We believe that the most important verses of this surah are 7-10, those talking about human conscience and that is what we will be mostly discussing in the commentary section. In other words the central theme of this surah is how we can purify or corrupt our soul by acting on or disregarding the dictates of our conscience.
According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr:
The last ﬁve Verses focus on the story of the northern Arabian tribe Thamud as an example of what befalls those who reject God’s messengers and disobey them, thus preferring iniquity to purity. That the story of the Thamud is discussed here and in 54:23-31, two early revelations, and then expanded in later Madinan surahs (7:73—8o; 11:61-69) indicates that it was well known to the Arabs.
بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
|91:1. By the sun in its morning brightness.||
|91:2. And by the moon as it follows it.||
وَالْقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَاهَا
|91:3. By the day as it displays the sun’s glory.||
وَالنَّهَارِ إِذَا جَلَّاهَا
|91:4. And by the night as it covers it.||
وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَاهَا
|91:5. By the sky and how He built it.||
وَالسَّمَاءِ وَمَا بَنَاهَا
|91:6. And by the earth and how He spread it.||
وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا طَحَاهَا
|91:7. By the soul and how He evolved it.||
وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا
|91:8. And He inspired it to know the ways of evil and the ways of righteousness.||
فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا
|91:9. The one who puriﬁes his soul succeeds.||
قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَن زَكَّاهَا
|91:10. And the one who corrupts it fails.||
وَقَدْ خَابَ مَن دَسَّاهَا
|91:11. In their arrogant cruelty, the people of Thamud called their messenger a liar.||
كَذَّبَتْ ثَمُودُ بِطَغْوَاهَا
|91:12. When the most wicked man among them rose against him.||
إِذِ انبَعَثَ أَشْقَاهَا
|91:13. The messenger of God said to them, ‘Leave God’s camel to drink.’||
فَقَالَ لَهُمْ رَسُولُ اللَّـهِ نَاقَةَ اللَّـهِ وَسُقْيَاهَا
|91:14. But they called him a liar and hamstrung her.||
فَكَذَّبُوهُ فَعَقَرُوهَا فَدَمْدَمَ عَلَيْهِمْ رَبُّهُم بِذَنبِهِمْ فَسَوَّاهَا
|91:15. Not fearing the outcome.||
وَلَا يَخَافُ عُقْبَاهَا
Psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud is important as it gives us not only a secular understanding of human conscience (superego) but also Satan (id). It is important to have secular concepts of human psychology, correlated with religious constructs, because that allows a dialogue across the religious boundaries, which rises above the religious biases and conservatism, which is all too rampant in almost every religion.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Superego, in the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud, the latest developing of three agencies (with the id and ego) of the human personality. The superego is the ethical component of the personality and provides the moral standards by which the ego operates. The superego’s criticisms, prohibitions, and inhibitions form a person’s conscience, and its positive aspirations and ideals represent one’s idealized self-image, or “ego ideal.”
The superego develops during the first five years of life in response to parental punishment and approval. This development occurs as a result of the child’s internalization of his parents’ moral standards, a process greatly aided by a tendency to identify with the parents. The developing superego absorbs the traditions of the family and the surrounding society and serves to control aggressive or other socially unacceptable impulses. Violation of the superego’s standards results in feelings of guilt or anxiety and a need to atone for one’s actions. The superego continues to develop into young adulthood as a person encounters other admired role models and copes with the rules and regulations of the larger society.
Superego or human conscience is mentioned above in the verse: “And He inspired it to know the ways of evil and the ways of righteousness.” (91:8)
To understand how the human conscience came about one has to first appreciate, how long human beings have existed and how they came about from ape like animals.
In June 2017, a multiyear excavation led by Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, revealed that H. sapiens was present at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, more than 5,000 km (3,100 miles) away from East Africa (the region many paleontologists call “the cradle of humankind”). The team unearthed a collection of specimens that was made up of skull fragments and a complete jawbone (both of which were strikingly similar to those of modern human beings) as well as stone tools—all of which dated to about 315,000 years ago. Read further: Encyclopedia Britannica: Just How Old Is Homo sapiens?
