Informal notes for a tafsir class on Surat al-Qiyamah

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi

The theme of this surah is the raising of the deadfor the Judgement. Its two opening verses forcefully negate the unbelievers’ denial that there is an afterlife. In these notesI reflect ontwo matters: (1) the needand benefit of belief in the hereafter; and (2) the meaning and consequences of the unbelievers’ denial of the afterlife. Thereafter, against the background of these reflections, I set out a summary of the argument of Surat al-Qiyamah.

(1) The need and benefit of belief in the Last Day

In several places in the Qur’an, God says that those who do good deeds and believe in Him and the Last Day shall have no cause of fear and no cause to grievehereafter. The two conditions added to doing good deeds are not separable: we cannot believe in God and yet not believe in the hereafter and the Judgement of the Last Day;likewise, we cannot believe in the Judgement of the Last Day and not believe in God, who is the owner and master of that Day. In some of the relevant verses, the promise is said specifically in respect of the believers among the People of the Book. But, of course, it applies to Muslims also.

In the Sahihs of al-Bukhari and Muslim, there is a saying of the Prophet, salla-llahu ‘alayhiwa-sallam, reported from Abu Hurayrah, about a man who was aware of having done many sinfuldeeds. He was convinced that, if God got hold of him, He would torment him as He had not tormented anyone else. So, when death approached, this man commanded his sons to burn his body and pound his bones to dust and then let the winds scatter the dust over the sea. His sons did this. Then God commanded the earth and sea to bring forth what they had taken, and the man was assembled and raised up. God asked him what had led him to do as he did. The man said: ‘My fear of You.’ The Prophet said:‘And for this God forgave him.’
Both Sahihs have other versions with slightly different wording. In one of these versions, the man answers, ‘My fear of You, and You are more knowledgeable’, meaning that God knows better than himself what motivated him to try, so foolishly and so vainly, to avoid the judgement of God. In all versions, the hadith ends with the Prophet saying: ‘And for this God forgave him.’

From this hadith, we can learn many things, but here we focus on what is relevant for Surat al-Qiyamah.What judgement would we, here in this life, pass on this fellow human being? For his sins insofar as they are proven crimes, punishment is due according to the bounds of the law of God and His Messenger. Then, there is the apparent errorin his understanding of the divine attribute of power–his supposition that there was some way to escape God. Some overhasty people might go so far as to say that, on account of this error, the man is not properly a believer. Yet,the judgement of God, as the Prophet tells us, was not like this: ‘God forgave him’.
The consolation of this hadith is not just that asinful man is forgiven on account of the sincerity of his fear of God. Rather, the consolation is that the final judgement is not our human judgement, but that of our Creator and Lord.

Is it not possible that the man’s sins were committed under some necessity, external or internal, some circumstance or psychology, that so troubled his will that he did the wrong he did, under compulsion or from partial ignorance of it being wrong? Is it not possible that the man wastoo ashamed to look for excuses for his actions, that he was aware of his moral weakness and guilt.The man was not arrogant; rather, he was self-accusing, and accused himself before his death.

Is it not also possible that he was so mindful of his sins that he lost awareness of any good that he might also have done? For example, when he commanded his sons to burn his body and pound his bones to dust and told them to do this because he feared the punishment of God, is it not possible that he communicated to them histerrorof God’s judgement so that they were motivated to avoid the same?

It is possible. But the point is that we do not know for sure, and the man himself did not know for sure. All human beings fall far short, in their knowledge, understanding, and judgement about others, about themselves, and about God.

The right inference fromthis hadith is not that the man underestimates the power of God; rather, that He underestimates the mercy of God, His precise care and love for all His creatures, particularly humankind. The consolation of belief in the hereafter, and our need for it, is this: our defective knowledge of ourselves is corrected and perfected; similarly, our inadequate understanding of God’s care for us (which includes our need for justice – a point I will return to) is corrected and perfected. In this respect the Judgement is an expression of the mercy of God. Here in this life we cannot be alert to all that is happening around us or within us:we select, we exaggerate, we diminish, we confuse; sometimes we remember only wrongs we have done or suffered; sometimeswe do not bring to mind the good we have known.In the hereafter,these deficiencies in our knowledge of ourselves are made good:every particle of ushasa story to tell about the imprint upon it of our intentions and actions, and nothing will be omitted from the story.

The Day of Judgement holds the promise that we will at last come to know ourselves fully.That promise carries with it a demand that we reserve final moral judgement on others and on ourselves, because such judgement is God’s prerogative exclusively. That does not mean that, in this life, we do not respond to crime according to the law and within its bounds. It means exactly and only that we do not pass a final judgement, neither upon ourselves nor upon others. By so reservingjudgement, we avoid the grave sin of self-righteousness. Also, we make room in our present life for hope, for ourselves as well as for others; we make the space in which to pray for forgiveness for ourselves and for others. Without the certainty of the hereafter, all that people do and suffer in this life without fully understanding either, especially the injustices that we see all around us, becomes maddening, insufferable.With that certainty, we can, to the extent God wills, endure with a gracious patience, sabranjamilan.

(2) The unbelievers’ denial of the Last Day
(a) The issue in general:

Denial of the hereafter is the context of the text of this surah. The kind of things the unbelievers say on the matter is mentioned several times in the Qur’an. Here is one example, from Surat al-Mu’minun (23: 32–38). God sends to a people a Messenger from among themselves, and they reject him. Moreover, they try to dissuade others from accepting him. They say: If you were to obey a mortal like yourselves, surely you would be losers. Does he promise you that, when you are dead and have become dust and bones, you will be brought forth [to a second life]? Away with it!Away with what you are being promised [by God’s Messenger]. There is nothing but our life of the world.We die and we live, and we shall not be raised up.

Those who voicesuch sentiments think themselves s hard-headed people, who take into considerationonly what is (or will be) solidly present andreal. For them, the rest is fairy-tales to comfort losersinto putting up with what is bad in their lives, including the ‘facts’ that their lives juststart and just stop.

It is indeed the case that,after death, what remains in this worldof a human being is decomposed matter, bones that eventually disintegrate. This is what people witnessed in the desert: bleached skeletons of dead animals, blasted by sun and wind untilthey disappearedas dust into the sand.

The stifling of the voice of the accusing self has consequences far more severe than the costs to society of having to train and police the conduct of the society’s members, since they do not do this for themselves. The meaning, and the full cost, of denying the Last Day, is that life comes to be lived as if it had no consequences other than what is presently visible; right and wrong become practically synonymous with what you can or cannot get away with. An action or a life without consequences hereafter is an action or a life of no consequence here and now.

God has not created human beings to be like this. People continue to feel that their lives shouldbe important and meaningful and their own, and they are not. They cannot taste or measure the value of their lives except in terms of the external values of the society they live in – buying power, celebrity, expensive amusements, etc. The net result, for individuals, is emptiness and discontent and, contrary to the cultural rhetoric, a feeling of powerlessness. For the society, the net outcome is systemic corruption and pollution of the economic, political and natural environments, until people are unable to imagine or will an alternative to carrying on with things just as they are, except for very minor repairson the surface of things.

The consequences for unbelievers of denial of the Last Day apply equally to those who affirm belief in the Last Day as a matter of doctrinal convention but do not engage with it inwardly. As said earlier, to believe religiously is to make our life (intentions as well as actions) conform to what we affirm is true. To call oneself a Muslim may be the first step towards doing that, but it does not lead to that necessarily. Muslims do not pray for guidance and forgiveness just once in a lifetime and that is the end of it. Rather, they praymany times a day and for all the days of their life. It is possible to be present at the occasion and venue of prayer and yet be absent in it.Only if the nafs lawwamais alert do we make the effort to narrow the gap between how we know ourselves to be and how we know we should be.We fail in this effort and fail often. That is why, in relation to the Last Day, the nafs is called lawwama.

That must suffice to explain why Surat al-Qiyamah begins with the two mighty oaths we hear in its opening verses: No! I swear by the Day of the resurrection. No! I swear by the accusing (reproachful) self. But to explain the way the argument in the surah is arranged, we need to reflect also on another element of the unbelievers’ denial of the Last Day.

Of course, no human being r can live as if what is solidly, physically present is all there is. Human consciousness does not function separately from human language in its various forms and degrees, and this language ranges over past and future. We remember and we plan. Neither what we remember nor what we plan is solidly, physically present. ‘But,’the unbelievers say, ‘the only hereafter that we take into considerationis the hereafter that we or somebody else willactually witness– if and when it happens– like death, for example.’ The hereafter that they take into consideration is the kind that is, so to speak,only temporarily not present. They work for it and, if they are successful in their work, it happens; or they are unsuccessful and it does not happen. The hereafter theybelieve in is the kind that can be just as real as the present is and in the same way. As for the past, well, that too is what they make it: they record and remember what theywill to remember. They make history, just as they make their future. They do it well or badly and ‘That’, they say, ‘is all there is.’

Such is the thinking of the hard-headed unbelievers described in the Qur’an. It is also the dominant mind-set of the elites in the most powerful societies of our time. People may not admit that this is what they believe.But their actions and life-styles and their social and economic systems are motivated and arranged as if this is what they believe. Unlike the people at the time of the sending down of the Qur’an, we know that the traces of climate conditions millions of years ago are reliably recorded in the minute particles of fossils and minerals and deep-frozen waters; we know thatfinger and DNA prints are unique to every individual;we can televise the DNA of food grains recovered from the stomach of a woolly mammoth found after the melting of the ice in which it had lain frozen for thousands of years. Some scientists even think about being able, one day, to grow back to life species of plants and animals that have long been extinct. But does any of this impressive knowledge and know-how make it easier to believe that there is a Day of Judgement, when the book of a life in all its details shall be set open before amazed human eyes, seeing every particle of good and every particle of evil for which the individual is accountable? The answer is: No, it does not.

The unbelievers at the time of the sending down of the Qur’an were asked: who created the world that is around you, who created you? And they (as recorded in the Qur’an) would answer, ‘Allah’. But that answer did not make them believers. Now, faced with the same questions, unbelievers will say, ‘Nature’, or ‘a Process that (somehow ) favours the emergence – through an accumulation of random accidents over billions of years– of intelligent, conscious life able to notice, investigate, and wonderand rejoice, at that Process’. Neither these learned unbelievers, nor the unlearned ones, have any interest in the notion that there is a Last Day, a Day of final judgement, a Day of valuation, when all natural and human orders shall be abolished and justice shall prevail absolutely.

What of the believers? Who are they? The Qur’an says: yu’minuna bi-l-ghayb. They believe in that which is not seen, not solidly present to their bodily senses. And they are guided to this by the Messengers whom God chose to remind humankind of the reality that is also made clear to them on the horizons and in their selves. People do know the reality, whether they look inside themselves or outside. But they forget and become heedless of it. Our Book is the last Reminder, our Messenger, salla-llahu ‘alayhiwa-sallam, the last sent toremind and warn. There has been and there will be no other warning after the Qur’an.

(b) The issue of justice, specifically punishment by God

Sometimes unbelievers say: ‘Very well, there may be, after death, a Last Judgement – after all, we can hardly ask the dead about it, can we? But why does your God need to punish the unbelievers? If He wants to reward His believers, fine. But can He not just leave the unbelievers out of it, let them fade to nothingness?’

This wording of the unbelievers’ question contains a false assumption. Outside of the words, there is not in reality anything that corresponds to ‘nothingness’. There is God; there is all that God has created or will create; nothing else can be. There is no space and no time where unbelievers could go and be left ‘out of it’. But the question can be understood even if it is not soundly expressed. The unbelievers are asking: What is the point of, what is the need for, justice in the negative form of punishment?

