Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Quran Project - Prophethood and Revelation

Prophethood has been witnessed all over the world. It is a universal phenomenon. The Quran recognizes this, saying that it only mentions a small group of the countless prophets that existed in other times and other lands.

But who exactly were the prophets? And what is the nature of this “revelation” from God they claimed to receive? In this chapter of his book, Major Themes of the Quran, Fazlur Rahman discusses three things: prophets in general, Prophet Muhammad in particular, and the nature of revelation.

Prophets in General

“[We have sent] apostles who brought good news to mankind and warned them…” (4:165)

The prophets were extraordinary men (and women, according to some) who were extremely sensitive to the injustices of the world. They received Divine Messages that shook people from passively accepting injustice into actively rejecting it in their hearts and surroundings. They were fully human, and made mistakes. But their average conduct was so good that they serve as worthy models for humans to follow.

According to the Quran, although the Messages sent to each of the prophets were meant for the specific communities they lived in, they were also meant for humanity as a whole. All of the prophets preached the same general message: that there is One God who alone should be served, worshiped, loved and feared. Everything else in the world is a servant of that One God, and under the power of His law and command.

Muhammad*

“Even so did We inspire you with a spirit of Our Word; you did not know before this what the Book is, nor Faith – We have made it a Light whereby We guide whomsoever We will.” (42:52)

And who is Muhammad among the world’s prophets? According to the Quran, he is the last human to directly receive a Message from God – making him the “Seal of the Prophets.” His Message is the same as the Messages of the other prophets, but it is the Final Message, and goes out to all of humanity for the rest of time.

Muhammad was a shy and quiet man. He used to reflect on the injustices of his society, but preferred to meditate on those injustices in a mountain cave instead of involve himself in the politics of his people. That’s why he and his contemporaries were shocked that God’s Revelation came down on him of all people. He never expected it. In fact, a lot of times he found it a very heavy burden to carry.

Muhammad’s life, after first receiving God’s Revelation, became pretty tough. He was suddenly pushed into actively denouncing the injustices of society, which were based on worshipping false gods (like the idols that represented money and power) instead of the One God of the whole universe. Because this threatened the position of many powerful people in Meccan society, Muhammad and his small band of early followers were persecuted. Muhammad himself was accused by the high members of society of being crazy or possessed by an evil spirit. But through his reputation as “The Trustworthy One” (a title he’d earned among his people before becoming a prophet), his patience and his perseverance, Muhammad was able to eventually show the Arabs the Message God had sent him.

The Nature of Revelation

“Do they say the he [Muhammad] has forged [the Quran] as a lie upon God? If God wills, He shall seal up your heart [so that there will be no more Revelation].” (42:24)

In reading the Quran, it becomes clear the revelation is both internal to and separate from the prophet it is revealed to. What does this mean, exactly?

The Quran was internal to Muhammad because even though God sent it down from heaven, He sent it into Muhammad’s heart. And only after it came from Muhammad’s heart was it something that all humans could understand. Here, the Meccans’ accusation that Muhammad was possessed by an evil spirit is an interesting one. Because although the Quran strongly denies this, it does say that a “Spirit” (often called Gabriel) was involved in transporting the Message from God to the Prophet’s heart. It seems that God put this Spirit in Muhammad’s heart, and then Muhammad spoke the Quran in moments when he was inspired by this Spirit.

But just because the Quran came from Muhammad’s heart and lips doesn’t mean it’s from Muhammad. As the Message of God, the Quran is also separate from him, taking on its own “personality” and unfolding itself in a way that Muhammad sometimes did not like. In moments when he was weak, the Quran scolded Muhammad for not having faith in the Almighty. And at times when Muhammad wanted to make compromises with the unbelieving Meccans, the Quran pushed him to be uncompromising in his push for justice.

It was the powerful and overwhelming force of this Revelation that turned one of the most corrupt and unjust societies into a unique model of social goodness and justice. And it is this same Revelation that continues to capture the imagination of over a fourth of the world’s population today.

Thanks for reading. Till the next post!

*I’ll be writing “Muhammad” instead of “Prophet Muhammad” because this blog is both for a Muslim and a non-Muslim audience. And I’m not putting in the traditional “Peace Be Upon Him” after Muhammad’s name because, although its respectful, it’s not necessary. The earliest writings on Muhammad’s life did not have “Peace Be Upon Him” written after his name – this was a tradition that was created later. I mean no disrespect in doing either of these thing. I’m just trying to make what I’m writing more accessible to all readers of this blog.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Quran Project - Nature

The Quran gives us very little information on how and why the world we live in today was created. All it says is that God brought the world and everything in it into existence with the command, “Be.” It also hints at God “unfolding” the universe in stages – a process that took “six days” (but of course “days” here mean a different span of time than our 24 hour days), after which God went up to His Throne.

What the Quran does talk a lot about is nature itself – meaning the universe or the whole world around us. What does it say about nature? Fazlur Rahman, the author of Major Themes of the Quran, mentions three points worth reflecting on: how nature functions, nature as God's ultimate sign, and nature in relation to humans.

How Nature Functions

And the sun moves [along its course] to its resting place – that is the measuring of the All-Mighty, the All-Knowing. And for the moon We have appointed certain stations, until it returns like an old curved stick. It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor for the night to overstrip the day, each coursing in its own orbit.” (36:38-40)

When people try to explain how the universe we live in functions, they usually offer one of two explanations. Some people say that God makes the universe and the world we live in work through His direct commands, like a sergeant moving soldiers in an army. These people call themselves “religious.” Other people say that the universe we live in moves according to its own system of laws, usually labeled “Mother Nature” or “natural selection.” These people call themselves “scientific,” or “modern.” Today, there is a huge gap between these two explanations of how the world works, and they are often considered opposites: you either accept one or accept the other.

The Quran doesn’t see things in this way. In fact, it unites these two views, bringing together faith and science. On one level, the Quran acknowledges the impressive natural system that moves the world. The world works according to regular and reliable natural laws that create what seems like a self-sufficient system. But on another, higher level, God is always at work in nature. How? By creating the very laws that move nature in the first place. When God created the world, He also created the laws that make it function.

The best way to explain this is through an example. Imagine planting an apple seed. God isn’t peering over a fluffy white cloud, thinking, “Ah, she put the apple seed under the soil. Now, oh seed, I command you: grow into an apple tree!” According to the Quran, God created the world, and created the law that when apple seeds are put into the soil in the right conditions, apple trees will grow. The natural processes that allow apple trees to grow, that we call “science,” are respected. But the source and constant support of these laws, of science in general, is God.

Science and faith don’t contradict each other here. Science, or the natural law that moves the world, is a part of the system God created – it is God’s miracle, as we’ll see next.

Nature as God's Ultimate Sign

“Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the succession of day and night are signs for people of wisdom.” (3:190)

People belittle or rebel against the idea of God because they see nature as a complete, self-supporting system. When they want proof of God’s existence, they usually want to see “miracles” that somehow break the laws of nature. What they don’t understand is that nature (including its laws) is itself the miracle. It’s the sign that “proves” God’s existence – or, more accurately, the sign that points to the Creator and the Sustainer. The universe we live in didn’t have to exist. There could have just been nothingness. That fact that it exists, that we exist, is a miracle.

Nature, in the Quran, is considered the ultimate “sign” of God. If we really examine the world we live in, see the complex system of laws and processes that keep it functioning, we can only come to the conclusion that some great force is behind it, moving it. In fact, this sign is so great that the Quran seems to imply that if we as humans had paid attention to what nature was showing us, we wouldn’t even have needed revelations. God’s revelation, while of course divine, is merely “the clarification of the signs” seen in the universe around us.

Wow. Talk about giving nature and science (a.k.a. the study of the laws of nature) a high standing.

Nature in Relation to Humans

“It is He who has created all that is in the earth for you.” (2:29)

As I wrote in an earlier post, God gave us humans a mission when He created us: to establish a moral, or “good,” society. Nature, and the world we live in, was created as a resource for us to be able to fulfill that mission. We can’t function in nothingness – we need a place to live in, a place where our actions can take form. According to the Quran, that’s what the world was created for. We also need a place that sustains us, that gives us food, shelter and tools to be able to create a functioning society. Again, that’s why God created the world in the way He did. The world is here not to be abused by us, but to be respected as a gift from God that allows us to fulfill our divine purpose and live a good life.

Hope this made you see nature in a new, interesting light. Till the next post!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Quran Project - Man in Society

Commanding good and forbidding evil. This phrase, repeated constantly in the Quran, is the foundation for the moral society that the Quran says humans are destined to create. What are the characteristics of such a society? According to Fazlur Rahman, a society that commands good and forbids evil has many key characteristics, including: justice, a legal framework, and the promotion of active goodness.

A Just Society

For a society to be moral, it must also be just. One of the most basic ways to do this is create a society where people have equal rights and opportunities.

In the Quran, economic and social inequalities are sharply condemned. Wealth, although not a bad thing in itself, shouldn’t be hoarded by the rich – in fact, the Quran says that the poor and the needy actually have a right in the money of the rich. In order to protect society from economic inequality, usury was forbidden and zakat (a 2% tax meant to redistribute money to the state and the poor) was established. In addition, unjust social practices, like female infanticide and slavery, were either outlawed or began to be restricted in the Prophet’s time.

In reading the Quran, Islamic scholars and jurists stated that there were four rights that had to be protected in a society that commanded good and forbid evil: life, religion, property, and dignity. However, these rights also came with responsibilities – claiming rights without fulfilling responsibilities would lead to social decay and eventual corruption.

A Legal Society

In order for a society to function, it needs laws. The Quran’s views on creating laws is focused on principles. Whenever the Quran set down a law, it also explained (whether directly or indirectly) the reasoning behind that law, describing the principle that law was supposed to achieve. The principle is what matters, and the law set down by the Quran only stands as long as it establishes that principle. If at a later point in time the law set in the Quran no longer establishes the principle it was revealed to establish, then the law must be changed.

I love this concept because it shows how dynamic Islamic law is. It isn’t stuck in the past – in reality, it should always be changing to accommodate the new problems and issues society is facing. Of course, there are certain aspects of Islamic law relating to purely religious issues that don’t change. But the majority of Islamic law deals with societal issues – and the laws governing these issues should be always open towards revision.

It’s sad to see that many traditional Muslim scholars didn’t stick to the principles of the Quran’s laws, and instead stuck to the laws themselves. This made Islamic laws static, and unable to respond to the new needs of society. I hope we can see that changing in the future.

An Actively Good Society

According to the Quran, societies rise and fall according to morality. A society rises when it’s people are driven to doing good, and falls when people become corrupted by wealth and power.

How to prevent the fall of a society, and keep it just, moral, and prosperous? By taking the concept of taqwa (consciousness of God and our actions) to the social level. People in society shouldn’t just be good within themselves. They have to spread good and actively work to “prevent the rot” of society. There is little separation between the individual and society in the Quran, as neither can survive without the other. So when a person is good, they should spread that goodness in society. If that person doesn’t do so, and watches evil influence society without intervening in some way, that person is not considered “good.” According to the Quran, being good means spreading goodness to others.


That’s all for this post. More coming soon!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Quran Project - Man as Individual

At various points in its text, the Quran tells stories about the nature of humankind, and in describing this nature, shows how we humans can make the best of it. Reading through Fazlur Rahman’s chapter on “Man as Individual,” three major points in the Quran’s discussion on human nature are apparent: (1) fitra, (2) human weakness, and (3) the Middle Road and taqwa.

Fitra

According to the Quran, God gave all people a mission when He created them. This mission is called “The Trust”, and it’s the attempt to create a moral social order on Earth. In order to fulfill this Trust, God created all people with a basic nature that knows what is Good and aspires to create goodness in the world. This basic nature is called fitra. And although it can’t be destroyed or altered, it can be at least temporarily disturbed.

The Basic Weakness of Humans

How is this fitra disturbed? By one major weakness in people: the inability to see “the big picture.” People often find it hard to see beyond what they are doing now, or what they are experiencing now. People’s pettiness (da’f) and narrow mindedness (qatr) make them hasty, panicky, and unable to see the long-term consequences of their actions and reactions to the world.

This makes people jump between two extremes: either (1) having a sense of complete power over themselves and the world, which leads to pride and self-destructive selfishness, or (2) having a sense of no control and total powerlessness, which leads to despair and lack of self-reliance. Actually, people tend to fluctuate regularly between these two extremes, one day feeling like they’re on top of the world, and another day feeling like all is lost. The Quran calls this the “unstable character of man,” and it the cause of all our problems here on Earth.

The Middle Road and Taqwa

This unstable character of man isn’t a problem that the Quran tries to make sense of theologically – it’s a problem that the Quran tries to help us deal with in a practical manner. The Quran states that the key to living a positive, successful and moral life is in staying away from the extremes noted above. It is in taking what the Quran calls “the Middle Road.”

The Middle Road is a metaphor for living in balance in between the extremes of our unbridled power and utter helplessness. Living this balance is described in the Quran as taqwa – a word that is usually translated as “fear of God” but which better translated as “conscience” or “consciousness of God.” The root of the word literally means “to guard or protect against something,” and in the context of the Quran it implies protecting ourselves against the harmful or evil consequences of our actions.

Rahman says that the best way to understand taqwa is to say that although we chose our actions, the consequences and judgment of those actions are outside of our control. When we are fully aware of this as we act, we have true taqwa. So to live with taqwa is to live with conscience, being attuned to the world around us and always aware of what comes out of our actions. It is living in harmony with the laws of the universe (created by God), and only by doing so can we prosper in the long run.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or thoughts, don’t hesitate to comment.

Till the next chapter!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Quran Project - God

According to Fazlur Rahman, the Quran’s main task is to open our eyes and hearts to God. If that is achieved, everything else is achieved, because everything in Islam (which literally means “surrender” to God) follows from the belief in God. However, the Quran doesn’t try to philosophically prove God’s existence. It offers reminders of God in signs that point to Him. These signs, though, can only be seen by those who have opened up their minds and hearts and are willing to see them.

In going through the first chapter of Rahman’s book, I was able to come across three major points that summarized the discussion of God: the necessity of God, the difference of God, and the mercy of God.

[Note: I’ll be using the male pronoun “He” to refer to God, as this is what has been traditionally used to imply gender neutrality. But this in no way associates God with the male gender. God is above gender.]

The Necessity of God

“The only straight path leads to Him – all other paths are deviant.” (16:9)

Why should we have the concept of God? This is the question Rahman poses at the beginning of his chapter. Why not just nature and the universe? Why complicate things with talk about a God?

Rahman answers this with the following.

According to the Quran, all of nature (meaning the universe) is one system. It works according to laws, which make it seem to exist on its own without outside support. But where do these laws come from? How were they put into place? In fact, where does nature itself come from? Although nature exists, it doesn’t explain its own existence. Citing the Quran, Rahman says that thinking about how nature originally came into being forces you to “find” (rather than prove) God.

The role of God in the Quran, according to Fazlur Rahman, is “strictly functional” – God exists because He must exist as the creator and sustainer of the world.

The Difference of God*

“Everything thereon is vanishing, there remaining only the Face of Your Lord.” (55: 26-27)

When we “find” God and recognize He exists, there are certain consequences that immediately arise from that conclusion. The most immediate and important of these show the difference of God.

God, by definition, can’t be an existent among other existents – or, as Rahman says, “an item among items.” According to metaphysics (the study of being and knowing, or the study of what is beyond physics) the Original and the Creator can’t share “being” with the borrowed and the created. This means that God is not a being that exists – that would make Him like us, which is shirk (“assigning partners with God”), the greatest sin to commit in Islam. Existance, as we understand it, is a human quality.

I found this last point jarring when I understood it properly. I always understood that God is not a person, or an animal, or a tree, or anything that I saw around me in the world. But as humans, we can’t understand God without using some human qualities to describe Him. So God, in my mind, was always some thing out there, to communicate with and experience. Some thing that existed out there, beyond the borders of the world. But God is not a thing, and God does not exist (at least in our understanding of existence). Being a thing and existing are qualities of this created world. God is above that.

So if God is not a thing, and does not exist, then what is God? Rahman says that God can best be described as a “dimension that makes other dimensions possible.” He gives meaning and life to everything. He is the all-enveloping, the infinite. He is “with” everything. According to Rahman, God is “the very meaning of reality.”

The Mercy of God

“He has imposed the law of Mercy upon Himself.” (6:12)
“My mercy comprehends all.” (7:156)

All of the above focuses on God’s majesty, greatness, power, and lordship over the world. But God, according to the Quran, is no distant bundle of power. God is much more intimate, “closer to [man] than his jugular vein.” How? Through His mercy.

God’s lordship and power over the world is expressed through His mercy. In fact, Rahman says that the Quranic worldview implies that God’s power, creation and mercy are the same one thing.

God’s mercy is exercised through creation, the sustenance of creation (especially man), and recreation in new forms. Creation is the most basic expression of God’s mercy, because it gave us existence, the greatest gift. (What we make of that existence later is up to us.) In addition to creating, God sustains His creation – in the case of man this sustenance is physical (providing the Earth as a source of food, shelter, etc.) and metaphysical (guidance and revelation). As for recreation in new forms, one example is how God returns to creatures who had purposely separated themselves from Him but now want to be reconciled with the source of their being.

Personally, I think that the idea of expressing power and ownership through mercy is something worth noting. We often think that when we have something, it’s our right to have it because it’s ours – and that’s that. But to really own something, according to the Quran, you have to care for it and nurture it – be it a house, a relationship with a friend, or your own body. True power and ownership is deeply connected to mercy and care. (Sounds a bit like feminist ethics to me!) With all of the wars and violence we see today, I think we could use a lot more of this understanding of power.

So that’s all for the first post. I hope you enjoyed it. Till next time!

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*Some readers have claimed that this section of the post is problematic and may need to be to be reworked. Please read the comments for clarification on the issue.