Surah 90 The City al Balad
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
I swear by this city, this city in which you yourself are a dweller, by sire and offspring: indeed, We have created man in affliction. Does he think that none has power over him? "I have wasted vast riches," he says. Does he think that none observes him? Have We not given him two eyes, a tongue, and two lips, and shown him the two paths. Yet he has not attempted the Ascent. Would that you knew what the Ascent is. It is the freeing of a slave, or the feeding, in a day of hunger, of an orphaned near of kin, or a needy man in misery. Moreover, it is to be of those who believe and counsel one another to be steadfast, and enjoin mercy or one another. Those who do this shall be on the right hand. And those who deny Our revelations shall be on the left hand, with Hell-fire close above them.
This short surah touches on a large number of facts which are of central importance in human life, in a style characterised by its powerful allusions and revealing touches. Such a number of facts is not easy to combine in any form of concise writing except that of the Qur'an, with its unique method of hitting the right chords of the human heart with such swift and penetrating strokes.
The surah opens with a forceful vow asserting an inherent fact of human life:"I swear by this city, this city in which you yourself are a dweller, by sire and of spring: indeed, We have created man in affliction". The city is Makka, the sacred House of Allah which was the first temple ever to be erected on this earth as a place of peace where people put down their weapons and forget their quarrels. They meet inside in peace; each is sacred to all. Even the plants, the birds and all creatures that happen to be in this House enjoy full and complete security. It is the House built by Abraham, the father of Ishmail, who is the grandfather of all the Arabs and the Muslims. Allah then honours His Prophet, Muhammad, by mentioning him and his residence in Makka a fact which adds to the sanctity of the city, its honour and glory. This is a point of great significance in this context; for the believers were violating the sanctity of the House by harassing the Prophet and the Muslims in it. But the House is sacred and the Prophet's dwelling in its neighbourhood makes it even more so. Allah's oath by this city and by the Prophet's residence in it adds even more to its sacredness and glory, which consequently makes the attitude of the disbelievers grossly impertinent and objectionable on all counts. For they claim to be the custodians of the House, the descendants of Ishmail and the followers of Abraham.
This last reference supports the inclination to take the phrase, "by sire and offspring" to refer to Abraham and Ishmail in particular. This reading includes in the oath the Prophet, the city where he lives, the founder of the House and his offspring. However, it does not preclude that the statement can be a general one, referring to the phenomenon of reproduction which preserves the human race. This reference may be taken as an introduction to the discussion of the nature of man, which is indeed the subject matter of the surah.
In his commentary on this surah in his Juz'u 'Amma', the late Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, makes a fine remark which is useful to quote here:
Allah then swears by parent and children to draw our attention to the great importance of the stage of reproduction in life, and to the infinite wisdom and perfection which this stage involves. It also emphasises the great suffering encountered by parent and offspring during the process from its inception up to its conclusion, when the newcomer achieves a certain degree of development.
Think of plants and the tough opposition met by a seed of a plant in the process of growth, until it adapts to the various factors of climate. Think of its attempts to absorb the food necessary for its survival from its surroundings, till it develops branches and leaves. It then prepares for the production of a similar seed or seeds that will repeat its function and add to the beauty of the world around it. Think of all this then consider the more advanced forms of animal and human life and you will see something much greater and far more wonderful concerning reproduction. You will have a feeling of the hardship and suffering met by all sires and offspring for the sake of preserving the species and the beauty of this world ...
The oath reaffirms an intrinsic fact in human life: "Indeed, We have created man in affliction". Indeed, man's life is a process of continued hardship that never ends, as stated in surah 84, ("The Rending") "O man, you are striving to your Lord laboriously, and you will duly meet Him". No sooner does the first living cell settle in the mother's womb than it starts to encounter affliction and to work hard in order to prepare for itself the right conditions for its survival, with the permission of its Lord. It continues to do so until it is ready for the process of birth, which is a great ordeal for both the mother and the baby. Before the baby finally sees the light it undergoes a great deal of pushing and squeezing to the point of near suffocation in its passage out of the womb.
A stage of harder endurance and greater suffering follows. The newborn baby begins to breathe the air, which is a new experience. It opens its mouth and inflates its lungs for the first time with a cry which tells of the hard start. The digestive system and the blood circulation then start to function in a manner which is totally unfamiliar. Then it starts to empty its bowels, encountering great difficulty in adapting its system to this new function. Indeed, every new step or movement is attended by suffering. If one watches this baby when it begins to crawl and walk, one sees the kind of effort required to execute such minor and elementary movements.
Thus, affliction continues with teething, developing the abilities of standing up, walking firmly, learning and thinking and with every single new experience in the same way as in the case of crawling and walking.
Then the roads diverge and the struggle takes different forms. One person struggles with his muscles, another with his mind and a third with his soul. One toils for a mouthful of food or a rag to dress himself with, another to double or treble his wealth. One person strives to achieve a position of power or influence and another for the sake of Allah. One struggles for the sake of satisfying lusts and desires, and the other for the sake of his faith or ideology. One strives but achieves no more than Hell and another strives for Paradise. Everyone is carrying his own burden and climbing his own hills to arrive finally at the meeting place appointed by Allah, where the wretched shall endure their worst suffering while the blessed enjoy their endless happiness.
Affliction, life's foremost characteristic, takes various forms and shapes but it is always judged by its eventual results. The loser is the one who ends up suffering more affliction in the hereafter, and the prosperous is the one whose striving qualifies him to be released from his affliction and ensures him the ultimate repose under his Lord's shelter. Yet there is some reward for the different kinds of struggle which people endure. The one who labours for a great cause differs from the one who labours for a trivial one, in the amount and the quality of gratification each of them gains from his labour and sacrifice.
Having established this fact concerning human nature and human life, the surah goes on to discuss some of the claims that man makes and some of the concepts underlying his behaviour. "Does he think that none has power over him? 'I have wasted vast riches ' he says. Does he think that none observes him? "This creature, man, whose suffering and struggling never come to an end, forgets his real nature and becomes so conceited with what Allah has given him of power, ability, skill and prosperity that he behaves as if he is not accountable for what he does. He indulges in oppression, tyranny, victimisation and exploitation, trying to acquire enormous wealth. He corrupts himself and others in total disregard of anything of value. Such is the character of a man whose heart is stripped of faith. When he is called upon to spend for good causes, he says, "I have wasted vast riches" and given more than enough. "Does he think that none observes him?"Has he forgotten that Allah is watching over him? He sees what he has spent and for what purposes. But man still ignores this, thinking that Allah is unaware of what he has done.
In view of man's arrogance, which makes him believe that he is invincible, and in view of his meanness and claim of having spent abundantly, the Qur'an puts before him the bounties Allah has bestowed upon him which are manifested in his make-up abilities, although he has depreciated them." Have We not given him two eyes a tongue and two lips and shown him the two paths." Man is conceited because he feels himself powerful, but he is granted his power by Allah. He is mean with his wealth while Allah is the One Who provided him with it. He neither follows the right guidance nor shows his gratitude, although Allah has given him the means to do so. He has given him eyes which are marvellous, precise and powerful. He has also granted him the faculty of speech and the means of expression,"a tongue and two lips". He has equipped him with the ability to distinguish good from evil, and right from wrong "and shown him the two paths"so that he may choose between them for in his make-up there exists the ability to take either way It is Allah's will that man should be given such ability and such freedom of choice, to perfect His scheme of creation which assigns to every creature its role in life and equips it with the means necessary for its fulfilment.
This verse explains the essence of human nature. In fact, the basis of the "Islamic Psychological Theory" is contained in this verse as well as the following verse of surah 91 "The Sun": "By the soul and Him who moulded it and inspired it with knowledge of wickedness and piety. Successful is the one who keeps it pure and ruined is the one who corrupts it."
These are the favours bestowed on man in his actual make-up to help him to follow the right guidance: his eyes with which he recognises the evidence of Allah's might and the signs indicated all over this universe which should prompt him to adopt the faith, and his tongue and lips which are his means of speech and expression. One word sometimes does the job of a sword or a shotgun and can be even more effective than either. It may, on the other hand, plunge a man in the fire of Hell. Muaath ibn Jabal said, "I was with the Prophet on a Journey. One day I was walking beside him when I said, 'Messenger of Allah! point out to me something I may do to take me to Paradise and keep me away from Hell!' He said, 'You have indeed asked about something great, yet it is quite attainable by those for whom Allah has made it easy. Worship Allah assigning to Him no partner, offer your prayers regularly, pay out what is due to the poor of your money, fast in the month of Ramadhan and offer pilgrimage.' The Prophet then said, 'Shall I point out to you the gates of good?' I said, 'Yes, Messenger of Allah, please do.' He said, 'Fasting is a safeguard and a means of protecting yourself; charity erases your errors just as water extinguishes a burning fire; and your praying in the late hours of the night is the sign of piety.' He then recited the verse, '(those) who forsake their beds as they call on their Lord in fear and in hope; and who give in charity or what We have bestowed on them. No soul knows what bliss and comfort is in store for these as reward for their labours."(Al-Qur'an 32:16) The Prophet then went on: 'Shall I tell you what the heart of the matter is, its backbone and its highest grade?' I said, 'Yes, Messenger of Allah, please do.' He said, 'The heart is Islam i.e. submission to Allah, the backbone is prayers, and the highest grade is Jihad i.e. struggle for the cause of Islam.' He then said, 'Shall I tell you what commands all these?' I said, 'Yes, Messenger of Allah, please do.' He said, 'Control this ' and he pointed to his tongue. I said, 'Are we, Prophet of Allah, really accountable for what we say?' He said 'Watch what you are saying. (The Arabic expression here would be translated literally: "May your mother lose you". The expression, however, has lost its literal meaning and serves as simple exclamation which may be rendered in several forms as suits the context Translator's note.) For what else are people dragged on their faces in Hell apart from what their tongues yield?' (Related by Ahmad, At-Tirmithi, An-Nissa'i and Ibn Majah)."
