Informal notes for a tafsir class on Surat al-Muddaththir

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi

In my lecture I will go through the surah in detail. In these notes I take the opportunity to reflect, still in relation to this surah, five general matters that often come up when we are trying to understand the Qur’an.

A: What is the relevance of reports going back to the Companions that inform us about the situation in connection with which certain verses were revealed?

B: Reliable Prophetic hadiths and/or Companion reports teach us the tafsir (the explanation) of many verses and passages of the Qur’an. How can we benefit from them?

C: What is the relevance of the sheer force of speech, the sheer literary power, of the Qur’an?

D: How are we to understand words and expressions in the Qur’an which the Qur’an itself tells us will strengthen belief in some people and strengthen unbelief in other people?

E: The Qur’an says, in several places in different ways, that it is sent down for those who practise taqwa, for example, hudan li-l-muttaqin guidance for those who practise taqwa. Guidance for those who fear the Fire and hope for the Garden. But what about those who do not, what about unbelievers and misbelievers?

A: The occasions of the sending down of certain verses
  1. We are reliably informed that when revelation came down upon the Prophet, salla-llahu ‘alayhi wa-sallam, it put him in what we nowadays call ‘a state of bodily shock’. It is a help to those in shock to wrap them in a blanket – it comforts and helps restore the body’s normal flows of warmth. The Prophet’s noble wife, Khadija, radi Allahu ‘anha, assisted him in this way. Also she believed in him.
  2. We are also informed that verses of this surah are, in the order of revelation, early: perhaps, they marked the end of a brief period during which the sending down was paused.
  3. The sharpness of the command, ‘Stand up and warn!’ marks the transition from being informed, a nabi – a prophet to whom the reality of the hereafter has been made certain – to being burdened with a commission, a rasul, a messenger who must convey that reality and all its diverse impacts on individual and collective transactions, and on the inward and outward disposition of human beings to their Creator.
  4. These are matters that we know from sound, authenticated tradition. We know therefore the sabab, the situation, to which certain verses are connected. What then? The situation is the anchor-point, the secure reference, from which meaning opens out. Nobody has ever pretended that, since we can never be in that same situation again, the associated verses do not apply to any other. On the contrary, we all know perfectly well that this surah and the whole Qur’an are proclaimed to us, and so we are informed. It remains for us to show that we do not sit wrapped up in this state of being informed, but carry it into our lives and of those nearest us, as God’s Messenger did, with conviction as to its urgency and its universality. It is obvious that the sabab does not limit the way we explain and understand the verses connected to it; it only anchors our tafsir, so that we do not wander off and get lost in our search for meanings.
  5. It is also obvious, yet it does need saying, that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad, salla-llahu ‘alayhi wa-sallam. The Qur’an was not revealed to any after him. It was not revealed to the men who earned fame because they excelled in speculative philosophy and theosophy. Great indeed were the powers of reasoning and speech, of intellectual energy and personal charisma, which God gave to some of these men. And He knows best how they used their talents and with how good an intention – to develop and elevate the teachings of Islam with the logical skills and prestige of the Greek philosophical tradition or the techniques and aspirations to mystical experience of the traditions of the ancient religions. I make no particular pronouncement against the work of these men. But I am bound to observe the historical fact that their work produced terminologies, doctrines and dogmas that do not make much sense outside the texts in which they are preserved; they do not connect with the ordinary, public reality through which we share with each other the responsibility of embodying islam. You can be wrapped up in these abstruse teachings, and sit and study. If you stand up and warn using their terminologies, for sure ‘the wild donkeys will not flee as if from a hunting lion’. Rather, while you hold forth, they will look on bemused or impressed, and then carry on their lives much as before you interrupted them. Most lives are lived in a reality far removed from the conjectures of speculative theology and philosophy.
  6. The connection of historical situations with the revelation entails that we privilege the teaching authority of those who were witnesses of that. In the teaching of the Companions – those who attended the sending down of the Qur’an, who were trained by the one to whom it was entrusted together with the duty to make it clear – we don’t find any mention or discussion of “the Necessary Existent” or of “the Perfect Man”. Nor indeed do we find any doctrine or dogma that we need special training to understand, and having understood, still cannot connect to any decision or transaction that affects our religious life, to where we stand on the line between the Garden and the Fire.
