90: Al Balad

Tafseer Surah Al Balad

 

Allah (swt) begins this surah by taking an oath against the holy city of Makkah and this is connected to the previous surah in a number of significant ways. Allah (swt) addressed the tranquil soul in the previous surah (mutma’innah) and the first feeling a believer gets when he enters Makkah and the house of Allah (swt) is tranquillity and mutma’innah. As if ones troubles simply disappear with the sight of His (swt) house, the house that Ibrahim (as) built and made dua at and which is the centre of tranquillity on this earth. At the end of the previous surah this tranquil soul is told to return to his lord and when a believer goes for hajj or umrah he is essentially returning to his lord. Furthermore, even the clothing we wear on Hajj is a symbolic representation of the day of judgement when we will come before Allah (swt) with nothing. The white ihram is similar to the clothes we will wear at our death when we return to our lord and so Allah (swt) begins this surah by mentioning the city where we return to Him frequently.

The tranquil soul in the previous surah returns to his lord pleased (raaddiyah) and Allah (swt) in turn is well pleased (marddiyah). One of the greatest joys the believer experiences is to see the house of Allah (swt) and in our times it is so much easier as it only involves applying for a visa and then sitting on a comfortable flight. However, before air travel people would travel for months if not for a year, on foot, on animals and across water so that when they finally got to the holy city they experienced unparalleled joy. One part of that joy is that Allah (swt) has cleansed the sins of the pilgrim which means that He (swt) is mardiyyah and pleased with us. The believer is also told in the previous surah to enter into the midst of Allah’s slaves and in Makkah we enter into the company of other Muslims who are all engaged in slavery and worship to Allah (swt). The final verse is the tranquil nafs being told to enter Allah’s Jannah and the closest thing to Jannah on this earth is the House of Allah (swt) which has a piece of paradise in it. How beautifully the lessons of the previous surah have been brought to the fore by the beginning oath in this surah.

Furthermore in surah At-Teen Allah (swt) also swears by Makkah in verse three where it is referred to as the safe and peaceful city (ameen). The adjective ameen is added there but not here. This is according to the principle that every word in the Quran has a significant place and cannot be moved from its place. The element that is being highlighted in At-Teen is the miraculous gifts of Allah (swt) to certain regions and the safety that Allah (swt) has given to Makkah is one of the miraculous gifts given to that city. This has not been highlighted in this surah but what has been highlighted is the conflict that is brewing and reaching boiling point between the call of the messenger (saw) and those who choose to follow him against those who are standing against him (saw) and so the peace is disrupted.

 

90:1

1) I swear by this city (Makkah)

There are different ways that an oath can be taken in Arabic. In addition to using the preposition ‘waw’ one can also use ‘bi’ which is not used commonly in the Quran. For example bil-lahi is another usage of wal-lahi. Another way of taking an oath is to spell it out by using the phrase ‘I swear’ although this is not normal usage. Allah (swt) never says ‘oqsimu’ in the Quran by itself rather He (swt) will say something like ‘laa oqsimu’. The significance of this laa is spoken about a lot amongst linguists, grammarians and the mufassiroon. Firstly it is not meant to be taken literally according to most scholars. In other words it does not make sense to say ‘I do not swear by this city’. Some scholars though nonetheless have tried to interpret it in this way. The benefit of this is that it can be considered Allah’s way of proclaiming that what He (swt) is about to say is so powerful that He (swt) does not even have to take an oath. However, this is not the majority or the stronger opinion.

Laa actually underscores the existence of a counter argument. Allah (swt) is about to say something that is contrary to what people believe but before He (swt) teaches them the right thing He (swt) says ‘no’ to and negates everything that they believe and hold to be true. In other words a lot of nonsense is being said and before the people can be corrected they have to be silenced and this is done by saying ‘no!’ In our times it is equivalent to us saying – ‘stop!’ or ‘no, no, no – let me tell you!’ So this laa is there to negate all other ideas and others have commented that it refers to the attitudes that were highlighted in the previous surah. Allah (swt) negates the weak characteristics man had when he thought badly of his Creator due to his wealth and blessings being limited.

The word balad also appeared in the previous surah but the reference was to others cities where corruption and rebellion was rampant. These accounts were not simply historical lessons rather they are lessons that need to be learnt for this city – Makkah. There is a transition made from those cities to this one and this will be a continuous style in this section of the Quran. Allah (swt) will mention something in the general or in the past and then bring it right up to date in relation to the life and struggles of the messenger (saw). It is worth reminding ourselves that swearing by something is a means by which something is elevated and honoured. Thus, by Allah (swt) swearing by this city it is honoured. Additionally, people’s attention is drawn to the thing that is sworn by and the response to the oath must be related to this city.

