Although this important aya has been analyzed by the scholar Raymond K. Farrin in his paper “Surat Al-Baqarah – a Structural Analysis,” I used a different translation to keep the literal words “between their hands” because this Quranic image directly correlates with free will, which is at the heart or center of this aya and indeed of our relationship with Allah the Exalted.
It’s important to point out, however, that the Arabic expression translated “before” is actually “between their hands”, making it “before them” in the sense of free will or choice between divergent or opposing options.
We, with our free will, are encompassed by Allah
The word khalfahum which I left in transliteration above literally in Arabic is used to mean “behind them,” These generalized words “before” and “after” do not convey the same sense as “between their hands” and “out of their hands,” which graphically shows us there is a time when we have a choice; but this moment of decision has a limited time, so at some point it will be “out of our hands.”
It also shows us the Omniscient Almighty alone is utterly just and fair: He will only judge people on Judgment Day regarding that over which they had a measure of choice and control (“between their hands”). Among those things between our hands is the choice to repent and ask Allah’s forgiveness in the case of making mistakes, showing contrition by not knowingly repeating one’s bad behavior. Thus the Most Merciful gives us a chance to learn from our mistakes and better ourselves, to choose to return or come back to Allah.
Even prophets made mistakes. But Allah forgave them and promised to forgive anyone who calls upon Him asking forgiveness. He complimented some of the prophets, such as prophet Solomon, referring to them as awwab or “returning,” coming back to Allah, to mindfulness of Him. When prophet Solomon realized he loved his horses to the point that he forgot Thikr Allah, to remember Allah, he returned and repented and corrected himself, even striking the horses to show he was no longer putting them before God.
As with the Quran as a whole as seen in its spiral/ nautilus architecture, where Al-Nass or “people” are at the center, people are also at the very center of this aya, emphasizing to whom this Quran is addressed, all humankind, and what our relationship to our Creator actually is, encompassed by Him but, as free-will worshipers, given the choice to be in the ultimate fulfillment and dynamic joy of His Presence, or to reject His guidance to that end by simply not believing or denying it.
An graphic explanatory illustration of the similarities between the sections is below:
We can see, using the color coding above for visual reference, the correspondences between the paired sections or parts:
1 – 1 and 9: both proclaim Allah as the Sole Supreme Power; part 1 stating there is no deity except Him and He is the Ever-Living (Al-Hayy) Sustainer of all existence (Al-Qayyum), part 9 that He is the Most High (Al-‘Alyy) and the Most Sublime (Al-‘Atheem). Part one also contains the “power statement” asserting Allah’s sole Divine authority as the first categorical attribute of Allah. The name All-Hayy is extremely important to clarify that Allah is entirely alive and therefore dynamic, not static, not “sitting” on a remote “throne” like earthly kings. Al-Qayyum places this dynamic aliveness in relationship to all creation as the Sustainer without Whom nothing could exist or survive. All creation needs Him but He is free of need or want, which is an essential attribute of a Sustainer of this magnitude which by logic could only be One.
2 – Parts 2 and 8 both describe Allah as inexhaustible: part 2 as entirely and continuously consciously aware, and part 8 as having inexhaustible continuous energy. All creation has been given the property of awareness in degrees commensurate with their placement in the matrix of all creation. None but Allah can sustain continual uninterrupted awareness. That, of course, is an essential property of Omniscience and being Ever-Living as described above. All things are also created of energy, in degrees commensurate with their placement in the interrelated complex matrix of the whole of creation.
3 – Parts 3 and 7 refer to Allah’s dominion, that over which He has authority, which is all creation/ existence, expressed as “the heavens and the earth”. Part 3 refers to all that is in the heavens and the earth being His, belonging, essentially, to Him. Part 7 contains the word Kursi (from which the aya gets its name), which means “chair” and, like the English word “chair”, also refers to a position of authority, and that authority extends over all “the heavens and the earth,” meaning all that exists. Because it is a position/ placement of authority, it is commonly translated “throne,” as being a more exalted form of chair, more commensurate with Allah’s authority one presumes, but in that translation loses the sense of “chair” as a position or placement as the highest, most sublime, ultimate, categorically above all else and alone, a category of One. The “throne,” ‘arsh in Arabic, is a different word, but also expresses the placement of Allah as in a category by Himself, the throne then being not merely a kind of furniture on which to “sit,” but His Exaltation itself, something entirely beyond our imagination.
4 – Parts 4 and 6 refer to His permission as authority: more specific, in reference to us as His worshipers. This is extremely important because many Muslims, even some scholars, don’t seem to recognize its implications. The first of this pair, part 4, asks a question: “Who can intercede with Him without His permission?” Asking the question is more emphatic than stating the answer to it; implies is that it is clearly unthinkable, because Allah the Exalted, Creator of the heavens and the earth, by definition does not share his decision-making authority and judgment with anyone. To intercede on someone’s behalf between a person and Allah the Exalted is not within the scope of actions Allah gave to humankind, all of whom are imperfect. The angels, on the other hand, are described in the Quran (33:43, 33:56) as praying for the faithful, righteous people to be forgiven.
الَّذِينَ يَحْمِلُونَ الْعَرْشَ وَمَنْ حَوْلَهُ يُسَبِّحُونَ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّهِمْ وَيُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ وَيَسْتَغْفِرُونَ لِلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا رَبَّنَا وَسِعْتَ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ رَّحْمَةً وَعِلْمًا فَاغْفِرْ لِلَّذِينَ تَابُوا وَاتَّبَعُوا سَبِيلَكَ وَقِهِمْ عَذَابَ الْجَحِيمِ
Those [angels] who carry the Throne and those around it exalt [Allah] with praise of their Lord and believe in Him and ask forgiveness for those who have believed, [saying], “Our Lord, You have encompassed all things in mercy and knowledge, so forgive those who have repented and followed Your way and protect them from the punishment of Hellfire. (The angels’ intercession du’a continues in 40:8-9.)Surah Ghafir 40:7
Although the word “angels” is parenthetical because it is not used specifically here, but elsewhere (39:75), the angels are mentioned as those surrounding the throne and also as carriers of the throne. Here they are named as “surrounding the throne.”
وَتَرَى الْمَلَائِكَةَ حَافِّينَ مِنْ حَوْلِ الْعَرْشِ يُسَبِّحُونَ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّهِمْ ۖ وَقُضِيَ بَيْنَهُم بِالْحَقِّ وَقِيلَ الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
And you will see the angels surrounding the Throne, exalting [Allah] with praise of their Lord. And it will be judged between them in truth, and it will be said, “[All] praise to Allah, Lord of the worlds.”Surah Al-Zumar 39:75
And here (quoting two verses because the first gives context to the second) the angels are named as carriers of the throne.
وَانشَقَّتِ السَّمَاءُ فَهِيَ يَوْمَئِذٍ وَاهِيَةٌ
And the heaven will be rent asunder, for that Day it is flimsy.Surah Al-Haaqa 69:16
وَالْمَلَكُ عَلَىٰ أَرْجَائِهَا ۚ وَيَحْمِلُ عَرْشَ رَبِّكَ فَوْقَهُمْ يَوْمَئِذٍ ثَمَانِيَةٌ
And the angels are at its edges, where eight will bear the Throne of your Lord above them, that Day.Surah Al-Haaqa 69:17
In Arabic “eight” comes at the end of this verse, but the English rendering placing “eight” earlier is less awkward, and shows more clearly how “eight” refers to “angels.” Separation between “angels” and “eight” in the original, however, emphasizes the number and lends to the meaning of “8” as a number as well. In the Quran multiple meanings are common and non-contradictory but rather add depth.
Only angels can intercede and only with Allah’s permission
The angels are again specified generally and unequivocally as intercessors here:
تَكَادُ السَّمَاوَاتُ يَتَفَطَّرْنَ مِن فَوْقِهِنَّ ۚ وَالْمَلَائِكَةُ يُسَبِّحُونَ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّهِمْ وَيَسْتَغْفِرُونَ لِمَن فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ أَلَا إِنَّ اللَّهَ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ
The heavens almost break from above them, and the angels exalt [Allah] with praise of their Lord and ask forgiveness for those on earth. Unquestionably, it is Allah who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.Surah Fussillat 42:5
But even the angels cannot intercede without Allah’s permission:
۞ وَكَم مِّن مَّلَكٍ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ لَا تُغْنِي شَفَاعَتُهُمْ شَيْئًا إِلَّا مِن بَعْدِ أَن يَأْذَنَ اللَّهُ لِمَن يَشَاءُ وَيَرْضَىٰ
And how many angels there are in the heavens whose intercession will not avail at all except [only] after Allah has permitted [it] to whom He wills and approves.Surah Al-Najm 53:26
Thus the Quran clearly supports this section of Ayat al Kursi and clarified that intercession is done by angels, not people, not even prophets. The Quran never mentions, not even once, the intercession of any prophet in Allah’s judgment on Judgment Day. Nor is any intercession by anyone whatsoever at any time whatsoever permitted except by Allah’s will.
The Quran does mention and even commands Prophet Mohammad specifically to pray for the believing men and women (ie all believers), and we as people are enjoined to pray (in the sense of du’a) for those who died of our parents, relatives, and others, except those who have been clearly shown to be among those condemned to hell, for which (obviously extreme evil) the bar is high (in the case of asking for forgiveness for them, as in the case of Prophet Abraham who asked forgiveness for his clearly disbelieving father until it became clear, by his father trying to burn him to death only because he denied his father’s “gods” and broke the idols representing them, that his father became among those condemned to hell).
Difference between intercession and supplication or du’a
But du’a or supplication is not the same as shifa’a or intercession. Du’a is the prayer of supplication explained here, and importantly, is done while a person is alive in this world. In the Quran, intercession can be in this world but only between people, which Surat Al-Baqara 2:85 states will be rewarded only if it is for “a good cause.” Otherwise intercession, specifically applied to the judgment of Al-Hakeem, Allah the ultimate sole Judge, between His potential judgment of a person and its actualization in the Hereafter, is emphasized as not allowed at all for any person, referred to here as nafs, a term used as a noun (not a pronoun where it is unspecific) only in reference to people, never to angels. The verse below makes it emphatically clear that no person (and this means any person, therefore includes all prophets who were all human) can intercede between Allah and any other person in the matter of Allah’s judgment.
وَاتَّقُوا يَوْمًا لَّا تَجْزِي نَفْسٌ عَن نَّفْسٍ شَيْئًا وَلَا يُقْبَلُ مِنْهَا شَفَاعَةٌ وَلَا يُؤْخَذُ مِنْهَا عَدْلٌ وَلَا هُمْ يُنصَرُونَ
And fear a Day when no soul will suffice for another soul at all, nor will intercession be accepted from it, nor will compensation be taken from it, nor will they be aided.Surah Al-Baqara 2:48
This verse is so important that it is repeated verbatim in another verse in the same Surah — 2:123. The word nafs, here translated “soul,” refers as stated above to people as differentiated from angels. This verse entirely precludes the common idea among apparently many Muslims that Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) will intercede between Allah and His judgment on behalf of Muslims on Judgment Day. That is an entirely different matter than the intercession in this life between people, or du’a by the living for others living or deceased. We are speaking exclusively about intercession by any person/ human between Allah the Exalted and any person in the matter of Allah’s judgment concerning that person on Judgment Day. The Quran clearly states above that such intercession does not and cannot exist. Only the angels can do this, and only by Allah’s permission, making that intercession within the overarching domain of Allah’s mercy and judgment.
The complementary section 6 concerns the issue of obtaining knowledge, not a “thing” of which is given without Allah’s permission. This fact alone gives us a powerful indication of Allah’s control over all things. It is significant that this statement follows the middle section #5, which also deals with Allah’s omniscience, but in relationship to our free will as explained below.
Difference between knowledge and guesswork/ theorizing
The Quran distinguishes between knowledge of the truth and “assumption” or guessing, in Arabic thunn, sometimes also translated “thought,” as in “I’ve always thought it was true until…”— and this introduces the influence of human attitudes. Are we willing to think beyond inherited conventions and listen to our intuition? Are we able to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and falsehood? Or will we let political/ family/ tribal loyalties or power/ money take precedence in our assessment of truth? The Quran speaks of arrogance as leading to people being proud of knowledge they already have and consequently, refusal to consider the advice and knowledge given by prophets and messengers of God.
When their messengers came to them with Clear Signs, they (arrogantly) exulted in whatever knowledge they had. They were then encompassed by what they had mocked.Surah Ghafir 40:84
An example of this would be the idea that we, of modern society and its technological developments, are superior to those who believe in God, setting up the notion that such faith contradicts “reason” as if “belief” in God were itself an unreasonable notion or “assumption” — while the Quran repeatedly asks “will you not reason/ use your minds?” and describes prophets as being sent “to lead the people in darkness into the light” of knowledge.
What drove science away from faith, or made denial of Allah’s very existence almost a tenet of faith in science/ logic/ reason itself? One cause is clearly Christianity, considered in the West the best religion has to offer, which has largely predicated itself on worship of Jesus, a man known to have lived and died, allegedly as physically and actually “part” of the Almighty Creator. To which the Quran is clearly a Divine refutation and clarification, having been sent under 300 years after the largely-accepted doctrine of the Nicene Creed, blasphemously asserting Jesus as God’s co-equal, was adopted by a majority of Christian groups, thus undermining Jesus’ monotheistic message in the original Gospel. But it took many years before Christianity itself was overtaken by empiricism, which on the whole denies the existence of realities outside what we can verify by experience and our senses. However, empiricism is nothing new; it was common even in the era during which the Quran was sent.
وَقَالُوا مَا هِيَ إِلَّا حَيَاتُنَا الدُّنْيَا نَمُوتُ وَنَحْيَا وَمَا يُهْلِكُنَا إِلَّا الدَّهْرُ ۚ وَمَا لَهُم بِذَٰلِكَ مِنْ عِلْمٍ ۖ إِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا يَظُنُّونَ
And they say, “There is not but our worldly life; we die and live, and nothing destroys us except time.” And they have of that no knowledge; they are only assuming.Surah Al-Jathiya 45:24
This is a good example of assuming one has true knowledge, despite the fact that what one thinks one knows is actually a “guess” or assumption regarding truth. This worldview could arguably be a majority conventional understanding within Western culture for quite some time. It is the basic understanding of many scientists who consider it to be the Enlightenment which has guided modern civilization to breakthroughs in technological and other developments in many fields. This aya asserts that it was no less than Allah the Exalted who gave them this knowledge.
On the other hand, the controversial concept of the finely-tuned universe, which arose from science itself, not religion, suggests that the perimeters for life to exist require an overwhelming degree of fine-tuning for the basic elements, supporting the possibility that there has to be a Supreme Power, although there’s a trend to debunk this idea, “faith” in God’s presumed nonexistence being “shaken” by such evidence, which evidence itself is limited by lack of sufficient knowledge to prove or disprove the idea. But the truth remains that God, by definition outside the perimeters of our control and ability therefore to define, cannot be scientifically proven to exist or not exist. This means that knowledge of science is itself limited and not therefore a way to achieve “true knowledge” in the Quranic sense, although it may provide evidence. We are, by anyone’s definition of God, incapable of putting Him into the confinement of a replicable experiment run by people, whose senses are at best limited and subject to unknown variables. And scientific knowledge does not deal with ethical issues per se — that lies outside its venue.
The importance of ethics and intuition
So to achieve that sort of ethical knowledge, one must use one’s intuition, a faculty under siege by the constant bombardment of lies mixed with truth one has access to via various technological devices, against which the Quran provides a wake-up call and a way to distinguish truth from falsehood.
Have you seen he who has taken as his god his [own] desire, and Allah has made him err having knowledge and has set a seal upon his hearing and his heart and put over his vision a veil? So who will guide him after Allah? Then will you not be reminded?Surah Al-Jathiya 45:23
This does not refer to a specific person but to a type of person, common among people in all eras, who is guided by the immediacy of desire, and of course humans have always desired that which gives them pleasure, whether it be sexual satisfaction/ enjoyment, delicious food, wealth in its various forms, physical comfort and ease, intoxication, or something else. Having desires itself is not blamed here; rather it is “taking…as a god” such desire, meaning desire becomes that which one serves, seeks, becomes subservient to, pays constant attention to, and on the basis of which makes decisions. In such a case, fulfillment of personal desires becomes the main motivating factor in choosing what to do, usually leading to very short-lived, temporary aims. What is subject to punishment here, however, is not even the “worship of desire” itself but its effect on one’s behavior, the bad deeds, as such a person is more prone to oppress or commit crimes against others and be uncharitable toward those less fortunate.
Doing what we know is wrong, we lose knowledge
The phrase in bold refers to the fact that knowledge confers guilt in matters of right and wrong. Even in modern society, described disparagingly earlier in this post, there is a general sense of right and wrong, that one doesn’t go about killing, stealing, torturing, raping, and lying; exposure of such behavior can still make someone a pariah. An element in someone’s guilt is intent, murder being a prime example, intent making the difference between first and second degree. In matters of faith, idolatry is considered a sin in Islam, but it is not a canonical crime, unless such people literally attack Muslims/ people of faith by killing them, driving them from their homes, forbidding them to practice their religion, or other forms of outright persecution. But if someone commits a bad deed not realizing its consequences/ evil nature, or somehow inadvertently, then it is considered “without knowledge,” hence exempt from punishment. But here Allah actually punishes those who have no consideration for others and worship their own desires by giving them circumstances wherein they will be lured by their attitude into knowingly doing something wrong, thus becoming guilty. Although it may sound “bad” to put someone in a position to commit a bad deed, but the potential guilt from such an act may, in some cases, open up the possibility to change direction and become a better person.
The best among us admit wrongdoing – so guidance is the best protection
Thus we see that Allah the Omniscient gives knowledge to enlighten, challenge, lead to justice, alleviate suffering, expose the guilty, expose moral weakness that opens a chance to do better, and simply to make people certain of His power, mercy, and very Presence. He also deprives people of knowledge for the same purposes, as sometimes not knowing a thing can be itself helpful or harmful. Most importantly, knowledge or lack thereof directly affects our free-will decisions, the focus of the central section of this aya.
In conclusion, this Surah can be viewed with our free will at the center, surrounded by the Almighty in all of His powers and majesty. Knowing what we are informed of regarding His exalted status, power, uninterrupted awareness and energy, and His control over every aspect we could use in our decision-making, it might keep us humble enough and yet determined enough in what God knows to be a learn-by-mistakes situation to obtain, at the end of our short term of life, His mercy and acceptance, which is the ultimate success and the best possible achievement, something actually hard-won from which Allah’s Presence is the ultimate relief, fulfillment, and unparalleled bliss.