B: The teaching authority of the Companions
  1. What does it mean to “privilege the teaching authority of the Companions”? That authority is in two aspects: the content of the teaching and its style as a practice or sunnah.
  2. Just as nowadays, people hear a public figure speak, and ask what he meant by that and what will come of it, and then reach varying judgements about it – so also, but more intently because of what was at stake (the Garden or the Fire), the Companions put questions to each other and got answers when the verses of the Qur’an were proclaimed to them. Sometimes their questions reached the Prophet and he answered, or they were answered in the Qur’an itself, so that their concerns themselves became the asbab of certain verses. They could not know when revelation would come, nor how it would unfold, or which would prove the more important events during that time. So we cannot be surprised that some of them remembered and connected certain verses with one situation, and others connected the same verses with another situation. ((For example, some remembered that the pause after the first revelations to the Prophet ended with the revelation of Surat al-Muddaththir, and some with the revelation of verses in Surat ad-Duha – your Lord has not forsaken you.)) It is possible that these differing recollections are reporting accurately what the few Muslims from before the Hijrah communicated to the many Muslims after the Hijrah. What is important is that there is variation in what was recollected, and the variations are recorded faithfully.
  3. About inna-hu fakkara wa-qaddar and the verses following, we are informed that one or another of the Quraysh nobles pondered and schemed about what to do so that the Makkan people should not be too impressed by the recitation of the Qur’an. He would try different strategies – calling the Recitation the words of a madman or a poet or a fortune-teller or a liar. Nowadays, this kind of thing is called information-control; it is the job of political press agents to “contain a situation”, to “regulate public mood”. So this man decided he would put on an air of listening closely, then stare and frown, then sneer, and then pronounce the verses he had heard ‘magical’, like the chants and spells of olden days – in short, just words from an ordinary mortal making extraordinary claims. The Muslims of this time were later asked about these verses; some remembered one detail of the background, some another. Again, what is important is that there is variation in what was recollected, and the variations are recorded faithfully.
  4. For the believers at that time, what mattered was to know what was expected of them so that they could avoid the Fire and hope for the Garden. If a word was unfamiliar they would explain it with another, familiar one near in meaning, so that the context became accessible. This is the same as we do with any text that has words in it that we do not know well. Even when the words were all familiar, the believers still had to know how to act upon them. So the Companions’ explanations took the form of concrete examples, which embody the intention of the discourse in the Qur’an. In this they followed the teaching style of the Prophet himself, salla-llahu ‘alayhi wa-sallam, who was there to advise and correct them. He too did not give abstract definitions of ‘righteousness’ or ‘wrong-doing’ or other general terms. Rather, his way was to say ‘a wrong-doer is one who does this or this’. Moreover, to help the believers he would find for them a practical way to do good if they indeed intended that. A famous example concerns sadaqah. Even a penniless person can have the reward of sadaqah if, for example, he removes a hindrance from a road with the intention of pleasing his Lord, or if, with the same intention, he greets a fellow-Muslim with cheerful countenance. The teaching of the Companions is on this pattern, and as we would expect, their tafsir of the Qur’an is very diverse, and again, this diversity has been faithfully recorded.
