In the Shade of the Quran (part 30)
Surah 91 The Sun - ash Shams
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
By the sun and his morning brightness, by the moon as she follows him, by the day which reveals its splendour, by the night when it enshrouds him, by the heaven and its construction, by the earth and its spreading, by the soul and its moulding and inspiration with knowledge of wickedness and piety. Successful is the one who keeps it pure, and ruined is the one who corrupts it. In their insolence the people of Thamoud denied the truth, when their most-wretched broke forth. The Messenger of Allah said to them: "The she-camel of Allah, let her have her drink". But they cried lies to him, and hamstrung her. For that sin their Lord let loose His scourge upon them, and razed their city to the ground. He fears not what may follow.
This surah, which maintains a single rhyme and keeps the same musical beat throughout, starts with several aesthetic touches which seem to spring out from the surrounding universe and its phenomena. These phenomena form the framework which encompasses the great truth which is the subject matter of the surah, namely, the nature of man, his inherent abilities, his choice of his line of action, and his responsibility in determining his own fate.
This surah also refers to the story of the tribe of Thamoud and their negative attitude to the warnings of Allah's messenger to them, and their killing of the she-camel; and finally the collapse of Thamoud and their complete annihilation. This comes as an example of the unpromising prospects which await those who corrupt their souls instead of keeping them pure and do not confine themselves within the limits of piety. "Successful is the one who keeps it pure, and ruined is the one who corrupts it. "
By the sun and his morning brightness, by the moon as she follows him, by the day which reveals its splendour, by the night when it enshrouds him, by the heaven and its construction. by the earth and its spreading, by the soul and its moulding and inspiration with knowledge of wickedness and piety. Successful is the one who keeps it pure, and ruined is the one who corrupts it.
Allah swears by these objects and universal phenomena as He swears by the human soul, how it is fashioned and how it is inspired. The oath gives these creatures an added significance and draws man's attention to them. Man ought to contemplate these phenomena and try to appreciate their value and the purpose of their creation.
There exists in fact, some kind of a special language through which the human heart communicates with the universe and its marvellous scenes and phenomena. This language is part of human nature. It is a language which does not use sounds and articulation. It is a communication to the hearts and an inspiration to the souls which come alive whenever man looks up to the universe for an inspiring touch or a cheerful sight. Hence, the Qur'an frequently urges man to reflect upon the surrounding universe. It does this in various ways, sometimes directly and sometimes with hints and incidental touches and stimuli, as in this case where some phenomena of the universe are made the subject of Allah's oath, in order to serve as a framework for what follows in the surah. These explicit directives and indirect hints are very frequent in this thirtieth part of the Qur'an. There is hardly one surah in it which does not encourage man, in one way or another, to communicate with the universe, in their secret language, so that he may appreciate its signs and understand its address.
Here we have an inspiring oath by morning. The oath also specifies the time when the sun rises above the horizon, when it is indeed at its most beautiful. Indeed, mid-morning is, in winter, a time for refreshing warmth. In summer, it is the time when the atmosphere is just mild and fresh before the blazing heat of midday sets in, and the sun is at its clearest.
The oath is also by the moon as she follows the sun and spreads her beautiful and clear light. Between the moon and the human heart there is an age-long fascination that is well established in men's inmost souls. It is a fascination that is born anew every time the two meet. The moon issues her own special whispers and inspirations to the human heart, and she sings her songs of praise to the Creator, which a poet can almost hear through the tenderness of moonlight. On a clear moonlit night, one can almost feel oneself sailing through the moonlight, clearing off one's worries and enjoying a perfect bliss as one feels the hand of the Maker beyond this perfect creation.
Allah also swears by the day as it exposes the sun. The Arabic wording of this verse makes the pronoun preceding 'splendour' ambiguous. Initially, one tends to take it as if it refers to the sun. The general context, however, suggests that it refers to the earth as it is lit by the sun. This method of changing referents is widely employed in the Qur'an when the change is easily noticeable when the subject matter is familiar. Here we have a discreet allusion to the fact that sunlight does reveal the earth and has a great effect on human life, as is well known. Our familiarity with the sun and his light makes us tend to overlook his beauty and function. This Qur'anic hint reawakens us to this magnificent daily spectacle.
