This is a Meccan surah which, like many others, deals with the coming Day of Resurrection, when the unbelievers will be sent to hell, and the believers sent to heaven. The title comes from a description of the paths by which the angels ascend to God, “the ways of Ascent, by which the angels and the spirit ascend to Him, on a day whose length is fifty thousand years.” I’m not sure what this fifty thousand years refers to—perhaps it has to do with the concept of relative time—a day for humans is thousands of years for God, or vice versa. In the Bible, it says that, for God, “a day is like a thousand years.” This concept is often used by Christians to explain why Jesus’ return has taken so long. Here, perhaps it is being used to answer unbelievers’ objections that the Day of Judgment has not yet happened. Today, 1.400 years later, believers are still waiting.
This surah promises horrible punishments for the unbelievers (“There is a raging flame that strips away the skin”), and blissful rewards for the believers (“They will be honored in Gardens of bliss”). The strictness of these punishments/rewards is softened a bit by the surah’s focus on social and economic justice. People who go to hell are not only being punished for their beliefs, but also for their greed. Hell is for the man who “amasses wealth and hoards it.” By contrast, heaven is for people “who give a due share of their wealth to beggars and the deprived.” Thus, Muhammad’s message is not just about belief vs. unbelief. It is also about generosity vs. greed. Indeed, a central part of his message has to do with social justice for the dispossessed, the poor, and the exploited.
|"Jacob's Ladder" painting of angels ascending and descending by William Blake (c. 1800)|