Shaykh Jamir Meah discusses the parable of the Hamlet in Ruins – a profound, existential parable in the Qur’an on death and resurrection.
One of the most striking parables in the Qur’an is what is sometimes referred to as the Hamlet in Ruins. This simple yet profound parable touches upon the essential theological and existential questions that man, in every place and time, necessarily reflects upon.
The parable is found in Sura al Baqara 2:259:
Or (take) the similitude of one who passed by a hamlet, all in ruins. He wondered, ‘How could Allah bring this back to life after its destruction?’ So Allah caused him to die for a hundred years then brought him back to life. Allah asked, ‘How long have you remained [in this state]?’ He replied, ‘Perhaps a day or part of a day.’ Allah said, ‘No! You have remained here for a hundred years! Just look at your food and drink — they have not spoiled. [But now] look at [the remains of] your donkey! And [so] We will make you a sign for the people. And look at the bones [of the donkey], how We bring them together then clothe them with flesh!’ When this was made clear to him, he declared, ‘[Now] I know that Allah is Able to do all things.’
Believer or skeptic, man is never more certain of anything more than the fact that he will one day die, and for man, earthly life and demise are only understood within the framework of time.
Time is a created concept only understood by change, such as change in motion. Because all creation is subject to change, the passing of time reveals the true limited nature of all temporal creation, whose state is in constant fluctuation, waxing and waning, blossoming and withering, living and dying.
Just as the cycles of all things in the created universe are constrained by time and change, all created things are limited in nature and ability.
This is in complete contrast to the Eternal Being, who is free from the notion of time and space, change and limitations. He is the Possessor of absolute perfection, whose Knowledge and Omnipotence are boundless, incomparable, and inconceivable.
Such was the firm belief of the pre-Islamic monotheist (Hanif), Quss bin Sa’idah, when he addressed the people at the fair at Ukadh,
Whoever lives dies,
Whoever dies perishes,
And whatever is bound to happen, will happen …
Everything is mortal,
Immortality lies only with the Almighty,
Who is One, without partners, without a like …
There is many a passage to enter the river of death,
But alas, no way out!
– Al Bayhaqi, Dala’il al Nubuwwa
The hamlet in the parable is said to be Jerusalem, which was laid siege to in 589 BC and raised to the ground by the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar. The passerby on his donkey, is said by some exegesis, to be Uzayr, one of the righteous slaves of Allah, associated with the biblical Ezra.
Looking at the absolute destruction of what was once a populated and thriving town, Uzayr ponders, “How will Allah bring this town back to life after such utter ruin and annihilation?”
Little did the passerby expect that the answer to his innocent question would come in extraordinary fashion, that would become a parable for all mankind (“We will make you a sign for the people”), for God caused the man to die for a hundred years!
God then spoke to Uzayr through the intermediary of an angel, who asks him, “How long did you stay in that [death] state?” Uzayr replied, “A day,” and then he looked around and noticed that the sun was still out and had not set, so he added assumingly, “Or part of a day.” It was then made known to him that, “No, rather you remained in such a state for a hundred years!”
Now, if you and I woke up from what we thought was a short nap at noon, and our spouse, husband, or child, walked in and we asked them “What time is it?,” and they told us that it was Maghrib time, we’d get a shock! Assuming we don’t have a clock in the room, what would be the first thing we would do to ascertain if what they are saying is really true, or whether an impish trick was being played on us? We would look around.
The reason why our first reaction would be to look around is to observe any changes that may have taken place since we were last awake (or in Uzayr’s case, since he was last alive).
If we find that the things around us are roughly the same, or slightly changed as we would have expected them to be in a short passage of time, then we confidently assume that not much time has passed. So if we were to see the sun still high in the sky and the sky bright blue, and hear the normal sounds of movement in the street etc. we would assume that very little time had passed and we were only asleep for a short time. This is what Uzayr presumed when he looked at the sun.
The angel then turns his attention to his food, “Look at your food and your drink — they have not spoiled.” Uzayr turns to his food, which he had had with him on his prior travel, which is said to have been grapes, figs, and juice, and he notices they too are unchanged and fresh, confirming his initial assumption that only a short amount of time must have passed.
But then he is told, “Look at your donkey.” Uzayr turns to where his donkey once stood, but unlike his food and his own self, the donkey was nothing but old bones. The 100 earthly years had passed on the donkey as normal.
At this juncture, a most wondrous miracle takes place; “And look at the bones” says the angel, “How We raise them and then We cover them with flesh.” Before Uzayr’s very eyes, the decayed bones of the beast are gathered together and assembled in perfect order, then the skeletal frame is connected and covered with cartilage, tendons, and flesh, organs developed, nerve pathways formed, the raw body clothed with skin, and then hair is grown, the heart pumps, the blood flows, the eyes move, and thus life is bought back to it, just as it was before death!
The closest you and I would get to observing such a miracle is through CGI animation on a computer screen. One can only imagine the sight of this taking place in real life, before one’s very own eyes.
1. To Give Life and Cause Death Belongs to Allah Alone
The first lesson to take away from the parable is that the power to give and take life, in its true sense, is in Allah’s hands alone.
This is made clearer by the related verses preceding the parable, which relates the dispute between Sayyidna Ibrahim, peace be upon him, and, according to most Qur’anic exegesis, Nimrod, the Babylonian King.
