Pre-Determination

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

How are we going to submit to God’s decree, which is destiny? Belief in destiny is one of the pillars of faith in Islam, which is to believe that everything is God’s predetermination. The word determining may be problematic because it reminds us of a philosophic school of thought known as determinism, referring to natural determinism. When we talk about destiny, it means divine determination.

Kitabun mubin is an expression that is used in the Qur’an and interpreted by Nursi as referring to the explicit form of God’s knowledge in this world. Another term used in discussing destiny is Imamun mubin or Levh-i mahfuz, which literally means “the preserved tablet.” This term refers to eternal knowledge of God. As far as our perception of creation is concerned, pre-eternal knowledge means the One who created this universe obviously knew before He created it. He has pre-knowledge of what He will do. Yet it is crucial to understand that even the term pre-knowledge is from our perspective, not from God’s perspective, because we perceive things in time. There is no past, present, future for God.

The Qur’an states that things in any form are inscribed in a clear book. We can find the traces of knowledge which proves that the One who creates things knows beforehand. If we look at the creation, we will see the signs illustrating that everything is known before it is created. A perfect example would be the seed of a tree that preserves in it the plan of the tree, or the human DNA that contains their genetic code.

Everything is determined before it comes into existence, during its existence, and after it passes. We understand that things are determined during their creation since we observe that creation is taking place, not accidentally, but through absolute knowledge. We witness that the Creator knows what He is doing (everything is orderly, purposeful, etc.). What is more is that it is determined, or rather, preserved before and after.

When something is happening in this world, are we really sure that the Creator knows it or does it just happen? Say, I “accidently” drop and break my glasses. I did not know that they would break before it happened. Is it also the case with the Creator? No. The One who creates “the breaking of my glasses” knows it beforehand. It means that it is within His knowledge. Whoever is creating the action, knows it will happen. So if we know who is purposefully creating the event, and that He knows it would happen, then we start to evaluate everything accordingly. Because we know that what happened is in His knowledge who is the Most-Just, the Most-Compassionate, and the All-Knowing, our reaction changes. For instance, we do not curse when our glasses “accidently” break. We pose and contemplate why God is creating this event, because I know that nothing is “accidental.”

We do not know what will happen five minutes later. If we know that creation is known by the Creator before and after, it changes our perception of everything. It will make a great difference in our life to know that the Creator knew it before and knows it after. If the Creator is a dictator who enjoys practicing his own whims, we would say he knows what he is doing but he is just terrorizing us. But if we know that the Creator is infinitely compassionate, then we would see the compassion in whatever happens to us. It is happening to me deliberately by a merciful sustainer, designer. Therefore, these two perspectives are completely contradictory.

Depending on how we “know” the Creator, and our awareness that all is coming from a Most Compassionate Creator, we would understand that whatever is happening with us is coming purposefully from the will of the Most Compassionate One. We “know” that the Creator is the All-Wise and the All-Compassionate not because the Qur’an tells us so, but by observing the creation. I witness that this Creator never does something unwise or in vain. Only after going through this confirmation (tasdiq; the Qur’anic iman education), when something that I do not like happens to me, I would not rebel saying “why is it happening to me?” With this perspective the world would become unbearable for us. The more we are aware that all is under the control of the Wise and Compassionate Creator, the more relaxed we would become in our daily lives.

Divine determining refers to the divine, God is determining. Depending on our understanding of God, it has a positive connotation.  God does not harm His creatures. Why would He have created us anyway to torture or harm? Do we make a computer to break or smash it afterwards? There is no evidence or sign of despotism in the creation. Some people, whatever they are living through, they see nothing but torture and suffering. But the negative things that happen to us are a result of our negative perceptions and misuse of our partial-freewill and covering our mirror not to reflect the manifestations of God’s Attributes, and people want to accept that they are the source of the mistakes.

We cannot just say “because God says so.” The Qur’an urges us to turn to the creation in order to confirm the revelation, because creation, the revelation, and the prophets say the same thing. Still, some people may say: “I do not experience what the revelation says.” Then, we must check ourselves, why we do not perceive things the way the revelation explains. There may be something wrong with our perception. The verse explains that God never hurts or oppresses His creatures, but His creatures harm themselves. Take an example from the creation – sunlight.  The sun’s rays are full of dangerous elements, yet it gets filtered through the ozone layer, and only the beneficial rays reach us. However, we have damaged the ozone layer, so it is not able to filter the sunlight as it was intended to do. How can we claim that God is harming us when we, with our freewill, harm ourselves?

Have we ever observed anything in the creation that is out of order? God says in the Qur’an: “We have created everything in pairs” (Qur’an, 51:49). The first example of this that comes to mind is the creation of man and woman. As if the pot and the pot lid are both there but created separately; when we put them together, they complement each other perfectly. Even if they have been developed in different conditions in different places they are perfect for each other. Everything is in perfect balance. The structure of the planets and the atoms are exactly the same. They are both in perfect balance.

If after observing this perfect order and balance, we still see something wrong, we must turn to ourselves and ask: “Why do I see it this way? Am I looking at this the wrong way?” When we lose something, we get furious. We do not want to admit that we are to blame. If you put your keys in a place and do not touch them, they stay there forever. They cannot get lost on their own. Yet we do not want to admit our mistakes. If we do not like something, we blame other things rather than us. If I burn myself, I blame the fire; I do not blame myself even though I have used my freewill wrongly and brought the harm to myself.

God creates things with differentiation, making everything different than the other. No human being resembles the other. They have been made different deliberately. So whoever created this world, completely knows what He is doing. Nothing is exactly identical to another thing. The Creator has a deliberate choice in everything He creates. When we understand this, it strengthens our willpower (iradah) and conscious to silence our ego/nafs when it attributes God’s Attributes to itself (i.e. I am intelligent, I did a good job, etc.). We can tell our nafs “You are wrong; the Creator definitely knows what He is doing.” If we are convinced that the Creator knows what He is doing, then we check ourselves. This is a fight between the human being and his nafs. We think that we are fighting with God. This situation is similar to the position of a mosquito in relation to a mountain. The mosquito can get angry with the mountain, but the mountain does not care. We can get mad at God, yet God does not mind. Not to say that it is a ridiculous position to take.

If we do not heed the revelation or pay attention to the signs in the creation, the fight between us and the ego/nafs goes on around the clock. But as we begin to get educated and transformed by the revelation, we are able to silence the whisperings of the nafs.

The Qur’an does not give information or list facts. It educates us. The Prophet (pbuh) performed the daily prayers five times a day within the community for more than 15 years. After his death, the community still could not agree on how exactly he prayed. This means there was no focus on how it was done. It is a very important pillar of Islam, but he did not instruct the people how to do it. From this we understand that the core of the teaching of religion is not the dos and don’ts. If we listen to the Qur’an as much as we heed the news on TV, we would learn and practice the path of submission. It is not information; it is training and education. The Qur’an does not give factual information. It says, “…believe and do good…” (Qur’an, 2:25). However, we have something inside of us (ego/nafs) that tries to keep us from doing good.

Nafs is the personal representative of Satan in our life. If we give importance to it, it reigns over our feelings, thoughts, and decisions. Our fight should be to blame the nafs rather than the Creator when we face something we do not like. Our own wrong interpretation of the event results in harm. We have been given partial-freewill: if we cut our finger; it is our mistake. We cannot blame God or the causes He has created, like the sharp knife. Our duty is to train our self to realize how God is creating everything in balance, in a perfect way. When we confirm this, it becomes more and more difficult to conclude that “the entire universe is in perfect balance and order, yet in this small event of me cutting my finger, God has not created compassion and balance.” After looking at the evidence in the universe and confirming that God is the All-Compassionate and the All-Wise, then we would trust in the Creator that He never makes a mistake nor harms any of His creatures. Observing the universe to find evidence in the creation is the method of the Qur’an (usul). First we observe the creation; then we confirm that the revelation is absolutely right.

So is being created with this nafs like an original sin, a punishment for the human beings? In Islam, Prophet Adam’s sin is not original sin and is not contagious! The responsible serpent that lured him to err is not Eve. Having a nafs is not a fault in our creation. It is purposefully given to us by God and its creation is perfect. But we are infected with the materialistic philosophy of this age, which does not accept God’s Wisdom and Compassion but attributes everything to “nature” or to “chance.” We have been taught and poisoned not to see the purpose behind creation. Yet our minds and hearts beg answers about the meaning of life and sink deeper and deeper without fulfilling this need for meaning. Only when we heed the teachings of the prophets and strive to be trained/educated by their message do we find some solace. Anyone can see that there is an apple on the table (as positivist science simply describes), but why is there an apple (whey has it been created?) and what do I do with it (how to relate to the creation and how to use it)? The real teaching is how to be the agent of God on earth, how to control ourselves and reach our highest potential. This is true education (tarbiyah). Everything we do must be in the name of the Creator. Belief then is the indispensable component of our education. Without belief, our actions have no importance. We would keep praying while also criticizing God. We would continue to be unhappy with God’s creation, our life, and all that happens to us. Yet, iman and stress/depression cannot exist in the same heart, at the same time.

Although belief in destiny seems to be a theoretical issue, it has many practical implications in our daily life. It is to practice our faith in our life.  In recent centuries, Muslims have been over-emphasizing practice and jurisprudence/fiqh at the expense of belief and theology.

Islamic scholars have begun to concentrate on jurisprudence/fiqh and the practical side of worship, because it is concrete and not open to much discussion. Decisions on these issues were based on the Qur’an, the sunnah (actions and sayings of Prophet Muhammad), and the consensus of the scholars or analogy method. It was easy to judge what to do according to this verse or that sunnah of the Prophet. The rules outlined in the blessed Qur’an are marvelous. The inheritance law is prescribed in half a page of the Qur’an, and out of this half page, scholars wrote volumes of books on inheritance law. In other words, the Qur’an is so concise that it summarizes these volumes in half a page. Yet in the Qur’an, only about 280 verses are related to practice, and about 6350 verses are related to faith and the meaning of our existence. This should make us rethink the relative importance of faith and practice.

The Qur’anic iman education is difficult. There are no easily achieved and tangible results that you can “show off.” You may spend years and years and may not see any results. Moreover, matters related to belief are not concrete as; they are open to debate. If I go through spiritual training for years, my children have to start from scratch for themselves. However with rules on practice, I study and write them down, my children have to only read and apply them as dictated. Or I do not even have to study the rules myself; for others have studied and recorded them, so when I need them in my practical life, I defer to them. It is far more challenging with iman education. The more you learn faith, the more humble you become. The nafs fights to keep up its arrogant reign. To study religion from belief perspective is difficult.

When are becoming more interested in “religion,” we tend to start adopting the dos and don’ts faster than we comprehend the meaning behind these rules. In other words, we find it easier to dress more modestly or give to charity, then to give up our ego’s false pride, false claims to ownership of our qualities, feelings, success, beauty, kids, etc. Hence, we end up with many “observant” people who are not more humble, peaceful, relaxed, etc.

Islam (submission) is a deen/path/religion, which educates us to live by our faith. Belief in destiny means we put our belief in practice. If we want to live according to our belief in God, this is the subject of belief in destiny. If we want to live according to our belief in God, in angels, in the afterlife, in the revelations and in the messengers, this can only be done through our belief in destiny. Belief in destiny is an aspect of belief which covers all other pillars of faith, and itself has no object. You believe in the angels, the object is the angels. You believe in the afterlife, the object is the afterlife. You believe in destiny, what is the object of belief? Nothing. It means you believe in destiny, you live accordingly. The object of destiny is living according to your belief in God and angels…etc. In our daily life, when things happen to us, we react, perceive and interpret them according to our belief in all the pillars. This is the belief in destiny. In Islam (the path of submission), what makes one a muslim (submitter) is not the ritual practice. It is our belief in God and our way of living according to our belief. You treat the things around you according to your belief that everything is represented by angels, that there are angels everywhere. In conclusion, “I believe in destiny” means, “I believe everything is from God.”

 


[1] 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.

Prayer

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

“Call upon your Lord (O humankind) with humility and in the secrecy of your hearts…” (Qur’an, 7: 55).

“Remember and mention your Lord within yourself (in the depths of your heart), most humbly and in awe, not loud of voice, at morning and evening. And do not be among the neglectful” (Qur’an, 7: 205).

What is a prayer? It is supplication; dialogue between a person and the Diving Being; demonstration of one’s reliance; communication through which we gain confidence and clarity in our being and our Creator. But first and foremost, it is an act of submission. When we pray, we acknowledge that there is a Divine Being who has power and control and we need Him.

When we say prayer, the first thing that comes to our mind is a person supplicating to God through words. However, when we take a holistic perspective on prayer, we realize that everything in creation is in a state of prayer, in one form or another. For instance, a baby, as he is, is in a state of prayer. His existence is a sort of prayer, admitting that he cannot do anything and is asking others to do things for him. We can generalize this example to all beings. Nothing can sustain its existence on its own. So everything is, subconsciously or consciously, asking the One to sustain their existence. In this sense, the innate disposition of everything is prayer; recognizing and accepting of their reality, and confessing their imperfection and need.

If prayer is not seen in this way, it becomes an expectation for magic. We pray to have a car and wait to see a car fall out of thin air. The conventional understanding of prayer is that when you lose your job, you ask for a job. To the contrary, we are to pray consciously as human beings using our freewill. The real prayer is recognizing who we are, what the universe is, whom we are addressing in our prayers.

Let’s take a closer look at the Lord’s Prayer: Thine is the Kingdom (lehul mulku) and the power (lehul hawlu) and the glory (hamdu) forever (abadan). This statement carries the gist of prayer. It is not asking for anything directly. We are communicating with the Creator, and telling Him “yours is the kingdom and power and glory.” Since He already knows what He is, why do we say these? In order to know whom we are communicating with, we state these qualities for ourselves, not for Him. Therefore, stating who the addressee is and knowing who we are is real supplication. Thus, the aim of prayer is to remind ourselves of our reality – that we are a created being who is infinitely dependent on our Creator who is All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and All-Wise. When a rain drop is falling, it has no choice but to obey the laws of God (i.e. gravity). When we eat or walk, it is as if we are praying to God to be able to eat and walk by obeying His laws (i.e. eating, digestion, having to sleep, having to blink, etc.). Seen this way, we could categorize prayer into three groups:

1. Praying through latent ability; e.g. seeds and grains.

2. Praying through innate need; e.g. causes seeking effects.

3. Prayers of conscious beings:

  1. By action; e.g. sowing a seed.
  2. By word.

First, everything prays to its Creator with its latent ability, e.g. seeds and grains: The gathering together of causes is a prayer for the creation of the effect. The apple seed is in prayer to become an apple tree. Its innate/latent ability shows that it wants to be an apple tree; it is made to be an apple tree. How do we understand that they are praying? Just by looking at the seed we see that they do not have any power, knowledge, or capacity to grow the apple tree. Its prayer is answered when the Creator gives it the apple tree. From one aspect, they demonstrate that they cannot realize their potentials on their own. What we see in the universe is but a prayer to God.

Second, all living creatures pray to God through their innate need to give them the things they need and desire, which are beyond their power and will: Those things that are causes seek the effects from God. Every plant, as it demonstrates its need, is praying to give its final intended fruit. Our ears need to hear, our stomachs need food. This need is a prayer in itself. If we disassociate this need from our relation/communication with our Creator, then this need does not become a form of prayer. If we think we are self-sufficient, we are cutting off our praying relationship with our Creator. But apart from human beings, all creatures by default admit their dependency on God. Through their need they pray: “I cannot provide it; some other source must provide it for me.” When we are supplicating with our tongue, all we are doing is reaffirming/joining the universal supplication of all creatures, as well as body, senses, intellect, etc.

The first two types of prayer, through latent ability and innate need, are always answered. For instance, we are hungry and the food is already created; we need to walk and we are given the ability to walk, etc. However, as conscious beings, we are responsible for using our conscious and freewill to do the third type of prayer.

Third, the prayer of conscious beings arising from need: Prayer is the most sacred action of human beings. What we are actually doing is joining creation and following the example of their prayer. As conscious beings, we pray through action and through words.

The prayer of conscious beings through action: For example, plowing is a prayer by action. It is not seeking the sustenance from the earth. Rather, the earth is a door to a treasury of mercy, and the plow knocks on the earth: the door to Divine Mercy. Whether or not the farmer accepts that it is not earth but God who gives the products, this prayer is still answered. So if he thinks it is coming from nature, this conscious choice is wrong, but the action of plowing is a type of prayer that is rewarded. It is in the laws of creation that if we sow a seed, it sprouts. We do not have to be a believer for the seed to sprout. So this type of prayer is also always accepted.

Human beings also make prayers at times of desperate need, or completely conformable with innate need, or made with the tongue of a sincere heart. This prayer is virtually always acceptable. The greater part of human progress and most scientific discoveries are the result of this sort of prayer.

And finally, the prayer of conscious beings through words: After we sow the seed (prayer by action), we pray to God with words to create tomatoes for us; after we study hard (prayer by action), we ask God to get a good grade; after we go to the doctor and take our medication (prayer by action), we ask God to heal us; after we exert all effort to behave kindly towards our friend (by action), we ask God to amend our relationship, etc.

Prayer is the spirit of worship and the result of sincere belief. Through prayer, the worshipper proclaims his or her own impotence and poverty. Praying is an acknowledgment that there is a Divine Being who rules the whole universe, and that He hears all the voices of all beings, including ours.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Had not God wanted to give, He would not have given wanting.” God responds to our prayers according to His wisdom: e.g. the doctor listens to the sick person’s sighs and moans; he hears and responds to them. The sweetest result of prayer is this that the person who offers it knows there is someone who takes pity on him and whose hand of power reaches everything. He is not alone in this great hostel of the world. The benefits of prayer also include eternal life. If the worldly aims are not obtained, it may not be said, “The prayer was not accepted.” It should rather be said, “The time of the prayer has still not ended.” As prayer strengthens the inclination to do good, so repentance and the seeking of forgiveness cut the inclination to do evil, putting an end to its transgressions.

God says in the Qur’an, “… Pray to me and I will answer you…” (Qur’an, 40: 60). Yet sometimes we think our prayers are not answered. Prayers are answered in three forms: a) what we asked for is granted as is, b) something that is better than what we asked for is granted, c) the response is deferred to the afterlife. When we go to the doctor and ask for medicine A, the doctor would give it to us if it is what we need. Or he would give us medicine B saying that either medicine A would actually make our illness worse or simply that medicine B would help us heal better and faster. Alternatively, the doctor may say, the best cure for your case is to wait it out… This analogy helps us to contemplate on our prayers and God’s response to our prayers. Sometimes we ask for things, but we do not possess knowledge of the future. What we are asking for may in fact be terrible for us. So it is wise to always say: “God I am asking for such and such but you know best, please give it to me if it is khayr/good for me…”

 


[1] 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.

Partial-Freewill (Iradah Al-Juz’iyyah)

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

“Say (to the believers): “Whether you keep secret what is in your bosoms or reveal it, God knows it. He knows whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. God has full power over everything” (Qur’an, 3: 29).

“…It may well be that you dislike a thing but it is good for you, and it may well be that you love a thing but it is bad for you. God knows, and you do not know” (Qur’an, 2:216).

When we are talking about destiny and using words which are used in the other Abrahamic faiths, one thing to keep in mind is this:  sometimes they might mean the same thing in Islam and Christianity but sometimes we use the same words but the content, or what we really mean, is different. Destiny (qadar) means divine measure, determination, and judgment in creation of things, to predetermine or preordain everything. Divine Decree (qadaa) means to implement or to put into effect what has been predetermined.

To give an example, it is predetermined for me to write this page. God has the knowledge of this before hand, which is destiny. Writing these words at this moment is divine decree implementing what has been predetermined. So divine decree is the things predetermined actually taking place. The extent of God’s knowledge is explained in the following Qur’anic verse:

“With Him are the keys of the Unseen; none knows them but He. And He knows whatever is on the land and in the sea; not a leaf falls but He knows it; neither is there a grain in the dark layers of earth, nor anything green or dry, but is (recorded) in a Manifest Book (Kitabun Mubin)” (Qu’ran 6:59).

Since God is beyond time and space, and since everything is included in His knowledge, He encompasses the past, present, and the future as one point. He knows everything even before they are created. No analogy or comparison would be sufficient to explain this concept since our perception is so limited.

If everything has been predetermined, where does freewill come into all this? Partial-freewill is included in Destiny; they are not mutually exclusive. We do not do something because God recorded it (predetermined it); God knew beforehand what we would do. Yet again using the past tense in reference to God is meaningless since time is nothing but God continuing to create. Time does not have a substantial or real existence. Hence pre-determination (God’s knowledge of what was, what is, and what will be) does not contradict with partial-freewill. The following analogy helps illustrate the point though: You are on top of a hill overlooking a plateau (flat terrain) on which there is a straight road. A car is speeding really fast on the road. Because you are on top of the hill, you can see that there is a barricade on the road. The driver cannot see that. Because of your position, and the fact that you see the barricade, you know that the car will hit the barricade. Surely, the car does hit the barricade. You knew beforehand that the car was going to hit the barricade. But the car did not hit the barricade because you knew it.

Partial-freewill is crucial in the overall scheme of creation. The purpose of creation is for us to know and to love God by contemplating His revelations (scriptures and the creation) and following His guidance. This constitutes our education (including the trials and examination) in this life. Only if we have the potential to choose can we be held accountable for our actions. Otherwise, there would be no point for us to be created or no logic in us being judged on the Day of Judgment (being judged means that we will face our reality: whatever mental/spiritual state we arrived in this life, we will be resurrected with that state). We deserve punishment for our own wrong decisions/thoughts/actions: if we thought that there is no God and everything happens haphazardly, and lived with this painful/hellish state of mind and heart, we will continue to do so in the afterlife. Or we will receive eternal happiness through God’s grace if we choose to follow God’s guidance: seek to submit and have inner peace=paradise, and ask for forgiveness when we err. Therefore, freewill plays a crucial role in enabling us to choose and therefore be responsible for our actions.

Now how much can we actually choose? We only have partial freewill. The first and obvious opposition is birth. We have absolutely no say in where we are born and what type of parents we have, and these factors may play a big role in determining our life trajectory. Just like birth, there are other things in our life that we cannot control.

It is as if there is a certain plot or a framework into which God places us. I was born in Turkey to Muslim parents, but someone else might have been born in China, and may have no belief in God at all due to the communist indoctrination there. Our circumstances are not the same; therefore we will not be judged with the same criteria. We will be judged according to our circumstances. One of God’s Divine Attributes is the Most-Just, and perfect justice requires just such treatment.

As there are things we cannot choose, we still can make many choices in life with our partial-freewill. Perhaps you may have seen movies where there are two plots within one movie. There is a breaking point where the actor makes a choice and depending on that decision, the rest of the movie unfolds in a certain way. Then they go back and show the actor choosing the other option and the movie unfolds to reveal the alternative plot. In a way, partial-freewill works this way.

We make a choice and God creates the path we choose to walk on. By using our partial-freewill we can potentially rise higher than angels, or go below animals in our spirituality and relationship with God. God guides us to good things and actions, and allows us to use our willpower (iradah) to choose the good. I picture our situation as follows: we are moving forward on a path that leads to the prize (inner peace/heaven here and in the afterlife). Both sides of the road are blocked with buffers and road signs warning us not to go off the road and the dangers that would befall. So all the carrots and sticks are there to make sure we stay on the right path. We must exert extra, purposeful effort to go off the road, which leads us to danger (we harm our self by doing so). In this scenario, when we stay on the right path, it is hard to claim any credit to our self! Everything is provided to make sure we do not go astray (hence we say it is by God’s grace that we find inner peace/heaven here and in the afterlife). Yet, when we go astray by ignoring all the messages and guides that God continuously places in our life, we know for sure that we are the sole responsible…

Our partial-freewill is included in Divine Will and Destiny. Our relation with Divine Will differs from that of other beings, for only we are given partial-freewill. Based on His knowledge of how we will act and speak, God has recorded all details of our life. He is not bound by our choices, and therefore, past, present, and future. What we consider predetermination exists in relation to us, not to God Himself. For God, predetermination means His eternal knowledge of our acts.

Belief in Destiny is essential because our self-conceit leads us to attribute our accomplishments and good deeds to our self. However, the Qur’an explicitly states that “While it is God Who has created you and all that you do?” (Qur’an, 37:96). It is from God’s grace that He guides us to good deeds and it is He who creates them. On the other hand, we like to deny responsibility for our sins by ascribing them to Destiny. Did you ever realize how people react differently to events: I got an A vs. the teacher gave me a C! However, God does not like such bad acts, so they belong entirely to us. God allows sins and if we choose to commit a sin, He creates our actions.

 


[1] 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.

How to Approach the Qur’an

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

When we are studying the verses of the Qur’an, we must keep in mind that while the author of the Qur’an is God, He is speaking directly to us to teach something. When we approach the message, we must be aware that each and every verse is addressed to us by our Creator. Since we know that God is speaking to us to teach us the purpose of our creation, we must try to see how each verse is educating us about our purpose.

For instance, God says in the Qur’an, “We have not created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in vain…” (Qur’an, 38:27). We need to study the creation in order to confirm this claim. When we observe creation, we realize that everything is created (and is being created every instance) to make us know who our Creator is and the purpose of our creation. Thus, we are surrounded by purposeful creation and infinite letters bringing us messages from our Creator. When we study the creation, we observe that nothing comes into existence by chance and their existence points to infinite power and wisdom. Created beings demonstrate that their Creator can only be the Absolute One through the various qualities they have been given.

Our understanding of each verse must be the result of a conscious effort to comprehend God’s speech sent to guide us. In the same way, even if a verse may be seemingly simple, when we bear in mind that it is God who is talking, then our expectations and attitude towards it changes. The same is true for God’s revelation in words (scriptures) and God’s revelation in action (the creation).

For example, let’s look at a fig. Do we realize that a single fig has to be created by the One who has absolute power? Unbelievers would take the fig lightly and thus not get its real profound meaning. This particular attitude of unbelievers is deliberate. Since unbelievers do not want to submit to a higher being, they do not accept that created beings have an owner/maker. With this attitude, a fig becomes only a means to nourish living beings. This is equivalent to saying it is created in vain. The Creator of the fig did not create it only to feed us. Its ultimate purpose of creation is to bring news from its Creator and make the Creator known to us.

For instance, if God suggests keeping our houses clean this suggestion should not be taken lightly at face value, thinking that the only reason is, say to be healthy. We must approach this suggestion in such a way as to help us build and secure our belief. When we are reading each verse, we have to be mindful of the ultimate aim of the Qur’an, and try to understand each sentence in light of the bigger picture. In a sense, every verse must take us to the transcendental world. Interpretations of Qur’anic verses that lack this attitude have shortcomings and are bound to be misleading.

Before reading the “Speech of God,” we need to define what “Speech of God” really means. God speaks in two ways: a) with words (scriptures), and b) with action (creation). God says in the Qur’an:

 

“They will ask their skins, “Why have you borne witness against us?” They will answer: “God who makes everything speak has made us speak.” It is He Who has created you in the first instance, and to Him you are being brought back” (Qur’an, 41:21).

 

These two kinds of speech support each other. God’s speech is not historical, it is universal; it addresses all humanity, at all times, and in all situations. When we read God’s speech we need to bear in mind the following principles:

 

1. Who is speaking?: The Creator of the universe

2. To whom is He speaking?: All humanity

3. Why is He speaking?: To answer basic existential questions

4. In which capacity is He speaking?: As a merciful God

 

The general principles of exegesis are:

1. Reading the Scripture to check if it is really God’s word

2. Reading the Scripture as a potential elucidator of the meaning of life

3. Abstaining from drawing hasty conclusions; we need to interpret every single verse within the context of the above four principles

4. The stories of the lives of the prophets and their miracles need to be interpreted in a way that would not contradict the universality of the Scripture

5. Information about the hereafter is to be interpreted in order to organize our lives here in this world

When studied in light of the above principles, four overarching themes emerge from the Qur’an:

1. The Oneness of God

2. Existence of the hereafter

3. Messengership

4. Justice and worship

What is the nature of the Qur’an or in general all scriptures? And how should our attitude be towards them? What are the particularities of a text for it to be called scripture? Scripture means the holy or sacred text; God’s word as revelation (not inspiration). Prophets received revelation, as well as inspiration. For the prophets, revelation is when the meaning and the words are from God, where as inspiration is when the meaning is from God, but the words are not.

So there is the Qur’an, hadith qudsi, and hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad). Revelation comes to messengers via angels, because nothing from the world of the unseen (alam al-ghayb) is translated to the world of witnessing/creation (alam al-shahadah) without angels. We cannot experience the World of the Unseen as it is. The Qur’an is the word of God, brought to a Prophet through Angel Gabriel, and no one has the right to change the words. But when it is Prophet Muhammad’s sayings through inspiration, it is called hadith qudsi (sacred/inspired sayings): the meaning is from God, the words are from Prophet Muhammad. Additionally, there are the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), hadith, uttered by the best student of the Qur’an: the word and the meaning are from Prophet Muhammad. The teacher for us in the Qur’an is God. In the latter two, the teacher is Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but he is not the source of the wisdom or the message. During Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time, it was forbidden to write down hadith qudsi and hadith in order to avoid potential mix-up with the Qur’an. Hence, only the Qur’anic verses were written down during his lifetime.

When we are reading a hadith we need to know the historical event related to it. If not, we may read a saying of Prophet Muhammad (hadith) that was from, say 617, the Meccan period, and if we do not know the verses of the Qur’an revealed prior to this event, we cannot interpret this saying properly. So Prophet Muhammad might have acted at this event according to the tradition of the society, since certain verses of Qur’an were not revealed yet at that time. Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) sayings as such do not establish the religion. He is not the founder of religion. We can find a Christian, Jewish or Meccan tradition at that event, because when there was no revelation about the matter, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) applied the common tradition of the place.

Tedrij, gradual development, implementation, establishment of religion is a principle of Islam. The human tendency is that everyone wants to elevate their leader as much as possible, but we should not exaggerate. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was honest to his nature, followed the monotheistic (haneef) tradition of Prophet Abraham, and did not participate in any polytheism. As a man, he was an honest man, did not do anything deliberately wrong. Yet still, he was not the founder of the religion. However pure his personality is, he was not the establisher of the religion, but he was the best student and the teacher of the religion, because he was the person chosen to present God’s religion. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught his community what God taught him. So, Islam is not Muhammadanism, but the religion of God.

All of the misunderstandings and quarrels among the Muslim community arise from the avoidance of this principle of gradual establishment (tadrej). Studying the Qur’an and the hadith requires scholarship, expertise in history, and knowledge of the entirety of the matter. The most developed science in Islam is hadith, followed by the interpretation of the Qur’an.

 


[1] 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.

“God Has Created Adam in His Image”

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

The prophetic saying (hadith) “God has created Adam in His image” is a parable that should be understood in terms of attributes, not necessarily in its literal meaning. “…in His image” refers to Divine Attributes rather than appearance. In other words, God has created Adam (human beings) with the capacity to reflect His Attributes of Perfection (Asma al-Husna). Thus, each of us is created in the image of God in order to reflect His Attributes from the functional point of view. Likewise, verse 95:4 of the Qur’an states that God has created human in the best form (taqweem).  God turns our attention to the signs within us and urges us to ponder upon them:

“On the earth there are (clear) signs (of God’s Oneness as Lord and Sovereign) for those who seek certainty; And also in your own selves. Will you then not see (the truth)?” (Qur’an, 51:20-21).

The parable, then, is referring to the signs within us. In light of this prophetic saying and these verses, can we not say that we are the masterpiece of our Creator, and the signs in us are the manifestations of God’s Attributes? In a way, everything in us is created by God, such as our physical body, our senses, and the way we think and behave.  As far as our creation is concerned, nothing is missing or imperfect.  The Creator has manifested His Attributes in the best way.

What should we make of this reality about our existence? Should we be proud of it and spoil the world with our self-indulgence as if we were its rightful tyrants? Once we realize that we are the masterpiece of the Creator, and that we have the potential to manifest His Attributes of perfection, our responsibility is to try to develop this potential and act accordingly without contradicting our true nature/fitrah.  When we act, we are to reflect, for instance, His Mercy, and realize that it is not from us, but from God.

Developing our potential does not mean improving it (as if it was not perfect to begin with). We are already given the full potential to reflect all of God’s Attributes. Our only responsibility is to avoid covering up (the literal meaning of kufr) or preventing God’s Attributes from being reflected through us.  When we choose not to reflect God’s Mercy through us (thus act mercilessly), we are hindering our potential and the purpose of our creation.  On the other hand, when we let our potential and purpose manifest themselves, it is from God. In other words, when we help someone in need by complying with our inner call (or acting in the way we have been created), we should realize that we are not the source of this virtue, but only a mirror.

Everyone has been created with different levels of abilities to develop. As Rumi put it beautifully, every cup created by God is full, but some cups are smaller than others. Yet, everyone has the same duty towards his/her Creator: submission.  We have been given a certain capacity and our duty is to fill our cup/fulfill our capacity in the way God wants.  So what does God want from us?  God is educating us through the Scriptures and the Messengers to accept reality as it is. In other words, God wants us to realize and acknowledge that nothing is from us, and that everything is only from Him.

So we have a big responsibility. We are carrying the best “jewels” from the treasure of God’s Attributes.  If we are not benefiting from them, it does not matter how many years we carry the jewels, but if we use them in the best way, we benefit greatly. Thus, we should not cover them up, or hinder their manifestation through us. We should not claim to own them or use them in a wrong way.

We have been created in the image of God, given the potential to manifest God’s Attributes so that we might use them to get to know our Creator. We can know God through our own existence because the Attributes of God are engraved in us (i.e. His Divine Breath breathed through us while we are in the womb). Thus, our duty as human beings is two-fold: Knowing and recognizing God and acting accordingly.

Knowing and recognizing God is belief (iman); acting accordingly is the action (amal). Belief comes first, and action follows. And inevitably, acting without acknowledging the real source of all our qualities leads to arrogance.


[1] 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.

Fasting

Fasting[1]

By Dr. Eren Tatari[2]

“The month of Ramadan (is the month) in which the Qur’an was sent down as guidance for people, and as clear truths of the guidance and the Criterion (between truth and falsehood). Therefore, whoever of you is present this month must fast it…” (Qur’an, 2:185).

Fasting is a type of worship that is shared among the three Abrahamic traditions, though in unique forms. God prescribes healthy adult believers to fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month in the lunar calendar. Indeed, we are encouraged to fast throughout the year, and some believers follow the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to fast Mondays and Thursdays. One of the significances of the month of Ramadan is the fact that the Qur’an was first revealed in this month.

Fasting means not eating or drinking; no water, no smoking, no gum… Yet, it also entails much more than that. All other faculties fast as well. For instance, our tongue fasts by not getting angry, lying, breaking someone’s heart, being mean, etc. Our eyes fast by not looking at unlawful things. Our entire body fasts by using it in acts that would please God, like helping others. Moreover, fasting is to be accompanied by heightened spiritually; trying to get closer to God, increasing our awareness that He is the sole Creator and Sustainer of everything. The Ramadan fast is an intensive course of focusing on worship, contemplation, and social service, such as helping the needy and feeding the poor.

Why was fasting prescribed? What is the wisdom in it? For one, it helps us to see the bigger picture, to see order, the Orderer, and Wisdom and Mercy in everything through contemplation. The Creator knows us better than us. Religion is His guidance and our manual. So we choose to follow this guidance to fulfill the purpose of our creation and to find inner peace. It is healthy for our body and soul, and it disciplines our ego. It helps us to realize our weakness and neediness, which makes us more humble and modest. Fasting teaches us to be more thankful for all blessings. We need to understand hunger and help others. Experience equals confirmation.

If a person goes to a friend’s house, the feast might be ready, but the guest won’t start eating until his host invites him. Why does he wait? Out of respect and to show that he acknowledges and cares for his host. During the month of Ramadan, the month of fasting, it’s very much like that:  We wait all day, from sunrise to sunset, for our divine host to invite us to eat and drink when the call to prayer is recited.

This is an extraordinary experience. Although it’s not easy to fast, when it’s time to break the fast at sunset, there is that wonderful feeling of belonging, of being the guest of the Divine, the guest of the compassionate Creator and Provider. And we rejoice not only at satisfying our hunger but more so at being the guest of the Lord.

Ramadan is a time to refresh the way we look at the world.  It makes us reflect on the “simple” things that are in fact amazing.  Even a cup of tea is not as cheap as it seems to be.  For a tea leaf to grow, the existence of the whole universe is required: the sun, the rotation of the earth, the rain, soil, bacteria, and so on.  Have you ever tried to count the kinds of fruits, vegetables, plants that “come out” of the soil? Is it a simple process?

The Creator has made the whole world like a feast, showing His generosity and compassion. Yet, in daily life we often forget to respond appropriately to these glorious acts of the Creator. And in order to be thankful to God we need to remember that we are given all these gifts, but we also need to recognize the value of the gifts. We quite often underestimate the value of a glass of water or a piece of bread until we give up the daytime meals and snacks in the month of Ramadan. This makes fasting during Ramadan a powerful means of recovering our gratitude to our Merciful Sustainer. When we fast, we are hungry and we appreciate the value of food; we realize what a precious gift it is and we are filled with gratitude. This makes us reflect on the countless gifts and blessings that we have been given; not only  food and  drink, but also health, sight, friendship, air, water, etc. Everything is valuable; everything is a blessing.

Fasting allows us to become more conscious of the compassionate sustainer of the world, and so we turn to our Lord to acknowledge our gratitude. We remember once more that we are guests of God on earth. In Ramadan, we become like an assembly of divine guests waiting the invitation of our host to start enjoying the feast. We respectfully wait in front of the dinner table for the Glorious Host’s invitation to start eating.  The fast of Ramadan helps us remember that we are being taken care of with compassion and generosity.

Everything becomes a sign that speaks of God’s generosity and compassion. Food becomes a token of love, a sign of divine favor; a sign that turns our attention from the food itself to the bestower of the food. We also understand that hunger has not been given to us only to fill our stomachs and derive temporary pleasure from it, but to make that pleasure itself a sign, a means to recognize the giver of the pleasure and turn to Him. And when the food is perceived as a divine favor, the pleasure it gives is far greater than the pleasure obtained from its perishable matter. It gives a lasting delight: the pleasure of feeling in the presence of God’s everlasting compassion and love. That is why every time we break the fast, we experience the good news of everlasting pleasure and we rejoice. Every evening in the month of fasting is a feast. And at the end of the month, the whole community celebrates the feast of the breaking of the fast.

Like Ramadan, Eid or feasting is centered on worship rather than food. However, food is always present during Eid too, because in Islam, everything in the world is sacred;, every event is a sign pointing to its Maker. The feast is celebrated with communal prayers and glorification of God that lasts three days. People visit each other and offer presents to each other to express their gratitude to God.

Feasting is basically rejoicing at being the honored guest of the compassionate Creator, the host. We rejoice at God’s love and care for us as His guests here on earth. Fasting during Ramadan is the opportunity to remember God’s loving presence and to hold our hearts open to receive His compassionate guidance and help.

Technically speaking, the fast of Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam.  Like other pillars of Islam, it has personal, social and ethical implications. It refreshes our relationship to our Merciful Creator as well as our relations with other human beings. It is basically a month of thanksgiving at various personal and social levels. When we fast, we realize how weak we are; how fragile the human body is; how dependent we are on so many things we take for granted. It’s a situation that makes us wonder who we really are. Our needs are countless, but usually we are not even aware of them because we take them for granted. The more we realize how needy we are, the more we feel that we are bombarded with blessings, and our whole being is filled with gratitude for the compassionate Creator, and when we surrender to this reality, we say, “Praise be to God, Lord of all the Worlds,” which means the Lord of all gifts, the Lord of everything. And praising the merciful Creator is the essence of worship.

Therefore, fasting reminds us of our needs, and our needs are the means to taste all gifts and enjoy them. Without hunger, food would not provide pleasure. Our needs are also the means to feel empathy for the needy; through our needs we communicate with the rest of the world in the name of God, the provider of all. This makes us realize that we are not alien to other people or to other beings. That is why we rejoice at the month of Ramadan even if our stomachs cry out. And maybe that’s why it is said that fasting brings about spiritual fulfillment and that in the month of fasting, rewards are multiplied manifold. Ramadan is also often called the month of blessings.

When we empathize with others, and feel that we are not alien to them, then we can share everything with everybody because we are not anxious about providing for our needs. The Merciful Creator has already taken care of them. We are liberated from the illusory world of the ego that thinks that it provides for itself. Giving and sharing with others does not feel like a sacrifice anymore because nothing is ours anyway; everything is given to us. Sharing with others is an opportunity for us to remember and affirm this reality. Sharing becomes a source of joy, a source of realizing our position as honored guests of our Lord.

When we fast with this awareness, we remember the true owner of blessings and lovable things. Food becomes not mere perishable food, but a gift from God that is to be eaten in the name of God. We then love food in the name of its Maker who made it lovable and offered it to us as a gift of love and friendship. So Ramadan is a month of worship, a time to draw closer to God. It is a special time God chooses to open His extra doors of mercy.

What are the wisdoms of the Ramadan fast? The fast of Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam.  Like others pillars of Islam, it is a multifaceted act, with profound implications for all aspects of our lives, personal, social and ethical.  It rejuvenates our relationship to our Merciful Creator, as well as our relations with other human beings.  It helps us to be witnesses to God’s glory, be mindful of and thankful for bounties of God, as well as to discipline our ego. In what follows, we will explore some of these aspects of Ramadan fast.

Ramadan fast is a witness to Our Sustainer. It is a time to refresh the way we view the world.  It makes us reflect on the “simple” things that are in fact awesome.  Even an apple is not as cheap as we regard it to be.  For the growth of a single apple, the existence of whole universe is required:  sun, the ordered rotation of earth, rain, soil, bacteria and so on.  Let us just try to count the kinds of fruits, vegetables, plants that “come out” of soil, is it a simple process at all? Indeed, Glorious Creator has made the whole world like a feast table; showing His perfect art, generosity and mercy.  Yet, in daily life we often forget to respond appropriately to these glorious acts of the Creator.

It is in Ramadan that we wake up to a greater consciousness of this merciful and magnificent sustaining of the world.  And, we turn all together, as a unified body of hundreds of millions –even more- believers on the globe, to acknowledge our gratitude to our Lord.  We remember once more that we are guests of God on earth, and we show a palpable sign of this by actually participating in the fast of Ramadan.  Indeed, in Ramadan, we become like a great assembly of royal guests waiting the command of their host in the dining hall to start enjoying the royal feast.  All the Muslims over the globe become one united body, respectfully waiting in front of the dinner tables, for the Glorious Host’s invitation to start eating.  The fast of Ramadan helps us to remember our relationship to the Glorious Creator, as servants in awe and with gratitude.

Ramadan fast enhances our gratitude to our Creator. More specifically, Ramadan is a time to recover our gratitude to God.  If a dear friend of yours sent you precious gifts in mail, would you contend by thanking the mailperson?  Would it be fair for you to forget to thank the sender, while thanking and tipping the deliverer?  Yet, we frequently behave like this, when we receive gifts from God, such as life, health, food, drink or love, we contend ourselves by thanking only (or mainly) the ‘deliverers’ of these gifts—parents, friends, or nature, forgetting the Real Giver of these gifts.  We may buy some bananas or a box of strawberries from the grocery store. As long as we pay several dollars for it, we think we really paid for these.  While, in fact, we are only paying for the cultivation and transportation of these fruits.  We are not paying for its amazing creation from a mixture of mud, or our capacity to taste, enjoy and digest these fruits.  Do any of us, for instance, pay for the sun to shine or for the taste buds in our tongue to work?

Indeed, we need some boost in our recognition of the real Sender. One of the wisdoms in Ramadan fast is to get this boost.   By being barred from eating till the time determined by the Creator (we may not start eating even a minute before the sunset call), we realize that what we thought as ours is not really ours.   This discipline helps us to tell ourself: “here it is, the vegetables I bought with my money and cooked with my own hands in my own oven heat. Yet, this food is really not mine, for I cannot eat it whenever I want. I have to wait for the permission of their Real Owner in the sunset.”   This concrete realization that all that we take for granted are gifts from God encourages us to be more thankful to Him.  By the way, while doing this we need not decrease our thanks to the ‘deliverers’ (so do not give up paying for the grocery bills!)

In order to be thankful to God we need not only remember that all are gifts from Him, but we also need to recognize the value of what is given.  We quite often underestimate the value of a glass of water or a piece of bread- until we give up the daytime meals and snacks in the month of Ramadan.  Thus, Ramadan becomes a powerful way of recovering our gratitude to our Merciful Sustainer.

Ramadan fast is a means of getting to know who we are. God says in the Qur’an, “Be not like those who are forgetful of God, and whom therefore [God] causes to forget themselves” (Qur’an 59:19). He reminds us of our reality:

 

“O humankind! You are all poor before God and in absolute need of Him, whereas He is the All-Wealthy and Self-Sufficient (absolutely independent of creation), the All-Praiseworthy (as your Lord, Who provides for you and all other beings, supplying all your needs)” (Qur’an 35:15).

 

Our ego wants to pretend as if it is independent of God; it does not want to admit its full dependence on its Creator, and wants to ignore the fact that it is a recipient and not the owner of the bounties of God.  In short, we have a part in us that simply does not want to be grateful and humble before the Creator. Add economic affluence and worldly power to this innate inclination of our ego, we may easily end up with a life based on forgetfulness of God, living like a thief of God’s bounties, devouring the bounties without acknowledging the Real Owner!

The good news is that this ego is not what we are all about; it is just a part in us, it is not our real identity.  The ego’s innate duty is to encourage us to forget God, and our innate duty is to say “no” to it (i.e. to strengthen our muscles we have to lift weight).  Ramadan fast is a time for us to do our job of honesty, when it palpably manifests that we are all needy recipients of God’s sustenance.  We realize in Ramadan more profoundly that we are neither self-sufficient nor immortal as our ego falsely claims.  Our ego wants to overlook the fact that we are indeed weak, perishable mortals on earth.  Our ego often wants to pretend that we are immortal, it wants to overlook the fact that we are only transient passengers on this world, destined for an eternal life in the hereafter (and therefore need to prepare for it.)  Fasting becomes a good discipline for our ego’s illusions, by showing how our batteries fall low and our bodies become weak after hours of no ingestion.  In Ramadan, the ego’s tendency to play God like a Pharaoh vanishes and our human reality becomes manifest: we are all poor creatures before God, with perishable bodies, and we are better off by admitting this before our Creator.

Ramadan is also a time to draw closer to Our Creator, for it is a special time He chooses to open His extra doors of mercy.  Moreover, Ramadan has social implications; it reminds us that an important component of being grateful for what God gave is to share it with our fellow human beings.  Ramadan fast also helps spiritual growth by disciplining the “stomach,” and enabling an environment in which we can listen to the message of the Qur’an more attentively.

 


[1] In preparing this section, I have benefitted from Nursi’s “Treatise on Ramadan” (Twenty-Ninth Letter). I also thank Dr. Isra Yazicioglu for sharing her reflections on this chapter.

[2] 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.

Education (Tarbiyah) of the Qur’an

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

Islamic scholars unanimously agree that the primary message of the Qur’an is tawhid. Tawhid is an Arabic word that is commonly translated as Oneness of God. Yet, the closest translation of the grammatical form of tawhid is “unifying God.” In other words, tawhid means continuously affirming or confirming that God is One. This mission is also summed up in the declaration of faith Lailaha illallah (there is no deity but God). At first it seems like a simple message that there is only one God as opposed to two or three. But is it really that simple? If it was that simple, what were the companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) struggling to understand for 23 years (the duration of Qur’anic revelations and his prophethood), sitting beside the Prophet (pbuh) to be educated (tarbiyah) by the Qur’an? Indeed, tawhid is at the heart of our relation with our Creator. The truth is simple, thus the statement is simple. Yet, surrendering one’s self to this truth is not an easy task that can be accomplished overnight. The following verse may be referring to this fact:

“(Some of) the dwellers of the desert say: “We believe (amanna).” Say (to them): “You have not believed (yuminu). Rather, (you should) say, ‘We have submitted (islamna) (to the rule of Islam),’ for faith (iman) has not yet entered into your hearts.”…” (Qur’an, 49:14).

Even though the companions changed their intentions fast and decided to surrender to God’s Will, it took them 23 years of education to transform their paradigms and completely surrender; and they were still praying that they would die as mu’min (believers)!

An overwhelming majority of people today do not claim that there are two or three gods. Yet, one of the major problems of human beings is assigning Divine Attributes to causes. If we see an egg, and assuming that we have never seen a chick coming out of an egg, could we ever imagine that out of this solid, lifeless thing a creature will pop out? There is seemingly no relation whatsoever between these two beings, a chicken and an egg. So causes are not even apparently effective in producing the outcomes, i.e. the effects. Yet, how is it that we fall into the trap of thinking that the egg “produces” the chicken? God creates everything in the same manner with the same order: for example, He always creates chickens from eggs, never from acorns…[2] So when we observe the same sequence of occurrences continuously, we come to forget the Judge (Hakim) and the Creator, thus attributing the Creatorship to the egg.

What are causes then? If God is indeed the All-Powerful and the All-Knowing, can He not create the tomato directly, without the causes? Yes, He could have. But it is part of the big picture/the divine plan to create the causes and the effects, and to make the causes a “veil” to His Divine Attributes. Let us think of the common message of the scriptures: all of them are reminding us that we have a Creator, and they expound on Divine Attributes of our Creator in a sense introducing Him to us. God teaches us in the Qur’an over and over again to ponder upon the signs (ayah) in the creation of things in the universe, and then in ourselves. In a sense, this is our life-long struggle (purpose of our creation) to see, think, feel, and act in the name of the Creator: Not to attribute the qualities of things to themselves; not to act in our name, appropriating our qualities, thinking “I am intelligent, I love, I do, etc.”

In this struggle, causes play an important role in helping us understand that there is One God. We observe the egg and the chicken, the atoms, and everything else to confirm this truth. We realize that an egg cannot in itself produce a chicken in a million years. We confirm that none of these things own any of the qualities they manifest. After we confirm that even the things that seem to be the most intelligent and superb cannot do a single thing on their own, we turn to ourselves and acknowledge that nothing in us is from ourselves. These processes are steps of submission that lead to certainty (iman) in belief in God’s existence and oneness.

Let’s discuss another example. Each of us is a sign pointing to the Divine Attributes of the Creator. For instance, if I act mercifully, I am only choosing with my partial-freewill to act as a mirror to the mercy of the Most-Merciful God. Also, I am created with an intrinsic quality to love what is beautiful. A flower is a sign pointing to the Divine Attributes of the Creator as well. It has been created beautifully by the Most-Beautiful One; it has been fashioned and designed in the most perfect manner by the Fashioner and the Designer. Moreover, me loving the flower (aka. the relation between me and the flower) constitutes another sign out of these two seemingly unrelated signs. When one ponders upon my reaction to the flower (feeling of love), there is absolutely no way to explain this feeling by materialist philosophy. Why would a creature, made up of flesh, blood and bones (just as a chicken is) suddenly have this feeling upon seeing a flower (whereas a chicken would eat the flower rather than appreciate and love its beauty)?

I just “claimed” that our feelings are also given by God. The discipline of medicine explains feelings through chemical reactions, which are only the causes created by God that cannot create the effects by themselves. The other alternative would be us creating them somehow, or them being created by themselves, or by chemical reactions. All the alternatives connote infinite, divine powers to causes and hence do not make sense.

Yet, one may ask: if God is creating all the feelings in us, what is the point of anger or jealousy, or for that matter any other feelings that we might perceive to be undesirable? The essential point is this: indeed these feelings are created and given to us by God, but these feelings, say anger, is not given so we say “I am an angry person, what can I do?” We observe purpose and wisdom in the creation of everything in the universe, thus we confirm that the Creator is the Most-Wise and does not create anything in vain. Hence, we conclude that there must be a wise purpose behind the creation of anger as well. Let’s say that we get angry at something. Since we have partial-freewill, are we going to carry on with this anger or are we going to control it? This is the struggle for self-discipline, hence training our ego/nafs to accept the reality as it is and not to have false claims of ownership over our intelligence, feelings, existence, etc. This discipline culminates in the fulfillment of our humanity.

Same is true for love also. No feeling, be it anger or love, is absolutely good or absolutely bad. It is how we use it that renders it good or bad in different instances. Just as a knife may be used to murder someone, it may help save a life when used appropriately by a surgeon. Thus, we must try to use these feelings, which are “tools”, with our partial-freewill to better ourselves, and understand that they are gifts from our Creator given to us for a wise purpose. For instance, anger is meant to be used against injustice or oppression.

How does this all tie back to tawhid and the education of the Qur’an? God teaches us in the Qur’an how to look at the signs to increase our knowledge of Him (marifatullah). Yet, the purpose of this knowledge is not just to increase our ‘information’ about Him. This knowledge is to transform us, to educate us in the way of tawhid, which is the only way to live peacefully without contradicting ourselves because tawhid is accepting the reality as it is. We are to confirm the Unity of God constantly by observing the outward and inward signs. And as we confirm His Divine Unity, we are to submit and surrender to the truth with all our being: our feelings, thoughts, and actions.

 


[1] 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.

[2] What we call mu’jiza (miracle, literal translation is something that makes you [feel] helpless; makes you realize that you are helpless) is God creating something out of the “normal” order that He always does. For instance, He always creates babies from an egg and a sperm. Jesus’ birth to Virgin Mary is a miracle. It is in fact no more or no less “difficult” to create a baby without a sperm than it is to create one from an egg and a sperm. Both require infinite power and knowledge, and the One who possess infinite power and knowledge can do both.

Do We Need a Religion?

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

Religion means different things to different people. God uses the word deen in the Qur’an to refer to religion. Deen literally means path. By default, everyone has a path. An atheist’s path is atheism. A hippy has his path; a workaholic has her path, etc. So even if we consciously choose not to have a religion, we have one: that of not having a religion.  Given this, the question is why should we consciously choose a path (deen/religion) that “claims to be” revealed by God?

God creates us with certain physical needs to survive. For instance, God gave us the feeling of hunger and sleepiness so that we eat and sleep to maintain our metabolism. Likewise, God also creates us to believe and to worship Him. Practicing religion is the food of our souls. He creates us, and He knows best what we need. For instance, when a scientist produces a medicine, he also includes the prospectus explaining how to use it. He knows the best way that we can benefit from that pill and what not to do to avoid any harm.  If we decide to take all the pills at once, it will harm us instead of helping. Likewise, God creates us and all the things in this universe. He gives us physical and spiritual foods and explains us how to benefit from them and which ones to avoid. He teaches us how to pray to Him and how to follow the straight path to reach Him.

History reveals that corrupt political and religious leaders have repeatedly distorted religion and abused it to serve their interests. As a result, some people are prejudiced against organized religion and avoid it at all costs. However, we need to realize that a medicine is intrinsically good, and if used properly, it helps to cure the illness. This fact remains true regardless of those who abuse it and harm themselves or others. Hence, when sound religious doctrines are distorted by ill-intentioned individuals, this does not annul the validity or value of that religion. When studying any faith system, it is necessary to distinguish the religion (its principles outlined in the scriptures) from its imperfect followers.

As imperfect beings, we can only try to achieve the ultimate goals outlined in the scriptures. For example, in the days of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the several centuries following his life, Islam was implemented justly, resulting in an era of enlightenment and unprecedented improvements in human values, social conduct, arts, and sciences.  However, as people became decadent and strayed away from the Qur’an, social conflicts, injustices, and other atrocities emerged.  The religion stayed the same, but the followers changed, leading to completely different results.

If we want to know what Islam really is, we are to look at the Qur’an to learn why God creates us, what is waiting for us in the hereafter, and what we are supposed to do with our life. The Qur’an provides clear answers for these issues and the Qur’an and the example of Prophet Muhammad (sunnah) are the only criteria to assess the message. Judging any religion based on those who misuse it is misleading; for all religious doctrines tell people to be humble and just.

Another major reason why some people today refuse to submit to God’s guidance is the mentality instilled in us under the guise of humanism:  “believe in yourself.”   We are bombarded by TV, self-help books, and friends to have self-confidence, to take control of our own lives, live by our rules, and decide our destiny.  We talk about spirituality only when it fits into our other, more important plans.  In all the Divine Scriptures, God warns against this ego-trap and advises us to discipline our egos with humility.  Just because we are given the limited capacity to reason, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we know better than God. This mentality is a grave mistake that leads us to rebel against God’s guidance.  For instance, as explained in the Qur’an, God created Adam (pbuh) and ordered all the angels and the jinn[2] to bow down in front of him. However, Satan, who is a jinn, “reasoned” that since he was created of fire, and Adam was only made of clay, he was superior than Adam. Therefore, he disobeyed God’s command and obeyed his own deduction. Isn’t our attitude very similar to this? We assume that we know better than God. Even though He created this universe and us and is All-Knowing, we obey our egos and try to justify our disregard for God’s guidance.

This is exactly why God sent the Divine Scriptures and the prophets to guide us. Since God creates us and knows our weaknesses as well as the medicine to cure these weaknesses, He sent the medicine (the scriptures and the prophets) out of His compassion. God created the ego and offered us the medicine to cure it. But He also gave us the choice (partial-freewill) to take the medicine or not!  This is where things get really exciting and challenging.

Our souls were created long before we were sent to this world with a physical form, and in the realm of the souls we made a promise to God. He asked all the souls: “Am I not your God?” We all answered: “Yes, you are and we bear witness to this.” God has created us in a unique way different from the angels and animals. We have been given partial-freewill plus faculties (such as mind and heart) to help us use it correctly. Angels have intelligence but no freewill; they do what they are programmed to do. Animals, on the other hand, act by instinct (i.e. the way they are created/programmed) and cannot reason extensively. Yet we can use our logic to find God and to believe. At the same time, we have partial-freewill to obey or not obey Him. This is why we are responsible for our actions, and we will be held accountable for our beliefs and deeds. This is the toughest challenge in the universe. The angels worship and are not even capable of sinning, thus they are not going to be held responsible for anything. As for us, we have the noblest and most difficult responsibility among all creatures.

It is important though to remember that God is the Just and Compassionate Judge of the Day of Judgment. He does not hold us accountable for what He has not given us. Hence, everyone will be judged according to their capacity, intelligence, and willpower. Since “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an, 2:256), everyone is responsible for their own faith and deeds. Faith is between us and God, and no one can change what is in our heart by force. But what about those people who do not believe in God or worship false idols, like their egos? God says in the Qur’an:

 

Those who believe (i.e. professing to be Muslims) or those who declare Judaism, or the Christians or the Sabaeans (or those of some other faith) – whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good, righteous deeds, surely their reward is with their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve” (Qur’an, 2:62).

 

Those who do not believe in God or follow His guidance will be rewarded for their good deeds in this world, but not in the hereafter. For instance, if an atheist helps out in a soup kitchen, his reward is the inner peace he feels by helping others, yet he will not be rewarded in the afterlife (which he denies) for this act.

Thus, the ultimate goal of religion is to guide us to acknowledge our reality (that we are created beings), to discipline and humble our ego, and to submit to God’s Will by following His guidance in all aspects of our life. This means affirmation by heart and confirmation by actions. In other words, God has given us intelligence and freewill. It is our duty to seek Him and to lead our lives accordingly.

 


[1] 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.

[2] Prophet Muhammad explained the existence of a species called jinn that are made of fire, are given partial-freewill and other faculties to choose between right and wrong, and will be held accountable in the hereafter. Conversely, angels are made of light (nur) and are not accountable since they do not have freewill and perform what they are programmed to do.

Disbelief and Satan’s Whisperings

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

Satan has no power over us, and this means that he does not have any real evidence to convince us that God does not exist. He just whispers an idea that does not have any substantial reason. For instance, no one can really prove that there is no God since everything points to God’s existence. Everything in a building says that there is a builder. Everything is in place by the interference of an intelligent being and cannot be by chance. Doubt, imagination, insecurity, or fear is not evidence to follow Satan. These feelings are in fact given to us to urge us to investigate God. In the absence of these feelings, we would have no impulse to search for the truth. Belief in the existence of God starts with doubt and the resulting search for a satisfactory answer. If we did not have imagination, we could never believe in the Unseen or dream of Heaven and Hell.

Kafir (a person who denies God by covering up the truth) exists, but kufr (denial of the truth) does not have an external existence. It is only the absence of something (not reflecting God’s Attributes from our mirror). The absence of one is zero, and zero does not have a reality/existence. It is only the absence of something. We must not believe in dogmas, because only disbelief is dogma (since it cannot bring any evidence). If I say I am a Muslim and I believe in the existence of the hereafter, these are dogmas only if I do not bring any evidence. With the evidence of the universe, it is clear that there is a Creator. Thus, we must not present our belief in form of dogma. Instead we must see that everything is planned. If there was any single cell or atom in the universe that did not have a conscious/intelligent Creator, then disbelief in the Orderer of the universe/God would be justified.

God is the Most-Merciful and does not leave us without guidance to figure out what is going on. He brings evidence and guidelines for us.  The verse, “We have not sent you (O Muhammad) but as an unequalled mercy for all the worlds” (Qur’an, 21:107) means that you personally were sent to be a messenger/guide/teacher, and this is in itself a mercy. Creation is already evidence, but as a bonus, the messengers are sent. In a way this saying also tells the Prophet: “Your mission must be in the form of mercy; be compassionate.” We may not be ready to submit to the truth, but we can at least admit that there must be an Orderer, a Creator, even if we may not be ready to submit to it.

 


[1] 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..

Belief in the Day of Judgment and Afterlife

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

Although we all know that we will die (tomorrow or in 60 years), most of us go through something called the mid-life crisis. We start to realize that life is coming to an end and that this world is not our eternal abode. An Arabic saying goes: “Whatever is in the future, is indeed very near.” As long as it is on the way, it will come. For those of us who are still fairly young, 10-20 years later our own mid-life crisis will come for sure. The countdown begun the day we were born. So how important is it for us to believe in the afterlife? Without believing in the afterlife, this life becomes like hell or like living a lie.

As we get older, we tend to seek solitude in loneliness. We realize that no one is a real friend. Not because they are vicious but because they are dying and leaving us, and we are to leave them too. We cannot hold on to them even if we wanted to. They cannot satisfy our needs. If I am dying, even if my father wants to save me, he simply cannot. The ones we were once connected to and loved have already died. I am not only referring to other people: my childhood is gone; everything we were once attached to is gone, including our toys, money, career, prestige, etc. The pain of separation is in every moment of our lives since we are constantly experiencing it. Not only is the moment of death separation from this world but as far as yesterday’s life is concerned, I have already experienced a separation.

To recognize and ponder upon this continuous and inescapable separation is important. How we tend to forget about the reality of life by ignoring the inevitability of separation is remarkable. Yesterday is gone, and there is no way to retrieve it. However, we are constantly told by pop-culture not to think about yesterday in order to avoid the sorrow, and to think about the bright future and make happy plans, etc. We always have a new plan: enjoy your life, get a career, walk up the steps of life, and enjoy your retirement, etc. What comes then? Death for sure! Yet we do not want to talk about it. Every moment we are being separated from the last moment; this is supposed to remind us that we are temporary beings in this life. We are actually experiencing death in every moment.

Upon the death of our loved ones, we do not cry only because of their passing away. Yes, it is hard to bear that they are gone. The real sorrow though is due to the reminder that I will die as well.  It is a reality of the soul that it does not want to experience death, if death is understood as the end of life. The unbearable feeling when someone dies serves a purpose since it makes us understand that we are not created for a limited life. My rejection of a non-eternal life is a proof that there is eternal existence. We learn all we know from experience. Even our imagination is based on things we experienced. Nothing we have seen is eternal. So where did we learn something called eternity? Where did we get the feeling of yearning for eternity? Who taught us this feeling?

When we think of eternity, we associate all the beautiful things we see in this world with it. One of God’s Divine Attributes is the Eternally Beautiful One (Al-Jameel). Everything in this universe comes from the source that is Eternally Beautiful. This yearning for eternity is an evidence of afterlife. Hence, when we read the scripture talking about afterlife, we relate to it immediately. It confirms our feelings. This is why the Qur’an says: “We have given you evidences in yourselves.” This is one of the evidences about God and afterlife that God has placed in our beings to confirm the truth. We cannot see afterlife here, yet we can rationally deduce it and feel it with our other faculties.

The One who created us is the Most-Wise and the Most-Compassionate. This world was created to show us the Creator’s Attributes. As such, we do not see a single act of creation without wisdom and mercy. If we are invited to a house, and the owner has prepared for us nice food, comfortable space and all that we need and enjoy, would we conclude that the owner is a bad person? We have all the evidence in the universe that He is Wise, Merciful, knows our needs and desires, and He provides them. As we get old, the burden of life gets heavier and heavier.  We feel our weakness and poverty more than ever. So the Creator is telling us that He is preparing for us a world free of burden.

We must tell our self. Who brought us here? Whoever brought us here has prepared everything for us. We are sure because we experience them. As soon as we are born, mother’s breasts are full of nutritious milk for us. We have no power to ask for it, to claim it, yet it is ready. We are showered by our parents’ compassion. If they ignore us (by using their partial-freewill and covering their mirror not to reflect God’s Attributes such as the All-Compassionate), other people see us and cannot help but show compassion to us. We need more compassion when we are most weak as a baby or an elderly person. In a way, God shows us that he is the One who gave us the best treatment as a baby, and He is the one who will take us from here. He turns us into a baby (in need of help) again as we get older, and then takes us back again out of compassion. Why are we happy when He brings us here, but rebel when the same One takes us?

Whoever creates life creates death. Life and death are both meaningful. Life and death are both purposefully created. Because of our gaflah (negligence, oblivion), not realizing the reality of our life here, we do not think that the One who brought us here is giving death to us. Yet we mistakenly view death as the lack of something (life). As if I had glasses (life), now I lost them so I do not possess glasses now. However, life is given to us when there was nothing; now it is taken only to be replaced by sunglasses (or some better form of glasses)! We might argue that He does not have to take it away (keep protesting like a child: I want my glasses!). This is our misperception. When someone gives us money, we become immediately happy and exclaim, “What perfect timing! This gift was given when I most needed it.” God’s actions, while I had the glasses, were compassionate and wise. Since birth, we have been constantly showered with blessings. Yet we think of life as our own possession and live as if it was not given to us. We do not heed the Giver. In fact, we cannot even say “I live.” I am made live, I am given this life. Can we claim any of our faculties? We are not even aware of how and when we were given them. So when he is taking back the glasses, I cannot say that God is punishing me. This is a misperception and it is disrespectful to the One who give us the gift and is replacing it with a better gift now! God is still Compassionate and Wise as He was when He blessed us with our life. We do not see anything in creation that is meaningless or lacks wisdom. In Ayatul Kursi (Qur’an, 2:255), it is mentioned that God does not fall asleep even for a split second. Have we seen the universe not functioning properly even for a split second? Any neglect in creation? So we are wrong to interpret the “creation of death” as bad.

Through worship and belief, we make our lives meaningful and get ready to face death. Belief means realizing that whoever brought me here is wise and compassionate. Death is not annihilation. Putting something in my body is active, purpose creation, as is death. Death is a deliberate creation. We need to train our understanding to realize that death is creation. When a baby is born, everyone visiting congratulates the family. The same, however, does not happen when someone dies, because as we discussed earlier, God has created us not to like death for a purpose as well. Our dislike of death and nonexistence causes us to hope for eternity.

There is a very conscious order/design in this world making us realize why we are here. Everything is a message-bearer. It carries a message from the Transcendent One. Belief and worship teaches us God’s Attributes and render us happy about the world to come.

We can talk about many signs/evidences for the existence of the afterlife. The first one is the messengers. In the history of humankind there have always been messengers. They have all given the news of the afterlife; that we will be taken there according to the Creator’s promises. The first prophet was Adam (pbuh). It is beautiful that the first man was a prophet. All of us are descendants of a prophet! The first promise of eternity can be found in scripture and in the prophets’ message. And the second promise of eternity is placed within us: our desire for eternity. Yet, wrong-doers do not want to believe in the afterlife because they do not want to be held accountable for their actions. Evidence of resurrection occurs constantly in this world. Yesterday is gone, today is new. The last minute is gone and this minute is created. Trees die in the fall, but are resurrected in the spring.

Perceiving death as a burden/evil is our mistake. If someone puts his arm around us as a sign of friendship and if we see it as if he is making us carry his arm on our shoulder, this would be our misinterpretation and our loss. Instead of cherishing His friendship, we choose to be angry/sad. The source of burden is in our attitude of arrogance and ignorance. We must acknowledge our reality of being created by the One who is absolutely compassionate.

For example, asking for forgiveness, in a sense, relieving ourselves of arrogance, is a source of happiness. It relaxes us, which is why salam means peace and submission: they are corollaries of each other. Our expectations may not be the same with God’s plans always, so our desires may not come true, because God did not appoint our desires as the engineer of this universe (and thank God for that!). After we confirm (tasdiq) that He is indeed the All-Wise, the All-Compassionate, we submit our mind and desires to the will of God. Asking for forgiveness is itself belief and brings inner-peace, and only someone who submits to God is blessed with the humbleness to ask for forgiveness.

The hope for paradise (i.e. for God’s mercy) contains paradise in itself: this very feeling brings instantaneous inner-peace (i.e. Paradise). If we sincerely believe that God is merciful, we ask for forgiveness and ask for paradise. Paradise is in the seed of belief. Unbelievers, who do not believe in God, are waiting to die and go to nonexistence. This is living hell, here and now. Thus, everyone builds and begins living their paradise and hell in this life. Belief in the compassionate and wise Creator is living paradise, and faith in chaos and meaningless life is a hellish state of mind and heart.

 


[1] 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.