Allah (swt) has decreed:
"InnAllaha laa yoghayyiru maa bi Qawmin hattaa yoghayyiroo maa bi anfusihim"
(TMQ ar-Ra’ad 13:11)
“Allah will not change what is in any nation, until they all collectively make a change occur in what is in themselves.” (TMQ ar-Ra’ad 13:11)
Many from amongst the sincere, and insincere, Muslims utilise this Ayah in an attempt to justify not working for the Khilafah by reviving the Ummah in a collective way. Instead, they claim, that one should perfect what is within oneself first, and only then look to the ills of the society. Thus, they emphasise the perfection of the individual as Allah (swt) has said that he will not change the situation of the people until they first change what is within their own selves.
Without under-emphasising the importance of Tazkiyyat un-nafs (purification of oneself) at all, it is necessary to eradicate the above false understanding, especially the idea that through this Tazkiyyah alone one can revive the Ummah. In fact, such a twisted interpretation of the glorious words of Allah (swt) cannot be further from the truth. The following Tafseer of this Ayah will explain it’s true meaning, breaking down the Arabic word by word with the aim of elucidating the collective nature of the Islamic Da’wah. Thus refuting at the same time the secular interpretation made by those smitten by western individualism.
The nature of the Ayah:
The Ayah is Ikhbariyyah (informative) therefore it informs about when Allah (swt) will change the situation of a people. It doesn't provide a detailed method for revival, and shouldn’t be used as such just as no scholar has used this Ayah in this way before. Imaam ul-Qurtubi said in his Tafseer entitled ‘al-Jaami’u li Ahkaam il-Qur’an’ that “ akhbara Allahu (meaning, ‘Allah informs’)…” So it is an informative Ayah (Akhbara being the verb from which the adjective Ikhbariyyah is derived) which informs about the law of Allah (swt) regarding change
Upon who does the change occur (Maf’ool ul-Fi’l)?
The verb (Fi’l) under discussion is the change, and the doer (Faa’il) of this change, is Allah (swt). So what is the object of the verb (al-Maf’ool)? That is to say, who is Allah (swt) going to change?
Allah (swt) stated, ‘…maa bi Qawmin…’ meaning, ‘(Allah will not change) whatever is in any Qawm’.
It is clear that the change will occur upon the Qawm. What is the meaning of this word Qawm, and what is the nature of this change? The maa here is 'aam (maa al-'Umoom) thus it applies to whatever is in the Qawm. Further, the word Qawm has come in the Mutlaq (unrestricted) form, and thus it even applies to the Kafir Qawm’s. Thus, the meaning is that "Allah will not change whatever is in any Qawm".
Please note that the word Qawm has been used, which means that the subject matter is the issue of collective change in society, not individual change. Qawm, in the Arabic language, means nation or sha’ab (people) and it can mean Ummah. It does not however, mean an individual, or even a collection of individuals. Fard or Shakhs means an individual or a person respectively, and Afraad or Shakhsiyyaat are the plurals, meaning a collection of individuals or persons. These words may be used to denote the work that treads the path of individual reform.
However, none of these words have been used by Allah (swt) in this Ayah, instead he used Qawm, which means nation, or Ummah. Nation has a specific connotation. It means a group/collective of people, but more than that because this is merely Afraad. So further, this collective, known as a Qawm is bonded by a common identity, having some form of common unifying force, which is why it can also be used to describe a nation unified by race, hence the noun Qawmiyyah (nationalism). However, here it is not restricted to ethnic groups, as the Muslims are included in its’ meaning. Also, it is not restricted to ideological societies, the word Ummah would be better to use here, as ethnic groupings are not necessarily ideological yet are also known as a Qawm. Thus, in this Ayah it is used in a loose meaning denoting any nation, not necessarily along racial or ideological lines, thus it is Mutlaq (unrestricted) and applies to all collective groupings of people.
