wa-tilakal-ayyāmu nudāwiluhā baynan-nās
Such days of varying fortunes We give to mankind in turns.
(Sūrat Āli Imrān, No.3, Āyat 140)
This is part of a verse that was revealed after the battle of ‘Uhud. It makes an important statement about the changing of fortunes among people in this world. One time a group of people will have the upper hand, having power over others and leading the way. Another time it will be the turn of another group. Such changes are part of the way the world works in the system created by Allah azza wa-jall (the Mighty and Majestic).
Two words are important to reflect upon. Ayyām, (plural of yawm), does not refer to the twenty four hour of cycle of day and night usually understood by that word. It means what the days bring, the good or bad circumstances and fortunes that come with time. The word nudāwiluhā means we alternate them, giving each in turn. Sometimes events and circumstances are beneficial for people and sometimes they are against them.
According to Tafsīr Majma‘ul Bayān of Tabarsī, good fortune rotated between the Muslims and those who rejected faith, sometimes decreasing difficulties for the Muslims and sometimes increasing them. Allah shifted worldly fortunes so the believers would not become too attached to the world. They would realize that the turning of the world towards them was not reliable and would thus not be too eager for it. Additionally it would make them yearn for the Hereafter where happiness and comfort would be stable and unending. Changing the worldly situation for believers also ensured that achieving worldly comfort would not be a motive behind belief.
It is the way of Allah to blend sweetness and bitterness in this world. Āyatullāh Jawādī Āmulī in Tafsīr-e Tasnīm says that it is not victory or defeat that shifts. Rather strength and weakness, being in majority or minority, and other similar fortunes that create apparent and temporary comfort are what change. The ultimate victory is always for truth, but on the path towards it both groups will have shifting fortunes.
A fall in fortune for believers is a prelude to victory, an encouragement to change tactics, and perhaps to work harder. It also sifts out the sincere believers from those who will only believe when things go smoothly for them. In the beginning of the Prophetic Mission, Muslims faced huge challenges, opposition and persecution from Meccans. Allah (swt) promised the Holy Prophet (a) saying: For truly with hardship comes ease! Truly with hardship comes ease! (Q 94: 5- 6). The Muslims are further assured in a Prophetic Hadith: “Hardship will not overwhelm the two eases,” or “One instance of hardship will never overcome two instances of ease.” (Tabātabā’ī, Al-Mīzān; S.H. Nasr (Ed.), The Study Quran).
Let this verse remind you that on the path towards victory for truth there will always be setbacks. This should not dishearten the true believer. These are just temporary challenges as a prelude to the eventual victory.
Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Majma‘ul Bayan fī Tafsīr al-Quran; Āyatullāh Jawādī Āmulī, Tafsīr-e Tasnīm.