Belief in God’s Messengers

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

This discussion follows our discussion on belief in the Creator of this cosmos. Only after we establish that there is a Creator, does it make sense to talk about messengers. Thus, we are now taking the existence of a Creator as given.

What comes to our mind when we say “messengers of God”? Why does God appoint some people to convey His message to human beings? What are the function and the qualities of a messenger? If we say messengers are employed by God to remind people of their creation, we suggest that we knew something but forgot it, thus the need for reminder. What is it that we forgot?

“And (remember, O Messenger) when your Lord brought forth from the children of Adam, from their loins, their offspring, and made them bear witness against themselves (asking them): “Am I not your Lord?” They said: “Yes, we do bear witness.” (That covenant was taken) lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, “We were indeed unaware of this (fact that you are our Lord)”” (Qur’an, 7:172).

After our spirits were created, God asked us all: who is your Lord (Rab)? And we have confirmed that God was our Creator, our Lord. Yet, once we are in this world, we partially forget this reality and struggle to remember our knowledge of God (marifatullah) through our life journey.

We have a natural disposition (fitrah) to submit to the fact that we are being created by a higher being that has control over everything (which then we call God). We have a natural disposition to submit in general, which we might misuse by submitting to those other than God. For example, this morning we had breakfast. Why did we have breakfast? We were hungry and had to eat. We were created in this way; we get hungry, our stomachs hurt and we need to eat; so by eating, we are submitting to the way we are being created. We also have a natural disposition to submit to our feelings: our stress, our happiness, sadness, etc. We are not like machines; we do not just eat and sleep. We are connected to many things in the universe, and we have the need to express our feelings. We also have a natural disposition to forget[2] and go astray by submitting to things other than God. Thus messengers are needed to guide us about how to use these feelings.

Messengers also help to answer our existential questions. Every human being asks the basic existential questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? We need satisfying answers in order to make sense of our existence and have meaning in our lives. Is there anything nonsensical in creation? We might not like pesky flies or spiders in our house, but still their existence is perfect and meaningful in the big picture for the eco-system. Likewise, our creation is not meaningless. If we do not ask the questions and seek answers, our life does not become meaningless; only we do not see its meaning. Just like closing our eyes and not seeing the light does not annul the existence of the sun, our ignorance does not render our life meaningless; rather, it temporarily blinds us. We are the only one devoid of light for that time being.

Our Creator sends us instructors to guide us. If someone were to make a high-tech machine that no one had ever seen the like of and did not send an instructor and a manual to explain what it is for and how it should be used, the machine would be useless. How the maker of the machine would regard the misuse of his machine is also a point to ponder upon.

From one aspect, human beings potentially have the message in the form of natural disposition and conscience. Yet if someone chooses not listen to her natural disposition to search for the meaning of life, no messenger can help. Also, it is very difficult to accept advice and hear criticism from a person who is our equal. Our dignity cannot stand when someone treats us as a child. If someone stops us while we are driving and says we were speeding, we ask if he or she is a police officer. If not, we do not regard this person’s warning. Yet, our reaction and attitude changes drastically when a higher authority is warning us. When it is the maker of the high-tech machine, we are all ears!

Historically we see two lines of people who claim to bring knowledge to guide people. One is the line of the philosophers who use their own reasoning and observe creation and come up with their own conclusions. The other group is the messengers, those who receive revelation from the Creator. Messengers are not philosophers. Philosophers learn through empirical experience. They make conclusions as a result of their experiences and observations. Their conclusions may be correct or incorrect. Their deductions are based on their limited subjective experience. Thus we need sound knowledge from the Maker of creation in order to understand its meaning correctly.

Messengers are not the source of the message. They bring the message from the Creator of human beings, hence the All-Knowing. They bring the message with the emphasis that it is the message from my Creator. Thus, we need to approach the message as a personal message to us from our Creator. Because we are created, we need a messenger to bring the message from our Maker to explain the purpose and the meaning of our existence. Whoever made us and put us in this world should not leave us alone without any guidance. We live, eat, sleep, and will eventually die. It is all pointless unless the real meaning is uncovered. More importantly, God constantly creates us and constantly sends us messages: We constantly receive ayah from the creation and when we open the scriptures to read, God is speaking to us right there and then!

So there are two important points about the distinction between God and the messengers:

 

  1. Our Maker creates, knows, and sustains, and is therefore the Authority, the source of our message.
  2. The message is from our Creator, not the messenger himself, so we should obey the message. We read Prophet Jesus (pbuh)’s sayings and study them to internalize them to guide our life. But we are not following Prophet Jesus (pbuh) thinking that he is a philosopher (which he is not). We follow him to follow God since the message is from Him. I love and follow Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but I do not love him for his own sake.  What makes the prophets messengers is that they are the bearers of the message from the Creator.

 

Every messenger is a human being. God addresses Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Qur’an saying that he is a mortal man like everyone else. Why do the prophets have to be human beings? If the messenger were an angel, we would not be able to comprehend the message with our level of understanding. The message has to be conveyed at our capacity. Our created capacity is limited and cannot have direct relation with the Unlimited Source of the message. Also, messengers have the duty of acting as an example to other human beings. If they had divinity or they were angels, we could/would perhaps have said: “well, he is an angel; I cannot be like him anyways.”

Creation carries messages from its Creator as well, but we can never be sure that we are interpreting creation correctly, due to our biases and shortcomings. A butterfly cannot be a sound point of reference for our guidance, because it can be interpreted as a product of nature or accident, or a nuisance insect. Hence, we need a trustworthy teacher/interpreter to teach us how to interpret what we observe around us. Another name for the Qur’an is the Furqan, meaning criterion (separating right from wrong). It means that the guiding criterion must be a trustworthy source, which is revelation from the Creator.

Creation is “revelation in action” which needs to be read with the guidance of the scriptures (revelation in words). A butterfly is created, so it is considered Revelation in action. The meaning/words of the verbal revelation (scripture) are NOT created (the book that we hold in our hand/the mushaf is of course created). But the bearers of the Scriptures, messengers, are created. What Prophet Jesus or Prophet Muhammad brought as the message is not created, but both Prophet Jesus and Prophet Muhammad are created. Prophet Jesus (pbuh) would point to flowers or other creatures and elucidate what they explain to us. If all of our understandings were the same, he would not have bothered to explain the message conveyed by the flowers.

