بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
“by the stars when they set” 
There are three opinions regarding this verse, the first is that Allah swore by the stars when they set like the sun on the horizon, the second is that Allah swore by the constellation Pleiades (a seven star cluster) when it sets like the sun, and the third is that Allah swors by the Qur’an when Gabriel takes it down to Muhammad in instalments (nujuman), because the word star in arabic can also mean instalments or something given in parts so the verse would then read ““by the instalments of the Quran”.
Once we consider why Allah is taking this oath, mentioned in the next verses, it becomes clear Allah is referring to both the stars when they set and the Quran coming down in instalments. Even if the Pleiades is meant because Allah uses the general name of stars instead, the constellation in its role to guide at night would represent all stars because Allah mentions the star sirius by name later in this surah rather then generally. In the verse Allah refers to the verses of the Quran being given to the prophet (saws) with the descriptive imagery of the stars as they are setting like the sun, He is tying the two pictures together, had Allah wanted He could have stated the Quran being sent down in more literal and clear terms but chose this specific phrasing instead.
“Ibn ‘Abbas said regarding the interpretation of Allah’s saying (By the Star when it setteth): ‘(By the Najm when it setteth) He says: Allah swears by the Qur’an when Gabriel takes it down to Muhammad in instalments (nujuman): one, two, three or four verses at a time. There was a 20 years interval between the first and last verses. When this verse was revealed, ‘Utbah Ibn Abi Lahab heard that the Prophet (pbuh) swore by the revelation of the Qur’an in instalment and so he said: “Tell Muhammad that I disbelieve in the instalments of the Qur’an”. When the Prophet (pbuh) was informed of this, he prayed: “O Allah! Set on him one of Your wild beasts”. Later, Allah set on him a lion near Harran that snatched him from among his friends and took him to a place nearby. It tore him apart from head to foot but did not eat him because of his impurity, just as the Prophet (pbuh) had prayed against him.” (Tanwir al Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas, 53:1)
It may seem clear from the hadith the verse is referring to only the Quran yet of 47 translations of the Quran only two refer to the Quran in instalments, the rest mention the stars, which is the opinion of the mufasireen, the commentators of the Quran.
Allah continues, “Your comrade erreth not, nor is deceived; Nor doth he speak of (his own) desire. It is naught save an inspiration that is inspired, Which one of mighty powers hath taught him” (53:2-5)
Allah takes an oath by the setting of the stars that the prophet (saws) did not make a mistake and wasn’t deceived by what he was receiving, so the topic here is inspiration and right judgment, Allah then stresses this subject with the next verse by saying the prophet doesn’t even speak from his own desire and emphasis it again by literally saying it is inspiration that is inspired in him by the Angel Gabriel.
So then how does this answer the question of why Allah took an oath by the setting of the stars, and the Quran coming down in instalments. To understand all this we have to know how everything is connected. We will find the answer to these questions in understanding how man is inspired through his physiology, how he is able to receive knowledge from the ghayb of the universe and comprehend it because the prophet (saws) was being challenged on this very thing.
One science in Islam explains what the stars have to do with inspiration, mans physiology and not speaking from our own desire and that is the science of the Lataif al sita (the six subtitles of the body), this is discussed in detail in Issue #5 of the Islamic journal. The body isn’t just the heart and brain there is an entire wiring network running through the body regulating every organ, and it is from this network that, what in the old world was termed mans spiritual side is created. Lataif means subtleties and like acupuncture points which use the nervous system, they refer to the subtle parts of mans body like the nervous system, the spiritual heart, soul and subatomic matter in us, every part of us connected to the ghayb of the universe.
Mans nervous system is the wiring of the body, it uses electrical impulses to work and electricity is one half of the electro-magnetic force that governs all space and ghayb, the science of the Lataif in Islam explains how man’s body receives inspiration.
To sum up the matter man isn’t just a physical being he has the entire spectrum of matter in him from solid matter to liquids to gasses to subatomic particles all working together to keep him alive, Allah stresses this point in the Quran “He said: O Iblis! What hindereth thee from falling prostrate before that which I have created with both My hands? Art thou too proud or art thou of the high exalted?” (38:75). Imam ibn Arabi explained the Jinn were created from a limited spectrum of matter subatomic particles only (a pure fire), or one hand as Allah was stressing the superiority of mans creation to Iblis by contrast to him, while Adam was created with the complete spectrum which is why Allah emphasised two hands, it means a full and complete creation.
It is through the subatomic part of our body that the stars become relevant, in Surah al Rahman (55) Allah mentions the paths in space that the stars take and the laws of physics they obey in relation to teaching the Quran to man, how man was created, and how the balance He placed in the Universe is connected with both the balance He placed on earth and within man.
“(Allah) Most Gracious! (1) It is He Who has taught the Qur’an. (2) created man: (3) and taught him speech (and Intelligence) (4) The sun and the moon follow (defined) courses (in space); (5) And the Stars and the trees are in obedience (to His laws). (6) And the Firmament (space) He has (formed and) raised high, and set up its balance, (7) In order that ye may not transgress (due) balance (on earth). (8) So establish (on earth) measure with justice and fall not short in the balance. (55:1-9, we have written a tafsir to this on our website).
Regarding the Lataif of Islam, the scholars after studying these subjects along with mans physiology said man has specific areas in the body that are sensitive to what is occurring in the subatomic part of our universe, Allah affirms this clearly in surah al shams (91) in which He mentions the cycles of day and night and how they are used to inspire man. Allah placed man on earth and subjected to him to various cycles, not just day and night but seasonal and solar as well, all of which are times of different solar activity, increased or decreased, that everybody experiences shaping their lives and their psychology, the stars and their changing position in the sky are part of our nightly cycle.
The Lataif in the body receive energy from solar activity as Allah states in surah al shams (91), so they follow the cycles on earth and shape us. When the sun goes down night isn’t a time of complete darkness, man has the moon and stars to affect him, it may be tempting to think that the moon and stars are not as bright as the sun so then how can they influence man, but we should look at this like a man in the middle of a desert starved of everything except a small source of water, He becomes sensitive to even a single drop as if it was the most precious thing on earth. As the Lataif of Islam teach, at night the most sensitive part of our physiology and heart connects with the most distant sources of inspiration like the stars, while the least sensitive part of us, the Lataif points most active during the day take a break, essentially those points can’t sense that deep into ghayb or the quantum part of the universe to rely on star light.
Allah begins the surah by taking an oath by the setting of the stars, the significance in mentioning their setting rather than just the stars is that they are no longer in the night sky, it is an allusion to the prophets capacity to penetrate into the deepest depths of ghayb and receive guidance when the night is even darker, a step above every other human, there isn’t even a drop of water (star light) to receive, in this way by Allah alluding to the instalments of the Quran through the setting of the stars, He is saying the prophet (saws) is capable of receiving revelation in even the most extreme conditions when there is no light.
The absence of the stars is then sworn by that the prophet (saws) isn’t mistaken or deceived. Allah could have sworn by the moon or the sun but He swore by the deepest things in space that influence man because this depth is relevant to this verse, “Nor doth he speak of (his own) desire” a person can’t achieve this unless he has purified his heart to the deepest parts of his self, and these are his most subtle Lataif points, to receive revelation they must be connected to Allah with absolute clarity.
So the reason why Allah chose the stars in his oath is the depth of the stars in space, it’s a reference to the depth of the prophets heart and it’s ability to receive inspiration with clarity because “he does not speak of (his own) desire”, had their been any desire He (saws) would not be able to physiologically receive revelation.
The reason for mentioning this depth to both space and the self becomes clear from the context of the next verses Allah mentions, it is essentially a reference to the deepest parts of subatomic space, a topic Allah is building towards in the surah because it is one of the prophets (saws) greatest achievements.
Allah continues, “Which one of mighty powers hath taught him (Gabriel), One vigorous; and he grew clear to view (allowed the prophet to see him in his true form). When he (the prophet) was on the uppermost horizon (in space on his night journey, this refers to the deepest parts of ghayb, or quantum space). Then he (Allah) drew nigh and came down (removed the veils), Till he was (distant) two bows’ length or even nearer, And He (Allah) revealed unto His slave that which He revealed. The heart lied not (in seeing) what it saw.” (53:6-11)
After mentioning the prophet (saws) received revelation perfectly, He then defends the prophet (saws) by saying the one in charge of revelation, Gabriel, is mighty in power allowing the prophet to see him in his true form which no other prophet was shown. Allah then mentions the extent to which the prophet’s (saws) heart was able to penetrate into the unseen world to receive inspiration by mentioning the night journey (Isra wal Miraj) He was taken on, and how close the prophet (saws) came to Allah himself.
Anas bin Malik (ra) said: The Irresistible, the Lord of Honor and Majesty approached and came closer till He was about two bow lengths or (even) nearer (Sahih Bukhari Hadith # 7518, Sahih Muslim Hadith # 162)…and It is narrated by Abu Salama from Ibn Abbas (ra) that “He approached” refers to Allah coming near, this is adopted by Maqatil (rah) who said: Allah came near to Muhammad (Peace be upon him) on the night of Isra And was at a distance of but two bow-lengths or (even) nearer. Ibn Abbas also said it means that it was Muhammad (Peace be upon him) who went near Allah (physically).
There are at least two ways this verse was understood, hence, saying Allah came close means Allah was the one who removed the veils between Him and creation until there was only two bow lengths between Him and the Prophet (saws), while the prophet (saws) was above the Lote Tree of furthest limit. Hence Allah coming down is an honorific for removing the veils between Him and creation and it has nothing to do with movement.
And saying the prophet (saws) came close means the prophet was the one who traveled to Allah above the Lote tree of furthest limit, it is the furthest limit of the created Universe and deepest part of quantum space because He was in ghayb at the time, since Allah prepared the place of two bows length for Him (saws) we can say He (saws) traveled to see Allah even though Allah is not bound by anything in the universe.
Abu Dharr (ra) said: I asked the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him): Did you see your Lord? The Prophet (Peace be upon him) replied: He is Nur (نُورٌ) I Saw Him ( انى أَرَاهُ) (Sahih Muslim, Hadith # 351, Hadith number from Sharh Sahih Muslim).
He is light means Allah allowed light to represent Him, it doesn’t men Allah is literal light because He created light, so the prophet (saws) saw Allah and Allah showed Him light.
Ibn Abbas (ra) said that Muhammad (saws) saw his Lord, (Ikrama) asked: Hasn’t Allah said that Eyes cannot “COMPREHEND” him, at this (Ibn Abbas) replied: Strange that you have not understood, this is when Allah shows a glimpse of his own Nur (light), so the Prophet (Peace be upon him) indeed saw Allah twice. (Tirimdh, Tafsir of Surah al-Najm, Hadith No. 3201)
Imam at-Tabarani (rah) narrates in his (Al Awsat) with a strong chain from Ibn Abbas (ra) who said that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) saw his Lord twice, the reason for this saying is that Muhammad (Peace be upon him) saw his Lord with his eyesight (possibly implying the first was with his heart and the second with his eyes, because of the surah).
Ibn Abbas (ra) narrates: Are you surprised at the friendship of Ibrahim (a.s) (with Allah), The Speech of Musa (directly with Allah) and Sight of Muhammad (of Allah with his eyes)? (Sunnan Nasai’i, Imam al-Hakim (rah) after narrating it said, this Hadith is Sahih on the criteria of Bukhari)
We see then in Allah saying “The heart lied not (in seeing) what it saw”, Allah is further establishing the extent to which the prophet is able to see into the unseen world, this is in keeping with the context of the previous verses which established the capacity of the prophet to receive revelation perfectly.
The prophet (saws) saw Allah himself, He reached the most subtle and deepest part of the heavens above the lote tree at the distance of two bows length, the lote tree is at the base of the Arsh (the throne) of Allah, were a persons subtlest lataif points in his body need to see clearly in order to perceive, and his heart did not make any mistakes in seeing the unseen. A person sees the unseen world with his heart and eyes at the same time, so mistakes are made if a persons heart wavers by being distracted and attracted to the wonders of that place, then the imagination shows a person delusions about these wonders rather than what is there.
The prophets (saws) heart did not waver and remained firm, a heart can only do that if it holds Allah dearer than everything else in Allah’s creation this was the hidden test in the prophets night journey, how far could He (saws) travel into Jannah and how close could He (saws) come to Allah.
After establishing the prophets (saws) capacity for his role as a prophet, Allah then demands of all people questioning Him “Will ye then dispute with him concerning what he seeth? (Of the unseen)” (53:12).
“In the 12th verse our Lord Almighty is challenging the whole world that “WILL YE THEN DISPUTE WITH HIM CONCERNING WHAT HE SAW”, had he been seeing Gabriel (as other opinions hold) then that would not have been a great challenge because previous Prophets like Musa Kaleem-Ullah (Peace be upon him) had the privilege to talk “DIRECTLY WITH ALLAH” and Ibrahim (alaih salam) was shown the kingdoms of Heaven which was a far superior thing than seeing Gabriel, hence from Nass (clear legal injections) of the Qur’an it now becomes established that vision of Allah was finally reserved for the Prophet Muhammad (among the prophets) as the Ahadith of Ibn Abbas (RA) and many others prove.”
Allah then again challenges people and stresses “And verily he (the prophet) saw him (Allah) yet another time, By the lote-tree of the utmost boundary (the first time was above this at a distance of two bows length), Nigh unto which is the Garden of Abode. When that which shroudeth did enshroud the lote-tree, The eye turned not aside nor yet was overbold (he did not waver, such was his character). Verily he saw one of the greater revelations of his Lord (and stayed firm).”(53:13-18)
All of this is used as proof to refute the accusation levelled against the prophet (saws) mentioned at the beginning of the Surah, about receiving false revelation, “Your comrade erreth not, nor is deceived (by what he is receiving); Nor doth he speak of (his own) desire (these are not his words). It is naught save an inspiration that is inspired”.
To sum up every thing Allah used to establish the prophets capacity to see into the unseen and receive revelation, Allah begins by taking an oath by the setting of the stars, they are no longer in the night sky which is an allusion to the prophets capacity to penetrate into the deepest depths of ghayb and receive guidance when the night is even darker.
Allah then alludes to the mechanisms of inspiration in man mentioning how straight his heart is, “Nor doth he speak of (his own) desire”, then mentions that the Angel responsible for revelation is mighty in power revealing his true form to the prophet so he could see him even clearer than any other prophet had.
Allah then mentions the prophets night Journey and seeing Allah at a distance of two bows length, a place above the lote tree of furthest limit were no one before him reached not even the Angels, mentioning the heart did not lie in what it saw at this point. Then Allah emphasises that the prophet (saws) again saw Allah at the lote tree which is the boundary of the created universe, and this was in front of the Angels who witnessed it, which is partly why it is being emphasised.
The First time He saw Allah was with his heart which is why Allah mentions the heart at a distance of two bows length, and the second time with his eyes at the lote tree of furthest limit “The eye turned not aside nor yet was overbold.”(53:17).
The distinction here is that at the limit of the Universe that any created being could reach, He saw Allah with his eyes when most others could not even see Allah with there heart, the vessel in man created to see the unseen part of our universe.