Sūrah al-Burūj: Hope for the Oppressed

This is Part One of my new Ramadan Tafsīr Series covering the Tafsīr of the last 30 Surahs of the Quran. A New Tafsīr will be added every day this Ramadan in shaa Allah.

Sūrah al-Burūj is a short Makkan Surah comprised of 22 verses. The theme of this Surah is the reward for the oppressed and martyred in the Afterlife, as well as the punishment for the unrepented tyrant in the Afterlife.

The Sūrah was revealed during the Makkan Era in which Muslims were oppressed and faced daily discrimination and violence. As a message of hope to the oppressed and those who had lost loved ones, this Surah was revealed.

We learn from this Sūrah that many believers in the past were oppressed in much harsher manners. Some of them were even killed for believing in Islam. Despite this, Allah declares that these believers are victorious because they made it to Paradise. While the oppressors were the real losers because they ended up in the Hellfire

The People of the Ditch

Central to this Sūrah is the story of the people of the ditch. There are various opinions regarding whom this story is referring to. Some scholars say it is referring to a Christian community that was oppressed in Yemen by a tyrannical king. Other scholars say it is a generic story that can refer to any time in history when believers were killed were believing in Islam. This is why it is left ambiguous.

The strongest opinion seems to be that it is both referring to a specific story, while remaining general enough, to refer to repeated history as well. The specific story related to this Sūrah is narrated in detail in both Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim and Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr. Here is the full narration.

Ṣuhaib (RA) reported that Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said;

There lived a king before you and he had a (court) magician. As he (the magician) grew old, he said to the king: I have grown old, send some young boy to me so that I should teach him magic. He (the king) sent to him a young man so that he should train him (in magic).

And on his way (to the magician) he (the young man) found a monk sitting there. He (the young man) listened to his (the monk’s) talk and was impressed by it. It became his habit that on his way to the magician he met the monk and set there and he came to the magician (late). He (the magician) beat him because of delay.

He made a complaint about that to the monk and he said to him: When you feel afraid of the magician, say: Members of my family had detained me. And when you feel afraid of your family you should say: The magician had detained me.

It so happened that there came a huge beast (of prey) and it blocked the way of the people, and he (the young boy) said: I will come to know today whether the magician is superior or the monk is superior. He picked up a stone and said: O Allah if the affair of the monk is dearer to Thee than the affair of the magician, cause death to this animal so that the people should be able to move about freely. He threw that stone towards it and killed it and the people began to move about (on the path freely).

He (the young man) then came to that monk and Informed him and the monk said: Sonny, today you are superior to me. Your affair has come to a stage where I find that you would be soon put to a trial, and in case you are put to a trial don’t give my clue. That young man began to treat the blind and those suffering from leprosy and he in fact began to cure people of (all kinds) of illness.

When a companion of the king who had gone blind heard about him, he came to him with numerous gifts and said: If you cure me all these things collected together here would be yours. Be said: I myself do not cure anyone. It is Allah Who cures and if you affirm faith in Allah, I shall also supplicate Allah to cure you. He affirmed his faith in Allah and Allah cured him and he came to the king and sat by his side as he used to sit before.

The king said to him: Who restored your eyesight? He said: My Lord. Thereupon he said: It means that your Lord is One besides me. He said: My Lord and your Lord is Allah, so he (the king) took hold of him and tormented him till he gave a clue of that boy.

The young man was thus summoned and the king said to him: O boy, it has been conveyed to me that you have become so much proficient in your magic that you cure the blind and those suffering from leprosy and you do such and such things. Thereupon he said: I do not cure anyone; it is Allah Who cures, and he (the king) took hold of him and began to torment him. So he gave a clue of the monk. The monk was thus summoned and it was said to him: You should turn back from your religion. He, however, refused to do so. He (ordered) for a saw to be brought (and when it was done) he (the king) placed it in the middle of his head and tore it into parts till a part fell down.

Then the courtier of the king was brought and it was said to him: Turn back from your religion. Arid he refused to do so, and the saw was placed in the midst of his head and it was torn till a part fell down. Then that young boy was brought and it was said to him: Turn back from your religion. He refused to do so and he was handed over to a group of his courtiers.

And he said to them: Take him to such and such mountain; make him climb up that mountain and when you reach its top (ask him to renounce his faith) but if he refuses to do so, then throw him (down the mountain). So they took him and made him climb up the mountain and he said: O Allah, save me from them (in any way) Thou likest and the mountain began to quake and they all fell down and that person came walking to the king.

