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Surah al-Buruj (No. 85, the Houses of the Zodiac)

Verses 1-9

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful.

وَالسَّمَاءِ ذَاتِ الْبُرُوجِ

By the sky with its homes, (85:1).

وَالْيَوْمِ الْمَوْعُودِ

by the Promised Days, (85:2).

وَشَاهِدٍ وَمَشْهُودٍ

by the Witness the Witnessed: (85:3).

قُتِلَ أَصْحَابُ الْأُخْدُودِ

Slain are the People of the Ditch! (85:4).

النَّارِ ذَاتِ الْوَقُودِ

The fire, abounding in fuel, (85:5).

إِذْ هُمْ عَلَيْهَا قُعُودٌ

above which they sat (85:6).

وَهُمْ عَلَىٰ مَا يَفْعَلُونَ بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ شُهُودٌ

as they were themselves witnesses to what they did to the believers. (85:7).

وَمَا نَقَمُوا مِنْهُمْ إِلَّا أَنْ يُؤْمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ الْعَزِيزِ الْحَمِيدِ

They were vindictive towards them only because they had faith in Allah, the All-mighty, the All laudable, (85:8).

الَّذِي لَهُ مُلْكُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاللَّهُ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدٌ

to whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and Allah is witness to all things. (85:9).

1. Celestial Signs

The Qur'an frequently invokes oaths by Allah's celestial signs, such as the sun, the moon and the stars. We find another example of this in this surah, which swears by the 'houses' of the Zodiac, as well as calling to mind the Heavens itself, which contains all of these celestial bodies with His saying;

“Certainly We have appointed houses in the Heavens and adorned them for the onlookers.” (al-Hijr, 15:16).

Perhaps the reason for this focus on the firmament is that it is there and available for everyone to contemplate upon; no matter where they are, a person needs only cast their gaze upwards to take it in. Moreover, it is - in its vast expanse - a manifestation of Allah's greatness, as well as being His sole dominion, as it is beyond the power of man to corrupt the heavens as he has corrupted the earth.

2. Houses

Some say1 that these ‘houses’ are actually the places of the planets. Of course, the care and wisdom taken in placing them is no less important than the fact of their existence, for if they moved from their positions, the running of the universe would be altered, from the progression of the seasons to the rhythm of the tides; this makes clear to us that this act - like all other acts of creation - has been executed according to Allah's utmost wisdom.

It is most interesting that Allah - after mentioning His creation of the houses of the zodiac - mentions the Resurrection and the vengeance He will exact therein against the wrongdoers after all the corruption they have caused. From this we can understand that the same wisdom behind placing the celestial bodies in their appropriate places requires Allah to requite the wrongdoers as well, in order that everything is in its proper place in both the physical and the spiritual worlds.

3. The Promised Day

God specifically refers to the Resurrection as 'the Promised Day' after mentioning some features of the first creation:

“By the sky with its houses” (al-Buruj, 85:1).

This suggests that every kind of persecution faced by the faithful in this world should actually be seen from the perspective of the One in whose hands is all existence; whatever hardships they suffer for the sake of Allah will not be in vain, for Allah may grant respite to the oppressors but He will never ignore the oppression they commit. It is narrated that the Commander of the Faithful (‘a) described what happens to the People of the Ditch: 'A woman came with her child of one month, and when she was seized she feared for her child. But the child called out: 'Fear not! But cast me into the fire with you, for by Allah, this is but a trifle for Allah's sake! So, she cast herself into the fire with her child, and her child was one of those who spoke while still a babe.’ 2

Referring to it as 'the Promised Day' suggests that it will delight the souls of those who await it, as if Allah has made that day a promised day that His friends (awliya') await expectantly, in order to placate them because of their prayers for the punishment of their oppressors to be hastened.

4. The Witnesses And Those Witnessed

One of the astonishing things about the Qur'an is that a single one of its words is open to many meanings. Thus, concerning the verse of Solomon's (‘a) kingdom, some commentators identify as many as 1.26 million possibilities! Another verse like this is:

“by the Witness and the Witnessed” (al-Buruj, 85:3).

It has as many as thirty possible interpretations, and we rarely find words which can be so, widely applied except in the Qur'an.

One of the most appropriate interpretations mentioned for this verse is that the witness (shahid) is the Prophet (S), based on Allah's saying:

“O Prophet! Indeed, We have sent you as a witness, as a bearer of good news and as a warner.” (al-Ahzab, 33:45).

And the witnessed (mashhud) is the Day of Recompense, based on Allah's saying:

“… That is a day on which all mankind will be gathered, and it is a day witnessed.” (Hud, 11:103).

5. The Witness

The witnessing by 'the Witness' has been interpreted3 sometimes to mean being present and seeing something with your own eyes, but at other times to mean bearing witness, declaring the truth and acting upon the consequences of this witnessing. Whichever meaning is adopted, they both demonstrate the lofty station of the Final Prophet (S) who sees our deeds whether we are alive or dead and then bears witness over us, which in turn is a threat to those who obstinately refuse to believe, and a source of embarrassment to those who love him (S), as whatever bad conduct of ours ultimately reach him and cause him distress.

This should be sufficient to keep anyone with the slightest amount of love in their hearts for the Prophet (S) away from sinning; as how can a lover be happy when he harms his beloved, if he is truthful in his professions of love?

6. People Of The Ditch

If the expression 'People of the Ditch' in Allah's saying:

“Slain are the People of the Ditch!” (al-Buruj, 85:4).

refers to the event about the faithful who have been slain, then these verses are informing the audience about what had happened to them. On the other hand, if they are referring to the disbelieving murderers, then this is an invocation against them.4 The Qur’an has also, used this style of invocation elsewhere. For example:

'Perish man! How ungrateful is he!” ('Abasa, 80:17).

And also,

'Perish the liars...!” (adh-Dhariyat, 51:10).

As though Allah, who originated them with His hand of providence, sees them as unworthy of living any longer on His earth, which He created for His vicegerents; because they have forsaken the very purpose of creation. So, Allah invokes death upon them, which is the opposite of life, and what a difference there is between invoking death upon them and promising to give a good life to the faithful:

“We shall revive him with a good life!” (an-Nahl, 16:97).

And this, to some extent, can apply to many other people, insofar as their lives do not embody the reason for which man was created, which is to be Allah's vicegerent on the earth.

7. The Crime Of The People Of The Ditch

The crime perpetrated by the Men of the Ditch was one of the most horrible atrocities the believers endured. There are several reasons for this:

a. Their killers dug a ditch for them in the ground, so, that they could not run away.

b. They threw the believers into the ditch while they stood and sat around it -

“above which they sat.” (al-Buruj, 85:4).

watching what happened to their victims – both deriding and tormenting them.

c. They went to extreme in kindling a fire that Allah described as:

“ ... abounding in fuel,” (al-Buruj, 85:5).

indicating that it was a fire that was continuously burning because it had all the fuel it needed.

d. They took revenge on the believers for something that had nothing to do with their persons; they had only defied them for the sake of Allah;

“They were vindictive towards them only because they had faith in Allah, the All­mighty, the All-laudable.” (al-Buruj, 85:8).

And this is similar to what befell another group of believers:

“Are you vindictive toward us for any reason except that we have faith in Allah ...?” (al-Ma'idah, 5:59).

e. Burning someone alive is the most repulsive form of murder, because it is a slow, agonizing death, and anyone who sits watching it idly must be truly repulsive themselves.

Verses 10-22

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ فَتَنُوا الْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتِ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَتُوبُوا فَلَهُمْ عَذَابُ جَهَنَّمَ وَلَهُمْ عَذَابُ الْحَرِيقِ

Indeed, those who persecute the believing men and women, and then do not repent, for them there is the punishment of hell, and for them there is the punishment of burning. (85:10).

