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Commentary on Surat At-Takwir

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Chapter 81: Surat At-Takwir
The Folding Up

By: Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri

In the name of Allah,
the Beneficent, the Merciful

This surah begins on a cosmic scale: "When the sun is rolled up, when the stars shrink, and when the mountains are moved...." Next it shifts to a human one: "And when the girl-child that was buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed." Then it focuses on the inner life: "And when all the secrets are opened." It starts with the cosmos, returns to man, and then refers to the open manifestation of all hidden things in order to expose us inwardly and outwardly so that we find the unity in ourselves.

  1. When the sun is folded up,

Kawwara means "to make into a ball, to compress, to fold something upon itself, to roll up." A kurah is a "ball." Takwīr is the act of something collapsing upon itself in a spherical manner.

The knowledge that the sun is explosive and expansive was obviously already present at the time of the revelation of the ayah since this is a reference to the reversal of this solar process, the end of the creational expansion. As far as the sun is concerned, it is in constant explosion. The same process occurs in a hydrogen bomb, that is, fusion or constant self-explosion. When the self-exploding creation comes to an end, the sun will completely collapse upon itself.

  1. And when the stars darken,

Inkadarat comes from the verbal root kadura, which means "to be muddy, cloudy, turbid, swarthy". According to some sources, inkadara means to shoot or swoop down. Man is expansive; he reflects in his own being the expansiveness of the entire cosmos. The Qur`an is a manual of existence; it is concerned with man's role and state in creation. The Prophet Muhammad's own inner reality pulsated out in words, salla-llāhu 'alayhi wa ālihi wa sallam, as a revelation for all mankind. Therefore, if the Qur`an is not regarded as a manual of existence, as something we can understand in our current state -- or in any other state we may be in -- then we have not unraveled it and made it useful to us. We must resonate the Qur`anic reality in our day-to-day existence; we must take from it as much as can be of use to us. At every stage of life, the Qur`an is able to remove some of the tarnish which has covered the source of knowledge in us. That source of knowledge is in us, and the purpose of the Qur`an is to bring us into a state of awareness.

Man intrinsically dislikes collapse, because he is a reflection of the expansion of the cosmos. We are lovers of Allah's attributes, and Allah's attribute in creation is expansion. None of us likes to lose; we only like to succeed, and success nowadays means expansion. Sometimes, however, success lies in contraction. Since man is always dying, his success lies in shrinking away to nothing before he dies. Life, his essence, continues so he should not be concerned with his own personal death. The essence lasts forever; why, therefore, should he be miserable? All that is needed is the right attitude.

This ayah refers to the collapse of the stars. The implication here is that the stars are all held together by the centrifugal, electromagnetic, gravitational forces between them, making up one complete entity which is in a state of expansion. When the expansion forces are interfered with -- which will occur because of the advent of a certain phase in the process of the whole story of creation -- they will collapse. Anything that is created must end in due time, whatever it may be. This surah is a description of how this end will occur on a cosmic scale, starting with the most expansive and general, then shrinking to the scale of the individual.

We can also look at the meaning of the ayah from the microcosmic point of view. As far as the individual is concerned, the sun is his h (spirit), and the najm (star) is his nafs (self). When the sun, or the spirit, stops giving nourishment to the nafs, or the self, which is the star, and when the star subsequently shrinks or collapses upon itself, the self will submit because at that time it will be darkened, that is, smothered and obliterated.

  1. And when the mountains are moved,

Suyyirat is derived from sayyara, which means "to set in motion, start up, send out." Sayyārah means "car." When the mountains begin to move, they will not do so with a single jolt, but in a continuous movement. How will a mountain move in this way, unless the turning and hurtling process of the earth in space stops? Since we are hurtling through space at so many thousands of miles an hour, when the end comes and the earth is seized and brought to a sudden stop, the mountains will, of course, be wrenched from their places and shattered. One only has to stop suddenly in a car going 20 miles an hour to experience this process. This, then, is a description of the end of our little drama on this tiny earth.

  1. And when the pregnant camels are abandoned,

Mountains moving and animals left untended are unusual occurrences. They depict a picture of opposites instantaneously combining. 'Ishār is a camel that is ten months pregnant. For the desert Arab in those times, it symbolized a most desirable possession. If camels are neglected with nobody to care for them, it means the normal course of events that usually holds desert life together is no longer in operation. The verbal root of 'uttilat means "to neglect, leave without care, discontinue, stop." 'Utlah means "holiday or unemployment," that is, a break in one's normal routine. When the natural creational processes are disrupted, there will be a total breakdown in the life-process.

