A short methodological point/reminder before we begin. People sometimes rely on “history” to make sense of “hard” verses of the Quran, thinking this is the solution to their disturbance about verses of the Quran. In so doing, they make divine speech distant and irrelevant to them. They lose a consistent approach to making sense of the Quran. They lose the ability to tell whether what is being said in the Quran is true or not. The Quran goes from being guidance to a liability and an oppressive impediment between oneself and God and a source of burden and confusion from which refuge is sought in history. If nothing better were possible and if people felt their faith in God could only be saved by relying on historical accounts about this or that (prophet’s life story, his sayings, occasions of revelation etc etc), then perhaps one would say that they should continue this way. But I personally do not take this approach. Either the Quran is truth and guidance or it is not. I am not going to pretend it is a wonderful and beautiful and meaningful guide while I find no meaning in its verses. I am not the first or the last person who finds that to think it unsatisfactory that the maker of the universe speaks to human beings in a way that I have to arbitrarily and dubiously (relying in historical accounts whose truth I cannot know) relegate parts of his speech to some historical period. If my maker speaks to me, as I expect him to speak, to guide me, and his message does not reveal truth to me, then either it is not his message to me or I am not reading it as revelation.
So here we are then with the first verse of surah al-nisa ending by saying “God is watchful over you.” Is He? How do I know this is true? Read the first verse again. What I understand the verse’s ending saying, briefly, is this: If I am in need of something and that need is met (as it is when I ask it to be met), I should realize that this is a sign that there is someone who was aware of my need, who knows what I need and knows how to meet that need, someone who is intimately familiar with the kind of needy being I am and who has the power and compassion and wisdom to provide the “pair” that meets the need. Similarly, when I find myself asked for something by someone (human or otherwise) and I am able to perceive their call/demand and am able to answer (to whatever degree) their demand from me, in this is a sign that the One who makes this exchange possible i.e. the One in whose name this exchange took place is intimately familiar with the needs of the others and is the One who placed the (admittedly passing and hence partial) fulfillment of their needs in “my hands” so to speak. How else are exchanges taking place? How else is interdependence possible and ubiquitous. Here a person finds the need to be loved, and there another person finds themselves with love for the first person. And you can think of examples yourself of all the “exchanges” you witness in the world. The verse claims that I can find my maker “a watcher” over my wellbeing and needs in the exchanges I have with others IF I see the exchange taking place in His name i.e. making known His names and thus Him to me. The existence of the “exchange” is a sign for my maker’s intimate knowledge of and caring oversight, over me and all other beings. When revelation says, “be conscious of God in whose name…”, I take it as given that I am currently NOT conscious of Him and instead conscious of something else when I exchange, when I ask and when I am asked for something by others. What is being revealed in the Quran is the message that my sustainer is revealed in the exchanges I am engaged in. If i so choose to follow the Quran’s guidance, I can find Him in those exchanges. How? As the One in whose name those exchanges take place! Let’s keep going then.
Verse 2 says,
وَآتُواْ الْيَتَامَى أَمْوَالَهُمْ وَلاَ تَتَبَدَّلُواْ الْخَبِيثَ بِالطَّيِّبِ وَلاَ تَأْكُلُواْ أَمْوَالَهُمْ إِلَى أَمْوَالِكُمْ إِنَّهُ كَانَ حُوبًا كَبِيرًا
Hence, render unto the orphans their possessions, and do not substitute bad things for the good things, and do not consume their possessions together with your own: this, verily, is a great crime
Who is an orphan? What is the “property” or “possession” of the orphan? Who has it? Me, it seems. How does one substitute bad for good? Is it a great crime really? How can I know if this is all true and therefore guidance for me? For me, it is the truth that guides. If I can’t know what the truth is here, I cannot get guidance! You should think about this carefully. Repeating something or claiming, “this is God’s command or law” does not guide me. It has no value. I should not presume the truth of this claim (or any other Quranic claim or any revelation’s claim) without ascertaining it. Is it really true? If I do not ask this question sincerely (the question is already there – I am just afraid to ask and prefer to hide behind my identity claims), I cannot get an answer. I will not make any effort to find an answer. This verse, or many many other like this one, are not “fiqhi” verses. They are revelation and guidance. I should treat them as such. Otherwise, I will become arbitrary and inconsistent in how I approach revelation.
To understand the truth of the creator’s speech, one looks to his creation. I look to myself and the world. Is it not the case that I am in need of being given existence? Am I able to secure it from my parents or any other creature? Can I count on other creatures to give me value and worth? If not, am I not an orphan, without a firm support from any creature that can assure me of my continuing existence, that can assure me that the air I breathe will give me life always, that the water I drink will give me life always, that the blood will circulate in my body and give me life, that the worth and acknowledgement I need will always be provided to me by them? Is air a conscious and powerful source that I can trust for all my needs? Is water or blood or any creature in this world responsible for my life and sustenance? Is it the source of it so that I can expect that sustenance from it indefinitely and perfectly and without end? Can I trust that I will always be cared for, acknowledged, found worthy and loved? Can I trust limited, created beings with these needs? I don’t know about you but I find no such source of susteance and support in any creature around me – neither among humans nor among other beings. I am comfortable admitting that I am an orphan – no creature offers undying support and promise of existence and promise of eternal fulfillment of my deepest needs. They are not the source of what they give to me. I can see this. As I can also see that whatever I find with myself is not something I gave to myself. I found myself with it. If I can give someone care or compassion, it is not mine. I just found it there and used it. I realize that it is an accurate description of all creatures, for whom the one without one or both parents serves as an index, to call them thrown into the world, hapless and helpless into this world that does not work according to their will and constantly disappoints them. Its a place allows me to taste so much and denies me lasting and perfect satisfaction of any kind. It is an enigma. I am turned to the maker of this world on account of this confusion, not being able to resolve it on my own. I never forget that that is why I am interested in revelation.
When revelation mentions “possessions”, what should it mean? I look to myself and ask: what do you value as a prized possession Faraz: your car? or the love you give to others? Which is more prized to you really? Is the love you get from others or expect from others the really valuable thing you want from them or is it money or clothes or land that you want from them really? Are wisdom and intelligence and compassion the property you value more or is it your house, cars and phones? My answer always is that it is not the material things that I truly prize giving or receiving but things like love, compassion and care. Life is valuable and existence is valuable because of such “possessions.” If I got no love from anyone, I may have all the wealth in the world but I would be miserable. My needs are for meaning and hence I take my maker speaking to me, primarily and firstly, about such possessions. I expect him to mainly speak to my humanity, not my material side even as material things often (but not always) are involved as means or carriers of those meanings. In any case, it is interesting that the verse says, “give the orphans THEIR possessions..” I do not have the property of any biological orphan (without parents) with me. If i read this verse as referring to some biological orphan and those who are in charge of them, it doesn’t speak to me very much. I can’t know its truth. Most importantly, the first verse has claimed that I can be, and should be, conscious of God as the One in whose name people ask each other. So I take this second verse to be explaining what that means:
The verse is saying that what I find myself with me that I find worth “giving” (love, care etc..including money etc) is the property/mal of a needy other. And so also others have the property that I am created in need of. Who is the owner of this property? The One who gave it to me and to others “for” the other. So then: If I give you love when you need love, it is GOOD if i give it as the love that your eternal and caring maker/sustainer has for you so that you will receive it as something meant for you from HIM (NOT me). This love, received as His love for you, is good news for you and makes Him known to you. It does not oblige you to love me back or be indebted to me etc. It is free from impurity. When I convey this love to you as if it were your property that your maker had put in my hand, I also come to know Him as a caring and generous One IF i exchange this love with you in His name. If not, I see myself as loving you and I see this love as mine and since love is such a quality that it requires recognition, I burn to be recognized as a loving person. Finding limited creaturely recognition of a passing kind, I feel betrayed and experience loss. Love given and love received in the name of things is bad for me. I witness this. My love also makes me burn for the wellbeing of that which I love but I have no power to secure this wellbeing. My love becomes my curse.
I am an orphan and in need of love. Others are orphans and in need of love. And much else e.g. care, compassion, life, friendship, appreciation etc etc. My property is with you and yours with me. This arrangement exists so that there must be exchange between us. In this exchange, the One in whose name I choose to see the exchange happen becomes known to me and to you. If I substitute God’s love for you with MY love for you, I have committed a great crime. And if you substitute God’s love for me with YOUR love, you did the same. We blocked each other from realizing and witnessing that our maker loves us. We are not orphans in reality – we have endless treasures and possessions with Him. He shows me signs of this through the exchanges He makes possible in this world. For a creature to claim my divine property from me is a great robbery. And same if I did to another creature. It is a great crime! I say YES! to the truth of this verse and take this truth as my guide. Take in the name of the One who is owner of the possessions He wants me to enjoy e.g. love, care and mercy. Give in the Name of the One who has put the property of other orphans/needy creatures in my hand so that I can witness His generosity and love in giving in His name.
to be continued….