Surah al-Balad (No. 90, 'The Town')

Verses 1-7

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful.

لَا أُقْسِمُ بِهَٰذَا الْبَلَدِ

I swear not by this town, (90:1).

وَأَنْتَ حِلٌّ بِهَٰذَا الْبَلَدِ

as you reside in this town; (90:2).

وَوَالِدٍ وَمَا وَلَدَ

by a father and what he begot: (90:3).

لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنْسَانَ فِي كَبَدٍ

certainly We created man in travail. (90:4).

أَيَحْسَبُ أَنْ لَنْ يَقْدِرَ عَلَيْهِ أَحَدٌ

Does he suppose that no one will ever have power over him? (90:5).

يَقُولُ أَهْلَكْتُ مَالًا لُبَدًا

He says, 'I have squandered immense wealth.' (90:6).

أَيَحْسَبُ أَنْ لَمْ يَرَهُ أَحَدٌ

Does he suppose that no one sees him? (90:7).

1. Oath By Negation

The oath that opens this surah is accompanied by the negation 'not.' This can be explained in a number of ways, and these apply to all other instances of this ambiguity. Some of these interpretations are:

a. The negation of the oath at the beginning of this surah is a real negation, meaning that Allah does not swear by a town like Mecca, while the Prophet’s (S) life, property and family are denied protection therein. For Mecca - despite its nobleness - will not be made the subject of an oath while the Prophet (S) is treated thus therein. According to this interpretation, the negation of the oath serves to extol the Prophet's (S) exalted rank in the eyes of Allah.

b. So, the object of the oath - assuming the negation is real – is already so, obvious that it does not need an oath to support it.

c. Or, if we assume that the oath is genuine, then the negation can be understood as an affirmation of it, as we see in eight other places throughout the Qur’an. According to this interpretation, the oath means 'I am swearing by this town while you live and reside therein.' In other words, this spot of ground is worthy of an oath being sworn by it, not because of its own innate nobleness, but because of the nobleness of another, namely the Prophet (S) who resides in it. So, this also, serves to extol the rank of the Prophet!

2. By A Father And What He Begot

If we say that the phrase

“by a father and what he begot:” (al-Balad 90:3).

refer to Abraham and his son, Ishmael (a2) - to accord with the mention of Mecca at the beginning of the surah - then this surah contains the human paragons of divine unity, namely Abraham ('a father'), Ishmael ('what he begot') and the Final Prophet ('as you reside in this town,') alongside the geographical centre of divine unity, namely Mecca ('I swear not by this town.'). And it is well-known that the Qur'an contains a great deal of praise for the one who built the Ka'bah, his son and his wife, for Allah is Indeed, grateful to the one who established His divine unity upon earth!

It should be noted here that Allah mentions 'a father' here in the indefinite in order to magnify Abraham, and the son is referred to as 'what he begot' instead of 'who' to signify amazement. This, in turn, demonstrates their exalted station. And the same is true of His words about the birth of Maryam:

“and Allah knew better what she had borne.” (Ale 'lmran, 3:36).

3. Level Of Discomfort

The Qur'an prepares people to endure a level of discomfort during their existence in this worldly life, so, a person should not be surprised by the difficulties he encounters because he will reap their fruits later, as Allah says:

“O man! You are labouring toward your Lord laboriously, and you will encounter Him.” (al-lnshiqaq, 84:6).

And when this surah discusses man, it speaks as though he was created in difficulty and hardship - as hyperbole in describing his condition - and this difficulty accompanies the very fact of his existence, even from the time when he was in his mother's womb until he was borne into this world, as

“ ... his mother has carried him in travail and bore him in travail” (al-Ahqaf, 46:15).

So, this difficulty follows him throughout the different stages of his life; whether it is in earning a living or being harmed by others, until the time of his death.

Of course, knowing that this difficulty will accompany him everywhere will help him to rely only upon Allah, in whose hand is relief from his sufferings and the lightening of their burden upon him.

4. Travails

Some interpreters think that the 'travail' (kabd) referred to in the verse

“certainly we created man in travail” (al-Balad 90:4).

actually means in a proportioned and upright manner, in which case the verse is similar to Allah's words:

“We certainly created man in the best of forms,” (at-Tin, 95:4).

and this meaning is appropriate to what we will encounter in the following verses, which elucidate the different ways in which man's creation has been proportioned, such as the creation of his eye, his tongue and his lip.

This is also, in harmony with the call for people to vigilantly observe themselves (muraqabah) - after seeing this amazing creation - that follows later:

“Does he suppose that no one sees him? (al-Balad, 90:7).

And to spend in Allah's way out of gratitude for these blessings:

“the freeing of a slave,” (al-Balad, 90:13).

“or feeding on a day of starvation.” (al-Balad, 90:14).

5. Difficulty And Ease

One dimension of contrast between this world and the Hereafter is that, in the former, Allah created the human being caught up in difficulty and hardship, while He placed safety and ease in the Hereafter. The crucial distinction between the two is that the hardship of this world is transient and ends with death, while the ease of the Hereafter is everlasting and endures with eternity; so, which sane person would not purchase eternal comfort at the price of temporary hardship?

In fact, we can say that even if this fleeting world were made of gold, while the everlasting abode of the Hereafter was made of clay, the Hereafter would still be superior to this world. What more when this fleeting world is made of clay and the everlasting Hereafter, of gold!

6. Spending Wealth

In this surah, the Qur’an mentions someone who has spent a large quantity of wealth:

“He says, ‘I have squandered immense wealth.’” (al-Balad, 90:6).

And these people fall into a number of categories:

a. Those who spend their wealth to show off, of whom it must be said that Allah sees them and their deeds, and knows that the intention behind their deeds is ostentation:

“Does he suppose that no one sees him?” (al-Balad, 90:7).

b. Those who spend their wealth to oppose the divine mission and persecute the Prophet (S), of whom it must be said: Allah is able to seize them and obliterate their wealth:

“Does he suppose that no one will ever have power over him?” (al-Balad, 90:5).

c. Those who spend their wealth and begrudge the fact that Allah has ordained their wealth for the poor and needy. This is like the person who said at the time of the Prophet: 'All my wealth has been squandered on expiations and donations since I adopted the religion of Muhammad!' 1 About these people it must be said that Allah has more right to begrudge them the fact that He made for them 'two eyes, a tongue and two lips.':

“Have We not made for him two eyes,” (al-Balad 90:8).

“a tongue, and two lips, al-Balad” (al-Balad, 90:9).

7. Attention To The World Of The Unseen

The Qur’an is replete with verses that invite people to look at themselves by calling their attention to the world of the unseen, which in turn causes them to cleave to Allah inwardly and vigilantly observe their own behaviour outwardly. Some of these verses are:

“Does he not know that Allah sees?” (al-‘Alaq, 96:14).

“…... is it not sufficient that your Lord is witness to all things?” (Fussilat, 41:53).

And in this surah:

“Does he suppose that no one sees him?” (al-Balad 90:7).

The upshot of all these verses is that Allah sees His servant in all of the vicissitudes of life, not to mention the fact that the servant is forever in Allah's grasp:

“Does he suppose that no one will ever have power over him?” (al-Balad 90:5).

So, the fact that man experiences hardship and toil should nurture inner reverence, just as it occasions - even if it is not always accompanied by - outward reverence and humility.

8. Belief In Higher Realities

The problem with every person who strays from the path of guidance is that he sees reality only through the lens of himself; he does not believe in higher realities save to the extent that he can imagine them, and he denies some of them out of arrogant disdain, without any solid reason for doing so. This is why these two verses rebuke him with the refrain: 'Does he suppose ...?'

Therefore, the only way to free themselves from this state is by altering this supposition so, that it conforms to the desires of the Master who not only sees the servant but also, has complete power over him. What is particularly noteworthy here is that these people, through their mistaken assumptions, deny two things that are obvious to any person of intelligence: First, that anyone can see them; and second, that anyone has power over them. And what foolish suppositions these are!

Verses 8-16

أَلَمْ نَجْعَلْ لَهُ عَيْنَيْنِ

Have We not made for him two eyes (90:8).

وَلِسَانًا وَشَفَتَيْنِ

a tongue, and two lips, (90:9).

وَهَدَيْنَاهُ النَّجْدَيْنِ

and shown him the two paths [of good and evil]? (90:10).

فَلَا اقْتَحَمَ الْعَقَبَةَ

Yet he has not embarked upon the uphill task. (90:11).

وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا الْعَقَبَةُ

And what will show you what is the uphill task? (90:12).

فَكُّ رَقَبَةٍ

[It is] the freeing of a slave, (90:13).

أَوْ إِطْعَامٌ فِي يَوْمٍ ذِي مَسْغَبَةٍ

or feeding on a day of starvation, (90:14).

يَتِيمًا ذَا مَقْرَبَةٍ

or an orphan among relatives, (90:15).

أَوْ مِسْكِينًا ذَا مَتْرَبَةٍ

or a needy man in desolation, (90:16).

9. “Making”

The verses of the Qur'an allude to more than seventy instances of 'making' (ja'l) in both the tangible world and the other (the unseen); we find one such instance in this surah, whereby Allah says 'Did we not make...?' and this extends to more than one manifestation of His power. But what matters here is not the act of making or the object made in itself - for that is the province of Lordship (rububiyyah). Rather it is that the person comprehends this act of making and turns it into a means for reflection and perceiving the generosity and power of the Maker, and this goal is what is sought from the province of servanthood ('ubudiyya).

10. Pondering On The Human Body

In order to realise the magnitude of Allah's generosity, a person does not need to travel to distant lands or plumb the depths of their soul. It is sufficient that he considers the contents of his own body, and especially those incredible signs that Allah has deposited in his head; 'two eyes' and their wonders; not only are they organs of perception, but they are also, a medium through which we can convey feelings and emotions, or even spiritual influence, as is well known; 'a tongue' which serves amazing purposes, whether in chewing, speaking or swallowing; 'two lips' which are essential for speech, for they are the final instrument for forming sounds after the throat and mouth cavity... and it should be obvious that the act of speaking with one's tongue and lips is one of the most complex processes in existence, as it involves taking thought, which exists beyond the senses, and expressing it in a sensible format; and through these two processes of thought and expression that all forms of human learning and knowledge are ultimately transmitted.

In short, pondering on the human being, in body and soul, is equivalent to the acts of travelling to faraway places and delving into the depths of the soul put together!

11. Inner Guidance

Allah frequently affirms the reality of inner guidance (hidayah batiniyyah) for the human being. For example, He says:

“and inspired it with its virtues and vices.” (ash-Shams, 91:8).
In this surah, He says:

“and shown him the two paths” (al-Balad 90:10).

and the word 'two paths' (najdayn) contains a subtle meaning, in that a najd originally refers to a raised road. And when you consider that every road exists to facilitate the travel of wayfarers upon it, and then what about one that is raised up high with clear landmarks?

The reason Allah places so, much emphasis on this reality is so, that no one can claim that there was nothing to remind them of their moral duties when they were committing sins which are innately known (bil-fitrah), such as lying, oppression and the like. This is because the rebuke of the conscience is one of the most effective arguments against committing sins, and it is something that exists in each and every human being!

12. Outer Faculties Of Judgment

There is a clear relation between two eyes and two lips on the one hand, and two paths on the other; just as Allah has represented a person's inner faculties of judgment through his innate knowledge of good and evil, he has also, made their outer faculties of judgment two eyes, which can easily lower the gaze, and two lips which easily can restrain the tongue.

This means there is no excuse for anyone who misuses his sight or speech, whether for something forbidden or for the purposes of prying.

13. Overpowering Desires

What is desired from a person in this life is to boldly overcome the obstacles that stand in his way, and this is achieved by overpowering the desires (hawa) and appetites (mushtahiyat) of the low self (nafs). So, just as piety (birr) cannot be attained without a person spending from that which he loves, neither can the barriers on his journey towards Allah be overcome except by undertaking tasks that are difficult for them, such as:

“the freeing of a slave” (al-Balad 90:13).

which is something that might require a lot of wealth, or spending on others in a time of shortage:

“…feeding on a day of starvation”. (al-Balad 90:14).

The difference being that the first involves freeing a person in his entirety from the ties of bondage, while the second involves freeing him specifically from hunger. And these are of such importance that the Qur'an introduces them with the refrain:

“And what will show you...?” (al-Balad 90:12).

which is only used for concepts whose reality it is difficult for people to grasp, and this shows the recompense for these deeds, which is hidden from them in this world, is something which cannot even be conceived!

14. Spending Wealth Or Feeding Others

When a believer wants to spend his wealth in the way of Allah, or feed others for the sake of His love, he will look to the nearest means to obtain His pleasure in the details of that act of devotion.

In other words, he will be keen to choose the best examples of that general category of actions. And so, these verses hold some indications of other preferred groups after having established the general prerogative of action. These groups are:

a. 'An orphan' because of the pains he suffers as a result of having no one to look after him.

b. A relative: 'amongst relatives'

“or an orphan among relatives,” (al-Balad, 90:15).

c. Someone who is destitute

“... A needy man in desolation” (al-Balad, 90:16).

d. And it is best on days in which their needs are most pronounced, such as a day of deprivation;

“ .... on a day of starvation.” (al-Balad 90:14).

15. Freeing Slaves And Feeding The Hungry

The apparent meaning of these verses is concerned with freeing slaves and feeding the hungry in the physical realm, and counts this as overcoming an obstacle, noting that the verses do not specify that the recipients of this kindness must be pious or even Muslims. So, what about in the spiritual realm? Meaning someone who frees a Muslim slave from Hellfire, or looks after an orphan of Muhammad's Household (‘a); what sort of recompense could a person who does this expect on the Day of Resurrection?

This interpretation is supported by the tradition: 'Allah revealed to Moses: "Endear me to my creation, and endear my creation to me." Moses asked: "My Lord, how should I do that?" He said: "Remind them of by blessings and gifts so, that they will love me, for if you return a fugitive to my door, or save one who has strayed from ruin, this is better for you than a hundred years of worship - fasting by day and keeping vigil by night!" Moses said: "And who is this fugitive of whom you speak?" Allah said: "A rebellious sinner"' 2

Verses 17-20

ثُمَّ كَانَ مِنَ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْمَرْحَمَةِ

then being one of those who have faith and who enjoin one another to patience, and enjoin one another to compassion. (90:17).

أُولَٰئِكَ أَصْحَابُ الْمَيْمَنَةِ

They are the people of good fortune. (90:18).

وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا بِآيَاتِنَا هُمْ أَصْحَابُ الْمَشْأَمَةِ

But those who defy Our signs, they are the people of ill-omen. (90:19).

عَلَيْهِمْ نَارٌ مُؤْصَدَةٌ

[Imposed] upon them will be a closed Fire. (90:20).

16. Overcoming Obstacles

Spending wealth on others - especially in times of difficulty - is a manifestation of overcoming the obstacles that are connected to a person's limbs in the realm of action. But this is also, a manifestation of another obstacle that is connected to the appendages of his soul, as represented by Allah's words:

“then being one of those who have faith and who enjoin one another to patience, and enjoin one another to compassion.” (al-Balad, 90:17).

This spiritual level is higher than that of the physical level we have just mentioned, because the actions of the body stem from the activities of the soul. And perhaps this is why this clause is introduced with the conjunction 'then' (thumma); to indicate that there is a gap between different levels, rather than a gap in time.

Therefore, we must always develop our spirituality in parallel with our outward activities as follows:

a. Faith (lman): ‘those who have faith’ because without being grounded in a foundation of correct belief, there is no possibility of self-development.

b. Adopting a mentality of being keen to see other people develop and grow:

“ ... who enjoin one another to patience……” (al-Balad, 90:17).

as represented by advising one another to be steadfast, whether this is patience in times of difficulty, to be steadfast in obedience, or to be steadfast in restraint against forbidden acts.

c. Kindness towards others represented by nurturing compassion among themselves: They

“ .... enjoin one another to compassion' (al-Balad, 90:17).

which includes observing the rights of the Creator and the Creation, as we read in Surah al-'Asr:

“and enjoin one another to truth, and enjoin one another to patience.” (al-'Asr, 103:3).

And one instance of this truth is enjoining one another to compassion.

17. Patience And Compassion

When the Qur'an mentions righteous deeds, it usually does so, in conjunction with faith, but in this surah it mentions patience and compassion instead. But there is nothing strange about this, because together these two things result in righteous deeds - whether obligatory or supererogatory - in addition to the presence of two other distinguishing factors in the phrase about enjoining one another to patience and compassion:

a. By this enjoining of one another (tawasi), righteous action will spread throughout society.

b. That this mutual enjoinment lays the foundations of righteous deeds; someone who practices patience and makes himself feel compassion towards other people will be motivated to do righteous deeds.

18. Enjoining Each Other

In a society of believers, development cannot be achieved through just one group of people enjoining others to good deeds, so, that people are divided into those who preach and those who listen to the preaching. Instead, what is desired here is that everyone enjoins one another – ‘and enjoin one another' - meaning that everyone is simultaneously a preacher and a listener, because all human beings are affected by moments of heedlessness and lapses, save those whom Allah has protected.

And the effect of this mutual enjoinment is that actions will become states of being (halat), which will in turn become customs ('adat) and finally habits (malakat), which is the ultimate goal.

19. Calling Others

Through the Qur'an, Allah teaches his servants the right methods of calling others towards His way: Even though He is the sovereign of everything and its owner, and - if He wanted to - He has the right to demand that His servants blindly obey His commands and prohibitions, He does not do this. Instead, He tries to persuade them through various types of speech. This surah contains a number of ways in which He influences His servants, for example by mentioning:

a. Specific instances of good deeds instead of a general and ambiguous call; He mentions freeing a slave and spending wealth on others on a day of hunger, especially on orphan relatives and needy persons in abject poverty.

b. Things which inspire them to offer thanks that they owe to their Creator, by mentioning the creation of the eyes, the tongue and the lips.

c. Activities which cause non-believers to take note of them; and that is by making a general call to do good deeds that include non-Muslims as well, such as freeing them from slavery or giving alms to them.

d. To avoid creating a special class of preachers a degree above everyone else, the command comes to enjoin one another to patience.

e. To guarantee prosperity in their worldly lives as well, so, that their only goals will not be the afterlife, the command comes to enjoin one another to compassion.

20. The Final Outcomes In The Hereafter

The majority of people see good and bad omens in baseless signs, like a crow or other animals, but the last verses of this surah want to firmly establish this on the basis of final outcomes in the Hereafter:

“ …… the people of good fortune” (al-Balad, 90:18).

are those who cross the bridge (sirat) safely, while the

“ .... people of ill-omen” (al-Balad, 90:19).

are those who did not, and both of these groups are determined by their (conduct during their) brief existence in this world.

Being wicked and of ill-omen entail one another, as does being noble and of good fortune. And we can glean this from the discourse of Salman when he was asked: 'Who are you, and what worth are you!' He replied: 'As for my beginning and yours, it was a lowly drop. As for my end and yours, it is a rotting corpse. But when the Day of Judgment comes and the scales are set up, then whosoever's scales weigh heavy is noble, and whosoever's scales weigh light is wicked.'3

21. Punishment

The verse of punishment in this surah does not offer any details about its different forms, but it suffices to deter people because it says 'a fire' in the indefinite to convey its magnitude!

“[Imposed] upon them will be a closed Fire.” (al-Balad, 90:20).

Add to this the fact that it mentions something that intensifies the punishment, namely that this fire is brought down upon them from above as well, because of the words 'over them' ('alayhim), which belongs to the same category as the verse

“.... a Fire whose curtains will surround them …...” (al-Kahf, 18:29).

But how does this intensify the punishment? Well, if someone who is being punished feels that he has no way to escape it, this makes it all the more painful. Not to mention the fact that he will dwell therein forever, something always mentioned as a recompense for the disbelievers and those who deny Allah's signs.

  • 1. Bihar al-Anwar, 18/174.
  • 2. Bihar al-Anwar, 2/4.
  • 3. Bihar al-Anwar, 22/355.