In The Name of God, The Most Gracious, The Dispenser of Grace.
81:1 When The Sun is shrouded in darkness.
See 20:105-107 and the corresponding note 90; also note 63 on 14:48.
81:2 And when the stars lose their light.
i.e., when they crowd together in terror of the manifestation of the Last Hour, or as Mu’tazili commentators maintain – in order to be indemnified by God for man’s cruelty to them (Razi). It is also said that the animals which were loved by human beings will live in the hereafter together with those who loved them (Zamakhshari). This interpretation is evidently based on 6:38 – “there is no beast that walks on earth and no bird that flies on its two wings which are not [God’s] creature like yourselves” – followed almost immediately by the words, “Unto their Sustainer shall they [all] be gathered.”
81:3 And when the mountains are made to vanish.
i.e., when none will be able to divest himself of responsibility for his past deeds.
81:4 And when she-camels big with young, about to give birth, are left untended.
The barbaric custom of burying female infants alive seems to have been fairly widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia, although perhaps not to the extent as has been commonly assumed. The motives were twofold: the fear that an increase of female offspring would result in economic burdens, as well as fear of the humiliation frequently caused by girls being captured by a hostile tribe and subsequently preferring their captors to their parents and brothers. Before Islam, one of the foremost opponents of this custom was Zayd ibn Amr ibn Nufayl, a cousin of Umar ibn al-Khattab and spiritually a precursor of Muhammad (cf. Bukhari, Fada’il Ashab an-Nabi on the authority of Abd Allah ibn Umar); he died shortly before Muhammad’s call to prophethood (Fath al-Bari VII, 112). Another man, Sa’sa’ah ibn Najiyah at Tamimi – grandfather of the poet Farazdaq – achieved equal fame as a savior of infants thus condemned to death; he later embraced Islam. Ibn Khallikan (II, 197) mentions that Sa’sa’ah saved about thirty girls by paying ransom to their parents.
81:5 And when all beasts are gathered together.
By “calling to witness” certain natural phenomena which are familiar to man because of their permanent recurrence, attention is drawn to the fact that what we call “laws of nature” are but the observable elements of God’s plan of creation – a plan in which His revelations (referred to in this and the subsequent verses) play a decisive role: and so, by implication, the divine writ granted to Muhammad is as intrinsically “natural” as any other phenomenon, concrete or abstract, in the realm of God’s creation
81:6 And when the seas boil over.
Lit., “with Him of the throne of almightiness”. It is to be noted that the Qur’anic term ‘arsh – of which the above is the earliest occurrence in the order of revelation – invariably signifies God’s absolute sovereignty and almightiness (cf. note 43 on 7:54).
81:7 And when all human beings are coupled [with their deeds].
See surah 68, note 3. The characterization of Muhammad as “this fellow-man of yours” is meant to stress his absolute humanness, and thus to counteract any possibility on the part of his followers to deify him. (See also note 150 on 7:184.)
81:8 And when the girl-child that was buried alive is made to ask.
This is evidently a reference to the Prophet’s vision of the Angel Gabriel which ended the break in revelation (fatrat al-wahy) mentioned in the introductory note to surah 74. See also 53:5 ff. and the corresponding notes.
81:9 For what crime she had been slain…
Sc., “and so he conveys this revelation to you”.
81:10 And when the scrolls [of men’s deeds] are unfolded…
For my occasional rendering of shaytan as “satanic force”, see the first half of note 16 on 15:17.