an act of disbelief (kufr), and to say that the Prophet intentionally or unintentionally praised the idols in an act of kufr, for he is immune from that. It is thus established, through consensus and strong evidences that the Prophet is immune from committing an act of unbelief, whether by heart or tongue, whether intentionally or forgetfully, and that Satan could neither influence him nor say anything false about All?h. All?h Most High warned him: “And if he had fabricated against Us some statements, We would certainly have seized him by the right hand, then cut off his heart’s vein” (Qur’?n, 69:44-45) and “Then We would have made you taste a double (punishment) after death, then you would not have found any helpers against Us.” (Qur’an, 17: 75).

The second argument rests upon the linguistic weakness and the contradiction in the meaning. The construction of the added sentences, beginning: “al-gharaniq-ul-ula?” is not up to the high standard of Qur’anic construction. This aspect cannot escape the notice of the ordinary Arab, not to mention the Qurayshites. The contradiction in meaning is very easily noticeable. The verses contain praise and degradation at the same time. When we consider the introductory question:

    “Have you then considered Lat and Uzza, and Manat, the third other?”, then consider the suggestion:
    “They are the high goddesses,
    and their intercession is to be sought” and finally
    “Are yours the males and His the females?
    That indeed were unfair division.
    They are but names, which you have named, you and your fathers, for which Allah has revealed no warrant”

the contradictory attitudes appear obvious and cannot pass unnoticed.

The third argument is: if anything like this had happened, it would not have gone unexploited by the hypocrites and the polytheists, who would have been quick to seize upon such an occasion to torment the believers and rebuke the. Now, there is no mention anywhere of any such incident or of any repudiation of faith on the part of lukewarm converts. One finds reports of how the polytheists tried to ridicule the Prophet when he told them about his night journey, or to break the agreement after the conclusion of the Hudaybiya pact, but nowhere is there even mention of such an exploitation taking place if we suppose that such an event took place. No doubt, some human Satan or jinn played this trick on some of the apathetic, attentive muhaddiths and weak-minded Muslims so as to deceive them.

The fourth argument is that: some of the narrations of the story say that All?h has revealed the following verses as a result of such an episode:

    “And surely they had purposed to turn you away from that which We have revealed to you that you should forge against Us other than that, and then they would have taken you for a friend. And if We had not made you firm you might have indeed inclined to them a little.” (Qur’an, 17:73-74)

These two verses, on the contrary, are a rejection of the report they have. All?h, Most High, is saying that they “might have” succeeded. Had it not been for All?h’s support to His Prophet, the latter might have inclined to them. This implies that All?h has protected His Prophet, confirmed his faith so that he did not even incline a little to the disbelievers, not to mention the ill-famed story of praising their goddesses. B.Abbas says: “All that is in the Quran of term ‘qad’ is ‘might have’ meaning that it did not in fact happen.” Al Qurayshi al-Qadi says: “Quraysh and Thaqif requested the Prophet just to turn his face towards their idols when passing by them, and promised him, for that, to convert to his religion, But he never obliged, and he could not do that.” Ibn al-Anbari says: “He never came close, or inclined, to the disbelievers.”

The Explication of the Verse

The other positive contributions of al-Qadi Iyad was his clear and simple explanation of the verse. He says: “All?h, Most High, is reminding the Prophet of His favour upon him in protecting him and confirming his faith against the trials of the disbelievers and their seductions”[8]

The second line of defence is that which supposes the story were authentic. The arguments given by Ibn al-Arabi, Ibn Hajar in Fathul-Bari commentary, and all other who were trying to explain the theological implications of the said story, are quite the same, and so there is no need to repeat them.[9]

4. Other authorities: (see the bibliographic note under Endnote 9)

5. Ibn Taymiyah and the Story of Al-Gharaniq

Ibn Taymiyah deals with verse 52 of al-Hajj in his Al-Fatawa (Juristic opinions) in a number of places and from different points of view. In Volume Two, in differentiating between the prophet and al-Muhhaddath (inspired person, talked to directly, like Omar).

In Volumes 13-14-17 and 21, he mentions the verse either in connection with prostration without ablution or the concepts of al-Muhkam and al-Mutashabih or with the use of the term naskh (abrogation generally).

It is in Volumes 10 and 15 that he addresses the story of al-gharaniq.

In Volume 10[10], he mentions the agreed-upon principle of the infallibility of the Prophets as to the flawless accomplishment of the apostolic mission they are entrusted with. This infallibility is the guarantee which fulfils the aim of prophethood and messengership.

He, then, raises the question: Could the Prophets say that All?h, later on, redresses and rectifies, so that He will abrogate the spurious line that Satan has slipped in and confirm His verses? He answers the question in the light of the predominant views. The overall view recorded by the predecessors (as-salaf) is in agreement with the Qur’?n. The successors did not accept that view and discredited the account given about the addition to the Chapter of an-Najm (The Star): “These are the high flying cranes. And surely their intercession is to be sought” on the grounds that this account was not established as an authentic one. But those who know that it is well-founded say that this is what Satan has slipped into their ear, and not what the Prophet actually uttered. But the question in still valid notwithstanding the explanation.

Those who confirm the account given by the predecessors say that this is authentically reported beyond any challenge, and that the Qur’an bears testimony to it in the statement:

    “And We never sent a messenger or a prophet before you, but when he desired Satan proposed [?] All?h is the guide of those who believe, into a right path.” (Qur’an, 22:52-54)

They observe that reports explaining these verses are well-known and authentically reported in the books of tafsir and hadith, and that all of this matches up with the statement in the Qur’an for the rectification by All?h of what Satan had thrown in, and the confirmation of His verses, occur for the specific purpose of straightening out the situation and of separating what is true from what is false so that Allah’s verses will not be mixed up with spurious lines. To make that which Satan has proposed a temptation for those in whose hearts is a disease, and those whose hearts are hardened, could happen only if Satan’s spurious line were brought out into the open to be heard by people, not something hidden, in the soul. The temptation which happens as a result of this kind of rectification, is like that which happens as a result of this kind of change. Rectification of what has been uttered loudly proves more strongly the truthfulness and self-denial of the Messenger (SAW) than any other measure. Indeed, if he uttered something and later ordered that it be rectified – both instructions being All?h’s – and he is believed, and if he says that the rectification is All?h’s true word, that it abrogates and utterance preceding it, and that that which has been rectified is not All?h’s true word, then this demonstrates that he accepts the truth and that he speaks the truth.[11]

In Vol. 15, when discussing the explication of the Qur’anic verse:

“Till, when the Messenger despaired, deeming they were counted as liars, Our help came to them.” (Qur’an, 12:110)

Ibn Taimiyah introduces the question of mistakes on the part of the Prophets. He says that the majority of Muhadditoun and Fuqaha are of the opinion that the Prophets might err in their personal opinion, ijtihad, but they are invariably corrected through revelation. Then he mentions that in the (Qur’?nic) phrase “and thought that — or deeming they were counted as liars” this thought might have come from Satan as suggested in Allah’s saying: “We sent not ever any Messenger or Prophet before you, but that Satan proposed [?] Lo! All?h verily is guiding those who believe unto a right path.” (Qur’an, 22:52-54). Ibn Taimiyah repeats in a shorter way what he has said in Vol. 10. But, here, to those who do not accept the authenticity of the story despite their good intention, his answer is very simple: “something was proposed, then cancelled: so, there is no trouble. This is similar to the one who came to know about abrogation.”[12]

It is clear that Ibn Taimiyah, with his solid traditional background, with his extensive knowledge of the traditions, with his hard attitude against anything that infringes upon the pure concept of Islam and with his awareness of the theological implications of such a story, has no hesitation in accepting its authenticity. Not only does he accept its authenticity, but he goes on to say that tamanna here, absolutely, recited. For All?h thereafter says that “All?h will suppress what Satan throws in, then will confirm His Verses.” This cannot all be the desire of the heart, which the Prophet did not utter.[13]

Part Four

This attitude leaves the critics in a very difficult position. While great scholars like al-Tabari, Ibn. Hajar, Ibn. Taymiyya accept the story as being authentic, the overwhelming majority brand it as a forgery. Is there any way out of this dilemma?

The Context In Which The Story Was Told

The story is not something of a divine nature, i.e. it is not a Qur’anic statement. It is not a tradition attributed to the Prophet. It is not even an authentic athar (a statement of one of the Companions). At best it is a statement of a tabi’i, expressing what he considered to be the reason for the revelation. S So, it should be viewed in the light of the methodology of the branch of knowledge known as ‘ilm marifat asbab-un-Nuzul (the knowledge of the reasons for the revelation).

The scholars in this field divide the Qur’an into two categories. The one, which is the larger of the two, was revealed with no particular reason other than the guidance of mankind to the right path. This includes the concept of All?h, Hid attributes, how He created this world generally and human beings in particular, how He established His relation to them through His Messengers and Prophets, how the communities received the messages, or treated their prophets, and the difficulties and the temptations or frustrations these prophets were exposed to. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is one of these prophets. Their stories were told to him to take heart and bear with patience the troubles he was facing.

In the other category, verses were revealed to answer a question raised, to comment on an incident, to correct a habit or a custom which came to be questioned, and so on. In the first category there is no need to search for a reason for revelation. In the second, it is more helpful to look into the historical background to shed some light on the matter.

In one definition of asbab ul-nuzul (the reason for revelation) Shaikh Azzurqani, in his comprehensive book Manahil-ul-Irfan Fi ‘ulum al-Quran says:

    The reason for revelation consists of the circumstances which have called for the Quranic verse or verses to be revealed, dealing with an issue, or explaining the rule concerning if on the day it has happened.

He explains the phrase “day it has happened” by saying that this is a necessary condition in the definition, for it distinguishes this category from the other, which is revealed to deal with past experiences, or future events, like the stories of previous Prophets, or the Day of Judgement and everything related to it, for there are many such topics in the Quran.[14]

The relevance of this condition will be noted later on. But the way in which this or that reason is given for the revelation of such and such verse needs to be looked at. As-Suyuti, in his standard book, Al-Itqan Fil ‘Ulum-al-Quran quotes al-Wahidi as saying: “One cannot speak about reasons for revelation except through the chain of reports traced all the way to those who witnessed the revelation, knew the reasons and verified their knowledge.” He quotes others as saying: “The reason for the revelation of any verse is a matter known to the companions as a result of indications surrounding the events. Some of them may not affirm that such and such is the reason, but they may say: ‘I think this or that is the reason for?’”[15] Shaikh as-Zurqani says:

If the reason is given by one of the Companions, it is acceptable even though it might not be supported by another report. But is it is given by a mursal tradition i.e. no particular Companion is mentioned in the report, but the report is traced up to a tabi’i (one of the Prophet’s followers), it is not acceptable unless it is supported by means of another mursal tradition and the reporter of it was a renowned scholar in tafsir.[16]


As mentioned earlier, asbab al-nuzul (the reason for the revelation) is a statement from a Companion expressing what he understood or thought to be such. Although Muslim scholars accept such a statement, still it does not amount to a definitive statement on the matter. If it comes to one of the followers, the degree of acceptability falls sharply because no follower has witnessed the revelation or mentioned an authoritative source who was present at the moment of revelation. His report may or may not be acceptable even though what he reports may raise no questions.

It seems that those who have accepted the authenticity of the episode of al-gharaniq were mainly interested in the technicality of the chain of reports. Goes it satisfy the conditions of an acceptable report? Their answer was yes. What about its theological implications? Then they started the uphill task of explaining them away. As mentioned earlier, it would have been sufficient for them to drop the episode altogether. It is not worthy of the efforts they have made to corroborate or to explain the story. In fact, there is simply no necessity at all to insert it in order to explain the verse of al-Hajj. The Qur’anic verse came simply as a consolation to the Prophet at a time when All?h was saying to him: “yet it may be, if they believe not in this statement, that you will torment your soul with grief over their footsteps.” (Qur’an, 18:6)

As a human being, he was eager to save his people from the punishment of All?h for their rejection of his call. He was ready to compromise about minor issues, like meeting the notables among them, separately from the ordinary members of the community. At one time he was talking to a group of dignitaries when a blind companion interrupted him, asking him to teach him. The Prophet did not like being interrupted. Both instances are related in the Qur’an (verses 28-29, Ch. 18 and verses 1-10, Ch. 80).

When he was reproached for that, the Prophet felt sorry for what had happened, and All?h reminded him: You are not the only messenger or prophet to face such a situation, or to fall into such temptation. But it is My was that you have to be patient, to endure the troubles, inconveniences and persecution until the attitudes become clearly separated, then the judgment of Allah will take place.

The Qur’anic verses 52-55 deal with a universal question met by the previous Prophets and Messengers. No one has claimed that they committed and act of disbelief that can warrant a comparison of the Seal of the Prophets with them. The comparison, then, is with their hopes, fears, aspirations, and with the disruption of their efforts by suggestions, trials or desires thrown into their thoughts by Satan and his collaborators. But the watchful Eye of Allah spoils all these Satanic tricks and keeps His prophets and messengers steady on the right path.

