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Surah ash-Shams (No. 91, 'The Sun')

Verses 1-10

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

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

وَالشَّمْسِ وَضُحَاهَا

By the sun and her forenoon splendour, (91:1).

وَالْقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَاهَا

by the moon when he follows her, (91:2).

وَالنَّهَارِ إِذَا جَلَّاهَا

by the day when it revealed her, (91:3).

وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَاهَا

by the night when it covers her, (91:4).

وَالسَّمَاءِ وَمَا بَنَاهَا

by the sky and that which built it, (91:5).

وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا طَحَاهَا

by the earth and that which spread it, (91:6).

وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا

by a soul and that which fashioned it, (91:7).

فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا

and inspired it with its vices and virtues: (91:8).

قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَنْ زَكَّاهَا

felicitous is he who refines it, (91:9).

وَقَدْ خَابَ مَنْ دَسَّاهَا

failed is he who buries it. (91:10).

1. Oaths Of The Qur’an

There is definitely a connection between the oaths of the Qur'an and the object of these oaths, but someone must ponder on the Qur'an in order to discover that. This is one aspect of the wisdom behind Allah invoking such oaths, for He is too exalted to need an oath in order to dispel any doubts about what He says, as people sometimes need in courts of law, for instance!

Accordingly, we can say that the association between these oaths, as represented by that between the wonders of creation and human self-refinement, is that Allah has placed everything in existence at a person's disposal in order that he might reach this level of perfection, by which I mean self-refinement. Without this fruit, a person's own existence is thrown into discord with the rest of existence, because all mute beings attain the purpose of their existence, it is only this rational being that does not! And this idea is affirmed in a hadith qudsi: 'O son of Adam! I created everything for you, and I created you for Me.'1

2. The Number And Quality Of Oaths

Oaths in the surahs of the Qur'an differ in their number and quality. With regards to quality, they differ according to their relatum, whether this is celestial phenomena

“By the sky, by the nightly visitor ...” (at-Tariq, 86:1).

or terrestrial ones:

“And the earth and that which spread it...” (ash-Shams, 91:6).

or wonders of the soul:

“And a soul and Him Who perfected it...” (ash-Shams, 91:7).

or those of the Hereafter:

“by the Promised Day.” (al-Buruj, 85:2).

By number, these groups of oaths vary from one to four:

One:

“By Time...!” (al- Asr, 103:1).

Two:

“By the morning brightness,” (ad-Duha, 93:1).

“by the night when it is calm ...!” (ad-Duha, 93:2).

Three:

“By the night when it covers,” (al-Layl, 92:1)

“by the day when it brightened,” (al-Layl, 92:2)

“by Him who created the male and the female...” (al-Layl, 92:3)

Four:

“By the fig and the olive, by Mount Sinai, by this secure town:” (at-Tin, 95:1-3)

Five:

“By the Dawn,” (al-Fajr, 89:1)

“by the ten nights,” (al-Fajr, 89:2)

“by the Even and the Odd,” (al-Fajr, 89:3)

“by the night when it departs!” (al-Fajr, 89:4)

But the number in this surah reaches eleven oaths, and all of these are directed towards a single object; the soul (nafs):

“Successful is he who refines it.” (ash-Shams, 91:9)

And this indicates that the basis of all excellence in this world and the Hereafter is nothing other than this, or else it would not deserve these repeated oaths to be sworn upon it.

At this point, it is interesting to note that we do not find anywhere in the Qur'an a build-up such as this for any other aspect of the religion. And this shows that what Allah desires from His servant is that affair that lies beyond outward worship, namely that he liberates himself from immoral qualities and habits in his inner realm. The results are usually felt in the external realm as a matter of necessity.

3. The Phrase “Reveals Her”

“by the day when it revealed her,” (ash-Shams, 91:3).

Some scholars connect the pronoun in 'reveals her’ to the earth, in which case there is no ambiguity, but some others connect to the Sun in the sense that the day -which is caused by the Sun - reveals the Sun, and this contains an obvious ambiguity. In order to resolve this, we say that because the Sun is too far away for people to reach, the way it appears to people is not the same as the way other things on the earth do, while the fact is that the day, in whose light people live and whose blessings they benefit from, is something obvious because of how immediate it is to their senses. This is exactly the same as the image in a mirror, which merely reflects the original object, but in doing so, also, reveals it.

In this sense it can be said that the servant who calls others towards Allah is like the day, which reveals the shining, Sun; he is a guide towards Allah. And this is exactly the situation with regards to reviving the remembrance of the Prophet and his Household (‘a); mercy has been promised to those who revive their cause, while the truth is that those who revive their cause are on a lower level than the ones whose remembrance they are reviving!

