لَتَرْكَبُنَّ طَبَقًا عَن طَبَقٍ
Latarkabunna tabaqan ‘an tabaq
You will surely travel from stage to stage.
(Sūrat al-Inshiqāq, No 84, Āyat 19)
Before this verse, Allah ‘azza wajall swears by three created things: the sunset, the night, and the moon. These phenomena are the process that happens when the day ends. First the glowing sunset announces the end of the day and the beginning of the night. Then night takes place, and all things gather and collect in their homes. After that the moon comes out with its shining light. Each of these changes are in harmony with each other and together compose a wondrous event that reveals the greatness of the Creator. The alternation of the day and night are signs for human beings to reflect, as attested to by many verses of the Quran. Imam Ali (a) begins one of his sermons with praising Allah for the night. He says: All Praise is for Allah whenever night spreads and darkens, and all praise is for Allah whenever the star shines and sets (Sermon 48, Nahjul Balagha)
After talking about these changes in the natural world, Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā tells the human being that he too will go through changes as he moves from one stage to another. The stages in this verse have been interpreted to mean different things:
- The various changes a human being goes through as he faces hardship and challenges in the way of perfection. This includes life of the world, the time in Barzakh, and then the Resurrection.
- Stages of physical growth of human development from being a sperm to the time the body dies.
- States of health and sickness, happiness and sadness, peace and conflict, difficulty, and ease.
- The different events of the Day of Judgement that the human being will pass through one after the other.
- The various events that happened to the peoples of the past which will also occur in the present era. This understanding as been reported from a hadith of Imam Ja‘far al-Sādiq (a).
According to Tafsīr-e Namūneh it is possible that the verse encompasses all these meanings and refers to all the changes that a human being goes through during existence. Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān mentions how one state leads to another state of the same type. When a human being chooses a particular way of life, it leads to more of it. When he chooses virtue, he will naturally ascend to higher levels of virtue as the first state will propel him to move further. Similarly, if he chooses wrong and corruption it will lead him to increased states of the same quality. This is because each is pulled towards its own type.
The instability of the condition of the human being and how he keeps going through changes indicates that he is a created being. He is not in control. Every change is initiated by the Creator and occurs through His plan and permission. The changes also reveal the transience of this world. Things are always changing, and nothing lasts forever. It is a lesson for human beings to ponder over. Whatever they may be enjoying of youth, health, wealth, status, etc. are all subject to change. That is affirmed throughout the history of humanity. Imam Ali (a) warns about complacency regarding the changes the world goes through. He says: Beware, the world is wrapping itself up and has announced its departure. Its known things have become strangers and it is speedily moving backward. It is advancing its inhabitants towards destruction and driving its neighbours towards death. Its sweet things have become sour, and its clear things have become polluted (Sermon 52, Nahjul Balāgha).
Change in the human condition reflects movement. There is a continuous movement in the journey towards Allah. All of creation is in a state of movement. Life is an opportunity to move forward and ascend towards perfection of the soul. As Allah says elsewhere in the same Sura: O human being! You are labouring toward your Lord laboriously, and you will encounter Him (Q 84:6).
Let this verse remind us of the reality of change and the constant fluctuations of human life. May it motivate us to change and ascend higher in the journey towards Allah (swt).
Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh.