In The Name of God, The Most Gracious, The Dispenser of Grace.
68:1 Nun. Consider the pen, and all that they write [therewith]!
Chronologically, this is the first appearance of any of the “disjointed” [i.e., single] letters (al-muqatta’at) which precede a number of the surahs of the Qur’an: for the various theories relating to these letters, see Appendix II. The supposition of some of the early commentators (extensively quoted by Tabari) that the letter n, pronounced nun, represents here an abbreviation of the identically-pronounced noun which signifies both “great fish” and “inkwell” has been convincingly rejected by some of the most outstanding authorities (e.g., Zamakhshari and Razi) on grammatical grounds.
68:2 Thou art not, by thy Sustainer’s grace, a madman!
For the meaning of the adjurative particle wa at the beginning of this sentence, see the first half of note 23 on 74:32. The mention of “the pen” is meant to recall the earliest Qur’anic revelation, namely, the first five verses of surah 96 (“The Germ-Cell”), and thus to stress the fact of Muhammad’s prophethood. As regards the symbolic significance of the concept of “the pen”, see 96:3-5 and the corresponding note 3.
68:3 And, verily, thine shall be a reward never–ending.
This is an allusion to the taunt with which most of Muhammad’s contemporaries greeted the beginning of his preaching, and with which they continued to deride him for many years. In its wider sense, the above passage relates – as is so often the case in the Qur’an – not merely to the Prophet but also to all who followed or will follow him: in this particular instance, to all who base their moral valuations on their belief in God and in life after death.
68:4 For, behold, thou keepest indeed to a sublime way of life.
The term khuluq, rendered by me as “way of life”, describes a person’s “character”, “innate disposition” or “nature” in the widest sense of these concepts, as well as “habitual behavior” which becomes, as it were, one’s “second nature” (Taj al-‘Arus). My identification of khuluq with “way of life” is based on the explanation of the above verse by Abd Allah ibn Abbas (as quoted by Tabari), stating that this term is here synonymous with din: and we must remember that one of the primary significances of the latter term is “a way [or “manner”] of behavior” or “of acting” (Qamus). Moreover, we have several well-authenticated Traditions according to which Muhammad’s widow ‘A’ishah, speaking of the Prophet many years after his death, repeatedly stressed that “his way of life (khuluq) was the Qur’an.” (Muslim, Tabari, and Hakim, on the authority of Said ibn Hisham; Ibn Hanbal, Abu Da’ud and Nasa’i, on the authority of Al-Hasan al-Basri; Tabari, on the authority of Qatadah and Jubayr ibn Nufayl; and several other compilations).
68:5 And [one day] thou shalt see, and they [who now deride thee] shall see.
i.e., “they would like thee to be conciliatory in the matter of ethical principles and moral valuations, whereupon they would reciprocate and desist from actively opposing thee”.
68:6 Which of you was bereft of reason.
Lit., “And”. The subsequently enumerated types of moral deficiency are, of course, mentioned only as examples of the type of man to whose likes or dislikes no consideration whatever should be shown.
68:7 Verily, thy Sustainer alone is fully aware as to who has strayed from His path, Just as He alone is fully aware of those who have found the right way.
The term utul – derived from the verb ‘atala, “he dragged [someone or something] in a rough and cruel manner” – is used to describe a person combining within himself the attributes of cruelty and greed; hence the composite rendering adopted by me.
68:8 Hence, defer not to [the likes and dislikes of] those who give the lie to the truth.
The commentators give the most divergent interpretations to the term zanim, which is evidently derived from the noun zanamah, denoting either of the two wattles, or fleshy skin protuberances, hanging below the ears of a goat. Since these wattles do not seem to have any physiological function, the term zanim has come to signify “someone [or “something”] not needed” (Taj al-‘Arus): in other words, redundant or useless. It is, therefore, logical to assume that in the above context this term describes a person who is entirely useless in the social sense.
68:9 They would like thee to be soft [with them], so that they might be soft [with thee].
The term banun (lit., “children” or “sons”) is often used in the Qur’an metonymically, denoting “popular support” or “many adherents”; in conjunction with the term mal (“worldly goods”) it is meant to illustrate a certain mentality which attributes a pseudo-religious significance to wealth and influence, and regards these visible signs of worldly success as post-factum evidence of the “righteousness” of the person concerned.
68:10 Furthermore, defer not to the contemptible swearer of oaths.
Lit., “We shall brand him on the snout” (khurtum). All commentators point out that this, idiomatic phrase has a strictly metaphorical meaning, namely, “We shall stigmatize him with indelible disgrace” (cf. Lane II, 724, quoting both Raghib and Taj al-‘Arus).