وَلِيُمَحِّصَ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَيَمْحَقَ الْكَافِرِينَ
Waliyumahhis-allāhul-ladhīna āmanū wayamhaqal-kāfirīn
That He may purge those who believe and deprive the unbelievers of blessings.
(Sūrat Āli Imrān, No 3, Āyat 141)
This verse continues a passage talking about the battle of ‘Uhud and its results. In the verse before this Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā talks about shifting fortunes with people having power in turns. Believers will also see their fortunes changing and sometimes will taste the bitterness of defeat. The reason behind this is so that they may learn from their mistakes and be purified of the qualities that led them to commit those mistakes. Eventually, they will become more successful through what they learned. The purification they receive through this also becomes a means for them to purify society and counter the evil spread by those who reject faith.
The word ‘yumahhisa’ means to purify something from any type of flaw that has entered it through external forces. A defeat or failure, even a mistake, reveals a weak point. The person going through it becomes aware of his weakness and learns from it to become more astute the next time. Over time the insight gained from mistakes helps to form a judicious personality. A life where God would prevent believers from failures would not provide the opportunity to learn and grow towards an eventual victory that is worthy and deserved.
For those who reject faith such progress gained by believers would lead to a gradual depletion of their own strength. The word ‘yamhaqu’ means a gradual decrease. As believers become shrewder, they become better at countering the tactics of those who spread wrongdoing on earth. The ultimate end is thus a victory for the believers.
The Muslims at that time assumed that since they believed and had faith, they would be victorious in every battle. And because the disbelievers had rejected faith they would always be defeated as God would not allow them to win. This assumption of theirs was strengthened in the victory gained at Badr. But it was a wrong assumption and the battle of ‘Uhud showed them otherwise. They had thought that God would intervene and give them success. Such a false assumption nullifies the concepts of tests and trials, of purification and purging, of reward and punishment. The Divine Sunnah is that success and defeat are the effects of normal causes.
This verse reminds us that success lies in learning from mistakes. To err is human and no-one is immune from making mistakes. Sometimes it may be God’s plan that we are not protected from mistakes. A mistake is a teacher, feedback on something that can be improved within us. It is a call for change and if heeded can lead to much progress. Let this verse remind you that it is not the present mistake that is decisive. It is the ultimate end that matters most.
Sources: ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh