How would you interpret the expression "On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear" in verse 286 of the chapter of al-Baqara?

Details of the Question
How would you interpret the expression "On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear" in verse 286 of the chapter of al-Baqara?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

The sun was given as many planets as it could turn; a tree is given as many branches as it could lift; man was given as many hands as he could carry. The burden of a camel is different from that of an ant. Allah did not ask the fish to fly and the lion to swim.

In this world of testing, man was asked to do as much as, in fact, less than he could do as a grace. Everybody can obey the orders of Allah and can avoid committing His prohibitions.

Is the limit of our power performing prayers five times a day and fasting one month? Definitely not!

If people make use of this fact well, show patience, do not weaken their wills by harming them and, finally yet importantly, do not be a burden to one another, they will carry their burdens easily and will pass their tests.  

Various interpretations were made about the verse mentioned above. Many decrees in accordance with the spirit of this verse were made in various branches of science. It was decreed that a person who was not rich would not be held responsible to pay zakah and that a person whose hand or foot was amputated would not be held responsible to wash this organ while making wudu.    

Scholars of creed dealt with the issue of “having power” in terms of “mind (intellect)” and explained a frequently asked question as follows:

“A person who lives in a distant isolated place of the world and who is unaware of social life will be held responsible only for the truths that he can know by his abstract mind.”

Abstract mind can be described as “an unguided mind that has not been informed about divine orders and that has not been addressed by the light of prophethood”. There are various views about the scope that such a mind can cover. According to Imam Maturidi, an imam of creed, man can know with his abstract mind that there is a Creator. This man is held responsible for believing in Allah but he will not be held responsible for the other principles of belief and Islamic decrees.

Imam Ashari, another imam of creed, holds the view that it is not possible for such a person to know Allah with His attributes and names without a prophet and says that such a person will be a person of salvation even if he worships stones.

As it is seen, the main points both imams agree on are as follows: A person is held responsible for what his mind can do in the relevant circumstances.

Question: The following verse is present in the Quran: "Our Lord! Lay not on us a burden like that which Thou didst lay on those before us." However, it is said that Allah does not lay a burden on a person that he cannot carry. Is there a contradiction between these two issues?

It is stated in the verse that Allah will not lay a heavy burden on His slaves. It is added that we need to pray if we make mistakes while fulfilling these burdens so that Allah will not lay us more burdens, which He did not lay on us. For, when Jews made mistakes and committed sins extremely, their burdens were increased. Allah orders us to pray so that the ummah of Muhammad (pbuh) will not be punished like Jews.   

Allah does not lay any burden on a person that will weaken or trouble him. On the contrary, He holds a person responsible for what he can do. A good deed a person does is for him and a bad deed he does is against him. Say,

"Our Lord! Forgive us if we forget or fall into error. Our Lord! Do not punish us due to our negligence. Our Lord! Do not lay us a burden like the one You laid on Jews and Christians before us. Do not lay us a burden greater than we have strength to bear. Forgive our mistakes and blot out our sins. Do not disgrace us. Have mercy on us. You are our friend with Your help. We believe in You and obey You. Give us victory against unbelievers. Make us victorious against those who deny Your oneness and worship idols and other beings. For, we are the believers that are on Your side."

The following is stated in the verse:

"It (the soul) gets every good that it earns and it suffers every ill that it earns."

Abdullah b. Abbas says the deeds that a slave gets are the deeds that he does with his hands and feet.

The following is stated in the verse: "Our Lord! Condemn us not if we forget or fall into error." With this statement, Allah teaches his believing slaves how to pray and beg Him; He says to them,   

"When you want to beg me, say, 'Our Lord! Do not call us to account if we forget or skip a deed that You rendered fard for us or if we do something by mistake that you prohibited us from doing.'"

The Prophet stated the following in a hadith:

"Doubtlessly, Allah removed the responsibility for the things done by mistake, by forgetting and by force from my ummah."

Allah does not lay anybody a burden greater than he has strength to bear; pay attention, ‘does not’, not ‘’cannot’. The burden Allah lays on His slaves is as much as they can carry and much less than it. Allah does not force people to do hard things; He does not compel them to the utmost limit; He does not put them to difficulties; He does not trouble them. The people who are held responsible can fulfill their duties easily with the power given to them. As a matter of fact, Allah states the following in the Quran:    

"Allah intends every facility for you He does not want to put you to difficulties." (al-Baqara, 2/185)

The true religion is easy; there is no difficulty in it. It is not so because Allah does not have the power to encumber such responsibility; it is so because of His grace, generosity and mercy. The power and endurance Allah gives to His slaves is more than the duties He gives them. Thus, after fulfilling their duties, they can rest, travel, work and do other good deeds and charities that were not ordered. What can people do after fulfilling fard duties? For instance, what can they do apart from five daily prayers?

In fact, responsibility means to encumber a burden on the will and each burden necessitates a consumption of energy. Therefore, each responsibility encumbered on him is based on the condition of having power to do it. However, it is also necessary for this burden not to force this power. That is the responsibility of each individual has to be measured by his power and capacity. Therefore, since the power of individuals are different, those with more power and capacity will have more responsibility; justice and equality necessitates this. For instance, a person who has no wealth is not held responsible to pay zakah; the zakah of various rich people will be different too. Some will pay ten while others will pay one hundred based on the degree of their richness. It is contrary to this principle to say everybody will give this amount without taking the wealth of individuals into consideration. Similarly, the relationship of fard al-kifaya, which is related to the ummah as a whole, with individuals is like that.  

Our Lord! Do not lay on us a burden like the one you laid on the ummahs before us. Do not make us like the rebellious ummahs. That is, do not lay on us oppressing, squeezing, hard, heavy and unendurable yokes, severe vows, heavy duties, difficult orders, strict laws, rules and applications; do not put us into difficult situations like transforming individual into apes and pigs. Our Lord! Do not allow hardships, difficulties and pressures to occur in our life!

* * *

The explanations of Elmalılı Hamdi Yazır about verses 285-286 of the chapter of al-Baqara are as follows:

285. The Messenger believeth in what hath been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one (of them) believeth in Allah, His angels, His books, and His Messengers "We make no distinction (they say) between one and another of His Messengers." And they say: "We hear and we obey; (We seek) Thy forgiveness, Our Lord, and to Thee is the end of all journeys."

286. On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear. It gets every good that it earns and it suffers every ill that it earns. (Pray): "Our Lord! Condemn us not if we forget or fall into error; our Lord! Lay not on us a burden like that which Thou didst lay on those before us; Our Lord! Lay not on us a burden greater than we have strength to bear. Blot out our sins and grant us forgiveness. Have mercy on us. Thou art our Protector; help us against those who stand against faith."

SABAB AN-NUZUL (THE REASON FOR REVELATION): According to a narration, when the verse, "…whether ye show what is in your minds or conceal it…" (al-Baqara, 2/284) was sent down, the Companions found it very difficult; they came together and went into the presence of the Messenger of Allah. They said, "O Messenger of Allah! We were ordered deeds like prayer, fasting, jihad and sadaqa, which we were able to do. Now, this verse has been sent down. However, we cannot have power to do it." They mentioned the feelings, thoughts and imaginations that man had in him involuntarily: "We sometimes have such feelings in our hearts that nobody wants them to have even if the whole world is given." The Prophet (pbuh) said to them,

“Do you want to say 'we heard and we disobeyed' like the People of the Book before you? Say, 'We hear and we obey; (We seek) Thy forgiveness, Our Lord, and to Thee is the end of all journeys.'”

They started to say it together; their tongues and hearts got used to it as they read. Then, the verse beginning with (Amanar-Rasulu...) was sent down. Thus, since they prayed and begged Allah and took refuge in Him by asking for forgiveness, the verse beginning with (La yukallifullahu...) was sent down after a while. Thus, their worries were eliminated when they were informed that they would not be called to account for the things that they cannot do and that are beyond their power.  

It means the Companions thought about all aspects, secret and open, of the verse "Whether ye show what is in your minds or conceal it, Allah calleth you to account for it" and feared the possibility that the responsibility encumbered by this verse could include the thoughts and feelings that could come to mind; they thought this verse encumbered them a responsibility beyond their power and they decreed that it should not have been so; they asked the Prophet to interpret this verse in any case.  However, when they were ordered to obey unconditionally, to ask for forgiveness and to beg, they obeyed it. Despite the inevitable worry and fear, they surrendered to divine responsibility and the order of the Prophet and accepted it without any objections. Allah praised their perfect belief, obedience and humble begging by uttering "Rabbana, Rabbana (our Lord, our Lord)" and taking refuge in Him. He encouraged and supported them to pray like that by praising them. In addition, He reveals His grace and mercy after a while and complements them: "On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear." He sent a decree based on wishes and needs and eliminated their worry originating from the responsibility of imagination and thought, which caused them to feel agony. This is always the result of obedience to Allah and taking refuge in Him. Obedience eliminates delusion and worry.

According to what is reported from Hasan, Mujahid and Ibn Sirin and in another narration from Ibn Abbas, these last two verses, which begin with (Amanar-Rasulu...) were not sent down through Jibril; the Messenger of Allah heard them directly on the night of Miraj (Ascension). Therefore, the chapter of al-Baqara was sent down in Madinah but these two verses were sent down before as an exception. However, in another narration, Ibn Abbas, Ibn Jubayr, Dahhak and Ata said,"They were sent down in Madinah through Jibril."

(...)

When Hz Prophet prayed with these verses, it is narrated in Muslim and Tirmidhi that Allah said, "All right! I accepted." (Muslim, Iman, 199, 200; Tirmidhi, Tafsir, 2/38-40). We will see the answers given to these prayers in various aspects in the chapters to come; one of them will be the chapter of Aal-i Imran, which will start as an answer to this prayer of victory.  

The following is stated in a hadith reported from Abdullah b. Mas'ud in Kutub as-Sitta:

"If a person reads these two verses from the chapter of al-Baqara, they are enough for him."

In a hadith that Hakim and Bayhaqi reported from Abu Dharr, the Messenger of Allah said,

"Allah ended the chapter of al-Baqara with two verses; He gave them to me from a treasure under the Throne. Learn them and teach them to your women and children. For, they are both prayers (supplications) and verses of the Quran." (Ahmad b. Hanbal, IV/147, 151, V/180, 383; Darimi, Fadailul-Qur’an, 14)

The following was reported from Hz. Umar and Hz. Ali: "I did not see a sane person who slept without reading the last two verses of the chapter of al-Baqara." (Darimi, Fadailul-Qur’an, 14)

There is a narration from Abu Maysara:"Jibril advised the Prophet to say 'amin' at the end of the chapter of al-Baqara."

May Allah Almighty make us among the slaves who hear, understand and act in accordance with the meanings of these prayers (duas) and who receive their shares abundantly from the grants and graces promised by Allah Almighty! Amin.

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