Dr. Abdul Rashid Agwan
Muslims generally believe that the Quran is a book of perennial guidance. Accordingly, it should have principles, tenets and injunctions beyond the time of its revelation, theoretically until the last day of the world. Many verses of the book can be and have been interpreted in the context of contemporary events across the Muslim history, right from the defeat and subsequent victory of Romans vis-à-vis Iranians as mentioned in Surah Rum (30: 1-3) to a comprehensible mention of global environmental crisis in the same chapter (30:41). The existence of Gog and Magog (18:94, 21:96) and the story of Zul-Qarnain have been variously interpreted on the basis of certain historical events like many other mysterious words in the holy book. Many verses have been discussed by scholars as future historical developments, including the end-time events. In the wake, it may be an interesting enquiry whether the Quran has something alluding to an unprecedented and calamitous event of human history akin to the ongoing global pandemic caused by the Novel Coronavirus or not.
So far, Muslim commentators have discussed the pandemic from three or four perspectives. Firstly, they came out with an advisory regarding lockdown, quarantine, distancing, hand-washing, use of masks, closer of religious places, worship in one’s house, ways of observing Ramadan and Eid-al-Fitr, burial norms for the infected corpse, ‘Islamic’ medicines, the moral state of believers and the like, while recalling many pertinent Islamic teachings in this regard. Another set of writings that can be seen on the issue comprises the view that it is a divine affliction that has appeared to punish certain nations which have been oppressing Muslims in different parts of the world, although this view lost sheen on seeing that a large number of Muslims were also infected by the virus, even killing thousands of them in Muslim countries. There has also been a debate highlighting that Coronavirus will not affect Muslims as they obey Allah and clean themselves five times a day. Religious Muslims generally held till recently that they will be safe in mosques, particularly in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. A few writers also concluded that the pandemic of Covid-19 does not match with the 10 end-time signs as found mention in the Muslim eschatology and can be ignored as a serious matter. However, there is hardly any discussion whether the Quran directly or indirectly mentions this pandemic or similar pandemics or not. A study of Surah Al-Muddaththir, the 74th chapter of the Quran, may perhaps lead to certain indications in this regard.
At the very outset, it should be remembered that the meaning of many verses of the Quran has been understood from different aspects including linguistic, spiritual, historical, juridical and scientific. Though the general meaning of any verse may be taken by scholars in a classical way, a scientific interpretation of the same verse may provide additional information towards its understanding , something like its deeper meaning; for instance statements in the holy book on human embryology and other phenomena. Reflection on some verses of the 74th chapter of the Quran may lead to clues regarding appearance of a pandemic like the Covid-19.
Surah Muddaththir was revealed in two spells. Its first 7 verses are agreed to comprise the second event of revelation after the revelation of first 5 verses of Surah Alaq, beginning with the word Iqra. After the first spell of revelation of the Quran, there was a break of 2-3 years which ended with revelation of the first part of the chapter 74. Its second part forming 49 other verses is understood to have been revealed a few more years later, in response to decision of Makkan leaders to oppose the Prophet (pbuh) in his mission on the occasion of ensuing Hajj. There are a few words in the Surah that call for a deeper reflection for any scientific interpretation of the meaning of the chapter, an exercise that is likely to provide a context to the Surah for the present pandemic. They comprise Muddaththir (cloaked one), Thiyab (clothing), Rujz (uncleanliness), Ahjur (shun), Qarn (trumpet), Saud (calamity), Saqar (burning), Tisata Ashar (nineteen), Junud (host), etc. Some of these words will be discussed in detail before striving to understand the meaning and message of the chapter, verse by verse.
There are two words ‘nuqir’ and ‘naqoor’ (Faitha nuqira fee alnnaqoori) in the Verse 8 of the chapter, which are said to have been derived from the root word ‘qaf r nun’ (ق ر ن). Qarn is generally understood to denote the end-time trumpet and thus the verse has been translated by Sahi International and others as, “And, when the trumpet is blown.” Wiktionary.org mentions that the Proto-Semitic use of ‘qarana’ denotes ‘horn’ which may be associated with the ancient Greek word khrónos (sounds like corona), which means time or lifespan. Some commentators have also taken it as horn, as an instrument sounding far and wide, for instance by Abdul Majid Dariyabadi, who interpreted the verse as, “Then, when horn sounds.” The Arabic lexicons also take the word as denoting to a time span of hundred years or a century like the ancient Greeks, besides to other meanings. The word ‘qarna’ also conveys such meanings in the Arabic language as yoke, coupling, conjugating, pod, peer, peek, etc. The Quranic word ‘qarnin’ is taken as to mean generations. The plural of this word, ‘quruna’ (قُرُون), have a strange phonetic similarity with the English word ‘corona’. It may be found striking that the Coronavirus exhibits most peculiarities expressed in the Arabic word ‘qarna’ or its plural ‘quruna’.
