These surahs compel us to call to mind realities that we accept are true but which we almost-never include in our conscious, deliberate calculations when we decide on a course of action or when we put a value on something when we say it is good, bad, or worth this much or that much.
No human being is unaware that they were born, that for many years (before they became sure and fully conscious of themselves) they were needy and dependent on others for survival; no human being is unaware that at some time in the future, near or far, they will die. Though we know these things are real and true, we are not mindful of them. They are realities that remain mostly in the background of our consciousness. We know for a fact that our lives have a beginning and an end, but we do not treat this fact as important, we do not allow it to make any demand on how we run our lives.
Similarly, we are aware of the orderliness of the world which is always there before we came into existence, ready to be inhabited, ready to be marvelled at for its prolific variety and beauty, for its intelligibility to us and its utility for us. The earth is down here, and the sky up there; this is the sea and this the land; this is fresh water and this salt; this is day and that is night, reliably distinct from one another. The world is peopled by the living, some of whom become the dead and then we do not see them again, we see only new lives come into being. Such is the order of things that we exist in and so, we must suppose, it goes on after we are dead, just as we see it go on after the deaths we witness. So also we see that people go about their business; some do good things and are unrewarded; some do bad things and get away with it – justice is nice, but it is a sort of luxury, something to hope for wistfully, not to count on. That is the way the world is, and there is so much of it that the whole horizon of our consciousness is filled up and consumed by it. We do not reckon into our calculations that beyond this order of things, there is a greater reality, which demands of us thankfulness and worship and a steady, life-long commitment to caring service of others and the quest for true knowledge and justice. Especially in these modern times, it no longer seems as obvious as once it did that if there were not that greater reality, this world which makes up our present reality could not exist in the way that it does, nor could we be conscious of it and value it in the way that we do.
To get a clear grasp of what is at stake in these surahs, try this thought experiment:
Imagine that the fish in the sea have the power of speech. Imagine also that you have mastery of the language that the fish speak so that you can communicate fully with them. Now imagine what you might say that would convince the fish that there is, beyond the sea boundary that they do know about, a whole other order of reality, the dry reality of land with its valleys and mountains, forests and rivers, and its many populations of diverse living creatures. Now the fish too know light and dark, heat and cold, hunger and satisfaction, energy and exhaustion; they too see life and death passing through many kinds and forms – mineral, plant, animal, big and small, in innumerable shapes and colours – and some of the big fish eat up the little fish and seem to get away with it. In sum, the world of the fish is experienced by them as densely rich, varied and orderly, as useful and beautiful, as harsh and kind, as seemingly just and unjust, and so on.
As the messenger from the land-based reality, what could you say to the fish to convince them that there is a reality beyond theirs and that it lies just past the boundary of their reality? Evidently, you could do it or not do it. The task is not a worthwhile one to take on since it is in principle unachievable.
And yet, in Surat al-Takwir, we find this strong statement: this is in truth the word of an honoured messenger, mighty, established in the presence of the Lord of the Throne, one to be obeyed and trustworthy… fa-‘ayna tadhhabun? So, where are you off to?
Why indeed do we run away from words that will make us heedful of the greater reality? But first, we must ask why it is that this messenger, the angel who spoke to the Prophet salla-llahu `alayhi wa-sallam, has a worthwhile task, one that is achievable. The reason is that, alongside our consciousness that our lives have a beginning and an end in this world, we have an inborn disposition to look to that greater reality beyond this world. There is no human society whatever, no matter how primitive its technology, that has not evolved a religious culture, a way of managing this human need to anticipate and prepare for that greater reality. That is why the messenger’s task is in principle achievable. And that is part of the meaning of God’s saying: Indeed this is nothing but a reminder to the creatures, to whoever wills to walk uprightly, and you will not unless [it is the case] that God wills, the Lord of the creatures. The disposition to strive toward God is a favour from God, a grace; it can be refused and it can be withdrawn.
But if we are meant to be heedful of the greater reality, if we are disposed of for it, why do we prefer heedlessness? In heedlessness, we enjoy the illusion of a fuller experience of our will, a stronger sense of autonomy, of being free to do as we feel like doing. This is the feeling of one who has no debt to anyone; who is not dependent and has no dependents except to the extent he chooses. Living like this is to live in the short-term, to do things that please you and benefit your own children because they are your own, but to have no care for grandchildren and great-grandchildren, to have no care for anyone who lives far from you in space and time. This is obviously self-defeating and destructive, which is how contemporary humankind are treating the resources placed at their disposal – they have no care for their long-term future and are knowingly destroying it.
The verses in these two surahs, and similar verses in other surahs, are a forceful call to wake up from this illusion. They mention the most common assumptions of heedless human beings and call us to remember (because in reality we already know) that those assumptions are false. It is an instance of the Qur’an’s perfect understanding of our psychology that some of the images evoked are within human experience and some are just outside it – this conjoining of the familiar and the unfamiliar multiplies the impact of the images evoked. The sun, which is the immediate prolific source of heat and light and life in this world, will be overthrown; the stars that are fixed points for us when we try to chart the vast distances in the heavens will fall; and we know that, sometimes, indeed, mountains do move; and we know that, when a man is about to see the reward for his investment of labour and care, some sudden terrible anxiety can cause him to neglect his business – the pregnant camels will be neglected; it is also within our experience that in conditions of panic, like a forest fire, wild animals (which, from fear, normally shun each other) will, in the presence of a far greater fear, run together; the crimes against the innocent and defenceless long buried in the past will rise up to confront the criminals and demand justice; the ‘pages’ recording all that has happened will be made clear so that nothing remains concealed; the protecting covering of the sky will be torn away exposing every creature in its utter solitude and answerability; the time of absolute recompense will arrive, the Fire will be lit, the Garden will approach; every self will know what (now in the greater reality) it has to present in its defence.
What these images have in common is to invert our expectations so that what is normally kept at the back of our minds is brought to the front. This itself is not an unfamiliar experience – for example, most of the time we are not aware of the state of our own living-room, but when we are expecting to receive strangers in it, we become aware and may worry that it is not clean or tidy enough.
In Surat al-Infitar, following images that alert us to the time when the boundaries of present reality will be shattered and we will pass through to the greater reality, there is a direct mention of our debt to God: O man! what has made you heedless of your generous Lord, who created you, then gave you form and proportion? He casts you in whatever shape He wills. Here too, there is an explanation of the suhuf mentioned in Takwir – we learn of the recording angels who write down and know all that we do. There can be no error or omission in that record, nothing concealed from it, as here we conceal things from ourselves, by wilful deception or by an instinctive blocking of our memories. And this record will be presented. From other surahs we know that our own bodily organs will testify as to what they saw or enacted. There is no escape. Nor indeed would we desire escape – since it is the case that without the Day of Judgement, our need for true self-knowledge and for justice cannot be realized, this world being insufficient to provide for that – except that we are fearful of the punishment and not hopeful enough of forgiveness:
But what will teach to you what the Day of Judgement is?
Again, what will teach to you what the Day of Judgement is?
A day when no soul has any power in respect of any [other] soul; the matter that day belongs to God [entirely].