Surah An-Nisa, verse 58. I will provide two different meanings. I advise you to read carefully:
“Allah commands you to return trusts to their owners, and when you judge between people, to judge with justice. Excellent is the admonition Allah gives you; indeed, Allah is ever Hearing and Seeing.” “Allah commands you (in responsibilities like the maintenance of the Kaaba, safeguarding its keys) to give trusts to their rightful owners (to Osman b. Talha), and when you judge among people (between Abbas and Osman b. Talha), to judge with justice and fairness. Look, what excellent counsel Allah gives you. Remember, Allah hears and sees everything.” The first one is a literal translation that anyone, even without any background knowledge, can understand, interpret, and learn from.
The second is a conceptual translation that includes background knowledge and, although not as much as the first, can still provide lessons in justice and fairness.
The first has a universal context, while the second, to some extent, narrows the scope of the verse’s application and highlights its historical dimension.
Personally, I stand between the two. I believe that the translation we give and the lessons we take should benefit from both perspectives. That is, knowing the original meaning of the verse and what it said to the society of revelation is a primary condition for correctly understanding Allah’s will and purpose. Therefore, before giving a translation, for the verses whose reasons for revelation we know, we must first look at those reasons; for those we don’t, we must consider the socio-cultural, socio-economic, and theo-political realities.
Regarding this particular verse, after translating it with this perspective, we should ask, “What does Allah want to say to us with this verse? What message is He giving?” I am not saying, as some historicist-minded people do, that “The verse was only revealed to its contemporaries in the society of revelation, has given its ruling, fulfilled its function, and is now obsolete. It has nothing to offer us today.”
Yes, despite what some who confuse historicity with historicism insist on misunderstanding, the verses of the Qur’an were revealed in a historical context. In this context, historical means not a myth, legend, fiction, fairy tale, story, proverb, metaphor, but an event, incident, or occurrence that happened in a period of history. The opposite of historical is not universal, as I mentioned above, but mythology, story, etc.
As it’s relevant, let me add; universal means encompassing the world, transcending history, and in our Islamic literature, it refers to things whose words, meanings, and purposes are valid for all times, places, and people/believers. The opposite of universal is local or regional.
Now, let me convey the reason for the revelation of this verse. After the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet (pbuh) asks Osman b. Talha to open the door of the Kaaba. Before the conquest, Osman b. Talha, who is from the sons of Abduddar who have been holding the maintenance and keys of the Kaaba for centuries, had locked the door saying, “If I believed you were a prophet, I wouldn’t have stopped you from entering!”
In response to Osman b. Talha’s insistence on not opening the Kaaba, Hz. Ali took the key from him and opened the door.
Meanwhile, Hz. Abbas, who was responsible for distributing water to people who came for Hajj and Umrah and general maintenance of the Meş’ar-i Haram, asked for the custody and maintenance of the Kaaba’s keys. Osman b. Talha, insisting on continuing this task that his family had held for generations, disputes with him. According to one narrative, Osman b. Talha was not yet a Muslim at this time. It is during this dispute that the verse I provided two translations of above was revealed, and the Prophet (pbuh) returned the keys to Osman b. Talha. It is said that Osman b. Talha became a Muslim after this.
In another narrative, Osman had become a Muslim before the conquest of Mecca, along with Khalid b. Walid and Mus’ab b. Umeyr, and this dispute took place when the Prophet was reorganizing the affairs of the Kaaba after the conquest.
Now, you might ask; is it natural for such an ordinary incident of everyday life to be included in the holy book of a religion that will continue until the Day of Judgment, and what is its wisdom? It is natural because all verses of the Qur’an have a counterpart in the society of revelation. As Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd said, “The Qur’an came down from heaven but also sprouted from the earth.”
As for its wisdom, as I mentioned above, it is to convey a message to humanity through this incident. Let me reiterate, after understanding the primary meaning of the verse, we, who live in a time, place, and culture far from the society of revelation, should ask, ‘What does Allah want to say to us with this verse?’ and strive to understand the message there. Indeed, what the scholars have been doing in their interpretations of the Qur’an and explanations of hadiths for 14 centuries is just this.
Especially in the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, they have maintained both a universal perspective and integrity. They have been careful not to confuse the locality of the ruling with the universality of the message when applying methods such as consensus, analogy, juristic preference, and public interest to the verses and hadiths they deal with. Indeed, the opposite approach would mean detaching religion from life, which God forbid, has never even crossed the mind of any of those scholars.
So, what universal and transcendent messages can we derive from this verse revealed due to the historical incident between Osman b. Talha and Hz. Abbas regarding the keys to the Kaaba?
Here, I believe a competent commentator could say much more. However, I can briefly state the following:
Whether on an individual or public level, the most important message to be highlighted is the delivery of trusts to their rightful owners based on merit and competence. Because nepotism, the bane of humanity, or any form of discrimination will lead to incompetent people taking charge in society and will result in damaging justice, disrupting social balances, creating polarization, disturbing peace, and so on.
In summary; from family to community, from party to state, and in political, legal, economic, military, etc., pacts between states, peace exists to the extent that the principles of trust, competence, and justice are protected, and unrest to the extent they are not. This must be one of the aspects or issues that the divine guidance draws our attention to in this universal message.”