Monday, August 18, 2008

Shari'ah: A Muslim's Declaration of Independence - Part 6

The Qur’an

Many people want to treat the ayats of the Qur’an as an absolute list of injunctions which serve as rules for life that must be applied by everyone in the same way – which usually means ‘their’ way – with respect to the contingencies of life. In addition, all too many believe they have a God-given right to police the manner in which others go about pursuing shari‘ah.

There are, of course, certain themes in the Qur’an which are absolute and, as such, do not change. For example: There is only one God, and Muhammad is a messenger and Prophet of God; the Qur’an is a Book of truth; there is a purpose to life; all of life involves a struggle of choosing between good and evil; human beings will be held accountable for what they do and do not do; purifying oneself plays an integral role in an individual’s spiritual journey; acquiring, and acting in accordance with, character traits such as humility, equitability, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, generosity, integrity, honesty, gratitude, love, friendship, compassion, dependence on God, courage, sincerity, and steadfastness are essential tools for not only dealing with the difficulties of life but assisting one in one’s search for truth, justice, essential identity, and the realization of one’s unique spiritual capacity; faith is not only a condition which constitutes more than an exercise of blind belief but actually gives expression, if God wishes, to an array of modalities of understanding, insight, and wisdom concerning the nature of existence; empirical observation and reflecting or contemplating on what one observes is something which God encourages rather than discourages; one’s intention should always be to serve God in whatever one does; one should seek to oppress neither others nor oneself; daily prayers, the fast of Ramazan, the payment of zakat, and the observance of the rites of Hajj all have the capacity to assist one to make progress along the spiritual path.

All of the foregoing is entailed by the process of shari‘ah. Nevertheless, there is not just one way to engage such challenges – nor is there anything in the Qur’an which indicates that one must either reduce the possible ways of engaging shari‘ah to what has been decided by, say, the five major madhhabs (i.e., schools of jurisprudence) or that one must necessarily insist that shari ah should be construed in terms of a legal system, or that one is entitled to impose one’s understanding of shari‘ah onto other people … even if there may be a majority of people in a community who wish to oppress and compel others in such a manner.

The Qur’an is not a collective revelation but an individual event. This is true not only with respect to the life of the Prophet, but this is also true in the life of anyone who seeks to engage the Qur’an in a sincere manner … even though, from time to time in the Qur’an, individuals are being referred to collectively -- both generally [O humankind] or in particular circumstances [O Ye who believe].

It is individual fitra – that is, one’s primordial spiritual capacity -- which responds to Divine disclosure. We come to understand our duties of care with respect to all of Creation through our relationship with God. It is through our individual commitment to God that we are prepared to acknowledge the right which other aspects of Creation have over us, as well as the rights which we have over other facets of Creation.

Divine guidance is directed toward helping individuals to engage life as best they can and to apply such guidance to their individual lives as best they can. Forbidding the evil and encouraging the good are part of the discourse of community for, as the Qur’an indicates, one should “enjoin the good and forbid the evil, and bear patiently that which befalls you; surely these acts require courage.” [Qur’an, 31: 17]

However, these actions of forbidding evil and encouraging good carry no authorization which justifies a person seeking to enforce onto others one’s expectations concerning evil and the good with respect to how such people will conduct themselves in relation to matters of Deen. If this were not so, the Qur’an would not be indicating in the same context that forbidding evil and encouraging good must be pursued through patience and courage.

Forbidding the evil and encouraging the good must be done in accordance with an adab through which one uses kindness, respect, wisdom, and a beautiful form of communication that is alluded to in the Qur’an when speaking about such matters with others – namely, “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and have disputations with them in the best manner.” [Qur’an, 16.125]

Moreover, when one comes to discover that such communications are not welcome, then, one should say peace and leave those individuals alone. As the Qur’an indicates:

“So turn away from them and say, Peace, for they shall soon come to know.” [Qur’an, 43:89]

“And the servants of the Beneficent God are they who walk on the earth in humbleness, and when the ignorant address them, they say: Peace.” [Qur’an, 25:63]

In asserting that Sacred Law and shari‘ah primarily involve an individual struggle and not a collective one – although it is an individual struggle which has implications for the collective -- I am seeking to encourage the good. In claiming that Sacred Law and shari‘ah should not be forcibly imposed on people I am seeking to forbid the evil.

“And (as for) those who follow the right direction, He increases them in guidance and gives them their guarding (against evil). [Qur’an, 47:17]

The words of Allah are the forms which issue forth from Kun and give rise to the manifest and the unmanifest. The hukm – that is, the governing principle of a given facet of reality – of such words is the authority of the truth of meaning which is being given expression through the names or linguistic forms of the Qur’an.

Authority for anything can only be given via the truth. One must grasp the truth to grab hold of the hukm or authority or governing principle of a given portion of text or word of the Qur’an.

Truth cannot come through human interpretation. Truth can only come through an understanding which is granted by Divine Generosity. As the Qur’an indicates:

“We raise by grades whom We will, and over every lord of knowledge, there is one more knowing.” [Qur’an, 12: 76]

“We shall show them Our signs upon the horizons and in themselves, until it is clear to them that God is the Real [Qur’an, 41:53]

“The Real has come, and the unreal has vanished away. Lo! Falsehood is ever bound to vanish.” [17:81]

When human beings seek to interpret the Qur’an, human conceptual constructs are being imposed upon Divine guidance. As long as human interference is present, then, the unreal will not vanish away.

To interpret the Qur’an is to interfere with the process through which God discloses the Divine signs upon the horizons and within us. It is the Real which banishes falsehood, not the interpretive efforts of human beings.

It is God Who raises by degrees and grades of knowledge. This process of being raised is not done through the process of interpretation but through the act of sincerely listening to that which God is communicating to humankind.

The hukm or the governing authority of a given truth or reality influences the heart through the qualities of that truth and not through the need for compulsion or force. This is why there is ‘no compulsion in Deen’ because there is no need for compulsion when the heart is attracted by truth, and when the heart is not so attracted, no amount of compulsion can bring such a heart to an understanding of the truth.

Linguistic forms of Arabic are not the bearers of meaning, but, rather, they are portals through which Divine meanings may enter one’s life. Linguistic forms constitute the structural character of the portal that gives expression to part of the Divine meaning which encompasses but extends beyond the portal through which one initially accesses that Ocean of Truth lying beneath the linguistic surface. In short, Quranic words are portals to a non-linguistic wisdom which, if God wishes, informs a person’s understanding of the linguistic form that serves as a covering for the portal.

“The Faithful Spirit has descended with it upon your heart that you may be of the warners … in plain Arabic language.” [Qur’an, 26:193-194]

The warnings inherent in the Qur’an are in plain Arabic language, but much more descends on the heart than just warnings. As the Qur’an informs us:

“O humankind! There has come to you a direction from your Lord, and a healing for the diseases in the hearts, and a guidance, and a mercy for the Believers.” [Qur’an, 10:57]

The Qur’an means ‘that which is recited’. The word: ‘Qur’an’ is an active verb.

The Word of God is recited by God to the heart of the receptive individual, and, as an active verb, that recitation gives expression, if God wishes, to a process of acting on the heart of the individual. The recitation of the Qur’an is a process of mediating between the receptive heart and the Author of such communications.

As an active verb, the Qur’an speaks to us now. The Qur’an is not a book of the past but, rather, it is a form of communication which is taking place in the present.

The Qur’an is perpetually new in its descent upon the receptive heart, but for those who are not properly receptive, then, their hearts are made to engage the Qur’an in a distorted manner that filters the Divine communications through the biases of unbelief and conceptual or ideological and theological idol-making – that is, through the filters of that which hides the truth which is shining forth. This is the nature of unbelief … to hide the truth, and this is what a reciter of the Qur’an does whose heart is not receptive with his or her whole being with respect to what is being communicated by God through the Qur’an.

In this respect, the Qur’an states: “What? Is the person whose heart Allah has opened to Islam, so that such an individual is in a light from his Lord, like the hard-hearted? Nay, woe to those whose hearts are hard against the remembrance of Allah, those are in clear error.” [Qur’an, 39:22]

God indicated that the heart of His believing servant does contain Him. This descent of the truth of God’s Word into the heart of the believing servant is at the heart of nuzul or descent, for God is truth, and that which resonates with the truth when it has descended and is present, does contain God to whatever extent that truth has been realized.

The Qur’an continually brings new, better understandings and knowledge to the heart of the sincere believer without annulling any of the truths which have been brought to the hearts of believers previously. Moreover, all such meanings, knowledge, and truth have been inscribed from the beginning within the infinite plenitude of the Word.

Each believing heart has a different structural capacity – or fitra -- for hearing the Qur’an’s Ocean of Truth. The Truth of God’s Word does not change – indeed, “The Words of God do not change [la tabdila fi kalimati Llah]” [Qur’an, 10:64]. Nonetheless, the unchanging truth is engaged by different capacities which leads to an array of understandings which give expression to various dimensions and facets of that unchanging Word – all of which are true to precisely the extent to which those understandings give expression to such truth.

The Qur’an says: “And do not make haste with the Qur’an before its revelation is made complete to you and say: O my Lord! increase me in knowledge.” [Qur’an, 20:114]

One is being counseled to not make haste or to not be in a hurry with the Qur’an. One must exercise patience, diligence, sincerity, and have taqwa, or piety, concerning the process of laying oneself bare to be able to be open to what is being communicated through the Qur’an. One must allow oneself to marinate in the juices of Divine communications before their meanings will be made complete to one – that is, before understanding will descend from God to the heart of the individual.

The true reciter of the Qur’an is Allah. Consequently, the individual must wait for God’s recitation to enter one’s heart in the form of understanding and knowledge.

One cannot force this issue through compulsion. Moreover, no power of reflection, in and of itself, is capable of grasping truth.

Truth must be bestowed through a Divine recitation to the heart. One recites to provide an opportunity for the Reciter – that is, God -- to communicate through the Divine recitation in a manner which will move and influence one’s heart.

The knowledge must come from God and not from interpretation. When we interpret God’s communications, we actually leave the truth and/or hide that truth in the meanderings of one’s own meanings.

The Qur’an says: “And who is more unjust than he who forges a lie against Allah or gives the lie to His communications; surely the unjust will not be successful? [Qur’an, 6:21]. To interpret the Qur’an is, in effect, to forge a lie with respect to the Word of God.

In a sense, there is something like a spiritual vibration which is set up between the recited word of God and the internal faculties of the individual. When an individual is receptive to being guided – that is, when the individual has taqwa or piety -- then, God willing, there is an entrainment process which occurs wherein the faculties of the individual are shaped and colored by the resonances of Divine guidance, and the resulting condition is a species of knowledge which comes from Allah. In this regard, the Qur’an states:

“O humankind. We have created you from a male and a female and made you tribes and peoples so that you may know each other; surely, the most honorable among you with Allah is the one who has taqwa.” [Qur’an, 49:13] –

that is, the one who is most careful with respect to one’s Deen or relationship with Divinity.

All tajalli – that is, all flashes, disclosures, or manifestations of truth -- arise from encounters with the Word of God. The two books of the Word of God – i.e., revelation -- are the Qur’an and Creation or Nature. The individual must seek to open himself or herself up to the truth being manifested through both … for this is what revelation is – the disclosure and manifestation of truth.

The spiritual capacity of the individual must be freed from all biases and sources of distortion in order to be open to the delineation of truth which shines through Nature and the Qur’an. Indeed:

“Those will prosper who purify (tazakka) themselves and glorify the Name of their Guardian Lord and lift their hearts in prayer.” (Qur’an, 87: 14-15)

The Qur’an and Nature/Creation are barazikh. Barazikh is the plural of barzakh which refers to any juncture that simultaneously separates and joins two things – in this case, Divinity and humanity.

Considered from another direction, manzil is an Arabic term which, literally speaking, refers to a place where one gets off. In the current context, a manzil is the place through which God descends, via the Qur’an, toward the individual such that the Divine communication, in a sense, gets off at the point of human engagement.

The letters, words, phrases, sentences, verses, and chapters of the Qur’an are all manzil. They are the portals or stations through which Divine communication descends to the individual.

In addition, the heart of the individual is also a manzil or place of descent for Divine revelation. Indeed,

“Wa huwa ma’akum aynama kuntum. (And He is with you wherever you are.” [57:4]

When the individual’s faculties of understanding are purified, then, according to the individual’s capacity and the Grace of God [who gives by degrees], what is grasped is an understanding of truth on a certain level and not an interpretation of that truth. In other words, such understanding is a truth limited by individual capacity, degree of purity, and God’s Grace. There is a resonance which is present between the individual’s purified faculties and the truth – a resonance which is not present in the usual sense of understanding concerning someone’s rational interpretation of something.

If the Qur’an does not descend upon the heart, then, it descends no further than the throat. To comply with the Sacred Law or Truth – which is the purpose and task of shari‘ah -- is to submit to the truth of things according to one’s purified capacity to understand such truth as this is communicated through the Word of God … whether this is in the form of the Qur’an or Nature/Creation.

As such, Sacred Law is not a matter of judicial rulings, pronouncements, and/or the compulsory imposition of such rulings and pronouncements on other human beings. Rather, Sacred Law is about the Truth, and Deen is the way prescribed for allowing human beings – each according to her or his capacity and the degree of God’s Grace -- to approach, engage, and come to understand the nature of such Sacred Law as it is manifested in any given set of circumstances.

Truth, of whatever kind and on whatever level, is the Sacred Law giving expression to the order, nature, and potential of Creation. In the Qur’an each article, verb, particle, word, or phrase constitutes individual portals of truth which manifest, if God wishes, tajalli -- flashes or expressions of truth – to the individual. This is why letters, phrases, and parts of sentences in the Qur’an communicate guidance not only in and of themselves but, as well, in the context of the verses and surahs in which they appear.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who is the paradigm of human perfection [uswa hasana], was described by his wife, ‘Ayesha [may Allah be pleased with her] as having a nature which was the Qur’an. To reflect [in understanding, action, and character] the Qur’an according to one’s spiritual capacity is to submit to the Sacred Law.

The realized fitra is that primordial spiritual capacity upon which the Qur’an has descended and through which God has made truth manifest according to the capacity of an individual’s fitra and God’s Grace. The realized fitra recites the Qur’an in the form of applying the communications from God to the circumstances of life and, in doing so, gives expression to the Sacred Law. This is the qirat, or mode of Quranic recitation, which is most pleasing to God.

“Most surely it is an honored Qur’an, in a book that is protected. None shall touch it save the purified ones. (Qur’an, 56:77-79)

The Qur’an gives expression to the truths which are capable, God willing, of assisting the sincere seeker to recover the internal order or sacred law governing spiritual identity, capacity, and purpose with which human beings have lost contact … and with which we no longer resonate. The Qur’an is intended as a means of guidance to assistance human beings to reclaim an understanding of our original status as God’s Creation and all that this entails.

The Qur’an applauds “those who are constant at their prayers” [Qur’an, 70:23], but these prayers are not just the five daily prayers. Rather, true prayer or remembrance is the constant state of immersion in God’s presence, and, more importantly, there needs to be a realization that the prayers do not belong to the individual but, rather, are acts of God which are being manifested through the individual as a locus of manifestation.

“Lo! Ritual worship preserves one from lewdness and iniquity, and verily, remembrance of Allah is more important. [Qur’an, 29:45]

Problems associated with any of the foregoing tend to arise from two sources. The first problem involves the condition of al-ghafla [forgetting, distraction, or inattention]. This condition or state refers to the inclination of human beings to lose focus with respect to our relationship with Divinity. For example, Surah 20, verse 115 of the Qur’an indicates that Adam “forgot” the pact which had been made with God – a forgetfulness which alludes and resonates with the Quranic ayat in which the spirits are asked: “Alastu bi Rabikkum – “Am I not your Lord?” And the spirits answered: “Yes, we testify” [Qarbala]. [Qur’an, 7:172]

The second source of problems which may arise in conjunction with the process of seeking to realize one’s essential and primordial spiritual nature is entailed by the idea of al-isti‘jal – that is, haste. As the Qur’an indicates:

“And man prays for evil as he ought to pray for good, and man is ever hasty.” [Qur’an, 17:11]

‘Ubuda is a spiritual station through which perfect expression is given to the Sacred Law according to the capacity of an individual’s God-given fitra. The true servant, or ‘abd of God, is one who experiences a knowing awareness that the character of truth which is being manifested through that station of servanthood or locus of manifestation belongs wholly to God and not to the individual.

He who knows himself knows his Lord – man ‘arafa nafsahu ‘arafa rabbahu. Such knowledge discloses the condition of ‘ubuda in which there is the realization that a‘yan thabita – the fixed form of one’s created nature -- is no more than a locus of manifestation for giving expression to Divine realities in accordance with the God-given capacities and limitations of such fixed forms.

Each of us has always been what we are in terms of the possibilities which are encompassed by our fitra or primordial spiritual capacity. However we have not always realized the nature of the truth concerning the modality of our potential for giving expression to such Sacred Law and all that this Sacred Law entails.

The Qur’an is a source of guidance which, if God wishes, assists an individual to struggle toward the full, active realization of the Sacred Law which is inherent in the essence of every human being. The Qur’an maps out the nature, principles, warnings, possibilities, understandings, wisdom, insights, limits, and adab of the shari‘ah, or spiritual journey, through which one struggles and strives for realization of the Sacred Law, and as such, the Qur’an – and, therefore, shari‘ah -- is an expression of the Sacred Law.

