By Dr. Eren Tatari
Alhamdulillah (all praise is due to God) is the first phrase of the opening chapter of the Qur’an. Thus, the Qur’an’s teaching starts with this phrase. It is so significant that it needs to be studied in depth and paid utmost attention. In Isarat’ul I’jaz, Nursi starts by asserting that if we want to be educated by the Qur’an, we have to start with alhamdulillah, understand its meaning, and live accordingly. Praising God is like a concise way of worship: all forms of worship summarized in one phrase. Whatever we praise, we worship.
God created creation for human beings to know Him, marifatullah. First, knowledge of God is needed, followed by praise/love of God, followed by worship of God. If we know our God, and if what we know is really God, than we praise Him, and worship Him. From the other way around, if we praise God that means we worship Him, if we worship Him that means we know our God. This is not a distinct separation between worship and praise, yet they are not synonymous either. Hamd (praise) is not ubudiyyah (servanthood), but praise is the beginning of servanthood, it leads us to servanthood. If we are praising something, that is the object of worship, thus we need to be careful of what we praise at all times. Sometimes we say, we are convinced of God’s existence, and we believe in Him, and perform our formal worship, yet we praise something other than God. In this case, we are not worshipping God, and we may be conceived as worshipping the thing we praise. We cannot praise the beauty of a flower without directing that praise to its Maker by remembering (zikr) and saying Subhanallah or Masha’allah.
The purpose and aim of the universe is for human beings to acquire the knowledge of God. Creation exists for us to reach the knowledge of God. Since the Qur’an starts with the phrase alhamdulillah, it infers that the ultimate aim of the Qur’an is to teach people to realize that the ultimate aim of creation is praise, leading to knowledge and worship of God. The Qur’an also teaches us how to praise and whom to praise. 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). When we praise something in creation, it is to announce its perfections, thus acknowledging its Creator’s perfection.
Man is created as a summary or an index of the universe. God put in human beings qualities that manifest God’s Attributes. So I can communicate with the universe through the Attributes of the Creator. Since all the universe manifests God’s Attributes and I have this quality in me also, I communicate with the universe through the Attributes. This is explained in the second chapter of the Qur’an, which begins with relating the story of Adam’s creation.
God taught “the names” to Adam. What is meant by the names in this event is not merely the names of things as generally understood. It is referring to God’s Attributes (Asma al-Husna). The difference between angels and the human is that each angel manifests only one name of God, whereas human beings manifest all of the Divine Attributes. Each angel receives one command and represents/carries that command here in creation, so each angel manifests one of God’s Attributes. Yet the human being can gauge all the commands. So Adam was taught all of God’s Attributes. This is why the human being is the khalif/representative/agent of God on earth.
Also, human beings are given the capacity to perceive all the Attributes of God in creation. Thus, by definition no one can claim not to know God. When we read the book of the universe, we are reading all the meanings that the Creator of this universe intended to convey to us.
The spirit of the human being is coming directly from God: “When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him” (Qur’an, 15:29 and 38:72). This essence of the human being is very significant. The whole creation is also so significant, that in each action you can see the manifestations of God’s Attributes. Yet in some things and some actions they are more apparent for our perception than others. By God breathing His spirit into us, we are endowed with the potential to perceive and manifest all of God’s Attributes. Yet, we can manifest a few of them maybe, and perceive in creation only a few of them now, and through increasing our knowledge of God, start perceiving more and more. For instance, when we study the qualities of a single beam of light in a given room, we would know about all the other beams in the room. If we deny that one single photon from the sun is not coming from the sun, it is as if we are denying that all of the photons are from the sun.
Everything in creation manifests God’s Attributes, and thus, everything is sacred in its creation (root of environmentalism in Islam). From this point of view, rendering anything worthless is like rendering its Maker worthless. The distinction to be aware of is that humans are sacred in their creation, yet their misuse of their freewill, choices, false claims of denying God, may be worthless.
If someone deliberately chooses the wrong, tells a lie, or hurts others, then we cannot respect that choice, bad action, or thought. Yet we can and we should still respect his/her creation or being. When human beings misuse their freewill, the result of their choice is not perfect. Yet, if they repent, then this is, in a sense, correction bringing us back to perfection. The essence of the human being is always absolutely sacred and perfect.
If we spend all that is bestowed on us (our potential) for the purpose of our creation, all these qualities become like a map, explaining the reality of this universe. Our usage of the potential for the purpose it was given is praising/appreciating what has been given to us.
So the relation between the knowledge of God and praise of God lies here. If I know God, know His purpose in creation and me, and use what He has given to me as He intended them to be used, I am praising Him. This is active, physical praising. If I do not know why these qualities and this potential have been given to me, I cannot use it in the way it was meant, and cannot praise God. I would be insulting God if I wasted the qualities by using them in unrelated ways.
There is also verbal praising: Praising the Giver with words after we experience the blessings. Divine Law removes the rust of nature. Divine Law is manifested in two ways. One is the way things have been set up in the universe. The other is the guidance conveyed through the scriptures. Rust of nature means understanding that things are happening, occurring, coming about naturally. Rust refers to covering up the truth in creation, cutting off the relationship of creation from its Creator. Thus, obeying God’s commands in creation and in scriptures removes the rust of nature.
