Surat Aş-Şāffāt (Those who set the Ranks)
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The surah opens with a description of the angels, led by the Archangel Gabriel, carrying God’s words that were being revealed to the seal of the prophets, Muhammad. “[I swear] by those who range themselves in ranks, by those who cast out demons, and by those who recite the Word” (1‒3). This is an afﬁrmation of Islam’s most fundamental principle: taw^Ïd, the unity and Oneness of God Almighty.
Gabriel had the unique privilege of being in charge of conveying God’s revelation to Muhammad, but many other angels had the honor of partaking in that highly regarded task. Elsewhere in the Qur’an, God says: “By His will He sends down the angels with the Spirit to those among His servants whom He chooses, bidding them proclaim, ‘There is no god but Me; therefore fear Me’” (al-Na^l: 2). The angels also fulﬁll the task of warding off intrusive devils who try to intercept revelation and tamper with it.
The Prophet was reported to have said that revelation emanated from God Almighty, in the ﬁrst instance; then, once He had decided in heaven what would be revealed, the angels beat their wings in submission to His command, [making a clatter] akin to that made by hitting metal chains on stone. Then, when the terror has left their hearts, they would ask each other: “‘What has your Lord said?’ ‘The truth,’ they would reply. ‘He is the Most High, the Supreme One’” (Saba’: 23).
God is described here as “the Lord of the heavens and the earth,
and all that lies between them: the Lord of the eastern regions” (5). The eastern regions is a reference to the places where the sun rises, which vary throughout the year.
The opening passage contains two facts: the oneness of God, taw^Ïd, and the resurrection. Both are rejected by the unbelievers, who “…when it is said to them, ‘There is no god but God,’ they turn arrogant and say, ‘Are we to renounce our gods for the sake of a mad poet?’” (35–36). It is futile to try to deny the truth, for truth shall prevail.
The surah describes two scenes from the Day of Judgment in the hereafter as if they were unfolding before our eyes. It says:
Call the transgressors, their wives and the idols they used to worship besides God, and lead them to the path of hell. Hold them there for questioning. What has come over you that you are not able to help each other? Today, they shall surrender with humiliation and reproach one another, saying, “You have forced us to deviate.” Others would reply, “No! It was you who were not believers. We had no authority over you; you were indeed transgressors…” (22–30)
The leaders and their disciples are at loggerheads; each is blaming the other for their miserable fate. The weaker accuse the rich and the powerful of leading them astray and coercing them into tempta- tion, while the latter retort by describing their detractors as stupid and inane and calling on them to face up to their responsibilities. The surah says: “On that Day they will all share in the punishment. Thus shall We deal with the evil-doers” (33–34).
In the other scene we are told:
They will turn to one another asking questions. One will say, “I had a friend who used to ask [me]:‘Do you really believe? When we are dead and turned to dust and bones, shall we really be brought to
judgment?’” And then he will say to his fellow-believers, “Would you come and have a look?” He will look and see his friend in the very midst of hell, and say to him, “By God, you almost ruined me!…” (50–56)
Such an encounter is a familiar everyday occurrence. Every one of us tries to bring others round to our beliefs and way of thinking. Had the believer not been strong, he would have slipped up and lost his way. The surah describes his relief in the hereafter as he contin- ues to confront his former friend:
“...But for the grace of God I too should have surely been where you are. Shall we only die once, and shall we never be punished at all?” Surely that is the supreme triumph. To this end let everyone strive. (57–61)
As frequently seen in the Qur’an, such as in al-A¢r¥f, scenes from the hereafter are presented as though they are happening here and now, in order to achieve a greater impact.
One can feel the believer’s joy as he realizes that his faith has saved him from the misfortune consuming his former friend. As he joins the faithful in Paradise, basking in its comfort and abundance, the believer remembers a friend who used to deny the existence of God and the Day of Judgment. He is curious to ﬁnd out what had become of him. On seeing him wallowing in hellﬁre, he cannot but appreciate his own good fortune.
God then says: “Is this not a better welcome than the zaqq‰m tree? We have made this tree a scourge for the transgressors. It grows in the nethermost part of hell, bearing fruits like devils’ heads” (62–65).
This tree has been mentioned a few times in the Qur’an. Here are some instances: “As for you sinners, you shall eat the fruit of the zaqq‰m tree and ﬁll your bellies with it” (al-W¥qi¢ah: 51–53), and:
“The fruit of the zaqq‰m tree is the food of the sinner. Like dregs of oil, like scalding water, it shall simmer in his belly” (al-Dukh¥n: 43–46), and: “…the tree cursed in the Qur’an” (al-Isr¥’: 60).
The nearest thing to this tree has been described as a poisonous desert plant that grows on barren ground, bears small leaves and gives out a foul smell. It produces a kind of milk which causes swel- ling of the skin and could lead to death. The trees of hell are far more loathsome and hideous. Attractive plants, once dry, can be used as fuel; their trunks and branches are repositories of energy. Such are the marvels of God’s creation that even green trees and plants are turned into ﬁre.
God made the zaqq‰m tree the food of people of hell, saying: “They [the unbelievers] will eat from it until their bellies are full, and then they will mix it with scalding water” (66–67). But why this severe punishment? “They found their fathers erring, yet they eagerly followed in their footsteps” (69–70). They incurred such punishment because they blindly followed the practices, traditions, and conventions of their forefathers.
Most people, in fact, are guilty of similar behavior, denouncing the views and ways of others without due examination or scrutiny. People may even wrongly kill one another out of sheer bigotry or take it upon themselves to suppress their opponents and annihilate their ideas. The surah says: “Most of the ancients before them went astray, though We had sent them apostles to warn them. But take note of the fate of those We had warned…” (71–73).
The surah relates episodes from the experiences of six diffe- rent messengers by way of encouragement and reassurance to Muhammad.
The ﬁrst comes from the life of Noah, one of the most resolute of God’s messengers, who withstood untold hardship. Then it talks of Abraham, the founding father of the nation of Islam who established the ﬁrst beginnings of Islamic life on this earth. It recalls Moses, who brought the Torah, a book not unlike the Qur’an, that introduced
religion as faith and a code of law for temporal as well as spiritual life. These were three of the most senior messengers, followed by three others: Lot, a nephew of Abraham and one of his followers; and Elijah (Ily¥s) and Jonah (Y‰nus), two Hebrew prophets who ex- pounded the Torah, the Book of Moses.
Curiously enough, Noah’s story is told here from the end. He spent nine and a half centuries teaching his people but received nothing in return except rebuke and distress. As he lost all hope, he called upon God to come to his assistance and received the support he needed. He made a passionate plea and received the appropriate response:
Noah called upon Us, and We were the best to respond. We deli- vered him and his clan from a mighty scourge, and made his descendants the sole survivors. We bestowed on him the praise of later generations. Peace be upon Noah among all mankind. (75–79)
Thus Noah has been credited with eternal praise, as afﬁrmed elsewhere in the Qur’an: “We [God] said to Noah, ‘Go ashore in peace from Us. Our blessings are upon you and upon some of those who are with you’” (H‰d: 48).
Noah was a messenger to his own people and the ﬂood that occurred during his time was a local one which did not extend to places such as Egypt, Persia, Europe, or Africa.
Abraham was a prophet who staunchly upheld the principle of taw^Ïd which was as steadfastly advocated by Noah before him. The surah relates his quest for the truth and his struggle to dissuade his people from idol-worship. It says: “He looked up towards the stars and said, ‘I am not well!’ His people turned away from him and, once they had departed, he furtively set upon their gods, ask- ing them, ‘Will you not eat your offerings? Why do you not answer?…’” (88–92).
The narrative relates that Abraham sought to discredit his peo- ple’s pagan practise and so pretended to be unwell in order to be left alone. Once his people were preoccupied elsewhere he set upon the idols, smashing them into pieces, sparing only the most supreme god, so that the people might refer to it to ﬁnd out what had hap- pened (see al-Anbiy¥’: 58). He placed the pickaxe around the neck of the surviving idol to indicate that it had obliterated the rest!
It is obvious that Abraham resorted to such a ruse in order to expose the stupidity of his people and the absurdity of their religious beliefs and practices. It has been argued that this episode shows that Abraham had lied on three occasions. But this is nonsense! Such a false interpretation had been interpolated into the tafsÏr literature and has, quite rightly, been dismissed by all serious research. Abraham’s integrity is beyond reproach, and such an interpretation would be sheer balderdash!
