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.

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