All these bounties have not motivated man to attempt the Ascent that stands between him and Paradise. Allah explains the nature of the Ascent in the following verses, "Yet he (man) has not attempted the Ascent. Would that you knew what the Ascent is. It is the freeing of a slave, or the feeding in a day of hunger an orphaned near of kin. or a needy man in misery. Moreover it is to be of those who believe and counsel one another to be steadfast and enjoin mercy on one another. Those who do this shall be on the right hand."
This is the Ascent which man, except those who aid themselves with faith, refrains from attempting, and which separates him from Paradise. If he crosses it he will arrive! Putting it that way serves as a powerful incentive and a stimulus to the human heart to take up the challenge since the Ascent has been clearly indicated and marked as the obstacle depriving him of such an enormous fortune. The importance of attempting the Ascent in the sight of Allah is then emphasised to encourage man to scale it no matter what effort of struggle he may have to put into this. For struggle he must, in any case. But if he attempts it, his struggle will not be wasted but will bring him favourable results.
Then follows an explanation of this Ascent and its nature by means of, first, enumeration of examples of actions which were totally lacking in these particular surroundings that the call of Islam was facing at the time: the freeing of slaves and the feeding of the poor who were subjected to the cruelty of that ungracious and greedy society. It then adds what is applicable to all ages and societies and needed by all who attempt the Ascent:"Moreover it is to be of those who believe and counsel one another to be steadfast and enjoin mercy on one another."
This surah was revealed in Makka when Islam was surrounded by powerful enemies and the state that would implement its laws was non-existent. Slavery was widespread in Arabia and the world at large. The treatment meted out to slaves was brutally severe. When some of the slaves or former slaves, like Ammar ibn Yasser and his family, Bilal Ibn Rabah, Suhaib and others, accepted Islam their plight became worse, and their cruel masters subjected them to unbearable torture. It then became clear that the only way to save them was to buy them from their masters. Abu Bakr, the Prophet's companion, was, as usual, the first to rise to the occasion, with all the boldness and gallantry it required.
"Ibn Ishaaq related: 'Bilal, Abu Bakr's servant, was owned by some individual of the clan of Jumah as he was born a slave. He was, however, a genuine Muslim and clean-hearted. Umayyah ibn Khalaf, the Jumah master, used to take Bilal out when it became unbearably hot and order him to be laid down on his back on the hot sand of Makka and cause a massive rock to be placed on his chest. Then, he would say to Bilal that he would stay like that until he died or renounced Muhammad and accepted as deities the idols called Al-Lat and Al-'Uzza, the goddesses of the pagan Arabs. Under all that pressure, Bilal would simply say, 'One, One,' meaning that there is only one God.'
"One day, Abu Bakr passed by and saw Bilal in that condition. He said to Umayyah 'Do you not fear Allah as you torture thls helpless soul? How long can you go on doing thls?' Umayyah replied, 'You spoiled him, so you save him.' Abu Bakr said, 'I will. I have a black boy who follows your religion but he is stronger and more vigorous than Bilal. What do you say to an exchange deal?' Umayyah said, 'I accept.' Abu Bakr said, 'Then he is yours'. When Abu Bakr took Bilal he set him free.
"While in Makka, before emigration to Medina, Abu Bakr freed a total of seven people: Amir ibn Faheerah, who fought in the battle of Badr and was killed in the battle of Bir Ma'oonah, was the only other man freed by Abu Bakr. The other five were all women. The first two were Umm Obais and Zaneerah, who lost her eyesight when she was freed. Some people of Quraysh claimed that the two idols Al-Lat and Al-'Uzza caused her loss of her eyesight. Zaneerah said, 'What rubbish! Al-Lat and Al-'Uzza are absolutely powerless'. Allah then willed that she recover her eyeslght. Abu Bakr also freed a woman called An-Nahdiyyah and her daughter, who belonged to a woman of the clan of Abduddar. One day he passed by the two women as their mistress was sending them on an errand to prepare some flour. As she gave them her instructions, she declared: 'By God, I will never set you free'. Abu Bakr said to her 'Release yourself of your oath'. She rejoined: 'It was you who spoilt them. Why don't you set them free?' He said, 'How much do you want for them?' She named her price. He said, 'It is a deal, and they are free.' He turned to the two women and told them to give the woman her flour back. They suggested that they should finish preparing it for her first and he agreed. The fifth woman was a Muslim slave of the clan of Muammal. She was being tortured by Umar ibn Al-Khattab, who was then still a disbeliever. He beat her until he was tired and said to her, 'I apologize to you. I have only stopped beating you because I am bored', to which she replied, 'And so Allah shall thwart you.' Abu Bakr bought her and set her free."