 

90:2
 2) And you (Muhammad) are an inhabitant of this city

And you (Muhammad) are going to be allowed (to fight) in this city

After mentioning Makkah, which is the chief of all cities, Allah (swt) mentions the leader of all His (swt) slaves, the messenger (saw). At the end of the previous surah Allah (swt) addresses the tranquil soul and of all souls Muhammad (saw) is the most tranquil and so naturally he (saw) is the first person mentioned here. Allah (swt) says that he is ‘hil’ in this city. The word hil has many origins and one of its variations is mustahal which would render the meaning of this verse as ‘You (Muhammad) have become permissible in this city’. The people of Makkah including the polytheists enjoy the peace of Makkah and they respect it to the extent that they do not even hunt in the city, preferring to go outside the city to hunt. They even called the city Al Haram (a place where killing is not allowed) and recognise this city as a sanctuary and this was passed on through the teachings of their forefather Prophet Ibrahim (as). Yet, when it comes to the messenger (saw) these disbelievers suddenly consider it halal to kill him and so the messenger (saw) is being told that a time is coming when the mushrikeen will make halal this sacred law which has been made haram for them.

The forces of kuffar and disbelief have a constitution and certain ethics, rules and values that they uphold and take pride in but this illustrates that when it comes to opposition with the Muslims and any who stand by the mission of Islam that they are willing to break their rules. Thus, they are hypocritical when they say that they are standing by their principles by opposing the prophet, as it is these very principles that they break when they confront the Muslims. For example in a nation where you have the idea of due process and the principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, this very principle is sometimes set aside when it comes to the Muslims. They can often be portrayed as the evil ones so that people do not perceive them as humans who should be equal in the sight of the law. In the time of Fir’aun, his family had protection and were considered off limits. Yet, Musa (as) was attacked and fought so that he would leave Islam despite being raised in that house. Similarly, the Arabs would not attack someone from their own tribe and so in order to deal with Muhammad (saw) they had to come up with a way around this problem which led to the scheme where one member of each clan would participate in the murder thereby distributing blame to the point there was no blame at all. This is important for us to know as Allah (swt) is preparing us to expect injustice and opposition even by the standards of the disbelievers when we give dawah and spread and stand up for the message of Islam. They will break their own standards in opposition to those who believe and this is found over and over in the history of the prophets.

A second opinion regarding hil is that Allah (swt) is informing the messenger (saw) that something will be made permissible for him that has not been made permissible for anyone before him. This implies that at conquest of Makkah for one day only it was permissible for Muhammad (saw), within the sanctuary, to order the execution of certain war criminals that had to be punished (although on the most part there was forgiveness). On that day also the messenger (saw) said in reference to a certain time during the day of the conquest of Makkah that ‘Surely Allah made Makkah Sacred/haram the day He created the skies and the Earth, and it will remain Holy/sacred until the establishment of the final Hour. It was not made permissible (Hil) to anyone before me or to anyone after me, and it was not made permissible to me except for an hour in a day’. Allah (swt) is telling the messenger (saw) that it will be halal for him to exact punishment on the disbeliever, which does not make sense in the Makkan context, and this surah by consensus is Makki. It only makes sense in the context of victory and so in this statement there is a guarantee of the victory of Islam. This is one of the interpretations of this verse that exist even from the time of the companions. So, on the one hand the believer’s conflict is being illustrated through the word ‘hil’ but on the other hand the victor in this conflict is also being illustrated by the same word.

A third opinion comes from the understanding that the word hil also can mean to arrive at or to descend on a place (e.g. ‘I have landed in this city and I am going to stay here and not move’). By this the messenger (saw) is being told that he is a permanent fixture of the city. In other words even when he is expelled from the city, he will nevertheless come back and establish his rule and this is another way in which the guarantee of the victory of Islam has been given to the messenger (saw). The root origin of the word ‘hil’ is ‘halla’ and literally means to untie something. For example the dua of Musa (as) in Surah Taha: And untie the knot in my tongue (20:27). When a traveller descends on a city the first thing he does is untie and unpack his bags, which is why the word hil was used for arrival. The implication captured in the language is that the messenger (saw) went up the mountain, received revelation and then descended to the city with it. In these opening two verses Allah (swt) has honoured Makkah twice. Firstly, by taking an oath by this blessed city and secondly by giving a messenger who descended on the city with revelation. In a hadith found in Ibn Kathir (classed as Hasan by Al-Albani), narrated in the context of this verse, the messenger (saw) said that no one has ever been tortured for the sake of Allah like he has. Thus, the word hil has a lot of heavy context in it implying constant struggle but the tranquillity mentioned at the end of the previous surah will only be attained by the one struggling for Allah (swt).

 

90:3
 3) And by the father and what he fathered

In the previous surah forefathers and ancestors were mentioned but of wrongdoers like the people of ‘Aad and Thamood. Now, Allah (swt) shows the other side. Ma means ‘what’ but it can also be used for ta’ajjub (amazement) as if to say ‘what an amazing son he fathered!’ The father according to many mufassiroon refers to Adam (as) but in the context of this surah the stronger view is that it refers to Ibrahim (as) and from him came his son Ishmael (as) and through his lineage Muhammad (saw), the final Messenger of Allah (swt). This is the more likely interpretation as the oaths began with the city of Makkah, which Ibrahim (as) inaugurated. By excluding the definite article from the words walid and walad these multiple implications become possible. However, when the Arab hears the word walid (father) he would think of his forefather Ibrahim (as).

In the Quran and especially Makkan Quran we find that the three prophets mentioned most often in the discourse of dawah are Ibrahim (as), Musa (as) and Eesa (as). This is because the Makkans considered their lineage attached to Ibrahim (as) whilst the other audience of the messenger (saw) were the Jews and the Christians who affiliate themselves with Musa (as) and Eesa (as) respectively. These prophets feature the most as these are the three that are most likely to capture the ears of the audience of the prophet (saw). Allah (swt) here is referring to the father of this city who inaugurated it and started this legacy and built the house of Allah (swt). It was Ibrahim (as) who made the dua in Surah Baqarah: ‘Our Lord, and send among them a messenger from themselves who will recite to them Your verses and teach them the Book and wisdom and purify them. Indeed, You are the Exalted in Might, the Wise’ (2:129). The fulfilment of that dua was Ishmael (as) and finally Muhammad (saw), the final messenger of Allah (swt).

The word walad includes all the children and so it includes Muhammad (saw) but also the progeny of Ishmael (as), the vast majority of whom who were doing shirk. Allah (swt) here is showing His amazement to the Messenger of Allah who is staying true to the message of his father Ibrahim (as) but also His shock that the vast majority of Ibrahim’s children are rebelling against the legacy of their own father by rebelling against the messenger (saw). How can the Quraysh plot the murder of Muhammad (saw) who is simply reviving the religion of their father Ibrahim (as)?

 

90:4

4) Indeed We have created man (to live) in hard struggle

At the end of these oaths comes the response which is the central message of this surah. The human being has been created in kabad. Some of the mufassiroon commented that kabad means intense labour, a toil that is overwhelming you from every direction. Allah (swt) is saying that the human being has been created in endless and exhausting struggle. In the previous surah man incorrectly thought that when Allah (swt) gives him prestige and honour that all his troubles are over and that he has been honoured. However, when his rizq has gone away he thinks that his lord has humiliated him. This surah begins with ‘laa’ – no. This implies that no matter your financial situation, what people think of you or the life you live, whether they think you have a good life or a tough life, each and every human being has been created in intense struggle. No matter where you come from man never stops worrying although one man’s problems may not be an issue for someone else. A wealthy person may be worried about his relationship with his family but that may be a trivial issue for someone who enjoys good relations with his family but is worried about his finances. Similarly, people in one part of the world will have completely different worries to someone in another part of the world. A child in the west may be concerned he does not have the latest gaming platform whereas a child in a less affluent part of the world is concerned about clean water and when his next meal will come.

Allah (swt) lets us know that no matter your situation you are in enormous struggle. It is important to note that their are two paths that are going to be discussed in this surah. The right path, the path of Allah (swt) and the path of other than Allah (swt). One can follow the path that Allah (swt) wants you to follow and face a struggle or one could follow a path that his desires leads him to follow but still find it a struggle. Neither is easy but one appears easy and one appears hard. So you might as well struggle for something which will lead you to Allah’s mercy and reward rather than His anger and punishment. People run away from the commandments of Allah (swt) thinking that it is going to bring difficulty whereas in reality turning away from guidance still leads to challenges and difficulties. Non-Muslim’s that are close to Islam are often dissuaded by a perception that following the commandments of Allah (swt) is difficult. However, in Surah An-Nisa Allah (swt) says: Allah desires that He should make light your burdens and man is created weak (4:28). Allah (swt) knows what is better for us. Our lives are full of burden but by following His (swt) commandments it will become light. The medicine may taste bitter but it will bring comfort, ease and relaxation to you.

