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Surah az-Zalzalah (No. 99 'The Quaking’)

Verses 1-5

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

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

إِذَا زُلْزِلَتِ الْأَرْضُ زِلْزَالَهَا

When the earth is rocked with its terrible quake (99:1).

وَأَخْرَجَتِ الْأَرْضُ أَثْقَالَهَا

and the earth discharges her burdens, (99:2).

وَقَالَ الْإِنْسَانُ مَا لَهَا

and man says, 'What is the matter with her?' (99:3).

يَوْمَئِذٍ تُحَدِّثُ أَخْبَارَهَا

On that day she will relate her chronicles (99:4).

بِأَنَّ رَبَّكَ أَوْحَىٰ لَهَا

for her Lord will have inspired her. (99:5).

1. Resurrection And Its Terrifying Events

One of the distinguishing features of the Qur'an is its focus on the Resurrection and the terrifying events it encompasses. This is because its goal is to motivate a person to do righteous deeds, and so, it shows him the connection between his deeds in this world and their outcomes in the next. It is within this context that we must understand this surah, as it begins by mentioning the Resurrection and its terrors, then closes by mentioning the physical manifestation of a person's deeds in that new creation, so, that a person will be on guard at the beginning of his journey, lest he be surprised by its outcomes.

The ultimate goal of this surah is to motivate a person to strive continuously; not to think of any good deed as too small - even if it is an atom's weight - for perhaps it is that deed that will save him, nor to underestimate any wicked deed, for perhaps it is that deed that will destroy him, as it might be just enough tip the scales against him, as can happen in weights and scales.

2. Resurrection

An earthquake - as anyone will tell you - is one of the most destructive and terrifying natural disasters, and one that can last a mere matter of seconds. This is why the Qur'an specifically invokes this phenomenon to expound what will happen on the Day of Resurrection as the first event of people coming out of their graves:

“as if they were scattered locusts” (al-Qamar, 54:7).

and

“like scattered moths” (al-Qari'ah, 101:4).

But this earthquake is called 'its terrible quake', which tells us that it is a special quaking of the earth which Allah has reserved for that day, one that is not confined to any particular spot or locale like the earthquakes of this world. Rather, this quake is attributed to the earth as a whole, and as such is an even more powerful description of the terror and shock of that day!

3. The Word ‘Burdens’

Whatever the depths of the earth contain, whether bodies, treasures or more still - depending on the different interpretations of the word 'burdens' - but all of these are nothing more than burdens in the depths of the earth, no matter whether they are silent treasures, or bodies that were a means of dominating this earth in days gone by. And what a relief it is for any bearer of burdens to set down their load or to unpack it, as Allah says:

“and the earth discharges her burdens!” (az-Zalzalah, 99:2).

It should be clear from this expression that the Resurrection is a physical affair; it does not only apply to people's souls, as some have suggested.

4. Shock

Some commentators have said that the amazement expressed in Allah's words

“And man says," What is the matter with her?” (az-Zalzalah, 99:3).

is only for people who are not believers, similar to the verse:

“...Who raised us from our place of sleep?....” (Ya Sin, 36:52).

In fact, the events of that Day will shock everyone - believers and disbelievers alike - who emerges suddenly from their graves in the place of mustering, with all the terrors it contains, and this is why Allah says 'man' (al­ insan) asks about the quaking of the earth.

But this in no way precludes some of the elect being spared this shock altogether, or at least in some stages of the Resurrection, as Allah says of them:

“and they shall be secure from terror on that day.” (an-Naml, 27:89).

5. “Chronicles”

The verse

“On that day she will relate her chronicles” (az-Zalzalah, 99:4).

has been interpreted in a number of ways: Some say that this is conveyed by her state (bi lisan al-hal), others that a voice will be created for her, and others still that she will speak as a living creature, which is the apparent meaning of this verse and supported by other verses too, for example:

“There is not a thing but celebrates His praise, but you do not understand their glorification.” (al-Isra’, 17:44).

and

“They will say: We were given speech by Allah, who gave speech to all things...” (Fussilat, 41:21).

Of course, whichever interpretation you choose, the earth bearing witness is like nothing else; one cannot imagine the earth seeking benefit or avoiding harm for its own self, as can sometimes happen when testimony is given in this world. Add to this the fact that the earth's testimony follows that of the One whose knowledge encompasses everything. But here we should wonder: If the earth can be divinely inspired and receive revelation to the level that it can describe events in detail, then what can human beings do should Allah desire it?

6. The Words

“...she will relate her chronicles” (az-Zalzalah, 99:4).

suggests that she will relate these accounts in detail, not merely testify to them in a general sense. So, the earth will not testify to the mere fact that a worshipper offered prayers upon her surface, but rather how many times, where and how! This is why we are bid to pray in a number of places; it has been narrated from Imam 'Ali (‘a): 'Pray in different spots in mosques, because every spot will testify in favour of the one who worships on her on the Day of Resurrection.'' 1

And it is narrated that when he finished allotting funds from the treasury, he would offer two raka'ats of prayer and say: 'Bear witness that I filled you rightfully, and I emptied you rightfully.’2 It is also, narrated that the Prophet (S) one day recited the verse: 'On that day she will relate her chronicles' and said: 'Do you know what are her chronicles?' The people replied: 'Allah and His Messenger know best!' He said: 'Her chronicles are that the earth shall testify what each servant and nation wrought upon her surface. She will say: 'My Lord! They did such-and-such on this day and that!"'3

Taken together, these traditions should give cause for sinners to feel ashamed on the Day of Resurrection, because something that they thought was inanimate has become a witness against the one who was supposed to be Allah's deputy upon the earth.

Verses 6-8

يَوْمَئِذٍ يَصْدُرُ النَّاسُ أَشْتَاتًا لِيُرَوْا أَعْمَالَهُمْ

On that day, mankind will issue forth in various groups to be shown their deeds. (99:6).

فَمَنْ يَعْمَلْ مِثْقَالَ ذَرَّةٍ خَيْرًا يَرَهُ

So, whoever does an atom's weight of good will see it, (99:7).

وَمَنْ يَعْمَلْ مِثْقَالَ ذَرَّةٍ شَرًّا يَرَهُ

and whoever does an atom's weight of evil will see it. (99:8).

7. Issue Forth In Various Groups

The fact that mankind will issue forth in various groups on the Day of Judgment follows from what another verse says:

“your endeavours are Indeed, not alike” (al-Layl, 92:4).

Obviously the separation of mankind of the Day of Judgment does not mean that they are all in the same condition, because it is clearly stated that

“The day We shall summon every group of people with their imam” (al-Isra’, 17:71).

so, there is nothing that precludes them from emerging in different groups, but under different banners according to what they followed in their lives of this world. If someone followed a rock, Allah will resurrect him or her with it.

It should be noted that the verb 'issue forth' (yasdur) contains a subtle point; it is normally used to refer to the departure of a camel from water having approached it. This is as if to say that in this world, it was as though mankind were at an oasis, but now they have left it behind, to suggest that whoever drank from that oasis is one of those who remained thirsty beside it. This is supported by the words narrated from the Commander of the Faithful (‘a): 'O people! Today there are deeds with no accounting, but tomorrow there shall be accounting with no deeds.'4

8. Expounding A Consequent

When a conditional sentence is used in exposition, it serves to expound the consequent (jawab al-shart) and emphasize it in some circumstances, in which case its import is that of an oath. Of course, both the consequent and an oath can sometimes be left implicit in order to encourage people to reflect and search for their meaning because of the special concern the speaker has for the place of oaths and conditionals. And this is something we can see in this surah of the Qur’an as well.

So, there are those who say that the consequent of the sentence

“When the earth is rocked ...” (az-Zalzalah, 99:1).

is left implicit but the context alludes to it, such as

“When the imminent event befalls” (al-Waqi'ah, 56:1).

as an example. But also, there are others who say that its consequent sentence is:

“On that day, mankind will issue forth in various groups...' (az-Zalzalah, 99:6).

And also, some who say that it is:

“On that day she will relate her chronicles...” (az-Zalzalah, 99:4).

9. The Comprehensive Verse

The verses

“So, whoever does an atom's weight of good will see it,” (az-Zalzalah, 99:7).

“and whoever does an atom's weight of evil will see it” (az-Zalzalah, 99:8).

contain a form of warning and deterrence that is clear to anyone who reflects on them; it has been narrated from the Prophet (S) that this verse is referred to as 'The Comprehensive Verse' because:

a. It refers to every person endowed with moral agency, even the Prophets, because its subject is the pronoun 'whoever' that applies to everybody.

b. It makes the subject of a person's deeds something of the utmost precision, namely the dust mote (dharrah) which can be seen in bright sunlight, and this word is used for tiny ants as well.

c. This precision is applied to both good and evil together; and Allah's generosity and clemency do not run contrary to this precision. And this is to ensure that brazen persons do not dare to sin.

d. The outcome, namely seeing one's deeds, either refers to their essence - on the basis of one's deeds taking on a physical reality - or their reward. Allah says 'seeing' rather than 'knowing' in this verse just as he says 'finding' rather than 'knowing’ in His words:

“The day when every soul will find present whatever good it has done...” (Ale 'Imran, 3:30).

10. The Recompense Fitting The Deed

There is no contradiction between this verse which speaks of the recompense fitting the deed, even if it weighs no more than a mote of dust, and between those verses which indicate that deeds will fail in the sense of good deeds being effaced –

“……if you ascribe a partner to Allah your works shall fail...” (az-Zumar, 39:65).

and similarly those verses which talk about wicked deeds being erased –

“ …...Indeed, good deeds efface misdeeds....” (Hud, 11:114).

And that is because the verse we are presently discussing lays out the general law of accounting for man’s actions, and there is nothing to preclude another set of laws to apply in exceptional cases, for He

“is not questioned concerning what He does, but they are questioned.” (al-Anbiya, 21:23).

Another explanation we could offer in this case is that anyone whose works Allah causes to fail in the Hereafter, this failure reveals that he had not actually done anything good in the first place; because truly good things are those whose value inheres until the Day of Recompense, not merely those things which took on a pleasant form in people's short-sighted gaze!

11. Awareness Of Death

For someone who has absolute certainty about the reality of the Hereafter, it is sufficient for him to recall the horrors waiting on the Day of Resurrection to discourage himself from sinning. Death is called 'the destroyer of pleasures' (hadim al-ladhdhat) 5, what more something even greater than death? It has been narrated that a man came to the Prophet (S) and said: 'Teach me what Allah has taught you.' So, he sent him to a man to teach him; he taught him 'When the earth is rocked ...' until he reached the verse '...So, whoever does an atom's weight of good will see it, and whoever does an atom's weight of evil will see it.' Then he said: 'That is enough for me!' The Prophet (S) was informed of this, whereat he said: 'Leave him be, for he has understood.'6

  • 1. Wasa-il al-Shi'a 5/188.
  • 2. La-ali al-akhbar 5/79.
  • 3. Majma' al-Bayan 10/798.
  • 4. Al-Kafi 8/58.
  • 5. The Commander of the Faithful (a): 'Remember death abundantly, for it is the destroyer of pleasures.' Al-Amali, 264.
  • 6. Bihar al-Anwar, 92/107.