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In Surah Al-Waqiah people are divided into three categories:

Quran 56:7-56:14:

وَكُنتُمْ أَزْوَاجًا ثَلَاثَةً

And ye shall be sorted out into three classes:

فَأَصْحَابُ الْمَيْمَنَةِ مَا أَصْحَابُ الْمَيْمَنَةِ

Then (there will be) the Companions of the Right Hand;- What will be the Companions of the Right Hand?

وَأَصْحَابُ الْمَشْأَمَةِ مَا أَصْحَابُ الْمَشْأَمَةِ And the Companions of the Left Hand,- what will be the Companions of the Left Hand?

وَالسَّابِقُونَ السَّابِقُونَ

And those Foremost (in Faith) will be Foremost (in the Hereafter).

أُولَٰئِكَ الْمُقَرَّبُونَ

These will be those Nearest to Allah:

فِي جَنَّاتِ النَّعِيمِ

In Gardens of Bliss:

ثُلَّةٌ مِّنَ الْأَوَّلِينَ

A number of people from those of old,

وَقَلِيلٌ مِّنَ الْآخِرِينَ

And a few from those of later times.

As far as I know, later times means after the Prophet was sent. So, who are these "foremost" and why they are few in later times?

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Allame Tabatabaee in his Al-Mizan exegesis argues that the two "foremost"s refers to those who are foremost in kheirat or good deeds, and thus are foremost in receiving Allah's rahma (compassion) and maqfira (forgiveness), that is foremost in Hereafter.

He also narrates hadiths from Ahlul-bayt exemplifying the "Foremost" in Able son of Adam; the faithful of the Yasin People, mu'min aali Yasin, the only member of a Christian village who embraced Prophet Muhammad and Islam; the faithful of Pharaoh's people or mu'min aali fir'own whose name was Hizqeel and was the only in Pharaoh's family circle who embraced Prophet Moses; and Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Prophet's cousin, son-in-law and spiritual vicegerent who was the first man to embrace Islam.

Allame also argues that the reason the foremost are said to be fewer in later times can be simply because the later times is a shorter period compared to antiquity during which thousands of prophets emerged.

  • but there are narrations which the Prothet says : علما امتی افضل من انبیا بنی اسرائیل which means scientist of the Prothet's Ummah are superior and better and the prophets of Bani Israeal. so it means that the foremost in the later times must be more!! – abdolah Jan 24 '14 at 8:17
  • hmm, that's a good notion you bring up. But still I think the pious and learned scholars of Prophet's Ummah may not outnumber ancient prophets. They may amount to some hundreds but not tens of thousands. – infatuated Jan 24 '14 at 8:19
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    obviously 14 infallible and their followers are in the foremost. are 14 infallible and their real followers less than thousands? – abdolah Jan 24 '14 at 9:50
  • Surely not, but are you sure they all can be epitomized as the "foremost"? – infatuated Jan 24 '14 at 11:56
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    I don't think so, when we have very few likes of Imam Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Ayatollah Bahjat, etc. These are the epitomes who deserve the title "foremost" and "the close ones"! – infatuated Jan 24 '14 at 11:58
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There are literally many, many- many civilizations that existed before the arrival of Prophet Muhammad. From the western side of the world until the eastern side of the world, there are millions of people existed in this world. Yet, the Qur'an only mentioned clearly the story of prophets and their people which are mostly coming from Middle East region. The rest of the world history is leaved to the reader alone. While at the same time, there are people who lived at American Continent, Europe, Africa, India, East Asia, and Polynesia. If all those places' populations are combined and compared to the Middle Eastern region, it will be like the size of rabbit compared to the size of elephant.

For simple comparison, China population at 2 A.D. is around 59 million people. It is almost 132 times of Cordova, Spain at 1000 A.D. and 3-4 times of Saudi Arabia current population at 21th century. Remember that population boom only happens around 18th century. Did God left all these Chinese people and other people alone without any guide until the arrival of Prophet Muhammad? And if there are the believers among them, did they exist so much?

والسابقون السابقون. أولئك المقربون.

And the forerunners, the forerunners. Those are the ones brought near [to Allah].

Quran 56:10-11

ثلة من الأولين. وقليل من الآخرين.

A [large] company of the former peoples. And a few of the later peoples,

Quran 56:14-15

Based on the verses that have been provided at the beginning of question, the Qur'an told us indirectly, their numbers and stories are just too much. If we also count the population of Jinn before the creation of Adam, of course, the word "forerunners" here will be extremely huge. In the past, they (human and Jinn) have their own messengers, and the believers among them are the ones brought near to God. These verses are the most logical explanation about those people who came before the arrival of Prophet Muhammad. Because there is a good Hadith that told about this stories.

حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ الْمُثَنَّى، وَمُحَمَّدُ بْنُ بَشَّارٍ، - وَاللَّفْظُ لاِبْنِ الْمُثَنَّى - قَالاَ حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ جَعْفَرٍ، حَدَّثَنَا شُعْبَةُ، عَنْ أَبِي إِسْحَاقَ، عَنْ عَمْرِو بْنِ مَيْمُونٍ، عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ، قَالَ كُنَّا مَعَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فِي قُبَّةٍ نَحْوًا مِنْ أَرْبَعِينَ رَجُلاً فَقَالَ ‏"‏ أَتَرْضَوْنَ أَنْ تَكُونُوا رُبُعَ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ قَالَ قُلْنَا نَعَمْ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ ‏"‏ أَتَرْضَوْنَ أَنْ تَكُونُوا ثُلُثَ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ ‏"‏ فَقُلْنَا نَعَمْ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ ‏"‏ وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ إِنِّي لأَرْجُو أَنْ تَكُونُوا نِصْفَ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ وَذَاكَ أَنَّ الْجَنَّةَ لاَ يَدْخُلُهَا إِلاَّ نَفْسٌ مُسْلِمَةٌ وَمَا أَنْتُمْ فِي أَهْلِ الشِّرْكِ إِلاَّ كَالشَّعْرَةِ الْبَيْضَاءِ فِي جِلْدِ الثَّوْرِ الأَسْوَدِ أَوْ كَالشَّعْرَةِ السَّوْدَاءِ فِي جِلْدِ الثَّوْرِ الأَحْمَرِ ‏"‏ ‏.

'Abdullah (b. Mas'ud) reported: We, about forty men, were with the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) in a camp when he said: Aren't you pleased that they should constitute one-fourth of the inhabitants of Paradise? He (the narrator) said: Yes. He (the Holy Prophet) again said: Aren't you pleased that you should constitute one-third of the inhabitants of Paradise? They said: Yes. Upon this he again said: By Him in Whose Hand is my life, I hope that you would constitute one-half of the inhabitants of Paradise and the reason is that no one would be admitted into Paradise but a believer and you are no more among the polytheists than as a white hair on the skin of a black ox or a black hair on the skin of a red ox.

Sahih Muslim

For addition, if we do simple calculation, the following calculation tells the number of these groups.

  1. God's servants will be divided into three kinds 56:7; the companions of right 56:8 (Group R), the companions of left 56:9 (Group X), and the forerunners [56:10] (Group A). The composition of Group A is "large number of the former & few of the later" 56:13-14, The composition of Group R is "large number of the former & large number of the later" 56:39-40, and the composition of Group X is unknown (N). Based on the hadith, the believers among Prophet Muhammad ummah could constitute 1/4, 1/3, or 1/2 of Paradise inhabitants.

  2. The other inhabitant could be constituted from Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, or other prophets' ummah (Group 6). If word ثلة (large number-group, but not majority) can be noted as ratio r, and word قليل (small) can be noted as ratio s, then, 0 < s < r < 1/2. If ratio of Group A + R + X is (r, s) + (r, r) + (N, N') = (1, 1), then if we assume ratio r from former and later people are same, thus the ratio of Group X from former people N = 1 - 2r, and the ratio of Group X from later people N' = 1 - r - s, where N' > N. Thus, the unbelievers from later people could be larger than the former people.

  3. If population of former people is Q, and later people is P, then total population of former people in Paradise is 2rQ and later people is (s+r)P. Hence, if 1/2 of Heaven population comes from Muhammad followers, and the ratio of Group A and R of former people is r+r = 2r, and from later ones is s+r, which 2r > s+r, but 2rQ = (s+r)P, then P > Q. In other words, despite of its short timing of ruling the Earth, total population (believers and unbelievers) of later people is bigger than former ones. And the population of unbelievers from later people could be higher than the believers if r+s < 0.5.

The conclusion is, although our generation (after Prophet Muhammad) could be the biggest believers group in the Heaven, but the population of the believers in our generation could be fewer than the unbelievers.

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I think a better translation may help in answering your question.

most among them will be from the earlier ones, but only a few from the later ones

Here earlier ones refer to the immediate followers of the prophet and later ones refer to later followers including us. Though, here the verse is talking about the Ummah of the Prophet(sws) this principle holds true for followers of all the Prophets. Where the immediate followers are more God conscious then the later ones.

Note: For a more detailed answer please refer Al Bayan Chapter 56 by Javed Ahmed Ghamidi

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I think "foremost" is not a very good translation, a better translation will convey the meaning of "racing to be the first" or "front runners". In other words, "السابقون" means those who race to be the first and the area that they try to be first is explained in verses, e.g.

أُولَٰئِكَ يُسَارِعُونَ فِي الْخَيْرَاتِ وَهُمْ لَهَا سَابِقُونَ
These are the ones who hasten in good deeds, and they race towards them. [23:61]


وَلِكُلٍّ وِجْهَةٌ هُوَ مُوَلِّيهَا فَاسْتَبِقُوا الْخَيْرَاتِ أَيْنَ مَا تَكُونُوا يَأْتِ بِكُمُ اللَّهُ جَمِيعًا إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
And for each is a goal to which God turns them; so race towards good deeds, wherever you are, God will bring you all together, indeed God is capable of anything. [2:148]

Also verses 35:32 and 5:48 (towards good deeds), in verse 59:10 (towards Iman), in verse 57:21 (towards God's mercy).

You can also see the word is used in verse 12:17 where the brothers of Yusof (PBUH) tell their father: "we went to race".

For why people in the later times are less likely to be among them I think the following verses may give some idea about why it is so (and God knows best):

فَخَلَفَ مِن بَعْدِهِمْ خَلْفٌ أَضَاعُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَاتَّبَعُوا الشَّهَوَاتِ ۖ فَسَوْفَ يَلْقَوْنَ غَيًّا
And succeeded after them successors who wasted salaat and followed [desires and] lusts, so soon they will reach aberrance. [19:59]


فَخَلَفَ مِن بَعْدِهِمْ خَلْفٌ وَرِثُوا الْكِتَابَ يَأْخُذُونَ عَرَضَ هَٰذَا الْأَدْنَىٰ وَيَقُولُونَ سَيُغْفَرُ لَنَا وَإِن يَأْتِهِمْ عَرَضٌ مِّثْلُهُ يَأْخُذُوهُ ۚ أَلَمْ يُؤْخَذْ عَلَيْهِم مِّيثَاقُ الْكِتَابِ أَن لَّا يَقُولُوا عَلَى اللَّهِ إِلَّا الْحَقَّ وَدَرَسُوا مَا فِيهِ ۗ وَالدَّارُ الْآخِرَةُ خَيْرٌ لِّلَّذِينَ يَتَّقُونَ ۗ أَفَلَا تَعْقِلُونَ
And succeeded them successors who inherited the Book, they take the offering of this inferior [world] and say [God] will forgive us [in the hereafter] and if they are presented with another offering like that they take it. Was not the covenant of the Book taken from them, that they would not ascribe to God anything but the truth? and they study what is in the Book. And the hereafter home is better for those who restrain. So do you not understand? [7:168]

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"the for most" based on what I have heard and also based on my thinking means the best among men are gone for example the prophets, the sahaba, the tabieen and others. The quality of iman is gradually decreasing therefore bests of men are decreasing gradually.

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