In the definition of asbab ul-nuzul, it is mentioned that the revelation has occurred whenever a particular fact or situation called for it. In this case chapter 53, an-Najm, was revealed in Ramadan in the fifth year of the mission of the Prophet while chapter 22, al-Hajj, was either a very late Makkan revelation or an early Medinan, the time elapse being about eight years or so. According to the definition, this cannot be an explanation of the occasion. The ordinary time lapse between the occasion and revelation is mentioned in relation to two instances of revelation. When the Makkans asked the Prophet about the People of the Cave, he said: “Tomorrow I will tell you.” But without taking care to add: “Allah willing”. Consequently, no verses were revealed to him for some fifteen to forty days, so as to remind him always to leave these matters to the will of Allah. Another instance occurred earlier, in connection with the revelation of Chapter 93, wad-Duha. Once again the time lapse was not so long as to lose the impact of the occasion.

How could it be, after such a long interval when the wounds resulting from it had healed and everything had been forgotten, how could it be that the revelation came to reopen the issue anew? After all, asbab al-nuzul is not definitive, it is an explanation. If it contradicts basic Islamic principles, it loses all its value. This is not something peculiar to asbab al-nuzul ; this is a general rule which hadith scholars applied when they discussed the question of fabrications in the hadith. Dr. As-Sabbagh, mentioning the signs of fabrication in the text of the hadith says: Third: its disagreement with clear Qur’anic indications or the clear indications of authentically handed-down traditions or the general principles adduced from the Quran and the Sunnah or the ijma’ (consensus).[17]

This is one of the rules to be applied to what may be considered technically sound hadith attributed to the Prophet. If it comes to the saying of a Companions, not to mention a follower, any statement contrary to these basic principles is to be rejected. The most appropriate description of that bad history is what Ibn Khuzayma says about it: that it is a forgery invented by atheists to discredit themselves, not Islam or the Prophet.

Part Five

Some Observations

a. As mentioned earlier, the authenticity of the story was denied by great exegetes and jurists like Ibn Kathir, Ash-Shawkani, and Ibn Al-Arabi, but they explained the Quranic verses of al-Hajj 52-55, in the light of the rejected story! They did not advance satisfactory alternative explanations. The only scholar who came nearer to offering a positive alternative explanation was al-Qurtobi. In the third question he writes that one of the things the disbelievers tried to deceive their common folk was their saying: ‘It is the duty of the Prophets that they are able o do everything. Why, then, could not Muhammad bring punishment upon us, since we have gone far in our enmity of him? And they said, too, that Prophets should not be subject to forgetfulness or mistakes. So, All?h, glory be to Him, made it clear that Prophets are human beings. It is He Who brings punishment according to His will, and human beings are subject to mistakes, forgetfulness, until All?h confirms his will and removes the tricks of Satan.[18] This is a good, satisfactory account of the verses. But instead of leaving it at that, al-Qurtobi gets into a long discussion of what was reported, and so leaves the reader in a maze of opinions, unable to sort out the dilemma for himself.

b. Ibn al-Arabi, after severely criticizing the story of al-gharaniq does not offer much consolation. All that he comes up with is his saying “Satan will cast into his wish”, “Satan will cats at his recitation.” Then he goes on to praise al-Tabari saying that no one was guided to this (i.e. the explanation of ‘into’ and ‘at’) except al-Tabari, thanks to his glorified station, clarity of thought, width of knowledge, and far-reaching sight. Ibn al-Arabi thus praises al-Tabari after mentioning so many reports which have no foundation. Far from being what he is claimed it be, al-Tabari actually accepted the story of al-gharaniq and tried to justify it.

Ibn Kathir, too, misquotes al-Qadi ‘Iyad, when he says that there are variant answers to the story, assuming its authenticity, and that al-Qadi ‘Iyad deals with this in his book, Ash-Shifa, and answers what could be summed up as “it is so, because it is well established.” But this is not true of the position of al-Qadi ‘Iyad. As has been clearly explained earlier, he rejects it vehemently and goes on to answer the questions it raises, assuming that it is true.

Part Six

The Attitude of the Orientalists

Sir William Muir, in his book, The Life of Mahomet, refers to this story as “one of the strangest episodes in the life of Mahomet.”[19] He goes on to tell the core of the story, closely following what al-Tabari relates of it, then comments:

    Pious Musulmans of after days, scandalized at the lapse of their Prophet into so flagrant a concession, would reject the whole story. But the authorities are, in his view, “too strange to be impugned.” It is hardly possible, he argues, to conceive how the tale, if not in some shape or other, founded on truth, could ever have been invented. The stubborn fact remains, and is by all admitted, that the refugees did return about this time from Abyssinia, and that they returned in consequence of a rumour that Mecca was converted. To this fact the narratives of Wackidi and Tabari afford the only intelligible clue.[20]

Professor Burton goes on to say: “It has been accepted as historically ‘true’ by writer after writer up to, and including our own day”. [21] He may be referring to those who dealt with the life of the Prophet, like A. Guillaume, W.M. Watt, and those who have written about the Qur’?n and Qur’?nic scholarship like Schwally. But Professor Burton, like L. Caetani before him, discredited the whole story in his article, for entirely different reasons. As he says: “We now propose to show the reason why this story must be decisively rejected once and for all”.[22]

However, there is nothing new in the criticism of Sir Muir. Most of the points he raised were answered in the course of this discussion. The only point which needed explanation was what he considered to be irrefragable proof of the story, the return of the emigrants from Abyssinia.

Muhammad Husayn Haykal

In his biography of the Prophet, Dr. Haykal deals extensively with the fiction of al-gharaniq, in particular Sir Muir’s irrefutable proof. Haykal was writing as early as 1934 and was aware of the Orientalist attitude to this particular event. In the English translation of the Arabic original, a translation which was very much delayed, for reasons well known to two American universities which unilaterally opted out of their publishing agreement, the author deals with the fiction from beginning to end. I will mention only the new points in his discussion of about ten pages in the English version. These may be summed up in four points :

1. The return of the emigrants: is far from being the result of what they heard about the conversion of the Makkans to Islam, for at that time there were no communication means to flash the news from Makka to Abyssiania in one month, not to say a few days. The fact of the matter was that Ja’afar ibn Abi-Talib and Umar al-Kattab accepted Islam. And gave a great boost to the spirit of the Muslim community. Stunned by that conversion, the Makkans needed a respite to rethink their strategy towards the Muslims. There prevailed, for a time, an atmosphere of calm and restraint. This encouraged some Muslims to return to Makka and be with their people instead of living far way. Together with this factor, was another, very important local development in Abyssinia. Negus, who welcomed, and gave hospitality to, the fleeing Arabs, was himself under attack. His faith was questioned, his subjects revolted and the Muslims felt that they should not bother the man. Some of them returned, others went into hiding until the ruler succeeded in putting down the rebellion. Al-Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal reports in his Musnad a long tradition on the authority of Umm Salamah (who was among the emigrants living there at that time, and who later on became the wife of the Prophet) what they felt during that rebellion.[23]

2. The construction of Chapter 53 itself shows the lie of the fabricated story. How could it be that he says:

    “These are the supreme goddesses. And their intercession is to be sought.”

and immediately recites:

    21. Are yours the male and His the female?
    22. That indeed were unfair division!
    23. They are but names which you have named, you and your fathers, for which All?h has revealed no warrant. They follow but a guess and that which they themselves desire.

then goes on to verse

    26. And how many angels are in the heaven whose intercession avails naught save after All?h has given leave to whom He chooses and accepts.[24]

praising and severely criticizing at the same time? The Qur’?n being considered the supreme literary Arabic Word, how could it contradict itself in the same chapter, at the same time without any one pointing out this clear contradiction?

3. The word al-gharaniq, says Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, the grand mufti of Egypt at the turn of the century, is a word that the Arabs have nowhere used to describe their gods, whether in their poetry or in their speeches. Nowhere do we find their gods or goddesses described in such words. The word al-ghurnuq or al-gharaniq is the name of a black or white water bird and sometimes figuratively designates a handsome blond youth. It is indubitable that the Arabs never have looked upon their gods in this manner.

4. The truthfulness of the Prophet: he was well-known even before his mission as al-Ameen, the most trustworthy. And as he called upon the Qurayshite clans, he put his integrity to the test when he asked them: “If I tell you that behind this mountain, there is an army about to attack you by surprise, would you believe me?” The answer was: “Yes, for you have never lied to us”. How could he, after all his struggle and persecution, and after the results of his mission began to be felt, suddenly start to praise the idols while he has been repudiating and discrediting?

This is why when Ibn Ishaq was asked what he thought of the story, he dismissed it as fabrication.[25]

And Allah is the Guide to the Right Way.


[1] The Life of Mahommet, London 1877, p. 86.

[2] Jamiul-Bayan v. 9. Pp 131-135 (Darul-Hadith edition) Cairo 1407/1987.

[3] Ch 53, verses 19-20.

[4] Al-Tabari’s Tafsir v. 9, pp. 131-135.