To summarize, messengers are like preachers to all mankind explaining the supreme sign of the book of the universe. They are leaders: they lead and we follow. They can be thought of as luminous trees whose roots are still alive and whose fruits are fresh and sweet. All messengers declare that “There is no deity but God.” They hold a miraculous message, which solves the mystery of the world, answering our existential questions. With the light they bring, the things we may perceive as evil (sickness, hunger, etc.) become affable with the light of this message.  Again with the light of this message, weeping orphans are seen as reciting God’s Names and offering thanks. Without the message/guidance, we could not have made sense of the creation and our existence.

Messengers are worshipful servants of God (abdullah) who are also manifestations of God’s Attributes. In regard to their messengership (rasul), they are the proof of the Truth, the means to permanent happiness, guiding us to God through “there is no deity but God” (La illaha illallah). Messengers did not seek political domination in their societies. They conquered the minds, spirits, hearts and souls of the people with the truth of the message. This great task requires one to be the appointed official of a Great Authority (God) in order for it to be accomplished.

For example, during the 23 years of his prophethood Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was the first person to submit to the message revealed to him and learn and practice to become a servant of God. He sought eternal happiness through all the Divine Attributes of Perfection, which are manifested through the creation. All created beings joined in his prayer with their natural dispositions, declaring: “Our Sustainer! Let your Attributes of Perfection manifest on us! We too want eternal happiness!” A flower drawing on water through its roots, an animal seeking food with its instincts, an infant nursing, etc. are all examples of creation asking to manifest God’s Attributes of Perfection. Thus, with its natural disposition, each being strives to manifest the Attributes of God reflected through them. Although the created beings are transient in themselves, what they manifest is eternal. We understand from their disposition that they too are happy with what they demonstrate and want to carry on doing so forever since every creature is inclined to sustain its existence.

 


[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] It is noteworthy that the word human in the Qur’an is insan, and is driven from the same root with the word nisyan, which means to forget.

Associating Partners with God (Shirk)

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

“Do they associate partners with Him those who create nothing and themselves created.  And who have no power to give them any help, nor they help themselves?” (Qur’an, 7:191-92).

If we were to define shirk in the most basic terms, it would be saying and believing that there is not one but multiple deities. Even though this is the most straightforward definition, this concept is much more nuanced and has the potential to creep into our thinking and language on a daily basis. This is why it is imperative to know what counts as shirk and not deceive ourselves by thinking that we are Muslims and we believe in one God hence we do not commit shirk.

In the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), people used to say that when the stars came into a certain position it rains, thus attributing power and other Divine Attributes to the stars. Even though we might think we are Muslims and therefore do not have this wrong attitude anymore, in most instances, we commit the same mistake. For instance, do we not think and say that it rains as a result of the evaporation of water and the process of condensation when cold and hot layers come into contact? If this is a form of shirk, then, are we not to believe these ‘scientific’ explanations? So is it blasphemous to say that the fruit comes from the tree and the rain from the cloud? God says in the Qur’an:

“Those who have no knowledge say: “Why does not God speak to us, or a manifest sign (miracle) come to us?” So spoke those before them, a word like theirs. Their hearts are alike. Yet We have made clear the signs (and the Revelations establishing the Unity and Sovereignty of God, the Messengership of Muhammad, and the Divine authorship of the Qur’an) to a people who seek certainty (with open, inquiring minds)” (Qur’an, 2:118).

He addresses everyone, not just Muslims (remember there were no “Muslims” with a capital M). He urges us to go and read in the name of God, to look at the tree and to realize the signs of God’s Will in creation of a fruit. Qur’an never addresses “Oh Muslims” because it was not sent to Muslims. In fact, there were none at the time. An astounding point is that there are verses in the Qur’an addressed to the mushrikun (those who commit shirk and attributes power and intelligence to causes). In a sense then, belief in the existence of God is taken as a given in the Qur’an and those who do not accept this are not even addressed. The Qur’an is primarily concerned with warning us against associating partners with God, such as thinking that the causes in the universe possess power, intelligence, etc.:

“If you invoke them, they do not hear your call; and if they heard, they would not be able to respond to you…” (Qur’an, 35:14).

The first verse ever revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) summarizes the iman education of the Qur’an, “Read in/with the name of your Lord…” (Qur’an, 96:1): To read the signs/ayah in the name of God… The point of Qur’anic education is to enable us to read the signs of God in creation and see the manifestations of His Attributes such as the Most-Merciful, the All-Knowing, The All-Wise, etc. It is teaching us to read and understand a new language: the language of the signs/ayah in the creation. The language is called tawhid (unifying God) and the medium of speech is witnessing (shahadah)/contemplating by using all our God-given faculties.

Then, we need to put all our effort into learning how to read in the name of God! How will we interpret the scientific facts? Well, nobody is saying that the fruit falls from heaven. There is the seed, the tree and finally, the fruit. God in the Qur’an is challenging the shirk interpretation of creation, which takes God out of the picture. To claim that effects are the work of causes is to associate partners with God. Even if we say that God created the universe but then attribute the redness of the tomato to its exposure to the sun, without realizing that God is the Cause behind all these apparent causes, this is hidden-shirk. Again the point is to realize that: Seed + Sun + Soil + Water ≠ Tomato. God says in the Qur’an:

“Yet some choose to take, apart from God, deities that create nothing but are themselves created, and have no power to avert harm from, or bring benefit to, even themselves (so that they can give harm or bring benefit to their worshippers), and they have no power over death, nor over life, nor over resurrection” (Qur’an, 25:3).

They cannot create anything, for they themselves are being created. The scientific facts are there, and they are nothing but the signs. We learned to look at things in the shirk way, attributing the outcomes to causes and calling this scientific. The Qur’an is teaching us the tawhid (unifying God) way of interpreting facts. God is the Creator of the causes and the outcomes. God creates the seed, the sun, the water, the photosynthesis, the tree, and the fruit. Let’s break this down step by step.

We take the existence of God as a given for the purposes of this deconstructive analysis and start with the signs that point to the All-Powerful. Every day we say, “This tree gives delicious apples.” The correct understanding is “The tree is being made together with the fruit, for it cannot give the fruit on its own.” Why? Because for one apple to come into existence, the entire universe has to exist. Whoever is making the apple must also be making the tree, the rain, the clouds, the sky, the earth, and the whole universe. He must thoroughly know human anatomy, our digestive system, control the galaxies, the distance between the sun and the earth, the tilt of the earth, etc. All these are signs, and the interconnection between these causes is also a sign. All signs point us to the Divine Attributes of God. The Qur’an is teaching us to actually read in the name of God, not just to say it. If we want to avoid the hidden shirk that creeps into our daily life, we need to be vigilant about these sorts of distorted attributions of outcomes to causes and realize that everything is constantly being created by God. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was sent as a reminder of this fact and mercy for all humankind to teach this language of tawhid (unifying 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.

Affirmation by Mind and Heart, Confirmation by Action

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

We all have the inner urge to seek the truth and to find answers to our existential questions.  Are we sure we are on the right track? Do we have a healthy relationship with our Creator?  What is the criterion for being a good person? How can we ever be sure we are following our conscience and not our evil desires or the whisperings of Satan? Our Creator bestowed us with four sources to get to know Him and to fulfill the purpose of our creation:

  1. The book of the universe
  2. The prophets
  3. The scriptures
  4. Human conscience

Although all four are universal evidence to conceive The Truth = God = Al-Haqq, none is sufficient on its own to achieve the knowledge of God. We are created with multiple faculties with limited capacities; thus we need all four to satisfy our mind, heart, and soul. Additionally, they must all confirm each other. For instance, if what we observe in the universe contradicts what is written in the Qur’an, we need to dig deeper until we discover where we went wrong. Since both are written/created by the same author, either our explanation of creation or the way we interpret the Qur’an must be inaccurate.

Academics and philosophers claim to search for the truth, but it is not clear what they mean by the truth. Likewise, science claims to be objective. A scientist claims that all he is doing is observing the water in the cup and stating this observation: “There is water in the cup” or “The tree grows.” Yet these statements are loaded with value as well! Can there be water in the cup on its own? Can the tree grow on its own? The tree does not grow: it is made grow! It is incorrect to say something is beautiful: it is made beautiful. It is also inaccurate to say “I love.” We are made love. Since the ability is not from us, we cannot love. As we reflect on our reality and the reality of all created beings, we get to know our Creator better. Now let’s take a more detailed look at the four sources through which we get to know our Creator.

1. The Book of the Universe: Everything in creation (universe) is as purposeful and meaningful as a sentence in a book. God says in the Qur’an, “He has created the heavens and the earth with truth (meaningfully, for a definite purpose, and on solid foundations of truth). Surely in this is a sign for the believers” (Qur’an, 29:44). In the Qur’an, God recurrently calls us to reflect on creation; for everything is created with wisdom. We grow closer to Him by contemplating on the universe.

“Surely, in creation of the heavens and of the earth, and the alternation of night and day (with their periods shortening and lengthening), and the vessels sailing with profit to people, and the water that God sends down from the sky, therewith reviving the earth after its death and dispersing therein all kinds of living creatures, and His disposal of the winds, and the clouds subservient between the sky and earth- surely there are signs (demonstrating that He is the One God deserving worship, and the sole Refuge and Helper) for a people who reason and understand” (Qur’an, 2:164).

The book of the universe is a universal source of knowledge to get to know God. In this context, universal means that creation discloses, explains, makes known all the Divine Attributes of the Creator. Although sunlight reflects on all pieces of glass and droplets of water, each reflects light according to its own capacity. And so, a rose or the sky also reflects God’s Attributes according to their capacity. Yet overall, the universe is a universal source of knowledge, manifesting all of God’s Attributes.

2. The Prophets: The prophets are all independent, universal witnesses to the truth because of the mission they were given. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was responsible for believing in his own prophethood. Messengers also have to confirm their belief in God, angels, the sacred texts, prophets, destiny, and the afterlife. This is important because it emphasizes the fact that the messengers are human beings who have the same responsibilities as the rest of us. At the same time, they are the perfect examples of how we can believe in God and apply His guidance in our life. And because they are human beings, we can never deceive ourselves by thinking “Well, of course they are great; they are angels or have superhuman qualities…” No, they had to deal with their ego and freewill as we do. Additionally, God states that we are not to make any distinction among the messengers:

“Say: “We have believed in God (without associating any partners with Him), and that which has been sent down to us, and that which was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Prophets, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and that (knowledge, wisdom and Prophethood) which was given to all other Prophets from their Lord. We make no difference between any of them, and we are Muslims (submitted to Him wholly and exclusively)” (Qur’an, 2:136).

3. The Scriptures: Since creation of Prophet Adam (pbuh), God has sent guidebooks through messengers to make Himself known to humanity. So when we approach the Qur’an, we should always keep in mind that God is talking directly to us. Each verse is meant for us, as if we are having a personal conversation with God. It is important, however, to realize that revelation is not the same as inspiration. Everyone gets some kind of guidance in the form of inspiration, but revelation is the exclusive domain of God’s prophets.  Revelation is God speaking to all humanity through a prophet, through words and meaning.  The Qur’an claims to be God’s word:

“(O community of the believers!) Do you hope that those people (whose hearts have become [more?] hardened than rocks and who have continually shown disloyalty to God) will believe in you (and believe in the Prophet Muhammad, and in the Book he brought and the Religion he preaches)? (It is surely not possible) when there has been a party among them that hear the Word of Allah, and then, after they reasoned and judged it (to be the Word of God), have tampered with it knowingly” (Qur’an, 2:75).

How are we going to confirm this? Through the other three sources: observing the signs in the universe, contemplating on the words and examples of the messengers, and using our conscience to verify that the message of the Qur’an confirms the other sources.

4. Human Conscience: Our conscience is another source of knowledge to get to know God. Yet this is challenging after the philosophical trend of humanism, which claims that we do not need the other three sources, and that our conscience is sufficient to find the righteous life that fits us. We cannot find God or get to know Him without resorting to all four sources. Each one is necessary to find the truth.