For example, we eat an orange. If while I am eating it, I get to know God’s Attributes, I have praised God by obeying the purpose of the creation of the orange. But if I do not communicate with the orange in this way, and choose to block the Attributes of God (kufr: cover up), than I am saying that this orange is not a gift from God; it is there naturally, by itself. In this context, obeying the Divine Law means obeying the command of remembering God and observing the manifestations of His Attributes on the creation of the orange. Not wasting it while eating is also obeying the Divine Law prescribed for me in the scripture.
In the Afterlife, we will witness reality and there will be no way to cover up the truth or claim ownership. We will be conscious of our existence, and by default manifest God’s Attributes (the ability to misuse our partial-freewill will not be functioning anymore). Thus our level of apprehension of beauty in this life is important because we will see, and enjoy the real beauty in the Afterlife in accordance with what we apprehended here.
We want to know God better, and enjoy Afterlife. So this desire in itself is God’s promise saying “Ask me and I shall give it to you.” So we must recognize and admit that it is not us who will gain paradise, but God will give us the apprehension/knowledge of God and paradise. For instance, if we think that the Creator is absolutely compassionate and merciful; in this understanding there is no room for hell. Hell is for those who deny the mercy of God. When we admit the mercy of God as absolute, we cannot say “I will be put in hell.” God says “I am as my servants think of me” means exactly this.
In other words, praise is the display of the attributes of perfection. A flower displays God’s Attributes by default. But in human beings, if our freewill interferes, we might cover them up. So we need to just submit and let the Attributes of perfection manifest on us. In a sense, we have to choose to display what is already in us, like the flower. But we have been given an extra capacity to witness and confirm this display in other creatures as well.
Praising is fulfilling our purpose of creation by using the Attributes for the purpose they were given to us and by verbally praising the One who gave them.
For example, my eyes are given to me to witness God’s manifestations in creation in order to increase my knowledge of God. If I use my eyes like a Rabit, only to look for food, etc., than I am not giving due thanks for my eyes. Using our potentials for their intended purpose has to be conscious. This is the fitri, natural way of praising the Bestower, or the active praise as opposed to verbal praise. (Fitrah means what has been purposefully given to us. How we were created, given attributes or potentialities, our natural tendencies.)
Man is a summary of the universe in both spirit and body. Human beings are a place of manifestations of God’s Attributes. Man is in the center like a prism that receives and refracts the light into its different colors. He is in the center of the world of the unseen and the world of the seen (alam al-ghayb and alam al-shahadah).
All the attributes come from the unseen and man manifests them onto the world of seen. If we look at a man, we can deduce what the World of the unseen has. Sufi scholars tried to understand why humans were chosen as the representatives of God on earth, receiving commands from God and at the same time acting on earth as if they were the real owners, meaning using things, being in charge, trying to understand and make sense of them in order to know the World of the Unseen, and represent it in this world.
Human beings reflect God’s Attributes of Perfection (since Adam (pbuh) was taught the names of creatures on the earth) and were given scales/gauges as a tool to measure, the quality of the Attributes but not the quantity. For instance, we have been given the ability to gauge compassion, ability to understand, measure what God’s compassion is. We have been given limited knowledge so that we can comprehend what it means for God to be the All-Knower. Yet thinking that His knowledge is the ocean and ours is a drop from the ocean is wrong. This would wrongfully mean that we are part of God (and even part of divine is divine; hence this would be saying we are God). Ours is not a drop from the ocean. Ours is a measurement which measures the quality of water, rather than of the same kind of water.
We are given the capacity to appreciate, understand God’s Attributes, but being able to appreciate is completely different than owning even a little piece of God’s Knowledge. Our knowledge is not of the same type or quality as God’s. If we say we have small pieces of God’s Attributes, we are claiming to be small Gods, because small pieces of absolute are still absolute. Infinity divided by million is infinity. God blowing into us from His spirit must be understood in the same way. God reflected in man’s being the capacity to understand Him. Each fraction of my being demonstrates God’s Absoluteness. We are from God but we are not a small piece of God. We are not of the same nature.
When I am acting compassionately, I am not representing God’s compassion, but displaying that my Creator is the Compassionate One. We do not own anything, but we pretend that we own things. We must use our sense of ownership, the scale/gauge, as a measurement to understand God’s ownership. What does God own? My ownership of a thing -trusteeship- is not of the same kind of God’s ownership. Once we start to use this scale to understand God, we realize we do not own things. The first step is to feel like you own it. Then you use the scale to understand what I own and what God’s ownership means. The third is to extend this example, scale to all other feelings and qualities that I have been given as scales.
As a cognitive tool each of the senses, qualities are given to us. When we manifest His Attributes, we display that our Creator is compassionate. No one can claim the ownership of his/her attributes. Yet, in this world we have the option to not reflect them or claim ownership through our freewill, and exclaim “I am smart, I am tidy.” The gist of praise of God is to employ the senses, qualities endowed on us by God, in measuring the Absolute Attributes of God that are manifested in the creation.
 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.