This world, as it would be in the future, in the Quran

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 18 August 2023

“When the sun is folded up, and when the stars are dust-coloured, and when the mountains are made to pass away, and when the camels are abandoned, and when the wild animals are gathered together, and when the cities are made to swell, and when people are united, and when the one buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed, and when the books are spread, and when the heaven has its covering removed, and when hell is kindled, and when the Garden is brought near — every soul will know what it has prepared.”  — ch. 81, v. 1–14

اِذَا الشَّمۡسُ کُوِّرَتۡ ۪ۙ﴿۱ وَ اِذَا النُّجُوۡمُ انۡکَدَرَتۡ ۪ۙ﴿۲ وَ اِذَا الۡجِبَالُ سُیِّرَتۡ ۪ۙ﴿۳ وَ اِذَا الۡعِشَارُ   عُطِّلَتۡ ۪ۙ﴿۴  وَ اِذَا الۡوُحُوۡشُ حُشِرَتۡ ۪ۙ﴿۵  وَ اِذَا الۡبِحَارُ سُجِّرَتۡ ۪ۙ﴿۶ وَ اِذَا النُّفُوۡسُ زُوِّجَتۡ ۪ۙ﴿۷ وَ اِذَا الۡمَوۡءٗدَۃُ   سُئِلَتۡ ۪ۙ﴿۸ بِاَیِّ ذَنۡۢبٍ قُتِلَتۡ ۚ﴿۹ وَ اِذَا الصُّحُفُ نُشِرَتۡ ﴿۪ۙ۱۰  وَ اِذَا السَّمَآءُ کُشِطَتۡ ﴿۪ۙ۱۱ وَ اِذَا الۡجَحِیۡمُ سُعِّرَتۡ ﴿۪ۙ۱۲ وَ اِذَا الۡجَنَّۃُ اُزۡلِفَتۡ ﴿۪ۙ۱۳  عَلِمَتۡ نَفۡسٌ مَّاۤ اَحۡضَرَتۡ ﴿ؕ۱۴

These verses are generally considered to be speaking of the end of the world as we know it, when the Day of Judgment will come and people will enter heaven or hell. When the Quran was revealed, and for many centuries afterwards, people could only take the happenings mentioned here as referring to the signs of the Day of Judgment because they could not see anything like it happening during normal human experience on earth. But then a time came, starting some two hundred years ago, when many of these signs, in fact most of them, seemed to be appearing in the world within the normal scope of human life.

According to the scholars of the Ahmadiyya Move­ment, this fulfilment is evidence that a real Day of Judgment will come as well. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad writes that just because some of these verses seem only to refer to the Day of Judgment, such as “when the sun is folded up”, and “when hell is kindled”, it does not mean that all of them refer only to the Day of Judgment and that what they mention cannot happen before that. And as Maulana Muhammad Ali has explained in his commentaries on the Quran, even those verses which can literally only be applied to the time when the world would be coming to an end, these can also be applied metaphorically to circumstances during the normal existence of the world.

Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad himself explained how such signs were being fulfilled and seen before human eyes in his time and age. This fulfilment, he says, is a proof of his claim that he was the great reformer whose coming had been prophesied, because the prophecies about his coming mentioned these signs in connection with it.

Looking at the first two verses I recited above from the beginning of ch. 81 of the Quran, “When the sun is folded up, and when the stars are dust-coloured”, these mean that there would be darkness during the day and the night. Now during the day human beings exert themselves in external worldly activities and are deeply involved with dealing with things that are outside themselves, and during the night human beings turn inwards and turn to their own thoughts and dreams. These two verses indicate a time when human beings will not be able to find right spiritual guidance, neither by their activities during the day, of studying the world around them, nor by looking into their souls during the night. It would be an age of materialism.

These two verses could also have a literal fulfilment in this world. A study in 2019 found that “air pollution reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface by absorbing and dispersing it across the atmosphere” (see link). As to night-time, it is well-known that in modern times there is so much human-generated light around that it is increasingly difficult to see stars distinctly. I found an article on an astronomical website, called ‘Canada Under the Stars’, entitled: ‘Light Pollution: When stars disappear’ (see link), which says: “In astronomy, light pollution is a real and pressing problem. It diminishes the contrast between the dark sky and celestial sources of light, which makes it harder to see the stars.”

The next sign, which is mentioned in verse 3, is: “and when the mountains are made to pass away”. At the time of the revelation of the Quran, and for centuries afterwards, the mention of the passing away of the mountains would only create the image of some great and unimaginable destruction taking place on earth. But this sign has been fulfilled in daily human life because mountains are no longer the barrier to human move­ment that they always had been. To cross mountain ranges people had to find the natural mountain passes that existed; for example, the famous Khyber Pass which leads to the Indian subcontinent from the west, and through which the armies invading India came. But then a time came when tunnels could be built inside mountains so that traffic could pass through them, taking a much shorter and safer route than going around or over the mountains. You can even see such tunnels in Makkah, which is surrounded by hills.