The same applies to the following verse, "by the night when it enshrouds him ", that is, the opposite of what happens in the day. Night time is like a screen that covers and hides everything. It also has its own impressions on everyone, and its impact on human life is not less important than that of day time.
Allah then swears "by the heaven and its construction." When heaven is mentioned, our immediate thoughts go to the huge domelike sky above us in which we see the stars and the planets moving each in its orbit. But we are in fact uncertain of the exact nature of heaven. However, what we see above us does bear the idea of building and construction because it looks to us a firm and solid whole. As to how it is built and what keeps it together as it floats in the infinite space, we have no answer. All that has been advanced in this field is only theory that is liable to be invalidated or modified. We are certain, however, that the hand of Allah is the one which holds this structure together, as emphasised elsewhere in the Qur'an: "Allah holds the heavens and the earth that they do not collapse. Should they collapse none could hold them back but He." [Al-Qur'an 35:41] This is the only definite and absolute truth about the matter.
The oath then includes the earth and its spreading as preparatory to the emergence of life. Indeed, human and animal life would not have been possible had the earth not been spread. It is indeed the special characteristics and the natural laws which Allah has incorporated in the making of this earth that make life on it possible, according to His will and plan. It appears that if any of these laws were to be violated or upset, life on earth would have been impossible or would have changed its course. The most important of these is perhaps the spreading of the earth which is also mentioned in surah 79 ("The Pluckers"): "After that He spread out the earth. He brought out water from it, and brought forth its pastures." [Al-Qur'an 79:30]
The surah moves on to state the basic truth about man, and relates this truth to the various phenomena of the universe, for man is one of the most remarkable wonders in this harmonious creation: "by the soul and its moulding and inspiration with knowledge of wickedness and plety. Successful is the one who keeps it pure, and ruined is the one who corrupts it."
These four verses in conjunction with a verse in the preceding surah, "The City": "And ( We have) shown him the two paths", and a verse in surah 76, "Man", which says: " We (Allah) have shown him the right path, be he grateful or ungrateful, " [Al-Qur'an 76:3] constitute the basis of the "Psychological Theory of Islam". They supplement the verses which point out the duality in man's make-up in surah 38, "Sad", which says: " Your Lord said to the angels, 'I am creating man from clay. When I have fashioned him, and breathed of My spirit into him, kneel down and prostrate yourselves before him. ' [Al-Qur'an 38:72-73] These verses also supplement and are related to the verses which define man's responsibility and accountability for his actions, as the one in surah 74, "The Cloaked One", which reads in translation: "Every soul is the hostage of its own deeds," [Al-Qur'an 74:38] and the verse in surah 13, "Thunder", which states that Allah's attitude to man is directly related to man's own behaviour: "Allah does not change a people 's lot until they change what is in their hearts." [Al-Qur'an 13:11]These and similar verses define the Islamic view of man with perfect clarity.
Allah has created man with a duality of nature and ability. What we mean by duality is that the two ingredients in his make-up, i.e., earth's clay and Allah' with, form within him two equal tendencies to good and evil, to follow Divine guidance and to go astray. Man is just as capable of recognising the good as he is of recognising the evil in everything he encounters, and he is equally capable of directing himself one way or the other. This dual ability is deeply ingrained within him. All external factors like Divine messages only serve to awaken his potential and help it take its chosen way. In other words, these factors do not create this potential, which is innate; they only help it develop.
In addition to his innate ability man is equipped with a conscious faculty which determines his line of action and is, therefore, responsible for his actions and decisions. He who uses this faculty to strengthen his inclinations to what is good and to purify himself and to weaken the evil drive within him will be prosperous and successful; while he who uses this faculty to suppress the good tendency in himwill ruin himself: "Successful is the one who keeps it pure and ruined is the one who corrupts it."