The king said to him: What has happened to your companions? He said: Allah has saved me from them. He again handed him to some of his courtiers and said: Take him and carry him in a small boat and when you reach the middle of the ocean (ask him to renounce) his religion, but if he does not renounce his religion throw him (into the water). So they took him and he said: O Allah, save me from them and what they want to do. It was quite soon that the boat turned over and they were drowned and he came walking to the king, and the king said to him: What has happened to your companions?

He said: Allah has saved me from them, and he said to the king: You cannot kill me until you do what I ask you to do. And he said: What is that? He said: You should gather people in a plain and hang me by the trunk (of a tree). Then take hold of an arrow from the quiver and say: In the name of Allah, the Lord of the young boy; then shoot an arrow and if you do that then you would be able to kill me.

So he (the king) called the people in an open plain and tied him (the boy) to the trunk of a tree, then he took hold of an arrow from his quiver and then placed the arrow in the bow and then said: In the name of Allah, the Lord of the young boy; he then shot an arrow and it bit his temple.

He (the boy) placed his hands upon the temple where the arrow had hit him and he died and the people said: We affirm our faith in the Lord of this young man, we affirm our faith in the Lord of this young man, we affirm our faith in the Lord of this young man. The courtiers came to the king and it was said to him: Do you see that Allah has actually done what you aimed at averting.

They (the people) have affirmed their faith in the Lord. He (the king) commanded ditches to be dug at important points in the path. When these ditches were dug, and the fire was lit in them it was said (to the people): He who would not turn back from his religion would be thrown in the fire or it would be said to them to jump in that.

(The people courted death but did not renounce religion) till a woman came with her child and she felt hesitant in jumping into the fire and the child said to her: O Mother, endure (this ordeal) for it is the Truth.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 55:93

The above story fits in perfectly with the narrative of the Sūrah, as well as its theme. This story teaches us that just because a tyrant wins in this world, it doesn’t mean that he is successful. The real success is earning Paradise, and no tyrant can take that away from any believer.

Life is a Test

There is another important narration related to this theme. It is about an event that took place in the same time period and helps put the theme of this Surah into context.

Narrated Khabbāb bin Al-Arat (RA) :

We complained to Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) (of the persecution inflicted on us by the infidels) while he was sitting in the shade of the Ka`ba, leaning over his Burd (i.e. covering sheet). We said to him, “Would you seek help for us? Would you pray to Allah for us?” He said, “Among the nations before you a (believing) man would be put in a ditch that was dug for him, and a saw would be put over his head and he would be cut into two pieces; yet that (torture) would not make him give up his religion. His body would be combed with iron combs that would remove his flesh from the bones and nerves, yet that would not make him abandon his religion. By Allah, this religion (i.e. Islam) will prevail till a traveler from Sana (in Yemen) to Hadrarmaut will fear none but Allah, or a wolf as regards his sheep, but you (people) are hasty.

Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 61:119

In this narration, the Prophet (peace be upon him) refers to similar incidents to teach an important lesson. We tend to get hasty and upset whenever Allah tests us. We want the test to end quickly and we want to be able to enjoy this world again. But there were people before us who were tested in far more severe ways, yet they were patient and victorious. Even if they never experienced that victory in this world.

Allah has spared us from the devastating tests of the early nations, or even the difficult tests that the companions like Khabbāb (RA) faced. We should always keep this in mind when facing the tests and challenges of our time. Life is a test, and each individual will be tested according to what they can handle. Therefore, we should always be ready to face the tests of life and be patient with our eye on the goal; Paradise.

Check out our Ramadan Resources Page for more beneficial Ramadan content.

Posted by Ismail Kamdar

Ismail Kamdar is the Founder of Islamic Self Help, author of over a dozen books, faculty manager of IOU, and a freelance writer.

5 comments

Dr. Vinicky Ann Ervin Ph.D

Shukran Jazeelan, this brings a clearer perspective and understanding of this Surah. Jazak Allah to you and Ramadan Kareem. Please continue with you sharing of knowledge, it is a true honor to learn more, BarakAllahu feek.
Dr. Ervin

Saadia Khizer

JazakAllah Khair for the article. It is well written and helpful.

Mariama Bentum

Very insightful

May Allah reward you Ameen ! This has brung understanding to me and hope and strength.

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