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ لَهُمْ جَنَّاتٌ تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ ذَٰلِكَ الْفَوْزُ الْكَبِيرُ

Indeed, those who have faith and do righteous deeds, for them will be gardens with streams running in them. That is the supreme success. (85:11).

إِنَّ بَطْشَ رَبِّكَ لَشَدِيدٌ

Indeed, your Lord's harshness is severe. (85:12).

إِنَّهُ هُوَ يُبْدِئُ وَيُعِيدُ

It is Indeed, He who originates and brings back again, (85:13).

وَهُوَ الْغَفُورُ الْوَدُودُ

and He is the All-forgiving, the All-affectionate, (85:14).

ذُو الْعَرْشِ الْمَجِيدُ

Lord of the throne, the All-glorious, (85:15).

فَعَّالٌ لِمَا يُرِيدُ

enactor of whatever He desires. (85:16).

هَلْ أَتَاكَ حَدِيثُ الْجُنُودِ

Did you receive the story of the hosts (85:17).

فِرْعَوْنَ وَثَمُودَ

of Pharaoh and Thamud? (85:18).

بَلِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فِي تَكْذِيبٍ

Rather the disbelievers dwell in denial, (85:19).

وَاللَّهُ مِنْ وَرَائِهِمْ مُحِيطٌ

and Allah besieges them from all sides. (85:20).

بَلْ هُوَ قُرْآنٌ مَجِيدٌ

Rather it is a glorious Qur'an, (85:21).

فِي لَوْحٍ مَحْفُوظٍ

in a preserved tablet. (85:22).

8. The Pharaoh And Thamud

After the first verses of this surah mention a merciless confrontation between the faithful and their killers, whose cruelty was such that they burnt their victims to death, Allah reminds the Prophet (S) in the verses that follow of two other types of confrontations the believers faced, as represented by the violence of the Pharaoh and Thamud through their display of military might:

“Did you receive the story of the hosts.” (al-Buruj, 85:17).

Of all the manifestations of their strength, the Qur'an specifically chooses their military power, which was on display through the violence of their soldiers towards Allah's servants, and yet Allah destroyed them in the most unexpected ways, by water (drowning) in the case of Pharaoh's men and air (storm) in case of Thamud's.

And yet the disbelievers among the Quraysh do not take a lesson from this:

“Rather the disbelievers dwell in denial,” (al-Buruj, 85:19).

It is as though denial contains them and encompasses them as a vessel surrounds its contents, and this suggests that - as the reality suggested - they will never believe.

9. The Men Of The Ditch

The Qur'anic oaths are there to affirm whatever object follows them. But sometimes the Qur'an leaves ambiguous what the object of its oaths is as a way of encouraging its audience to ponder on what its object could be, and to impel people to think and reflect on Allah's revelation.

We can find an example of this approach in the present surah; the object of the oath is not explicitly mentioned, but it is hinted at by Allah's words:

“Indeed, those who persecute the believing men and women, and then do not repent, for them there is the punishment of hell, and for them there is the punishment of burning.” (al-Buruj, 85:10).

So, it is as though the object of the oath is that divine retribution will be taken on the Day of Resurrection in its most severe form and in a way that is appropriate to the crime which warrants it. In this case it is punishing the Men of the Ditch with burning -'punishment of burning' - meaning with a fire like the one they set ablaze in this world.

10. Encouragement

Mentioning repentance in a way to offer encouragement, as Allah does in this phrase: 'and then do not repent' in the middle of the verse. Immediately before it, Allah mentions the persecution of the believers by the non-believers 'who persecute the faithful men and women' and then after it mentions a form of divine punishment for them 'for them there is the punishment of hell, and for them there is the punishment of burning.' This reflects the extent of Allah's mercy towards His servants; He leaves open the door of repentance to even the most vicious of His creatures. It is as though this verse wants to bring the disbelievers of the Quraysh back from their transgression and promise them forgiveness if only they will desist from persecuting the Prophet (S) and his companions.

