Tafseer Surah At-Tariq
The previous surah ended with a mention of something which was the highest thing in the sky, the Quran in its protected tablet, and this surah commences with the mention of the sky itself. We also learnt in the previous surah that Allah (swt) had surrounded the disbelievers from all sides. This surah adds further detail by explaining that every soul has a guardian over it. This surah is essentially divided into five sections. The first four verses are an oath that Allah (swt) takes by the sky and by something called at-Tariq.
1) By the heaven and by the night visitor
The word samaa’ is commonly translated as the sky but more accurately it is everything that is above. This is also slightly different to samaawaat, as in sab’a samaawaat. This refers to the seven heavens or seven layers of sky that form part of the unseen with only the lowest heaven being apparent to man. The word samaa’ encompasses more than samaawaat as it means everything above and thus includes the seven heavens and more. For example, Allah’s throne is above the seven heavens and thus samaawaat is rendered a limited term as opposed to the limitless samaa’. Nevertheless limitations can be placed on samaa’ when qualified by another word. For example, in verse five of Surah Mulk the phrase ‘samaa’ ad-dunya’ refers to the first sky and is an example of limitation through qualification.
In this verse the limitation has been put on the sky through the word at-Tariq. One of the key functions of taking an oath it to make the object a witness and thus Allah (swt) makes the sky a witness to what he is about to say. The common translation of at-Tariq is the one that arrives at night. It comes from the word taraqa which is to walk and the word tareeq means a road or path. A road is called tareeq because literally tarq means to strike and when you cross a road your feet strike it.
The word tariq is used specifically for the one who travels at night which the Arab’s used to do a lot as they found it more convenient than travelling under the sun and the scorching heat of the day. As the essence of the word means to strike one of the other implied meanings from the language is that it refers to someone who reaches their destination at night, naturally as they are travelling at night, and then they knock at the door. If someone was to knock on your door during the day it will seem normal as everyone is awake and there is a lot else going on. However, a knock at night will seem louder than normal as it is unusual and unexpected and pierces through the stillness of the night.
There are two main opinions as to what At-Tariq could be referring to. It could refer to the large brilliant stars in the night sky. The night was a relief for the Arabs, cool and fresh, the sky embedded with stars like pearls was the best scenery for them in comparison to the plain desert during the day. Alternatively it could refer to one major star that the night traveller would look for, a highlight and companion of his journey. Either way, the essential linguistic meaning of tariq is that which arrives at night and generates attention and this would be perfectly achieved by the piercing star in the night sky.
2) And what will make you know what the night visitor is?
What will give you any clue as to what the night visitor is?
This question is usually asked in the Quran when the answer is not known to man. Allah (swt) has asked this question in the past tense and when posed in this manner it is always followed by Allah’s answer. However, when Allah (swt) asks it in the present or future tense (i.e. ma yudreeka) He (swt) never answers the question. The ulema have commented that the question is posed in this format, as even if man were able to see this star he would still not be able to fully appreciate it. So, Allah (swt) has called our attention to something we can never truly grasp even if we could see the beautiful shine of the star in the night sky. Allah (swt) beautified the first and closest heaven, the sky of the dunya, with lamps (planets and stars). Thus, no matter how far the sight of man gets it will never be able to see beyond the first heaven as the comprehension of it is beyond the limited capabilities of man.
3) It is the star that pierces through darkness
The star of piercing brightness
Najm means star and it has been used before in Juzz Amma but here it is followed by the adjective thaqib (from the verb thaqaba) which renders the star as brilliant or blazing. The meaning of thaqaba is when light essentially passes through something almost like it rips through it. The idea being presented is almost as if the night is like a blanket that has a hole in it through which the light of the stars pierces through. For example, if in the day you cover yourself with a blanket, you can still tell its daytime as the light pierces through the blanket. So, thaqib is the light that travels vast distances and pierces through the night. One of the central themes of this surah is journey. For instance in thaqib is the implication of the journey the light from the stars took. Another theme is secrecy and secrecy is associated with the night and this surah begins with mention of the night. The piercing star seems as though it is unveiling the secret of the night by unveiling light when you only expect darkness.
The Arabs would travel at night by studying and navigating the stars which would be almost like milestones for them. So Allah (swt) is calling attention to something they already study but from a different perspective. Allah (swt) wants people to look at things they look at everyday that they cannot escape like the camel, the sky or the mountains but in a way they had never contemplated before. This is so that the next time man sees one of these creations he will remember Allah’s response to the oath.
4) For every soul there is a guardian who watches over it
There is no human being but has a protector over him
In the Sunnah literature we find two types of angels. The first are angels that protect us from all kinds of trouble and if they were not there then shayateen would cause us harm. This verse is referring to the second type, angels that monitor and record our actions and this is apparent in the language. The word ‘ala means that these angles are not there for us but are almost against us, watching us and documenting our deeds. Another opinion is that it is referring to Allah (swt) himself and of course the reality is that we are never alone and Allah (swt) is always a witness, however the former is the stronger opinion.
The ulema have commented that the connection this has to do with the previous verses is that the stars are so far away but it is as though they are eyes or cameras positioned towards the earth. Allah (swt) has made the sky and the brilliant star a witness to man and his behaviour and just like the piercing star is staring at man and his conduct in the night, unveiling the secrets of darkness, so too will the angels unveil the deeds of people on judgment day. Allah (swt) swears by the sky and all that which is above which means it is not possible for someone to question how the stars can witness us in the daytime when the stars are not apparent. Thus, Allah (swt) swears first by the sky and then by the stars if you can see them. If Allah (swt) can install these magnificent witnesses in the sky, it is not far fetched to imagine that we have all been given our own individual witnesses.
The word ‘in’ usually means ‘if’ but in this verse it is taken from another tribe who’s Arabic was slightly different to the Quraysh and who’s ‘in’ was like ‘ma’. This rare usage was from a dialect not used amongst the Quraysh and is another indication that the Quran was divine revelation as the messenger (pbuh) had not come into contact with this particular tribe. Additionally this fits poetically into this surah’s theme of secrecy as the format is rare, unfamiliar and distant to the Arab just like the star is so distant and the idea that there is an angel assigned to watch man’s every action is so distant.
The language of this verse has a lot of emphasis in it, making clear in strong terms that every person will indeed have a guardian over it. Firstly, the word ‘kull’ means ‘all’ whereas ‘jamee” means altogether in groups. Jamee’ is often used with regards to the Day of Judgement where we will all be herded together whereas Kull means each and every one of us regardless of whether we are together or not. So Kull is more relevant and powerful in its effect. Secondly, alayha normally appears at the end of a sentence (i.e. in kullu nafsin lamma hafiz alayha), however, in this verse by being in the middle there is greater emphasis placed on the fact that there will be a guardian for every single one of us, unique to us and there especially to document our deeds. Also note that the word nafs is used as opposed to the word insaan as one of the consistent themes of this surah is secrecy. The word nafs is associated with secrecy, as man often thinks that he can hide something in his nafs, inside of himself, but the angels are still able to write down one’s deeds.
5) So let man see from what he is created
If pondering over these verses that state that the stars and the sky are a witness and that there are angels recording our deeds does not lead a person to Islam but instead to scepticism, then Allah (swt) says ‘fa’, that as a result man should look and reflect carefully upon what he was created from. The first few verses are concerning beliefs in the unseen like the guardian angels and the stars whose detail is out of reach of the naked eye and so Allah (swt) is now calling upon the sceptic man to reflect at least on what he can see. Nazara is to stare at something and to think about it deeply. For example, in verse thirty-three of surah Shu’ara we find that when Musa (pbuh) showed his hand radiating bright light to the people they were described as naazireen (staring for ages and in awe of its detail). Allah (swt) says let the human look into what he was created from. The word insan comes from nasiya, which means to forget, and man is the forgetful being and forgets what he was created from. Man can get to a very high status in this world, with wealth, authority and might, but he forgets his pathetic beginnings from a dirty fluid that people wash off their clothes. The particle ma should have an alif next to it rendering the verse ‘min maa khuliq’, however, in this verse it has been shortened and its reduction in the language serves the purpose of emphasising how man has been created from something so small and insignificant that even the language is reduced.
