Why Study the Qur’an?

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

“According to the Qur’an, man knows intuitively that there must be a Creator and he understands what the Creator is not, but in order to know Him, he needs revelation… furthermore, since the Qur’an instructs man to strive to know God when he already knows His existence, it must be referring to another kind of knowledge that exceeds man’s acquired knowledge. That is, revelation does not just state the obvious; it teaches what cannot be learned without having recourse to its teachings.”[2]

 

What is religion? What is Islam? And why should anyone study the Qur’an? When asked “So, what is Islam?” most Muslims usually begin by listing the pillars of Islam: we pray five times a day, fast during the month of Ramadan, etc.  This is not a sufficient or adequate explanation of Islam. If someone asks me “so who is Lauren really?” and I start describing her height, hair color, occupation, etc. I would be describing the outside, but omitting talking about the essence of the person.

The question “what is Islam?” could be answered through a secular paradigm (which emphasizes the dos and don’ts without the essentials of the why) or a servanthood/faith/iman paradigm (which I try to lay out in this book). An overwhelming majority of people in the world receive secular education, and therefore have secular mindsets and perspectives on life. Tragically, we do not realize that we view even religion from a secular perspective, emphasizing deeds (amal) and treating our relationship with God as a business transaction of costs (sins) and benefits (rewards). Alternatively, we could answer this question through the faith/servanthood (ubudiyyah) paradigm, which emphasizes the real essence of belief.

The servanthood paradigm is based on how we define ourselves and how we answer the question “Who am I?” Since I am not creating myself, I am a created being (an abd). Thus, there is a Creator. Then, the next question becomes, “What is the relationship between me and my Creator?” The relationship between the following words, derived from the same three-letter root, is crucial:

 

Arabic term

Common English Translation

Concept

abd servant We are continuously being created by God; are dependent on Him for everything, and cannot exist independent of Him
ubudiyyah servanthood Acknowledging that we are abd; living our servanthood
ibadah worship Feeling, thinking, acting with the acknowledgement that we are abd in every second of our life

 

Unfortunately, when we look at all the Abrahamic traditions today, we see the emphasis on the outside (the form or the shell) rather than the inside (the essence) of the message. For example, the current state of Muslims and the predominantly Muslim countries suggests that there is something wrong somewhere. The first few centuries after the advent of Islam, Muslim scientist and scholars took the lead in the world in mathematics, natural sciences, philosophy, etc. They were the vanguard to western civilization. Now, predominantly Muslim countries are behind in all arts and sciences; their economies are suffering; and laziness, corruption and moral degeneration took over like a disease. When young and progressive Muslims see this situation they take on a constructive process of self-criticism and point out the need for an Islamic renaissance. The question is: where did we go wrong? What did we miss and how did we end up here? Of course the answer is exclusively tied to how much we betrayed the spirit of Islam, and how much we deviated from the real essence of the Qur’anic teachings.

Social revival depends on the spiritual revival of individuals. Our goal should be to live with this faith/servanthood paradigm. It has to be ingrained in our minds, hearts, and characters. All our thinking process, reasoning, feelings, reactions to things, way of looking at things must be shaped by the Qur’anic iman education. We have to discipline our ego (nafs) and transform our hearts.  Religion is a burden if our ego is not transformed. We do the mechanics but our ego does not allow us to enjoy the worship and seeks ways to avoid it.

The ultimate goal of Islam is to struggle to become the perfect human being (al-insan al-kamil). God explains the purpose of our creation in the Qur’an as “We have not created jinn and men but to worship (ibadah) us” (Qur’an, 56:57). We have been created to know God, to love God, and to obey God. Again, note that the word ibadah encompasses an overall state of being, continuously acknowledging that we are created beings that cannot exist independent of God. We may never become the perfect human being but the goal is to be on that path by getting to know God. Yet, how can we actually know God? We get to know God through His Divine Attributes (Asma al-Husna) that are manifested in the creation and explained through the scriptures and the prophets.

The first pillar of faith in Islam is the shahadah, which literally means witnessing.  So, what are we to witness? We are to witness that there is one God. But how and where are we to witness, for witnessing entails seeing? We are to witness the manifestation of God’s Attributes and God’s oneness in the creation. This is significantly different than having blind faith in something we do not see. We witness God’s existence and the manifestations of His Attributes in our self, in every aspect of our life, and in the universe by reading the book of signs.[3]

Unfortunately, as secularism and positivism crept in, religion has been reduced to being a Sunday mass or a Friday prayer. It is even reduced to remembering God five times a day in the prescribed prayers or other prescribed ways of worship as if we are taking a pill or a crash-course on how to be a good muslim (submitter). Yet, if we comprehend the actual meaning of witnessing (shahadah), then God and religion does not become one aspect separated from everything else in our life. To the contrary, we strive to live with God consciousness every second of every day. We strive to live as perfect servants (abd) of God and fulfill the purpose of our creation.

