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“Know ye all, that the life of this world is but play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting and multiplying (in rivalry) amongst yourselves, riches and children…” (Surah Al-Hadid, 57:20)

Although I’ve read this verse numerous times, I recently encountered a slightly different translation that caused me to think about the insight it provides into the nature of humanity, particularly the bolded words.

So, yes, we have heard numerous times the comparison/description of this current world as a place of mere indulgence in the follies of life. But the “mutual boasting” and “in rivalry amongst yourselves” part exhibits something much more insightful about the human condition in this world. One of the most significant contradictions and problems of the notion of a Utopia on earth has always been that, if everyone is equal, then there is nothing for humans to strive towards (I don’t mean spiritually, but sociologically) – the world would be stripped of all sense of any necessity for ambition. There are two ways this could happen:

1. If everyone is simply equal in socioeconomic status and is given the same position in occupation – (which is realistically impossible anyway)

2. If an Utopian world runs on technology that does everything for us and abolishes the need for jobs altogether (which would also create the problem of sheer boredom with idleness).

This is where the verse sheds more light. Humans are innately ingrained with 1. the necessity for some form of occupation 2. the desire to strive higher, to reach further, the ambition to be better than others. Especially when considering the modern world, we are always striving socioeconomically or personally. You might say the latter is not necessarily always true, for example, serfs in Medieval Europe who did not have any semblance of an opportunity to strive higher, or for people who are content with a simple life and means of living, like farmers – but the point is, they still had/have an occupation – they still have some form of meaning, some work by which they are occupying their lives. Without either of these two factors, society itself would become listless and feel meaningless (again, I’m not talking about spiritually, I’m talking about sociologically, the natural structures by which the society of this world functions). This is also of course where such ideologies of Capitalism and Socialism comes into factor, but that’s a whole other long conversation.

Thus, in such a supposedly Utopian society, we could never truly be happy (not on earth anyway) – which is of course why the concept of Utopia becomes paradoxically and ironically a “Dystopia.” This is why in verse 57:20 Allah equates the “the life of this world” to the ambitious nature of humanity – we are always “in rivalry among ourselves,” and that is the very nature of the life we live, because without it, the earthly life would not truly exist. This gives us a mere glimpse into the sheer understanding and knowledge Allah has of the nature of humanity, since he is the One who created us – and thus this provides a whole different understanding of how and why Allah knows what is better for us than we do ourselves. This is further exhibited through the next part of the verse:

“Here is a similitude (to this life): The rain and the growth which it brings forth, delight the hearts of the tillers; soon it withers; thou wilt see it grow yellow; then it becomes dry and crumbles away…And what is the life of this world, but goods and chattels of deception?” (57:20)

Ultimately, Allah reminds us that the the ambitions of this world will not matter – all of it will, eventually, some day, “crumble away” – because this is not the world to which we truly belong. The natural structures by which this world functions will never enable it to be where we truly belong, for the same reason why a Utopia on earth could never exist. It will never be where we truly belong because no matter what we have, where we are in life, we will always want more, strive for more, crave for more – and it will never be enough until we reach the very world for which we were created.

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