In The Name of God, The Most Gracious, The Dispenser of Grace.
98:1 It is not [conceivable] that such as are bent on denying the truth – [be they] from among the followers of earlier revelation or from among those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God – should ever be abandoned [by Him] ere there comes unto them the [full] evidence of the truth.
i.e., idol-worshippers or animists (in the anthropological sense of this word) who have never had any revealed scripture to fall back upon.
98:2 An apostle from God, conveying [unto them] revelations blest with purity.
This aggregate connotation is inherent in the adjective qayyimah as used here (Razi). – The above passage has caused some difficulties to the classical commentators on account of the participle munfakkin occurring in the first verse. It is generally assumed that this participle, in combination with the phrase lam yakun at the beginning of the verse, denotes “they did not [or “could not”] give up” or “separate themselves from” – i.e., supposedly, from their erroneous beliefs – “until there came to them the evidence of the truth” in the person of the Prophet Muhammad and in the revelation of the Qur’an: implying that after the evidence came, they did give up those false beliefs. This assumption is, however, deficient on two counts: firstly, it is well-known that not all of the erring ones from among the ahl al-kitab and the mushrikin accepted the message of the Qur’an when it was conveyed to them; and, secondly, the ahl al-kitab are spoken of in verse 4 as having “broken their unity [of faith]” – i.e., offended against the fundamental principles of that faith – after “the evidence of the truth” had come to them. This apparent contradiction has been convincingly resolved by no less an authority than Ibn Taymiyyah (see Tafsir Sitt Suwar, pp. 391 ff.); and it is his interpretation that I have followed in my rendering of the above three verses. According to Ibn Taymiyyah, the pivotal phrase lam yakun munfakkin does not denote “they did not give up” or “separate themselves from”, but, rather, “they are not abandoned” – i.e., condemned by God – unless and until they have been shown the right way by a God-sent prophet, and thereupon have consciously refused to follow it: and this is in accord with repeated statements in the Qur’an to the effect that God does not take anyone to task for wrong beliefs and wrong actions unless the true meaning of right and wrong has previously been made clear to him (cf. 6:131-132 and the second paragraph of 17:15, as well as the corresponding notes). Hence, the above reference to “the evidence of the truth” does not relate only to the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad but to all the earlier prophets and revelations as well (cf. 42:13 and the corresponding notes 12-14) – just as the “ordinances of ever-true soundness and clarity” (spelled out in verse 5 below) are common to all God-inspired messages, of which the Qur’an is the final, most perfect expression.
98:3 Wherein there are ordinances of ever-true soundness and clarity.
This definition is general, comprising the followers of all religious teachings revealed before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad (lbn Kathir), and not – as some commentators assume- only the Jews and the Christians. (See also notes 12 and 13 on 3:19.)
98:4 Now those who have been vouchsafed revelation aforetime did break up their unity [of faith] after such evidence of the truth had come to them.
i.e., most of them strayed from the teachings of the prophets sent to them, all of whom had preached the same fundamental truths (see next verse and note 6 below).
98:5 And withal, they were not enjoined aught but that they should worship God, sincere in their faith in Him alone, turning away from all that is false, and that they should be constant in prayer, and that they should spend in charity, for this is a moral law endowed with ever-true soundness and clarity.
For this rendering of hunafa’ (sing. hanif), see surah 2, note 110.
98:6 Verily, those who [despite all evidence] are bent on denying the truth – [be they] from among the followers of earlier revelation or from among those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God – will find themselves in the fire of hell, therein to abide, they are the worst of all creatures.
Since the term zakah has here obviously a wider meaning than the obligatory tax incumbent on Muslims (which, as its name indicates, is meant to purify their income and their possessions from the taint of selfishness), I am rendering the above phrase in the more general sense of “spending in [i.e., practicing] charity”.
98:7 [And] Verily, those who have attained to faith, and do righteous deeds – it is they, they who are the best of all creatures.
As regards the connotation of “moral law” in the term din, see note 3 on 109:6; the qualifying noun al-qayyimah (in the genitive case) has here the same meaning as the adjective qayyimah at the end of verse 3. The above definition of moral law outlines, in a condensed form, all the basic demands of true religion: a cognition of God’s oneness and uniqueness and, implicitly, of man’s responsibility to Him; a turning-away from all false concepts, values, and dubious beliefs, all overestimation of oneself, and all superstition; and, finally, kindness and charity towards all of God’s creatures.
98:8 Their reward [awaits them] with God, gardens of perpetual bliss, through which running waters flow, therein to abide beyond the count of time; well-pleased is God with them, and well-pleased are they with Him, all this awaits him who of his Sustainer stands in awe!
Namely, the self-evident principles formulated in the preceding verse as the beginning and the end of all moral law.