An Introduction to the holistic reading of the Word of God

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THE QUR'AN: An Introduction to the holistic reading of the Word of God

By Mehdi ‘Abd al-Qadir

In the Name of the Lord, The Merciful and Compassionate Blessed is He Who hath revealed unto His slave the Criterion, that he may be a warner to the peoples. [1] It is such that in the case of most works of fine literature, be they historical or religious, there is little chance of fully appreciating them except in their original text. The Qur'an stipulates the Arabic language itself as being its sole linguistic medium and hence it is near impossible to even remotely grasp its deeply profound message in such translations as currently available in English. However this should not, and is not, intended to push anyone away from it, rather the opposite-to draw its reader closer. In this brief introduction I hope to bridge between the deficiency of language and understanding of a non/new-Muslim reader, at the same time keeping in line with conveying the essence and magnanimity of the Majestic words and meanings of the Qur'an. The following paper is not intended to be in anyway comprehensive, but rather a few thoughts indicating to three areas of the less discernable perspectives and understandings of the most unknown of words and meanings. I have not endeavoured to cite examples of verses or specific verses relating to certain themes in order to allow the reader to experience fully the joy which is to be found in discovery itself. Therefore I would hope that through a reading of this paper it will aid the reader on their own journey of discovery just as a torch aids an explorer; its capacity is little more than a tool-the discovery and its joy belong to the explorer alone. Indeed we may begin, in consideration of the first area oft confusing to many readers of the Qur'an; that is the circular or repetitive style of the verses and names of God mentioned throughout. The repetitive use of narrative, expressions, analogy or symbolism is articulated via the Arabic language in a way, which departs from the obvious, stereotyped or traditional view. This style is constantly present regarding many themes and subjects often in order to break mental mindsets, predictable opinions and ergo free the mind from stagnation. Except those verses in which their meanings have been made explicitly clear by the Exalted Lord and His emissary (as understood by the Consensus [2]); any understanding of the Qur'an which one might gain is for their own personal growth, and yet, if held as definitive he or she shall be repressed from deeper comprehension. To receive an opening or insight into the meanings of the Qur'an is to transcend beyond the mind and body. Indeed this is one of the necessary requisites in the initial stages of submitting oneself to understanding the Word of God; thus before and even after insight or understanding the process never ceases. Know that the meanings and secrets of the Word are themselves inexhaustible and infinite and can never be comprehended and known by any one man, thus the way of understanding necessitates that one strive along a never ending path, never can one stop and rest which itself may be a cause to losing one's way after having found it. Without efforts of development and exercise once an opening has been granted many people will lose or become veiled to the very same opening. [3] Hence as one progresses in understanding one should not hold fast to earlier openings rather persevere in the same manner with zeal towards greater openings and by Allah it will be realised. It is important to remember that openings will vary in their profundity for every person in different matters and times, thus understanding and perspectives will constantly be built upon and strengthened by further openings and hence true knowledge and insight. Therefore from amongst the reasons for this style, maybe understood to be so in order to offset the excessive usage of theoretical understanding at the expense of practical understanding. The Islamic teaching is a living faith, which requires actual participation beyond intellectual concepts, for it is only via this participation that true transformation of the individual can occur, thus realisation and practice are of one inseparable equivalence. Believing that exercise and awareness are independent of one another is unorthodox and sacrilegious in that true comprehensive awareness necessitates the exercise of practice. As from awareness, steps practice and from this practice bear the fruits of realisation. True appreciation of these qualities can themselves be best savoured in the practical state of the prayer itself in which, meditation as it were a practice, is refined to perfection. The Islamic faith has never expected true realisation outside of practice-perhaps because action based upon belief is itself the essential realisation. Indeed, the once-returners have repeatedly taught the importance of holding tightly to continuous practice in order to maintain the purity of previous realisations. The Qur'an and sunna (prophetic traditions), does more necessitate compliance as it transcends the letters, doctrines and ideologies as being the substance of the literature in its purity and essence, hence it is unattainable and inaccessible without the fulfilment of those merits necessary to Islam and Iman (faith), such as patience, forbearance, contemplation, reflection and the capacity to suspend regular notions; which are more often then not rooted in ignorance [4]. It may be mentioned further, that the power of the Qur'anic statements and prophetic traditions are such that by one sentence indicating the particular of a certain affair, subsequent study and thought would bring the remaining points and hence the entirety of the matter itself [5] within that particular context. The second hurdle to readers of the Qur'an [6] may be in the ostensibly ‘irregular' or non-linear progression of the Qur'an often encountered by the brevity of passages and seemingly incompleteness of matters. For example, we often read in the presentation of a certain situation; a variety of viewpoints concerning those involved in the incident, often arising from them variations of themes in the narrative. Then, switching between the differing perspectives the Qur'an will move to the glorification of God or refer to Judgement and apparently leave the subject where it stands for the reader to work out for him or her self or return to the situation in later passages. By this manner, readers may complain that the Qur'an often frustrates linear thought by its pattern shift to multiple perspectives of those involved or its apparent in cohesiveness; however, it could be argued that we are being motivated to realise the essential levels of awareness and understanding required to access the intention of the Qur'anic passage concerned-an effort which is itself one of the secrets of the Qur'anic style. Since much of the recurrent themes in the Qur'an are subject to be read at various levels of thought, from the theoretical to the experiential, unseen and seen, the sciences and the humanities; in many cases all of these areas may apply in the understanding of single word! Therefore, the Qur'an aims at reconstituting previous understandings which may have been corrupted or misunderstood by dissecting the various angles through which they may be understood to the human being. Through the assimilation of such understandings will the reader be able to deracinate established perceptions allowing for more delicate understandings to become possible. This Qur'anic method is used extensively and a reader will become aware through careful deliberation that, many verses will themselves shift the focus of attention from discerning realisation to entirety, in order to dissemble theoretical and habitual thought. Having discarded the trappings of habituated thought, a modicum of manoeuvrability becomes available and such that more advanced meaning can be discerned and a holistic Qur'anic perspective may be realised. Other times this is done by means of a indirect question vis-à-vis a particular statement or event; or a direct rhetorical question with the aim that one might contemplate upon both the question and answer, or the subject and object. The emphasis upon this technique necessitates complete concentration whilst reading the Qur'an, but amazingly the Qur'an also demands another yet more interesting form of concentration conjoined with special attention patterns pertaining to elements of Qur'anic style and recitation ( Tajweed ) and hence the understanding in part of the development of a Qur'anic world view [7]. This develops a highly advanced concentrational ability, which will for the scholar, and those ‘awakened', eventually be the gate to the secrets of the Qur'anic meaning. This itself will make powerful teaching to corroborate them experientially, as previous mental constructs have dissipated with their limiting boundaries, which would have inhibited the potential of true awareness to purge through long established psychological conditioning of the mind and heart. If utilised correctly, it will succeed in piercing the intellect itself and dampen the festering doubts of the ‘self' which arise from the tendency to do nothing or to leave things unchanged by not committing the mind to thought beyond the superficial. The third feature of the Qur'an which is read but rarely understood is the deeply significant psychologies presented throughout. Through this we are given access to ‘ look into the minds ' of those mentioned in the Qur'anic dialogue. All are held under the spotlight, from the Messengers and Prophets to the tyrants and kings who opposed them. As for those who were opposing the revelation, the Qur'an details their psychologies and how they were flawed by their own logic and desires, rather than detailing moral judgments and the external historical stimuli which led to their eventual outcomes [8]. Their false perception of reality is dissected and exposed pathologically in order to warn the reader to the danger of following such a path. We begin to understand that false perception is ultimately delusion; a result of experience as viewed by the ‘self' ( Nafs ) brought about by psychosomatic behaviour, deep-rooted views and other aspects characteristic of its nature. The nature of the relationship between the ‘self' and disbelief is further detailed; formed of false and habituated perceptions, which are unreservedly, engaged as unqualified or genuine points of reference and truth, by means of one's own experience as actuality or reality even when confronted by prophecy or Revelation itself. The Qur'an clearly prescribes as a method for combating such damaging unquestioned views; by introspection, ultimately realising that anything one may deem to be true is in reality false as there is nothing True except Allah and hence only by His Word can one truly know what is to be understood or how it is to be