Tafseer Surah Al Qadr
There are a number of relationships between this surah and the previous one. Surah al Alaq explains how revelation began whilst this surah tells when it began. In the previous surah Allah (swt) taught man with the pen what he could not have known and in this surah Allah (swt) gives the messenger (saw) knowledge of the Night of Qadr, knowledge that he did not have before. In the last ayah of the previous surah Allah (swt) says prostrate and come close to Him and in this surah we learn of the Night of Qadr which is that night where it is possible for one to come closest to Him. In the previous surah the messenger (saw) is instructed to recite the Quran – the Quran that came down on the Night of Qadr.
There is a big discussion on when laylatul qadr is. The ahadith that talk about the blessings of laylatul qadr are many and there are many narrations on which night it falls upon but this is not the place to discuss these. However, we must mention it to an extent. Most Muslims understand it to be one of the odd nights. It is interesting that this surah has five ayaat and that there are only five odd nights on which this night can fall. Ibn Abbas (ra) had two opinions on this. In one place his opinion was that it falls on the twenty-third night and in another place that it was the twenty-seventh. In fact the opinion most in number is that it falls on the twenty-seventh, however, these are all opinions and not in of itself absolute evidence. Ibn Abbas (ra) gave some interesting reasons to Umar ibn Khattab (ra) when explaining his rationale behind his opinion that it falls on the twenty-seventh. He said that the laylatul qadr has nine letters (Lam, Ya, Lam, Ta [marboota]. Alif, Lam. Qaf, Daal, Ra) and laylatul qadr itself is mentioned three times in this surah and nine times three is twenty-seven. We do not take numerology as evidence but it is interesting that he presented this rationale to Umar (ra). Another thing he said is that this surah has a word count of thirty just like there are thirty days in a month but the twenty-seventh word is hiyya, which means ‘it’. Hence, he was of the opinion that the hiyya may be a clue and refers to the night itself.
This tafseer is not going to be about what night it actually is. We just wanted to present the different and variety of opinions. The safe position to have is that it falls on one of the odd nights. Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan’s personal opinion is that due to the fact that it is common for there to be disagreements on when Ramadan actually started, the safest thing to do is to take the last eleven nights very seriously. It is common for people to exert themselves at the beginning of Ramadan only to exhaust themselves to the point that they are too tired to seek the real treasure of laylatul qadr. In fact people can get so lazy that they end up taking a leave of absence from the masjid only to turn up on the twenty-seventh night and then return home in the hope that maybe that was it. This is not a healthy attitude. We should save our energy for the last ten nights and not get burnt out. Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan’s personal advice and not fatwa is that to avoid getting burnt out, the effort should be moderate in the beginning. One should pray as much as one can but at the onset of tiredness a break should be taken, as this is not a fard. It is better to remain consistent than to attend in completeness for the first few days only to miss the remainder. Some people even complain that their masjid recites to slowly. Well, too bad. The Quran is meant to be recited slowly. It is not meant to be recited at speed to the point that one does not even have any idea what is being recited, just so that they can tick the box and say that they got it done. This is the last thing that will give someone khushoo’ in the salah and the whole point of salah is to remember Allah (swt). Yet, how can one remember Allah (swt) if they can’t even keep up with the words and don’t know what it being recited? Thus, the entire spirit of the prayer is lost. ‘Indeed, I am Allah. There is no god except Me, so worship Me and establish prayer for My remembrance’ (Taha 20:14).
Allah (swt) uses the pronoun ‘We’ for Himself. Why did He not use ‘I’? The pronouns that occur for Allah (swt) in the Quran are ana (I), nahnu (we), anta (you) and huwa (he). Of these only nahnu is plural whilst all the others are singular. The response to those who think that this ‘We’ cannot refer to a monotheistic God is two fold. Firstly, if it were really meant to be plural we would have seen the other pronouns in their plural form i.e. anta and antum, huwa and hum. Secondly, the word nahnu is used in Semitic and other languages as an illustration of formality, power and royalty. For example, a monarch will use this to demonstrate his royalty and position over others. When Allah (swt) speaks of His majestic powers of creation or of the provision of food and water for His slaves we find this pronoun used. It is especially true with water and indeed Allah’s throne is above water and so water is a symbol of His kingship in the earth. Furthermore, whenever the word nahnu is used for Allah (swt) in the Quran the word Allah or rabb is found next to it. As both of these words are in the singular form it is clear that only the one true creator is being referred to. The pronoun ana is used in two instances in the Quran. It is used either when Allah (swt) is extremely angry or when He is extremely merciful. So, one can say that nahnu is used in formal and majestic speech whereas ana is used in informal speech that is more personal and has more emotional charge in it. For example, when the followers of Esa (as) asked for a table spread from the sky, Esa’s first response was ‘Fear Allah’. This response was appropriate because Banu Isra’il had been asking for a miracle for generations and after seeing the most amazing things they still didn’t have imaan and their hearts were still hard. So, then Allah (swt) said that He will send it down but He (swt) sent a warning with it. The warning was that if anyone disbelieves after this then it is ‘I’ who will punish him with a punishment that none has ever been tortured with (Al Ma’idah 5:112 – 115).
Is this night noble and blessed because the Quran came down in it or was it already blessed and then the Quran came down in it? It is commented that this night was made noble and majestic by Allah (swt) even before the Quran came down and its dignity was enhanced after the Quran descended which is why the name laylatul qadr was used. In this ayah the pronoun hu refers to the Quran. However, in language you do not use a pronoun unless the audience already knows what it is being used for. For example if your wife sends you to get groceries she would not say ‘make sure you don’t forget it’ without first clarifying what ‘it’ is. There are several benefits to using the pronoun hu as opposed to saying the Quran was sent down. Firstly, the pronoun is used because when something is known such that it is deeply embedded in one’s heart, the name does not even have to be said. This is only done in the context where everyone knows what you are talking about or when the subject matter is so universal and so important that its name does not even have to be mentioned for one to appreciate it. This dialogue came down in a context in which there were two reactions. On the one hand were the believers who were obsessed with the Quran and willing to die for it and on the other the disbelievers who hated the Quran so much that they were willing to kill out of hate for it. So, when Allah (swt) says he sent it down both the disbeliever and the believer are very clear what is being referred to.
This surah and the previous surah are a bit of a departure from what we learnt before. In these surahs Allah (swt) makes it a point to take credit for the Quran Himself. Previously, we learnt that Jibreel (as) brings these words to the messenger (saw), ‘Indeed, the Qur’an is a word (conveyed by) a noble messenger’ (At Takwir 81:19) but in this one and the surah before it is stressed that these are Allah’s words and that He is the source. There are two words for sending down in the Quran, anzala and nazzala. In this ayah anzalnahu is used and not nazzalnahu. In common English both translations would be ‘We sent it down on laylatul qadr’. The difference in Arabic though is huge. Anzala implies that something is sent down at one time whereas nazzala would imply that something is sent down over a period of time. This would mean then that Allah (swt) sent the whole Quran down on laylatul qadr. In contrast though Allah (swt) has used nazzala to describe the revelation being sent down elsewhere, ‘He has sent down upon you, (O Muhammad), the Book in truth, confirming what was before it. And He revealed the Torah and the Gospel’ (Al ‘Imran 3:3). In this ayah it was the Quran that was revealed over time and the Torah and Gospel that were revealed at one time. We know that the Quran was revealed to the prophet (saw) over the course of twenty-three years. So, why use another word in this surah which suggests that it came down all at once?
The predominate view from Ibn Abbas (ra) was that Allah (swt) sent the Quran down from the Preserved Tablet in the seventh heaven to the first heaven, Bayt al-‘Izzah, which is the heaven of this world, on laylatul qadr. Then it came down in parts to the Messenger of Allah (saw) from Jibreel (as) based upon the incidents that occurred over a period of twenty-three years. Thus, Allah (swt) beautifully conveys to us the journey of the Quran through the manipulation of the Arabic language. The kuffar would complain and question why the Quran did not come down all at once. The answer can be found by simply observing how overwhelmed a new Muslim can become when he is given a copy of the Quran. What this person needs more than this is to study Islam one lesson at a time. Just like Allah (swt) took time to teach and culture the prophet (saw) and his companions. The Quran should be a long-term project of study and reflection for ourselves and that is part of the Sunnah. The Quran is not something you can causally read through like a newspaper or textbook. It takes time to internalise and requires deep study.
Laylatul qadr is commonly translated as the night of power. In English translations it is not possible to appreciate what exactly Allah (swt) means by calling it this. The explanation found in a hadith and in many athar of the companions is that it is called this because qadr means determination. People set themselves their vision or goal for the coming year or even have a long-term vision of where they see themselves in thirty years. Allah (swt) already knows everything but only lets His angels know on this night what the plan is for the upcoming year and what has been decreed for people. Qadr not only means determination but it also means honour and dignity which is why this night is called the Night of Dignity. It is also called the night of appreciation because it is on this night that people obey Allah (swt) and He really appreciates the worship of His slave. He (swt) so appreciates this effort that He counts this night’s worship as being better than a thousand months. The word qadr in Arabic has one more meaning in the Quran and that is constriction and congestion and to be stuck in something. This tightness is also part of the meaning because on this night angels descend on the earth in huge numbers such that space on earth becomes tight. There are other words that could be used to describe the characteristics of this night but in selecting the word qadr Allah (swt) has chosen a word which has all these meanings embedded in it. Allah (swt) used the perfect word to capture all of these implications at the same time without compromising the integrity of the meaning.
One of the purposes of maa in Arabic is to give a sense of awe and gravity to something and to surprise even. Allah (swt) is essentially asking what in the world could make you realise what laylatul qadr really is. This is different to asking when it is. A lot of our discussion on this night is centred on when it actually is but the question Allah (swt) is highlighting is not when it is but what it is. Allah (swt) uses two formats in putting forward a question like this, maa udreeka (what will tell you) and maa adraaka (what would have told you). The former is in the present future tense and the latter in the past tense. The mufassiroon are in agreement that whenever the present future tense is used, Allah (swt) does not give the answer. This is something that only Allah (swt) knows and whenever He (swt) uses the past tense, He (swt) usually gives the answer. The fact this ayah is in the past tense indicates that the messenger (saw) is given the answer and actually the rest of the surah answers this question.
As the Quran was revealed on this night and because this is a special event Allah (swt) gives it a form of speech that has not been used anywhere else in the Quran. There is a principle in Arabic that using a noun is more powerful that just alluding to it or using a pronoun instead of it. Specifically mentioning the noun is more powerful. For example, saying ‘Ahmed is here’ is more noble than saying ‘He is here’. In Surah At-Tariq Allah (swt) says, ‘And what will make you know (maa adraaka) what the night visitor is. It is the star that pierces through darkness’ (86:2-3). And in Surah Al Humazah, ‘And what can make you know (maa adraaka) what is the Crusher? It is Allah’s kindled fire’ (104:5-6). In these two examples Allah (swt) answers his question in the following ayah and He (swt) does so without repeating the subject (at-tariq and al hutama). In other words the next ayah is not at-tariq is or alhutama is. The second ayah is not a complete sentence; it is just a predicate of the sentence. In this surah we find something unique, as this is the only part of the Quran where part of the question is repeated. If this surah followed the pattern of all the others the next ayah would say khairum min alfee shahr (better than a thousand months). However, it doesn’t, it says laylatul qadr khairum min alfee shahr (The Night of Qadr is better than a thousand months). This is the only part of the Quran where part of the question is repeated again which serves to add emphasis over all the other places where this style is used. What is being highlighted in the other places is the importance of Allah’s creation and the fire of Hell, which are all magnificent creations but none of them compares to the night in which the Quran was revealed. The name laylatul qadr occurs three times in this surah which further highlights the importance of this night in the sight of Allah (swt).
