CHAPTER 12: THIS IS THE ROAD
“By the heavens with constellations; by the Promised Day; by the witness and the witnessed; doomed were the makers of the pit, abundantly supplied with fuel, as they sat by it and watched what they did with the Believers. They were outraged with them only because they believed in God, the All-Powerful, the All-Praiseworthy, He to Whom belongs the dominion of the heaven and the earth. And God is Witness over everything.
“Indeed, for those who persecute the believing men and women, and later do not repent, is the penalty of Hell; for them is the penalty of burning. As for those who believe and do good deeds, there are Gardens through which rivers flow, and that is the great triumph.
“Most certainly, strong is the grip of your Lord. It is He Who originates and repeats. And He is the Forgiving, the Loving, the Lord of the Throne, Performer of what He desires.” (85:1-16)
The story of the Makers of the Pit as told in the chapter “Al-Buruj” (“The Constellations”) requires deep thought by those among the Believers, to whatever time and place they belong, who invite people to God. The story, with its introduction, description, comments and moral, as related in the Qur’an, points out some profound truths concerning the nature of the Call toward God, the reaction of people to this Call, and the consequences which are possible in the vast scope of this Call-the scope whose vastness encompasses the whole world, this life and the life beyond it. The Qur’an through this story, points out to the Believers the road which lies before them and prepares them to accept with fortitude whatever comes their way, as yet unknown to them, with the permission of the All-Wise God.
This is the story of a group of people who believed in God and openly proclaimed their belief. They encountered tyrannical and oppressive enemies who were bent upon denying the right of a human being to believe in the All-Mighty, the All-Praiseworthy God. They intended to deprive man of that dignity which has been bestowed upon him by God and without which he is reduced to a mere plaything in the hands of tyrants, to be tortured, burned alive, and provide entertainment to his tormentors by his cries of agony.
But the faith in the hearts of the Believers raised them above all persecution. Belief triumphed over life. The threat of torture did not shake them, they never recanted, and they burned in the fire until death.
Indeed, their hearts were liberated from the worship of this life. Neither the love of life nor the fear of an agonizing death could make them yield to accept dishonor. They freed themselves from this earth and all its attractions, triumphing over life through a sublime faith.
Against these believing, righteous, sublime and honorable souls were pitted arrogant, mischievous, criminal and degraded people. And these criminals sat by the pit of fire, watching how the Believers suffered and writhed in pain. They sat there to enjoy the sight of how fire consumes living beings and how the bodies of these noble souls were reduced to cinders and ashes. And when some young man or woman, some child or old man from among these righteous Believers was thrown into the fire, their diabolical pleasure would reach a new height, and shouts of mad joy would escape their lips at the sight of blood and pieces of flesh.
This hair-raising incident shows that these rebellious people had sunk to those levels of depravity, seeking pleasure through torturing others, which are not even reached by any wild beast. A wild beast kills its prey for food, never to derive pleasure through tormenting it.
The same incident also shows the height to which the spirit of a Believer can soar, liberated and free – that height, the attainment of which has been the highest honor in all generations and in all periods.
By earthly reckoning, tyranny triumphed over faith, and this faith, although it reached its zenith in the hearts of this righteous, noble, steadfast and sublime group, had no weight in the struggle between tyranny and faith.
The traditions relating to this incident, like the text of the Qur’an, say nothing concerning whether God punished these tyrants in this life for their crimes as He punished the people of Noah, the people of Hud, the people of Salih, the people of Sh’uaib, and the people of Lot, or as He caught Pharaoh with his army in all his splendor and power.
Thus from the earthly point of view, the end was pitiful and tragic.
But did this matter finish here? Did the group of Believers, with all the sublimity of their faith, vanish – vanish in the pit of fire with their torments? And did the group of criminals, with all the depravity of their crime, go unpunished?
From the earthly point of view, this tragic end troubles the heart!
