Umeyye Yazicioglu
University of Virginia

The Logic of Hearing the Word: Abraham (p) in the Qur'an

Have you not heard of that [king] who argued with Abraham about his Sustainer, [simply] because God had granted him kingship?
Lo! Abraham said: "My Lord is He who grants life and deals death."
[The king] replied: "I [too] grant life and deal death!"
Said Abraham: "Verily, God causes the sun to rise in the east; cause it, then, to rise in the west!"
Thereupon he who was bent on denying the truth remained dumbfounded: for God does not guide people who [deliberately] do wrong
(Qur'an, 2: 258).


One of the major themes in the Qur'an is the encounter of the prophets with the people. In these Qur'anic accounts, a prophet is sent to a people from among themselves, calling them to faith in one God only and to abandon their idols and their wrong practices. The prophet is insistent in calling them again and again, pleading with them, bringing eloquent arguments, showing them signs, and refuting their objections. The audience of the prophet usually divides into two: those who accept the prophetic message and reform their lives, and those who reject the message and become hostile to the prophet.

The conversations between the prophets and their opponents have substantial place in Qur'anic discourse. The opponents suspect, challenge and speculate, and the prophets listen and reply. The prophets insist that their message is meaningful, consistent and fortified with evidences, and that their opponents lack evidence.1 Yet, the opponents are not a static group in the Qur'anic narrative. Sometimes believers emerge from their ranks, such as Pharaoh's sorcerers, while others admit that they are wrong even if they might not become believers.2 Yet, at other times, the opponents are simply silenced before the logic of the message. The aim of this paper is to discuss an episode in the latter form, narrated in 2:258. This verse analyzes the debate about God between Abraham and a conceited king, in which the king is just unable to justify his competition with God. This passage provides valuable insights about prophetic logic and how it is heard or unheard by the prophet's addressee. In what follows, I will first briefly present a textual analysis and the reception history of this passage, followed by a discussion of some of the possible implications of the passage for the contemporary age.

Commentary Tradition on the Passage

A survey of some major traditional commentaries3 reveals that commentators have discussed common questions about this passage.4 With no claim to do justice to the complexities of their discussions in this brief paper, I would like to note some of the key issues in their treatment of this verse. One set of questions is about wording of the passage and about determination of which pronoun refers to whom. Since the translation I have here already goes with the most probable reading, I will not go into detail about this issue. There are also nuances about why Abraham mentions life before death, while in other contexts Qur'an mentions death before life.5 Another set of questions concern the historical context and chronological order: Who is this king, where did he live, and at what point Abraham is encountering him? The most common answer provided by these particular commentaries is that the king's name is Namrud,6 that he is said to be the first king on earth who decided to vie with God, and that Abraham's encounter with him comes after the fire episode.7 Then, there is the discussion on crucial detail as to how Namrud tried to demonstrate his ability to give life and death. It is reported in many traditional commentaries that in order to evidence this claim Namrud ordered two prisoners to be brought, and had one killed readily and allowed the other one to live, claiming "this is how I also give death and life." Razi, a classical commentator, disagrees with this common explanation saying that Namrud could not have been that unwise to think that killing means giving death and letting one live means giving life. So Razi (d. 1209) deduces that Namrud must have made a more subtle argument to demonstrate his claim of giving life and death. According to Razi, Namrud must have said to Abraham something like this: "You must be saying that God either gives life through causes or without them. [If you mean the latter, it is absurd, because we plainly see that things happen through causes.] If you mean the first, i.e. that God creates through causes, then I say humans also do create through causes, just as a couple produces a living baby, and one can kill a living being with poison." Razi notes that this would be a cleverer, albeit false, argument that is more likely for the king to come up with.

