I am excited and pleased to share with you the signs I am given to contemplate, and the meaning and guidance I receive from my maker, in a chapter of the Quran called surah al-nisa. This is the first in a series of perhaps hundreds of blog posts that I would need to go through the whole chapter. What I am sharing are my reflections on the signs that reveal meaning to me, not my explanations of a holy or religious text. Remind yourself of this distinction and try to understand it when you find yourself confused about what I say. I hope these reflections will encourage you and empower you to contemplate the signs mentioned in the Quran and that you will find your maker speaking to you, revealing to you liberating and life-giving truths about yourself and about how I/you may find that with which our heart is content and at peace. Let me begin with the first verse of chapter 4. It says,
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اتَّقُوا رَبَّكُمُ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُم مِّن نَّفْسٍ وَاحِدَةٍ وَخَلَقَ مِنْهَا زَوْجَهَا وَبَثَّ مِنْهُمَا رِجَالًا كَثِيرًا وَنِسَاءً ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ الَّذِي تَسَاءَلُونَ بِهِ وَالْأَرْحَامَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَيْكُمْ رَقِيبًا
(4:1) O people! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you all out of one nafs/being, and from it (or from the unity) created its mate/pair, and from the two spread abroad a multitude of rijal/men and nisa/women. Be conscious of the One (God/Allah) in whose name you ask from one another, and of these ties of kinship. Verily, God is ever watchful over you!
How do I know this is revelation from my maker? What does it guide me to?
You see, I do find myself in a world full of people. They seem quite different in many ways. But I also see that they have much in common as human beings – they have certain needs and they try to fulfill them. They need love, they want to love. They love joy, life and freedom. They need sustenance. They need companionship. They want happiness and ease. When I look at myself and when I look at them or think about them – all these people I mean – am I conscious that we have been created by someone who is sustaining us in existence? Honestly, No! And that is why I do find the verse calling me to something I am not already conscious of when it addresses me. It asks me to think about how I take the existence of people, and their needs, their way of being in the world, their hopes and their fears, their relations and interactions, for granted! As if all of this had to be the way it is, as if people had to exist and as if all that humans do is just happening on its own or they are making it all happen all by themselves. There are people spread all over the earth. Where did they all come from? Who keeps them in existence? Who makes them as they are – in so much variation and in so many different conditions? Even one person, let alone people around the globe, go through so much change in their conditions and circumstances in so many ways in a single day. I am not normally aware of the One who made us and especially not someone who is sustaining us and all the men and women and their relations. What or who is the sustainer? What do they point to or reveal to me in the way that they are made to exist? Have I asked this? Should I not ask this? Why do I take people and their relations for granted?
The verse mentions pairs but, curiously, also first mentions that they were created from a single nafs. I should ask and wonder why the verse mentions a sustainer/Rabb? who created all of us from a “single being/entity/nafs”? What message do I get from this? The verse goes on to mention pairs and finally that I should be conscious of God, the One in whose name we (the parties to a pair) ask each other.
As a human being, I find myself in relation with others. Some I don’t choose at all (parents, siblings, spouse/partner etc). Others, I seem to choose but again, I am sort of driven to relate with them (e.g. I find myself in need of being loved by others in addition to just loving myself and so I establish a relation of love with someone). I want to care for others and not only for myself and I desire the love and care of others. It is something strange and worth pondering that human beings (and other beings) relate with one another in this way – they seem to need each other and are inter-dependent. We crave connection. We are made in this way by someone. These needs and relations bring forth immense goodness and joy but also much heartache, burden, disappointment and pain. I do indeed want my maker to guide me about the purpose and nature of relationships and this “paired” nature of human existence.
The verse says that we are made from a single ‘nafs.’ Why is this important for me to know? What if the verse had just said that God made human beings as pairs? What would I not get if I were only told that? There is in this a profound guidance about the utterly mysterious phenomenon of human beings able to recognize what they need or what others need and then finding in themselves the desire to meet that need and, in most cases, finding that need fulfilled and experiencing a “wholeness” and satisfaction that comes with the meeting of a need. If my maker had told me that I was created in pairs, I would understand my needs as the only thing willed by him. I would see the lack or need in me and take that to be the final and ultimate possible state of being. I would see the meeting of my needs, my desire for meeting my needs, as some sort of failure or egotist desire. Instead, the verse affirms that an experience of wholeness, an experience of unity is the real, original state of the human being who finds himself one party of a pair in this world. Humans can and should try to experience and help others experience, this wholeness through “asking and giving” to each other. In this asking and giving, they will and should expect to experience a unity and wholeness. All the beautiful names that appear in the experience of feeling a need and asking for its fulfillment or in fulfilling someone’s need are a sign to the original, wholesome, satisfied state of human being. Lack and deprivation is not the final word on the human condition. Humans are created in pairs so that there would be relations and exchange between them and in this exchange, I should not become aware of myself or the means through which my need is met but, rather, I should become aware of the One in whose name that exchange is taking place. The meeting of the needs given to me by my sustainer is affirmed by my maker. I am not made to cherish the lack itself. I am supposed to try and meet that need. I am created from a single nafs, in which there was no lack-of-need||what-fills-the-need pair). An unmet need is also one party to a pair that looks to that-which-is-sought in order to be whole. The Quran wants for me wholesomeness and not a state of deprivation. My needs, those met and those yet unmet (but which I am in my right to try and meet as per my maker’s affirmation of my origin as a single nafs) find a pair and in the relation between the two parties to a pair, in the asking and what is asked for, I can find my Lord here and now.
In the pair “becoming whole or one”, is a sign that indicates that there is a Sustainer who creates the needs, creates the pair, creates one in need of something that he puts in the hands of the other, which becomes the one which is sought, and then creates an exchange through which He, my God, can become known to me through the names that manifest in that exchange. There is a single “fulfilled” or “whole” state (the nafs fro which the pair was created) that is possible and that is the original state. I can experience it here and in this relations between the pair and the resulting wholeness (limited and temporary in this world and yet a sign to the existence of lasting contentment and wholeness) I can become aware of the one who sustains and creates the relations between two parties of a pair and the wholeness when each asks and gives in His name.
The verse also indicates to me that the differentiation/multiplicity of types (men and women) show that neither a man nor a woman could be the source of their own existence. If they were, they would have endowed themselves with all that they need and not find themselves in need of a “pair”, a “zawj.” They would have been self-sufficient beings. Also, how is it that there are more than one kind of human beings – there is male and there is female. How is it that there isn’t just one type? If I don’t take the existence of this multiplicity and the existence of relations and “pairs” for granted, I am moved to ask where they came from? The Quran claims that there is indeed a creator who created a single living entity (nafs) and then differentiated it into two related types. It suggests that I look at the world and see that there are pairs (men and women but also other things that are in pairs e.g. ‘the need for love’ and ‘love’ is a pair, ‘injustice’ and ‘indignation’ are a pair and so on). No one is self-sufficient unto themselves. This, the Quran claims, is not a random, natural fact but something worthy of attention. I should realize that there is someone who is deliberately creating pairs and it is this one, the sustainer and creator of pairs, each lacking what it needs, originally a single whole that represents the fact that in this world, needs are recognized as needs and they are to be met. One person is able to see another in need of help and then act to help the other. This meeting of the need results in a ‘whole’ i.e. the two of a pair can attain wholeness (only in a limited way and only as a sign to the One in whom all needs are eternally met). Relations and pairs exist to make this One known to me here and now. My everyday exchanges and relations are an arena where I can find God and come to his presence.
To me, this chapter of the Quran presents many signs and examples/similitudes of exchanges. These exchanges happen, I am asked to be aware, in the Name of the one who creates and sustains the pairs and the relation/exchange. Each party asks in His name and what is sought and given is given or sought in His name – the exchange makes His names known to me IF I choose to be aware of this aspect of the exchange and do not interpret the exchange as simply “happening” in the name of itself or in the name of one or another party to the exchange or in something else’s name. The Quran claims that none other than the one who creates and sustains both parties to the exchange and the exchange is the one whose names are known through the exchange.
The notion of “tusa’aluna bihi” is the key lens that the first verse gives to me to understand all that is to follow in this chapter. I should remind myself of this i.e. “the asking and giving in whose name” when I read the signs explained in the rest of this chapter.
to be continued…