The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.
This Meccan surah takes its title from a reference in verse 10 to “the Day when the sky brings forth clouds of smoke for all to see.” Scholars have interpreted this passage in two ways. It may refer to an event from the life of Muhammad, when there was a famine in Mecca that was so severe that people started seeing a smoke-filled sky as the result of eyes misty with hunger. There are accounts in the hadith literature (stories from the life of the prophet, not in the Qur’an) that interpret the smoke in this way.
More likely, however, is the other interpretation, which sees the “smoke-filled sky” as a reference to the final Day of Judgment—a theme repeated in nearly every surah. Believers are constantly told to be ready for the Day of Judgment, or the Day of Resurrection, when all people will be judged, and sent to either heaven or hell. This interpretation is supported by the fact that, later in the surah, there are specific references to the Day of Resurrection.
Being a Meccan surah, the context of this one is conflict between the fledgling community of Muhammad’s followers and the powerful Quraysh tribe, who basically controlled Mecca, and didn’t like the prophet and his followers. The surah comforts the prophet and his community with a story from sacred history—the story of the Exodus—when Moses led the oppressed Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land in Canaan. Like the Israelites, the followers of Muhammad would eventually make their own Exodus (called the Hijra) to Medina, the “city of the prophet” where they would grow into a much larger community.