Surah Al-Hadid (its title meaning, 'the iron') talks about the reality of the transient life of this world. Several descriptive words are used to reveal to us its true nature. After that, Allāh warns us to remember that the life of this world is nothing but a ”deceptive enjoyment”.
“Know that the life of this world is only play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children, as the likeness of vegetation after rain, thereof the growth is pleasing to the tiller; afterwards it dries up and you see it turning yellow; then it becomes straw. But in the Hereafter (there is) a severe torment (for the disbelievers, evil-doers), and (there is) Forgiveness from Allāh and (His) Good Pleasure (for the believers, good-doers), whereas the life of this world is only a deceiving enjoyment“. [57:20]
In order to see the real picture being painted by our Creator as He details to us the reality of the life of this world, it would be beneficial to ponder on the root meanings of the several Arabic words He has used in the above verse. All the meanings have been taken from Edward William Lane's online Arabic-to-English Lexicon:
(i) Play, sport, game, fun, joke, prank, or jest.
(ii) Diversion, pastime, sport, or play; especially that which is frivolous or vain; that which occupies a person so as to divert him or her from that which should render him sad or solicitous/anxious/concerned.
(iii) Decoration, finery, show, pomp, or gaeity.
(iv) Glorifying or boasting (viz. to each other), praising or commending own selves for certain properties or qualities, such as enumerating or recounting the particulars of their own ancestral nobility or eminence; or their honorable deeds. Contending for superiority by reason of honors arising from memorable deeds or qualities, or from parentage or relationship, and other things relating to themselves or their ancestors; also: boasting of qualities extrinsic to themselves such as wealth, rank or station.
(v) Contending, one with another, for superiority in number of (different types of) wealth and children.
(vi) The word مَتَـاعُ means anything useful or advantageous viz. utensils, furniture, or food, and the word الْغُرُور means that by which one is deceived; something false and vain. In other words, the life of this world is a provision that is deceptive. It can be used to achieve the best end i.e. Allāh's pleasure and an abode in Paradise in the Hereafter, but is very deceptive in and of itself.
Allāh has used a total of five terms and phrases to describe to us the reality of the life of this world in the Qurʾān. Analysis of their meanings clearly reveals that indeed, the life of this world is such that it makes a believer lose focus of the Hereafter.
Consider this – games are fun to play. They cause us to get really involved in them, whether as participants, or as onlookers. The aspect of winning versus losing, or earning more points by achieving a target, enthuses the more keen ones among us to a state of physical and mental euphoria.
When anyone is involved in a game as a participant, whether he is playing outside, or playing a computer game indoors, he is distracted perhaps from more pending matters that require his attention. For some sports enthusiasts, tearing themselves away from a game to answer a call of nature, eat a meal, or pray an obligatory prayer also becomes difficult.
Now, with this picture in mind, we can see why Allāh has called the life of this world “a game.” We get so involved in the “game” itself, in its short-term goals and enjoyments, that we tend to lose focus on the importance of the Hereafter. As an example, someone might postpone performing Hajj if important events related to his career are scheduled to take place at the same time in the calendar.
Allāh has next called the life of this world “لَهْوٌ” - a “diversion.” It has the potency to make a person lose focus of the goals of the Hereafter. Imagine a person driving a car; if he or she spots something interesting on the side of the road that will “divert” him or her from driving, he or she will definitely lose focus of the road, resulting in a possible collision.
Another interesting point about the word ”لَهْوٌ” is how it has been used in Surah Al-Jum'uah to refer to a caravan that was beating its drums. When the Muslim congregation gathered in the mosque for Friday prayers heard these drums, they rushed towards the caravan:
“Yet [it does happen that] when people become aware of [an occasion for] worldly gain or a passing delight, they rush headlong towards it, and leave you (O Muḥammad) standing [and preaching]“. [62:11]
According to a narration that imām Ahmad recorded, Jabir [رضى الله عنه] narrated, “Once, a caravan arrived at Al-Madīnah while Allāh's Messenger [صلى الله عليه و سلم] was giving a khutbah. So the people left, and only twelve men remained. Then Allāh revealed the above verse”. [Tafsir Ibn Kathir]
It is clear that in this incident, the word “لَهْوٌ” was used to indicate the beating of the caravan's drums. However, its effect was such that worshippers immediately got diverted or distracted from their goal of listening to the Prophet's [صلى الله عليه و سلم] sermon whilst attending Friday prayers. With this perfect simile in mind, we can see why Allāh has used this word to refer to the life of this world. It can easily distract us, with its short-term goals, from the more important objective of success in the Hereafter.
The word زِينَةٌ means beauty and decoration; anything that is naturally pleasing to look at, or beautified to attract our attention. This could include everything that falls under the umbrella of natural beauty e.g. scenic landscapes, lush vegetation, flowers, and waterfalls, to those things that are made beautiful; which the human heart enjoys.
Bring to mind festivals, celebrations, jewelry, interior decor, architecture, branded/stylish couture, glamour, fashion, luxuries, accessories and diverse cuisines. Human beings love to create, experiment and play around with every conceivable kind of raw material provided by Allāh, to transform it into something beautiful for their adornment or consumption- animal hides are transformed into plush seating; edible textures and tastes are whipped up into sweet and savoury delicacies, and threads are transformed and weaved to produce a myriad of clothes and dresses! Yes, the life of this world definitely revolves a lot around زِينَةٌ !
The words تَفَاخُرٌ بَيْنَكُم imply boasting to others, and being boasted to, as the above explanation has stated, about intangible assets of prestige and value, such as honorable lineage, awards and achievements, or righteous deeds. Anything that can cause a person to become proud in and of themselves, can be boasted about. It is important to note here, that a person's intention makes the difference – perhaps a graduation party thrown to genuinely celebrate one's happiness at an adult offpsring's educational milestone with loved ones, could instead become a means of تَفَاخُرٌ بَيْنَكُم , if done with the intention of boasting of this achievement to relatives in order to up oneself in their eyes.
Similarly, several people display their honors, awards and plaques in their drawing rooms or offices, where they receive guests. This, too, if done to establish one's credibility in one's profession, for example, as a practicing doctor whose patients want reassurance that they are coming to a reliable person, would not be blameworthy. However, if it is done to make oneself appear better than others, than it would be تَفَاخُرٌ بَيْنَكُم. This mutual boasting starts from childhood (“I have more dolls than you!”) and goes on, increasing in type and intensity, well into adulthood and old age (“All my children are qualified doctors who graduated summa cum laude from top-notch universities.”).
Similarly, تَكَاثُرٌ فِى الاٌّمْوَلِ وَالاٌّوْلْـد , quite simply put, means the “rat race” we are all inadvertently so familiar with, and to an extent, also involved in. This usually starts when a person enters their twenties and beyond, which is a time in their lives when they get married, start having children, and also start earning money through their careers.
Beyond one's twenties, there is a distinct “keeping up with the Joneses” aspect in one's life, that subtly creeps in. Whenever one hears of a neighbor, sibling, relative or friend moving into a bigger, luxurious house, acquiring foreign citizenship (this applies mostly to us Eastern dwellers of developing countries), having another child, getting promoted, or adding an SUV to their drive, we immediately start imagining how wonderful it would be if the same happened to us.
It is interesting how Allāh has combined two of the words He has used in this verse of Surah Al-Hadid to describe the life of this world, in another verse in the Qurʾān: the first verse of Surah Al-Takaathur:
“The mutual rivalry for piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the more serious things)“. [102:1]
Since تَّكَاثُرُ means contending to increase in numbers of tangible blessings, it is clear from this verse too, that human beings are naturally “diverted” in this life by this, from their primary goal – which should be success in the Hereafter.
Allāh goes on after this, in the above verse, to elaborate the simile of this world's life: of it being like the vegetation or herbage that grows on earth, and pleases its tiller/farmer when it reaches its lustrous, colorful peak viz. the plants or crops become strong and fully grown, bearing fruit or grain. However, after a short period of this lustre, color and vibrance, the plants eventually wither, become dry, lifeless straw, and die. The same earth that was alive with crops a while ago becomes empty and plain again; the color, leaves, fruit, grains or flowers are nowhere to be seen, as if they never existed!
That is, in reality, the same thing that happens to everyone and everything during the life of this world. The young, beautiful face becomes wrinkled and haggard; the lustrous hair becomes limp and grey; the strong bones become brittle, and strong muscles give way to weakness; the eyes lose their sight; the erect spine becomes bent. Moreover, every inanimate thing also goes into decline: the architecturally sound mansion becomes depleted and worn over the years, erosion causing its dilapidation and ruin; the clothes lose their newness, shine and glory, withering away; 'new' technology loses its value and becomes obsolete and unwanted; the flashy vehicle goes out of vogue and ends up in a junk yard as rubble. The list is endless.
Now that our eyes have been opened to the truth about the life of this world; about how its adornments and distractions are alluring but deceptive in nature, because they divert our attention from the Hereafter and make us think that all this 'glitter' will last forever; when in fact, everything on this earth will turn to dust as Allāh has promised, we should remember the importance of consistently reciting and reading the Qurʾān as a daily routine, so that we are reminded of this important fact about this transitory life. That way, the reminders such as this verse, that tells us in the end about the two options we have before us – either painful torment, or the forgiveness of Allāh and His pleasure - will help keep us focused on those deeds that will enable us to enjoy the truly enjoyable, beautiful, desirable, and eternal life, inshā'Allāh — the one in the Hereafter.