Names, Merits and Reasons for Revelation
The chapter has been referred to in five ways in Islamic works:
- Surah al-Zalzalah – this is what is famous today and it is derived from the contents of the chapter.
- Surah al-Zilzāl – this is taken from the word present in the first verse.
- Sharīf Raḍī would refer to it as Surah allatī dhukira fīhā al-zilzāl
- In some of the traditions such as the Shī‘ī ones from the Ahl al-Bayt (a) it is referred to with the first verse: Idhā Zulzilat, or Idhā Zulzilat al-Arḍ and so on.
- Surah Zulzilat – this is only mentioned by Shaykh Ibn ‘Āshūr who says he came across an ancient Qur’ānic codex from Kairouan – a city in Northern Tunisia – and this codex had Zulzilat written in it in Kufan script.
There is a difference of opinion on whether this is a Medani or Makki chapter. The famous opinion is that this is a Medani chapter and this has been attributed to various scholars of the early Islamic century. There is one report in which we find Abū Sa‘īd al-Khidrī asking a question regarding this chapter, and perhaps this report played a role in causing some to believe this was a Medani chapter since Abū Sa‘īd al-Khidrī converted to Islam in Medina and was not present in Makkah. It is related that the first battle al-Khidrī participated in was the Battle of Khandaq as he was too young to participate in the Battle of Uhad.
The second opinion is that this is a Makki chapter. This opinion is also attributed to a number of tābi‘īn and other scholars of the early Islamic centuries. Some later scholars such as Sayyid al-Quṭb also preferred this opinion. Their reason seems to be that the chapter is short and contains very short verses, while we know that this was generally the nature of Makki chapters. In addition, the contents of the chapter are concerning the hereafter and Day of Judgement which also leads us to believe that it is Makki. In Medina, the Prophet (p) was primarily engaging with the Ahl al-Kitāb and they generally believed in the hereafter already.
A third opinion is that of a suspension – meaning one ceases to give a final opinion on the matter as they are unsure. A number of scholars have held this position, such as ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī, and they are not convinced by the arguments of any of the first two positions. This is why Ṣuyūṭī in his al-Itqān places this chapter in the section of those Qur’ānic chapters in which there is a dispute amongst the scholars.
Do we have anything that tells us why this chapter was revealed? Unfortunately, we have nothing on this matter. We have analysis and speculations by various scholars, but there is nothing certain per se. One of the analysis is that since the beginning of the chapter deals with the Day of Judgement, it must have been revealed due to dispute and discord on when the Day of Judgement will take place. The chapter is then revealed and tells them that the Day of Judgement is “when the earth shakes”. We know that this was a general question posed to the Prophet (p) and the Qur’ān therefore repeatedly tells people that no one knows the exact time except Allah (swt). Some of these verses are as follows:
[33:63] People ask you concerning the Hour. Say,” Knowledge of it is only with Allah . And what may make you perceive? Perhaps the Hour is near.”
[7:187] They ask you, [O Muhammad], about the Hour: when is its arrival? Say, “Its knowledge is only with my Lord. None will reveal its time except Him. It lays heavily upon the heavens and the earth. It will not come upon you except unexpectedly.” They ask you as if you are familiar with it. Say, “Its knowledge is only with Allah, but most of the people do not know.”
[79:42-44] They ask you, [O Muhammad], about the Hour: when is its arrival? In what [position] are you that you should mention it? To your Lord is its finality.
These verses show that this knowledge is reserved only for Allah (swt) and even the Prophet (p) is unaware of it.
In any case, as it can be seen the above analysis is not an evidence, it is merely a possibility. If this argument were to hold any conclusive weight, then we could use it to even argue that Surah al-Takwīr or Surah al-Inshiqār and others were revealed in response to the same question. There is no way to be certain that it was indeed revealed upon people’s questions.
A second analysis uses the last part of the chapter to say that it was revealed because there was a dispute amongst the Muslims on the fact that performing small acts of bad deeds do not have much value, that they are not a big deal. Likewise, the small acts of good deeds are also not worth much in value. In other words, there was possibly a dispute amongst the Muslims on the value of one’s deeds, big or small, are we rewarded or punished for all of them, or just some of them? It was in this response to this that the chapter was revealed.
These are just two possibilities, but as we believe, it is not even necessary for there to have been any external incident or event for which this chapter was revealed and it could have simply been revealed ad-hoc like some other verses and chapters of the Qur’ān.
What are the merits of this chapter?
Imam al-Ṣādiq (a) has said1 in a tradition:
Do not become tired of reciting Surah al-Zalzalah, for one who recites the chapter in one’s recommended prayers, will not be touched by the harms of an earthquake and will not die by it; moreover he will not be hurt by lightening or otherworldly harms, until he passes away.
In another Prophetic tradition2 we read:
Anyone who reads it, it is as if they have read al-Baqarah and they will be given the reward of someone who has read one-fourth of the Qur’ān.
Amongst theologians and scholars of the Qur’ān on the merits of the chapters of the Qur’ān. Is it the case that some chapters have more merits than other chapters? I will allude to this briefly as it can help us understand many reports that speak about the merits of various chapters. There are two camps amongst Muslim scholars:
1) There is absolutely no difference between the chapters of the Qur’ān in terms of merits. All of them have the exact same merit as one another. All of it is the Speech of Allah (swt) and one cannot be more meritorious than another, it is all equally meritorious. Furthermore, if one chapter or certain verses were greater and more meritorious than others, that would imply the belittlement of chapters that are less in merit. This view is attributed to Mālik b. Anas, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ash‘arī, al-Bāqilānī, Ibn Ḥibbān and even Qāḍī ‘Abd al-Jabbār the Mu‘tazalī. Perhaps it was for this reason that Imam Mālik was of the opinion that it is detested for one to recite the same chapter or same verses in the Ṣalāt regularly, and rather it is preferred to recite different parts of the Qur’ān in prayers.
I’m unsure why something being more meritorious implies the one with less merit is belittled. Allah (swt) has preferred some Prophets (p) over others, or some angels over others, does this mean some Prophets (p) are belittled? If we say one Marja‘ is more-learned than another Marja‘, does this mean we are belittling the latter Marja‘? Of course not. Likewise, all of the Qur’ān is a miracle, what is the issue if within this miraculous speech, some verses or chapters enjoy greater merit than others?
2) The famous opinion amongst Muslim scholars is that some chapters of the Qur’ān are more meritorious than others. Scholars like Fakhr al-Rāzī, Qurtubī and Ghazālī have defended this opinion in their works. Their primary argument is the presence of a lot of traditions highlighting this, in the books of both Sunni and Shī‘a schools. In fact, the narrations are so many, someone could argue they are near tawātur, leading them to certainty that some chapters are more meritorious than others. This group itself is divided into two camps:
a) What we mean by merit is the reward one receives for recitation. One receives more rewards for reciting certain chapters and verses as opposed to some other chapter or verses.
b) Some say that the very chapter itself is more meritorious. They will say, how can you compare the Āyah al-Dayn [2:282] with Āyah al-Kursī [2:255]? It is very clear that the latter is greater in its content, its depth and there are reports which further highlight the merits of Āyah al-Kursī. It is for this reason why there are reports that highlight the merits and status of Surah al-Ḥamd or Surah al-Ikhlāṣ.
We believe the second camp is correct in the sense that there is no rational or theological impossibility for some verses or chapters of the Qur’ān to be more meritorious than others, but the dilemma is in determining which of these chapters is greater. That requires one to collect all the traditions on the subject, analyze them critically and then arrive at a conclusion.
Before beginning our exegesis, we also want to mention that though the current codex of the Qur’ān publishes the chapter with 8 verses, there is a view amongst some Muslim scholars that the chapter has 9 verses, and that is by dividing verse 6 into two:
يَوْمَئِذٍ يَصْدُرُ النَّاسُ أَشْتَاتًا
That Day, the people will depart separated [into categories].
To be shown [the result of] their deeds.
The chapter is depicting some of the realities of the Day of Judgement and reaction of humans to the events of the hereafter.
The second message of the chapter concerns the value of our deeds.
Verse 1 – Idhā Zulzilat al-Arḍ Zilzālahā
Idhā is a preposition denoting a condition. The composition of the verse implies two meanings. If we say the verse is responding to the question “when is the day of judgement?”, then it is saying, “the day of judgement is when the earth shakes.”
We say the more apparent understanding is that idhā is denoting a conditional statement beginning with “when”, and its response is also within the chapter itself when it informs us that it will be the Day the earth will tell us about its news and people will be separated into categories being shown their deeds.
Some grammarians and linguistics have said there is a difference between in and idhā to denote a conditional statement where the former implies a sense of unsurety while idhā conveys certainty in the matter. This is why in all verses related to the Day of Judgement even in other chapters we find the use of the preposition idhā and not in like [81:1] idhā al-shams kuwwirat (when the sun is wrapped).
The Earth’s Zilzāl
What does zilzāl mean? It is a severe shaking, convulsions and quakes, and perhaps it is derived from a simpler verb zalla which means to slip. The Qur’ān speaks of the shaking of the earth in multiple places:
[56:4-5] When the earth is shaken with convulsion and the mountains are broken down, crumbling
[73:14] On the Day the earth and the mountains will convulse and the mountains will become a heap of sand pouring down.
[79:6-7] On the Day the blast [of the Horn] will convulse [creation], there will follow it the subsequent [one].
[22:1] O mankind, fear your Lord. Indeed, the convulsion of the [final] Hour is a terrible thing.
[89:21] No! When the earth has been leveled – pounded and crushed.
The verse signifies that the earth will be shaken violently on the Day of Judgement.
One of the mystics has said in their interpretation of this verse that the earth actually means soul and this is its esoteric meaning. We have no issue with this interpretation as long as there is some evidence, some alibi, some contextual indicators for it, but the surprising thing is that this mystic who has put forth this interpretation himself says that if you were to ask me what is my evidence, I will respond by saying that we do not need to bring any evidence for mystical and esoteric interpretations.
This is a really big issue when it comes to Qur’ānic exegesis. It is unfortunate that some believe they have the right to interpret the Qur’ān in a way where they feel free of having to bring any evidence for their claims. It is one thing to come up with an esoteric interpretation, but another thing to attribute it to Allah (swt) and then expect others to accept it. In fact, when asked for evidence, they do not provide any evidence, nor do they believe they should be judged for their opinions. Such an approach to Qur’ānic exegesis opens up the door to a lot of chaos. If the criterion is simply whatever meaning that comes to the mind based on one’s affinities, then what makes one person’s affinities justified but another unjustified? How can we defend any of our opinions and interpretations if there is nothing to go by?
Yes, we can differ on the different tools used for judging the Qur’ānic interpretations – is it language, the intellect, the traditions etc. We can differ on these, but at the very least, there is something there. But, if someone behaves as if their interpretation is not subject to any judgement, then this is a serious issue.
It is these types of approaches that lead to greater issues in religious communities. If scholars themselves are going to use and convey religious knowledge based off of dreams, stories, severely weak narrations, then it is only natural that we find a few people claiming to be the Mahdī in every century using the exact same approach.
Verse 2 – Wa Akhrajat al-Arḍ Athqālahā
The verse’s initial meaning is that the earth will throw out and discharge something heavy and burdensome contained within it. The question is, what are these heavy burdens contained within the earth? There are a number of views, we will mention them and see which is the most likely meaning:
1) Athqāl are the dead which the earth is carrying. In other words, the earth will throw out the dead people buried within it as if it were pregnant with them. A fetus has been referred to as a thiql – a heavy burden – in another verse of the Qur’ān as follows:
[7:189] It is He who created you from one soul and created from it its mate that he might dwell in security with her. And when he covers her, she carries a light burden and continues therein. And when it becomes heavy, they both invoke Allah, their Lord, “If You should give us a good [child], we will surely be among the grateful.”
It seems the dead have been resembled with the fetus and the earth has been resembled with a pregnant woman. If this meaning is accepted, it will change our understanding of the earth’s shaking in the first verse where it is not just a mere shaking, rather it is an opening up of the earth. The Qur’ān itself has referred to the earth shaking and quivering in context of something coming out of the earth. We read:
[22:5] …and you see the earth barren, but when We send down upon it rain, it quivers and swells and grows [something] of every beautiful kind.
Some have critiqued this opinion by saying this means the chapter is speaking of the second nafkha (blast of the trumpet), because with the first nafkha everyone will die, and it is with the second nafkha that people will be brought back to life. The criticism lies in the fact that the apparent understanding of the chapter is that it is speaking of the first nafkha which initiated the Day of Judgement.
We do not know how the critic concluded that the chapter is speaking of the first nafkha and not the second? It seems that the chapter could very much be speaking of the second nafkha and this critique is not very strong.
Our observation on this interpretation is that when we put together all the Qur’ānic verses regarding the earth on the Day of Judgement – and some of these verses have already been mentioned earlier – it appears that the zilzāl of the earth will not simply be a quiver where the dead are revived, rather it will be a severe shaking and the earth will experience convulsions. To say that athqāl is a reference to dead bodies appears to not be very convincing.
2) Athqāl means minerals of the earth – and this is the popular position amongst Muslim scholars. They say, the verse is essentially belittling the disbelievers, making them regret their lives as these were the material things they were chasing while they were alive and now these minerals and treasures are in front of them and they are of no value to them.
Due to this understanding, a group of Shī‘ī scholars in this camp came to believe that this chapter has nothing to do with the Day of Judgement. They said, this chapter is speaking about the treasures and minerals being thrown out, while we also know – as per the traditions – that the earth will throw up its treasures and minerals for Imam Mahdī (a). Therefore, this chapter is actually referring to the reappearance of the 12th Imam (a), not the Day of Judgement.
This latter interpretation is also related to a very old opinion held by some Shī‘ī scholars regarding khums, and that was, who should the sahm al-imām be given to during the occultation of the 12th Imam (a)? This opinion said that the khums – which often entailed such minerals and treasurers – should be buried in the earth as that is the best way to safeguard it. There is one weak report that implies this should be done with the sahm al-imām, and perhaps they used this understanding to come to the conclusion that this chapter is related to the Mahdī (a) as that is when the earth will throw up these minerals.
A number of scholars have said that when it comes to matters which are of great significance, such as khums which is related to money, one cannot rely on a solitary report, that too a weak report, to determine what should be one’s responsibility. This also reminds me of a similar point mentioned by Sayyid Khāmina’ī who when discussing the status of the Sabians argues that one cannot use a principle like istiṣḥāb (principle of continuity) to establish the impurity of a whole group of people, a judgement that would alter the way we interact with them significantly.
An observation we have on this interpretation is that how did the proponents restrict the meaning of athqāl to minerals? There is nothing within the chapter that leads us to this conclusion. It is possible that minerals will also be thrown out by the earth, but what reason do we have to restrict it to just these minerals?
3) Some have said the verse is saying that the earth will shake so violently that all things on its surface, humans, animals, trees etc. will be thrown off. They argue this point by saying that a thiql is often used in reference to humans and jinns or other created things that are on the surface of the earth, not inside it.
This interpretation is a little difficult to digest because the verse uses the verb akhrajat not ramat. The former signifies the meaning of something being taken out from within, while the latter means to throw something.
In addition, we read in Surah al-Inshiqāq that the earth will throw out that which is inside it:
[84:4] And has cast out that within it and relinquished [it]
4) The word is absolute; it does not restrict it to any specific instance. It could be dead bodies, and it could also be minerals – why can it not be inclusive of everything that is within the earth?
The main point of the word in this verse is to convey the meaning of a severe shaking of the earth, and that it will not be a simple quiver that occurs every now and then on the planet. The shaking will be so severe and even the heaviest of things will be thrown out by it. There is no reason to restrict the word to dead bodies nor minerals, and our reason to say that it is inclusive of both – and more – is the absence of any contextual indicator in this chapter.
This is perhaps the best understanding of the word athqāl.
Criticism on the Qur’ān
The first 2 verses of this chapter have been subject to criticism by some non-Muslims, particularly the Orientalists. The criticism is related to the question, where did Islam come from? Where did the Prophet (p) borrow and take a certain rules and beliefs from? Who did he (p) imitate when uttering a verse of the Qur’ān? Where did he (a) hear the stories that are mentioned in the Qur’ān? These criticisms were raised by Orientalists, perhaps one of the most significant works was that of William Tisdall (1859-1928) written in 1905 titled The Original Sources of the Qur’ān.
There have been refutations written on these questions raised by Orientalists, and while we will not get into this discussion at length here, we will allude to a few of these responses.
The criticism is as follows: the first two verses of this chapter are lines of poetry composed by Imru’ al-Qays (d. approx. 540), one of the greatest poets from the Age of Ignorance. The lines of poetry are as follows:
إذا زلزلت الأرض زلزالها وأخرجت الأرض أثقالها
تقوم الأنام على رسلها ليوم الحساب ترى حالها
يحاسبها ملك عادل فإما عليها وإما لها
When the earth is rocked with a terrible quake and the earth discharges her burdens
Mankind will rise with their messengers for the day of reckoning, watching its own state
The just angel will reckon them either against them or for them
The source of these lines of poetry is Fayḍ al-Qadīr, a book written by a Sunni scholar Imam al-Munāwī (1545-1621), who himself confesses that these are lines of Imru’ al-Qays. The Orientalists further say these are not the only lines of Imru’ al-Qays that were taken for the Qur’ān, there were others as well.3
There is also a story that says that one day the daughter of Imru’ al-Qays met Fāṭima (s) and the latter recited the verse iqtarabat al-sā’ah from Surah al-Qamar. The daughter of Imru’ al-Qays responded by saying, “your father [Muhammad] plagiarized these lines from my father [Imru’ al-Qays].” Āyatullah Hādī Ma‘rifat has responded to this in his work Shubuhāt by saying this story is definitely fabricated since there is no way the daughter of Imru’ al-Qays could have met Fāṭima (a) as their timelines do not intersect.
In any case, numerous Muslim scholars have addressed this criticism and we will mention a few of them briefly:
1) We have not found these lines of poetry attributed to Imru’ al-Qays in any classical books of grammar, nor dictionaries. The first time we see these lines of poetry is in Fayḍ al-Qadīr of al-Munāwī who died only a few centuries ago. There is no way to academically attribute these lines of poetry to a 6th-century poet through a work written in the 17th century. Even if we were not Muslims, we would still make this argument and say that this is not an academic way to attribute lines of poetry to a poet.
2) When we look at the works that have compiled the poetry of Imru’ al-Qays, who often even compile lines of poetry that are only speculated to be lines of poetry of Imru’ al-Qays, we do not find these lines in there at all.
There are two lines of poetry that resemble Qur’ānic verses and these lines have been attributed to Imru’ al-Qays by early Muslims. These lines are:
أنا من قوم كرام يطعمون الطيبات يجفان كالجوابي وقدور راسيات
3) al-Munāwī himself does not accept the attribution of these lines of poetry to Imru’ al-Qays himself.
4) There is a huge debate amongst scholars of Islamic studies, and surprisingly it was the Orientalists themselves who opened the door to these discussions, and that is, are the poetries of the Arabs from the Age of Ignorance even authentic or were they fabricated during the Abbasid era and back-projected onto these famous poets? The fact that such great suspicion exists on the attribution of extant poetry to the Age of Ignorance, itself puts a question mark on whether these lines of poetry were actually uttered by Imru’ al-Qays or not.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.
- Al-Kāfī, v. 2, pg. 626.
- Al-Miṣbāḥ of al-Kaf‘amī, pg. 451.
- Some of these include:
اقتربت الساعة وانشق القمر من غزال صاد قلبي ونفر
أحور قد حرت في أوصافه ناعس الطرف بعينيه حور
مر يوم العيد في زينته فرماني فتعاطى فعقر
بسهام من لحاظ فاتك فتركني كهشيم المحتظر
يتمنى المرء في الصيف الشتاء حتى إذا جاء الشتاء أنكره