"By the Fig and the Olive":
Sura 95, Tín (the Fig)
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
By the Fig and the Olive,
And the Mount of Sinai,
And this City of security,-
We have indeed created man in the best of moulds,
Then do We abase him (to be) the lowest of the low,-
Except such as believe and do righteous deeds:
For they shall have a reward unfailing.
Then what can, after this, contradict thee,
as to the judgment (to come)?
Is not God the wisest of judges?
The only published collection of Turkish tablets and prayers by `Abdu'l-Bahá is entitled Majmú`ih-yi Alváh wa Munájáthá-yi Turkí. It contains several tablets and prayers of `Abdu'l-Bahá which were written in the Arabic-Persian script, and some of which are partially composed in Persian and/or Arabic. These include tablets to individual Bahá'ís and groups in Caucasia, Erivan, Zinján, Sísán and other places. These texts are mostly short announcements of the glad tidings of Bahá'u'lláh's coming. Several are in the Azeri dialect. The Bahá'í World Centre apparently has a great number of tablets of `Abdu'l-Bahá written in different Turkish dialects, and there might be still more in private hands or libraries.
The Turkish tablets of `Abdu'l-Bahá are not known to many Bahá'ís, and except for some Ottoman prayers printed in Latin letters, the Bahá'í community of Turkey has little access to them because of their Ottoman script. Consequently, I am aware of no scholarship that has yet been done in the field of Turkish Bahá'í studies. Turkish Bahá'ís born before the script and language reform made by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), in 1928 and from 1932, who are able to read the Ottoman script, have not been engaged in the academic study of the Bahá'í Faith and its Ottoman writings.
This paper includes what is probably the first study and provisional translation of an Ottoman Turkish tablet of `Abdu'l-Bahá. The original text appears in the previously mentioned collection of Turkish tablets and prayers by `Abdu'l-Bahá, entitled Majmú`ih-yi Alváh wa Munájáthá-yi Turkí. The recipient and date of this commentary remain unknown. However, `Abdu'l-Bahá ends it by saying that he dictated it to a certain Nesib Effendi. No direct references are made to the Bahá'í Faith or its teachings in the commentary. It is possible from `Abdu'l-Bahá's comment, "as thine Excellency knows," that this piece is an answer to an inquiry by one of the many Ottoman officials in Palestine and elsewhere with whom `Abdu'l-Bahá was in contact. In it, `Abdu'l-Bahá comments on the first verse "By the Fig and the Olive" (wa't-tín wa'z-zaytún) of Sura 95 of the Qur'án. Moreover, he presents a tafsír or commentary on the entire sura. After informing the addressee about the traditional and exoteric interpretations of the commentators of the Qur'án, `Abdu'l-Bahá offers spiritual meanings and an esoteric exegesis of this Qur'ánic chapter. The first part of this article is an overview of the Islamic and the biblical background of the motifs in Sura 95, followed by `Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretation of the sura with cross-references to other Bahá'í writings. A provisional translation of the `Abdu'l-Bahá's commentary is appended.
The "Fig" appears only once in the Qur'án, while the "Olive" is mentioned several times. Different interpretations exist regarding their meaning. According to some, they represent the fruits themselves. God is swearing by them because of their benefits. The fig was regarded as wholesome and easy to digest, a medicine for various diseases; it softens the human nature, reduces phlegm, removes the filth in the liver and kidneys, and eliminates haemorrhoids. Muhammad is reported to have recommended that the believers eat figs and to have stated that had He chosen a fruit to have descended from Paradise it would have been the fig.
In the Indian tradition as well, we come across the fig tree in paradise, as the "Tree of Life" or the "cosmic tree". In the Bhagavad-Gita (15:1-3), it is a giant cosmic "upside-down-tree" with its roots in the sky and its branches covering the earth, its leaves representing the hymns of the Veda. "The eternal asvattha ("fig tree"; Ficus religiosus) is a manifestation of Brahma in the universe." Hebraic and Islamic traditions likewise offer the same image of the Tree of Life. Yusuf Ali, translator of the Qur'án, notes with regard to the "Fig" in Sura 95: "It has been suggested that the Fig stands for the Ficus Indica, the Bo-tree, under which Gautama Buddha obtained Nirvana ... if accepted it would cover pristine Buddhism and the ancient Vedic religions from which it was an offshoot. In this way all the great religions of the world would be indicated" (note 6198). Furthermore, there are Islamic traditions from the Imams on the benefits and importance of the fig:
The fig removes the bad smell of the mouth. It strengthens the gums and bones, causes the hair to grow, puts an end to some ailments so that medicine is not needed.