The word kabad means the middle of the day which was the toughest part of the day for the Arab. It also means to be immersed in the middle of a sand dune making walking difficult as your feet becomes embedded in the sand. The word kabad also refers to the liver and kibd was used when your liver was injured resulting in pain and hardship. Some of the mufassiroon commented and this was even an opinion amongst some of the companions that the word kabad refers to the different stages of life. The fact that the human struggles to come out of the womb, struggles to drink its mother’s milk, struggles to walk and then struggles throughout its life until death. Others have disagreed due to the fact that these difficulties are not unique to humans and because other creatures share them. Furthermore, as Allah (swt) says ‘insaan’ there must then be another exhaustion that man suffers from in addition. Another opinion is that perhaps this labour is the covenant that Allah (swt) put on every human being at the beginning of creation acknowledging that Allah (swt) is their Rabb. This is the burden mankind carries. If they deny their duty to Allah (swt) He will give them hardships in life but if they recognise and obey Allah (swt) then these very hardships will elevate their status in the sight of Allah (swt).

Other mufassiroon say that the word insaan here refers specifically to a kaafir called Abul Asht, a wealthy man who spent his wealth in opposition to the Muslims. He was also known for his strength. He would place leather under his foot wagering that none could pull it out from under it and the leather would rip but his foot would not move. Some of the companions thought this referred to him because kabad means strength and Allah (swt) created that human with enormous strength although the majority of mufassiroon say that when insaan is used it is really a commentary on the entire human race and that all human beings are created in this toil and struggle. It is also said that by Allah (swt) emphasising in this oath that human beings are meant for struggle which they can’t escape, in it is also a confirmation and strengthening to the messenger (saw) that he is not the only one struggling but rather struggle is a part of human legacy. When the messenger (saw) learnt that something was from the Qadr (destiny) of Allah (swt), including his struggle for Islam, he was satisfied and content.

 

90:5

5) Does he think that no one will have power over him?

Allah (swt) describes the psychological conflict of the human being. On the inside man is stressed and worried but trying to maintain an exterior that does not indicate stress. This is manifest in our society most clearly amongst celebrities who on the outside exhibit confidence and happiness but behind the scenes may be stressed out, taking drugs and suffering from depression. This display of confidence is found in other people too from the young reckless driver who does not think he will be caught and considers himself above the law to the unchallenged tyrannical ruler that brings death to his people because he does not believe he can be stopped. Allah (swt) says that this person assumes (yahsab) that he is above everyone else and that none can overpower him. The word ahad was used in the previous surah to explain that Allah’s punishment is like no other and here the same word is used to indicate that this person thinks that no one, not even Allah (swt) can overpower him. The surah thus far has alluded to things in the past but the word ‘lan’ is a negative particle forcing the tense into the future and with it there is now an attitude of heedlessness of the future. This person is not concerned about the future and anyone who does not reflect on the past and how Allah (swt) has dealt with arrogant people before him has not prepared for the future.

 

90:6
 6) ‘I have wasted abundant wealth’ he says

In this verse this person’s arrogant assumptions and thoughts develop and get strong enough to the point that he actually says some things out loud. Lubad comes from libda which is a sticky liquid almost like glue that you can pile things on top of and lubad is used for a huge pile that is stuck together. This person is essentially saying that he has amassed wealth upon wealth and then destroyed large parts of it. This is very similar to someone in our time remarking that they have ‘blown’ a large amount of money on a new car for example and is a means by which arrogance is shown. This person does not say that he spent a lot of money rather he specifically wants to show people that he has wasted money. This is his way of publicising the fact that he is so rich that he does not even care about the money he has wasted. People often spend a lot of money updating their car or building up their handbag collection so that people will admire it. People will show off to others by telling them how much money they have spent on their clothes just so that they can build up their esteem by seeing the shocked expression on someone’s face. This person thinks that the only way to get respect in society is through amassing wealth and then spending it openly and recklessly and remember this very person in the previous surah felt that his lord had belittled him when his wealth was restricted.