There are three phases in the total life process: creation, maintenance, and destruction. The maintenance phase is particularly characteristic of a woman's inclination. Women usually want to achieve stability, whereas men's roles are, generally speaking, more creative. A man builds the house and starts up the home, and the woman maintains it, because she is responsible for the process of continuation on this earth. Her role is the key -- she is the center of the universe. The word for "mother" in Arabic is umm, and also means "source, origin, foundation, essence." Ummah means "community, nation, people," the linguistic root of which is the same as that of umm.

The third phase in the life process is that of destruction, an act of which man is quite capable. The reference in this ayah is to the process of stopping. What has been created will also come to an end and stop. In other words, nothing more will occur at an initial creational level: there will be no more pregnancies. When the world comes to its end, no sane person will go to tend a camel!

  1. And when the wild beasts are herded together,

All wildlife will gather close to each other. Hashara means "to gather, assemble, crowd (together)." This again reflects the nature of creation. Everything is by nature expansive. Even though all wildlife tend to move together in herds and groups, they do not press too closely together; they maintain their wildness, their expansiveness. On the day when all systems of life come to an end, they will act in a way that is against their nature, and out of fright they will not scatter but huddle together.

  1. And when the seas are set on fire,

Sajjara, the root of sujjirat, means "to swell, overflow," and in its first form sajara means "to fire up, burn, boil over." Often when something ends, one gets a glimpse of what it was at its inception. In other words, this ayah may mean that there will actually be fires bursting out of the ground at the end of creation just as there were when the earth was first created. The earth began as a fireball which later cooled as the creational process unfolded.

The allusion to water that is on fire may refer to volcanoes erupting from the seas, setting the whole sea on fire or even to the flaming infernos at sea caused by oil-carrying supertankers that have caught fire. Whatever its exact meaning may be, the reference to the sea being set alight implies that the ordinary is replaced by the extraordinary.

Water symbolizes coolness and calmness, but here we are told that it is going to boil over. Things that we take for granted as being different and separate are joined to their opposites. All of these occurrences are events which will take place when the on-going process of life ceases.

  1. And when the souls are united,

Nafs (self) here could mean h (spirit). Zuwwijat (united) comes from the root zawwaja, which means "to pair, couple, unite." The ayah could mean that the soul will be united with what it gathered together or with what it has known, or that the h will be joined with that with which it appears to be united, that is, the body. In the cosmos, pairing constantly takes place; the opposites meet. Man is made up of two aspects: a bodily form which is part of the entity of the so-called "I" and something indiscernible which is called h (spirit or psyche). We may reflect on the h's existence by asking, "Where am I in deep sleep? Where am I when I dream?" We say, "I walked up a steep mountainside while I was asleep," and yet, the physical body did not move. In other words, the h is another entity in man which has its own experiences. Perceiving this unification of the two opposites, body and spirit, is one way of looking at the meaning of the ayah.

Another way of looking at it is that we are not in a state of unification because of the diverse states arising from our nafs. Our various expectations, desires, and needs must be fulfilled if we are to be neutralized and to experience unity. That is why, in the most gross way, man has to be rehabilitated by what is called "marriage." Marriage is a means of fulfillment and it is not always something wonderful; on the contrary, it is often miserable. Nevertheless, in most cases it is positive, especially when both parties have respect for each other, knowing that human beings have come into the world alone and will go out of the world alone. If they help each other to reach self-fulfillment during this sojourn, they will have achieved something.

Thus, there are two possible ways of looking at this ayah. When one's nafs is shattered, it is joined to its opposite. Everything in life exists at the level of duality; there is good, and there is also evil. Everything that can be imagined, touched, tasted or in any way perceived, exists in one of two modes. All of us are searching for the One, because we can never be satisfied by duality.

The implication of this ayah is that duality will come to an end. In this life duality will come to an end when man reaches a state of complete self-abandonment and when nothing can fulfill him because he is already fulfilled. This will also occur when man understands the true nature of reality at the point of death. In reality there is only God, there has been only God, and there will be only God. This knowledge comes through inner, experiential realization; it is not necessary that it be learned.

The Qur`an is concerned with deep spirituality. It is concentrated and absolute; it is like a spring whose source, when reached, is bitter. If a person wants to reach its essence, he can only do so by being willing to abandon everything -- and that means death. He has to be in fanā` (annihilation). If not, he is still caught up in the affliction of duality and the realm of wisdom that is only, at best, superficial and existential. Many men of knowledge, therefore, often end up in a little cave somewhere so as to lessen the effects of duality, and truth-seekers must seek them there.

When a person arrives at the Qur`an, he finds that it is vast. The essence of man, however, is itself vast. Understanding depends on how forceful and honest one is. The Qur`an says, "Read what is easy of the Qur`an" (73:20). Read what? What does this mean? We read what is already written, what is written in us. This statement is made only to sharpen us, to unravel what is already in us.

In this ayah we read, "And when the souls are united," meaning when we are united with our opposite or when we are neutralized. At the present moment we are not neutralized. We are always craving something, constantly shifting from one aspect of duality to another by changing our external circumstances. This tendency, however, will ultimately be of no avail. We ourselves must change and that is much more difficult than trying to change the world.

We live in duality, and we seek to neutralize, but how do we neutralize? We neutralize our nafs by remaining silent, genuinely and positively. In that silence we have direct knowledge of the meaning of the Black Stone which is set into the corner of the Ka'bah in Mecca.

Few Muslims know the meaning of the Black Stone, even though they perform the rite of circling it and kissing it during the Hajj pilgrimage every year. Black contains all the colors -- it symbolizes death, from which comes life. Life cannot be understood unless one is willing to die. The meaning of jihād (literally, utmost exertion, and by extension defensive war against kufr) is not blood and misery; it is the willingness to stand fearlessly for life, the life of the spirit. The Prophet, salla-llāhu 'alayhi wa ālihi wa sallam, did not desire war and the death it brought. He used reason to avoid it. He was fearlessly rational, because he used his 'aql (rationality, intellect), and he departed from the polytheistic heritage of his family as a guide for seekers of the right path to the one God.

Sayyidna Hasan, 'alayhi-s-salām, used reason when he abdicated the khilāfah (caliphate). Sayyidna Hasan had thousands of troops, but he knew that they were unlikely to withstand and persevere. Therefore he considered it unwise to lead them into a war which they could not sustain, because they lacked deep conviction.

Disloyalty will often come from those closest to a person. Man is born wanting to be one, and basically everyone is dependent on the one and only Reality, Allah. The saying "he bites the hand that feeds him" arose because when a person perceives himself to be dependent upon another, he will often strike out, "biting the hand" that provides for him, as a means of asserting his independence. The reaction is also due, however, to an inner recognition of our ultimate dependence only on Allah.

Ignorance comes about when one is not being thankful to creation. It is in man's very substance, because everything contains its opposite. The part of man that wants to live also contains his own ultimate destruction. We all will die and must see the beauty of perfection in this fact. Although we may still echo love of the Bāqī (the Everlasting), the perfection of man's life and death lies in the knowledge that they are just a cycle from which awakening occurs.

We will know who we truly are when we arrive at the state of true unification. That understanding is why we are, in reality, all seeking tawhīd (divine unity). There is only Oneness, only Allah, but to reach this realization we must progress through stages. First comes the stage in which a person believes in unity and is then able to say, "I am beginning to understand!" As long as there is "I", however, we are in shirk (associating other-than-Allah with Allah). When the "I" drops away, we see nothing other than Allah, nothing other than His attributes, and that is the ultimate peace from which action emanates. This peace is dynamic, not static or dead, nor is there any drama and affliction in it. The outsider may see affliction, but the muwahhid (the unifier) sees no affliction; he sees nothing other than love. At that point everything else will be acceptable and will be seen as perfection. The outward existential situation may not be desirable as the human being perceives it, but it is perfection. It may not be desirable for us to take a bitter medicine, but its perfection lies in returning us to a state of health, tranquility, and balance. This stage, however, is very subtle and should only be revealed in the most intimate company.

The meaning of this ayah, then, is that man's essence is one, and there is only one essence. He starts by shirk, by saying, "My essence is one", and then "There is only essence, there is only Allah."

  1. And when the girl-child that was buried alive is asked

  2. For what sin she was killed.

The Arabs at the time of the Prophet, salla-llāhu 'alayhi wa ālihi wa sallam, had such arrogance and outer pride that a woman was always frowned upon. They forgot that man himself was the result of woman! They were afraid women would dishonor them by being unchaste and dishonorable. In looking back at that culture, we see that the ayah talks about the worst thing we suffer from, fear of the unknown. Everything that drains away our energy is fear of the unknown. All of our anxieties come to that one point. If we can say tawakkaltu 'ala'llāh, "I depend on Allah," and then recognize our condition of slavery in relation to Reality, all our anxiety will stop.

Maw`udah is a young girl or female baby that has been buried alive. Wa`ada means "to bury a girl-child alive." In old Arabic wa`ada also means "to emit the sound of a wall crumbling down." The sound of a wall collapsing suggests that the murder of a baby is a very grave crime, and it implies that the world is coming to an end: a life is being finished without letting it fulfill its rightful destiny. In other words, at the end of time, the true nature of everything will be revealed. The arwāh (the spirits, plural of h), no longer exercise their worldly right of emitting spiritual light as the sun and the stars do or as the nafs, in its essence, does. The h, that spark of inner light, is extinguished by man's crime, by his fear, by his kufr, by his lack of trust in Allah and the generosity of Reality. Now the soul is being asked, and is asking itself, what crime it has committed. By doing so, it is announcing that it committed no crime, that there was no reason for it to be extinguished. It was man's kufr that caused this life to be cut off. The buried girl-child questioning the reason for her death is a mithāl (a metaphor) of there being no possibility in this experience or the next to suppress something and forget about it forever. We cannot silence something forever simply because it cannot react in this world. Soon everything will be totally out in the open. The spirit is being brought as a witness.

