Allah presents us in this verse with three categories of people. Allah makes it clear that in all three cases, the people have been chosen by Him. They are worshippers, and they have inherited the Scripture.
Allah begins with mentioning those "who wrong their own souls". These are the people who succumb to sin and commit acts of disobedience to their Lord.
The second group consists of those who are "halfhearted". These people neither fall into excessive sin nor devote themselves to worship. The third group consists of those who are "foremost in good deeds".
To all three categories of people Allah makes the following promise: "Gardens of Eternity will they enter: therein will they be adorned with bracelets of gold and pearls; and their garments there will be of silk. And they will say: Praise be to Allah, who has removed from us (all) sorrow: for our Lord is indeed oft-forgiving, gracious." [Sûrah Fâtir: 33-34]
These verses are one of the places in the Qur'ân where Allah promises good to His servants. This passage is among the most specific in the sense of generosity that it conveys, especially where it says: "Praise be to Allah, who has removed from us (all) sorrow."
This is because all people – no matter what they experience in this world of fame, fortune, health, success, or power – they are never spared sorrow. Their sorrows might very well stem form the very prosperity that they enjoy. A person might grieve due to the loss of some of these blessings, or the demands that they pace on that person's shoulders, or because of the envy, treachery, and rivalry that those blessings incite in others.
In the hadîth where the angel Gabriel approaches Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and inquires about Islam, faith, and excellence in worship, we again see three levels for people who believe. There are parallels between this hadîth and the verse of the Qur'ân that we are discussing. Here, the first level – Islam – refers to outward acts, implying that those acts of devotion are accompanied by sinful behavior or a lack of deep devotion.
The second level – faith – refers to the deeds of the heart. These are the deeds that prevent a person from falling into sin in the first place. This is what the Prophet (peace be upon him) meant when he said: "A person does not commit adultery while he is a believer." [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim]
Finally there is the level of excellence (ihsân). This is the highest, most illustrious level that a believer can attain. This is the level of those the verse refers to as being the "foremost in good deeds."
One of us might be at times on the level of "Islam" and at other times on the level of "faith". Sometimes, we might even attain the level of "excellence" in our faith and worship. The state of the human heart is always in flux. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "The human heart is more swift to commotion that a pot of water when it is set to boil." [Musnad Ahmad]
It is a mistake to assume that all people are on the same level in their faith, piety, and religious commitment. It creates a problem if we expect that of people and hold them to expectations they are unable to fulfill. When people are not given easier options, they often simply give up or look for alternatives that are often wrong.
This is a mistake that some Islamic preachers make. When a preacher finds himself before a group of Muslims at a public venue or at a school, it is merely a trial for them when the person discussing Islam with them discriminates between them according to their appearances and their statements or passes judgment over them. This is not the Day of Judgment. It is not time to sort people into the righteous and the unrighteous.
We must leave them to their Creator. We should strive for their betterment by exercising patience and by working hard. We need to look towards gradual improvement over a long stretch of time. We need to learn from them what we need to know. None of us are the judges of the people. We must be humble before our Lord. Whoever shows humility before Allah will be ennobled by Allah.
It is not necessary for a person to be a student of knowledge in order to be a Muslim, or memorize the Qur'ân, or engage in Islamic missionary work. The more we impose conditions on the people and pile expectations on their shoulders, the fewer people we will have listening to us.
People have different temperaments. They come from different backgrounds. Some are more mature than others, more educated. Some are new Muslims or are new to religiousness. There will be among them "some who wrong their own souls; some who are halfhearted; and some who are, by Allah's leave, foremost in good deeds."
It is always a mistake to assume that all of them are going to be the same in their devotion or conduct or even in their manner of expressing themselves. This was not even the case during the earliest days of Islam. In those pristine days, great care was taken to accommodate people's natural aptitudes and temperaments. Practical expressions of faith were cultivated that were far removed from impositions, affected airs, and obstinacy.
No doubt, we should strive for progress, growth, and improvement. However, this needs to be accomplished without being pushy or insistent, without offending people or causing resentment, and without causing division in society. The enmity and discord that result from a misguided attempt at reform are often far worse than the evil tendency whose removal is being sought.
No doubt, we should strive for progress, growth, and improvement. However, it is wrong to wage a perpetual campaign for particular aspects of outward behavior – which may or may not be relevant – to the neglect of deeper, more subtle, but vital aspects of faith and life.
No doubt, we should strive for progress, growth, and improvement. However, we must take care not to judge people and discriminate between them on the strength of standards that are as superficial as they are conspicuous. True preference is on the basis of piety. Allah says: "Indeed, the best of you with Allah are the most pious among you." Piety is – first and foremost – in the heart, though it influences our actions and behavior.
It does no service to Islam to relate everything to certain social patterns or behavioral practices as if all is lost otherwise. Allah's mercy is greater than the limited perceptions of people. Someone may attain Paradise in the Hereafter due to a small good deed, or a single shed tear, or a feeling in the heart. Maybe that person helped someone in need, or showed kindness to an animal, or engaged in the smallest act of kindness with the right heartfelt intention or with the right degree of humility.
Someone else may lag behind in the Hereafter whose piety in life was far more evident and conspicuous. Maybe that person was neglectful in taking account of the heart. Maybe that person was too self-satisfied or felt superior to others. Maybe that person exhibited some pretentious behavior or imposed hardships on others that Allah did not intend. Maybe that person spoke ill of people or acted unjustly towards them.
The mercy and favor that Allah shows us all is far greater than the works that we do. The prophet (peace be upon him) said: "If Allah were to punish all of His creatures in the heavens and on Earth, He would not be unjust in doing so. If He were to show them mercy, than His mercy is far greater than their deeds merit." [Sunan Abî Dâwûd]