One of the most celebrated events of Abraham’s life is the encounter with his son, Ishmael (Ism¥¢Ïl), who had been born dur- ing Abraham’s old age. As the boy grew before his father’s proud eyes, God, in His wisdom, ordered Abraham to slay his son as an offering to Him. The surah takes up the story:
And when he [Ishmael] reached a working age, his father said to him, “My son, it has been revealed to me in a dream that I should sacriﬁce you, so tell me what you think?” (102)
One could imagine Abraham’s predicament: a father ordered by God to sacriﬁce one of his most precious possessions in the world, the son he treasured and loved. Were the son to have been harmed in any other way the father would have been stricken by grief, so how deep his distress must have been when he was the one ordered to kill him!
Abraham, being the loyal and obedient servant and messenger he was, could not imagine ignoring an order from his Lord and so he told his son what was required of him. The son, being a truthful
and pious believer, responded by saying: “‘Father, do as you are bid- den. God willing you shall ﬁnd me steadfast’” (102).
The moment arrives when both would give themselves up to their respective fates. As the father takes out the blade and puts it to the son’s throat, they are both rescued:
We called out to him, saying, “Abraham, you have fulﬁlled what you were ordered in the dream.” Thus do We reward the righ- teous. That was indeed a bitter test. We ransomed his son with a noble sacriﬁce and bestowed upon him peace for all generations to come. (104–109)
The parable is another example that God’s testing of mankind is grave and extensive, and that true faith is more than mere lip service, but entails perseverance and total submission to God.
The surah directs Muhammad to ask the unbelievers: “…if it be true that God has only daughters while they themselves have male offspring?” (149). The Arabs were loathe to have baby daughters, considering it a sign of weakness and misfortune, and would bury them alive at birth, but they believed that the angels were daughters of God. The surah ridicules their practise and dismisses their allega- tion, implying that they had no understanding of, or respect for, God Almighty. It asks sarcastically: “Did We create the angels female, and did they witness their creation?” (150).
Earlier in the surah, Muhammad was directed to ask the unbeliev- ers: “...if they deem themselves a more formidable creation than the rest of Our creation. We formed them out of malleable clay” (11). That argument came in the context of God’s great and tremendous power.
On both occasions, the aim is to expose the shallowness and the absurdity of the unbelievers’ concept of godhead and their inane image of God. God has no offspring of any kind: jinn, human, or angelic; nor is there any such concept as a god of goodness and a god
of evil. Such beliefs can only ﬁnd favor with ignorant and supersti- tious people. There is but one God.
The Arabs would also claim that, had they been given a heavenly Book like the Jews and the Christians, they would have proved more loyal and devout. The surah tells us: “They say, ‘Had we received Revelation as the ancients had done, we would have become true servants of God’” (167–169).
Some earlier communities had come to believe only after much persuasion, and Revelation brought them power and dominance, but some of the Arabs rejected God’s word when it was revealed to them. Many communities, however, deviated and had to face the consequences. The surah says: “We have long promised Our Messengers that they would prevail. Our armies shall be victo- rious” (171–173). The victory promised by God Almighty only comes after much travail and exertion, and after the people have proved their entitlement to it. The surah says:
So allow them some respite, and wait to see their downfall as they face the consequences of their disbelief. How dare they provoke Our scourge! Dismal shall be the morning when it falls upon those who had been forewarned. (174–177)
The instruction to persevere and await the outcome is repeated once more before the surah is concluded.
إِنَّ إِلَٰهَكُمْ لَوَاحِدٌ
رَّبُّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا وَرَبُّ الْمَشَارِقِ
إِنَّا زَيَّنَّا السَّمَاءَ الدُّنْيَا بِزِينَةٍ الْكَوَاكِبِ
وَحِفْظًا مِّن كُلِّ شَيْطَانٍ مَّارِدٍ
لَّا يَسَّمَّعُونَ إِلَى الْمَلَإِ الْأَعْلَىٰ وَيُقْذَفُونَ مِن كُلِّ جَانِبٍ
دُحُورًا ۖ وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ وَاصِبٌ