“I LOVE NOT THOSE THAT SET”*
by Tongucnaz S. Basturk
In his early twelfth century philosophical novel, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, Andalusian-Arab philosopher Ibn Tufayl illustrates the tale of a feral child who grows up to discover truths which the author presents as universal. Even though Hayy—the protagonist— matured outside of any human culture and lived alongside animals, he employed the human faculty of reason to understand not only the natural laws which govern the physical world, but also metaphysical concepts which extend beyond empirical observation. Despite never having encountered any theological theories, let alone that of monotheism, Hayy deduces by means of his reasoning the idea of a sole omnipotent deity who he terms the “Necessarily Existent.” Through the story of Hayy, Ibn Tufayl expresses that human beings have an innate potential to realize universal truths if they are only willing to strive for it. The notion that a person can grasp certain religious values—such as God’s oneness— without exposure to a society [or conveyed message] which upholds them is also suggested by the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam. Revered as the “Word of God” by Muslims, the Qur’an positions itself as the last in a line of divine revelations, while stressing that Islam is the faith into which man was originally born and which prophets since Adam have taught. It calls upon people to learn from the text and offers guidance for those who are willing to believe its message. The Qur’an claims that a person can discover the Truth—such as tawhid and life-after-death—by means of God’s signs and creations, even though he may not have access to a prophet’s teachings.
Throughout the Qur’an the imagery of natural phenomena are referred to as proofs for monotheism. Certain images, such as rain and night, are repeated to the extent that they become motifs scattered all over the text. Verses 33 to 40 of Ya Sin begin with “there is a sign for them in the lifeless earth” and proceed to contain both images of water and night, alongside that of gardens, various fruits, sunlight, and the moon. While these natural objects are described in great detail, there is also a constant emphasis on God’s position as Creator interspersed into the passages. The surah draws attention not only to the beauty of that which is described, but also to the creator who arranged the objects in such as manner: “It was not their own hands that made all this. How can they not give thanks? Glory be to Him who created all the pairs of things that the earth produces” (6:35-36). In Qur’anic passages, the beauties of creation are connected to and reflective of the power which designed them. In The Meaning of the Qur’an, Maududi explains that the shift between night and day reveals the “great regularity which is found in the alternation… [is] not possible unless the sun and the earth were bound in one and the same relentless system” (6:37; Maududi vol.11, p. 57). Because natural objects and cycles show an extreme degree of intricacy and systematization, they must be bound under the laws created by a single omnipotent deity. Maududi maintains that if there had been more than one creator “it cannot be imagined that such a comprehensive and universal plan with such deep and wise relationship could be produced , and should have continued to work with such regularity” (Maududi vol.11, p. 55). Since natural phenomena were designed by God, the Qur’an suggests that they disclose the truth of monotheism.
Another instance of when the Qur’an refers to nature as evidence of God’s might is in Surah Al-Furqan, in which verses 45-50 illustrate the shadow, night, day, winds, water, and the sky respectively. After detailing the process by which rain revitalizes the arid earth, it advances to assert “We present the same phenomenon over and over again for them so that they may learn a lesson from it” (35:50). This verse is noteworthy since it acknowledges the repetition of natural imagery prevalent all over the Qur’an, a repetition which causes the reader to constantly confront and consider what is represented as evidence of a single deity. But furthermore, it also indicates the actual occurrence of rainfall, which occurs time after time as well. The change of seasons, the growth of fruits, and the cycle of day and night are recurring events of life which the Qur’an presents as indicators of God’s unity, or tawhid. In illustrating scenes from nature, the Qur’an persistently emphasizes that the power and unity of God are undeniable.