Ibn Ishaaq related:"Abu Quhafa, Abu Bakr's father, said to him 'I see you, son, freeing some weak slaves. Why don't you free some strong men who can defend and protect you?' Abu Bakr replied, 'I am only doing this for the sake of Allah, father."' Thus Abu Bakr scaled the Ascent by freeing those helpless souls, for the sake of Allah. The attendant circumstances in that particular society make such an action one of the most important steps towards scaling the Ascent.
"Or the feeding in a day of hunger of an orphaned near of kin or a needy man in misery." The time of famine and hunger when food becomes so scarce, is a time when the reality of faith is tested. For the orphans in that greedy, miserly and ungracious society were oppressed and mistreated even by their relatives. The Qur'an is full of verses which urge people to treat orphans well. This in itself is a measure of the cruelty of the orphans' surroundings. Good treatment for the orphans is also urged in the Medinan surahs as they outline the rules of inheritance, custody and marriage, especially in surahs  "The Cow" and 4"Women". The same can be said of feeding the needy on a day of famine, which is portrayed here as another step for scaling the Ascent. For this is again a test which reveals the characteristics of the believer, such as mercy, sympathy, co-operation and lack of selfishness. It also reveals the extent of one's fear of Allah.
These two steps, freeing slaves and feeding the needy, are mentioned in the surah as necessary in the existing situation at the time of revelation; yet their implications are general, which accounts for their being mentioned first. They are followed by the widest and most important step of all, "Moreover, it is to be of those who believe and counsel one another to be steadfast and enjoin mercy on one another." The conjunction in the Arabic text is "then" but it does not signify here any time ordering; it is used simply as introduction to the statement of the most important and most valuable step of all towards scaling the Ascent. For what would be the value of freeing slaves or feeding the hungry without faith? It is faith which gives such actions their value and their weight in the sight of Allah, because it relates them to a profound and consistent system. Thus good deeds are no longer the result of a momentary impulse. Their aim is not any social reputation or self-interest.
Steadfastness is an important element in the general context of faith as well as in the particular context of attempting the Ascent. That people should counsel each other to be steadfast is a higher level than that of being steadfast. It is a practical demonstration of the solidarity of the believers as they co-operate closely to carry out their duties as believers in Allah. The society formed by the believers is an integrated structure whose elements share the same feelings and the same awareness of the need of exerting hard efforts in order to establish the Divine system on earth and to carry out its duties fully. Hence, they counsel each other to persevere as they shoulder their common responsibilities. They rally to support one another in order to achieve their common objective. This is something more than the perseverance by the individual although it builds on it, which indicates the individual's role in the believers' society, namely, that he must be an element of strength and a source of hope and comfort to the whole society.
The same applies to enjoining each other to be merciful, which is a grade higher than simply being merciful. Thus the spirit of mercy spreads among the believers as they consider such mutual counselling an individual and communal duty in the fulfilment of which all co-operate. Hence, the idea of "community" is e dent in this injunction, as it is emphasized elsewhere in the Qur'an and in the traditions of the Prophet. This idea is central to the concept of the religion of Islam which is a religion and a way of life of a community. Nevertheless, the responsibility and accountability of the individual are clearly defined and strongly emphasised. Those who scale the Ascent, as defined here in the Qur'an, shall have their dwelling place on the right hand, which indicates that they will enjoy a happy recompense for what they do in this life.
"And those who deny Our revelations shall be on the left hand with Hell-fire close above them. "There is no need here to identify this group with more than "those who deny Our revelations" as this is enough to settle the issue. Nothing can be good if coupled with disbelief, and all evil is contained and encompassed by the denial of Allah. There is no point in saying that this group do not free slaves or give food to the needy, and, moreover, they deny Our revelations. For such a denial renders worthless any action they may do. They dwell on the left hand, which indicates their degradation and disgrace. These people cannot scale the Ascent.
"With Hell-fire close above them" that is, they are encircled by it either in the sense that they are locked within it, or in the sense that it is their eternal abode. Its being close above them gives them no chance of breaking away from it. The two meanings are quite interesting. These are then the fundamental facts concerning human life laid down from the point of view of faith, in a limited space but with great power and clarity. This remains the distinctive char'acteristic of the Qur'anic style which is unique.