The person after learning these truths of iman and embarking on the process of inner transformation has to be different than the person before. If I am not gradually becoming a better person, then all that I am doing is increasing the amount of factual information in my brain. The criteria of what constitutes a “better” person must also be set out by the Creator and not by the transient trends of society. This information does not become knowledge that shapes my feelings, reactions, attitudes towards hardships in life, my personality, and finally my behavior. If I am still the same person, then, all that has happened is that the adjective in front of my name has changed from say a not-so religious person to a religious, observant one without a substantial change in my essence. Of course, the transformation is not going to happen overnight.  In fact, it is a process of transformation that will not end until our last breadth. The goal is to be on this path. It will take a life time, but this is the process that is the struggle (jihad) we have to undertake.

If we define belief (iman) as merely saying “I witness there is no deity but God and I witness that Muhammad is his servant and his messenger,” then iman cannot be increased. Once you say the shahadah, you are done and there is nothing more that can be done on the faith front. Why then did Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions pray that they would die with iman? They were believers, so why would they not have iman when they are dying? Obviously, there has to be another connotation or a nuance that we are missing.

We also sometimes say we hope to increase our iman. Is it increased by reading more Qur’an? Praying more? Fasting more? Eating less? Sleeping less? How exactly can we increase our iman? The short answer is, we can increase our belief by internalizing the Qur’an, undergoing Qur’anic iman education to be transformed, and living as Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did, for he was the Qur’an in flesh (the perfect example/student of the Qur’anic education). However, we have to understand what kind of a thing iman is in order to figure out how to increase it.

First of all, iman is not a steady thing. If I were to say I have so much of iman, I have to know that it is not a fixed thing but a slippery ground where you can either go up or down. Hence, I have no guarantee that tomorrow I will have the same level of iman. Belief needs to be constantly nurtured and increased. Otherwise it will decrease. Imagine a balloon: If you support it with your hand, you can keep it in the air and can evern push it higher. The moment you stop exerting some force, it comes down…

Why does it decrease if I still say I believe in God and Islam as the true religion? Well, God creates human beings with a nature of nisyan, which means to forget. In fact, the Arabic word for human (insan) comes from the same root as nisyan. We do not necessarily forget that there is a God, but we do forget in the sense of living oblivious to the fact that there is a God. Is it possible to know that there is God and, and that islam (submission) is the truth and still live as if there is no God? Yes, it is. That’s exactly what we do when we are negligent of our reality as abd, and feel/think/act as if we are our own boss, we are independent of God, and we are the best judges of what we need to make us happy in this life, etc.

It is all in the heart. Even if I may follow all the halal-haram guidelines outwardly, in my heart, I may still be in disbelief (kufr). Kufr and iman are in the same heart. Until we become that perfect human being (al-insan al-kamil), we will always sin (being in the state of kufr). The literal meaning of kufr is to conceal or to cover something up. In this sense, kufr is concealing the truth, the truth that God is the Creator of everything. Tomorrow when I get sick and have to see a doctor, if in my heart I am expecting that doctor to heal me, I am in a state of kufr. Whereas if I am aware that God creates the doctor, his knowledge, the pill, and the healing, I am in a state of iman.

A muslim must act as a submitter, no matter what. Even if the other person involved in the situation is doing wrong, we have to always be a muslim. We cannot respond to wrong with wrong. It results in more wrong! The point is, if we are a submitter, which means we are undergoing the inner transformation, we cannot act as anything else, other than a muslim. Submission would become our nature/fitrah/character and we would not have any other choice but to submit.

When, Abu Sufyan, one of the worst enemies of Islam and Muslims in the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) came to him, some companions wanted to treat him badly. Yet the Prophet welcomed him with respect and behaved kindly to him, hosting him in his own tent. In the Prophet’s tent, Sufyan declared that he became Muslim, but outside, he secretly professed he was not. If at that time, the followers of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did not treat all unbelievers nicely, would they have been heeding the message of the Qur’an? God says in the Qur’an:

“God does not forbid you, as regards those who do not make war against you on account of your Religion, nor drive you away from your homes, to be kindly to them, and act towards them with equity. God surely loves the scrupulously equitable” (Qur’an, 60:8).

On the same token, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) teaches us “O servant of God, let your love and hate be for the sake of God, because no one can attain to the wilayah (guardianship) of God without that, and no one shall find the taste of faith without that, though his prayers and fast be great in number.”[4]This saying has a gist to it that makes the entire meaning different. You love the mu’min characteristics and you hate the kafir characteristics. A non-Muslim may have muslim characteristics and you love the person and the good characteristics; a Muslim may have kafir characteristics, and you dislike those characteristics. Likewise, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one.” People asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.”[5] When he is a zalim (oppressor) you are beside him to help him to correct himself, not to defend his zulm (oppression)!

 


[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] Mermer 2005.

[3] What does it mean for the Divine Attributes to be reflected in human beings, the universe, and the revelations? Please read the Commentary on “God has created man in His image.”

[4] Majlisi 1983, Vol. 27, p. 54.

[5] Sahih Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 43, Number 624.

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