Who is the Source?

It is He who sends down water for you from the sky, from which comes a drink for you, and the shrubs that you feed to your animals.

With it He grows for you grain, olives, palms, vines, and all kinds of other crops. There truly is a sign in this for those who think.
(Quran 16, 10:11)

The Quranic passage is expecting us to see a sign by using our reason. The passage talks about a “He.” But who is He? My understanding of Him is expected to be shaped through recognizing what He does. I shouldn’t jump into conclusions utilizing my previous knowledge. Instead, I should ride the verse, and see where it is taking me regarding knowing the “He.” There’re certain actions that are attributed to “He” in the verses. He actively sends down water for us, grows for us grains etc. Continue reading “Who is the Source?”

Why did God create the universe?

Firstly, it should be noted that as human beings we perceive everything from a human perspective and formulate our views accordingly. To take one example, human beings act out of necessity or desire. We set out to do things because we have certain needs or are compelled. Through some infatuation in ill thinking, or ourselves we foolishly presume to compare God to ourselves and suppose that God acts as we do. Therefore, in asking the above questions, it is of the utmost importance to remember that God is independent of all wants or needs, and far beyond our inadequate conceptions.

Continue reading “Why did God create the universe?”

How can we describe God?

The Creator cannot be the same kind of being as that which He created (e.g. The painter vs. the painting). Hence, God is absolutely other than His creation. Yet, we might still ask why we cannot directly see God. But direct vision is very limited and could never be an appropriate way of seeking the Unlimited. Continue reading “How can we describe God?”

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.

Ways Leading to God

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

 “… So do not hold yourselves pure (sinless; it is vain self-justification). He knows best him who keeps from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety” (Qur’an, 53:32).

We have an innate disposition to love and to always defend ourselves. God has given this disposition to defend our rights and to be dignified as a human being. But the ego/ nafs’ job is to claim its independence of the Creator and declare false ownership of our qualities.

Every sense we have been given, we can use them in two opposite ways. We can either use it for the purpose it was given to us, or abuse the feeling and use it for the nafs. For example, envy is not innately bad. Envy can compel us to do good actions, which is useful. But if we use envy to viciously envy someone else, thinking we should have been given those things instead, this is wrong. Through iman education we can direct our senses to the positive ways. We have been given the ability to deny God, but we are given this sense to deny false deities (or those who attribute deity qualities to themselves), and say la ilaha (there is no deity). But we may misuse it and deny the true God.

The ego loves only itself, and sacrifices everything for itself. He praises himself as if he is worthy of worship. He exonerates himself from any fault, looks for any excuse to disclaim any fault. The verse is specifically referring to a person’s introspective/inner analysis in which he sees himself as faultless. In a way, God is saying “do not consider yourself pure, do not justify yourself, do not find excuses, do not exonerate yourself.” We need to realize that our nafs has such an inclination, hence with this awareness, when that inclination arises in us, we do not let it overtake our iradah (willpower), and we do not act upon it.

Our creation, including our partial-freewill and the nafs, is perfect. To have nafs is not bad, but to follow our nafs is bad. Because of our nafs, we can say la ilaha. We realize through our ego: “I do not want to worship something that is not worthy of worship.” We swim against the current of the ego to gain strength and rise in spiritual ranks. What make us human beings (i.e. our difference from animals and other created beings) is our partial-freewill, our ability to reason, and nafs.  Choice necessitates alternatives, one correct and one wrong, true vs. false, white vs. black. If I want to, I can choose the false, but I do not have to. Nafs is always telling us to choose the false. So the fact that, due to our nafs, we are able to say there is no God makes us perfect. This enables us to say la ilaha. Nafs has no power over us. If we educate our self through iman not to ever follow the nafs, then nafs loses its influence. Gradually the nafs realizes it is pointless to suggest the falsehood to the person. Then we become the perfect/complete person (al-insan al-kamil), by becoming a perfect worshipper of God, abd.

Is feeding the poor necessarily a good deed/action? It depends! If it is done in the name of the nafs, thinking I am good, this is bad. However, it is good for me to help people with the realization that it is my Creator who gave me the capacity to help someone (aka. I am only a mirror reflecting the manifestations of His Attributes). A person whose ego says: “I am feeding you,” as if claiming “I am your Lord,” like the Pharaohs, is in fact increasing his arrogance through this seemingly good deed. The person who feeds someone and recognizes the Creator as the source of that ability is living in pure submission. So in a sense, we could outwardly look like the best human being in terms of actions, but without submission to God, we would be pure ego, and our actions would be void, having no value in reality. When there is shirk (associating partners with God) in our actions, our actions become void. Shirk is committed by not attributing the action to God, but appropriating it to ourselves, as if we are the source of the goodness.

When the sunlight is reflecting from a mirror, the mirror is not the source of the light. Likewise, we are not the source of goodness. But when we close that mirror, preventing the light from reflecting, this is our fault. We choose to prevent the light. Hence, we are the cause of the bad we choose.

 


[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.

The Role of Intellect and Heart

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

We have been given numerous faculties/qualities: intellect/reason, heart, sense, ego, conscience, partial-freewill, willpower, etc. When we make decisions, we use all these faculties simultaneously. In other words, it is not possible for us to completely shut off our emotions or our intellect at any given moment. We may think that we think and choose solely with our intellect, but so many other faculties play a role in each decision.

Our intellect looks at the apparent face of creation through the five external senses that collect information. Thus reason is not concerned primarily with the meaning of things. For instance, when we see a tea cup, we say, “There is a cup and there is tea in it.” We observe and tell what is apparently there. But we like the tea; we enjoy the taste; we feel sorry for those who do not have it; we want to share it with those who are in need of it…etc. Thus, actions we take have many reasons behind them, not only reason.

The plant grows as if the cells are reproducing themselves. Yes, this is true, but at the end it comes out as an extraordinarily amazing system. Although at first glance, when we observe creation it seems straightforward, all is going on smoothly. Cells multiply; the world revolves around itself… When we look at things carefully, all is precisely measured. The outcome of the precise angle of the world’s axis is amazing. Millions of events are attached to it and they are purposefully designed this way. Then our reason questions what this is and interprets it. While reason tries to interpret it, other human faculties come into this thinking process.

What does the heart entail? Having a heart means consciousness, emotions, senses, being considerate, wanting to help other people even strangers. When our expectations are fulfilled, we are pleased. If I see something I do not like, I wish it was not so. For example, we ask our sick friend to get well soon. This is not a rational desire. If he could get well soon on his own, he would not have been sick to begin with. So a greeting of “get well soon” expresses our hopes, although rationally, we know that to make the apparent system of creation help our friend to “get well” is not within our capacity. Our senses take us beyond the system of creation to its Creator. The system does not listen to me; it has no conscious, but our feelings require a conscious addressee. This leads us to the Conscious Creator of the system.

When we question whether the heart leads our intellect or vice versa, the matter becomes complicated. Reason looks at the causal relationship. On the other hand, the emotions do not concentrate on the casual relationship. The heart hopes and wishes. It gets frightened. Its limits are completely different than the limits of our intellect.

Let’s say I have 100 dollars. I know with my reason that I can only buy three or four books with this money but my heart wishes for so much more. It wants, for example, to feed all the poor. In the apparent causal relationship, there are no means to do so with what I have, but the heart still desires. I desire that no one hurt each other, that there be no wars, etc.

There is then a contradiction between reason and heart. They do not exclude each other, yet reason is very limited, whereas the heart seems to have no limits. While the heart hopes for infinity in everything, there is no absolute in creation. Everything we observe is limited, bound by time and space. Nothing in this creation that we observe or experience is unlimited. Hence, reason sees the limitations and measures them, while the heart does not recognize these limitations; it always hopes for infinite happiness and beauty.

The heart is the mirror of the divine attributes. The heart is the mirror of Rab (The Sustainer/Educator/Care-taker). The heart always looks beyond the causal network. It wishes for everything good, but eternally. The heart is one of our faculties that open up to the divine sphere. When we engage in retrospective thought and try to analyze what it means for our heart to hope for eternity, we realize that eternity is in the divine sphere. When we listen to our senses, we see that we desire eternal justice, peace and beauty. Even if we may not be able to describe what they are, we still wish for them. So human senses address somewhere or something that is beyond the limits of this creation. Even if our senses cannot see any means to realize it, to make it come true, our heart still wants it. There seems to be an apparent contradiction between what we see in this world and what we desire.

What my heart desires is not confirmed by what my intellect can see and can perceive. Since we cannot experience and confirm this desire for eternity, where did it come from? We can conclude that whoever made me gave me these senses, which look for something beyond the limits of this creation. These desires are innate in us; we are programmed this way. Everyone dies, everything perishes. But we still want eternity.

“I wish” is the heart; “I know I cannot” is the reason. Reason blocks the heart’s path to deciphering the meaning in creation, because reason only functions with causal relationships.

How can we utilize reason to help the heart and vice versa? Reason will say “I have this much food,” but the heart wants to share it with the hungry. This feeling is given to us as a promise, to understand that this desire will be fulfilled. We see this is a transient world, and our desires cannot be satisfied here. How can this feeling be a promise for eternity?  We see in our lives that the Creator always keeps His promises. The babies desire to walk and to speak, and those abilities gradually come. Whatever is promised to them is gradually realized. We have to train our reasoning with the help of the heart.

For example, Prophet Abraham (pbuh) was searching for the Creator and started to exercise his reason with the help of his heart. He observed and concluded with his reason that this amazing creation cannot happen accidentally in this perfect way. In a way, his heart was saying: “Yes you are right; look for the one who gives you all these senses, desires, and get to know the Creator of this universe, who is unlimited, and try to see His signs in creation.”

In materialist science there is only room for reason. Materialist scientists deny the desires of the heart. For example, for our desire to live eternally and the existence of an eternal Afterlife, they conclude “It cannot happen, it is only human imagination.”  Billions of people have the same imagination then? This desire for eternity is innate in us, and has been placed in us purposefully. We take the message we receive through the heart, and give another dimension to the cause and effect relationship observed with the reason. The heart tries to understand the meaning. Maybe the Creator is giving us a message, a clue about Himself. If the Creator whose creation we observe creates the human being from one cell or a tree out of a tiny seed, then He is revealing His Attributes, He can create everything out of simple things. He can create endless things. The heart is the seed of our desires. Out of this seed, the Creator is creating eternity.

We cannot see the truth without the heart. Without the help of the heart, the reason cannot reach the truth. Materialist science does not take the message of the heart into account. Belief without reason is also not desired. Just to say that something is true because the Qur’an says so, is not enough. God also gave us reason to use and to confirm the scripture.

How did we invent our wishes? The heart has a letter from God promising He will give all that we desire. Here, in this world, there are free samples of everything. The desire for eternity is a need like hunger; and just like all our physical needs are satisfied here, our desire for eternity will also be satisfied.

Our intellect is only one of the many faculties that make us who we are. Although we know that our parents are there (intellect), we go to visit them because we miss them (heart). We do not always act with our reason. Only reason causes hopelessness, arrogance and selfishness. Reason finds out this world is limited, and concludes that it wants all for itself. Colonialism, wars, power struggles, civilizations dominating the world are all a result of letting the reason dominate our being. On the other hand, the heart realizes its poverty and weakness. It hopes his friend gets well but does not claim “I will give health.” This realization is the door opening to 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.

The Nature of Divine Scriptures

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

1. Descent from God to human beings: When we read the Qur’an we must not forget this fact that it is the word of God, expressed for our understanding. It is coming from the Absolute, Infinite, Unlimited One, yet we understand within our capacity, because the One sending it knows that it is us who will read it. However, it is a mistake to think that since it is reduced/simplified to my level, I can understand it easily. It is still originating from the Absolute. For instance, if Einstein comes to an elementary school and speaks to the first graders, he will try to simplify his teachings for their level. Likewise, the Qur’an is the Absolute One’s teachings explained at our level. When people write commentaries on the Qur’an, it is their interpretation/understanding: we are swimming in an ocean, yet all of us have our way of swimming. That is why in principle, if two Islamic scholars contradict on one subject, their opinions are respected and still rewarded for their effort to understand God’s words.

We must be aware that we are swimming in the ocean, so we are only swimming in our path, we cannot swim everywhere in the ocean at once. We understand the Qur’an as much as our capacity allows us. The Qur’an is published with no name on it, but when there is a translation or commentary, one can see the scholar’s name on it. Most of the commentaries are subjective interpretations. Even if it is written by the best scholar, it is still her translation and her commentary; not the original. Hence, translations of the Qur’an are not called the Qur’an

2. Purpose in sending the revelations: What is the purpose of God speaking to us through the scriptures?

a) To disclose/explain Himself: to make Himself known to us, teach human beings who their Creator is.

b) To answer our existential questions and to teach us how to interpret the creation: we cannot find the answers on our own, but if someone explains to us, we are able to use our reason and other faculties to make sense of it, to judge if it is true or not.

c) We cannot get out of our own paradigm (or bias): so we need another source, an all-encompassing conscious to guide us with an unlimited knowledge, and to teach us how to interact with the things around us, what to do with our lives, etc.

3. Book of education: Given these purposes, the Qur’an is an educational text; it is intellectual and can transform us. Sometimes, we read the Qur’an not as an educational text that will transform our inner being, but just to carry out the dos and don’ts without reflecting on them. In a way, this attitude is out of reverence for the Qur’an: we take a verse from the Qur’an and say “since this verse says so, it must be so.” This is not reading the scripture to learn something from it or to be transformed by it. Reading it as a book of prayer is fine, but it must also be read as an educational text. We should not read the scripture to condition ourselves, to brainwash ourselves. We are told to memorize and recite the national anthem to fortify our already existing prejudices, to condition ourselves. Is it wise to read the scripture like this? We have to read the Qur’an, as if we are listening to our teacher, to learn from it, not to imitate it. We tell ourselves we have to “read in the name of our Lord who created us” but what if we do not know how to do this?

To actually benefit from the Qur’an, we must ask ourselves: Is it really true? Is it possible to read in the name of our Creator? What does it really mean? We need to educate ourselves through its teachings. We will be drawn out of some ignorance. If we are not familiar with this approach, we exclaim, “God says so in this verse so it must be so.” But the real question is: What did you understand from it and how did it transform you? From which state to which state you were transformed? When we recite the verse, we must not speak on behalf of God. After we complete our education at the nursing school, we go to the hospital and practice, because we have already been educated. If someone is my nurse and she takes care of me perfectly, I ask: where did you learn this? They tell the name of the school. Likewise, we must learn from and be transformed by the Qur’an, and practice what we learn, so when someone asks how and where you learned this from, we refer them to the Qur’an.

Sometimes people just “shoot” a verse from the Qur’an to back-up a point they are making. Since they are reciting the Qur’an, they feel as if the argument is over because you cannot “argue” with God’s word.  If we cite verses from the Qur’an, without being transformed by them, or give evidence from the Qur’an to prove the truth of the Qur’an, this is a literalist attitude. Just relating a verse from the Qur’an and saying “I am not saying anything God is saying it,” is not neutral. You put your interpretation onto it. In a particular context, topic, someone relates a verse, but it is our interpretation that God is meaning this in this context. You, narrating the verse at that moment is an interpretation. When a doctor performs a medical procedure, she is practicing what she learned in medical school. In reality, it may or may not be what she was actually taught at school: she may be remembering it wrong; she may be adding her own take to how the procedure must be done, etc.

There was an argument between two communities during the time of Ali’s leadership. One side’s position was something like: “Let’s make the Qur’an a witness to our argument. Let the Qur’an decide about who is right. Let the Qur’an be the judge.” Ali, as a very wise man brought up in Prophet Muhammad’s household, brought the mushaf, the book containing the Qur’an. He explained that this book does not speak for itself, it stays there, you make it speak. This is in fact the first hermeneutic approach. When we come up with a verse in an argument, we make the verse speak as we understand it, we locate it into our paradigm and use it in a specific context. This is the literalist attitude into which we fall commonly. It is a crucial but extremely fine point that is often overlooked. This literalist approach, no matter which religion it is framed as, is wrong/deceptive.

Another example is the war between Ali’s supporters and Muawiya’s supporters. Towards the end of the war, when Muawiya’s supporters were about to be defeated, he ordered his soldiers to attach pages from the Qur’an, knowing that Ali’s supporters were extremely respectful to the Qur’an and that they would not fight. Indeed, Ali’s supporters ceased fighting. As a result of this incident, a well-known phrase came about: “you never put the Qur’an to your spear!” meaning that you do not use the Qur’an to support your point. Nursi says:

Do not hide yourself behind the Qur’an, and read the verses to justify your own paradigm, ideas. But put the Qur’an behind you if you are a brave man, and come up as yourself to defend yourself. Say this is my understanding of the verse, if you do not like it, it is because of me. Yet the literalists say if you criticize what I say, it is what God says, so you are a heretic. If the nurse does a wrong injection, and paralyzes the patient, and says I graduated from such university… Do not blame the educator, blame yourself. Accept that your interpretation is wrong. Say I have not got good education, I was not a good student, but that university teaches very well.”

So when we read the Qur’an, we must be humble and admit that this is our understanding. If someone disputes our interpretation, we can say: “maybe, it is possible that my interpretation is wrong. Let’s go back to the source and try to get educated by it. Let’s study together, admitting that we are both students trying to understand the text/teacher.” But the literalist says, “I am not saying anything; God says this in the Qur’an. Speaking on behalf of the Qur’an, and if you oppose me, you are a heretic, an infidel.” Our personal approach and ideas should not be equated with the original text. We cannot narrate the text to justify our argumentation and claim that this is the ultimate meaning of the verse.

4. Qur’an needs to be confirmed by the reader: When we read the scripture, we must always keep in mind that we are its students and it is our teacher. The student listens to his teacher, hears something that he does not know already and needs to learn. Our goal in the classroom, while God is speaking to us, is not to be a parrot, we are expected to understand and confirm. When the teacher says 3×3=9, some students just repeat and memorize it while others process it in their minds. These students are not judging the teacher, but they need to confirm it for themselves. The confirmation comes a few minutes later. One of the pillars of belief in Islam is to believe in the Qur’an as the word of God: this means to confirm (tasdiq) 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.

Tawhid is not Solely Belief

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

Tawhid is usually translated as “oneness of God.” However, its literal meaning is “unifying God.” Take note that it is a continuous verb! It is not just a belief but is a state of certainty (the literal meaning of iman/belief) that we need to strive to achieve continuously. It is not information stating that there are not two gods but just The One. Rather, it is a reality we are to live by every day. Belief becomes certainty (iman) and a means to witnessing God’s oneness (shahadah), if and when it is lived in daily life. This is what the Qur’an is about: teaching us how to live tawhid. All the divine scriptures revealed before the Qur’an also stated that there is one God. Then why was there a need for the revelation of the Qur’an and the 23 years of learning and practicing Islam (submission) by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions?

Most of the Meccan chapters (those revealed in the early years of Qur’anic revelation in Mecca) do not talk about social conduct or the dos and don’ts. They talked about existence, how to perceive creation and life. They sought to shatter the attitude that plagues many of us today: “I believe in one God, but I am very busy with other things.” These Meccan verses are about transforming all our actions into worship, acquiring a consciousness of tawhid, and living in accordance with that consciousness. They explain what tawhid is in different contexts and stages of our life. The Qur’an is not only saying there is one as opposed to two gods. Saying “there is no deity but God” is only the beginning. By saying it, we enroll in a life-long school where we will learn and practice tawhid

“There is no deity but God” has been understood in Islamic tradition as: “There is no Provider but God; there is no Healer but God.”

 

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)

 

It covers all contexts of life. For instance, who brings a baby into life; who takes care of her and raises her from a clueless being one day to a conscious, functioning adult the next? Is it the mother, society, or the Creator of all? Indeed, observing creation of a baby in the mother’s womb and after birth is one of the most unveiled, clear signs that there is no Rab (Lord, Care-taker) but God. However, in today’s world, positivist science that leaves out God, who is “The Cause of All the Causes,” is prevalent.

Yet, we need to probe deeper to see if scientific explanations and religion are contradictory. Science claims to explain how a seed grows into a tree and then gives fruit as if it is all happening mechanically, but it cannot adequately explain how and why. God says in the Qur’an that creation of everything is a sign/ayah of God, so we must reflect how it is happening. If we look at how photosynthesis happens, we can write pages of reactions. Scientists claim that the cells are doing all these reactions and get a Nobel Prize for this. If these cells perform photosynthesis on their own, then each of them deserves more than a Noble Prize! The cells require knowledge and power to be able to carry out photosynthesis. Where did they learn how to photosynthesize? Especially given that the many chemical formulas making up photosynthesis took scientists thousands of years to master.  Yet, how are they all doing the same thing, in different locations, like a cell in New Zealand and another one in Norway?

Basically, what we observe is that: Seed + Sun + Soil + Water ≠ Tomato. Each “cause” is also caused by another Cause, which has knowledge about and power on every other cause. Hence, we call God, The Cause of All the Causes. In the Qur’an, God teaches us that the cell is being created together with photosynthesis. Cells do not create anything because they, themselves are being made. Cells do not have any power or knowledge, but rather, God is the All-Knowing and All-Powerful who creates the cells, the reactions, and all the processes of photosynthesis.

The greatest falsehood of positivist science is its claim to objectivity. Taking God out of the picture is an interpretation, and interpretation is subjective! So despite its claim to being neutral and objective, science is interpreting. In any explanation of the world, there is always an interpretation. The way science presents what is happening renders each of the factors (cells, sun, water, etc.) as a small deity in itself. Therefore, in the Qur’an, God is calling us to question positivist science and what we do in our daily life. Our mistake is that we often talk of events as if they happen on their own and don’t look at them as signs/ayah. To believe that there is a Creator is the beginning of tawhid; only then do we feel the need to be taught by the Qur’an and how to apply it to our daily lives. Even if we might come to the conclusion that there is one God, it is only through the Qur’an that we learn who this Creator is.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of tawhid because this is the focus of the Qur’an. Only about 5% of the Qur’an (~ 360 verses) talks about the dos and don’ts (mu’amalat). What does the rest talk about then? We see that hundreds of verses talk about water, trees, the heavens and earth as signs/ayah, so that we reflect on them. Whatever the subject of a verse is, the aim is tawhid. Hence, if we claim that our teacher is the Qur’an, then we should follow its guidance and focus on tawhid. The Qu’ran teaches us the process of unifying God in everything we think and do by asking: where is the cause? This Qur’anic education of tawhid (unifying God) shall continue until it becomes automatic when we see things as signs manifesting God’s Attributes. If we attain this consciousness and see everything as a sign, then practice (praying, fasting, etc.) naturally follows. We would be disciplining our egos through the awe of God rather than the fear of hell.

For instance, where is tawhid in our understanding of death? God does not say in the Qur’an that we will return to Him one day; we are returning to Him continuously. For instance, where is my yesterday, where is my last year? Every moment has returned to Him. When we die at 80, it is only that moment that is returning to Him. All the past has already died and returned to Him. In a sense, this life and the next are parallel. It is not linear (life followed by afterlife).

In the Qur’an, God emphasizes prayer (salat) as the culmination of worship (ibadah). Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) says that the prescribed prayer (salat) is the ascension of the believer. Not everyone; just the believer! So if we live all day as a believer (mu’min), confirming that everything we encounter is a sign from God, only then our prayer (salat) will be the culmination of that state of mind and heart. The gist of salat is shukr (thanksgiving), so we are to see His signs, His grace and blessings everywhere and be filled with the desire to thank Him through prayer. If and when we are not living that iman in our lives and experience manifestations of God’s Attributes, then prayer will not be very spiritual for us. We may still pray out of fear of hell (which is still better than not praying at all) but we will not seize the full transformative potential of prayer. To achieve this, we need to go through the iman education of the Qur’an and work on transforming our mind and heart.

For instance, the period of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions is referred to as the Golden Age of Islam. The companions who were with him in Mecca are called arkan (pillars). If there are no pillars, buildings collapse. They received Qur’anic education from the Prophet (pbuh) for 23 years. This Qur’anic education was the essence of their value: why and how they became the stars of humanity. Without undergoing this Qur’anic education to train and humble our egos, any talk of politics or economic development of predominantly Muslim countries is empty.   The Qur’an directs everyone to find and live the truth. It does not only address certain people who happen to be born in a geographic location and call themselves Muslims. For example, in pre-Islamic Arabia, one characteristic of ignorance (jahiliyyah) was to help your friends even if they were wrong. What if those who call themselves Muslim are not right or just? Instead of siding with them solely because they are part of a group we identify with, we should focus on what is haqq (truth) and seek to implement it in our life.  Talking about politics may be an attractive subject, but we cannot build a house before building the pillars! The Qur’an first established the arkan (pillars) through years of Qur’anic iman education and then went on to building the social dynamics on these pillars. Likewise, we can see that exhausting all efforts to advance scientific innovation is desirable because it serves humanity in a material sense (such as prolonging life spans through breakthroughs in the medical sciences), yet these innovations make sense only after adequate importance is given to improving humanity’s understanding of life, reality of tawhid, etc.  Otherwise, we end up having very prosperous nations with people sunk in depression and frustration, as is the case with the highest suicide rates today seen in the “advanced” Scandinavian states. Without Godly principles in our lives, we can only find temporary happiness.

Another example of applying the principle of unifying God in our daily lives has to do with love: love of God and love of people around us. When we hear love of God, it might seem like something imaginary and intangible. Or from another perspective, if we do not feel that kind of a strong love for God, we might feel that we have to love God. However, love of God is neither imaginary nor intangible if we take the Qur’anic perspective of knowing God and coming to love Him as our knowledge of Him increases. And we come to that point by getting to know the manifestations of God’s Attributes (Asma al-Husna) in created things, including other people. Rumi has put it brilliantly:

 

We love the created because of the Creator. We come to love God through love of people and other created things. Loving created beings with the right attitude (aka. Because of the Creator) makes them more valuable in our eyes. We think of them as mirrors reflecting God’s attributes, and thus we fear to break such mirrors!”

 

Yet at the same time, loving people because of the Creator helps us not to get stuck at these mirrors, but be able to look beyond them to the actual source of light. They are only pointing to the actual source. So if anything were to happen to one of these mirrors, say when a flower or a friend dies, we say that it came from Him and returns to Him. It was a temporary reminder of Eternal Divine Beauty; hence, having learned that the source of its beauty is eternal, we do not despair. Likewise, all the good qualities we see in people (or any other creation) are manifestations of God’s Divine Attributes (Asma al-Husna). So our love for people is automatically directed to God. If the postman gives us a very valuable gift, knowing that someone else sent it to us, we do not necessarily focus too much on the postman (i.e. Flower=postman; flower’s beauty=the valuable gift brought by the postman; sender of the valuable gift=God). This does not mean though we will disrespect or not thank the postman.

So what is the source of hatred then? The ability to hate is also given to us by God. We did not learn to hate on our own. We were taught (programmed if you will) to hate dirt or bad smell. And thank God for this! So everything is given to us, and it is up to us what we do with it. This is where our partial-freewill comes in, and this is why we need the tarbiyah (education, training) of the scriptures.

Thankfulness is directly linked to tawhid; whereas kufr (disbelief; literally meaning to cover up) is a state of ungratefulness that originates from disbelief and results in more disbelief. Can we be thankful for anything if we do not acknowledge that it is from God?  If we think that we are the source of our achievements or things that “happen to come our way,” to whom or to what would we be thankful? In a sense, this is where everything loses meaning. Even if we achieve what we seek, a feeling of “so what?!” dawns on us. Yet, on the other hand, when we see that it is given to us, a peaceful thankfulness fills our heart. Even when we are cooking: we mix eggs, flour, sugar, etc., put it in the oven and something completely different and delicious comes out. We are surprised and thankful for this act of creation. Anything else would be shirk (associating partners with God). So to all those great cooks out there: don’t forget to give a heartfelt and mindful “Praise is due only to the Creator” each time J

 


[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.

Renewing our Faith

An Exegesis of the Prophetic Saying:

“Renew your belief with – There is no deity but God”

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1 ]

Is belief a fixed or a changeable phenomenon (whether or not it can increase or decrease)?  Another related question, to which most scholars gave a positive answer, is whether belief is renewable. Since we are created with forgetful/neglectful natures, we forget or neglect our belief, so we need to renew/reconfirm it. But why would we need to reconfirm our belief once we have already affirmed our belief in God?

The primary reason why we are encouraged to renew our faith is simply because creation is continuously being renewed. Creation points us to the Creator, and we acquire belief through witnessing the manifestations of God’s Attributes in the creation. Hence, as the universe changes, we need to reconfirm our belief in the Creator of that universe.

“Practice” does not only involve performing prescribed rituals. We have to also “practice believing.” Belief is not static, but alive and dynamic. Belief is not a status that we obtain, such as identifying ourselves as a Muslim and thinking our duty is finished. Belief is not obtaining an identity card; belief is lives with us and changes from minute to minute, hour to hour, etc. God prescribed guiding rules that organize human relationships, relations between humans and the other creation, ritual worship, plus another way of putting one’s belief into practice: renewing our belief through the signs we observe in the universe.