The Qur`an poses the question, "What have you done to deserve being slaughtered?" From the point of view of sharī'ah (revealed Islamic code of conduct), the Arabs had no right to slaughter the girl-children. But what could have been the motive behind it from the point of view of haqīqah (truth)? That motive continues to be a source of dispute even now, although it is covered up as much as possible. According to sharī'ah, however, man is accountable for his actions; he cannot escape them. If he kills someone wrongly, it is final, no matter what the intention was.

Outwardly, we are accountable to sharī'ah, and in this realm of existence, sharī'ah prevails over haqīqah. What a number of people or a consensus of society see -- provided they are not hallucinating -- is what is considered to be true. If everyone agrees on the identity of the killer, that judgment is considered to be valid. As far as sharī'ah is concerned, the hukum (the judgment) governs the action and the action must be considered murder. The rest is between the killer and Allah. If he killed someone one hundred percent fī sabīli` llāh (in the way of Allah), then even if the people submit him to the sword, he should be happy. He should say, "The sooner I free myself from these people and go to meet my Lord, the better!"

In the next life haqīqah will prevail sharī'ah; the subtle will prevail over the gross. In this world, however, the gross prevails over the subtle, and we start with the gross in order to arrive at the subtle. We start by being correct, by applying sharī'ah, by feeding and maintaining ourselves well. If we do not do that, we are mad. If we say we do not care for the world, we are only trying to escape our responsibilities. At the beginning of the journey, we do care. We want to have sufficient clothing and a reasonable diet. This attitude is a healthy one. If from the beginning we do not care for physical needs, we indicate that we cannot attain them, that we have no understanding of them, or that we do not see their use. In having this attitude, we are actually denying Allah's creation. How can we, therefore, understand the meaning of inner kufr (covering up) if we are in outer kufr from the beginning?

  1. And when the pages are laid open,

Suhuf is the plural of sahī'fah, which means "a scroll, a page," anything that can be made flat and upon which something is written. It also means "a newspaper," because it is flat. Mashaf also means "Qur`an." These pages refer to pages of news or to the pages of a man's heart in which his intentions are laid open.

There is no point in hiding our intentions. The more we hide them, the more we will eventually have to remove them in order to be able to release ourselves. We use such things as drinks, drugs, and other stimulants in order to give ourselves relief. Human nature is concerned with relief; life is nothing but seeking relief and freedom.

Our basic human attribute is inner freedom. Inner freedom can be reached through outer discipline, but outer discipline has to be lived willingly; it cannot be forced. For this reason, Muslims insist on being around people of the right orientation, on having proper companionship. All seekers seek each other, and people who want to know truth collect together. If a man keeps the company of thieves for forty days, even if he is decent and honest, he will end up by being affected by them because he does not want to be in isolation. Insān, the word for "man, human being," derives from the verb anisa, "to be companionable, friendly, to like to be together." Uns, from the same root, means "intimacy, familiarity." Man wants to connect; he is a muwahhid (a unifier), and he wants to be in tawhīd whether he realizes it or not.

In reality there is neither inward nor outward, only Allah manifesting Himself as inward and as outward. At the moment, we are in confusion because we are in duality and see things only from that perspective. Sayyidna 'Ali, 'alayhi-s-salām, says, "The best of affairs are in the middle." The best place to be is in the middle. Most people cannot survive at the extremes. The Muslim must combine sharī'ah and haqīqah; we cannot have one without the other. In most of the Muslim world, we are at a loss and are struggling because we are not combining the inward and outward in our daily lives. We talk about islām, but we do not live it, and for this reason our youth are at a loss and reject traditional values. We have to be in the middle. In the middle both ends of the horizon are in view and so we are strong.

A vast amount of sharī'ah with no haqīqah is like a giant ship heavily laden with goods but with no sail to catch the wind; it sways and flounders in the sea. Sharī'ah exists for making distinctions, for differentiation. The business of sharī'ah is to differentiate among things and let us choose correctly between the alternatives that life presents to us so that we can knowledgeably state what is right and wrong. The distinction must be clear. The nature of sharī'ah is divisive because it is about hukum, which means both justice and wisdom. Justice means that one kind of action is correct while another kind of action is incorrect. From the point of view of haqīqah, everything is always in harmonious perfection because everything naturally generates its opposite. If one is balanced in the middle, he has both extremes at his command.