The unbelievers’ thinking is on the lines of something like this:

Two individuals do the same examination, one works hard and gets all the important questions right. The other does no relevant work, and gets all the important questions wrong or draws irrelevant pictures on the answer-paper. The unbelieverssay: the one who passes gets the reward for that, fine; but the one who fails – can he not be allowed to just go away, and never be considered for the examination again?

Behind this thinking is the cultural rhetoric of ‘Why can’t we just let each live his or her life their own sweet way, without judging them?’

But in point of fact that not judging is, precisely, the freedom of agency that God has enabled in human life. The Judgement does not fall within life, but only when the whole of time is done with. Particular failures and mistakes are continually overlooked or ‘let go’ throughout life, with innumerable chances to restart, or – in the terms of the example above–to take a different examination.

The Judgement of the Last Day is not a valuation of particular mistakes and failures, but of the whole life, and all the relevant antecedents and consequences for which the person is accountable.The Judgement in fact is, just as the unbelievers think they are asking for, deferred for all the time that God has made available. The Judgement falls only when that time has passed.

What the unbelievers are really asking for is that there should be no Judgement at all, or that the Judgement should be: this individual’s life is of no consequence;it is as if this person had not been created, had not lived, at all. In Surat al-Qiyamah, the attitude is expressed in the question: |a-yaḥsabu l-insānu |an yutrakasudā?Does man reckon that he is to be abandoned pointless? It is not conceivable of God that He should create something pointless, least of all a creature He endowed with freedom of will and action.

But still, the unbelievers will ask, ‘Even so; why punish the unbelievers, why not just let them go, after they are dead and can do no harm?’ They ask this even though their unbelief is supposed to be based upon hard-headedness and taking into consideration only the rules they derive from experience and strict reasoning. If we ask them, if a man insists on making his bed on top of a fire, after he has been informed what the fire will do, do you expect that he will not burn? Do you expect the fire to be other than fire? The punishment for the unbelieving sinners is part of the order of creation, as God has willed it.

God has made clear that the recompense of an evil deed is only its like, and that of a good deed ten or seventy times its like. By overwhelming margin, the balance favours indulgence, not punishment; yet there is punishment also, for sure, for those who merit it on the basis of the testimony of their own selves. God has made this known to us because our knowing it serves the moral order, which is His means, as our rabb(Lord, Nurturer), of achieving for us the desired tarbiyah(nurture, upbringing). Moreover, God has also made clear that He forgives those who seek forgiveness of Him. That seeking entails contrition, remorse, repentance and good deeds in place of evil deeds. All these are stages in the activity of the accusing, reproachful self and part of the moral order. The natural order ends, for living organisms, in death. The moral order, which encompasses the natural order, continues to the Day of Judgement.

The unbelievers’ denial of the Last Day is a willful insistence that the natural order is all there is, and that the moral order is a human construction which human beings are at liberty to reconstruct or do without, just as they please. The unbelievers say: human beings are, up to a point,answerable to each other; they are not answerable to any higher authority. The arrogance of this attitude has, in our time, permeated all forms of collective human behaviour, at the level of economic, political and intellectual organization, in all societies including Muslim-majority ones. It is hard for individuals to resist its influence, but it will become less hard as the consequences of that arrogance of unbelief unfold in the material conditions of human life, health and social relationships, and of the environment upon which those material conditions are so heavily dependent. The deterioration in the material conditions of life is visible, investigable, measurable, quantifiable, and the pace of it is accelerating. While arrogant unbelief prevails in the world, this deterioration will not be halted, still less reversed, because there is no hope of building the collective will to do that.

For the believers, and only for them, there is the consolation that this world is not all there is. Our duty is to be mindful of the Last Day, to look to it with fear and hope, and to listen to the voice of our reproachful self, so that we take such remedial action as lies within the domain of our influence, however small or large that domain may be.

