وَلَا يَحْسَبَنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَنَّمَا نُمْلِي لَهُمْ خَيْرٌ لِأَنْفُسِهِمْ ۚ إِنَّمَا نُمْلِي لَهُمْ لِيَزْدَادُوا إِثْمًا ۚ وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ مُهِينٌ
Walā yaHsabannal-ladhīna kafarū annamā numlī lahum khayrun lianfusihim.
Innamā numlī lahum liyazdādū ithman, walahum ‘adhābun muhīn
Let the faithless not suppose that the respite We grant them is good for themselves;
We give them respite only that they may add to their sins, and there is a humiliating punishment for them.
(Sūrat Āl-I ‘Imrān, No. 3, Āyat 178)
Those who rule over others with tyranny and oppression often fail to grasp reality. Their power becomes an intoxication which blurs the truth. They are deluded into thinking they are rightfully superior and that their power will always last. The opportunity to wield their power is seen as a sign of their rightfulness. Such people have no vestige of humanity left in them and are not ashamed of their actions. This has been the state of all tyrant rulers, both in ancient as well as contemporary history.
This verse warns such people. They should not think that their power and capabilities, their occasional victories, and their freedom to act as they please, are signs of God’s favor upon them. When God chooses to favor those who do wrong He creates an awakening in them to help them realize the gravity of their actions. A blind obliviousness is not a favor but a punishment. Imlā, used twice in verbal form in the verse, meaning ‘the respite to sin’ is one of the greatest punishments for a human being. It deprives him of guidance and the insight to truly comprehend reality. Such a punishment is for those who do not deserve to be guided by God.
Sayyida Zaynab (a) recited this verse in her address to the tyrant Yazīd when the holy family was taken to his court as prisoners after Karbalā’. Yazīd, the Umayyad leader, gloated over his actions, intoxicated by the power he thought he wielded. In her eloquent and effective speech at that time, Sayyida Zaynab (a) reminded him that he should not assume that his opportunity to oppress was a favor to him from God. It was granted to him so that he increases in sin and tyranny that would just result in sealing his condemned fate.
‘O Yazīd!’, she said courageously, ‘Do you think that we have become humble and despicable owing to the martyrdom of our people and our own captivity? As you have blocked all the paths for us, and we have been made captives and are being taken from one place to another, do you think that Allah has taken away his blessings from us? Do you think that by killing the godly persons [such as al-Husayn, the Prophet’s grandson, and Habīb ibn Muzāhir, the Prophet’s companion] you have become great and respectable and the Almighty looks at you with special grace and kindness? For this reason and on account of this incorrect thinking you have become elated and arrogant. You have become boastful because you have seen that the matters have taken a turn in your favour. You have, however, forgotten what Allah says: Let the faithless not suppose that the respite We grant them is good for themselves; We give them respite only that they may add to their sins, and there is a humiliating punishment for them (Q 3:178).
The present world has many examples of oppressors intoxicated with the power and wealth at their disposal. “The work of a tyrant,” says Amīrul Mu’minīn (a), “is never pure.” (MH, H. 2265). The Holy Quran has warned them of a punishment in clear terms: And every powerful obstinate transgressor has failed, with Hell lying ahead of him, [where] he shall be given to drink of secretion and pus, gulping it down, but hardly swallowing it: death will assail him from every side, but he will not die, and there is [yet] a harsh punishment ahead of him (Q 14: 15 – 17).
Use this verse to remind you not to be fooled by the temporary achievements and victories of oppressors. These are just a means to make their fall even greater. Their similitude is like a person who wrongfully climbs a tree. He goes higher and higher, gleefully disregarding the fact that he should not be climbing in the first place. The higher he goes, the more severe his fall when it comes. Such is the end of those who oppress others.
Āyatuallāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.); Tafsīre Namūne;
Aghā Muhsin Qarā’atī Kāshānī, Tafsīr-e Nūr;
Dr. Ibrahim Ayati, History of Ashura , for online copy.