People can also fly over mountains. The number of people climbing the highest mountains in the world has increased vastly. You can see photos of queues of climbers. A news website says: “in reality, scenes on Everest aren’t that different from a busy supermarket, right down to the queues at the end” (see link). Of course, these mountains have not “passed away” in the sense of disappearing, but they are no longer a barrier to human movement.

The next verse says: “and when the camels are abandoned”. The word for camels here is ‘ishār. It refers to a female camel which is ten-months pregnant, and is highly valuable. It is generally thought that this applies to the Day of Judgment when people would be in a state of such terror and fright that they would abandon precious possessions like these valuable camels. However, starting from about 150 years ago, we see this fulfilled with the development of motorised means of travel such as the railway train and motor cars. Camels are no longer required to perform their main function of transporting people and goods.

 There is a hadith in Sahih Muslim that one of the signs of the coming of the Messiah in the last days is that “camels would be left aside and will not be used for work”. The words translated as “will not be used for work” can also be translated as “will not be used for travel” (Sahih Muslim, Book of Faith, ch. 71). Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad put forward this prophecy in support of his claim, saying that at the time of his coming a new form of transport, the railway train, has replaced the use of camels. He also wrote that this sign is being seen in Arabia itself with the start of the construction of a railway line to connect Madinah with Makkah. He was referring to what was called the Hejaz Railway line, which was being built by the Turkish Ottoman empire, starting in Damascus, to run to Madinah and from there further on to Makkah for the convenience of pilgrims. It is stated in a book about pilgrims who used the traditional means of travel that: “Unable to contend with the tough, mountainous conditions, up to 20% of pilgrims died on the way.”

The section of this railway from Damascus to Madinah was constructed between 1900 and 1908, reaching Madinah on 1st September 1908. It reduced the journey time from 45 days, full of perils, to only 5 days. The funding for this project came not only from the Turkish government but also from Muslims around the world. A wealthy newspaper editor and teacher from the Punjab, by the name of Muhammad Inshaullah, was a donor to the project and in fact campaigned for it.

The construction faced opposition from the Arabs of the area, who tried to obstruct its building as they were opposed to any strengthening of Ottoman rule. Another objection raised was to extending the line from Madinah to Makkah because the local people, who provided transport by camels for pilgrims, feared losing their livelihood if camel transport became obsolete. This reminds us of the words of the verse of the Quran under discussion: “and when the camels are abandoned.”

As a result, the Sultan of the Ottoman empire decided to terminate the railway at Madinah. Six years later, the First World War broke out. The railway line came under severe attack at various places from local anti-Ottoman Arabs. After this War, the Ottoman empire collapsed and the Arab areas that it ruled became separate, independent countries. Thus the extension from Madinah to Makkah was never built, and in fact the entire line from Damascus to Madinah fell into disuse and disrepair around the year 1920. There is now a Hejaz Railway Museum in Madinah in the grounds of the old Ottoman station, near the Masjid-i Nabawi, which was opened in 2006.

When the extension to Makkah was cancelled, this gave an opportunity to the opponents of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to allege that the prophecy of camels being abandoned had not been fulfilled in his time. A well-known opponent of his, Maulana Sanaullah of Amritsar, wrote in his Urdu commentary of the Quran, entitled Tafsīr Sanā’ī, that Mirza thought that because the Sultan of the Ottoman empire had planned to build a railway line in the Hijaz, it would come true, but Mirza forgot that there was a greater Sultan, i.e. Allah, who would bring this Sultan’s plan to failure. He even writes that although the railway from Madinah to Makkah would have been useful for Muslims, yet Allah stopped its construction in order to save Muslims from the error of believing that Mirza was right. He adds this: “Allah stopped it, so much so that visitors to the Hejaz can see, and see it every year, that from Madinah to Makkah there is not even one foot of a railway line.”

I would make four points about this statement of Maulana Sanaullah. Firstly, this project was supported enthusiastically by Muslims in Punjab. They were not worried or deterred by the fact that Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was writing that the Hejaz railway, and its planned section from Madinah to Makkah, was a prophetic sign in favour of his claim. Secondly, it was not only the construction of that section from Madinah to Makkah which was going to prove that the prophecy of camels being abandoned was now under fulfilment. The line which was built between 1900 and 1908 proved that as well. Thirdly, even without a railway link between the two holy cities, buses and cars began to run between them ever since these forms of transport came into general use. Fourthly, in 2018 a high-speed railway was opened between Makkah and Madinah, with a journey time of 2 hours.

We will continue with the other verses I recited in later Khutbas.