What happens when we do not use all four sources?   Following only human conscience is the path of humanism. Following the universe and human conscience together is the alleged way to the truth in Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. If we study the universe, the lives of the prophets and the scriptures, but do not use our conscience, we cannot come to the correct conclusions. A good example is academics who study the natural sciences, scriptures, and the lives of messengers from a secular perspective, yet still deny the existence of God.

In the second half of the declaration of faith (shahadah), the believer confirms that “Muhammad is His servant and His messenger.” In this phrase, Muhammad (pbuh) represents all the prophets. It is essential that half the phrase emphasizes that Muhammad (pbuh) is His servant. He does not possess supernatural powers that enabled him to be the perfect servant of God. He was a human being as we are, yet he took the guidance to heart and submitted his freewill to God’s Will perfectly. On the other hand, even if Gandhi was a very good man, he was not God’s messenger. Prophets are fallible, but when they make mistakes, they are corrected by God.  For instance, when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) uttered something that he expected to happen in the future without adding insha’allah (God Willing), God corrected him through a Qur’anic verse. This is, of course, a message/teaching to all of us regardless of time and space:

“And do not say about anything (you intend), “I will do it tomorrow,” without (adding) “If God wills.” And remember and mention Him (straight-away) should you forget (to do so when expressing an intention for the future). And say: “I hope that my Lord will guide me to what is nearer to right conduct than this (forgetfulness of mine).”” (Qur’an, 18: 23-4).


[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.

A Brief Overview of Islam

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

 

Islam means submission.

Muslim is the one who submits.

I am a muslim while I submit.

 

By default, all creation submits to God’s will; therefore everything is muslim (submitter). For instance, we can witness how a tree submits to God’s laws and acts in God’s name to fulfill its purpose of creation (i.e. to bear fruits and to manifest God’s Attributes). No tree revolts against what is decreed upon it. Trees have no choice but to submit to how God creates them. In the Qur’an, God asks all humanity not to believe blindly, but to witness the truth by using their God-given faculties, such as their eyes, intellect, and other senses. For instance, God says in the Qur’an:

 

“But do they, then, never observe the sky above them (to ponder Our Knowledge and Power; and reflect) how We have constructed it and adorned it, and that there are no rifts in it?” (Qur’an, 50:6).

 

Belief (iman) in Islam means certainty, to be absolutely sure through witnessing. Belief is to witness that nobody or nothing other than God has the power to create or to sustain anything. It is to witness and affirm that God is the only and ultimate Creator. This is the meaning of the maxim of Islam “There is no deity but God” (Lailaha illallah).

 

La ilaha illa Allah
No deity but God
No sustainer but The Sustainer Razzaq
No healer but The Healer Shafi
No merciful but The Merciful Rahman

 

God also asks us to witness this reality in ourselves:

 

“We will show them Our manifest signs (proofs) in the horizons of the universe and their own selves, until it will become manifest to them that it (the Qur’an) is indeed the truth. Is it not sufficient (as proof) that your Lord is a witness over all things (just as He is witnessed to by all things)?” (Qur’an, 41:53).

 

So then, how are we a sign to the existence and sovereignty of God? To comprehend this, we need to reflect more deeply on who we really are. Are we powerful? Do we sustain ourselves? Do we own our body? Did we choose our gender, our race, our nose? Let’s do an experiment that might reveal our weakness (ajz) and poverty (fakr). When we move our hand, do we really know how it moves? Is it we who move it? Or do we just want to move it and it moves? Even if we were to master all the specific mechanisms of neural transmission and muscle movements, we do not put these in action for our limbs to move. Who then moves it? We often answer this question by citing our muscles and nerves as responsible for our actions. In reality, this is not an answer but just a description of the series of anatomical mechanisms taking place.

The Qur’an confronts us with our reality to provide the answer. All we have is our partial-freewill (al-iradah al-juziyyah) to want to move our hand. God creates the movement since He is the All-Powerful and to Him alone belong all power. This is not to reject the science of medicine, but rather to say that it is God who creates the neurons, muscles, and the chemical processes. It is to say that our cells, molecules, and atoms do not have the knowledge or power to carry out their functions.

God reveals in the Qur’an that Islam (submission to the truth and to God’s Will) is the final and complete divine message proclaimed by the last Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and that it is a trustworthy/straight path leading to our Creator. The goal and outcome of submission is living as if seeing God and doing everything only for His sake. Thus, there is no separation of religion from daily life, and submission means realizing God’s presence in every second.

Islam consists of the eternal message from the Creator to humanity as outlined in the Qur’an and the teachings and sayings of Prophet Muhammad and the other prophets (peace be upon them), who lived the divine message. Belief (iman) is to be carried out in our actions (amal). Hence, actions not supported by faith, and faith not supported by actions, do not attain their goal, which is to bring us closer to God. Islam unifies faith and action and establishes all aspects of faith and practice in this life.

In the Scriptures, God addresses humanity, urging us to do what is good for both this and the next life through our own freewill, promising inner peace in this life and eternal happiness in the hereafter for those who heed this call. The All-Wise Creator, who knows His creation the best, shows the way to the truth and to good deeds. Since God knows best His creation, Divine Guidance suits human nature, its tendencies and capabilities. God’s guidance in the Scriptures helps to fulfill our purpose of creation. For example, if we buy a high-tech juicer, we should read the manual carefully so that we will get the best results and not break the machine. Say the manual warns us not to put bananas in the juicer. If we do not heed the messages of the manual/guidebook, we would break our juicer, not get any juice, and be upset. Likewise, since God is the owner and Creator of this machine (human soul and body), He knows best how it operates and provides a manual. In this context, God’s guidance outlined in the Divine Scriptures is universal, eternal, and not subject to change through time or place.

It is important to realize that God bestowed on us the Guidebooks because of His Compassion for us. A helpful analogy is the syllabus and the textbook provided by a professor. If our professor gives us a clear syllabus and a book explicating the content of the course at the beginning of the semester, it helps us to learn and accomplish what the professor intended for us to achieve in the course. In this same way, since God loves us and has infinite compassion for us, He does not leave us without guidebooks that help us to enjoy and succeed in this life and the next. When we, as created beings, follow our Creator’s guidelines, we become blessed with peace in this life, and as a result, live in the hereafter for eternity.

Living a life of submission, we benefit from the lawful bounties of this world by concentrating on pleasing God. If we are conscious of God’s message and our practices are in line with His Will, we can achieve complete freedom from all attachments but God, worshipping Him alone. We love and respect all created things because of their Creator. Now, let’s briefly examine how the Qur’an responds to the following existential questions:

ü  From where and by whose order did I come to this world?

ü  What is the argument and evidence to support it?

ü  Why am I here?

ü  Where am I going?

According to the Qur’an, the purpose of creation is to know, to love, and to worship God. If we do not know God, we cannot love Him. And if we do not love Him, we cannot worship Him with awe and love. Knowledge of God is experiential. It is not information that we hear and memorize. God makes Himself known to us through His creation. That is, His Revelations and everything in every instance manifest God’s Divine Attributes of Perfection (Asma al-Husna). In fact, the raison d’être of this creation is to make the Creator known to us.  Acknowledging the magnificence of the Creator by observing His creation inspires us to worship and serve Him. Hence, constant worship and servitude is the way to know God in this life. Worship and servitude do not come after we know God, but are in fact the way to get to know Him. This life is a journey where we receive many experiential letters that make God known to us. As we get to know Him more, we love Him more. The more we know and love Him, the more this journey becomes exciting and meaningful.

According to the Qur’anic paradigm, all beings in the universe are letters/signs (ayah).  They are written/created to explain the meaning of God through their symbolic meaning. In other words, all beings make known the Attributes of the Creator. With sickness and health, we come to know the Healer. With hunger and food, we come to know the Sustainer. With afflictions, we come to know the Compassionate. With our wrong doings, we come to know the Forgiver. And with our weaknesses, we come to know the All-Powerful. When we look at everything around us from this perspective, life becomes an enjoyable and adventurous quest for the One. Everything and every occasion become special letters and gifts from Him whom we are created to know, love, and worship. Thus, reason and emotion are God-given tools to observe and reflect on the universe, and to witness the Revelations and His Divine Attributes manifested through His creation.

Science also investigates the creation and tries to outline how things happen. The Qur’anic view does not contradict science. In contrast, it perceives all natural sciences in congruence with their Divine purpose: as letters revealing the knowledge of God to teach us about our Creator.

On the other hand, materialist philosophy and positivist science looks at things as nominative and attributes power/will/intellect to each thing. As a result of this view, life becomes like a battle of the wolves, and the idea of the “survival of the fittest” is forced upon us. The Qur’an teaches us that nothing save God possesses any power whatsoever:

 

“If God touches you with affliction, there is none who can remove it but He; and if He wills any good for you, then there is none who can hold back His bounty. He causes it to reach whomever He wills of His servants. He is the All-Forgiving, the All-Compassionate” (Qur’an, 10:107).

 

Hence the Qur’anic view does not contradict pure science seeking to understand the manner/order in which things occur. In contrast, the Qur’an perceives all natural sciences in congruence with their Divine purpose: as letters revealing the knowledge of God to teach us about our Creator. However, the Qur’anic view contradicts the materialist philosophy and positivist science that attributes the qualities of the matter it observes to the things themselves (e.g. the leaf itself is doing the photosynthesis). In many ways, the Qur’an is the expounder of the universe. Furthermore, the universe itself is regarded as the embodiment of the Qur’an by expressing the Qur’anic paradigm in a physical form. Since both are written/created by the same author, there is no contradiction between physical and Qur’anic laws. Thus, when we reflect on the universe from this perspective, everything from a tiny ant to a distant twinkling star helps us to know and love God, and to understand the reality and purpose of the universe and human beings. The proof for Divine existence and unity, prophets, revelations, existence of angels, and resurrection is logically deduced from observing the universe. Thankfully, these are not abstract facts divorced from life and reality that we have to believe blindly.

It is important to clarify the meaning of worship and prescribed rituals in Islam. Worship does not mean to constantly pray or be in a mosque or church. To the contrary, most worship in Islam is done while we live our lives. Worship entails being God-conscious in our daily lives. Thus, everything (including eating, sleeping, walking, working, studying, doing sports, and even marital relations) is considered worship if done for God’s sake and within the limits He prescribed. For instance, if we eat reflecting on God and enjoying His bounties, growing in thankfulness, and praying to strengthen our bodies to do good deeds, then the act of eating becomes worship. On the contrary, if we eat only out of animalistic need and desire and think that the money we earned secured us the food, then we act in disbelief: that is, we lose the opportunity to know and worship our Creator. This is only one example illustrating that there is no separation of life and religion in the path of submission.

God prescribed certain types of worship to remind us of our Creator and our purpose in life as well as to discipline our egos. For example, Muslims pray in a prescribed form five times a day. Each prayer takes about five to ten minutes, and they are scattered throughout the day to keep our concentration on God without being swayed by worldly life. By maintaining a God-conscious state we can transform our daily routine into continuous worship. Thus, for conscious submitters, five times daily prayers are the most joyful moments of the day to restate our thankfulness. It is an opportunity to transcend time and all other boundaries and just concentrate on Him, in our struggle to purify our hearts. Declaring again and again that we worship Him and ask help from Him alone, we find strength to continue our lives in a more meaningful way.

 


[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.

Interfaith through Scriptures

When we do hardcore interfaith dialogue we read the scriptures together. It is not one person reading to others but instead the group reading together. We are sharing the scriptures and waiting for the scriptures to speak to us from a Christian, Muslim, and Jewish perspective. The underlying assumption is that all scriptures are sacred and that God is speaking to us through them. Among the participants, the notion of the sacred is shared.

The heart of interfaith dialogue is to learn about other faith traditions. To learn, we have to listen. Listening does not mean waiting for the other to finish so we can jump in and tell our perspective. It means that we should be open to being transformed. Likewise, when we approach our scripture during interfaith dialogue, we read it through new eyes. We learn new perspectives of looking at our scripture.

Interfaith dialogue involves hospitality. Hospitality is not only sharing physical space. Hospitality may also be seen in the sharing of a text that is sacred to us. Inviting the other person to share our faith leads to a spiritual friendship and aids in appreciating the other. Hospitality is not only coming together; it also involves the generosity and compassion that moves the heart.

Followers of each faith tradition disagree more “inside the house” than with the others. This is true for all faith communities. Realizing this increases our ability to empathize with the other.

Interfaith dialogue, the mere act of coming together with other people in a meaningful, faithful dialogue, is an opportunity for our spiritual development. None of us has ever seen our face. We are only able to see other’s face and only the reflection of our face. If you are unable to see your face, then you need a mirror. When we interact with others, we project our self and are thus able to see our self from their perspective. As such, our mirror is everyone else.

Interfaith activity refers to a process of self-purification. As we interact with others, we are able to identify our weaknesses and errors that need to be transformed. In order to know the Divine, we must first know our self by interacting with others. Through this self-conscious method, the results are substantial.

When interfaith is done with an open heart, everyone’s heart is stimulated; filled with love, compassion, humbleness, and awe of the Divine…

Only Revelation can answer the “How”

Do they not look at the sky above them – how We (royal we) have built it and made it beautiful and free of all faults?
And the earth – We have spread it wide, and set upon it mountains firm, and caused it to bring forth plants of all beautiful kinds,
thus offering an insight and a reminder unto every human being who willingly turns unto God.
And We send down from the skies water rich in blessings, and cause thereby gardens to grow, and fields of grain,
and tall palm-trees with their thickly-clustered dates,
as sustenance apportioned to men; and by all this We bring dead land to life: Likewise will be the resurrection.
(Koran 50, 6-11)

The passage above asks us to look at the creation, and gives many examples, at the macro level and the micro level. It points out to the skies, the earth, the mountains, and then zooms down to the plants, the gardens, the palm trees, and the dates. In a way, it wants us to think about the whole creation, but to let our minds concentrate on a point, it zooms down to the date. Of course, instead of a date, this could have been an apple, an orange, or a banana… And it asks us: don’t they look?

Opposite to all misunderstandings that belief in God must be blind; this passage emphasizes the need to look at the creation to find its Creator. The passage mentions these examples from creation and wants us to think how it has been made?

Some say that science answers the “how,” and religion answers “why.” But is this really so? The Koranic passage contradicts this understanding, and asks: How are thing coming to existence? Only when we understand the “how,” we come to understand the “why.”

We often think that science answers “how” related questions. For instance, science tells us that how the date comes into being. In layman terms, the seed, water, nutrients in the soil, and the sun produce the palm tree and the date. There are many chemical equations that scientists have devised to explain this procedure. And every day, we update some of these equations as we look further and deeper into the process of date forming. This is “how” it is happening according to science. However, this explanation is explaining what is happening rather than how it is happening. Science observes the phenomena and records its observations. The frequency and order of observing the same processes leads scientists to develop mathematical representations (equations) that identify our observations. This scientific approach answers the question of what is happening, not how.

Now, our observation that certain things happen after other things is correct, but it doesn’t explain how the news is prepared. My observations answer what is happening, not how. This is the paradigm we follow in science: we see the apparent causes of the effects, and we remove them one by one. If the effect is not realized, we conclude that the cause we removed is responsible for the effect. We call this the negative approach.

However, the Koran offers the positive approach to understanding how things are coming into being. Instead of removing the causes one by one, it looks at the effect and its properties. Then, it asks whether the apparent causes have the ability to produce the effect we observe. Instead of removing the causes one by one, the Koran first wants us to observe the news show and reflect on its properties. And then it poses the question whether the apparent causes I observe are capable of producing the show or not.

Looking at the Koranic passage, we see that the properties and outcomes of the effects are brought forth: skies that are adorned, plants that are beautiful, water that is blessed, dates that are sustenance to human beings… “Don’t you see how the creation is enormously complex and serves many meaningful functions,” the passage argues. Now, any effect with meaningful outcomes and special adornments can only be formed by a cause that has the ability to design and create these outcomes. So, we come to the conclusion that the cause of the creation of date must have absolute intelligence, power, wisdom, sense of beauty, compassion etc. We come to this conclusion because we have seen that these properties are necessary for the date to come into existence. Apparent causes like sun, water, soil, and seed do not have the intelligence and other properties required to bring the date into existence. They are used as materials, sure, but not as effective causes.

Now, going back to our question, how is the date coming into existence? The Koran answers: The date is coming into existence by the One who has absolute power, intelligence, and compassion capable to bring it into existence.

The passage ends with a vital point. It tells us that if you understand that nothing in creation can be made with the materials here, but it is coming into existence by the absolute creator, than you will realize that nothing is difficult for Him. Then, why would you doubt that He can resurrect you if He wishes so? He is already resurrecting everything around you (we intend to study resurrection in more detail in the future.)

Once we notice that everything around us is directly connected to the absolute One, we will start notice Him more and more. As we notice Him more, we will come to know Him, and as we know Him and his constant activities, we will come to love Him. This love will satisfy our infinite human needs that can only be satisfied by the Infinite One, and will let us understand the reason of our existence.

Post written by Omar

Can We Avoid Our Existential Questions?

…Now there has come unto you from God a light, and a clear divine writ, through which God shows unto all that seek His goodly acceptance the was of peace; and, by His grace, brings them out of the depths of darkness into the light and guides them onto a straight way.(Koran, 5:16-17)

I recall a conversation I had with my best friend in high school. I was deeply troubled with my nineteen year old sister’s death and was inquiring about my friend’s thoughts on the meaning of life given that we will die eventually. Her answer astonished me so much that I could not find any words to explain the deep pain I had in my soul. She simply said “I am too young to think about it!” This illustrates how skillful we are in self-deception to shun the reality of our death

Yet, regardless of our age, gender, culture, religion, or socioeconomic status, we all have existential questions that beg answers. Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? On the one hand, we cannot help but ask these questions because it is impossible to shut them off. The urge and need to find answers runs so deep in us that we cannot accept any dogmas. On the other hand, our need to avoid these important questions illustrates our reluctance to dig deeper and face Truth. Ultimately, this search for existential meaning is a search for true happiness or inner peace. Otherwise life simply does not make sense, and we cannot truly enjoy anything.

Because of the way we are created, we seek meaning

We seek meaning in our relationships. We seek meaning in life. We seek meaning in material things. And it is impossible to have inner peace and be in harmony with life and the universe without satisfying this need for meaning. We can describe this as being in congruence with our creation (the way we are created). We are given various faculties, such as heart, spirit, mind, and reason. Without heart (shutting off our conscience for instance), we become like beasts and commit atrocities. Without reason, we fall into the darkness of ignorance and become zealots. Those who shut off one or more of their faculties cannot fulfill their purpose of creation. Hence, being in congruence with our nature requires us to satisfy all our faculties. Answering our existential questions and finding meaning in our lives satisfies both our heart and our mind.

Our egos develop numerous strategies to ignore our existential questions. Some of the means for trying to silence our inner voice are alcohol consumption, excessive work, and dedicating one’s life to family or social causes to the extent that one becomes consumed in them. Others try to deceive themselves by thinking that we can never find the answers to these questions, hence it is pointless to even try. “We are who we are and that is the end of the story”, they reason. Yet all these strategies are doomed to fail and torment more and more people into depression and disillusion.

All of us want to find unceasing inner peace

In a way, most of what we do in life is to attempt to attain that inner peace through perhaps attending yoga classes, establishing friendships, participating in religious activities, or fulfilling our ambition in our career, etc. And indeed we do find temporary moments of bliss here and there. But seldom does this happiness last. We strive to buy a brand new car, but the excitement ceases soon after we have it. Then, we turn to something else to make us happy and life goes on like this. Meanwhile, we get tired and depressed of this endless quest for happiness and ending up with disappointments. We waste our lives in search of something that we never quite find.

But what is happiness really? Have we ever thought about it thoroughly? What are we looking for? Do we seek the fulfillment of our dreams, passions or needs? Is this the aim of our life, and can this pursuit in itself bring us happiness? Happiness is rather transient. We have randomly dispersed moments of joy, followed by moments of sorrow. This is why it is said that life is all about ups and downs. For instance, think of your many shopping sprees and the subsequent plummeting of your emotions!

Even though we have never experienced this feeling of utmost and continuous happiness, we want to be very happy all the time. This desire in itself is a sign attesting to the existence of such everlasting happiness. Is it therefore possible to attain a state of inner peace? To be able to answer this crucial question, we need to face our existential questions and find out who we are and what can make us really happy. What makes us happy can only be something that is in harmony with our creation. Therefore, the solution lies in being frank with ourselves, our feelings and thoughts and acknowledging that we cannot be satisfied with temporary sources of happiness. Inner peace is found in accepting our reality as created beings and acting accordingly.

So, who are we and why are we here?

Many of us spend our entire life reading hundreds of books, studying for years to obtain advanced degrees, or working day and night to get ahead in our careers. Yet without posing to ponder upon the existential questions it is all pointless, for death awaits us in the end. We find ourselves in this mysterious world. We feel strongly connected to endless things. We enjoy a sunny day; we smile and feel happy when we see a beautiful rose. It seems that nature is somehow related to us, and we have a close relation with all creation. But surprisingly, all these things that we like fade away, die, and do not last. The rose dies, the sun sets, friends depart, and at the end, we know that we will die too. In every instance, something to which we attach ourselves dies or fades away, yet we still refrain from thinking about the deeper meaning. Since death is so real, we cannot help but ask “where am I going and what is really going on?”

The truth of the matter is that these questions are vital for understanding who we really are. Interestingly enough, for all of us, these existential questions are rather innate. Whether we like it or not, they come to us naturally. But many times, we choose to suppress them, thinking they are too serious and are ruining our happy moments! We mistakenly worry that thinking too much about these existential questions would shatter our dream world that is in fact unable to fulfill our desire for happiness. Only sometimes, when our beloved ones die, or when we have tragic accidents or events, we are reminded of our questions again and may pursue the answers.

We are like guests in a mysterious house, which is full of things that we admire, yet we cannot quite hold onto. We are brought here for an indefinite amount of time, and we are taken away suddenly. It is therefore only naturally reasonable to wonder and to want to know what is going on here. What does this all mean? Why I am here, who brought me here, and where am I being taken to? Unless we pursue these questions for ourselves, instead of shutting them off or relying on cliché answers inherited from our parents or culture, we can never be truly satisfied and happy.

When you wake up in the morning, do you say “Life is beautiful” without a second thought? If not, we have a problem of a dichotomy in our life. What is this life all about? Why do we have to work and go though many hardships? These very thoughts are the keys to open the chains that have taken away our freedom. Thanks to the sophisticated toys of this age, we try to silence these questions, hence our humanity! Is it not, as Kant says, our reason that differentiates us from animal beings? And is not Socrates shouting from the Stone Age that an unquestioned life is not worth living?

Every minute that passes dies, and we cannot retrieve it. We try to cling to good memories. Memories fade away, and we feel sorrow for not being able to live these moments again. Are these memories not giving us pain? Then, we think about our future. It looks like a dark and unpredictable tunnel. We do not know what will happen to us the next minute, and this affects the very moment we are in. How can I get pleasure at this moment if I know I will die sooner or later? What is money, fame, or passion worth if I am dead? Neither past nor present can help us. Does life have to be so? If we want to solve this dilemma, we have to keep questioning, and seeking true meaning in life. Only when we question, we can find that true happiness can only be found in God.

Post written by Dr. Eren Tatari

If you love God, follow the Guide, and God will love you

“Say: ‘If you love God, follow me, [and] God will love you…’ ” (Koran 3:31)

When we look at the verse above, we recognize that it is different from what we generally think; that when we love our creator, He loves us back. Yet, this verse suggests that to say “I love God” by itself is not enough to receive God’s love back. There’s a condition, it posits: “follow me (the guide).” But, why do we need to follow a guide?

My life is not transformed when I claim that I love God

When we look at our lives as people who claim to love God, we see that we are generally not transformed by this love. We don’t feel that we receive the love back. Our lives can still be miserable, our thoughts distracted, and our feelings hurt. We cannot comprehend many things happening in our lives and in the universe, and we become angry at the One behind all this. In summary, there is something missing with our claim.

The verse states that we won’t be able to feel the love of our creator in our daily life, except when we follow the guide. In fact, this love becomes a curse for us. Things, people, and moments that we love depart from us, leaving us with pain. We see things we don’t understand in the universe, and we become angry at the God we claim to love.

The verse starts by saying: “If you love God…” and pushes us to ponder that we are given the ability to love the creator of all good and brings us to this crucial point: “We witness that God creates everything with love, why don’t we feel it?” The answer is in the verse: “Follow me.” We are aware that we have freedom to choose many things in our lives and thoughts. So, in order to feel the love and close the loop, that is to recognize the meaning of my life and everything around us, we need to use our free will to follow the teachings of the guide on the meaning of the creation of the universe.

The verse above declares that claiming to love the creator is not enough to receive and feel the divine love in every part of our lives. It pushes us to look for a guide. But what kind of guide do we need to follow, and why?

The beauty I witness necessitates an appointed guide

Here is the fast answer: We see that there is beauty everywhere in the universe, and this necessitates guides appointed by the creator. But why?

Let’s give an example to understand this necessity. Now, think of any meaningful piece of technology, like a laptop for instance. Thousands of engineers are working constantly to design it for specific purposes. Every activity of designing the laptop is specifically for it to be used. Now, would it make sense to spend millions of dollars to design and manufacture a laptop and then sell it to be used as a coffee tray? Or even destroy it after it is manufactured? If that was the case, wouldn’t you conclude that these engineers have no wisdom at all? Why would they spend all this time and money to manufacture such a high-tech tool and then not use any of its functionalities? This won’t make any sense.

Now, let’s look at everything in the universe. There is magnificent well-ordered manifestation of art, from atoms to galaxies. Science is a proof that there is an undeniable order, since all what we do in science is trying to discover this order and show it in formulas. Formulas show that nothing is haphazard; it is ordered. Even things we don’t like such as bacteria function orderly. This order shows that there must be someone who puts these in order.

In fact, we witness not only a perfect order, but an artistic beauty. Every creature is not only designed to do a specific job, but it is complexly artfully adorned. This artistry shows that whoever forms everything in the universe wills to adorn them. It further shows me that these perfect adornments and arts must come from the love of the one forming them. Thus, He must love what He is doing.

Using the same thought process we used in the laptop example, would it make sense that the maker of the universe to adorn and create everything with such magnificent design and artistry and then not inform us what it means and what its purpose is? Then, the creator would be not wise at all, which is contrary to what I witness in the universe. Everything is being designed and sustained in a perfect manner pointing to the fact that their Maker is indeed absolutely wise. So, there has to be an explanation from Him regarding what He means by this magnificent artistry surrounding us.

An explanation is especially necessary for us; human beings. We are not only conscious of our existence, but we are also conscious of the existence everything around us, from atoms to galaxies. We are connected to everything in the universe. Not only that, but we are created in such a way that we love the beauty we witness in creation. We are created in such a way that we are able to ask the very questions I am writing about now.

Would it make sense that our maker would create us with the ability to see and inquire about the beauty around us, yet not provide an explanation? No. The engineers would design a laptop to be able to do calculations, but not tell any user about it. So, why did they design it in the first place? Are they insane? No. Then, the same illogic is not possible about the creator of this miraculously ordered universe.

When we reach this conclusion, we can cry out that there must be a guide appointed by the creator, i.e. a manual by Him for all this to make sense. This is the result of our witnessing.

The guide closes the loop

The engineers close the loop between the engineers and the users by preparing sophisticated manuals and online tutorials (prepared by appointed guides who have mastered the manual.) As a result of this, the users become happy and thankful of using that particular laptop. More importantly, the sophisticated design of the laptop is an important indication that there are users who will use all its functions. Maybe not every user will use all of them, but the fact that these functions exist is a proof that there are “super users” who utilize all these functions. These “super users” are the best guides and trainers that the laptop producer would appoint to train others. They are the ones who directly communicate with the engineers and understand the wisdom of each function of the laptop.

The same way, the fashioner of this universe closes the loop between Him and us (his conscious creation) by sending a clear manual and exemplary human guides that live and explain the manual. In fact, the very fact that there is this perfect order and art in the universe is an indication that there must be conscious creatures that understand and appreciate all this art. These human beings reflect deeply on every art of the creator, admire it, get excited by it, thank the Creator for it, know the wisdom of its creation, and love the one behind it all.  Wouldn’t they be the best guides for all other conscious beings? As a result of following the way of these “super users” that are appointed by the creator to explain the wisdom of everything in creation, other conscious creatures start to make sense of everything in this universe and of how to use their feelings, like the love of beauty. They recognize that the guides must be connected to the creator and His creation and explain us its meanings.

Going back to the example, although we say we love to use the laptop, we may not even be aware that it is a laptop and think that it is a coffee tray. We become angry at using it as a coffee tray, since it is heavy and bulky, and not the best tool to use to serve coffee. So, our love of it is not sufficient to receive the benefits from the laptop. Only when we learn from the guides we recognize the purposes of the laptop. We start to admire it more and we recognize the necessity of learning from the guides. And then we start receiving our love back from it.

This is similar to closing our eyes and thinking that the room and everything in it is dark, but when we open our eyes, everything that we thought to be in darkness turns out to be lively and bright. The guide reminds us that we are “users” too, and tells us how great it is to use the laptop. Similarly, when we use our free will to open our eyes, we realize the beauty of life and recognize that the one who gave us this life loves us. We receive the love back.

We need to look for the guides who comprehensively respond to the creator’s artistry by conscious reflection, admiration, thankfulness, and who explain to us with certainty that all this art that we witness must be fashioned by the absolute artist who is capable of doing so. Only when we use our free will to follow these guides, we start to feel the love of the artist and we recognize the meaning of this life. We start to feel the love, since we start to understand how to use our love of beauty and how to make sense of everything in life.

Like the laptop user who becomes ecstatic when he discovers how to use the laptop other than as a coffee tray, we become delighted at every insight we gain from these “super users.” And we recognize the significance of the verse above, which urges us to look for the guides appointed by the one who has created this universe full of art and meaning.

Post written by Omar