Volume 4: Surah Baqarah, Verse 243
Did you not see those who went forth from their homes, and they were (in) thousands, for fear of death; then Allah said to them "Die "; (and) afterwards He gave them life; most surely Allah is Gracious to people, but most people thank (Him) not (243).
QUR'AN: Did you not see those who went forth from their homes, and they were (in) thousands, for fear of death:
"To see", in this verse means "to know". It implies that the thing described here is so obvious that to know it is to see it. Other examples of this expression are: Did you not see that Allah created the heavens and the earth with truth.' (14:19); Did you not see how Allah has created the seven heavens one above another? (71:15).
az-Zamakhshari has said that the phrase "Did you not see" is an idiom used to express wonder and astonishment. It implies, "Are you not surprised that ..." "hadhara 'l-mawt" may mean 'for fear of death' (as translated here); or it may mean, 'they were afraid of death, a great fearing'.
QUR'AN: Then Allah said to them "Die "; (and) afterwards He gave them life:
The order was 'creative', not 'legislative'. It does not mean that they did not die of a 'natural' cause, as the traditions say that they died of the plague.
Instead of saying, 'Then Allah gave them death and afterwards gave them life', Allah used this expression, because it more forcefully shows the effectiveness of His order and supreme domination of His power. The use of the imperative mood in matters of creation is a more forceful style; likewise, it is more eloquent and emphatic to use a news style while ordaining a legislation ("you shall not take other's property unjustly"). "Afterwards He gave them life" implies that they were raised from death to life, and that they remained alive for some time. Had they been resurrected just as an example and warning for others, or to complete the proof, or to explain some other reality, Allah would have pointed it out, as is customary in the Qur'an. (See, for example, the story of the people of the Cave.)
Moreover, the next sentence, "most surely Allah is Gracious to people", also shows that they were not raised for only a short time.
QUR'AN: But most people thank (Him) not:
The repetition of the word "people" here (instead of pronoun) reflects on the low level of their thinking. Moreover, the word "people" in the preceding sentence ("most surely Allah is Gracious to people") refers to the particular group that was raised from dead; while in this sentence it stands for the whole of mankind.
This verse has some connection with the next verses which describe the importance of jihad, fighting in the way of Allah - jihad also gives a new life to the nation when it is dead.
A commentator has said that this verse is a parable to illustrate the condition of the ummah - how it remains backward and dies when foreigners bring it under their yoke and keep it under their rule and domination, and how later on it rises to defend its rights and snatches its freedom from that colonial power, and thus becomes alive again. The following is the gist of his argument:
"The verse does not refer to any historical event of either the Israelites (as many traditions say) or others (as some others say). Otherwise, it would have been essential to mention that it happened in this or that nation, or to disclose the name of the prophet concerned, as the Qur'an invariably does in all its stories. Moreover, the Torah also does not mention it in the history of the prophet Hezekial (a.s.). This proves that the traditions narrated in this connection are from Jewish mythology which were taken over by the Muslims.
"Apart from that, there is only one death and one life in this world, as is shown by the Qur'anic words: They shall not taste therein (i.e., in the Paradise) death except the first death (44:56). They (i.e., the inmates of Fire) shall say: "Our Lord! Twice didst Thou make us subject to death, and twice hast Thou given us life " (40:11) . Therefore, there cannot be two lives in this world.
"Obviously, the verse is a parable: A nation was attacked by powerful enemies, who humiliated and subjugated them. The enslaved nation did not defend its freedom and went out of their homes, even though they were in thousands, in great numbers, but they were afraid of death. Thereupon Allah said to them, "Die, the death of disgrace and ignorance". Because ignorance and inertia is death, as knowledge and self-respect is life. Allah says: 0 you who believe! Answer (the call of) Allah and His Apostle when he calls you to that which gives you life (8:24). Is he who was dead then We raised him to life and made for him a light by which he walks among the people, like him whose likeness is that of one in utter darkness whence he cannot come forth? (6:122).
"The nation died, that is, they were disgraced and overcame by their enemies and remained in that condition. Afterwards, Allah again gave them life, by inspiring them to rise against their oppressors and to defend their rights. So, they stood up and drove their oppressors out and became independent. Those were the people to whom Allah gave life a second time, although so far as their identity was concerned, they were not the same people who had died the death of disgrace. But as both groups were of the same nation, Allah counted them as one people who first died and then were raised to life again. Allah has used similar expressions in various places in the Qur'an. For example, He says, addressing the Jews of the Prophet's time: And We delivered you from Pharaoh's people who subjected you to severe torment .. . (7:141). Then We raised you up after your death that you may give thanks (2:56).
"Lastly, if this verse were not taken as a parable, it would have no connection with the verses following it, which are about fighting in the way of Allah."
This interpretation is based on some patently false premises:
First: It is based on the rejection of miracles, or at least some miracles, like giving life to the dead. But we have proved the existence of miracles. Moreover, here we are dealing with the Qur'an, and the Qur'an loudly declares the existence of miracles, like raising the dead, etc. Even if we fail to prove such miracles through intellectual reasoning, the irrefutable fact remains that the Qur'an believes in them.
Second: It claims that the Qur'an proves the impossibility of more than one life in this world. But the verses describing the raising of dead (in the stories of Ibrahim, Musa, 'Isa and 'Uzayr) clearly and definitely prove that dead animals and persons were again raised to life in this world.
Moreover, a life in this world is not to be counted as two lives simply because a death intervenes in between. The story of 'Uzayr is clear on this point: He remained dead for a hundred years; but on raising again he was not even aware of that death.
Third: It is a false assumption that the Qur'an ought to have identified the nation or the prophet concerned, if it were the narration of a real event.
The style of speech differs according to its time, place and context. Sometimes details are given; on other occasions only a passing reference is made. For example, the Qur'an refers to a people (without identifying them in any way) : Cursed be the fellows of the ditch of the fire (kept burning) with fuel, when they sat by it, while they were witnesses of what they did with the believers (85:4-7). And of those whom We have created are a people who guide with the truth and thereby do justice (7:181).
Fourth: The claim that if this verse were not a parable it would have no connection with the subsequent verses, has no meaning at all.
The Qur'an was revealed little by little, and there is no need to search for any connection between two adjacent verses unless they are clearly in one context and obviously revealed all together.
The truth is that the verse narrates a real event.
What style, eloquence and force would be in a verse which most of the hearers believe to be a real event, while in reality it is but a parable having no factual basis at all.
Moreover, it is an invariable habit of the Qur'an to distinguish a simile or parable from other modes of expression. For example: Their parable is like the parable of one who ... (2:17). The likeness of this world's life is only as . . . (10:24) . The similitude of those who were placed under the Torah . . . (62:5) and so on.
It is reported in al-Ihtijaj from as-Sadiq (a.s.) that he said, inter alia, in a tradition: "Allah made alive again a people who left their homes fleeing from the plague; they were innumerable. So Allah gave them death for a long time until their bones decayed, their limbs disintegrated and they all became dust. Then Allah sent a prophet, named Hezekiel, at a time when He wished to show him His creation. So He called them, and their bodies re-composed and their souls returned, and they stood up in the same shape as they had died, not a single one was missing from their group. Then they lived after that for a long time.
The author says: This interpretation has been narrated by al-Kulayni and al-'Ayyashi in some detail, and at the end of that tradition are the words, "and about them was revealed this verse."