The Unbelievers and the Idolaters
The Surah begins by talking about the People of the Book and the Idolaters:
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala is telling us that the People of the Book as well as the mushrikeen would not have reverted to Allah’s Deen until they had seen a clear proof. In the next Ayah, Allah subhaanhu wa ta’ala explains what this Bayyinah is: “A Messenger from Allah reciting purified pages,” meaning, Muhammad ﷺ and the Magnificent Qur’an he recites, which is written down among the most high gathering in purified pages. This is similar to Allah’s statement in Surah ‘Abasa ayaat 13 – 16,
فَى صُحُفٍ مُّكَرَّمَةٍ – مَّرْفُوعَةٍ مُّطَهَّرَةٍ – بِأَيْدِى سَفَرَةٍ – كِرَامٍ بَرَرَةٍ
“In Records held in honor. Exalted, purified, in the hands of scribes (angels). Honorable and obedient.”
Sending clear proof (bayyinah) didn’t mean that after seeing this all the people will revert to the true religion; it meant that bayyinah was necessary to be sent because otherwise there wouldn’t have been any chance of their return. So now if after coming of the clear proofs people do not accept it and choose to stay in their state of disbelief, then they must know that the messengers are only bearers of good news and severe warnings. There is no responsibility on them regarding what people decide for themselves. However, if after coming of the truth they still deny it then on the Day of Judgment they cannot come up with the excuse that nobody informed us or no messenger came to us with guidance.
Describing the purified pages Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says in ayah 3, “Containing correct and straight laws from Allah.” Ibn Jarir says it means that amongst the purified pages are correct scriptures from the Books of Allah, of inestimable value, full of justice, perfectly correct, without any error, because they are from Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. Qatâdah says: “A Messenger from Allah, reciting purified pages” means that the Qur’an is mentioned with the best description and that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala extols it in the most laudatory terms. Ibn Zaid said, concerning the ayah: It means correct and fair.
In the next ayah, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala explains why there was a need to send Bayyinah. He says, “And the People of the Scripture differed not until after there came to them clear evidence,” (98: 4). This ayah is similar to Allah’s statement in Surah Aal Imran ayah 105, “Be not like those who are divided amongst themselves and fall into disputations after receiving Clear Proofs: for them is a dreadful penalty.” This ayah is talking about the People of the Books who despite having been shown clear proofs and signs became divided and disputed among themselves leading to major differences and then eventually different sects.
This is made clear by the hadeeth which is narrated from different sources,
إِنَّ الْيَهُودَ اخْتَلَفُوا عَلَى إِحْدَى وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً، وَإِنَّ النَّصَارَى اخْتَلَفُوا عَلى ثِنْتَيْنِ وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً، وَسَتَفْتَرِقُ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةُ عَلَى ثَلَاثٍ وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً، كُلُّهَا فِي النَّارِ إِلَّا وَاحِدَة
“Verily, the Jews have divided into seventy-one different sects, and verily, the Christians have divided into seventy-two sects, and verily, my community will divide into seventy-three different sects -all of whom will be in the Hell-fire except one.”
His Companions asked, “And who are they, O Messenger of Allah?” He replied,
مَا أَنَا عَلَيْهِ وَأَصْحَابِي
“Those who follow the path of me and my Companions.”
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala then says, “And they were commanded not, but that they should worship Allah, and worship none but Him Allah,” (98: 5). This is similar to Allah’s statement in Surah Anbiya ayah 25, “And We did not send any Messenger before you but We revealed to him: La ilaha illa Ana.”
Thus, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says, “Hunafa” [حُنَفَآءَ] meaning, avoiding Shirk and being truly devout to Tawheed. And they were told to perform Salah – the best of the physical forms of worship – and give Zakah.