The other way this verse is interpreted is that when the call is made to spend on a good cause like the orphans and the needy, this person will say that he has blown all his money as an excuse to avoid donating. As this person is known to be wealthy in society he is concerned that he will be approached first to donate and so he takes pre-emptive action by broadcasting the news that he has already spent a lot of money making it easier for him to decline. Alternatively, if this insaan is referring to the most adamant disbelievers struggling against Islam then some have interpreted it as referring to Abul Asht mentioned earlier who said that he should be considered the leader of the disbelievers as he had spent the most in opposition to the messenger (saw). Notice also that this verse is a contrast to the same human being in the previous surah who in verse twenty-four regretted not spending for his future life in the hereafter whereas this verse shows us what he was doing with his money in this world. Allah (swt) is showing us that this person will eventually regret wasting his money on fruitless endeavours when he could have been investing for his real life in the next world.

 

90:7

7) Does he think that no one saw him?

Allah (swt) asks if this person assumes that no one saw him. The word lam is a negative particle and forces the tense of the verb into the past. The Quraysh had begun to believe that they had a natural born right to the honours and riches of Makkah. However, it was Allah (swt) who gave this barren city life, it’s rizq and made it safe only through the dua of Ibrahim (as) and if the Quraysh are unwilling to reflect on the legacy of Ibrahim (as) then they should at least reflect on their own life and the provisions they enjoy but are not entitled to. They should know that Allah (swt) is watching the evil they do and the way they earn and spend their money against His Messenger.

 

90:8
 8) Did We not give him eyes?

Immediately after Allah (swt) asks cannot the One who gave you your eyes see all that you do? All the money this person possesses would not be able to afford this blessing alone that Allah (swt) has given. This person may think that he owns a house and his camels but he has paid nothing for his eyes that Allah (swt) gave.

 

90:9

9) And a tongue and two lips?

According to a hadith the lips are a means by which you control your tongue. Allah (swt) has given two lips to control and silence our tongues. The tongue which a few verses ago boasted about the wealth it wasted. This person’s arrogance was shown through his tongue, firstly at his assumption that none can control him and then that no one saw him, will be a witness against him on the Day of Judgement. The tongue truly is a remarkable creation which allows us to process our thoughts into words in a fraction of a second and therefore requires us to exercise caution in our speech.

 

90:10
 10) And shown him the two ways (good and evil)?

The following hadith of the messenger (saw) helps put this verse into context: ‘Rush towards your Lord people because certainly that which is little and enough is better than something plentiful but deceptive. People, there are only two paths, the path of good and the path of evil, so what makes you love the path of evil more than the good path?’ The word hadaa means to guide someone and by Allah (swt) saying that He has guided us to two paths the majority opinion is that this refers to the paths of good and evil. This has also been illustrated in other places in the Quran for example in Surah Al Baqarah: There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah has indeed laid hold on the firmest handle which shall not break off Allah hears and knows all things (2:256). The implication here is that Allah (swt) has clearly shown what is right and what is wrong.

Makkan Quran talks a lot about universal good, for example, taking care of orphans and giving to the needy, the rights of neighbours etc. So before the finer details of the shariah is mentioned Allah (swt) imparts general moral principles that anyone can relate to even the polytheists of Makkah who had no exposure to divine scripture like the people of the book. This is something that Allah (swt) has pre-programmed into every human being and so it is part of human nature to know that killing is wrong. Studies in psychology have shown that when someone lies for the first time or someone who is not a professional liar lies (e.g. a politician or actor) there are physiological changes in that person such as an increase in his blood pressure, a change in the pitch of his voice and the hair on his skin may even stand up. Essentially, the human being was not programmed to lie and his fitrah is inclined towards truth and this is why all cultures and societies unanimously love truthfulness and dislike lying as a trait in people.

Other places in the Quran where the word hadaa is found sometimes sees it accompanied with a preposition but here as in Al Fatiha there is no preposition. The removal of prepositions linguistically makes a phrase more comprehensive and meaningful. In this case removing the ‘to’ or ‘ila’ enhances the meaning from simply ‘guided to two paths’ to ‘guided to and along the two paths’. When someone chooses the path of good sincerely Allah (swt) facilities that path for them and guides them along it and when someone chooses the path of evil Allah (swt) makes that path achievable for them.

The word najd means a mountain that has no vegetation or trees and is bare rock and in there is a clear path leading up. The image given in this verse is that of a man at the foot of a mountain with two paths ahead of him, one leading right and one leading left and Allah (swt) has clearly shown where each path leads. These two paths both lead up and both involve climbing which means that both require labour in ascension. This has been taught to us already in this surah where we learnt that man was created in struggle and this is now being reinforced with this image. Now imagine that one of these paths is easy but gets difficult the further up you get and the second is difficult early on but gets easier as one progresses further. There is a parallel here to the struggle of man. As far as man is concerned the human being will always prefer ease over difficulty preferring to defer difficulty to a later date and how often when presented with a task does one say that they’ll deal with it later.

 

90:11

11) Yet he has not attempted the steep path

The word ‘aqabah is a also a word used to refer to a path heading up a mountain range and so is almost synonymous with the word najd except that the word ‘aqabah means a path that is very difficult to climb. So Allah (swt) has shown us two paths one of which is not just najd but also ‘aqabah. ‘Iqtihaam is to jump into something without giving it any thought and to involve yourself in a task that will involve a lot of work only to realise later that it is exhausting. Furthermore, once you have committed yourself to this task there is no backing out, like putting together furniture, you think you can do it but then it starts getting difficult and you realise at the halfway point that this is tougher than you first thought. Allah (swt) is telling us that after showing man the two paths he chose not to commit himself to the hard path.

The first word in the verse is laa and precedes the word iqtahama which is in the past tense. Maa would have been the normal expected negative particle here as laa is not typically used with the past tense (laa yaqtahimu would be deemed normal). There are some subtle implications here captured by the change in just one word. Laa necessitates that multiple things are being negated which is one reason it is used instead of maa. ‘iqtahama though is just one act whereas in ‘aqabah there are multiple things involved, which will become apparent as the surah progresses, and as a result this is what some scholars say the laa refers to. Laa can also imply a dua rendering the meaning ‘Why didn’t he? Why didn’t he climb the tougher path?’ Allah (swt) has given man eyes and the ability to do so why didn’t he climb the steep path? Thus, the falaa actually has the meaning of limadha (why) almost as if Allah (swt) is complaining that the human did not jump right in take up the struggle and in doing it is almost as if He (swt) is giving us a challenge to engage in this struggle. Others comment that this path is the path to salvation and there is an indication given at the end of this surah as to what you will see when you start reaching the top of this path.

 

90:12
 12) And what will make you know what the steep path is?

In the Quran we find both ‘wa ma adraaka’ and ‘wa ma yudreeka’. The former is the past tense and the latter is the present tense. Allah (swt) asks in the past tense what would have given any clue as to what that steep path is and whenever the question is asked in the past tense information is given but not when the question is asked in the present tense. For example Allah (swt) does not inform us of when the final hour will come to pass. Thus, it is a mercy that the word adraaka is used here as it means that Allah (swt) will teach us what this path is because if we did not know we would never be able to take it.

 

90:13

13) It is to free a slave

The literal meaning of this verse is to rescue someone from slavery. Ikrimah bin Abi Jahl (ra) had a unique opinion about this verse and interpreted it as freeing oneself from the slavery of sins by making repentance. This however is not the majority opinion. In the Quran there are two words used for rescuing. Ankadha is to rescue someone from some kind of danger like a fire and fakah is used when you are trying to rescue someone from prison or slavery. The word raqabah literally means the back of the neck and the imagery here is of a chain tied around the neck. If the chain is pulled from the front then the person in chains would have to follow his master. If the chain is pulled from the back however the slave is choked and this depicts the pain of being a slave. In Islamic literature slavery is mentioned in two ways, firstly literal or physical slavery and secondly the slavery of a debt which is also like a choke hold on someone. The first word in this verse is in the nominal and not the verbal form and therefore implies commitment whereas the verbal form would mean one has freed a slave only once. The commitment is manifested in committing oneself to freeing slaves, those imprisoned unjustly and the oppressed. Makkan Quran is very forthright in the cause of freeing slaves and we are taught here that if you want to climb the right path then become committed to freeing the slave. This is an apt response to critics of Islam who question why Islam endorses slavery whereas the truth is that Islam systematically abolished the institution of slavery.

90:14

14) To feed at a time of hunger

In the previous surah we read about selfish people and the first act of climbing the mountain is to become selfless. In the Quran there are specifically four words used for hunger and the word used here is masghabah which means widespread hunger. In our times this may be referred to as famine or even bad economic times. Allah (swt) is saying that this mountain is tough to climb because you have to feed and be committed to feeding and notice again the nominal form (a timeless commitment) of the word itt’aam. Furthermore this feeding must occur especially in bad economic times. In a time which is possessed with overwhelming hunger that has come to everyone meaning that you are reluctant to give as you yourself are hungry. However, if you want to become a true humanitarian you have to give preference to others over yourself. Allah (swt) has not yet spoken in this surah about imaan and the akhirah but rather the universal ethics and morals of becoming selfless. The previous surah taught us that kufr leads to corruption in the cities and here Allah (swt) is instructing us to oppose this corruption by being selfless and helping the weak and oppressed (the people most affected by this corruption).

