Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) says in Suratul Anbiya:
Translation: If only those who disbelieved knew when they will not be able to ward off the Fire from their faces, nor from their backs; and they will not be helped. [Surah Suratul Anbiya, verse 39]
The word for ward off is “yakuffoona”, “يَكُفُّونَ” and this is from the root word “ka-fa-fa” or “kaff” which means palm/hand. The disbelievers will not be able to put their hands out, avert or prevent themselves from the punishment. Imagine if something is coming towards your face, what is the first thing you would do? Cover and protect your face with your hands, right? The disbelievers will not be able to do this, they will not be able to avert or obstruct the fire from their faces. may Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) protect us from it, ameen. And Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) continues, “nor from their backs” وَلَا عَن ظُهُورِهِمْ Now if something came towards your face and you were not able to cover it your hands, what would you do then? Turn around and protect yourself with your back, right? The disbelievers will not even be able to do this when the fire comes to them, “and they will not be helped”. No one will be there for them. No helper or assistant to come and save them from the punishment.
Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) begins this ayah with “law” “if only” and these types of ayaat are throughout the Qur’an. Read the ayah again…Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) doesn’t answer what would happen if the disbelievers knew this, because the answer is left up to us and it is understood. The ‘if only’ in this ayah carries two meanings:
Firstly, if only the disbelievers knew: they would not ask for the punishment. They would not be hasty. They would not say the statements they say.
Secondly, “law” can be understood as “harf at-tamannu “, a statement of hope or wish. Like saying “Alas”, “I wish”, so “if only they knew”.
Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) continues:
Translation: Nay, it will come upon them all of a sudden and will perplex them, and they will have no power to avert it, nor will they get respite. [Surah Suratul Anbiya, verse(s) 40]
“It” in this ayah can mean the fire or the day of Judgment. It will come to them “baghtah”, unexpectedly, suddenly, and without any alert. Then Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) says, ” فَتَبْهَتُهُمْ ” “then it perplexed them”. This word is from “ba-ha-ta” and it literally means to bewilder and overwhelm someone. It means to astonish and shock someone in such a way that they cannot see anything. It will render the disbelievers speechless, because they are not expecting it at all. They will not be able to repel the punishment or the day of judgment and they will not be given respite. What does respite mean in this ayah? It means that they will not be given the chance to repent, to reform or offer an excuse to Allah (سبحانه وتعالى). The time for that has passed.
May Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) protect us from ever entering the fire and envelop us in His Rahmah and may He make our best deeds our last and guide us until we enter Firdaws, Ameen.
Al-Huda Institute Canada: Ta’leem Al Qur’an English course for women.