In the Shade of the Quran (part 30)


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  • In the Shade of the Quran (part 30)


  • Surah 85 The Constellations al Burooj

    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

     

    By the heaven with its constellations, by the Promised Day, by the witness and that which is witnessed, slain be the men of the Pit, the fire abounding in fuel, when they sat around it, watching what they did to the believers. They took vengeance on them for no reason save that they believed in Allah, the Almighty, the Praised One, the Sovereign of the heavens and the earth, Who witnesses all things. Those who persecute the believers, men and women, and do not repent shall suffer the chastisement of Hell, the chastisement of burning. But those who believe and do righteous deeds shall have gardens with Rowing rivers; that is the great success. Stern indeed is your Lord's vengeance. He is surely the One who originates His creation and re creates them. He is All-forgiving, Compassionate, Lord of the Throne, the Glorious, Performer of what He wills. Have you heard the story of the warriors, of Pharoah and Thamoud? Yet the disbelievers persist in their denials. But Allah surrounds them all. This is indeed a glorious Qur'an, inscribed on a well-guarded tablet.

     

    Commentary:

    This short surah outlines the essentials of faith and the basics of belief as matters of great importance. It sheds a powerful and searching light over these essentials in order to reveal what lies beyond the elementary facts expressed in the text. Every verse, and sometimes every word, in this surah virtually opens a window overlooking a limitless world of truth.

    The immediate theme of the surah is the pit incident, when a community of believers who lived before the advent of Islam (said to be unitarian Christians) were faced by ruthless and tyrannic enemies who sought to force them away from their faith. The believers refused. The tyrants then lit up a great fire in a pit they dug, and threw them into it. The believers were thus burnt to death in front of big crowds which were gathered to witness this ghastly act of extermination. The tyrants sat by, amused by the believers' sufferings: "They took vengeance on them for no reason save that they believed in Allah, the All-mighty, the Praised One."

    The surah starts with an oath: "By the heaven with its constellations, by the Promised Day, by the witness and that which is witnessed, slain be the men of the Pit ... " In this way the surah links heaven and its magnificent constellations, the promised day and its great events, the multitudes which witness that day and the events they witness with the pit incident and Allah's anger with the aggressors responsible for it. The surah then proceeds to portray the tragic scene in a few, quick glimpses which give a feeling of its horror without dwelling on details.

    It includes a reference to the greatness of faith which exalted itself over the atrocious cruelty of men and triumphed over the fire, attaining a level of sublimity which is an honour to all the generations of mankind. It also refers to the heinousness of the crime and the evil and injustice it involves in comparison with the sublimity, innocence and purity of the believers. Then follows a series of short comments stating a number of principles which are highly important to the Islamic call, faith and outlook.

    We have firstly a reference to the fact that all heavens and earth are part of Allah's kingdom and to His witnessing of all that takes place in the heavens and on earth. He is "the Sovereign of the heavens and the earth, Who witnesses all things."

    Secondly, we have a reference to the chastisement of Hell and burning which awaits the wicked tyrants, and a reference to the perfect bliss in heaven awaiting the believers who choose faith in preference to life itself and exalt themselves despite the persecution by fire. The believers' action is referred to as the great success: "Those who persecute the believers, men and women, and do not repent shall suffer the chastisement of Hell, the chastisement of burning. But those who believe and do righteous deeds, shall have gardens with flowing rivers; that is the great success."

    A further reference is made to the power with which Allah smites His enemies and to the fact that He creates and re-creates after death: Stern indeed is your Lord's vengeance. He is surely the One who originates His creation and re-creates them. The fact mentioned here is directly related to the life blotted out in the pit incident. The surah then mentions some of the Divine attributes, each of which has a specific relevance to the subject matter of the surah: "He is All-forgiving, Compassionate." He forgives those who repent regardless of the enormity and horror of their sins. He also loves His servants who choose Him. His love is the soothing balsam which heals whatever injuries they may have suffered. "Lord of the Throne, the All glorious, Performer of what He wills." These attributes portray Allah's absolute will, dominance and power, all of which are relevant to the event discussed in the surah. Following that we have a reference to examples of Allah's punishment of the tyrants when they were heavily armed. Have you heard the story of the warriors, of Pharoah and Thamoud?