Among the natural imagery which the Qur’an depicts as signs pointing toward the single Divinity, some also indicate the afterlife ordained for humanity. As in verse 37 of Ya Sin, verse 47 of Al-Furqan describes the cycle of night and day by saying “It is He who made the night a garment for you, and sleep a rest, and made the day like a resurrection” (25:47). While this passage too suggests that the shift between day and night demonstrates the power of their Creator, it also coveys the idea that this phenomenon provides proof of life-after-death. It implies that just as nighttime rest leads to the awakening at daylight, the dead who are at rest will be resurrected into the afterlife. A. Yusuf Ali elaborates on this notion by explaining that “the Night is like Death, our temporary death before Judgment…… and the Day is like the renewal of Life at the Resurrection” (Ali, p.937). Once again, the Qur’an supports its claim through a reference to a natural phenomenon which humans encounter in their daily lives while suggesting that these phenomena testify to the afterlife of which Muhammad informed his society. Furthermore, the motifs of rainfall and growth of vegetation mentioned above work as indicators of the afterlife as well. Maududi’s exegesis explains: “rainfall brings to life dead land year after year. This clearly proves that Allah has the power to bring the dead back to life” (Maududi, vol.8, p.195). The Qur’an employs human experience of the altercations of the day and night and the seasons as evidence for the concepts of both monotheism and life-after-death.
Given that the Qur’an uses imagery from nature to provide evidence for the concepts of tawhid and the afterlife, it suggests that man can realize these concepts by studying natural phenomena. As stated above, the Qur’an acknowledges that it repeats certain motifs from nature throughout the text in order to demonstrate that God’s creations serve as signs. By means of these signs, man can discover truths— such as that of monotheism and the afterlife. The Qur’an expresses this notion by having phrases which address human perception or intellect precede or follow descriptions of nature. In verses 11 through 13 of An-Nahl, all three verses depict some form of creation and then assert that man can learn something by studying them. The description of crops is followed by “there truly is a sign in this for those who reflect” (16:11); celestial bodies by “in this there are many signs for those who make use of their common sense” (16:12); and colors by “there is indeed a sign for those who learn lessons from them” (16:13). By drawing a connection between nature and human intellect, these verses suggest that if people study creation—which includes their own bodies and minds (51:21) – they will gain some understanding of the God who created all that man sees and marvels at. In his interpretation of passages from Ya Sin, Maududi clarifies that verses detailing creation “are meant to make man understand that if he looks around himself with open eyes, and uses his common sense, he will find countless and limitless proofs of the existence of god and His Unity” (Maududi, vol.11, p.59). By means of his senses and reason, man can observe and think about the regularity manifest in creation and thereby understand that they disclose the reality of tawhid and the afterlife.**
In Message of the Qur’an, Muhammad Asad explains that he rendered the term ayat—meaning signs—as “messages” since “those visual signs of a consciously creative Power convey a spiritual message to man” (Asad, 978). It is also interesting to note that the verses within surahs are called ayat as well; the physical experience of God’s creation is therefore comparable to the revelation enclosed within a sacred text. As expressed by the previously quoted verse 35:50, the repetition of motifs in the Qur’an parallels man’s persistent encounter with the signs embedded in creation. Just as the Qur’an’s reader continually confronts descriptions of the natural signs which point to God, every person experiences these same signs over and over again throughout his life. One might therefore agree with Dr. Ingrid Mattson that “the fact that each verse mentioning signs ends in a call for thinking, listening, and reasoning” reveals how “God is to be approached by a multifaceted perceptive engagement with His creation” (Mattson 43). Because creation as a whole is a sign which man can study by way of his perception and intellect, man might be able to improve his understanding of God, even if he comes from a culture distanced from revelation.
Man’s ability to discover the Truth by means of exploring the signs within creation is an indication of his being truthful to the primordial nature with which God has endowed him. Surah Ar-Rum contains a passage which tells Muhammad to remain steadfast to his religion because “This is the natural disposition God instilled in mankind—there is no altering God’s creation” (30:30). The Qur’an reveals that the teachings of Muhammad correspond to the nature with which God has endowed humans. As Asad states, the term fitrah implies “that the ability to realize God’s existence, oneness, and omnipotence is innate in man and that all deviation from this basic perception is a consequence of the confusion brought about by man’s progressive estrangement from his instincts” (Asad 365). The concept of fitrah demonstrates that human beings are equipped with an inborn knowledge of God’s unity and a capacity to comprehend the truth embedded within creation. In that sense, if one does not understand the truth of monotheism, it simply means that he has strayed from his nature. Maududi interprets this passage as conveying that “if you adopt the attitude of independence, you will be following a way opposed to your nature, and if you serve and worship another besides Allah, then you will be working against your nature” (Maududi, vol. 9, p.211). The concept of fitrah in the Qur’an expresses that man is naturally endowed with the capacity to understand the Truth, especially by way of the signs God has created around him.
