These are big concepts. They are connected with much else in the Quran. What do they mean to me? Do I assume that I know what they are based on what I have heard from others or based on what people do? Or should I expect my maker to tell me their meaning? Should I expect to be able to understand their truth? Should I expect this truth to be a guidance? Can I be really guided by something that I do not know or understand to be true. I have my answers to these. You will need to make up your mind about them.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure and privilege of thinking about salah (as this notion is discussed or spoken about in the Quran) with a dear friend, fellow traveller and earnest student of the Quran, Elijah (and some of his friends). Our discussion has prompted me to share what I understand by the verses of surah al-ma’un. I read this surah as one way (not the only way) I can understand what din/deen and salah should mean to me as concepts. What is their truth and what do they guide me to? I have a feeling that the shorter chapters are quite condensed and dense versions of the basic guidance of the Quran. I take this surah and its verses to indicate what din and salah are by indicating what their obverse (giving a lie to din and being unmindful of salah) look like. By telling me what sorts of attitudes and behaviors are signs of ‘giving a lie to din’ and how those behaviors are signs of a person being “unaware or unmindful of their salah”, these verses help me understand the truth in din and the truth in being mindful of salah. Of course, this way of looking at this chapter assumes that a reader would ask and expect revelation to explain its own concepts and the reader will not read culturally learned meanings of these terms into the text. I think it is important for me to not assume that I know what “din” or salah refer to. Rather, I should ask my maker to tell me what he means by these concepts and I should ask how I can witness the truths of these concepts and claims as a human being and, crucially, I should reflect about whether, and how, these truths are a guidance for me. This surah is chapter 107 of the Quran.
The chapter starts with a question to the reader (me): Have you seen those who give a lie to din? And my response is: no, because I don’t know what you mean by ‘giving a lie to din’. What and who are you talking about? It seems also that the question is indicating I should care to find out what rejecting or lying about din is or looks like. Is there a problem with giving a lie to din? I expect that you, my maker, will tell me what the problem is, and I should be able to see how it is my problem and whether you can guide me through it truthfully.
The second verse addresses the need for clarification created by the first question: who are these people? What is ‘giving a lie to din’? The second and third verses then describe behaviors or actions (i.e. its not some specific group of people…it is anyone who finds themselves indicated in the attitudes described by the signs/verses): such a one pushes away the yatim or orphan. This is a verse. A sign. The attitude described is a sign. What does it indicate? Signs indicate something right? Thats why we call them signs. And what can i learn from these signs about ‘giving a lie to din’? What does this attitude, if I am to use my aql, give a ‘lie’ to? What does it deny or reject? Important questions for me, as a thinking individual, to think about. The next verse seems to describe another attitude indicative of the one who gives lie to din. It says that this one, the one who gives a lie to din, does not urge the feeding of the miskin/needy. I try to reflect without turning away quickly. The Quran urges me to reflect and ponder upon the signs – in the text and in the world – and so I try to do that.
I dont know about you but what I understand from these three signs/verses, upon whatever reflection I could manage to do today, is this: if a person refuses to or fails to act with compassion and instead acts in a way that reflects a lack of compassion, he would be doing something that is ‘giving a lie to din’. Interesting! What can I say about what ‘din’ is then? Well, perhaps I can say that the opposite of giving a lie to din then, is to affirm the din and thus to affirm what was denied when din was given a lie. What is denied or given a lie when a person pushes away an orphan, who, my aql says, ought to be shown love and care? Love is denied. Care and compassion are denied. Mercy is denied. Beauty is denied. Wisdom is denied (the wisdom of one being in need of something that the other has). Such are the things, my aql says, that are given a lie in the behavior described. The attitude of pushing away the orphan says “Go! No mercy or compassion exists that sees your need and responds to it.” What is denied or given a lie in not urging the feeding of the famished? This attitude says, “No compassion exists that sees your hunger, no provider or wisdom exists that has provided sustenance for it. No one sees and knows your need. No will exists that wills the satiation of your needs. No sustenance is available for your need.” This attitude gives a lie to the existence of a provider, a compassionate sustainer, a wise and caring knower of needs and so on. This, the verses teach me is ‘giving a lie’ to din. And they thus teach me that to affirm din is to affirm the existence of unfailing compassion, knowledge, sustenance, mercy, providence, wisdom. Din then, it seems, is an attitude, an obedience. It is a ‘yes’ to the existence of a compassion that fulfills needs and does not disappoint or leave a need unfulfilled. To obey the dictates of compassion, should I want to put it that way, is to affirm din and to not give a lie to it.
The following verses about “musallin” being unaware of their “salah”, who therefore are “seen” and therefore are those who refuse or deny even the tiniest goods (to themselves? and others?) are quite interesting for understanding what it means to NOT be unaware of my salah. I am not sure if I should talk about salah here or leave it for another post. I will probably not make too much sense but I am going to say something at least – and whenever I try to pack a lot into a few words, I rarely succeed so my apologies in advance.
What I understand: Every person is aware of the existence of compassion and obeys it in one or another aspect of their life. The person who pushes away an orphan may not push away their own child in the same way and may show her much compassion. A person who hates another on account of their skin color still loves certain others on account of their skin color. But there is a danger here I want to avoid. All too often people turn such verses into ethical teachings and take them to be talking about bad people out there. This, to me, is an intolerable reduction and diversion. I take revelation to be talking to me about what is harmful for me. I don’t take the verse to be speaking to those selfish and immoral people who don’t feed the poor and find no problem in so doing. I don’t take it to be an encouragement to feed the poor. I already know (or have been taught by my maker in the way he has made me) that the hungry should be fed and an orphan should not be pushed away. I would act in this way without any revelation telling me to. Revelation is not needed to make clear (or make incentivized) that caring for the needy is better than not caring for the needy. It is already clear even as many may act contrary (in some but not all instances as I have noted above) to these self-evident principle of compassion and kindness. Even those who appear unkind to some are fine being kind to themselves or their “tribe” etc. I am of the view that we know the goodness of kindness and compassion intuitively and we already know it is not good to deny help and love to those we understand to be in need of help and love. The question for me is one of meaning and, as the subsequent verses suggest to me, about “salah”.
After describing those who give a lie to din, the verses connect this attitude with not being aware of salah. That is to say, those acting compassionately (the musalin) are not aware who or what this compassion glorifies and take it to be referring to themselves. They are the one’s seen (by themselves) as compassionate for instance. They glorify themselves as compassionate beings (this doesn’t always mean that they actually express this as pride). Their praise and blessings, their appreciation of compassion (as musallin) is directed to themselves as compassionate persons. They may not even claim to be compassionate and may not be proud at all. Its not about egotism and pride, not necessarily. The compassion that humans inevitably draw upon and experience in their lives will have to be given a place: whose is it? what does it refer to or mean? And the Quran says that the one unaware of their “salah” takes it to be referring to themselves. As such a person, any compassion in any of my action, or in any action in the world, refers to me or that thing being compassionate and directs my appreciation and love towards that thing. I bless myself or that thing as good. What is the problem with this? Why is it a problem for me to be unware of my salah?
The chapter ends by claiming that such a one, the one who is not aware that the compassion which he affirms and acts with, is the absolute compassion of the One who is the owner of all the compassion manifest in the world and it gives news of the One who can and wants to take care of all the needs of all his creatures, is one who is denying themselves and others, even the smallest kindness. How so? This brings us to the point where I need to reflect about the Quran’s claim that security and safety about all of one’s needs, and safety that the needs of all other beings are eternally and perfectly met, can only be experienced by unifying (tawhid) the source of all the “sustaining” in the world that I see. If I don’t see all the needs being perfectly met by a perfect and eternal One, it is as if I have condemned all beings to non-existence and have, as if, denied them the fulfillment of even the smallest need. That is to say, without finding the eternal sustainer of needs, not even my smallest need can be really be said to be met. No fulfillment of need whatsoever, without such an eternal sustainer of needs, can escape disappointment, annihilation and non-existence no matter what. Without such a one, even the smallest need is not met, contrary to what I may imagine as I go about satisfying/fulfilling my needs and the needs of others. There are other places where the Quran talks about all “good” deeds coming to naught (in meaning and hence reward) and so I shall leave this discussion here. I do think this chapter is an interesting one to think about because it speaks of din and salah in relation to each other in an interesting way and also because it is, in my view, often misunderstood as providing superfluous (even if ethical) instructions. more later…