There must be, then, an element of responsibility attached to man's conscious faculty and freedom of choice. For if he is free to choose between his tendencies, his freedom must be coupled with responsibility. He is assigned a definite task related to the power given to him. But Allah, the Compassionate, does not leave man with no guidance other than his natural impulses or his conscious, decision-making faculty. Allah helps him by sending him messages which lay down accurate and permanent criteria, and point out to him the signs which should help him choose the right path and which exist within him and in the world around him, and clear his way of any obstructions so that he may see the truth. Thus, he recognises his way easily and clearly and his conscious decision-making faculty functions with full knowledge of the nature of the direction it chooses and the implications of that choice.
This is what Allah has willed for man and whatever takes place within this framework is a direct fulfilment of His will.
From this very general outline of the Islamic concept of man emerge a number of vital and valuable facts: firstly, that this concept elevates man to the high position of being responsible for his actions and allows him freedom of choice, (within the confines of Allah's will that granted him this freedom). Responsibility and freedom of choice, therefore, make man the honoured creature of this world, a position worthy of the creature in whom Allah has blown something of His own spirit and whom He has made with His own hand and raised above most of His creation.
Secondly, it puts man's fate in his own hands (according to Allah's will as explained earlier) and makes him responsible for it. This stimulates in him an attitude of caution as well as the positive sense of the fear of God. For he knows then that the will of Allah is fulfilled through his own actions and decisions: "Allah does not change a people's lot until they change what is in their hearts." This is in itself a great responsibility which demands that one should be always alert.
Thirdly, it reminds man of his permanent need to refer to the criteria fixed by Allah in order to ensure that his desires do not get the better of him, lead him astray and destroy him. Thus man keeps near to Allah, follows His guidance and illuminates his way by the Divine light. Indeed, the standard of purity man can achieve is limitless.
The surah then gives an example of the failure which befalls those who corrupt themselves, and erect a barrier between themselves and Divine guidance: "In their insolence the people of Thamoud denied the truth, when their most-wretched broke forth. The Messenger of Allah said to them, 'The she-camel of Allah, let her have her drink' But they cried lies to him, and hamstrung her. For that sin their Lord let loose His scourge upon them and razed their city to the ground. He fears nor what may follow."
The story of Thamoud and their Messenger, Salih, is mentioned several times in the Qur'an. A discussion of it is given every time it occurs. The reader may refer to it for further details in the commentary on surah 89, "The Dawn", in this volume. The present surah, however, states that the people of Thamoud rejected their Prophet and accused him of lying simply because they were arrogant and insolent. Their transgression is represented here by their mostwretched breaking forth to hamstring the she-camel. He is the most-wretched as a result of his crime. Their Messenger had warned them in advance, saying, "Beware! never harm Allah's she-camel and never touch her drink." This was his condition when they asked him for a sign. The sign was that she-camel who had the water for herself one day and left it for the rest of the cattle one day. The shecamel must have had something else peculiar to her, but we shall not go into its details because Allah has not told us about it. Thamoud however, did not heed their Messenger's warnings but hamstrung the she-camel. The person who perpetrated the crime, the arch-sinner, is the most-wretched, but they all were held responsible because they did not take him to task. On the contrary, they applauded what he did. A basic principle of Islam is that the society bears a collective responsibility in this life. This does not conflict with the principle of individual responsibility in the hereafter when everyone is answerable for his own deeds. It is a sin, however, not to counsel and urge one another to adhere to the good and not to punish evil and transgression.
As a result of Thamoud's insolence and their outrageous crime, a calamity befell them: "For that sin their Lord let loose His scourge upon them and razed their city to the ground." The Arabic verse uses the verb 'damdama' for 'let loose His scourge', which creates, by its repetitiveness, an added feeling of horror, as we learn that the city was completely razed to the ground.
"He fears not what may follow ". All praises and glorification be to Him. Whom, what and why should He fear? The meaning aimed at here is what the statement entails: he who does not fear the consequences punishes most severely. This is true of Allah's punishment.
In conclusion, we say the surah provides a link between the human soul, the basic facts of the universe, its constant and repetitive scenes and Allah's unfailing law of punishing the tyrant transgressors. This He does according to His own wise planning which sets a time for everything and a purpose for every action. He is the Lord of man, the universe and fate.