“When they sat by it”
Surah al-Buruj in light of Bystanding
The place of ‘witnessing’ is a salient motif in Sūrah al-Burūj. At four points within the sūrah Allah draws our attention to forms of shahāda – ‘to witness’. He (subḥānahu wa ta’āla) swears by the shāhid ‘witness’ and mash-hūd ‘what is witnessed’. The criminals responsible for burning alive those who affirmed faith are shuhūd ‘witnesses’ and over all affairs, Allah is the shahīd ‘witness’. We are drawn in the sūrah to deliberate on how transgressions against others are inescapable in both a human and divine frame. Humans remember, memorialise, mourn, and Allah (subḥānahu wa ta’āla) never forgets. His knowledge is ever-present and with Him all things are recorded. The act of witnessing is a sensory experience in which
we are reminded that injustice is witnessed by a perpetrator, victim and bystander; that perpetrators too often relish in their temporal power mindless of the turning of fate that saw countless others who preceded them fall into ignominy; that cruelty unto others is not only a moral degeneration but that spectatorship and bystanding is equally reprehensible; that death nor the nature of death is the scale by which one measures victory or loss, honour or humiliation, but that Imān in Allah and commitment to His Oneness are what transcend in this life and the next.
The context of the events described in the sūrah stems from a lengthy ḥadīth in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim about a deified emperor, his magician and the faith of a young boy. Succumbing to the inabilities of old age, an emperor’s magician summoned for the boy to be taught magic and serve his emperor. What transpired was the intervention of an elderly upright worshipper of Allah who took to inviting the young boy to correct belief. Tugged in his conscience between the adulation of an emperor and the call to tawḥīd (monotheism), the boy, in choosing the correct belief called his community to that belief. In a dramatic public standoff between boy and emperor, the community accept Allah and renounce their previous worship of the emperor. Their punishment – death by being burnt alive in a ditch, and so they sat by the fire and watched, and relished in the pain and suffering of their victims.
In the sūrah the wrongdoers are described as aṣḥāb al-ukhdūd, as the ‘Companions of the ditch’. Here the believer is reminded that temporality and finality are conjoined in the sphere of our human existence. This, since the temporal punishment inflicted upon believers in ‘the ditch’ was a cause for the transgressors to enter ‘the ditch’ in the next life and be perpetually remembered and recognised by the negative epithet. The degree of their barbarity was enough to diminish any other remembrance. The companions of the ditch are described as ‘sitting over the fire’. Here some commentators suggest that both ‘sitting’ (quʻūd) and ‘over it’ (‘alayhā) denote ‘closeness’ to the ghastly scene, a nonchalant attitude towards the suffering, an ultimate hard-heartedness – watching and enjoying people being burnt alive. The verb quʿūd rather than julūs is used, the former suggesting a longer, casual sitting. We learn that the perpetrators were close to the flames, enjoying the ghastly scene and taking delight in the pain they were inflicting.
In these few verses from Sūrah al-Burūj we learn of a people who, persistent on their disbelief, prepared, took part in and witnessed the burning alive of a believing people. In spite of the horror of the scene that they had created and were witnessing with their own eyes, they remained unmoved – physically and emotionally. The fact that they were direct witnesses, unmediated in their consciences by distance or altitude makes their crime an even greater one. Some of the commentators surmise that smaller groups would bear witness to the king on behalf of each other that they had done well in burning those believers alive. The details in the sūrah not only highlight a manifest unbelief in the ‘companions of the ditch’ but also moral degeneration through modes of spectatorship and active bystanding. That there might have been other ‘witnesses’ separate from those burning the believers, and blameworthy for lacking in ra’fa and shafaqa (pity, compassion, humaneness) highlights the perpetrators and bystanders are inseparable. The gravity of the horrific crime renders both parties guilty.
The Qur’ānic message is timeless, applicable to all people in all times. These few words – idh hum ʿalayhā quʿūd (“when they sat by it”) come to be strikingly important in the midst of killings and human suffering we are witnesses to in our world today. But it is not only today. There have been countless examples, small and large, of people murdering with an insatiable delight. In recent memory the gathering together of throngs of amused spectators on the hilltops of Siderot in Israel (2014) as they watched bombs drop on Gaza from front-row seats while eating popcorn, clapping as blasts were heard as the aggressor state unleashed its bombs on Gaza speak of the same symptom. As they gathered with their soda pops, snacks and smartphones killing was about waiting in glee for the next plane to drop its barrage of death.
It is all too easy for us to break free from both religious and moral compassion that might challenge us to reconsider our bystanding. Today, smartphones have turned their owners into photographers and the rest into actors. Shakespeare’s oft-repeated metaphors, ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…’ becomes lucidly literal. We can ‘see’ and can be ‘seen’ in similar ways and that means our appearances, outlooks and behavioural patterns are mimicked and replicated. The world then is a ‘stage’, we are its actors and anything can become fun on the stage, even the most ghastly of deeds. ‘Happy Slapping’, which began as a youth craze in the UK in late 2004, soon enough degenerated into Bitch Slapping and then into Knockout Punching. Our senses were stimulated and people needed to see more. And so they did. In July 2010 a Muslim pensioner was killed outside a mosque by two members of a ‘happy slapping’ gang who ambushed and relentlessly attacked the pensioner in front of his three-year-old granddaughter Marian. Five days before the killing, the pair attacked a married elderly couple, kicking and stamping on them in their own home. A short clip by one of the perpetrators showed another ‘happy slapping’ incident in which he hit a bus driver who was talking on his mobile phone during a rest period.