This is what the word Qawm means in Arabic, and even in the English language. So, from this it is clear that the meaning taken by some people that "Allah will never change the situation of individuals until each one changes what is in his own self", is in fact a twisted meaning, and is not the meaning of Allah (swt). Shakhs (person) hasn't been mentioned, nor has persons, or Afraad (individuals). If it had been, then the protagonists of such a fallacy may have had a case, as merely a collection of individuals does not denote collective work. Thus they may have been able to argue that each person should correct himself first and foremost, then convince another to change, until they become large in number, and then they go about individually changing others. Indeed, this fits the description of Afraad or Shakhsiyyaat, but it doesn't fit the description of Qawm. So clearly in this Ayah Allah (swt) is addressing change in the collective.
The final meaning is therefore that it refers to everything in general in any Qawm
(nation), whether Muslim or Kafir. The fact that it can be applied to Kuffar as well is relavent, please see below.
What must the Qawm do?
Allah (swt) stipulates, “…Hattaa yughayyiroo…” which means “until they all change…”
These words are in the form of a conditional clause (Seeghat us-Shart), due to the use of the Shart (condition) ‘Hattaa’ (until). This renders the meaning, ‘Allah will not change…(them)…until they all change’. The usage of the Shart here means that the Mafhoom ul-Mukhalafah (opposite understanding) of this Ayah can be taken. Thus rendering the meaning that if the Qawm does not collectively change together, then Allah (swt) will not change their situation. So a condition for change is that action must occur from the Qawm, and that means doing, not sitting around waiting for Allah to provide the change. The active verb ‘yughayyirooo’ has been used by Allah, so the Qawm must do something to be eligible for the change, without which they will not get it.
So, what is expected from this Qawm in order that they qualify for change by Allah to occur? Is it that each and everyone changes himself alone, and then asks every other individual to change? No, as Allah (swt) addressed the Qawm by the verb ‘Yughayyiroo’, which means ‘until they change…’ So the nation must "Yuhaghayyiroo". This word is an active verb (F'il) in the plural (Jam'a) third person (Ghaa'ib) masculine (Mudhakkir) and it is in the present tense (Mudaari). It being an active verb means that it is not a passive verb, so in order to qualify for the said condition the Qawm must do something, not wait for some thing to be done to them. Thus the fatalistic concept prevalent nowadays that encourages people to practice patience without action, whilst Allah brings change, is blatantly flawed. It being masculine means that it includes both male and female as the masculine plural in Arabic means a mixed group unless indicated. In this case there is no indication and so it applies to male and female. It being plural means that all individuals within the Qawm must do something, and it also reinforces the fact that the Qawm, or a collective, is being addressed. Therefore, the plural masculine verb renders the meaning ‘ until they all, male and female, collectively make a change occur…’ Thus is it 'Aam, and all people are required to make a change.
What do they have to change?
‘…Maa bi anfusihim’
‘…Whatever is in themselves…’
Here Allah (swt) informs about the target for the change, which is ‘….Maa bi Anfusihim’. The Maa here is Maa al-'umoom, so again, it means everything must be changed in the specified target. Also, The Ism (noun) ‘Nafs’ is used. This means oneself, and does not mean what is inside a person in any spiritual or mystic way. Rather it simply means oneself, similar to the English usage of the noun ‘himself’ when saying, ‘Zayd went by himself (alone)’. This would be rendered in Arabic as ‘Jaa’a Zayd bi Nafsihi’. Anfus is the plural for Nafs. Therefore, Allah (swt) has decreed that he will not change the situation of any Qawm until they all collectively change all that is within themselves, as a nation, not as individuals, because they are addressed as a "Qawm", not as "Afraad". The verb came in the plural form, and so it is not addressing the each individual alone at all, in fact it is addressing all the individuals in the nation, that Allah will not change their nation until they all make a change occur in their selves, and in others.
What is the nature of this change?