  5. The Companions’ practice is the best way to ‘stand up and warn’. Teaching by example and through examples does not offer to explain concepts and propositions. What it does is more precious than that. It trains conscience so that the learners are enabled to achieve and apply their own understanding of what the Qur’an commends and commands, what it condemns and forbids. The range and variety in the sunnahs preserved in the Prophetic hadiths and Companion reports proved sufficient to cope well, even if not perfectly, with the many different situations Muslims have faced since the formative years of Islam. The most valuable lesson that the young learn from their elders is through observing them practise islam. If they ask us, ‘Why do you wash and pray?’, or ‘Why like that?’, we answer: ‘Because that is how the Prophet was commanded to teach us to do this’. In this way, without being told, they learn that it is not some external power or hope of present worldly advantage that compels us, but instead an authority that we have accepted within. Then, that authority is planted as a seed in their hearts, and it grows into their own authority. This is one way to practise the meaning – after you have cleansed your garments and moved away from pollution (rujz) – of the command: wa-la tamnun tastakthir. Those whom we teach should understand that what we commend or command them to do is not to demonstrate that we have some hold over them, but so that God and His Messenger can have the hold on them that they have on us. Similarly, when we explain what is right and wrong, we should follow the Sunna. We should not try, Greek philosophy style, to explain what ‘the good’ is, but say things like: ‘a good person is one who shares his food, who speaks kindly to neighbours, who visits the sick’ and other examples from the Sunna. Then, if God wills, we will have conveyed, and they will have received, the message, and they will apply it afresh in the circumstances they encounter. That is the most effective way to ‘stand up and warn’.
  6. To do that in the style of the Companions is to teach the practice, not the theory, of islam. If you teach theory, you teach doctrine, and that reinforces the boundaries and bonds of schools and sects. Because the basic needs of life are common – the need for food, clothing, shelter, health; the need for fair dealing and honest trade; the need to be safe from unlawful seizure of persons or property – people do not differ much in their practice. By contrast they can differ greatly in their theories about what is right and wrong, good and true, and so, over time (often just to preserve the distinctions between groups) they come to differ sharply in formal doctrines and creeds. The ties of belonging yield some of the comforts of being in a group but at the cost of eroding the mutual trust and forbearance that should characterize people of the same qibla. If this happens, political calculations replace the effort and duty of religious tolerance. That effort rests on the conviction that final judgement as to which doctrines are true in fact is the prerogative of God. He is the Creator and the Provider also of those who become enemies. This surah is one of the greatest in giving assurance that we need not be hateful or vindictive in speech about those who become enemies. God says: ‘Leave to Me whom I created and to whom I gave every advantage in this world, and whose wrongs and arrogant rejection of the Qur’an will be destroyed.’
  7. If our practice of islam is anchored to the Sunnah, it will have enough of both consistency and flexibility to accommodate many differences of emphasis and performance, without disintegrating into a free-for-all. One aspect of the command, ‘Stand up and warn!’, is that we do not sit in a self-righteous bundle and abandon others to their doom. Rather, we are commanded to teach them by speech and example, and to the extent that God wills, they will be admonished and reminded. The command to warn is followed by the command to persevere and endure patiently. As we know and should remember, the enemies of Islam became its champions.
C: The literary force of certain passages
  1. The literary force of this surah, its power to affect feeling and thinking, is carried by the voicing of its words in their particular arrangement of meaning, sound and rhythm. Combined with the urgent, imperative mood, the short verses ending with the recurrent rhyme on the short syllable (–ir or –ar) strengthen the impression of intense pressure of emotion held back or held in, as when a face or hand is clenched tight. However, there is harm in exaggerating the emotional affect of the wording if this leads us to construe the affect in human terms.
  2. A clenched face or hand are usually signs of a burden of emotion that is too much to bear or beyond our power of expression, so we hold it in. Self-evidently, such a state is inconceivable for God: God cannot be frustrated or exasperated; He created human beings free to refuse His purpose but not to defeat it.
  3. We should be very cautious, then, lest we attribute to God anything of the kind or quality of human emotions. For example, it is tempting to think that because we feel such indignation and frustration at this Quraysh noble – who mocks the Messenger of God, salla-llahu ‘alayhi wa-sallam, and mocks the Recitation – it is tempting to think, carried along by the sheer force of the wording of this surah, that our emotions are ‘tasted’ or in some other manner experienced by God as we experience them.
  4. For sure it is possible to anger God as it is possible to please Him. We know this from many verses in many surahs of the Qur’an. However, the anger of God cannot be likened to ours. We get angry when our will is frustrated – we don’t get what we want; somebody does not do what we want them to do. For an example of human anger and frustration, call to mind the reaction of the Pharaoh when his sorcerers fail in the test of strength with God’s Messenger and become believers: in his helplessness Pharaoh threatens that he will have their limbs cut off and have them crucified. That sort of raging helplessness is utterly inconceivable of God.
