It is very interesting how the Quran treats the concepts of balad, madinah and qaryah.
Balad or baldah means any designated space or part of the earth, irrespective of whether it is developed or not (whether it features ‘umran or not). It occurs in different forms 19 times in the Quran.
Madinah simply means “city”, including smaller towns, with all of their physical aspects and features. It also includes a way of life characteristic of cities and towns. There is nothing inherently either complimentary or judgmental in the word as regards the character of madinah’s ‘umran. Madinah and mada’in as plural are mentioned 17 times in the Quran.
Qaryah also means “city”, “smaller town”, and even “village”. It occurs in different forms 57 times in the Quran. However, a significant additional sense, most of the time, is attached to it.
Uses of Qaryah in Quran
One of the meanings of qaryah’s root word, qarw, is to “be persistent”, “unified” and “joined” in a thing or a method. When a group of people are “‘ala qarwin wahidin“, they are on the same path and do the same things.
Put another way, they are on the same wavelength, sharing similar interests and opinions. In a qaryah, people live in the same way and share basically the same things, including their ‘umran.
Therefore, according to the Qur’anic message, when the residents of a city or a town – or most of them – reject their prophet and his divine teachings, their settlement is customarily – not exclusively, though – called qaryah. That is the case because those people adopted a similar thought and performance pattern. They were “‘ala qarwin wahidin“.
In this way, their innocent settlement with all its innocent constituents was transformed into an arena of malevolence and sin. Of the 57 Quranic references to qaryah, 45 are of a reproving genus.
Accordingly, in the Quran, only qaryahs, or qura as plural, have been punished and destroyed. No balad (baldah) or madinah has been destroyed. Only when a balad or madinah morphed into qaryah was action taken.
This means that human settlements, from simple villages to sophisticated cities, with all their ingenuous and necessary features, conveniences and services, in essence, are justifiable and permissible, and remain so until proven otherwise by means of certain human acts.
Evaluating a civilization (‘umran) can similarly be done through the lens of this same principle.
To further corroborate the point, it is notable that sometimes a same settlement is called qaryah in the context of its inhabitants’ misbehavior, but is called merely madinah or balad (baldah) in the context of its ingenuous municipal self.
Moreover, in two Quranic surahs (chapters): Yasin (verses 13, 20) and Al-Kahf (verses 77, 82), one settlement is called in a single context both madinah (implying its civic individuality) and qaryah (implying its people’s misconduct). Such is the precision, dynamism and richness of Quranic expositions.
Example of Makkah
In passing, the city of Makkah is metaphorically called umm al-qura (the Mother of all settlements). The meaning could be twofold.
Firstly, in the restricted sense of qaryah as mere city or town, Makkah is the most important, most inspiring, most influential and most looked-up-to settlement.
Secondly, since the Quranic verses in which the idiom umm al-qura was presented (Al-An’am, 92; Al-Shura, 7) were revealed in Makkah when the city was under the control of polytheists who at that time violently rejected Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his mission, eventually expelling him therefrom, the same idiom might have contained some disapproving undertones.
It might have meant a city whose majority of people were united (‘ala qarwin wahidin) in rejecting and mistreating the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his little followers.
But after the peaceful conquest of Makkah, towards the end of the Prophet’s successful mission, the second meaning was completely given up in favor of the former. It became obsolete.