By its own admission, the Qur’an contains verses known as mutashābihāt or allegorical – verses with no definite interpretation whose ultimate meaning is known only to God (Qur’an 3:7). Despite this, however, the beautiful imagery of these verses never ceases to inspire us towards a deeper remembrance of God. One such verse that has long left me in awe and wonder is the fourth verse of Sūrah Ma`ārij (“Ascending Stairways”):
The angels and the Spirit will ascend to Him
during a Day the extent of which is fifty thousand years. (Qur’an 70:4)
“Fifty thousand years!” – such an immensely long period of time! I often ask myself what spiritual lesson I may draw from this verse, knowing well that I can never fully comprehend the verse’s ultimate meaning and intent due to my limited understanding of the world around me.
I turn to the classical exigeses of the Qur’an, such as Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr, which states that this verse might be referring to the length of the Day of Resurrection (yaum al-qiyāmah), when each soul will be reminded of his or her actions in life. Imagine, all humanity standing in wait for fifty millennia to receive final judgment! All the decades of our lives would seem like an eye blink compared to the length of that weighty day!
Another interpretation I have read of this verse is that the angels and spirit take a period of fifty millennia to ascend to God. Compare the verse above to another verse in Sūrah Sajdah (“Prostration”):
He arranges (each) matter from the heaven to the earth;
then it will ascend to Him in a Day
the extent of which is a thousand years
of those which you count. (Qur’an 32:5)
When reading these two verses together, I’m left astounded – why such long periods of time? If God wished, couldn’t the angels or God’s divine orders ascend to Him instantaneously without any delay whatsoever?
I have no definitive answers to satisfy my wonder, but I’ll share my reflections. Maybe one of the lessons the Qur’an seeks to teach by describing such long periods of time in Sūrah Ma‘ārij can be found in the verses that follow immediately after the verse above:
So be patient with gracious patience.
Indeed, they see it [as] distant,
But We see it [as] near. (Quran 70:5-7)
If God had willed, He could give us judgment immediately. If God had willed, the angels and divine orders could ascend to Him instantaneously. But maybe God reveals these details in the Qur’an as a way of teaching us a lesson by example. He shows us that He has no need to rush events; He is not fazed by lengthy eons of time. God shows us Himself that He is aṣ-Ṣabūr, the Most Patient. And through His example, we are taught a universal lesson: Things take time, so you too be patient.
We can possibly find the same lesson in some verses of Sūrah Qāf where we read the following:
And We have did certainly create the heavens and earth
and what is between them in six days,
and there touched Us no weariness. (Qur’an, 50:38)
The Qur’an states in a number of places that God created the heavens and earth in six “days,” which in light of the verses above (32:5 and 70:4, as well as 22:47) could be indefinitely long periods of time. Our scientific investigation of the āyātullāh (God’s signs in nature) makes clear to us that these “days” had lengths of billions of years to our reckoning.
But why did the creation of the heavens and earth take any time at all? Creation did not tire God – the verse itself rejects the biblical notion that God had to “rest” on a seventh day. If creation was so easy, couldn’t God simply create everything at a blink of an eye? Why “six” of anything when He is undoubtedly able to create everything we know instantaneously?
Once again, maybe we can find a lesson in the verses immediately following the verse above:
So be patient [O Muhammad] over what they say,
and exalt [Allah] with praise of your Lord
before the rising of the sun
and before its setting.
And [in part] of the night exalt Him
and after prostration. (Qur’an 50:39-40)
Once again, God teaches us by His own example. To the best of our knowledge, 13 billion years have passed since the Big Bang, and 4.5 billion years have passed since the creation of the Earth. It was only after these incomprehensibly long periods of time that humans ever came into existence. When we consider these āyātullāh (God’s signs in nature), we see that God did not rush our creation. Again, we learn that He is aṣ-Ṣabūr, the Most Patient. Again, we are taught the same universal lesson: Things take time, so you too be patient.