The title word ma’un is translated “aid, assistance, small kindnesses,” or simply “help.” So the sura begins with this word as its title and ends with it as the last word in its last verse/aya. But what is most striking is its central aya: “Woe to those who pray!” And the word salat is what is translated “pray,” all the more striking because salat is obligatory in Islam, the first thing mentioned in sura 74:42-43 when those in paradise asked those in hell “what put you in hell?” And they answered, “we were not of those who prayed (salat).” So why is this person called out for doing what Allah required us to do, even to avoid going to hell?
We begin answering this question by first examining the whole sura as a ring composition as pictured above. Here’s a brief summary of the basic points about the person being focused on here:
- Denies the “recompense” (consequences) = denies the Hereafter/Judgment
- Drives away the orphan
- Does not encourage feeding the poor
- WOE TO THOSE WHO PRAY
- Oblivious of their prayer
- Only want to be seen
- Refuse to aid (anyone in need)
Chiastic Connections (Ring Composition)
Ayat 1+7: Equates denying Judgment Day (the “Recompense”) with refusing aid to others. Without the sense that there are great consequences, one could feel like why bother to help others?
Ayat 2+6: Someone who only wants to make a show of his prayer (“see how good/pious I am?”) will drive away the orphan. Self-interest (showing off) predominates and motivates him, thus making orphans and those vulnerable repulsive and a nuisance to him, getting in the way of his “show.” The impact of his attitude on those he considered “nuisances” never occurs to him because he is essentially blocking them out as humans.
Ayat 3+5: One who does not encourage feeding the poor (“it’s not our business”) has no compassion and therefore is oblivious to his connection to Allah. It doesn’t say just “feeding the poor” but encouraging it. That requires a special attitude of actually wanting to see people get out of poverty, not just putting his 2 cents/ percentage in the pot or box. Similarly, salat prayer has to involve actually wanting to connect with Allah, not just checking the box “ok, prayer done” ✅ so let’s get on with our lives already >yawn<. Prayer for this person is mere performance: his mind is pre-occupied with other things, mainly himself.
Aya 4 Center/Fulcrum: WOE TO THOSE WHO PRAY – this is the focus of this sura: a warning that simply performing one’s prayers as an empty routine or show doesn’t work. In fact, if done this superficial way, it won’t get a person into paradise but rather lead to hellfire. Salat prayer must translate into action, spending time and/or money on helping others. This directly relates to the connection between salat (connection to Allah through channel of canonical prayer) and zakat (purification through charity). Regular contact in prayer (salat) and regular giving in charity (sadaqa and zakat) are symbiotically entwined. The Quran mentions salat with either spending on the poor or zakat (obligatory charity) 34 times, the same number as the name Al-Raheem the All-Merciful is mentioned in the Quran. Salat without mercy to others does not qualify one to receive Allah’s mercy.
Why does Allah say “Woe to those who pray (salat)?”
Bringing us to our question: of course, “those who pray” is referring to those who are doing something good that Allah the Exalted highly recommends in the Quran. Salat is one of the main pillars of faith in the Quran. So how could one who prays be called out like this? Why is he called out for praying in particular? This aya is particularly relevant here:
إِنَّ الْمُنَافِقِينَ يُخَادِعُونَ اللَّهَ وَهُوَ خَادِعُهُمْ وَإِذَا قَامُوا إِلَى الصَّلَاةِ قَامُوا كُسَالَىٰ يُرَاءُونَ النَّاسَ وَلَا يَذْكُرُونَ اللَّهَ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا
Indeed, the hypocrites [think to] deceive Allah, but He is deceiving them. And when they stand for prayer, they stand lazily, showing [themselves to] the people and not remembering Allah except a little,Al-Nisa’ 4:142
This is exactly the same point made in Surat Al-Ma’un 107, and answers the question of why his prayers are the act he’s being blamed for. Because this is hypocrisy: prayer or salat in this case is used to deceive others into believing he is a believer while in his heart he is not. The word in bold in Arabic yura’un is a variant of the same word yura’una used in 107 (also in bold above) meaning to “show/ show off/ be seen.” The lack of remembering Allah in 4:142 corresponds exactly to “oblivious” in 107:5 — salat should also be done mindfully, bringing Allah to mind. It is God-consciousness — taqwa — that essentially activates the compassionate element in our hearts! And motivates us to move from empty performance of a ritual to active participation in connecting with the All-Merciful loving Allah, the Almighty, Most High, yet Most Merciful as well.
And the aya above is followed up by ayat expressing disapproval of such hypocrisy, culminating in the aya below, corresponding to the expression “woe to those who pray:”
إِنَّ الْمُنَافِقِينَ فِي الدَّرْكِ الْأَسْفَلِ مِنَ النَّارِ وَلَن تَجِدَ لَهُمْ نَصِيرًا
Indeed, the hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of the Fire – and never will you find for them a helperAl-Nisa’ 4:145
So without naming such people as hypocrites, sura 107 expresses this same point. But why are they in the lowest depths of hell? Didn’t they at least try by praying?
Well, no, what they tried to do was to gain social recognition or status from a group they felt might benefit them. Hypocrisy was for the original Muslim followers of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) more of a problem in Medina than Mecca at first, because as Islam became more established and had a certain prestige among people, some wanted a part of that — the prestige part — for worldly reasons. Maybe it was good for business, social connections, family ties, or other such advantages. So they played it both ways: acting like Muslims to gain an advantage or acceptance there, but also keeping their ties with those who were literally enemies of the Muslims, so they could maintain an advantage there too.
مُّذَبۡذَبِينَ بَيۡنَ ذَٰلِكَ لَآ إِلَىٰ هَٰٓؤُلَآءِ وَلَآ إِلَىٰ هَٰٓؤُلَآءِۚ وَمَن يُضۡلِلِ ٱللَّهُ فَلَن تَجِدَ لَهُۥ سَبِيلًا
Wavering between them, [belonging] neither to the believers nor to the disbelievers. And whoever Allah leaves astray – never will you find for him a way.An-Nisa’ 4:143
There you have the very thing I was trying to describe above. The hypocrites are especially dangerous because you never know where they stand. In time of war, they could betray either side, thus causing even loss of life. In a battle of two known sides, as with the Meccans who were clearly and openly opposed to the nascent Muslim community, each side knew where they stood. But with the hypocrites, it’s possible to trust someone who betrays you, and this cut hurts deeper; it makes the victim feel partly responsible for trusting such a person. Betrayal is a greater sin than open opposition for this reason; it is hidden and deceptive, like the influence of Satan, and thus harder to fight against. This is why the hypocrites are in the “lowest depths of fire” in hell.
A Way Out for Hypocrites
However, in the aya following the above from Surat Al-Nisa’, the All-Merciful gives even the hypocrites are given a way out of their hypocrisy:
إِلَّا الَّذِينَ تَابُوا وَأَصْلَحُوا وَاعْتَصَمُوا بِاللَّهِ وَأَخْلَصُوا دِينَهُمْ لِلَّهِ فَأُولَٰئِكَ مَعَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ ۖ وَسَوْفَ يُؤْتِ اللَّهُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ أَجْرًا عَظِيمًا
Except for those who repent, correct themselves, hold fast to Allah, and are sincere in their religion for Allah, for those will be with the believers. And Allah is going to give the believers a great reward.Al-Nisa’ 4:146
Thus even those who were praying just to show off can also achieve paradise, but not by intercession, not by staying in the mosque to show off even more intensely, but by correcting themselves which means doing acts of charity, compassion, kindness, not driving away orphans or the poor, not insulting those less fortunate but helping them, and keeping Allah in mind, striving to achieve God-consciousness and to develop an attitude of kindness towards others. This requires a major change in attitude – a change of heart, really. To change from one attitude to another is actually quite a monumental struggle and therefore indeed deserves paradise. But it is not impossible. With God all things are possible. And in this case, what seems like the simplest, easiest thing – small acts of kindness – is what makes all the difference. This is what proves a person’s sincerity, or potential for sincerity. And may make the difference between paradise and hell, the ultimate success or utter failure.