Surat Al-Nasr: Victory Then, Now, and in the Hereafter

Hajj at Mecca, circa 1910.

Surat Al-Nasr 110 

إِذَا جَاءَ نَصْرُ اللَّهِ وَالْفَتْحُ

وَرَأَيْتَ النَّاسَ يَدْخُلُونَ فِي دِينِ اللَّهِ أَفْوَاجًا

فَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ وَاسْتَغْفِرْهُ إِنَّهُ كَانَ تَوَّابًا

110:1   When the victory of Allah and the conquest comes

110:2   And you see the people entering into the Way of Allah in multitudes

110:3   You shall glorify with praise to your Lord,  and seek His forgiveness; for He is the Redeemer.

This at first glance seems like a very clear and easy-to-understand surah that needs minimal explanation, perhaps only a little historical context. And indeed it can be easily understood. But with the Quran, there is always more…

The Historical Context

This surah refers, at least in the historical sense, to the “conquest of Mecca,” bearing in mind that the Arabic word fat’h, which means literally “opening,” and “conquest” are not the same, although there is no equivalent to fat’h in English, so translators must use a word to approximate the meaning. “Conquest” in English implies being a conqueror in war, usually resulting in the subjugation of the losing party. In Islam, however, all wars are wars of defense; no wars of aggression (ie to take resources or territory by force from another community/ nation) are allowed in Islam. Prophet Mohammad, after years of war initiated by the pagans of Mecca, first negotiated a 10-year peace treaty with the Quraish tribe of Mecca, whose violation of that treaty led to the prophet leading his army of 10,000 to Mecca. In fact, the conquest of Mecca was nearly bloodless and ended years of warfare and violence between Quraysh and the Muslims, and was notable, per this account, in the level of humility and spirit of peace and harmony with which it was administered. More details here show the brilliant strategy that allowed the Muslim army to enter Mecca with almost no resistance, the Quraish leader to declare his conversion to Islam, and the prophet to destroy the idols in the Kaaba and sanctify it from that day forward, whereupon the prophet’s “prestige grew after the surrender of the Meccans. Emissaries from all over Arabia came to Medina to accept him.” Another famous battle occurred after this, and struggles continue to this day, teaching us then and throughout history that struggle in any worthy pursuit is always ongoing, but ultimately this did not change the dynamic of the “opening” of Mecca.

The text of this surah “when the victory…comes,” appears to imply the surah was been sent before that victory. A number of scholars present hadeeths to support this idea. It is also said by other scholars, also based on a few hadeeths, to have come during the “farewell Hajj” when Prophet Mohammad was performing the Hajj in Mecca, and that this surah signified to the prophet his time as prophet was fulfilled and therefore his death imminent, which would have been after the conquest. How can we know which of these is correct and is it significant?

Pilgrims in tents outside Sacred Mosque, around 1900.

If one looks solely at the Quranic text, we must know if the Arabic verb ja’a (translated “comes”, implying present tense) is used in this case to connote past, present, or future tense. The form can connote present tense, but also can be used for past tense. Usually for future tense, a letter seen would be used as a prefix, and it is not used here. However, Quranic usage does not necessarily follow this rule; events in the Hereafter, clearly to us in the future, are often referred to in the Quran in the present tense and even sometimes in the past tense, because these events are decreed or written by Allah and therefore happened from the Divine timeless perspective. Judging from the first word, itha or “when” indicates that this event is decreed by Allah, and that is confirmed by the rest of the surah which refers to it as the “victory of Allah,” followed by directing the prophet to give thanks and praise to His Lord — who decreed it. 

Since this issue of when exactly this surah was revealed is in dispute, for a true understanding we should take the Quranic admonition to heart “do not speak about that of which you have no knowledge,” (also includes “insufficient knowledge”) mentioned in several ayat. Is it important to know exactly when it came? Surely Prophet Mohammad and all the multitudes who entered the Way of Allah after the conquest of Mecca knew exactly and unforgettably when it came. It was Allah’s decree that was the ultimate support, which ensured the victory. Asking forgiveness, as stated in verse 3, in turn would remind believers not to become overly prideful at such a moment. The surah would have impacted the hearts of the believers with a sense of destiny and being part of something larger than themselves. 

This surah is indeed an example not confined to past events but also a lesson and core truth applicable to all people, at all times. In fact, it is important for us not to know exactly when it came, in order to understand that truth is distinguished in the Quran from “factual information” such as dates and times: these are relevant to their era, but for subsequent eras it is “data”; we must seek its relevance to our time as well. Allah’s promise and decree in this surah refers to all times and all people who follow Allah’s Way.  What was predictive in the historical context of the Quran and the era during which it came is only part of the importance of this surah; what indeed has been proven to be predictive in this surah also refers to a farther distant future, including the one we are in, long after the battle of Mecca, during which “multitudes” are still entering into the Way of Allah, despite the dominant world powers being strangely set against it. 

First Verse

This surah begins with an amazing triumph: the two words nasr, translated “victory,” and fat’h, translated “conquest,” both are used, augmenting each other. Actually, like fat’h, these words have different nuances of meaning; in English, meanings are more set in stone than in Arabic, where words can have a range of meaning, giving the Arabic speaker a heightened sense of context as participating in the meaning of words. Nasr is often translated “help” or “support” but, influenced by its meaning as “victory,” carries the sense of being support against an opposing force (which could be an army/ enemy, a challenge such as a test or competition, or an “inner demon”) to overcome. Fat’h is often translated “conquest” as it is here, but it primarily is used in the sense of “opening”, such as creating an opening in a stalemate or even opening previously closed hearts, where fat’h has the sense of opening being a decisive event. Combining the two words is a significant textual “event” in the Quran here, giving a dual sense of victory/ support, overcoming an opponent, leading to a decisive conquest on the one hand and “opening” the hearts of multitudes on the other, fat’h not being only against an opponent, but a decisive opening in a larger situation, such as “opening” a nation or people to Islam, to peaceful relations with neighbors, or changing a cultural/ political dynamic to one’s favor. Thus one can interpret this as a powerful augmented victory: as we see in aya 2, not only in war, but in the “way” of Islam/ “religion” in the higher sense of being the way of ethical living and worship of Allah by one’s choice of actions, attitude, and ultimately one’s very being. 

Second Verse

Here the victory is defined: people entering into the Way of Allah in multitudes. It is a rare moment in human history as narrated in the Quran: compare with the narratives of Bani Israel or the “children of Israel”, the people of Prophet Moses, who resisted his guidance until his death in the wilderness where their wandering was punishment for their refusal to fight against the enemy residing in the promised land, as Allah had commanded them through Moses. The nation of Prophet Mohammad, coming from outside the Jewish tradition yet also essentially the same message with updates and addressed to them as well, mentioning their history in great detail, achieved a greater victory, in terms of faith and trust in Allah and submission to Him, than Bani Israel, or indeed any prior nation in size and sustainability. The “augmentation” of this victory also includes the future of Islam, fulfilled in its far-reaching impact beyond the Arabian peninsula where the Quran was sent, to Africa, Asia, Europe, and parts of the Americas, even Oceania including Australia and New Zealand. 

Third Verse

The final verse is directed to the Prophet (and by implication all his followers in faith in all eras) to glorify and praise Allah (showing gratitude and acknowledgment of His help and guidance to this success), and ask forgiveness (for all have sinned), for He is the Acceptor of Repentance/ Redeemer. Literally the (only) One to Whom all (may) repent. This line is the critical lead-in to the surah that follows it, Al-Masad, which describes in graphic detail the utter loss and irredeemable situation of agony and remorse of those who refuse to repent or ask forgiveness: the arrogant and obstinate enemy/ denier/ rejecter. At the same time, it shows that vanquishing the enemy, those who would impose injustice and superstitions to replace Allah’s way of compassion, is also decreed, completing and protecting the victory both in subduing enemies and subduing the inner dangers of gloating by humility in victory.

Interestingly, the Meccan Surat Al-Masad, condemning Prophet Mohammad’s relative and nemesis Abu Lahab, was revealed long before the Medinan Surat Al-Nasr, yet is placed after it. This shows us that Allah’s plan for victory takes the long view, or indeed, one could say the eternal view, wherein once the enmity of Abu Lahab, considered a leader in Mecca, reached a point of no return, the surah condemning him to hell was revealed. This had the impact of disarming Abu Lahab, who was alive and active at the time, by such a frightening revelation, like a blow to the heart. By placing that surah here, Abu Lahab’s fate is placed menacingly after the Victory surah to show the enemies of Allah’s Way what could also be their fate: the threat of eternal punishment can take the wind out prospective enemies, especially expressed as turning one’s very love into a form of torture. Because every human has intuition in his heart planted by Allah the Exalted. It also shows that one must pass from the ultimate victory over the fire of hell, from which Allah saves those who ask for mercy and repent of their sins, to the side of “sincerity,” Surat Al-Ikhlas, the “heart” of their Creator/ Redeemer, and His protection in the two prayers that follow, Al-Falaq and Al-Nass. Finally, Surah 110 implies the greatest victory of all: Al-Janna, the gardens of Paradise that our Lord decreed and promised those of faith, and Allah the Exalted always keeps His promises. 

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