Imam al-Qushayri who wrote a complete commentary of the Qur’an entitled Lata’if al-isharat bi tafsir al-Qur’an wrote something beautiful about this night: A beautiful night which Allah decreed for His close friends. The worshippers of Allah realise their worth to Allah, through the quality of their worship in this Night (meaning the people who take advantage of this night realise what they are worth to Allah because if you are not worth anything to Allah you sleep through the night and don’t take any advantage of it). And those who truly aim to seek and recognise Allah, they appreciate their servitude to the One they are seeking (in this Night). There are many benefits to not knowing what night in particular laylatul qadr falls on. One of these is to prevent people from being lazy in Ramadan by not exerting themselves throughout the month until the night itself. Another benefit we learn is from the hadith of the prophet (saw) when he instructed Ali (ra) to wake up a Bedouin sleeping in the masjid for salah. Ali (ra) asked the prophet (saw) why he did not take up the opportunity for the good deed himself. The prophet (saw) replied that if he had woken up the Bedouin and consequently the Bedouin did not obey him then the Bedouin would have been in deep sin, which would not be the case if he just disobeyed Ali (ra). Therefore, the fact that the messenger (saw) sent Ali (ra) was a mercy to the one who was sleeping. The fact that we don’t know when laylatul qadr is perhaps protects the one who is negligent of this night from blame, the one who even after knowing when it is still doesn’t appreciate it.
3) The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months
The mufassiroon says that when Allah (swt) says that laylatul qadr is better than a thousand nights it means the deeds you do in this night are better than the good deeds you could do in a thousand months. This is approximately eighty-three years. The average lifespan for women at its peak in the US is eighty and at its peak for men is seventy-four. So Allah (swt) goes beyond our average lifespan for one night, a night where we can take control and actually earn good for an entire lifespan. This is a very powerful thing that Allah (swt) has offered us. In much of the Muslim world the average lifespan is forty and in some places such as starving nations it is as low as thirty-three. For those places Allah (swt) is offering twice their lifespan per year. The surah began with a question that asked what laylatul qadr is. The answer is that it is something we could never have earned ourselves, a night of amazing reward. This is where we find the narration that is attributed to the prophet (saw). The messenger (saw) was afraid that his ummah were going to live short lives in comparison to the nations that had come before enabling them to perform many more good deeds. Allah (swt) gave the gift of laylatul qadr as a result so that members of the messenger’s ummah could catch up and be ahead of all the other nations because imagine if one takes advantage of laylatul qadr every year for just ten years then that is almost a millennium one has in his favour.
Others say that this khayr means that you can accomplish more good in this night than you would be able to do in other, not just in ibaadah but also in other types of good meaning that the barakah of your deeds in this night is unlike any other. A lot of ulema said based on this that if you have family problems, have been fighting with your wife or have not spoken to your brother in ten years then this is the time to bury the hatchet and make it up because the good that is going to come out of this night is unlike any other so take advantage of it. Furthermore, Allah (swt) did not say it is like a thousand months. Rather, He (swt) said it is better. The Arabs used to mention a thousand months in a lot of their statements as a means of hyperbole. For example, the Arab may say ‘I’ll be your friend for a thousand months’, which is akin to us in English saying ‘I’ll be your friend forever’. Therefore, there is a concept of infinity in this expression and so Allah (swt) has used an expression that the Arabs used to refer to something forever meaning the Night of Qadr is better than all times.
4) On that night the angels and the Spirit descend again and again with their Lord’s permission on every matter (task)
The Quran is precise in its speech right down to the way a word is spelled. In English we often have a short form of a word and a full form, for example, the word demo and demonstration and maths and mathematics. We use both forms of the words interchangeably but anyone who speaks the language knows that both mean one and the same thing. There is a parallel in the Arabic language where a word can be spelled in its full form and in its partial form. In this ayah the we see the word tanazzalu which is the partial spelling of the word tatanazzalu. The actual word has two tas in it but in Arabic we can drop one of the tas and just say tanazzalu and both words would mean the same thing. In classical Arabic though the more spelled out a word is the more it alludes to in its meaning. This ayah is referring to the descent of angels and we see the truncated form of the word. However, elsewhere in the Quran where it also mentions the descent of angels we see the full version of the same word, ‘Indeed, those who have said, “Our Lord is Allah ” and then remained on a right course – the angels will descend (tatanazzalu) upon them, (saying), “Do not fear and do not grieve but receive good tidings of Paradise, which you were promised’ (Surat Fuşşilat 41:30).
The ulema have explained that when the word is fuller in its spelling it implies that there is more of something in that particular context. The ayah in Surat Fuşşilat is talking about angels descending at the time of death. This is something that happens every minute of every day. In the ayah in this surah angels are also coming down but they come down on laylatul qadr which occurs once a year and so its occurrence is far less than that of the previous example. Surat Fuşşilat was the place where more needed to be mentioned and so the fuller form of the word was used and this surah was the place to use the word which implied less in comparison and so the truncated form is used. The messenger (saw) did not read the Quran to people out of a book – he recited it. To the disbeliever this was not writing, it was just speech. This intricacy in language is so subtle and refined. Can someone really be conscious in their speech of what they are saying to this extent or of what they are going to say years later compared to their former statement? Is that even possible for us? The usage of just this one ta in this ayah is a miracle and shows us the precision and marvel of the Quran and this is something that occurs all over the Quran. Another consequence of this missing ta is that it causes the word to be pronounced quicker which is another feature of the rhetoric of the Arabic language. Its quick pronunciation implies speed and indicates that the angels come down very fast. So we learn that the angels come down secretly and quickly in this night. These are interesting nuances in the language which you will not notice in a casual reading of the Quran but rather in careful readings as some of the great ulema have done and have picked up on these intricacies by doing so.
In this ayah Allah (swt) says the mala’ikah (angels) and ar-Ruh (the spirit Jibreel). By ijma’ (consensus) Muslim scholars agree that ar-Ruh is the Angel Jibreel (as). This order occurs in a number of places in the Quran but there is one verse in Surah An-Naba’ where Allah (swt) reverses the sequence and ar-Ruh comes first and then the angels. This sequencing is something very subtle and beautiful about the Quran. Many of the verbs used with angels are verbs of movement because an action is taking place but when we find Jibreel (as) in the Quran we find language to the contrary. Jibreel (as) is associated more with stillness or with doing a specific action of responsibility. For example, in surah At-Takwir Allah (swt) says, ‘(Who is) possessed of power and with the Owner of the Throne, secure (in position)’ (81:20). In Surah An-Naba’ we find the order reversed in the following ayah, ‘The Day that the Spirit (Jibreel) and the angels will stand in rows, they will not speak except for one whom the Most Merciful permits, and he will say what is correct’ (An-Naba’ 78:38). Jibreel (as) is associated more with stillness as he has a station under the throne of Allah (swt) and so when the stationary verb is mentioned Jibreel (as) is mentioned first and when movement is mentioned in this ayah the angels are mentioned first. This is all part of the subtlety and beauty of the Quran. So, in this ayah the angels and Jibreel (as) descend which is again part of the honour of this night. Jibreel (as) brought the Quran down to the prophet (saw) and every year he repeats his Sunnah which began on this night with the revelation of the Quran, which gives this night honour.
The literal translation of bi idhni rabbihim means by the permission of their master. It is said that the angels are desperately looking forward to seeing the believers who take advantage of this night which counts for a thousand nights on earth. So, they seek permission from their lord so that they may meet and greet the believers who are worshipping their lord and send salaam upon them. When the permission is given they descend rapidly to give that salaam. The last part of the ayah says min kulli ‘amr. The word min in Arabic is commonly translated as from but in classical Arabic it has multiple usages. One such meaning is ‘because of’ and so this ayah would then mean that the angels descend because they come with the commands which Allah (swt) has issued to them for that coming year. This is further explained in Surah Ad-Dukhan where laylatul qadr is also mentioned, ‘Indeed, We sent it down during a blessed night. On that night is made distinct every precise matter – (Every) matter (proceeding) from Us. Indeed, We were to send (a messenger) (Ad-Dukhan 44:3-5). Allah (swt) says that the angels descend and have been given responsibilities divided up into all sorts of wise decisions that He (swt) has given to them. Whenever Allah (swt) says angels’ come down He always makes it clear where the command came from, from Allah himself. We know the commands are from Allah (swt) but they are specifically attributed to Him because there are a lot of religions on earth based upon shirk with the angels. In Catholicism, instead of worshipping Allah (swt) people call on certain angels. In some pagan religions people call upon the angel assigned for mountains for example without appreciating that it was Allah (swt) who gave the angel power to move the mountain. So Allah (swt) makes sure that you understand that the angels cannot do anything without His permission and that they descend on this night with his permission. The angels come with all the commands that Allah (swt) has issued them with, for them to be executed from this night to the repetition of this night the following year.
5) (There is) Peace that night until the break of dawn.
The closest translation of this verse in English is ‘peace it is until the break of dawn’. Some mufassiroon have taken salaam to be an extension of the previous ayah meaning that in every single decision Allah (swt) makes on this night there is peace and in every single decision executed there is peace. The first interpretation of this verse is that this is a night of absolute peace in which there is no intervention of the shayateen. However, this statement has been considered weak by some ulema because we know that in the month of Ramadan the shayateen are already chained up. Others opine that there is no evil whatsoever on this night because when Allah (swt) sends the angels down, there is only peace in every single thing they do. On other nights there is peace also but not total peace and you will always find something to disturb the peace but on laylatul qadr the night is entirely peaceful. Another interpretation is that this is a night on which not even a human being can embark upon an evil task. Others say that it is called salaam because it is the night on which the angels are constantly saying salaam to the people who spend their nights in the masjids from the setting of the sun until the break of dawn. They pass by every believer and say ‘peace be upon you’. In a long narration captured in Ibn Kathir an entire battalion of angels and Jibreel descend and go to every single masjid and to every believer to give salaam. The long journey these angels take just to send salaam upon the believers is an incredible honour that Allah (swt) gives to the believers on this night.
By majority this is a Makki surah. When one reads about the virtues of this night of worship it is typically something that believers benefit from and not disbelievers. Disbelievers have no appreciation of the value of laylatul qadr and they are not going to ask the prophet (saw) more about it. However, in the Makkan context the primary audience are disbelievers and yet we get this remarkable surah which you would think pertains primarily to believers. The work of dawah is like sales in that you are trying to give someone a product or message and hope they will like it. In sales the customer has the power, which is, called buying power and the salesman often appears desperate. The buyer knowing this will often try to make extra demands on the seller. In dawah the prophet (saw) is desperately giving the message to the Quraysh and the disbelievers think that they are like the customers and in a position of power. However, Allah (swt) does not accept this and makes sure that the messenger (saw) knows that he is never in a position of weakness and always in a position of power. Thus, he should be in no desperation to sell this to them. If they take it then it is for their benefit and if they do not then it is their loss and not the prophets. The only reason the prophet (saw) is so concerned is because of his love and genuine concern for humanity including the disbelievers who he fears for. This serves to give integrity to the Quran because in the previous surah the prophet (saw) was being attacked by Abu Jahl and these verses highlight the nobility of the Quran, which does not need to be marketed to such people. There is no need to desperately call people to Islam because these ayaat were sent down on the noble night of laylatul qadr and people should be honoured that they get to hear them. These ayaat are giving us an appreciation of how awesome the Quran is. Those who accepted the messenger (saw) are the best of all generations and those who rejected him are the worst of the disbelievers. The disbelievers of his time are worse than the disbelievers of todays. This is because today’s disbelievers are rejecting the Quran but the former rejected the Quran and the messenger (saw) to his face.
The surah begins with the descent of the Quran, then the angels descend and then peace descends until the time of Fajr, which is the best time to recite the Quran, as it is actually a witness for you then. Thus, the surah began with Quran and ends with the Quran. Allah (swt) says in the Quran, ‘Establish prayer at the decline of the sun (from its meridian) until the darkness of the night and (also) the Qur’an of dawn. Indeed, the recitation of dawn is ever witnessed’ (Israa’ 17:78). The previous surah ended with an instruction to come close and the best opportunity to come close to Allah (swt) is on laylatul qadr. Just like the previous surah emphasised reading, this surah is almost like a manual on how to come close by encouraging us to read the Quran in worship on this night as one of the best forms of worship.
May Allah give us the blessing in seeing and following laylatul qadr in the upcoming years and give us love and understanding of the Quran and its implementation. May Allah send peace and blessings upon His Messenger (saw). Ameen.