The transitory nature of power and glory
God annuls or confirms whatever he wills (of his messages) – for with him is the source of all revelation. <39>
But whether we let thee see (in thy lifetime, o prophet, the fulfillment of) some of what we have promised them, or whether we cause thee to die (before its fulfillment) – thy duty is no more than to deliver the message; and the reckoning is ours <40>
Have, then, they (who deny the truth) never yet seen how we visit the earth (with our punishment), gradually depriving it of all that is best thereon? For, (when) God judges, there is no power that could repel his judgment: and swift in reckoning is he! <41>
When Muhammad (saw) started preaching Islam some ‘ ordinary’ folks readily accepted his message whilst the elite and the leaders of Makkah bitterly opposed him. However with the passage of time one by one the elite began to enter the fold of Islam, This process of conversion continued throughout the prophet’s life and the Makkans were effectively decimated. These verses allude to the divine plan in which the unbeliever after been given respite and gradually destroyed their so-called ‘evilisation’ implodes. Historical examples include: the Babylonians, the Romans, Greeks and other recent powers. Could this be a warning to the superpower?
Or: “curtailing it from (all) its sides” (min atrafiha) – depending on whether one understands by atria the “sides” or “extremists” or “outlying parts” (of a concrete body or land) or, alternatively, the “outstanding men” – i.e., the great leaders, scholars and thinkers (Taj al – Arus) – and “the best of the (earths) inhabitants and fruits” (ibid). Many commentators, taking the primary meaning of atraf, are of the opinion that the above sentence relates to the struggle between the early Muslim community at Madina and the pagans of Mecca, and interpret it thus: “Do they (i.e., the pagans of Mecca) not see that we are visiting (with our punishment) the land (Held by them), gradually curtailing it from (all) its sides?” – which would imply a prophecy of the gradual conquest of all Arabia by the Muslims. Other commentators, however, prefer the secondary meaning of atraf and – without denying its relevance to the history of Islam – interpret this passage in a more general sense, similar to the rendering adopted by me. Thus, for instance Razi: “Have they (i.e., the deniers of the truth) never yet seen the turns of fortune (ikhtilafat) that take place in this world – destruction after prosperity, death after life, humiliation after glory, deficiency after perfection? …
Hence, what makes those deniers of the truth so sure that God will not render them abject after they had been mighty, and subjected (by others) after had been rulers?” Thus, in its widest sense, the phrase “gradually depriving it of all that is best in it” may be taken to relate not merely to physical and social catastrophes but also to the loss of all ethic values – and, thus, to the loss of all worldly power – which “those who are bent on denying the truth” are bound to suffer in the end. From “the Message of the Qur’an” by Muhammad Asad (may God be pleased with him)