The Sacred Law gives expression to the Qur’an which, in turn, delineates the nature of the way through which human beings may, if God wishes, come to realize the nature of truth to varying degrees. This process of shari‘ah leads back, if God wishes, to a condition of spiritual realization concerning the manner in which the Sacred Law gives expression to all truths under appropriate circumstances – including:

“O people, you are the poor toward God, and God is the Independent, the Praiseworthy.” [Qur’an, 35:15] …


The tradition of tafsir deals extensively with what is known in Arabic as asbab al-nuzul [the circumstances or occasions through which revelation emerged]. It is supposed by some that without reference to this context of revelation, then, most of the verses of the Qur’an would be susceptible to any and all forms of interpretation.

However, the occasion surrounding the emergence of a given instance of revelation only serves as the locus of manifestation for such instances of revelation. Therefore, one must distinguish between the locus of manifestation and that which is manifested through that locus.

However, to make revelation a function of the circumstances of revelation would be inappropriate. If one reduces the former [that is, what is manifested] to the latter [that is, the locus of manifestation], then, the locus of manifestation tends to become that which determines, restricts, shapes, and orients revelation. Approaching things in this manner seeks to assign a greater role to the lesser reality while relegating the greater Truth to becoming a servant of, and irrevocably limited by, a lesser realm of being.

Is there a relationship between the locus of manifestation [i.e., historical circumstances] and that which is manifested [i.e., revelation]? Yes, sometimes – but not necessarily always – there is a resonance between the two, and certainly, there are aspects of that locus of manifestation [i.e., the circumstances through which revelation is manifested] which are illuminated by the light of guidance which is being given expression through those circumstances. Nonetheless, the lights of guidance have their own reality, and once manifested, those lights communicate truths beyond that which is being illuminated with respect to any particular locus of manifestation or immediate set of historical circumstances.

Contrary to the worries of some individuals – worries which were alluded to earlier -- not just any understanding of revelation becomes appropriate if one leaves aside the particulars of the historical context through which a given instance of revelation arose. The task of the individual is not to interpret the Qur’an, but, rather, one should be struggling to open oneself to objectively receive what God is seeking to communicate to one through revelation.

If one permits God to teach or guide one through revelation – which is, after all, the whole point of revelation – then one understands the truth according to one’s capacity, and, as such, there is no interpretation. What occurs, if one proceeds in this fashion, is an understanding or insight which comes from the light of revelation and is limited only by one’s current spiritual condition, along with one’s ultimate spiritual capacity, and, most importantly, by the degree to which God chooses to disclose aspects of that truth to the individual.

One does not have to use the historical context through which revelation emerges to place limits on the possible meanings of the Qur’an. Divinity is the One Who infuses the Qur’an with its meanings and, therefore, limits of appropriateness or degrees of freedom.

Some of these degrees of freedom are imposed by Divinity in terms of the extent to which Grace is conferred on a person during an individual’s engagement of the Qur’an, and vice versa. Some of these limits of appropriateness or degrees of freedom are introduced through the spiritual condition and the spiritual capacity of the individual.

Consequently, when the Qur’an is sincerely engaged, one cannot place just any meaning one wishes onto the Qur’an, and this remains true irrespective of whether, or not, one understands the historical circumstances surrounding the occasion of revelation. Understanding is a function of the truth – whether written large or small – and there are dimensions of all revelation which extend beyond the historical occasion of revelation.

In fact, I think that expecting people to learn the entire history of the occasions surrounding revelation in order to be able to understand revelation is somewhat impractical. God is communicating the nature of Sacred Law to each human being through the Qur’an, and such nature has meanings that may be considered independently of the occasions of revelation.

Obviously, a person’s understanding might be deepened and complemented through knowledge of the historical circumstances which are transpiring at the time of revelation. However, the scope of any given instance of revelation is not restricted to the particulars which are occurring when such revelation issues forth.

Moreover, oftentimes, the closest that some commentators are able to “place” certain revelations is in terms of whether a given revelation took place during the Meccan period or during the Medinan period. I am not certain how such a general placing of the occasion of descent of revelation can necessarily inform one about “the” necessary meanings of the revelation … although some of the meanings of such revelation may address various aspects of such historical circumstances.

There were many, many things that were happening during the general period of time through which the Qur’an was made manifest … politically, legally, culturally, socially, individually, and among different communities. Consequently, why should one select just one small facet of such events and proclaim that those circumstances should have the predominant controlling authority with respect to meanings and truths in relation to the nature of Quranic guidance?

Even in those instances where a given revelation can be historically placed in a precise manner with respect to what was historically transpiring at the time during which a given instance of revelation descended on the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the meaning of such guidance cannot be circumscribed by those historical events. The created particular [that is, historical circumstance] cannot circumscribe or exhaust the significance of the uncreated universal [that is, Divine Guidance].

The Qur’an says: “What is with you comes to an end, but what is with God remains.” [16:96]


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