These are two examples which Allah sets forth of two kinds of disbelievers. Similarly He sets forth two parables of the hypocrites at the beginning of Surat Al-Baqarah: one involving fire and the other involving water. Similarly, in Surat Ar-Ra`d He gives two parables of the guidance and knowledge that are instilled in the heart, again involving fire and water; we have discussed each of them in the appropriate place and there is no need to repeat it here, praise be to Allah.
The first of these two examples is that of the disbelievers who call others to their disbelief, thinking that they have good actions and beliefs, when this is not in fact the case. Their likeness is that of a mirage which is seen in a desert plain, looking from a distance as if it is a deep sea. The word Qi`ah refers to a vast, flat, level area of land in which the mirage may appear. There are different kinds of mirage, one which appears after midday, and another which appears in the morning and looks like water between heaven and earth. If a person who is in need of water sees the mirage, he thinks that it is water so he heads towards it in order to drink from it, but when he reaches it,
﴿ لَمۡ يَجِدۡهُ شَيۡـًٔ۬ا ﴾
(he finds it to be nothing.); Similarly the disbeliever thinks that he is doing something good and that he has achieved something, but when Allah judges him on the Day of Resurrection, and brings him to account and examines his deeds, he will find that nothing has been accepted at all, either because of a lack of sincere belief or because he did not follow the proper ways of the Shari`ah. As Allah says:
﴿ وَقَدِمۡنَآ إِلَىٰ مَا عَمِلُواْ مِنۡ عَمَلٍ۬ فَجَعَلۡنَـٰهُ هَبَآءً۬ مَّنثُورًا ﴾
(And We shall turn to whatever deeds they did, and We shall make such deeds as scattered floating particles of dust.) (25:23).
And He says here:
﴿ وَوَجَدَ ٱللَّهَ عِندَهُ ۥ فَوَفَّٮٰهُ حِسَابَهُ ۥۗ وَٱللَّهُ سَرِيعُ ٱلۡحِسَابِ ﴾
(but he finds Allah with him, who will pay him his due. And Allah is swift in taking account.)
A similar view was also narrated from Ubayy bin Ka`b, Ibn `Abbas, Mujahid, Qatadah and others. In the Two Sahihs, it is reported that on the Day of Resurrection it will be said to the Jews, “What did you used to worship” They will say, “We used to worship `Uzayr the son of Allah.” It will be said to them, “You have lied. Allah has not begotten a son. What do you want” They will say, “O Lord, we are thirsty, give us something to drink.” It will be said to them, “Do you not see” Then Hell will be shown to them as if it is a mirage, parts of it consuming other parts, and they will go and fall into it. This is the parable of one whose ignorance is deep and advanced.
As for those whose ignorance is simple, those who are uneducated and foolish and blindly follow the leaders of disbelief, knowing and understanding nothing, their parable is as Allah says:
﴿ أَوۡ كَظُلُمَـٰتٍ۬ فِى بَحۡرٍ۬ لُّجِّىٍّ۬ يَغۡشَٮٰهُ مَوۡجٌ۬ مِّن فَوۡقِهِۦ مَوۡجٌ۬ مِّن فَوۡقِهِۦ سَحَابٌ۬ۚ ظُلُمَـٰتُۢ بَعۡضُہَا فَوۡقَ بَعۡضٍ إِذَآ أَخۡرَجَ يَدَهُ ۥ لَمۡ يَكَدۡ يَرَٮٰهَاۗ ﴾
(Or like the darkness in a vast deep sea, overwhelmed with waves topped by waves, topped by dark clouds, darkness upon darkness: if a man stretches out his hand, he can hardly see it!) meaning, he can hardly see it because it is so intensely dark.
This is the parable of the heart of the disbeliever whose ignorance is simple, who merely follows and does not know the true nature of the one whom he follows or where he is going. He is like the ignorant man in the parable who was asked, “Where are you going” He said, “With them.” He was asked, “Where are they going” He said, “I do not know.”
﴿ ظُلُمَـٰتُۢ بَعۡضُہَا فَوۡقَ بَعۡضٍ ﴾
(darkness upon darkness) Ubayy bin Ka`b said: “He is enveloped in five types of darkness: his speech is darkness, his deeds are darkness, his coming in is darkness, his going out is darkness and his destiny on the Day of Resurrection will be darkness in the fire of Hell.”
As-Suddi and Ar-Rabi` bin Anas also said something similar.
﴿ وَمَن لَّمۡ يَجۡعَلِ ٱللَّهُ لَهُ ۥ نُورً۬ا فَمَا لَهُ ۥ مِن نُّورٍ ﴾
(And he for whom Allah has not appointed light, for him there is no light.) One whom Allah does not guide is ignorant and doomed, an utter loser and disbeliever. This is like the Ayah:
﴿ مَن يُضۡلِلِ ٱللَّهُ فَلَا هَادِىَ لَهُ ۥۚ ﴾
(Whomsoever Allah sends astray, none can guide him) (7:186) This is in contrast to what Allah says about the believers:
﴿ يَہۡدِى ٱللَّهُ لِنُورِهِۦ مَن يَشَآءُۚ ﴾
(Allah guides to His Light whom He wills.) (24:35)
We ask Allah the Almighty to put light in our hearts and give us light on our right and on our left, and to increase us in light. [Tafseer Ibn Kathir]