Back when I was taking college elementary-education classes, my professors often liked prompting us to let our future students draft up their own classroom rules. The point of this was to give students a small sense of power and investment in the organization and welfare of their classrooms. The predicted hitch: children are rather draconian creatures on the topics of fairness and justice. We teachers-to-be were warned that we might be shocked at the strict standards our students –never once considering their likeliness to run afoul of their own rules– would set for themselves and the punishments they’d proscribe, and that we’d probably need to intercede and temper things out a bit. This is true of broader society as well: people are likely to be more comfortable with setting up and living in a world full of harsh rules and punishments as long as they think it’ll never apply to them.
The Quran sets up some harsh punishments for unbelievers. Today’s surah is going to be marred by some very vivid and cruel images of Hell. Their purpose is to scare the unbelievers and make them receptive to Muhammad’s guidance. The point of the Quran’s insistence upon Hell is to convince people that they really need to listen to the things that will get them to heaven. It is also a reminder to believers that their response to God is supposed to be gratitude for making the effort to guide them away from Hell. In the midst of the surah we’ll listen in to a prayer of Abraham’s (Ibrahim‘s) and observe the gratitude and grace of a man who knows God guides and listens to him.
Those who don’t expect to be punished often don’t stop to think about the harshness of the punishments they are backing. Yet these things reflect the proposed character of the God or world they believe in, and today’s surah shall stir some old questions about God as Islam sees Him.