In the same way, inner reality (haqīqah) without outer Law (Sharī'ah) is like a ship with a huge sail but with no goods in it. It will capsize. If a Muslim says, "I am only concerned with the inward," he is lying. The true Muslim is the man who is in the middle, who is an interspace (barzakh), an intermediary link simultaneously combining both the outward and the inward.

  1. And when the heaven has its covering removed,

Kashata means "to remove, take of -- a cover". The implication is that everything manifested is only an outer covering. From our point of view, the whole creation was created for us; otherwise, it would have no significance. What is of significance is man. Man's existence is only meaningful, however, if he keeps to his purpose, which is to know the cause of his existence. The purpose is to gain knowledge of Allah. The entire creation came by Allah in order for man to know Allah. The apparent heavens which are in constant explosion and expansion are, from the point of view of the Creator, mere fantasies: all the billions of galaxies do not amount to even a grain of sand by His reckoning. When the heaven has its covering removed, or is skinned, we will then see its insignificance. The most significant thing, the sky, is described in the most belittling way to show us the independent wealth of Allah. The heavens are only a skin, a facade, a show, which will eventually be stripped away.

  1. And when the fires of hell are lighted,

Everything in existence was originally created from one dense mass and greatly expanded by burning, after which all the stars and planets and all of creation burst forth over a period of billions of years. That dense beginning is the equivalent of absolute power or qudrah. It cannot really be called density because it is beyond density and because one might imagine that Allah Himself was dense; may Allah preserve us from that view. It is a point of power, total and absolute, not related in any way to anything else.

This ayah describes a new situation which is inaccessible to our conscious understanding because conscious understanding cannot comprehend Absolute Power. Great power is understandable, but not Absolute power. There is an intermediary link, a barzakh, between absolute and very high power. Absolute zero temperature cannot be achieved because all the laws of thermodynamics would be disturbed, but one can get very close to it, and from that limited point on one can have a subjective understanding or experience of it.

Similarly, one can get only so close to the knowledge of Reality, beyond which it is: "Not by diligence or striving -- a gift from the Generous, the Compassionate Giver to the slaves" (From the Fayturiyyah of Shaykh Muhammad al-Fayturi). One can only go so close to this knowledge, and passing beyond that point is not a matter of human endeavor.

This same experience is reproducible by those who follow in the footsteps of a perfect man and who imitate him as much as they are outwardly able to. This proximity can also be attained by those who take on the responsibility of being sālihūn (those who set things right by their example), who put themselves in the shoes of the sālihūn, and who bring about ish (establishment of peace, happiness and order). They take themselves as far as they can toward that point by living as though they were in the constant companionship of the Prophet, sallā-llāhu 'alayhi wa ālihi wa sallam. They are in the maqām al-ihsān (the station of excellence). They live in the knowledge that they are constantly watched: they do not see Allah, but they know that Allah sees them.

Attaining such a state is the most one can achieve through his own effort. States beyond this are "a gift from the Generous, Compassionate" and come either in this life or at the moment of death. We can and must do our best: there is nothing more we can do. After that we will become like open conduits, and we will be in harmony with the true meaning of islām, the inner meaning of submission. We will be completely and utterly enacting our destiny; there will be no more resistance between ourselves and the decree. As far as it is humanly possible, we must be in a state of perfect submission because that state is the only one in which we can have an experience of the one and only Perfect One. If we are not in that state of perfect inner abandonment, anything else we speak will be mere religiosity.

  1. And when the Garden is brought near,

Those who love the ākhirah (the next world) already have the key to jannah (the Garden) in their heart. Those who love Allah love the ākhirah, because there will be nothing there but the truth for them. In fact, jannah is available to us now. The Qur`an is clear about this; it does not say that it will only happen later, after death, because it describes the people of jannah as those who say, "We remember all this! It is similar to that which we have already experienced!" Thus, we have access to that condition here and now by avoiding what brings us to the opposite state. This way is the only one; there is no other.

We have all experienced trouble; we all know what it is and how it comes about -- by fears, expectations, lusts, and so on. But if we are aware of it spontaneously, then we will no longer be troubled. At that point of recognition we will be at the edge of jannah, and the key to the Garden will become more and more clearly shaped in our hearts until our hearts are pure; and since the pure heart will be with the Maker of the Garden, it will be beyond jannah itself. Jannah will no longer interest us since we will be with its Maker, with our Maker, Allah.

Our heritage, which we are all seeking, is the Garden. We all love the Garden, the state that the Garden gives us, tranquility, fullness, abundance, protection, security, and enjoyment of all the good things of life. A visible, physical garden on this earth helps us to enter into that mood of contentment, generosity, and helpfulness. The Garden of bliss is our real and natural heritage and is to be found by following our hearts. We must be honest about it and recognize that it is there. There is nothing closer to us than truth, and our essence is truth. In our essence is the lover of the Garden, of tranquility and peace. Our essence is neither life nor death: it is that from which both have come, the Creator. This is the bishārah (the good news).

"And when the Garden is brought near" refers to the beginning of self-abandonment. In fact, there is nothing other than the Garden. The Qur`an says that the Garden's width is the expanse of the heavens and the earth, so why are we in misery here? Obviously we are miserable because we are not receptive to the station of self-abandonment. We can receive only that to which we are receptive. When we become receptive to the Ever-Living Eternal, nothing else will exist for us, and we will live fully from moment to moment. When the end of time draws near, we will find it easier to experience full self-abandonment.

  1. Every self will know what it has brought with it.

In our lifetime we may not see this, but our individual ends will come, and as far as we are concerned, our end is the end of the cosmos. We do not care if there are more or less stars up above. The rational man understands that he sees creation according to his interpretation: he is its center. From a rational point of view, he also knows that his end does not mean the end of the total cosmos. It is quite probable that at our individual death other people will continue their experience of life, and it will not be the end of the outer cosmos, but it will be the end of our cosmos, the end of what we experience.

When we remember that the end may come at any minute and we remember that we are suspended in air (one word related to nafs is nafas, meaning breath), we become more human. The Prophet, sallallāhu 'alayhi wa ālihi wa sallam, said, "People are asleep, and when they die they wake up." True seekers want to die while being awake -- they want to enter a state of total silence. All the practices of the men of Allah from time immemorial lead man, the seeker, to inner death while still alive. If, while we are conscious, aware, and scintillating with life, we can enter a state of self-abandonment, then we will understand what inner death is. If we cannot reach this state, then we will remain in the turmoil of sa'y, that is, running between Safa and Marwah in Mecca, or moving ceaselessly around and around. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that because we are made that way; man is born in kabad (trouble, misery). If he recognizes his reality, then that kabad becomes like a game, and the trouble becomes most useful. The word kabd, from the same root, means "liver," man's most important organ because it is the purifier of his blood. The liver checks any potential trouble the body may experience from a build-up of toxins.

When any sort of event befalls one, a person should say, "al-hamdu li'llāh." Such a person is already in the Garden: he is laughing as does a man of knowledge. Man is only qualified to laugh after he has wept; he is only qualified to live after he has died. Before he was born, he was dead, and the so-called "I" had no life. Man came from death; thus, in order to know his essence, he has to die inwardly, and he has to be in silence.

Recently, studies have been made of people who have died and were immediately resuscitated. At the point of death, they reported experiencing a rapid review of their entire lives. Everything they had ever done instantly appeared before them. Upon entering death, we take with us what this entity called nafs has earned in this life. Everything is as good as it ends, which is why the Qur`an always talks about the ākhirah. It is for this reason that we want to educate our youngsters to do things which will have a positive effect in the ākhirah. In a material sense, we like them to invest in something which has a good return. In relationships, we advise them to keep the companionship of people who are good to them and to whom they also are good. In other words, they should invest in something worthwhile.

We all long for the end because we want a better life at the end, and for this better life we are willing to put up with inconveniences now. The Qur`an says that every self knows what it brings with it into death because we ourselves know that what we are taking with us is in our hearts and our psyches. Even now we are preparing ourselves for the end.

It is only when the experience of death occurs to the nafs that "every self will know what it has brought with it." If the sun, the "I," is extinguished, and we are brought to a state of extinction which is what fanā` (annihilation) is, then we will know our nothingness. We will know that whatever we did was out of ignorance, and that, at best, we could have behaved as decent, conscientious human beings. We are only qualified to act if we have surrendered the power to act, if the sun in us has collapsed entirely.

  1. But no! I swear by the stars

  2. That run their course and hide themselves.

The surah now moves into another phase. Uqsimu means, "I swear by (something)." here is actually a negative article which emphasizes and positively affirms what follows it. Here what is affirmed is the evidence of khunnas (stars in general). Qur`anic scholars also take khunnas to refer to the five planets that are closest to earth. Jawār is the plural of jāriyah, meaning "vessel, Ark," and in older usage, "running streaming." the verbal root is jarā, which means "to flow, run, happen," and here signifies the stars that run their course.