Razi, however, agrees with other commentators that Namrud misses Abraham's point by claiming that he can also grant life and death. According to Qurtubi (d. 1273), for instance, Namrud took what Abraham said metaphorically (majaz) while Abraham meant it literally (haqiqi). Abraham was talking about the real giver of life and death, while Namrud answered by an apparent/ metaphorical way of dealing life and death. Similarly, Razi points out that Namrud fails to note the absolute difference between the employment of causes by the owner of causes and the utilization of causes without having real control over them. The king, then, is missing the point by confusing obeying/ following the order and giving the order. This is why Abraham has to counter him with a challenge. By demanding from Namrud to change the pattern of solar motion, Abraham is saying that only the one who puts the rule can reverse it, and the one who is simply utilizing the rule can have no claim to real authority over the rule.8

Deriving Implications for the Contemporary Age

After having gleaned some background for the passage from the traditional sources, let me analyze the verse more closely. To begin with, it seems to me that Abraham's message to Namrud is not a top-down statement. Abraham is not talking on behalf of an alien being who is imposing its demand of a slice from the earthly pie. Rather, Abraham is calling Namrud to think of the one who creates and sustains the earthly pie to start with. By defining his Lord as "the one who gives life and death," Abraham is starting from the seen acts: whoever is performing these acts of life-giving and death-giving is my Lord.9 Abraham is calling to the One whoever creates and maintains the order.

But, why does Namrud not "hear" Abraham's reasonable call? The clue is in the phrase that introduces the episode; Namrud argues with Abraham "because God has granted him kingship." To be sure, there is no necessary link between being a king and arguing against God. The Qur'anic Solomon (p), for instance, stands in clear contrast to Namrud as a powerful king in submission to God. Namrud, on the other hand, argues with Abraham about God because, engrossed in his kingly power, he had forgotten that the power was given to him. In other words, he had confused his access to the kingship with his independent ownership of the kingdom. He misinterpreted his obedience to God's order with control of that order. This is probably why he replied Abraham by claiming that he also can give life and death.

Regardless of whether the story told in traditional commentaries is actually linked to this passage, it is clear that Namrud was confusing his use of the order with creating the order. Within the given order, if we cut someone's throat that person ceases to live; just as if we balance the surface area with density, the ship floats; or if we provide the necessary temperature and pressure, the egg hatches. Namrud, on the other hand, is strangely reversing this relationship, and claiming to be the giver end, despite the fact that he is the receiving end. Simply because the bestowal of the thing/ gift/ power has been extremely ordered and patterned, he claims that he is producing that thing/ gift/ power. His stance resembles a tenant taking the house for granted simply because the landlord lets him use it day after day.

Namrud does not hear Abraham because he has forgotten the given-ness of the power at his hand. He disillusioned himself to believe that he has access to these things because he owns them. However, when Abraham reminds him that he does not really own them, Namrud is extremely worried. For in his equation, this can only mean that he should give up all his access to the kingdom, since he does not conceive of the alternative of having access to the kingdom as a gift from the One who owns it. Hence, his first reaction to Abraham is to desperately claim that he too has ownership over at least some of the things. In other words, Namrud does see that Abraham's is an absolute claim about God's ownership -since like all other prophets Abraham's task is affirming tawhid-, and Namrud interprets this as absolute deprivation for himself. He hears Abraham as the one who wants to take away his kingdom. Hence, he hastens to make a piecemeal claim, by trying to carve out a space for himself where he can be independent and continue to have access to power. Namrud's reaction is not an exception and it fits a pattern in the Qur'anic discourse: when the prophets come, many affluent ones become his primary enemies10, primarily because they hear the prophetic message in terms of sharing the pie. They see the prophet as threatening their access to power by reaffirming God's absolute ownership over everything.11

Even when the opponents of the prophet understand that the prophet is not after personal gain, they think of God, in whose name the prophet speaks, as the alien power hostile to their access to power. That is why these opponents, even if they accept that there is a God "out there," wish to limit God's authority to certain spheres of life only. Since they appropriate the given-ness of their present situation, they hear the prophet's message as an intrusion. This is why these people, who hear the prophetic message as intrusion and as a strange interruption, want the prophet to perform wonders and interruptions in the physical realm also, so as to demonstrate the truth of his message. Here are some Qur'anic descriptions of this attitude of demanding the prophet to be a wonder maker:

And so they say: "we shall not believe thee till thou cause a spring to gush forth for us from the earth, or thou have a garden of date-palms and vines and cause rivers to gush forth in their midst in a sudden rush, or thou cause the skies to fall down upon us in smithereens, as thou hast threatened us or [till] thou bring God and the angels face to face before us, or thou have a house [made] of gold, or thou ascend to heaven - but nay, we would not [even] believe in thy ascension unless thou bring down to us [from heaven] a writing which we [ourselves] could read!" Say thou, [O Prophet:] "Limitless in His glory is my Sustainer! Am I, then, aught but a mortal man, an apostle?" Yet whenever [God's] guidance came to them [through a prophet,] nothing has ever kept people from believing [in him] save this their objection:"' "Would God have sent a [mere] mortal man as His apostle?" Say: "If angels were walking about on earth as their natural abode, We would indeed have sent down unto them an angel out of heaven as Our apostle.12

In turn, the prophets repeatedly denounce that they are talking about an intrusion.13 In the Quranic discourse, the prophets insist that their message does not require them to be unusual, precisely because their task is to re-claim the ordinary life for God.

