Tafseer Surah At-Teen
The prophet (saw) was given the difficult task of calling people to Islam but in the previous surah he (saw) was given a promise in which he (saw) was told that he (saw) would encounter ease through divine intervention. The beginning oaths of this surah allude to the prophets of the past including Muhammad (saw) and we learn that all messengers were on this task. Not only will Allah (swt) make the task easy but we also learn that man was created qualified to perform his task of obedience to Allah (swt). The central message of this surah is that Allah (swt) made man in the best possible fashion and with intricate design, capable of the task for which he was created. The previous four surahs talk about spirituality and cleansing of the self, beginning with surah Ash-Shams which spoke of purification. Surah Al-Layl is considered the surah of Abu Bakr (ra), who reached the highest level of iman that a non-prophet can reach and both surah Ad-Duha and Al-Inshirah are dedicated to the elevated status of the prophet (saw). It is therefore apparent that there was a progression in these surahs from the high to the higher to the highest and we learnt that man has the potential to reach the highest heights. However, he can also plunge to the lowest depths despite being designed to excel and we are now going to discuss the lowest of the low. This is a surah which gives one of the most insightful looks at the human being in the Quran.
1) By the fig and the olive
We begin with the first of a series of three oaths. Whenever Allah (swt) takes an oath, He (swt) gives a response to that oath and the response is always connected to the oath. Furthermore, the response to the oath is often the central theme of the surah. At-Teen, which is a fig, appears in the Quran a number of times and its blessings have also been discussed in the Sunnah a number of times. The prophet (saw) said make a habit of eating them because if there was a fruit that belonged to Jannah it would be figs because, like the fruits of Jannah, they do not have pips in them. It is therefore considered a blessed tree. The mufassiroon debated whether the verse is talking about the actual fig or rather a location that is known for figs because in classical Arabic times a place was often named after the thing it was famous for. It is the case that in ancient Arabic poetry teen was used to refer to a location but others said that Allah (swt) was simply talking about the fig because it is blessed. Those who advocate that it is a place say that the place could be Damascus in Syria or southern Iraq where Ibrahim (as) used to be. The stronger opinion is that it is referring to the region where Mount Judi is where Nuh’s (as) Ark landed. This is a region which has a lot of mountains where figs grow.
Zaytoon which is the word for olive is spoken about in blessed ways in the Quran and is a symbol of purity, ‘…from the oil of a blessed olive tree…’ (An-Nur 24:35). Some said that this is not just referring to the olive but the Mount of Olives whilst Ibn Abbas (ra) argued that it is actually referring to Masjid al Aqsa in Palestine. So teen could be referring to Nuh (as) and zaytoon to Esa (as) and this is further corroborated in the Bible where Esa (as) prayed on the Mount of Olives. It is important to appreciate that we do not go to the bible for confirmation of the Quran but there is no harm in going to the people of the book to confirm what has already been confirmed in the Quran. So we are allowed to quote the Books of the People of the Book when something agrees with our Qur’an and Sunnah but we cannot quote their books to find ‘a truth’ which is not in ours. The idea that it is referring to both the fruit and its location was also a view from the early generation of Muslims. One opinion is that teen refers to the valley of Nuh (as) and another is that combined they both refer to Esa (as).
Toor is not considered to be an Arabic word and was thought to be a lush green mountainous land. In one place in the Quran Allah (swt) says sineen and in another sinaa’a. In Hebrew both variations existed and were known to Jewish scholars and this refers to the place where Musa (as) spoke to Allah (swt). This mountain and its name was not known to the Arabs and so when Muhammad (saw), the unlettered Arab messenger, told the Jews of this location, which was only known to their scholars, it caused them to wonder how he could have possibly known this classified information. The Messenger of Allah (saw) who had no Jewish companions when this surah was revealed knew this through the favour of Allah (swt), ‘…Allah has revealed to you the Book and wisdom and has taught you that which you did not know. The grace of Allah on you has always been great.’ (An-Nisa’ 4:113) Some scholars say that when Allah (swt) takes an oath by something He is honouring it whilst another group said that this is not the reason. The people who say it is not honoured say that when someone swears by something they always swear by something that is higher than themselves in order to make themselves more believable. Therefore, why would Allah (swt) the Highest of the high take an oath by anything? Rather, He (swt) takes an oath so that whatever he takes an oath by is used as an evidence for what is coming. The opposing opinion is that just because Allah (swt) is the most honourable it does not mean He (swt) did not give honour to other things; for example, Allah (swt) honoured the son of Adam (as) and this is probably the safer opinion.
The word balad is a city that has defined borders and this ayah refers to the city of Makkah. This fulfils the dua of Ibrahim (as) who wanted Makkah to become a secure city, ‘Remember when Ibrahim said, ‘Lord, make this town safe! Preserve me and my offspring from idolatry’ (Ibrahim 14:35). The word ameen could be sourced from the word amanah which means trust or from aman which means peace. If you take it from amanah then there are two possible meanings. Firstly, it means that this city is a trust to whosoever lives in it and they have to abide by certain principles. Secondly, it means that this is a city that is known for trusts and to this city Allah (swt) entrusted the house of Allah, the final messenger and the final message. If it is from aman then it means that this city is exceptionally peaceful which is part of the blessing and miracle of Makkah because no matter how violent the Arabs were, they never misbehaved in Makkah. Similarly, other tribes who liked looting never looted when in Makkah. A few surahs ago in surah Al Balad, Allah (swt) used the same word balad but did not add the adjective ameen. It is clear why the adjective ameen was not used in that surah as the messenger (saw) was being attacked and so the word was not appropriate as there was no peace for him there at that time. This shows how precise the wording of the Quran is.
In the first ayah teen comes before zaytoon and the benefit of this sequence is that the former is one of the fruits of Jannah but the latter is more blessed as Allah (swt) gives it more elevation in the Quran. Beyond zaytoon is Mount Sinai in verse two where Allah (swt) spoke to Musa and so we have a further elevation and in the third ayah is the house of Allah (swt) that Ibrahim (as) built, where the final revelation came and where the final messenger was born. Thus, we see in the sequencing a transition from the blessed to the most blessed.
4) We have created man in the finest state
The Quran offers solutions to problems and confusions that afflict people but if you don’t understand the issues that afflict people today then you won’t understand how to derive benefit from the Quran. One psychological view on man is that he is a wretched creature with no goodness inside and that everything he does is to satisfy his own needs and desires. Laws and regulations are in place so that he can function in society on the outside but on the inside he is actually a wild animal with no good in him, controlled only by law and order. Any good this person does is not due to any inherent good but rather due to external influences. In the absence of any external force man is capable of nothing but evil and human history and indeed the news shows that humans are capable of disgusting acts and oppression. Some psychologists deny that man has free will and argue that man is a product of genetics and of society – pre-programmed to behave in certain ways. For example, if you are brought up in a tough neighbourhood then you have no choice but to follow suit.
Before modern times there were three things that were most important to people – God, the afterlife and the human soul. In modern times there has been a war against religion. Some people still believe in God but He is not as important anymore. Some people think that God may or may not be there but the universe definitely is so people should concentrate on that which is tangible and visible. So, there has been a shift from the study of the divine to the study of the material universe. People have also shifted from worrying about the next life to trying to make this life better. A third shift in human behaviour is a switch in emphasis from the invisible soul to the visible body and this is what this surah is about. We can see the body but not the soul. Yet, it is the soul that made us the best creation and the soul that gave man honour. That which gave man this honour, however, is no longer studied. Rather, the focus is on the body and that which makes us no different to animals. Darwinism and the idea that we are no more than evolved animals and sophisticated versions of monkeys developed as popular ideas and the understanding that just like an animal wants to feed its stomach, protect itself and satisfy its lust, so too does man. However, animals do not have morals or a sense of right or wrong. The idea that religion is the truth has gone and the values and beliefs that gave us honour and morality is also gone. The way we study humans today is more sophisticated than ever before. Scientific development and research has enabled us to understand the way our body works better than ever before yet sadly we are also more ignorant of what we are than ever before. Allah (swt) warns people in the Quran to not become like those who forgot him, ‘And be not like those who forgot Allah, so He made them forget themselves. Those are the defiantly disobedient’ (Hashr 59:19). These people forgot Allah (swt) and the next life and so Allah (swt) made them forget their own self and soul leaving them unable to determine their true purpose and look beyond the body.