(3) The argument of Surat al-Qiyamah

In class I will be going through in detail the words and phrases of this surah and how they affect the force and flavour of its meaning, and where that meaning fits with other verses and themes of the Qur’an. Here I give the outline of its overall argument, against the background of the foregoing reflections on the benefits of belief in the Last Day and the unbelievers’ denial that there is a life after this life.

The surah has 40 verses, in two sections of 15 and 20 verses, separated by a short section of 4 verses.

1–15.

1–2.God swears an oath by the Day of resurrection, then by the accusing, reproachful self, negating(what the unbelievers have said).

3–4. Man thinks his scattered bones cannot be gathered together again, but indeed they can, and moreover his very fingers will be restored.

5–6. Man’s denial is because he knows within himself that he cannot face what lies ahead of him, so he asks scoffing, When does this Day take place

7–10. But when the time comes indeed – as indicated by light that dazzles the eyes, by the eclipse of the moon, when sun and moon are conjoined – then man’s question will be, Where can I escape?

11–12. On that day there is no place to hide. There is no recourse for man except to his Lord (rabb).

13–15. On that day man begins to hear the full account of the effects of his life, left behind in the world, and all that he sent ahead as his ‘goods’ for his afterlife. And indeed he is forthcoming(now) in his testimony against himself, for all his excuses (for himself when he was living his first life).

The unbelievers say there is only the Now, a moment that immediately becomesa Then of the past, and precedes aThen of the future. But there is also that which joins these Nows into a continuous, connected chain of life, the individual’s consciousness of being the same self hurried forward through time to death. And this self, God says, He has created with a consciousness of what is right and wrong, of what ennobles it and what demeans, what purifies it and what pollutes. The human being is not just conscious but self-conscious.He or she is equipped with a conscience, the nafslawwama. This self is the accusing voice, the breath of self-reproach, which the unbelievers strive to stifle by their mocking denial of God, His Messengers and His religion.

When we say we believe something, it means we take it as true. But religious believing is something more than this. It means we commit ourselves to live by what we take as true. Religious believing is the effort to conform our intentions and actions to the moral and spiritual ideals that the Guidance demands of us. Some external teaching is necessary and helpful, but finally this effort constitutes inward, subjective knowledge. As for the quality, the truth, of this knowledge: we can be examined on it only by ourselves. It is not like knowing that two-plus-two equals four– the kind of knowing that comes through applying rules of logic.It is not like knowing that it takes more energy to make water flow upwards than downwards– the kind of knowing that comes through reflection on experience and experimentation based on such reflection. Knowledge of those kinds is formal, external, objective: others can examine us on it and improve us in it with the right inputs of information and incentive. But as for our knowledge of the quality and truth of our own claim to be believers– it is informal, internal and subjective.In this life, our accusing, reproachful self is our primaryinstructor and examiner, informing us how well we are living up to the Guidance we affirm as the source of our faith. Nothing is so vital to the health and sound functioning of this inner voice as belief in the Last Day, the assurance (as explained above) that deficiencies in our knowledge and understanding, failures in our performance relative to the religious ideal, will all be made good by the final judgement of our Lord and Creator. This assurance is strengthened by the knowledge that God has prescribed for Himself mercy.

Without belief in the Last Day, the voice of the accusing self weakens to analmost-inaudible whisper.In the extreme, it disappears (like the bones of the dead in the desert sand)into the voice of the society in which wehappen to live, the voice of external convention. That is the case with all societies based upon denial of the Last Day. Subjective knowledge, the meaningful activity of the self, is steadily reduced until we hear: ‘It is my life,my body,I can do what I like with it’. This principle of modern morality is, in reality, immediately and entirely subject to the distribution of power. Only those who have power can in fact do what they like. The overwhelming majority in modern societies are subjected to uniform education which trains them to obey external rules; they are subjected to extensive surveillance in public spaces;and their public behaviour (for example, and especially, in their workplaces) is subject to managed procedures and routines, which they are expected to follow without much question.At the end of the working period, evenings and weekends, they are released to do as their own self bids them– by then, they are stressed and exhausted and merely seek escapist amusements. In the absence of religious life, they are so little used to serious reflection that they hardly develop their own taste even in material things. Nevertheless, the cultural rhetoric flatters their self-image as ‘free’ individuals with lots of ‘freedom of choice’!

