قَدْ مَكَرَ الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِهِمْ فَأَتَى اللَّـهُ بُنْيَانَهُم مِّنَ الْقَوَاعِدِ فَخَرَّ عَلَيْهِمُ السَّقْفُ مِن فَوْقِهِمْ وَأَتَاهُمُ الْعَذَابُ مِنْ حَيْثُ لَا يَشْعُرُونَ
Qad makaralladhīna min qablihim fa-atallāhu bunyānahum minal-qwā’idi fakharra ‘alayhimus-saqfu min fawqihim wa-atāhumul-‘adhābu min haythu lā yash‘urūn
Those before them also devised plans, but Allah demolished their building from the foundations, and the roof fell down on them from above them, and the punishment came to them from whence they did not perceive.
(Sūrat al-Nahl, No 16, Āyat 26)
Many people in history have schemed against those who they deem a threat to their authority and power. This verse assures the Prophet sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālihi wasallam that the people of his time are not the first to do that. Verse 24 of this sūra mentions how the disbelievers dismissed the verses of Quran as stories of the ancients. This was what they wanted people to think about the Quran, to influence them with their derogatory attitude towards the Quran. The enemies of religion have always strived to portray it as antiquated and obsolete book.
Allah ‘azza wajall responds to the plotters by destroying the foundation of their buildings and causing the ceiling to fall upon them. One interpretation of this is that it refers to the building built by Namrūd to reach the sky and fight against God. But the verse applies generally to all those who plot against God. Their strength and power are demolished from its roots and what they have established falls upon them, in a way that they had never expected. In their delusion of self-sufficiency, they considered themselves to be invincible. But Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā shows them how weak they actually are. Note that Allah does not just destroy their buildings, He demolishes the very foundations upon which it was built.
Commentators mention that the phrase the roof fell down on them from above shows that they were in the building when it happened. The destruction will be while they still exist, and they will witness and bear the pain of seeing all that they built collapse on them. Imam Ali ‘alayhis salam has said: The keepers of material treasures are annihilated while they are [still] alive (Ghurar, H 7103). This is a result of building weak edifices based on injustice. Such efforts, however glorious temporarily, cannot last long
It is interesting to note that the truth of this verse has been manifested many times, both in history and in contemporary times. Tyrants who thought they were all powerful, who plotted against those who spoke out, and who planned for their future generations as though their dynasties would last forever, were annihilated. Their destruction was often sudden and unexpected. We also see that the so-called superpowers currently being destroyed from within. Whether through the pandemic or through the protests of their people, their establishments are collapsing all around them. Their own leaders lead them towards chaos and anarchy. Mawla Amirul Mu’minīn Imam Ali has said: Whoever is tyrannical in his reign and increases his aggression, Allah will demolish his foundation and tear down his pillars [of kingship] (Ghurar, H 9372)
It is not surprising for the believer to see the crumbling of those who scheme against God and His people. This is part of the sunnah of Allah (swt), to destroy an unjust civilization from the very foundation upon which it was built. It is a promise of Allah in His Book. Let this verse remind us of the inherent weakness of those who fight against God.
Sources: Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Agha Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr; http://www.alketab.org/