Why Does the Quran Talk About the People of the Right and Left Hand?
Some exegetes and scholars of ethics have argued that the straight path is a middle path between excess and deficiency. Though there is much evidence for this in the Qur’an and traditions, it is not a complete theory of morality and does not capture everyone on the right path. Indeed, the Qur’an speaks of two groups of virtuous individuals in Chapter 56 (al-Wāqi‘ah): the People of the Right Hand, and the Foremost Ones. The golden means theory of ethics applies to the former, but not the latter.
The People of the Right Hand follow balanced ordinary lives based on general principles such as “Do not keep your hand chained to your neck, nor open it altogether” (17:29); “Those who, when spending, are neither wasteful nor tight-fisted, and moderation lies between these [extremes]” (25:67); “Be neither loud in your prayer, nor murmur it, but follow a middle course between these” (17:110); “Eat and drink, but do not waste… Say, ‘Who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has brought forth for His servants, and the good things of [His] provision?’ Say, ‘These are for the faithful in the life of this world…” (7:31-32).
Besides the balanced practitioners, there are also those who are leaders in acts of good, worship and benevolence. Such are those who do not stop at any limit of righteous acts, for they follow a higher level of guidelines: “So take the lead in all good works” (2:148, 5:48); “Be wary of Allah with the wariness due to Him” (3:102); “And wage jihād for the sake of Allah, a jihād which is worthy of Him” (22:78); “[Those] who love those who migrate toward them, and do not find in their breasts any need for that which is given to them, but prefer [the Immigrants] to themselves, though poverty be their own lot. And those who are saved from their own greed—it is they who are the felicitous” (59:9; also see 76:8, about those who donate their meal to the needy for three days in a row despite their utmost hunger and need).
This is the station of lovers, and the station of love does not take any limits. This distinction and contrast is clearly seen in verse 35:32 (quoted above), which separates between those who are average (muqtaṣid) and those who take the lead in good works (sābiqun bil-khayrāt). At any rate, it is important to realise that there are different degrees and levels of righteousness; keeping a balanced life and a steady pace is only desirable for those who cannot sustain running or flying.
The People of The Left Hand
The People of the Right Hand would have the opposite qualities of the People of the Left Hand, and the Foremost Ones are those who exceed and surpass the normal limits of the People of the Right Hand. The two groups move in the same direction, except that one group is the leader in good and the other group follows. One example of their difference can be seen in the worship of the Prophet, who used to stand up in prayer all night or a significant part of the night (73:1-4 and 73:20), to the extent that God revealed to him, “In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful. Ṭā Hā! We did not send down to you the Qur’an that you should be distressed” (20:1-2).
Another example is the charities and donations of the Ahlulbayt, who were truly acting on verses such as 59:9 and 76:8 more than 17:29 and 25:67. For example, Ḥasan ibn Ali divided his entire wealth three times in the way of God between himself and the poor. Finally, one can take note of Prophet Ishmael who waited one year at his rendezvous until his party showed up, just because they had not specified a time limit. Such behaviour may not be comprehensible to the average mind and is certainly beyond the practical capacity of an average person, but that is exactly what sets the Foremost Ones apart from the People of the Right Hand.
Don’t set yourself as a standard to assess / The acts of the pious and the men of success.
Right and right are the same when you write / But each has a meaning in its own right.
Those who are heavy by material weight, / They can’t proceed; they have to wait.
But the foremost are those who are never late / In taking the lead on the path that’s straight.