Quranic Reflection No. 412. Ayat 17:11 – Be careful what you ask for
وَيَدْعُ الْإِنْسَانُ بِالشَّرِّ دُعَاءَهُ بِالْخَيْرِ ۖ وَكَانَ الْإِنْسَانُ عَجُولًا
Wayad‘ul-insānu bishsharri du‘ā-ahu bilkhayri, wakānal-insānu ‘ajūlā
Man prays for ill as [avidly as] he prays for good, and man is overhasty
(Sūratِ al-Isrā No.17, Āyat 11)
This verse tells us that man prays for what will harm him as eagerly as he prays for good. This seems strange. Why would a human being pray for unfavorable things? According to Tafsīr Majma‘ul-Bayān, this verse has been interpreted in different ways:
1. Sometimes a human being is angry and prays for certain things potentially harmful regrading himself, his family, or his wealth. He prays the way he would in a normal emotional state when asking for good. By the grace and mercy of Allah subhānahu wa-ta‘āla, such prayers are not answered.
2. In a rush to get the good he desires; a human being sometimes asks for certain wrong things. It is haste that makes him do it.
3. Sometimes a person prays for things which are harām, something that God has forbidden, and which are disadvantageous for him. But in the blindness of desire and ignorance he still wants them.
The word Du‘ā here has a comprehensive meaning which includes all forms of wanting and seeking. It could be verbally expressed through supplication or physically manifested through working for something or striving towards it. Both show a want that the human being has, a request for something he desires to achieve.
Because the human being is hasty, he does not look at all aspects of what he wants. When he desires something that he thinks is beneficial he often does not think deeply about possible consequences of getting it. He overlooks the repercussions and long-term effects. He considers something good when it may not be so at all. Thus, instead of asking for good from God he, in reality, asks for that which is not so good for him. He is in a rush to achieve it, seeking happiness and avoiding sadness through the fulfillment of his desires. According to Ibn Abbāas, man is impatient with both happiness and sadness. He loses his emotional balance in both.
Imam al-Sādiq (a) says: Know the path of your happiness and success so that you do not ask from Allah that in which may lie your destruction while you assume that in it lies your success for Allah has said ‘Man prays for ill as [avidly as] he prays for good, and man is overhasty’ (Tafsīr Nūr al-Thaqalayn, v.3 p.141)
Therefore, the way to reach happiness is by being vigilant and heedful of what we ask for, and work towards. It is necessary to remove emotional baggage and be clear about desires, identifying all aspects and being sure that it is best for us. Ultimately it is only Allah ‘azza wa-jall who knows what is best for us and we seek His guidance on what to get for ourselves.
Let this verse remind you that not all that you so ardently want and struggle for is best for you. Be careful of what you ask for and leave it to God to fulfill it. His plan is the best of all plans, better than your plan for yourself.
Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma’ul Bayan; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh