This is the opening of a surah that is characterized by short and rhyming verses, violent images and inspirational shades of meaning. The surah strikes like a hammer, its beat directed at making every human heart tremble. The entire surah appears to be a single whole, with one central theme to which all its elements are tied: the story the scene from the Day of Judgment, the fate of earlier communities, its depiction of the universe and the direct discussion of God's oneness, people's resurrection and God's message.
The surah begins with a reference to the Qur'an and its revelation on a blessed night when every matter of wisdom is made clear. Its revelation is an act of mercy for mankind, as well as a warning to them. Moreover, it tells people about their Lord, the Lord of the heavens and the earth and all between them, confirming His oneness. He is the One who gives life and deals death, the Lord of everyone who lived and everyone who will come to life.
The surah abandons this thread in order to speak about the people addressed by the Qur'an: Yet they remain in doubt, playing about. (Verse 9) It issues a swift but stern warning against such doubt and play: Wait, then, for the Day when the skies shall bring forth a kind of smoke which will make things clear. It will envelope the people. Grievous is this suffering! (Verses 10-11) On the day when this suffering befalls them, they will pray for it to be lifted, but once it comes it will not be removed. They are reminded that such suffering has not as yet been inflicted. They should, therefore, seize the opportunity now before they are returned to their Lord when this fearful suffering falls due: On that Day We shall deliver a mighty onslaught; We will indeed exact retribution. (Verse 16)
The surah tells them about Pharaoh and the end he and his people met when a noble messenger from God came and appealed to them: Give in to me, you servants of God! For, I am indeed a messenger sent to you, worthy of trust! Do not exalt yourselves against God. (Verses 18-19)
However, they refused to take heed until God's messenger despaired of their ever responding. They were destroyed after having behaved with insolence: How many gardens did they leave behind, and how many fountains, and fields of grain, and noble dwellings, and good things in which they used to delight! Thus it was. And We made other people inherit it all. Neither heaven nor earth shed tears over them, nor were they allowed a respite. (Verses 25-29)
Against this backdrop the surah reverts to their denial of the life to come. They said: We shall die but one death, and we shall not be raised to life again. Bring back our forefathers, if what you claim be true. (Verses 35-36) They are reminded of the fate suffered by the people of Tubba[ and are told that they are no better than they were. Therefore, they will not be spared a similar fate.
The surah also makes it clear that there is a link between resurrection and God's wisdom manifested in the creation of the heavens and the earth: We have not created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in mere idle play. We created them all for nothing other than a true purpose, but most of them do not understand. (Verses 38-39)
It then tells them about the Day of Decision, which is the time appointed for all of them. It adds here a violent scene depicting the suffering of the guilty who are made to eat of the Zaqqum tree. It shows them how a sinful person is dragged into the midst of the blazing fire, where scalding water is poured over his head in recompense for his sins: Taste this, you powerful and honorable man! This is the very thing you surely doubted. (Verses 49-50)
Side by side with this scene is an image of the blessings enjoyed in heaven by the God-fearing. This is a profound image, one that contrasts with the great suffering endured by the other group, and fits with the strong beat of the surah. This then ends with another reference to the Qur'an, coupled with a strong and implicit warning: We have made this Qur'an easy to understand, in your own language, so that they may take heed. Wait, then; they too are waiting. (Verses 58-59)
From start to finish the surah uses a continuous and fast beat, and puts before the human mind a succession of images and impressions that are characteristically powerful. It takes us on a long journey that includes the heavens and the earth, the present world and the next, heaven and hell, the past and the present, life and death, the laws of creation and those of the universe, of worlds that are perceptible as well as those that are imperceptible. Relatively short as it is, the surah provides a grand tour of the world around us and of that which lies beyond our perceptive faculties.