La is used for emphasis and emphasis is used when you don’t believe something. Together with qad the emphasis is on the fact that man was honoured before he was even born. Allah (swt) says we created meaning he created in the best possible fashion. Ahsan comes from the word husn which means beauty and ahsan is used to describe something that is beautiful on the inside and the outside. The word qaama means to make something stand upright and qawwama is used to straighten a spear which has become bent in battle. Taqweem, which comes from qaama, means to bring multiple components together and balance them so that they are perfectly straight and perfectly designed for the purpose intended. Allah (swt) says in this ayah that He (swt) made man in the best fashion and balance. Humans are the only creatures who walk upright both morally and physically. We have been made in a perfect balance of body and soul with a soul that desires a balance between worldly and spiritual sustenance. Allah (swt) refutes those who say that humans have no self-honour. Forgetting Allah (swt) brings about man’s disgrace and remembering Him brings about honour and morality. When people forget Allah (swt), they think they are living a life of intellectualism and freedom and that religion corrupts people’s minds, whereas in reality they have really become slaves to their desires.
This ayah is the response to the oaths taken. Allah (swt) is telling us that the story of Ibrahim (built the Ka’bah and is associated in verse three), Nuh, Esa, Musa and Muhammad is evidence that man was created above animals and in the best fashion. The response to the allegation that man has no honour is countered by the lives of these prophets. Allah (saw) says in this ayah that ‘We’ created as opposed to ‘He’ created. The function of this is to show that Allah (swt) is close and not far. Using ‘We’ also indicates power and complete control and illustrates His majesty in how He created the human being.
5) Then We reduced him into the lowest of the low
This surah has a very deep connection with surah Al Balad. After Al Balad there are four surahs that talk about the internal spiritual state of the human being. These series of surahs ends with the spiritual state of the prophet (saw). Before them however came Al Balad which is a surah that talks about the struggle of the human being. On one hand in Al Balad we learn that man is created in toil and on the other hand in this surah we learn that he is created in the best possible fashion meaning he is capable of dealing with that toil. In Al Balad man did not respond to the call of climbing the tougher path to salvation, which in this surah renders him as the lowest of the low.
When Allah (swt) mentions the weakness of man He (swt) does not generally mention Himself alongside, as weakness cannot be attributed to him. The weakness of man is due to his own fault and not Allah’s. So, why did Allah (swt) mention Himself next to this negative point? Allah (swt) tells us that He created man in the best fashion and then due to the evil of his actions – We (still showing Allah’s Majesty) – lowered him to the lowest of the low. So this is not a flaw in Allah’s creation that this human slave went to the lowest of the low. Allah (swt) purposely mentioned Himself lowering this human because if He did not then people might think that Allah’s creation was not really perfect. There are a number of opinions regarding what being the lowest of the low really is. One opinion is that reaching the lowest of the low is reaching old age. Animals can still carry out certain jobs for their owners and even take care of themselves when they are old but men cannot and so they’re lower than even animals in old age. Another opinion is that it refers to the weakness of those who used to be strong in body and mind. However, others say that in the context of this surah one cannot really say that it is the physical creation of the human being referred to. Rather it is his moral and ethical makeup which made him high in the first place. The soul is what made him high and so it does not make sense to mention the weakness of the body.
There are many words in the Arabic language for turning away but radad specifically is used here because it means to reject something on the basis that it is unacceptable. Allah (swt) rejected man because he did something unacceptable after being created in the best possible fashion. Asfal as-Safileen is the Lowest of the Low and the word asfal means the lowest and is the antonym of the word a’la, which means the highest. Allah (swt) used both words in the following ayah, ‘..and made the word of those who disbelieved the lowest, while the word of Allah – that is the highest. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise’ (Tawba 9:40). Sifla is used for low or nasty people that you don’t want to associate with. It does not refer to low in terms of class or wealth but rather in terms of morals and behaviour. Allah (swt) created man above everything else so much so that the angels had to do sajda to Adam (as), ‘And We have certainly honoured the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference’ (Israa’ 17:70).
So, the human is higher on the earth and everything else is beneath us and at our service. Now Allah (swt) says that because of man’s unacceptable behaviour he was made the lowest of the low and even lower than the things he was designed to be higher than. Humans were supposed to worship Allah (swt) yet they end up worshipping things that are lower than humans when they reject Allah (swt). Therefore, they bring themselves to be lower than things which are inherently low. Modern thought has said that humans are like animals, yet mankind has consistently shown through the ages that he can often be lower than even animals. Animals will usually only attack other animals when they are hungry or in danger. If they have full stomachs they are not likely to attack. However, the human being is such a creation that he will continue to attack, steal, rob and cheat despite having wealth simply because of his greed. Mankind can engage in horrific and degrading deeds that animals would never do such as war, rape, genocide and oppression and so man becomes lower than animals. Other mufassiroon say that this verse is talking about hellfire where people will be when they sin. If Allah (swt) has honoured the human being and he has lowered himself to the lowest of the low in morals and behaviour, then Allah (swt) will throw him into the lowest parts of the hellfire.
The word thumma is used to put a gap between things and its use here illustrates that there was a long gap between the time that man was created in the best fashion and when he was reduced to being the lowest of the low. So some scholars have said that when Allah (swt) first created man and they took the covenant from Him they were high but then when they came to the earth they were lowered. Another opinion is that when humans come out of the womb they are decent and on the fitrah but then when they became older they became lowered and diverted from the fitrah due to their sins. Others say that when the message first came to the Muslims they were upright but then when they were tested they lowered themselves. The thumma also indicates that Allah (swt) will give people time to redeem themselves when they sin before punishing them. How do we reconcile this ayah of mankind being created in the best form with other ayaat in the Quran which mention that man is weak and flawed. The answer is that Allah (swt) man in a balance of body and spirit. When there is an imbalance in this then the flaws of mankind manifest themselves. This imbalance can occur through people engrossing themselves in worldly affairs too much, which can cause their spiritual connection to Allah (swt) to suffer. But when there is a balance of spiritual worship to Allah and permissible worldly matters, man gets strong and in the most upright position. When these two components are balanced, man is made the highest of the high but when imbalanced he is lowered.
6) Except for those who believe and do righteous deeds, for they will have a reward never ending
In verse four we described the modern view that man has no inherent internal good and only does good due to external pressure. The internal problem is solved with ‘except for those who believe’ as this is an issue of imaan. The external remedy is solved with ‘and do righteous deeds’. When people perform certain actions in this life it is often because they want something in return. For example, we go to work with the expectation that we will get paid and we study so that we can pass our exams and excel. Our wants and desires are on the inside and our behaviour manifests on the outside. Our wants and desires will be cleansed if we have imaan in our hearts and our behaviour on the outside as a consequence will also be cleansed. The word mamnoon comes from mann which means cut and ghayru mamnoon means that which will not be cut off. In Arabic al Maneen is used to refer to the cloud of dust in the desert which becomes so thick that you cannot see through it and your view is cut off. The implication is that those who stay firm in belief and do good deeds for Allah’s pleasure will get a reward that does not get cut off. Deeds are temporary but the rewards for performing actions for Allah’s pleasure are endless. In surah al Balad a parallel was drawn between the struggles of this world and climbing up a mountain. Either you will climb the mountain in this life, which requires effort and sacrifice but brings Allah’s rewards, or the next like Waleed ibn al Mughirah who will be forced to climb a mountain in hellfire continuously, ‘I shall oblige him to (climb a slippery mountain in the Hell-fire called As-Sa’ud, or to) face a severe torment!’ (Mudathir 74:17).
7) So, what can make you, after all this, deny the Judgement?
So far the discussion has been on what the human being is capable of. If after all this one is able to appreciate that the human being is above all other species and is an intellectual being not designed to be merely concerned with the needs of the body, then that should lead you to understand that man has a higher purpose. What could possibly cause one to deny Islam after this realisation? The fa in this ayah essentially means ‘so, after all that has been mentioned’. The maa in this ayah has been interpreted in two ways; it could either be referring to what or what kind of person. If it is the former then the question is what will make you lie against the deen, criticise it and make allegations against it. Takdheeb is when you know something is true but you deny it and call it a lie anyway. Some people recognise that the religion is true and it makes sense but despite this they don’t want to submit to Allah (swt) and so to help them live with themselves they criticise the religion and strive to prove that Islam is illogical by ridiculing aayaat and ahadith. This is done not out of intellectual curiosity but rather out of their desire to make themselves feel better and to belittle Muslims. The other meaning of the maa could be to ask who and what kind of person would lie against the prophet (saw) in regards to the deen. It can only be the lowest of the low and this is a direct humiliation to those who reject the prophet (saw) such as Abu Jahl and Abu Lahab who are being humiliated by these verses. The word deen complements the beginning of this surah which began with a reference to the messengers who brought the deen of Allah (swt). The word deen also means precise judgement and has two Implications, in this world and the next. The prophet (saw) brought the deen, which contains principles and teachings that instruct one on how to live their life. If applied in this life it will be the keys to saving yourself in the next.
This ayah is a rhetorical question. When the messenger (saw) used to hear it, even in his salaah, he would respond by saying ‘subhanakAllah wa bal-laa ana ‘ala dhalik min ash-shahideen’ (Glory be to Allah and no doubt I am on that from the witnesses). The question is posed in such a way as to scold someone for even having to be reminded of something so obvious. Almost as if to ask how someone could be so ungrateful to the One who created him in the best possible form and took care of him. The Ultimate Ruler of All who will either reward or punish you. The words ahkam and hakeem comes from hikma which means wisdom and also from hukm which means judgement. So ahkam could mean the wisest (from hakeem) and also the most appropriate Judge or Ruler (from hukm). Haakimeen could mean rulers or wise people. The marvel of this ayah is that four statements can be derived from this one statement. It could either imply the wisest of the wise, the most appropriate judge from those who claim wisdom, the most appropriate judge of all judges and the wisest of all judges. This teaches us something very powerful about the beginning of this surah which made reference to the legacies of the prophets. Allah (swt) gave them two things – revealed wisdom and instructions and this ayah contains two things, Allah’s wisdom and judgement. So the beginning and the end of the surah complement each other. In the middle of the surah Allah (swt) referred to Himself in the first person (We created) when talking about creating mankind. However in this ayah Allah (swt) switches from the first to the third person. The third person is used because Allah (swt) cannot show closeness to the one being passed judgement on because a judge has to be impartial and distant from those being judged.
Allah (swt) began this surah by mentioning five of the noblest messengers (‘Uluw al ‘Azam – the most perseverant from all the Messengers’). He continued by saying that mankind is made in the most intricate design and those who reject the best of the best from amongst mankind are the worst of the worst. Those who follow the example of the best people from amongst humanity, the Messengers, are those who believe and do good deeds. The Messengers’ were taught wisdom and judgment by Allah (swt) as examples for humanity. Yet, in this ayah the final judgment and wisdom will be Allah’s in relation to what commands He gave His Messengers’ and what the Messengers taught us. With this understood what could cause someone to continue on the path of rejection and prevent someone from following the guidance. Isn’t Allah the Best of Judges to give the commands which mankind should be following? This surah is telling us that we have a higher purpose which makes us more than just animals. We should elevate our thoughts and behaviour above just our base desires and needs and fulfil our higher purpose. Once we understand this we should cleanse our imaan, which is exhibited through our actions by following the example of the messengers. If we don’t then Allah (swt) will reject us and make us the lowest of the low.