 

90:15

15) An orphaned relative

Dhaa maqrabah means not only the orphan close to you i.e. related to you but also the orphan who is in close proximity to you i.e. the orphan in your community or neighbourhood. Allah (swt) encourages the kind treatment of orphans and this is almost a response to the verse in the previous surah which reprimands those that do not honour the orphans: No indeed! You (people) do not honour orphans (Al Fajr 89:17). Allah (swt) first calls for kind treatment of orphans in your family like your niece or nephew and then for those in our communities and therefore we should try to know the orphans in our communities. Even the disbeliever can relate to these verses because this address is to the insaan in general and not specifically the believers.

 

90:16

16) Or to a needy person in distress

The word miskeen comes from maskana and is used in many places in the Quran. One of the ways it has been defined is as someone who barely has the life essentials to survive like assets, savings and maybe even a home but somehow they still survive. The kind of person who when you meet them causes you to wonder how they can possibly survive like this. Allah (swt) says that this needy person possesses dust. The word turab means dust and matraba literally means clinging to the dust. Thus, this person is completely covered and overwhelmed by dust. This has been interpreted as meaning that this person is homeless as if he had a home he would not be covered in dust. Secondly he is going around looking for food which causes him to get covered in dust and thirdly his bed is dust and so naturally when he gets up he is covered in dust. This poor person walks around without a home, barely surviving. This is the response to the verse in the previous surah which discussed not just those who do not feed the needy but also those who do not encourage others to feed them: And you do not encourage one another to feed the poor (Al Fajr 89:18).

 

90:17

17) And to become one of those who urge one another to perseverance, patience and compassion

There are many charitable organisations that work to feed and provide for the poor, hungry and homeless (may Allah reward them). However, despite their efforts year on year the scale of the problem increases. Charities therefore do not advertise how big the problem is so that people are not overwhelmed and dissuaded from donating. In fact they will often concentrate on what people can do to help by making the problem appear smaller. For example, schemes such as sponsoring an orphan’s education. These are problems in our societies that have always been there and the previous surah in fact informed us that this happens because people have caused corruption by rebelling against Allah (swt). Therefore, although humanitarian work is essential the most effective way to deal with this problem of corruption and inequality is to strike at the heart of the problem and to return to Allah (swt). This is why after mentioning the freeing of the slaves, giving to the orphans and the needy, imaan is discussed.

Allah (swt) says about the believers in Surah An-Noor that He will establish them in the earth and will replace for them after fear, peace and safety (An-Noor 24:55). This is because belief and safety are connected and when you turn to Allah (swt) He will send His blessings from the sky and by His justice and revelation create a society in which these problems are properly dealt with. This is proven through the lives of the famous Khulafa’ like Umar bin al Khattab (ra). All this justice and enrichment of society was due to one thing; imaan – guidance from Allah (swt) and its implementation.

The word tawasaw is in the plural form and means they enjoined yet kaana is in the singular. Allah (swt) informs us that after he came to imaan he then became one of those who believe and who enjoin each other in perseverance and urge one another to compassion. The immediate switch to the plural means that when you become a person of imaan you join in the ranks of other believers. You are not in this struggle to help humanity alone but rather you are now in a larger communal struggle of believers. The word wasiyya is to leave a will or a legacy and tawaasi is to advise, motivate, encourage, and counsel one another. They have now become believers but the situation still seems hopeless so they have to advise and counsel one another to keep motivated and patient. The word sabr captures four different attributes in English, patience, commitment, consistency, and constancy. So no matter how hard something might be or how great the challenge, they continue to advise each other in persevering in this cause. The task of climbing this hill is difficult and one may lose hope and so you need someone to encourage you. It is almost like saying to one another, ‘Come on, we can do this. Let’s stay firm, the reward is great’. The disbelievers were too lazy to climb the steep path and did not have the self-restraint to prevent themselves from indulging in their desires.

The word rahma means mercy but marhama is an extremely powerful mercy that goes in every direction. Allah (swt) is telling us that you can only be a true humanitarian if you prefer others over yourself constantly with imaan. Thus, they encourage each other for the sake of universal mercy as having imaan means that you have mercy for mankind as a whole. However, real mercy is not just caring for the welfare of humans in this life but also the welfare of humans in the next life and this is done by encouraging each other to Islam and to commitment in Islam. Simply taking care of one’s welfare in this life will not help the welfare of that person in the next life.

