وَعَدَ اللَّـهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنكُمْ وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ لَيَسْتَخْلِفَنَّهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ كَمَا اسْتَخْلَفَ الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِهِمْ
Wa-‘adallāhul-ladhīna āmanū minkum wa-‘amilus-swālihāti layastakhlifannahum fil-ardhi kamāstakhlafal-ladhīna min qablihim
Allah has promised those of you who have faith and do righteous deeds that He will surely make them successors in the earth, just as He made those who were before them successors
(Sūrat al-Nur, No 24, Āyat 55)
The above is part of a verse that makes a promise to believers. There will come a time when they will have authority on earth. Note that the promise is to ‘those of you who…’ which means that not all the people to whom this verse is addressed (Muslims) will be part of this. Among them are true believers and some who are hypocrites. From the believers are those who do good deeds and those who don’t. This verse only applies to the former group.
A few questions arise at reading this verse:
Who are these people who will be the successors on earth? They will have the required qualities, but which era is this verse referring to? Some have understood it to be the Muslims during the time of the Prophet sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālihi wasallam who eventually had authority in Madīna. They were able to establish a system based on God’s laws there. Others says it refers to all believers who when strengthened by their faith and actions, have power and influence over others. But the most complete manifestation of this verse will be when the al-Mahdī, a descendant of the Prophet (s) will appear on earth and will be joined by true believers to establish the authority of God on earth. This belief is held by both the Sunnis and the Shias. In fact, the concept of a final Messiah who will purge the earth of evil and injustice is a part of every religious doctrine. Shaykh Tabarsī in Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayan says: This (the verse) is about the al-Mahdī from the family of Muhammad (s).
A hadith from Imam Zaynul ‘Ābidīn (a) about this verse says: They, by Allah, are our Shī’ahs, those who follow the Ahlul Bayt, Allah will do that for them at the hand of a man from us, he will be the Mahdi of this Ummah, who will fill the earth with justice and equity after it has been filled with injustice and oppression, and it is about him that the Messenger of Allah said; even if a single day remains . . . (Tafsir Namūne from other Tafāsīr)
Another question that arises is who were those in the past that had authority before? There have been various interpretations of this. According to ‘Allamah Tabātabā’ī’ this refers to the past nations that were believing and ruled on earth. He says it is a reference to the believers of past Prophets such as Hūd, Sālih, Nūh and Shu‘ayb ‘alayhim al-salām. God destroyed the disbelievers and hypocrites from their nations and gave authority to the believers.
The promise of an ideal society for believers is one that gives hope for a better future on earth. In a world overwhelmed with suffering and pain, the believer can look forward to the day when justice will prevail. The time when the authority will belong to God’s representatives who will treat the earth and human beings as a trust from God. They will be firm in their adherence to truth and virtue. We pray that we may be among those who witness this.
Sources: Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh.