Tafseer Surah Al Inshirah
Abdullah ibn Masud (ra) used to recite surah ad-Duha and al-Inshirah together in one rakah in salah without even breaking for bismillah almost as if this surah is a continuation of ad-Duha and even from the language we can discern that the surahs are very close to one another. Also, Ibn Abbas (ra) says of the first ayah that it is a continuation of what came in the previous surah. Both of these surahs are talking exclusively to Muhammad (saw). In the Quran there are at times different addressees. At times, for example, Allah (swt) is talking to the believers, at other times to the believers and at times to the mushrikeen but in these two back-to-back surahs the exclusive audience is the messenger (saw). The pronoun ‘ka’ in the opening ayah is addressing the messenger (saw). This is one of the shortest surahs in the Quran but one which is very rich and one in which there are many lessons to learn when it comes to loving and appreciating the messenger (saw). The previous surah addressed the messenger (saw) in the singular and had certain advice for him such as to not be abrupt to the orphan or to shrug off the one who asks. Of course, the messenger (saw) already practises this but in the Quran when advice is given to the messenger (saw) which applies to all Muslims in generality, it means he is not being told to do something he isn’t already doing but rather he is being told to do something and through him we are supposed to practise it.
1) Did We not relieve your heart for you (Muhammad)
In Arabic many verbs which all mean opening or expanding could have been used but the specific one used in this ayah is sharh. In more contemporary language this word is used when you explain a book. Sharh really means to open up the meaning of something which was otherwise complex. Ibn Faaris a great linguist amongst the salaf argued that there were two fundamental components to this word. Firstly, to open or expand something and secondly to clarify something. In Arabic idiom, Ilm al Biyan is the study of figure of speech. This ayah is an example of this where Allah (swt) says he expanded the prophet’s chest because it really means that Allah (swt) put his mind at ease. Therefore, we would not translate the word sadara as chest because in English we would not say this, rather, we would say to put ones mind at rest. The one whose chest has been opened up is very happy with whatever situation is before him. It may be due to something that was given to him and as a result he is completely content and happy and so this ayah means the messenger (saw) is enormously content and happy with what has been given to him. The opening of the chest implies that any barrier between the true message that Allah (swt) has given him has been removed. When you give someone dictation it does not necessarily mean the one writing understands what you made them write down. Similarly, receiving the message is one thing and understanding it is another. Thus, when you receive and understand it your chest has been opened. We therefore learn from this that not only did the prophet (saw) receive the revelation but he also best understood it as Allah (swt) opened his chest to its understanding and removed any barriers which may have restricted his understanding.
Linguistically, posing a question in a negative form serves to emphasise the statement. For example, ‘didn’t I tell you not to do that?’ really means ‘I told you not to do that’. Thus, even though the statement is in the form of a question, by putting it in the negative form it adds certainty. Similarly, ‘didn’t I tell you not to worry about it’ means ‘relax – you don’t need to worry about it’. This style was also used in the previous surah where Allah (swt) asks ‘Did he not find you an orphan and shelter you?’ (ad-Duha 93:6). In this surah Allah (swt) is emphatically saying that He expanded the prophet’s chest and by using this rhetorical format one feels more grateful. If someone gives a gift and later instead of saying ‘I did you a favour’ says ‘didn’t I do you a favour?’ then the intention is to make the recipient even more grateful and make him think that he is not appreciating what was given enough. This ayah sets the tone for the entire surah. The point of this surah is for Allah (swt) to psychologically and spiritually support and console his prophet (saw).
In the previous surah Allah (swt) was addressing his messenger (saw) but He referred to Himself in the third person. In contrast, in this surah we find the first person. The difference between the third (he) and first (I) person in language is that the third person is far away whereas the first person is someone close. The shift from third to first indicates Allah’s closeness to His prophet (saw) from the very beginning of this surah in order to console him and is indicated by the use of the noon in the beginning.
A lot of mufassiroon in the tafseer of this ayah have cited two occasions in which the chest of the prophet (saw) was opened and his heart washed of any elements of evil that may have been inside before the heart was placed back. The first occasion was in his childhood when he was playing with the son of Haleemah as-Sa’diyyah and the second was before he left for the journey of Israa’ wal Mi’raaj (the night journey to Palestine and the ascension to Allah). Other scholars comment, in a strong statement on the subject (and more mufassiroon incline to this), that interpreting the expansion of the chest in this ayah by correlating it with the text that says the chest was opened and the heart washed is actually weak. These are two separate issues and it is not the case that we deny one and accept the ether. The expansion of the chest is talking about something else completely because firstly it is clear in the language that sharh is not used for cutting. Furthermore, textually the surah before has nothing to do with this incident and textually it is an abrupt departure from the lessons of the surah. This is ayah is referring to the expansion of the chest and not the literal opening of it. The expansion of the chest (Inshirah as-Sadr) occurs four times in the Quran and they are in pairs as follows.
Imagine a Muslim who knows and accepts that some things are halal and others are haram. This Muslim adheres to this but there is certain unease with the commandment as he does not understand it or see the logic in it. Idealistically, we should not try to make logic out of the commandments of Allah (swt) even though they are full of wisdom and despite knowing that we may never discover that wisdom. The fact that it is from Allah (swt) should be enough for us. There can be a tendency amongst some believers to ask why Allah (swt) has decreed something. For example, someone may question why Zakah has been set at 2.5% or question the intricacies of inheritance law. This person is at unrest. Compare this to a person completely at ease with Allah’s commandments. This person is convinced that whatever Allah (swt) gives him is better for him even if the medication tastes bad and even if they don’t understand the wisdom in it, they know that it is from Allah (swt) and is good for them. One of the ayahs in the Quran that talk about this concept is, ‘So whoever Allah wants to guide, He makes his heart wide open for Islam, and whomsoever He wills to let go astray, He makes his heart tight and constricted as though he were climbing into the sky. Thus does Allah place defilement upon those who do not believe’ (al-An’am 6:125). Whoever Allah (swt) intends to guide He expands his chest for Islam. Allah (swt) did not say for iman here. Iman is faith but Islam is submission. Allah (swt) says that whoever He truly wants to guide, He puts in them relaxation in submitting before Allah (swt). In another place Allah (swt) says, ‘So I ask about a person whose heart Allah has opened up for Islam and consequently he proceeds in a light from his Lord. So, woe to those who hearts are too hard to remember Allah. Those are wandering in open error’ (az-Zumar 39:22). Thus, Allah (swt) is providing a light for His believing slave after having expanded his chest for Islam. This is in contrast to the one who goes astray for whom there is no guiding light. So, one is walking in the dark and the other is walking with a light. These two ayahs are about becoming comfortable with submission to Allah (swt). Is this the opening of the chest that Allah (swt) is talking about with his messenger (saw) or is there another kind?
The next pair of ayahs talks about the expansion of the chest of a messenger. The first is this one talking about Muhammad (saw) and the second is Musa (as), ‘He said, “My Lord, put my heart at peace for me’’ (Ta-Ha 20:25). Musa (as) had a stutter and a strong temper and when he went before Fir’aun and heard obnoxious lies and insults against the truth he got insulted. He described to Allah (swt) how his chest became tight and how his tongue would not move. In other words, his chest becoming tight is to do with his mission. When he hears things that upset him and makes him cringe, it makes him uncomfortable leaving him unable to do his job right and especially in his case makes him stutter. He (as) therefore asks Allah (swt) to expand his chest for him. This is a kind of expansion that is asked for a messenger because the kind of work they do is very hard on their chest, meaning it feels tough and emotionally demanding. They, therefore, need a divinely given comfort and relaxation to be able to do their job. Muhammad (saw) received the final message given to humanity, the greatest honour ever bestowed on any human being. Yet after taking this message to the Kuffar he is cursed, insulted and ridiculed in public. If at work someone insults us and shouts at us and humiliates us, the effect of that will last at least the whole day. It can make us depressed and make our chest feel tight and constrained. In fact some people who are insulted never forget it for their whole life and can find it difficult talking to the person who insulted them and being in the same masjid or room as that person. Even being in the same place where they were insulted can remind a person of that incident and sadden them. The messenger (saw) deals on a daily basis with problems far greater than our problems which must have a profound impact on him.
The fourth occasion of the expansion being mentioned is this ayah. Allah (swt) has given His Messenger Muhammad (saw) the role of being the final Messenger with the job of conveying the message to the whole of humanity. It takes a serious chest, one divinely opened, to be able to deal with this. This means that there is an expansion of the chest required for a Messenger of Allah, as his experience of calling people to Islam is emotionally draining and tough. So he needs to be given this divine emotional support from Allah (swt) to make him at ease with his role as the Messenger of Allah (swt). Allah (swt) tells us that if the Quran were revealed on a mountain you would have seen the mountain explode and be humbled. The same Quran was revealed on the heart of the messenger (saw). The chest therefore needs to be stronger than a mountain to be able to receive this. So Allah (swt) expanded the chest of the prophet (saw) because the heart contains the Quran. Allah (swt) declares this a heavy word, ‘We are going to send down to you a weighty discourse’ (Surah al-Muzzammil 73:5). So, this is the favour of Allah (swt) upon his messenger. Compare this to the favours of the previous surah, which were all preparatory, preparing him for the task and responsibility of being a messenger whereas this one is getting him right into the heart of the mission. In the previous surah the favours mentioned were given before and at the time he (saw) started receiving revelation but here we see the future concerns of the messenger being addressed and the most important gift that Allah (swt) can give is the openness of the chest. Musa (as) had to ask for his chest to be expanded but with Muhammad (saw), Allah (saw) already gave it to his messenger. The laka in this ayah is grammatically normally at the end but by placing it earlier it emphasises that it is especially for you that the chest has been expanded. Other people may have their chest expanded but it is nothing like the expansion of the chest of the prophets, which is a unique gift from Allah (swt).
2) And remove the burden
This ayah and the previous ayah are grammatically connected as though it is one statement although it is split into two ayahs. The word wadda’a means something which is something taken (e.g. from atop a table) and placed down. The word wizr is a great burden which one is unable to carry due to its weight. Haml is also a burden but it is not as heavy as wizr and can be carried whereas a wizr in contrast would crush one under its weight. Thus, we learn that the burden on the prophet (saw) is tremendous and so Allah (swt) tells his messenger (saw) that he has been relieved of this overwhelming burden. In this ayah the ‘anka (from you) is placed earlier in the sentence structure making clear that no heavy burden has been relieved from anyone as much as Allah (swt) did for the prophet (saw).
3) That weighed so heavily on your back
The word anqada means to place a burden on someone to the extent that you can start hearing cracking sounds. This word is also used to describe the way elderly people’s knees crack when they get up from sujood. The word dhahrak means ‘your back’ and so Allah (swt) is saying that the burden on the prophet’s back was so heavy that it was causing cracks and would have snapped it. This was not a literal physical burden on his back and the mufassiroon differed a lot on what it actually was. There were a number of different opinions on what the burden was:
i) We are living today in a very materialistic time where people are very shallow and where human concerns rarely go beyond their own concerns. People live their entire lives revolved solely around themselves. Some people though are concerned with more than just themselves such as with their neighbourhood and are a bit more socially active. Some people go a step further and engage in humanitarian and political causes such as animal or children welfare but even this is materialistic and concerns only this world. In pre-modern society it was common for people to ask deeper questions about their origin, their final destination and how they should live their lives. In contrast, people today don’t ask these kinds of questions. When someone is concerned about something, be it where their next meal is coming from or their security, they become obsessed with it. There are some people in the lay population who ponder over their purpose in life but are unable to find the answers. This unrest becomes a burden they live with and it takes over their entire life. Salman al Farsi (ra) for example was born into a wealthy Zoroastrian family and his father was one of the big chiefs in the temple. Yet, he was not satisfied with this faith and eventually ended up under the tutelage of a monk. He made innumerable sacrifices even before Islam not for the needs of his stomach or his nation but for the quest of truth and purpose. Allah (swt) made messengers the purest of people and Muhammad (saw) was the purest of all. How could worldly things possibly seduce the prophet when even lay people turned their back on the world? This was captured in the previous surah, ‘Did He not find you lost and guide you?’ (ad-Duha 93:7). The prophet (saw) was not happy with Makkan society and avoided things like entertainment in preference of solitude in the cave he would visit, sometimes for days on end, in order to get away from the society that caused his heart so much unrest. The prophet (saw) was so desperately looking for the truth that he almost reached the point that he abandoned society altogether. The search for truth weighed down upon him to the extent that it was going to break his back. So Allah (swt) alleviated him of this burden and gave him the answer he was looking for.
ii) Any decent human being is not just concerned about the truth but also his fellow human being and the prophet (saw) was concerned about society even before revelation came down. Humanitarian efforts geared towards helping the weak rarely gains overwhelming success. For example, despite the efforts charities and people undertake to alleviate hunger, hunger only ever increases. The prophet (saw) wanted to help the society he lived in but it was hard to gain much success due its corrupt nature and when your efforts don’t seem to be getting anywhere the sadness can be crushing. Allah (swt) alleviated the prophet’s burden by giving him the moral code and principles by which the problems of society will be solved.
iii) The prophet (saw) comes into contact with the revelation in the cave and when he is in salah he comes into direct contact with Allah (swt). It is salah which gives him the strength to go out and give dawah. In the night he fuels up again by praying which expands his chest enabling him to continue his work of dawah. There was a long period in which revelation stopped but the prophet (saw) still gave dawah. The burden of waiting for the revelation in this period was causing the prophet’s chest to become tight through the abuse and insults directed at him by the Quraysh who said that his Lord had abandoned him. In the previous surah Allah (swt) says, Your Lord has not forsaken you, nor does He hate you (ad Duha 93:3). Allah (swt) did not bid the prophet (saw) farewell and relieved him of his burden by continuing the revelation enabling him to continue his work of dawah by putting his chest at ease with this reassurance.
iv) When the messenger (saw) gives dawah he hears a lot of insults and we know that he was a very sensitive man. If someone were to insult us publicly when giving dawah we would lose the motivation to continue. The messenger (saw) in contrast though has to keep going back to do it and it does not get any easier. In fact, it gets harder. Imagine if you had a job in which you were continually having to face insults and abuse. It would eventually take its toll and break your spirit rendering you less effective at your job. Therefore, it was critical that the toll dawah took upon the messenger (saw) did not start to effect his morale. It was critical that the burden piling up on him during the day was shed off and this was done via qiyaam ul layl. One of the mufassiroon compared the work of the messenger (saw) to rain. Rain comes from the sky pure and then touches plants and things that are dirty, cleaning them. This makes the water hit the ground dirty and so the water has to be cleansed by going back up. The messenger receives the purest revelation and is in this pure relationship with Allah (swt) but he cannot solely receive and learn it. There is this dirty task of dealing with these nasty people that has to be dealt with and so Allah (swt) relieves his burden every day.
v) The messenger (saw) when he received the final revelation understood that he was the final messenger with no one else to come after him. This meant that the entire responsibility for the human race was on his shoulders and time was of the essence in him delivering the message. And so when he sees people rejecting the message it makes his burden feel heavier and so Allah relieved that burden by saying, ‘So remind, you are only a reminder’ (al Ghashiyah 88:21).
vi) Allah (swt) made his messenger engage in certain tasks on his own without giving him revelation and would sometimes correct his choice of action (e.g. Surah Abasa). It is not possible for the prophet (saw) to sin but he feels like he has sinned because Allah (swt) has corrected him. However, Allah (swt) was just raising the character of the prophet (saw) and has lifted this burden of guilt from him and forgiven his actions. Whatever strategic errors that may have occurred which the messenger (saw) feels were mistakes has been covered by Allah (swt).
4) And raised your reputation high
The word rafa’a means to elevate and is the opposite of wadda’a which means to take down and so the two words have come close together in this surah for linguistic beauty. In the previous surah Allah (swt) said that He would give the prophet (saw) so much that he would be pleased and this surah shows what he will be granted – the elevation of the mention of the prophet (saw). This is a gift to the prophet (saw). Allah (swt) says to his messenger (saw) that especially for his sake (laka), his mention has been elevated. By elevating his mention, Allah (swt) has given a guarantee of the victory of Islam thereby alleviating the concerns the messenger has. Allah (swt) has made the prophet’s name so high that he is honoured and followed by many the world over. Allah (swt) elevated the mention of the prophet (saw) by mentioning his name alongside His Own. For example, in the adhan, the shahadah and the at-tahiyyat. Dhikr in Arabic is two things; it is for something to be present on your tongue when you mention something or for something to be present in your heart in the form of remembrance. Allah (swt) shows His love for the prophet (saw) by elevating his mention and remembrance in the hearts of people. This kind of elevation has only happened for Muhammad (saw) and this in itself is a miracle.
