In the Shade of the Qur'an - Surah # 81
In the Shade of the Qur'an - Surah # 81
Surah # 81
In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent,
When the sun is darkened,
when the stars fall and disperse,
when the mountains are made to move away,
when the camels, ten months
pregnant, are left untended,
when the wild beasts are brought together,
when the seas are set alight,
men's souls are paired (like with like),
when the infant girl, buried alive, is asked for what crime she was slain,
when the records are laid open,
when the sky is stripped bare,
when Hell is made to burn fiercely,
when Paradise is brought near,
Every soul shall know what it has put forward.
I swear by the turning stars,
which move swiftly and hide themselves away,
and by the night as it comes darkening on,
and by the dawn as it starts to breathe,
this is truly
the word of a noble and mighty messenger,
who enjoys a secure
position with the Lord of the Throne.
He is obeyed in heaven, faithful to his trust.
Your old friend is not mad.
He saw him on the clear horizon.
He does not grudge the secrets of the unseen.
It is not the word of an accursed devil.
Whither then are you going?
This is only a reminder to all men,
to those of you whose will is to be upright.
Yet, you cannot will except by the will of Allah, Lord of all the Worlds.
In the Shade of the Qur'an
This surah may be divided into two parts, each of them treating one major
principle of faith. The first is the principle of Resurrection accompanied
by a great upheaval in the universe,
which affects the sun and the stars,
the mountains and the seas, heaven and earth, wild and domestic animals,
as well as man. The second principle, discussed in the second half of the
surah, is the principle of revelation.
The surah has something to say about
the angel carrying the Divine revelation, the Prophet receiving it, the
people addressed by it, and the Supreme Will which has shaped their nature
and sent down to them this revelation.
The rhythm of the surah is one of violent movement which leaves nothing in
its place. Everything is thrown, smashed
or scattered away. The movement is
so violent that it excites and frightens. It alters every familiar situation
and shakes men's hearts violently for a long period so that they feel
deprived of both shelter and reassurance.
In such a violent destructive
storm the human heart is no more than a little feather, blown in every
direction. No protection and, indeed, no safety can then be found except
what is Granted by Allah, the Eternal
Being. Thus, the rhythm of the surah
has on its own, the effect of pulling man's heart and soul away from every
thing associated with safety and security, in order to seek peace, safety
and protection in Allah.
The surah is also a gem of striking images drawn from the universe in both
its present beautiful condition which
is familiar to us and its condition
on the Day of Resurrection when every familiar thing is changed beyond
recognition. The surah is, moreover, rich in fine expressions which add
colour to the images portrayed. As the
surah is so short, the rhythm,
images and fine expressions combine together to produce a very strong and
Had it not been for the fact that the surah contains some words which are
familiar to us today, I would have preferred not to comment on
it. Its rhythm and images leave a far stronger effect
than any human
interpretation can aspire to achieve.
When the sun is darkened, when
the stars fall and disperse, when the
mountains are made to move away, when camels, ten months pregnant,
left untended, when the wild beasts are brought together, when the seas
are set alight, when men 's souls are paired (like with like), when
the infant girl, buried alive,
is asked for what crime she was slain,
when the records are laid open, when the sky is stripped bare,
Hell is made burn burn fiercely, when Paradise is brought near, every
shall know what it has put forward.
These verses sketch a scene of a great upheaval which envelops the whole
universe. It is an event which reveals every guarded secret and leaves
nothing hidden away. Every human
being faces what he has put forward for
the clay of reckoning and judgment.
The great events mentioned
indicate that the present familiar state of the
universe, with its perfect harmony, measured movement, controlled
relations, perfected by a meticulous and able Maker will suffer a break
down of its system. It will have
completed its role. Along with all
creation, it will move into a new predetermined phase of life, unlike
anything known to us in this world.
The surah aims to get this idea of the inevitable upheaval well established
in men's hearts and minds so that they may attach little or no importance
to the values and riches of
this world, though these may seem to be of
lasting consequence. The hearts and minds of people should establish
firm bond with the everlasting truth, i.e. the truth of Allah the Eternal,
Who never changes when
everything else changes and disappears. They should
break the chains of what is familiar in this life in order
to recognise the
absolute truth which admits no restrictions of time, place, finite
faculties or temporal
As one goes through the events of this universal upheaval, one cannot fail
an inner feeling for this affirmation.
