According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr and colleagues in the introduction to this surah:
The ﬁrst two verses speak of the delusion of accumulating worldly goods, which is referenced throughout the Quran (e.g., 3:14; 9:24), while the remaining Verses (vv. 3-8) promise that those who persist in such behavior will know Hellﬁre with certainty.
بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
|102:1. The desire of increase in worldly possessions beguiles you.||أَلْهَاكُمُ التَّكَاثُرُ|
|102:2. Till you reach the graves.||حَتَّىٰ زُرْتُمُ الْمَقَابِرَ|
|102:3. Surely, you will soon come to know the vanity of your pursuits.||كَلَّا سَوْفَ تَعْلَمُونَ|
|102:4. Again, you surely will soon come to know how mistaken you are.||ثُمَّ كَلَّا سَوْفَ تَعْلَمُونَ|
|102:5. Only if you knew for certain!||كَلَّا لَوْ تَعْلَمُونَ عِلْمَ الْيَقِينِ|
|102:6. You would surely see hell in this very life.||لَتَرَوُنَّ الْجَحِيمَ|
|102:7. But, you will see it with the certainty of sight in the life to come.||ثُمَّ لَتَرَوُنَّهَا عَيْنَ الْيَقِينِ|
|102:8. Then you shall be called to account, on that day, in respect of the worldly favors conferred on you.||ثُمَّ لَتُسْأَلُنَّ يَوْمَئِذٍ عَنِ النَّعِيمِ|
A common fallacy of the human condition is described in the verses: “You love that which is transitory; and you neglect that which is lasting.” (75:20-21) The Quran repeatedly teaches us to put our temporary worldly life in the perspective of eternal Afterlife. The common mistake is that most of us do not give the due importance to Afterlife, but, there is also the possibility of error in the other direction, which is the error of asceticism, in giving up the worldly life, in not realizing that ultimately the results of our eternal life are based on our actions in this very ephemeral life.
According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr and colleagues in the commentary of the first verse of this surah:
Vying for increase in worldly gains distracts people from obedience to God and remembering the Hereafter (Q, Ts). ‘Distraction’ (lahw) indicates an amusement, something that keeps people from achieving their real goals (Al, Is). In this vein, the Quran advises, Let not the life of this world delude you (31:33; 35:5; see also 45:35). Vying for increase translates takathur, which implies both competing and boasting. It can pertain to anything that people seek for the gratiﬁcation of their egos rather than for God’s sake. According to a saying attributed to the Prophet, it means gathering wealth without right, withholding it from those to whom it rightfully belongs, and hoarding it (Q).
Islam does not prohibit the use or seeking of the good things of this world; but it certainly condemns those who are wholly engrossed in them and make them the very object and purpose of their lives. In fact the Quran has taught us a prayer to seek good both in this world and the hereafter: “And of them there are some who say: ‘Our Lord, grant us good in this world as well as good in the world to come, and protect us from the torment of the Fire.’” (2:201)
However, the Quran puts the worldly life and the eternal life, constantly into perspective, like in this surah, “The desire of increase in worldly possessions beguiles you till you reach the graves. You will soon realize the vanity of your pursuits; again, you will soon realize how mistaken you are. If you only knew with the certainty of knowledge.” (102:1-5)
We will collect all the instances in the Quran, which highlight this human dilemma of striking the balance between the worldly life and the Afterlife. For starters, please see: 3:14-15; 3:185; 9:37; 10:24; 10:70; 13:26; 18:45-46; 29:64; 35:5; 57:20 and 87:16-19. Let us conclude this paragraph by quoting the verses from Surah Kahf: “Expound to them the case of the life of this world. It is like water that we send down from the sky, and the vegetation of the earth grows and mingles with it and all becomes stubble which is scattered about by the winds. Allah has full power over everything. Wealth and children are an ornament of the life of this world: then of these that which is converted into a source of permanent beneficence is best in the sight of your Lord, both in respect of immediate reward and in respect of expected benefits.” (18:45-46)
This dilemma arising out of finite versus the infinite has also been described in secular literature as Pascal wager.
The desire to progress in one way or another is embedded to a lesser or greater extent in human nature. Some are more ambitious than the others but every one is pursuing some goal or object. It is a distinctive characteristic in man which differentiates him from all lower forms of creation. The urge to progress is a healthy one, provided it does not clash with one’s moral development. However, today it seems that the acquisition of wealth is the main avenue of progress along which men seek to advance. But, as mentioned before, one who devotes one’s whole attention to increasing ones wealth and neglects one’s moral development is growing away from peace and acquiring miseries for oneself.
While advancement in worldly affairs is encouraged and commended by Islam, nevertheless, greater stress is laid on the development of the soul and progress along the path of righteousness; for God says in the Holy Quran that the most honored in His sight are those who are the most righteous. Excessive materialism arises in those men who do not look beyond the grave and fail to appreciate the scheme of things in their totality. They give attention only to their material progress as they do not know of any other progress. On the other hand, the men of God, do not neglect their moral and spiritual progress. A believer knows that his love for God should excel his love for the things of this world. He yearns to develop within himself the attributes of God; and while he does not ignore the responsibilities of life he is ever watchful in avoiding all temptations liable to hinder his moral and spiritual advancement.
If on one extreme, of love for worldly things, is materialism then on the other extreme is asceticism. Asceticism is so to speak an escape from our role in this present life. Both extremes are detrimental to the moral and spiritual progress of man. Sometimes one opts for asceticism and a kind of resignation in life in order to escape failure and the psychological pain associated with such failure. This, then becomes an escape mechanism and religion should not be blamed for such faulty resignation. Islam just wants to put all things in true perspective and set the priorities right. If we study the life history of the prophet Muhammad there is no element of escapism in his life. His monumental accomplishments in a short life span of 63 years will always remain unparalleled.
Materialism leads to such love for these material things that it becomes more and more difficult for one to make moral choices when material stakes are high. Islam teaches us a balance between the two forces, so that on one hand material progress is not halted and on the other hand moral and spiritual progress is not compromised. We do not want to lay down proofs of the life after death here for we have pursued that in the commentary of Surah Al Waqi’ah (The Event or the Resurrection). Whereas, materialism and exclusive focus on this world is short sightedness, as it ignores the life after death, asceticism is ignoring the purpose of life.
When we think about the part of our life, that has passed, it seems like a flash, a wink or twinkling of the eye. It only leaves a feeling of nostalgia behind, and its existence appears rather unreal. In short it has a fleeting existence and seems like a dream that is passed. For those who have passed all their lives and have died, according to the Holy Quran when they look back, it seems to them that they lived only for a moment on this earth (23:112-113).
Bible quotes a moving testimony from King Solomon regarding the futility of taking worldly success as the final goal of one’s life:
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and Planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and harem as well — the delights of the heart of men. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hand had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun (Bible, Ecclesiastes 2:4-11).
The message in these quotes is not one of asceticism but one of contentment and of simplicity. These verses mean to put our present life in perspective of our eternal life in the hereafter. These verses do not deny the useful role of some of the material things in our lives. As the holy Quran, after naming some worldly goods says, “All these are the provisions of this life.” It is excessive love and greed for material things that leads to evil and destruction of peace of mind in several ways. If one recalls and analyzes the events of years ago, very often, one realizes that many of the issues that appeared to be vitally important yesterday, appear trivial and meaningless today. Among other reasons, it is this perspective, that puts our present life in true colors against the life after death.
It is also very important that what is being criticized here is the act to seek material gains as ends in themselves. A devout believer will also seek these same material gains, but with an intention to be able to serve God and His creatures with those resources. The same pursuit becomes a mirage for the worldly inclined (24:39), and a source of spiritual progress for the devout believer. It is the underlying intention that determines the quality of actions and in many instances the end result.
The story of Korah (Qarun), who was a contemporary of Moses puts our pursuit for worldly wealth into perspective. His wealth made him very arrogant and exultant. The Holy Quran describes it in some detail.
Indeed, Korah was of the people of Moses, but he behaved tyrannically towards them. And We had given him treasures of hoarded wealth so much that the keys thereof would have weighed down a party of strong men. When his people said to him, ‘Exult not, surely Allah loves not those who exult; And seek … the Home of the Hereafter (by spending in the way of Allah); and neglect not your people in this world; and do good to others as Allah has done good to you; And seek not to create mischief in the land. Indeed, Allah loves not those who create mischief;’ He said, ‘All this has been given to me because of the knowledge I possess. (Where does Allah come in the picture?)’. … So he went forth before his people in all his pomp. Those who were desirous of the life of this world said, ‘Would that we had the like of what Korah has been given! Truly, he is the master of great fortune.’ But those who had been given true knowledge said, `Woe unto you (on what you long for), Allah’s (lasting) reward (in the hereafter) is best for those who believe and do good works; and it shall be granted to no one except those who are steadfast.’ (Because of arrogant attitude of Korah and his persecution of Moses and his followers). Then Allah (caused an earth quake) and made the earth to swallow him up and his dwelling; And he had no party to help him against Allah, nor was he of those who can defend themselves. And those who had coveted his position the day before began to say, ‘… it is indeed Allah Who enlarges the provisions for such of His servants as He pleases and straitens it for whom He pleases. Had not Allah been gracious to us, He would have caused it to swallow us up also. Ah! the ungrateful never prosper.’ The home of the Hereafter. We give to those who seek not self-exaltation in the earth, …And the good end is for the righteous. (28:76-83)
Accumulation of wealth and power for personal aggrandizement is hell fire, but the same desire to make money to raise one’s family and to serve humanity becomes a great boon for the believer. Indeed actions are judged by their motives.
In conclusion: “This present life is merely an amusement and a diversion; the true life is in the Hereafter, if only they knew.” (29:64)