In the name of God, the Lord of Grace, the Ever Merciful
Ha. Mim. The revelation of this book is from God, the Almighty, the All-Knowing, who forgives sins, accepts repentance, is severe in retribution, and limitless in bounty. There is no deity other than Him. To Him is the ultimate return. (The Forgiving, Ghafir; 40: 1-3)
As we introduced this surah we said that it concentrates on the battle between truth and falsehood. We also mentioned that it may be divided into four parts. At the outset, the surah states that the whole universe submits to God and obeys Him. Only the unbelievers dispute God’s revelations, thus they separate themselves from the rest of the universe. Therefore, the Prophet should pay no attention to them, no matter how affluent and well-pleased they appear to be. They will inevitably face the same fate suffered by earlier communities of unbelievers. God smote them with stern punishment.
The second part begins with a reference to the fate suffered by some past communities. This serves as a prelude to the narration about certain events from Moses’ life history and specifically his encounter with Pharaoh, Haman and Korah or Qarun. These events, representing tyrants’ attitude to the message of truth, are only told in this surah. There is no reference to them anywhere else in the Qur’an.
They tell us of a believer from Pharaoh’s own household, who concealed the fact that he believed in Moses’ message. He tries first to protect Moses against Pharaoh’s attempt to kill him. He states the word of truth, putting it cautiously at first, then ultimately declaring it openly and clearly. In his argument with Pharaoh, this believer presents strong and clear evidence for the truth, warns Pharaoh and his people of the Day of Judgment, describes some images of the day in an inspirational way, and reminds them of their attitude and that of generations before them to Joseph and his message. The story is developed in such a way as to link it, eventually, to the life to come, and we see them all there, disputing among themselves as they suffer in hell. The dialogue occurs between the weak elements of society and their arrogant leaders, on the one side, and another takes place between them all and the angels in charge of hell, trying to find a way out when there is none. In the light of this last scene, the surah directs Prophet Muhammad to remain patient in adversity, to have full trust that God’s promise will come true, and to glorify and praise Him.
The third part starts with a statement that those who dispute God’s revelations without providing any sound argument in support of what they say are only motivated by a quest for greatness. Yet they are too insignificant to attain this. The surah then directs people’s hearts to reflect on the great universe God has created, which is far greater than all mankind. This reminder may perhaps make those who are arrogant better appreciate the greatness of God’s creation, rather than remaining blind to it: “The creation of the heavens and the earth is indeed greater than the creation of man, yet most people do not understand.” (Verse 57) It reminds them of the approach of the Last Hour and directs them to pray to God, for He responds to those who pray to Him.
Those who choose to remain arrogant will inevitably enter hell in complete humiliation. Here the surah portrays some of the universal signs that they ignore. We see the night portrayed as a time for rest and the day is given eyes, while the earth is shown as a resting place and the sky a canopy. In relation to themselves, the surah also reminds them to reflect on the pleasing shape and form God has given them. It directs them to submit to God with sincerity. It instructs the Prophet to distance himself from what they worship, declares God’s order to him to reject their deities, and submit to the Lord of all the worlds. It seeks to make their hearts more responsive by mentioning that God, the Creator of the universe, is the One who originated them from dust first, then from a gamete. It is He who gives life and deals with death. Again the surah makes the Prophet wonder at those who argue about God, warning them against punishment in the hereafter, and portrays a very powerful image of such punishment: “They will certainly come to know when, with chains and shackles round their necks, they will be dragged into scalding water, and then burnt into the fire of hell.” (Verses 70-72) Indeed, those whom they worshipped will disown their worship, while they themselves deny having ever worshipped anyone. Ultimately, they end up in hell, as they are told: “Enter now the gates of hell, where you shall abide. Evil indeed is the abode of the arrogant.” (Verse 67) Again, in the light of this scene, the Prophet is instructed to remain patient in adversity and to trust in the fulfillment of God’s promise, whether he remains alive to see some of what this promise involves or he is made to die before its fulfillment. The promise will come true at the time appointed for it.
The surah’s fourth and final part is closely linked with its third. As the Prophet is directed to wait patiently, he is told that God sent many messengers before him: “No messenger could bring a sign except by God’s leave.” (Verse 78) Still, there are many signs in the universe, and there are also plenty of signs that people ignore. Who, for example, made cattle subservient to man? Furthermore, the ships that carry them on the sea are a sign they see with their eyes. The fate of past communities should also serve as an admonition to them. The surah then concludes with a powerful image coupled with a strong rhythm, showing a community of unbelievers faced with God’s might. They declared their belief, but it was too late: “But accepting the faith after they had seen Our might was not going to benefit them at all. This has always been God’s way of dealing with His creatures. There and then the unbelievers will be lost.” (Verse 85) This is a fitting ending, one that depicts the fate of those who are arrogant.
– Commentary by Sayyid Qutb