Scaling The Ascent:
A Theme from Surah Al-Balad – Part 1
Is toil or hard work the destiny of man?
In an early revealed Quranic Chapter, Surah Al-Balad, The City, toil or hard work is confirmed to be part and parcel of the human creation. As humans, we are kneaded into toil and struggle. Interestingly, Quran states this fact by utilizing the genre of the oath, “I do call to witness this City-And you are a freeman of this City-And the mystic ties of parent and child.” [90:1-3]
Each component of the oath is witness and testimony to the statement or the postulate: “Verily We have created man into toil and struggle.” [90:4]
The first component of the oath is about Mecca, the city which emerged in a valley without cultivation by toil and struggle. The appearance of Mecca on the world map reflects the vision of Prophet Abraham- the vision that states the following: If your spirit is like the spirit of Prophet Abraham molded by “Allah is Greater”, then do not escape and do not look for an excuse no matter how difficult the situation is. Prophet Abraham is teaching us this important lesson through the experience of his wife Hajar and his son Ishmael: Imagine the picture of a woman breastfeeding her infant- extreme case of human weakness in a valley without cultivation- symbol of extreme toughness and absence of life. Abraham, Hajar, and Ishmael are saying to all human beings: Do not despair, do not give up, and do not stop your toil and struggle. Allah has instilled in you all the capacities and all the potentials to make life possible despite your apparent extreme weakness and the extremely difficult environment. Do not make of your weakness an excuse, but search continuously for your inner strength in order to transcend the obstacles and respond successfully to the challenges. You can still intervene to make life possible even in a place where life may seem to be almost impossible.
Eventually, water as a symbol of life sprang between the toes of Ishmael in a valley without cultivation or signs of life surrounded by arid mountains which are in turn surrounded by spacious deserts: “We made from water every living thing.” [21:30]
Therefore, toil and struggle in Mecca were not against life but were the principal and direct cause of life during the most difficult moments of weakness and despair.
The second component of the oath addresses Mohammad (ﷺ) directly in Mecca as he exhibits the final stage of prophecy and its seal. His life was a clear demonstration of toil and struggle needed to introduce and integrate the revelation, its light and guidance into the life of humanity. His legacy is summed up in shaping and constructing qualitatively new believing human subjects. He accepted the challenge and the heavy burden. He prayed and recited Quran with little sleep. He preferred toil and struggle over the cover of a blanket or the cover of the cave.
“O you folded in garments, stand to prayer by night, but not all night- half of it- or a little less, or a little more; and recite Quran in slow, measured rhythmic tones. Soon shall We send down to you a weighty message.” [73:1-5]
Toil and struggle worked for him and not against him. Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ) developed his capabilities and became spiritually stronger. The heavy burden became easier to bear and lighter to carry.
“Have we not expanded your breast? And removed from you your burden which did gall your back?” [94:1-3]
However, this did not mean to rest and stop working. On the contrary, Mohammad (ﷺ) was ordered to continue his struggle while keeping Allah his ultimate qibla and objective. “Therefore, when you are free, still labor hard, and to your Lord turn all your attention.” [94:7-8]
The third component of the oath is another testimony for the human toil and struggle. Raising a child by his/her parents takes years to achieve and reflects the suffering parents go through to help another human being to live this life independently. Sa’y سَعْي and a lot of effort are required to bring human beings to their expected orbit or state. We saw that with Prophet Abraham struggling to put Ishmael in the orbit of prophecy: “Then when the son reached the age of serious work with him.” [37:102]
Mecca emerged by toil and struggle, Mohammad (ﷺ) appeared in Mecca as a Prophet and Messenger by toil and struggle, and parents raise their children by toil and struggle. Allah swore by all these phenomena to be testimonies to this fact of life: Toil and struggle are part of creation and human beings reach their objectives through toil and struggle.
In Part 2, we will see how Quran addresses the situation when humans use their accumulated knowledge, skills, and wealth to stifle the toil and stop the struggle.
By Dr Walid Khayr