There is no Deity but God, Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

In a sense, “There is no deity but God, Muhammad is His servant and messenger” is the motto of Islam. Its literal meaning, that there are not two Gods but just The One, is straightforward. Yet this phrase carries many layers of meaning that we need to contemplate upon in order to decipher and implement it as the guiding principle of our life. Unless we are ready to renew our self, we will continue reconfirming our prejudices and dogmas. Islam came to destroy all idols and the wrong ways of the ancestors (such as our parents or pop culture). Thus, we have to be ready to deconstruct our pre-learned dogmas and wrong perceptions in order to construct the Qur’anic paradigm. The following Qur’anic verses offer essential insights to understand the meaning of the affirmation of the oneness of God:

“To God belongs the East and the West (and therefore, the whole earth: wherever you are, you can turn to Him in the Prayer). Then, whatever direction you turn, there is the “Face” of God. God is All-Embracing (with His Mercy), All-Knowing” (Qur’an, 2:115).

Acknowledging that the existence of everything depends on God’s existence is comforting for our hearts. If there was no God, there would have been no existence. We cannot explain the existence of anything if we do not base its existence on God. Do we feel this when we say “there is no deity but God”? The verse claims that “…whatever direction you turn, there is the Face of God…” (Qur’an, 2:115). Is this really so? We turn one way and see our friend; we turn the other way and see the fruit trees in the garden. Where is God? Moreover, we claim to be believers, but then say “this is my watch; the weather is horrible today; this is what I think.” Where is God in any of this?

 

“God does not disdain to strike any parable – (that of) something like a gnat or something greater or lower than that. Those who have already believed know that it is the truth from their Lord. As to those whose unbelief has long been established in their hearts, they say, “What does God mean by such a parable?” Thereby He leads many astray, and thereby He guides many. He thereby leads none astray save the transgressors” (Qur’an, 2:26).

 

This means that even the simplest thing is a parable pointing to its Creator. Whoever creates the world, He creates it to manifest His Creatorship. Creation, in its entirety, is a sign pointing to the Creator. So not just the fly but everything we encounter is a parable pointing to its Creator. By reflecting on the creation of things, we can begin to understand the transcendental world. This is confirming the claim“…whatever direction you turn, there is the Face of God…” (Qur’an, 2:115). In a sense, we are living in a parable and we are a parable. Yet in this verse, God tells us that the deniers ridicule the parable of a fly not comprehending its significance as a parable referring to and representing the truth. He teaches us that this is the deniers’ attitude.

The verse “…Thereby He leads many astray, and thereby He guides many…” (Qur’an, 2:26) does not mean that God leads people astray by creating a (seemingly ugly) bat or guides by creating a beautiful peacock. We go astray by our misinterpretation of creation of a bat or a peacock and do not see them as demonstrating the Attributes of their Creator. Only according to our choices (partial-freewill) does God lead us astray or guide us. In other words, He creates the results of our choices. For God also says in the Qur’an: “We have only sent you (O Muhammad) but as an unequalled mercy for all the worlds” (Qur’an, 21:107).  He lovingly and constantly guides us through the Scriptures and the Prophets, but we sometimes choose to go astray.

“Muhammad is His servant and His messenger” may also be understood as he was appointed to teach how true the first phrase is: “There is no deity but God.” Only through the light brought by the prophets, can human beings encounter the mercy and the wisdom prevalent in every creature. Every creation, from inanimate things to social events, is a means for those who reflect on it to realize that its Creator is manifesting His Attributes of Perfection (Asma al-Husna). For those who do not heed the prophets, the entire creation is a mass of meaningless matter that happen to exist without any reason. Yet when we look at the creation through the light of the Divine Scriptures, we see how this wrong perception deprives us of compassion.

 


[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.

Significance of Halal and Haram

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

Many Muslims understand Islam mostly in terms of halal (permissions) and haram (prohibitions); excessively and/or exclusively emphasizing the dos and don’ts. These concepts do exist in Islam and circle the frontiers of where a believer should or should not be. However, the real question is: once we choose to be inside this circle and know the boundaries, what are we going to do inside? For instance, we know drinking alcohol is haram (forbidden) and water is halal. But: what is water for us, how should our relationship with water be so that we are an abd (servant of God) who is worshiping God even while drinking water? How can we have a worshipper’s relationship with the world since Qur’an persistently reminds us that everything is a sign? Many people may not drink alcohol because they dislike it; so what is the difference between the one who is seeking to be a worshipper and an unbeliever who both avoid alcohol?

When hadith or Qur’an says “act in the name of God (bismillah),” it does not only mean “say” bismillah. Saying it is meant to remind us of something else. As a worshipper, we are to do the halal things in the name of God, and bismillah is only the remembrance (zikr) or the reminder. Zikr is higher than prayer (salat) because zikr is what makes the prayer meaningful. You may perform an entire salat (daily prayers) without thinking of God once, whereas zikr (remembrance) is the essence of worship. Thus, saying bismillah is only the beginning of a lifelong learning and education (tarbiyah). This is why the companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did not just come and learn the list of what is halal and what is haram; this would not have taken 23 years to learn! Moreover, at the beginning of the revelation of the Qur’an, there was not a concept of halal and haram yet. These concepts came after iman was established in their hearts, and they have received the tarbiyah of the Qur’an.  Because when one has the gist/essence, amal (deeds) are like the skin of the fruit. The skin is needed to protect and nourish the fruit so it can grow. The skin is therefore crucial for preserving the core.

If we do not have the boundaries, or the setting in which the core can grow, we will not know how to practice submission (taslimiyah) and tawhid… Thus deeds, dos and don’ts, are facilitating worship but the goal is ibadatullah (worship of God), not the amal on its own. To do everything in the name of God is ibadah (worship). Hence, we need to learn more than just memorizing the dos and don’ts. For instance, if I fast during Ramadan and do not feel anything other than hunger, would this really be fasting? Whereas the amal is the psychical form of expressing the belief, the niyah (intention) is very important in order to be actually worshipping. If someone comes and starts imitating the salat (prescribed prayers) without intending to do it in the name of God, it would not be considered salat. The relationship between the outer form of deeds and the inner dimensions resembles the relationship of the spirit (ruh) and the body. The ruh cannot experience anything without the body. Yet, the body would be dead without the ruh, so they are both important to coexist. In a hadith qudsi[2], Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) related God’s message as:

A servant [of Allah’s] committed a sin and said: O Allah, forgive me my sin. And He (glorified and exalted be He) said: My servant has committed a sin and has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for them. Then he sinned again and said: O Lord, forgive me my sin. And He (glorified and exalted be He) said: My servant has committed a sin and has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for them. Then he sinned again and said: O Lord, forgive me my sin. And He (glorified and exalted be He) said: My servant has committed a sin and has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for sins. Do what you wish, for I have forgiven you (Hadith Qudsi 33).

This hadith does not imply we can sin as we like and God will forgive us no matter what. The condition for forgiveness is that every time we sin, we sincerely repent and come back asking for forgiveness from God. The essential point here is that asking for forgiveness implies the acknowledgment of having a Lord; accepting His Lordship and Mercy and asking for forgiveness.

The greatest sin, and the only one that will not be forgiven, is shirk (associating partners with God = violating tawhid). It is on the level of belief and disbelief, and not the less significant halal and haram level. Hence, we should focus on understanding shirk so we do not commit it, because according to this hadith we will be forgiven as long as we return to God and do not violate tawhid. Tawhid is so important that the whole Qur’an is about it. The fact that the Qur’an was revealed gradually over 23 years is noteworthy. The companions of the Prophet were gradually educated by the Qur’an to live by tawhid. Yet, we have the entire Qur’an as a book now, so we mistakenly think that ‘saying’ the declaration of faith (shahadah) makes us a muslim/submitter. However, what will save is God’s grace and our understanding and living by tawhid and ikhlas (sincerity). The goal is not total self-purification, and we can never be sure that we have no sins. The goal is to continuously recognize our ubudiyyah (our being created). The attitude, “I have no sins so you have to put me in Heaven now,” contradicts the spirit of tawhid. The point is to know our position before the mercy of God. In a hadith qudsi, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) relates God’s message as:

O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it (Hadith Qudsi 33).

This hadith qudsi, like the previous one, warns us not to over-emphasize sin and halal/haram at the expense of iman, but to focus on tawhid and ikhlas (sincerity). These hadith qudsi instruct us to make sure we are not committing shirk. When we focus on halal and haram, we tend to say “I am on the halal side so I am fine/safe.” This attitude itself is on the path of shirk because it assumes that it is me who is doing the halal, not seeing it as God’s grace. Thus it is not humble, and it can easily lead to shirk. The goal is to close all the ways that might lead to shirk. Someone who really knows God and the true meaning of unifying God/tawhid in daily life is less likely to commit shirk. This requires practicing our faith; putting it in practice in our daily life. We tend to forget about our purpose of creation, which is to worship our Creator, to know ourselves and our purpose in life and relation with God. It is not about dos and don’ts, which may be called the mechanics of religion.

The mechanics are there to help us with the essentials (i.e. iman). When we falsely think we are the one performing things, we feel better about our ego/nafs. For example, we have lost if we say “I am sincere,” by attributing our accomplishments to ourselves. Ikhlas is to know that everything is from God and nothing is from us. Understanding this is a lifetime process… We will experience and recognize it at different levels through different phases of our life. This is why the Qur’an descended over 23 years. It is not a set amount of knowledge or information that we memorize or can be spoon fed. We ought to strive to be educated and transformed by its guidance.

The aforementioned hadith qudsi tell us not to focus on sin. It is one of Satan’s tricks to render us hopeless by whispering “you sinned so much, your prayer is not worth anything.” Losing hope of God’s mercy is sign of unbelief. When we concentrate on deeds/amal, we can easily lose hope, because we can never be sure our deeds are good enough. The focus should always be on asking God to make our deeds acceptable by praying: “God, my intention was to worship you, so please purify my intention and accept my deeds.” Doing the best action, etc. is not the point. The point is to return to Him and ask from Him, because acknowledging His mercy is important. The salat (prescribed prayers) is only a reminder of our state of worship. If our salat is not increasing our iman in God, it means we do not have the right attitude and the right understanding of ibadah (worship).

 


[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] Hadith Qudsi refers to sayings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) where the meaning is from God but the words are from the Prophet. In contrast, in normal hadith, both the meaning and the words are from Pophet Muhammad (pbuh).

How to Approach the Qur’an

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

2. To whom is He speaking?: All humanity

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

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

 

The general principles of exegesis are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Oneness of God

2. Existence of the hereafter

3. Messengership

4. Justice and worship

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

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

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

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

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

 


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

“God Has Created Adam in His Image”

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

Education (Tarbiyah) of the Qur’an

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

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