Related Ayat: 16:97, 19:85, 90:11
The Quran’s way is that it always tries to show contrast in order for us to understand the scope of Creation. To reinforce the contrasts and frame the Surah by them, Allah (SWT) takes oaths—all of which begin by “And…”; there are four things mentioned here, and all four are His creations. The night, the day, the male and the female. This affirms the conviction for which the next thing sworn by is proven. You swear by X to prove the truth about Y. Over here, Allah (SWT) swears by these things that nobody can claim to have created except for him.
First, the contrast between night and day. This contrast is not just done for the good of it—there’s a reason it’s done. The contrast of night and day are mentioned in a way that notes that they are not better than the other—night is not better than day, nor day than night. The same is true for man and woman. Rather, each has a purpose defined by God.
Just as there is a scope between night and day, there is also a diversity between the ends of all people—to either go to heaven or hell. How you live your life, all the endeavors that you’re working toward, are still ultimately geared toward Heaven or Hell.
The first type of man is the one who gives and remembers God. The truth of the ultimate Good is the “moral imperative,” according to Muhammad Asad—the absolute validity of what is moral independent of all variables specific to this life and this world. For him will be made easy toward the Ultimate Good.
This is the second type of man, a complete contrast to the first man. For him, since he believes himself independent and calls the Ultimate Good a lie—for him the path toward Hell will be made easy.
The contrast (although parallel structure) between ayats 5-7 and 8-11 indicate the different types of human existence and how God makes our inner natures lead us, whether they are good or bad, toward our ultimate Destiny. The things we do due to small inclinations end up becoming habit end up becoming character end up becoming Destiny, to paraphrase a quotation. These ayat are interesting in that they don’t refer to hardships and goodness in this life, rather they refer to it in the hereafter. As such there’s a good chance that if this life will be filled with hardship, however that hardship is the path toward Ultimate Good; likewise in the case where life is made easy through corrupt action, that ease is the pavement toward Hellfire.
The matter of wealth is also important here as the man with good character “gives” and remembers God (as opposed to himself, knowing that God is who provided him with everything he has), whereas the man with bad character is “miserly” (bakheel), and thinks that he himself is self-sufficient.
I was reading a story about a person, Maulana Muhammad Ali, who was describing in his book about his teacher who was with him in Lucknow. There was one time he went to Pakistan to visit him, and his teacher was 90 years old. He watched him and saw that he was still able to get up at tahajjud, make wudu (cold water), and praying. He is still able to maintain his routine even when he is so fragile and weak. He couldn’t believe it, so he asked him. The response he gave was ‘When I was young and strong, I was able to do all these things with ease. My body was strong, my soul was weak. I really had to convince my soul that I should get up and do it. Now however, my body is weak but my soul is strong. It’s easy to get up and do these things now because of that, however the doing part is harder because my body is weaker.’ Allah makes it easy once you train your soul to doing these harder things. There’s a long period of time that this man transformed and trained himself to being able to do these things, the physical and mental becoming spiritual.
Everybody is destined to doing something and their actions gravitate them toward their ultimate destiny, entirely of their own choice.
After describing the night, day, male and female, as well as what people strive for and the traits of the generous vs that of the miser—after all of this, God describes the ways in which he guides people. God states that for Him, this world and the next world are the same since He created both; however, for humans, this world seems more important than the next because we can’t know the next. However if we reframe our understanding so that the next life is more important, much like what the Sahabah achieved, then both this life and the next are preserved and made best. The sahaba received the proper share in this world and the akhira.
God guides who He wills and misguides who He wills. A more detailed discussion on why some are guided and some aren’t details in the verses below.
The reason why one person gives and the other person doesn’t give is based on guidance—those who seek guidance will received it, and the one who doesn’t will not. Man gets what he strives for. If someone strives for goodness, then Allah will make things easy for him to be good; and vice-versa1.
How does this relate to whether people are good or bad? Are people inherently one thing or the other—isn’t that hard to believe? Why are some people guided (into doing good) while others are not and persist in the evil? What is good and evil?
Part of it is focused around the question of this world vs the next. This world is that of tests; those who struggle and strive toward guidance in those tests are geared toward admittance into the best of the next worlds. In that sense, people aren’t inherently good or evil, they’re just living in this world. Everything that happens in this world is a test, all good and bad things—how people react to those tests, how they attempt to gain guidance or if they don’t. The struggle itself, against ourselves, against our temptations and desires and wishes (in this surah this is mostly focused on wealth and miserliness), defines “good” and “evil.” When God says that He guides who He wills, this is less about determinism and the lack of free will, but that the one who He guides is ultimately the one who seeks guidance, and only him or her. God will not guide those who do not seek guidance, those who are so infatuated with themselves that they believe themselves superior or self-sufficient. In the words of this surah, the wretched are those who deny and turn away from God.
The most reverent are those who give wealth (ie deny their temptations) in the service of God—not for any favors, only for God. And for them God promises, in time, their satisfaction.
Refer to Study Quran, page 1524-5, footnote for ayat 15-21 to read the story of the Muslim with the date palm who refused to give his palm to the Prophet for a palm in paradise, and the other man who bought the palm for an exorbitant price (40 palms), and gave it to the Prophet—who gave it to a poor man and his children. This story happened in Medinah; it’s contested whether this surah was a Medinian surah, but commentators who believe it was a Medinian surah believe the entire surah was framed around this event. ↩