Sura 92 Al-Layl’s Beautiful Structure and Meaning

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Surat Al-Layl 91 is the gift that keeps on giving unexpected insights, tightly integrated on many levels. Its 21 ayat/verses can be divided into 3 parts of 7 ayat each, a striking symmetry, and this within a separate ring arrangement based on the division between this world and the Hereafter — even word and letter counts augment the meaning which, due to their complexity as a separate subject, will be addressed soon in a separate post. Here the sura’s emphasis on the primacy of charitable acts as proof of faith and other meaningful details are powerfully reflected in its structure as well. 

The Arrangement of Ayat/Verses

Ring Composition of Sura 92

We can summarize this color-coded arrangement as follows:

  • Allah’s role and authority – yellow = 7 ayat
  • Human attitude/action – the righteousbluegreen = 7 ayat 
  • Human attitude/action  – the deniersorange = 7 ayat 

The final aya had originally appeared to me to be part of the 4 ayat that precede it in bluegreen, since all 5 ayat from 92:17-21 concern the righteous in the Hereafter. But upon careful consideration, I found the final aya has a significant difference. Ayat 92:17-20 describe what the righteous did to be there in the “paradise” section of the sura, whereas the final aya 92:21 simply describes what they will feel — “content” or satisfied — and this is the result of Allah’s fulfilling His promise to the believers. This feeling of contentment or satisfaction is the fulfillment of our deepest longing that only Allah the All-Merciful can bring us. Thus I include this verse in the yellow section. 

It brings to mind the end of Surat Al-Bayyinah 98:8: “Their reward is with their Lord, Gardens of Eden with rivers running below, abiding therein forever, Allah being content with them and they being content with Him. That is for whosoever fears his Lord.” Although aya 92:21 does not explicitly refer to Allah’s satisfaction with them, since the “he” is usually understood to refer to the righteous one, there is a subtle but undeniable sense in Surat Al-Layl as well that both Allah and His righteous servants are mutually “content” with one another. 

This also makes the yellow part divided into 3 sections: the beginning, middle, and end. This conforms to the middle two ayat, mentioning Allah’s guidance in this life (aya 12) and His statement in aya 13 that literally “unto us belong the end and the beginning” translated here as the Hereafter and this world. From this last statement in 92:13 we can see that the whole sura itself also reflects the division between the Hereafter and this world, separated off by the central yellow section — which in that case represents Allah’s authority as malik yom Al-Deen or Judgment Day as mentioned in what is also the central aya of Surat Al-Fatiha 1:4. 

The difference being in Al-Fatiha the Hereafter section is “on top” in the beginning of the sura and the section for “this world” is on the bottom, whereas in Surat Al-Layl 92 the two are reversed: this world (al-dunya) is in the beginning or on top and the Hereafter (al-akhira) is at the end or the bottom. The wisdom in these different arrangements is that Al-Fatiha is giving us an “architectural” view, where from our earthly “spacial” perspective, “heaven” is up and “earth” is down. Surat Al-Layl however is giving us the time-related perspective, where this world comes first and the Hereafter comes after. Even the name Al-Layl “Night” refers, in our understanding, to a time

Significantly, it refers to the time during which we have least control, wherein we normally need to sleep, described in the Quran as similar to death in that we are unaware and our souls/selves are thus no longer “connected” by awareness to our bodies. Even though we now are more often awake at night than before the invention of electric lighting, safety is always a concern at that time when dangers can “lurk” in the darkness. 

The two human-related sections divide humanity into two groups: the righteous (in bluegreen) and the deniers (in orange) who are clearly labeled and described in this sura. Each of these sections also has 7 ayat, giving all 3 sections the same number of ayat. This clearly shows the level of equanimity shown in this sura in terms of attention to each category. It is then the placement of each category that reveals their “situation.” Allah’s encompassing knowledge and authority is shown in the fact that “His” sections in yellow encompass the beginning, middle, and end. The righteous and deniers categories are placed in mirrorform positions within that framework. 

Note that the placements of people/humans in these categories is based on two things: their behavior (giving to others vs. miserly and reverent vs. arrogant) and attitude (trust vs. deny goodness as a path and reward). In that order. This may imply that our small decisions on how to act influence in turn our attitude and then may continue to reinforce it. Hence Allah’s guidance teaches us reverence with salat and prayer (du’a), and giving/charity with zakat (obligatory charitable spending). The word “alms” as an older word for charity indicates “zakat” or charitable spending was once incumbent on Christians as well, but is now considered an “archaic” word, indicative of how the role of charity has been diminished in the modern world to often a matter of show or “support for the church” (or one’s favorite charity which could be any “cause” or institution) and not necessarily the poor/needy, especially among the mutrifeen, the rich and powerful, always in the Quran the most corrupt of people. Surat Al-Ma’un tells us prayer without charity, in particular if one’s heart is in neither, is worthless. 

Allah’s focus in yellow begins with a 4-ayat/verse introduction on the human condition. Each aya is explained below. Note: I use the words aya/ayat and verse/verses interchangeably. They mean the same thing, but aya also means “sign/miracle.”

  1. The “night as it enshrouds” can have multiple meanings. One directly related to the sura’s structure is that night is like this world in the sense of our having limited visibility and time, and also recalls sura Al-Falaq 113:3 where darkness is described as danger or potential harm. Also recalled is the preceding sura 91:4 Al-Shams (the Sun) whose oath “and (by) night when it covers it (the sun)” suggests, in referring to the sun, another aspect of night. Because it covers the sun, night is also the most celestial time, when we see the stars and planets, the vastness of the cosmos which can inspire worship and faith. On the other hand, it can also mean the opposite: “covering up” what is “clear as day” the way the kafir (denier, one who “covers up” the truth) refuses to acknowledge Allah’s light. So how people respond to the difference between day and night affects its meaning to them, thus differentiating their attitude towards Allah, with consequences in “this world and the next” as shown in this sura, where the emphasis is on night as “covering.”
  2. The “day as it discloses” is like the Hereafter illuminated by Allah’s light on Judgment Day, which only the purified souls can endure, and further, benefit from and find in His Presence the utmost bliss. The deniers are reciprocally denied this, having rejected the only way to receive it. In this sense, day also can symbolize the “illumination of the soul” guided by Allah’s light of knowledge in the Quran and one’s intuition, which leads to piety, kindness, and ethical behavior. Day’s other aspect is the sense of security in it which can also obscure one’s view of the “bigger picture” in the night sky — the “heavens” suggesting worlds beyond our own. So day and night are indeed “signs” that reveal to us eternal truths; but if one chooses to “cover” (the meaning of kufr) or “deny” that aspect, the security of Day can reinforce the presumption that this world is all there is, and when night covers it, it’s a chance to enjoy ourselves (often in questionable pursuits or entertainment) in a less “visible” environment, or get some “shut-eye.” Sleep is essential, and the closing of the eyes; but if the heart is “shut,” what will the eyes then see?
  3. “By what created the male and female” – the word usually translated “who” (obviously referring to Allah) is actually in Arabic ma whose meaning is more like “what” (“who” is a different word man من ) created the male and female — so it’s presented more in the sense of a question for us to ponder. What is it that made Allah create male and female? Allah Himself is neither male nor female but encompasses the higher qualities of both in perfect balance. This brings to mind yin and yang which are associated with the male/female division and also with many other things like, say, night and day — the night often associated with yin and the day with yang, although one could argue for the opposite for the same reason day and night carry “oppositional” meanings as mentioned above. As the source of procreation, this division is critical for our survival, and also a test. Will the male and female cooperate in reverence, trusting that their goodness will result in the best outcome for both? Or will one oppress the other, deciding that being good and kind will weaken their position? Or deem themselves superior and demean the other? In this context, a shared trust in “encompassing goodness” is key (92:6). Such trust leads to goodwill, indeed the basis for successful relationships and societies. 
  4. Your works/efforts are diverse,” introduces how the comparisons above play out in reality. The word “diverse” also means “divided,” the two meanings obviously related. It is a slight variant of the same word used in sura 99:6 referring to people divided into categories on Judgment Day. So this aya refers to the verses in bluegreen and orange seen in the graphic above showing the categories of people “dividedinto the righteous (bluegreen) and the deniers (orange). 

The 3 color-coded categories with exactly 7 ayat verses each, shown above, fit perfectly into a sura with exactly 21 verses, or 7 x 3. 

But there is also the other division in the arrangement of these ayat between this world and the Hereafter, as mentioned above. This forms a modified ring composition in which the 3 yellow sections form the framework, with the beginning (the 4-verse introduction discussed above); the center “fulcrum” (2 verses, 12 and 13 asserting Allah’s authority as guide, and over this world/dunya and the Hereafter/akhira); and the end, Allah’s promise fulfilled in the final single verse 21. So the bluegreen/orange sections are arranged within that structure with the ayat referring to this world above the central ayat 12 and 13, and the ayat referring to the Hereafter below them, verses 14-21.

Note the word Al-Husnaa parenthetically translated as “goodness” in the presentations of this sura here. I specifically kept the Arabic word to indicate it has meaning beyond the parenthetical one, as I explained in a separate post. It does not mean only goodness, but also it means “that which is beautiful,” a word that can be used as a qualitative superlative of goodness. Importantly, this word, as used in the Quran, is another expression for paradise. It also means “the best,” and hence when applied to the Hereafter means “the best reward.” It’s important in this sura to understand this word’s range of meaning includes all three concepts at once. And that the reward in the Hereafter is essential to Allah’s justice system, where that which is best in behavior and attitude will not be lost or in vain, whereas material, temporal wealth will be lost. This is indeed one of the most central themes in the Quran and mentioned repeatedly. 

Because the structure is so well-integrated into the meaning, we shall first examine the meaning of this sura in terms of its prominent theme.

The Primacy of Giving

DenierRighteous
is stingy, holds backgives, is God-fearing
denies goodness/God’s gracetrusts in goodness/God’s grace
denies guidance and turns awaygives from wealth to purify himself
seeks profit for himself in this worldseeks nothing but face of Allah
Difficult soul-path in this life, regret and torment in the HereafterEasy soul-path in this life, bliss in Hereafter

The description in this sura comparing the righteous people to the deniers shows that giving to help others in gracious charity is the key to success in the eyes of Allah the Exalted, as shown in the table above. Notice the emphasis on giving, helping others, spending from one’s wealth on those in need. We can understand from this that charity is a bigger deal than pilgrimage, building mosques, or even the five prayers; not that these are not important, but that one cannot circumvent the evil consequences of stinginess (hoarding wealth), or refusing to help those in need when one is able financially, by simply doing Hajj pilgrimage, or building mosques, or even praying. The only way to circumvent that is to start spending on helping those in need (if one is able). From our current perspective, we can see that such spending, especially important for the wealthy to purify their wealth, would prevent the situation of a top-heavy economic imbalance in society where the rich and powerful have all the money/resources, leaving the rest of the people deprived. Which leads to most social ills. 

Allah the Exalted admonishes in 107:4 “Woe to those who pray!” And the word for “pray” is salat, the same act whose omission per 74:43 is what brought people to hell; when asked what brought them to hell, they replied “we were not of those who pray.” But in the very next aya 74:44, they add “nor did we used to feed the poor.” Likewise in 107:5, right after the quote from 107:4, we read the rest of the description of “those who pray” as “who are heedless of their prayer” — how? — they do it for “show” (107:5) — and what proves it? The fact that they “withhold simple assistance.” (107:7) Also translated “refuse to aid” or “withhold small kindnesses.” If the salat, which is considered the number one requirement in Islam, becomes cursed only because of refusal to help others, this is a powerful statement of the primacy of giving. Emphasized in the very structure of sura 92, “Night.” For those who deny the value of “goodness” in the profound sense, the result is “the dark night of the soul.”

If even a person’s salat itself will not counteract their tendency to refuse to help others or commit acts of aggression/harm for no just cause, then that salat is indeed just for show, not from the heart. “Indeed, salat prevents immorality and wrongdoing, and remembering Allah is greater.” (Quran 29:45) The same is true for anything else in Islam; performing the pilgrimage or building mosques will not get anyone into paradise if he continues to refuse to spend on helping the poor, relatives in need, migrants, captives, or those in need. This doesn’t mean one must solve the world’s poverty; it means not denying help when asked, or not throwing away vast quantities of food and spending money wastefully on personal luxuries while people can’t afford to eat whom one could easily have helped. Especially in the case of neighbors and relatives/family. This is particularly applicable to the super-rich. Their path to Allah is very, very difficult, unless they have a change of heart from greed to generosity — rare, but not impossible or unheard-of. But it’s not easy, even logistically, to start spending after so much accumulation. 

Another point: there are hadiths claiming such things as, for example, that if one builds a mosque, or does the Hajj pilgrimage, Allah will grant him paradise. This in itself, when taken alone, can be and often is interpreted to mean that someone can spend one’s money to build a mosque or perform Hajj, and even if he refuses to feed the poor or help others, it will still be his ticket to paradise. The issue here is not that the hadith is in itself necessarily false, but that it’s a statement with no context and thus can be interpreted in a way so as to contradict the logic of the Quran, whose tightly integrated text gives us much context helping us understand the limits of such statements. So the issue with relying too heavily on hadiths is in large part that separate disjointed statements leave interpretive gaps that may contradict the Quran’s clear message. The Quran in contrast clearly presents its wholistic case for giving contrasted with worship as ritual performance (“show”) devoid of “heart”: concern for others or taqwa, God-consciousness. 

This sura clearly shows us where Allah’s priorities are, and how important it is to know them and act accordingly. Of course, Allah is the All-Merciful, but true mercy is also just. And thus not to be confused with leniency, a confusion often promoted by the enemies of Islam (who literally promote mistreatment or prejudicial treatment of Muslims). They take Quranic injunctions out of context or point to a punishment’s description (especially for those in hell), calling the severity that is described “violent,” proclaiming in contrast how they promote leniency toward people regardless to what they’ve done as “showing mercy.” While they are often the most ardent purveyors of death or oppression to innocents worldwide solely for the purpose of material gain and profits. The war profiteers, for example — something nonexistent in true Islam — and other major oppressors such as the petty dictators the British and other Western powers conspired to install over Muslim countries — both those and the power- and money-brokers who installed them have serious consequences to deal with for their deeds. On a Day when all they will have to offer is remorse and regret of unimaginable intensity. 

Sura 92 Structural Details

To summarize its structure as a modified ring composition would be as follows with section labels below each one

  • Allah’s encompassing “framework” in 3 parts in yellow using A for the introduction, A’ for the center asserting Allah’s authority in this world and the Hereafter, and A” for the final aya representing Allah’s promise fulfilled. These are where Allah speaks generally or about Himself in some way. Being in the beginning, middle, and end shows Allah’s power over all things, where it is His will to allow free will
  • Section B represents “this world”/dunya referring to people — bluegreen for the “righteous” and orange for the “deniers” and 
  • Section B’ represents the Hereafter/akhira, similarly focusing also on people and their diverging paths. Pictured below:

The central verses 12 and 13 form a fulcrum or turning point between the description of the righteous and rejecters in this life, and those same two categories in the Hereafter. A chiastic center should be a “fulcrum” to balance two sides; here, those are in verse 13: “unto us belong the Hereafter and this world.” The human-focused section of the Section B for “this world” begins with verse 5 — representing “hands,” meaning “what we do” (symbolically with our hands, each with five fingers) — and ends in verse 11 (7 verses). Note that the final verse number 21 is reverse digits of verse 12, the first of the two verses in the central section and, as it describes Allah’s guidance which is for people in this world, is also the final verse of the first “half” of this sura specifically relating to this world (al-dunya). 

Interestingly, verse 11 is numerically central to this sura (as the “chiastic center” of 21) and the sum of the sura number’s digits, 92, emphasizing its message that worldly wealth (and power) will not help the one for whom it was their sole aim when he dies and leaves it behind. So it is all about what we value and consequently what we do in this life, and how the greatest consequences are in the Hereafter. 

Section B for this world (dunya) has 7 verses: 3 for the righteous and 4 for the deniers. This is a “{3,4} pairing.” It’s like other significant {3,4} pairings in the Quran: 

  • {3 unique/4 total letters} in Allah’s name, 
  • {3 names of Allah/4 total words} in the Basmalah, and 
  • {34 mentions of Al-Raheem and 3⁴ mentions of adjective raheem} in the Quran. This pattern occurs significantly in the Quran, as discussed elsewhere

Here this structure is labeled in Section B 92:5-7 as 3 verses and 92:8-11 as 4 (verses).

Notice that the extra “weight” (in words and letters) of aya 11 — the 4th verse of this {3,4} pairing— is where the denier put his values or “weight”: in this worldly life. The denier’s goal was to gain material wealth in this world, so Allah gave it to him

Section B’ for the Hereafter (akhira) also has 7 verses, but this time the placement is inverted: 3 for the deniers and 4 for the righteous. This is also a {3,4} pairing, but now the extra “weight” of the 4th verse in this pairing is with the righteous bluegreen section, showing the righteous person put his values or “weight” in the Hereafter. The righteous person’s goal was Allah’s acceptance, so Allah gave it to him

The denier knows his life and wealth are temporary yet ardently pursues it as if it will last. This recalls sura Al-Humaza 104:1-3. 

Woe to every scorner and mocker (104:1)

Who collects wealth and [continuously] counts it. (104:2)

He thinks that his wealth will make him immortal. (104:3)

And of course, it will not make him immortal in the positive way he thinks. Rather, he will wish he could become mortal again, but in the Hereafter time is no longer what it was. They will not die but will be in a state where they are neither living nor dead. This orange section begins with “I have warned you of a fire that is blazing.” The warning is important because no one goes to hell without a warning

In the Hereafter, our previous experience of time no longer holds sway. You could say time “lost its mojo,” its grip on power. So the deniers are those who deny al-akhira, the Hereafter, but put their faith in al-dunya, or this worldly life of time, which means they decided to believe it will always be like this: time as we know it, limited lifetimes and no resurrection, no Finality or Hereafter, no punishment or rewards. But once we are raised up on the Day of Resurrection, reality will become entirely manifest without the “slack” of time, and all things will be sealed into their fate as Allah has warned us throughout generations in many books through many prophets and messengers. One will be in an entirely different kind of universe and nothing can be reversed or changed. The deniers will not say they were oppressed but will rather feel immense regret and remorse over what they did and the choices they made. 

Whoever desires the life of this world and its adornments –  We fully repay them for their deeds therein, and they therein will not be deprived. (11:15)

Those are the ones for whom there is not in the Hereafter but the Fire. And lost is what they did therein, and worthless is what they used to do. (11:16)

Those whose sole aim is for the life of this world will achieve success in it. But its currency has no value in the realm of the Hereafter. This is the way it is. The Quran tells us that truth is truth, unchangeable, and that we cannot make something else be true just by claiming it is, or because we decide that’s all we know so that must be all there is. 

So first the yellow sections representing Allah’s authority surround and encompass the orange and bluegreen sections representing what we have as two choices in this world — consequential for the Hereafter. It’s all in Allah’s hands, but He does put the choice to be righteous or to deny “between our hands.” The bluegreen sections representing the righteous people surround and encompass the orange sections representing the deniers/rejecters, who have lost everything because in the center is what they rejected: Allah, the Truth, Reality. Thus in the end, having accepted Allah’s Truth, the righteous will have the ultimate reward, as promised, sealed with Allah’s own unassailable Authority, and with the ultimate fulfillment, what all humanity actually always wanted but from which many were deluded to reject: His abiding Love. 

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