 

90:18

18) Those who do this will be on the right hand side

The term ashab al yameen refers to those people who are on the right side, who will dwell in paradise and who will have their books given in their right hands. The term ashab al maymanah though refers to those people who are on the far right, people who are extra secure on the right path, closer to Allah’s mercy and far from the centre. May Allah make us from them. Something interesting to point out is the subtle difference in the sequencing between this surah and the previous surah. In the previous surah the people of hellfire were mentioned before the people of paradise. In this surah the reverse is true and the people of paradise are mentioned first and then the people of hellfire. Similarly, in this surah we found the yateem mentioned before the miskeen whereas in the previous surah the miskeen were mentioned first. Also, the end of Surah Al Fajr mentions Jannah whilst the end of this surah mentions the hellfire.

 

90:19

19) But those who disbelieve in Our revelations will be on the left hand side 

Until now there has been no discussion on revelation in the whole surah. Most of the surah has been about al ‘aqabah and humanitarian work with a little mention of imaan but now the root cause of all this is given. It is disbelief in the miraculous signs of Allah (swt). Often when one thinks of imaan they think of imaan in Allah (swt) but this surah is highlighting imaan in something else, imaan in the revelations of Allah (swt). This is because the revelation of Allah (swt) is the one true guide to solving the problems of humanity. Those who are in disbelief of this guidance are in kufr and will continue to experience corruption in the land. In English the word ayah is often translated as verse which in English literature is used for poetry and in the biblical context it is used to refer to verses of the bible. This is perhaps not a translation that should sit comfortably with Muslims as the Quran emphatically declares it has nothing to do with poetry. Furthermore, some people claim that parts of the Quran came from the bible and so the last thing you want people to think about when they are thinking about the Quran is the bible. Thus, when the Quran is translated we have to be careful about not just the words but also the messages those words send to the audience listening.

The word ayah in the Quran means two things, a sign and a miracle and so can be translated as a miraculous sign. It is a word used to describe the miraculous birth of Eesa (as) or the staff of Musa (as) turning into a snake. Something that points to the oneness of Allah (swt) is also called an ayah and as the revelation and the creation, when you reflect on them, both point to the oneness of Allah (swt), they are called ayaat. The word mashamah in Arabic means the overwhelming curse and ash-shu’oom is something vile and disgusting so much so that people stay away from you out of disgust almost as if you are cursed. Thus, Allah (swt) is saying that those who disbelieve in His miraculous signs are people associated with the curse or the left side as mashamah also means the left hand side. The Arabs considered things associated with the left hand side as a cursed or vile thing and this is something that has continued in the tradition of Islam. For example in purification Muslims use the left hand and use the right hand for good and blessed things and this is the sunnah of the messenger (saw) (and it may be that the Arabs originally got this tradition from the religion of their father Prophet Ibrahim (as)).

The ayaat of Allah (swt) are of two kinds, the revelation and the creation. We often understand a disbeliever to be someone who denies the revelation but there can also be kufr in the other signs of Allah (swt). There are miraculous signs inside and outside us in addition to the miraculous signs inside the revelation of Allah (swt). In this surah alone there are miraculous signs in how Allah (swt) looks inside the psyche of the human and tells us what he is thinking without that person even disclosing it. It is one thing for the messenger to know what the person said but how can he know what the person thinks? Thus, Allah (swt) has captured these people’s inner thoughts in his miraculous revelation and yet even this they deny, refusing to reflect on it. The ultimate message of this surah is that the people who will have the easiest transition to Islam are those people that are decent human beings, the people that are not engulfed in self-pleasure and who have concern in humanity.

 

90:20

20) And the Fire will close in on them

Upon them will be the Fire, enveloping them with closed exits

When Allah (swt) spoke of the people of the right hand he did not mention Jannah but when he spoke about the people of the left hand he gave extra detail and mentioned hellfire. This is because every surah has a climate and atmosphere and the climate of this surah is very tough as is indicated by the tough words used throughout e.g. la, najdayn, ‘aqabah, ‘iqtahama. The ending of this surah focuses and emphasises more so the people of hellfire whilst the previous surah had an ending that emphasised more so the people of paradise. The word wasad means to seal something with another thing on top. For example, placing a lid on a cooking pot so that the steam does not escape. It is also used to describe closing the door on a room that has no other escape. The imagery therefore given here is of a fire from which there is no escape and which in addition is sealed so that that the heat of the fire does not escape, thereby intensifying further the heat inside. In the beginning of this surah we learnt that man is created in toil in this dunya and at the end we learn that if he does not do the right thing and toil for Allah (swt) there is a far worse toil coming which will last forever. May Allah (swt) protect us from the fire and enter us directly into Jannah.


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