بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Often one of the strangest aspects of the qur’aan for first-time readers is the quick and and sudden shifts of tone and subject matter; these can occur within two or more passages or even in just a few words.
85:10-22 (“The Mansions”, http://quran.com/85/11-22) is an awesome example of the latter case, and these shifts in style and rhetoric in the qur’aan are best summarized by the words “the doer (surely) of whatever he wants” (85:16), which I will use as the central theme for this short post. It is also this very ayah or line/verse (85:16) which precedes one of the most abrupt and only seemingly unconnected shifts in the entire qur’aan, which I hope to be ale to elucidate insha’allah.
I pray this short discussion will be of benefit to even a single soul, and if I say anything in error or without qualification, then I ask for forgiveness from Allah and from the reader.
85:11- “Indeed, those who severely tried* the believing men and the believing women, and then have not repented: so for them is torture of Jahanam, and for them is the torture of burning—
[Here we set the state for discussion: since those primarily addressed here are the tyrants and oppressors of the world, who believe they have the power to do whatever it is they want, their attitude is opposed the rhetoric and style to follow. In other words, while some believe they are all-powerful and can do anything, with just his words, Allah defies such insolence. (*The word here translated as “tried” poses translation problems and can range in meaning from “temptation” to “trial” or “affliction” and even “torture” in the full context (see quran.com/85).)]
85:12- “Indeed, the clasp* of Allah is severe/intense—
[Here we see an initial shift in style and tone as the ayah or verse/line lengths begin to shorten. (*The word here translated as “clasp” is more literal than the quran.com version which uses “vengeance”, likely in light of the full historical context of the surah or chapter/section.)]
85:13- “Indeed it is him, he begins and ends—
[Notice the repetition of pronouns in referring to Allah, evoking the sense of “no, not you”. There is also double entendre here: as the meaning here also captures the idea and purpose of rhetorical and stylistic shifts in general; in literature it is done to show the creativity and skill of the author, or sometimes his obstinance to tradition, though here it also has the literal meaning of literally beginning everything in existence and ending it.]
85:14- “And, he is the oft-forgiving, and compassionate-lover—
[Despite the intensity of Allah’s “clasp”, there is always his mercy which precedes his wrath. From a literary perspective the meaning here is also important; since the dramatic shifts here are primarily to power of Allah, this ayah shows how they can also be used to effect subtle meanings, and how Allah can sometimes reach us in the most unexpected of ways.]
85:15- “Him of the majestic throne—
[This is in clear contrast the tyranny of kings and dictators who think they have any true power, yet the throne of Allah is nothing like what we might imagine; rather, “it expands/is as vast as, his chair/throne, the skies and the earth” (see quran.com/2/255).]
85:16- “The doer (surely) of whatever he wants—
[The central ayah to our discussion: in Arabic the word translated as “doer” is in an intensive form, hence the parenthetical “surely”, yet this more accurately means the one who when he does something does so intensely, or often, or both. This ayah precedes the dramatic shift in subject matter mentioned above in a subtle but timely fashion: when the following ayah seems disconnected or unrelated under a superficial reading, this ayah still retains its force in naming the speaker, Allah, as “the doer of whatever he wants”. In other words, though the rhetoric functions dramatically to continue and expand on the main theme, if this is overlooked by the reader, he is still granted the assurance that, although the will of the Allah may seem arbitrary, that’s just because Allah and only Allah can do whatever he wishes, and his will is never arbitrary, rather Allah does whatever he wills and however it may seem to us, and though he does not deny those who seek him in his infinite wisdom.]
85:17- “Has news of the troops reached you?
[Despite the seeming disconnect, the shift and ambiguity here is purposeful, and is likened in commentaries to have the effect of a warning of a possibly imminent danger, which was not at all a strange thing for 7th century Arabia.]
85:18- “(Those of) Pharaoh and Thamud—
[The warning shifts from having the sense of an imminent danger, to a historical reference; as though to ask: “have you heard about those seemingly great kings and their armies”?]
85:19-“Nay, those who rejected faith are in perpetual-denial—
[Here the shift is obvious, moving from a short and subtle illustration of the power men think they hold, to immediately rejecting and denying such power in the face of the power of allah, emphasizing the ingratitude and delusion of those referred to earlier (85:11 and what precedes it).]
85:20- “And Allah is, from behind them, all-encompassing—
[Continuing the previous sentiment, while such men think they are invulnerable and unconquerable, Allah declares his power and his oversight in spite of their actions and attitude, both literally and literarily, so to speak.]
85:21- “Nay, it is a majestic Qur’aan,
[Nearing the end of the surah or chapter/section, the emphasis here is interestingly literary, emphasizing the miracle of the Qur’aan. This summarizes a number of points, and in the scope of this discussion, primarily the power of the Qur’aan, and the power of words, and the power of subtlety in rhetoric and style to convey greater meaning. More plainly, the power of what we say and hear often lays not necessarily in what is said, but what is not said, what is “between the lines”, as is said.
85:22- “In a preserved slate.
[Usually translated as “tablet” in my experience, though I went with the quran.com translation, the idea of the Qur’aan being preserved or guarded is both metaphysical and literal. That is, it is preserved in the minds and hearts of those who read it, and also that it is truly divine in origin, and not the speech of any mortal being. This point loses some of its efficacy through a modern English translation, after over 1400 since its revelation, but it is also a simple point to reflect upon, considering when and where the Qur’aan was first revealed, the status of literary developments during this stage of history, and, of course, the well known fact that the messenger of this Qur’aan, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, ﷺ, was unlettered.]