And We gave you the shade of clouds and sent down to you Manna and quails, saying: “Eat of the good things We have provided for you:” (But they rebelled); to us they did no harm, but they harmed their own souls.
This is a reference to the bounties that Allāh granted the descendants of Israel in the desert of Sinai to protect them from the heat of the sun and starvation. Mann The word mann primarily means a bounty and a favour, and is used here for the special food provided by Allāh in the desert of Sinai to the descendants of Israel. For this, they tilled no land nor did they sow or water it. In the Torah, we find a detailed description of it in these words:
And it came to pass, that at even the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host. And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they did not know what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat … And they gathered it every morning, every man according to his eating: and when the sun waxed hot, it melted (Exodus, 16: 13-21).
From the description it appears that it was something that came down on the earth like dew and froze on reaching the ground like grains of frost and could be gathered before the day grew warmer. With the increase in temperature, its grains melted away. As this blessing was granted to them without any effort or hardship on their part, especially in a barren and arid desert where food resources were non-existent, it was called mann or a blessing. It is worth mentioning here that the Arabic and Hebrew languages are very close to each other in their origins. However, as is evident from above, the Torah gives a different explanation: According to it, it was so called because the descendants of Israel asked each other mann huwa, ‘what is that?’, and that is how it came to be known as mann. In our view this explanation is a fabrication supported neither by etymology nor common sense. The fact that prophet Moses, peace be upon him, called it bread, does not necessarily mean that it was something akin to bread, which is used here in the general sense of food. This is a common usage in ancient scriptures as in other languages. Salwā Like the word mann, this has also been introduced in Arabic through the people of the Book. And it is also used in Arabic poetry. It refers to birds like pheasants sent by Allāh to the descendants of Israel in the desert of Sinai. They were, like pheasants, easy to capture and hunt. The Old Testament says:
And they took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came unto the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger … And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel: speak unto them, saying, At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God. And it came to pass, that at even the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host (Exodus, 16: 1-13).
“Eat of the good things We have provided for you”
At places such as these, the commentators usually presume the omission of the word qulna, ‘We said’. It should thus read, ‘We gave them these and said: Eat of the good things We have provided for you.’ In our view the omission of the verb “said” here is specially eloquent. Allāh has packaged every gift in this life in a manner that seems, as it were, to be saying to the humans to benefit and be grateful to their Giver and Sustainer. In the Qur’ān, at times these allusions are explicit while sometimes, as for instance, at this place, they are left veiled. Those blessed with minds and hearts capable of deciphering and appreciating the hints and suggestions embedded in each and every blessing in this universe can easily understand and appreciate their significance and meaning. In the present context, the descendants of Israel quite clearly failed to appreciate these great blessings of Allāh upon them and the obligations that these brought with them. They enjoyed all these blessings and yet persisted in insolence, disobedience and rebellion. As this can be easily deduced from the context, it has not been stated in so many words, but referred to simply by saying, “To Us they did no harm, but they harmed their own souls.” This statement not only tells us about the attitude of the descendants of Israel towards these blessings, but it also makes clear that those who are unappreciative of Divine blessings do harm only to themselves; certainly they cannot do harm to Allāh. The last part of the verse addresses the descendants of Israel, but in an indirect manner, as an aside, as it were, in the third person – turning away from them. This indicates the dismay and disgust of the speaker with them.
Islahi, Amin Ahsan. Pondering Over The Qur’an: Surah al-Fatiha and Surah al-Baqarah (Kindle Locations 5182-5229). Islamic Book Trust. Kindle Edition.