An example of the elevation of the prophet’s name is when the Mu’adhin makes the call to prayer for Fajr. The prophet’s name is mentioned in the adhan and a few minutes later in a neighbouring town the adhan is called out again as Fajr begins in that town. As the sun slowly rises, town after town makes the call to prayer right across the world and by the time you get to the other side of the world it is time for Zuhr in the first town. Thus, one cycle has not even finished when the next cycle starts. There doesn’t cease to be a moment when Allah’s Messenger is not mentioned on Earth and whenever he is mentioned, there is someone asking Allah (swt) to send prayers and blessings and salaam upon him after hearing his name, ‘Allah and His angels bless the Prophet – so, you who believe, bless him too and give him greetings of peace’ (al Ahzab 33:56). Allah (swt) also made following the Messenger (saw) equal to following Him, ‘He who obeys the Messenger has obeyed Allah; but those who turn away – We have not sent you over them as a guardian’ (al Nisa 4:80).
Allah (swt) also addresses Muhammad (saw) in the Quran by using loving names (ilqaab). For example, in the Quran you find Muhammad (saw) addressed in some of the following ways, ‘Ya ayuhal muddathir’ (O you who covers himself [with a garment]), ‘Ya ayuhal Muzzamil’ (O you who wraps himself), ‘Ya ayhun-Naby’ (O Prophet), ‘Ya ayuhar-Rasool’ (O Messenger). In contrast, Allah (swt) addresses the other prophets by their names, for example, ‘Ya Musa’ (O Moses), ‘Ya Eesa’ (O Jesus). Yet, we do not find Muhammad (saw) addressed by his name. Rather, Allah (swt) addresses him not by his name but by his titles. This is an amazing honour that Allah (swt) has given his messenger. Even when Allah (swt) does mention his name He always accompanies it with the title Rasool next to it. The only time Rasool is not mentioned next to Muhammad is in surah Muhammad itself (Muhammad 47:2). Allah (swt) mentioned the name of Muhammad (saw) in the earliest of scriptures and took an agreement from all the prophets that they must believe in Muhammad (saw) and that their nations would believe in him and support him if he came in their lifetimes. Thus, it is indeed a tremendous gift Allah (swt) has given the messenger (saw) by elevating his name in both quantity and quality; in the adhan, the salah, the qalima, khutba, human history and by Allah (swt) Himself and all the angels.
5) So truly where there is hardship there is also ease;
After listing his favours Allah (swt) now gives consolation to the prophet (saw) as a result (indicated by the ‘fa’). The word ma’a combines two things together in closeness either simultaneously or one after the other they are always together. The word ‘usr is either a difficulty or a difficult time. Yusr in contrast is something easy such as a task that requires no effort. The definite article preceding ‘usr indicates that it is just a single difficulty whereas the absence of it before yusr indicates multiple eases. So, with every difficulty there will be amazing ease and this ease is far greater than the difficulty.
6) Truly where there is hardship there is also ease.
The same difficulty has been mentioned once more as indicated by the definite article and so the same difficulty will have one ease and then another ease. So with every difficulty there are two blessings of ease both of them more powerful than the difficulty. The particle inna in Arabic must have a noun that comes after it and this noun will be the subject of the statement. In this ayah the word yusran is associated with the particle inna making clear that the topic of this ayah is ease and not difficulty and that incredible ease will follow some difficulty. Allah (swt) tells the messenger (saw) that He is going to give him amazing ease but not before he has undergone some minute difficulty. In the previous surah Allah (swt) told the prophet (saw) that the future will be better than the past and in this surah Allah (swt) gives another consolation that indeed with every difficulty there is tremendous ease. So, in the previous surah the future is getting better for the prophet (saw) and here it is now easier. Generally, something that is better for you may not necessarily be easy for you, for example, medical treatment. In the messenger’s case Allah (swt) guaranteed that what is coming will be better for him and also guaranteed that it will be easier for him. Both are gifts to the messenger (saw). There is a difference in opinion on why this ayah has been mentioned twice. One interpretation is that the first ayah is referring to the prophet’s past, when difficulty gave way to ease, and the second his future, where his current difficulty will be replaced with ease. Another interpretation is that it is one for this life and another for the next life and a third interpretation is that the repetition is for love and affection. For example, when one consoles their sick relative they may say, ‘It will be okay, it will be okay’. This repetition is done for reassurance and consolation and so this is Allah (swt) consoling his messenger twice so that there is no room for him to think that there is nothing but ease on the way.