As to what exactly happens to all these types of creation during
Resurrection we can only say that it is known to Allah alone. We can only
comprehend what we have
experienced. When we think of a great upheaval in
the world our imagination cannot stretch beyond a violent earthquake
volcano, or, perhaps, the fall of a bomb.
Floods are perhaps the most destructive manifestation
of the power of
water known to us. The most powerful events in the universe we have
monitored were some
limited explosions in the sun, which is millions of
miles away from us. All these events, great as they may be,
seem so small
when they are compared to that universal upheaval which will take place on
the Day of
Resurrection that they may be considered akin to children's
play. If we really want to know what will happen then,
we can do no more
than attempt to draw some sort of comparison with what we have experienced
The darkening of the sun probably means that it will cool down and its
flames which stretch
out for thousands of miles in space will dwindle and
die down. As the sun is now in gas form because of its intense
reaches a maximum of 12,000 degrees, its darkening probably means its
freezing to a form similar to that of the surface of the
earth. It may adopt a circular shape without becoming
This is probably the meaning of the opening verse, but it could also mean
different. As to how it will happen, or what will cause it to
happen, we can only say that this is known only to
The falling of the stars probably means that they will break away from the
system which holds
them together and lose their light and brightness. Only
Allah knows which stars will be affected by this event:
will it affect
only a small group of stars, say, our own solar system, or our galaxy,
hundreds of millions of stars, or will it affect all the
stars in their millions of millions? It is a wellknown
fact that the
universe comprises an almost infinite number of galaxies, each with its
The forcing away of the mountains probably means that they will be crushed
and blown away as indicated in other
They ask you about the mountains. Say: 'My Lord will crush them to
fine dust and leave them a desolate waste. (20:105) When the mountains
crumble away and scatter into
fine dusts. (56:5) And the mountains
shall pass away as if they were mirage. (78:20)
All these verses refer to a certain event which will affect the mountains
and do away with their firm
foundation and stability. This may be the
beginning of the quake which will shake the earth violently, and which
mentioned in surah 99 "The Earthquake".
When the Earth is rocked in her last
convulsion, when the earth
shakes off her burdens. (99:1-2)
events will take place on that very long day.
When the camels, ten
months pregnant, are left untended.
The Arabic description of the camel here specifies that she
is in her tenth
month of pregnancy. When in this state, she is to the Arab his most
because she is about to add to his wealth by a highly
valued young camel, and to give him a lot of milk which he
and his family
will share with the new born animal. However, on that day, which will
witness such overwhelming
events, such priceless camels will be left
without care, completely untended. The Arabs who were the first to be
addressed by this verse never left such camels untended, except for the
gravest of dangers.
When the wild beasts are brought together.
The great terror which overwhelms the wild beasts
in their jungles is the
cause of their coming together. They forget their mutual enmities, and
together, unaware of their direction. They neither seek their homes
nor chase their prey as they usually do. The
overwhelming terror changes
the character of even the wildest of beasts. What would it do to man?
When the seas are set alight.
The Arabic term used here may mean that the seas will be over-filled with
water, from floods similar to those which characterised the early stages
of life on earth. On the other
hand, earthquakes and volcanoes may remove
the barriers now separating the seas so that the water of one will flow
into the other.
The Arabic expression may also mean that the seas will experience
explosions which set them ablaze, as mentioned elsewhere in the Qur'an:
When the oceans are made to explode. (81:3)
The explosions may result from separating the oxygen
and the hydrogen
which make the sea water. They could also be atomic explosions of some
sort. If the
explosion of a limited number of atoms in a hydrogen or
atom bomb produces such dreadful consequences as we have
seen, then the
atomic explosion of the waters of the oceans, in whatever manner it
may occur, will produce
something much too fearful for our minds to
visualise. Similarly, we cannot conceive the reality of Hell, which
stands beyond these vast oceans.
When men 's souls are paired (like with like).
