What is a human relationship? How shall I think about my relationship with something else? The Quran asks me to ask this question in 4:1. I take it to be telling me that I am one party to the relation. The Quran makes me one party to a “pair”. I am always one party to the relationship (between me and that thing) for which I seek meaning. Even when I look at other relations, for instance I may see one person giving a glass of water to another, their relationship or interaction is something I will need to understand so that the relationship that the Quran explains to me is my relationship with the event (the relation between the two persons). Their relation is now a thing that is related to me: what will I understand their interaction to be? What shall it mean to me? What can I become conscious of in the relation or exchange? What should I become conscious of when I encounter a thing or find myself in a relation with it? So, whether it is me asking someone for directions and receiving directions from them, giving someone attention or love or me finding myself in a relation (as one party to a pair) to a person or thing, the Quran claims that there is an “exchange” that takes place and this exchange, the Quran claims, takes place in the name of God, whether I am aware of it or not. It asks me to be aware and conscious of God as the One in whose name I “give” and “take” or “ask” and “am asked” by another. The implicit suggestion here is that my default perspective is one where I give and take in something else’s name. Mostly, in my own name. If you ask me give you a ride to the market, I may do so and I do it in my name. I gave you a ride to the market. When I do not become conscious or aware of the One in whose name (for instance, with the compassion and mercy of the compassionate and merciful one) I responded to the request of another for a ride to the market, I would either simply be unaware that mercy and compassion were involved in the exchange or else I may think the mercy and compassion were just mine…they were just there. No big deal. I may or may not boast about them. But by default, my awareness will be of me as someone who did something nice, even if small. And the exchange will carry no news about the unseen to me. It will carry no news about the One, the merciful and compassionate, whose names I drew upon and depended on to act in a way satisfying and pleasing to me (being a means for help for another generally is and for good reason).
To me, chapter 4 of the Quran is about finding God, becoming aware of God where we almost always do not find him i.e. in the everyday ‘asking’ and ‘giving’, the exchanges that take place in a relationship between two. “…al-ladhi tusaa’aluna bihi” is a key to understanding the signs mentioned in subsequent verses. They are mentioned as “signs” to the One in whose name I should see the exchange mentioned in the verses, taking place.
Why do I mention chapter 4 so early in my blogging about the Quran? Here is why: anyone who reads the Quran can easily understand that it claims all of the beautiful names we observe in actions and things in the world for God. It refuses to take, for instance, rain as water falling from the sky and instead claims it is God who sends it down. It doesn’t just come down on its own. In a word, the Quran’s message, as I understand it, is uncompromisingly opposed to naturalism. But I don’t think any of us feel our main problem, our main concern in life, is to figure out whether the rain falls on its own or if there is someone sending water down. At least I find myself rather unaware and unconcerned about such an issue. My feelings and relationships and the problems of happiness and meaning that arise within those relationships are much more, shall we say, “experience near” for me. This is not to say that the Quran’s answers to my problems drag me, again and again, to what I am used to calling the “natural” world. Nevertheless, I think it is useful to think about the very personal and profound implications of taking a naturalist vs. a “tusaa’aluna bihi” perspective in relationships and everyday exchanges (askings and receivings) and Surah Nisa is a treacherously ill-understood resource for becoming aware of the divine in and through relationships. Instead of arguing abstractly about naturalism and theism, it is better to reflect how one’s life looks and feels different if one becomes aware of the One in whose name one gives and takes. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to slowly build on this foundation.