Suggested reading to appreciate the human evolution from ape like animals
Suggested Reading for evolution of human conscience
The first prophet, Adam was some 6000 years ago and that is when formal verbal revelation and religion began to have influence on human culture and our superego or conscience. But humans had long existed before and we have to account for how conscience evolved for 300,000 years before. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in commentary of this surah:
As translated, this verse (8) indicates that God taught the soul the nature of evil and good and set the course for which it should follow. Thus some relate it to 90:8-10: Did We not . . . guide him upon the two highways? (Q, Sh). It could also be rendered, ‘He placed its iniquity and its reverence within it’ (IK). In both translations it can be taken as a reference to God’s instillation of the knowledge of good and evil in every human soul, even before various prophetic revelations. As other verses indicate (e.g., 75:14-15; 81:14; 82:4-5), every soul is intrinsically aware of good and evil, right and wrong, its relation to God, and the covenant to which it attested (see 7:172).
Having defined superego and conscience from several verses of the Quran, mentioned in the above quote, let us move to id. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Id, in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, one of the three agencies of the human personality, along with the ego and superego. The oldest of these psychic realms in development, it contains the psychic content related to the primitive instincts of the body, notably sex and aggression, as well as all psychic material that is inherited and present at birth. The id (Latin for “it”) is oblivious of the external world and unaware of the passage of time. Devoid of organization, knowing neither logic nor reason, it has the ability to harbour acutely conflicting or mutually contradictory impulses side by side. It functions entirely according to the pleasure-pain principle, its impulses either seeking immediate fulfillment or settling for a compromise fulfillment. The id supplies the energy for the development and continued functioning of conscious mental life.
Id is best described in the Abrahamic faiths as Satan, as long as we believe that Satan is part of our psyche and not an external being and there are good grounds in the Hadith literature, to believe that.
According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, as he talks about the verses under discussion:
Here the soul can be taken as an allusion to the soul of Adam, or the souls of all human beings. As such, it is a call to meditate upon the true nature of the human being, since God created man in the most beautiful stature (95:4; cf. 40:64: My). The invocation of the soul in the midst of this series of polarities implies that the soul has an inherent duality, as becomes clear in the following verses and in 79:37-41. This duality is seen by many in the pair the soul at peace (89:27), which is in control of its lusts and desires and has attained certainty, and the soul that commands to evil (12:53); an intermediate station between the two is the blaming soul (75:2); see 75:1—2c; 89:27c.
These verses mentioned by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in the above quote, were first best explained in recent times by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, in his book, The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam.
We believe that our task here is to summarize the ideas as they pertain to the verses of this surah, and translate them in modern language, the present day psychological nomenclature, so every one can benefit from these ideas.
بِالنَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ mentioned in (75:2), in the psychoanalytic theory is called ‘superego’ and conscience in the common parlance. النَّفْسَ لَأَمَّارَةٌ mentioned in (12:53), in the psychoanalytic theory is called ‘id,’ which once again, in religious and common parlance is labeled as satan.
In secular nomenclature, ego is the arbiter between the id and the superego. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Ego, in psychoanalytic theory, that portion of the human personality which is experienced as the “self” or “I” and is in contact with the external world through perception. It is said to be the part that remembers, evaluates, plans, and in other ways is responsive to and acts in the surrounding physical and social world. According to psychoanalytic theory, the ego coexists with the id (said to be the agency of primitive drives) and superego (considered to be the ethical component of personality) as one of three agencies proposed by Sigmund Freud in description of the dynamics of the human mind.
How we or our ego responds to our id and our superego develops our personality and character. If we follow the ever lasting principles of Islam of compassion and justice, and guide our id by our superego or conscience, we evolve into a moral state. This is what is implied by the verses of this surah: “The one who puriﬁes his soul succeeds,” and “And the one who corrupts it fails.” As we lead a life of compassion, justice and righteousness, our id diminishes and superego grows stronger and better.
Our moral states or our souls evolve further, by developing a relationship with God and our spirituality, into a state described as soul at rest (النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ), discussed in Surah Fajr verse 27, which will be detailed further in the commentary of that surah.