In the Shade of the Quran (part 30)

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  • In the Shade of the Quran (part 30)

  • Surah 88 The Enveloper - al Ghashiyah

    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.


    Have you heard the story of the Enveloper? Some faces on that day are downcast, labour weary, toilworn, roasting at a scorching fire, made to drink from a boiling fountain. Their only food shall be the fruit of Dhari', which will neither nourish nor satisfy their hunger. Other faces on that day are jocund, well-pleased with their striving, in a sublime garden, where they hear no babble. A running fountain shall be there, and raised couches, and cushions laid in order, and carpets outspread. Let them reflect how the camel was created; how heaven was lifted up; how the mountains were hoisted; how the earth was outstretched. Therefore give warning; your mission is only to warn them. You are not their overseer. But he who turns his back and disbelieves, Allah shall inflict on him the greatest chastisement. To Us they shall surely return, when We shall bring them to account.



    This surah is a deep and calm melody which invites meditation, hope and fear, and warns man to be ready for the day of reckoning. It carries man's heart into two vast spheres: the life hereafter, its limitless world and moving scenes; and the visible sphere of existence, with the signs Allah has spread in all the creatures sharing this existence, held out for every one to see. After these two great scenarios, the surah reminds man of the reckoning on the Day of Judgement, of Allah's power, and of the inevitable return to Him. Throughout, the style is characterised by its depth of tone: it is calm but highly effective, powerful, and awesome.

    "Have you heard the story of the Enveloper?" With this introduction, the surah wants to make human hearts turn back to Allah, to remind men of His signs in the universe, His reckoning on the Day of Judgement, and His certain reward. It starts with this inquiry, which implies greatness and indicates a positive statement. It points out that the question of the hereafter had already been affirmed and earlier reminders had been given. The Day of Resurrection is here given a new name, "the Enveloper", which suggests that a calamity will befall mankind and envelop them with its horrors. It is one of the evocative names mentioned in the thirtieth part of the Qur'an. Others are: "the Overwhelming", "the Deafening", "the Stunning Event". They are all very suitable to the general tone and nature of this part.

    The Prophet (peace be on him) whenever he listened to this surah would feel that the address "Have you heard ..." was directed to him personally, as if he was receiving it from his Lord directly for the first time. He was extremely moved by Allah's address to him. The reality of this Divine address was always present in his mind. A tradition related by Umar ibn Maymoon says that the Prophet once passed by a woman who was reading the surah . When she read "Have you heard the story of the Enveloper ...?" he stopped to listen and said "Yes, I have heard it."

    The address is nevertheless a general one, directed to everyone who hears the Qur'an. The story of the Enveloper is the oft-repeated theme in the Qur'an, reminding men of the hereafter, warning them of its punishment, and promising its rewards. It is a story which aims to awaken men's consciences, to arouse their fear and apprehension as well as their hope and expectancy.

    After asking "Have you heard the story of the Enveloper?", the surah relates a part of this story: "Some faces on that day are downcast, labour weary, toilworn, roasting at a scorching fire, made to drink from a boiling fountain. Their only food shall be the fruit of Dhari, which will neither nourish nor satisfy their hunger." The scene of suffering and torture is given before the scene of joy, because the former is closer to the connotations and impressions of "the Enveloper".

    Thus we are told that there are on that day faces which look humble, down cast and toilworn. They belong to people who have laboured and toiled without any satisfactory results. Indeed the results they get are a total loss, which increases their disappointment, and causes looks of humiliation and exhaustion on their faces. Hence they are described as "labour weary, toilworn". They had laboured and toiled for something different than the cause of Allah. Their work was totally for themselves and their families, for their own ambitions in the worldly life. Then they come to reap the fruits of their toil, not having made any provisions for the future life. Hence they face the end with a mixture of humiliation, exhaustion, misery and hopelessness. In addition to all this they roast "at a scorching fire."

    They are "made to drink from a boiling fountain. Their only food shall be the fruit of Dhari', which will neither nourish nor satisfy their hunger." Dhari' is said to be a tree of fire in Hell. This explanation is based on what has been revealed about the tree of "zayqoom" which grows at the centre of Hell. It is also said to be a kind of cactus thorn, which when green is called "shabraq" and is eaten by camels. However, when it is fully grown it cannot be eaten as it becomes poisonous. Whatever it is in reality, it is a kind of food like "ghisleen" and "shabraq" (names given by the Qur'an to refer to the food available in Hell) which neither nourishes nor appeases hunger.

    It is obvious that we, in this world, cannot fully comprehend the nature of that suffering and torture in the hereafter. The description is made in order to give our human perceptions the feeling of the greatest possible pain, which is produced by a combination of humiliation, weakness, failure, the scorching fire, drinking and bathing in boiling water, and eating food unacceptable even to the camels.

    From all these aspects we get a feeling of the ultimate affliction. But the affliction of the hereafter is, nevertheless, greater. Its true nature is incomprehensible except to those who will actually experience it. May Allah never count us among them.

    On the other hand we find "other faces on that day are jocund, well pleased with their striving, in a sublime garden, where they hear no babble. A running fountain shall be there, and raised couches, and goblets set forth, and cushions laid in order, and carpets outspread." Here are faces bright with joy, animated with pleasure. They are well-pleased with what they are given. They enjoy that splendid, spiritual feeling of satisfaction with what they have done, as they sense Allah's pleasure with them. There is no better feeling for man than to be reassured of his own actions, and to see the results reflected by Allah's pleasure with him. The Qur'an gives precedence to this kind of happiness over the joys of heaven. Then it describes heaven and the joys it affords to its happy dwellers: "in a sublime garden." It is glorious and sublime, with lofty positions and elevated gardens.

    The description of height and elevation gives us a special feeling. "Where they hear no babble": this expression creates a sense of calmness, peace, reassurance, affection, satisfaction and pleasant discourse between friends. It also provides a feeling of raising oneself above any vain conversation. This is in itself a kind of joy and happiness, which is better felt when one remembers the first life and its increasing polemics, disputes, contentions, quarrels, sin and uproar. When one remembers all this, one relaxes with the feeling of complete calmness, total peace and pleasant happiness generated by the Qur'anic expression "where they hear no babble". The very words are endowed with pleasant fragrance. They flow with a gratifying rhythm. It also implies that, as the believers turn away in this life from polemics and vain discourse, their way of life acquires a heavenly element.

    As has been said earlier, of all the descriptions of heaven, Allah emphasises first this sublime and brilliant element, before He mentions the joys which satisfy the senses. These are given in a form comprehensible to man, but in heaven they take the form which is suited for the elevated standards of the people of heaven. Thus they remain unknown except to those who actually experience them.

    "A running fountain shall be there": the description combines a sense of the appeasement of thirst, with beauty of movement and flow. Running water gives a sense of liveliness and youth. It is pleasant to the eye and the mind, and touches the depths of human feeling.

    "And raised couches": the adjective "raised" gives an impression of cleanliness and purity. "And goblets set forth", so they are ready for drinking - there is no need to order or prepare them. "And cushions laid in order" are for the dwellers to recline and relax. "And carpets out spread" are for the dual purpose of decoration and comfort. All these luxuries are similar to luxuries enjoyed in this life, but these are mentioned merely to make them comprehensible to us. Their true nature, and the nature of their enjoyment, are left for the experience of those successful people whom Allah has rewarded. It is useless to make comparisons or enquiries concerning the nature of the joys of the here after, or the nature of its afflictions. People gain their understanding by means that are limited to this world, and the nature of life in it. When they are in the next life all veils will be lifted and barriers removed. Souls and senses will be free from all restrictions, and the connotations of the very words will alter as a result of the change in feelings they refer to. These Qur'anic descriptions help us to imagine the ultimate of sweetness and joy. This is all that we can do while we live on earth, but when Allah honours us with His grace and pleasure, as we pray He shall, we will know the reality to which the Qur'an refers.

    When this account of the hereafter comes to its close, the surah refers to the present world, which is in itself a manifestation of the power and perfect planning of Allah, the Almighty: "Let them reflect how the camel was created, how heaven was lifted up, how the mountains were hoisted, and how the earth was outstretched" These four short verses join together the boundaries of the world of the Arabs - the first people to be addressed by the Qur'an. They also group together the prominent ends of creation in the universe as they speak of the sky, earth, mountains and camels. The last of these stands for all animals, although the camel has its own distinctive features and a special value for the Arabs. All these aspects of creation - the sky, earth, mountains and animals - are always in front of man wherever he is. Whatever man's level of civilisation and scientific advancement, they remain within his world and within his sphere of consciousness. When he considers their roles, they suggest to him something of what lies beyond. In each of them there is a miracle of creation. The distinctive, incomparable work of the Creator is clear in them all, and this alone is sufficient to indicate the true faith. Hence the Qur'an directs to them the attention of every human being.

    "Let them reflect how the camel was created." The camel was the principal animal for the Arab. It was his means of transport and it carried his belongings. It gave him food and drink. From its hair and skin he made his clothes and dwellings. Besides, the camel is unique among all animals. Despite its strength, size and firm build, it is tame: a boy can manage it. It gives man a great service and, at the same time, it is inexpensive to keep and its food is easy to find. Moreover, it is the only animal to endure hunger, thirst, hard work and poor conditions. Its shape has also a special characteristic which is in perfect harmony with the portrait drawn here, and this will be discussed later on.

    So, the Qur'an asks of its first audience to ponder on how the camel is made. This does not require them to undertake any difflcult task or to discover any obscure field of science. "Let them reflect how the camel was created." Camels were a part of their world, and they only needed to look and consider how they were made most suitable for their role; how their shape and build fit perfectly with their environment and function. Man did not create camels, nor did camels create themselves. So, they must have been made by the Unique Maker whose work reflects His supreme ability and perfect planning, and proves His existence.

    "How heaven was lifted up." The Qur'an repeatedly directs man's reflective faculties to think of the skies. The desert people should be the first to undertake this, because in the desert the sky has a much richer impact and is more inspiring - as if it has a unique existence. The sky - its days brilliant and beaming, its late afternoons captivating and fascinating, its sunsets charming and inspiring, its infinite nights, sparkling stars and friendly whispers, its sunrises live and animating, all this is certainly worth a good deal of reflection and contemplation. They should consider how it was lifted up. Who raised it so high without pillars to support it? Who scattered those innumerable stars? Who endowed it with its beauty and inspiration? They certainly did not lift it up, and it could not have been lifted by itself. A power is responsible for its creation and erection, and intelligent thought is enough to indicate Him.

    "How the mountains were hoisted." For the Arab in particular, a mountain is a refuge and a friend. In general, it always looks majestic and awe some. Next to a mountain, a man appears small and humble. It is natural for a man on a mountain to think of Allah, and feel himself nearer to Him. He feels a distinct detachment from the petty concerns of his worldly life. It was neither a vain whim nor a coincidence that Muhammad (peace be on him) should go to the cave in Mount Hira'a for periods of worship and contemplation (before he was given the message). It is also not surprising that those who want to spend a period in self-purification should seek to do so in a mountain. The reference here to the mountains speaks of them being "hoisted", because this fits in perfectly with the image portrayed, which will be dealt with later on.

    "How the earth was outstretched" The earth is obviously outstretched and made suitable for human life and its full and varied range of activities. Man could not have outstretched it, as it was completed long before his existence. So should not man reflect on and consider who outstretched the earth and made life feasible on it?

    Intelligent reflection on all these aspects will always inspire the minds and excite the souls into recognition of Allah, the Creator.

    Perhaps we should pause a little to consider the perfection with which this image of the universe is portrayed. The Qur'an addresses man's religious conscience in a language of artistic beauty, and both coalesce in the believer's perception to bring the whole image in full relief. The scene portrayed includes the elevated heaven and the outstretched earth. Across such a boundless horizon stand the mountains. They are not described as firmly-rooted, but "hoisted". The camels also stand with their upright humps. It is a majestic scene, vast and in6nite, with merely two horizontal lines and two vertical ones. This manipulation of graphic description for the expression of ideas is a distinct characteristic of the Qur'anic style.

    Having dealt first with the Hereafter, and pointed out some apparent aspects of the universe, the surah now addresses the Prophet, (peace be upon him), laying down the nature of his mission and limits of his role. It then concludes with a final reminder to mankind:

    Therefore give warning; your mission is only to warn them. You are not their overseer. But he who turns his back and disbelieves, Allah shall inflict on him the greatest chastisement. To Us they shall surely return, when We shall bring them to account.

    Remind them then of the hereafter and the universe, and all there is in each of them." You are not the it overseer." You have no control over their means and you cannot compel them to adopt the faith. Men's means are in the hands of Allah, the Merciful. Jihad (struggle in the cause of Allah), which was later made a duty of the Prophet and all Muslims, did not aim at converting people to Islam by force. Its only aim was to remove all hindrances in the way of the Islamic call, so that it could be conveyed freely, and so that people were not prevented from listening to it or persecuted for doing so. That is the role the Prophet can fulfil: to remove the obstacles which prevent him conveying his message.

    The notion that the Prophet's mission is confined to reminding and conveying the message is often repeated and stressed in the Qur'an . There are several reasons for this emphasis, the first of which is to relieve the Prophet of the heavy burden of directing the course of the Islamic call once he has conveyed it. He must leave it to Allah to decide its course. The urgency of the human yearning to win victory for the Truth and to get people to benefit from its absolute goodness is so keen that such repetition is required to make the advocates of this call distinguish their own desires and ambitions from their mission. When this distinction is clear, they proceed with the fulfilment of their duty regardless of the response and consequences. Thus the advocates of the call do not worry themselves over who has accepted the faith and who has rejected it. They are not charged with this burden, which becomes particularly heavy at times of adversity, when favourable response becomes a rarity and enemies abound. But conveyance of the Message, which is the limit of the Prophet's task, is not the end of the matter. The disbelievers are not to be left alone. They cannot deny Allah and be safe. "But he who turns his back and disbelieves, Allah shall inflict on him the greatest chastisement." They will no doubt return to Allah, and He will inevitably administer their retribution. The surah ends on a decisive and final note: "To Us they shall surely return, when We shall bring them to account." The definition of the Prophet's role and the role of every subsequent advocate of Islam is thus completed. They have only to remind and the reckoning will be made by Allah.

    It must be stressed, however, that the process of reminding includes the removal of hindrances so that people may be free to listen to the call. This is the aim of Jihad as it is understood from the Qur'an and the history of the Prophet. It is a process which neither admits negligence nor permits aggression.


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