The pairing of souls may mean the reunion of body and
soul at the time of
resurrection. It may also mean their grouping, like with like, as mentioned
in the Qur'an: "You will be divided into three groups" (56:7)
the chosen elite, the people of the right, and the
people of the left. It
may also mean some other way of grouping.
infant girl, buried alive, is asked for what crime she was
The value of human life must have sunk very low in pre Islamic Arabian
society. There existed a convention of burying
young girls alive, for fear
of shame or poverty. The Quran describes this practice in order to portray
its horror and record its Ignorance i.e. Jahiliyyah. Its condemnation fits
in perfectly with the declared aim of
Islam, to destroy Ignorance and save
mankind from sinking to its depth. In surah 16 "The Bee" we read in
When the birth of a girl is announced to one of them, his face grows
dark and he is filled with rage and inward gloom. Because of the bad
news he hides himself from every
body; should he keep her with disgrace
or bury her under the dust? How will they judge. (16:58-9)
And in surah 17 "The Night Journey" we read
You shall not kill your children
for fear of want. We will provide
for them and for you. (17:31)
Girls were killed in
an extremely cruel way. They were buried alive! Those
Arabs who did not kill their young daughters or send them
to mind cattle,
had different methods of ill treating women. If a man died, the head of the
throw his gown over the widow. This was a gesture of acquisition
which meant that the widow could not re-marry
anyone except the owner of
the gown. If he fancied her, he would marry her, paying no regard whatso
to her feelings in the matter. If he did not marry her, he would keep
her until she died so as to inherit her wealth.
Such was the attitude of the Ignorant society in Arabia to women Islam
condemns this attitude and spurns all these
practices. It forbids the
murder of young girls and expresses its horrifying nature. It makes it
of the subjects of reckoning on the Day of Judgment. Here, the surah
mentions it as one of the great events which
overwhelm the universe in a
total upheaval. We are told that the murdered girl will be questioned
her murder. The surah leaves us to imagine how the murderer will
be brought to account.
social order of the pre-Islamic period would never have
helped women to gain a respectable, dignified position.
That had to be
decreed by Allah. The way of life Allah has chosen for mankind secures
a dignified position
for both men and women who share the honour of having
a measure of the Divine spirit breathed into them. Women
respectable position to Islam, not to any factor of environment or
When the new man with heavenly values came into 'being, women became
respected and honoured. The woman's
weakness of being a financial burden
to her family was no longer of any consequence in determining her position
and the respect she enjoyed. These considerations have no weight in the
scales of heaven. Real weight
belongs to the noble human soul when it
maintains its relationship with Allah. In this man and woman are equal.
When one puts forward the arguments in support of the fact that Islam is
a Divine religion, and that it has been
conveyed to us by Allah's Messenger
who has received His revelations, one should state the change made by Islam
in the social status of women as one of the irrefutable arguments. Nothing
in the social set-up of Arabia
at the time pointed to such an elevation of
the woman's position. No social or economic consideration made it necessary
or desirable. It was a deliberate move made by Islam for reasons which are
totally different from those
of this world and from those of the Ignorant
society in particular.
When the records are laid open.
This is a reference to the records of people's deeds. They are laid open
in order that they may be known
to everybody. This, in itself, is hard to
bear. Many a breast has closely hidden a secret, the remembrance of which
brings a feeling of shame and a shudder to its owner. Yet all secrets are
made public on that eventful
day. This publicity, representative of the
great upheaval which envelops the whole universe, is part of the fearful
events which fill men's hearts with horror on the day.
When the sky is stripped bare.
This image corresponds closely to throwing open people's secrets. When the
word "sky" is used, our first
thoughts reach to the blue cover hoisted over
our heads. Its stripping means the removal of that cover. How this
happen remains to us a matter of conjecture. It is enough to say that when
we look up we will
no longer see our familiar blue dome. This may be
brought about by any change affecting the status quo in the universe
causes this phenomenon to exist. The last scene of that fearful day is
portrayed by the next two
When Hell is made to burn fiercely, when Paradise is brought near.
Where is Hell? How does it burn? What fuel is used in lighting and feeding
its fire? The only thing
we know of that is that it "has fuel of men and
stones." (66:6) This is, of course, after they have been thrown
in it. Its
true nature and its fuel prior to that is part of Allah's knowledge.
Every soul shall know what it has put forward.
In the midst of all these overwhelming events, every soul shall know for
certain what sort of deeds
it has brought with itself. Every soul shall
also know that it cannot change, omit from or add to what it has done.
People will find themselves completely separated from all that has been
familiar to them, and from their world
as a whole. Everything will have
undergone a total change except Allah. If man turns to Allah he will find
that His support is forthcoming when the whole universe is overwhelmed by
Thus ends the
first part of this surah which fills both mind and heart
with a vivid impression of the universal upheaval on the
The second part of the surah opens with a certain form of oath by some
very beautiful scenes in the universe. The oath, in fine expressions, is
made to assert the nature of revelation,
the angel carrying it, and the
messenger receiving and conveying it as well as people's attitudes to it
all in accordance with Allah's will:
I swear by the turning stars, which move swiftly and
away, and by the night as it comes darkening on and by dawn as it
starts to breathe, this is truly the word of a noble and mighty
messenger, who enjoys a secure position
with the Lord of the Throne.
He is obeyed in heaven, faithful to his trust. Your old friend is not
mad. He saw him on the clear horizon. He does not grudge the secrets
unseen. It is not the word of an accursed devil. Whither then
are you going? This is only a reminder
to all men, to those of you
whose will is to be upright. Yet, you cannot will except by the will
of Allah, Lord of all the worlds.
The stars referred to here are those which turn in their orbit, and are
characterized by their swift movement and temporary disappearance. In
translating the text we have to forego the
sustained metaphor used in
Arabic which draws an analogy between these stars and the deer as they
at great speed towards their homes, disappear for a while and then
reappear at a different point. The Arabic metaphor
liveliness and beauty to the description of the movement of the stars,
to the rhythmic beauty of the expression.
Again, the rhythm of the Arabic verse translated as "and by the night
it comes darkening on" gives a feeling of life, depicting the night as a
living being. The beauty
of the Arabic expression is of surpassing
The same applies to the next verse: "and by
dawn as it starts to breathe".
This verse is indeed more effective in portraying dawn as alive, breathing.
Its breath is the spreading light and the life that begins to stir in
everything. I doubt whether the Arabic language,
with its inexhaustible
wealth of fine imagery and vivid expressions, can produce an image
dawn which can be considered equal to this Qur'anic image in
aesthetic effect. After a fine night, one can almost
feel that dawn is
Any aesthete will readily perceive that the Divine words of the first
verses of this second part of the surah constitute a gem of fine expression
and vivid description:
I swear by the turning stars, which move swiftly and hid themselves
away, and by the night as it comes darkening on, and by dawn as it
starts to breathe.
This descriptive wealth adds power to man's feelings as he responds to
the natural phenomena to which
the verses refer.
As the Qur'an makes this brief, full-of-life description of these phenomena
establishes a spiritual link between them and man, with the result that,
as we read, we feel the power which created
these phenomena, and the truth
which we are called upon to believe. This truth is then stated in a manner
which fits in superbly with the general theme of the surah:
This is truly the word of a
noble and mighty messenger, who enjoys a
secure position with the Lord of the Throne. He is obeyed
faithful to his trust.
This Qur'an with its description
of the Day of Judgment is the word of a
noble messenger, i.e. Jibril, the angel who carried and conveyed it to
Muhammad (peace be on him).
The surah then gives a description of this chosen messenger. He is "noble",
honoured by Allah who says that he is "mighty", which suggests that
considerable strength is required
to carry and convey the Qur'an. "Who
enjoys a secure position with the Lord of the Throne." What a great honour
or Jibril to enjoy such a position with the Lord of the universe. "He is
obeyed in heaven", i.e. by
the other angels. He is also "faithful to his
trust", carrying and discharging the message.
These qualities add up to a definite conclusion: that the Qur'an is a
noble, mighty and exalted message and that
Allah takes special care of
man. It is a manifestation of this care that He has chosen an angel of
calibre of Jibril to convey His revelation to the man He has chosen
as His Messenger. As man reflects on this Divine
care he should feel
humble. For he himself is worth very little in the kingdom of Allah,
were it not
for the care Allah takes of him and the honour He bestows
There follows a description of
the Prophet who conveys this revelation
to the people. The surah seems to say to them: You have known Muhammad
very well over a considerable length of time. He is your old honest,
trusted friend. Why, then, are
you fabricating tales about him, when he
has been telling you the simple truth which he has been entrusted to
convey to you:
Your old friend is not mad. He saw him on the clear horizon. He does
not grudge the secrets of the unseen. It is not the word of an accursed
devil. Whither then are you
going? This is only a reminder to all men.
They knew the Prophet perfectly well. They knew that he was a man
character, great sagacity and complete honesty. But in spite of all this
they claimed that
he was m ad, and that he received his revelations from
the devil. Some of them adopted this attitude as a basis
sustained attack on the Prophet and his Islamic message. Others did so
out of amazement and
wonder at his revelation, which is unlike anything
said or written by man. Their claim confirmed their traditional
that each poet had a devil who wrote his poems, and each monk had a devil
who uncovered for him
the secrets of the unknown world. They also believed
that the devil may come in contact with some people causing
them to say
some very strange things. They ignored the only valid explanation, that
the Qur'an is revealed
by Allah, the Lord of all the Worlds.
The surah counters this attitude by a reference to the surpassing beauty
of Allah's creation, noticeable everywhere in the universe, and by
portraying some universal scenes,
as they appear, full of life. This
method of reply suggests that the Qur'an comes from the same creative
power which endowed the universe with matchless beauty. It also tells them
about the two messengers entrusted with
the Qur'an, the one who brought it
down and the one who conveyed it to them, i.e. their own friend whom they
know to be sane, not mad. The surah tells them that he has indeed seen the
other noble messenger, Jibril, with
his own eyes, on the clear horizon
where no confusion is possible. He is faithful to his trust and cannot be
suspected of telling anything but the truth. After all, they have never
associated him with anything dishonest.
"It is not the word of an accursed
devil". Devils, by nature, cannot provide such a straight forward and
consistent code of conduct. Hence the surah asks disapprovingly: "Whither
then are you going?" How far can you
err in your judgment. And where can
you go away from the truth which stares you in the face wherever you go?
"This is only a reminder to all men." It reminds them of the nature of
their existence, their origin and the nature
of the universe around them.
The reminder is "to all men ". Islam here declares the universal nature of
its call right from the start, in Makka, where it was subjected to an
unabating campaign of persecution.
The surah then reminds us that it is up to every individual to choose
whether to follow the right path or not.
Since Allah has granted everyone
his or her free will, then every human being is responsible for himself:
"To those of you whose will is to be upright", that is to say, to follow
Allah's guidance. All doubts have been
dispelled, all excuses answered by
this clear statement of all the relevant facts. The right path has been
indicated for everyone who wishes to be upright. Anyone who follows a
different path shall, therefore, bear the
responsibility for his action.
There are, in the human soul and in the universe at large, numerous signs
which beckon every man and woman to follow the path of faith. These are so
clearly visible and so powerful in their
effect that one needs to make a
determined effort to turn one's back on them, especially when one's
attention is drawn to them in the stirring, persuasive manner of the
Qur'an. It is, therefore, man's own will which
leads him away from Allah's
guidance. He has no other excuse or justification.
The surah concludes
by stating that the operative will behind everything
is the will of Allah: "You cannot will except by the will
of Allah, Lord
of all the Worlds." We notice that the Qur'an makes a statement of this
the will of human beings or creatures generally is mentioned.
The reason for this is that the Qur'an wants to keep
concepts of faith absolutely clear. These include the fact that everything
in the universe
is subject to the will of Allah. No one has a will which
is independent from that of Allah. That He grants man
a free will is part
of His own Divine Will, like everything else. The same applies to His
angels the ability to show complete and absolute obedience
to Him and to carry out all His commandments.
This fundamental fact must be clearly understood by the believers, so that
they may have a clear concept of the
absolute truth. When they acquire such
a concept they will turn to the Divine Will for guidance and support, and
regulate their affairs according to this Will.