    These were two very different examples of Allah's punishment with widely different effects. Along with the pit event they have numerous implications. Finally, the surah explains the situation of the disbelievers and that Allah surrounds them though they may be unaware of the fact. Yet the disbelievers persist in their denial. Allah surrounds them all.

    It concludes with a statement of the truth of the Qur'an and its blessed origin: This is indeed a glorious Qur'an inscribed on a well-guarded tablet.

    This was a brief outline of the theme of the surah, the light it sheds and its limitless horizon. A more detailed discussion will now follow. By the heaven with its constellations, by the Promised Day, by the witness and that which is witnessed.

    Before making any reference to the pit incident, the surah opens with an oath by the heaven full of constellations. The Arabic term used for 'constellations' may be taken to mean the huge mass of the planets which resemble great towers or palaces built in the sky. In this sense the verse can be related to two other verses: And heaven - We built it with Our might, and gave it a wide expanse (Al-Qur'an 51:47) and, Which is stronger in constitution: you or the heaven He has built? (Al-Qur'an 79:27)

    The Arabic term may, alternatively, be interpreted as meaning the positions between which these planets move as they go round in orbit. These constitute the spheres within which the planets remain as they move. The reference to the constellations however, gives an impression of huge creation. This is, indeed, the connotation intended at the outset.

    "By the Promised Day." That is the day when judgement is passed on all the events of this life and when the accounts of this world are settled. It is a day Allah has promised will come, and is a great day awaited by all creation. "By the witness and that which is witnessed. " On that day all deeds and creatures are exposed and witnessed. Everybody becomes a witness. Everything becomes known as there is no cover to hide anything from the beholding eyes. References to the heaven and the constellations, the promised day, the witness and what is witnessed all combine together to impart an aura of seriousness, concern, attention and greatness to the manner in which the pit incident is related. They also convey the framework in which the incident is placed, judged and settled on the basis of its true nature. It is a framework stretching far beyond the limits of this short life.

    Having thus provided the desired atmosphere and opened up such a horizon, the surah then refers to the incident in a few touches. Slain be the men of the Pit, the fire abounding in fuel, when they sat around it, watching what they did to the believers. They took vengeance on them for no reason save that they believed in Allah, the All-mighty. The Praised One, the Sovereign of the heavens and the earth, Who witnesses all things.

    Reference to the event starts with a declaration of anger with the men of the pit: "Slain be the men of the Pit". It also gives an impression of the enormity of the crime which invokes the displeasure and anger of the All-clement and makes Him threaten the perpetrators. Then we have a description of the pit: "The fire abounding in fuel" The literal meaning of "pit" is a hole in the ground, but the surah defines it as "the fire" instead of using the term "trench" or "hole" in order to give an impression that the whole pit was turned into a blazing fire.

    The men of the pit aroused Allah's wrath for the evil crime they committed "When they sat around it, watching what they did to the believers." They sat over the fire, very close to this horrifying process, watching the various stages of torture, madly enjoying the burning of human flesh in order to perpetuate in their minds this ghastly scene.

    The believers had not committed any crime or evil deed against those people: They took vengeance on them for no reason save that they believed in Allah, the All-mighty, the Praised One, the Sovereign of the heavens and the earth, Who witnesses all things.

    That was their only crime: that they believed in Allah, the All-mighty Who can do what He wills, thePraised Lord Who deserves praise for every situation and Who is praised even though the Ignorant do not praise Him. He is the Lord who deserves to be believed in and worshipped. He is the sole sovereign of the Kingdom of the heavens and the earth.

    He witnesses all things and He is a witness to what the men of the pit have done to the believers. This verse carries a reassuring touch to the believers and a powerful threat to the conceited tyrants. Allah has been a witness and He suffices for a witness.

    The narration of the event is completed in a few short verses which charge the heart with a feeling of repugnance towards the terrible crime and its evil perpetrators. They also invite us to contemplate what lies beyond the event, its importance in the sight of Allah and what it has aroused of Allah's wrath. It is a matter which is not yet completed: its conclusion lies with Allah.

    As the narration of the event is concluded we feel our hearts overwhelmed by the magnificence of faith as it exalts the believers and attains its triumph over the hardships and over life itself. We feel the elevation of the believers as they rid themselves of the handicaps of human desires and worldly temptation. The believers could have easily saved their lives by accepting the tyrants' terms. But what a loss humanity as a whole would have incurred! How great the loss would have been had they killed that sublime concept of the worthlessness of life without faith, its ugliness without freedom and its baseness when the tyrants are left free to exercise their tyranny over the souls after they have exercised it over the bodies. But they have won a very noble and sublime concept while they felt the scorch of the fire burning their bodies. Their noble concept has triumphed as it was purified by the fire. They will, later on, have their reward from Allah and their tyrannic enemies will have their retribution. The surah goes on to explain both. Those who persecute the believers, men and women, and do not repent shall suffer the chastisement of Hell, the chastisement of burning. But those who believe and do righteous deeds shall have gardens with flowing rivers; that is the great success.

    What has happened on earth in the first life is not the end of the story. There remains a part which will come later. There remains the allocation of awards which will restore the balance of justice and provide the final settlement of what had taken place between the believers and the tyrants. That it will come is certain and confirmed by Allah: "Those who persecute the believers, men and women" and persist with their evil ways, careless, unrepentant, "and do not repent shall suffer the chastisement of Hell, the chastisement of burning." Burning is specified although it is also implied by the chastisement of Hell. It earns its specific mention in order to serve as a counterpart to the burning in the pit. Although the same word signifying the action is used, the two types of burning are dissimilar in intensity and duration. The burning here is by fire lit by human beings while the burning in the hereafter is by fire lit by the Creator. The burning here is over in a few minutes while in the hereafter it goes on for ages unknown except to Allah. The burning here is accompanied with Allah's pleasure with the believers, and with the triumph of that noble human concept referred to earlier, while in the hereafter the burning is attended by Allah's anger and man's abject degradation.

    Paradise symbolises Allah's pleasure with the righteous believers and His reward to them. But those who believe and do righteous deeds shall have gardens with flowing rivers.

    That is the real escape: "that Is the great success." The Arabic term used here connotes escape, success and triumph. To escape the punishment of the hereafter is to achieve success. How to describe, then, the reward of gardens where the rivers flow ! With this conclusion justice is restored and the whole question is finally resolved. What has taken place on earth is no more than one part; the matter remains unfinished here. This is the fact emphasised by this initial comment on the pit incident, so that it may be fully comprehended by the few believers who have accepted the faith in Makka, and by every group of believers subjected to trail and tyranny in any period of history.

    Further comments follow: "Stern indeed is your Lord's vengeance." This is a most suitable comment which contrasts Allah's punishment with the petty and trifling vengeance exacted by the tyrants, and thought by them and by people generally to be very powerful. The really powerful strike is that leveled by the All-mighty, to whom belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, not that leveled by some insignificant people who impose their rule over a limited piece of land for a limited period of time. The statement also emphasises the relationship between the addressee, namely, the Messenger (peace be on him) and the speaker, that is Allah, the All mighty. He says to him, "stern indeed is your Lord's vengeance." He is your Lord, in Whose godhood you believe, and on Whose assistance you rely. This relationship is very significant in a situation where the believers suffer the chastisement inflicted by the tyrants.

    "He is surely the One who originates His creation and re-creates them." In their wider connotations origination and re-creation refer to the first and second creations. The two terms, however, signify two events which are constantly taking place. In every moment there is origination as well as re-creation of what has died and decayed. The whole universe is in a state of continuous renovation, and constant decay. Within the context of this ever-repeated cycle of origination and reorigination the whole affair of the pit and its apparent results seem to be, in reality, no more than a beginning of what would be created anew, or a re-creation of what has been already originated. It is a part of a continuous process.