The word Qawm being in the Mutlaq (unrestricted) form means that this Khabar (news) that Allah (swt) has graced us with about the wisdom of how he makes change in societies, is universal. Meaning that it applies to any nation, or group of people. This is the Sunnah of Allah. Thus, my dear brothers, it cannot be taken from this that the Muslims must simply pray, fast, and encourage one another to do this, and then they will be revived. This is because the Kuffar are also addressed by this Ayah, and despite the fact that they don't pray and fast, their nations have progressed and revived (albeit incorrectly). Thus the nature of the change needed cannot be restricted to ‘Ibadaat, Morals, clothing, Taqwah, or even being Muslims. As the word Qawm is Mutlaq and it applies to the Kaafir nations, or anything that can be described loosely as a nation. Indeed we have witnessed that the Kuffar have progressed beyond us to the extent that they dominate us. This was despite the fact that these nations took the rebellion from religion as the cornerstone of their ideals, adopted immoral practice as their constitutional rights, and have never ceased oppressing those who Allah loves, the Muslims. Indeed, they progressed despite all this. Therefore the change mentioned cannot be the moralistic, religious, or ritualistic change that some preach about, for the Kuffar of today are of the most immoral, atheistic hedonists that the world has ever witnessed.
So what change is being addressed here? It must be some form of change that is available for the Kuffar too. This change is the ideological change, the change that occurs in a nation when they unify around one common ideology (something Muslims or Kuffar can both do). So it is about altering the way in which they view life, the basis of their relationships and their ruling system. Thus when the Communists unified around Communism they progressed and Allah (swt) changed their affairs, despite the fact that he despises those who deny him and reject his signs. Also, when the Europeans before them adopted Secularism as their ideology, as did the Americans when they rebelled from the Europeans, they all progressed beyond bounds. Allah (swt) altered their affairs and they dominated us, even though he (swt) loves us and despises the arrogant deniers of his Haakimiyyah (right to rule), the secularists. This was all done in accordance with the Sunnah of Allah (swt). That is that whenever any nation alters itself and bonds around a common basis, she progresses.
Alas, for the Islamic Ummah has the best Ideology, Islam, yet she doesn't unify around it, nor does she make it her basis for solving all lifes problems. She doesn't change her Qawm (the Islamic Ummah) to bond upon it, she has the best ruling system, the Khilafah, yet she doesn't work for it, thus Allah (swt) will not change her affairs until she does so. The result of understanding this Ayah like this, means that when the Ummah returns to her Ideology as a whole, basing her relationships upon it’s ‘Aqeedah alone, and governing her interests by it’s ruling system, the Khilafah, only then will Allah revive her. This is just like when the Kuffar adopted a complete Ideology, and Allah revived them. Moreover, if she leaves the ruling by the Ideology in all of lifes’ affairs, then she declines, just as she did and just as the Communists did when they dropped their ideology.
Imaam al-Qurtubi, in his Tafseer entitled ‘Jami’u li Akhmaa il-Qur’an’ is careful, as if knew that a twisted meaning would be placed upon this Ayah, to explain the very understanding mentioned above,
“Allah informed in this Ayah that he does not change what is in a Qawm until change takes place from them, whether it be from them, or from their supervisor (of their affairs - leaders), or from he who is (appointed) from them… So the meaning of this Ayah is not that it was only revealed for individual punishment and to address nothing but progress from a sin. Instead, it has been revealed for the correction of others sins too. As he said (in the Hadeeth), “…It was asked, ‘will we be destroyed whilst the righteous are amongst us?’ He (saw) said, ‘Yes, if the corruption increases (beyond bounds) [Saheeh al-Bukhari and Muslim, on the authority of Zaynab bint Jahsh about the Ya’jooj]”
So you see, dear brothers, al-Qurtubi demonstrates in his Tafseer of this Aayah that it is not simply for the individual focus. His quotation of the Hadeeth in fact provides an admonishment, in the form of complete destruction, for the whole community if they leave others alone to practice corruption without addressing it, despite the fact that the righteous may live amongst them. Therefore, this Ayah reinforces the correctness of the work of those brothers who work to alter society collectively via their political work to bring back the Khilafah. After this lengthy explanation, we may now revisit the final meaning of the Ayah. It may be correctly rendered as, “Allah will not change what is in any nation, until they all collectively make a change occur in what is in themselves”. Please, dear brothers, do not ever again use it to mean perfection of the individul alone, or Allah (swt) will ask you concerning this on al-Qiyaamah. Wa BarakAllahu Feekum.