On August 15, 2010 in Sialkot, Punjab, Pakistan, two Pakistani brothers, Mugheeth and Muneeb Butt were lynched by a mob. They were hung, mutilated and killed with the support of local police. It was not only the barbarity of the killing that sent shockwaves throughout the world but the indifference of the crowd, and that at least one person had recorded the lynching on his phone. In Sūrah al-Burūj the perpetrators and bystanders would have perhaps heard the screaming, they would have seen the roasting of skin and the wide-eyed shock of victims, but their obedience to authority, indifference or the belief that the bystander is deterred from taking an action because he or she believes there is, in such situations, a diffusion of responsibility, that since others can also help then their responsibility is diminished, that moral responsibility is seen as a collective obligation, and not a personal one. The 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese, 20 year old American, by a man intent on killing a woman that night, became a subject of many psychological studies, and spearheaded by A.R. Rosenthal, author of 37 Witnesses. His book investigates the motives of dozens of men and women who knew that a woman was in danger on that fateful night but who each failed to investigate, to respond or to alert the authorities. Each one mimicked the same response, ‘I didn’t want to get involved’ or ‘I thought somebody else would do something.’
In a video from the genocidal years of 1994-5 in Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbs are seen taunting Muslim men that they have trucked to a field outside a small hamlet in Eastern Bosnia. When the Serbs stop their joking, they shoot the Muslim men, their hands tied behind their backs, at close range. They shoot them all, except two. “You’re the winners”, the Serbs tell the two men and order them to carry the bodies of the others into a house. When the work was done, the Serbs gunned down the pair as well. Just like in Sūrah al-Burūj the killings were all too casual. What should have engendered disgust instead stimulated excitement. The passive bystanding of U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia has also been a subject of much debate. The United Nations had declared Srebrenica, Bosnia, a ‘safe area’ protected site backed up by U.N. peacekeepers on the ground and NATO strike planes in the air. For these ‘peacekeepers’ ‘adhering to policy’ and ‘protecting the organisation’ took precedence over protecting civilians.
In Sūrah al-Burūj we learn that there was no protesting of the atrocity. Though we do have the concept of kifāyah wherein an obligation on a community is lifted if a sufficient amount can discharge the duty, we must always remember that our activity and inactivity is a matter of consequence in both this world and the next, and that we are called upon to remember our place on this earth as witnesses, not spectators but witnesses to good, to equity and progress. At the outset we are khulafā and bear responsibility to those who inhabit the earth with us; and where the call to be just and equitable is paramount in the Qur’ānic discourse, man is reminded about the impediments of hate and of love in two strikingly similar albeit different verses.
O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned be rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them. Do not, then, follow your own desires, lest you swerve from justice: for if you distort [the truth], behold, God is indeed aware of all that you do! – al-Qur’ān, 4:135
O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of any-one lead you into the sin of deviating from justice. Be just: this is closest to being God-conscious. And remain conscious of God: verily, God is aware of all that you do. – al-Qur’ān, 5:8
The verses instruct that neither too much love nor hate should ever become an impediment to standing for justice. Since bystanders are usually law-abiding, their loyalty even to oppressive state and power would be an obvious inhibitor, or more obviously loyalties to family and the need to maintain normality even in the face of gross injustice. In 1930s and 1940s Germany during the Nazi rule it was the three Ks, Kinder, Kirche and Küche (children, church and kitchen) that the average home saw as their leading priorities. Since these passive bystanders silently accept the status quo, their tractability allows perpetrators to continue. An essential trait of the bystander is the need to conform, to fit in. Some bystanders collaborate with the perpetrators. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, some Catholic nuns were sentenced to dozens of years in prison for helping militiamen kill hundreds of Tutsi hiding in a hospital. Infamously, Theophister Mukakibibi was accused of selecting Tutsi and throwing them out of the hospital for the militia to kill, including pregnant mothers. The ones who were initially bystanders turned into killers.
But loyalties to power structures include micro ones, existent on school turfs, in classrooms, involving children. School bullies thrive on bystanders. Oftentimes it is the bystanders who instigate the bullying by prodding the bully, they encourage bullying by laughing and cheering, and some initially passive spectators also join in once the bullying has begun. The criminals described in Sūrah al-Burūj sat around the fire, looking on. Since the verse allows for the possibility that there were two sets of people, that the bystanders may not have been the perpetrators but share in the guilt nevertheless, then looking on and being indifferent to another’s suffering is sharing in much of the blame. Though this would not include those who, for whatever reason, were incapacitated and could not help, in which circumstances disallowed the affording of practical assistance, we are reminded that in some of the worst situations one can find ways to provide comfort to the distressed and suffering. The Prophet (sallalahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) passed by ‘Ammār ibn Yāsir (raḍiAllāhu ‘anhu) during the latter’s torture in Makkah, and passing his hand over Ammar’s head, instructed him to preserve, encouraging him with hope of paradise on account of his suffering. Sometimes small acts go a very long way in times of intense difficulty. Some bystanders could directly intervene by discouraging the perpetrator, by defending the victim or by redirecting the situation away from the suffering. Others might call on the more able to assist.
‘Fear not your enemies for they can only kill you. Fear not your friends, for they can only betray you. Fear only the indifferent, who permit the killers and betrayers to walk safely on the earth.’ Edward Yashinsky