Informal notes for a tafsir class on Surat al-Muzzammil

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi

The surah is named after the word in the opening verse. It is an important image. It first calls to mind someone wrapped up against the sharp cold of a cloudless desert night. Then, it calls to mind someone wrapped in solitude, by the cloak and by the darkness and stillness – cut off from the diverse sensations, distractions and preoccupations of daylight hours which bring much information and incident that we have to react to and deal with. This being cut off from the world is not absolute: the world is still there — the ground we are standing on, the surrounding darkness, the cold night — and sooner or later, the night will pass, and the light and heat, the business and multitude, of day will return. So, we must ask, what is the purpose of this solitude and stillness, what is its benefit? Another connotation of the word, Muzzammil, often overlooked but relevant in the context of this surah, is of someone burdened, weighed down by a heavy responsibility. So, we must ask, what is the responsibility of which we become more aware when we avail ourselves of the stillness and solitude of night?

After being called to attention as al-Muzzammil, the imperative follows: stand or stay up in the night — that is, keep vigil. The command is to deny ourselves our need for sleep and, in the stillness of night, to be alert for what may come into our inward being or heart (fu’ad). But the command is immediately relaxed: stay up the night, except a little, or a half, or a little less than that, or add a little to that. From this I understand that we are not commanded to deny our needs outright but, instead, to discipline them. We need to sleep, but less than we think we need; we need to eat, but less than we think; we need to earn money, but less than we think; we need to relax and spend time with family and friends and enjoy life, but less than we think… and so on. The particular form of words used here tells us that our obedience to the command to spend part of the night in religious attentiveness will be varied, from person to person, from circumstance to circumstance. But the need for it, and the command to it, remain. As we will hear later in this surah, and we know from other verses in the Qur’an, God does not will hardship for His creatures. Also, we should know that God never commands what is impossible. That is how the tyrants among human beings behave — that is, they command what is physically or morally impossible, and then they punish the inevitable failure. The reason tyrants do this is to make a show of being all-powerful, though the reality, well-known to themselves, is that they are not all-powerful and do not enjoy mastery over the will of their fellow human beings. As for God: He commands only what He enables — no self is charged beyond its capacity. God it is who gives the self its capacity, and God it is who tests that capacity with responsibilities during the time and space He has allotted for it.

God then commands the one staying awake in the night to give voice to the Qur’an in a particular style. The words used here directly repeat the words used in another surah, al-Furqan. The unbelievers ask, Why is the Qur’an not revealed to you all at once (wahidan). The reply is (25:32) “so that We strengthen thereby your heart (fu’ad) and ratill-na-hu tartila: We give voice to it in a measured way of voicing”. This is how the Muzzammil is commanded to give voice to the Qur’an.

As with certain other words in the Qur’an, tartil has come to have a specialised, technical meaning in Arabic and Islamic usage. (Christians whose language is Arabic use this word to mean liturgical chanting and chanting of psalms; derivatives of the word are used of religious choirs and choristers.) For the present context of this surah, it suffices to say that what is commanded here is a steady, measured voicing of the Qur’an so that its sound and meaning enter deeply into the consciousness. It is not voiced hastily – haste is never appropriate for the Qur’an. It is not declaimed, during night devotions, with the intention that other people should hear it. And it is not voiced haltingly, one word or one line at a time, and pondered over as in any kind of formal, focused study. Rather, it is voiced in a steady, measured flow, so that it flows into the heart, and there it gives strength, solace and support. The Prophet, salla l-Lahu `alayhi wa sallam, is here commanded to voice the Qur’an just as it is voiced to him. The command carries from God, through him, to the believers — to us — now.

