I’m going to be posting something interesting about the Qur’ān every day during Ramaḍān, the month the Qur’ān was revealed.
Today we will be analyzing Sūrat al-Tīn (“The Figtree”). This chapter reveals – in poetic language – human evolution, the nature of man, religious evolution, and the question of free will.
“By the Fig and the Olive,
And by Mount Sinai,
And by this City of Security.” (95:2-4)
There are a few views on the symbolism of the first three verses:
1.) “The Fig” and “the Olive” are symbolic of Jesus, “Mount Sinai” of Moses”, and “this City of Security” of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa).
2.) “The Fig” is symbolic of the Mosaic dispensation and “the Olive” of the Islāmic dispensation. This simile is further expressed by the juxtaposition of “Mount Sinai” and “this City of Security” (i.e. Mecca). Figs and olives are both used as medicines and also food, with the difference that the former tastes sweet but rots very soon, while the latter has oil that when mixed with condiments preserves it and protects the pickled article from rotting and decaying.
3.) According to some Commentators, “the Fig” stands for Buddhism, “the Olive” for Christianity, “Mount Sinai” from Judaism, and “this City of Security” for Islam, with all of these faiths being divinely inspired and from the same Source.
4.) Perhaps the best explanation of the symbolism in these verses is that the four words represent the four periods in the history of human evolution. “The Fig” represents the eara of Adam (the first prophet), “the Olive” that of Noah, “Mount Sinai” of Moses, and “this City of Security” of the Islāmic epoch.
Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together according to the Bible (Genesis 3:7). Noah plucked an olive leaf (Genesis 8:11). Moses received Divine Law on Mount Sinai, and Mecca, the birth-place of Islām is known as the “City of Security”.
These four periods represent the prophetic cycles mankind had to pass through to reach the stage of complete development. In the cycle of Adam, the founations of human civilization were laid. Noah was the founder of the Sharī’ah (Divine Law). In the cycle of Moses, the further details of the Sharī’ah were revealed, while the advent of the Holy Prophet (sa) completed Sharī’ah in all its aspects, and mankind attained its complete moral and spiritual development through him.
This verse also signifies that like Adam, Noah, and Moses, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) would also receive hardships in the beginning and like them succeed in the end.
“Surely, We have created man in the best form;
Then, if he acts unjustly, he becomes the lowest of the low,
Except those who believe and do good works; so for them is an eternal reward.
Then what is there to give the lie to you, after this, with regard to the judgment?” (95:5-8)
Here it says that God has created man (albeit via a process of biological evolution) in ahsan al-taqwīm (احسن التقويم) or ‘the best form’. This may mean:
1.) Man has been endowed with the best natural powers and qualities, by making use of which he can make infinite progress i.e. in the sciences.
2.) Man has been endowed with a creative power, i.e. he can be a good architect, artist, and builder in both the physical and spiritual senses.
The word insān (انسان) as used in this verse means ‘human’ but is composed of the root word uns (انس) which in Classical Arabic means ‘to love’. Therefore insān actually means ‘one who loves two things’ as it is in the muthannah (dual) form, with these two things being God, and also His Creation. If man is like this by nature though, then why do humans behave in evil ways as the next verse says “Then if he acts unjustly, he becomes the lowest of the low”?
There are four answers for this:
1.) Buddhist thought holds that man is prone to evil naturally thoug has been endowed with the power to correct and reform himself.
2.) Christian belief holds that man is by nature sinful because Adam faltered and committed a sin, and his progeny inhereted the taint of sin from their progenitor (Original Sin).
3.) Man is not born with a good or bad nature but with some natural instincts and natural inclinations and it is the sort of education or atmosphere he’s in which makes him good bad (Tabula Rasa). Some mystics hold that man is deprived of any freedom or free will and is simply a helpless victim of predestined conditions and circumstances which he cannot overcome.
4.) Hindu thought holds that man is born to suffer for the evil deeds he does in a former existence and goes through various forms of re-birth to cleanse himself of his sins (Transmigration of Souls).
Islam on the other hand, holds that man is born with a pure and unsullied nature with a natural tendency to do good, but has also been given free will to mould himself as he chooses. He has been endowed with great natural powers to make unlimited intellectual progress in the knowledge of the physical universe as well as moral progress and to rise spiritually so high as to become the mirror in which Divine attributes are reflected.
However, if he misuses these powers and attributes, he sinks lower than even beasts and becomes the lowest of the low. In essence therefore, the verse signifies that man has the potential to be good or evil based on his own free will however has been made inherently good.
Also if insān in the verse is taken to mean all of mankind and not one individual human, then it indicates that good precedes evil according to Islām, rather than the theory of humankind’s moral evolution, in which evil precedes good.