Chapter2 Setting Out

Approaches to the Qur’an

It would probably be better to delay this discussion for the appendices, so as not to lose many readers before even getting started, because I expect that the majority will be Muslims and that many of them find this subject upsetting. It has to do with the role of symbolism in revelation. The appendices may be more appropriate, because the main conclusions reached in this chapter will hardly be affected by these remarks, but my principle concern is with a smaller readership, which, while attempting to reconcile religion with modern thought, might be dissuaded by its own excessive literalism.

Muslims assert that the Qur’an is a revelation appropriate for all persons, times, and places, and it is not difficult to summon Qur’anic verses to support this claim. If they held to the opposite, there would not be much point in considering their scripture. In order to entertain this premise sincerely, we certainly should allow for, even anticipate, that the Qur’an would use allegory, parables, and other literary devices to reach a diverse audience. The language of the Qur’an would have to be that of the Prophet’s milieu and reflect the intellectual, religious, social, and material customs of the seventh-century Arabs. But if the essential message is universal, then it must transcend the very language and culture that was the vehicle of revelation. Since a community’s language grows with and out of its experiences, how then are realities outside that experience communicated? There appears to be only one avenue: through the employment of allegory, that is, the expression of truths through symbolic figures and actions or, as the famous Qur’an exegete Zamakhshari put it, “a parabolic illustration, by means of something which we know from our experience, of something that is beyond the reach of our perception.” 5

For example, the Qur’an informs us that Paradise in the hereafter is such that “no person knows what delights of the eye are kept hidden from them as a reward for their deeds” (32:17). Yet it also provides very sensual images of Paradise that are particularly suited to the imagination of Muhammad’s contemporaries. These descriptions recall the luxury and sensual delights of the most wealthy seventh-century Bedouin chieftains. If the reader happened to be a man from Alaska, he may be quite apathetic to these enticements. He may prefer warm sandy beaches to cool oases; sunshine to constant shade; scantily clad bathing beauties to houris, with the issue of whether or not they are virgins of no real consequence. This reader will probably take these references symbolically, reinforced by the Qur’an’s frequent assignment of the word mathal (likeness, similitude, example) to its eschatological descriptions.

Similarly, though God is “sublimely exalted above anything that men may devise by way of definition” (6:100) and “there is nothing like unto Him” (42:11) and “nothing can be compared to Him” (112:4), the reader nonetheless needs to relate to God and His activity. Thus we find that the Qur’an provides many comparative descriptions of God. For instance, while human beings are sometimes merciful, compassionate, generous, wise and forgiving, God is The Merciful, The Compassionate, The Generous, The Wise, and The Forgiving. The Qur’an mentions God’s “face”, “hand”, “throne” and other expressions

which at first sight have an almost anthropomorphic hue, for instance, God’s “wrath” (ghadab) or “condemnation”; His “pleasure” at good deeds or “love” for His creatures; or His being “oblivious” of a sinner who was oblivious of Him; or “asking” a wrongdoer on Resurrection Day about his wrongdoing; and so forth," 6

To disallow the possibility of symbolism in such expressions would seem to imply contradictions between some statements in the Qur’an. To do so is entirely unnecessary, especially in consideration of the following key assertion:

He it is Who has bestowed upon you from on high this divine writ, containing messages clear in and of themselves (ayat muhkamat) – and these are the foundation of the divine writ – as well as others that are allegorical (mutashabihat). Now those whose hearts are given too swerving from the truth go after that pan of it which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out confusion, and seeking its final meaning, but none save God knows its final meaning. (3:7)

Therefore the Qur’an itself insists on its use of symbolism, because to describe the realm of realities beyond human perception – what the Qur’an designates as al ghayb (the unseen or imperceptible) – would be impossible otherwise. This is why it would be a mistake to insist on assigning a literal interpretation to the Qur’an’s descriptions of God’s attributes, the Day of Judgment, Heaven and Hell, etc., because the ayat mutashabihat do not fully define and explicate these, but they relate to us, due to the limitations of human thought and language, something similar. This helps explain the well-known doctrine of bila kayf (without how) of al Ash’ari, the famous tenth-century theologian whose viewpoint on this matter became dominant in Muslim thought. It states that such verses reveal truths, but we should not insist on, or ask, how these truths are realized.7

Throughout Muslim history, the literalist trend in Qur’an exegesis was one among a number of approaches. Today, in America and Canada, it has emerged as the most prevalent. It appears that the majority of Muslim lecturers in America tend to take every narrative or description in the Qur’an as a statement of a scientific or historical fact. So, for example, the story of Adam is assumed to relate the historical and scientific origins of Homo Sapiens. This tendency is reinforced by the current widespread excitement over recent Qur’an and Science studies, where many, if not most, of the discoveries of modern science are believed to have been anticipated by the Qur’an.

It is true that some of the descriptions in the Qur’an of the “signs” (ayat) in nature of God’s wisdom and beneficence bear a fascinating resemblance to certain modem discoveries, and it is also true that none of these signs can be proved to be in conflict with science. But part of the reason for this may argue against attempts by Muslims to subject the Qur’an to scientific scrutiny.8 The Qur’an is very far from being a science textbook. Its language is of the highest literary quality and open to many different shades of meaning. The descriptions of many of the Qur’an’s signs that are believed today to predict recently established facts appear to be consistently and intentionally ambiguous, avoiding a degree of explicitness that would conflict with any reader’s level of knowledge of whatever era. If the Qur’an contained a precise elaboration of these phenomena (the big bang theory, the splitting of the atom, the expansion of the universe, to name a few), these would have been known to ancient Muslim scientists. A truly wondrous feature of the Qur’an is that these signs lose nothing of their power, beauty, and mystery from one generation to the next; each generation has found them compatible with the current state of knowledge. To be inspired with awe and wonder by the Qur’anic signs is one thing; to attempt to deduce or impose upon them scientific theories is another and, moreover, is contrary to the Qur’an’s style.

The relationship between the Qur’an and history is very much the same. Anyone familiar with the Bible will notice that there are many narratives in the Qur’an that have Biblical parallels. In the past, Orientalists would accuse Muhammad, whom they assumed to be the Qur’an’s author, of plagiarizing or borrowing material from Jewish and Christian sources. This opinion has become increasingly unpopular among western scholars of Islam. For one thing, where Biblical parallels do exist, the Qur’anic accounts almost always involve many key differences in detail and meaning. Equally important is the fact that the Qur’an itself assumes that its initial hearers were fairly well acquainted with these tales. It is therefore very probable that through centuries of contact, Jews, Christians, and pagans of the Arabian peninsula adopted, with modifications, each other’s oral traditions. It also would not be at all surprising that traditions shared by Jews and Arabs of the Middle East would go back to a common source, since they shared a common ancestry. Hence, the conjecture that the Qur’an borrows from the Bible is inappropriate.

In addition to biblical parallels, the Qur’an contains a number of stories that were apparently known only to the Arabian peninsula and at least one of mysterious origins.9 A striking difference between all of the Qur’anic accounts and the biblical narratives is that while the latter are very often presented in a historical setting, the former defy all attempts to do so, unless outside sources are consulted. In other words, relying exclusively on the Qur’an, it is nearly impossible to place these stories in history. The episodes are told in such a way that the meaning behind the story is emphasized while extraneous details are omitted. Thus, western readers who know nothing of the Arabian tribes of ’Ad and Thamud readily understand the moral behind their tales. This omission of historical detail adds to the transcendent and universal appeal of the narratives, for it helps the reader focus on the timeless meaning of the stories.

The Qur’anic stories are so utterly devoid of historical reference points that it is not always clear whether a given account is meant to be taken as history, a parable, or an allegory. Consider the following two verses from the story of Adam:

It is We Who created you, then We gave you shape, then We bade the angels, “Bow down to Adam!” and they bowed down; not so Iblis; he refused to be of those who bow down. (7:11)

And when your Lord drew forth from the children of Adam, from their loins, their seed, and made them testify of themselves, (saying) “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, truly we testify.” (That was) lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection: “Lo! of this we were unaware.” (7:172)

Note the transition in 7:11 from “you” (plural in Arabic) in the first two clauses to “Adam” in the third, as if mankind is being identified with Adam. These verses seem to demand symbolic interpretations, otherwise from the first we would have to conclude that we were created, then we were given shape, then the command was given concerning the first man! As for 7:172, I would not even know how to begin to interpret this verse concretely, and it should come as no surprise that many ancient commentators also understood it symbolically.

The Qur’an’s eighteenth surah, al Kahf, relates a number of beautiful stories in an almost surrealistic style. For example, verse 86, from the tale of Dhul Qarnain reads,

Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, and he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people near it. We said: “O Dhul Qarnain! Either punish them or treat them with kindness.” (18:86)

This verse has puzzled Muslim commentators, many of whom searched history for a great prophet conqueror that might compare to Dhul Qarnain, who reached the lands where the sun rises and sets. The most popular choice was Alexander the Great, which is patently false since he is well known to have been a pagan. Since the sun does not literally set in a muddy spring with people nearby, a less-than-literal interpretation is forced upon us.

Rather than belabor the point, let me summarize my position. On the basis of the style and character of the Qur’an, I believe that the most general and most cautious statement one can make is: The Qur’an relates many stories, versions with which the Arabs were apparently somewhat familiar, not for the sake of relating history or satisfying human curiosity, but to “draw a moral, illustrate a point, sharpen the focus of attention, and to reinforce the basic message.”10 I would advise against attempts to force or decide the historicity of each of these stories. First of all, because the Qur’an avoids historical landmarks and since certain passages in some narratives clearly can not be taken literally, such an insistence seems unwarranted. Furthermore, imposing such limitations on the Qur’an may lead, unnecessarily, to rational conflicts and obstructions that distract the reader from the moral of a given tale. The Qur’an itself harshly criticizes this inclination in Surat al Kahf:

Some say they were three, the dog being the fourth among them. Others say they were five, the dog being the sixth – doubtfully guessing at the unknown. Yet others say seven, the dog being the eighth. Say, “My Lord knows best their number, and none knows them, but a few. Therefore, do not enter into controversies concerning them, except on a matter that is clear.” (18:22)

Moreover, it would be humanly impossible to definitively decide the historic or symbolic character of every tale; no one has the requisite level of knowledge of history and Arab oral tradition – not to mention insight into the intent and wisdom of the author – to make such a claim. Personal ignorance should be admitted, but it should not be allowed to place limits and bounds on the ways and means of revelation.

As we set out on our journey, we will be approaching the Qur’an from the standpoint of meaning; seeking to make sense of and find purpose in the existence of God, man, and life. We are now ready to embark. We have made our preparations and have broken camp. With the Qur’an before us, we enter the first page.

An Answer to a Prayer

In the Name of God, The Merciful, The Compassionate 1. Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds; 2. The Merciful, The Compassionate; 3. Master of the day of Requital; 4. You do we serve and You do we beseech for help; 5. Guide us on the straight path; 6. The path of those whom you have favored; 7. Not those upon whom is wrath and not those who are lost. (1:1-7)

Volumes upon volumes have been written on the Qur’an’s opening surah, even though it consists of only seven short verses, but we, my fellow travelers, have only time enough to pause for a few very brief observations.

The first verse indicates a hymn of praise, to God, “the Lord of the worlds”. The divine names, “The Merciful, The Compassionate”, appearing in the second, head every surah but one (the ninth) and are among the most frequently mentioned attributes of God, both in the Qur’an and by Muslims in their everyday speech. The mood abruptly changes in verse two as it reawakens deep-seated anxieties and conflicts. No sooner are God’s mercy and compassion emphasized than we are threatened with the “Day of Requital”. Would it not have been more tactful to postpone such considerations, to wait until the reader is a little more comfortable with and confident in the Qur’an? Assertions about God’s mercy, compassion, gentleness, or love never drove us from religion, but warnings of a Day of Judgment, of Hell, of eternal damnation that we found impossible to harmonize with mercy and compassion, did.

The fourth verse goes even deeper into the quagmire as it reminds us that service is rendered and pleas for help are directed to the very creator of the predicament from which we seek salvation. Far from allowing us to warm up to its message, the scripture wastes no time recalling our complaints against religion. We will discover that this is a persistent tactic of the Qur’an; that it repeatedly agitates the skeptic by confronting him with his personal objections. We will soon see that this Qur’an is no soft sell nor hard sell; that in reality it is no sell at all; that it is no less than a challenge, a dare, to fight and argue against this book.

We can relate to the last three verses all too readily. Life is a chaotic puzzle, a random and confusing maze of paths and choices that lead no where but to broken dreams, empty accomplishments, unfulfilled expectations, one mirage after another. Is there a right path, or are all in the end equally meaningless? Note the transition from personal to impersonal in verses six and seven, as if to say that to obtain the “straight path” is a divine favor conferred on those who seek and heed divine guidance and that those who do not follow divine guidance are exposed to all of life’s impersonal, unfeeling wrath, and utter loss and delusion. This wrath and loss we know well, for we have absorbed life’s anger and aimlessness and made it our own; it is our argument for the nonexistence of a personal God and the foundation of our philosophy.

We moved through the seven verses quickly. There was a subtle shift in mood from the first four that glorified God to the last three that asked for guidance. More than likely our first reading of them was so casual that we did not observe the change. It was not until we had finished the opening surah that we realized that we had just involuntarily and semiconsciously made a supplication. We were almost tricked into it before we had a chance to resist. The beginning of the next surah will inform us that whether we consciously intended it or not, our prayer has reached its destination and that it is about to receive an answer.

That Is the Book

In the name of God, the Merciful, The Compassionate 1. Alif lam mim 2. That is the book, wherein no doubt, is guidance to those who have fear, 3. Who believe in the unseen, and are steadfast in prayer and spend out of what We have given them, 4. And who believe in that which is revealed to you and that which was revealed before you, and are certain of the hereafter. 5. These are on guidance from their Lord, and these, they are the successful. (2:1-5) 11

Alif lam mim is a transliteration of the three Arabic letters that open this surah. Twenty-nine surahs begin with such letter combinations of the Arabic alphabet. They continue to be a mystery to Qur’an commentators, and opinions differ as to their meaning. Most believe they are abbreviations of words or mystic symbols, but we will leave such speculation aside.

The second verse declares to us that that book, the Qur’an – that we have before us – is without doubt the answer to the prayer we had just recited. The tenor of the Qur’an from here on is different from that of the opening surah. In the first surah, it was the reader humbly petitioning God for guidance, while the perspective of the remainder of the Qur’an, as this verse insists, will be God, in all His supreme power and grandeur, proclaiming to the reader the guidance that he sought, whether consciously or unconsciously, knowingly or unknowingly. Also observe that doubt and fear are accentuated in this verse. We should not exclude ourselves so hastily from these attributes, even though we do not fit the full description continued in verses three through five. We do have doubts, not only about God’s existence but also about our denial of it. If we were absolutely certain of our atheism, we would not be reading this scripture. As much as we hate to admit it, we are not quite sure of ourselves; there exists in us at least a glimmer of doubt – and of fear. The word muttaqin, translated as “those who have fear”, comes from the Arabic root which means to protect, to guard, to defend, to be cautious. It implies an acute alertness to one’s potential weaknesses, a person on his toes, a self-critical awareness. We may not be believers, but we are definitely guarded, defensive and cautious when it comes to religion, otherwise we would not be atheists; we would have simply accepted what we inherited from our parents. These are the same qualities that brought us to this journey, because we suspect that we might be wrong, that there is at least a chance that there is a God and if there is, then we are ignoring what would have to be the most important fact in our being.

Verse two also begins a description of the Qur’an’s potential audience. Like many a book of knowledge, it describes the prerequisites and predisposition necessary to fully benefit from its contents. The most sincere in their belief in God (2:2-5) will profit the most. They believe in realities beyond their perceptions and are devout and are kind to their fellow man. They have faith in what is currently being revealed to them, which are the same essential truths of all ages.

Verse six refers to the rejecters, who refuse to even consider the Qur’an. The Qur’an in turn promptly dismisses them in the next verse. Verse eight begins a relatively lengthy discussion (2:8-20) of all those in between, who waver between belief and disbelief, often distracted and blinded by worldly pursuits. From the standpoint of the Qur’an, we may be towards the boundary of this category. Verses twenty through twenty-nine outline some of the Qur’an’s major themes: Man’s need to serve the one God, the prophethood of Muhammad, the hereafter and final judgment, the Qur’an’s use of symbolism (2:26), the resurrection of man, and God’s ultimate sovereignty.

Verse thirty begins the story of man. We will proceed slowly here, line by line, since this has a strong bearing on our questions. The ancient Qur’anic commentators would endorse such an approach, for they used to speak of the ijaz of the scripture – its inimitable eloquence that combines the most beautiful and yet most economical expression. They would advise us not to rush hastily, but to allow each verse, each word, each sound, to penetrate our hearts and minds in order to reap its greatest possible benefit. Otherwise, we may deprive ourselves of essential keys to unlocking truths buried deep within us.

Behold, your Lord said to the angels: “I am going to place a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Will you place therein one who will spread corruption and shed blood? While we celebrate your praises and glorify your holiness?” He said: “Truly, I know what you do not know.” (2:30)

The opening scene is heaven as God informs the angels that He is about to place man on earth. Adam, the first man, has not yet appeared. From the verses that follow, it is clear that at this point in the story Adam is free of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, God plans to place him (and his descendants 6:165; 27:62; 35:39) on earth in the role of vicegerent or vicar (khalifah). There is no insinuation here that earthly life is to serve as a punishment. The word khalifah means “a vicar”, “a delegate”, “a representative”, “a person authorized to act for others”. Therefore, it appears that man is meant to represent and act on behalf of God in some sense.

The angels’ reply is both fascinating and disturbing. In essence it asks, “Why create and place on earth one who has it within his nature to corrupt and commit terrible crimes? Why create this being, who will be the cause and recipient of great suffering?” It is obvious that the angels are referring here to the very nature of mankind, since Adam, in the Qur’an, turns out to be one of God’s elect and not guilty of any major crime. The question is made all the more significant when we consider who and from where it comes.

When we think of angels, we imagine peaceful, pure, and holy creatures in perfect and joyous submission to God. They represent the model to which we should aspire. In our daily speech, we reserve the word “angel” for the noblest of our species. Mother Theresa is often called an “angel of mercy” by the press. Of a person who does something very kind we say, “He is such an angel!” When my wife and I look in on our daughters at night, sleeping so beautifully and serenely, we remark to each other, “Aren’t they angels?” Our image of an angel is of the perfect human being. This is what gives the angels’ question such force, for it asks: “Why create this patently corrupt and flawed being when it is within Your power to create us?” Thus they say: “While we celebrate your praises and glorify your holiness?” Their question is given further amplification by the fact that it originates in heaven, for what possible purpose could be served by placing man in an environment where he could exercise freely his worst criminal inclinations? All of these considerations culminate in the obvious objection: Why not place man with a suitable nature in heaven from the start? We are not even a single verse into the story of man and we have already confronted our (the atheists’) main complaint. And, it is put in the mouths of the angels!

The verse ends not with an explanation, but a reminder of God’s superior knowledge, and hence, the implication that man’s earthly life is part of a grand design. Many western scholars have remarked that the statement, “I know what you do not know,” merely dismisses the angel’s question. However, as the sequence of passages will show, this is not the case at all.

Our initial encounter with the Qur’an has been anything but pleasant; it has been distressful and irritating. Either the author is completely unaware of possible philosophical problems and objections, or else he is deliberately provoking us with them! We are a mere thirty-seven verses into the Qur’an and our anxiety and resentment has been aroused to a fever pitch. We ask, “Why indeed subject mankind to earthly suffering? Why not remove us to heaven or place us there from the first? Why must we struggle to survive? Why create us so vulnerable and self-destructive? Why must we suffer broken hearts and broken dreams, lost loves and lost youth, crises and catastrophes? Why must we experience pains of birth and pains of death? Why?” we beg in our frustration. “Why?” we plead in all our sorrow and emptiness. “Why?” we insist in our anguish. “Why?!” we scream out to the heavens. “Why?!” we plead with the angels. “If You are there and You hear us, tell us, why create man?!!”

And His Lord Turned toward Him

We move now to verse thirty-one, where we find that the Qur’an continues to explore the angels’ question.

And He taught Adam the names of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said, “Tell me their names if you are right.” (2:31)

Clearly, the angels’ question is being addressed in this verse. Adam’s capacities for learning and acquiring knowledge, his ability to be taught, are the focus of this initial response. The next verse demonstrates the angels’ inferiority in this respect. Special emphasis is placed on man’s ability to name, to represent by verbal symbols, “all things” that enter his conscious mind: all his thoughts, fears, and hopes, in short, all that he can perceive or conceive. This allows man to communicate his experience and knowledge on a relatively high level, as compared to the other creatures about him, and gives all human learning a preeminent cumulative quality. In several places in the Qur’an, this gift to mankind is singled out as one of the greatest bounties bestowed on him by God.12

They said: Glory to you: we have no knowledge except what You taught us, in truth it is you who are the Knowing, the Wise. (2:32)

In this verse, the angels plead their inability to perform such a task, for, as they plainly state, it would demand a knowledge and wisdom beyond their capacity. They maintain that its performance would, of course, be easy for God, since His knowledge and wisdom is supreme, but that the same could not be expected of them. In the next passage, we discover that Adam possesses the level of intelligence necessary to accomplish the task and hence, though his knowledge and wisdom are less than God’s, it is yet greater than the angels.

He said: “O Adam! Tell them their names.” When he had told them their names, God said: “Did I not tell you that I know what is unseen in the heavens and the earth and I know what you reveal and conceal?” (2:33)

Here we have an emphatic statement that man’s greater intellect figures into an answer to the angels’ question. We are informed that God takes all into account, in particular, all aspects of the human personality: man’s potential for evil, which the angels’ question “reveals”, and his complementary and related capacity for moral and intellectual growth, which their question “conceals”. To drive home this point, the next verse has the angels demonstrate their inferiority to Adam and shows that man’s more complex personality makes him a potentially superior being.

And behold, We said to the angels, “Bow down to Adam” and they bowed down. Not so Iblis: he refused and was proud: he was of the rejecters. (2:34)

We also find in this verse the birth of sin and temptation. The Qur’an later informs us that Iblis (Satan) is of the jinn (18:50), a being created of a smokeless fire (55:15) and who is insulted at the suggestion that he should humble himself before a creature made of “putrid clay” (7:12; 17:61; 38:76). Satan is portrayed as possessing a fiery, consuming, and destructive nature. He allows his passions to explode out of control and initiates a pernicious rampage. We are often told that money is at the root of all evil, but here the lesson appears to be that pride and self-centeredness is at its core. Indeed, many terrible wrongs are committed for no apparent material motive.

And we said: “O Adam! Dwell you and your spouse in the garden and eat freely there of what you wish, but come not near this tree for you will be among the wrongdoers.” (2:35)

Thus the famous and fateful command. Yet, the tone of it seems curiously restrained. There is no suggestion that the tree is in any way special; it almost seems as if it were picked at random. Satan will later tempt Adam with the promise of eternal life and “a kingdom that never decays” (20:121), but this turns out to be a complete fabrication on his part. There is not the slightest hint that God is somehow threatened at the prospect of Adam and his spouse violating the command; instead, He voices concern for them, because then “they will be among the wrongdoers”.

This is probably an appropriate place to reflect on what we have learned so far. We saw how God originally intended for man to have an earthly life. We then observed a period of preparation during which man is “taught” to use his intellectual gifts. Now, Adam and his spouse are presented a choice, of apparently no great consequence, except for the fact that it is made to be a moral choice. It thus seems that man has gradually become – or is about to become – a moral being.

But Satan caused them to slip and expelled them from the state in which they were. And we said: "Go you all down, some of you being the enemies of others, and on earth will be your dwelling place and provision for a time. (2:36)

Once again the Qur’an seems to have a penchant for understating things. The Arabic verb azalla means to cause someone to unintentionally slip or lose his footing. But how can one of the most terrible wrongs ever committed be described as a momentary “slip”? Yet perhaps we are letting our own religious backgrounds, even though we rejected them, distort our reading. Perhaps the Qur’an considers this sin as nothing more than a temporary slip. After all, it is only a tree! Its only significance may be that it signals a new stage in man’s development, that it causes man to depart from a previous state.

The words “some of you being the enemies of others” apparently refer to all mankind and echo the angels’ remark concerning man’s earthly strife.

Under normal circumstances, we would know now what to expect. We have been terrified by it ever since we were children. It shook us from our sleep and required our mothers to calm our fears and, unlike other nightmares, it never went away when we awoke, because it was confirmed by everyone we trusted. We know that there is about to be unleashed on mankind a rage, a violence, a terror, the like of which has never been known either before or since. Like a huge, thundering, black, and terrifying storm cloud, looming on the horizon and heading straight for us, mankind is about to be engulfed by an awesome fury. And when the smoke clears, man will find himself sentenced, TO LIFE, on earth, where he and all his descendants will suffer and struggle to survive by their sweat and toil. There they will experience illness, agony, and death. There they will suffer endless pain and torment and, in all probability, more of the same and worse in the life to come.

And the WOMAN!!!! To her belong the greater punishment and humiliation, for it was she who duped Adam with her beauty and her charms. It was she who allied herself with Satan – an alliance for which Adam was, of course, no match. It was she who corrupted his innocence and exposed his weaknesses. So it is she who will ache and bleed monthly. It is she who will scream out in her labor pains. It is she who will bare the brunt of greater humiliation and drudgery, because the man will be made to rule over her, in spite of the fact that he is obviously her intellectual inferior, since he was unequal to her cleverness and guile.

So we wince and shudder as we turn to the terror we have always known. We cringe and cower as we peek to the next verse.

Then Adam received words from his Lord, and He turned to him (mercifully). Truly He is Oft-returning, the Merciful. (2:37)

What is this? What is this talk of mercy and turning compassionately towards man? Where is the passion, the jealousy, the anger, erupting out of control?

In this verse, those that follow, and others in the Qur’an that relate the same episode (see, for example,20:116-124, the tone is first and foremost consoling and assuring. God immediately pardons Adam and Eve, with no greater blame assigned to either of them. Adam receives “words”, which some commentators interpret to be words of inspiration and others see as divine assurances and promises. The next verse supports the latter viewpoint, while there are others that include him in the community of prophets (for example, 3:32) which sustain the first.

We said: Go down from this state all of you together; and truly there will come to you guidance from Me and whoever follows My guidance, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. (2:38)

The command issued in 2:36 is repeated here, but this time with special emphasis put on God’s assurances and promises to mankind, thus further precluding the interpretation that man’s earthly life is a punishment. This explains why the Qur’an has man remain on earth even though Adam and Eve are immediately forgiven. Nonetheless, the Qur’an will insist, as we read through it, that life serves definite aims and, as the next verse warns, it has grave consequences and must be taken seriously.

But those who are rejecters and give the lie to our signs, these are the companions of the fire: they will abide in it. (2:39)

The story of Adam ends here to be taken up in bits and pieces later. Many questions and problems have been raised, but we have obtained only some clues and clarifications. This is another characteristic of the Qur’an: It interweaves themes throughout the text, rather than provide several distinct and complete discourses on various topics. In this way it baits the reader, luring him or her into its design, so that its different approaches are allowed to exert their influence frequently and repeatedly. It would be naive of us to expect long uninterrupted dissertations on metaphysics or theology, for such would be understandable to few and of interest and inspiration to far fewer. On the other hand, if the Qur’an is a guidance, as it claims to be, then we should anticipate suggestions, guideposts, and touchstones that help us along the way. Be assured, the Qur’an will not simply translate us to our goal; it will provide directions at different stages, but the traveling and the discovery will have to be ours, because the questions we ask are not only about God – they are about ourselves as peculiar individuals and we are the only persons who have real access to our souls. Thus, as the Qur’an might say, we must be willing not only to search the horizons, but also our own selves, until we know as much as we can grasp of the truth (41:53).

“When Will God’s Help Come?”

Although the picture is still far from clear, some themes that invite further reflection and elaboration have emerged. The most striking fact that we observed is that the Qur’an does not maintain that life on earth is a punishment. Long before Adam and Eve enter the story, the angels raise the troublesome question: Why create man? A series of verses supplies pieces of an answer. Man has a relatively higher intelligence than other creatures. His nature is more complex and he has a greater degree of personal freedom. Thus, he has not only potential for growth in evil but, reciprocally, he has the potential for growth in virtue. We witness a period of preparation, wherein man learns to use his intellectual strengths. Adam and Eve are then ready to become moral beings. They are presented with a somewhat innocuous – although from the standpoint of their development critical – moral choice. They slip and enter a moral phase in their existence, which is symbolized in other Qur’anic passages that have the couple now conscious of sexual morality and modesty (7:19-25; 20:120-123). Thus they depart from a state of ignorance, innocence, and bliss. Man’s higher intellect, freedom of choice, and growth potential will inevitably involve him in conflict and travail. The last of these is the focus of the angels’ question. As we continue along our journey, the Qur’an will stress repeatedly these three features of the human venture: reasoning, choice, and adversity. We will consider each separately.


That the Qur’an gives a prominent place to reason in the attainment of faith is well known and frequently mentioned by western Islamicists. Many western scholars view this as a defect, because they see faith and reason as being inherently incompatible. For example, H. Lammens sarcastically states that the Qur’an “is not far from considering unbelief as an infirmity of the human mind!” 13 His reaction, however, is more cultural and emotional than rational, having its roots in the West’s own struggle with religion and reason. Yet not all western scholars are so cynical. While certainly no advocate for Islam, Maxime Rodinson sees this aspect of the Qur’an as somewhat in its favor and writes:

The Koran continually expounds the rational proofs of Allah’s omnipotence: the wonders of creation, such as the gestation of animals, the movements of the heavenly bodies, atmospheric phenomena, the variety of animal and vegetable life so marvelously well adapted to men’s needs. All those things “are signs (ayat) for those of insight” (3:187-190) …. Repeated about fifty times in the Koran is the verb ’aqala which means “connect ideas together, reason, understand an intellectual argument”. Thirteen times we come upon the refrain, after a piece of reasoning: a fa-la ta’qilun “have ye then no sense?” (2:41-44, etc.) The infidels, those who remain insensible to Muhammad’s preaching, are stigmatized as “a people of no intelligence,” persons incapable of the intellectual effort needed to cast off routine thinking (5:63-58, 5:102-103; 10:42-43; 22:45-46; 9:14). In this respect they are like cattle (2:166-171; 5:44-46). 14

The Qur’an insists that it contains signs for those who are “wise” (2:269), “knowledgeable” (29:42-43), “endowed with insight” (39:9), and “reflective” (45:13). Its persistent complaint against its rejecters is that they refuse to make use of their intellectual faculties and that they close their minds to learning. The Qur’an asks almost incredulously: “Do they not travel through the land, so that their hearts may thus learn wisdom?” (22:44), “Do they not examine the earth?” (26:7), “Do they not travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before them?” (30:9), “Do they not look at the sky above them?” (50:6), “Do they not look at the camels, how they are made?” (88:17), “Have you not watched the seeds which you sow?” (56:63).

Muslim school children throughout the world are frequently reminded of the first five verses of the ninety-sixth surah:

Read in the name of your Lord, who has created – created man out of a tiny creature that clings! Read and your Lord is the Most Bountiful One, who has taught the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know. (96:1-5)

These verses are believed to comprise Muhammad’s very first revelation. “Read!” It commands, as the skill of written communication is presented as one of the great gifts to mankind, because it is by use of the pen that God has taught man what he did not or could not know. Here again, the Qur’an highlights man’s unique ability to communicate – this time in writing – and to collectively learn from the insights and experiences of others.

Repetition is indicative of the importance given to certain topics. It should be observed that the Arabic word for knowledge, ’ilm, and its derivatives appear 854 times in the Qur’an, placing it among the most frequently occurring words. It should also be noted that in many of its stories, where the Qur’an presents a debate between a believer and disbeliever, the believer’s stance is inevitably more rational and logical than his opponent’s.


The Qur’an presents human history as a perennial struggle between two opposing choices: to resist or to surrender oneself to God. It is in this conflict that the scripture immerses itself and the reader; it could be said to be the very crux of its calling. This choice must be completely voluntary, for the Qur’an demands, “Let there be no compulsion in religion – the right way is henceforth clearly distinct from error” (2:256). The crucial point is not that one should come to know and worship God, but that one should freely choose to know and worship God. Thus we find the repeated declaration that God could have made all mankind rightly guided, but it was within His purposes to do otherwise.

Had He willed He could indeed have guided all of you. (6:149)

Do not the believers know that, had God willed, He could have guided all mankind? (13:31)

And if We had so willed, We could have given every soul its guidance. (32:13)

Had God willed He could have made you all one community. But that He may try you by that which He has given you. So vie with one another in good works. Unto God you will all return, and He will inform you of that wherein you differ. (5:48)

The Qur’an categorically affirms that God is not diminished nor threatened by our choices, yet they do carry grave consequences for the individual, as the primary beneficiary of a good deed and the primary casualty of an evil act is the doer.

Enlightenment has come from your God; he who sees does so to his own good, he who is blind is so to his own hurt. (6:104)

Indeed they will have squandered their own selves, and all their false imagery will have forsaken them. (7:53)

And they did no harm against Us, but [only] against their own selves did they sin. (7:160)

And so it was not God who wronged them, it was they who wronged themselves. (9:70)

And whosoever is guided, is only (guided) to his own gain, and if any stray, say: “I am only a warner.” (27:92)

And if any strive, they do so for their own selves: For God is free of all need from creation. (29:6)

We have revealed to you the book with the truth for mankind. He who lets himself be guided does so to his own good; he who goes astray does so to his own hurt. (39:41) (Also see (10:108; 17:15; 27:92).)

These statements are hardly easy on the reader. At first glance they seem to indicate a detachment from and indifference to man’s situation. Philosophically, such a stance may be consistent with God’s transcendence, but only at the expense of attempting any possible relationship with God. Yet such an interpretation would be inappropriately severe. The Qur’anic God is anything but impartial to mankind’s condition. He sends prophets, answers prayers (2:186; 3:195), and intervenes in and manipulates the human drama, as in the Battle of Badr (3:13; 8:5-19; 8:42-48). All is under His authority, and nothing takes place without His allowing it (4:78-79).

The Qur’an’s “most beautiful names” of God imply an intense involvement in the human venture. These names, such as The Merciful, The Compassionate, The Forgiving, The Giving, The Loving, The Creator, etc., reveal a God that creates men and women in order to relate to them on an intensely personal level, on a level higher than with the other creatures known to mankind, not out of a psychological or emotional need but because this is the very essence of His nature. Therefore, we find that the relationship between the sincere believer and God is characterized consistently as a bond of love. God loves the good-doers (2:195; 3:134; 3:148; 5:13; 5:93), the repentant (2:222), those that purify themselves (2:222; 9:108, the God-conscious 3:76; 9:4; 9:7), the patient (3:146), those that put their trust in Him (3:159), the just (5:42; 49:9; 60:8), and those who fight in His cause (61:4). And they, in turn, love God.

Yet there are men who take others besides God as equal (with God), loving them as they should love God. But those who believe love God more ardently. (2:165)

Say: "If you love God, follow me, and God will love you, and forgive you your faults; for God is The Forgiving, The Merciful. (3:31)

O you who believe! If any from among you should turn back from his faith, then God will assuredly bring a people He loves and who love Him. (5:54)

On the other hand, tyrants, aggressors, the corrupt ones, the guilty, rejecters of faith, evil-doers, the arrogant ones, transgressors, the prodigal, the treacherous, and the unjust will not experience this relationship of love (2:190; 2:205; 2:276; 3:32; 3:57; 3:140; 4:36; 4:107; 5:64; 5:87; 6:141; 7:31; 7:55; 8:58; 16:23; 22:38; 28:76; 8:77; 30:45; 31:18; 42:40; 57:23).

There are Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who view God in the Qur’an as virtually indifferent to humanity, establishing the cosmos with fixed laws of cause and effect in all spheres (physical, psychological, spiritual, etc.), and then setting it to run subject to them. Others have seen Him as so completely involved in and in control of creation that all is totally determined, even our choices. Many believe that shades of both viewpoints are present and that they may be irreconcilable. The latter is perhaps closest to the truth, although the irreconcilability is not necessary. Certainly, the Qur’an maintains God’s absolute sway over all creation, which He ceaselessly and continuously sustains, maintains, and influences. Nothing exists or takes place without His permission. Yet He empowers us with the ability to make choices, act them out, and see them, most often, to their expected conclusions. In fact, He frequently leads us to such critical choices. In particular, He allows and enables us to make decisions that are detrimental to ourselves and others:

Say: “All things are from God.” But what has come to these people, that they fail to understand a single fact? Whatever good befalls you is from God, but whatever evil befalls you, is from yourself. (4:78-79)

The assertion here is that our ability to experience true benefit or harm comes from God, but to do real injury to ourselves, in an ultimate and spiritual sense, depends on our actions and decisions, which God has empowered us to make.

As noted above, our acts and choices in no way threaten God and it is the individual who gains or loses by them. However, on the collective level, the Qur’an shows that God intends to produce through this earthly experience persons that share a bond of love with Him. While any individual may or may not pursue this, the Qur’an acknowledges that there will definitely be people who will, and their development is apparently the very object of man’s earthly life (15:39-43; 17:64-65).

Our vision is still quite blurry, but it seems somehow a little clearer than when we started, although we still have far to go. Questions persist about the need for this earthly life as well as the roles of human choice, intelligence, and suffering in the creation of individuals. It also feels as if we are slipping into the difficult topic of predestination. We will reserve that subject for the end of this chapter, for it will take us too far afield at this stage. However, we need to discuss one more Qur’anic statement that relates to divine and human will, because it is very often misunderstood and has a strong bearing on the theme of human choice.

The Qur’an frequently states that God “allows to stray whom He will, and guides whom He will” (2:26; 4:88; 4:143; 6:39; 7:178; 7:186; 3:27; 14:4; 16:93; 35:8; 39:23; 39:36; 40:33; 74:31). This phrase is typically rendered in most English interpretations as “God misleads whom He will, and guides whom He will”. Grammatically, both renderings are possible, because the verb adalla could be used in either sense. It could mean either “to let someone or something stray unguided”, or equally, “to make someone or something lose his/its way”. Ignaz Goldziher, the famous Orientalist and scholar of Arabic, strongly argues in favor of the first rendition. He writes,

Such statements do not mean that God directly leads the latter into error. The decisive verb (adalla) is not, in this context, to be understood as “lead astray”, but rather as “allow to go astray”, that is, not to care about someone, not to show him the way out of his predicament “We let them (nadharuhum) stray in disobedience” (6:110). We must imagine a solitary traveler in the desert: that image stands behind the Qur’an’s manner of speaking about guidance and error. The traveler wanders, drifts in limitless space, on the watch for his true destination and goal. Such a traveler is man on the journey of life. 15

His observation is given further support by the fact that almost all of the statements in the Qur’an of this nature are immediately preceded or followed by others that assert that God guides or refuses to guide someone according to his/her choices and predisposition. We find that “God does not guide the unjust ones”, “God does not guide the transgressors”, and God guides aright those who “listen”, are “sincere”, and are “God-conscious” (2:26, 2:258, 2:264; 3:86; 5:16, 5:51, 5:67, 5:108; 6:88, 6:144; 9:19, 9:21, 9:37, 9:80, 9:109; 12:52; 3:27; 16:37, 16:107; 28:50; 39:3; 40:28; 42:13; 46:10; 47:8; 61:7; 62:5; 3:6). Thus we find that “when they went crooked, God bent their hearts crooked” (61:5). This demonstrates that receiving or not receiving guidance is affected by sincerity, disposition and willingness; it recalls the saying of Muhammad: “When you approach God by an arm’s length, He approaches you by two, and if you come to Him walking, He comes to you running.” 16 Therefore, the phrase “God allows to stray whom He wills” illumines what we have already concluded: while God, according to the Qur’an, could guide all mankind uniformly, He has other purposes and hence does not. Instead, He has created man with a unique and profound ability to make moral decisions and He monitors, influences, and guides each individual’s moral and spiritual development in accordance with them.


The great divide between theist and atheist is their reactions to human suffering. Often the first views it as either deserved or an impenetrable mystery, while the second sees it as unnecessary and inexcusable. The Qur’an advocates neither viewpoint. Trial and tribulation are held to be inevitable and essential to human development and both the believer and unbeliever will experience them.

Most assuredly We will try you with something of danger, and hunger, and the loss of worldly goods, of lives and the fruits of your labor. But give glad tidings to those who are patient in adversity – who when calamity befalls them, say, "Truly unto God do we belong and truly, unto him we shall return. (2:155)

Do you think that you could enter paradise without having suffered like those who passed away before you? Misfortune and hardship befell them, and so shaken were they that the Messenger and the believers with him, would exclaim, “When will God’s help come?” Oh truly, God’s help is always near. (2:214)

You will certainly be tried in your possessions and yourselves. (3:186)

And if we make man taste mercy from Us, then withdraw it from him, he is surely despairing, ungrateful. And if we make him taste a favor after distress has afflicted him, he says: The evils are gone away from me. Truly he is exultant, boastful; except those who are persevering and do good. For them is forgiveness and a great reward. (11:9-11)

Every soul must taste of death. And we try you with calamity and prosperity, [both] as a means of trial. And to Us you are returned. (21:35)

O man! Truly you’ve been toiling towards your Lord in painful toil – but you shall meet Him! (84:6)

Man, however, does not grow only through patient suffering, but also by striving and struggling against hardship and adversity. This explains why jihad is such a key concept in the Qur’an. Often translated as “holy war”, the word jihad literally means “a struggle”, “a striving”, “an exertion”, or “a great effort”. It may include fighting for a just cause, but it has a more general connotation as the associated verbal noun of jahada, “to toil”, “to weary”, “to struggle”, “to strive after”, “to exert oneself”. The following verses, revealed in Makkah before Muslims were involved in combat, bring out this more general sense.

And those who strive hard (jahadu) for Us, We shall certainly guide them in Our ways, and God is surely with the doers of good. (29:69)

And whoever strives hard (jahada) strives (yujahidu) for his self, for God is Self-Sufficient, above the need of the worlds. (29:6)

And strive hard (jahidu) for God with due striving (jihadihi). (22:78)

So obey not the unbelievers and strive against them (jahidhum) a mighty striving (jihadan) with it [the Qur’an]. (25:52)

The last verse occurs in a passage that encourages Muslims to make use of the Qur’an when they argue with disbelievers.

The Qur’an’s attitude towards suffering and adversity is not passive and resigned, but positive and dynamic. The believers are told that they will surely suffer and to be patient and persevering in times of hardship, but they are also to look forward and seek opportunities to improve their situation and rectify existing wrongs. They are told that while the risks and struggle may be great, the ultimate benefit and reward will be much greater (2:218; 3:142; 4:95-96; 8:74; 9:88-89; 6:110; 29:69).

Those who believed and fled their homes, and strove hard in God’s way with their possessions and their selves are much higher in rank with God. And it is these – they are the triumphant. (9:20)

Life was never meant to be easy. The Qur’an refers to a successful life as an “uphill climb,” a climb that most will avoid.

We certainly have created man to face distress. Does he think that no one has power over him? He will say: I have wasted much wealth. Does he think that no one sees him? Have We not given him two eyes, and a tongue and two lips and pointed out to him the two conspicuous ways? But he attempts not the uphill climb; and what will make you comprehend the uphill climb? [It is] to free a slave, or to feed in a day of hunger an orphan nearly related, or the poor one lying in the dust. Then he is of those who believe and exhort one another to patience and exhort one another to mercy. (90:4-17)

Wishful Thinking

“Why create man?” The angels’ question echoes through our reflections. We can at least attempt a partial explanation based on what we have learned from the Qur’an so far.

It seems that God, in accordance with His attributes, intends to make a creature that can experience His being (His mercy, compassion, love, kindness, beauty, etc.) in an intensely personal way and at a level higher than the other beings known to mankind. The intellect and will that man has been given, together with the strife and struggle that he will surely face on earth, somehow contribute to the development of these individuals, this subset of humanity that will be bound to God by love.

We need to travel on and delve deeper in this direction in order to gain greater insight. But before we do, we should consider the possibility that we may be deluding ourselves. By this I mean that we may have been reading into the Qur’an something that is not really there; we may have been projecting onto the scripture our own personal conflict, one that the Qur’an never insists on explicitly nor even intentionally raises the issue of an ultimate purpose behind the creation of man. Yet here again we meet with the persistently provocative method of the scripture. Just when we are prepared to doubt our first impressions and to revert to the familiar and comforting corner of cynicism from which we have come, the Qur’an reopens the topic.

Those [are believers] who remember God standing and sitting and lying down and reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth [and say]: Our Lord, You did not create all this in vain. (3:191)

We have not created the heaven and the earth and whatever is between them in sport. If We wish to take a sport, We could have done it by Ourselves – if We were to do that at all. (21:16-17)

Do you think that We created you purposely and that you will not be returned to Us? The true Sovereign is too exalted above that. (23:115)

We did not create the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, in play. (44:38)

So for us there is no easy escape. The Qur’an apparently will not back out of the challenge. It is up to us to either continue on in this search or to resign and avoid a decisive engagement. Our numbers now are almost surely less than when we started. For those willing to continue, we should consider what would be the next natural step. Since the Qur’an undoubtedly claims that life has a reason and since, as we observed, it has to do with the nurturing of a certain relationship between God and man, it would seem quite appropriate to seek more information about the nature of man and what the Qur’an requires of him as well as about the attributes of God and how mankind is affected by them.

Except Those Who Have Faith and Do Good

The key to success in this life and the hereafter is stated so frequently and formally in the Qur’an that no serious reader can miss it. However, the utter simplicity of the dictum may cause one to disregard it, because it seems to ignore the great questions and complexities of life. The Qur’an maintains that only “those who have faith and do good” (in Arabic: allathina aaminu wa ’amilu al saalihaat) will benefit from their earthly lives (2:25; 2:82; 2:277; 4:57; 4:122; 5:9; 7:42; 10:9; 11:23; 13:29; 14:23; 18:2; 18:88; 8:107; 19:60; 19:96; 20:75; 20:82; 20:112; 21:94; 22:14; 22:23; 2:50; 22:56; 24:55; 25:70-71; 26:67; 28:80; 29:7; 29:9; 29:58; 30:15; 30:45; 31:8; 32:19; 34:4; 34:37; 35:7; 38:24; 41:8; 42:22; 42:23; 2:26; 45:21; 45:30; 47:2; 47:12; 48:29; 64:9; 65:11; 84:25; 85:11; 5:6; 98:7; 103:3). This statement and very similar ones occur so often that it warrants careful analysis.

Wa ’amilu al saalihaat (and do good). The verb ’amila means “to do”, “to act”, “to be active”, “to work”, or “to make”. It implies exertion and effort. Thus the associated noun ’amal (pl. a’maal) means “action”, “activity”, “work” or “labor”, as in the verse, “I waste not the labor (’amala) of any that labors (’amilin)” (3: 195). The noun al saalihaat is the plural of saalih, which means “a good or righteous act”. But this definition does not bring out its full meaning. The verbs salaha and aslaha, which come from the same Arabic root, mean “to act rightly and properly”, “to put things in order”, “to restore”, “to reconcile”, and “to make or foster peace”. Hence the noun sulh means “peace”, “reconciliation”, “settlement” and “compromise”. Therefore, the phrase ’amilu al saalihaat (“do good”) refers to those who persist in striving to set things right; to restore harmony, peace, and balance.

From the Qur’an’s many exhortations and its descriptions of the acts and types of individuals loved by God, it is not difficult to compose a partial list of “good works”. Not unexpectedly, it will consist of those acts and attributes that are universally recognized as virtuous. One should show compassion (2:83; 2:215; 69:34), be merciful (90:17), forgive others (42:37; 45:14; 64:14), be just (4:58; 6:152; 6:90), protect the weak (4:127; 6:152), defend the oppressed (4:75), seek knowledge and wisdom (20:114; 22:54), be generous (2:177; 23:60; 0:39), truthful (3:17; 33:24; 33:35; 49:15), kind (4:36), and peaceful (8:61; 25:63; 47:35), and love others (19:86).

Truly those who believe and do good will the Most Merciful endow with love and to this end have We made this easy to understand in your own tongue, so that you might convey a glad tiding to the God-conscious and warn those given to contention. (19:86)

One should teach and encourage others to practice these virtues (90:17; 103:3) and, by implication, learn and grow in them as well. The stories of the prophets have God’s messengers bidding their communities and families to adopt such ethics, although many of them remain contemptuous.

It is not surprising that the Qur’an upholds the so-called golden rule. Many do feel that it is better to give than to receive, to be truthful rather than to live a lie, to love rather than to hate, to be compassionate rather than to ignore the suffering of others, for such experiences give life depth and beauty. I believe that in the winters of our lives, our past worldly or material achievements will seem less important to us than the relationships we had, loves and friendships that we shared, and times we spent giving of ourselves and doing good to others. In the end, according to the Qur’an, these are what endure.

But the things that endure – the good deeds – are, with your Lord, better in reward and better in hope. (18:46)

And God increases the guided in guidance. And the deeds that endure – the good deeds – are, with your Lord, better in reward and yield better returns. (19:76)

These are the themes of songs, poems, novels, plays, and films not only because of their sentimental appeal, but because they are part of our collective human experience and wisdom. Some would say that life is really not about taking, but about giving and sharing, and that this is what gives life meaning and purpose. The Muslim, however, would not fully agree. If human intellectual, moral, and emotional evolution was the sole purpose of life, then belief in God might be helpful, but not entirely necessary, for a humanistic ideology may suffice. But the Qur’an does not state that the successful in life are only “those who do good”; rather, they are only those who unite faith with righteous living, those who “have faith and do good”.

Illa-l lathina aamanu (except those who believe). The verb aamana means “to be faithful”, “to trust”, “to have confidence in”, and “to believe in”. It is derived from the Arabic root, AMN, which is associated with the ideas of safety, security, and peace. Thus amina means “to be secure”, “to feel safe”, “to trust”; amn means “safety”, “peace”, “protection”; amaan means “safety”, “shelter”, “peace”, and “security”. The translation of aaminu as “believe” is somewhat misleading, because in modern times it is usually used in the sense of “to hold an opinion” or “to accept a proposition or statement as true”. The Arabic word has stronger emotional and psychological content, for “those who believe” implies more than an acceptance of an idea; it connotes a personal relationship and commitment and describes those who find security, peace, and protection in God and who are in turn faithfully committed to Him.

Like the phrase we are analyzing, the Qur’an maintains the utter indivisibility between faith and good works. The mention of the first is almost always conjoined to the second. Faith should inspire righteous deeds, which, in turn, should nurture a more profound experience of faith, which should incline one to greater acts of goodness, and so on, with each a function of the other, rising in a continuous increase. From this viewpoint, all of our endeavors acquire a potential unity of purpose: ritualistic, spiritual, humanitarian, and worldly activity are all brought into the domain of worship. Good deeds become simultaneously God-directed and man-directed acts. For example, the spending of one’s substance on others becomes an expression of one’s love of God.

But piety is to … spend of your substance out of love for Him. (2:177)

Hence the relationship between God and man is inextricably bound to man’s relationship with fellow man.

Repeatedly, we come upon the Qur’anic exhortation, “Establish salah [ritual prayers] and pay zakah [the annual financial tax].” We normally think of the first as God-directed and the second as community, and hence man, directed. While this may be so, the line between them is extremely faint in Islam, for both are ritual obligations and both require and contribute to a high level of community discipline and cohesion.

Many a non-Muslim has been impressed with the synchronous, almost military, precision of a Muslim congregation in prayer. At the call to the prayer, the congregation quickly arranges itself in tight formation, with no one possessing a fixed or privileged position, so that even the prayer leader is frequently elected on the spot from those present. In this way, the prayer becomes not only a powerful spiritual exercise, but, secondarily, also trains the community in leadership, organization, cooperation, equality, and brotherhood. The physical and hygienic advantages of preparing for and performing the ritual prayer have also been noted frequently by outsiders. This is not to say that Muslims would list these gains as the primary benefits of prayer – indeed they would not – but it does exemplify how the spiritual and worldly intersect and complement each other in Islam.

The ritual of zakah illustrates the same point but from the reverse angle. It is the yearly tax – something like a social security tax – on a Muslim’s wealth, which is distributed to the poor and needy and others as stipulated in the Qur’an (9:60). The social concerns behind this tax are obvious, but the Qur’an underlines its personal and spiritual sides as well. The word zakah, which means “alms” or “charity”, is associated with the Arabic verbs zakka and tazakka, which mean “to purify” or “to cleanse”. Muslims have long understood that through its payment one may attain to higher levels of spiritual purity. This is not a coincidental or forced association, because the Qur’an clearly makes the connection between almsgiving and self-purification.

So take of their wealth alms, so that you might purify (tuzakkeehim) and cleanse them. (9:103)

But the most devoted to God shall be removed far from it: those who spend their wealth to purify (yatazakka) themselves. (92:18)

The Qur’an’s recurring summons to establish salah and pay zakah is indicative of its general attitude towards faith and good deeds: They are interconnected and mutually enriching. The ultimate goal is to perfect harmony between both types of activities, as each is indispensable to our complete development. Thus, giving of oneself strengthens the experience of faith, or, as the Qur’an says, spending in God’s way and doing good brings one nearer to God and His mercy.

And some of the desert Arabs are of those who believe in God and the Last Day and consider what they spend as bringing them nearer to God and obtaining the prayers of the Messenger. Truly they bring them nearer [to Him]; God will bring them into His mercy. (9:99)

And it is not your wealth nor your children that bring you near to Us in degree, but only those who believe and do good, for such is a double reward for what they do, and they are secure in the highest places. (34:37)

The vision of the “face of God” refers to the intense mystical encounter obtained in the hereafter by those who attain the highest levels of spirituality and goodness. Here too the Qur’an connects this divine vision with our concern and responsibility towards others.

So give what is due to kindred, the needy and the wayfarer. That is best for those who seek the face of God, and it is these, they are the successful. (30:39)

As these verses show, virtuous acts augment faith and spirituality. More than acceptance of dogma or a state of spiritual consciousness, faith in Islam is comprehensive, an integrated outlook and way of living that incorporates all aspects of human nature and that increases with the level of giving and self-sacrifice.

By no means shall you attain piety unless you give of that which you love. And whatever you give, God surely knows it. (3:92)

Those who responded to the call of God and the Messenger after misfortune had befallen them – for such among them who do good and refrain from wrong is a great reward. Men said to them: surely people have gathered against you, so fear them; but this increased them in faith, and they said: God is sufficient for us and He is an excellent guardian. (3:172-173)

When the believers saw the confederate forces, they said: “This is what God and His messenger had promised us, and God and His messenger told us what was true.” And it only increased them in faith and in submission. (33:22)

Conversely, the spiritual experiences of faith should intensify one’s commitment to goodness:

And those who give what they give while their hearts are full of awe that to their Lord they must return – These hasten to every good work and they are foremost in them. (23:60-61)

The believers are those who, when God is mentioned, feel a tremor in their hearts, and when His messages are recited to them they increase them in faith, and in their Lord do they trust; who keep up prayer and spend out of what We have given them. These, they are the believers in truth. (82:3-4)

Doctrine, ethics, and spirituality overlap to such a degree in the Qur’an, that they are frequently interwoven in its definitions of piety and belief.

Piety is not that you turn your faces towards the East or West, but pious is the one who has faith in God, and the Last Day, and the angels, and the scripture, and the messengers, and gives away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask and to set slaves free and keeps up prayer and practices regular charity; and keep their promises when they make a promise and are steadfast in [times of] calamity, hardship and peril. These are they who are true [in faith]. (2:177)

The sacrificial camels We have made for you as among the symbols of God: in them is (much) good for you: then pronounce the name of God over them as they line up (for sacrifice). When they are down on their sides (after slaughter), eat thereof and feed such as those who live in contentment and such as beg in humility: thus have We made animals subject to you that you may be grateful. It is not their meat nor their blood that reaches God: It is your piety that reaches Him. (22:36-37)

Prosperous are the believers, who are humble in their prayers, and who shun what is vain, and who are active in deeds of charity, and who restrain their sexual passions – except with those joined to them in marriage, or whom their right hands possess, for such are free from blame, but whoever seeks to go beyond that, such are transgressors – those who faithfully observe their trusts and covenants, and who guard their prayers. (23:1-9)

The second passage refers to the day of sacrifice at the annual pilgrimage to Makkah. The pilgrimage is one of Islam’s five ritual “pillars” and it is, even today, perhaps the most physically demanding of all of them. It is stunning in its religious imagery, emotion, and drama. And yet, here too, the Qur’an interconnects its social and spiritual benefits.

Non-Muslims are often surprised by the spirit of optimism and celebration that pervades Muslim rituals, especially during Ramadan (the month of fasting) and the pilgrimage, which they assume are performed mostly as atonement for past sins. Muslims, however, perceive their rituals positively – as spiritually and socially progressive. They understand them to be a challenge and an opportunity, as is life itself.

Islam means “surrender” or “submission”, a giving up of resistance, an acquiescence to God’s will, to His created order and to one’s true nature. It is a lifelong endeavor and trial, an endless road that opens to boundless growth. It is a continuous pursuit that leads to ever greater degrees of peace and bliss through nearness to God. It engages all human faculties and its terms are unconditional. It seeks a voluntary commitment of body and mind, heart and soul. Its comprehensives may be brought to light by examining one of the great questions of Christianity: “Is salvation obtained by faith or good works?”

First, the question needs to be rephrased, because it is unnatural to Muslims. Islam has known nothing similar to Christianity’s soteriology. If a Muslim is asked: “How do you know you are saved?” he or she will likely respond: “From what or from whom?” Earthly life for Muslims is an opportunity, a challenge, a trial, not a punishment from which one must be rescued. In the Qur’an, all creation, knowingly or unknowingly, serves God’s ultimate purposes. Thus it would not be obvious to a Muslim that we needed to be saved from some entity. Even Satan is stripped of his power in the Qur’an and reduced to the function of eternal tempter, a catalyst for ethical decision making and, hence, for moral and spiritual development. If anything, Muslims feel that they may need to be saved from themselves, from their own forgetfulness and unresponsiveness to God’s many signs.

In a Muslim context, it would be more natural to ask, “How does one achieve success in this life: through faith or good works?” In consideration of what we have already observed, the answer becomes immediately obvious: both are essential. Otherwise, human existence would not make sense and much of life would be superfluous. For the Muslim, such a question would be analogous to asking, “What element in water – hydrogen or oxygen – is necessary to quench one’s thirst?”

Before considering what the Qur’an tells us about God, let us recapitulate. The Qur’an claims that man’s earthly life is not a punishment and that it does not satisfy some whim of its creator. Rather, it is a stage in God’s creative plan. Mankind has been endowed with a uniquely complex nature with contrary inclinations. Through the use of his/her faculties (intellectual, volitional, spiritual, moral, etc.) and the trials he or she is guaranteed to face, an individual will either grow in his or her relationship with God – or as the Qur’an says “in nearness to God” – or squander himself or herself in misdirected pursuits. The Qur’an asserts that this earthly life will indeed produce a segment of humanity that will experience and share in God’s love; these are called in the Qur’an Muslimun (Muslims; literally, “those who surrender”), for they strive to submit themselves – heart, mind, body and soul – to this relationship. They are those who find peace, security, and trust in God and who do good and strive to set things right. To better understand how the lives we lead facilitate closer communion with God, we turn now to God in the Qur’an.

The Most Beautiful Names

The Qur’an presents two obverse portraits of God and His activity. On the one hand, He is transcendent and unfathomable. He is “sublimely exalted above anything that men may devise by way of definition” (6:100); “there is nothing like unto Him” (42:11); and “nothing can be compared to Him” (112:4). These statements warn of the limitations and pitfalls in using human language to describe God, especially such expressions as are commonly used to describe human nature and behavior, for man’s tendency to literalize religious symbolism often leads to the fabrication of misguiding images of God. Nevertheless, the above statements serve only as cautions in the Qur’an, since it too, of necessity, contains such comparative descriptions. If we are to grow in intimacy with God, then we need to know Him, however approximately, in order to relate to Him, and toward this end speech is an obvious and indispensable tool.

Thus, in addition to declarations of God’s complete incomparability, we find His various attributes mentioned on almost every page. Often used to punctuate passages, they occur typically in simple dual attributive statements, such as, “God is the Forgiving, the Compassionate” (4:129), “He is the All-Mighty, the Compassionate” (26:68), “God is the Hearing, the Seeing” (17:1). Collectively, the Qur’an refers to these titles as al asmaa al husnaa, God’s “most beautiful names” (7:180; 17:110; 20:8; 59:24).

Say: Call upon God, or call upon the Merciful, by which ever you call, to Him belong the most beautiful names. (17:110)

God! There is no God but He. To Him belong the most beautiful names. (20:8)

He is God, other than whom there is no other god. He knows the unseen and the seen. He is the Merciful, The Compassionate. He is God, other than whom there is no other God; the Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace, the Keeper of Faith, the Guardian, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme. Glory to God! Above what they ascribe to Him. He is God, the Creator, the Evolver, the Fashioner. To Him belong the most beautiful names. Whatever is in the heavens and on earth glorifies Him and He is exalted in Might, the Wise. (59:23-24)

The Divine Names are a ubiquitous element of Muslim daily life. They are invoked at both the inception and completion of even the most common tasks, appear in persons’ names in the form of Servant of the Merciful, Servant of the Forgiving, Servant of the Loving, etc., cried out in moments of great joy and sorrow, murmured repeatedly at the completion of ritual prayers, and chanted rhythmically in unison on various occasions. Because Muslims insert them into conversations so frequently and effortlessly, some outsiders have accused Muslims of empty formalism. But this reflects a lack of understanding, for the truth is that the Divine Names play such an integral role in the lives of the faithful that their use is entirely natural and uninhibited.

The Divine Names are, for Muslims, a means of turning towards God’s infinite radiance. Through their recollection, believers attempt to unveil and reorient their souls towards the ultimate source of all. A knowledge of them is essential if one is to comprehend the relationship between God and man as conceived in the Qur’an and as experienced by Muslims.

In his Concordance of the Qur’an 17, Kassis renders in English most of the titles and adjectives applied to God in the scripture, together with some of their different shades of meaning. His list is not exhaustive. Other Qur’an scholars have obtained longer lists and other possible meanings in English could have been added, as it is hard to do justice to the Arabic original. For example, rabb which Kassis renders as “Lord”, conveys the idea of “fostering”, “sustaining”, and “nourishing”. According to the famous scholar of Arabic, al Raghib al Isfahani, it signifies “the fostering of a thing in such a manner as to make it attain one condition after another until it reaches its goal of completion” 18. Clearly, the word “Lord” does not bring out this idea. The following list of divine attributes is taken from Kassis.

Divine Names and Attributes:

Able (qadir); Absolute (samad); One Who Answers (ajaaba); Aware (khabeer); Beneficent (rahmaan); Benign (barr); Bestower (wahhaab); Blameless (haasha); Bountiful (akrama, tawl); Clement (’afoow, haleem, ra’oof); Compassionate (raheem); Compeller (jabbaar); Creator (badee’, bara’a, fatara, khalaqa, khallaq); Deliverer (fattaah); Disposer (wakeel); Embracing (wasi’a); Eternal (qayyoom, samad); Everlasting (qayyoom); Everlasting Refuge (samad); Evident (dhahara); Exalted (ta’aala); the Exalter (rafee’); Faithful (aamana); Fashioner (sawwara); First (awwal); Forgiver (ghaffaar, ghafuur); Gatherer (jama’a); Generous (kareem); Gentle (lateef, ra’oof); Giver (wahhaab); Glorious (’adheem, akrama, majeed); God (Allah, ilaah); Gracious (lateef, rahmaan); Grateful (shakara); Great (kabeer); Guardian (hafeedh, wakeel, waleey); Guide (had’a); He (huwa); Hearing (samee’); High (’aleey); Holy (quddoos); Honorable (akrama); Informed (khabeer); Inheritor (waritha); Inward (batana); Irresistible (jabbaar); Most Just Judge (hakama); Kind (lateef, ra’oof); King (malik, maleek); Knower (’aleem, ’alima, khabeer); Last (aakhir); Laudable (hameed); Light (nuur); Living (hayy); Lord (rabb); Loving (wadood); Majestic (jalaal, takabbara); Master of the Kingdom (malaka); Merciful (rahmaan); Mighty (’azeez, ’adheem); Omnipotent (iqtadara, qadeer, qahara, qahhaar); One (ahad, waahid); Originator (fatara); Outward (dhahara); Overseer (aqaata); Pardoner (’afoow); Peaceable (salaam); Powerful (qadira, qadeer, aqaata); Praiseworthy (hameed); Preserver (haymana); Protector (mawl’a, wala’, waleey); Provider. (razzaaq); Quickener (ahyaa); Reckoner (haseeb); Sagacious (khabeer); Seeing (baseer); Shaper (sawwara); Splendid (akrama); Strong (qaweey); Sublime (takabbara); Subtle (lateef); Sufficient (ghaneey, istaghn’a, kafa); Superb (takabbara); Sure (mateen); Tender (lateef); Thankful (shakara, shakoor); True (haqq); Trustee (wakeel), one who Turns towards others (tawwaab); Watcher (raqeeb); Wise (hakeem); Witness (shaheed).

There is great variance in the number of times these attributes are applied to God in the Qur’an. For example: God is called Allah (the God) approximately 2698 times, Rabb (Lord, the Sustainer) almost 900 times, al Rahmaan (the Merciful) 170 times, al Raheem (the Compassionate) 227 times, al Ghaffaar (the Forgiving) and al Ghaffoor (the Forgiving) a total of 97 times, and al Lateef (the Kind, the Gentle) 7 times. This repetition and variation have an important influence on Muslim religiosity. To appreciate this, one first needs to realize just how often a believer is in contact with the Qur’an.

A practicing Muslim will recite the Qur’an at the very least five times per day during his/her obligatory prayers. Many Muslims listen to the Qur’an on cassette tapes similar to the way westerners listen to music, very many read some portion of it daily for guidance and study, and a significant number have memorized it in its entirety. As they continue through the Qur’an, Muslims are constantly recalling the Divine Names and Attributes, which appear again and again on virtually every page. Through this continuous recollection, a certain spiritual vision or image of God writes itself on the Muslim heart and mind, with the more frequently mentioned attributes attaining a certain position of priority over those less frequently stated. If we were to attempt to visualize this effect, we might picture a pyramid of the Most Beautiful Names: Allah would be at the apex and then the attribute of Rabb (Nourisher, Sustainer, Lord) connected to and proceeding from Allah somewhat below; then the attributes of Mercy, al Rahmaan and al Raheem, further on down, proceeding from and manifesting the attributes above them, like rays of light flowing from a lamp; then Forgiveness, al Ghafaar and al Ghafoor, and Creator, al Khallaaq, proceeding from Mercy; and so on (see the diagram below).

In this way, a Muslim develops a completely immaterial conception of God; he or she approaches God through mind, heart, soul, feelings, and intuition, not through physical imagery. This, I feel, is the main source of Islam’s famed iconoclasm. It is not a harsh fanaticism that has its roots in a culturally and artistically primitive desert community; it is a corollary to the way Muslims conceive of and relate to God through concepts that express intrinsic qualities and activities rather than through visual images. Thus we have the unique Muslim religious art of calligraphy, which does not consist of portraits and statues, but of words, often the Divine Names and Qur’anic verses, beautifully and elegantly written and producing wondrous and intricate symmetries and designs that must be studied very carefully to decipher the hidden meanings and discover the truth behind the beauty.

Another look at the Divine Names reveals a perplexity. Since the names al Rahmaan (the Merciful), al Raheem (the Compassionate), al Rabb (the Sustainer, Nourisher), al Mawlalal Waleey (the Protector, Guardian), and al Ghaffaar / al Ghafoor (the Forgiving) appear so frequently, we would expect that the seemingly closely related name, al Wadood (the Loving), would appear more than twice. If we include the large number of references to God’s loving or withdrawing His love from others, then we might feel it appropriate to increase this total. But on close examination of such instances, we notice that God’s love in the Qur’an is not universal, and this is in fact what sets this attribute apart from the others just mentioned. His mercy, for example, embraces all creation and includes even the worst sinners (7:156; 30:33; 30:36; 30:46; 40:7; 42:28), and His sustaining and nourishing extend to all. God is the only true protector of every soul (2:107; 6:62; 10:30) and He immediately accepts all sincere repentance (4:110; 13:6; 39:53). But when the Qur’an speaks of God’s love, it is pointing to a very special relationship, willfully entered into by God and man, a relationship that the Qur’an says most of humanity will reject (17:89; 25:50; 27:73). Although God’s mercy, compassion, and care shine on all mankind, only those who turn to Him and strive throughout their lives to surrender themselves to Him will attain a bond of love with Him. This love signifies a love shared – a love received and given – and a mutual involvement. Since relatively few will choose to enter into it, we should probably not be at all surprised at the limited use of the name al Wadood in the Qur’an, for while a loving relationship with God is available to everyone, most will not enter into one.

Let us turn again to the Divine Names, this time recalling our discussion of what Islam requires of man. As we make our way through the Qur’an, we are reminded persistently of the attributes of God and the qualities that we are supposed to cultivate in ourselves. It is not long before it dawns on us that there is considerable intersection between the two, for almost every virtue that we are to develop in ourselves through our actions toward others has its origin and perfection in God. For example, we are to grow in beneficence, benignity, bountifulness, clemency, compassion, faithfulness, our willingness to forgive, generosity, gentleness, givingness, graciousness, honorableness, justice, kindness, knowledge, love of others, mercy, peacefulness, protectiveness of the weak, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and wisdom. Yet, these originate in God as His attributes of perfection. Thus, by developing these attributes in ourselves, we are actually growing nearer – to use a Qur’anic term – to their infinite source. Hence, the more we come to possess these qualities, the more we may come to know God. Since it is possible for human beings to experience and acquire these virtues at higher levels than other creatures, they have the potential to relate to God in a uniquely intimate way.

An analogy may help elucidate this point. Assume that I have a pet gold fish, a dog, and three daughters. The gold fish, being the most limited in terms of intellect and growth, could only know and experience my love and compassion at a relatively low level no matter how much kindness I direct toward it. The dog, who is a more complex and intelligent animal than my fish, can feel warmth and affection for another on a much higher level and therefore can experience the love and compassion I shower on him to a much greater degree. Yet my daughters, as they mature, have the potential to feel the intensity of my love and caring for them on a plane that my dog could never conceive of, because they have the capacity to know first hand, through their own emotions and relationships, deeper and richer feelings than my dog. And I would have to say that the love I now have for my parents is greater than the love I had for them when I was a child, because by having children of my own, I came to better know and understand the power of the love my mother and father gave to me.

Pushing the above analogy a bit further, we see that it is not enough for my daughters to invest themselves only in other human relationships, as they will never experience the intensity of my feelings toward them unless they also acknowledge and turn to me as their father, that is, unless they accept and enter into that parent–child relationship. I could have all the fatherly feelings for them in the world, but if by some strange set of circumstances they totally rejected or were oblivious of them, then they would never enter into a relationship of love with me. All the caring and kindness I had for them would be of little benefit to them. This, I believe, is why the Qur’an insists on both faith in God and good works toward our fellow man, because both are necessary if we are to come to know God. If an atheist is a great humanitarian, he may gain the love and admiration of neighbors and friends and perhaps great self-satisfaction and meaning in life, but he will still be spiritually empty. I am not insisting that such a person would be destined for eternal suffering, for that would depend on factors that are impossible for us to know or measure, such as his personal limitations, the environment in which he lived, the opportunities that were presented to him, and many others. However, the purpose of the Qur’an is not to discuss such precarious, borderline cases as possible options; it guides toward what will most benefit man and warns of what will destroy him.

“Every soul must taste of death; then to Us you will be returned” (29:57). This truth reverberates throughout the Qur’an. It reminds the reader that the end and purpose of all earthly endeavor is this reunion. Ultimately, it is our relationship with God that matters. However, it would be wrong to say that it is all that matters, for, as we discovered, our relationship with God is bound intimately to our responses to our fellow man. Rituals, inspiration, contemplation, and remembrance (3:191; 4:103) all play integral parts in bringing us nearer to God, but so does our growth in virtue. The more a believer grows in the attributes that originate in God, the closer and more intense is his/her bond with Him and the greater is his/her capacity to receive and experience His infinite beauty and power, both in this life, and incomparably more so in the next life, where earthly distractions and masks are removed.

This is much more than having our own personal experiences of goodness to approximate God’s transcendent goodness; it involves a kind of intimacy and knowing that cannot even be shared by two human beings. There is the well-known expression, “In order to begin to understand me, you have to walk a mile in my shoes.” This means that we cannot truly know another person unless we could somehow fully enter into his life and experience it from his personal perspective. As this is not really possible – since we are always, in a sense, outside that experience – the implication is that we are very limited in our ability to sympathize with others. Certainly, we can never fully know God, but yet we can experience His being in a uniquely profound way.

The Prophet once told his companions that one percent of the mercy that God bestows on creation is manifested in human behavior. 19 The saying is meant to impress upon us the greatness of God’s mercy. However, it also indicates that the mercy we demonstrate and feel is but an infinitesimal fragment of God’s limitless mercy. Thus, God grants us the ability to participate in and experience His mercy firsthand in our earthly lives, not only as recipients, but as givers of mercy as well, for when we are merciful toward another creature, that being receives something of God’s mercy through us.

The same holds for almost all of the other Most Beautiful Names of God: if we are truthful, we are experiencing a fraction of the truth that comes from God; if we attain wisdom, all wisdom flows from God; if we obtain power, there is no power but in God. A mother participates in creation on a level that will always be a mystery to men, and hence her experience of the attribute of Creator is especially profound. Perhaps the same can be said of her experience of the Merciful and the Compassionate. Many ancient Muslim scholars felt that the female is more sensitive to certain divine attributes than the male and conversely. Such names as the Powerful, the Protector, the Provider, were believed to be more suited to the male.

The Qur’an informs us that God breathes something of His spirit into every human soul (32:9). This seems to indicate that every human has a seed of the Divine Attributes within him/her or, in other words, that the virtues he/she experiences are but a breath of the Divine Names. The concept, that the more one pursues virtue the greater becomes his or her capacity to experience the divine, is brought to light by the saying of Muhammad that asserts that the more a believer persists in worship and doing good, the clearer his heart becomes so that it is better able to receive the divine light, and that if someone is negligent in these, his heart becomes rusted and incapable of receiving divine illumination. 20 The goal of the devout Muslim is to grow continually as a receiver and transmitter of God’s infmite radiance, to be drawn ever nearer to the source of all that is beautiful, to accept the office of delegate of the Possessor of the Most Beautiful Names, and, hence, to serve as a khalifah (vicar) of God on earth as described in 2:30.

It appears that we have returned to where we first started. This entire discussion of the purpose of life in the Qur’an was launched by the story of man as told in verses thirty through thirty-nine of the second surah. One might assume that it began with the angels’ question and, hence, with a doubt or criticism, but this would be an oversight. In fact, our investigation was inspired by an astounding affirmation that was so positive and optimistic that the angels’ question had to be raised: “Behold, your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am going to place a vicegerent on earth.’”

How can man, this most destructive and corruptible creature, serve as a deputy and representative of God? Of all beings, how can man act as an agent and emissary of his Lord? Human history and human nature seem to be at odds with this election. But when we look at mankind from this viewpoint, we, like the angels, are seeing only one side of reality and are neglecting man’s potential for goodness and self-sacrifice as well as his ability to strive to live by the highest standards of virtue. Every person has it within himself to receive, represent, and impart to others the mercy, compassion, justice, truth, bounty, and love that originate in God and thus to act in this way as His emissary on earth. The Qur’an maintains that human nature contains this inclination and potential (30:30), but it requires a choice that must be faced continually and remade. The office of khalifah is not simply conferred; it must be accepted voluntarily and it must be a lifelong commitment. The Qur’an does not ask for human perfection, but rather asks that we persevere in striving for self-improvement and that we never become complacent (2:197; 5:2; 7:26) or despondent (15:56; 39:53; 15:55) about our progress.

First Objection

It may be that the Qur’an’s concept of life has a certain appeal and coherence. However, let us not allow ourselves to be romanced into accepting it. The idea that growth in virtue leads to inner peace and well-being, and that it contributes an abiding beauty to life, is easy to admit. The notion that it also allows us to receive and experience God’s infinite attributes to ever greater degrees is sensible. Yet, is there not an obvious and glaring problem with this conception? Cannot this divine plan be charged with gross inefficiency? Why did not God simply create us with these virtues from the start? Why did He not program mercy, truthfulness, compassion, kindness, and the rest into us and bypass this earthly stage in our existence? Thus, we never really got beyond the angels’ question: Why not make man someone greater than he is – someone like the angels?

To answer this, we need not search far, but only have to look within our own selves. If we know nothing else of the virtues under consideration, we certainly know they cannot exist in a being at very high levels if they were merely programmed into it. Virtue, if programmed, is not true virtue as we conceive of it, but something less. We can program a computer to be always correct, but we could not describe it as a truthful computer. We do not consider a stethoscope to be merciful although it aids the sick. The Qur’an presents angels as creatures without free will, but man can rise to heights much higher or sink to depths much lower than them.

Virtues are abstract concepts and difficult to define, but I believe that we can agree that to grow in virtue at least three things are needed: Free will, or the ability to choose; intellect, so that one is able to weigh the consequences of his or her choices and learn from them; and third, and equally important, suffering and hardship. As we saw, the Qur’an emphasizes strongly all three of these while discussing man’s spiritual evolution. To grow in compassion, for example, is inconceivable without suffering. It also requires choice, the ability to choose to reach out to someone in need or to ignore him. Intellect is necessary so that one can estimate how much of oneself will be invested in showing compassion to the sufferer. Similarly, to be truthful involves a choice not to lie and is heightened when telling the truth may lead to personal loss and suffering, which can be predicted through the use of one’s reason.

How often do we hear in plays, movies, and songs statements like, “You never really loved me, because when I was down and out and my life was falling apart you only thought of yourself and you left me!” Such a statement acknowledges the essential roles of hardship, choice, and intellect in love. The same could be said of the famous wedding vow that asks two people if they are ready to commit themselves to each other “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death”. It is the same with all the virtues: these three elements are crucial to our growth in them.

When my oldest daughter, Jameelah, was a baby, she became very ill one night. The only way I could get her to sleep was to carry her on my shoulder while I paced the apartment and sang softly to her. If I stopped singing or tried to put her down, she would immediately wake up crying. So all night long, about eight straight hours, I carried my little girl and kept on singing. Her fever broke around dawn and she was then able to sleep on her own. Of course, by this time I was exhausted. My back was killing me, my throat was hoarse, and I had to be at work in an hour.

When I recently recalled this episode for her, lameelah asked me, “Weren’t you mad at me, daddy?”

I was surprised by her question, because the feeling never at any moment that night entered my heart.

“Mad at you!” I told her: “Sweetheart, I couldn’t have loved you more! It is a memory that I will always cherish.”

Love, compassion, and caring are born of such experiences. They have a beauty and value that is, to use an expression of the Prophet, “worth more than this world and all it contains”21. They also frequently contain opportunities for healing previous wounds and recovering past losses.

Sarah, my second daughter, broke her leg when she was only a year old, and I had to stay that night with her in the hospital. She came so quickly after Jameelah – only a year separates them – and my work load at the university had increased so much, that I had spent hardly any time with Sarah until then. When Jameelah was a baby we were inseparable, but now a year had past in Sarah’s life and I hardly knew her.

Sarah gripped my hand through the night; if I let go of it she would scream. The muscle spasms in her leg were keeping her awake. I had to lean over her bed rail to reach her hand and the rail was digging into my side. It was another sleepless, uncomfortable night.

As I watched this little child fight and struggle through the hours with her pain, I discovered Sarah for the first time. As I gazed into her big brown eyes and studied her expressions and reactions to my touch and my voice, I found how much this child and I were alike – how similar our personalities were. I was so ashamed that I had not taken the time before this to get to know her and I realized how much I had lost and how much we both needed each other. I vowed that evening to begin to work on my relationships with all my children and not to wait for crises to bring us together.

These incidents were two minor trials in my life from which I learned so much. I wonder how much greater must be the experience of motherhood, for if I could gain so much benefit from these two moments, how much greater must be the potential personal gain from carrying a child for nine months? Perhaps this is why the Prophet Muhammad told his companions that motherhood puts paradise at a woman’s feet.

It also helps me understand why Islam places so much emphasis on family ties, since these relationships are for us the most intense and demanding and thus provide some of the most important opportunities for personal growth. The Prophet stated that “marriage is half of faith”, since men and women only attain the fullness of their personalities as spouses and parents. Consider also the verse in the Qur’an that states that marriage provides spouses with a special way to experience love and mercy and that we should reflect on this most important sign:

And among His signs is this, that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them, and he has placed love and mercy between you. Truly in that are signs for those who reflect. (30:21)

As parents and as children, we may experience the widest range of the Divine Names as givers and receivers, respectively. When we attain middle age and are simultaneously parent and child, we reach a point in our lives that allows us to learn of God through both perspectives. The following two passages highlight this stage in our lives.

Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, never say to them even “Uff!” (a minor expression of contempt) nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor. And out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility and say, “My Lord! have mercy on them even as they cherished me when I was a little one.” (17:23-24)

We have enjoined on mankind kindness towards parents. In pain did his mother bear him and in pain did she give him birth. The carrying of the [child] to his weaning is thirty months. At length when he is fully grown and attains forty years he says, "O my Lord! Grant me that I may be grateful for the favor which You have bestowed upon me, and upon both my parents, and that I may work righteousness such as You may approve; and be gracious to me in my children. Truly I have turned to You and truly I do bow in Islam. (46:15)

The first of the above passages links worship of God with kindness toward parents. It recalls their care and tenderness, their self-sacrifice is clearly implied, and thus they deserve our utmost respect. The second passage shows that honoring one’s parents is an expression of gratitude toward God. It especially honors the mother’s role because of the greater degree of pain and suffering she goes through in raising children.

Islam sees a unity and harmony between body, mind and soul, and unifying principles that govern all three. Coaches often tell athletes “no pain, no gain”, by which they mean that in order to develop our physical strengths, we must be willing to suffer. Teachers inform students that they must work hard in order to grow intellectually. Muslims understand that the same law applies to spiritual development. Moral and spiritual growth requires the discipline of one’s will, the use and development of one’s mind, and the experience of hardship and suffering. The last of these should never discourage the Muslim, for the Prophet told his followers that a believer should always thank God in good times and in hard times, because he or she can benefit from both. 22

Second Objection

Let us agree that virtues, like love, compassion, truthfulness, and kindness, are not programmable and, furthermore, that in order to grow in these qualities we must possess the ability to choose and to reason and that we need to face adversity. Is there not then an obvious counter-example? Does or did God grow in these qualities? Does He weigh and choose between alternatives? Does He need to reason things out? Did He have to learn these attributes? Can He experience suffering?

This objection confuses creator with creature and bestower with receiver. God, the Creator, is described as eternal, absolute, perfect, transcending time and space. He is not diminished nor improved by His activity. He is the continuous source and preserver of all existence. His Most Beautiful Names indicate that He is the perfect and only real source of the attributes in which we must increase our capacity to receive and experience. He is the absolute source of all the mercy, compassion, wisdom, truth, etc., that flows through creation.

Man as a creature, by definition, becomes. He experiences growth and decline. Creation, according to the Qur’an, passes from one state into another (13:5; 28:88; 32:10). Hence man, in particular, is a changeable being. The fact that God is not is a Qur’anic axiom (33:62; 35:63). God is the sole origin of – the explanation behind – all virtue, as His being accounts for its very existence. He does not grow in His ability to experience mercy; He provides the mercy in which we share. He does not increase in wisdom; He guides us to the wisdom that originates in Him. He does not develop His power; He empowers others. Far from providing a counter-argument, His being accounts for the attributes that we are to pursue.

To Live and Learn

We have seen how the Qur’an underscores the learning ability of man and the instructional value of life in human moral and spiritual growth. That man will err along the way in his choices is inevitable, but God, in the Qur’an, does not expect us to be infallible; instead, He has granted us the ability to learn and gain from our mistakes. The Qur’an warns of the dangers of sin but also explains that if someone realizes his errors, repents, and believes and does good thereafter, God transforms his once-destructive deeds into beneficial ones.

He who repents and believes and does good; for such God changes their evil deeds to good ones. And God is ever Forgiving and Merciful. (25:70)

This verse seems to include the notion of the positive value of our acknowledged and amended errors. It is certainly good to avoid an evil solely out of obedience, but if one has also experienced personally its destructive and painful consequences, the wisdom and benefit behind its avoidance become inculcated in his heart and mind. It is like the child who avoids the kitchen stove after having been burned by it: he is no longer simply obeying his parents but is avoiding what he knows intrinsically to be harmful.

The Qur’an describes how even God’s elect grew from past errors: Abraham discovers monotheism through a sequence of mistaken attempts (6:75-82); Moses commits involuntary manslaughter but repents and learns from it (28:15-19); and David is taught an important lesson that helps him realize a past wrong (38:21-26). The Qur’an’s several criticisms of Prophet Muhammad are clearly meant to instruct him and his community.

God does not require us to become perfect before admitting us into His grace. Rather, the more we grow in goodness and in faith, the more we avail ourselves of it – the more our hearts become opened to receiving it. This is the lifelong effort of the believer: to refine his spirituality and thus to enter into an ever more intimate relationship with God. As long as we are alive, our personal growth has no reachable upper limit, for we can never reach a stage at which we can no longer gain from doing good. A Muslim believes that no good deed is superfluous. No matter how small it is, it will benefit him in this life and the next.

Then anyone who has done a speck of good, will see it. And anyone who has done a speck of evil will see it. (99:7-8)

In the Qur’an, God does not seek to bar men and women from His grace; He desires to guide them to it and He pursues them incessantly and aggressively. He invites, reminds, challenges, argues, shames, entices, and threatens. He inflicts calamities upon the sinful so that “perhaps they will return [to God]” (7:168; 30:41; 32:21, 43:28).

To those won over to its calling, the Qur’an provides much of what may be termed practical spiritual advice. First of all, one should avoid the heinous sins (murder, adultery, cheating the poor, etc.). In conjunction with faith in God, this will insure paradise in the next life.

If you avoid the great sins of the things which are forbidden you, We shall expel out of you all the evil in you, and admit you to the gate of great honor. (4:31)

That which is with God is better and more lasting for those who believe and put their trust in their Lord; those who avoid the great sins and indecencies and when they are angry even then forgive. (42:36-37)

Those who avoid great sins and indecencies, only [falling into] small faults – truly your Lord is ample in forgiveness. (53:32)

After repentance, one should try to make amends in order to guard against a spiritual decline. In the same vein, the Qur’an states that good deeds offset evil ones (11:114; 13:22; 28:54). The idea here seems to be that if we take a step backward, we should try to counter it immediately by taking several steps forward so as not to lose progress. A key related eschatological symbol is that of the Balance on the Day of Judgment, which will weigh a person’s good deeds against his evil ones. If the former outweigh the latter – if the individual is essentially a good person – then he or she will enter eternal bliss. We should keep in mind, however, that God has made it so that the positive rewards of righteousness far outweigh the negative consequences of wrongdoing (28:84; 40:40).

All this may seem too empirical, since it is impossible for us to detect precisely and accurately measure our good and sinful doings. However, the Qur’an is not providing an exact science of spiritual growth, but rather a helpful conceptual model. The Muslim is the first to admit his utter dependence on and trust in God’s mercy and kindness, for he knows that he is on earth for a purpose. This conceptualization helps him to pursue it, even if it is not entirely clear to him what life’s purpose is or has never agonized over its meaning.

Muslims say that if your faith is not increasing, then it is about to decrease or else it already has. If we were able to plot a person’s spiritual growth against time, a Muslim would envision it as a continuous curve that, at any point, is either ascending, descending or at a critical turning point. According to this perspective, faith is not a steady state. A believer must be on guard against unwittingly slipping into a downward slope, and so he must always review the current state of his religiosity.

“How is your faith?” One Muslim will ask another. There is no precise measure, but there are a number of diagnostic checks that may help: “Do I feel closer to or farther from God in my five daily prayers lately?”; “Am I giving more or less in charity these days?”; “Was I at greater or lesser peace with myself and with others in the past?” With such selfanalysis a Muslim hopes to stay on what the Qur’an describes as “the uphill climb” (90:11).

Surely he thought that he would never return (to God). But surely his Lord is ever Seer of him. But no, I call to witness the sunset redness, and the night and that which it drives on, and the moon when it grows full, you will certainly travel stage after stage. But what is the matter with them that they believe not? (84:14-20)

Trial and Error

Life is often described as a great classroom – the ultimate learning environment. This description accords well with the Qur’an. As the best of all teachers, God not only provides us with the essential tools for learning but guides us to learn and grow through personal discovery as well. Thus the Qur’an states that God “taught [mankind] by the pen – taught man that which he did not know” (96:4-5), even though man’s acquisition of reading and writing skills was a slow and gradual human development, one in which God’s influence is easily missed. So subtle and effective is God’s teaching that man often attributes his intellectual achievements entirely to himself. So the Qur’an continues:

No, but man is overbold, in that he views himself as independent. (96:6-7)

Earthly life provides us with a sense – a false one actually – of independence of and distance from God, a sense that drives us to learn and apply what we learn seemingly on our own. This is somewhat like when a teacher leaves the classroom and then watches through a one-way mirror to see how his students interact when faced with solving problems: no longer able to appeal to their teacher, the pupils are forced to solve the problems independently, while all the while the teacher monitors their progress and intercedes only when he deems it necessary. This is an extremely effective teaching device, for there is no substitute for firsthand experience.

In such a setting, one of the principle ways in which we learn is through trial and error. When I speak of trial and error here, I am referring not only to tests and mistakes we meet with on the intellectual plane, but also on the moral and spiritual plane, although the two overlap and are complementary. When a mistake we make has moral implications, it becomes a sin, the gravity and harm of which increases with our awareness of its wrongfulness (4:17-18). But if we repent and avoid it thereafter, it could, as we have seen, assist our spiritual growth. Thus we can learn and grow from our mistakes. Without the potential for error, realization, and reform, our spirituality would stagnate. So vital are these to our development in this earthly stage that the Prophet Muhammad reported that if mankind ceased sinning, God would replace them with other creatures who would continue to sin and repent and gain God’s forgiveness.23

Earthly trial is another key ingredient of the divine scheme: “We will try you with something of fear” (2:155), “God tests what is in your hearts” (3:154), “You shall surely be tried in your possessions” (3:186), “He tests you in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues” (5:51), “0 believers, God will surely test you” (5:97), “We try you with evil and good” (21:35), “He may try some of you by means of others” (47:4). The Qur’an states that God created the entire cosmos in order to test mankind (11:7) and that God created death and life on earth to the same end (67:2). Since these tests can not improve God, they must be for our intellectual and spiritual refinement, and therefore the universe and our existence in it are designed to produce this testing and learning opportunity.

The Day of Judgment (1:4) is depicted as the moment when the results of our efforts are realized. The Qur’an’s depiction of it has an unmistakable academic tone. It resembles the end of term or graduation day on a college campus. Mankind will be sorted out into three classes (56:7-56): The Foremost in Faith, those who excelled in their submission to God and are brought nearest to Him; the Companions of the Right Hand, those who did well enough on earth to enter paradise but who do not reach the level of excellence of the Foremost in Faith; and the Companions of the Left Hand, those who failed in life and who face suffering in the life to come. The record of all deeds, however small or great, will be brought out. The sinful will be in great terror this moment as they sense their fate (18:49). The faces of those who failed in life will be humiliated, laboring, and weary, while those who were successful will have joyful, exuberant faces (88:1-16). The successful will receive their earthly records in their right hands and will gleefully show them to others; the failures, consumed by grief and embarrassment, will be given their records in their left hands or will hold them behind their backs (69:19-30; 9:10). When awarded their records in their right hands, the successful will ecstatically run to show them to their families, but the failures will cry out miserably (89:7-11).

These descriptions have penetrated deeply into the consciousness of Muslims, who frequently draw comparisons between life and preparation for an exam. While this imagery lends itself to the most sophisticated and most naive understandings, every Muslim apprehends at least this much: Life presents us with a continual series of tests and our overall success or failure in responding to them will translate either into a state of happiness or suffering in the life to come. It supports the view that earthly life is an educational and developmental stage in our creation.

Sin as Self-Destruction

If the purpose of life is to grow in the virtues that reach their perfection in God so that we may receive and experience His attributes to ever greater degrees – to grow nearer to God in this sense – and if virtuous deeds promote this growth and evil deeds undermine it, then it would follow, as we have already observed, that the one who stands to gain or lose the most from a good or evil act is its doer. This idea is stated explicitly in many places in the Qur’an. Recall, for example:

Taste suffering through fire in return for what your own hands have wrought – for never does God do the least wrong to His creatures. (3:182; 8:51)

Enlightenment has come from your God; he who sees does so to his own good, he who is blind is so to his own [hurt]. (6:104)

And whosoever is guided, is only (guided) to his own gain, and if any stray, say: “I am only a warner.” (27:92)

And if any strive, they do so for their own selves: For God is free of all need from creation. (29:6)

We have revealed to you the book with the truth for mankind. He who lets himself be guided does so to his own good; he who goes astray does so to his own hurt. (39:41) (Also see 10:108; 17:15; 27:92

The statements in the Qur’an and in the traditions of the Prophet that state that an evildoer’s heart (his spiritual and moral sense) becomes dark, veiled, rusted, hard, and hence impenetrable, and that the hearts of the virtuous become soft, sensitive, and receptive to God’s guiding light, immediately come to mind.24 The verses in the Qur’an that convey this idea most powerfully are those that assert that the sinners destroy themselves by their wrongdoing – that they commit zulm (sin, wrong, harm, injustice, oppression) against themselves.

To Us they did no harm, but they only did harm to themselves. (2:57; 7:160)

If any transgress the limits ordained by God, then these, they wrong themselves. (2:229; 65:1)

And God did not wrong them, but they wronged themselves. (3:117)

And so it was not God who wronged them, it was they who wronged themselves. (9:70; 16:33; 29:40; 30:9)

It was not We that wronged them: They wronged their own selves. (11:101)

Oh My servants who have sinned against yourselves, never despair of God’s mercy. Surely God forgives all sins. (39:54)

Therefore sin, in reality, is a form of self-destruction. When we commit it, we oppress and do injustice to ourselves, for we bar ourselves from spiritual progress and deprive ourselves of that which has real and lasting worth. As we saw earlier, and as the last verse (39:54) indicates, the damage from wrongdoing does not have to be permanent, for the way to reform is open. Personal reform involves repentance and making amends, yet we should not lose sight of the most important element of all: God’s forgiveness.

When God forgives, He does much more than ignore or efface our sins. He responds to our repentance and comes to our aid (3:30), He helps us repair the harm that we inflicted upon ourselves (33:71), and guides us to spiritual restoration (57:28). In the Qur’an, the Divine Name “the Forgiving” is almost always paired with “the Compassionate”, and thus God’s forgiveness involves embracing the penitent with His compassion, which soothes the self-inflicted wounds. The verb tawbah (to turn toward) from the root TWB, brings out the chemistry between repentance and forgiveness, for it is used with various prepositions to describe both in the Qur’an. When we repent, we turn toward God in repentance, seeking His mercy and help, and He then turns toward us in His mercy, kindness, and forgiveness. Thus God is described as al Tawwaab, the one who turns toward others. God’s forgiveness is His personal response to the sinner, as in the saying of the Prophet which was quoted above: when we go toward God walking, He comes toward us running.

The initiative, however, must come from the sinner. The first step toward reform is the admission of wrongdoing, for we have to realize and acknowledge the wrongfulness of our behavior and admit our need for God’s help in order to begin our recovery. This is similar to what Alcoholics Anonymous counselors tell the desperate families of drug addicts: Unless the addict admits that he has a problem and needs help, no one can reform him. Sincerity is the key here. Recuperation from sin is often a hard and painful process assisted by God’s forgiving involvement. It means starting over, going through the pains of growth again, and entails work and effort. It is not a singular moment or formula that repairs us, but our honest commitment to turn our lives around and better ourselves. Thus the Qur’an states that repentance at the last moment of life in order to escape suffering in the next is ineffectual, because it is not motivated by a sincere desire to reform and there is no time left for self-betterment.

And repentance is not for those who go on doing evil deeds, until when death comes to one of them, he says: Now I repent; nor for those who die while they are ungrateful rejectors [of God]. For such we prepared a great chastisement (4:18).

Pharaoh provides the archetypal case:

And We brought the Children of Israel across the sea. Then Pharaoh and his hosts followed them for oppression and tyranny, till, when drowning overtook him, he cried: I believe that there is no god but He in whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am of those who submit! What! Now! And indeed before this you rebelled and caused depravity! (10:90-91)

Not only is such last-second repentance vain and illustrative of a complete lack of understanding of the purpose of life and of repentance, but it incriminates the sinner all the more, because it proves that he was always conscious of the existence of God, or at least of the possibility of His existence, but preferred to live a selfish and destructive life rather than seek a relationship with Him.

Three Signs

And indeed He has created you by various stages. (71:14)

The Qur’an presents three related analogies which have a bearing on the meaning of human earthly existence. These are the life in the womb – life on earth, birth – resurrection, and death – sleep analogies.

Life in the womb – Life on earth

The Qur’an parallels two stages in our creation: our prenatal development and our maturation after birth.

Then certainly We create man of an extract of clay, then We place him as a small quantity (of sperm) in a safe place firmly established, then We make the small quantity into a tiny thing that clings, then We make the tiny thing that clings into a chewed lump of flesh, then We fashioned the chewed flesh into bones and clothed the bones with intact flesh, then We cause it to grow into another creation. So blessed be God, the best of creators! Then after that you certainly die. Then on the Day of Resurrection you will surely be raised up. (23:12-16)

O people, if you are in doubt about the Resurrection, then surely We create you from dust, then a small quantity (of sperm), then from a tiny thing that clings, then from a chewed lump of flesh, complete in make and incomplete, that We may make clear to you. And We cause what We please to remain in the wombs until an appointed time, then We bring you forth as babies, then after that you grow to maturity. (22:5) (Also see 40:67.) .

Does man think that he will be left aimless? Was he not a small quantity (of sperm) emitted? Then he was a tiny thing that clings (in the womb), and then He created (him), and then made him perfect. (75:36-38)

This parallel leads to a number of important insights. While our prenatal growth is primarily physical, our earthly development is principally moral and spiritual. As our birth into this life fully manifests our physical maturation in the womb, our resurrection into the next life fully manifests our current spiritual maturation in an analogously objective way. Thus we find symbolic descriptions of the Day of Judgment that indicate that our moral and spiritual doings on earth will be manifested by our very being in the next. Our deeds will be fastened to our necks (17:13; 34:33; 36:8).

Our tongues, hands, and feet will bear witness to our doings (24:24; 6:65). We will eat the fruits of our deeds (37:39-68). The spiritually blind in this life will be raised without vision in the next (17:72). Those who lived in God’s light in this life will have their lights shine before them on the Day of Resurrection (57:12; 6:8). Every deed of ours will show its effect (99:7-8).

It is important to note that our creation is not presented as a single moment in time, but as one that proceeds in stages. Our physical development in the womb prepares us for our spiritual growth in the next stage, which will determine the state of our being as we enter the hereafter. Will there be opportunities for further growth in the next life? Perhaps, for the Qur’an has the believers in heaven ask God to “perfect for us our light” (66:8).

A popular American saying states that “you are what you eat”. In other words, one’s diet greatly affects his or her physical well-being. A Muslim might extend this to two more general truisms: “What you do in this life determines what type of person you are”, and, “in the next life on the Day of Resurrection, you will be according to what you do right now”.

Birth – Resurrection

And people say: When I am dead, shall I truly be brought forth alive? Does not man remember that we created him before, when he was nothing? (19:66-67)

The Qur’an contains an interesting reference to the two deaths which we all experience:

They say: Our Lord, twice you made us die, and twice you gave us life, so we confess our sins. (40:11)

Some Qur’an exegetes felt that the first death corresponds to the termination of non-existence at conception, but this is a strained interpretation, since a death must naturally be preceded by a life. Others believed that the first death represented the termination of life in the womb at the moment of birth. This explanation seems much more plausible, especially in light of the verses we just considered and from what embryologists now know about the vast differences between pre- and post-natal existence. (Even our circulatory system reverses itself seconds after birth!) The latter viewpoint also complements the last parallel, for both deaths are transitions to other levels of existence that are tied to our previous developments.

Both stages of development – in the womb and in life – and the corresponding ends of these stages involve pain and suffering. A mother definitely experiences pain and suffering during pregnancy and intense pain during birth. The fetus also experiences times of discomfort in the womb and certainly undergoes great hardship at birth.

What I find remarkable is that only minutes after the birth, the mother, and even much more so the child, appear to forget the tremendous agony that they have just endured. I recall how exhausted and drained I was after each of my daughters’ births and yet how quickly my wife and daughters recovered, even though their suffering was incredibly more severe. My children appeared to have no recollection or after effects from the ordeal. Perhaps there is a sign in this concerning those who enter a state of paradise in the next life. Will all their earthly agony and hardship suddenly seem to them like an illusion, a dream, even though it was all very real? The next parallel we consider suggests that this may be so.

Death – Sleep

God takes souls at the time of their death, and those that do not die, during their sleep. Then He withholds those on whom has passed the decree of death and sends the others back till an appointed term. Truly there are signs in this for a people who reflect. (39:42)

The Resurrection moment, as pictured in the Qur’an, is very much an arousal from a deep slumber. A trumpet blast will awaken the dead (6:73). The disbelievers will rush from their graves, which the Qur’an refers to as their “sleeping places”, in terror. People will be groggy and swoon (39:68). They will be disoriented. Their earthly lives will seem like an illusion (27:88). There will be mass confusion over the time spent on earth: to some it will seem like ten days and to others like a day or even less (20:103-104; 23:113), just like when one recollects a dream, details will be very hazy. Peoples’ sight will be confused, like when one arises from sleep (75:7), and then their vision will sharpen and they will have a keen grasp of reality (50:20). The righteous appear to have only faint recollection of their earthly struggles, and the damned have only faint recollection of their earthly pleasures. A well-known saying of Muhammad states that if one of the faithful is immersed in Paradise and is then asked about all his suffering on earth, he will not be able to recall any of it, and if one of the sinful is immersed in Hell and then is asked about all his earthly pleasures, he will not remember any of them.25

Hence our lives on earth will seem like a dream. All the pain, struggle, and agony, which appeared so hard and enduring, will be no more than a vague, distant, brief memory, something like when one awakens from a nightmare. A bad dream is very real while we are experiencing it, but when we awake, we feel immediate relief because we are now conscious of a greater reality. It seems that the resurrection of the righteous will be a somewhat similar but more intense experience. Our earthly lives are not dreams nor illusions; what we experience is very real and the consequences of our deeds will become marked upon our souls – written and recorded upon our being – but, by the mercy of God, the hardships true believers endured will be erased from their recollection (35:35). Like the newborn child, their previous existence is forgotten, although they carry with them into the next life their earlier development.

“Except That They Should Worship Me!”

Say: Truly my prayer and my sacrifice and my living and my dying – all belong to God, the Lord of the worlds. (6:163)

Islam’s concept of worship complements its view of life. I recall a conversation I had not long ago with a friend who asked me how Muslims worship. I told her that we go to work to provide for our families, attend school functions that our children are involved in, take a few pieces of cake we just baked over to our neighbor next door, drive our children to school in the morning.

“No! No!” She said. “How do you worship?” I said we make love to our spouses, smile and greet someone we pass on the street, help our children with their homework, hold open a door for someone behind us. “Worship! I’m asking about worship!” She exclaimed. I asked her exactly what she had in mind. “You know – Rituals!” She insisted. I answered her that we practice those also and that they are a very important part of Muslim worship. I was not trying to frustrate her, but I answered her in this way in order to emphasize Islam’s comprehensive conception of worship.

A famous tradition of the Prophet states that a Muslim is responsible for at least one sadaqah daily for every joint in his/her body. The word sadaqah is often translated as “charity.” It is derived from the same root as the Arabic verb “to be truthful or sincere” and thus most generally signifies an act of fidelity or sincerity towards God. Hence, to Muslims, an act of sadaqah is a form of worship.

When Muhammad made this statement to his Companions, they felt overwhelmed, for how can anyone perform so many acts of piety each day? He responded to them that to act justly is a sadaqah, to help a rider on his mount is a sadaqah, and to remove a stone from the road to ease the way for other travelers is a sadaqah26 On other occasions, he mentioned that smiling at another person, bringing food to one’s family, and making love to one’s spouse are all pious acts.

Muhammad’s Companions expressed shock at the last of these, since it brings such carnal satisfaction. So he asked them if they did not consider adultery sinful and harmful, and when they responded that they did, he asked them why were they surprised that marital romance was a meritorious act in the service of God.27 The Prophet’s followers wondered what, then, were the greatest acts of faith? He included on different occasions: fighting in a just cause, standing up to a tyrant, taking care of your parents in their old age, giving birth to a child – and if a mother should die while giving birth, then she ranks amongst the highest witnesses of faith.

To the Muslim, almost every moment of life presents an opportunity for worship, and he or she aspires to transform all of his/her earthly life into a type of continuous prayer as verse 6:163 has the Muslim say: “Truly my prayer and my sacrifice and my living and my dying – all are to God.” This idea is ingrained deeply in the Muslim character, and so we find believers dedicating even their simplest actions to God with the formula, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”

An Egyptian cab driver about to start his car, a Moroccan mother reaching to pick up her crying child, and a Pakistani worker raising a glass of water to his lips, will pronounce “bismillah-ir-rahman-ir-raheem” (In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate). Every healthy and wholesome activity has the potential to be a worshipful act. Any good deed, performed by one who strives to surrender his/her life to God, can become a moment of devotion. A believer knows that his/her inner peace, happiness, growth, and prosperity correspond to the level of self-surrender he/she attains. To him or her, worship then becomes synonymous with doing what is good and ultimately personally beneficial.

Many western scholars of Islam have objected to the verse in the Qur’an where God states “I have not created jinn (beings beyond human perception) nor man except that they should worship me” (51:56), seeing an infinitely jealous and capricious narcissism – the worst side of the Old Testament depictions of God. Yet a Muslim, possessing his/her understanding of the purpose of life and possessing this very general and broad concept of worship, will read the very same verse and respond: “But of course, for what other purpose could there possibly be?”