Kunnas is a name that is given to the stars, especially to those planets which occasionally hide themselves in the sun's rays, because they are close to it. The verbal root of kunnas is kanasa "to lie hiding in wait." The relationship between khunnas and kunnas comes about because all the planets have a retrograde as well as a direct motion. The implication here is that these stars or planets are hidden in darkness. The planets closest to us are not visible most of the time, but they are there nonetheless. This ayah is indirectly telling us to be open-minded and a little more imaginative, since, as we see these planets some of the time, we know that they are there at other times when we cannot see them. They are then in the ghayb (the unseen). The ayah is saying, "see how these five planets are not visible most of the time, even though they are your neighbors."

  1. And the night when it darkens.

  2. And the morning when it breathes --

Then, when the night comes, with its utter darkness and silence, we do not see anything. Night implies silence and incubation, darkness and hibernation. Then it says, "And when the morning breathes," because after hibernation we start "taking in," and as we do this we inhale. The reference here is to those cycles which go from quiet stillness to life and movement. The juxtaposition of these two āyat shows the duality of existence: one state being inertia, the other motion.

We can also draw a parallel with the earlier reference to the sun and the stars to arrive at the inner meaning of the ayah which states, "But no! I swear by the stars." This refers to those aspects in us, those stars in us, which suddenly appear after being hidden. The luster in us, the generosity, the compassion, and selflessness in us which were not obvious before, suddenly appear, like stars burning with the same fire as that of the sun, which is the equivalent of our h. The night is like a state of darkness that often overcomes us, and the day is like the time when we are bright and cheerful. The macrocosm, which is evident in the Qur`an, is reflected in the microcosm, which is our selves.

  1. Surely it is the word of a noble messenger --

  2. The possessor of strength, established in the presence of the Lord of the Throne,

  3. One (to be) obeyed, and trustworthy.

The reference here is to the words of the noble Messenger, a man of power whose power was from the Possessor of power, He Who in His almightiness is firmly ensconced on the 'arsh (throne, foundation, support). The Prophet, salla-llāhu 'alayhi wa ālihi wa sallam, was, however, not obeyed then, and we may ask if he is obeyed even now. What this ayah means is that what he says is the absolute truth. He is obeyed by truth, by reality itself. He is united with destiny, with the absolute Decree. He is obeyed by the orchestration of all existence. If we are not in harmony with this orchestra and only listen to our own inner cacophony, we are disobedient.

At the time when these surats came, the Prophet had only a few followers. The Qur`an says, "A multitude of those of old and a few of those of later times" (56:13-14). The Qur`an always speaks about the few. It speaks about quality not quantity. This is a natural law. From a sharī'ah point of view, from the creational point of view, this is the truth.

  1. And your companion is not mad.

Bi-majnūn really means, "he is not veiled, he is not talking obscurely." As the Qur`an says, "it is nothing but a reminder and a clear reading-out" (36:69). There are no aspects of his intellect which are hidden. Majnūn (from janna, to cover, veil, hide) in Arabic means "madman," but the reason it mean "madman" is because it refers to someone whose intellect is hidden, whose discriminative quality is not evolved but is covered and shaded over and does not express itself outwardly in the form of 'aql (rationality, intellect). The ayah means that he is not hiding things, he is not uncertain. He does not say one thing and mean something else; he is not unclear.

This ayah assures us that this Prophet is not mad. We need this reassurance because we have invested in our own system of understanding and when someone tells us that we do not own anything, that we are nothing, that we have come from nowhere and will return to it again, and that we must give up everything, we naturally want to declare this person insane.

  1. And certainly, he saw him on the clear horizon.

  2. And he is not avid for the Unseen,

  3. Nor is it the word of Shaytan, the accursed outcast.

  4. So where then are you going?

An outer meaning of the twenty-third ayah is that it refers to the Prophet's having seen the angel Jibra'il on Mt. Hira, peace be upon them both. The Prophet saw the truth, saw the message as it came to him, and saw the truth on the horizon, which comes to man from a distance, from the other side of his heart, as is described in Surat Ya Sin. "And there came, from the farthest part of the city, a man (i.e., prophet) running" (36:20). This is because if truth had been near, it could have also been clear from the beginning. The implication is that when the message comes, it must come from far away. The mercy of Reality showed Jibra'il to the Prophet in a visible form so that he would not be confused about "inner voices" and "inner visions," which could lead to excesses and abstractions. The Prophet, salla-llāhu 'alayhi wa ālihi wa sallam, always had a direct, outer sign, in the form of a man, Jibra'il, who appeared to him, because he was in a state of tawhī'd.

The word shaytān is from the verb shatana, which means
"to be obstinate, perverse, to be cast off a path, to be distanced." Rajī'm means "stoned, pelted, driven away with stones," and "damned, accursed." Then the surah continues, "where are you going?" Coming from the womb, going to the tomb, we are caught in this interval. We are simply a vibrating thread between that beginning and that end; there is nowhere to go.

