Surah 81: At-Takwir, or The Overthrowing

"Al-Anfal (60)" by Mahmoud Helmy is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  1. When the sun is wrapped up,
  2. And when the stars are poured out (of the sky),
  3. And when the mountains are moved away,
  4. And when the pregnant she-camels are abandoned,
  5. And when the wild beasts are gathered,
  6. And when the seas are aflame,
  7. And when the living beings are paired,
  8. And when the buried one is asked
  9. For what sin was she killed,
  10. And when the Scriptures are unrolled,
  11. And when Heaven is stripped off,
  12. And when the Fire is set ablaze,
  13. And when the Garden is brought near,
  14. A person will know what he has brought.
  15. But nay! I swear by the retreating ones,
  16. The sailing ones, the disappearing ones,
  17. And the night when it dissipates*,
  18. And the dawn when it breathes,
  19. [That] indeed, it is surely a Word of a noble Messenger,
  20. Having power, secure before the Owner of the Throne
  21. One obeyed there, trustworthy.
  22. And your companion is not jinn-possessed,
  23. And certainly he saw him in the clear horizon
  24. And he is not a withholder* of the Unseen.
  25. And It is not the Word of outcast Satan.
  26. So where are you going?
  27. It is naught but a reminder to sentient beings,
  28. Unto whoever wills among you to go straight.
  29. And you shall not will [thus] except that Allah wills [it]–Lord of the Sentient Ones.

Italics indicate sections that seems to be revealed considerably later than the main three sections.

6. “Aflame” is sometimes translated “boiling” or even “filled up.” Nothing justifies this translation.

7. This is the word for “creatures” or “living beings” that is “nefesh” in the Hebrew. A heavily spiritual translation of “soul” appears unjustified here. This seems to echo the story of Noah and the Ark and it also is an idea echoed in Surah 51:49.

8. Female gender, interpreted through the ahadith as a female infant buried alive.

14. This is nefesh (or in Arabic, nafsun) again–here, in context, it’s a person, not just any creature. We don’t have a neutral modern English word to cover living creatures quite in the same sense. The verb form here for “brought” is feminine, and nafsun is feminine–so nafsun is the likely antecedent to the verb.

15-16: Understood due to context to be stars and/or planets. Arberry’s translation is actually pretty masterful here, as literature capturing the feeling of the original: “No! I swear by the slinkers, the runners, the sinkers, by the night swarming, by the dawn sighing….”

25. Very literally outcast, as in thrown out or ejected.

27. l-ʿālamīna, which I translate as “sentient beings.” The root always has to do with knowing, learning, or being taught. It is generally thought to refer to mankind and djinns.

29. This title for Allah is often rendered in English as “Lord of the Worlds,” and however poetic that is, it is an absurd translation.

* marks a translation I’m not fully confident about.

Chronology Notes

The traditional order shows here how extremely sloppy the Egyptian chronology is.

Al-Qalam (68) can only happen after Muhammad has been criticized by Meccans, and it requires the specific criticism that he’s repeating “tales of the ancients.” Muhammad hasn’t yet said anything that can be called a tale of the ancients, so how could he be criticized for it?

Al-Muzzammil (74), which is also supposed to be very earlier than this, commands Muhammad’s followers to spend half the night reciting the Quran…but half the night reciting what? Only ten ayahs would have been revealed!

Al-Fatiha (1) can only have been put so early out of a misplaced sense of piety. It eventually became central to Islamic prayers, but there’s no context here for it.

Al-Masad (111) is perhaps the silliest to place this early. From the ahadith, it can only happen after Surah 26, and by tradition, that happens in 613, so what is it doing here? There’s likely a tradition of early conflict between Abu Lahab and Muhammad, but there are much better surat that fulfill that requirement than the single surah that is securely placed by tradition so much later.

I will, however, except an early At-Takwir (81). It has something very specific that pushes it extremely early, and that is the throne vision. If the throne vision happened at all in connection with his month of retreat at Hira, this should be revealed very soon after.


Surah 81: The Great Day and the Throne Vision

Related Pages

Muhammad’s Early Career as the Last Prophet of the Book