So, how can anyone despair of Allah's mercy and forgiveness, when their sins do not come close to the persecution and murder of the believers?

11. Punishments

That the Qur'an mentions 'the punishment of burning' as a type of punishment in Hell shows that the punishment of Hell is not restricted to Fire. In fact there is:

a. A drink that a person will:

“ ... gulp it down, but hardly swallowing it: death will assail him from every side ....” (Ibrahim, 14:17),

b. Food represented by:

“Indeed, the tree of Zaqqum” (ad-Dukhan, 44:43).

“will be the food of the sinful.” (ad-Dukhan, 44:44).

c. Psychological torment, in that they will be told:

“ ... Begone therein, and do not speak to Me!” (al-Mu'minoon, 23:108).

And there are still other forms of punishment besides burning that suffice to terrify the sinners; so, how horrible will it be if on top of all that they are subjected to the punishment of burning, whereby their bodies will be eternally incinerated and restored, only to be incinerated again, as Allah says:

“as often as their skins become scorched, We shall replace them with other skins, so, that they may taste the punishment.” (an-Nisa', 4:56).

And it is possible that when Allah says:

“lt is Indeed, He who originates and brings back again,” (al-Buruj, 85:13).

after mentioning His harshness or severity, that this alludes to the condition of having their skins replenished; so, He replaces the skins, and then repeats that to perpetuate their punishment for as long as He wishes.

12. Fear And Hope

The Qur'an demonstrates Allah's wisdom by juxtaposing the bliss of Paradise with the torments of Hell, for the human being must forever be between fear (khawf) and hope (raja’). Hence the verse about Paradise immediately follows the verse about punishment:

“Indeed, those who have faith and do righteous deeds, for them will be gardens with streams running in them. That is the supreme success.” (al-Buruj, 85:11).

This is to balance intimidation with encouragement, and this is the general strategy the Qur'an follows in educating Allah's servants, and we should follow its example in driving them towards their Lord.

13. Righteous Deeds

The expression 'righteous deeds' in the plural, which appears in so, many verses, requires us not to be content with only a single type of righteous deed - as some do - just as righteous deeds will not intercede for their doer unless they are also, accompanied by faith! Add to this the fact that the categorical usage of the word 'faith' necessitates faith in all the necessary doctrines, if a believer is to be truly considered a believer. The faith of someone who only believes in some parts of Islam while disbelieving in others is not accepted.

Of course, faith (iman) is an idea distinct from that of ‘Islam’, as is clear from the verse:

“The Bedouins say, 'We have faith.' Say, 'You do not have faith yet; rather say, "We have embraced Islam," for faith has not yet entered into your hearts.” (al-Hujurat, 49:14).

So, if partial faith is not rewarded, what more partial Islam?

14. Harshness

The expression 'harshness' (batsh) - an expression, which is appropriate in response to the behaviour of tyrants - means to seize someone forcefully and assault them. Allah uses it here to give composure to the heart of the Prophet (S) and those around him, in the sense that the one suffering from the violence against the disbelievers is also, the bearer of love for His believer friends - 'all-affectionate' (wadud) - and the 'enactor' (fa'al) against whose will (iradah) nothing can stand. We could say that this expression is connected to other ideas that appear in this surah; He is the bearer of violence against His enemies:

“Indeed, your Lord's punishment is severe.” (al-Buruj, 85:12).

the bearer of love and forgiveness towards His friends:

“He is the All-forgiving, the All-affectionate,” (al-Buruj, 85:14).

and the innate master of majesty and supremacy because He is

“the enactor of whatever He wills.” (al-Buruj, 85:16).

-; and His being shows that He has complete authority over existence:

“Lord of the Throne .....” (al-Buruj, 85:15).

These ideas, taken altogether, affirm the fact that Allah executes His rule by showing His pleasure with the believers. From another perspective He repels the disbelievers, and from another the grandeur of His essence is manifested. How firmly has He wrought His signs, and how wondrous they are in conveying His promise and His threat!

15. The Actions Of His Enemies

If we ponder on the similarity between Allah's description of His own acts and those of His enemies do, we see:

a. That they witnessed the murder of the believer;

“as they were themselves witnesses to what they did to the faithful.’ (al-Buruj, 85:7).

while

“... Allah is witness to all things.” (al-Buruj, 85:9).

b. They ignited a fire to torture the righteous,

“The fire, abounding in fuel' ’ (al-Buruj, 85:5).

while Allah is the Lord of

“.... the punishment of burning.” (al-Buruj, 85:10).

c. They took revenge on the believer in this transitory world

“... only because they had faith in Allah, the All-mighty, the All-laudable” (al-Buruj, 85:8).

but Allah will take revenge against them with His severe harshness in the eternal abode;

“Indeed, your Lord's harshness is severe.” ’ (al-Buruj, 85:12).

d. They are the ones whose rebuke Allah has recorded in a book that will be recited until the Day of Resurrection, while He lauds the fate of his friends by promising them that He will admit them to His everlasting gardens;

“Indeed, those who have faith and do righteous deeds, for them will be gardens with streams running in them. That is the supreme success.” (al-Buruj, 85:11).

16. Allah’s Attributes

Allah mentions His magnificent names and the attributes which apply to Him in the context of discussing this event, and it should be clear that there is a correspondence of sort between these names and what the surah recounts about the challenge to the authority of the Lord of the Worlds that persecution His friends represents. For Allah:

a. is the 'All-Mighty' (al-'aziz) with whom nothing in existence can match.

“.... the All-mighty, the All laudable,” (al-Buruj, 85:8).

b. does whatever he desires. He is

“The enactor of whatever He wills” (al-Buruj, 85:16).

when exacting vengeance from the murderers of the believers, or rather in everything that His boundless wisdom demands.

c. deserves every form of praise, which means that his friends should be honoured rather than persecuted.

“… the All-Laudable” (al-Buruj, 85:8).

d. is the possessor of 'the dominion' (al-mulk), so, no one should challenge Him in His authority by killing his friends.

“to whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth…” (al-Buruj, 85:9).

e. is 'witness' from whom not even an atom in the heavens and the earth is hidden. Thus how can He be unaware of the oppression wrought by the disbelievers against the believers?

“ ...and Allah is witness to all things.” (al-Buruj, 85:9).

f. is al-forgiving and all-affectionate to all of His servants, but especially those who have been persecuted for His sake including the Victims of the Ditch.

“and He is, the All-Forgiving, The All-Affectionate” (al-Buruj, 85:14).

17. Awareness Of Reality

The Qur'an repeatedly says that Allah encompasses things, people and deeds. In this surah, for example, we read:

“and Allah besieges them from all sides,(al-Buruj, 85:20).

while in another surah:

“Is it not sufficient that your Lord is witness to all things?” (Fussilat, 41:53).

Obviously, if a person is aware of this reality throughout all the vicissitudes of life, he can achieve the lowest level of infallibility, or the highest level of moral probity, such that he will never commit a sin so, long as he senses this divine presence.

To draw an analogy, we cannot conceive of a person undressing himself in the company of polite people. So, by the same token, a servant who is vigilant of His Lord sees sinning almost like spiritually disrobing in Allah's presence! And this is what happened to our forefather, Adam (‘a):

“So, they both ate of it, and their nakedness became evident to them, and they began to stitch over themselves with the leaves of paradise.” (Ta Ha, 20:121).

  • 1. Tafsir al-Tibyan, 8/460.
  • 2. Majma' al-Bayan, 10/707.
  • 3. Tafsir al-Mizan, 20/249.
  • 4. In which case, this can be translated, as Qara'i does, as: 'Perish the Men of the Ditch!'