By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi
This surah alerts us to the very evident reality that life in this world subsists within a beneficent arrangement that has been put in place and operates independently of human will and agency. Although this reality is obvious everywhere and at all times, human beings have a tendency to ignore it. They tend to forget that, although they are privileged in many ways, as compared to other creatures in the world, they are nevertheless dependent on that world and its arrangement.
If, for example, a man plants an apple seed and the seed grows into a tree that bears good fruit, he enjoys a feeling of agency and mastery, as if, by sheer force of his will, wisdom and labour, he had caused the apple-tree to grow. But in reality, many conditions must be in place first – to name just a few: there must be sunlight and air and water and a soil conducive to the growth of this seed, and the seed itself must exist, fully encoded with the information it needs to mature in those conditions into an apple-producing tree. In reality, the whole universe must exist first before the little act of planting the seed can have any meaning or effect in the world. The human contribution would be utterly vain and pointless if the universe did not exist first, and moreover co-operate with and assist the act of planting the seed.
The sheer smallness and weakness of human agency is powerfully evoked in this surah and contrasted against the scale and power of the beneficent arrangement and orderliness of the universe. Later in the surah, we are reminded of the seemingly insignificant beginning from which a human being comes to exist. But the opening of the surah celebrates the power and will of the Creator through the image of winds, the movements of air all around us, over which we know we have no control – even the most arrogant of the unbelievers would not deny this fact. The different functions and forces of winds are mentioned, their destructive as well as creative power, and their being signs, tokens and proofs of the Creator. They are called emissaries or messengers of the Divine Power, and the image naturally flows into the idea of conveying a reminder, and so of the guidance of the revelation itself.
Some human beings take the beneficent arrangement of the universe for granted and are aware of their dependency on it and give thanks for it. Others take it for granted and are heedless of their dependency on it and are thankless. In this life the two sorts of people are mixed together – they both live in the same world, both work under the same general conditions. However, as this surah makes clear, a day is coming hereafter, a day of separation, when the two sorts of people will be distinguished from each other and their intentions, attitudes and actions will be judged. If, in this life, we cannot always see the good and bad consequences that follow from certain attitudes, we can be confident that hereafter we will see them with a fierce and absolute clarity.
The repudiators or unbelieving sceptics reject the guidance; they insist on living as if they owed nothing to their Creator, as if they owed everything to their own wits and efforts. They live as if answerable only to themselves, and interested only in their own short-term advantage. Though they appear to get away with living in arrogant disregard of the order of the universe and the will of its Creator, in reality they do not get away it. Their life is short and when it is over they will know with a terrible certainty, that the believers and the unbelievers are not at all in the same situation. The day of separation will see them face the threat of the Fire, in a frightening image of a triple pall of smoke and massive sparks as they approach their doom. For those who acknowledged their indebtedness to God and submitted their will to His guidance, there is a promise of welcome and comfort. For the repudiators there is only the torment of the Fire and the agony of knowing too late what they could have known, since it is obvious both in their own creation and in the beneficent order of the creation all around them, that this universe has a Master, a Lord, who cherishes and nurtures it, who informs and guides it, and whose will cannot be frustrated.