Our duty is to reflect on the creation and to acknowledge the real source of everything. Human beings constantly undergo change. We are tired, happy, hungry, etc. In every instance we need to establish the right relationship with God. To see the manifestations of God’s Attributes in all the qualities we have is the goal of our iman education. But this is not enough for a human being. We are created to have a relationship with the universe as well. While we have contact with the universe, we encounter manifestations of God’s Attributes. The universe may not be according to our wishes all the time, so we need to interpret things and events that we encounter as manifestations of God’s Attributes of Perfection. We are not tested only once, but in every event we encounter, we are being educated/tested. In institutionalized religion, you become a member of a church, you pay your membership, you join the congregation, and this is it. Your closeness with God is not related to your active relationship with the universe. You get advice from the clergy, but in Islam there is no clergy. So we are responsible for our own belief; we are on our own. So we cannot just say I am a Muslim, I am a member of a mosque, come to Friday prayer and so I am done. Religion is not an institution. Islam is submission; submission is a process; it is our relationship with our Creator.

Belief is not a claim, but a dynamic phenomenon. The most important aspect of Islam is the absence of institutions. From one aspect, the lack of institutions gives the believer freedom, yet from another aspect it gives greater responsibility since believers have a personal relationship with their Creator without an intermediary. Believing in your Creator is important, not the “God of your religion.” My Creator creates the sun for me. This is a complete change in point of view. When you confirm that God is your Creator, than this is your definition of who you are: “I am a created being, a servant of God,” and your life changes. Our faith must not only be strengthened when we go to the mosque. The entire universe is the house of God, and everything is prostrating to God. Our faith can only be strengthened when we contemplate on the signs/ayah in the scriptures and the creation.

The universe is changing, so God’s Attributes that I am supposed to witness are changing as well. One second it is rainy, the next it becomes too sunny. Day and night change. Everything is constantly being created anew. The same is true for human relations – each social event (say someone hurts you or someone pampers you) is a new opportunity for spiritual training. So in all my interactions (with other people, events, universe), there must be la ilaha illallah (there is no deity in creation, but God). Our relationship with the universe is the litmus test. Will I try to impose my expectations/desires onto the universe (which is impossible to accomplish and leads to stress/sorrow), or will I acknowledge that it is God who is organizing everything? No one says, “I will create the universe,” but we struggle to accept that events/things do not go as we want. I do not want it to rain (hence its Creator), so I am protesting the rain as if it is in my hands.

The first thing we will be asked when we die is: men Rabuk (Who is your Lord/Sustainer/Care Taker/Educator)? The question is not only, “Who created you?” We need to recognize that God is the Creator, but that is only the beginning. We need to also confirm that in every instant of our lives God is our Sustainer, our Care Taker. As human beings and as khalif representing God on earth, we have been given the potential to manifest all of God’s Attributes. We are the vicegerents or stewards of God on earth, because we can act here on behalf of God. All the abilities I have are from God, so I am acting in this world on behalf of God, in His name. This is why we are expected to act in accordance with the Attributes of God. For example, God is forgiving, merciful, and just, so I cannot act without wisdom, justice, and mercy. This is my duty as God’s vicegerent. We are not acting as a God, but in the name of God. We must try our best to choose the right thing, to reflect God’s Attributes, as a creature of God. However, we have been given the freedom to choose not to reflect these Attributes. We have to be very careful not to choose against God’s gifts to us – we should not be unjust, merciless, and foolish.

The other aspect of our stewardship is our relationship with the rest of the creation. When we interfere with the universe, we have to interfere in the name of God, not in the name of our desires. This is where the quarrel starts. I may appropriate God’s Attributes to myself, forget that I am being created, not heed His guidance, and choose as I want (submit to God’s Will vs. submit to my ego). If I forget I am here to act in the name of God, I start acting according to my own whims.  We have to implement God’s guidance into our life by using our freewill correctly. This is a personal responsibility. This is why there is no clergy in Islam. No one else can do it apart from me. The rules of the Qur’an are waiting to be implemented by human beings in their personal lives by themselves. This is why belief in God is a personal choice and a personal matter. Indeed we live in a society and have relationships, but we are personally responsible for our choices. If my friend is a wali, a friend of God, that does not save me. If somebody cannot give the Rububiyyah to God (admit that God is the Sustainer) in his own life, he cannot do it in his family, city, or country. This means acknowledging that God is the Creator and choosing to submit our freewill according to His will. Having a personal relationship with God is beautiful and safe. It is to know that you do not worship your own desires, nor can anyone bully you. Death is nothing to fear for such a believer. Even if we hear that doomsday is here, we say “my Most Compassionate Sustainer is operating it all,” so we are relaxed. The key to inner peace is in this realization: “It is the All-Wise and the Most-Merciful One who is administering my life, not me!”

This is why the main question is Who is your Rab/Sustainer/Administrator? Not who created you? We need to realize that our belief is dynamic and needs to be continuously renewed.

We might talk of being a submitter to God at three interrelated levels. Practice of rituals (ibadah), practice of shariah (Divine laws/guidance) at the societal level, and the personal practice of one’s belief, which is the core of everything. Living our belief entails living as the worshipper of God only. It is a personal conviction. To become part of the ummah (religious community), you need to submit yourself to God, not commit yourself to the ummah. For example, if you are going to college, and if you do not study well, you will be expelled from school. Even if you want to identify yourself with Purdue University and you wear a Purdue t-shirt, this does not make you a student there. The point of you being a part of the university is for you to learn and receive training. If you are not committed to your education, then there is no meaning for you to be part of the community anyways.

Claiming that I am a monotheist, there is only one God, is a necessary but not sufficient step. A person might ask, “Yes, creation witnesses that there is only one God, but when it comes to my life, decisions I make about my life, in how I interact with others, who is going to decide? Is it me or the Creator? Will I submit to His guidance or act according to my desires?” Claiming to be a monotheist does not solve the problem. Usually if someone claims to be an atheist, it means “I could not find any way to submit; I am not ready to look for it at all.” But if someone claims to be an agnostic, it means, “I know there is a God, but I do not want to submit to Him.”

Being a servant of God is beautiful; it means you are free from all other thousands of servitudes. It means: relax! If you really believe in God, everything is guaranteed as He wills. And the good news is that the One who is in charge is the Most-Compassionate and the All-Wise…

 


[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.

Purpose of Creation

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

“Or did you think that We created you in vain (so that you should devote all your time to play and entertainment), and that you would not be brought back to Us?” (Qur’an, 23:115).

Why was I created? What am I to do with my life? Why did God send prophets? Human beings have always been intrigued by these questions since their answers are critical to unearth numerous other mysteries. Moreover, the purpose of creation even helps explain issues related to the afterlife such as what will become of us when we die. In other words, the goal of creation is the goal of life.

There are several verses in the Qur’an outlining very clearly why God created the universe and humankind. God was the only existence, and He wanted to be known and loved by conscious beings who, unlike the angels, would have the freewill to choose to worship/acknowledge God. Thus, God created the universe in which the human beings would dwell, multiply, and go through a lifelong trial till Judgment Day when the universe would be destroyed only to turn into a different realm for the hereafter.

The human mind has the intellectual capacity to contemplate the creation and reach the conclusion that for this complexity to exist in such an orderly manner there has to be a Creator. But how can we know the reason why God created the universe, and in particular, humankind? Islam recognizes four sources to find the answers: the messengers, the scriptures, human conscience, and the universe as “the book of signs.” These sources explain that everything in the creation manifest God’s Attributes in order for us to know, to love, and to worship God.

The Arabic word khalq comes from the root kh-l-q and refers to the act of creation. Creation in Islamic terminology primarily signifies creating something from nothingness in accordance with the creatio ex nihilo (the doctrine of the theory of creation from nothingness). The ability to create belongs only to God, who is the al-Khaliq. He is the one who creates from nothing, “establishing at the same time the states, conditions, and the sustenance of all that He has created.”[2]

Islam is built on the principal of God’s unity (tawhid), which is prevalent in every aspect and practice of the religion. Since He is the only Creator, the entire universe owes its existence to God; therefore He is the only one worthy of worship. Likewise, all Islamic principals are deduced by reason and are built on each other, and can be traced back to the fact that God is the sole Creator.

The Creator “not only has created but also governs the world according to an order that issues from His Wisdom as well as His Will.”[3] Thus, God’s hand is present in all things at all times as is evident in the harmony and order of nature. The Qur’anic verse, “Say: “In Whose Hand is the absolute ownership and dominion of all things…”” (Qur’an, 23:88) explains this phenomenon clearly. Everything in the cosmos has a divine aspect to it since it is created and sustained by the Divine One, and also particularly because God breathed His Divine Breath into it.  As described by Nasr, Ibn ‘Arabi states that “there is no property in the cosmos without a divine support and a lordly attribute”[4] and that “The very essence of cosmos is the ‘Breath of Compassionate’ (nafas al-Rahman) while cosmic forms and all that constitutes the order of nature emanate from the archetype realities and ultimately the Divine Essence Itself.”[5]

Thus, Islam views all animate and inanimate creatures as sacred beings that reflect the manifestations of God’s Attributes.  Environmentalism and humanism (in the sense of loving human beings because of the Creator) are innate to Islam due to this principal, and are manifest in Islamic literature and the practices of Prophet Muhammad.

Islamic theology holds that creation is not without a purpose; rather it has a divine purpose. Numerous verses in the Qur’an urge humans to question and observe creation to see that it was not created in vain. God says in the Qur’an:

 

“We have not created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in vain (so that people should think themselves at liberty to act each according to his own desires and inclinations). That is the mere conjecture of those who disbelieve. Woe to those who disbelieve because of the Fire!” (Qur’an, 38:27).

 

God’s intention in creating the universe is clearly outlined in the Qur’an and is centered on humanity. Numerous verses in the Qur’an explain how the whole universe, heavens and the earth, are arranged to provide for and to serve humanity (Qur’an, 2:22; 2:29). Thus the universe and everything within are subordinate to mankind which puts the responsibility on man to take care of nature, bringing us back to the environmentalism theme in Islam.

The universe has another, more essential role to play apart from providing for and serving humanity. Everything in the creation manifests God’s Attributes.  In other words, the most important trait of the cosmos is its theophany. God has also designed it to be a “book of signs” for humankind. Human beings may recognize God’s Majesty and comprehend His Divine Attributes (Asma al-Husna) by contemplating nature. As Esposito argues, “nature, properly viewed, becomes a revealed book very much like the Qur’an is itself composed of individual signs or miracles.”[6] 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).

 

When viewed from this perspective, the universe takes on an entirely different meaning and becomes increasingly significant for human beings. The study of natural sciences becomes almost an act of worship since it leads to the knowledge of the Creator. In the verses above, God urges human beings to use the intelligence that He gave them. It is emphasized that we are given this intelligence (and are not created as a plant or an animal with limited intelligence) so that we use it in the right way and get to know God.  As early Muslims took up this command, both natural and social sciences flourished in the Muslim world for centuries.

In one of the most well-known phrases on the subject of the purpose of creation, God conveyed through Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): “I was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known, and so I created the world.[7] God manifests His Attributes through His creation since He is a transcendent being that cannot be limited to time and space, and cannot be conceived directly. Also, Prophet Muhammad’s own words explain that “… the universe and its contents were created in order to make known the Creator, and to make known that good is to praise it.”[8]

Both of these hadith refer to and require a being with freewill and intelligence to know and praise God, which brings us to the core of the matter: If the universe was created to serve man, then what is the purpose of the creation of humankind? There are three main reasons, agreed upon by a wide range of scholars, as to why God created mankind: to know God, to love God, and to worship God. All of the prophets, the revealed scriptures and the universe, as the book of signs, serve as tools through which we know God. The reason for their existence is solely to guide humanity to recognize, acknowledge, and revere God as He deserves. Only after knowing God can we begin to love God in a more conscious and appreciative manner. God says in the Qur’an, “I have not created the jinn and humankind but to (know and) worship Me (exclusively)” (Qur’an, 51:56). Then the question takes on a new form; what is really meant by serving God, or how does one serve God?

