Quranic Reflection No. 502. Āyat 25:23 – How actions lose value?

وَقَدِمْنَا إِلَىٰ مَا عَمِلُوا مِنْ عَمَلٍ فَجَعَلْنَاهُ هَبَاءً مَّنثُورًا
Waqadimnā ilā mā ‘amilū min ‘amalin faja ‘alnāhu habā’an manthūrā
Then We shall attend to the works they have done and then turn them into scattered dust.
(Sūrat al-Furqan, No 25, Āyat 23)

The action that a human being does in this world always remains. It takes on a form and will become visible on the Day of Judgment. The happiness and unhappiness of people on the Day of Judgment stems to some degree from the form that their deeds will take on that Day. Those whose deeds carry weight and value will experience a sense of delighted achievement. Those who see their deeds have no value will feel acute disappointment and regret.

This verse talks about people whose actions will lose all substance in the hereafter. A person’s actions are the means of subsistence in the Hereafter. Imam al-Hadi ‘alayhis-salām says: People transact through wealth in this world and through deeds in the Hereafter (al-Durra al-Bahira, p. 41 quoted in Mīzān al-Hikmah). These people had thought they were doing good actions and would benefit from them, but the actions become valueless and dispersed. Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān says that the sentence structure of this verse is very eloquent. It conveys the idea of approaching an action that one is displeased with, with the intention of changing it.  Almighty Allah attends to actions that He is not pleased with and they become like scattered dust. It is an analogy to show the utter worthlessness of their actions. No tangible trace remains of their actions.

Some words in this verse are important to understand:
• ‘amal is an action that is done with an intention. It is not actions that just take place without thought and planning. The word is used for human beings, not for the actions of animals.
• qadimnā is to go to, showing something that exists which is being approached.
• habā’an refers to very minute particles of dust which are normally not visible but can be seen when light shines on it.
• manthūrā describes something that is dispersed and scattered.

What gives an action substance and sustains it is the intention behind the action. The key is the sincerity behind the action, not the size or frequency. When it is for Allah ‘azza wajall who is ever-Living, the action becomes weighty from within. It remains for all time to come. It can even grow and spread its worth and value expanding with time. Imam Ali (a) says: The best of deeds is that whose objective is Allah’s pleasure (Ghurar al-Hikam, H 2958). When an action is devoid of Godliness and is solely for transient human purposes, it is just a skeleton of a deed and disappears quickly.  It has no weight or value. This truth is also conveyed in Sūrat Ibrāhiīm where Allah (swt) says: The parable of those who defy their Lord: their deeds are like ashes over which the wind blows hard on a tempestuous day: they have no power over anything they have earned. That is extreme error (Q 14:18).

When we want to do more deeds, or admire those who do much, we must not forget a crucial principle. Deeds can be of many types. Small deeds that will remain forever and big ones that will become like dust. Of course, there are small ones that can also become dust and big ones that will remain. It is the essence of the deed, the kernel itself, that is of importance. Not the outer shell that the world sees. Our goal should be for every action of ours to be weighed down with pure intentions. Then it can remain forever.

Let this verse be a reminder of the seriousness of purity behind deeds. We must look for value in our deeds, not just amass them unconditionally.

Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Āghā Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr