By Dr. Eren Tatari
We all have the inner urge to seek the truth and to find answers to our existential questions. Are we sure we are on the right track? Do we have a healthy relationship with our Creator? What is the criterion for being a good person? How can we ever be sure we are following our conscience and not our evil desires or the whisperings of Satan? Our Creator bestowed us with four sources to get to know Him and to fulfill the purpose of our creation:
- The book of the universe
- The prophets
- The scriptures
- Human conscience
Although all four are universal evidence to conceive The Truth = God = Al-Haqq, none is sufficient on its own to achieve the knowledge of God. We are created with multiple faculties with limited capacities; thus we need all four to satisfy our mind, heart, and soul. Additionally, they must all confirm each other. For instance, if what we observe in the universe contradicts what is written in the Qur’an, we need to dig deeper until we discover where we went wrong. Since both are written/created by the same author, either our explanation of creation or the way we interpret the Qur’an must be inaccurate.
Academics and philosophers claim to search for the truth, but it is not clear what they mean by the truth. Likewise, science claims to be objective. A scientist claims that all he is doing is observing the water in the cup and stating this observation: “There is water in the cup” or “The tree grows.” Yet these statements are loaded with value as well! Can there be water in the cup on its own? Can the tree grow on its own? The tree does not grow: it is made grow! It is incorrect to say something is beautiful: it is made beautiful. It is also inaccurate to say “I love.” We are made love. Since the ability is not from us, we cannot love. As we reflect on our reality and the reality of all created beings, we get to know our Creator better. Now let’s take a more detailed look at the four sources through which we get to know our Creator.
1. The Book of the Universe: Everything in creation (universe) is as purposeful and meaningful as a sentence in a book. God says in the Qur’an, “He has created the heavens and the earth with truth (meaningfully, for a definite purpose, and on solid foundations of truth). Surely in this is a sign for the believers” (Qur’an, 29:44). In the Qur’an, God recurrently calls us to reflect on creation; for everything is created with wisdom. We grow closer to Him by contemplating on the universe.
“Surely, in creation of the heavens and of the earth, and the alternation of night and day (with their periods shortening and lengthening), and the vessels sailing with profit to people, and the water that God sends down from the sky, therewith reviving the earth after its death and dispersing therein all kinds of living creatures, and His disposal of the winds, and the clouds subservient between the sky and earth- surely there are signs (demonstrating that He is the One God deserving worship, and the sole Refuge and Helper) for a people who reason and understand” (Qur’an, 2:164).
The book of the universe is a universal source of knowledge to get to know God. In this context, universal means that creation discloses, explains, makes known all the Divine Attributes of the Creator. Although sunlight reflects on all pieces of glass and droplets of water, each reflects light according to its own capacity. And so, a rose or the sky also reflects God’s Attributes according to their capacity. Yet overall, the universe is a universal source of knowledge, manifesting all of God’s Attributes.
2. The Prophets: The prophets are all independent, universal witnesses to the truth because of the mission they were given. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was responsible for believing in his own prophethood. Messengers also have to confirm their belief in God, angels, the sacred texts, prophets, destiny, and the afterlife. This is important because it emphasizes the fact that the messengers are human beings who have the same responsibilities as the rest of us. At the same time, they are the perfect examples of how we can believe in God and apply His guidance in our life. And because they are human beings, we can never deceive ourselves by thinking “Well, of course they are great; they are angels or have superhuman qualities…” No, they had to deal with their ego and freewill as we do. Additionally, God states that we are not to make any distinction among the messengers:
“Say: “We have believed in God (without associating any partners with Him), and that which has been sent down to us, and that which was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Prophets, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and that (knowledge, wisdom and Prophethood) which was given to all other Prophets from their Lord. We make no difference between any of them, and we are Muslims (submitted to Him wholly and exclusively)” (Qur’an, 2:136).
3. The Scriptures: Since creation of Prophet Adam (pbuh), God has sent guidebooks through messengers to make Himself known to humanity. So when we approach the Qur’an, we should always keep in mind that God is talking directly to us. Each verse is meant for us, as if we are having a personal conversation with God. It is important, however, to realize that revelation is not the same as inspiration. Everyone gets some kind of guidance in the form of inspiration, but revelation is the exclusive domain of God’s prophets. Revelation is God speaking to all humanity through a prophet, through words and meaning. The Qur’an claims to be God’s word:
“(O community of the believers!) Do you hope that those people (whose hearts have become [more?] hardened than rocks and who have continually shown disloyalty to God) will believe in you (and believe in the Prophet Muhammad, and in the Book he brought and the Religion he preaches)? (It is surely not possible) when there has been a party among them that hear the Word of Allah, and then, after they reasoned and judged it (to be the Word of God), have tampered with it knowingly” (Qur’an, 2:75).
How are we going to confirm this? Through the other three sources: observing the signs in the universe, contemplating on the words and examples of the messengers, and using our conscience to verify that the message of the Qur’an confirms the other sources.
4. Human Conscience: Our conscience is another source of knowledge to get to know God. Yet this is challenging after the philosophical trend of humanism, which claims that we do not need the other three sources, and that our conscience is sufficient to find the righteous life that fits us. We cannot find God or get to know Him without resorting to all four sources. Each one is necessary to find the truth.
What happens when we do not use all four sources? Following only human conscience is the path of humanism. Following the universe and human conscience together is the alleged way to the truth in Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. If we study the universe, the lives of the prophets and the scriptures, but do not use our conscience, we cannot come to the correct conclusions. A good example is academics who study the natural sciences, scriptures, and the lives of messengers from a secular perspective, yet still deny the existence of God.
In the second half of the declaration of faith (shahadah), the believer confirms that “Muhammad is His servant and His messenger.” In this phrase, Muhammad (pbuh) represents all the prophets. It is essential that half the phrase emphasizes that Muhammad (pbuh) is His servant. He does not possess supernatural powers that enabled him to be the perfect servant of God. He was a human being as we are, yet he took the guidance to heart and submitted his freewill to God’s Will perfectly. On the other hand, even if Gandhi was a very good man, he was not God’s messenger. Prophets are fallible, but when they make mistakes, they are corrected by God. For instance, when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) uttered something that he expected to happen in the future without adding insha’allah (God Willing), God corrected him through a Qur’anic verse. This is, of course, a message/teaching to all of us regardless of time and space:
“And do not say about anything (you intend), “I will do it tomorrow,” without (adding) “If God wills.” And remember and mention Him (straight-away) should you forget (to do so when expressing an intention for the future). And say: “I hope that my Lord will guide me to what is nearer to right conduct than this (forgetfulness of mine).”” (Qur’an, 18: 23-4).
 Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age (Tughra Publications, December 2012). She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.