Tafsir: Surat At-Takathur
The Quran, its relevance and application in life is timeless. It is not bound by any race, culture, tradition, geography, environment or gender. It applies to individuals as well as nations.
Life in the 21st century is unique in many different ways in comparison to the time of the sahaba (ra). We have access to technology, knowledge and information and can use such materials in ways that were probably unimaginable in the sahaba’s time.
On the other hand, some things have not changed much since the revelation of the Quran. For example, modern life is driven by greed, materialism and the desire to acquire endless wealth. In that sense, the Arabs of the Prophet’s time were quite similar. They were also desirous of amassing wealth, social status, power and prestige, to name but a few worldly attributes. Perhaps what has changed, are the ways in which people pursue their worldly “dreams”. Today, for example, we have the rush hour “rat race” and stocks and shares markets, where people seek to amass wealth, which was not present previously in this form. Arguably, the essence of man remains the same; but the means and styles of fulfilling our needs have changed.
The context of surat At-Takathur
It is in the above context that surah At-Takathur can be viewed. This surah is designed to act as a reality check for mankind, who are endlessly engaged in the pursuit of worldly gains, such as children, wealth and property. It is a surah that essentially tells man to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ because the reality of this life is a fleeting existence.
The majority of the Islamic classical scholars agreed that this surah was revealed in Makkah, although some suggested that it was revealed in Medina. However, the nature of this surah, in terms of its emphasis on the inevitability of death, Akhirah, Jannah and Jahannam, suggests that it is a Makkan surah.
The relevance and application of surat At-Takathur
[102:1-2] Competition in (worldly) increase diverts you, until you reach your graves.
Man’s inherent inclination towards worldly gain and wealth was elaborated upon by Muhammad (saw) when he said, “If the son of Adam had a valley of gold, he would desire another like it…”. [Reported by Imam Bukhari]
Maulana Maududi in his tafsir of this surah stated, “Alhakum is from lahu which originally means heedlessness, but in Arabic this word is used for every occupation which engrosses man so completely that he becomes heedless of the more important things in life.”
In other words, man has become so obsessed with the pursuit of dunya that he has lost sight of everything more important than it, which is Akhirah, the eternal Afterlife. Man has missed the real purpose of his existence and has forgotten why he is here, as he chases for petty gains.
According to Maulana Maududi, the term Takathur originates from “kathrat”, which has three meanings:
(1) That man should strive to gain more and more of everything.
(2) That the people should vie with one another for gaining more and more.
(3) That they should brag and boast of possessing greater abundance of things than others.
In essence, it means engaging in boastful competition for worldly gain. The concept of “keeping up with the Joneses” is addressed by the words alhakum at-takathur.
Although the ulema suggested that this surah was revealed to address two particular tribes in Arabia, it does not indicate who, if at all, are the specific audiences. Therefore, alhakum at-takathur should be taken in their generic meaning, applicable at all times and places without any restriction, and thus, apply upon us too. The above ayat address all worldly pursuits whether of power, position, wealth, status, children and comfort. Yet, man only enjoys a fraction of what he gains.
Maulana Maududi states, “Therefore, alhakum at-takathur would mean: Takathur (greed for more and more) has so occupied you that its pursuit has made you heedless of every higher thing in life… It means that the passion for piling up more and more has made the people heedless of everything more important than it.”
Imam Syeed Qutb states regarding the above ayat, “It portrays the life of this world as a fleeting wink in the long span of existence… The wink of this life is over and its small leaf is turned. Thereafter time stretches on and the burdens become heavier.”
Prophet Muhammad (saw) said, “The son of Adam says “my wealth, my wealth”. But do you get anything (of benefit) except for that which you ate and you finished it; or that which you clothed yourself with and you wore it out; or that which you gave as charity and you have spent it?”
In other words, our rizq consists of the above three elements, and everything else, we will leave behind when we die.
In the second ayah (until you reach your graves), Allah is addressing the reality where man is chasing this world as if he will live here eternally, trying to amass as much of provisions as he can; yet, he will die suddenly without any warning, thereby leaving all his acquisitions behind. So the pursuit of endless gain does come to an end rather abruptly.
[102:3-4] No, you will soon come to know; no, again, you will soon come to know.