The fig is the most comparable thing to the fruits of Heaven.
Another interpretation is that the fig is a metaphor for individuals developing or wasting their potential:
If we take the Fig literally to refer to the fruit of the tree, it can stand as a symbol of man's destiny in many ways. Under cultivation it can be one of the finest, most delicious, and most wholesome fruits in existence: in its wild state, it is nothing but tiny seeds, and it is insipid, and often full of worms and maggots. So man at his best has a noble destiny: at his worst, he is "the lowest of the low."
The olive fruit and its oil are no less salutary, and, according to tradition, are recommended by Muhammad and the Imams:
Have olive oil (zayt) in your food and grease your body with it since it is from a Holy Tree (shajara mubáraka).
Olive oil is good food stuff. It makes the smell of the mouth sweet, removes phlegm, makes the colour of the face cheerful, strengthens the nerves, puts an end to sickness and weakness, and quenches the fire wrath.
However, the interpretation of fig and olive as fruits is problematic in the context of this passage, which continues with the terms, "Mount Sinai" and the "City of security." Most commentators say that fruits themselves are not the intended meaning but rather that they represent two places or mountains in Syria (the holy land) where prophets received divine revelation. One tradition states that they are two mountains called in Aramaic Túr Tíná and Túr Zaytá; other traditions say that by "Fig" is meant the mosque of Damascus (masjid Dimashq), the mosque of the Seven Sleepers or "the companions of the cave" (asháb al-kahf), or Damascus itself, while the "Olive" represents the mosque of Jerusalem (masjid Bayt al-muqaddas), the mosque of Elijah or the city of Jerusalem. According to others they represent the regions where the two trees grow.
With regard to the verse "By the Fig and the Olive," Ibn Kathír states that it refers to two regions in Syria (Palestine); these are places where Jesus was born and dwelled. By continuing the passage with Mt. Sinai (where God conversed with Moses), and Mecca (the city where Muhammad was commissioned with his prophethood) these verses are equivalent to the verses in the Torah: "The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Paran" (Deut. 33:2). Seir is where Jesus dwelled and Paran is Mecca. Due to their distinction, God has sworn an oath by these places. These regions where figs and olives grow are at the same time places where prophets were raised; God emphasizes here the importance of the places where they appeared. The "Fig" is also said to refer to Noah's mosque that was constructed on Mount Judi of the Ararat range in Eastern Turkey, or to symbolize the leaves of the fig tree in Paradise with which Adam and Eve dressed themselves.
It is has been suggested that the reference "a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the East nor of the West" (Qur'án 24:35), and "a tree springing out of Mt. Sinai, which produces oil, and relish for those who use it for food" in 23:20 are connected with Mt. Sinai, where olive groves were probably found. Mt. Sinai in Arabic is túr síná' (see Qur'án 23:20), and it appears in the form túr sínín only in Sura 95, possibly only for the rhyme sínín/amín. The first verse of Sura 52, "By the Mount (of Revelation) (wa't-túr)" is probably a reference to Mount Sinai. The primary interpretation of sínín by the commentators is the mountain where God conversed with Moses; other meanings assigned to sínín are "blessed", "good", "fertile" and the like.
With respect to the "Olive," the celebrated "Light Verse" in Qur'án 24:35 is particularly worthy of consideration:
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth (Alláhu núr as-samáwát wa'l-ard). The parable of His Light (núr) is as if there were a Niche (mishkát) and within it a Lamp (misbáh): the Lamp enclosed in Glass (zujája): the glass as it were a brilliant star (kawkab durrí): lit from a blessed Tree (shajara mubáraka), an Olive (zaytúna), neither of the East nor of the West (lá sharqiyya wa-lá gharbiyya), whose Oil (zaytuhá) is well nigh Luminous, though fire (nár) scarce touched it: light upon Light (núr `alá núr)!
In Islamic mysticism and sayings ascribed to the Shí`í Imams the "burning bush" has symbolic meaning and is associated with the mystic olive in this verse and the Qur'ánic "Lote Tree" (sidra). The Sinaitic tree, the "burning bush", is moreover regarded as an olive. In East Syriac/Persian Christianity, the essence of the Tree of Life, an ancient Mesopotamian image, is its oil. It is "sacramentally used as a `white chrism' [in baptism ceremony], pressed from its fruit, the olive", and is the "key of the hidden treasure-house of symbols."
As to the last sacred locality mentioned in Sura 95, commentators unanimously agree that the "City of security" (al-balad al-amín) is Mecca (cf. Qur'án 29:67, "a Sanctuary secure," haram ámin). Before the dawn of Islam, Mecca was safe in the months of pilgrimage, because no fighting or war was allowed. "Mecca is the City of security, he who enters it is safe." Some Imáms are reported to have stated that from each of those three places, i.e., Mt. Tíná, Mt. Zaytá' and Mecca, God has sent a prophet and messenger (nabiyyan mursilan), great lawgivers (asháb ash-shará'i` al-kibár).
Finally, there are some traditions which underline the importance of Sura 95:
God will endow, in this world, the qualities of safety and certainty to the person who recites it [Sura Tín]. And, when he dies, He will give him rewards equal to the reward of fasting one day (multiplied) by the number of all those who have recited this Sura.
The Apostle of God (peace be upon him) said: When one of you recites "By the fig and the olive" (Surah 95) and comes to its end "Is not God the best judge?" (verse 8), he should say: "Certainly, and I am one of those who testify to that."
... I heard the Apostle of God (may peace be upon him) reciting in the night prayer: "By the Fig and the Olive", and I have never heard anyone with a sweeter voice than he.
The Mount of Olives (Hebrew, har hazzeitim) is a mountain overlooking Jerusalem from the east. On the third peak is the Arab village of at-Tur (Hebrew, ha-har, "the mountain"), an epithet deriving from the Aramaic "Tura Zita," the name of the Mount of Olives. "According to tradition, 70 000 prophets died here of starvation and are buried there." Rabbinic tradition maintained that the olive branch was brought to Noah from the Mount of Olives, which escaped the flood. An area of the mountain was appropriately called Gethsemane (Hebrew, "oil press"), perhaps being a garden area where the olive fruit was processed to oil (cf. John 18:1). Jesus frequently prayed here (Matt. 26:36; Mark 14:32; Luke 22:39-46). Pilgrims, like Jesus, who could not find quarters in the city, stayed on the Mount of Olives (John 18:1; Luke 22:39). Burial inside the city was prohibited, so the mount was gradually filled with tombs, in part owing to the belief that on the last day the dead would rise to gaze on the holy place. The New Testament refers to this mount as "a great and high mountain", the place from which the "holy Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God" is observed (Rev. 21:10). The relationship of the mount with the departure and return of the "glory of God" provides the scenery for the ascension of Jesus and of his promised return (Luke 24:50; Acts 1:12). Jesus often went up on top of the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39). His famous "Olivet prophecy" is named after it (Matthew 24:1-51). The entry of Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem took place over and down the Mount of Olives (Luke 19:28-44). Jesus prayed with his disciples there just before his arrest (Luke 22:39-46), during which Peter beat the servant of the high priest with a sword and cut off his ear (Luke 22:49-51). And Jesus became visible to His disciples on the Mount of Olives after his Resurrection, and he ascended into heaven from there (Acts 1:1-12).
There are many references to fig trees, its leaves and fruit in the Bible. Adam and Eve clothed themselves in fig leaves (Gen 3:7), and the prophet Isaiah gave orders to apply figs to someone's boil which was cured immediately (2 Kings 20:7). To dwell under a fig tree represents a time of happiness, safety and prosperity (1 Kings 4:25).
