In the name of God, the Lord of Grace, the Ever Merciful We saved the Children of Israel from humiliating suffering, from Pharaoh, who was arrogant and a transgressor. We chose them knowingly above all other people. And We gave them signs in which there was a clear test. Now, these people assert: ‘We shall die but one death, and we shall not be raised to life again. Bring back our forefathers, if what you claim be true.’ Are they better than the people of Tubba and those before them, whom We destroyed because they were lost in sin? (Smoke; Al-Dukhan; 44: 30-37)
We commented earlier on the brief account the surah gives of the history of Moses and Pharaoh and the drowning of the latter after he had chased the Children of Israel to the seafront. God saved Moses and his people from Pharaoh by a special act of His grace. The surah then mentions the fact that God chose the children of Israel, knowing all about them, with both their positive and negative qualities. Yet He chose them in preference to all other people in their own time. God knew that they were, at the time, the best people to be given the trust. This is despite all that He has mentioned in the Qur’an about their deviation and slow response. Perhaps God made His choice on the basis that whilst they did not then attain the high standard of faith He required, they would nonetheless be the best under a faithful leadership that led them along the straight path of faith and insight.
“And We gave them signs in which there was a clear test.” Thus, in turn, the children of Israel were tested by means of these signs. When the test was over and their time in charge came to its end, God punished them for their deviation and evil. It was as a result of this test that God abandoned them; indeed, they were smashed by those who left them in their diaspora. They were to suffer humiliation and were warned that God will re-punish them whenever they transgress and behave with arrogance. This warning remains true as long as human life continues.
Once more the surah takes up the unbelievers’ doubts and denial of resurrection and accountability. Here, too, resurrection is linked to the fact that the structure of the universe is raised on a foundation of truth and seriousness that requires accountability and requital after the resurrection: “Now these people assert: ‘We shall die but one death, and we shall not be raised to life again. Bring back our forefathers, if what you claim be true.’ Are they better than the people of Tubba and those before them, whom We destroyed because they were lost in sin?”
The Arab idolaters used to say that people die once only and that is the end; no resurrection and no further life. They called this the first death, meaning that it precedes what they were promised of a second life after the resurrection. To them, the proof of this assertion was contained in the fact that none of their forefathers who died had ever returned; none had been resurrected. They demanded that their forefathers should be brought back to life before their eyes if the resurrection were indeed true. They thus betrayed their ignorance of the purpose of resurrection. They did not understand that it is a further stage of human life, with a definite purpose and a clear goal, which is the administration of requital for what was done in the first stage. Thus, God’s obedient servants reach their noble destination, which they have earned through acting well in their first lives, while hardened sinners arrive at the miserable and filthy end they deserve. This means that resurrection will come about after the entire first stage of life has ended, i.e. man’s time on earth has concluded. It precludes that resurrection should be the result of a human wish expressed by an individual or a community so that they can believe in it. Indeed, faith is not complete unless one believes in resurrection, which God’s messengers have confirmed, and which is apparent to anyone who reflects on the nature of life and God’s wisdom in creating it in this way. Such reflection is sufficient on its own to believe in the Day of Judgment.
Before the surah invites them to reflect on the design of the universe, it shakes their hearts strongly, reminding them of the fate suffered by the people of Tubba, in south Arabia. Tubba was the title given to the kings of Himyar, a major tribe that lived in southern Arabia. This story must have been well known to the Arabs, as the surah makes only a brief reference to it, warning them against a similarly terrible fate: “Are they better than the people of Tubba and those before them, whom We destroyed because they were lost in sin?”