When studying the Quran there’s two aspects to note:
- Immediate need for that revelation in the time of the Prophet (SAW)
- Future application of those verses.
The desire for wahi—revelation—in the Prophet was so intense such that when the the connection was lost, even for a few days (most tafsir mention the specific length after which this surah was revealed was either 12, 40, or 50 days without wahi), he felt incredible anxiety. Add to this based anxiety with the tremendous external pressure the Prophet was facing with respect to revelation from the people of Mecca, and add to that the fear that the Prophet had displeased his lord and had therefore been forsaken—in conclusion, the Prophet was under incredible stress just prior to this revelation.
The first thing God does is remove the immediate and most major concern of the Prophet (SAW): that of being forsaken. God does this by first swearing upon two of his creations, the night and the day. They are also specifically universal creations, meaning that they are true for all times and all peoples. Additionally the night and the day, beyond covering the full expanse of that subject, are simultaneously contrasting and complimentary—something that when understood in the grand plan of Allah are ideas and entities that occupy their purpose and niche beyond the understanding of people. This latter point, beyond the understanding of people, is a message to the Prophet (SAW) that the revelation coming and not coming do not have a bearing on whether the Prophet is forsaken or not, but rather part of His grand plan. Both what we understand as “good” and “bad” (ie what we like and what we don’t like) are, in the larger plan, tests from God—they are not objectively good and bad things, only to our limited perspective. In that light, the drought of revelation, a bad time for the Prophet (SAW) meant something different in the objective, or grand plan, sense. We need to begin looking beyond our perspective to the grand plan and universal sense of why things happen the way they do.
The Surah then continues with another contrast; the literal verse reads “And the last shall be better for thee than the first.” The first, this world, is seemingly of utmost importance to us now in our limited perspective, yet “the last” is what’s ultimately the most important for us. This is true for the life of the Prophet (SAW) where the beginning of his life, the first, was very different from his time as a Messenger toward the latter end of his life. Also it’s true for the different periods of Revelation itself, from during the time of Mecca at the first until the time of Medina at the end. From poverty and oppression and the worst of all things to, in Medina, the rulership, not only to the Muslims, but to all the Medinians. However it’s finally true for the case of this life versus the Hereafter, the most common interpretation of this ayah. Nobody can forecast the future, yet the Quran notes that the Last is better than the First (almost like a Quranic version of “This too shall pass” but far more optimistic). What’s even more interesting is the audience of this, quite literally, ultimately optimistic verse—those who are seeking the Quran’s guidance. Indicating the ultimate mercy of Allah (swt) this is fundamentally a prophecy upon those seeking guidance from this verse. That’s incredible.
Another aspect to this ayat: not only was this a prophecy but it was a prophecy made at a time when there was intense pressure upon the Prophet (SAW) when he was essentially fighing by himself and a small number of people against a whole tribe and the larger Arabia. So this was an amazing prophecy at a time for when what this verse was promising was impossible to comprehend. And it’s amazing how it actually worked, how the end of his life was him succeeding in all of his ventures, how ten years after his death all of Arabia was under the sway of Islam and the Prophet (SAW) and challenging the two largest empires of the time (Byzantine and Persian).
The Prophet (SAW) was born an orphan, seemingly abandoned, yet he was constantly provided shelter and protection—whether that was with his grandfather and uncle after his parents passed away or with Khadija (RA) who protected him.
The Prophet (SAW) was grasping for something to heal the wounds of his society and his people, which was why he would retreat to Cave Hira. He was a close observant of Meccan society, and he was “lost on the way” meaning he didn’t know the way to heal the condition of his community or even articulate the interconnections of all the issues he saw. When the Quran says it guided him, it means that it not only guided him in religious matters but showed him the roots of all the issues in society and how they were all interconnected. Just like the earlier ayat reference shifting frameworks to understand things better, to understand things in the light of God’s message, this ayat refers to how the Quran itself was guidance to greater understanding for the Prophet (SAW).
Before he became a Messenger, he was already elevated intellectually and morally, and this was recognized by others—why they gave him the title of Sadiq al-Ameen (the most Trustworthy). He wasn’t astray or “lost” in the sense that he was morally or religiously so—but that he didn’t understand the full picture of society.
The distinction between lost/guided and need/sufficiency is that between intellectual/moral and material. The verse could refer either to wealth or simply satisfying the needs of the Prophet to further the message of Islam.
The orphan, in a society, is the weakest and most vulnerable member of society—they require protection, support, and care to make it. And in that way since the society as a whole needs to come together to care for an orphan, the care of the orphan reflects the character of society. A society that cares for its orphans and treats them well is a sign of a good society; one that does not is a sign of a corrupt society.
Another symptom of a corrupt society is one that, once again, externalizes its own responsibilites onto its subjects and victims—to moralize the shortcomings of an individual and marginalize them from the very society that created them. This ayat is a direct response to proclamations of “personal responsibility” for those struck by poverty—do not blame them and do not push them away (marginalization), rather it is our duty as a society to understand our responsibility in creating poverty and our responsibility in solving those issues.
This verse grammatically reflects the previous two, however instead of being a negative command—to not do something—it’s a positive one, a command to do, to replace the commandments against with one for. In this sense it’s also a proactive command to not just “not wrong” the orphan and “never chide” the beggar, but also to actively speak of Allah’s blessings and fulfill the needs of those who don’t have. “Fahaddith” implies both doing and saying, to speak but speak truly and fully, to speak just before acting. That action is not a personal action but a societal, a system of governance that takes into account the weakest, most indigent, most vulnerable among them.