A Qur’anic Perspective in Understanding Self
and Understanding the Other
Dr. AbdulHamid A. AbuSulayman
Preface: Guided Philosophy is Strong Certainty
Man is born with intellect and understanding through which he is distinguished from other creatures. It is this distinction that the Qur’an refers to in Allah’s statement:“And He taught Adam all the names (of everything).” (Al-Baqarah 2:31)
The purport here, as far as I am concerned, was not to teach Adam how to pronounce the names of these things. For, man’s formation and ability upon which Allah created him do not indicate that. Rather, the meaning was the knowledge about names of things – in all languages – which our father did not see in his primitive civilizational condition.1 The occurrence of that in such condition has no impact on the history of man and there is no practical proof for it in known human natures and capabilities.
If we recognize that mere names are meaningless and valueless if there is no understanding of their essence and indications in any form, such as their nature, reality and functions then the possible interpretation of knowing the names as mentioned in the above verse should be man’s ability to understand, to sort out the collectives and trace them back to their origins and species. This is a clear matter in the case of Adam’s creation when he was proportioned and breathed into. For example, chairs, apartment floors and animals have various shapes, colors, appearances and compositions. And each of these is different from the other. However, they can all be traced back to similarities and dimensions that bring these entities together and form them into kinds and species. There is, for instance, office chair, reception chair or car chair (seat). There is also big chair, small chair, wooden chair, iron chair or plastic chair. Equally, there are chairs of different colors, shapes and sizes. However, the common factor that brings them all together is that they are a tool for sitting and resting on. Hence, man’s ability to differentiate between things and sort them out is the origin of his knowledge and cognizance skill, his thought and invention generating power and his capability to engender signs of names in different human languages. Therefore, in my opinion, man’s ability to understand, his linguistic capabilities that enabled him to create codes and apply the same to the named objects, and his ability to use these designations are indeed the foundation of his civilizational and constructional aptitude.
Without man’s ability to form codes and use them, he could not have been able to write, develop sciences nor could he have been able to play his role on the earth as the successive authority. Therefore, this is what is meant by, ‘teaching names’ unto which the noble Qur’an refers and by which man is distinguished.
The intelligence and understanding by which Allah distinguished man necessitate the capacity to think, reflect, contemplate, research and scrutinize, as s well as the power to generate thoughts. This divinely endowed intelligence and cognizance also necessitate the ability to design creative structures, perfect the arts in his life and taking a guide for himself that would lead him through paths of life in a way that will help him understand the essence of life and shoulder its burdens and responsibilities.
It is essential for human intelligence and cognizance – in view of his ability to use them to understand and think – to inquire about the nature of his own being and the meaning of his own life and the world and the purpose of the same. He should be able to ask about the source of this existence and this world; about the essence of its entities, their relationships and differences; about the nature of his relationships with these entities; and about his fate and the fate of his world.
This aspect is the spiritual aspect of man. It is the source of religion that forms an essential part of human life and expectations. It is from this aspect that this question emanates; it is from it that this religious, philosophical and conscience-inspired research. It is something that seizes everyone by the collar in one form or another. This is the problem that has been keeping thinkers and philosophers busy – throughout ages – in its different dimensions, invisibles and riddles, and it shall continue to bother their minds till Allah inherit the earth and whatever is on it. It is an aspect whose topics have been discussed by different religions, beliefs and philosophies. It is on account of it that messages of the Prophets came and for the purpose of which the guided and guidance-providing Messengers were sent.
It has been clear – and it still is – that man that is a just a part of the creation, in view of his limited intelligence, reasoning and understanding – cannot have comprehensive, absolute and unlimited understanding. It is here that he is in dire need of landmarks that will show him what he is ignorant of, of paths of life, guide him to the goals of life, create in his heart sense of security and tranquility, explain to him the essence of his life, and the purpose and the final result of this existence and how to deal with the same and seek safety at the end of this life. Religions and beliefs based on matters of the Unseen came up – throughout ages – as the source of guidance and the spring of security and tranquility for human mind.
In spite of men’s belief in their inherited faiths and religions, human intelligence, in its endowed inclination towards striving for understanding and knowledge, still asks questions, makes observations and attempts to apply logical understanding to everything. Beside the natural and sentimental faith, the human intelligence still engages in logical search for the source and essence of this existence; it still rationally explores the goal and the end of this existence. These are questions that attracted the attention of philosophy and the philosophers, within the limited human intelligence and logic.
Philosophy in this context is just a demonstration of man’s inborn desire for logical understanding and sensory cognizance. If man, a thinker or a philosopher understands the nature of this matter whenever he approaches it and is convinced of the limitedness of his logic and his partial understanding of it, his research and thinking will certainly become a means of arriving at the light of the possible knowledge and a conveyor that takes him to increased peace of mind and greater faith. Then, knowledge based on logic will not contradict the knowledge based on faith and sentimental tranquility.
Science Needs Guidance of Faith
The guided knowledge of the Angels led to faith and tranquility. By the virtue of what they already knew of the nature of man while he was in his animal phase before Allah proportioned him and gave him soul, intelligence and knowledge; they wondered about his animal traits and capacity to be mischievous, unjust and aggressive. But the answer given by the Creator, the Possessor of the supreme power and absolute knowledge allayed their fears, gave them peace of mind, strengthened their faith and inspired their acceptance.
Allah informs us in the Qur’an:
وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلاَئِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً قَالُواْ أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَن يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاء وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ قَالَ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ مَا لاَ تَعْلَمُونَ. وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الأَسْمَاء كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى الْمَلاَئِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاء هَـؤُلاء إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ. قَالُواْ سُبْحَانَكَ لاَ عِلْمَ لَنَا إِلاَّ مَا عَلَّمْتَنَا إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْعَلِيمُ الْحَكِيمُ
( “And (remember) when your Lord said to the angels: "Verily, I am going to place (mankind) generations after generations on earth." They said: "Will You place therein those who will make mischief therein and shed blood, - while we glorify You with praises and thanks (Exalted be You above all that they associate with You as partners) and sanctify You." He (Allâh) said: "I know that which you do not know." And He taught Adam all the names (of everything), then He showed them to the angels and said, "Tell Me the names of these if you are truthful." They (angels) said: "Glory be to You, we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Verily, it is You, the All-Knower, the All-Wise."” (Al-Baqarah 2:30-32)
As for the conceited Satan who had been misled by his partial knowledge, blinded from recognizing his own limits and limitedness of his knowledge and understanding and deceived by the destructive animalistic nature that Allah had created in man. Here, Satan’s situation was akin to that of many ignorant but arrogant and atheist ‘scholars’ who believed that with little knowledge, they possess the reality, and encompass all causes in knowledge, thereby allowing themselves to be led to misguidance and error, disbelief, haughtiness; Just like Satan. In the following verses,
Allah tells us more about Satan’s intransigence:
إِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي خَالِقٌ بَشَرًا مِن طِينٍ. فَإِذَا سَوَّيْتُهُ وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِن رُّوحِي فَقَعُوا لَهُ سَاجِدِينَ. فَسَجَدَ الْمَلَائِكَةُ كُلُّهُمْ أَجْمَعُونَ. إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ اسْتَكْبَرَ وَكَانَ مِنْ الْكَافِرِينَ. قَالَ يَا إِبْلِيسُ مَا مَنَعَكَ أَن تَسْجُدَ لِمَا خَلَقْتُ بِيَدَيَّ أَسْتَكْبَرْتَ أَمْ كُنتَ مِنَ الْعَالِينَ. قَالَ أَنَا خَيْرٌ مِّنْهُ خَلَقْتَنِي مِن نَّارٍ وَخَلَقْتَهُ مِن طِينٍ
“[So mention] when your Lord said to the angels, "Indeed, I am going to create a human being from clay. So when I have proportioned him and breathed into him of My [created] soul, then fall down to him in prostration."So the angels prostrated – all of them entirely .Except Iblis (Satan); he was arrogant and became among the disbelievers.[Allāh] said, "O Iblis, what prevented you from prostrating to that which I created with My hands? Were you arrogant [then], or were you [already] among the haughty?" He said, “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay.” (Sad 38:71-76)
In another place in the Qur’an, He tells us further:
إِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي خَالِقٌ بَشَرًا مِن طِينٍ. فَإِذَا سَوَّيْتُهُ وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِن رُّوحِي فَقَعُوا لَهُ سَاجِدِينَ. فَسَجَدَ الْمَلَائِكَةُ كُلُّهُمْ أَجْمَعُونَ.إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ اسْتَكْبَرَ وَكَانَ مِنْ الْكَافِرِينَ. قَالَ يَا إِبْلِيسُ مَا مَنَعَكَ أَن تَسْجُدَ لِمَا خَلَقْتُ بِيَدَيَّ أَسْتَكْبَرْتَ أَمْ كُنتَ مِنَ الْعَالِينَ. قَالَ أَنَا خَيْرٌ مِّنْهُ خَلَقْتَنِي مِن نَّارٍ وَخَلَقْتَهُ مِن طِينٍ
“(Allâh) said: "What prevented you (O Iblîs) that you did not prostrate yourself, when I commanded you?" Iblîs said: "I am better than him (Adam), You created me from fire, and him You created from clay." (Allâh) said: "(O Iblîs) get down from this (Paradise), it is not for you to be arrogant here. Get out, for you are of those humiliated and disgraced."” (Al-A‘raf 7:12-13)
So, Satan’s belief that the destructive fire, which is the substance from which he was created was better and of higher type than the base and quiet clay from which man was created led him into arrogance and superciliousness and blinded him from his seeing the limitedness of his knowledge in comparison to the absoluteness of Allah’s knowledge and His supreme wisdom and power. He was prevented from recognizing his own ignorance of the fact that Allah was going to distinguish man with light of the spirit, intelligence and cognizance. For, Allah is the Omnipotent Lord Who endowed man with understanding and sense of responsibility. He is the One Who combined in him the spirit with all its appellations side by side with the base clay. So, it is out of Satan’s arrogance, blindness and ignorance that he got astray and showed ingratitude to his Creator.
Therefore, the guided knowledge necessitates thinking, reflection, tranquility and faith. The nature’s questions, researches and reflections are the gateway to the sensible knowledge and recognition of limits that, in turn, lead to conviction and tranquility of faith. It is not correct that ignorance and lack of thinking and reflection are the best way to attain faith. It is also not acceptable that thinking, research, scrutiny, and reflection lead to disbelief and atheism. This opinion can only apply to someone who has failed to recognize his own self and its limitedness and has been blinded from realizing the limitedness of his knowledge and logic vis-à-vis the absolute Knowledge and Wisdom of the Creator Whose greatness and omnipotence, and preciseness of creation are attested to by everything in existence. When ignorance and lack of thinking and reflection – in their different forms – are the resultants of eradication of reason, thought and generation of conviction, then that is nothing but real terror, desertion and weak faith. For, faith is identical with confidence, trust, conviction and peacefulness in accordance with the situation of each soul, its conditions, understandings and cognizance abilities that are eventually dependent upon recognition of the Creator’s greatness, precision of His creation and His limitless power; in addition to the soul’s realization of limitedness of man’s knowledge and logic.
This does not, however, contradict the fact that what occurs in the little intellectual domains of a simple Bedouin man in his desert setup varies from what occurs in the intellectual domains of scholars and thinkers in their city dwellings. Nevertheless, there is a common factor between them all: They all realize the limitedness of their knowledge and logic as well as mightiness of the Creator and His limitless knowledge and greatness of His creation.
Guided Knowledge Leads to Faith
Sciences and knowledge in the arena of natures and scopes of beings are in continuous increase and tremendous expansion. Every day, they open new and wider means of realizing the greatness of the creation and mightiness of the Creator. These horizons continue to form overwhelming arena for reflection and thinking that generate more convictions that fill the mind with peacefulness and deepen the faith in the heart, without changing anything of the established facts relating to limitedness of man’s knowledge and logic, mightiness of the Creator and greatness of His creation, and nobleness of man’s goal.
The most important reality in man’s life is his very existence. However, his limited and partial logic leads him into belief in definiteness of his original inexistence. For, in man’s logic and world, nothing exists without a prior cause. This logic must inevitably lead man to conclude that he did not originally exist. In man’s sensory logic and understanding, there is nothing created from nothing. That means, in his logic, definiteness of his own nonexistence. According to his judgment and perception, nothing can be created from nothing, neither does arbitrariness of the claim ‘the existence is always found just like that’ has any meaning in his reasoning, sense and experience. Man is existent. That is the first reality, and the most important one that man understands and feels in his life. The fact that there is contradiction between the existence and inexistence is too obvious to be ignored.
Therefore, the problem here is not in existence, for that is a reality, in man’s logic. The defect should rather lie in the limitedness of his logic and perception. For, existence is, undoubtedly, not subject to man’s limited logic. It is rather subject to a higher logic; and he will come to realize this and understand its dimensions and the dimensions of his own logic – as explained by the noble Qur’an – when the journey of his life and its trials will come to an end, and when he will move to a world that is higher than his – a world in which, there are ‘what no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard and no human heart has ever imagined’.2
Allah says in the Qur’an:
بَلْ كَذَّبُوا بِالْحَقِّ لَمَّا جَاءهُمْ فَهُمْ فِي أَمْرٍ مَّرِيجٍ. أَفَلَمْ يَنظُرُوا إِلَى السَّمَاء فَوْقَهُمْ كَيْفَ بَنَيْنَاهَا وَزَيَّنَّاهَا وَمَا لَهَا مِن فُرُوجٍ. وَالْأَرْضَ مَدَدْنَاهَا وَأَلْقَيْنَا فِيهَا رَوَاسِيَ وَأَنبَتْنَا فِيهَا مِن كُلِّ زَوْجٍ بَهِيجٍ. تَبْصِرَةً وَذِكْرَى لِكُلِّ عَبْدٍ مُّنِيبٍ. وَنَزَّلْنَا مِنَ السَّمَاء مَاء مُّبَارَكًا فَأَنبَتْنَا بِهِ جَنَّاتٍ وَحَبَّ الْحَصِيد. وَالنَّخْلَ بَاسِقَاتٍ لَّهَا طَلْعٌ نَّضِيدٌ. رِزْقًا لِّلْعِبَادِ وَأَحْيَيْنَا بِهِ بَلْدَةً مَّيْتًا كَذَلِكَ الْخُرُوجُ. كَذَّبَتْ قَبْلَهُمْ قَوْمُ نُوحٍ وَأَصْحَابُ الرَّسِّ وَثَمُودُ. وَعَادٌ وَفِرْعَوْنُ وَإِخْوَانُ لُوطٍ. وَأَصْحَابُ الْأَيْكَةِ وَقَوْمُ تُبَّعٍ كُلٌّ كَذَّبَ الرُّسُلَ فَحَقَّ وَعِيدِ. أَفَعَيِينَا بِالْخَلْقِ الْأَوَّلِ بَلْ هُمْ فِي لَبْسٍ مِّنْ خَلْقٍ جَدِيدٍ. وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ وَنَعْلَمُ مَا تُوَسْوِسُ بِهِ نَفْسُهُ وَنَحْنُ أَقْرَبُ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ حَبْلِ الْوَرِيدِ. إِذْ يَتَلَقَّى الْمُتَلَقِّيَانِ عَنِ الْيَمِينِ وَعَنِ الشِّمَالِ قَعِيدٌ. مَا يَلْفِظُ مِن قَوْلٍ إِلَّا لَدَيْهِ رَقِيبٌ عَتِيدٌ. وَجَاءتْ سَكْرَةُ الْمَوْتِ بِالْحَقِّ ذَلِكَ مَا كُنتَ مِنْهُ تَحِيدُ. وَنُفِخَ فِي الصُّورِ ذَلِكَ يَوْمُ الْوَعِيدِ. وَجَاءتْ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ مَّعَهَا سَائِقٌ وَشَهِيدٌ. لَقَدْ كُنتَ فِي غَفْلَةٍ مِّنْ هَذَا فَكَشَفْنَا عَنكَ غِطَاءكَ فَبَصَرُكَ الْيَوْمَ حَدِيدٌ
“Nay, but they have denied the truth (this Qur'ân) when it has come to them, so they are in a confused state (cannot differentiate between right and wrong) Have they not looked at the heaven above them, how We have made it and adorned it, and there are no rifts in it? And the earth! We have spread it out, and set thereon mountains standing firm, and have produced therein every kind of lovely growth (plants). An insight and a Reminder for every slave who turns to Allâh (i.e. the one who believes in the Oneness of Allâh and performs deeds of His obedience, and always begs His pardon). And We send down blessed water (rain) from the sky, then We produce therewith gardens and grain (every kind of harvests) that are reaped. And tall date-palms, with ranged clusters. A provision for (Allâh's) slaves. And We give life therewith to a dead land. Thus will be the resurrection (of the dead). Denied before them (i.e. these pagans of Makkah) the people of Nûh (Noah), and the dwellers of Rass, and Thamûd; And 'Ad, and Fir'aun (Pharaoh), and the brethren of Lût (Lot); And the Dwellers of the Wood, and the people of Tubba'. Everyone of them denied (their) Messengers, so My Threat took effect. Were We then tired with the first creation? Nay, they are in confused doubt about a new creation (i.e. Resurrection)? And indeed We have created man, and We know what his own self whispers to him. And We are nearer to him than his jugular vein (by Our Knowledge). (Remember!) that the two receivers (recording angels) receive (each human being), one sitting on the right and one on the left (to note his or her actions). Not a word does he (or she) utter, but there is a watcher by him ready (to record it). And the stupor of death will come in truth: "This is what you have been avoiding!" And the Trumpet will be blown - that will be the Day whereof warning (had been given) (i.e. the Day of Resurrection). And every person will come forth along with an (angel) to drive (him) and an (angel) to bear witness. (It will be said to the sinners): "Indeed you were heedless of this. Now We have removed from you your covering, and sharp is your sight this Day!” (Qaf 50:5-22)
To give further illustration to this issue, we are going to cite an example. We all know that cats’ level of intelligence or that of any other animal can never make them understand mathematical equations. However, this does not mean that the cat is stupid neither does it mean that mathematical equations that cats and other animals cannot understand are not existence at all. The message here is that cats or other animals have limited cognizance and limited logic – in comparison to man’s cognizance and logic – whatever the level of the understanding and logic may be. For, it is certainly known that equations are subject to certain level of cognizance and intelligence, far higher than what cats and other animals possess. Therefore, denial of limitedness of creation’s knowledge and intelligence vis-à-vis the knowledge and wisdom of the Creator is an act of repulsive arrogance in the trap of which the accursed Satan fell and in which some arrogant and perverse humans continue to fall into.
Among realities that are clear to man and clear to arrogant ‘scholars’ in the first degree, is that whenever man discovers a higher level of logic, he sees in the same things what he had not seen in them before. Many of the realities of science, and peculiarities, natures, capabilities and potentialities of substances, and properties hidden inside these substances can change into forms that are different from what some scientific facts has hitherto established in uncomplicated and apparent sensual dimension. Then the inanimate things would no longer be regarded as still, but in atomic dimension, seen as moving. The more a substance is apparently solid and this solidity is felt, the greater its hidden nuclear movement becomes. Then the substance is no longer, in the remoteness of its nuclear and hydrogen explosions, ‘neither infinite nor self-inventing’. In these dimensions, the substance rather becomes ‘infinite and self-inventing’.
Likewise, an extremely high temperature that used to be difficult to imagine even if all the forests of the world were set aflame later became a possibility with just a small quantity of radioactive substances. The above and more examples of the horizons of science point to limitedness of man’s knowledge and limitedness of his intelligence and cognition in comparison to the absolute and limitless knowledge of the Wise, the Omnipotent Creator Who brought man into being and precisely perfected the creation of this universe. This cannot be denied by any human whatever his level of knowledge, awareness and cognition.
The Qur’an says:
قُلْ أَرَأَيْتُمْ إِن كَانَ مِنْ عِندِ اللَّهِ ثُمَّ كَفَرْتُم بِهِ مَنْ أَضَلُّ مِمَّنْ هُوَ فِي شِقَاقٍ بَعِيدٍ. سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الْآفَاقِ وَفِي أَنفُسِهِمْ حَتَّى يَتَبَيَّنَ لَهُمْ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ أَوَلَمْ يَكْفِ بِرَبِّكَ أَنَّهُ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدٌ
“Say: "Tell me, if it (the Qur'ân) is from Allâh, and you disbelieve in it? Who is more astray than one who is in opposition far away (from Allâh's Right Path and His obedience). We will show them Our Signs in the universe, and in their own selves, until it becomes manifest to them that this (the Qur'ân) is the truth. Is it not sufficient in regard to your Lord that He is a Witness over all things?” (Fussilat 41:52-53)
هُوَ الْأَوَّلُ وَالْآخِرُ وَالظَّاهِرُ وَالْبَاطِنُ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ
“He is the First (nothing is before Him) and the Last (nothing is after Him), the Most High (nothing is above Him) and the Most Near (nothing is nearer than Him). And He is the All-Knower of everything.” (Al-Hadid 57:3)
In an article titled, ‘Istidrak ‘ala Zahiriyyati Ibn Hazm’,3 I explained the primary reasons upon which foundation of my deep belief that the message of Islam is a revelation from Allah is built. That was at a very early stage of my intellectual life when I was a secondary school student in Makkah. This defined the point of firmness of the concepts that assisted me to fearlessly and unhesitatingly delve into and scrutinize issues through reflection, pondering and searching for truth and knowledge.
With this faith that is deeply seated in the heart, and that guides the thinking, steers the path and straightens the conduct, I was not afraid, neither did I hesitate to confront myself with questions that stirred up in my mind and stormed my psyche. This is due to success from Allah and His protection. However much the mind is confused regarding these questions and it becomes difficult for the brain to understand the hidden wisdom behind them, my faith in the message of Islam cannot change in the least; and my heart’s realization of the Creator’s greatness, wonderfulness of His creation, and His astounding power and wisdom and His marvelous control of the affairs of the creation remains as strong as ever.
At the same time, all that affirms my absolute realization of my limitedness of as human and limitedness of my knowledge and power of reasoning. Hence, I do not see, in the details of my questions, thoughts or bewilderment, any contradiction with my belief in Allah, in the message of Islam and in the Unseen. Therefore, I regard the questions, the research and the explorations – and sometimes, my bewilderment – as nothing but means of strengthening my faith in Allah and trust in Him. Not only that; these inquiries reinforce my certainty in the greatness of His power and vastness of His knowledge and wisdom. All this reaffirms my recognition of my own weakness and ignorance and – certainly – shows limitedness of my understanding and logic.
Therefore, I desire by this treatise to share with the dear reader the search for answer to one of these difficult questions and observations that have been rumbling my mind and that were, at the beginning, absolutely too hard for my understanding. And I believe I have been pushed – by my thinking and reflecting upon the questions – into taking a step that satiates the natural love for seeking knowledge and hunting for reality as far as what Allah blessed me with of intelligence, cognizance and understanding could permit.