Their apostles said to them [the unbelievers]: "True, we are human like yourselves, but God doth grant His grace to such of his servants as He pleases. It is not for us to bring you an authority except as God permits. And on God let all men of faith put their trust."14

Say [O Prophet!]: "I am but a man like yourselves, (but) the inspiration has come to me, that your God is one God. Whoever expects to meet his Lord, let him work righteousness, and, in the worship of his Lord, admit no one as partner."15

For, to repeat, the prophetic message is not about a god who can disturb an otherwise self-sufficient system, and Abraham is not calling to an alien being who is demanding a slice from the earthly pie. Rather, he is calling to the One who makes and maintains the whole pie, whereas Namrud's claim to have his own slices from the pie is deeply mistaken, because he is disguising the gift of the slice as his.

Abraham's reply to Namrud's claim, then, is meant to correct this illusory vision of Namrud. The only way to wake the king from his slumber is to challenge him to bring a decisive proof of his own power over the order. In other words, Abraham is saying to Namrud: "If the order is in your hands, if life and death is in your hands, if your dealing life and death is not in fact benefiting from the consistency of creation and the rules already have been (and being continuously) established therein by its creator, then you should be able to reverse a pattern in creation." Abraham's demand that Namrud raise the sun from the west can be read as such.16 Faced with Abraham's challenge, Namrud is silenced; it is as though his dream has been shuttered. The end of the verse signals that logic is not on the side of the prophet's opponent, "because God does not guide people who [deliberately] do wrong" (2:258).

Implications for Today

What does Abraham's debate with Namrud tells us in the modern age? What does it mean for us to read this passage in the shade of modern technology, while downloading the verses from the internet to our laptop in a room cooled by A/C? In an age where air, sound, water, electrons, cells.etc. all seem to be under our service (control?), we may be disillusioned to think like Namrud. Having learned new ways of exploiting the existent patterns/ rules/ laws in nature, we think that we are not dependent any more on the One who creates those patterns.

As modern Namruds we reason, for instance, as the following, "In a time when people did not know enough embryology and physiology, when the technology was not developed enough and the babies grew only in the mothers' wombs, we were somewhat obliged to have recourse to prayer and to God, etc. But now, lo and behold, we have more control over these things and less recourse is needed to God, because now we grow the babies in tubes and clone embryos. So, if God is creator, we also create, if God fashions and gives life to babies, we also do..."

Yet, the Qur'anic account of Abraham challenges us to differentiate between receiving the gift and owning it, detecting the pattern and making it, and using the order and sustaining it. Abraham would ask, for instance: "are you able to do these new things because you have the power to create the patterns on your own or because you spent enough time in the lab to master the details of the patterns and utilize them? If you claim that you govern the process, then reverse a given pattern. For instance, my Lord creates the stem cells under 5% percentage of carbon dioxide and at 37 degrees centigrade. If you can create too, then reverse this pattern, don't waste your time minutely researching how things are carried out 'normally.' Immerse your stem cells in cold plates and with abundant carbon dioxide and make them grow well."17

Abraham's call is not about whether we should be cloning or not. Rather his call is about our attitude in doing so. He cautions that we do not rebel to the Benefactor simply because we became beneficiaries in new ways. The right stance is the attitude of gratitude and awareness and acknowledgement of God's power. To be sure, this shift in our reasoning and attitude will have practical implications, such as humility and justice before other creatures. As benefactors, we cannot say, like the opponents of another prophet in the Quran says, "we can do with our property whatever we please."18


1See: Quran 21:24, 27:64, etc.

2For instance Abraham's opponents, see: Quran 21: 61-65.

3List the commentaries Razi, Qurtubi, Tabari, Shawkani, Zamakhshari

4Such as: why does the verse starts with the question "have you not seen?" explain..

5p 7 Razi. ADD Razi notes that the reason why Abraham mentioned life-and-death-giving is because the Creator can be known only through His unique acts. [Also in another verse Abraham mentions death before life: "He is the One who gives me death and life." 26:81]

6Other commentators say that the king must Nebuchadnezzar. [check again//]In the rest of the paper, for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the king as Namrud.


8add the following: For Qurtubi, Abrahams's first argument could be read in two ways, majaz and haqiqi. He meant the haqiqi but Namrud understood it as majaz. Hence Abaraham moved to the second example which can only be taken as haqiqi.
They disagree whether Abraham shifted arguments or was giving another example for the same argument. but they agree in the end that Abraham did not abandon his first point, rather tried to put it in a way that cannot be distorted.
It seems that some of the exegetes put the case as "some vs. all." eg. p 20/ baydawi i.e. Namrud cannot do all what God does. But in a closer look/ in a deeper sense it is not that Namrud can do some things on his own, has some independent authority on a sphere. Rather Namrud's inability to control all means in fact that he is not able to control any. Hence the tawhid is to affirm that.

9selection from Vaqia here

10"Never did We send a warner to a population, but the wealthy ones among them said: "We believe not in the (Message) with which you have been sent" (Qur'an 34:34); "Just in the same way, whenever We sent a Warner before you to any people, the wealthy ones among them said: 'We found our fathers following a certain religion, and we will certainly follow in their footsteps'" (Qur'an 43:23).

11Similarly Pharaoh, for instance, hears Moses' message about God's oneness as trying to get the people of Egypt out of their land. Similar parallels in Noah story in the Qur'an. Add references from the Qur'an.

12Qur'an 17: 90-95, (Asad's translation.) Also relevant are the following passages from the Qur'an (italics added)
"Such as fear not the meeting with Us (for Judgment) say: 'Why are not the angels sent down to us, or (why) do we not see our Lord?'" (25:21)
"The chiefs of the Unbelievers among his people said: 'He is no more than a man like yourselves: his wish is to assert his superiority over you: if God had wished (to send messengers), He could have sent down angels; never did we hear such a thing (as he says), among our ancestors of old.'" (23:24)
"And the chiefs of his people, who disbelieved and denied the Meeting in the Hereafter, and on whom We had bestowed the good things of this life, said: 'he is no more than a man like yourselves: he eats of that of which ye eat, and drinks of what ye drink.'" (23:33)
"Their apostles said: 'Is there a doubt about God, The Creator of the heavens and the earth? It is He Who invites you, in order that He may forgive you your sins and give you respite for a term appointed!' They said: 'Ah! ye are no more than human, like ourselves! Ye wish to turn us away from the (gods) our fathers used to worship: then bring us some clear authority.'" (14:10) Since they believe that their challenge is too distant and impossible, they feel brave enough to demand it immediately, saying "bring us the punishment that you threaten us with!" See Quran 2:25; 7: 70; 11:32 and 46:22.

13The messengers of God do show miracles in the Quran, including Abraham, but these miracles are not presented as an end in itself. For, to repeat, the prophetic message is about the One who is the owner and sustainer of the given universe, not merely the interrupter of the given universe. And only so as to trigger this message the Prophet can bring a miracle that shows that a genuine reversal of the order can only be done by the ruler / or necessitates power equal to the establishing the order itself.

14Quran, 14:11.

15Quran 18:110. Also see: 7:63 ("Do ye wonder that there hath come to you a message from your Lord, through a man of your own people, to warn you,- so that ye may fear God and haply receive His Mercy?") 7:69 ("Do ye wonder that there hath come to you a message from your Lord through a man of your own people, to warn you? Call in remembrance that He made you inheritors after the people of Noah, and gave you a stature tall among the nations. Call in remembrance the benefits (ye have received) from God that so ye may prosper.")

16And, Namrud cannot answer back by saying that God should reverse the order, because Abraham is talking about that which who puts the order. Whoever is the one who puts the order, that is God. cf. meaning of miracles...

17Many thanks to Nima and Dr Aliaa for this technical detail.

18See Quran 11: 87. Also acknowledge your use of Nursi's commentary on technology- it is given as a means of helping with your weakness and impotence, not because of your independent power over the creation.