In the opening line, the words are related to the verb naza`a,meaning to drag away or strip out forcibly. Other common words in Arabic derived from the same root include meanings like struggle, death struggle, the agony of death. Connected here with garqa, destruction and drowning, wa-n-nazi`ati garqa brings to mind an irresistible power carrying life to its end. But that is not explicit. The next line wa-n-nashitati nashta brings to mind a rushing release of energy, of unstoppable momentum. The third verse wa-s-sabihati sabha evokes the ordered serenity of the heavens – the celestial bodies are at rest in obedience to the Creator’s will, and so they float unresisting in their vast and complex orbits, supported and carried by the command of God. This evocation of the sheer immensity and infinitude of the power at God’s command is explanatory of the fourth and fifth verse, fa-sabiqati sabqa fa-mudabbirati amra: and so the out-strippers outstrip and they compel the affair to what God has ordained for it.
The scale here is not of the particular but of the whole – all life, all existence, is being rushed forward to the conclusion ordained for it. It cannot be deflected or delayed. Human beings have no more power over the matter than they have over the orbits of sun and moon – rather, all our existence is subject to the complex harmonies of those orbits.
Human beings are deluded by their freedom of will, the freedom to obey or disobey. That freedom is true and real. The delusion is that, precisely because freedom of will is true and real, human beings come to think too highly of their own agency. So someone will plant a seed in the ground and say “Look, I grew this.” But the entire ordered universe, and all the conditions and rules governing its existence and operation, must pre-exist that human effort of planting a seed before the human action can bear any fruit. The plant’s debt to the human effort is negligible, as compared to its debt to the Creator of everything. But humans forget; they even forget that they did not create themselves.
Some become proud of their agency and say “Look, what I have achieved! look at my fine deeds! look, how great a force for good in the world I am.” Yet, the reality is that even if the deeds are good, their full outcome will not be good. To be among those who have no cause to fear or to grieve, a person’s good deeds must come out of and be combined with belief in God and the Last Day. In other words, human beings cannot be saved by their good deeds alone, but they can, if God wills, be saved by their realization of their indebtedness to God (so that they are humble and thankful) and by their realization of their accountability before God (so that they are fearful and strive to avoid disobedience and the sins that flow from it).
If you have any doubt that mere human power intending good but not surrendering to the guidance of God, can realize good in the world, then reflect on what Western powers have achieved. Reflect on whether even the promise of leisure and autonomy (which, sadly, is what people mean nowadays by “the good life”) has been achieved. Reflect on the state of the earth and its resources. In spite of their colossal excesses of wealth, their intellectual, military and technological superiority, the Western states have not been able to secure even an easy material life for their own citizens, let alone for others outside their borders – and, for most people, there is no question of greater ease of heart and mind, or reliable improvements in fairness and justice. Rather, we see increasing stress and frustrated rage, distrust, antagonism, together with a savage self-centredness expressed in extreme concentrations of wealth and power on one side, poverty and helplessness on the other. Instead of being free, people are slaves to the tyranny of a political-economic model that is destroying the resources of the whole world, and people have no resources of will with which even to slow down, let alone stop, that destruction.
It is easy to recognize the pharaonic cast of mind in great tyrants or tyrannical systems, and the cruelty of the states and nations governed by them. But Pharaoh is, as this surah affirms, only an example, a teaching device. We are meant to learn about, and look for, that disposition in ourselves, in how we value ourselves, in how we relate to our neighbours, to our human and natural environment. A poor individual who has no power in the world may think himself safe from the disposition of Pharaoh, and say: “I am too weak and too poor to be in any danger of that.” In fact, weakness and poverty are not shields against the pharaonic disposition. The root of that disposition lies not in the abuse of power but in the failure to appreciate that whatever power we may have, great or small, it is a gift and favour from the Creator. The pharaonic attitude is to be convinced that whatever you have, you deserve better and more – the attitude is essentially thankless, therefore incapable of being content. In a weak, poor person such thanklessness may be hidden, covered up by a sullen, unspoken resentment. In the rich it is plainly visible and viciously ugly – that is why we find that already hugely wealthy individuals and nations cannot stop themselves from wanting even more. Now if a turn of events makes the poor, weak person rich and powerful, what can restrain him from the same cruel insatiability, unless it is a remembrance of his indebtedness before God and his accountability to Him?
The modern world and its disposition is, fundamentally and perhaps incurably, pharaonic. So, we are told, it is “a jungle out there”; it is kill or be killed, a battle for survival that only the fittest win. So, we are told, it is the impersonal force of competition that regulates the affair, not God. This is a lie. If there is any jungle left in this world, we do not see in it any “law of the jungle” in the sense of a restless, relentless, destructive competition with a few winners taking all. On the contrary, what we see, in reality, is a beneficent co-existence of innumerable and diverse species of animate and inanimate creatures. If all these creatures were conscious, we would be right to describe their behaviours as disciplined by mutual and reciprocated restraint and respect. It is, overall, a balanced system that favours life and its diversity. The “law of the jungle”, if there is such a thing, is not cut-throat competition, it is co-existence and co-operation; not a malevolent greed for hegemonic dominance, but a constraining of needs and appetites so that there is both living and letting live. The pharaonic individual looks at the world and sees the scarcity of resources and a struggle for each to grab as much as he can at the expense of others; the believer, if he is a believer, should know better than this. In reality, there is a super-abundance of resources in the world; there is scarcity only in the will to share and distribute them with fairness and justice.