The Qur’an illustrates that the prophet Abraham, by reflecting on nature, underwent the process of discovering the Truth. Abraham came from an idol worshipping society where people blindly adhered to the practices of their forefathers without being able to provide reasonable justifications for their beliefs (21:53), yet he felt that his culture’s practices were fallacious. Surah Al-An’am recounts the exploration he undertook to learn about his creator (6:74-79). He searched natural phenomena so as to find God, and considered the celestial bodies since it was already clear to him that manmade idols could not be the forces which created mankind. The Qur’an narrates “when the night outspread over him, he saw a star and said ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he declared ‘I cannot love those that set’” (6: 76); he then proceeded to consider the moon and sun, but understood all of them were governed by laws. By use of his senses and reason, Abraham understood that these bodies were not deities, but merely signs which pointed toward their Creator. This narrative presents that for man to comprehend ‘the Reality’ “the only condition is that makes makes the right sort of observation of the phenemoena of nature and reflects on them carefully and exercises one’s reasoning to reach the truth by a connected, logical train of thought” (Maududi, vol.3, p.128). Abraham not only noticed the irrationality of worshipping idols, but embarked on an exploration to find his Creator, which he achieved by means of the perception and reason with which God had created him.
When Abraham becomes a prophet as a result of striving for the truth, The Qur’an portrays him as having urged his people to think about reality and reflect on the proofs in nature. When he encountered his father (6:74) or other members of his society (26:69), he questioned them about their beliefs to demonstrate how they were set on erroneous foundations. Like parts of the Qur’an which illustrate nature, the Qur’an depicts Abraham’s speeches as placing an emphasis on reason. He is shown as employing his reasoning and logical arguments in order to disprove idol worship (21:59-67), and frequently asking his people “will you not, then, use your reason” (21:67). Even though he was not sent a sacred text, the logic with which he tries to persuade people is nearly identical to that of the Qur’an. He provides the example of food and drink as evidence for man’s need to be grateful to the only God (26:79), just as passages of the Qur’an use grains and fruits as signs (36:35); he likewise uses the idea of creation to prove the existence of life-after-death (29:19). By remaining faithful to his fitrah and searching for the Truth, Abraham became a prophet, but also a sign. Maududi elaborates that there are “[s]igns in this that the Prophet Abraham did not follow the religion of his family, community and country but followed the true knowledge through which he came to know that shirk is falsehood” (Maududi, vol.9, p.152). While the systematization of creation and the recurring of natural cycles signal the existence of a single omnipotent deity, Abraham represents how human reason and human devotion—aspects of humanity which are also creations of God—can assist man in finding the Reality.
The story of Abraham’s rejection of idolatry and search for his Creator conveys the notion that man can discern the truths of tawhid by means of God’s creations. The Qur’an incorporates an abundance of imagery to emphasize that the sophistication and order of the natural world serve as evidence for both monotheism and the afterlife. And just as they function as proofs in Qur’anic verses, they are also proofs which recur throughout man’s life on earth. Given that one verse reads “[in all this] there are messages for people who use their reason” (45:5) and that God has endowed man with senses, the faculty of reason, and an inherent disposition to recognize God’s unity, man is equipped in such a way that—if he is willing to strive—he can discover the truths which nature reveals. While the Qur’an acknowledges that many may ignore or deny the signs which indicate the Truth, the life of Abraham becomes proof that humans can learn from the repeating cycles of nature if he puts the faculties with which God created him to use.
* Qur'an, 6:76
** This idea is also captured by Muhammad Asad when he explains that man possesses “the faculty of reason with which [God] has endowed man, and which ought to enable every sane person to grasp the evidence of God’s existence by observing the effects of His creativeness in all nature” (Asad, 1069).
The Qur’an English Translation By M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. New York: Oxford UP, 2005.
The Holy Qur’an Translation and Commentary By A. Yusuf Ali. Brentwood, MD: Amana, 1983.
Http://www.scribd.com/doc/10720330/Message-of-Quran-Muhammad-Asad-Islam. Scribd. 7 May 2009
Mattson, Ingrid. The Story of the Qur'an Its History and Place in Muslim Life. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.
Maududi, S. Abul A’la. The Meaning of the Quran. Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1991.