4. The Phrase “Ma” (That Which)

“by the sky and that which built it,” (ash-Shams, 91:5).

Something that has caught the eyes of Qur'an commentators is the use of the pronoun 'that which' (ma) instead of 'He who' (man) to refer to the Creator in these verses. This is to allude to the wondrous and mysterious force - at least, according to our limited perception - by which the heavens, the earth and the soul all exist. The verse refers to instances of inanimate beings such as the Sun and earth, and also, the intangible ones such as the soul, which, unlike the former two entities, is referred to in the indefinite form - 'a soul' - to indicate its greatness.

Hence it is necessary to move conceptually from the manifestation of greatness to the source of greatness. This is a problem that scientists have when they study the natural world. They are amazed by the creation, without moving from that to the Creator, and so, their studies do not help them become closer to Him, nor do we see that fear promised to Allah's servants with knowledge. Finally, the joining of the Divine Essence to His creations - in the context of the oaths - obviously signifies the greatness of the creation mentioned in conjunction with its Creator!

5. Another Interpretation Of The Phrase “Ma” (That Which)

It is also, possible to interpret 'that which' (ma) in the aforementioned verse to refer to the divine laws that govern the universe and which are responsible for raising the heavens:

“by the sky and that which built it” (ash-Shams, 91:5).

and leveling the earth:

“by the earth and that which spread it,” (ash-Shams, 91:6).

for example the law of gravity which provides all heavenly bodies with their paths of orbit. From this we understand that we can place the creation of all the fixed elements of the universe in one hand, and the laws that govern these fixed elements in the other.

Of course, the one who comprehends these laws is the human being, or else animals would have perception equal to that of humans, or even better than ours, as we know that the physical senses of many animals are superior to those of humans. But animals are not able to logically reason and connect an effect to its cause.

6. The “Soul”

Just as the 'soul' (nafs) can refer to the spirit (ruh), as in:

“Allah takes the souls at the time of their death,” (az-Zumar, 39:42).

it can also, refer to something that includes the body as well; for example, in Allah's saying:

Indeed, I have killed one of their persons, so, I fear they will kill me.” (al-Qasas, 28:33).

In this surah, the fashioning mentioned in the verse:

“by a soul and that which fashioned it,” (ash-Shams, 91:7).

could refer to either the spirit or the body, for Allah has employed His power of creation in both of them together, as He has extolled Himself by saying:

“…...blessed is Allah, Lord of all the worlds!” (al-Ghafir, 40:64).

after creating the body and infusing it with the spirit. And this is alluded to by His saying:

Then We produced him another creation.'(al-Mu'minoon, 23:14).

7. Conscience

The verse which attributes inspiration (ilham) to Allah, saying:

“and inspired it with its virtues and vices,” (ash-Shams, 91:8).

is one of the means by which Allah's servants will be left without any excuse on the Day of Resurrection; they cannot make the plea that they had no external reminder, because the Lord of the Worlds has inspired them with a conscience that acts as an internal messenger (rasul batini) which every person has.

8. Divine Inspiration

It is interesting to note that in this verse, Allah has said that the recipient of divine inspiration is the human soul, and that He has said this categorically without stipulating that this soul must have faith. In the same vein, He has made the subject of the verses:

“Rather man is a witness to himself,” (al-Qiyamah, 75:14).

“though he should offer his excuses.” (al-Qiyamah, 75:15).

categorically the human being as well,]. And He states that all mankind - as opposed to a particular group - are recipients of fitrah (humanness by nature);

“ ……... the nature (framed) of Allah, in which He hath created man...” (ar-Room, 30:30).

All of this shows us that staying true to one's original humanity and moral probity does not require anything extraneous to the human being himself.

But to this we must add that the mission of the prophets is reminding people of the call of their own original humanity, preventing this from being snuffed out by obstinacy, and then guiding people to the particular forms of obedience that cannot be apprehended by reason. But in spite of that, the responsibility for self-refinement ultimately falls to the person himself, which is why Allah attributes it to the person, saying:

“felicitous is He who refines it.” (ash-Shams, 91:9).

9. Inspiration

Inspiration here refers to Allah effusing that, which will aid man in conceptualizing (tasawwur) and verifying (tasdiq) in the realm of moral good and evil (or theoretical wisdom). And this represents the lowest degree of inspired guidance for the human soul.

But we can also, ask this. What is there, after the door of Allah's mercy has been opened through judicious self-refinement, to prevent the door of Allah's effusion opening with regards to those things that will aid the person in discerning what is right and wrong in his personal behaviour (namely, practical wisdom), so, that his conduct in respect of each particular issue he faces will be on the straight path, as well as his general outlook in life? This is something that we seek through every unit of salat (prayer) - whether obligatory or supererogatory - in recitation of the surah al-Fatihah.

10. Vice And Virtue 1

Etymologically, vice (fujur) means to rend the curtain of religiosity just as daybreak (fajr) means to rend the darkness of the night, while virtue (taqwa) means to protect the soul from harm. This means that whomsoever Allah has inspired with these two affairs, as necessitated by His words:

“and inspired it with its vices and virtues” (ash-Shams, 91:8).

has been granted the means to obtain this protective veil, and also, to remove the barriers to those things that tear it, and this is the basis of moral excellence, unlike:

a. Those who tear this veil by perpetrating vices; do they imagine they can stitch it back together after ripping it like this?

b. Those who remove protection from themselves by forgoing virtue; do they believe that the devils will not take charge of their affairs?

11. Vice And Virtue 2

Perhaps the reason why vices are mentioned before virtues in the realm of inspiration:

“and inspired it with its vices and virtues” (ash-Shams, 91:8)

is that a person must shed his iniquities before adorning himself with virtues. Another reason may be that our original human nature (fitrah) is instinctively repelled by the wrongness of vice, and hence the culpability of one who engages in vices is greater than that of one who forgoes virtue, because he has gone against his own conscience!

This is what happened to the one who hamstrung the she-camel,2 for he had challenged Divine Lordship as represented by this miracle camel, and thereby violated it; this was not simply a case of disobeying Allah in practise because of giving preference to some inclination or desire. Hence the divine punishment came down upon him and his people, a punishment unique in its severity and scope!

12. Felicity 1

Everyone in existence is striving for felicity (falah) according to their own viewpoint, but the problem arises when putting this into practice and identifying those things that will bring them this felicity. So, some think it will result from:

a. Worldly enjoyments, like the people of Korah (Qarun):

“ ...would that we had like of what Korah has been given! Indeed, he is lord of rare good fortunate.” (al-Qisas, 28:79).

b. Knowledge familiar to themselves, as in Allah's saying of those who used their knowledge for worldly gain:

“they exulted in the knowledge they possessed'” (al-Ghafir, 40:83).

c. Amassing wealth and children:

'I have more wealth than you, and am stronger with respect to number (of men and following).” (al-Kahf, 18:34).

d. Power and authority over others: “Today he who has the upper hand will be joyful!” (Ta Ha, 20:64).

But the Qur'an settles this argument by saying that felicity belongs only to:

“... he who refines it” (ash-Shams, 91:9).

not 'he who has the upper hand’.

13. Felicity 2

When the Qur'an mentions felicity resulting from doing good deeds, it mentions it in the form of anticipation;

“ …...and do good, so, that you may be felicitous.” (al-Hajj, 22:77).

while felicity resulting from self­refinement is mentioned as if it has already been achieved;

“felicitous is he who refines it.” (ash-Shams, 91:9).

In this we can discern the distinction between the actions of the soul and the actions of the limbs: The relation of the first to the second is like the relation between roots and branches; in other words, if there are healthy roots, a lush tree will grow. And this is supported by the prophetic tradition: 'A believer's intention is better than his deeds!'3

14. Felicity 3

When the Qur'an speaks categorically, it intends an all-inclusive meaning, so, long as there is no qualifier to the contrary. For example, when the Qur'an uses the words 'faith' (lman) and 'righteous deeds' ('amal salih) in a multitude of verses, this denotes faith and righteous deeds in their most comprehensive and complete sense. The same applies in this verse ('felicitous is he who refines it') as this also, denotes self-refinement in its broadest sense, whether this has to do with beliefs, senses or actions; and these are the three dimensions of our existence.

This meaning is supported by the fact that the felicity referred to here is also, mentioned in another verse;

“Felicitous are the believers,” (al-Mu'minoon, 23:1).

which is followed by verses detailing the qualities of the faithful, including avoiding idle talk, which some people might see as unnecessary for self-development. This indicates that the scope in which one must pursue self-refinement if he desires felicity.