Earlier, we raised the question: what is the purpose and benefit of religious wakefulness in the still solitude of the night? Now, we may add the question, what is the purpose and benefit, during that night wakefulness, of voicing the Qur’an in this steady, measured way? The verses next in the surah explain. In the daytime, we have a chain of business — we are tied up and restricted by information, incidents, sensations, anxieties, pressures, perspectives and preoccupations connected to our own intentions and the intentions of others. Certain of our mental and other faculties are in heavy demand, while other important faculties are asleep, suspended. In this active, focused mode, we necessarily forget the deepest and most general reality about ourselves — that we exist by the grace of God, that He is seeing us, and that He has created us with the obligation to know and worship Him. In the daytime, we are not, so to speak, in learning mode — the brain is too busy to let thought deepen, too busy to let connections happen that are not useful for the business we have in hand, too busy to let the meaning and value of our intentions and actions emerge clearly into full consciousness. In modern times, most of this kind of focused activity has come to be bureaucratically managed and divided so that we take professional responsibility only for tasks assigned to us; we do not take responsibility for what colleagues engaged in another part of the same business are doing, nor do we take responsibility for the whole outcome of the business. Slowing down and stepping back to the point of stillness is necessary so that we enter into a passive or receptive frame of mind and heart. It is this that the night wakefulness makes easier — if we avail ourselves of it. And it is this also that the voicing of the Qur’an in the steady measured way commanded here makes possible. To simplify it somewhat: the day is for sight, for seeing others and being seen; the night is for insight, for being aware of being seen by God and, if we have the moral courage, of seeing ourselves as He sees us. In the quiet of the night when impression is most sharp, we can, to the extent God wills, realise our capacity for that burden of moral responsibility which heaven and earth and mountains refused but which man in his presumption accepted (see al-Ahzab, 33:72). God chose the Prophet, salla l-Lahu alayhi wa sallam, and made him carry the burden of the revelation of the Qur’an; that is why he must be still and receptive, as the words are voiced to him, and flow into him: it is indeed a heavy discourse — qawlan thaqila. The night-time and this style of devotion sharpen awareness of the responsibility we carry as believers. Without that sharpened awareness we do not experience the strengthening of the heart, the inner confidence and resolve, that we need in order to live, when the day resumes – and it will resume – as Muslims, and to do so consistently and continuously. As I said on a different occasion, this surah teaches us how to prepare ourselves, privately and individually, to live and serve in the world as Muslims publicly, and thus to serve as examples to others. It teaches us how to prepare ourselves, privately and individually, for the public task of dawa. We cannot speak well for the faith, if we do not speak from conviction and from the heart. Such conviction does not come by an act of will, by focused training in techniques of debating, disputing and persuading. Religious conviction is not really acquired; it is received. Religious knowledge can and should be actively pursued. Religious conviction is not something that can be pursued. Rather, it is something that ensues from our disposing ourselves, through the style of devotion commended in this surah, to receive fuller awareness of ourselves and of the meanings of the Qur’an, which settle in the heart, giving assurahnce and steadfastness.

The night passes; day resumes, and all its burdens. But God is the Lord of day and night, of east and west. Since only God is God, it is only on Him that we should rely to defend us against the day’s challenges. As those challenges loom before us, we do feel some apprehension. We remember that the message of Islam and the life and life-style of Muslims are rejected in the world. God commands us to leave the deniers and rejecters of His message in a courteous way, not to feel rancour or hardness of heart toward them. Rather, we are to leave them to God’s judgement: they have their time, and it will end.

The surah then describes the attitude of the deniers. They regard themselves as owners of ease, as experts of the good life – they are sure they have no need of the message of Islam; they are heedless in the daytime, and heedless in the night. God says: let them be for the time that has been allotted to them in this world.

At this point, the burden is lifted from the Prophet, salla l-Lahu `alayhi wa sallam, and the address in the surah shifts from him to his people. The threat follows, of the judgement that awaits the unbelievers in the hereafter. Just as the night, in a certain sense, cuts off the world of daytime, so at the last Day, the world will be utterly and completely cut off from us, the solidity of the ground we stand on will be shattered and reduced to running sand.

The Prophet is a messenger to his people, commissioned by God. To Pharoah also — a symbol of the delusion of human mastery and expertise in the good life — a messenger was sent. But Pharaoh rebelled, and he was seized by God’s punishment. So, the people of the Prophet, salla l-Lahu `alayhi wa sallam, are asked: how will you prepare for a Day, the terror of which will turn children grey, a Day when the very skies will fall apart? In the stillness of the night, in solitude, we can give the attention due to this question. In the daytime, we may remember the words, but too easily we forget their meaning and the effect they should have on our attitudes and actions. The surah says of itself, and of the Qur’an generally: This is a Reminder; let him who will, choose a pathway to his Lord (rabb).

With that choice put before us, the surah turns back to the Muzzammil and consoles him again with the knowledge that God is mindful of his efforts to devote his nights to prayer. God is mindful of all that He has created, caring and solicitous of its well-being. So we are commanded to recite of the Qur’an only as much as we can do with ease. This is so that it can become and remain a regular practice, a life-style — rather than a one-off grand gesture, which exhausts and is never returned to. This night practice we are commanded to conjoin with the day’s obligations, the purification of the day through established, regular prayer and the purification of our worldly goods through the regular practice of zakah.

If we think that is not enough, that we owe more to God than just this, we are right to think so. But it is a necessary element of belief in the oneness of God that we cannot be other than indebted to Him and dependent on His forgiveness and mercy. Whatever of good we are able to send ahead for our life to come, it is accepted and recompensed many times over. We may be able to do very little of good; however little it is, the effort is nevertheless recognised, and some allowance is made for our circumstances. For our failings and deficiencies, we are urged to seek forgiveness of God, who is all-forgiving and mercy-giving.

The surah as a whole implicitly addresses a particular human temptation or pretension. We easily recognise this pretension when it occurs negatively: for example, when a person sins and considers his sins so great that he is sure God cannot forgive him. This is a rebellious despair, which holds that human sins can be more powerful than God’s mercy — they cannot. If God’s forgiveness is sincerely sought, which means that the one seeking believes in God, then that seeking is necessarily optimistic, not despairing. In reality, people in this frame of mind are wanting to continue with their sin while not wanting to face the consequences – to face their need for contrition, repentance, reform, and seeking forgiveness, all of which entail discontinuing the sin. This pretension is relatively easy to recognise. Rather more difficult to recognise is the general disposition of human beings, in all societies that we know of, to regard worship and devotion as a sort of gift exchange – I will sacrifice my night’s sleep, or my goods, or something else, in exchange for something in return. Now it is true that, in the major religions, this return is not expected in the here and now but in the hereafter. Nevertheless, the pretension is there, the false claim that we have something to give that is so entirely ours that we can put it on offer, so to speak, in the expectation of a return. The pretension can lead people into making grand gestures of sacrifice, as if they believed that by doing so they will impress God – in much the same way, some people make grand gifts in order to impress and in the expectation of some return, even if only in the form of status. In reality, the capacity to sacrifice our night’s sleep or our goods or anything else is itself a grace or favour from God. What we think we are “giving” is something we already received as a free gift. All that we have to give is an effort to direct and dispose our will. When that effort is made, it is answered here and now with a strengthened capacity to sustain the effort, and it is also recompensed hereafter.The surah affirms, through God’s solicitousness for those who choose to discipline their needs in order to worship Him, that human beings are dependent and only God is Independent; that human beings are needy and only God is Self-Sufficient. When that is understood, we begin to understand that creation as a whole, the reality of which we are a very small part, has no reason to exist, has no ground of being, except that God is al-Rahman, the Merciful, and His goodness is beyond any and all human measure. We cannot deserve, we can only need, God’s mercy. And when we truly need, it is given, always: God’s promise is true. Remembering that is not easy. The means to succeed in the effort, and the success, are summed up in the attitude of the Muzzammil.

Finally, I am duty bound to add, that the attitude of the Muzzammil, greatly valued as it is, must go on to test and manifest its value. It is ideally considered as a private and individual preparation for public duty. The day’s efforts must follow from and after the efforts of the night. It is like wealth accumulated: to be beneficial it must circulate, not concentrate. After al-Muzzammil in the Qur’an comes al-Muddaththir, which commands the one wrapped in his cloak: Get up and give warning.