Academic Islam

Some humble attempts by a student of Islam

Friday, August 19, 2005

Freewill and Pre-Destination

‘Qada wa Qadar!’ Those were the times of the Umayyad caliphs. Anarchy prevailed. The anarchists were the rulers, their banner being: ‘Our actions are part of God’s decree’. The state-appointed scholars would preach and vindicate claims of predestination in the defence of the caliphate. Following those times, the history of Muslim philosophy began to predominantly overflow with debates over the question of destiny, and the role it plays in the lives of humans.

If one were to generalise the sincere stances transpiring thereafter: the Mutazilite scholars have predominantly been emphasizing the importance of ‘freewill’ and its relevance to our judgement in the Hereafter; the Asharites, on the other hand, propagate that ‘predestination’ alone can define the happenings and workings of this world, a denial of which is tantamount to the denial of God’s attributes.

Hasan Basri’s Point of View

The Mutazilites emerged as a group under Wasil Ibn ‘Ata, a student of Hasan Basri.[1] This man was a beautiful product of his times. While the Murjites were accepting the Umayyad rulers in whatever they stood for, keeping in view their highly tolerant view of ‘postponement’ of verdict till the Day of Judgement, Hasan Basri stood up to declare what, in his opinion, was the most convincing truth. As a Qadarite, he propagated ‘freewill’, and invited all Muslims to act, rather than be led astray and abandon the message of Allah, in favour of some contemporary ruler. He is believed to have said once:

Allah outweighs the Caliph, the Caliph cannot outweigh Allah…Do not confuse the civil power established by Allah with His religion, for no obedience is due to a creature who disobeys Allah.[2]

Basri argued forcefully from the Qur’an. His strong point was that if man was given the Qur’an to follow and to act accordingly, while being given a moral choice, he had to have freewill. If the Qur’an forbade something[3], and if someone were to indulge in it, then it would be the factor of freewill that would justify his punishment in the Afterlife. With predestination, on the other hand, in matters of action, the belief of a Just God would be betrayed. In verse 41:40, Allah tells men and women, ‘Do you what you wish,’ which, according to Hasan Basri, is reason enough to believe in freewill. As for those arguing against him, while citing Qur’anic verses such as, ‘He leads astray whoever He wishes’ (13:27), he maintains that people here referred to, are entirely another group, which does not fall within the general purview of mankind. According to him, the verse actually alludes to worsening the state, by Allah, of those who choose to tread the wrong path out of their own freewill; reference to the context enables this understanding.[4]

Of course, he acknowledges, that in matters not involving human volition, but rather, accidents in the material world, like natural calamities, predestination plays a role, for there quite clearly, Allah ordains it to be, and it is.

Ash‘ari’s Point of View

Ash‘ari, on the other hand, discounted this concept of freewill, while justifying still, the significance of man’s responsibility and his accountability in the Afterlife. As O’Leary puts it, Ash‘ari is of the opinion that:

God creates power in the man and creates also the choice, and He then creates the act corresponding to this power and choice. Thus, the ‘action’ is acquired by the creature.[5]

Ash‘ari, earlier a Mutazilite, eventually generated a new school, independent of the role of philosophy in matters of belief. In 300 A.H., he is known to have publicly abandoned his earlier position, thus:

…I used to hold that the Qur’an was created, that the eyes of men shall not see God, and that we ourselves are the authors of our evil deeds; now I have returned to the truth; I renounce these opinions...[6]

In his view, therefore, making a person responsible for creating and causing his actions and deeds amounts to calling him a co-creator with the Creator, and such dualism, he says, is unacceptable. He opines that it is God who creates both Qudrah (power) and Ikhtiyar (choice), and man comes in with responsibility when he acquires the choice already delineated (Kasb).[7]

The Author’s Inclination

Considering all the foregoing arguments, I do not feel inclined to believe that to proclaim having been given a choice to create action amounts to dualism or to any form of Shirk (polytheism). If that were the case, why would God have created us with the capabilities that we have? And since He did, in fact, create us, what would be our purpose as functional human beings if we were to act like programmed robots? The reality of being able to do something negates the very notion of immaculate predestination. To ‘acquire’ is a possibility, but plausible only so long as such acquiring is subject to a choice presented.

If creation falls within the purview of dualism, why not acquiring? In reality, it is the act of acquiring which gives ‘actual existence to an action’ – something more tangible and palpable. The Qur’an illustrates the mistakes committed by some of the prophets. Were they not the best of believers? Were they not supposed to set examples for both their immediate followers and for all mankind? And yet they erred though definitely out of their sincerity with Truth and Goodness. Had an absolute programming of the Lord been in full action, all the Prophets would have acted in a perfectly stainless manner. Reality, however, is that making it through this life is but a test – for Prophets and ordinary human beings, alike.

The Holy Qur’an has declared this life to be a test (67:2). If we were to take the choice element out of this test, this life would be nothing but a puppet show played by the Lord. One must also keep in mind that all human beings, in the eyes of Allah, are equal – the only ‘hierarchy’ can be with respect to Taqwa (piety). Individuals who feared Allah as He deserves to be feared, were granted prophethood; and not vice versa. God did not make them fear in the previous phases of their lives, although it can be said without any doubt that He knew all that had happened in their lives, all that was happening and all that would happen.

All these arguments point me in the direction of accepting Hasan Basri’s opinion on the matter. Furthermore, what makes an even deeper impact in his case is his presentation. To argue on the basis that the Qur’an is the most acceptable form of argument and his interpretation of verses sound most convincing.

1. Caesar E. Farah, Islam, (New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1994), p. 203.

2. David Waines, Introduction to Islam, (Cambridge: University Press, 1996), p. 112.

3. See the Qur’an (6:151).

4. David Waines, Introduction to Islam, (Cambridge: University Press, 1996), p. 113.

5. De Lacy O’Leary, Islamic Thought and Its Place in History, (New Delhi: Goodword Books, 2001), p. 215.

6. Ibn Khallikan, ii. 228

7. Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Causality and Divine Action: The Islamic Perspective at Accessed September 29, 2003.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Qur'an: Comparative Study - 2:106

"Ma nansakh min ayatin aw nunsiha nati bikhayrin minha aw mithliha…"
Saadia Malik

(The essay below is supposed to be an objective presentation of four scholars’ interpretation of the word, “ayatin” and its implication, thus, on the arguable “law of abrogation”, in verse 2:106 of the Qur’an. An abrupt ending is somewhat inevitable given the author’s resolve not to bring in any subjectivity, and hence, any conclusion must be every reader’s own personal verdict.)

Asad translates verse 2:106 of the Qur’an as follows:

"Any message which, We annul or consign to oblivion We replace with a better or a similar ones. Dost thou not know that God has the power to will anything?"

He understands the term ‘ayatin’ here to mean message, rather than verse, which he says, is wrongly construed by many Muslim theologians. Because ayah literally means ‘verse’, this Qur’anic verse has been used to derive the flimsy “law of abrogation” that argues for the possibility of abrogation of one verse by another verse in the Book. This is totally unacceptable, for the Qur’an is not a product of human effort, whereby the author errs or finds himself at the behest of his short-comings; in the end, making up for those by offering better, more appropriate laws. In addition, there is no reliable tradition going back to the Prophet, suggesting the possibility of abrogated and abrogating verses within the Qur’an. The whole debacle owes itself to the earlier scholars’ inability to reconcile one Qur’anic passage with another. The easy way out was to declare one or some of the verses in question, “abrogated”. The end result has been nothing short of hotch-potch and confusion. Now, the scholars see themselves arguing over which verses were abrogated and which weren’t.

Since the preceding verse talks about the Jews’ and Christians’ insistence on rejecting any Message superceding the Bible, the only befitting interpretation of “ayatin” in this verse is “message”, that is, the Qur’an.

Mawdudi’s translation (rendered into English by Zafar Ansari) reads:

"And for whatever verse We might abrogate or consign to oblivion, We bring a better one or the like of it. Are you not aware that Allah is All-Powerful?"

He understands this verse to have been revealed in answer to the Jews’ and Christians’ constant attempts at pushing the Muslims off their pedestals of faith. The Jews would often try to confuse and ridicule Muslims at their claims of acquiring the word of God: If, as they said, the Bible too was sent down by their Allah, why did the same Creator cause it to be out-dated, replacing it with a new book? Why did he not preserve His word and His laws? Why were there revisions? And indeed, why did He cause his followers, from among believers in the Bible, to forget certain portions of His message? Certainly, they’d tell the Muslims, those questions could not be answered, in hope that the latter would altogether shun their faith in Allah Himself. Those were the cursing times during which this verse was revealed in order to strengthen the faithfuls’ resolve in appreciating their All-Knowing, All-Encompassing Allah. Nothing was beyond Him. If He willed His servants to forget something, it would be forgotten. If He willed for a new law to be established, it would replace the older one – if not for the better, for the same. Surely, Allah is All-Powerful.

Usmani admits himself to the traditionalist stance. He understands ‘ayatin’ to mean ‘verse’. The Jews would comment that various verses in the Qur’an were abrogated by those revealed at a later date. If this is, indeed, the book by Allah, then why were some verses no more applicable? Was He ignorant of those shortcomings earlier? Through this verse, God Himself answers and declares that no revealed verse had any flaws. He reveals what He deems most appropriate at one time, and abrogates it, when circumstances demand, in favour of a stronger commandment.

Islahi understands naskh[1] to mean abrogation of one legal directive for another. The Jews would often remark that if the Qur’an accepted Moses to be the Messenger of God, and the Torah to be His reavealed Word, why would the same God change injunctions given therein? The aim was to cause dejection within the ranks of Muslims, by way of convincing them of their God’s inability to foresee the failure of His own revelation, deeming replacement imperative.

Allah answers. [As Islahi’s pupil, Ghamidi also points out] “The principles of the Torah, which were abrogated because of evolution of society and change of circumstances were replaced by better ones and the ones that were caused to be forgotten were replaced by similar ones. None of these two sorts of replacement can be objected to. The first of them was a natural requisite of the change in circumstances and the other was necessary to compensate for the loss caused by the Jews to the corpus of religion.”[2]

1. As is also used by the Qur’an in Al-Hajj:52
2. Ghamidi, Javed Ahmed. Translated: Shehzad Saleem. 2004. “Surah Baqarah (100-121).” Monthly Renaissance. Journal on-line. Available from Accessed November 11, 2004

Friday, July 22, 2005

Qur'an: Comparative Study - 2:101-102

"…WaittabaAAoo ma tatloo alshshayateenu…"
Saadia Malik

(The essay below is supposed to be an objective presentation of three scholars’ interpretation of verses 2:101-102 of the Qur’an. An abrupt ending is somewhat inevitable given the author’s resolve not to bring in any subjectivity, and hence, any conclusion must be each reader’s own personal verdict.)

Asad translates verses 2:101-102 of the Qur’an as follows:

"And [even now,] when there has come unto them an apostle from God, confirming the truth already in their possession, some of those who were granted revelation aforetime cast the divine writ behind their backs as though unaware [of what it says], and follow [instead] that which the evil ones used to practice during Solomon's reign - for it was not Solomon who denied the truth, but those evil ones denied it by teaching people sorcery -; and [they follow] that which has come down through the two angels in Babylon, Harut and Marut - although these two never taught it to anyone without first declaring, "We are but a temptation to evil: do not, then, deny [God's] truth!" And they learn from these two how to create discord between a man and his wife; but whereas they can harm none thereby save by God's leave, they acquire a knowledge that only harms themselves and does not benefit them - although they know; indeed, that he who acquires this [knowledge] shall have no share in the good of the life to come. For, vile indeed is that [art] for which they have sold their own selves -had they but known it!"

He understands the ‘divine writ’ to be the Torah, revealed upon Moses, which contained prophecies of an Arabian Prophet. The Jews’ denial of this prophecy, and rejection of Muhammad, amounted to disregarding the Torah itself. Instead, they chose to follow ‘ash-shayatin’: both evil human beings as well as their own evil and immoral impulses. Verse 102 refutes the Biblical blame on Solomon himself, who had nothing to do with magic, sorcery and all things idolatrous.

He goes on to point out that scholars have been in disagreement as to whether Harut and Marut were actually ‘malakayn’ (“the two angels”) or ‘malikayn (“the two kings”). He himself is inclined towards the latter, but goes with the former, given that it is “more generally accepted”. Other commentators seek to reconcile differences, since they believe that Harut and Marut were persons, who may only be understood as per metaphorical implications of the word: either “two angelic persons” or “two kingly persons”. However you understand it, Asad says, the intent of the verse is to acknowledge the traditions of magic and sorcery in Babylon, perhaps, best symbolized by “the two kings”.

‘Having no share of good in the life to come’ is meant to convey that all attempts at influencing the course of events through anything “super-natural” in connotation, was a spiritual offence, rendering the actor of such arts, undeserving of even an ounce of good in the Afterlife.

Mawdudi’s translation (rendered into English by Zafar Ansari) reads:

"And when there came to them a Messenger from Allah, confirming what they already possessed, a party of those who had been given the Scriptures flung the Book of Allah behind their backs as if they knew nothing. And then followed what the evil ones falsely attributed to the Kingdom of Solomon even though Solomon had never disbelieved; it is the evil ones who had disbelieved, teaching people magic. And they followed what had been revealed to the two angels in Babylon - Harut and Marut - although these two (angels) never taught it to anyone without first declaring: ‘We are merely a means of testing people; so, do not disbelieve.’ And yet they learned from them what might cause division between a man and his wife. They could not cause harm to anyone except by the leave of Allah, and yet they leaned what harmed rather than profited them, knowing well that he who went for it will have no share in the World to Come. Evil indeed is what they sold themselves for - had they but known!"

He begins with historical connotations of the verses under discussion. The material and ethical decay, plaguing Bani Israel was abruptly and miserly dealt by its people, through magic and sorcery. The satans, among both jinn and men, lured people into believing and attributing the might and splendour of Solomon’s empire to the very same things. They stumbled into the pit of assuming “short-cuts” as means for achieving their materialistic ends. Mystery-mongering and exorcism became the order of the day, for their satanic impulses of the people, justifying their acts, by attributing the same to have been the practice of Solomon.

These were the times of enslavement for the Bani Israel. As they found themselves confined in Babylon, the two angels, Harut and Marut, descended upon them in the shape of mendicants, just as angels stood as beautiful men before Lot’s nation. On the one hand, they enacted themselves as magicians and wizards, and on the other, offered admonition against indulgence in the evil ways. Such was the task the Almighty put the people to.

That angels would approach men on earth, has been one way in which they have been delegated to carry out their Lord’s orders. That they should come and yet, invite people to evil is also understandable. Just as policemen go under cover as criminals, in order to catch the law-breakers red-handed, the angels, in this case (and many others) did the same in order to help justifying the fate of individuals in the Hereafter. Do the mortals concede to evil, or do they steer clear?

‘Causing division between a man and his wife’ holds direct and obvious implications. A society’s balance and harmony depends upon the institution of marriage vis-à-vis the amicability between a man and his wife, and its decadence is directly relevant to disharmony between the two. Deep levels of discord and obnoxious overtones to marriages in a society, depict the debauchery and immorality equipping it. Bani Israel, at this time, fell direct preys to these lures. Their lewdness knew no bounds. Harut and Marut were ordered to offer talismans to create splits in marriages, in hope of ensnaring other men’s wives towards the plaintiff, and thus, destroying the very pre-requisites that lay the foundations of any ethical and thus, prosperous society. So sacred is family life, that a hadith reads:

Jabir reported that Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Iblis places his throne upon water; he then sends detachments (for creating dissension); the nearer to him in tank are those who are most notorious in creating dissension. One of them comes and says: I did so and so. And he says: You have done nothing. Then one amongst them comes and says: I did not spare so and so until I sowed the seed of discord between a husband and a wife. The Satan goes near him and says: 'You have done well. A'mash said: He then embraces him. [Sahih Muslim, Book 039, Number 6755]

Islahi understands rusul in verse 2:101 as intending Prophet Muhammad, sws, just like the other two scholars. Although the word itself is a common noun, he clarifies that the context of this and following verses, as well as the attributes awarded to this word, clarify and highlight it to mean only the last prophet of Allah. Going on, he believes that Kitab-Allah can mean either the Torah or the Qur’an. Torah could be derived, given that it contained clear-cut prophecies for the coming of Muhammad, and the Jews had no doubts about him; yet, they hid their scriptures in arrogance and in fear of being subdued. Then again, Kitab-Allah could also be construed here as the Qur’an, for the Jews had already been recipients of Divine scriptures and were, therefore, well aware of the authority and validity of the Qur’an. Stubbornly, they chose to ignore it by not paying any attention.

AAala mulki sulaymana would be better read as AAala aahdi mulki sulaymana, connoting the occult sciences that were in vogue during the reign of Solomon, although the servant of God himself, had nothing to do with these nefarious activities. What went on during Solomon’s times is extrapolated in a similar fashion to Mawdudi’s, and therefore, need not be re-written here. Even today, people who engage in evils of the super-natural kind, justify themselves by attributing the same to Solomon. It seems, these tendencies have made room for themselves among Muslims through such Jewish undertakings of yesteryears.

Wama kafara sulaymanu walakinna alshshayateena kafaroo yuAAallimoona alnnasa alssihra ([They attribute such chants and recitals to Solomon] – whereas Solomon never was guilty of disbelief; it is the devils who were guilty of disbelief – they would teach people witchcraft) holds the prominence of a parenthetical sentence, and a very enforcing one at that. Although, the context of the verse is to elucidate on the occult sciences adopted by the Bani Israel, this clarification shows how dearly the Almighty holds Solomon, and how He immediately is prompted to vindicate his prophet of such crimes of magic and sorcery, before completely elaborating on ‘ma tatloo alshshayateenu’ (what the satanic ones would chant and recite). The Almighty, thus, clearly receives the allegation on Solomon, with absolute condemnation. Also then, it would follow, that occultism is considered an act of profanity.

Not withstanding the above-mentioned sentence of parenthetical disposition, one can read the statement as follows: WaittabaAAoo ma tatloo alshshayateenu AAala mulki sulaymana wama onzila AAala almalakayni bibabila haroota wamaroota (They went after what the devils would recite and chant in the age of Solomon’s kingdom. And [they went after] that which was revealed to the angels Harut and Marut in Babylon). Islahi does not agree that Harut and Marut were revealed ways of magic. He offers several reasons for his difference of opinion.

Firstly, ma tatloo alshshayateenu already refers to the magic that was chanted and recited by the Bani Israel. If what was revealed on Harut and Marut is understood as magic as well, then repetition was not a requisite.

Secondly, the word unzila here refers to revelation from the Almighty. It carries with it the inference of blessings and favour. To understand revelation of something as uncouth and satanic as magic and witchcraft as coming from Allah, is in very bad taste. It is certainly true that wrath on the disbelievers comes from Allah too, but that holds with it, special relief and good news for those who believe.

Thirdly, the knowledge was revealed on two angels (Harut and Marut). By their very identity, they are the sincerest upholders of Allah’s Unity, and His ever-unflinching servants. No traces of anything close to disbelief, profanity or paganism could ever run by angels. They are the purest of creeds. They have always descended on man’s earth with teachings of the right and just, with admonition for those who pay heed, and as upholders of faith and salvation. How can angels be expected to do, what is understandably, the mission of Iblis!

Fourthly, Harut and Marut have referred to the knowledge bestowed upon them as ‘fitna’, which is simply a test and a trial for man by the Almighty. On the other hand, what essentially constitutes the knowledge of satan, is referred to, in the Qur’an, as ‘kufr’ and not ‘fitna’. Fitna, in itself, does not necessarily mean something bad. The Qur’an has attributed the quality of fitna to man’s children and wealth. Both are blessings from the Almighty, but if their love and want takes one to the extremes, there is the threat of falling prey to absolutely materialistic desires, worshipping them, and thus, denying Allah, the acceptance and worship that is rightly His. So are they fitna; so are they trials in the form of blessings.

What then were Harut and Marut revealed by their Lord?

They were taught the spiritual connotations and effects emanating from certain words and utterances. This knowledge was employed in prominence among the sufis from within the Jews, in the usage of amulets and talismans for purposes as diverse as cures of illnesses, refuge from black magic, or to counter-attack those that used the same knowledge to achieve evil ends. Neither did these practices tread near polytheism, nor did satan and jinns have any role therefrom. The effects of such acts is very similar to magic, and yet, their nature is very different from witchcraft.

It is quite possible that this discipline was transmitted by Harut and Marut to the Bani Israel, during the latter’s days of captivity in Babylon, to serve as exorcism, especially to protect the simple, layman from harm’s way. Firstly, the mention of such practices being in vogue back in those days, comes in the Torah. Prophet Isaiah, addresses Bani Israel in Babylon:

You said, "I shall be mistress for ever," so that you did not lay these things to heart or remember their end. Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, "I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children": These two things shall come to you in a moment, in one day; the loss of children and widowhood shall come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and the great power of your enchantments. You felt secure in your wickedness, you said, "No one sees me"; your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, "I am, and there is no one besides me." But evil shall come upon you, for which you cannot atone; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to expiate; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing. Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries, with which you have labored from your youth; perhaps you may be able to succeed, perhaps you may inspire terror. You are wearied with your many counsels; let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons predict what shall befall you. Behold, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before! [Isaiah 47:8-15]

Secondly, it is the Sunnah of Allah that wherever evil knowledge is of high import, and harms innocents, He reveals knowledge of use to counter the ill-effects desired by the lewd and sinister.

Sinful pursuits, like the ones mentioned above, do hold prominence, but it is important to note the words, wama hum bidarreena bihi min ahadin illa biithni Allahi: that ‘they can harm none with what they learnt except by God’s permission’. It would be pleasant then to seek refuge with the Almighty under all circumstances, rather than resorting to charms and amulets. When His Revealed Word – the Qur’an – is there to guide us, why must we harbour dreams of magic and all things with superstitious extentions. The Jews were also very well aware of the implications of walaqad AAalimoo lamani ishtarahu ma lahu fee alakhirati min khalaqin: ‘[They knew that full well] and [still] they would learn that which would not profit them but what would harm them; yet they knew that anyone who buys such things has no share in the life to come’. The Torah too was very clear on this:

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. [Deuteronomy 18:9-12]

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Qur'an: Comparative Study - 2:31

“WaAAallama adama alasmaa kullaha”
Saadia Malik

(The essay below is supposed to be an objective presentation of four scholars’ interpretation of the term, “WaAAallama adama alasmaa kullaha” in verse 2:31 of the Qur’an. An abrupt ending is somewhat inevitable given the author’s resolve not to bring in any subjectivity, and hence, any conclusion must be every reader’s own personal verdict.)

Asad translates verse 2:31 of the Qur’an as follows:

"And He imparted unto Adam, the names of all things; then He brought them within the ken of the angels and said: “Declare unto Me, the names of these [things], if what you say is true."

“All the names” are derived from the word ism, which Asad says, denotes peculiar recognition of what abounds us. To quote Lane, it is an expression “conveying the knowledge [of a thing]…applied to denote a substance or an accident or an attribute, for the purpose of distinction.” - a concept, in philosophical terminology.

Mawdudi affirms that man’s knowledge is manifested in his ability to assign names and definitions to all things, which in turn, define his wisdom. Thus, to teach Adam the “names of all things” establishes his “knowledge of all things”. Else, man would be found lacking, which he is not, in relation to all creatures.

Usmani goes a step further and offers that not only did Allah teach Adam the names of all things, he also specified the nature, specialty, benefits and harms of each one. All this expanse of knowledge was imprinted upon his heart, justifying superbly, thus, his caliphate on earth. All things were placed in front of the angels, who were then asked to demonstrate as much knowledge. In moments did they admit their weak candidacy for caliphate.

‘WaAAallama adama alasmaa kullaha’. Whose names did God teach Adam? Islahi brings to notice the three interpretations offered by exegetes: i) the names of all things (Asad, Mawdudi, Usmani), ii) the names of all angels or iii) the names of Adam’s progeny.

The second opinion has no support from within the Qur’an and hence, need not be taken up. As for the other two, the third one looks to be the most appropriate. Why?

1. The ‘Al’ in Al-Asmaa, if taken as a definition for Asmaa, immediately implies a specific connotation. In the context of the verse, this would mean that the name of some specific things were taught, and not just everything and anything.

2. Even the pronouns and gestures used in this verse for Al-Asmaa, are used in the Arabic language not for all things, but for special beings, possessing intellect and the ability to scrutinize. For instance: thumma AAaradahum AAala almalaikati (then He placed them before the angels), anbioonee biasmai haolai (Tell me the names of these if ye are right), ya adamu anbihum biasmaihim (O Adam! Inform them of their names), and falamma anbaahum biasmaihim (and when he had informed them of their names).

3. The purpose of this entire exercise was to address the fears and reservations of the angels. Their apprehensions could only be handled by introducing them to the creation that was to establish its sovereignty on earth. And hence, those introduced were, in fact, Adam’s progeny. The message to be conveyed was that if there would be many from among them to spread mischievousness in the land, there would also be many others from among them, who would walk the path of steadfastness, live the life of piety and spread the message of righteousness. These would be the Prophets and Messengers of Allah, as well as His other submitted servants. If some would abuse their power on earth, others would not only do justice to their responsibility, but also strive against the abuse, and invite their fellow beings to the Truth.

These three arguments taken together, establish a strong foothold. The next questions that come to mind are possibly: Where was this progeny at the time? How could it be brought forth as witness? The Qur’an answers:

When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam - from their loins - their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): "Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?"- They said: "Yea! We do testify!" (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: "Of this we were never mindful." (al-Araf:172)

This shows that before being sent into the world, Allah stood each one of us witness to His reality. The entire humanity affirmed to the Truth, the Straight Way. Islahi concludes that this gathering must also have been the subject of verse 2:31.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Qur'an: Comparative Study - 2:3

“Yu’minuna bil Ghayb”
Saadia Malik

(The essay below is supposed to be an objective presentation of four scholars’ interpretation of the term, “yu’minuna bil ghayb” in verse 2:3 of the Qur’an. An abrupt ending is somewhat inevitable given the author’s resolve not to bring in any subjectivity, and hence, any conclusion must be every reader’s own personal verdict.)

Muhammad Asad translates yu’minuna bil ghayb, from verse 2:3 of the Qur’an as follows:

"Those who believe [in the existence of] that which is beyond the reach of human perception."

Generally, English translations of the Qur’an have translated ghayb as the Unseen. Asad regards that as an erroneous translation, and would rather expound on it as ‘that which is beyond human perception’. In other words, al-ghayb is anything that cannot be proven or disproven by humans, within their limited means, but that still exists and ought to be believed in. The existence of God, life after death and spiritual forces are some of the articles of faith that Asad regards as ghayb.

In the context of yu’minuna bil ghayb, Asad offers that those people who are convinced of ghayb – thus, not slaves of the observable world – are the only ones who can believe in God and the purpose of this life. And such are the folks who can exquisitely benefit from the Qur’an.

Abu’l Ala Mawdudi, in his commentary on the first few verses of al-Baqarah, defines six pre-requisites in order to benefit from the Book of Allah. Iman bil ghayb seems to be second on the list, the first being the fear of Allah that induces righteousness and commitment in faith.

So what does Mawdudi understand by Iman bil Ghayb? He defines ghayb as all that is beyond man’s experience and observation. All those articles expounded upon by the Qur’an and yet, which cannot possibly be seen, heard, felt, touched or smelt by us.

Iman bil ghayb, then, according to Mawdudi, would refer to a person’s belief in the Unseen – if I may, for convenience sake – offered as truth by Allah’s Prophets, who are to be heard and believed by holders of faith, in a snap. God’s attributes, His revelation, Heaven and Hell, are some of the entities understood as ghayb by the exegete. He goes on to elaborate that those demanding proof of the same, will never be able to benefit from the Book, for they would fall short of faith.

Allama Shabbir Ahmad Usmani offers the exact same explanation. Thus, a denial of the ghayb serves as a passport to ignorance, no guidance forthcoming.

There hardly seems to be any disagreement over the meaning of the word “ghayb” as well as “yu’minuna bil ghayb”, between exegetes. Essentially, most will agree upon the interpretations provided above. Amin Ahsan Islahi, however, offers a more in-depth analysis of the terms – providing a fresh analysis.

Iman, Islahi says, is belief, trust and submission. A momin, thus, being any person who professes faith in Allah, His Signs and puts himself at the disposal of His directives.

Ghayb, the exegete illustrates, comes in various tones throughout the Qur’an:

i) Anything not visible to us;
ii) Anything that is not verifiable by us;
iii)Any place or incident that is not or cannot be evidenced directly by us or whose nature cannot be determined;
iv) A secret or a hidden reality.

Not taking “ب’’ as a preposition, the above applications do not fit into context in ‘yuminuna bil ghayb’, according to him.

“The first opinion” he presents, offers the following grammatical explanation. He takes the ‘ب’ in bil ghayb as a zarf (nomen locus - as in al-Anbiya:49 and al-Faatir:18). This essentially means that the ‘ب’ denotes a noun of place, moment or position. Hence, bil ghayb will take the meaning to be in a place, moment or position of ghayb. Yu’minuna bil ghayb will thus be considered as per its common implication – implying faith in all things that the Qur’an and Allah’s Prophets may require believers to accept and submit to, even while the truth is hidden and concealed from them. In the context of the Qur’an, God and the Hereafter are the two foremost hidden realities. Since faith in the Hereafter is explicitly mentioned in verse 2:4, Iman here implies Iman in Allah, especially.

Another correct grammatical explanation (as applied by most scholars) – “the second opinion” - would be to take ‘ب’ as a silla (preposition), thus, placing ghayb as an adverb for yu’minina. So instead of translating yu’minina bil ghayb as ‘those who believe even as a reality is hidden from them’, it would be translated as ‘those who have faith in the ghayb’ – as understood by Asad, Mawdudi and Usmani. Islahi humbly disagrees – not on language grounds, but ideological grounds – as follows:

1. Iman is reduced to those constituting ghayb only, and leaves out of consideration, all articles of faith not regarded likewise. This is a crucial point, since benefiting from the Qur’an seems to be dependent upon the conditions laid forth in the verse: while the Qur’an, on the one hand, demands faith in some ghayb and some not ghayb, this verse is directed strictly to the former.

2. After Allah, belief in the Prophet and the Qur’an, are the two most imperative ingredients of faith. Surely, the Iman required to benefit from the Book ought to be derived from adherence to the aforementioned; however, since these are not categorized as ghayb by the Qur’an, we again face a contradiction.

3. Also, the Qur’an at no instance, refers to the Almighty or His attributes as ghayb. Would it not then be absurd to reduce the equation of Iman down to Angels and the Afterlife?

4. Those understanding the ‘ب’ in bil ghayb as a silla, also offer the Hereafter as a foremost example of ghayb. Interestingly, the very next verse (2:4), says belief in the Hereafter is an exclusive requirement in addition to ‘yuminuna bil ghayb’. Now, if the latter is understood as ‘faith in the ghayb’, then this would be repetitive within one series of requirements and thus, redundant.

5. Taking the ‘ب’ as zarf, also displays a very important reality. It reveals the true identity of a believer: one who has fear of Allah and one who uses his wisdom to put his trust in all realities, even as they may be hidden. On the contrary, lies the definition of a disbeliever: one who does not submit to Allah, keeps demanding evidence and claims submission only when he sees doom staring him in the face. As illustrated in the Qur’an itself: “Would ye then believe in it at last, when it actually cometh to pass? (It will then be said:) ‘Ah! Now? And ye wanted (aforetime) to hasten it on!” (Yunus:51)