Allah (swt) by using the word ‘khuliq’ in the passive tense keeps his name secret and does not mention himself and this is consistent with the style of this surah. When Allah (swt) does not mention his name it illustrates two things. It firstly exhibits Allah’s displeasure at man to the extent that He does not even want his name to be associated with this forgetful being. It also indicates that this person has become so forgetful of his origin that he is not expected to think about Allah (swt) or is in denial and so Allah (swt) invites man to at least reflect upon what he was created from.
6) He is created from gushing water
Earlier the sky was given an adjective and in this verse water is given an adjective. Daafiq means that which pushes and breaks through, like water breaking through a dam for example, and is always associated with water that is gushing and not with water that is still. Allah (swt) has already mentioned the light from stars which journeys billions of miles to reach the desert Arab and now He is talking about a different journey. The journey of this fluid that begins with man himself and which gushes forward through the private parts to impregnate the female.
Sulb means something hard and one of the hardest bones in the body is the spine. This word is used for the back or more specifically for the spine and is also used to refer to the loins. So Allah (swt) is saying that this journey began somewhere between the back of your spine and from at-taraa’ib which is the chest bone. Allah (swt) does not point out the specific place here and imagine the desert Arab who is unaware of the scientific knowledge of today’s age and is aware of his weakness in deciphering this mystery of the human body. A few verses ago, the Arab at the time of Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) was trying to picture a journey that began billions of miles away and now Allah (swt) draws his attention to a journey that began a lot closer to home inside his own body. So, how powerless is the human being, unable to figure out the mysteries of his own body let alone the mysteries of the universe.
8) No doubt He is able to bring him back (to life)
Many scholars say that the return mentioned here is the return of man back to life after death. Allah (swt) has already spoken of fluid entering the woman and then subsequently a human comes out of the woman. Therefore, what enters is something minuscule and dead and what emerges is something fully formed and profound and so Allah (swt) returns it thus. Thus, Allah (swt) is of course capable of returning the human from any form whether it’s from the fluid in the mother’s womb or from a dead rotten body in the womb of the earth. The word inna is used to eliminate doubt and this implies that there are people who are not willing to give this thought and the notion of resurrection any consideration and will not go further than conceding that birth is indeed a miraculous thing.
The pronoun ‘hu’ (he) in this verse is normally used when the noun, the subject, has already been mentioned. For example, if you narrated a tale of a man the following sentence would not mention the man again but rather the pronoun ‘he’ would be used to refer back to him. The name Allah has not however appeared in this surah at all which again complies with the theme of secrecy running through the surah. So, Allah (swt) is informing us once more that He is in complete control of the return just like He told us in the previous surah in verse thirteen.
9) The Day when all secrets will be exposed
The word balaa is used to describe something that is pulled out and exposed to everybody. Saraa’ir is a plural of the singular sareera and sirr is also derived from the same root. Sirr is a secret but sareera is a very well guarded secret that no one will be able to uncover. Allah (swt) says that these secrets will be thrown out into the open no matter how hard someone tried to hide it. A constant theme in this surah is secrecy and the subject matter in the previous surah was of believers being oppressed where genocide and other hideous crimes were committed. Throughout history whenever hideous crimes against people are carried out the authorities and state can go to extreme lengths to keep these acts a secret either through the use of the police and military or by suppressing news and reporters. Allah (swt) informs us of a day when even the most guarded secret will be let out and made public.
10) He will have neither power nor helper
On the day all secrets will be exposed these massive armies and nations will be overcome and overpowered. When you try to hide something and cover your tracks you do everything in your power to hide it and if something is not in your power you ask for help. For example, if someone is lying weak in hospital and wants his exposed leg covered he will need assistance (nasr), as he does not have the strength (quwwa) to do it himself. The people who oppressed the believers did so because they had the power to do so but on that Day they will have no power or helper and those who had the power to assist will have no ability to assist. Notice this verse begins with ‘fa’ and the previous verse began with ‘yawma’. This means that then, on that day, man will not have power or aid alluding to the fact that he had it previously in this world.
The classical interpretation of this verse is that the sky brings returning rain. Rain is a product of the water cycle and begins when rain falls and is soaked up by the ground, much of which runs off the surface of the land, and flows down hill into streams and rivers. When the water is subsequently evaporated and rises up to the sky it falls again once more as rain.
12) And (by) the earth which splits open
When water filters into the ground it makes contact with seeds that are then empowered to grow and the earth as a consequence rips open. If the earth did not rip open life would not be able to grow. Thus, every tree or bush is a rip in the earth. This is Allah’s depiction of another kind of impregnation following on from the impregnated woman. Now Allah (swt) is sending forth another fluid, this time from the sky that is continuously delivered and continuously delivers life on earth. A parallel is drawn between our creation and of plant life and in both cases the dead is brought to life.
Fassl literally means to separate two things so far apart that you can distinguish them from one another (i.e. if two branches are intertwined, you separate them apart to see the difference from each one). So, Allah (swt) is saying this word is a decisive distinguisher between people. The connection to the oaths taken in the previous two verses is that this verse comes from the sky just like the rain does and the rain enters into the earth and gives it life just like this revelation enters into the hearts of man and gives it life. In Sahih Muslim number 5668:
Abu Musa reported Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) as saying: The similitude of that guidance and knowledge with which Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, has sent me is that of rain falling upon the earth. There is a good piece of land which receives the rainfall (eagerly) and as a result of it there is grown in it herbage and grass abundantly. Then there is a land hard and barren which retains water and the people derive benefit from it and they drink it and make the animals drink. Then there is another land which is barren. Neither water is retained in it, nor is grass grown in it. And that is the similitude of the first one who develops the understanding of the religion of Allah and it becomes a source of benefit to him with which Allah sent me. (The second one is that) who acquires the knowledge of religion and imparts it to others. (Then the other type is) one who does not pay attention to (the revealed knowledge) and thus does not accept guidance of Allah with which I have been sent.
Thus, the example given of rain refers also to the revelation and its effects on people and how the revelation distinguishes between people. We get to see that there are different types of people with knowledge; the fuqahaa (derivers of Islamic law), the muhaditheen (narrators of hadeeth) who might not have the knowledge to extract rulings but do pass on the knowledge to others, and some who don’t have knowledge at all.
14) And it is not a thing for amusement
The word ba in this verse emphasises negation and together with maa this verse therefore represents one of the strongest forms of negation in Arabic. The word hazl literally refers to being skinny or weak and being incapable of doing anything productive. Kawlun hazl is speech that may entertain people but produces no benefit whatsoever. Allah (swt) is telling us that the Qur’an is not worthless speech but rather it is something that should lead to beneficial and decisive action. Fassl also means that which leads to clear decisive action. In other words our study into the Quran should not be regarded as an intellectual past time through which we gain knowledge but rather should lead us to action based on knowledge. This is also a threat to the disbelievers that this is a decisive word which demands that they either accept it or bear the consequences on the day where all secrets will be exposed and man will be without any helper. In the previous surah Allah (swt) mentions the disbeliever who is in persistent denial and one of the ways they lie against Islam is by labelling the Quran as an interesting intellectual discourse but that’s all. This attitude can sometimes unfortunately enter the mind of the Muslim too.
The disbelievers have always been threatened by and wanted to get rid of the true message of Islam. The messenger (pbuh) may not know whether the disbelievers are plotting against him or not but Allah (swt) lets him know here that plotting is taking place. Innahum emphatically asserts that there should be no doubt about the fact that they really are plotting. Makr involves misleading your opponent into thinking they are headed for victory when in actual fact they are heading for defeat and is used by Allah (swt) in response to the plots of the disbelievers. Kayd is a plan which has the element of secrecy in it and this fits in with the theme of this surah. The word kaydan is a verbal noun (masdar) and it comes after a verb to emphasise it (maf’ool mutlaq). It implies that there are many disbelievers and each one has his own plot because even the disbelievers are not united. So Allah (swt) is advising the messenger (pbuh) that there are many different groups trying to plot against the Muslims because they all have different ideas about how the Muslims should be dealt with.
’…You would think they were united, but their hearts are divided. That is because they are a people devoid of wisdom’. (Qur’an Al-Hashr 59:14)
16) And I (too) am planning a plan
Allah (swt) does not respond by using the word inna. This is because as well as adding emphasis it implies effort and Allah’s plan is effortless and therefore the response does not need to be delivered with the same force. Furthermore, Allah (swt) only needs a single plan to deal with all the groups of disbelievers, which is different to the plans of man that are put together with a specific strategy for each enemy it is dealing with. The middle of this surah discussed the disbelievers but they were never spoken to directly and this is a way of Allah (swt) distancing himself from the one He is displeased with. When you address someone you are dignifying them by at least talking to them but Allah (swt) has not dignified these disbelievers by talking to them and instead talks about them to the messenger (pbuh). The disbelievers can hear this and as a consequence they are humiliated.
17) So give a respite to the disbelievers; deal gently with them for a while
This surah began with the messenger (pbuh) being addressed and now also ends with him being addressed. Tamheel in Arabic is to give someone extensions in their deadline for example when someone owes you money and you extend their deadline to hand in the payment. Allah (swt) is telling the messenger (pbuh) to go easy on the disbelievers whenever they do something wrong and if they do it again, to let them go again. This is incredible as this surah is about the disbelievers plotting against the Muslims. Furthermore, it’s a Makki surah where the disbelievers were in a position of strength and the believers were experiencing hardship. If anything, you would expect the disbelievers to be the ones giving an extension. The mufassiroon say that Allah (swt) is advising the messenger (pbuh) not to occupy his time worrying about avenging the disbelievers or in making dua against them. Amhil is repeated in the verse for emphasis to make it clear that these issues can be ignored but by saying ruwayda (which means to give them a little more time), Allah (swt) also instructs not to do this indefinitely due to His future plans (such as the Hijrah and the battles of Badr, Uhud and Ahzab etc.).
This is one of the places in the Quran where we find the profoundly delicate relationship between Allah (swt) and his messenger (pbuh). The weapon in the messenger’s hand is his anger against them and his dua which would have been sufficient to wipe the Quraysh out. Allah (swt) is almost negotiating with the messenger (pbuh) here and telling him to be patient for a while because of His future planning. On another occasion in Medina Allah (swt) tells the messenger (pbuh) that he would not forgive the hypocrites even if Muhammad (pbuh) made dua seventy times for them and so the messenger (pbuh) said he would make dua more than seventy times. Note also that the fa essentially means that ‘in response to their disbelief and oppression against you and My planning against them… you should know that I have a plot for them and that should be enough for you to let it go’.
In the previous surah the disbelievers are oppressing the Muslims and Allah (swt) said the he had them encompassed. In this surah they are making plots to destroy the Muslims and Allah (swt) informs the messenger (pbuh) to go easy on them and that he has a plan to undo all of their plots. The lesson for us here is not matter how much we think we are in a position of weakness, those who truly believe are always in a position of strength and those who are on the path of Islam are empowered with dua.