This Surah was revealed before the migration to Habash (Abyssinia) during the third stage of the Prophet's residence at Makkah. Authentic traditions indicate that Sayyiduna J'afar recited vv. 1-40 of this Surah in the court of Negus, the king of Habash, when he called the immigrants to his court upon the extradition request of the Qureysh.
- Story of Zakariya (Zachariah) and the birth of Prophet Yahya (John) pbuh.
- Story of Maryam (Mary) and the miraculous birth of Prophet Isa (Jesus) pbuh.
- Prophet Isa's address to his people from his cradle.
- The fact that Isa (Jesus), pbuh, is not the son of Allah (God), and that it is not befitting to the Majesty of Allah that He needs a son (i.e. for name, fame, help or continuity of race).
- Story of Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) and his mushrik father.
- The fact that all Prophets of Allah were divinely guided and chosen people.
- Life of the believers and the nonbelievers in this world and in the Hereafter.
- Those who say, "Allah has begotten a son," preach such a monstrous lie that if they could hear it; the heavens would crack, the earth would split and the mountains would crumble to pieces.
- Allah has made the Qur'an easy for mankind.
The chiefs of the Qureysh had failed to suppress the Islamic movement through ridicule, sarcasm, and threats, so they resorted to persecution and economic pressure. They persecuted, starved, inflicted physical torture, and coerced the Muslims to give up Islam. The most pitiful victims of their persecution were the poor people and the slaves. Not only were they not paid by the Qureysh for labor and professional work but they were beaten, imprisoned, kept thirsty and hungry and were even dragged on the burning sands.
The condition of the Muslims had become so unbearable that in the fifth year of the Prophet's mission, he advised his followers in the following words: "You may migrate to Habash, for there is a king who does not allow injustice to anyone. You should remain there till Allah provides a remedy for your affliction."
Taking advantage of this permission, eleven men and four women immediately left for Habash. The Qureysh pursued them to the coast but fortunately they escaped by getting on a boat leaving for Habash at the seaport of Shu'aibah. After a few months, other people followed suit and their number rose to eighty-three men and eleven women from the Qureysh and seven from other clans. Only forty Muslims were left with the Prophet at Makkah. This migration started a great hue and cry in Makkah, for there was hardly any family of the Qureysh which did not lose a son, a son-in-law, a daughter, a brother or a sister. These included the near relatives of Abu Jahl, Abu Sufyan and other chiefs of the Qureysh who were notorious for their persecution of the Muslims. As a result, some of them became more bitter in their enmity toward Islam, while others were so moved by this that they embraced Islam.
The Qureysh held a meeting and decided to send Abdullah bin Abi Rabiy'ah, the half brother of Abu Jahl, and Amr bin A's with some precious gifts to the king of Habash and persuade him to send the migrants back to Makkah. Sayyidah Umme Salmah, who became a wife of the Prophet later on and was among the migrants, related their story in detail. She says: "When these two clever statesmen of the Qureysh reached Habash, they distributed the gifts among the courtiers of the king and persuaded them to support their request to send the migrants back. Then they approached Negus, the king of Habash, presented the expensive gifts, and said: "Some headstrong brats of our city have come to your land so our chiefs have sent us to you with the request that you kindly send them back. These brats have forsaken our faith, have not embraced yours, and have invented a new faith." As soon as they made their request, all the courtiers supported their case, saying: "We should send such people back. It is not proper for us to keep them here." At this the king, who got annoyed, said: 'I am not going to send them back without proper enquiry. Since those people have put their trust in us through coming and taking shelter in my country rather than going to some other country, I will not betray them. I will send for them and investigate the allegations these people have made against them. Then I will make my final decision.'" So the king sent for the immigrants to come to his court.
When the immigrants received the summons from the king, they held a meeting and after lengthy discussions decided: 'We shall present the teachings of the Prophet to the king without adding anything to or withholding anything from it regardless of whether he lets us remain here or turns us out of his country.' When they came to the court, the king put this question abruptly: 'I understand that you have given up the faith of your own people and have neither embraced my faith nor any other existing faith but have invented a new faith. I would like to know what your new faith is.' At this, J'afar bin Abi Talib responded on behalf of the immigrants, in these words: 'O king! We were sunk deep in ignorance and had become very corrupt; then Muhammad (pbuh) came to us as a Messenger of Allah and reformed us, but these Qureysh began to persecute us, so we have come to your country in the hope that here we will be free from persecution.' Hearing this statement, the king asked: 'Please recite a piece of the Revelation which your Prophet has received from Allah.' (In response, Sayyiduna J'afar recited a portion of this Surah which relates to the story of Prophets Yahya (John) and Isa (Jesus) may peace be upon them.) When the king listened, he started weeping and wept so much that his beard became wet with tears. When Sayyiduna J'afar finished the recital, he said: 'Most surely this Revelation and the Message brought by Jesus have come from the same source. By God, I will not put you in the hands of these people.'
Next day Amr bin A's made another attempt. He went to the king and said: 'Please send for them again and ask them concerning the belief they hold about Jesus, for they say a horrible thing about him.' The king again sent for the immigrants, who had already learned about the scheme of Amr. They again held a meeting to discuss the answer they should give to the king if he should ask about the belief that they hold about Prophet Jesus. It was a very critical situation and all of them were uneasy about it; however, they decided that they would just say what Allah and His Rasool had said about Jesus. The next day, when they went to the king's court, he asked them the question that had been suggested by Amr bin A's. Sayyiduna J'afar bin Abi Talib stood up and answered without any hesitation: 'Jesus was a Servant of Allah and His Messenger. He was a Spirit and a Word of Allah which had been sent to virgin Mary.' At this the king picked up a straw from the ground and said, 'By God, Jesus was no different (even as much this straw) than what you have said about him.' After this the king returned the gifts of the Qureysh, saying: 'I do not accept bribes.' Then he addressed the immigrants: 'You are welcome in my country and you can stay here in peace.'
These incidents indicate that Allah sent this Surah as a "provision" to the immigrants for their journey to Habash. Following the story of Prophets Yahya and Isa, the story of the Prophet Ibrahim is also related for the benefit of the immigrants as he was also forced to leave his country by the persecution of his father, his family and his countrymen like them. On the one hand, it was intended to console the immigrants that by migrating they would be following the tradition of Prophet Ibrahim, so they could expect a good end similar as was his. On the other hand, it was intended to warn the disbelievers of Makkah that they were similar to those cruel people who persecuted their forefather and leader, Ibrahim, while the Muslims were in a position similar to that of Prophet Ibrahim.