perceived. [9] That is to say that the ephemeral world and everything in it has in reality no real distinctiveness of characteristics so to judge according to what one deems it to be other than what Allah has said, is false. [10] We should know that the spirit, which resides within ourselves, is who we are in reality and the material substances, which clothe our soul, and the world around is not truth in itself but a sign and manifestation of the Truth. For when we look to the essence of our soul we realise that it is devoid of shape, sound, smell, touch and such physical phenomena, and by this realisation one is able to look beyond sense perception to the true perception with an un-blinded heart without any physical sense intervention and with tranquillity. As for the righteous, there are central patterns that can be discerned in expressions of verse, which necessitate meditation intended to engender change of not only consciousness but also wakefulness. For example, a recurrent theme in verse is the images and analogies to life, death and re-birth, signifying a multitude of meanings; amongst which maybe understood is the process of abandoning the accretions of habituation (which is the death of living experience,) and returning to the moment of this world, alive and free once more. This reminds us that our experience must be detached from superficial and outward appearances of form and substance, thus our mind is set free to the reality and true perception of reality. Indeed, the clause in attaining the jewels of the Qur'an may well be that the ‘self' must be truly detached or controlled in order that one truly gains access its secrets. This is the same for the prayer and other such activities by which mental or physical actions are in themselves meaningless and fruitless as long as notions of the ‘self' are intended. Therefore, from amongst the primary and principal concerns of the true ‘Seeker' ( salik ) is the management of the ‘self'. The Qur'an teaches this by asking its reader to reflect regarding his or her origin; that this human being made of flesh and bones were once but sperm and ovum, and to the earth from which he was created does he eventually return; emphasising the foolishness of holding to the dead and decaying matter of the physical and the self. This perception of reality brings into birth a new meaning and understanding of life; for by it fears of the ephemeral decreases, hope increases, and a true understanding of success and failure, praise and gratitude is developed. One is able to address and perceive situations and circumstances from new angles, and the eyes themselves have a deeper scrutinization of cause and effect; the actions of others and one's own. The deeper this perception becomes the further one will detach from circumstances, things and situations yet not at the expense of one's moment; rather engaging it according to the need of the specific time. Thus to be un-caged and free of any situation- to act within the Sacred Law and ethical standards of the circumstance yet not inexorably bound to them by the physical nature of themselves. For the eye of Truth sees from the heart and not the eyes; it is the heart which sees , just as the ear in reality only hears the cacophonic sounds of the mundane; but the heart is where the hearing of true beauty is realised. Scents are in their essence unknown except by what we superficially pick up with our nose; but the heart is where the stench of evil and fragrance of beauty are acknowledged; that is to say where true smelling takes place, and in the reading of His Word- the Qur'an- is the remembrance ( dhikr ) of the human tongue; where the true resonance of speaking is realised. When one becomes free from the mundane elements of the world, one becomes free to truly display their humanity, individuality and responsibility. In conclusion, I hope that it should have become apparent to the reader that divine words within a finite time-space continuum necessarily require that its deepest meanings be hidden and inexhaustible. The superficiality of contemporary readership will avail one of nothing and thus a new method of reading-one in which meditation; reflection and prayer become the teeth of its key is required when attempting to understand the Qur'an. Awareness of its Author ( Allah ) as though He were addressing His Word to the reader at that very instant devoid of time and space, must become the precursory mindset to approach the Qur'an hopeful of enlightenment. In reading the Qur'an one returns to the Source so to speak, the Source of all metaphysical, theological and eschatological doctrine; of all mystical understandings [11] hidden under a veil of breathless utterances, themselves inherently woven in every fibre of the human being. Those who disbelieve say: This is naught but a lie that he hath invented, and other folk have helped him with it, so that they have produced a slander and a lie. And they say: Fables of the men of old which he hath had written down so that they are dictated to him morn and evening. Say (unto them, O Muhammad): He Who knoweth the secret of the heavens and the earth hath revealed it. Lo! He ever is Forgiving, Merciful. [12] [1] The Qur'an, Surah XXV: verse 1; The Criterion ( al-Furqan ). ‘The subject is the folly of superstition and the craving for miraculous events in face of the wonders of God's creation.' –Pg. 366, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, An Explanatory Translation by Marmaduke Pickthall; Everyman's Library, 1992. [2] By ‘Consensus' we mean that of the Prophetic inheritors - the Scholars (Ulema) of Islam. Meaning that which has come from a valid level of understanding within the confines of the Law itself and requisites pertaining to exegesis. [3] Indeed in this manner it could be said that a small understanding is a barrier to a greater understanding; satori may itself become a ‘barrier to knowledge'. [4] These are generally understood within all religions as great virtuous qualities; Mahayana Buddhism consider the six perfections in the transcendence of the seeker being; charity, morality, forbearance, vigour, meditation and wisdom. [5] Should the matter be of legal consequence, would it be formalised as a legal ruling and recorded in order to be contextually applied (within the framework of the original understanding) for a contemporary or future application. Hence it was in this manner that the development of Islamic Jurisprudence ( Fiqh ) was born. [6] This is a common misunderstanding unfortunately encountered by greater minds, such as the late Frithjof Schuon, who writes: ‘Seen from outside, however, this book appears (apart from approximately the last quarter, the form of which is highly poetic, though it is not poetry) to be a collection of sayings and stories that is more or less incoherent and sometimes incomprehensible at first approach. The reader who is not forewarned, whether he reads the text in translation or in Arabic, runs up against obscurities, repetitions, tautologies and, in most of the long suras, against a certain dryness, unless he has at least the “sensory consolation” of that beauty of sound which emerges from ritual and correctly intoned reading. But such difficulties are to be met with in one degree or another in most sacred Scriptures.' Pg. 40, Understanding Islam, , World wisdom books, 1998 [7] This is based upon the understanding that the Qur'an is the eternal and uncreated word of Allah; hence the words in the Qur'an explicate the true nature of the universe and what it contains vis-à-vis the Arabic language. The Qur'an becomes the blueprint for the matrix of reality as intended to be understood by the human being from God Himself. Recitation with contemplation of the Qur'an is thus given an extra dimension in its pronunciation (the science of Tajweed ), which becomes the medium by which perfection in the connection between Heaven and earth is realised at the moment of recitation. [8] The Qur'an is referred to as a “discernment” ( furqan ) between truth and error. Indeed Al - Furqan (the Discernment or Criterion) is one of the names by which it refers to itself and the name of Chapter ( Sura ) XXV of the Qur'an. [9] A similar question arises concerning reason and revelation, when the human intellect determines that something is good or evil. The Ash'rites, the followers of theological school of Abu'l-Hasan al-Ash'ari (d. 324 AH.), maintain that it is not possible for human intellect to determine what is good and evil in regards to the conduct of the legally responsible individual, ( mukallaf ), or to identify the legal ruling ( hukm ) of the Lawgiver concerning the legally responsible individual, without the aid of divine guidance. This is precisely because human reasoning and judgment are prone to err. While an act may be deemed by one individual as good, another person may deem the opposite. As Imam al-Ghazali cites the example in his book al-Mustasfa fi ‘ilm al-Usul ; that we normally say honesty is something good, but should it be likely to cause the death of an innocent at the hand of a tyrant, could it not also be regarded as an evil? It is therefore not the place of the human intellect to determine the ethic of things; we cannot believe that what the intellect ( ‘aql ) deems to be good is necessarily good, or that which it considers evil is necessarily evil. Therefore, right and wrong are not determined by reference to the nature of things, or our perception thereof, but are determined as such by God. The criterion of right and wrong is explicated by the legal rulings of the Sacred Law ( Shari'a ) and not the intellect, this view, which is held by the majority of Islamic Scholars, therefore concludes; what the Sacred Law commands to is good and what it forbids is evil. [10] This is not to say that the relative identity of an object is not so what absolute within the sensory experience of the ephemeral life and world; that they lack absoluteness in reality does not negate that they have a peripheral identity in this time space continuum; i.e. that the reality of non-existence has a basis in its relative existence. [11] The connection between the Source and the reciter can be best understood by the example of the Saints , many of whom have spent the entirety of their lives unceasingly reciting the Qur'an; something quite inconceivable and perhaps even impossible to understand or explain were there not, behind the words, an active spiritual presence which goes beyond words and rationality. This power itself can explain the importance of the recitation of the Qur'an. Indeed, by virtue of this power, it is well documented through prophetic traditions, that certain verses can combat demonic presences, heal illnesses and bring upon its reader worldly blessings and grace. [13] The Qur'an, Surah XXV: verse 4-6; The Criterion ( al-Furqan ). –Pg. 366-367, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, An Explanatory Translation by Marmaduke Pickthall; Everyman's Library, 1992.

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