The Arabic word used in this verse is ‘ibaadah which is translated as ‘worship’ (origin is ‘weorthscipe’ which means ‘honor’). In this sense, all the prophets preached ‘ibaadah, conveying the message of what God wants human beings to do. In general, worship is defined as all those acts within the circle of halal[9] (do not have to be physical, even an intention can be counted as worship) done for the sake of God, to please Him.

Why does God want human beings to worship him by obeying Him and His Divine Laws?  Without iman (faith) in one’s heart, the immediate response to obedience and worship is “why does God need my worship?”  However, it is the human beings themselves who need the worship. Islam presents Divine Laws (shari’ah) that guide all aspects of life by distinguishing right from wrong. As Philips puts it, “The Creator alone knows best what is beneficial for His creation and what is not. The divine laws command as well as prohibit various acts and substances to protect human spirit, human body and society from harm. In order for human beings to fulfill their potential by living righteous lives, they need to worship God through obedience to His commandments.”[10] Also, the underlying purpose of the regular acts of worship is to remember God constantly.

What follows is the “trial/education”; a concept common in all three monotheistic traditions, though in Islam, it takes a slightly different connotation (Qur’an: 18:7; 67:2). Human beings will be held accountable for every single action they do in this life, good as well as the bad. Since God provided humanity with guidelines (the scriptures) and the messengers, and He gave intelligence and freewill, without accountability and the Judgment Day, creation would be in vain. God says in the Qur’an:

 

“He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days – and His Supreme Throne was upon the water – that He might make trial of you to manifest which of you is best in conduct…” (Qur’an, 11:7).

 

“God has created the heavens and the earth in truth (for meaningful purpose, on solid foundations of truth and embodying it), and so that every soul may be recompensed for what it has earned (in this world), and they will not be wronged” (Qur’an, 45:22).

 

Another essential aspect of the creation of humankind lies in the concept of vicegerency (being a representative or agent of God on earth). What does it mean for humanity to be the vicegerent of God on earth?

 

“We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but man undertook it;- He was indeed unjust and foolish” (Qur’an, 33:72).

 

As explain in the above verse, God has called upon the whole of creation and informed it that He has a trust to offer. All of creation, including mountains, refused to accept this challenging trust except man. Thus, man became God’s trustee on earth. There are varying arguments for the definition of the trust. Mawlavi claims that since the only unique trait that humans possess is freewill and choice, then these gifts are the basis of the trust. There are several clear verses in the Qur’an stating that God has appointed humanity as His vicegerent on earth, “He it is Who has appointed you vicegerents on the earth (to improve it and rule over it according to God’s commands)…” (Qur’an, 6:165). Philips explains this long term cycle of the role of human beings as follows:

 

God created human beings with the potential to be good and evil. He implanted in man the desires that need to be controlled according to the divine law. God created human beings knowing that they would disobey Him. He thus taught them how to repent and purify themselves. The story of Adam and Eve is a prototype of human beings’ repeated cycle. They forgot God’s commandment and were lured by Satan. They disobeyed God and afterwards repented and God forgave them.[11]

 

The Qur’an outlines the conclusions to be drawn after one acknowledges God as the sole Creator. Since God creates and sustains everything, then His creatures are to live according to His Will. Thus, the messengers and the scriptures expound the right way of life for His creatures. God urges humans to use their intelligence and reasoning power to contemplate the universe and the scriptures so that they can recognize and acknowledge God’s wonders. Awe for and thankfulness to God naturally follows, since our existence depends only upon Him:

 

Now O humankind! Worship your Lord Who has created you as well as those before you (and brought you up in your human nature and identity), so that you may attain reverent piety towards Him and His protection (against any kind of straying and its consequent punishment in this world and the Hereafter)” (Qur’an, 2:21).

 

 Since “His being the Creator is a central reason that he is deserving of worship for the entire universe owes its existence to him,”[12] worship is a requirement of loving and acknowledging God. Also, worshiping God “proceeds not merely from his gracious creative act in the past but from dependence upon him for existence at every instant of the present and the future.”[13]

 

“And what reason do I have that I should not worship Him Who originated me with a nature particular to me, and to Whom you all (as well as I) are being brought back (to give an account of our lives)?” (Qur’an, 36:22).

 

As is evident from the abundance of Qur’anic verses related to the process and the purpose of creation, God did not leave too much room for interpretation. He urges us to understand our creation so that we can fulfill our purpose of creation. The answer to the crucial question “why are we created?” helps unfold numerous other religious and philosophical questions; thus it is an inclusive and important matter to study and comprehend in the context of Islam.

Conclusively, the purpose of creation can be summarized as follows: God was the only Being; He wanted to be known, loved, and worshiped by beings that have the freewill to choose to worship Him.  Creation was not a necessity, but the Will of God. Human beings regard life as their most precious gift and would do anything not to lose it. He created us as human beings, even without our knowledge, and He also sustains us and makes it possible for us to enjoy this life. From this perspective, loving and worshiping God becomes more relevant and logical.

 


[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] Bayrak 2000, p. 64.

[3] Nasr 2000, p. 53.

[4] Nasr 2000, p. 61.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Esposito 1995, p.474.

[7] Nasr 2000, p. 133.

[8] Lings 1991, p. 1.

[9] “Circle of halal” is a phrase used to signify all those things, acts, and intentions within the boundaries of permissible category in Islam.

[10] Philips, p.3.

[11] Philips.

[12] Esposito 1995, p. 472.

[13] Ibid.