7) So when you are free (from your duties), toil hard (in worship)
Musa (as) engaged in a conversation with Allah (swt) in the valley of Tuwa where Allah (swt) addressed him. Musa (as) took every opportunity to prolong this amazing encounter but it ended when Allah (swt) commanded him to go and speak to Fir’aun. So, Musa (as) who was just speaking to the One he most wanted to speak to now has to leave and go speak to the last person on earth that he wanted to speak to. This is the work of a messenger. On the one hand they have a conversation with Allah (swt) and on the other they have to speak to some of the vilest people ever who reject the truth. So, they have to go from the best conversation they could ever have to the worst conversation. In the same way Muhammad (saw) was commanded to speak to the Quraysh. The messenger (saw) would spend the entire day giving dawah to the people but would much rather have been in a conversation with Allah (swt). So, Allah (swt) tells him that when he has finished (faraghta) his work of dawah in the day, he can do what he has wanted to do all day. The word nasaba in Arabic means to be pegged and also means to be exhausted and so Allah (swt) is telling the messenger (saw) to stand up and exhaust himself, which refers to Qiyam-ul-Layl. Think of our salah compared to the salah of the prophet (saw) who would be desperate to pray to the point that his feet swelled up. The day activity of the prophet (saw) is dawah whilst qiyam is his night activity and akin to his vacation. People take a holiday so that they can return to their work energised. Allah (swt) is telling the prophet (saw) that his job will never be done and that when he is free from one task he should exhaust himself in the next task, as there is no such thing as a free moment for him but he should also know that there is tremendous ease eventually coming his way. The prophet (saw) must continuously remain dedicated to Allah (swt) and even in his sleep the prophet is doing dhikr – that is his status.
8) And turn to your Lord for everything.
The word raghiba means to lovingly devote yourself to someone. Allah (swt) is telling the messenger (saw) that he should be completely and loving devoted to his Master. At the end of the previous surah the prophet (saw) was directed to address humanity and now at the end of this surah Allah (swt) tells the prophet (saw) to cut off from humanity and turn to Him. The whole life of the prophet (saw) was dedicated to bringing victory to Allah’s deen, to cleanse the house of Allah (swt) and to establish His law. Only when, by Allah’s permission, Makkah was conquered and shirk destroyed could the prophet (saw) do what he wanted to do all along. In the final days of the prophet’s life we can see that he was preparing to return to his Master and it was almost as if he couldn’t wait to meet Him. It is narrated in Bukhari that the prophet (saw) addressed the people saying, “Allah gave a choice to one of his slaves to choose this world or what is with him. The slave chose what is with Allah.” Abu Bakr (ra) wept at this point as he knew what it meant. It meant that the prophet’s worldly task was done and now his only concern was to be with his Master. The prophet on his deathbed said, ‘O Allah, in the highest friends company’.
This surah is the surah of Allah’s love for the prophet and the elevation of his status. We live in a time where people insult the prophet (saw) openly. Yet, trying to insult the prophet (saw) is as useless as spitting at the sun – it will only come back on your face. The messenger’s chest becomes tight because of what they say but no matter what they say his mention has been elevated and their insults can never compare to it. Insults only serve to increase the love believers have for the prophet (saw) and their attempt to insult him is a proof of our love for him. In todays time we have two types of concerned Muslims. The first is the one who only wants to make dhikr of Allah (swt) and worship Him. The second is only concerned with dawah but no dhikr. These are two extremes. The balance of the Sunnah of the prophet (saw) is dawah by day and dhikr by night. Even the day has a perfect balance between dhikr in our salah and the worldly aspects of the deen between prayers. The balance between the internal and external for a believer is one of the main themes of this surah and we find this balance in the life of the prophet (saw) who by day confronted society and addressed injustice and then by night cut himself off from people in order to worship Allah (swt). There are two different sides to the personality of a daee and sometimes there is an imbalance between them. May Allah enable us to revive that balance and recover, maintain and enhance the love we have for the messenger.