Poetry, Ignorance and Impiety


It was in a moment of post-prandial luxury that I picked up a book we had gotten free from the Ministry of Endowments in Qatar (Awqaf). Its ambitious title making it an easy pick from the others in the pile. ‘Belief in Allah’ – a fat, 500 paged opulent hardbound, part of an ‘Islamic creed series’ by a certain Dr. Umar al Ashqar.  19_1_1Having had skimmed through it earlier, I knew not to expect much stimulation from it. Eyeing the back-cover, I was to read in the publisher’s blurb: ‘the influence of philosophy and other ideas that are alien to Islam led to the emergence of distorted concepts about Allah’. I let out a sigh of resignation, already bored. This level of  dullness demanded more patience than I could promise. Yet I proceeded and opened it up to its list of contents, half hoping to find something mildy…

View original post 1,130 more words


The Qur’an as Muhammad

“His character was the Qur’an”

Narrated Ayesha, about her husband Muhammad. The life of the Prophet of Islam was a living embodiment of the Qur’anic ideal. Believers are encouraged to follow in the footsteps of the Messenger by inculcating the Message of the Qur’an in their lives. One’s reading of the Qur’an is inadequate if one fails to live and breathe it. One’s emulation of the Messenger is incomplete if one fails to strive towards emulating the inner states of heart that were the spirit of His forms. To thank God as the Messenger did is not merely to pay verbal lip-service; it is at core, an existential imitation. It is to allow the verbal prayer to swell up from the bottom of one’s soul, as it might have for Him. Following the Sunnah, then, is to seek to experience what He might have experienced – or to come as close to it as possible with all our imperfections.

“Say: ‘If you love God, follow me, and He will love you.’ ” 

To truly follow the Prophet, is to experience the religion as He might have. It is to experience revelation, as He might have. Thus any reading of the Qur’an that we do seeking contemporary guidance from it falls grossly off mark.

“Read the Qur’an”, advised young Iqbal’s father to his lad, “as if it were being revealed to you.”. And most Muslims have similarly sought to experience the Qur’an individually, as though it were speaking to them, then and there. As though they were its original recipients, as though it were meant to reach them particularly, and at this particular time and place. Thus a believer is expected to drink from the eternal spring of the Word of God, and to find the water as palatable as it was to its original drinkers.  Thus is the Timelessness of the Divine translated in a manner relevant to one’s own time.

But this is hardly sufficient. For to truly experience the Word of God as if it were being ‘revealed upon one’s own heart’ requires nothing less than seeking to enter the inward state of its original recipient – the Prophet himself. To allow one’s heart to take the form (if not successfully the spirit) of the Heart of the Prophet as revelation descended upon Him. It is to recreate the original conditions of revelation in one’s own soul and to experience the affect that that revelation has. It is to tremble with fear and awe at the first haunting echoes of cave Hira. To be overwhelmed to the point of breaking, by the first “Iqra!” (the command to read). To almost die of an angelic embrace, and to almost wish to escape the “heavy word” by throwing oneself off the cliff. To feel the burden of humanity and to doubt one’s strength to bear it without breaking. To feel the immensity of Reality and to doubt one’s strength to face it without turning insane – ‘To Know the Real, but to doubt oneself’ as Tariq Ramadan puts it. And it is to feel the pangs of despair when revelation suddenly ceases. Only through the ‘dark night of the soul’ will the relief and reassurance of “Wad Dhuha” hit home.

But once one enters the ‘spiritual field’ – as it were – of the Prophet’s heart, one starts to sense that there is more happening here. Though the voice and tongue were His own, He felt almost as if taken over or ‘possessed’ by this uncontrollable spirit. A voice identifiably distinct from His own, yet through His heart, through His voice. How could He explain it? How does one react upon encountering the objective Other at the heart of the Subject/Self? What does one do when one unsuspectingly encounters the Other in an unassuming act of Self-reflection? Is this a reaction of the Atman recognizing the Brahman within? The Other – the Absolute Other – at the heart of the Self?

But how can one expect to escape such an Opening? Like a sublime Pandora’s box, once the angels are out you cannot seal them in. Isn’t the task then to bear the burden of one’s revelation? The burden of seeking escape from such a burden would only make it worse.

“Cover me!”

“Comfort me!”

Sweating, Shuddering, Muhammad pleaded His beloved Khadija, afraid he was losing His mind. It was the consolation of their Love that helped Him come to grips with what was happening. He knew now what he needed to do.

Then he was overtaken: “O you covered up! Arise…”

It seems difficult to establish what comes first, the active Revelation or the predisposition of the Messenger at the moment – His ‘receptivity’ for it? Perhaps it makes little sense to process what is a kind of ‘intuition’ in terms of the category of ‘reason’. The latter operates serially in time, and works deductively from basic premises to a conclusion, whereas the former can be said to be a single moment – even if prolonged – a moment partaking of the Eternal Now. Its Beginning the same as its End. A single act of apprehension, that directly strikes one’s discursive faculty of the heart. Bypassing the ‘first-pass metabolism’ of the brain, so to speak, and directly entering the blood stream of one’s soul.

Anyone who has taken the Qur’an seriously cannot deny the sublime nature of the Book, and so cannot insouciantly shrug it off from one’s mind as if it deserved no further pondering. But anyone who contemplates the unity of Being, and the nature of Revelation, cannot deny Muhammad center-stage in the phenomenon.

The Other and the Self need not be viewed as engaged in a dialectical relationship. God’s voice and the Prophet’s own, interfuse to produce the Qur’an. In fact, it may be misleading to use the word ‘interfuse’ since it implies the coming together of two distinct and separate elements, but the heart of intuition is ‘at one’ with the source of intuition. Unified in being (wahdat al wujud). Fazlur Rahman spoke of the need to sustain “the intellectual capacity to say both that the Quran is entirely the word of God and, in an ordinary sense, also entirely the word of Muhammad”.

“Indeed, all medieval thought lacked the necessary intellectual tools to combine in its formulation of the dogma the otherness and verbal character of the Revelation on the one hand, and its intimate connection with the work and the religious personality of the Prophet on the other” – Fazlur Rahman

Shah Wali Allah stated that “verbal revelation occurs in the mold of words, idioms and style which are already existent in the mind of Prophet.” He writes:

“(God) subdued the mind of the Prophet in such a way, that He sent down the Book of God in the “pure heart” (hajar baht) of the Prophet in a nebulous and undifferentiated manner (Ijmalan). In the pure heart of the Prophet, the divine speech becomes apparent in the identical form in which it appears in the Supernal Plenum (haziru-t al-quds). The Prophet thus comes to know by conviction that this is the Word of God. Subsequently, as the need arises, well-strung speech is brought out of the rational faculties of the Prophet through the agency of the angel.”

It may not fair to say then that the Qur’an is in a sublime (and not mundane) way, the speech of the Prophet – at least partly. Even a provisional acceptance of the partial truth of this statement, opens up new windows of perception. One may then begin to glimpse through the Word of God, the voice of the Prophet. But such a line of reasoning easily ends up becoming absurd if pushed too far. Clearly, the Messenger Himself distinctly upheld the ‘exteriority’ of the Voice of revelation – despite the unmistakable ‘interiority’ of the whole phenomenon so evident, specially to Himself! Perhaps there, in that moment of revelation where the Voice of Eternity finds expression through the tongue of Muhammad-the man, there the Object and the Subject are one. There, the external and internal are but the same. The Transcendent and the Immanent, but one Reality.

To bring oneself to see the Eternal Qur’an as the voice of a mortal creature, is not to reduce the Qur’an to a mere historical construct. It is to raise the ‘mere mortal’ to the level of eternity. Muhammad – the Man was certainly not the author of the Qur’an, but perhaps Muhammad – the Light, that partook (and partakes) of eternity, was central to its authorship.

Muslims experience the Qur’an as ‘Proof’, as Burhan. And at an experiential level, it is certainly and undeniably that. However, one may choose to interpret this proof differently. What is being proved through the experience? By implication of the foregoing discussion, we may hazard a guess that the Qur’an is first and foremost the proof of Muhammad. In fact, this guess acquires a level of certainty once experienced as such. It is perhaps not primarily the proof of God at all, or even if it is – and especially if it is – its proof of God is proof of Muhammad again.

We speak of the Qur’an as the proof of Muhammad, but perhaps in another sense Muhammad is the proof of the Qur’an. The Medium is the Message, to adopt Lewis Mumford’s popular phrase. And reversing Ayesha’s narration cited at the beginning: “Kaanal Qur’anu Khuluquhu” – “The Quran was His character.” One may even, in this fit of intoxication, reword a verse of the Qur’an:

“If you Love Muhammad, follow God, and He(Muhammad) will love you.” 

I don’t see God. I only see Muhammad.
I don’t seek God. I only seek Muhammad.
I don’t see God. I only see Muhammad.
I don’t seek God, I only seek Muhammad.

Rabi’a al ‘Adawiyya rejected the Prophet when he had approached her in a vision she had, citing as justification the fact that she desired God purely, and was not dependent on the Prophet’s approval for her salvation. In the line of reasoning that we adopt, we would be justified to reverse the situation. Were God to present to us in a vision, offering salvation, we would reject that God for Muhammad – for the life of Muhammad, for the light of Muhammad, for the love of Muhammad, for the God of Muhammad.

At a deeper level the choice of Rabi’a symbolizes the choice between the abstract and the concrete. A choice between the realm of Ideas and the realm of Human beings. Abstraction versus Humanism. And to choose Muhammad over theology is to choose the human, the humane, the warm-blooded, over the theoretical, the dry, the cold-blooded.

“It was at your command that we set our for Makka,
Otherwise our destination is none but you” – Iqbal