Quranic Reflection No. 453. Āyat 86:17- A respite for unbelievers
فَمَهِّلِ الْكَافِرِينَ أَمْهِلْهُمْ رُوَيْدًا
Famahhil al-kāfirīna amhilhum ruwaydā
So, respite the unbelievers; give them a gentle respite
(Sūrat al-Tāriq, No 86, Āyat 17)
The Quran tells the Prophet (s) to give those who have rejected faith a respite – a break for a while to do what they want – before the consequences of their deeds catch up with them. There is no need to wish for a quick punishment for them. Allah ‘azza wajall has His plan and it will unfold in its own time.
This short and beautifully rhyming verse, typical of the passages revealed in Makkah, uses the word respite three times but in different ways. It does this to capture the essence of giving respite and emphasize it while at the same time not using language that is repetitive and heavy on the ears. The first word ‘mahhil’ is an imperative verb from Form II of the root letters. It means ‘give them respite’, referring to a gradual respite. The second word ‘amhi’l is also a command from Form IV of the same root letters. It too denotes the same meaning of ‘give them respite’, referring to a one-time respite. The last word ‘ruwaydā’ is a small or gentle respite but the same root letters are not used. According to Shaykh Tabarsī in Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān the words at the end of the verse could have been ‘amhilhum imhālā’ but that would have been too monotonous. This gives you an idea of the poignant way is which language has been used to deliver maximum effect in the verses of Quran.
What this verse conveys to the Prophet is that when you see them arrogantly rejecting faith and conspiring for the destruction of Islam, know that God is aware of it and has His own plan. That plan will bear fruit in time. He is in full power and whatever has been assigned as an outcome of their deeds will eventually come to them. By giving them time, it is not going to avert the result.
The respite could be so that all efforts have been made to guide them, along with enough time for them to see the truth. Thus, there can be no complaint of not being aware of the truth. It could also be to grant a chance to some people who may see the light because of the time given to them. The respite may succeed in awakening some people. Being in a hurry for the eventual outcome is often due to fear of missing the chance or of not being able to do the same later. However, these fears are not applicable to Allah and hence there is no need to hurry.
In this verse is a message for all those who face an enemy, or a difficulty that they wish to remove quickly. Sometimes it is necessary to wait for the right time when the desired result will come about. Those who are oppressed, for example, may wish that God would strike down the oppressor instantly. Or at least very soon. But God does it in His own time. ‘Soon’ is a relative word, a word that means one thing to humans and another to God. Especially in cases of guiding people towards the right it is necessary that time must be given until everyone has had the opportunity to know and understand the truth.
Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān; ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh