There is folklore that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on being challenged by his opponents split the moon with a gesture as a sign of his truthfulness. Verse 54:1 in Quran is used to validate the event by the proponents of the physical miracle – The hour drew near and the moon was split apart.1 In support of this claim Hadiths are quoted as well, some of which are attributed to Ibn-Abbas and Anas. The former was not even born at that time and by some accounts the latter was only four years old. It is interesting to note that we do not find anyone of significance in history that was moonstruck to convert to Islam by witnessing the awesome event, which in itself is an obvious negation of placing any value to physical splitting of the moon. If Hadiths are extrapolated in a literal sense, then it could possibly mean the incidental phenomenon of a partial moon eclipse in which, there is a transient splitting of the moon into lighted and dark parts for the duration of the eclipse, or another natural event for example an asteroid impacting the lunar surface and the resultant flash witnessed on the earth. It does not befit prophets to toy with the eclipse of the moon, rather such natural phenomenona are exploited by the likes of Christopher Columbus who fooled the natives of Jamaica for a secondary gain.1a
Can the moon be physically split and then rejoined later to its full whole, even for a so called miracle? At any time, if and when the moon is physically split, it will be a globally witnessed event. Why is there not an independent record of this mind shattering event in history from different regions of the world? Was there a separate moon for Makkah that split and another one for the rest of the world which remained intact? Countless questions could be raised for a physically splitting moon. Any such conjecture is rubbished by Quran when it refers to the stability and preset stages of the moon, all of which result passively from varying degree earth shadow falling on it:
36:39. And (think over the phase of) the moon, We have determined its various mansions, so that (after traversing these mansions) it returns (to the stage when it appears) like an old dry twig of a palm-tree.2
In the next corresponding verse Quran further negates even a ‘miraculous’ suggestion which disturbs the laws of nature, at least so far as the sun, moon and earth are concerned, unless it could be established that moon can naturally split and then rejoined:
36:40. It is not given to the sun to attain to (the purpose ordained for) the moon, nor is it given to the night to outstrip the day. All of these (luminaries) go on floating smoothly in an orbit (of their own).3
If by any chance, there is shifting of any of these celestial bodies from their ordained course and behavior as outlined in verses 36:39-40, then for sure it might be point of no return. We would have reached the end of times, and it would be pointless to carry this discussion any further of whether moon was split by the Prophet:
75:6-11. He [- the skeptic] asks (with contempt and doubt), `When shall the Day of Resurrection come to be?' (It shall be the day) when the sight (of a person) is confused (and he is confounded for being unable to find the right course). And the moon will eclipse. And the sun and the moon will be brought together. The human being shall say on that day, `Whither to flee?' To nowhere at all, there is no refuge.4
Moon referred to in Chapter/Surah Qamar was the national symbol of Arabia similar to the Sun for Persia. Moon symbolized the power centers in Arabia, foremost of which were the city of Makkah with the tribe of Quraish at its helm. This interpretation of the moon symbolizing the powers of Arabia is found in a Hadith about Safiyyah, the daughter of Huyyah ibn Aktab, chief of the Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir in Madina, a longtime opponent of the Prophet. Her tribe relocated from Madina to Khaybar after the Battle of Uhad. Safiyyah once dreamt that moon fell into her lap. When she narrated the dream to her father (and by some accounts to her husband), he contemptuously slapped her with scornful and quizzical interpretation that she intended to marry a king of Arabia. She was married to Kenana ibn al-Rabi, the treasurer of Khybar, who was killed during the siege of the city by Muslim army under the Prophet. After she became a war widow, she married the Prophet, the ‘King of Arabia,’ a prophecy thus fulfilled.
The context of the subject matter of verse 54:1 (Chapter: Qamar – Moon) is essentially a continuation of the topic in the last verses of the preceding Chapter: Najm – Star, which are quoted below:
53:56. This (Prophet) is a Warner (towards all the peoples of the worlds) from among the (series of) Warners (to one particular people) of old.
53:57. (The Hour of punishment) that was (promised) to come has drawn nigh.
53:58. None can avert this (doom) besides Allâh.
53:59. Do you then wonder at this announcement (and yet pay no heed to it),
53:60. (For on hearing the mention of the Hour of punishment) you laugh rather than weep.
53:61. And you remain proudly heedless and haughty.
53:62. You should better prostrate yourselves before Allâh and worship (Him).5
These verses draw attention to one of the functions of the prophet which is to warn people of the natural consequences of their moral depravity. Essentially, prophets by their very definition of making prophecies, also forewarn of a calamity. To prevent the disaster, the prophets educate and reform their audience to shore up their social and moral defenses with virtue and morality to avert the doom, just as a meteorologist forewarns with the data gathered from the realm of physical science and predicts the enormity and destruction of an impending storm. The said verses in context of pagan Makkans was a forewarning of an impending dissipation of their power against the apparent hapless Muslim who were suffering among their midst from incessant oppression at their hands. Quran forecast the fall of Makkans:
13:31. Had there been a Qur’ân whereby mountains could be moved, or whereby the earth could be torn asunder, or whereby the dead could be made to speak (it is this very Qur’ân indeed). Behold! The commandment and all power belongs to Allâh. Have not those who believe realized yet that if Allâh had (enforced) His will He would have indeed guided all humankind. And as for those who disbelieve, one calamity or the other will continue to befall them owing to their (evil) activities till you come to alight in their neighborhood, until the promise of Allâh (about the conquest of Makkah) comes to pass. Verily, Allâh will not fail (this) promise (of His).6
The prophecy in the verses of Surah Najm is furthered concretely in the subsequent Surah Qamar by specifically mentioning the destruction of the power of Makkan government, whose banner bore a full moon on it. Additionally, there is also an implicit reference to splitting of Makkan society, the flag bearers of the moon, which we saw in migration of Muslims from their midst to Madina:
54:1. The Hour (of doom of the enemies of the Prophet) has drawn nigh and (to indicate it) the moon is rent asunder.
54:2. Yet, whenever these (disbelievers) see a sign they turn away (paying it no heed) and say, `(It is) an oft-repeated and tremendous illusion.'
54:3. They have cried lies (even to this sign) and have followed their low desires. Yet every decree (of God) shall certainly come to pass.
54:4. And certainly there has already come to them the important accounts (concerning the fate of the ancients) in which there is provision of abstaining (from obstinately following the wrong course).
54:5. (And wherein is) profound and perfect wisdom but the warnings were of no avail (to them).7
In the same chapter 54 there are passages in verses 9 through 42 reminding the destruction of nations before who were similarly in moral abyss as Makkans and who did not reform despite being sent prophets as Warners e.g. Noah and his tribe – the flood, Hud and nation of Ad – furious winds and sand storms, Salih and his tribe – earthquake, Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah – earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, Moses and Pharaoh and his people – drowning. With these examples Quran then challenges the Makkans in the same chapter for their false sense of security:
54:43. Are those of you who are disbelievers better than these? Or have you been promised amnesty (from punishment) in the (previous) Scriptures.
54:44. Or do (Makkan disbelievers) say, `We are a united force, capable of defending one another (against any calamity)? 8
Quran then goes on to foretell a sequence of events that history bears witness happened so in the battles of Badr, Uhad to certain extent, and finally the Battle of Trench:
54:45. Soon that united force shall surely be routed. They will turn (their) backs (and flee before the Muslims).
54:46. The (promised) Hour (of their complete discomfiture) is their appointed time. The fact is that the Hour will be grievously calamitous and most bitter.
54:47. Surely, the guilty are (involved) in clear error and (suffering from) insanity.
54:48. On that day they shall be dragged on their faces into the fire (of the battle, it will be said to them), `Suffer the smite of fire.'
54:49. Verily, all things have We created in correct proportion and measure.
54:50. Our command is (at once carried out by) only one (word) as quickly as the twinkling of an eye.
54:51. We have surely destroyed (gangs of) people like you (O disbelievers! before). But is there anyone who would take heed? 9
The final prophecy of this chapter in verse 54:51 fully materialized when Makkah was overcome by Muslims within eight years of their exile to Madina. The defeated citizens of the former were then summoned to the Holy Kaaba by the Prophet and rest is history when he forgave them all:
54:6. Therefore turn away from them, (and await) the day when the summoner will summon them to a most disagreeable thing,
54:7. While (with the sense of remorse) their eyes will be downcast, they will come forth from (their) graves as though they were (swarms of) locusts being scattered about,
54:8. Rushing headlong towards the summoner. The disbelievers will say, `This is a hard day.'10
For sure, the conquest of Makkah was a hard day for the natives, their pitiable state was like locusts scattered about, their eyes were downcast when they were summoned to the Holy Kabah by the Prophet, a most disagreeable thing that they could not have imagined, and their power symbolized by “Moon” on their banner/flag had been totally rent asunder by their victims of persecution and attacks of the previous twenty-one years.
It was this return to Makkah that was promised elsewhere in Quran as well to the Prophet and his companions:
28:85. (Prophet!) He who has made (the teaching of) the Qur'ân binding on you shall most surely bring you back to your ordained place of return, (the place of Pilgrimage – Makkah). Say, `My Lord knows him best who has brought guidance as well as those who are steeped in clear error.'11
With the above discussion in mind when we reread verse – Yet, whenever these (disbelievers) see a sign they turn away (paying it no heed) and say, `(It is) an oft-repeated and tremendous illusion' (54:2) 12 – it comes to fore that Quran is addressing the future generations after the time of the Prophet as well, who in hindsight are witness to sign of splitting of the ‘moon,’ the destruction of the mighty opponents of the Prophet and Islam.
The symbolism in Quran is according to common usage.13 For example, similar to moon, it uses the term ‘hands’ in reference to power of Abd al-Uzza, also known as Abu Lahab (a title given to him meaning – ‘father of the flame’, for both his reddish face and his fiery temper). Abu Lahab was the uncle and incorrigible enemy of the Islam. He wielded power because of his wealth and his priestly status from his association with the Kaaba. He too was prophesized to be destroyed in Chaper/Surah Masad – LET the two hands of Abû Lahab (the Prophet's uncle, one of his most inveterate opponents and other fiery tempered enemies of Islam) perish, and let he himself (also) perish! His wealth and what he has accomplished shall avail him naught. He shall soon enter a Fire full of leaping flames (to burn others of his kind as well)…(111:1-3.).14 He did not participate in the battle of Badr and literally perished a week later in Makkah from a contagion in a helpless state.
It is interesting to note that the destruction of moon and hands referred to in Chapters/Surahs Qamar and Masad are in the past-tense i.e. both moon15 and hands have been destroyed. Nooruddin interprets the usage of past-tense in his exegesis. The past-tense implies that the decisions of the destruction of Makkan powers had already been taken by Allah, hence the use of past-tense, whereas, the manifestation of prophecies was only a matter of time before they unfolded in history, repeatedly, after revelation of these verses.
In summary, Surah Qamar and Surah Masad are interrelated on a spectrum in the sense that former refers to the doom of organizational opposition against Islam and the latter refers to individual opposition undermining Islam. Both chapters speak in the past tense, former about the symbol moon – the organizations. The latter refers to symbol of hands – the power of the individuals. The doom of both is predestined. History bears witness to the truth of this predetermination, irrespective of whether Muslim societies were overwhelmed and ruled by others, message of Quran and Islam always prevailed. Yet, some of us are still moon struck with conjectures while history is replete with moon splits.
1a "March 1504 lunar eclipse": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_1504_lunar_eclipse