15. Self-Refinement 1

Self-refinement (tazkiyah) is a voluntary action that a person undertakes on his own accord. Otherwise, this would be a matter of determinism (jabr) and there would be no point in divine reward and punishment. It has been narrated from Imam al-Sadiq (‘a): 'You have been made the physician of your own soul; you have been shown the illness, taught the meaning of health and instructed in its proper treatment; so, look to how you take care of yourself!' 4

Yet in spite of this, a person should supplicate wholeheartedly for Allah to assist him with himself for his own sake, and against his enemy for his own sake, for it has been narrated that when Allah's Messenger recited this verse 'felicitous is he who refines it' he stopped and said: 'O Allah! Grant my soul its virtue and purify it above its purification, You are its keeper and its master!' (allahumma aat nafsi taqwaha, wa zakha anta khayra min zakaha, anta waliyuha wa mawlaha)5

This meaning is supported by Allah's words:

“Were it not for Allah's grace and His mercy upon you, not one of you would ever be pure. But Allah purifies whomever He wishes...” (an-Nur, 24:21).

And there is no contradiction between a person refining his own soul and Allah purifying him, just as there is no contradiction in bringing about an action between the one who helps and the one who is being helped!

16. Self-Refinement 2

Calling self-refinement tazkiyah - lit. 'nurturing' - contains a kind of encouragement and motivation for those who struggle against themselves, for the fruit of this struggle is growth and development and not merely purification from one's faults. In the words of the Commander of the Faithful (‘a) concerning the connection between knowledge and its increase, we read: 'Knowledge grows as it is spent.'6

In other words, someone who refines himself is granting himself an excellence that will please him, not denying himself an enjoyment that will satisfy him! For what causes some people to abandon this path is a fear of deprivation, while the truth is that if they encounter such deprivation on this path, it is a stage in their development; it is worthwhile for them to forgo some short-term enjoyment for the sake of eternal perfection ... how interesting it is that worldly people will endure the deprivation of one thing to secure something better, so, why don't we learn from them in this matter?

17. Self-Refinement 3

There is a considerable distance between a sprouting seed whose planter watches as it grows day by day until it yields its harvest, and between a seed whose owner buries it in the ground, only for it to die before it sprouts.

This is the condition of someone who does not take the path of self-refinement, as expressed by the words:

failed is he who buries it” (ash-Shams, 91:10).

for he has buried the soul entrusted to his care in the grave of his desires and lusts, just as the pre-Islamic Arabs would bury the daughters entrusted to their care beneath the ground:

“ ...or bury it in the ground!” (an-Nahl, 16:59).

So, the expression 'bury' (dass) is the same in both verses; as if the person who buries his soul and the one who buries his child alive are on a similar level in the essence of their sin, even if this is not apparent at first glance.

It is interesting that the Arabic word qad (signifying emphasis) is repeated for both felicity and failure, to show that the oaths sworn above apply equally to both of these realities.

18. Failure

The one who realizes the meaning of 'burying' (dass) in himself instead of 'refinement' (tazkiyah) has actually grown in a way contrary to what is natural and healthy; hence why he is afflicted by failure and frustration! So, Allah's word 'failed' shows this failure with a view to the effect this burial will have on the Day of Resurrection; and this could be the group of people the Qur’an was describing with the words:

“Those whose endeavour goes awry in the life of the world, while they suppose they are doing good work.” (al-Kahf, 18:104).

And what a difference there is between the person who will be surprised by his failure on the Day of Resurrection, and the person who senses felicity in this world before reaching the Hereafter!

Verses 11-15

كَذَّبَتْ ثَمُودُ بِطَغْوَاهَا

Thamud denied out of their rebellion, (91:11).

إِذِ انْبَعَثَ أَشْقَاهَا

when the most wretched of them rose up. (91:12).

فَقَالَ لَهُمْ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ نَاقَةَ اللَّهِ وَسُقْيَاهَا

But then the Messenger of Allah said lo them, 'Let Allah's she-camel drink!'(91:13).

فَكَذَّبُوهُ فَعَقَرُوهَا فَدَمْدَمَ عَلَيْهِمْ رَبُّهُمْ بِذَنْبِهِمْ فَسَوَّاهَا

But they impugned him and then they hamstrung her, so, their lord took them unawares by night because of their sin, and leveled it. (91:14).

وَلَا يَخَافُ عُقْبَاهَا

And he does not fear its outcome. (91:15).

19. Disbelief

The greatest sin, which causes someone to be imprisoned in Hellfire forever, is disbelief (kufr). This sin might not emerge from a person all at once; history is replete with examples of apostasy by people from whom it was never thought possible! And the source of this disbelief is the outward sins, which builds up until they blind a person to the very foundation of their faith in the Exalted Creator! So, the one who hamstrung the she-camel was already 'wretched' (shaqi) by virtue of having committed sins. But he became 'most-wretched' (al-ashqa) by challenging the gift of the heavens and the message of the Prophets. His rebellion became a cause of his denial, as we understand from the causal relationship implied by the Arabic particle ba' (translated as 'out of’ above) in His words:

“Thamud denied out of their rebellion.” (ash-Shams, 91:11).

We can also, apply the verse:

“Then the fate of those who committed misdeeds was that they denied the signs of Allah and they used to deride them” (ar-Room, 30:10).

to this context as well; sins begin with misdeeds and ultimately lead to rejection of faith and denial.

20. Rebellion

A failed person is someone who buries himself in the darkness of the soil like the infant girls buried during the age of ignorance, but the matter does not end here - if only he was a thing undone! No, because rebellion (tughyan) is like planting the seed from which a wicked tree will grow; and Allah expresses this crime with His words:

“when the most wretched of them rose up” (ash-Shams, 91:12).

showing that the source of His wretchedness was in plain sight and not buried.

And the words 'rose up' (inbi'ath) could imply some degree of obstinacy or resolve to confront the messenger who had warned them against harassing Allah's she-camel.

21. The She-Camel Of Prophet Salih

All creatures in this universe belong to Allah insofar as they are created - and this includes all the she-camels on the earth - but Allah honours the she-camel of Salih (‘a) in particular by claiming her as His own, just it as applies to the Black Stone, Joseph's shirt and Moses' ark, and this is why daring to hamstring her invited such a painful punishment.

And if this all applies to an animal which Allah singles out for concern, what more a righteous person, who is called Allah's monument on the earth (bunyan allahu fi al-ard)?

22. Approving Doing Of Bad Deeds

The one who actually undertook to kill the she-camel reached the apex of wretchedness, as Allah says:

“when the most wretched of them rose up.” (ash-Shams, 91:12).

This shows that when the accumulated sins reach their peak in the realm of actions, their felony reach its peak in terms of the consequences, and this is something we see clearly in the cases of the greatest tyrants in history!

But we should also, take stock of the fact that other members of his community approved of his action, even if they did not perform the deed themselves, and that is why they were encompassed by its tribulation. And even though only one person actually hamstrung the camel, the verse attributes the crime to all of them;

“ …... they hamstrung her....” (ash-Shams, 91:14).

This is as the Commander of the Faithful (‘a) describes them: 'Allah enveloped all of them with punishment, because all of them had approved [of the crime.]' 7 And by the same token, approving the deeds of a righteous people means that you have a share in their reward. This means we must first be cautions in mixing with tyrants, second of approving of their deeds, and third of emulating their attributes.

23. Sensory Similitudes

The Qur’an makes a habit of offering sensory similitudes of things, such as a lantern to explain its light, and sending down water from the heavens to the earth to explain the nature of worldly life, as analogies in relation to the concepts that it aims to convey to mankind.

One such similitude mentioned in this surah is someone who abandons virtue (taqwa) and actually takes the path of vice is the same as the people of Thamud; that is because they abandoned self-refinement and thus fell into the sin of hamstringing the she­camel, which represents a challenge to one of Allah's signs namely the she-camel which He sent - which in turn brought down upon them a divine punishment so, severe it leveled their homes to the ground;

“ ……so, their Lord took them unawares by night because of their sin, and leveled it.” (ash-Shams, 91:14).

24. Pondering On The Consequences Of Actions

One of the ways in which people are prevented from committing evil is by pondering on the consequences of their actions, whether desirable or otherwise in the sight of Allah, and it is up to Him whether or not He grants respite! It is Indeed, strange that people do not take a lesson from the lives of those in the past. As a result, they end up repeating the very sins that brought about their ruin. Had the person who hamstrung the she-camel thought about the punishment that befell those whom Allah annihilated before them, he would not have dared to challenge the prophet of his own time!

This is the meaning we glean if we say that the subject of the words:

“And he does not fear its outcome' (ash-Shams, 91:15).

is the one who hamstrung the camel, but we can also, say that 'he' here refers to Allah, meaning that He does not fear sending down His punishment upon the obstinate, unlike the kings of this world who sometimes fear the consequences of taking revenge on others, because they know that one day the tables might be turned against them, as often is the case!

  • 1. Bihar al-Anwar, 22/355.
  • 2. Referring to the story of Prophet Salih, see below and also, Surah Hud:
    “And, O my people! this will be (as) Allah's she-camel for you, a sign; therefore, leave her to pasture on Allah's earth and do not touch her with evil, for then a near chastisement will overtake you.” (11:64).
    “But they slew her, so he said: Enjoy yourselves in your abode for three days, that is a promise not to be belied.” (11:65).
  • 3. Bihar al-Anwar, 4/178.
  • 4. Jami' ahadith al-Shi'a 13/246.
  • 5. Bihar al-Anwar, 92/220.
  • 6. Bihar al-Anwar, 1/188.
  • 7. Bihar al-Anwar, 97/95.