Here Allah (swt) is repeating the ayah twice to add emphasis and importance. It is a warning to man. When we emphasise something, it is because we wish to add particular importance to it for our audience.
Maulana Maududi said regarding the above ayat, “That is, you are under the delusion that the abundance of the worldly goods and surpassing others in it is real progress and success, whereas the opposite is the case. Soon you will know its evil end and you will realize that it was a stupendous error in which you remained involved throughout your life.”
Imam Hasan al Basri said that it is a threat from Allah followed by a threat.
[102:5] No! If you only knew with knowledge of certainty.
Imam Syeed Qutb states regarding this ayah, “The inference here is that had they known what they should know for certain, they would not have indulged in such rivalry for petty gain.”
Thus, Allah is warning that if you knew “with knowledge of certainty” you would not have been distracted from preparing for the Hereafter! You would not have dedicated yourself to the aim of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, a goal that is pursued across the Western world and beyond.
[102:6-7] You will surely see the Hellfire. Then, you will surely see it with the eye of certainty.
Imam Ibn Kathir states in his tafsir that these two ayat are the explanation of the threat from Allah in the previous two ayat (“No, you will soon come to know; no, again, you will soon come to know”).
[102:8] Then you will surely be asked that Day about pleasure.
Imam Sahl bin ‘Abd Allah al-Tustari (d. 283/896) in his Tafsir al-Quran al-‘azim (‘Commentary on the Great Quran’), wrote regarding this ayah,
“Not an hour of the night or day passes by the jinn and men among creation that does not contain a right (haqq) which Allah holds over them, and which it is incumbent on them [to fulfil], whether they know it or are ignorant of it. And He ascertains their states on the Day of Resurrection.”
Therefore, Allah (swt) will question us and take account for our gratitude (or the lack of it) towards Allah for blessing us with good health, imaan, sustenance, safety and security and the abundance in food etc. Allah will ask us whether we returned His favours by being thankful and worshiping Him alone.
Prophet Muhammad (saw) said, “Two favours are treated unjustly by most people: health and free time.” [Reported by Imam Bukhari] In other words, we do not thank Allah for these two blessings, nor do we utilise these blessings wisely.
Similarly, the food we eat, we take it for granted without any second thought. Jabir bin Abdullah said: “The Prophet (saw) once visited us and we served him with fresh dates and gave him cool water to drink. Thereupon he said: ‘These are of the blessings about which you will be questioned’.“ Something as simple (dare I say) as dates and water is mentioned in this hadith; what about the great variety of food and drink which we enjoy without any question?
In another hadith, Prophet Muhammad (saw) said, “Allah the Mighty and Majestic will say on the Day of Judgment, ‘O son of Adam, I made you ride on the horses and camels, I gave you women to marry, and I made you live and rule (in the earth). So where is the thanks for that?'” [Reported by Imam Ahmad]
The above ayah is again generic in its meaning and we can assume that the believers and the disbelievers both will have to account for the blessings granted by Allah. However, amongst the believers, those who were not ungrateful but spent their lives as grateful servants of Allah, will Insha-Allah come out successful from the accountability. Similarly, those who remained arrogant and thankless to Allah for His blessings and committed ingratitude by word or by deed, or by both; will emerge as failures on the Day of Judgment.
Yet, no matter how much we thank Allah, we can never thank Him enough for all the blessings we enjoy, whether knowingly or unknowingly. As Allah (swt) confirms in surah Ibrahim,
And He gave you of all that you asked for, and if you count the Blessings of Allah, never will you be able to count them. Verily! Man is indeed an extreme wrong-doer, – a disbeliever. [TMQ 14:34]
We live in strange times where everything is inverted. It is a time where the good and bad, the right and wrong are determined by the standards of man rather than the Book of Allah. We are all too busy in “keeping up with the Joneses” and we have little time for the Akhirah. In fact, sometimes we spend much time in futile exercises without even thinking about the Hereafter. This surah essentially seeks to wake us up from our deep slumber. We must wake up and take stock of our life. Are we ready and prepared for the inevitable end?
By Wakil Abu Mujahid
 Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi – Tafhim al-Qur’an (The Meaning of the Qur’an)
 Thomas Jefferson had asserted this in the US Declaration of Independence, which is one of the founding principles of the USA.
 He was a famous Sufi scholar in the 3rd century (A.H.)