Commentary on Surah Al Tin (Chapter 95, The Fig)
This blog serves many purposes. It encourages me to write. It allows me to comment on the news of the day. It lets me delve into the meanings of songs. But one of the most important things that I have attempted to do with this blog is to explain the beliefs and practices of Muslims in hopes that people who frequent my site will better understand the religion of over one billion citizens of the world. Also, this is my 99th post, so prepare yourself for the epic century post coming soon, Inshallah (God willing).
Surah Al Tin (pronounced “theen”) is considered to be one of the first of the Meccan surahs.
- By the Fig and the Olive,
Here Allah (Subhana wa ta’ala) swears by two symbolic items – the Fig and the Olive. The strongest opinion is that this refers to Jesus or Prophet Isa (alaihis salaam, peace be upon him) as he is known by Muslims. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 24, one finds a reference to Isa (A), the Mount of Olives (a site in Jerusalem), and the fig all in the same chapter. “As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? . . . Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.” (Matthew 24:3-32, Online NIV)
There is another passage in Matthew in which Jesus (A) curses a fig tree that bears no fruit (Matthew 21:18).
Another explanation for the mention of the fig is that it is an allusion to Buddha. The tree under which Buddha supposedly received enlightenment was a fig tree. I find this explanation strange because to my knowledge there is no other place in the Quran where Allah makes any mention of Buddha or Buddhism. Also, the first generation of believers would have had no familiarity with Buddha.
A third explanation for the reference to the fig and olive is that these are both cultivated fruits. If we follow this line of thought then the cultivation of a fruit tree can be seen as parallel to the cultivation of the soul. When one cultivates a tree, one often props up the plant to make sure it grows straight, similarly, one must guard one’s soul to keep it on the straight path.
2. And the Mount of Sinai,
The reference here is much clearer than in the last ayah. There is universal agreement that this is an allusion to Moses or Prophet Musa (A). It was on Mount Sinai that Prophet Musa (A) received the Taurat (Torah) from Allah. The five books of the Torah served as the basis for the first five books of what Jews and Christians call The Old Testament. According to Muslim belief, the original content of these scriptures was distorted and changed by the religious scholars of Judaism and Christianity. One of the most notable aspects of the Taurat is the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. The Decalogue tells people to worship one God and to avoid major sins like adultery and murder. These principles are the common heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
3. And this City of Security
Since this surah was revealed in Mecca, the City that Allah is referring to is Mecca. Prophet Muhammad (salla allahu alaihi wa salaam) called Mecca home and it was also the city where Prophet Ibrahim (A) and Ismail (A) settled their families and built the Kaaba. Mecca was the site of the annual Hajj, before and after the time of Muhammad (S). Throughout Islamic history, Muslims from many different lands congregated in Mecca for the Hajj. With a few exceptions in a long history, Mecca has always been a safe and secure place for Muslims to convene.
Because of its association with the annual pilgrimage of Islam, Mecca has become synonymous with any large centralized gathering place. In English, if one refers to “a mecca for tourists,” one means a place where many tourists come together. The experience of visiting Mecca is something highly prized and sought after among Muslims.
4. We have indeed created man in the best of molds.
The word used at the end of this ayah, taqwim, or mold, has several closely associated meanings. It can mean symmetry, form, nature, or constitution. So one could substitute any one of these words in place of mold, for example, “We have indeed created man in the best of symmetries.” Clearly much of the beauty of the human form lies in its symmetry. If one imagines an axis cutting through a human body running down the forehead, through the nose and bisecting the chest, the body is wonderfully symmetrical.
Also, some commentators believe this ayah refers to the mother’s womb. The womb is, in a way, the mold we are all born from. And despite advances in medical technology, we still cannot replicate the balance and efficiency of the womb.
But this ayah goes beyond the physical form of man and extends to his or her soul as well. Islamic theology teaches that Allah creates people with a good nature. Muslims do not believe that humanity is innately evil. Each person has an innate sense of right and wrong that can be perfected or corrupted by his or her parents. The society one is born into can also affect one’s soul for good or for ill.
5. Then do We abase him to the lowest of the low.
To be abased means to be brought down or to be humiliated. One can look at this ayah in the context of the worldly life or the Hereafter. One could say that Allah abases wrongdoers in life. Addiction presents a modern example. When someone is addicted to meth, it takes over one’s life. One becomes a slave to the drug. Every waking moment is spent obsessing over how to get the next high.
One could also look at this ayah in the context of the Hereafter. The lowest low a person can experience is the fire of Hell. When one remembers that Adam (A) was created in Heaven, one can see the tragic fall of man from the heights of Heaven to the depths of Hell.
6. Except such as believe and do righteous deeds for they shall have a reward unfailing.
Not everyone will be brought down to the lowest of the low. Those who believe and do righteous deeds or good works will be saved from this punishment. Note that it is not “believe or do righteous deeds,” but “believe and do righteous deeds.” Islam does not create an artificial barrier between faith and action. Faith should inspire action and action should support faith. To believe in Islam means more than agreeing to a set of statements. It means actively showing your belief through actions. A strong Hadith (Prophetic Tradition) says, “”No man is a true believer unless he wants for his brother that which he wants for himself” (Bukhari 1:12). And Allah promises to reward people who believe and do good.
7. Then what can, after this, contradict thee, as to the Judgment (to come)?
Abdullah Yusuf Ali gives a marvelous succinct explanation of this ayah that goes as follows:
“. . .when it is clearly shown to you that Allah created man true and pure, that He guides him, and that those who rebel and break His law will be punished and brought down in the Hereafter, who can doubt this, or contradict the Prophet when he gives warning?”
When one looks at the creation of man with a sincere heart, one is bound to come to the conclusion that all this was not created by accident. Instead, man is endowed with an eternal soul and will be accountable in the court of Allah for all his or her actions.
8. Is not Allah the wisest of Judges?
The English really fails to capture the beauty of the original Arabic here. The Arabic calls Allah “ahkamul hakimeen.” The Arabic words for “wise” and “judge” come from the same root. It is similar to where Allah describes himself as “arhamur rahimeen,” which means the “Most Merciful of the Merciful.” One could translate the ayah as “Does Allah not have the best judgment of all Judges?” Here the word “judgment” has a kind of double meaning, referring to both the verdict given by a judge and the mental process that allows the judge to make that verdict.
When one thinks about the characteristics that would make someone an ideal judge, i.e, knowledge of the law, understanding of human nature, impartiality, and familiarity with evidence, one can see that Allah is the best of judges. Not only does Allah know the law, He is the author of the law of Sharia. Not only does Allah understand human nature, He created human nature. Allah is perfectly impartial. He is not swayed by wealth, class, race, gender, or any other characteristic of a person other than his or her character. And Allah is Al Shaheed, The Witness. He has witnessed every action since the beginning of time. No one can possibly be as well acquainted with any evidence as Allah is with every piece of evidence.
Since we know that Allah is the wisest of all Judges, we should look carefully at our character and our deeds. We should strive to follow the commandments of Allah and to perfect our flawed characters.
(Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Special thanks go to my Halaqa crew.)