[5] Tafsir, p. 134.

[6] Ashkam-ul-Quran, v 3, pp. 1299-1301.

[7] Ash-Shifa, v. 2, pp. 44-6.

[8] Ash-Shifa, v. 2, pp. 748-758.

[9] See Ibn al-Arabi, Ahkam-ul-Quran, v. 3, pp. 1299-1300.

    Ibn Hajar, Fath-ul-Bari, v. 8, Book of Tafsir, Ch. 2 al-Hajj pp. 438-440
    Al-Baghawi: Ma’alim-ut-Tanzil, v. 3, pp. 293-294, Ch. Al-Hajj.
    Ash-Shawkani: Fathul-Qadir, v. 3, pp. 461-63.
    Al-Qurtobi: Al-Jami’ Li ahkam al-Quran, v. 12, pp. 79-87.
    Al-Jamal: Al-Futuhat al-Hahiyyah, commentary on: Al-Jalalayn., v. 3, p. 173 quoting al-Fakhr al-Razi in rejecting the story, then quoted b. Hajar, in detail, supporting it.
    Ibn Kathir: Tafsir: Tafsir-ul-Quran al-Azim,v. 3, pp. 229-231. It is worth noting here that the author refers to Ash-Shifa, giving the view of Iyad as accepting the authenticity of the infamous story, while, as has been indicated, al-Qadi Iyad, in his first line of defence rejects it. Then he goes on to say: “Suppose it is authentic?So that supposition does not amount to acceptance of the story as implied in the quote of Ibn Khathir.”
    Al-Qadi a’dud-ud-Deen al-Ieji: Sharh al-Mawaqif as sadis (the Sixth station) as-Samiyyat (things known through the revelation) al-Maqdis al-Khamis (the fifth goal) the infallibility of the Prophets. After mentioning the proofs of the infallibility of the Prophets, he goes on to discuss what is thought to be an infringement on that concept. In the case of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) he mentions, first, the expression “And he found you wandering – dallan -” [Ch 43, v. 6]. The second was the infamous story of al-gharaniq. He mentions the core of it as mentioned by others who have referred to it with the same answers. Then he goes on to explain the verse in this way: “Or what is intended here, taking tamanni to mean: desire., wishful thinking. The meaning of the verse will be: When the Prophet wishes something, Satan interferes with such a wish, and calls him to what is not proper for him, then All?h Most High will supress such a wish to keep him away from the whispering of Satan. According to this explanation the story mentioned is a fabrication of heretics. Al-Maqaqif, pp. 573-4.
    As-Suyuti, Jalal-yd-Dean (sic), Lunan-un-Nuqul Fi Asbab an-Nuzul, p. 138, in connection with verse 73, Ch 17 “And they were about to beguile you?” He adds that this is a proof that the Quranic verse 52 CH 22 is a Meccan revelation. Then he mentions the same story on p. 150 in connection with the Quranic verse 52 again, quoting the judgement of b. Hajar that the story must have an origin. Then he goes on to say: “No one should take notice of what was said by al-Arabi and al-Qadi Iyad: all these narrations are false and have not basis.”

[10] Al-Fatawa, v. (sic), p. 289-295, King Khalid edition, Morocco.

[11] Al-Fatawa, v 10, p. 292.

[12] Al-Fatawa, v 15, p. 189-192

[13] Al-Fatawa, pp. 120-121.

[14] Manahil, v. 1, pp. 06-7.

[15] Al-Itqan, pp. 28-29.

[16] Az-Zurqani, p. 114.

[17] The Sunnah and Its Place in Islamic Sharia, see also: al-Hadith an-Nabawi by Dr. M. Lifti as-Sabbagh, p. 320.

[18] Al-Qurtobi, Ahkam-ul-Quran, v. 12, p. 80.

[19] The Life of Mahomet, London 1877, p. 86.

[20] Loc. Cit. 88. This is in an article written by J. Burton in the Journal of Semitic Studies, XV (1970), pp. 246-265, lent to me by the courtesy of Brother Ahmad Bolock.

[21] Prof. J. Burton, p. 248.

[22] Loc. Cit. 248.

[23] Al-Fath-ur-Rahman, vol. 20, pp. 226-230.

[24] Ch. An-Najm (53), verses 21-26.

[25] M.H. Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, translated into English by Prof. I. Raji’ Al-Faruqi, pg. 105-115, 8th edition.




SOURCE  http://www.bismikaallahuma.org/archives/2005/those-are-the-high-flying-cranes/

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