By definition, Coronavirus is said to be a large pleomorphic spherical particle with bulbous surface projections. These bulbous projections or spikes may be taken as horns of the virus. The other meanings like joining together as yoke by horns in a bullock cart or coupling of two things together may be understood from the tendency of the virus to enter the host cell and combine its RNA with the genetic command of the occupied cell. The Coronavirus is also similar to a pod having its actual livable contents inside a protein wall. The most striking fact is that a viral pandemic generally appears in the early part of every century with some exceptions, which gives significance to another meaning of ‘qarna’, i.e. a century or time span of hundred years. It may not be merely a coincidence that most known meanings of the Arabic word ‘qarna’ have striking application to the description of the human coronavirus as observed today, apart from having resemblance of the name. In the wake, the respective verse may be interpreted as, “And, when the corona becomes viral” while taking the cue that the verse is telling about the pandemic of Coronavirus, which spreads with an exponential virulence, as would be further explained herein.
One thing that needs to be understood here is that the given verse is futuristic in tone and not informing about something occurring by the time of its revelation, so much so that it has been generally taken as an end-time sign by most scholars. If the word ‘qarna’ or its plural ‘quruna’ is applied in its meaning of a time span, i.e. century or centuries, then the appearance of quruna may be taken as an event taking place century after century or during a particular century. The mention of the word ‘19’ in the Verse 30 of the chapter makes it obvious that this verse is pointing to an event that will take place when the word ‘quruna’ will be bonded with an epithet of ‘19’.
Early history of pandemics is obscure and it is the Muslim Arab writers that have started narrating the outbreaks in a systematic manner. Within more than a decade after the revelation of Surah Muddaththir, a severe pandemic appeared in Iran called as the Plague of Sheroe with peak time 627-628, which killed the Sasanian king Kovad II Sheroe and devastated his empire. However, the first definitive outbreak on record was the Plague of Justinian (peak time 541-542) which killed an estimated 50 million people and disrupted the Byzantine Empire. Some specific teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) regarding a pandemic situation, for instance lockdown, seem to have taken shape with his knowledge of these two calamities of his time. The Plague of Sheroe reappeared in Syria in 639 AD, during the reign of the second caliph Umar bin Khattab, with dire consequences for a Muslim army, which preferred lockdown there instead of returning to Madinah due to a particular injunction of the Prophet and thus saving other parts of the Islamic territory from the pandemic. The plague became dormant for some time after its severity in 750 AD. However, its outbreak occurred in the year 1218 which finally turned to be the Black Death calamity (1332-1360) killing an estimated population of 50 million in Europe and Central Asia. One of the most calamitous outbreaks began in Italy in 1629. Western Europe’s last major epidemic of medieval plague began in 1720, when an outbreak spread from the French port city of Marseille. After the first pandemic of Justinian Plague of the sixth century and the second one as the Black Death of fourteenth century, what is called as the “Third Pandemic,” appeared in 1855 in the Chinese province of Yunnan and ravaged different parts of the world for decades onwards. It mainly affected China and the British India during 1920s and 1930s before petering out by 1950s, killing 12 million people, mainly in India. The beginning of this 19th century plague was traced back to some parts of the Indian subcontinent. Dr August Hirsch refers that the western Indian states Gujarat and Sind were the centers of the pestilence in 1815-21 followed by its spread in Rajasthan in 1835-38. From Kumaon and Garhwal it subsequently reached to Nepal and China. And, the Covid-19 is making the current onslaught in 2019. From this brief history of the global pandemics after the revelation of Surah Muddaththir, it becomes evident that calamities like plagues and pandemics have been appearing almost in every century and generally during its second or the third decade. Hence, the root word ‘qarn’ in the verse may also be taken for the ‘quruna’ in its meaning denoting something cyclical and centennial in nature.
One surprising statement comes in the Verse 30, i.e. AAalayha tisAAata AAashara, translated as “Upon her Nineteen.” The figure 19 in this verse may prompt anyone to think about its some correlation with the nomenclature of the Novel Coronavirus, which has been technically termed as ‘Covide-19’ to refer to its year of appearance. None of the human coronavirus so named earlier by the year of its appearance and, strangely enough, this is the only verse in the Quran where the word ‘nineteen’ has been mentioned. A well known scholar of the past century and Egyptian-American biochemist, Dr Rashad Khalifa, has developed a theory in 1973 known to be the Quran’s mathematical miracle of 19, in which he found that every word count of the Quran is found to be divisible by number 19, except one passage. An Indian scholar, Jamshed Akhtar, derived from his study of the phenomenon that the exceptional passage referred to by Dr Khalifa is not an odd thing but a key to the phenomenon. For a long time, the Code 19 has been a part of scholarly discussions among Muslims and others. Due to his particular perspective, Dr Khalifa translates the meaning of the verse as, “Over it is nineteen” while differing from others in the use of the word ‘is’ instead of ‘are’. He takes it as a mention of a figure rather than the numbers of anything. Some other commentators also understand it to be ‘is’ as it refers to the fire mentioned in the previous verses rather than being 19 presumed keepers of Hell. Fakhr-ad-Din al-Razi, in his classic commentary offered many speculations, including that the number nineteen indicates the nineteen intellectual faculties of human beings rather than taking it be a mention of 19 angels as keepers of the Hell. Hence, the popular understanding that the verse is telling about 19 guardian angels of Hell may not be the only explanation of the word ‘Nineteen’. The matter will be further discussed herein.
The word ‘saqar’ (سقر) has been used in Verses 26, 27 and 42 of Surah Muddaththir and also in one verse of Surah Qamar (54:48). Derivatives of the word ‘saqar’ in the modern Arabic are such words as cigarette, cigar, bituminous and the like, generally related to fire. The word is normally taken in the Islamic terminology as the Hell or Hellfire. However, its connotation in the mentioned verses and even otherwise seems to indicate not a place of burning like Hell (Jahannum); but, something that burns. For instance, the word in the verse 54:48 is mentioned as, “The Day they are dragged into the Fire on their faces [it will be said], “Taste the touch of Saqar.” Phonetically as well as historically, it is near in meaning to the English word ‘scar’ denoting a mark of burning. The etymology of the word ‘scar’ informs about its usage in the late fourteenth century derived from Old French escare “scab” (Modern French escarre) i.e. coating of something such as skin, from Late Latin eschara, from Greek eskhara “scab formed after a burn,” literally “hearth, fireplace,” of unknown origin. Its English sense is probably influenced by the Middle English skar (late 14c.) “crack, cut, incision”. The Arabic lexicon uses the word ‘saqara’ to denote different things. Perhaps, it was adopted into Arabic from ancient Greek or Egyptian languages. The vast and ancient burial ground of Egyptian history dated from 2600 BCE, is called as Saqqara. There are several earliest pyramids there. It may be interesting that some archeologists are exploring whether the region was a spot of epidemic in ancient times. A team of Italian researchers relate a nearby location on the west bank of Thebes, south of Saqqara, having a monument named Harwa dating 7th century BC as a place of burning of corpses during a contagion. It was used as a body disposal during an outbreak of 250-271 AD. This ‘Plague of Cyprian’ killed thousands of people in Rome and Egypt and weakened the Roman Empire to a great extent. It is possible that the word ‘Saqqara’ would have come into currency or changed its connotation for referring a wider area in ancient times for disposal of corpses of an epidemic by burning them against the prevalent culture of burial rituals. Even in case of Covid-19, the burning of contagious corpses is preferred over burial due to fear of infection.
In the verse of Surah Qamar (54:48), Yusuf Ali, Shakir and Pickthal translate the meaning of Saqara as Hell. The word Saqar in the verses (74:26, 27 and 42) is deemed by the first two commentators as ‘Hell-fire’ whereas Pickthal take it as ‘burning’. In the English rendering of Abul Aala Maududi’s Urdu translation the word ‘flame’ is used for the verse 54:48, whereas in the three verses of Muddaththir it has been taken as Hell. Abdul Majid Dariyabadi translates the word in the verse of chapter 54 as ‘scorching’ and in all three verses of the chapter 74 as ‘scorching Fire.” For the present understanding, it may be concluded that the word ‘Saqar’ in the Quran generally denotes something that burns.
Host of Allah
One more word of the chapter (74:31) relevant for the present discussion is Junud, the divine soldiers. The word Jund (جند) appears in the Quran 29 times and has been translated as army, multitude, hosts, soldiers, etc. These hosts or armies may be of human beings like that of Talut, Solomon, Pharaoh, Thamud, and the Makkan infidels or the natural forces or what has been referred in verses 9:26, 9:40, 33:9, 36:28, 37:173, 48:4, 67:20 and 74:31 as invisible hosts, heavenly forces or the army of God. The relevant part of the verse has been translated in Yusuf Ali as, “And none can know the forces of thy Lord, except He.” It may mean that either such forces are invisible with only their fatal effects becoming apparent to people or their outbreak remains unforeseen. Sending of hosts by Allah is often referred in the Quran as a form of warning as well as chastisement for human wrongs, for instance vide the verse 37:173 which reads, “And that Our hosts! They verily would be the victors,” indeed, as the battalion supporting the divine mission.
