Our hearts break when we hear the news from around the world these days.
Every dewy morning brings with it fresh news of the death and destruction of innocent lives. Syria has become an unprecedented bloodbath. The Central African Republic is being ‘cleansed’ of its Muslims by extremist militias. And the issue that weighs in mind in recent days, as Russia and Ukraine seem set to go to war, is the Tatar Muslims sitting in the line of fire, dreading the latest tragedy in the long history of oppression they’ve faced. Many peoples among those in the cross-hairs of tyrannical and oppressive regimes are Muslim. There is relatively little political strength or motivation in any nation today to prevent many of these atrocities, and much confusion about what to do in many of these cases.
Such powerlessness brings to mind the situation faced by the Muslims at Makkah. And so we must understand the comfort Allah gave them in those difficult times because that comfort is valuable to us today. Surah al-Burooj comes particularly to mind as a powerful message of support from the Master to the Muslims communities around the world under threat. Allah begins,
وَالسَّمَاءِ ذَاتِ الْبُرُوجِ
“By the Sky containing Al-Burooj.” [Qur’an 85:1]
Al-Burooj is an amazing word. It refers to the large stars in the sky, according to many scholars. But linguistically, it comes from the word, “Barj,” a word the ancient Arabs would use for large buildings. We still see that in the names of skyscrapers like the Burj Al-Arab and the Burj Khalifah in Dubai. Just like these skyscrapers, the Burooj the sky contains requires a person to crane their necks and look high in the sky to observe.
The large buildings the ancient Arabs were familiar with were military forts. When Allah swears by the Burooj in this Surah, he is describing for us forts spread across the galaxy, in strategic military positions, just like the huge stars are spread across the sky. Forts manned by armies of angels, professional soldiers, that aid the believers when the Master sends them. There are narrations of battalions of angels being sent to help the Prophet ﷺ in many of his battles. But there will come a Day when those angels march out in full force, as Allah describes:
وَجَاءَ رَبُّكَ وَالْمَلَكُ صَفًّا صَفًّا
“And your Lord has come and the angels, rank upon rank…” [Qur’an 89:22]
The participants of these tremendous events are waiting for it. The stars spread across the sky are like a manifest promise that these heavenly forts will one day be emptied. They are a promise, for anyone who cares to ponder, that the Day of Judgment will soon arrive. And so Allah says next,
“And [by] the promised Day” [Qur’an 85:2]
Many people, including Muslims, don’t understand the reason for the Akhirah. Why should such a thing even be, this incredibly terrifying day, where all people are judged for their deeds? It is because Allah is Just, something that is a part of His Perfection. “Life isn’t fair,” but Allah is, so there must be a Day when perfect justice is done: Justice to every criminal, justice for every victim, justice for every person who was patient in the face of trial. Surah al-Burooj in later verses highlights one genocide, in which a king massacred a group of Muslims because they declared their obedience to Allah.
Their story is also told in a long hadith narrated by the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, but this incident is hardly unique in the history of the world. How many have been the terrible crimes committed on this earth? Every patch of soil would be perpetually red, if the blood did not wash away. How many have been the criminals that committed war crimes and genocide, without ever expecting a tribunal to hold them to account about the mass graves left behind them? They thought no one was watching to hold them to account. Who could track every deed and every action in the confusion of terrible war…? And so Allah says,
“By the Witness, and That Which He Witnessed” [Qur’an 85:3]
This simple sentence is powerful in its implications. The scholars of tafseer described many of the ways this ayah can be taken, but one meaning resonates here: Allah is the Witness (Shaahid), and everything in this world is That Which is Witnessed (Mash-hood). Not a single event happens on earth but Allah is aware of it, and will give justice for it on the Day of Judgment.
This goes for the huge events, such as the taking of innocent life, but it also goes for all the problems and trials every single human being faces. We are constantly worried for the sake of our communities, for ourselves and many of our brothers and sisters, who act in a way disobedient to Allah. Our masajid and MSAs have event after event on the uber-haraamness of drugs, alcohol, and acting inappropriately (to say the least) with the opposite gender, but all of these are symptoms of the greater problem. The disease is a lack of understanding or awareness that Allah is watching what we do. A young man or woman is visibly shy of owning up to their parents half of what we do, but we don’t display this same shyness with Allah, who is closer to us than even our parents. As the poet versed:
إذا مـا قـال لـي ربــــــي ** أمـا استحييت تعصـيني ؟
وتخفي الذنب من خلقي ** وبالعـصيــان تـــأتـيــنــــي؟
When my Lord asks me:
Are you not ashamed to disobey Me?
You hide your sins from My creation,
Yet with sins come you to Me!”
This was the start of a poem that reduced Imam Ahmed to tears. Actually, many of the early scholars, from the Sahabah and their students, were noticeable for living life in constant awareness that Allah was watching. Imagine the state of this Ummah, should we live up their standards. It’s a change of mindset we can implement, in the big things as well as the little things, that can yield some serious results. The habits we make of the little things, of not cheating on our exams, or lying to our parents about where we were, help form our character, so we refuse to even consider violating the bigger commands of Allah.
As for those who are oppressed, they are all too aware that their hope and their salvation lies with Allah and His Help. The Sahabah were known for smiling in the face of oppression, because they saw in whips and knives, eternal reward and the pleasure of their Lord. The people of Syria and other places today, too, are an inspiration for us all. As my teacher Sh. Abu Eesa said, “Look at what our people have gone through and look at their stoicism, character, and acceptance of qadr. Don’t pity these honourable, amazing people. Pity the criminals that will pay for this suffering oh so severely.”
In a touching photo making the rounds of the internet, the last words of a Syrian child, echoing thousands of his brothers and sisters, are recorded:
Allah says in Surah al-Burooj, “By the Witness, and That Which He Witnessed.” The great scholar of the early generations, Sa’eed ibn Jubayr, in an observation of great understanding, would follow this ayah up by reciting
هُوَ الَّذِي أَرْسَلَ رَسُولَهُ بِالْهُدَىٰ وَدِينِ الْحَقِّ لِيُظْهِرَهُ عَلَى الدِّينِ كُلِّهِ ۚ وَكَفَىٰ بِاللَّهِ شَهِيدًا
“…and Allah is sufficient as a Witness.” [Qur’an 48:28]
* This article owes a great deal to the tafseer of Surah al-Burooj lectures posted by Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan. Anything correct is from Allah, anything incorrect is from my own shortcomings.