16–19.

The trial of the Last Day is a tremendous event. For the average believer the thought of it fills the heart with dread; mind and tongue choke with anxiety. How much more so for the Messenger of God who must carry the burden of this reminder to his people and, through them, to all mankind. In the final reality, on the Last Day it is God alone who has the say, and His Judgement is a perfecting of man and man’s knowledge of himself and of his Creator, and the meaning of life and death. Therefore, the Day will be a consolation for those who have believed and laboured for the pleasure and forgiveness of their Lord. But before the event, the uncertainty and the dread remain. The man in the hadith mentioned at the beginning of these notes, was in such a panicthat, while believing that God would certainly punish him, thought to devise a way of escaping His judgement. That is perhaps the reason that, just here, God commands that which will settle and ease the heart of His Messenger

16. The Messenger is not to rush his tongue to gather the words (sent down upon his heart), as if fearful of losing any syllable of their sound or meaning.

17. Rather, God and His angels will gather the words and will recite them (so that he hears them).

18. When the words are recited, he should listen and follow the recitation of them.

19. Then, God and His angelstake responsibility for making the words clear to human understanding.

How closely this pause in the surah reflects the easing of a burden, which, ultimately, is what the Judgement of the Last Day represents!

20–40

20–21.Mankind are infatuated with the present life, which is passing, and neglect the life to come (which is everlasting).

22–23. Some on that Day will have shining faces, able to look to their Lord.

24–25. Other faces will be downcast, their expression portending imminent catastrophe.

26–30.

In these verses there is a suggestion that, for all his denials during life, at the moment of death, or in the few moments before it happens, man suddenly understands that the afterlife is real.

26–28. At the last gasp, when people summon whatever skill they have to handto save the man from death, the man himself knows it is the moment of parting (the living are to be left behind).

29–30. The pain of death is intense; the self is herded away to its Lord and Master.

31–33. These verses explain and justify the pain of death of one who was an unbeliever. He did not put his trust in his Lord, nor pray; rather, he rejected Him and flouted His commands, and then went about among his people chortling with pleasure at having got away with it.

34–35. The moment of your death is approaching, ever closer and still closer.

36–37. Do men really believe that their life is pointless, that they are to be left to do withit as they please? (Do they think it improbable that there is an afterlife).

38–39. Is it not much more improbable that any particular) man came from a drop of fluid, affixed in the womb, which God shaped and formed into paired cells, divided as male or female?

40. (That improbability being a lived reality)Is not He able to give life to the dead?

End notes.

At the beginning of these notes, I discussed the hadith quoted below:

‘Ḥumaydb.`Abdal-Raḥmān al-Zuhrī said,‘recounted to me from Abū Hurayra, about the Messenger of God, God pray over him and grant him peace, [that] hesaid: “A man had been wronging himself. When death presented itself to him, he enjoined [this] upon his sons: “When I am dead,” he said, “burn me, then reduce me to dust, then let the wind scatter me in the sea. By God! If my Lord were indeed to have power over me, He would torment me in a way in which He has not tormented anyone!” They did that to him. [God] said to the earth:“Bring that which you have taken!” And there [the man] was, raised up. [God] said to him: “What is it that led you to[do] what you did?”–“The fear [that I had] of You, O Lord!” Or he said: ‘My fear of You’. And for this God forgave him.’

AL-BUKHĀRĪ, al-Ṣaḥīḥ, al-Anbiyā; MUSLIM, al-Ṣaḥīḥ, al-Tawba.