    "He is the All-forgiving, the Compassionate." Forgiveness relates to the earlier statement: "and do not repent Forgiveness is part of Allah's mercy and grace which have no limits or restrictions. It is an open door which is never closed in the face of anyone who repents, no matter how grave his sins are. Compassion, however, relates to the stand of the believers who choose their Lord in preference to all things. It is a tender touch of Divine benevolence. Allah elevates His servants who love and choose Him to a grade which the pen would hesitate to describe except for the fact that Allah, out of His blessing, bestows it. It is the grade of friendship between the Lord and the servant. It is a tie of love which exists between Allah and His favoured servants. How insignificant the transitory life they have sacrificed and the momentary affliction they have suffered appear when compared to only a small part of this splendid love or a touch of that loving tenderness. Some slaves of this world, who live in servitude to an individual human being, would take fatal risks in order to win a word of encouragement or receive a sign of pleasure from their master. They do this although both master and servants are slaves.

    What, then, should be the attitude of Allah's servants who receive that compassionate love and benevolence from the "Lord of the Throne, the All Glorious", the All-compeller, the All-sublime. So petty becomes life, so paltry becomes all suffering, and so trifling becomes every treasured object when the pleasure of the loving Lord of the Throne is at stake.

    "Performer of what He wills." This is His constantly realised, never failing attribute. His will is absolute. He may choose, on a certain occasion, that the believers should, by His grace, win victory for a specific purpose He wants to accomplish. He may choose, on other occasions, that faith should triumph over persecution and trial. This may be manifested through the physical elimination of the believers from this transitory life, again to accomplish a specific purpose. He may decide to smite the tyrants in this life, or to delay their punishment to the promised day. Either course of action fulfils a certain purpose behind which Divine wisdom lies. Any action He performs is part of His well-defined scheme and His ability to do what He wills.

    All this fits very well with the related account of the pit incident and with what comes later of reference to the fates of Pharoah and Thamoud. Beyond all these events and beyond life and the universe there exist the free will and the absolute power of Allah. Examples of this are given: "Have you heard the story of the warriors off Pharoah and Thamoud?" This is a reference to two long stories well known to the addressees as they have been mentioned several times in the Qur'an.

    The two nations concerned are described here by the term "the warriors" in reference to their might and equipment. Have you heard their stories and how Allah did with them as He pleased? Theirs are two different stories in nature and consequences. Pharoah was eliminated with his army when the Children of Israel were saved by Allah. He gave them power to rule for a certain period in order to accomplish a certain scheme of His. As for Thamoud, Allah exterminated them and saved His prophet, Salih, with his few followers. The believers in this instant did not establish a state of their own; they were merely saved from their corrupt enemies. Both stories are manifestation of the Divine will and its performance. They provide two examples of what may befall the advocates of the Islamic call. They are mentioned along with the third possibility which distinguishes the pit incident. The Qur'an explains all three eventualities to the believers in Makka and to all generations of believers.

    The surah concludes with two statements characterised by their sharp and decisive rhythm. Each is a statement of fact and a final verdict. "Yet the disbelievers persist in their denials. But Allah surrounds them all." The truth about the disbelievers is that they are in a constant state of disbelief, crying "lies" morning and evening "But Allah surrounds them all." They are unaware that Allah's might and His knowledge engulf them making them even more powerless than mice stranded in a great flood. "This is indeed a glorious Qur'an inscribed on a well-guarded tablet." The term "glorious' ' signifies nobility and sublimity. Indeed, there is nothing more noble or more sublime or more glorious than the word of Allah, the All-mighty. It is inscribed on a well-guarded tablet, the nature of which we cannot comprehend because it is part of the knowledge Allah has reserved for Himself. We benefit, how-ever, from the connotations of the statement and the impression it leaves that the Qur'an is well preserved and well-guarded. It is the final word in every matter it deals with.

    The Qur'an states its judgement in the pit incident and what lies behind it. This judgement is final.

     

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