Ayah 123 is a cross talk between Muslims and the People of the Book. It is followed by a wise and judicious ruling on the confronting claims aimed at bringing the contestants to the right path.
According to Qatadah radhiAllahu anhu, once it so happened that some Muslims and the People of the Book started talking to each other in a vain. The People of the Book said that they were superior to Muslims because their Prophet came before the Prophet of Islam and that their Book appeared before the Qur’an of Muslims did. The Muslims countered by saying that they were superior to all of them for their Prophet was the Last of the Prophets and their Book was the Last of the Books which has abrogated all previous Books. Thereupon, this ayah was revealed. It means that such self-glorification and self-congratulation does not behove anyone for nobody becomes superior to another simply on the basis of conjectures, fancies and claims. Instead, everything depends on deeds. No matter how noble and superior one’s Prophet and Book may be, it is the deed of the adherent which will count. If he acts evil, he will receive the kind of punishment from which he can never hope to be rescued by anyone.
When this ayah was revealed, the Companions radhiAllahu anhum were acutely disturbed. Imam Muslim, al-Tirmdhi, al-Nasai and Ahmad have reported a narration from Abu Huraira radhiAllahu anhu in which he said, “When this ayah was revealed, we were deeply grieved and concerned. We submitted to the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam: This ayah leaves nothing out – the minutest of evil found in our deeds shall be requited! The Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam said:
Do not worry. Keep doing what you can to the best of your ability for (the punishment mentioned here does not necessarily have to be that of Hell instead) whatever hardship or pain which afflicts you makes amends for your sins and requites your evil deeds, to the limit that even a thorn which pinches someone’s foot becomes an expiation of some sin.”
There is another narration which says that any sorrow or pain or sickness or anxiety which afflicts a Muslim in the life of this world becomes an expiation of his or her sins.
According to a narration of Abu Bakr radhiAllahu anhu as reported in Jami al-Tirmidhi, Tafseer ibn Jareer and elsewhere, when the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam recited this ayah to him, he felt as if his back was broken. When the Messenger of Allah noticed the reaction, he asked, “What is the matter with you?” Thereupon, Abu Bakr radhiAllahu anhu submitted, “Ya Rasoolullah, there is hardly anyone among us who can claim to have done nothing bad in one’s life. Now, if every evil deed has to be requited, who can hope to go unscathed from among us?” He said,
“O Abu Bakr, you and your believing brothers need not worry about it because worldly hardships that you face shall make amends for your sins.”
As it appears in another narration, he said, “O Abu Bakr, do you not get sick? Are you never tested by distress and sorrow?” Abu Bakr replied, “No doubt, all this does happen.” Then, the Prophet said, “There, this is the requital of whatever evil you may have done.”
In a hadeeth appearing in Abu Dawud, Aishah radhiAllahu anha has been reported to have said,
“A discomfort faced by a servant of Allah in fever or a pain that afflicts him in any other way, even the pinch of a thorn, all become an expiation of his or her sins, so much so that even the insignificant effort made by someone to look for something in one of his pockets and finding it in another comes to be an expiaton of his sins.”