Before Revelation I

I came to the Quran looking for help, help with answering life’s big questions. And you are well-advised to read on only if you find yourself interested in the same. Otherwise it will be tortuous even as you may love me as a friend or family member. Why the Quran? It was what was on the shelf in my house and it was allegedly where whoever was responsible for everything that was happening in my life, good or bad, spoke to human beings. I never had much reason to doubt the claim that the Quran was God’s speech. But this claim meant nothing to me, as I came to fully realize much later. And while I didn’t reject it, neither did i have any reason to accept it.

I did not grow up in a household that insisted on accepting the Quran as God’s word or on “practicing” a “religion.” In this sense, I did not grow up in a religious household or with many religious practices and beliefs. My interactions with the Quran and, for that matter, any book that claims to be revelation, have focused on the meaning and truth of what is said in them and not on trying to learn or defend any “religion” or acquire or consolidate some religious identity or membership in any community. I am not, in my estimation, a religious person. I am, however, very interested in what my maker has to say to me. I’ll talk more later about this interest in a message from my maker.

After considering various other unsatisfactory options, I have come to define myself simply as Faraz. That is the name that others (my parents) gave me at birth. It means nothing that refers to something in me, let alone the whole of me. It is not me in any way except that it is a linguistic marker that refers to me. It is a name that points to me. In my view, being named, as, for instance, Yahya being named in the Quran, is the maker’s way of giving a preliminary identity to human beings. This is perfect in my view as it identifies and labels me without imputing any meaning to that label. I am, as if, asked to fill this empty identifier, my name, with meaning. I am given choices, and the tools to make the choices, about what meaning I would give to myself and thus to everything else that has a name. I am getting ahead of myself but I find the Quran’s theory of identity, a given name, to be the most adequate and least problematic way of claiming an identity to begin life as a free agent. I need nothing more than a name to be given to me by others. The rest, I find it reasonable and satisfactory, I should be able to and always free to give to myself. Others (including my culture/place of birth etc.) should not have the power to define me any more than by giving me a name in some language, to distinguish me from other named beings for practical purposes.

I have a life story that started much before I came to the Quran as revelation. What is sufficient for you to know is that that story did not go very well. It did not go as I wanted it to go. And there was crisis. Crises rather. The counsels and wisdom of my teachers, friends, families, writers, religious people and philosophers couldn’t help me. I always found I was being asked to accept things without asking what they meant and whether they were true. But I was never one to accept things simply because doing so would make me feel good or be some kind of consolation. I hated, and I still hate, false optimism. I do not like being dishonest and escapist. I cannot tolerate “believing” something is true/good when there is no satisfactory reason for me to believe as such. Some years ago I decided to be as real as I can manage to be (allowing for a standard dose of human hypocrisy, cowardice etc). If this sounds presumptuous to you, there isn’t much I can do about it. I am the type who wants reasons and evidence to think something is true. And what I understand to be true is what I should live by.

I am indeed of the view that my beliefs must be based on some evidence of their truthfulness. The objects of belief can be, perhaps must be, unseen but the basis of beliefs should be the seen, known and understood. I do not insist that whatever is reasonable to me must also be reasonable for you. I can only hope that it is. I hope you will agree that as a reader of a text, one must make many interpretive choices. I will try to be clear about the choices I have made and the reasons I have made them. I am happy to, and often try to, revisit these choices.

Can I be wrong about thinking something is an evidence or that something is reasonable? Yes, of course. If a reader does not agree with me, they are entitled to their own perspective. Of course, I do not claim my views are the only correct ones for you. But I also do not grant that they are false simply because they differ from your current view or because you do not like them or their implications. Even as I am open to changing my views if moved by argument to do so, I hold them because I consider them to be the right ones to hold for me.

I come to the Quran as “potentially” the answers to my “human” (not religious) questions from whoever gives me those problems and questions. I find it reasonable to expect my maker to speak to me here and now. To take my temporality and historical ‘now-ness’ and ‘here-ness’ of my human questions seriously is to interpret divine revelation (whatever it may be) with due regard to “historical context.” To worry about the “there-ness’ and “then-ness” of a text that claims to be from a divine creator is to deny it, prima facie and without warrant, the status of revelation and turn it into “sacred” history. I choose to read the Quran as revelation, for the purposes of this blog.

I choose to expect the maker to be the best source, the best teacher, that I should turn to for answers to my deepest questions and most subtle psychological, intellectual and emotional needs. And I expect a linguistic communication in a language, any language, because i find myself to be a creature who communicates in language and understands meaning, however imperfectly, through language. In short, I find it reasonable that my maker should speak and not be mute. And given the existential contradictions and dilemmas I face, I expect him to speak and explain what he is doing and what I should make of it. I find existence opaque and confusing without any explanation from its maker. In that sense then, I define any text that I would call “revelation”, including the Quran, as speech from the maker that makes everything else speak and “reveal” a meaning that I could not read/get from existing beings before the maker’s speech made those beings speak. This means, for instance, that I do not expect my maker to tell me what is good or right. I find that I know that or can know that by using my mind. But as to the meaning of the good or the right (or the wrong or bad), I can only speculate and it is a clear and truthful meaning that I expect from the maker. Revelation is never, to me, about ethics but always about meaning and, as I shall argue later, divine meaning.

This post turned out to be a condensed version of my view that there should be revelation from my maker in the form of a text and that I expect from such a text to speak to me here and now and in a way that I can understand it and accept or reject it. What is revealed is, and should be, subject to my affirmation or rejection. It should be affirmable and rejectable. Revelation is, by definition, what makes things (events, relations etc) speak in a way that should make their truth known to me, a truth that I could not access or discern without that revelation and a truth that, if and when I affirm, answers my human concerns and questions to my satisfaction.

After about 15 brief years of engaging with the Quran as potentially revelation now, I want to share my experience and discoveries with you. Why do I want to share them? First and foremost because I think there are many people who, in my view, do not know how to read the Quran as revelation. There is a plethora of Quranic concepts that they get terribly wrong and not only do they deprive themselves of quite interesting and life-changing meanings they could get from the Quran but they also try to create a religion and a religious culture (also institutions and discourses, laws, hierarchies and so on) that are based on faulty (faulty on my view) understandings or misunderstandings of concepts mentioned in the Quran. This continues to produce misery and harm in the world. In my view, religions and religious people have tried to monopolize divine messages and ignored the universal nature of divine guidance (this is not restricted to the Quran – the same can be said of other books that claim to be revelation). My ultimate hope is to speak to those fair-minded and open-minded, thinking individuals who may be interested in exploring the Quran as their maker’s message to them with the goal of finding satisfactory meanings. There are many paths to meaning. I have found whatever little light I have in my life through the Quran and I share with you what I have hitherto found helpful in the hope that it is useful in your own search for truth and meaning.

My blog posts will likely be in-progress, continuously edited and changing texts. They are interpretations that I hitherto find satisfactory and that indicate, explicitly and implicitly, what I don’t find satisfactory about Quranic interpretations and religions more broadly. If you are satisfied with your understanding of particular Quranic verses or some scholar’s understanding of them or with Islam or the Islamic tradition or with religion as you know it, please continue on your path. I wish to lock horns with no one. I write for the dissatisfied. Take what you find useful here and leave what you don’t. But know that as I write more, it will become clear to you that many, if not all, concepts are linked to one another in my view and so do try to get as much of the fuller picture as you can before you decide what you can usefully take or ignore without causing yourself undue confusion and inconsistency.

I frankly admit that I write poorly. I am not writing to impress you. Ignore the shortcomings of the form. Please. But don’t ignore problems with substance. Even when you do not agree with me, I hope there will be food for thought here for you.

A final note before we approach the revelation in Arabic (I’ll call the Quran that for now): when i decided to beg for meaning at the Quran’s doorstep, I found it very helpful to be in the company of a fellow beggar (Said Nursi) and the company of a group of fellow beggars of meaning. Between 2004 and 2009 (and less frequently since) we have read Nursi’s writings as an example of how to get guidance from the Quran and how to witness the truth of its claims. I have come to disagree with much that Nursi says and with even more of what those who read him say, do and think. But there are also things that I find satisfactory and very helpful in some of Nursi’s writings, way more than any other interpreter of the Quran I have encountered so far. I will refrain from dropping names but I found it necessary to mention Nursi because he was encouraging and helpful as a model student of the Quran, especially at the beginning of my interactions with the Quran as a living guide and revelation. I do not count myself among the so-called “Nurcus.” You should not concern yourself with whether I am Muslim or non-Muslim or any other “checklist” about what I do or do not believe. Like I said before, I am Faraz. To me, muslim is not something one “is.” Surrendering one’s burdens to someone I can trust for providing all that I need is something I try to, and want to try to, do. In this sense, “muslim” is something I want to do. “Believing” (being safe and at peace) is something I want to do. It is a joyful thing for me to do and aim at. For this indeed, for the sake of “believing” (iman), I turn to my maker and the Quran because I did not find another way, on my own, to find what the reality of existence is and how, if at all, I could peacefully reconcile myself with this reality.

Published by Faraz Sheikh

Faraz Sheikh

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