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Quranic Revelation: Al-Ma'arij - The Great Ascent

Surah al-Ma'arij is the 70th Chapter of the Qur'an.


The Arabs used poetry as both entertainment and propaganda, and the city of Mecca was the scene of a yearly contest for all the aspiring poets of the land.

All through the year, people would also engage in mini-poetry contests in various towns and villages. Some of these men who made their livelihood from poetry began to poke fun at the Prophet, and in time they took to outright slander and venomous hostility, much to the delight of their pagan sponsors.

The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that all truth passes through three distinct stages. First, it is ridiculed, then violently opposed and after finally its accepted as self-evident. In the life of Prophet Muhammad’s mission we see the same. This chapters theme address the first phase of ridicule and rejection in mockery.

The chapter boldly takes on the satirizing that the Prophet suffered at the hands of the chiefs and the poets of Mecca. It addresses one incident where the leaders and poets of the Quraysh cajoled the crowds into mocking the Prophet by literally running to the right and left, pretending they were entering into Paradise ridiculing the description of Paradise as revealed by God.

First 3 Verses of the Chapter in translation:

A supplicant asked for a punishment which is bound to happen.

To the rejecter of truth; of it there is no preventer.

[It is] from Allah, owner of the ways of great ascent. (70:1-3)

Background of the verses 1-3:

An-Nadr ibn Al-Harith was a famed poet of Quraysh. In the early days of Islam, the leaders of the Quraysh tribe asked him to ridicule Muhammad whenever he was preaching in the public square. When the Prophet began to speak of God and His ancient prophets, An-Nadr would follow him and speak about the heroes and kings of Persia, saying, "By God, Muhammad can't tell a better story than I, and his talk is only of old fables that he's copied, as have I."

An-Nadr's harassment became so intense that the Prophet engaged some of his followers to recite poetry back at him. An-Nadr was unfazed and continued to ridiculed the Prophet, even to the point of inciting people to do him and his followers physical harm.

Many Muslims were tortured, and a few killed partly due to an-Nadr's prodding. An-Nadr ibn al-Harith used to say by the Quranic verse,  "O Allah! if this be indeed the truth from Thee, then rain down stones on us or bring on us some painful doom!" [8:32], and so he prayed against himself and asked for chastisement. He is one mentioned here in the passage, having asked for the punishment of God in a mocking way (Asbab ul-Nuzul).

Next 2 Verses of the Chapter in translation:

The angels and the souls will ascend to Him during a Day the extent of which is fifty thousand years.

So be patient, for patience is a beautiful thing. (70:4-5)

Some Sharing:

In our hasty mentality, often we lose the sense of perspective and become impatient. This is human weakness. Our impatience can lead us to all sorts of misjudgment, reaction and what not.

As I was reading the above two lines which talks about a reality that is post-history of mankind. When the predetermined time of this cosmos is over, history of time as we know it, ends, something remarkable will happen. 

The angels and the collective souls of man, which emanated originally from God, by His command, will return back to Him for Judgment Day. This is a reality about which our mind can not fathom because there is no contrast to understand it. Its not of this current physical reality, no the current time frame that we are familiar with. 

But after speaking of this great Ascent of the souls, which itself can take thousands of years (the term fifty thousand can be metaphorical to indicate unfathomable time in our scale, Allah knows the best) - that is immediately followed by urging us, we weak human beings to be patient. 

Not only that, we are reminded that this quality of patience, in Arabic, called Sabur, is also a Divine Quality or one of the beautiful Names of God, as-Sabur - is a beautiful attribute. 

The verse can also be translated a little differently, 

So be patient with gracious, beautiful patience.

Verses 6-35 in translation:

They see the Day (of Judgment) as a far off prospect, but We, the Divine Authority, see it quite near. That day the sky will be like molten brass, and the mountains will be (tossed about) like tufts of wool.

No close ally will ask about another close ally, even if they saw each other clearly. Every criminal's wish will be to save himself from the punishment of that day, even if he had to (sacrifice) his own children, spouse, brother or nurturing relatives. He'd even sacrifice everything on earth if it could save him!

Certainly not! It will be the scorching flame (for him)- plucking out (his flesh /exterior) right down to the skull! It beckons all who turned their backs and their faces (from the truth) and who greedily gathered (wealth) and hoarded away!

Truly, human being are insatiable from the moment they're created, for they're worried when misfortune comes, yet greedy when times are good.

However, it's not the same with those who are inclined to prayer, who are diligent in their devotions and who know that there's a claim on their wealth from (the poor) who ask and the (poor) who are held back (from asking).

They accept the reality of the Day of Judgment, and they're fearful of the punishment of their Lord, (knowing) that their Lord's punishment is the opposite of contentment. They're the ones who guard their chastity, except with their spouses and those who are under their authority (and whom they've married) for (with lawful mates) they're not to be blamed.

Whoever goes beyond (those allowances) is a transgressor. Furthermore, the righteous are those who respect their trusts and agreements, who stand firm (in the truth) when they testify and who guard their prayers strictly. Those who (embody all of these qualities) are going to be among the honored one in the Garden. (70:6-35)  

illustration of ancient Kaba of Mecca

Background of Verse 36-39

While the Prophet was giving a public speech one day in the center of Mecca, a crowd of idol-worshippers, after hearing what kind of people will enter Paradise, insulted the Prophet and ran back and forth in a wild rush, acting as if they were entering Paradise. The poets laughed and had a good time of it, as well! However, as God points out, they didn't really want to enter Paradise. They were making fun of it! Some of them even boasted that if there was Paradise, they would enter it first because they were better than the Muslims. This passage was revealed in response (Asbab ul-Nuzul).

Verses 36 until End of the Chapter in translation:

What's the matter with those who suppress (their inner awareness of God), that they rush around in front of you to the right and to the left of the crowds, (mocking the idea that the believers will be directed into Paradise)? Doesn't each of those men want to enter the garden of delight? But no! We created them from lowly (compounds) and they know it!

Now I swear by the Lord of all points in the East and the West that We surely can substitute in their place better (people) than them, and We are not to be undone. So leave them to fall into more vain talk and useless play until they come upon their day, which they've been promised - the day when they'll come out of their graves all of a sudden, as if they were rushing towards some kind of finish line! Their eyes will be lowered in dejection, and humiliation will overshadow them! That's (what will happen) on the day they've been promised. (70:36-44) 

- Source: The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an in Today's English by Yahiya Emerick

To me its one of the best work of Quranic translation for English readers accompanied by the background of each Chapter and very useful footnotes. I highly recommend this book (also available on Kindle) for anyone wishing to study the Qur'an in English.

# Related:

Asbab Al-Nuzul by Al-Wahidi
* Al-Maarij
* Translation of al-Maarij in English


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Technology of the Heart: Quranic Revelation: Al-Ma'arij - The Great Ascent
Quranic Revelation: Al-Ma'arij - The Great Ascent
On the background of the 70th Chapter, Al-Ma'arij and its English Translation from Yahiya Emerick's The Meaning of the Holy Quran in Todays English book
Technology of the Heart
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