This is the meaning of surrender, of islām. It means to surrender to this reality which is in our hearts. We can only do our best, be available every minute, every second, willing to put our faces in the dust from which we have come and to which we return.

If we reach that state, we will be closer to hearing the joy of the song of the Qur`an, and all of it will be clear to us. We can touch it, however, only if we are pure, which means pure of heart, and have no expectations, Our suffering and misery are the result of our own expectations. We believe certain things will happen, and when they do not, we suffer and blame other people. Nobody is to be blamed but ourselves for having had those expectations in the first place. If we come with no expectations, then the whole drama of existence is a beautiful piece of theatre. We enjoy it, do our best, play our part. We cannot experience it in this way except by being pure, so we must start purifying ourselves from the outside-in, the outside being the easier point from which to begin.

  1. This is nothing but a reminder to all the worlds --

  2. To whomever of you wants to go straight.

Mustaqī'm is "right, upright, straight." The root of its verbal form is qāma and means "to stand fast or firm." Many important words are derived from this root. Al-qiyāmah, which means "the Resurrection," is from the same root. AI-qā'im, literally, "standing firm, upright, certain to come," is an epithet of the Mahdi, Imam az-Zaman, 'alayhi-s-salām. It means that he is forever present. Qum, also from the same root, means "stand up, be ready" and is the name of what is now a famous city in Iran. The words related to qāma imply stability, and if one is stable, one is alert. Alertness does not come when our heads are heavy, dull, and low, but rather when we stand up straight and our heads are held high. If our heads are drooping low, our thoughts will not flow well. It is for this reason that when we do dhikr (remembrance -- here, actual practice thereof in which the Divine Names are invoked) our backs have to be straight and our heads must be held in their highest position.

  1. And you do not will except what Allah wills, the Lord of all the worlds.

Man cannot wish for anything other than what has been wished for by the Creator. The Creator's law is that man has a choice: "Surely we have shown him the way; he may be thankful or unthankful" (76:3). If man is in shukr (gratitude) he is content and happy, and if he is happy he is efficient and alive, available, drunk with light. This, then, is the worship of free men who are as near as possible to being absolute, free by being absolute slaves. We cannot have one without the other. The root of freedom lies in servitude.

But whoever is in a state of kufr (covering up, denial, ingratitude) covers up and makes excuses for not taking action now. He does not realize that every second is auspicious and every breath a blessing. If we regard each breath as the final one, then all our debts will be settled, we will behave correctly, we will not disbelieve, and we will be generous. We will give only joy to others. If we have no expectations, we will not talk to people who do not want to listen. We will be like the bird who just sings for the sake of its song. The free bird has no expectations; it sings whether one feeds it or not. That is its nature, its mission; that is its reality.

Rabb is that entity which brings every system to its full potential. Rabb is "the Creator, the Lord, the Sustainer." He gives a being what is due to it in order to cause its growth and full blossoming. When we pray, we surrender to that entity, to that power or force which brings everyone to his full potential, and that full potential is jiwār ar-Rabb (closeness to the Lord).

Allah says in the Qur`an, "We are nearer to him than his jugular vein" (50:16). Where are we then? Are we in jiwār (closeness), or have we separated ourselves from Him? Allah is omnipresent; there is nothing other than Allah. Since this is true, why are we not encompassed and taken over by that Reality? The answer is that we have identified ourselves with this so-called "I." The Qur`an is here only to remind us that this so-called "I" has only come in order to die and that we should give it up quickly and enter into the enjoyment of lordship. Through tasbī'h (glorification of God), man enters into that which encompasses all, and this tanzī'h (worship having no association with a created or anthropomorphic thing) is something which is pure beyond imagination, totally untarnished. Man must bring himself to that state and be sustained therein, and that is the meaning of closeness. One must live outwardly to his utmost according to the sharī''ah, and be true to his word, because every second counts. In this way, he will reach haqī'qah.

End of the Surah

Back Up Next

The Opening - A Commentary on Chapter 1: Surat Al-Fatiha ] The Cow - A Commentary on Chapter 2: Surat Al-Baqarah ] The Family of 'Imrān - A Commentary on Chapter 3: Surat Al-'Imrān ] The Spider - A Commentary on Chapter 29: Surat Al-'Ankabt ] The Heart of the Qur`an - A Commentary on Chapter 36: Surat Ya Sin ] The Beneficent - A Commentary on Chapter 55: Surat Al-Rahmn ] The Event - A Commentary on Chapter 56: Surat Al-Wqi'ah ] The Kingdom - A Commentary on Chapter 67: Surat Al-Mulk ] The Jinn - A Commentary on Chapter 72: Surat Al-Jinn ] The Unwrapped - A Commentary on Chapter 73: Surat Al-Muzzammil ] A Commentary on the Last Section of the Qur`an ]