Additional Questions

We have traveled far, yet in some ways, it seems as if we never needed to leave. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we had to venture over the rainbow in order to discover that the key to happiness is within ourselves. To many of those who have recently accepted Islam, its view of life is so holistic and natural that they are astonished that they had not conceived of it themselves.

We saw that the Qur’an claims that earthly life is an essential stage in our creation. It represents a learning stage in which we can develop our intellectual and spiritual qualities and increase in our capacity to know, receive, and experience the attributes of God so that we can enter into a relationship of love with Him that no human relationship could approximate. We observed that human reason, choice, and suffering are key ingredients in this stage and that our relationship with others is organically linked to our relationship with God. We witnessed that human error, sin, and repentance, together with God’s forgiveness and His continuous, pervasive influence, aid us in our growth. For many of us, most of the objections we raised initially have dissolved along the way and, although we may still have unanswered questions, we are coming to realize that they are due to the limitations of our own reasoning – our inability to fully comprehend the truth before us – and that given enough time, thought, and study of the Qur’an, we may be able to find satisfactory answers.

We are not at our journey’s end. The remainder of the book is devoted to sharing as best its author can the rest of that travel to Islam in America. Ahead, we will meet the inevitable decision that the Qur’an demands of us. Then we will consider the five pillars of Islam and the support they provide to those who have made the decision to convert. We will also meet the community of believers and the tests that its members can bring to one’s sincerity. Finally, we look briefly at the future of Muslims in America. Before we continue on, however, we will consider a few more of the theodicy questions that are often raised by modern-day Muslims and non-Muslims interested in Islam. I chose to discuss those about which I am most often asked. Answers to some of them follow as easy corollaries of what we already discovered, while others require a fresh look at the Qur’an from different angles. Some of them are discussed elsewhere,28 and I will repeat – sometimes word for word – what I wrote there. They are included here for the sake of completeness.

On Omnipotence

If God is all-powerful, can He become a man, terminate His existence, tell a lie, be unjust, or create a stone too heavy for even Him to move? These somewhat silly riddles most often arise from imposing unnecessary and contradictory assumptions on certain attributes of God or by assigning unwarranted additional attributes to Him. For example, the Qur’anic concept of omnipotence is not that God can do any arbitrary thing at all, even though it defies all laws of logical truth. Instead the Qur’an states that God “has power over all things” (2:20; 3:29; 55:17; 6:17; 16:77; 67:1) and thus it is impossible that a created object could exist beyond or independent of His power, such as a stone too heavy to be moved.

Creation is also subject to and in harmony with His attributes. While God does “whatsoever He wills” (2:253; 5:1; 11:107; 22:14), what He wills is not arbitrary or capricious but in accord with His Most Beautiful Names. Hence, it is outside of His perfection to do ridiculous or stupid things. Similarly, His attributes are not in conflict with each other. If omnipotence included the ability to become a man, to terminate oneself, to lie, or be unjust, then His name the All-Powerful would be in conflict with the names the Absolute (al Samad), the Everlasting (al Qayyum), the Truth (al Haqq), or the Most Just Judge (al Hakeem), respectively. Therefore, the obvious answer to each of the above riddles is that the Qur’anic concept of omnipotence does not include these acts.

The problem of predestination involves similar but more subtle logical traps that arise from imposing time constraints on God.


The concepts of time and eternity and their relationship to God have been the subject of diverse philosophical speculation throughout the history of religion. This is amply demonstrated in Muhammad Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.29 where he attempts a new interpretation in conformity with modern thought and doctrinal sources of Islam. The attempt itself has been widely praised by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, although there is considerable disagreement in both camps about the validity of his ideas. We should, Iqbal asserts, not underestimate the importance of such efforts, since many theological paradoxes arise from our understanding of these concepts. On the one hand, we cannot, as scriptures themselves cannot, resist relating time to God. On the other hand, we must alert ourselves to the deficiencies of our understanding.

The greatest perplexities arise by attributing to God human restrictions in relation to time. As God transcends space, we naturally would not associate with Him spatial limitations. For instance, we would not say that God literally descends to earth or walks in the garden. Equally, we would not insist that God is a three-dimensional being or that He travels from one point in space to another. In the same way, we should not demand that God have a past, present, and future, for this assumes that His existence is as ours, in time, and again this conflicts with His transcendence. Even the most rabid atheist, in an effort to prove the illogic of the concept of God, would not suppose that God might be on a bus from Chicago on His way to New Orleans, because he knows that such a hypothesis is unacceptable to a believer. It is equally erroneous to assume God’s being was confined to a particular point or interval of time.

We have little difficulty accepting the idea that God’s knowledge can encompass two different points in space simultaneously. This is perhaps because we assume that the attribute of transcending space implies a unique vantage point. We could compare it, however imperfectly, to the experience of being high above the ground and having simultaneous knowledge of very distant events. With respect to time, unlike space, we are immobile. We can not travel forward or backward in time. An hour from now, we will be at an hour from now. That can not be changed. Therefore, it is more difficult to comprehend that God’s existence is independent of or beyond time, as indeed it must be, for it is impossible to conceive that His being is contained within or constrained by any of the dimensions of the very spacetime environment that He created for us to live and grow in. Once again, because of His unique vantage, point, His knowledge encompasses all events, regardless of their distance in space or time.

Another key point, well established in the Qur’an, is that our perception of time is not objectively real. As noted earlier, the Day of Judgment is portrayed as a different order of creation, one in which we suddenly comprehend that our former perceptions of time are no longer valid.

The Day they see it, (it will be) as if they had tarried but a single evening, or the following morning. (79:46)

One Day He will gather them all together: (it will seem) as if they had tarried but an hour of a day. (10:45)

It will be on a Day when He will call you, and you will answer with His praise, and you will think that you tarried but a little while. (17:52)

In whispers will they consult each other: “You tarried not longer than ten (Days).” (20:103)

“You tarried not longer than a day.” (20:104)

He will say: “What number of years did you stay on earth?” They will say, “We stayed a day or part of a day: ask those who keep account.” He will say: “You stayed not but a little, if you had only known!” (23:112-13)

On the Day that the Hour will be established, the transgressors will swear that they tarried not but an hour: thus were they used to being deluded. (30:55)

Interpreters will always render all references to the Day of Judgment in the future tense, because from our perspective that is when it will take place. Several of the passages, however, actually employ the present and past tenses. Commentators assert that this is a literary device that stresses the inevitability of these happenings, but it seems that the use of the present and past tenses in referring to the Day of Judgment also reinforces the notion that it will take place in a very different environment, one in which our current conceptions of time and space no longer apply.

The illusory character of time is further supported by the Qur’an’s comparisons of the “days of God” with earthly days, where a “day of God” is said to be as “a thousand years of your reckoning” (32:5) and like “50,000 years” (70:4). I will not attempt here to provide a model or to interpret the precise relationship between God and time, or for that matter God and space, but rather I suggest the futility of such an endeavor. It cannot be otherwise, since our perceptions of time are not objectively real. Conflicts arise precisely because a given interpretation is assumed.

The question “What is the value of prayer if God has already predestined the future?” assumes that in some way God has a future. That is, it assumes that God is situated in time, as we are, and that as we pray, He is peering into a preordained future. But in order to have a future, one’s existence must be contained within – and hence finite – in time. The reason this question leads to contradictions is that it assumes a contradiction in the first place: that God both transcends and is finite in time.

Any question that assumes two mutually incompatible premises will always result in conflicting conclusions. Assume, for example, that a circle is a square. We may ask if a circle has corners. If we emphasize the circle’s roundness, the answer is no. If we concentrate on the properties of a square, the answer is yes. When two assumptions lead to a contradiction, at least one of them must be false. Thus, in such a situation, it should be asked if the question itself makes sense and if all premises are necessarily true.

The word “predestination” is itself problematic. If we mean by it that God in the past had programmed the events of the future, the assumption is that God exists in time. If instead we mean that God’s wisdom, knowledge, and power encompass all and nothing in creation can conflict with that, then that has to be admitted. However, this is not the primary sense of “predestine”, which means “determine in advance”, and it does not conflict with the notion that God responds to our prayers.

The words qadar and taqdir in the Qur’an have come to mean, for many Muslims and Orientalists, the “absolute decree of good and evil by God”. That is, that God has preordained all our acts, even our moral choices. But as Muhammad Ali argues, this doctrine is

neither known to the Holy Qur’an, nor even to Arabic lexicology. The doctrine of predestination is of later growth, and seems to have been the result of the clash of Islam with Persian religious thought.30

According to Raghib,31 qadar and taqdir mean “the making manifest of the measure of a thing” or simply “measure”. In the Qur’an they signify the divine laws regulating and balancing creation.

Glorify the name of your Lord, the Most High, Who creates, then makes complete, and Who makes things according to a measure (qaddara, from taqdir), then guides them to their goal. (87:1-3)

Who created everything, then ordained for it a measure (qadar). (54:49)

And the Sun runs on to a term appointed for it; that is the law (taqdir) of the Mighty, the Knowing. And as for the moon, We ordained (qaddarna from taqdir) for it stages. (36:38-39)

Of what thing did He create him [man]? Of a small lifegerm He created him, then He made him according to a measure (qaddarahu). (80:18-19)

This is not to claim that God has subjected the universe to certain scientific laws and abandoned it to let it run its course. No reader of the Qur’an gets this impression. In the Qur’an, God is al Rabb: the Sustainer, Cherisher, Regulator, and Governor of all. He is the omnipresent source of the harmony and balance of nature. His influence and sway over creation is continuous and all-pervading. However, none of this conflicts with the fact that we are empowered to make moral decisions and to carry them out or that God comes to our aid when we seek Him.

On the Origins of Evil and Temptation

Where does evil come from? If it comes from God, then it implies that God is imperfect; if it does not, then it implies that something can come into existence independent of Him. Since we already touched on this question when we considered human choice, we will summarize quickly our earlier observations and include some additional comments.

As we have seen, evil is not absolute, existing independent of and in eternal conflict with God. It arises from human nature, which is suited to moral and spiritual growth. What we consider to be evil – tyranny, oppression, deceit, injustice, greed, indifference to the suffering of others – is an outcome of human choice. It is a rejection of and opposition to the divine attributes and our own best interests. This helps explain the Qur’an’s description of the disbelievers as kuffar, a term that connotes one who shows ingratitude or rejects a gift. Human intelligence and volition, when confronted with the challenges presented by earthly life, frequently will choose evil. However, the same key ingredients combine in some of us to produce remarkable exemplars of goodness. As the Qur’an states, man’s capabilities – in particular, his ability to sin and do evil – are from God. He empowers us to choose evil just as He empowers us to choose good. But the choice is ours, and it is in that choice that good or evil occurs:

Say: “All things are from God.” But what has come to these people, that they fail to understand a single fact? Whatever good befalls you is from God, but whatever evil befalls you, is from yourself. (4:78-79)

To choose evil is self-defeating, as the wrongdoer sins – commits zulm – against himself. But the damage does not have to be permanent, for through sincere repentance, making amends, and with God’s forgiveness and help, we can learn and grow from our mistakes. The existence of and our ability to choose evil as well as good is an essential element of this learning phase of our creation. Evil in this life is not in conflict with God, but rather serves His purposes for mankind. The same could be said about the existence of temptation.

Our decisions are based not only on sensory data. All peoples of all times have been aware of extrasensory influences that introduce subtle suggestions into the human mind. In the past, the study of these forces fell exclusively within the province of religion, while today, modern psychology dominates their study. Religions tended to view these psychic influences as independent from man, but modern science believes them to belong to a subliminal region of our minds. I will not attempt here to resolve this difference in viewpoint or to harmonize Islam with any recent theories of psychology. My interest is not in the precise origin, development, or location of these influences – frankly, I believe that this will always be a mystery to science – for my aim is only to discuss the role of temptation in man’s development. Of course, the Arabs of the Prophet’s era had their own pneumotology and vocabulary for describing psychic phenomena and, quite naturally, the Qur’an adopted and adapted this system to its calling. In order to better understand the purpose of temptation, it will be helpful to review some terminology.

The word jinn was to the ancient Arabs a comprehensive term for beings and powers outside of their immediate experience or perception. It is derived from the Arabic verb janna, meaning “to cover, conceal, hide, or protect”. To Muhammad’s contemporaries, it denoted “a being that cannot be perceived with the senses”.32 The Arabs, as pointed out by Muhammad Ali, commonly referred to other humans as jinn. He quotes famous Muslim lexicologists who explain that it could be used to designate mu’zam al nas, i.e., “the main body of men or the bulk of mankind”.33

In the mouth of an Arab, the main body of men would mean the non-Arab world. They called all foreigners jinn because they were concealed from their eyes.34

Through the centuries a tremendous amount of superstition and folklore grew around this word in the Middle East and the Far East, as well as the two other terms that we are about to discuss. Although these developments make it difficult to know exactly what it meant to the Qur’an’s first hearers, it appears that any imperceptible being might be referred to as a jinn. From its use in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s traditions, however, it seems that the term was used most often to refer to a world of spirits, one of sentient beings who were invisible to mankind but yet influenced and sometimes interacted with men.

A close relative of jinn is the word shaitan, usually translated as “satan”. In general, shaitan stands for any rebellious being or force. In his famous commentary on the Qur’an, al Tabari states that

Shaitan in the speech of the Arabs is every rebel among the jinn, mankind, beasts, and everything …. The rebel among every kind of thing is called a shaitan, because its behavior and actions differ from those of the rest of its kind, and it is far from good.35

It derives its meaning from a verb which means to be remote or banished.

It is said that the word is derived from [the use of the 1st form verb shatana] in the expression shatana dar-i min dari-k (=My home was far from yours).36

As al Tabari points out, shaitan can be applied to humans. He quotes Ibn’Abbas in his commentary on 2:14:

There were some Jewish men who, when they met one or several of the Companions of the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, would say: “We follow your religion.” But when they went in seclusion to their own companions, who were their satans, they would say: “We are with you, we were only mocking.”37

He also quotes Qatadah and Mujahid, who claimed that these satans were “their leaders in evil” and “their companions among the hypocrites and polytheists”.

The key difference between a jinn and a shaitan is that while the former could be benign or destructive, the latter is always evil. In particular, in the pneumatic realm, a shaitan is an evil or rebellious jinn. However, the power of Satan in the Qur’an is rather limited: He is a source of evil suggestions that enter a person’s hearts (114:4-6) and the notorious tempter, but beyond that the Qur’an states that he has no authority over man (14:22; 15:42; 16:99; 17:65) and that his guile is weak (4:76).

And Satan will say, when the matter is decided: Surely God promised you a promise in truth, and I promised you, then failed you. And I had no power over you, except that I called you and you obeyed me; so don’t blame me, but blame yourselves. I can not come to your help, nor can you come to my help. I reject your associating me with God before. Surely for the unjust is a painful chastisement. (14:22)

Satanic temptation is counterbalanced in Islamic pneumatology by angelic inspiration. The angels (in Arabic, malaa’ikah; sing. malaak), among other things, encourage and support virtuous deeds in men and women. From the Qur’an, the sayings of the Prophet, and ancient dictionaries, it seems that, unlike the two previous terms, the word malaak (angel) applied only to spiritual beings. The Arabs also had a number of firmly held beliefs concerning angels that the Qur’an rejects: that angels are daughters of God (16:57) and hence semidivine, or that angels are female creatures (17:40; 37:150; 3:21).

These three terms characterize the pneumatic powers that influence the psyche. Angels, satans, and jinns account for many of the virtuous, harmful, and ambivalent psychic urgings to which we are exposed. Angels inspire magnanimity and self-sacrifice. Satans are a source of evil and self-destructive suggestions. The influence of jinns could be either positive or negative depending on how we deal with them, for they excite our lower or more animalistic tendencies, such as our drives for self-survival, power, wealth, security, and the respect of others. Their relationship and function is described succinctly in a well-known saying of Muhammad. He stated that every human is created with a companion jinn, who excites his lower passions, and a companion angel, who inspires him with good and noble ideas. When Muhammad’s audience asked if he too had a companion jinn, he responded, “Yes, but God helped me to overcome him, so that he has submitted and does not command me to anything but good.”38

The virtuous and base promptings we receive could balance and complement each other. Magnanimous urgings, which stimulate our moral and spiritual growth, would, if surrendered to completely, be self-destructive, for they would cause us to ignore our personal needs. Base desires are necessary for our earthly survival, but if we gave in to them entirely, we would become utterly selfish. The two work together to stimulate our moral and spiritual growth, since what makes an act virtuous is that it involves overcoming or putting aside our lower needs for a while. The successful person, as Prophet Muhammad’s saying shows, is the one who can discipline these lower (jinnic) influences and balance them against angelic ones. Then both serve his growth in goodness.

When a person inclines too far towards these lower (jinnic) suggestions, he makes himself or herself easy prey to evil (satanic) influences. For example, our need to survive gives way to exploitation of others and avariciousness, our need for power gives way to tyranny, our need for wealth gives way to greed, our desire for security gives way to violence, and our wish for respect gives way to arrogance. Such a person, as we saw earlier, becomes spiritually self-destructive, thereby making satanic influences an “obvious enemy” to man (2:168; 7:22; 12:5; 35:6).

These three psychic influences usually act upon us simultaneously. Thus they pinpoint and heighten the morality of many decisions and together provide a stimulus and catalyst for spiritual development. From the standpoint of Islam, what we call temptation is only one type of extrasensory influences to which we are exposed, and, in combination with the others, it perpetuates and hastens our growth. Like all other aspects of our earthly lives, it is in harmony with God’s plan for us.

It has been pointed out to me on occasion that this outline compares to certain theories in modern psychology, in particular, to Freud’s description of the id, ego, and superego. This may be the case, but I find it neither surprising nor something to be excited about. First of all, if there are similarities between the two systems, there are obviously major differences. Second, I do not consider Freud’s ideas to be truly modern nor a discovery in the strictest sense, because the viewpoint just presented is part of ancient wisdom and is contained in many religious traditions. What Freud attempted to do was to construct a secular context for explaining and investigating psychic influences. I, on the other hand, am writing as a convert to Islam from a definite religious perspective.

Don’t We Need Another Prophet?

This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed My favor to you and chosen for you Islam as a religion. (5:3)

Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the prophets. And Allah is ever Knower of all things. (33:40)

The second verse, revealed in the fourth year after Muhammad’s emigration to Madinah, turned out to contain a prophecy as well as a statement of current fact. Muhammad would leave no male heirs and thus no natural candidate to whom the community might look as inheritor of the prophetic mantle. The deep emotional and psychological need for such a person was indeed felt. On the day of the Prophet’s death, Umar, one of his leading Companions, and many others refused to accept that the Prophet had truly passed on until Muhammad’s closest friend, Abu Bakr, brought them to their senses. In the succeeding years, there were many others who sought from Muhammad’s family a divinely guided leader, one who, through kinship, would be endowed with charismatic authority. But the Qur’an, history, and the Prophet’s decisions in his last days made such a search difficult.

Not only did he leave no sons, but Muhammad outlived all of his daughters except Fatimah, the youngest, who died very shortly after he did. Had the Prophet designated Fatimah’s husband and his nephew, Ali, as his successor, he might very well have been raised to divinely ordained status in the eyes of most of the Muslims. Muhammad, however, apparently left it to the community to select their next leader, and Ali would not be elected until three political successors to Muhammad (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman) had already reigned and then died. Either of Ali and Fatimah’s two sons would have been likely candidates, but both of them died – the younger, tragically, while opposing the sixth ruler after Muhammad – without attaining political rule. Nonetheless, various lines of descent from Ali came to be viewed by a significant Muslim minority as inheriting a prophetic charisma, although most viewed the leadership of Muslims as simply a political appointment having religious significance and responsibilities but no divine mandate.

If Muhammad had been outlived by a son or perhaps a daughter – for the Arabian peninsula had known queens in pre-Islamic times – for a sufficient length of time, or if a grandchild of his had obtained political leadership, Muslim political history could possibly have been very different. But as it was, Muhammad’s refusal to appoint a political successor and the fact that no direct descendent rose to power in the first few decades after his death, helped to insure that the majority of Muslims would understand the designation, “the Seal (al khaatam) of the Prophets”, in the most obvious and conservative sense.

The Qur’an states that from every people God chose at least one prophet at some time in their history (10:47; 13:7; 16:36; 35:24). It also contains examples of nations to which prophets were sent repeatedly, because the divine message they conveyed would inevitably be distorted or forgotten. In some traditions of Muhammad, the number of prophets chosen by God for mankind is said to number as many as one hundred thousand. We are told that Muhammad’s mission was also corrective and restorative: the revelation he communicated confirms the fundamental truths contained in other sacred books – principally the Jewish and Christian scriptures – and corrects key errors (2:91; 6:92; 35:31).

This is a rather pessimistic appraisal of mankind’s spiritual and moral resolve. Since its very beginnings, the human race has been consistently guilty of forgetfulness and perversion as well as of an inability to preserve and adhere to God’s revelations. So that even if the Qur’an, as Muslims claim, is the same revelation proclaimed from Muhammad’s lips, preserved in its original language, and free from later editing and revision, are we not, like most of humanity throughout history, in need of another prophet? In other words, does it make sense that God would suddenly leave humanity, with its proven propensity for deviation from revelation, to itself until the end of creation after guiding man so directly up to and including the time of Muhammad?

The Muslim might counter that the Qur’an is distinguished from all other sacred scriptures by its purity; others may contain sayings close to what earlier prophets preached – maybe even some verbatim statements – but these are mixed so thoroughly with folklore, poetry, interpretation, commentary, along with errors in translation, copying, editing and transmission, and with other accretions, that sifting out the actual revelation has long been impossible. The Muslim insists that the Qur’an, on the other hand, contains nothing but the words proclaimed by Muhammad during the times when revelation descended upon him. Most modem non-Muslim scholars of Islam are willing to admit this much, or at least something very close to this. Thus, this argument goes, we now possess the unadulterated word of God to guide us, making another revelation or prophet unnecessary. Other religions, of course, have developed viewpoints on the purpose and means of revelation and scripture quite different from the Muslim understanding. It is not my intention to contrast or debate them; I only wish to present a common explanation for the finality of Muhammad’s mission.

Does this explanation fully answer the above question? What about the need to interpret and apply the revelation in an ever-changing world and the many difficulties which are bound to arise in time not explicitly addressed by the scripture? The Muslim replies that we have the Prophet’s life example, his Sunnah, the multitudinous recollections of his sayings and doings that were collected, collated and subjected to meticulous historical criticism during the first three Islamic centuries.

Yet certainly we will encounter situations not dealt with in the Prophet’s lifetime – after all, it has been over fourteen hundred years since his demise. How do we respond correctly to these? The Muslim answers that we have the sacred law, the Shari’ah, based on the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah: a complete code of living, developed over several centuries by jurists to meet every possible contingency.

Is it any longer tenable to claim that the ancient jurists foresaw every possible future problem? Of course not, admits the Muslim, but we can study their methodologies, repeat their effort, and derive Islamic rules and regulations to address our current circumstances.

This is the inevitable response, but the farther we move away from the Qur’an, the greater our dependence on human choices and judgments, which, it seems, are bound to differ and to include errors. Today, Muslims are debating and often quarreling among themselves over hundreds of issues as they strive to adapt to modem living. Admittedly, these arguments are not over concepts central to Islam – they involve almost exclusively what non-Muslims would regard as mundane issues: men’s and women’s roles in the community, banking and investment practices, relations with non-Muslims, Muslim involvement in western political systems and similar concerns – but they are extremely important to the community. Such controversies create a great deal of strain and dissension. As one Muslim student attending the University of Kansas once told me, “If only the Prophet, peace be upon him, were here today to settle these issues for us!” From this perspective then, do we not need another prophet?

Any answer is purely speculative, because the Qur’an does not explicitly respond to this question. There very well may be many reasons rather than a single rationale. It is possible that the collective attempt to work out a program of living guided by the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life example is in itself a valuable social, intellectual, and spiritual exercise requiring cooperation, tolerance, humility, and sincerity. The possibilities for growth that such an endeavor holds may outweigh the benefits of having a prophet to decide every small point of difference.

Another factor might be that the current environment is incapable of producing an individual having the level of purity and simplicity needed to be a prophet. Perhaps life has become so complicated and corrupting that no one of us is any longer capable of attaining the spiritual sensitivity and receptivity of Moses, Jesus or Muhammad. This interpretation brings to mind the many traditions of the Prophet that predict that life will become increasing corruptive, such as, “The best of my community is my generation, thereafter those who follow them, thereafter those who follow them. Then will come [such] people that one’s testimony will outrun his oath, and one’s oath his testimony.”39 Recall also the statement in the Qur’an that asserts that while many in Muhammad’s era excel in faith, very few will do so in later times (56:10-14) and the verse that predicts that many Muslims will someday shun the Qur’an (25:30).

Further insight into this question might be gained by examining more closely what the Qur’an states necessitated Muhammad’s prophethood.

The Qur’an presents itself and Muhammad’s apostleship as the culmination and completion of God’s direct communication to mankind through divinely inspired persons. Its many narratives about former prophets confirm and reinforce Muhammad’s mission. The Qur’an’s descriptions of the trials and obstacles faced by these previous messengers very often parallel events in Muhammad’s own struggle, and the proclamations they make to their communities echo pronouncements made elsewhere in the Qur’an. This shows that the battle fought by all prophets between good and evil, revelation and rejection, truth and falsity, has always been the same.

The single most important fact governing all creation and preached by all of God’s messengers is that “there is no god but God” (in Arabic, la illaha illa Allah). It implies that the many different objects of worship chosen by men have no real authority or power and that the divisions and hatreds to which such misdirected veneration lead are totally unnecessary and a result of nothing more than evil and self-destructive man-made illusions. It means there is but one spiritual and moral standard governing humanity and but one measure of a person’s worth.

O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Lo! the noblest among you in the sight of God is the best in conduct. (49:13)

Most importantly, it implies that the barriers we set up between ourselves and others are fallacies, because we all must answer to the same supreme God.

In seventh-century Arabia, each tribe had its own deity from which it sought protection and favoritism and to which it appealed in the self-perpetuating intertribal strife. It took Islam’s monotheism to unite the warring factions as the Qur’an so poignantly reminds them.

And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah, and do not separate. And remember Allah’s favor unto you: how you were enemies and he made friendship between your hearts so that you became as brothers by his grace; and (how) you were on the brink of an abyss of fire: and he did save you from it. (3:103)

Islamic monotheism not only demands that we accept that there is only one God, but also that we accept its natural corollary: All men and women are in fact equal under God’s authority. These two demands, the oneness of God and the unity of humanity, have throughout history been difficult to uphold in any religious tradition, as the cases of Judaism and Christianity so powerfully demonstrate in the Qur’an.

The story of the Children of Israel is of a people who are uniquely receptive throughout much of their history to monotheism despite their existence within a predominantly pagan milieu. Outside influences frequently penetrate their community and cause them to waver at times from the teachings of their prophets. In the Qur’an, they appear as a nation in constant struggle between pure monotheism and heathen pressures, and this in part explains their need to insulate themselves from their social surroundings and their attempt to preserve and protect their racial and cultural purity. But they came to see themselves as God’s chosen people, to the exclusion of others, and as sons of God in the Old Testament sense. As a result, they could never accept the final messenger of God because of his non-Jewish origins, even though he confirmed the essential message in their scriptures. The Qur’an continuously blames them for their refusal in this regard. In short, Judaism, although successful in preserving the belief in one God, was unable to accept the oneness of man under God.

Christianity goes back to the same biblical roots. But much more than Judaism, it is a universal religion. Its coherence derives from an intense spiritual yearning to know and be loved by God. Thus, while the Jews and the pagans of the Arabian peninsula were stubbornly closed to a message that departed from their traditions, Christians are shown to be more easily affected by its spiritual force (4:85-89).

The biggest difficulty encountered by such universal faiths is the great diversity of peoples they absorb. Converts bring their own languages, ideas, symbols, and cultural practices, all of which could potentially distort the universal faith in question. From the Muslim view, such was the case with Christianity: Although it eagerly embraces all mankind, its tenets compromise pure monotheism and lend too easily to associating others with God. In this way the Judeo-Christian experience exemplifies the dilemma faced by all world religions: Monotheism or universalism were invariably compromised in attempting to preserve one or the other.

Islam also struggled – and still struggles – with these internal tensions. Eventually, extreme measures were taken by the mainstream to protect both implications of monotheism. Philosophical and mystical speculation were discouraged, all aspects of life were systematized into religious law, and innovative thought was forbidden through the adoption of taqlid (unquestioning acceptance of earlier scholarly opinion). Pressures continued to rise, but Islamic orthodoxy, for the most part, succeeded in placing the major sources and ideas of early mainstream Islam on ice, preserved in a type of suspended animation, that eventually would be transferred to modern man intact. Whatever the cost to Muslim civilization of the severe steps taken by these Muslim scholars, the two major features of Islamic monotheism – the oneness of God and the oneness of humanity – were united successfully in Islam and passed on to future generations. For Muslims, this is one example of how God, through Islam, completed His favor unto mankind (5:3).

This concern with preserving both aspects of monotheism helps to explain the termination of prophethood with Muhammad. As long as a religion anticipates a future revelation, the door is left open to false prophets. Deceivers and self-deluded individuals invariably emerge to mislead others and divide the community. A powerful source of schism threatens the unity of the believers much more deeply and permanently than any legal disputation. Every major religion, including Islam, has known this danger, but the termination of prophethood with Muhammad has greatly restrained this tendency. A Muslim leader today may gain the admiration and allegiance of very many followers, but it is nearly impossible to obtain their unconditional trust – that type of absolute loyalty obtained by a perception of divine guidance. The moment a leader claims such a status, his movement is invariably doomed to become a relatively insignificant cult disconnected from the community of Muslims.

Recently, many Muslims were very curious about Rashad Khaleefah’s organization in Tucson, Arizona. When he declared himself to be another messenger of God, however, virtually all Muslims dismissed and ignored him, and he died with only a handful of disciples. Many Western scholars refer to similar disenfranchised movements, such as the Bahai’s or Qadianis, as Islamic sects, although the designation is inappropriate and misleading. The Muslim world does not consider these groups to be alternative or even heretical perspectives within the Islamic community; they are considered entirely outside of Islam. No such movement has attracted a significant number of Muslims, although they may win converts from other populations, because the belief in Muhammad as the last and final prophet is one of Islam’s principal dogmas.

The shahadah (testimony of faith) is the nearest thing to a creed in Islam. It is recited at least nine times a day by observant Muslims in their prayers. In the first half of the shahadah, a Muslim bears witness that “there is no god but God” (la ilaha illa Allah), while in the second half he or she testifies that “Muhammad is the messenger of God” (Muhammadan rasullu-Allah). By the second statement, the Muslim understands not only that Muhammad is God’s messenger, but also that he is the last prophet and the only one he should follow. Thus, the shahaddah connects Islamic monotheism to the finality of Muhammad’s mission. From the viewpoint of Muslims, his prophetic vocation was necessitated by the need for a continual witness on earth to both implications of monotheism – the oneness of God and the oneness of humanity under God – and the sealing of prophethood with him was necessary in order to preserve and safeguard that witness from later fragmentation.

  1. Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an (Gibraltar: Dar al Andalus, 1980), 989-91.↩︎

  2. Ibid↩︎

  3. Annemarie Schimmel, Islam, An Introduction (New York: SUNY Press, 1992), 78-81.↩︎

  4. See for example, Malik Bennabi, The Qur’anic Phenomenon, trans. by A.B. Kirkary (Plainfield, IN: American Trust Publications, 1983); Maurice Bucaille, The Bible, the Qur’an and Science (Paris: Seghers Publishers, 1977); and Keith L. Moore, The Developing Human (appendix to 3d edition) (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1982). As I remarked in Struggling to Surrender, this topic is interesting and sometimes fascinating, but it too often requires complicated and unobvious extrapolations in interpreting certain words and phrases. This trend exists in other religious communities as well. A speaker informed his audience that the New Testament contains the big bang theory of creation, for in John it states that in the beginning was the “word”. Since a word is a single entity in the universe of language that when voiced produces a vibration of sound, we obtain by some isomorphism to the physical universe the theory of a single original point mass of infinite density that explodes!↩︎

  5. See the discussion on page 14 concerning Dhul Qarnain.↩︎

  6. G. R. Hawting and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, Approaches to the Qur’an (New York: Routledge, 1993), from the article by Ismael K. Poonawala, “Darwaza’s principles of modern exegesis,” p. 231.↩︎

  7. The interpretations of verses from the Qur’an in this book are for the most part my own, although I have relied heavily on a number of well-known interpreters to guide me: Asad, Message of the Qur’an; Muhammad Ali, The Holy Qur’an, Text, English Translation and Commentary (Lahore, Pakistan: Ahmadiyyah Anjuman Isha’at Islam, 1973); Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, New Edition with Revised Translation, Commentary (Beltsville, MD: amana publications, 1989); Marmaduke W. Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an (New York: Muslim World League, 1977).↩︎

  8. See p. 26.↩︎

  9. H. Lammens,“Caracteristiquede Mohomet d’apres le Qoran”, Recherches de science religieuse, no. 20 (1930): 416-38.↩︎

  10. Maxime Rodinson, Islam and Capitalism (Penguin Books, 1974), 79-80.↩︎

  11. Ignaz Go1dziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 79-80.↩︎

  12. From Sahih at Bukhari as translated in Imam Nawawi, Riyad at Salihin, trans. by Muhammad ZafrullahKhan (London: Curzon Press Ltd., 1975), 28.↩︎

  13. Hanna E. Kassis, A Concordance of the Qur’an (University of California Press, 1983).↩︎

  14. Quoted by Ali, The Holy Qur’an,Text, English Translation and Commentary.↩︎

  15. From Sahih al Bukhari and Sahih Muslim as translated in Riyad as Salihin of Imam Nawawi, 94.↩︎

  16. From Ibn Majah and Tirmidhi as translated in Mazhar U. Kazi, _Guidance from the Messenger (Jamaica, NY: ICNA Publications, 1990), 84.↩︎

  17. An expression used frequently by Prophet Muhammad. See Riyad as Salihin of Imam Nawawi, 221-22.↩︎

  18. From Sahih Muslim as translated in Kazi, Guidance from the Messenger, 151-52.↩︎

  19. Ibid., 95.↩︎

  20. See note 20 and, for example, 2:74; 5:13; 9:87; 18:57; 22:46; 2:54; 26:89; 33:53; 39:23; 64:11; and 83:14.↩︎

  21. From Sahih Muslim as translated in Riyad as Salihin of Imam Nawawi, 103.↩︎

  22. Ibid., 59.↩︎

  23. Ibid.↩︎

  24. Lang, Struggling to Surrender.↩︎

  25. Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publ., 1982).↩︎

  26. Muhammad Ali, The Religion of Islam (New Delhi: S. Chand & Co., 317-18.↩︎

  27. Ibid.↩︎

  28. Ibid., 188.↩︎

  29. Ibid., 191.↩︎

  30. Ibid., 191-92.↩︎

  31. Al Tabari, The Commentary on the Qur’an, trans. by J. Cooper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 1-47.↩︎

  32. Ibid., 47.↩︎

  33. Ibid., 131.↩︎

  34. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, At Musnad (Cairo: al Maimanah Press, n.d.), 1:385, 397, 401.↩︎

  35. Sahih al Bukhari: The Early Years of Islam, trans. and explained by Muhammad Asad (Gibraltar: Dar at Andalus, 1981), 19.↩︎