This surah can be paired with the one before it. Al-Qiyamah ended with a brief account of the lowly first stages of 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 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 an 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.
What is said in this surah of the joys of paradise can be summarized in the expression ‘a royal welcome’. Among those addressed first by the Qur’an were many who travelled between settlements in the deserts of Arabia and a few who traded beyond. Many will have known scarcity of water and food, and so imagined, or heard about from the few who had seen them, the luxuries at the courts of great kings in Persia or elsewhere. The paradise of plenty and ease and beauty described here is seen in terms like and unlike what can be imagined of an earthly ‘royal welcome’.
Human beings are described at the beginning of this surah as hearing and seeing. And these words also name attributes of God. While we know for sure that the ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ of God are absolutely unlike human hearing and seeing, nevertheless these positive attributes of God must be intelligible to us – if not, how could we be affected by the knowledge that God hears our inmost thoughts, or that he is nearer to us than our neck vein, or that, to excel in our worship we should pray as if God were seeing and hearing our prayer? In the same way, the fruits of paradise will be like and unlike what we know here in this world – for if they were utterly unlike, utterly unfamiliar, how could we desire them? In fact, we cannot know how our senses, our hearts and minds, will be adapted to enjoy and appreciate the blessings of paradise. It is beyond human capacity in this life to see God, yet for those who have earned it in paradise, that capacity will be given to them.
The issue is not really as difficult as some people sometimes make it out to be. Between the languages of different peoples, an effort of translation is needed to convey thoughts and experiences. The effort is never wholly successful, but it is still very worthwhile. Similarly, even between two individuals, an effort is needed before thoughts and experiences can be exchanged; and though you cannot, so to speak, actually feel another’s pain, you can understand it well enough to sympathize. These are all instances of different domains of reference; language marks the boundaries of these domains and it is the means of crossing those boundaries. The description of paradise is an example of language used in that way; it is an aspect of God’s mercy and care for humankind that He guides them in terms suited to their capacity to understand His guidance.
After that description of paradise, there is a transition in the surah. It is marked, just as it was in Surat al-Qiyamah (verses 16–19), with a reference to the sending down of the Qur’an tanzilan. This is followed by the command to respond with sabr to what the revelation demands, to glorify God at the two ends of the day and through the night: only one who is shakir, that is mindful of the twin favours of God, creation and revelation, will desire to do this. But others are heedless. Immersed in the distractions of this passing life they forget the grievous Day that awaits them in the next, eternal life. Yet, even for the means whereby they become immersed in this passing life, they are indebted to God, their creator. Human beings could not of themselves will to choose the right; they can only do so because God has willed that. Some human beings come to feel trapped in wrong-doing and its consequences and suppose that there is no power that can help them to get out of it. The surah ends with the assurance that, if God wills, His mercy is more expansive and greater in power: He makes whom He wills to enter His mercy. And for those who, in spite of this, remain obstinately committed to their wrong-doing, God has prepared a painful torment.