Contesting the rightful claim to Lordship, Sayyidna Ibrahim says to Nimrod, “My Lord is the One Who has power to give life and cause death.”
According to some commentators, it is said that Nimrod’s response to this was to order two men be bought forth. He then ordered the execution of one of the men and spared the life of the other, and then fallaciously asserted, “I too have the power to give life and cause death,” knowing full well the meaning that Sayyidna Ibrahim had meant by giving life and causing death.
Seeing Nimrod’s folly and rebelliousness, Sayyidna Ibrahim throws down the gauntlet, with a marvelous challenge to silence the king once and for all, “Allah causes the sun to rise from the east. So make it rise from the west.”
There was no response this time from the king, for the Quran tells us, “The disbeliever was dumbstruck.” One can only imagine the embarrassing predicament Nimrod was in at this point, especially in front of his entire court.
Whether it is faith in deities besides Allah, belief in our own intellect and power, faith in science, in nature; none of these possess the power to give life and cause death in its true meaning, in the same way that none of these things have any power over the government of the universe.
2. Believe in the Resurrection
The narrative of Sayyidna Ibrahim and Nimrod establishes that only Allah Most High has the power to give life and cause death. This is then followed by our parable, which takes this understanding and builds up on it, introducing the concept of the Resurrection; giving life again after death.
The resurrection is a central tenant of Islam, as it is in all Abrahamic religions. The idea of a resurrection is a mighty “leap of faith” for those who claim to be atheists, given that they have trouble believing God gives life once, let alone twice!
Naturalists, who believe that only natural laws govern the universe, and the majority of philosophers of both East and West, who maintain that everything in existence is built on a cause and effect relationship, necessarily deny the concept of a Resurrection.
Such theories hold that time is infinite and forever moves on, never to be interrupted. Since resurrection is bringing to life that which is dead and decomposed, this is impossible, for what natural force or law of nature brings rotten remains to life? Or what cause would bring the effect of decaying bones gathering, assembling, bodies forming, and breathing back into existence?
These theories are in direct contradiction to the creed of the believer, who believes not in the power of nature, nor cause and effect, but in the Omnipotent Power of the Sovereign Creator, who wills whatever He wishes, and does whatever He wills.
He is the Architect of the laws of nature and the causal relationships in His creation. Should He so wish, He could turn these laws and relationships on their heads, or do away with them all together, a fact which will be made terrifyingly clear to those who live to see it, by one of the greatest apocalyptic signs; the rising of the sun from the West (which if we recall, is the very challenge Sayyidna Ibrahim presented to Nimrod).
Uzayr was of course not a disbeliever or skeptic, far from it, he was among the most righteous. However, the utter obliteration of the town he saw caused him to wonder how revivification was possible. Through the event, God made Uzayr “a sign for the people” – a reminder of the coming Resurrection and that Allah Most High is capable of all things.
On a subtler note, one may view the Resurrection as a symbol of hope. Terrifying as the Resurrection will be, it is also the Day when true justice will be served. For those who suffered, for those who were oppressed, for those whose earthly life was full of sadness and forbearance, the Resurrection marks the beginning of one’s real life which after the initial upheaval of the Day, admits no grievance nor sorrow, only sheer comfort and happiness for those who were faithful and patient.
Time and space began with the beginning of the universe, as is also attested to by modern physics and cosmology. Time does not apply to Allah Most High, the Creator of the cosmos.
We mentioned that time is a created concept only understood through change. The passing of time affects things only according to God’s Will and He is able to do as He pleases.
Change does not occur due to nature, habit, nor cause and effect. This is pointed out in the parable, for God showed Uzayr that while he, and his food, were preserved after 100 years passed, his donkey had perished with the passing of time. For that which never changes, time cannot be understood, while time is only understood through that which changes.
Ibn Kathir mentions that one of the ways that Allah made Uzayr a sign, was that when Uzayr returned to his people, he was younger than his children!
Just as Uzayr reckoned he was dead for a day or part of a day, on the Day of Judgement, mankind will have only a vague recollection of time or space. People will be asked on the Day of Rising, ‘How many years did you remain on earth?’ They will reply, “We remained [only] a day or part of a day.” (Sura al Mulk 23:114-115)
4. Power and Ability
Despite modern scientific and technological advances, we should not forget that ancient civilizations, particularly Babylonian, were very advanced in the sciences and arts, and the mysteries of life baffled scientists then, as it is does scientists now. However, religion has always provided definitive answers to these mysteries and is always accessible for those who sincerely seek the truth.
Man holds powers, rank, and ability and these are relative only among creation. While he may have advanced a great deal when compared to his basic roots, man must necessarily acknowledge that his intellect, power, abilities, and resources, are nothing compared to the limitless Power and Ability of his Creator. In fact, our powers and abilities are only through Allah, so, therefore, to take pride in them is folly, and to use them to transgress the limits of Allah is both ingratitude and rebelliousness.
But for those who have faith, who seek to rise beyond the limits of the finite, who ponder upon the wonderful and magnificent signs of God in themselves and all around them, surely they will respond with exactly the same conclusion of Uzayr, “[Now] I know that Allah is Able to do all things.”