This is a Meccan surah, associated with the early period of the prophet’s life, when he was a leader of a persecuted religious minority. These surahs tend to reflect this conflict between the emerging Muslim monotheists and the still-dominant Meccan polytheists. These surahs can be quite harsh in tone, reflecting the prophet’s frustration with those who do not accept his message.
This surah “Control” (which can also be translated “Sovereignty”) emphasizes God’s total control over this world and the next: “Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands, who has power over all things, who created life and death.” For a polytheist (who believed in a pantheon of gods with varying levels of power) this notion of a single, all-powerful God would be quite radical.
As with other surahs, in this one the prophet sees his role as that of a warner—urging people to accept the one God, to escape his wrath, which is pretty gnarly and severe. Examples are given of previous disbelieving peoples whom God destroyed. But, the prophet asserts, the real judgment will come in the next life: “For those who defy their Lord we have prepared the torment of Hell: an evil destination.” A common feature of both Islam and Christianity is this heaven/hell dualism, and fear of punishment is a powerful motivator in this worldview.
In describing the afterlife, and the spiritual realms, this surah gives some interesting cosmology. For example, it describes not just one heaven, but seven. And here’s an interesting bit: “We have adorned the lowest heaven with lamps and made them (missiles) for stoning devils.” Thus, according to this cosmology, heaven and hell are not so geographically far apart—heaven must be defended with missiles. This imagery evokes strange and disturbing contemporary parallels. For example, in Jean-Luc Godard’s beautiful 2004 film Notre Musique, heaven is envisioned as a fenced-off area protected by the U.S. military. I think it’s a commentary on the idea of heaven as a place of exclusion that must be protected by violence. Is it really heaven if some people are left outside to suffer?
It also reminds me of a scene from Errol Morris’s documentary Gates of Heaven (about a pet cemetery). At one point, Morris asks a woman to consider the idea that her deceased dog might not be in heaven. Her response: “Then it wouldn’t be heaven.”