  5. So then, we must be careful in how we voice the wording in this surah. To anger God is to refuse the whole purpose of His rahmah, embodied in His creation and His Revelation; our voicing of that must include an assured conviction that God’s purpose is not frustrated.
  6. Imagine that many tasks come to us all at once, all urgent, and we are weighed down, unsure where even to begin, let alone ever finish. Now imagine that someone comes and lifts the burden from our shoulders and says: ‘I will take this from you’. And he assures us once more: ‘Again, I will take this from you’. Perhaps that may serve as a way to understand the measure of calm and relief that is offered by the passage that begins, dharni wa man khalaqtu; and when God says: qutila kayfa qaddar | thumma qutila kayfa qaddar. In this perspective, the burden of our frustration is lifted. Only the threat remains, urgent and strong, against those who refuse the Revelation.
  7. Another aspect of the literary force of this surah is its vividness. ‘What will inform you what saqar is? It leaves nothing, it spares nothing. It shrivels up the man.’ We are being informed not about an ‘idea’ or a ‘conception’ of the Fire, some sort of mental anguish. No indeed; it is both a bodily and mental reality. Those who are to suffer it will experience it as altogether real. We see it, as we see a sheet of paper shrivel up in a fire, leaving nothing. But the fire of hell is enduring.
D: Verses that will lead the hypocrites and unbelievers further astray
  1. ‘Above it are nineteen’. Some have gone to great lengths over this, and counted the number of letters and words of the Qur’an, and come up with all manner of multiples of nineteen. Could the same exercise be performed upon other texts and bring up comparable results? I do not know. Nor do I know what purpose such labour can serve, even if the intention behind it is good. The Qur’an is a revelation described by itself as mubin, made clear. What is the point of treating it as a secret code that needs to be deciphered by a laboured arithmetic? Indeed, there is no point. We can leave this.
  2. God declares this number so as to confirm some knowledge of the matter that is with the People of the Book. Now, as for the knowledge that they have, the Prophetic hadith is very clear: it is permissible to hear from them, without either accepting what they tell us as true or declaring it as false. Accordingly, the consensus has always been that such knowledge cannot be of the kind that we need in order to avoid the Fire and hope for the Garden. We can leave it.
  3. God says that His declaring the number will be a trial (fitnah) for those who pretend to accept the Qur’an, and those who openly reject the Qur’an. By contrast, for the People of the Book it may end their doubt, and for the believers it will increase them in certainty. How? All these statements are referring to recognition of the Qur’an as the discourse of God. If the People of the Book are indeed informed of this matter then any doubt in their minds that the Prophet is inspired by God should be removed. As for the believers, information about the unseen strengthens their belief in the reality of it. For the unbelievers, for whom the unseen has no reality, the same information is simply meaningless; so too for the hypocrites – since they do not believe that the Qur’an is from God, it becomes harder for them to pretend to believe what can only be accepted on the basis of trust in the source of the information.
  4. Why nineteen? We can wonder why we have five fingers and not six, why the cells in a honeycomb have six sides and not five or seven, etc. After study we may be able to argue that the hexagon provides an appropriate strength of structure (a hexagon is like a sphere but with edges that can be fitted tightly to an adjacent hexagon); or that four digits of different sizes with an opposable thumb provide the highest degree of dexterity and agility for a human hand. But these kinds of arguments are circular: we are saying these arrangements have the best functionality because they function best – our ‘because’ has no meaning. We can detail the functionality according to the quality of our observation and knowledge. We cannot explain why it is so, only that it is so. And that it is so is dependent on the way the world happens to be arranged. The natural world is studied in the sciences and represented in the abstract language of mathematics, but its being arranged as it is, and being intelligible, are simply accepted as being just so. Why nineteen? The truthful answer is that we do not know. We affirm it is so because the source of the information is absolutely trustworthy. Had the information come from the People of the Book, we would hear it, but we would neither affirm nor deny it. This not knowing and still accepting is deeply troubling, even offensive, to the modern secular temperament, which is addicted to the illusion of mastery in the world. Although people are surrounded by specialized discourses and complex artefacts that they take on trust, they do so assuming that some expert somewhere knows and understands. It is otherwise with matters of the unseen, which is a domain of which we cannot have knowledge. The Prophets and Messengers are privileged with some fragments of knowledge of the unseen, but even they have no mastery of it. And yet God tells us that the declaration of the number of the angels guarding the Fire increases the believers in certainty. How is this so?
  5. The next sequence of verses, with the introduction of an end-rhyme that has a lengthened last syllable, marks a shift from the imperative to the indicative or informative mood. The night, lit by the moon, recedes and gives place to dawn. The Qur’an is praised as among the greatest of God’s warning reminders to mankind, of whom some go forward and some lag behind. In the hereafter we will realize that we are either indebted creatures whose debt has been cleared by the forgiveness of God on account of our beliefs and actions, or indebted creatures whose debt is not cleared on account of what we believed and did. The former have a place in the Garden; the latter are lost to the Fire. In that dreadful state they say what now they understand: we did not pray, we did not help those in need, we lived in the moment heedless of the hereafter, we denied the Judgement till denial was impossible.
  6. Just as this seen-world has a given order and arrangement, so also the unseen-world has its order and arrangement. When the Qur’an affirms some detail of that order and arrangement, it strengthens the believers since they have accepted that the unseen is real and they are, by their belief, committed to preparing themselves for it.
  7. The believers do not claim mastery in the world; they claim slavery and servanthood. To be true to that claim is a severe challenge in a world so thoroughly dominated and penetrated by the illusions of Western capitalism – ability to intervene in and re-direct the processes of nature, to generate and concentrate wealth, to project military power and to eliminate all alternative ways of ordering human collective affairs. These illusions are profoundly repugnant to any believer, especially a Muslim. They are also repugnant to reality.
  8. We are living on the very edge of the exhaustion of reality’s tolerance of heedless disregard for the long-term consequences of Western beliefs and life-styles. Just like the unbelievers described in the Qur’an, the elites of our day are happy with what they have, sneer and scowl with contempt for the believers. They too want to live answerable only to themselves. Whatever they may say in fine words, in their deeds they prove again and again that they choose not to give up their share in the world’s goods – whatever the cost to others. They too demand, before they will consider change – just as the Quraysh did – solid, present, material proof that the unseen is real: everyone of them desires that he be given open pages. No indeed! They do not fear the hereafter.
E: The guidance is for those who practise taqwa
  1. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, it is reported, was asked to explain what taqwa is. He said it was like when you walk by thorny bushes and you gather your cloak around you for fear of snagging it on the thorns. This is a very fine description.
  2. Another: You have been lent a huge sum of money by someone of most generous disposition, who lent it knowing that you might not be able to repay it all. You are fearful of meeting this lender: you know that he has the right to demand what you owe. You are also desirous of meeting him: you know that he knows you can repay hardly any of it and that he will forgive you the rest – so long as you do not deny the debt.
  3. The Qur’an is indeed guidance from God for those who live this attitude. It does not guide those who do not have any fear of God. How could it be otherwise?
  4. The guidance of the Qur’an reaches the heedless, if God wills, through His command to the believers to stand up and warn: qum fa-‘andhir. The odds are against those who obey this imperative: the enemies of the religion seem overwhelmingly strong and self-confident, and impenetrably arrogant. That is why it is necessary to remember that our Lord is greater than whatever else we have to fear: wa-Rabbaka fa-kabbir. We must be properly prepared for the challenge: we must cleanse our apparel and the manners in which we are clothed and presented to the world; we must move away from the sources of pollution, and we must ensure purity of our motives. Then, we must have the staying power to persevere, to be patient, not as a proof of strong will but rather for the sake of our Lord: wa-li-rabbika fa-sbir.
  5. God is the source of our fear of Him and He is the source of our hope of His forgiveness.