He sends down water from the clouds, then valleys flow (with water) according to their measure, and the torrent bears along the swelling foam, and from what they melt in the fire for making ornaments or apparatus arises a similar scum; thus does Allah compare truth and falsehood; then as for the scum, it passes away as a worthless thing, and as for that which profits people, it stays on the earth, thus does Allah set forth parables. (13:17)
This fascinating verse of the Holy Qur’an is full of meaning and depth. The example that Allah gives in this verse is that of the rain which falls on the earth. Different parts of the earth accept it according to their capacity. The water then flows along, with foam forming on top. This foam is similar to the scum produced when metal is melted. Allah likens the foam and the scum to falsehood, while the water that remains and is beneficial to human beings is likened to truth.
Pondering over this verse reveals many hidden meanings. Through this parable Almighty Allah wants us to realise the difference between truth and falsehood. Using an example that everyone can see, the Almighty points out simple facts that we often overlook and ignore. How many of us have seen the foam forming over water, and dismissed it as just worthless dirt! To us nature is to be seen and enjoyed, and perhaps seen as a proof of the existence of a Creator. But in this verse Allah asks us to go beyond that. He wants us to derive insights from observing the foam and scum produced in nature.
One teacher of the Holy Qur’an described his fascination with this verse in a lesson saying that he actually went out once when it was raining, and observed as the water fell on the earth. He followed the path of the water as it flowed, and watched as the foam began to swell. He had never observed the phenomena with such thoughtful eyes before. He saw the foam rise and gush forward, but saw it settle down as the water flowed to flatter surfaces. Eventually the foam disappeared and the water calmed down. Such, he realised, was the transient nature of falsehood.
Commentators of the Holy Qur’an have given many points when talking about this verse. Some of these points are summarised below:
The rain falls equally on the surfaces of the earth, but the acceptance and absorption by the ground depends on the ground quality. Some soil will absorb enough water for growth, and the water turns it into a fertile place. Other types of soil will not have the capacity to absorb much, and will remain barren. Such is the example of Divine revelation and the human heart. The wisdom and guidance from the Almighty comes for everyone, but each human being accepts and derives benefit from it according to his capacity.
Truth and falsehood are sometimes difficult to distinguish. Often, falsehood is disguised as a form of truth, and has many advocates who will vouch for it. This point is especially true in today’s modern world, where truth and falsehood in moral and ethical issues are often indistinguishable. In the verse above, the Almighty gives us the following signs to identify truth and falsehood:
a) Truth is always useful and beneficial. Like the flowing water that is a source of life, truth gives life and spirit to everything it comes into contact with. Falsehood on the other hand, is useless and superfluous. The foam on top of the water does not quench any thirst, nor cause any greenery to grow. It has no benefit for the human being.
b) Falsehood is always on top, making a lot of noise and movement. It invites attention and seems large, but like the foam is empty inside. Truth is humble, quiet, and content to stay at the bottom. It has weight and value, and does not need to attract attention to be worthy. Imam Ali (a) says: Truth is heavy and wholesome, while falsehood is light and bitter.
c) Truth is strong and always depends on itself. It is often used as a support. Imam Ali (a) says: Truth is the strongest support. Falsehood depends on others to exist. It tries to disguise itself in the dress of truth, and use it to support itself.
Truth will always overcome falsehood, even if it takes some time. Those who have neither patience nor wisdom to know that this will eventually be the outcome are deceived by falsehood. Wise people however, are content to wait. They know that truth will ultimately emerge the winner. Almighty Allah says in Surat al-Anbiya: Nay! We cast the truth against the falsehood, so that it breaks its head, and lo! It vanishes. (21:18). The foam may be strong for a while, but will eventually disappear.
When the water calms down and enters a flat area, the foam subsides and soon disappears. Clear and pure water then becomes visible. When human beings become tranquil and are ready to see the truth, the falsehood on top of the truth subsides and disappears. Truth, in all its purity, is then recognised and accepted.
The above verse of the Holy Qur’an is a beautiful example of how human beings can learn much from nature. It is an eye-opener, reminding us to walk on earth with eyes and ears open for understanding. It is a great loss if we pass by such wonderful lessons of nature, seeing them but not really understanding them. That is why the Almighty reminds us often in the Holy Qur’an to ponder over creation; Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alteration of the night and the day, there are signs for a people who understand. (3:190)
Ayatullah Nasir Makarim Shirazi (ed.), Tafsire Namune
Agha Muhsin Qara’ati Kashani, Tafsire Noor
Muhammad al-Ray Shahree, Mizanul Hikmah
The Academy for learning Islam
Reflections: Issue # 16 April 2012