Surat al-Insan/al-Dahr

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi

This surah can be paired with the one before it. Al-Qiyamah ended with a brief account of the lowly first stages of a human life, from which one can hardly imagine that there could emerge so complex a creature as a human being capable of knowing right from wrong and therefore self-accusing. Surat al-Insan begins with mention of those first stages of a human life and the forceful affirmation that in the whole of time (al-dahr) there is not any period (however small) in which a human being is to be considered unworthy of mention, i.e. of no account. To the contrary, human life is always significant, important, and heavy with consequences, which become fully apparent in the afterlife. Whereas Surat al-Qiyamah had emphasized the punishment hereafter of the unbelieving, unrepentant sinners, this surah emphasizes the rewards in paradise for those who are thankful believers and strive to please the One who created and nurtured them.

God has created human beings hearing and seeing, that is, capable of perceiving and understanding when they are shown the way between right and wrong, and capable of choosing. Man indeed has a choice: to be kafir or shakir – to deny and cover up the reality that he knows right from wrong, or to acknowledge that reality, be thankful for it and choose the right. God created him and gave him life and responsibility in order to put him to a testing trial so that he comes to know for himself his own value. Too many people think that what is given or acquired in this life is somehow a mark of approval – they think if they are well off, have high status and power in the world, it must be because they are worthy of it; also, they may look down on those whose lives are full of hardship, or they may make a show of helping them and consider themselves generous and demand gratitude and subservience from the needy. Conversely, those who are not well off may they think themselves disapproved and neglected. For sure, God does not measure the worth of his creatures by what they have been given or have acquired in this life: abundance and scarcity are alike easy for God and the same in that both are the means whereby the individual is tried and tested and proved. God judges human beings, rich or poor, male or female, only according to their striving to be thankful and to live righteously.

What awaits the unbelievers, however successful they consider themselves in this life, is unbreakable constraints and a raging fire. What awaits the thankful believers is ‘a royal welcome’, joy and ease, for all that they endured with sabr in this life, and for their serving others for the sake of God, and not for the sake of feeling superior to those in need. The virtue of sabr has two aspects closely joined together. This makes it difficult to translate with one word in English. In the passive aspect, it is patience – suffering through the trials of life; in the active aspect, it is perseverance – being steadfast through the trials of life, strong in the faith that God is merciful, wise and just. These two aspects are beautifully combined in the supplication of the Prophet Ayyub, ‘alayhi s-salam, when he addresses his Creator with words to the effect (21:83): My afflictions are most great, and You are the most merciful of the merciful. In this cry from the heart, patience and perseverance are in ideal balance: there is nothing in it of doubt or accusation of God, nothing of complaint – not even a plea to have his affliction removed. In it there is everything by way of being in need of the strength to persevere through affliction, until God wills otherwise, with his faith and human dignity intact.