Alif. Lam. Mim. These are three of the separate Arabic letters that occur at the beginning of some Qur'anic surahs. In our view, they are meant to alert the audience to the fact that such letters are the material from which the divine book given to the Prophet, i.e. the Qur'an, is made. They are familiar to the Arabs who use them to compose whatever ideas they wish to express. Yet they cannot compose anything like this divine book, because it is of no man's composition; its author is God.
Surahs that start with such separate letters always speak about the Qur'an, either immediately following these letters or later on, as is the case in the present surah. Hence, we read in its verses: Recite what has been revealed to you of the book. (Verse 45) Thus it is that We have revealed this book to you. (Verse 47) Never have you been able to read a book before this, nor have you ever been able to transcribe one with your right hand. (Verse 48) Is it not enough for them that We have revealed to you this book which is being read out to them? (Verse 51) The fact that references to the Qur'an and its inimitable style are invariably made in these surahs confirms our view concerning these separate letters.
Immediately after the opening, the surah begins speaking about faith and the hard test believers are subjected to in order to make their belief a reality. It mentions that it is through such testing that true believers are distinguished from liars: Do people think that once they say: We are believers', they will be left alone and will not be put to a test? We certainly tested those who lived before them; and so most certainly God knows those who speak the truth and most certainly He knows those who are liars. (Verses 2-3)
This is the first strong note made in the surah, given in the form of a rhetorical question about people's concept of faith. They often imagine that it is merely a word they utter: Do people think that once they say: We are believers', they will be left alone?
Belief is not a mere word we say; it is a reality that imposes duties, a trust that carries requirements and a struggle that demands patience and perseverance. It is not enough that people should claim to believe. When they make this claim they are not left alone. They are subjected to tests so as to prove their sincerity and true metal, just as gold is tested with fire so as to separate it from any cheap elements. The Arabic word used here for test derives from the root fitnah, which imparts exactly this sense of being subjected to a test with all that this implies.
Such tests to prove people's belief is a general and long established rule: We certainly tested those who lived before them; and so most certainly God knows those who speak the truth and most certainly He knows those who are liars. (Verse 3) God certainly knows what people harbor in their hearts before any test, but the test reveals, in practice, what is known to God, yet hidden from human knowledge. He thus makes people accountable for what they actually do, not for what He knows of their reality. This is, in one sense, an act of grace, while in another, it is an act of justice. At the same time, it sets an edifying example for people so that they do not hold anyone accountable for anything other than what is clearly apparent of their deeds and what such deeds entail. They should remember that they cannot know what is in another's heart; only God knows that.
Let us now discuss the general rule that God has set in operation, one whereby believers are subjected to a test so as to distinguish those who are truthful from those who lie. Faith is the trust God has placed in this world of ours. It is borne only by those who are worthy of it, have the strength to bear it and are totally devoted to it. They must prefer it to their own comfort, safety, security, and all temptation. This trust entails being in charge of the earth, leading mankind along the way God has chosen for them, implementing His word in life. Hence, this trust is both noble and heavy. It is part of God's command, and as such, it needs a certain type of person to patiently endure adversity.
As part of the test, a believer is subjected to hardship by others. Believers often realize they have no one to support or defend them and that they lack the power with which to face tyranny. This is the immediate picture our minds see when tests are mentioned, but it is certainly not the hardest type of test. There are many different types of testing, some far more trying and difficult.
There is, for example, the test presented by family and loved ones. A believer may fear that the sacrifices he is called upon to make could put his family in a perilous situation, or that he cannot protect his loved ones. On their part, fearing for his life, his loved ones may call on him to compromise or to give up. They may appeal to him in the name of their close relation not to expose himself to destruction, or burden them with what they cannot bear. The surah refers to an aspect of such testing with parents, and this is very difficult to pass.
Another form of test is to see those who are deep in error and follow falsehood reveling in success, with the world at their feet, applauded by the masses, and with no obstacles in their way. Glory comes easy to them and everything in life is theirs to enjoy. Contrast this with the believer who finds himself ignored, unnoticed and undefended. Only a few people like him appreciate the value of the truth in which he believes, but none of these has any say in life.