It may be evident from the above discussion and description of meanings of such words of the Chapter as Naqur, Saqara, Junud and Code 19, that this chapter has some context in the present or similar pandemics. In the wake, it is relevant here to undertake verse by verse interpretation of the whole chapter on the basis of current scientific understanding.
“O you covered under a protective jacket, move and warn (people) and glorify your Lord and keep your clothing sanitized and be far from the contagion and do not confer favor to acquire more but for your Lord be steadfast.”
Muddaththir is the word translated here as ‘ a protected person’. In Chapter 73, the word Muzzammil is used for the same purpose. Though both the words are generally considered as synonymous, meaning by a covered or wrapped up person, their root meanings denote something different. On exploring-islam.com, Farhat Shafi remarks that Muzzammil originates from the root word Zaml whereas Muddaththir from Dathir (as reported in Al Tahqiq fi Kalamat al-Quran al-Karim, 4:348). He notes, “What can be derived from the above is that while both Muzzammil and Muddaththir refer to covering with cloak or sheet, in Muzzammil this covering is more severe as if the person is trying to comfort himself from a difficult feeling and thought, while Muddaththir simply means covering one self.” In other words, Muzzammil is used to denote a kind of internal fear whereas Muddaththir expresses a protection from some external factor. The modern usage of many words derived from these two root words, as could be noted from almaany.com, indicates further that Zaml refers to wrapping of something like wounds etc whereas Dathir points to a garment put on for protection, like a jacket. In the present context, it may well be taken that Muddaththir may be equivalent to a person protected by a jacket. Today, Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) gives a true picture of a protected person. The verses demand that such a protected person, undergoing an intense feeling of fear and sense of responsibility at the same time, should come forward and warn people while declaring the greatness of the Almighty Who is dealing with human beings in an unusual way.
The Verse 4, “And, your clothing sanitized” uses the word Thiyab (ثیاب) which is also meant by ‘cover’ and not the routine clothes. The verse stresses that the attire or any cover over it should be kept purified or in the present context ‘sanitized’.
The word Rujz in the Verse 5 is generally translated as ‘uncleanliness’. Its classical meaning has been taken as idolatry. However, this is not an ordinary impurity. The word Rujz in some other verses of the Quran denotes something related to a calamity (vide 2:59 – We sent down upon those who wronged a punishment [rijzan] from the sky). Therefore, the word can be taken in the present context as a contagion. The word ‘fahjur’ is used which shares meaning with Hijrah. Hence, here the verse may be taken as to commanding to get totally isolated from the contagion which is the cause of an ongoing disaster. The commentators generally translate the word as ‘avoid’ but the word ‘fahjur’ itself conveys the force and intensity of complete breakaway from the harmful thing.
It seems considerable that this first section of the chapter commands that a protected person should arise and patiently warn people about the ongoing calamity, its causes and consequences, while being cautious himself against any contagion and worldly benefits. As would be understood further that it is the worldly greed that brought this calamity in the occurring and, hence, it should be shunned at every level of dealing with the challenge.
“And when the quruna becomes viral, it will be a very difficult time and for disbelievers not easy (to bear with).”
As described earlier, the word formed by the root word ‘qaf r nun’ has been used in two derivatives in the Verse 8, which completely defines the novel human corona virus; hence the meaning is so taken with a slight departure from the traditional understanding of their being related to an end-time situation, i.e. blowing of the trumpet. It has been remarked in the verse that there will be a difficult time for people and a large number of them will face its woes. However, this day will be “far from easier for the unbelievers” as well. The very construction of these verses reveals that the said calamitous situation will appear quite before the end-time. The words ‘difficulty’ and ‘discomfort’ can hardly describe the supposed end-time calamity which should be a very precarious situation. According to the coruous.quran.com, the word Asīr (عسیر) in the verse denoting difficulty has been used in three verses of the Quran as an adjective denoting ‘difficulty’, including in the Verse 9 here. Hence, the comparative difference between difficulty and criticality of a situation should be understood. In modern Arabic, the word ‘Asir’ denotes bankruptcy, poverty, etc besides certain diseases which cause difficulty for a person. It may be taken to express general hardship for all and a matter of extra apprehension for the unbelievers, mainly due to the consequent economic decline. Had it been any end-time situation such a wording would not have been adopted in these verses. The word Yaum is used in the Quran as referring a day, long time, phase or age. Thus, it seems that the derivatives of the root word ‘qaf r nun’ and construction of the verses 9 and 10 are informing about a corona-driven difficult time of human history and not its end. It may be understood that the calamitous day mentioned here will basically disrupt economy and it will not be easier even for the unbelievers having more riches than the believers. However, other impacts of the situation, as described in different verses herein, may illustrate that it will be a health emergency as well.
“Leave Me with the one I created alone and to whom I granted extensive wealth and attentive followers [with him] and spread [everything] before him, easing [his life]. No! Indeed, he has been toward Our signs obstinate. I will burden him with a series of calamities. Indeed, he thought and deliberated. So may he be destroyed [for] how he deliberated? Then may he be destroyed [for] how he deliberated. Then he considered [again]; then, he frowned and scowled; then he turned back and was arrogant and said, ‘This is not but magic imitated [from others]. This is not but the word of a human being’.”
Here, the phrase Banina shahuda in the Verse 13 has been translated as ‘attentive followers’ though generally the commentators make us understand it like mentioning of sons who are always accompanying his father. Sahi International translates the verse as, “And children present [with him].” In fact, the word ‘Banina’ denotes sons, sons and daughters, children, offspring and tribal associates. Hence, in the present context the word has been taken as followers. Yusuf Ali also interprets it as ‘a large following’.
The background of these verses is known in the history of Quranic revelation as a warning to leading Makkan unbelievers, led by Walid bin Al-Mughirah. However, as Yusuf Ali states, “there are Walids in all ages,” and the present age must have its own counterparts. Among the global leaders, one should think of some leader or leaders matching with the historical Walid bin Al-Mughirah. These verses count three divine favors on the person in question, i.e. wealth, large number of supporters and comforts of life. He should also qualify on three negative qualities mentioned here, i.e. a strong disregard for the Holy Quran, arrogance and outspokenness.
Verse 17 informs about the decision of Allah to punish such an obstinate antagonist of His signs, and says, “Soon I will drive him to a mount of calamities.” The word ‘Saud’ (صعود) is used here which is generally translated as torment, like in Qatadah. Ibne Kathir has taken it to be a slippery rock in Hell. Yusuf Ali conveys its meaning to be “mount of calamities” which he says to be “a cumulative disaster.” The lexicon gives some additional meanings to the word such as climb, rise, sudden powerful tide or movement of a crowd. It may be conjectured here that the word in the verse is not only denoting a calamity but the one which has sudden rise like a tide of multitude of things and a series of calamities one after the other. The virulence of Covid-19 signifies that.
Here, the question may arise that no obstinate leadership has become the patient of Covid-19 so the verses may not apply in the present context. Firstly, the verses are telling that the obstinate person or leadership will be burdened with calamities, not necessarily to succumb to it in consequence, at least immediately. It took Walid Bin Al-Mughirah nine years to face the consequences of his obstinacy. According to one narration (vide wikipedia.com), “he had an old scar on the bottom of his ankle resulting from a wound which he received some years earlier as he was trailing his gown when he passed by a Khuza’i who was feathering an arrow, and the arrowhead caught in his wrapper and scratched his foot – a mere nothing.” After the revelation of this chapter and signs of his obstinacy against holy verses, the wound opened again and he died of it after suffering a lot. Hence, in case of the present Walid or Walids it may be soon in future. Or perhaps, he or they had already passed through the ordeal, though it is yet not made public. It is a known fact that many palaces and top houses in the world have been touched by the infection of Covid-19. May be the arrogant, greed-driven leadership of the present world will personally face dire consequences soon. As reported in media, a few have already faced it.
A scholar Hussein Abdul-Raof says, “The lexeme (saqar) is morphologically related to ‘saqqar’ which means someone who curses and accuses others for nothing, a person who blemishes people’s reputation for no reason.” During the pandemic of Saqar, ‘saqqar’ is a befitting name and marker for such an iniquitous character today.
“I will drag him in Saqar. And what can make you know what is Saqar? It lets none left aloof and leaves no one [affected], changing the human skin. Over it is nineteen.”
As it has been explained earlier, ‘saqar’ is something that burns. It is often meant to be Hell or Hellfire, but may also mean anything that burns a human being. The Quran is informing that the said obstinate person and his followers will face a series of calamities culminating or phasing with a fire that potentially burns every one. Saqar leaves none from being affected. That means, it is universally harmful for everyone, everywhere.
The questioning regarding Saqar in these verses is quite unusual and hints that the contemporary people did not know its meaning. Had it been traditionally signifying the Hellfire, no purpose is served from this interrogation. The verses allude that Allah is informing about an unknown and undefined phenomenon. Saqar as something that burns might be known to the classical Arabs, they might be guessing how an obstinate person could face an extraordinary burning, which they were being let known. Perhaps, they were satisfied that whatever will happen will happen in the Hereafter. Hence, this unique mentioning of ‘saqar’ itself make one reflect regarding it to be something different than Hell, which the Arabs used to call Jahannam.
The word سَأُصْلِيهِ is used with ‘saqar’ which is generally translated as “I will drive him.” However, according to almaany.com it may also mean “I will burn him”. Most derivatives of the root word ‘swad lam ye’ have been used in the Quran to mean burning. For instance in the verse 4:115 the word is used to give the meaning of the verse as “We will burn them in fire (Naar).” In medical terms, the word is used for the burning sensations of layers of internal organs of a human body.
As it is now widely known, the impact of Covid-19 on human body is an unbearable tingling, inflammatory and burning sensations through which a patient passes. In the Verse 29, the word wāw ḥā yā (و ح ي) is interpreted in Sahi International as “blackening”. However, Yusuf Ali understands it as, “Darkening and changing the colour of man!”, Muhammad Pickthal as, “It shrivelleth the man” and Moin Habib Shakir as, “It scorches the mortal.” Thus, the change of the color of the skin or appearance of man as such as remarked in the verse in consequence of one’s contact with ‘saqar’ may be psychological or physiological and may not be necessarily mean as actual burning of skin or a human being. As Picktal says, it may be a severing effect as well due to intense fever. A patient of Covid-19 passes through all these changes; they feel intense severing, there is tingling and inflammatory pain in limbs and internal organs, the color of their internal layers like that of lungs changes and the patient’s face darkens due to anxiety. As reported in express.co.uk, “Some COVID-19 patients in the UK have reported a buzzing, static-like pain in their hands, whereas, others have revealed that they experienced ‘electric feeling’ on their skin, and a ‘buzz’ in their body. One patient reported having a tingling sensation in her extremities as the first warning sign of coronavirus disease.” Personal experiences of some recovered patients make the ordeal allegorically going through an ocean of fire. A South Korean engineering professor recalls his woes in these words, “It was like a roller coaster. I was feeling like there is a thick plate pressuring my chest and also needles poking my chest.” A Chinese young man referred his sufferings as coming back from the “gate of hell.” There are a lot of similar remarks of such patients traceable on the internet. It may not merely a coincidence that a forthcoming film on the issue of the present pandemic has been titled as “Before the Fire”, denoting it as fire due to the intense feeling it is creating among people everywhere. The New York Times quotes a teen battling the new covid syndrome what he felt was a “straight-up fire in his veins.” Its op-ed remarks, “Now, after many fire drills, the world may be facing a real fire.” After all, the proverbial essence ‘spreads like a fire’ is befitting for the virulence of Covid-19.
In the wake, the word ‘Saqar’ or more appropriately the Saqar-19 may be taken to implying the ongoing pandemic as allegorically and physiologically giving burning sensations to infected persons.
One verse of the Quran also denotes that this burning will mainly affect body through the touch of human face. The verse 48 of Surah Al-Qamar says, “The Day they are dragged into the Fire (Naar) on their faces [it will be said], “Taste the touch (Massa) of Saqar.” Traditionally, the verse has been interpreted as mentioning that the people of Hell will be dragged on their faces, for instance in Al-Jalalayn. The phrase ‘dragged on faces” remains somewhat incomprehensible if the event is taken to be held in Hell whereas it becomes explicit if Saqar is taken as a worldly situation like caused by Covid-19 virus, which spreads by touching or rubbing (massa) the face (Wajah) and it takes hold of throat and then enters lungs. Hence, mask may become the only barrier between the virus and its ill effects. The use of word Naar (Fire) may be taken a physical situation rather than the actual Hell. The word Naar has been used for the ‘burning bush’ seen by Moses (Quran, 20:10). Hence, the word cannot always give the meaning of Hell; it may be any fire or something aflame.
In Surah Qamar, the word ‘saqar’ is used to mean a worldly phenomenon rather than something that belongs to life hereafter. The chapter begins while imparting blame that unbelievers do not bother to realize importance of the alarming signs. Then, the afflictions faced by the nations of Noah, Aad, Thamud, Lot and Pharaoh have been described in detail one by one. This is followed by the remark that the current disbelievers are no different than those nations in ignoring these warning signs and that they enjoy no immunity in the scripture to be saved from an appointed affliction. Then, the following verses say that their mutual cooperation on a wrong pitch will be of no avail from the ensuing disaster as the ‘offenders’ have actually taken recourse to wrong policies. And, then the verse (54:48) follows which says, “The Day they are dragged into burning of face by touching Saqar.” In a following verse Allah says, “And, We have already destroyed your kinds, so is there any who will reflect?” The chapter ends with the remark in verses 52-55 that everything is in record and good doers will be rewarded by a place in Paradise. Thus, the mention of ‘saqar’ as a scourge in Surah Qamar explains a historical situation rather than something that will happen in Hereafter. And, so must be its mention three times in Surah Muddaththir.
It is also mentioned in these verses that this burning gives no immunity to any one, it’s a universal affliction. As Surah Qamar mentions, no people have been promised any respite from this tribulation of burning in sacred books, though they might think themselves indemnified. This situation is evident in the present pandemic where all mosques, churches, temples, synagogues, pagodas and other religious places have to be closed and every section of mankind beyond their religious backgrounds have faced its devastating effects without respite.
Most importantly, the figure ‘19’ mentioned in the Verse 30, hinting to Covid-19, removes all doubts about the ongoing trial of the arrogant man and his accomplices, though everyone is facing its heat worldwide.
“And We have not made the companions of the Fire except angels. And We have not made its (her) number except as a trial for those who disbelieve – that those who were given the Scripture will be convinced and those who have believed will increase in faith and those who were given the Scripture and the believers will not doubt and that those in whose hearts is hypocrisy and the disbelievers will say, “What does Allah intend by this as an example?” Thus does Allah leave astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills. And none knows the soldiers of your Lord except Him. And, it (the burning affliction) is not but a reminder to humanity.”
This verse concludes the message given in all earlier verses. It is a prosaic narration rather than being a poetic one, as rest of the verses of the chapter are. It stands in between two poetic sections of the chapter. It is particularly mentioning these facts: The number associated with the fire or Saqar, i.e. 19, has been made a trial, the believers and the people given the Book earlier will immediately recognize it to be a divine sign whereas the unbelievers and hypocrites will be skeptical regarding its origin and that it has been sent as an invisible host of the Lord and as reminder to mankind.
The traditional interpretation of the verse mainly bases on the word Asahab al-Naar, which is taken to be denoting the keepers or guardians of the Hell, i.e. 19 angels. However, the word ‘Asahab’ generally denotes in the Quran and even otherwise to mean companions, the ones that go together with something as supporters. With this slight change of understanding the verse can be described in the background of the present pandemic as telling that Allah has sent angels to support the fire or Saqar-19 or Covid-19, like He sends them to drive air or cloud or to cause rains. Angels are generally taken in Islam and other religions as the agents that execute divine orders as companions of natural forces. The verse seems not necessarily telling about the angels of the Hell and their numbers. Moreover, the reference to “the host known to Allah only” will appear irrelevant in the verse if it is taken in its traditional sense. The word ‘saqar’ is used in the chapter as feminine and the word eddatahum (her number) in the verse 31 reaffirms it. Had it been any reference to angels it would have been a masculine reference.
In the available commentaries on the verse, ‘19’ is generally taken as 19 angels appointed on the Hell. This number is said in the next verse as Fitnah (trial) for the unbelievers. Hence, it appears that the number 19 in the verse is referring to something worldly and historical and not something to be seen in Hereafter.
One vital issue in understanding the verse is the trial (Fitnah) of number 19. To render anything as trial, it is necessary that there should be a wide spread debate on it and people are compelled to take positions. This has never been a situation in history nor today that the issue of ‘19 angels of Hell’ has ever become a moot point involving the believers, the people of the Book, the non-believers and the hypocrites at a time. Even in the narrations of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) there is no mention of ’19 angels’. It seems to be a guess of the interpreters across the time that the word ‘nineteen’ in the Verse 30 should be taken as the number of angles appointed on Hell. The verse is suggesting the concept of ‘19’ and the ‘companions of Fire’ to be endorsed by the people whom Book was given. If it is interpreted as to informing regarding 19 angels of Hell, it makes no sense for the believers to become delighted on hear about 19 guardian angels of Hell. Similarly, it will not attract any attention of people bestowed with the Book as their scriptures do not have any mention of 19 angels of the Hell. However, number 19 has been discussed by the Jewish and Christian scholars as a strange code, like many Muslim scholars, but not as a count of angels of the Hell.
In an article in anglenumbr.org, it is said, “According to the Bible, number 19 is used as a symbol of faith. It means that people who have faith in divine forces will have better lives, full of love and peace.” It has been argued that the word ‘Elohim appeared nineteen times in the pericope of Ve-‘elleh shemot… Similarly, many words have been found repeated in the Bible nineteen times. However, number 19 appears in the Bible or certain facts counted to be 19 in the Bible do not refer angels. As regards the importance of number 19 in the Bible, it should be noted that “the actual code of the Bible was described by Rabbi Judah in the 12th century AD in a preserved part of the Old Testament. That code was the same 19-based mathematical code we discovered in the Quran, seven centuries later.” It is evident that the Biblical scholars may recall this unique code on hearing number 19 in the context of holy signs. This is what is common between the adherents of the Quran and earlier scriptures. Therefore, the verse can be better understood by taking number 19 as a unique phenomenon while dissociating it from the presumed number of guardians of Hell.