In other places, and in reference to Bahá'u'lláh's Arabic Lawhu'r-Ra'ís addressed to Ali Pasha, which states, "O Chief! We have disclosed Ourself to thee (tajallayná `alayka) once at Mount Tíná, and once at Mount Zaytá', and at this blessed [Sinaitic] Spot (al-buq`a al-mubáraka)", `Abdu'l-Bahá says that Tíná and Zaytá' are two mountains near Jerusalem where prophets have perceived God's self-disclosure (tajallí), and that this is evident in the holy books, if perused. But the "ignoble Chief" (ra'ís-i khasís) remained negligent and inattentive (gháfil va dháhil) of the divine revelation at this "blessed [Sinaitic] spot." According to `Abdu'l-Bahá, the meaning of Tíná is the reality of Jesus (haqíqat-i `êsá) and by Zaytá' the reality of Muhammad (haqíqát-i Muhammadiyyih) is intended, where the "blessed Olive Tree ... neither of the East nor of the West whose Oil is well nigh Luminous, ..." is planted. God swears by these mountains and "this City of security", here meaning Mecca, as loci of manifestations.
`Abdu'l-Bahá's summary of Sura 95 in his Ottoman tablet is as follows: God swears by Mount Tíná (Túr-i Tíná), Mount Zaytá' (Túr-i Zaytá'), Mount Sinai (Túr-i Síná) and "this City of security" (hádhá'l-baladi'l-amín) that he has created the reality and temple of man in the "best of moulds" (ahsan taqwím). Although other creatures and all of creation are the manifestations of clear signs (of God), only man embodies the signs and the reality of the divine perfections collectively. Man is the greatest demarcation (barzakh), the archetype of the macrocosm, i.e. of all the worlds of God. `Abdu'l-Bahá states that only humankind is privileged by divine messengers who hold the station of prophethood, and saints merely appear in the world of humanity. "Infinite sciences are manifested in the heart of man; divine discoveries become evident in the mirror of man; so are the discoveries of mysteries the effect of human intelligence; the philosophical sciences are human talents, and marvellous divine arts are the result of the hand of man." Through the power of mental faculties and talents, the reality of all things in creation, the intrinsic worth of human beings, and the mysteries in creation, first hidden in the imaginary world, will be discovered and appear in the visible plane.
That human beings have been created in the "best form" (ahsan taqwím) and that they are a barzakh, "demarcation" or "barrier," is indicative of their destiny. Creation, according to `Abdu'l-Bahá, is collectively a manifestation of divine signs, but only human beings are honoured with excellence and the entirety of faculties. "He is a most great sign, a most mighty talisman, a most perfect manifestation, a comprehensive source of enlightenment, a manifest light, a mighty mountain, a dawning-place of the names [of God], a dayspring of the exalted attributes [of God], an all-comprehensive demarcation (barzakh-i jámi`), a place where the two seas meet (multaqá barayn), a confluence of the two rivers (majma`-i nahrayn), and together with being a centre where the lights of reality are diffused, he is a mine of dark malice." If spiritual powers are victorious over physical constraints, individuals can become heavenly, a source of love. But if the sensual side and carnal senses dominate, human beings become a mine of darkness, a source of deceit, a manifestation of ignorance and wickedness.
The terminology `Abdu'l-Bahá uses echoes the philosophy of the great Andalusian Muslim scholar Muyí'd-Dín Ibn al-`Arabí (d. 638/1240), who commented extensively on the term barzakh in connection with his concept of al-insán al-kámil ("the Perfect Man"). Barzakh can be translated as "isthmus," "obstacle," "hindrance," and "separation," and occurs three times in the Qur'án. In the Qur'án, barzakh has a moral and concrete meaning. It can refer to the barrier between paradise and hell or represent the grave connecting the earthly life and the next world. In the Illuminationist philosophy (Ishráqiyya) of Suhrawardí "al-Maqtúl" (d. 1191), barzakh, i.e. the mortal body, is inherently dark, and through receiving the light of the spirit it becomes light. In the theology of Shaykh Amad al-Asá'í, barzakh is the "realm of similitudes" (`álam-i mithál) and equal to Hurqalyá or the "realm of the subtle." It is a "purgatorial realm," a world between the material (`álam-i mulk) and the spiritual (`álam-i malakút).
For Ibn al-`Arabí, God, the nondelimited being, has his fullest manifestation in the "Perfect Man," that is to say, all his names and attributes are displayed in human perfection. The comprehensiveness of the existence of the Perfect Man must be searched for in the countless intermediate worlds of his heart that are between "his sensory shell and his divine kernel." In reality, human beings are the barzakh al-barázikh, the "Barzakh of the barzakhs," the transitional realm which encompasses all interworlds, the gap which fills the realm between the Absolute Being and absolute nothingness. Human beings are in themselves the macrocosm, i.e., their individual bodies, and the microcosm, their hearts. A human is the archetype of the cosmos, al-kawn al-jámi`, "the all-comprehensive engendered thing" who is the locus of the totality of God's names. Man turns round about God, and cosmos turns around the "Perfect Man." In Sufism, man, attaining spiritual perfection on his path to God, first has a nafs-i ammárih, an inordinate soul which commands him to behave immorally; then it becomes a nafs-i lawwámih, a still unsubmissive soul which blames itself for its own shortcomings, and at the end of his journey he reaches the station of nafs-i mutma'innih, of an obedient soul at peace. `Abdu'l-Bahá states:
The human spirit (rúh-i insání), in other words the rational soul (nafs-i nátiqih), in the world of existence is the intermediary between things corporeal (disengaged - mujarradát) and delimited worldly things (mutahayyizát); that is to say, between realities spiritual and things corporeal. From one vantage point it possesses spiritual refinement while from the other it exhibits the crassness of carnality, animalistic traits and worldly characteristics. It is neither an absolute abstraction nor is it completely of the world but is the confluence of two seas (majma` al-bahrayn), and a barzakh between two realities (amrayn). If the spiritual aspect dominates it becometh lofty, luminous, merciful, tranquil (mutma'innih), contented (radiyyih) and approved (mardiyyih). And if it is contaminated with contingent, worldly concerns, it becometh immersed in the ocean of darkness, reproachful (lawwamih), commanding to evil (ammárih) and residing in the nethermost regions of the world of existence. It is thus the case that the human spirit has two aspects. If the luminous aspect of the human intellect overcometh the world of nature, it will acquire the power of discovery, which is the basis for wondrous insights, and become informed about the realities and the characteristics of things. From this brief explanation perceive the detailed significances.
The "Perfect Man" is the foremost thing God has created, the "primordial and original theophany (tajallí) of the Essence." Jámí quotes Ibn al-`Arabí, defining the "Perfect Man": "Man is like `an isthmus between the world and God, bringing together and embracing both the creatures and Him. Man is the dividing line between the shadow and the sun. This is his reality.'" All beings in the world are seats (mahall-i istiwá') of the manifestation of particular divine names and attributes but only man is the place of the expression for the "universal Name", i.e., Alláh, which embraces all other names.
The following passage from the writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá is reminiscent of Ibn al-`Arabi's esoteric interpretation of barzakh:
For the inner reality of man is a demarcation line (barzakh) between the shadow and the light; a place where the two seas meet, it is the lowest point on the arc of descent, and therefore is it capable of gaining all the grades above. With education it can achieve all excellence; devoid of education it will stay on, at the lowest point of imperfection.
To summarise, through the connection of the "sea" of the celestial world and the "sea" of the terrestrial world in the reality of man, a reality which forms the barzakh between them, man can produce treasures and bounties. Man is created after the image of God, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). If he turns to God's light, reflected by his messengers, he is worthy of his creation in the "best of moulds". If he refuses, he will be abased to the "lowest of the low" and will be brought to reckoning on the Judgment Day.
Overall, in `Abdu'l-Bahá's brief commentary, we see two themes that recur in Bahá'í interpretations. The first is the emphasis placed on the multiplicity of meanings in scripture, and the prominence given in Bahá'í tafsir to allegorical interpretations. The second is how Bahá'í interpretations focus the reader on the ethical and spiritual development of human beings.