But the Qur’an teaches the Believers something else, reveals to them another reality, shows them another scale with which to weigh all matters, and enlightens them concerning the scope of the struggle.
Life’s pleasures and pains, achievements and frustrations, do not have any great weight in the scale, and do not determine the profit or loss. Triumph is not limited to immediate victory, which is but one of the many forms of triumph.
In the scale of God, the true weight is the weight of faith; in God’s market the only commodity in demand is the commodity of faith. The highest form of triumph is the victory of soul over matter, the victory of belief over pain, and the victory of faith over persecution. In the incident described above, the souls of the Believers were victorious over fear and pain, over the allurements of the earth and of life, and they gained such victory over torture which is an honor for all mankind for all times-and this is the true victory.
All men die, and of various causes; but not all gain such victory, nor reach such heights, nor taste such freedom, nor soar to such limits of the horizon. It is God’s choosing and honoring a group of people who share death with the rest of mankind but who are singled out from other people for honor -honor among the noblest angels, nay, even among all mankind, if we measure them by the standards of the total history of generations of men.
It was possible for these Believers to save their lives by giving up their faith; but with how much loss to themselves, and with what a great loss to all mankind? They would have lost and would have killed this great truth, that life without belief is worthless, without freedom is degrading, and if tyrants are allowed to dominate men’s souls as well as their bodies, then it is entirely depraved.
This was that noble truth, the great truth, which the Believers realized while they were alive on the earth; they realized and found it while the fire was licking them and burning their mortal frames. This noble truth triumphed over the torment of the fire.
The scope of this struggle is not limited to this earth or to this life. The observers of this struggle are not merely a generation of men. The angels are also participants in the happenings on earth; they observe them and are a witness to them, and they weigh them in a scale which is other than the scale of a generation or even of all generations of men. The angels are noble souls who number many times more than the people on the earth. Without question the praise and respect of the angels is far greater in this scale than the opinion and judgment of the people on the earth.
And then there is the Hereafter. That will be the real sphere which is adjacent to the earthly sphere and is not separated from it, in actuality as well as in the believers’ perception of this reality.
Thus the struggle does not end here, and the real decision cannot be reached here. Any judgment based on that part of it which took place on earth is therefore incorrect, as this judgment will concern only a small and rather insignificant part of this struggle.
The former viewpoint, that is, that of the earthly scale, is limited and narrow, entertained by a hasty man. The latter viewpoint is comprehensive and far-sighted, and such a viewpoint is nurtured in a believer by the teachings of the Qur’an, as it is the mirror of reality and the basis of correct belief.
Among the rewards which God has promised to the Believers for their faith, obedience, steadfastness in the face of calamity, and victory over persecution is contentment of heart:
“Those who believe, and their hearts find satisfaction in remembrance of God. Indeed, remembrance of God brings contentment to the hearts”. (13:28)
And it is the pleasure and love of the All-Merciful:
“Surely upon those who believe and do good deeds the All-Merciful shall assign love.” (19:96)
And it is remembrance on High:
The Messenger of God-peace be on him-said: “When a certain person’s child dies, God asks the angels: Did you take away the soul of My servant’s child? They say: yes. Then He says: Did you take away the apple of his eye? They say Yes. Then He says: What did My servant say? They say: He praised You and said, ‘Indeed, we belong to God and to Him shall we return’. Then He says: Build a house for My servant in the Garden and call it ‘The House of Praise.” (Tirmidhi)
He also said: “God Most High says: I am to My servant according to his thought concerning Me; when he remembers Me, I am with him; when he remembers Me to himself, I remember him to Myself; when he mentions Me among a group, I mention him in a better group. If he comes toward Me one span, I come toward him an arm’s length; if he comes toward Me one arm’s length, I come toward him one step; if he walks toward Me, I run toward him.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
And it is the keen interest of the angels in the affairs of the Believers on earth:
“The bearers of the Throne and those around it engage in their Lord’s praise, and they believe in Him, and ask forgiveness for the Believers: ‘Our Lord! Your mercy and knowledge encompass everything. Then forgive those who repent and follow Your path, and save them from the torment of Hell.” (40:7)
And it is life from God for the martyrs:
“Do not consider those as dead who were killed in the way of God; they are living and find sustenance from their Sustainer. They enjoy what God has given them from His bounty, and are glad for those who are left behind (on earth) and have not reached there yet, that they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve. They are jubilant at the favor from God and His bounty; indeed, God does not destroy the reward of the Believers”. (3:169-171)
And as to rejectors of faith, the tyrants and the criminals, God has repeatedly promised that He will catch them in the Hereafter, while giving them a limited period of living on earth: although He has caught some of them in this world too, yet for the final punishment emphasis is on the Hereafter:
“Do not let yourself be deceived that the unbelievers walk about in the land; a limited enjoyment, and then their abode is Hell and what an evil place!” (3:196-197)
“Do not think that God is unaware of the doings of the wicked people. He has deferred (judgement for) them to the Day when the eyes shall stare, and they shall run with necks outstretched and heads erect, their sight never returned to themselves, their hearts void”. (14:42-43)
“Leave them to fun and play until the Day comes which they have been promised. On that Day they will come out of the graves and run as if hastening toward a fixed goal -eyes downcast, faces degraded. It will be the Day which they were promised”. (70:42-44)
Thus the life of mankind is adjoined with that of the angels; this life proceeds into the life Hereafter; and the field of struggle between good and evil, between the truth and falsehood, and between faith and tyranny, is not limited to this earth. This matter does not finish here, nor is the decision made in this world. This life and all its pleasures and pains, achievements and frustrations, do not weigh much in the scale.
The field of struggle is very broad in space and in time, in measures and in scales. This realization enlarges the Believer’s horizons and heightens his aspirations, so that this earth and whatever is in it, this life and its attachments, shrink in his sight. The Believer’s greatness increases in proportion to what he sees and understands of the scopes and horizons. To create such a broad, comprehensive, noble and pure concept of faith, the story of the Makers of the Pit is a great example.
Light is also thrown on another aspect of the Call toward God and its situation with respect to all possibilities in the story of the Makers of the Pit and the chapter “Constellations” (“al-Buruj”) .
The history of the Call toward God has witnessed various endings in this world in its struggle with other movements.
It has witnessed the annihilation of the people of Noah, the people of Hud, the people of Sh’uaib, and the people of Lot, and the escape-the bare escape-of a small group of believers. But the Qur’an does not state what these escapees did in the world and life after their escape. These examples tell us that sometimes God Most High gives the rebels and tyrants a taste of punishment in this world, while the full punishment still awaits them in the Hereafter.
This history of the Call witnessed the annihilation of Pharoah and his army, and the escape of Moses and his people and the establishment of their authority in the land. Those people of that time were the most righteous in all their (the Israelites’) history, although they did not attain complete steadfastness nor establish the religion of God on earth in its entirety; and this example is different from the previous ones.
This history of the Call witnessed the annihilation of the polytheists who turned away from the guidance and belief in Muhammad -peace be on him -and it witnessed the complete victory of the Believers, with the amazing victory of belief in their hearts. And for the first time in the history of mankind the way of God was established in such completeness as was not seen by man, either before or after.
And it witnessed, as we have seen, the example of the Makers of the Pit.
And it witnessed many other examples in earlier or later times with little mention in the history of faith. And even today it is witnessing such examples, which reach one or another of the possible endings recorded throughout history for centuries.
Among the various earlier or later examples, the example of the Makers of the Pit must not be forgotten.
The example must not be forgotten in which the Believers have no escape and the unbelievers are not punished! This is so that the Believers-the callers toward God -should remain fully aware that they can also meet this extreme end in the way of God, and they have no say in it. Their matter and the matter of belief rests with God.
Their task is to fulfill their obligation, and go. Their obligation is to choose God, prefer belief over life, raise themselves above persecution through faith, and to testify to God with deed as well as intention. Then it is up to God to deal with them and with their enemies, with His Religion and His Call, as He deems proper. He may choose for them any one of the endings known in history, or some other ending which only He knows and sees.
They are workers for God. Whenever, whatever, however He wants them to do their work, they should do it and take the known reward. To decide what will be the ending of their endeavor is neither in their power nor is it their responsibility. This is the responsibility of the One in authority, not of those who are mere workers.
They receive the first part of their reward in the form of contentment of heart, height of understanding, beauty of ideas, liberation from desires and attractions, and freedom from fear and sorrow, in whatever condition they may be
They receive the second part of their reward in praise; remembrance and honor among the angels, in addition to these among the people of this earth.
Then they receive the greater and the last part of their reward in the Hereafter: easy accounting and great favors.
With every kind of reward, they also receive the greatest of rewards: the pleasure of God. It is His bounty on them that He chose them for His purpose, an instrument for His power, so that He makes use of them on this earth as He deems proper.
The Qur’anic training of the first noble generation of Muslims was of this character to the highest degree. They lost their personalities and identities in this matter, acting as workers for the One in authority, and were pleased with God in every decision and in every condition.
The training by the Prophet- peace be on him – went side by side with the Qur’anic teachings, turning their hearts and eyes toward the Garden, and toward patiently persevering in their assigned task until God ordains what He intends in this world as well as what is pleasing to Him in the Hereafter
The Prophet – peace be on him – saw the intensity of tortures heaped upon ‘Ammar, his father and his mother – may God be pleased with them-but he said nothing more than this: “Patience, family of Yasir! The Garden is promised for you.”
And Khabbab bin al-Aratt-may God be pleased with him – reported: “We complained to the Messenger of God – peace be upon him -while he was resting in the shadow of Ka’aba, saying, ‘Why do you not ask God to help us? Why do you not pray for us? Then he said: ‘Before you, there were people who would catch a man, bury him halfway in a hole dug in the ground, then saw his head until it split in two; or would comb with iron combs between his flesh and bones; yet this would not turn him away from his religion. By God! God will bring this matter to completion, and a time will come when a rider will ride alone from Santa to Hadramut and he will have no fear except of God, or of a wolf against his sheep; but you people are in a hurry”. (Bukhari)
God’s wisdom underlies every decision and every condition. He administers the entire universe, and, He is informed of its beginning and its end, controlling its events and its interrelationships. He knows the wisdom, hidden from us behind the curtains of the Unseen-the wisdom which, in conjunction with His will, unfolds the long process of history.
Sometimes, after generations and centuries, God unveils to us the wisdom of an event which was not understood by the contemporary people. They might have wondered: Why this? O Lord! Why did this happen? The question itself is due to ignorance from which the Believer saves himself. He already knows that behind every decision there is wisdom. His breath of concept and his far-seeing vision in space and time, and in values and scales, raises him above this unbelief whose beginning is in such a question. He journeys on God’s ordained course with submission and contentment.
The Qur’an was creating hearts worthy of bearing the trust of being God’s representatives on earth. It was necessary that these hearts be so solid, so strong and so pure, leaving behind everything and bearing everything patiently, as not to fix their sights on something of this earth, but looking beyond to the Hereafter, not seeking anything except the pleasure of God and being willing to traverse the path of life until death in poverty, difficulty, frustration, torment and sacrifice. They were not to seek any hasty reward on this earth, whether it was the reward of the victory of the Call, the dominance of Islam, and the glory of the Muslims, or even that this reward be the annihilation of the tyrants, as the All Mighty, the All Powerful had dealt with former generations of unbelievers. When such hearts were found which knew that during the course of this life they would have no expectations, and that the decision between the truth and falsehood would be made in the Hereafter-when such hearts were found, and God knew the sincerity of their intentions concerning which they had pledged, he gave them victory in the earth and bestowed upon them the trust. This trust was not for their benefit, but so that they might establish the Divine system.
They became the bearers of this trust when no promise was made to them of worldly benefits which they could have demanded, nor were their sights fixed on acquiring such benefits. They were dedicated servants of God from the day they knew of no reward except His pleasure.
All the verses of the Qur’an in which victory is promised, or in which spoils are mentioned or where it is told that the polytheists will be punished in this world by the hands of the Believers, were revealed in Medina. These were revealed only after all these matters were excluded from the Believer’s scope of action, his expectation and his desire. God’s help came on its own, when God intended that this way of life become actual in the life of mankind, so that generations of men could see it in a practical and concrete form, and not as a reward for the endeavors, the hard work, the sacrifice and the sufferings. This was indeed a decision of God, the wisdom of which we are trying to fathom today.
This intricate point requires deep thought by all callers toward God, to whatever country or period of time they belong; for this guarantees that they will be able to see the milestones of the road clearly and without ambiguity, and establishes the path for those who wish to traverse it to the end, whatever this end may be; then what God intends to do with His Call and with them is up to Him. Then they will not be anxious, while traversing this road ever paved with skulls and limbs and blood and sweat, to find help and victory, or desirous that the decision between the truth and falsehood be made on this earth. However, if God Himself intends to fulfill the completion of His call and His religion through their efforts, He will bring about His will- but not as a reward for their sufferings and sacrifices. Indeed, this world is not a place of reward.
Another fact to ponder here is a comment of the Qur’an on the story of the Makers of the Pit where God Most High says:
“And they were angered with the Believers, only because they believed in God, the All-Powerful, the All-Praiseworthy.”
The callers to God, of any period or generation, ought to think over this deep truth.
The struggle between the Believers and their enemies is in essence a struggle of belief, and not in any way of anything else. The enemies are angered only because of their faith, enraged only because of their belief.
This was not a political or an economic or a racial struggle; had it been any of these, its settlement would have been easy, the solution of its difficulties would have been simple. But essentially it was a struggle between beliefs-either unbelief or faith, either Jahiliyyah or Islam.
This is why the leaders of the polytheists of Mecca offered the Messenger of God – peace be on him – wealth, kingship and worldly things against only one thing: that he give up the struggle of belief and settle with them in this affair. Had he accepted – may God forgive us for saying this – what they asked of him, no difference whatsoever would have remained between them and him.
Indeed, this was a question of belief and a battle of belief. The Believers ought to be certain of this, whatever be the declaration of their enemies. They are their enemies only because of their belief-“only because they believe in God, the All-Powerful, the All-Praiseworthy” – and because they purify for Him alone their obedience and submission.
The enemies of the Believers may wish to change this struggle into an economic or political or racial struggle, so that the Believers become confused concerning the true nature of the struggle and the flame of belief in their hearts becomes extinguished. The Believers must not be deceived, and must understand that this is a trick. The enemy, by changing the nature of the struggle, intends to deprive them of their weapon of true victory, the victory which can take any form, be It the victory of the freedom of spirit as was case of the Believers in the story of the Maker of the Pit, or dominance in the world -as a consequence of the freedom of spirit-as happened in the case of the first generation of Muslims.
We see an example of this today in the attempts of Christendom to try to deceive us by distorting history and saying that the Crusades were a form of imperialism. The truth of the matter is that the latter-day imperialism is but a mask for the crusading spirit, since it is not possible for it to appear in its true form, as it was possible in the Middle Ages. The unveiled crusading spirit was smashed against the rock of the faith of Muslim leadership which came from various elements, including Salahuddin the Kurd and Turan Shah the Mamiuk, who forgot the differences of nationalities and remembered their belief, and were victorious under the banner of Islam .
“They were angered with the Believers only because they believed in God, the All-Powerful, the All-Praiseworthy.”
Almighty God spoke the truth, and these treacherous deceivers are liars!