70. Al-Ma’arij (The Ways of Ascent)

From the early years of the Revelation of the Qur’an in Makkah, this sūrah of 44 verses takes its name from the word Al-Ma’arij or Al-Ma’aarij (The Ways of Ascent or the stairs of ascent) in the third verse. Its central concern is the rejection of the Makkan polytheists’ denial of the afterlife and of the Prophethood of Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings.

In the Name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate.

1. A questioner (in mocking denial of the Day of Resurrection) has asked about the punishment certain to befall,

2. (And prepared for) the unbelievers; none can ward it off (from them).

3. (It is) from God, Whose are the stairs of ascent.

4. The angels and the Spirit ascend to Him (thereby), in a day the measure of which is fifty thousand years (of your normal worldly years).1

5. So (O Messenger), endure (their insolence) with becoming patience.

6. They see it (the punishment) as far off (beyond their reason),

7. But We see it as (certain to come and) near at hand:

8. The Day when the sky will be like molten metal;

9. And the mountains will be like multi-colored tufts of wool;

10. And no loyal friend will ask after his friend—

11. Though they will be in sight of each other. Every disbelieving criminal will yearn to ransom himself from the punishment of that Day even by his sons,

12. And his wife and his brother,

13. And all his kinsfolk who sheltered him,

14. And whoever else is on the earth— all of them— so that he might then save himself.

15. By no means! It is a furiously flaming fire,

16. Tearing away the skin.

17. It will call to itself those who turn their backs (on the call to faith) and turn away (from worship of God),

18. And amass wealth and withhold it (from spending in God’s cause and for the needy).

19. Surely human has been created with a restless, impatient disposition:2

20. Fretful when evil visits him,

21. And niggardly when good visits him—

22. Except those who are devoted to the Prayer.

23. Those who are constant in their Prayer;

24. And those in whose wealth there is a right acknowledged (by them),

25. For such as have no means other than begging, and such as are denied help (because, having self-respect, they cannot beg and are thought to be well-off);

26. And those who affirm as true the Day of Judgment;

27. And those who are fearful of their Lord’s punishment (and live accordingly)—

28. Indeed, their Lord’s punishment is that of which no one can ever feel secure;

29. And those who strictly guard their private parts, and their chastity and modesty,

30. Save from their spouses, or (as a permission for men) those (bondmaids) whom their right hands possess— for with regard to them (all), they are free from blame.

31. But whoever seeks beyond that, such are those who exceed the bounds (set by God).3

32. And those who are faithful to their trusts (which either God or society or an individual places in their charge) and to their pledges (between them and God or other persons or society);

33. And those who are upholders (of right and justice), by bearing true witness and without avoiding giving testimony;

34. And those who safeguard their Prayers (including all the rites of which they are constituted)—

35. Those will be in Gardens, high-honored.

36. What is the matter with those who disbelieve, that (with the intent of mockery) they hasten on toward you with staring eyes fixed on you,

37. From the right and from the left, in crowds?

38. Does every one of them covet admission into the Garden of bounty and blessing (regarding himself as supremely deserving Paradise, without the effort of faith)?4

39. By no means! We have surely created them out of that (simple matter) which they know very well!

40. So, I swear by the Lord of the points of sunrise and sunset, that surely We are able5

41. To replace them with (others) better than them (in respect of faith in God and in their worship of Him), and We are not to be frustrated (in doing what We will).

42. So leave them plunging in their falsehoods and amusements until the Day that they have been promised—

43. The Day when they come forth from their graves in haste, as if they were hurrying to a goal:

44. Downcast will be their eyes, abasement overwhelming them. That is the Day that they have been repeatedly promised. 

1. “Reaching” God requires traversing great “distances” and ascending innumerable steps. So the stairs of ascent to God, and the measure of the day as being fifty thousand years, imply both our distance from Him despite His infinite nearness to Us, and His indescribable “elevation” and transcendence (see also sūrah 32: 5, note 4). The day may also be referring to the Day of Judgment. In this case, its measure suggests the great distances between the stations or worlds of the Hereafter or both, and the dread and hardships the people of Hell will suffer while they are being driven through these stations and worlds to Hell. In this case, such a great distance constitutes a great threat. As explained in several places in this study, the angels are dutiful in conveying God’s commands throughout the universe. They also convey the worship and life-functions of all creatures before the Presence of God. So, by the stairs of ascent and a day measuring fifty thousand years, the verse may be referring to this fact. The Spirit mentioned in verse 4 is either Gabriel or another angel-like being that is greater than the angels. According to Imam Ghazzālī, he is an angel (or angel-like being) whom God employs in breathing an individual’s spirit into that individual’s body. Bediüzzaman Said Nursi maintains that there is a spirit representing every thing, every being. So the Spirit may be the being responsible for all the spirits.

2. Each person has two aspects: one angelic, pure, and spiritual; and the other one turned to the elements, plants, and animals. All people are “children of the world.” We have been equipped with lust (e.g., for the opposite sex, children, income, wealth, and comfort) and anger, and intellect. By nature, we are fallible, forgetful, neglectful, fond of disputing, obstinate, selfish, jealous, and much more. Since our free will distinguishes us from other conscious beings, such as angels, these powers, faculties, and negative-seeming feelings are not restricted. However, to attain individual and collective happiness in both worlds, and to rise to higher ranks of humanity, we should restrict these powers according to certain precepts and channel them into virtues. For example, obstinacy can be channeled into steadfastness in defense of right and truth; and jealousy can become approvable competition in doing good things. Impatience and restlessness can be channeled into the virtue of alertness to danger, or the preemptive preparation against it; or into the virtue of promptness and impulsiveness towards what is best, when there is the occasion or opportunity to do good things.

Our human nature is no more than our struggle against the negative and/or negative-seeming aspects of our character, restricting or channeling these into virtues, and acquiring distinction with good qualities so that we may become good, worshipful servants of God and useful members of society. The Messenger of God, upon him be peace and blessings, said: “The most perfect in faith among the believers are the most perfect in conduct” (Ibn Hanbal, 2: 250); “A human can cross with good conduct the distances which he cannot with acts of worship and adoration” (al-Haythamī, 8: 24).

3. See sūrah 23, note 1.

4. While the Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, was reciting the Qur’ān at the Ka‘bah, some leading polytheists would come and sit around him in separate circles and stare at him with enmity. They would mock the believers, who were lowly (in worldly wealth and status), and say: “If there is Paradise and people will enter it, then it is more fitting that it should be we who will enter it, not you.”

5. These verses emphasize the absolute helplessness of humankind before God, and His full power and authority over every point of space and time, with whatever takes place therein.