It is a widely known fact that most religions inform moral causes for natural calamities, wherein invisible forces of nature work on the caution of God.
The Bible is a good source of such an understanding. Billy Prewitt, author of The Coronavirus in Biblical Prophecy, states “these are the signs of God unleashing his vengeance upon mankind. In his book, the author has bizarrely claimed there are strong comparisons to be made between coronavirus and the biblical plagues of Egypt.” In Christianity Today, Jim Denison remarks, “From Pharaoh’s obstinacy to Miriam’s racial prejudice to Herod’s prideful idolatry, divine judgments of the past and future come to those who refuse His word and will. Throughout Scripture and history, God deals with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must.”
It is evident here that both Muslims and the People of Book will understand any reference to number 19 only when the verse is taken as referring to Covid-19 as a divine affliction and this reference may become trial for non-believers and hypocrites who hardly have faith on the moral principles of catastrophes. It is natural that the novel corona virus may be acceptable to the religious circles as a means of blight due to immoral behavior of the dominant humanity.
The last part of the Verse 31, mentions about the invisible soldiers of the divine including both the angles and natural forces, like the novel corona virus in the present context. It also says that the suffering is a reminder to humanity. As a reminder to humanity, the ‘saqar’ is again indirectly referred here not to be the fire of Hell but a worldly phenomenon.
These verses contain that there is a divine cause in any change in nature, for instance in the appearance of moon and the departure of night and the dawn of a bright morning. The verse 35-36 highlights that the change caused by the affliction of Saqar-19 remains a strong portent and warning to mankind. And, perhaps a new phase of human history, allegorically foretold in the dawn of a bright morning, may appear. Then, it is mentioned that every soul will be made accountable for one’s deeds. The virtuous will receive their rewards at the end in the form of Paradise and the evil ones will be thrown into Hell.
In the verses 35-36 there is a clear indication that all talks about the fire, i.e. Saqar-19 or its causative factor in the form of Covid-19 or ‘quruna’ is a strong portent and warning to mankind for giving up the capitalist attitude towards life as could be seen in the villainous character, who is reprimanded in some earlier verses. In Verse 37, it has been mentioned that this warning is for all those who either came before or after this catastrophe, i.e. it may be repeated if not taken seriously. Dr Mustafa Khattab’s translation of Verse 38 says, “Every soul will be detained for what it has done.” Perhaps, it hints towards the global lockdown, wherein all people will be detained in their homes due to the pandemic situation which most of them have contributed to arise by supporting or not opposing a corrupt system and leadership. And, the punishment in various forms will be generally according to the role of each one among them.
One interesting reference to ‘Saqar’ is once again made in the Verse 42. The awardees of Paradise will ask those thrown into Hell, “What led you to Saqar?” This question is a strange one if taken in a traditional way since it must be evident that those who were put into Hell were there due to their punishable deeds. And, their reference to Saqar this way does not bring the deeper meaning unless Saqar is seen as an unusual worldly event. The capitalist behavior of the afflicted people has been once gain mentioned in the verse 44 wherein the offenders put into the Hell recall the causes of their punishment besides some other reasons, as “Nor did we used to feed the poor.” The verse 48 has been translated as, “So there will not benefit them the intercession of [any] intercessors.” This verse indicates that on the Day of Saqar all kinds of religious intercessions will be of no avail. Mosques, churches, temples, synagogues, pagodas and other spiritual places will become closed and no holy agent will stand as a rescuer from that punishment. It is a natural consequence of the fact that the religious sections of the world have failed to counter the domineering capitalist system.
The Chapter 74 closes with the statement that its verses are nothing but a reminder and that Allah is “worthy of fear and adequate for [granting] forgiveness.”
It is evident from the above rendering that, apart from its classical message, Surah Muddaththir deals with an affliction which may be termed as Saqar-19, an equivalent of the pandemic caused by Covid-19 since the last month of 2019, emerging from Wuhan in China. The context of this and Surah Qamar makes it explicit that the Saqar traditionally understood to be a fire of Hell should be better interpreted as the burning scourge in the mundane world, which shrouds mankind as a consequence of capitalist injustice. Saqar-19 will gravely affect the global economic system, mainly dominated today by the American hegemony. The chapter 74 of the Quran mentions Saqar-19 as a global and universal affliction with all its manifestations as described in the relevant verses. It is in fact a course correcting measure of nature and may be taken as a meta-fluctuation in human history, which is hitting hard on the greedy leadership. It may be taken as a reminder to mankind for amending its attitude towards the divine signs and pursuing the ethical aspect of economic justice in a world marred with wars and violence, here and there, for grabbing natural resources and controlling economies.
[Author is President of Institute of Policy Studies and Advocacy thinker, writer and social activist]