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Have we braved the steep ascent?

WHEN WE look back over the noteworthy events of the 23 years during which the Qur’an was revealed, we find the resistance of the Mushriks (or polytheists) to be utterly senseless and meaningless. This is how it seems, for both the reality of the message of Tawheed that finds expression in ‘La ilaha illallah Muhammedun rasulullah’, (There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah) and the senselessness of worshipping idols is glaringly clear and obvious.

But in spite of this clear reality on the one hand and this obvious senselessness on the other, there were many people who sided with meaninglessness over meaning, with lies in contrast to reality and with falsehood in place of the truth. That was how they determined their stance. For clear reality is more than just a matter of ‘knowledge’ or (any old) ‘belief’, it is a matter of ‘faith’. And being a matter of ‘faith’ it bears many implications for all aspects of life.

Whereas there was an established order and there were wheels in motion. While those who lived the good life with their possessions fed those they wished, and made miserable the lives of those they wished, the newly revealed verses were reminding them of the true Possessor of all things. He is The True Owner of all that you think belongs to you and you too are His. This was the message of these verses. You, as His subject and being within His kingdom , cannot do whatever you want and you cannot live according to the whims of your soul. This was another part of the message. As a sign that these verses have been understood, humanity is invited to perform obligatory acts of worship such as giving from what one has through paying alms, praying, and refraining from such illicit acts as dealing in interest, and being wasteful.

And so the dimension of social and personal responsibility and burden hidden in the essence of faith makes those who derive pleasure from the status quo avert their face from the truth even though they know that the revelation which has come is in fact the truth. This is why the Qur’an describes a person who does not believe as a ‘kafir’ or ‘one who covers’ (up the truth).

In contrast, the victims of that establishment in particular certainly listened attentively to the call of revelation. But the first believers were not restricted to them alone. Amongst them were the poor and slaves of course; but the first adult male believer was a wealthy, thirty-eight year old Qurayshite merchant named Abu Bakr bin Abi Quhafa.

Why was this so? What was it about that threshold beyond which personalities such as Abu Bakr bin Abu Quhafa, Talha bin Ubeydullah and Uthman ibn Affan managed to pass without hesitation but the Walid bin Mughiras, Utba bin Rabias, Umayya bin Halafs, and Hisham bin Amrs remained somehow unable to step beyond?

The chapter Balad (The Land), which draws its readers and listeners in through the wonderful eloquence of its words, teaches us just what that critical threshold is. The critical threshold that is ‘al aqaba’.

Al aqaba, that is, the steep ascent, the narrow passageway... 'aqaba' is the first word that creates a powerful impression on first contact with this chapter.

Every individual who takes up its eloquent invitation and pays attention to its message can procure from this word and from itss ocean of meanings all they may desire. For this single word is , in fact,the heart of the chapter; we discover its unique composition of meanings through a journey into understanding that begins when we first pay heed. As we progress on our journey, we realize that, for all its brevity, this Meccan chapter summarises not only the period in which the Qur’an was revealed, but the entire history of mankind and, in fact, the ‘human condition’.

This summary can be perceived from the outset, with the verses that swear an oath. The ‘walad’ (offspring) in the ‘balad’ (land) must grasp the secret embedded in the oath:

I swear by this land
and you are resident in this land
and by a father and what he fathered,

The oath uttered as the chapter begins sends shudders down our spine . The same holds true for all of the chapters iof the Qur’an that swear an oath. Once the human soul, which at first shudders at the swearing, becomes aware of what is being sworn by, it senses a certain familiarity and begins to relax. But at the same time it also senses that it is being enveloped entirely. We can perhaps venture that the oath being sworn by ‘this land’ conveys a sense of familiarity to the human heart and soul —but for the soul and its caprices it is also very daunting.

This is because what we initially feel, on hearing the message presented with the first verse ‘I swear by this land’ is clear: ‘O mankind’ This very earth on which you walk and this land in which you live belong to none other than Me. And you are also a subject in My Kingdom’. The second verse about the person of the Prophet (peace be upon him) openly confirms: ‘and you are resident in this land'. And then comes the third verse. With the swearing by the ‘walid and walad’, that is the ‘father and what he fathered’ this third verse reminds us of an entirely new dimension, the dimension of ‘time’ and ‘history’.

The first place that is understood by this 'land' is Mecca. The chapter was revealed when the Prophet (pbuh) was in Mecca. And as the Qur’an informs us in another chapter, Mecca is the place that mankind first inhabited on earth. Consequently it is the first land in which the first temple was built to worship Allah, that is, it is the land of Baytullah (House of Allah). In reality then, because of these two characteristics ‘this land’ represents all lands. And it gives one the sense that in whatever land one happens to live, the purpose of being in that land is to praise and glorify Him.

From another point of view, these first two verses which swear by ‘this land’ draw attention to Mecca in particular and then to the entire world and then to the entire universe. In other words they draw attention to the ‘spatial’ dimension of existence. In this way they also convey the message that ‘whatever exists in space belongs to Me and is for Me’.

In the case of the third verse, one’s attention is drawn to the dimension of time. And consequently to the Creator of time. The oath sworn by ‘the father and what he fathered’, that is the ‘father and the son,’ includes yesterday, today and tomorrow and then by extension the history of mankind as a whole. And isn’t it so that the land that the ‘father’ Adam lived in yesterday is the same land that the Bani Adam, that is, the sons of Adam live in today?

In that case these three verses which swear by ‘this land’ and also by the ‘father and the son’ are a reminder that ‘Space and time both belong to Me’ and thus inform man that he is encompassed by both space and time. Man’s existence occurs in time and within space. Man is neither above time nor space. On the contrary, he is a subject and visitor in this land of the Holy Being Who created space and time and Who transcends them both.

The truth of the createdness and encompassing which we sense in these three verses now openly discloses itself in the fourth verse: ‘We have created man’. But this is not just any creation. ‘We have created man into trouble (*1) '. Thus the verse invites man to consider his own situation in particular.

Mankind has been created into toil and trial, ‘fiy kebed’; The odyssey of man’s creation, in relation to other creatures, involves impasses and openings, difficulties followed by triumphs. The critical expression ‘fiy kebed’. Both words in the expression are significant. The word ‘kebed’ means trouble or toil but also carries the connotation of facing the challenge of this trouble and toil. If the meaning conveyed by ’fiy’ were ‘in’ then the former meaning would be more applicable. However, the fact that the definite article ‘al’ (harf-i tarif) is not used with the word ‘kebed’ implies that the essential meaning is not the ‘difficulty’ itself but the attitude taken towards that difficulty. The verse thus implies that ‘We created man to face difficulty , meaning the abilities and faculties to meet and overcome difficulty’. Divine justice is certainly above placing a burden onto shoulders too weak for them to bear. Man must thus be endowed with the faculties that allow him to overcome the difficulties he faces. And , by extension, heshould pay attention not to the difficulty that seems too much for him to bear but to his own self; he need not seek the fault outside himself but must prove his mettle by examining his own attitude.

On the other hand, the fact that man has been created with the potential to overcome all manner of difficulties carries with it the risk that he assume that what has been given to him is his own, and that he make absolute what is merely partial.

Thus the individual who doesn’t contemplate the createdness in which he is thoroughly encompassed by space and time will think he is free and without an Owner and will make absolute the capabilities that have been given to him to overcome difficulties by assuming them to be from his own self. Deluded in presuming that nothing can overpower him, he attempts to rebel against the order of the universe, and has the audacity to cover up the truth. He expends all his efforts, his wealth and his life to this end:

We created man in trouble.
Does he imagine that no one has power over him?
He says, ‘I have spent wealth abundantly.’
Does he imagine that no one has seen him?

Man, however, has a Lord whose power and knowledge encompass all things. If he ponders first of all the land that lies before his eyes, the world in which he lives, from Adam until today, from father to son down through the history of mankind, and if he then turns and examines his own life and his own body he will see this clearly. In addition to reading these verses in the outer world, mankind has been given faculties which can correctly interpret them within his own self. In this case, the one who cannot see this evident truth even though he has been guided to it through revelation, can in no way be excused:

Have We not given him two eyes,
and a tongue and two lips
and shown him the two highways?

Man thus has no excuse. Using his two eyes as required, he can derive indications that point to the ‘One’, from this land called the universe in which he lives and the ship of time called history. He will perceive his own createdness. He will understand that the one created can never have power over the Creator. He will not take an obdurate stance and assume that all everything he has belongs to him alone. He will use his tongue and two lips correctly and not make challenges with expressions such as ‘I have spent wealthy abundantly.’ Such a person will know that He sees him at every instant.

We also encounter in these verses a wonderful symmetry. The response to the misconception assumed by man and expressed in the seventh verse is found in the eighth verse; the response to the misconception adopted by man and expressed in the sixth verse is found in the ninth verse, and the response to the misconception adopted by man and expressed in the fifth verse is found in the tenth verse:

Man ‘imagines that no one sees him,’ whereas he should see. ‘Have We not given him two eyes?’ (verses 7-8)

Like one who prattles on, the denier boasts of how he has ‘spent wealth abundantly’. But if he only knew that that tongue and those two lips are not his but have been given to Him by The Glorious Creator; how then could he speak such words? (verses 6-9)

The denier thinks that the One has no power over him. But were he able to distinguish between guidance and misguidance, between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, and between right and wrong in the way shown by Him, he would never fall into such a misconception. (verses 5-10)

As we can see, the verses 8,9 and 10 present three proofs against the three claims and assumptions that verses 5,6 and 7 draw our attention to. This threesome of verses look to each other symmetrically, depend upon each other and complete each other. As they complete each other , theyput forward a wholeness of meaning; verses 7 and 8 on the basis of sight, verses 6 and 9 on speech and verses 5 and 10 on distinguishing between right and wrong.

Within this wholeness, verse 10 is especially significant. This verse -‘We have shown him the two highways’ - points to the dual nature of guidance, a duality that is transmitted in the most concise and pure expression of God’s unity, ‘La ilahe illallah’. It is only with the sword of 'La' (term of negation) that we can separate all things that exist in space and time from their claim to divinity. And only by saying 'Illallah' (except Allah), can we then believe in a single God who is above both space and time. It is only when we who are in this universe pronounce la ilaha, meaning that there is nothing in or of this universe that can claim divinity and then, by saying illallah, we confirm the divinity of God Almighty who created this universe, but who is above it.

Guidance, as can be seen in the statement of unity (Kalima-i tawheed), has two aspects. Guidance is not merely knowing the truth. On the contrary, guidance is knowing what is wrong and rejecting it, and knowing what is right and accepting it. Does not worship too, the fruit and requirement of guidance, have this same dual nature? For example, knowing falsehood to be falsehood and avoiding it, which is taqwa (God-consciousness) and knowing the truth to be truth and following it, which is acting out good deeds (amel-i salih).

With the subtle and meaningful lessons to be derived from its first 10 verses, chapter al-Balad, having reminded man of his createdness and of what is required of him as a result, now, in the next ten verses, teaches man how he can fulfil the requirements of his existence. The focal point for mankind’s situation is ‘braving of the steep ascent’. But as against his createdness, the denier persists in thinking that the One has no power over him, that the One does not see him and that he has spent wealth abundantly:

He has not braved the steep ascent.
What will convey to you what the steep ascent is
It is freeing a slave
or feeding on a day of hunger
an orphaned relative
or a poor man in the dust;
then to be one of those who have iman
and urge each other to steadfastness and urge each other to compassion.
Those are the Companions of the Right.
Those who reject Our signs, they are the Companions of the Left.
Above them is a sealed vault of Fire (verses 11-20)

The first of the second ten verses, verse 11 of al-Balad (consisting of 20 short verses in total) contains the word that first captures the attention of the believers who read or listen to the chapter. That word is ‘aqaba’. Not only does this verse contain this word but it is also both a jewel of eloquence in terms of its pronunciation and in its connotations. It is a jewel of eloquence for the term that corresponds to failing to ‘brave the steep ascent’ is ‘falaktahama al-aqaba’. ‘aqaba’ is pronounced with a qaf, the heavy K of arabic, whose pronunciation sounds like the constriction of the breath coming from the throat, being squeezed and drowning, struggling to make its way through a narrow passageway. It is a sound that corresponds precisely with the meaning of the word. The word aqaba implies a narrow steep uphill path. In the same way, the word ‘falaktahama’, also pronounced with a heavy K, has a meaning that matches its pronunciation. In pronouning this word we must draw a deep breath, then pause having said the word ‘falaq’ and then with a second effort say the word ‘tahamal’. The intermediary pause is a sign of the miraculous harmony that exists between the words chosen and the message desired. Having come face to face with ‘al aqaba’, the denier has displayed ‘falaq/tahamal’; that is, having seen the steep ascent, he has hesitated and reconsidered and then changed his mind about what he knew he had to do, consequently deciding not to brave the steep ascent.

This particular event which one can get a sense of through the pronunciation of this verse is described in another Meccan verse, al Muddaththir, as follows:

Leave the person I created on his own to Me alone,
him to whom I have given great wealth
and sons who stay with him,
and whose way I have smoothed.
Then he wants Me to add yet more!
No indeed! He is obdurate about Our Signs.
I will force him to climb a fiery slope.
He reflected and considered.
Curse him, how he considered!
Again curse him, how he considered!
Then he looked.
Then he frowned and glowered.
Then he drew back and was proud.
He said, ‘This is nothing but magic from the past.
This is nothing but the words of a human being.’

The ‘steep ascent’ is not, however, something that cannot be overcome. For just as the fourth verse previously informed us, man is ‘fiy kebed’ in terms of his creation. That is, man has been created with the abilities and capabilities to meet difficulties and overcome them. Furthermore ‘Allah does not place on man a burden greater than he can bear’. The inability to brave the steep ascent is not a matter of not having the strength to do so, nor lacking the capabilities thar make it possible, nor of our potential being inadequate. On the contrary, man who has been created ‘fiy kebed,’ is of such a nature, capable of overcoming all difficulties and of struggling against all hardship—and feeling particularly satisfied as a result. Deciding against the struggle and turning back having seen the steep ascent is not because this gem was not given to man in regards to his creation; it is a result of it having been extinguished later on.

But what ,really, is the unpassable steep ascent? To free a person who has been enslaved and whose freedom has been taken away; to feed any orphan relatives, to take care of the needs of a poor person who has’nt a penny to his name. These are things that anyone having the opportunity to do so , anyone who has not lost his or herhumanity would do willingly, from the heart, with pleasure, and with enthusiasm.

But we see that the denier who boasts that he has spent wealth abundant, stops now to think again and weighs things and then changes his mind and goes on his way when it comes to spending in order to be of benefit and not merely so that others will see him or speak of him. Spending abundantly where we knows it will bring us benefit or when it will bring us fame, but being miserly when it comes to freeing a slave or feeding an orphan or meeting the needs of the poor is a sign of this situation. The important thing then is not spending as such but on what, why and where we spend our money.

While describing the person who refuses to brave the steep ascent, the al-Balad also teaches us the characteristics of those who do brave it. The first of these characteristics is ‘fakku raqaba’. Just as with ‘falak tahama’l aqaba’ the meaning of this term can be grasped through its pronunciation. The weightiness in the way ‘raqaba’ is pronounced is felt in the sound of the word which means the yoke that takes away freedom. In pronouncing ‘fakku’ one again feels beforehand the breaking and throwing away of the yoke. The expression ‘fakku raqaba’ is basically the breaking of the yoke or the freeing of a slave, just as the pronunciation suggests.

Nevertheless, just as ‘freeing a slave’ is the most important aspect of this ‘breaking of the yoke’, it is only one aspect. When we look more closely we can see that the meaning the verse that correcly conveys emancipation comprises merely its the most obvious aspect.. In its broadest meaning, ‘breaking the yoke’– as seen in its most obvious meaning in relation to slavery – also targets all manner of oppressive mentalities and efforts to force people to bow to others, to curtail freedom, and to obstruct free will. For an individual, every attempt to make absolute the group to which they belong, the nation of which they are a citizen, and the government which they control and to make those who have been created with free will bestowed upon them by Allah into slaves of other (mere) slaves is included in this ‘breaking of the yoke.’

In short this verse identifies standing up for freedom and struggling for freedom as a required consequence of ‘the human condition’ and a prerequisite for an individual becoming a true human being. This vital sign that one has braved ‘the steep ascent’ establishes responsibility in terms of our political and social aspects of collective life. The next three verses that follow suggest a responsibility in economic terms. Whether one has managed to climb the steep ascent can be determined first of all by whether or not they are concerned with the ‘breaking of the yoke’ and then whether or not they choose to feed an orphan relative or a starving poor person on a day of hunger and great need. Accordingly in times when there is so much inequality of income and there are some who live in luxury while others suffer from hunger, a person who thinks only of his own comfort,who cares neither for hunger nor for the hungry and who only chooses to feed those who bring benefit and not those truly in need, is a person who has not done justice to his ‘humanity’. Humanity does not allow us simply to stand by and observe the weak and poor and it certainly does not allow us to benefit from such a situation. On the contrary it requires that we attempt to find a solution to weakness and poverty and to do the best we can to help. Just as with slavery, it is necessary to direct all our efforts to overcome the state of slavery and not to benefit from it... if the fact that a person just like ourselves is living under conditions of subservience does not make one uncomfortable and knowing that others are hungry while one is full does not awaken any sort of discomfort then we must suspect our own ‘humanity.’In summary, whether or not we have braved the steep ascent can be evaluated by examining two indications: (1) does our attitude favour breaking the yoke, that is, freeing slaves, and working for the freedom and the dignity of mankind on a social-political level; (2) does it favor feeding orphans and the poor, that is, on a social-economic level to base our attitude on mercy rather than might.

The next verse informs us of three new indications of braving the steep ascent. These three indications are also very significant; but of greatest significance is that the phrase ‘being of those who have faith’ comes only after the above two indications are mentioned:

‘What will convey to you what the steep ascent is?
It is freeing a slave
or feeding on a day of hunger an orphaned relative or a poor man in the dust;
then to be one of those who have iman
and urge each other to steadfastness
and urge each other to compassion’.

The fact that ‘being one of those who have faith’ is mentioned after the first two indications—and moreover with the particle thumma meaning ‘then’¿is probably the most critical point of the entire chapter. Despite being the foremost characteristic that makes a human being truly human, having faith is mentioned in third place chronologically. This makes us think of the link between humanity and Islam. In that case faith is not a randomly aquired virtue. A sound faith becomes the fate of those who have preserved their humanity without tainting it. In Sadeddin-i Taftazani’s exquisite formulation, iman or faith is ‘a light that is placed in the heart after the exertion of one’s free will’ (juz-i irade).

And what we understand from this chapter Balad is that one of the steps that the free will must take in order for the light of faith to be placed in the heart is to listen to the voice of one’s conscience. It is to listen to the sense of justice that has been placed within one’s conscience and thereby not lean towards oppression but on the contrary oppose oppressors as a an active resistance of the heart. It is those who, having listened to the voice of their conscience, and struggled to break the yoke of oppression, and to free those who have been enslaved, and to feed the orphans and the poor, and to help those who are in need; it is these who have ‘then become of those who have faith’.

This chapter ties together two virtues of ‘humanity’ and ‘the greater humanity’ (which is Islam), referring to two virtues that result from listening to the voice of one’s conscience, so beautifully described by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi as ‘the primal nature of conscious beings’. These two virtues being whether (1) one struggles for the cause of freedom and (2) feeds the needy when one is hungry oneself. It informs us that though a person’s mind may be misguided at present and may even be dabbling in sin, if this person has managed to preserve their sense of justice and compassion within their inner world and if they have not silenced their conscience then their hearts are open to faith’s invitation. It is not possible for a person who has silenced his conscience to enter the path of faith using their mind only; on the contrary, just as in the example given in the chapter Mudaththir of Walid ibn Mughira, such a person will ‘reflect and consider and then draw back’. However a person who has not silenced the voice of his or her conscience - though his mind may be misled - may yet be a traveller on the path of faith. Because “even if the mind doesn’t see the conscience does”. The conscience is an overseer and the window to the heart”.

We can clearly see examples of this situation when we look at the Companions. The most obvious example is that of Hz. Omar. Despite the degree of his apparent misguidance he was able to submit to Islam within a period of two hours due to the sense of justice he carried within his heart. The Companions were people who overcame their ‘egos’ (selves) even in the Period of Ignorance. They were people who rose above lowly characters that worship ‘benefit’. The hearts of those who worshipped themselves remain closed to Islam while those who worshipped ‘benefit’ were destined for hypocrisy.

It is most significant in this respect that almost all commentaries on these verses of Balad cite a conversation that took place between Hakim b.Hizam, the nephew of Khadija, mother of the believers, and Rasulullah. Hakim was older than Rasulullah and just like others in the same situation this ‘hindrance of age’ delayed his entry into Islam so that he only became Muslim just before Mecca was conquered. However in his days of Ignorance he was one who freed slaves, helped those in need and fed the orphans and needy. One action of his in particular could not go unforgotten. During the three and a half year embargo, while he was still a Mushrik, he secretly made efforts to prepare food-laden camels during the night and let them go to Shib-I abu Talib to make sure that his aunt firstly and then all the other believers didn’t go hungry. After entering Islam, Hakim b. Hizam asked the Messenger of God (pbuh) whether there was a reward from God for the good deeds he had done during his days of ignorance. The reply of the Messenger of God - ‘How do you think you were able to become Muslim’ – embodied the message that it was because of this character and conscience that he had preserved that Allah placed the light of belief into his heart.

After belief the last two indications for braving the steep ascent that this chapter then goes on to mention are ‘those who urge each other to steadfastness and those who urge each other to compassion’. This description contains within it a very meaningful and great lesson. Opposing the ‘power players’ in action and thought on seeing a person or group of people who have had their freedom taken away from them, freeing a slave or feeding an orphan or needy person, and parting with one’s money in order to meet the needs of one in dire straits - these are all very difficult things for the soul (the self, a person) to do. But such a person can easily advise slaves and the needy to patience without risking either their own selves, their comfort or their wealth. But no! What is acceptable here is not that we put our hands behind our head and ‘help’ with out tongue only. What is acceptable is that one not refrain from lending a helping hand but rather one does everything one can to help, and then urge patience. The order of these verses makes it clear that advising others to patience and compassion is of value and has meaning only once we have fulfilled our own social responsibilities and tried our best. In the same way, it is only on a horizontal level, after we have done our best in the realm of causes that the prayer that we pray to our Lord on a vertical level for those in dire straits will have any meaning. Someone who believes his words of prayer on a ‘vertical level’ can suffice, and neglects his responsibility on a ‘horizontal level’ has not ‘braved the steep ascent’.

The fact that, after faith, and after urging to ‘steadfastness’, this verse urges to ‘compassion’ is also of special significance. Having carried out one’s responsibilities, it is yet not sufficient or meaningful to urge others to ‘steadfastness’. It is not enough for a person who has worked to free the enslaved and looked out for the needs of the orphans and the needy and then urged tthem to be ‘steadfast’ to meet the criteria for braving the steep ascent. Such a person, while urging the weak to ‘steadfastness’ must also be able to urge the powerful to ‘compassion’. Having carried out their responsible deeds, a reciprocal duty of promulgation lies before the ‘heroes’ of the steep ascent: to entreat the helpless to have patience and the powerful to have compassion. It is only when the promulgation is carried out on both levels will it have true meaning.

In this verse, the use of the double-sided, reciprocal verb ‘tawasaw’, that is advising each other, is particularly meaningful. This means that it is not enough to be of ‘those who advise’; one must also be of those who are ‘willing to take advice’. For us to advise patience where it is required necessitates that we internalise the advice given to us to be patient where it is needed. In the same way our advising others to show compassion is only of any value to the degree that we open our hearts to the advice given to us to show compassion. Being of those who ‘advise others’ while refusing to take the advice given to us is a sign of an inner problem and in particular a weakness of character. Because the most fundamental basis of good character is the sense of justice contained within the conscience and this sense of justice includes a reciprocity whereby one is content when what is done to others is done to their own selves.

After describing in this way those who have braved the steep ascent, that is, the Companions of the Right, the chapter goes on to describe their exact opposite, the Companions of the Left. The Companions of the Left are, in contrast to the Companions of the Right who have braved the steep ascent, those unfortunate and fruitless individuals who possess nothing good to speak of, not in their lives nor in their character. In describing these people the first expression the verse makes use of is: ‘those who reject Our signs’, or ‘those who cover up Our signs’ or ‘those who ignore Our signs’. This expression, ‘Our signs’ which is found in the 19th verse of this chapter, points to the reality of faith. That is, it points to the existence of signs such as the proofs and witnesses of faith in both the external world and in our own inner world. According to this, a kafir is not one who does not see Allah’s signs. A kafir is one who ignores Allah’s existence despite having ‘seen’ it. A kafir is not one who is unable to consent to the notion of an afterlife; rather it is one who closes his eyes to the proofs of the existence of the hereafter that abound on the horizons and within his own soul. A kafir is not one who is incapable of using his brain but rather one who uses it for the wrong purposes.

And while a person, who may not yet have faith, but who nonetheless carries within his heart and conscience values such as justice and compassion, does have the potential for faith, the end of the one who knowingly covers up the truth is to be covered up by the truth. And on the day when the realm of belief will overcome the realm of means, that is that day on which the arena of examination of this world of ‘relative truths’ which reality had hitherto shown to be veiled and obscured, will be closed and absolute truth will reveal itself; then on this day the truth will come out and justice will be realised. On this day of accounting and justice, what is due to those who knowingly covered up the signs around them and within themselves is to have tightly closed doors of fire close in upon and cover them. This is not injustice; it is merely the end affair of the Companions of the Left, brought about by their own hands, having denied the Signs.

On the other hand, the expression, ‘those who reject Our signs’, is a source of hope for those who migrate from this world without the truth being manifest for them. That is those people who bid farewell to this world not having been included as one of those who have faith ‘ in a ‘fetret’ period (*2) . Since the light of revelation has been obscured (in times such as these), the signs have not been made manifest and therefore they cannot be classed as ‘those who reject Our Signs’; the truth has not been alllowed to become clearly manifest, thus it cannot be said to have been covered up.

But here that amazing perspective of wisdom of the early community of believers comes into play. With the teaching they received from the Qur'an, they concluded that under the conditions of the 'fetret' period in which the light of revelation is concealed, the condition that those individuals who leave this world without being honoured with belief not be taken to account and be saved from the fire is that they must not have been of the oppressors. This is because the human being may experience an eclipse of the mind under conditions where the signs upon the horizon and within cannot be read clearly and correctly due to the covering up of the light of revelation. But an eclipse of the conscience - (as long as) one does not misuse their free will knowingly and willlingly – is not possible. The human mind alone may not be able to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong; but the human conscience is of such a nature that it ever knows what is justice and what is oppression. In that case, in times of fetret, even though all of those who die and leave this world without having believed are considered saved people, the exception to this are the oppressors and those who incline towards oppression.

This short chapter of a mere 20 verses, which are pearls of eloquence containing treasures of meaning, holds up a mirror of truth for those travellers up the steep ascent.

The path is clear and so is the ascent.

Now is the time to turn back, look into the mirror of Balad and search for the answer to the question:

Have we braved the steep ascent?

(translated by Özlem Şahin from Turkish;
special thanks to Fred A. Reed for his contributions)

Abdulhaqq and Aisha Bewley translation of Surah Balad:

90/1 I swear by this city –
90/2 and you are resident in this city –
90/3 and by a father and what he fathered,
90/4 We created man in trouble.
90/5 Does he imagine that no one has power over him?
90/6 He says, ‘I have consumed vast quantities of wealth.’
90/7 Does he imagine that no one has seen him?
90/8 Have We not given him two eyes,
90/9 and a tongue and two lips
90/10 and shown him the two highways?
90/11 But he has not braved the steep ascent.
90/12 What will convey to you what the steep ascent is?
90/13 It is freeing a slave
90/14 or feeding on a day of hunger
90/15 an orphaned relative
90/16 or a poor man in the dust;
90/17 then to be one of those who have iman and urge each other to steadfastness and urge each other to compassion.
90/18 Those are the Companions of the Right.
90/19 Those who reject Our signs,they are the Companions of the Left.
90/20 Above them is a sealed vault of Fire.


  1. This is from the Bewley translation. According to Muhammad Asad, the word ‘kebed’ comprises the concepts of ‘pain’, ‘distress’, ‘hardship’, ‘toil’, ‘trial’ etc. (translators note)

  2. ‘fetret’ period ` the time-period between two prophets, ie a period in which there is no revelation


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