|The Quran, The Word of God, The Source of Knowledge and Action- part 2|
|Published by tislam|
|Sunday, 26 June 2011 14:31|
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR
The Quran, being like a world, is also a multiplicity in its chapters and verses, words and letters. It is made of a world of Ideas and formulae. But there is a great difference between this world of the Quran and the world as such. And herein lies the particular genius of the Quran. It tries to catch the soul in its own game. It begins by playing the game of the soul, the game of presenting a facade of multiplicity and diversity to which the soul is accustomed. The soul in first encountering it discovers the same differentiation and multiplicity to which it is accustomed through its experience with the world. But within the Quran is contained a peace, harmony and unity which is the very opposite of the effect of the world as such on the souls of men. The external multiplicity of the world is such that in it man runs from one thing to .another without ever finding peace and contentment. His soul runs from one object of desire to another thinking that it will find contentment just around the corner. Yet, it is a corner which he somehow never reaches.
The Quran begins by also presenting to the soul the possibility of running from one thing to another, of running around corners, of living in multiplicity, but within lies a peace and contentment which leaves the very opposite effect on the soul. Some of the Muslim sages have compared the Quran to a net with which God catches fish, that is, human souls. He plays the game of the fish, who like to swim about from one place to another and who cannot be still, but He places a net before them into which they run and in which they are caught through this very process of moving from one place to another. The Divine net is placed before them for their own benefit and wellbeing which they, however, may not realize at the time. The Quran does present itself as the world but a world in which there is not differentiation and dissipation but essentially integration and unification.
From another point of view complimentary to the above one, the Quran is the cosmos, -the vast world of creation in which man lives and breathes. It is not accidental that the verses of the Quran as well as phenomena in nature and events within the soul of man are called signs or portents (ayat). According to the well-known Quranic verse: 'We shall show them our portents on the horizons and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth' (XLI, 53) God displays His 'signs', the vestigia Dei, on the horizons, that is, the cosmos and more specifically the world of nature and within the souls of man until man comes to realize that it is the Truth.
It is precisely these signs which are displayed in the Quran. This correspondence between the verses of the Quran and the phenomena of nature is essential in determining the Muslim conception of nature and charting the course of Islamic science. The Quran corresponds in a sense to nature, to God's creation. That is why when a Muslim looks at a natural phenomenon he should be reminded of God and His Power and Wisdom. Man should be reminded of the 'wonders of creation' and constantly see the 'signs' of God upon the horizons. This attitude which is one of the essential traits of Islam is inextricably tied to the correspondence between the Quran and the Universe.
Moreover, human experience is based on a world and a subject that lives in this world and travels through it. Man's existence can be analysed in terms of two realities, a world, a background, an environment, and a being, a traveler, who journeys through this background and lives in this environment. However one wishes to depict this reality-and nowhere is it better depicted visually than in Chinese landscape paintings which show a vast world of nature through which a physically minute traveler is passing – this fundamental distinction between the traveler and the world through which he passes remains. It is the basis of every human experience, whether it be physical, psychological or religious.
The Quran again reflects this reality. The chapters of the Book are like worlds and we who read them like the traveler journeying through them. Or from another point of view the chapters are like the worlds, or realms, and the verses like the subject passing through them. In this aspect as in so many other essential ones the Quran corresponds to the very structure of reality; it corresponds in its external and inward aspects to all degrees of reality and knowledge, of being and intellection, whether it be practical or theoretical, concerned with social and active life or with metaphysical knowledge and the contemplative life.
In fact besides containing the basis of the Divine Law, the Quran expounds also a metaphysics, a cosmology and an eschatology whose expression and formulation is what it should be. Westerners have sometimes criticized the Quranic formulation in these matters, especially what pertains to the description of Paradise and Hell as being too 'sensual'. They perhaps labour too much under the classical prejudice of considering only the mental aspect of man and cannot understand the profound symbolism of the description involved. The Quranic description of Paradise which includes not only houris but quite significantly elements of nature especially birds, trees, flowers, and minerals is all that it need be. Either one is among simple believers who in this life also live in the world of the senses and are not concerned with the joys of contemplation in which case the description of Paradise and also Hell present to them, although in a summary fashion characteristic of all monotheistic religions, in definitive terms the possibilities which lies before man. Or he is a contemplative and prone to metaphysical speculation, in which case the Quranic description presents the profoundest possible expression of the after life in the concretest of languages which is that of symbolism.
In this case the sapiential traditional commentaries which have explained the symbolism involved and have also expanded the compressed formulation of the Quran to explain the intermediate states and the posthumous becoming of the soul provide enough intellectual substance for the greatest of theologians and metaphysicians. In this as in other cases the Quran is meant for both the simple peasant and the metaphysician and seer and of necessity contains levels of meaning for all types of believers. It is meaningless to criticize it because one cannot either accept its literal description or understand the profound symbolism involved.
Some may object at this point that the reading of the Quran reveals none of what has been mentioned, and that it is simply an account of wars, commands and restraints, and the description of reward and punishment in the after life. Many people in fact who read the Sacred Book receive no more from it than the literal message. This is because no sacred text opens itself to human scrutiny and reveals its secret so easily. The Quran is like the Universe with many planes of existence and levels of meaning. One has to be prepared to be able to penetrate its meaning. It is, moreover, particularly in the inspired commentaries, based on the clarification afforded by the Hadith and written by those who have lived in the tradition and are qualified in the true sense to write commentaries, that man comes to understand explicitly and in more extended form what is contained often implicitly and in a contracted form in the Quran.
The same holds true in fact in other traditions. The Torah, for example does not explicitly contain Talmudic Law which is based on the sacred commentaries written upon the Torah. In Hinduism also most of the traditional sciences are based on the commentaries of the later sages upon the Vedas. Likewise, the inner meaning of the Quran can be understood, but for certain exceptional cases, only through the inspired commentaries each of which seeks to elucidate and elaborate certain aspects of the Book. These commentaries, however, have nothing to do with the so-called higher criticism which during this century has become an almost diabolical distortion of Sacred Scripture, making it a kind of second rate handbook of archaeology which one tries to understand through sheer historical methods rather than trying to penetrate inwardly into the meaning of the symbolism involved.
The Quranic commentary under discussion here is not at all an attempt to reduce the text to history. It is hermeneutic exegesis in the real sense of the term as it existed in early and medieval Christianity, in Judaism and in fact in every orthodox tradition possessing a sacred scripture. This type of commentary which is a penetration into the inner meaning of a sacred text is written by a traditional authority who has himself penetrated into the inner dimensions of his own being. Man sees in the sacred scriptures what he is himself, and the type of knowledge he can derive from the text depends precisely on 'who' he is.
It is apt to quote here a passage concerning the inner meaning of the Quran by Mawlana Jalal aI-Din Rumi, whose Mathnawi is itself a commentary in Persian verse upon the Quran. He writes in his Fihi ma fihi or Discourses (Arberry translation, London, 1961, pp. 236-237):
The Koran is as a bride who does not disclose her face to you, for all that you draw aside the veil. That you should examine it, and yet not attain happiness and unveiling, is due to the fact that the act of drawing aside the veil has itself repulsed and tricked you, so that the bride has shown herself to you as ugly, as if to say, "I am not that beauty". The Koran is able to show itself in whatever form it pleases. But if you do not draw aside the veil and seek only its good pleasure, watering its sown field and attending on it from afar, toiling upon that which pleases it best, it will show its face to you without your drawing aside the veil.
It is essential to realize that we cannot reach the inner meaning of the Quran until we ourselves have penetrated into the deeper dimensions of our being and also by the grace of heaven. If we approach the Quran superficially and are ourselves superficial beings floating on the surface of our existence and unaware of our profound roots, then the Quran appears to us also as having only a surface meaning. It hides its mysteries from us and we are not able to penetrate it. It is by spiritual travail that man is able to penetrate into the inner meaning of the sacred text, by that process which is called ta'wil or symbolic and hermeneutic interpretation, just as tafsir is the explanation of the external aspect of the Book.
The Arabic term ta'wil contains etymologically the meaning of the process involved. It means literally to take something back to its beginning or origin. To penetrate into the inner mysteries of the Quran is precisely to reach back to its Originbecause the Origin is the most inward, and the revelation or manifestation of the sacred text is at once a descent and an exteriorization of it. Everything actually comes from within to the outside, from the interior to the exterior and we who live 'in the exterior' must return to the interior if we are to reach the Origin. Everything has an interior (batin) and an exterior (zahir), and ta'wil is to go from the zahir to the batin, from the external from the inner meaning. The word phenomenon itself brings up the question 'of what’, which' Implies the existence of a noumenon. Even Kant conceded the necessity of noumena but because he limited the intellect to reason he denied the possibility of our coming to know them: But when intellectual intuition is present and under the guidance of revelation one can penetrate the appearance to that reality of which the appearance is an appearance, one can journey from the exterior to the interior by this process of ta’wil, which m the case of theQuran means coming to understand its inner message.
The idea of penetrating into the inner meaning of things.ls to be seen everywhere in Islam, in religion, philosophy, Science and art. But it is particularly in the case of the Quran that ta'wil is applied especially by the Sufis and the Shi'ah, To demonstrate the traditional basis of this important doctrine we quote two traditions, one from a Sunni and the other from a Shi'ite source. There is a famous tradition of the Sixth Shi’ite Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq as follows: 'The Book of God conta.ins four things: the announced expression ('ibarah) , the allusion (isharah), the hidden meaning related to the supersensible worlds (lata'if) , and the spiritual truths (haqa'aq). The literary expression is for the common people ('awamm); the allusion is for the elite (khawass); the hidden meaning is for the friends of God (or saints) (awliya'); and the spiritual truths are for the prophets (anbiya').
There is also a reference to the Prophet transmitted by Ibn 'Abbas one of the most respected of transmitters of Hadith in Sunni sources, as follows: One day while standing on Mt.'Arafat he made an allusion to the verse 'Allah it is who hath created seven heavens, and of the earth the like thereof' and turned to the people saying 'O men! if I were to comment before you this verse as I heard it commented upon by the Prophet himself you would stone me.' What does this statement mean but that there is an inner meaning to the Quran not meant for anyone except those who are qualified to hear and understand it.
The story of Moses and Khidr itself, elaborated m many later traditional sources such as the Mathnawi, refers to the presence of an inner meaning in the Quran. Khidr, who is equivalent to Elias in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, symbolizes esotericism in Islam and Moses, the exoteric law. Khidr accepts to take Moses on a journey with him, provided he does not question what he does. Yet, his actions which appear on the surface to be meaningless and harmful and which include tearing down a wall and boring a hole in a ship are finally opposed outright by Moses. Hearing his opposition Khidr decides to discontinue the journey with Moses but explains before departing how each act performed was for a hidden purpose of which Moses was ignorant. Seeing the surface of events he judged them to be wrong but once their inner nature was revealed their validity became clear. Esotericism cannot be judged by exoteric standards, it has its own logic which no external approach can ever hope to master.This is exactly the case with the Quran. It possesses an inner dimension which no amount of literal and philological analysis can reveal. And it is precisely this aspect of the Quran that is least known to the outside world. In the Islamic world itself, however, a long tradition of hermeneutic commentary upon the Quran exists, among the Sufis and in Shi'ism. Sufi commentaries upon the Sacred Book which are best known include that of Riizbahan BaqIi Shirazi, Shams al-Din Mibudi, and the celebrated Ta'wil al-qur'an attributed to Ibn 'Arabi but actually by his Persian commentator, 'Abd al-Razzaq Kashani. The Mathnawi of Rumi is also in every sense a commentary upon the Quran in Persian poetry. As for well-known Shi'ite commentaries which possess a theosophic and esoteric nature, they include: the commentaries of Sadr al-Din Shirazi and Sayyid Ahmad 'Alawi on different chapters of the Quran, the Mir'fit al-anwar of Abu'l-Hasan Isfahani which summarizes the whole Shi'ite approach to Quranic commentary and the monumental al-Mizan by the contemporary master Sayyid Muhammad Husain Tabataba'i.
Besides these works in which the inner sapientia of the Sacred Book is revealed and made the basis and fountain of all knowledge, there are a number of Quranic commentaries written by theologians and philologists such as Fakhr aI-Din al-Razi and Zamakhshari and also by many of the Muslim philosophers which have hitherto been little studied. The significance of this latter category of works lies in that precisely here the conjunction between faith and reason, the harmony between religion and philosophy, was sought. Quranic commentary was the meeting ground for the knowledge derived from science and from the tenets of revelation. With the numerous works written on Ibn Sina in European languages as yet no thorough study has been made of his many commentaries upon various verses of the Quran where more than anywhere else he sought to harmonize faith and reason.
The whole process of penetrating the inner meaning of the Quran, of discovering that wisdom which alone is the common ground between religion and science, is based on this process of ta'wil, which does not mean seeking after a metaphorical meaning or reading into the text. Ta'wil for Sufism, or Shi'ism, does not possess the same meaning as it does in Mu'tazilite theology and in jurisprudence. It has nothing to do with the debate between the Ash'arites and Mu'tazilites over the literal meaning of the Quran versus rational interpretation of it. Ta’wil in the sense used by the Sufis and Shi'ite sages is the penetration into the symbolic-and not allegorical-meaning of the text which is not a human interpretation but reaching a divinely pre-disposed sense placed within the Sacred Text through which man himself becomes transformed. The symbol has an ontological reality that lies above any mental constructions. Man does not make symbols. He is transformed by them. And it is as such that the Quran with the worlds of meaning that lie hidden in its every phrase transforms and remakes the soul of man.
In fact, as pointed out already, not only do the teachings of the Quran direct the life of a Muslim, but what is more the soul of a Muslim is like a mosaic made up of formulae of the Quran in which he breathes and lives. Some of these formulae are so common and yet profound that their meaning must be analysed in order to understand the most elemental attitude of the Muslim towards life as determined by the Quran. The most fundamental formula of the Quran is the first Shahadah, that is, witness or testimony, La ilaha ill' Allah, which is the fountain head of all Islamic doctrine, the alpha and omega of the Islamic message. In it is contained all of metaphysics. He who knows it knows everything in principle. It is both the doctrine and the method, the doctrine because it negates all relativity and multiplicity from the Absolute and returns all positive qualities back to God, the method because it is the means whereby the soul can combat against the enemies within. The very la at the beginning is a sword-and in Arabic calligraphy the lam in fact resembles a sword-by which the soul is able to kill all the evil tendencies within itself which prevent it from becoming unified and which endanger it towards polytheism, or shirk, by making it see the relative as Absolute. A Muslim repeats the Shahadah, not only because it reaffirms over and over again Divine Unity but also because, through its repetition, this Unity comes to leave its permanent imprint upon the human soul and integrates it into its Centre. It is a sword with which the 'deities' that keep springing up in the soul are destroyed and all multiplicity and otherness is negated.
After the Shahadah the most cardinal and often used formula is Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim, which is usually translated as in the Name of God, the Most Merciful and Compassionate but which could also be rendered as in the Name of God, the Infinitely Good, and the ever Merciful. The formula begins with the name Allah followed by the two Divine names, al-rahman and al-rahim both of which are derived from the same root rahama. Yet, these two names denote two different aspects of the Divine Mercy. Al-rahman is the transcendent aspect of Divine Mercy. It is a mercy which like the sky envelopes and contains all things. Were God to be without this all-encompassing mercy He would have never created the world. And it is through His mercy, through the 'Breath of the Compassionate' (nafas al-rahman), that He brought the world into being. That is why creation is good as also asserted in the Bible. The world of creation itself is not evil as was held by certain schools such as the Manichaeans. As for al-rahim it is the immanent mercy of God. It is like a ray of light which shines in our heart and touches individual lives and particular events. The two qualities combined express the totality of Divine Mercy which envelopes us from without and shines forth from within our being.
The basmalah opens every chapter of the Quran except one which is really the continuation of the previous chapter. It also opens the Sftrat al-fatihah, the opening chapter of the Quran, which is recited over and over again in the daily canonical prayers, and which contains the essence of the Quranic message.This chapter expresses the primordial relation between God and man. It consists of seven verses, three concerning God, three man, and one the relation between the two. In reciting its verses man stands in his primordial state before God, and prays in the name of all creatures and for all creatures. That is why its verbs are all in the first person plural and not the singular. It is the prayer of man as the conscious centre of all creation before the Creator and as such it contains symbolically the total message of the Quran.
The basmalah begins the Surat al-fatihah and therefore the whole of the Quran. It thus comes at the beginning of the prophetic message which is itself revealed because of God's mercy towards men. It is in reference to the inner meaning of this formula that 'Ali, the representative par excellence of esotericism in Islam, said that 'all the Quran is contained in the Surat al-fatihah, all of this Surat is contained in the basmalah, all of the basmalah in the letter ba' with which it begins, all of the letter ba’ in the diacritical point under it and I am that diacritical point'.
The beautiful symbolism indicated in this saying refers to 'Ali's 'supreme identity' as the perfect saint who is inwardly in union with God. This point with which the basmalah begins is according to another Hadith the first drop from the Divine Pen. It thus marks the beginning of things as it is also the beginning of the Quran. Like the point which generates all geometric space, this point is the symbol of the Origin of all creation, as the basmalah itself marks the beginning of things. Its recitation at the beginning of an act relates that act to God and sanctifies it. Even if every Muslim is not aware of all the metaphysical implications of the formula, yet its sanctifying power is known and felt by all and for that reason every act which is necessary and legitimate in life should begin with the basmalah, such as eating a meal or beginning a journey. In fact that act is illicit at whose commencement a devout Muslim cannot pronounce the formula. Otherwise all that is acceptable before the eyes of God can be sanctified by it. Through the basmalah the Divine joy and bliss enters into human life to bless and sanctify it. Closely connected with the basmalah in meaning is the second Shahadah, Muhammadun rasul Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of God, which again expresses the Divine mercy for the world, for the Prophet is mercy for this world and the next (rahmat Allah li'l-'alamin). He is the mercy of God for all worlds and through his aid man is able to lead a life of happiness here below and felicity in the world to come. The second Shahtidah is the complement of the first. The first negates all otherness from God, the second asserts that all that is positive in creation, of which Muhammad-Upon whom be peace-is the symbol, comes from God.
The Alhamduli'-llah, Praise be to God, which is so commonly used In everyday speech throughout the Muslim world, is the complement of the basmalah. It ends an act as the basmalah begins it. The Alhamd integrates the positive content of every act into its Divine Origin and makes man conscious of the fact that whatever he has done that is good comes from God and returns to Him. This formula again cannot be iterated except after an act that is pleasing to God and that leaves a positive imprint upon the soul and again it is the criterion of the spiritual value of an act.
The formula, Allahu akbar which is repeated during the call to prayer and also punctuates the different phases of the daily canonical prayers, is similar to the first Shahtidah and is in a sense a commentary upon it. It means not only that 'God is great'; but being in the comparative and at the same time superlative form, which are not normally distinguished in Arabic, it implies that He is greater and also greatest. It means fundamentally that whatever one says of God He transcends it and is greater than it. It is thus a way of asserting the Infinite nature of God that transcends all limited descriptions and formulations of Him. In daily life the formula Allahu akbar demonstrates also the insignificance of the human before the Divine, the weakness of the mightiest human power before the Divine Omnipotence and the awe which comes into being in the heart of a Muslim at the sight of wonders of creation and of human life that reveal this Omnipotence.
Finally, among the most common formulae used are the two insha' Allah and masha'Allah, 'if God Wills' and 'what God has willed', which are heard so often in daily speech. The first refers to the future and expresses man's confidence in God's Will and the realization that nothing can be achieved without His Will. This formula and the attitude that accompanies it, of course, apply to that aspect of reality which is connected with our free will, not that which follows from necessity. One does not say insha' Allah, three follows two or Monday comes after Sunday. One repeats this phrase about events in the future which despite all human effort cannot be realized with certainty except with Divine succour and consent. No matter how much we plan we do not know whether tomorrow we shall be here or elsewhere, or whether we shall be in the same state as now, and so we plan and act but fully conscious of the dependence of this action on the Divine Will, that Will which infinitely transcends ours. As for the masha' Allah it comes at the end of an act and again reminds us that, ultimately, whatever occurs comes from God, and that whatever is realized is not by human effort alone but through His Will.
There are of course other formulae, drawn mostly from the Quran and occasionally from the Hadith, which is in reality a commentary upon the Sacred Text, from which the texture of the life of a Muslim is woven. These phrases are means by which God is remembered in daily life, in regular conversation and speech. Through these Quranic phrases the life of man, which is scattered in multiplicity, becomes integrated by a thread of 'remembrance' which runs through it. The very existence of these formulae in every day life is a reminder of the continual presence of the Quran and its message in Muslim life.
In summary, then, it can be said that the Quran is both a source of law to guide the practical life of man and of knowledge which inspires his intellectual endeavours. It is a universe into whose contours both the natural and social environment of man are cast, a universe which determines the life of the soul of man, its becoming, fruition, death and final destiny beyond this world. As such it is the central theophany of Islam, but one which would never have come to men and never been understood save for him who was chosen as its messenger and commentator to men. Once it was asked of the Prophet how he could be remembered and the nature of his soul known to the generations after him. He answered, 'By reading the Quran'. And it is in studying the life, teachings and significance of the Prophet that the full meaning of the message of Islam as contained in the Quran can be understood.