That is why in this surah the obvious question is asked. It is obvious, but it needs asking because we are forgetful: Is the creation of man greater or the creation of the heavens and earth that comprise man’s liveable environment? If the answer is obvious, and it surely is obvious, then why is it that humans strut about like petty pharaohs, proclaiming their autonomy and mastery, the sufficiency of their powers of cunning and contrivance, as if there were no boundary to their mastery of themselves or to their capacity to manipulate nature and control events?
Self-evidently, there are boundaries. When shall we admit it? On the Day when the first trumpet sounds out, and the second follows it. On that Day hearts beat in agony and eyes are cast down. No strutting about then, for sure. But here and now, there is a need for an effort to remember indebtedness and accountability. Many are not at all ready for that, not at all disposed to the necessary humility and fear before God. Human beings can make alterations in what has been given them; also, they can destroy, but they cannot create life. So it is that they, forgetting that their lives were given them, cannot believe that after death there is another life. It makes no sense to them; it cannot make sense without the effort of belief in God and the Last Day. It is for that effort that God gave human beings freedom of will. But do we use it for that purpose? Surely it will take but a single shout and they will be awake. Awake to the reality that was always obvious, but too late then.
The opening verses of this surah are often read as referring to the winds. There is some sense to this interpretation. It is true that humans build windmills, and they do use the wind to drive sailing boats. Nevertheless, unlike earth, water and fire, the wind cannot be touched, cannot be grasped. We cannot get hold of it. So it serves as a figurative way to bring to mind the subtlety and immensity of God’s power, to which we are subject. The winds can be fertilizing and life-giving, and the winds can also be fiercely destructive – there are many examples in the Qur’an of both. In the poetry of many languages, the wind is associated with what cannot be controlled, with that which is truly free. So it serves as a figurative way to bring to mind that the out-strippers will out-strip us; we cannot outrun the winds, or outrun the arrow of time, or escape the inevitable ordained for each of us and the whole creation. Yet, bear in mind also the subtlety, the fineness, of wind and how that is combined with its power to bring (from our point of view) benefit or harm on individual occasions. The winds can be seen, figuratively, as forces greater than ourselves and utterly independent of us; a familiar, natural phenomenon which is, nevertheless, on the border between the visible and the invisible.
The surah recalls compactly the story of Pharaoh and God’s messenger, Musa, `alayhi s-salam. Consider the grounds for the self-confidence of Pharaoh: he picked up Musa as a helpless child, brought him up in his own household, his own world and culture. And the people of Musa were the slaves of Pharaoh, whose people felt free to kill off the Israelites’ menfolk and let live their womenfolk and use them as they pleased. Indeed, Pharaoh was great in the land; perhaps also, he did great things, like provide law and order even if through tyranny. Musa himself seems to feel some debt to him; for sure he is in fearful awe of Pharaoh, and God has to strengthen his resolve to face him. Now God is God of Pharaoh as well as God of Musa. There is only one God, and He is the most merciful of the merciful. So it is that the command to Musa is to go and present to Pharaoh the opportunity to mend his ways, to alter his perspective, to waken to reality. That opportunity is available to all human beings until they are in the jaws of death. It is a choice of relationship with God: between unbelief and thankfulness; between arrogance and humility; between proud rebellion and fearful obedience. But to benefit from that opportunity, the human being must have a will to grow in the grace and favour of God. We may not expect to do so without an effort to rid ourselves of the stains of unbelief, thanklessness, pride and arrogance, and an effort to live with an eye to the Day of accountability. That Day is rushing towards us, just as it was rushing towards Pharaoh. He was secure in his position in the world, convinced of his own cunning and power and his right to power, and he was wrong absolutely on every single count.
In the drowning of Pharaoh and his earthly power, there is a lesson indeed for one who fears [God and the Last Day]. After the question I mentioned earlier, Are you harder to create or is the heaven that He built?, the surah reminds us of the scale of what we have been given: the boundless canopy of the heavens, the onward thrust of time cycling through day and night, the secure and traversable, fertile earth providing for people and their livestock. The whole of this will pass and give way to the Day when we shall take full note of all that we did and all that we intended, and having done so we shall know why we have merited the Garden or the Fire. Even our own death, let alone, the ending of the world, seems very far away to us when we look from the here and now. But the surah states emphatically that, looking back from that Day, the whole life of the world will seem a very short span indeed, the twinkling of an eye. Many of us can confirm that: when we look back over our lives, we find ourselves saying “It seems like it was only yesterday that I started doing such-and-such, though in fact, twenty years have passed since then.”
They ask you about the Hour… People do still ask this question, as if it was an event in the world, like the date of an examination or a job interview. It is not. Rather, it is the event of the ending of the world – there is no “when” about it. We know only the certainty that it will be, just as we know with certainty that we will die, but we do not know exactly when. Our not-knowing is a mercy from God, so that, being uncertain how long we have, we can more strongly taste our freedom of will and so better value our time, and make better use of it to grow in humility and fear of God.