the earth, the self and the heavens are witnesses 51:15-23

what is my proper end or goal as a human being? how can be sure that it is my real goal or purpose? I expect whoever made me in the way that he did, i expect whoever made the world as he did, to respond to me. I want him to tell me why i am here, what should I make my goal, what meaning i should give to my life and “for what” shall i live and die?

The quran claims that the kind of place I like (a perfect life of peace and abundance and joy without any lack or suffering or death) is gardens of comfort and ever-renewed springs of exquisite enjoyment. There is little debate within me about whether I desire what the quran describes I desire. I do. Whatever examples it gives (fruits, friends) and whatever generalizations it makes from them (heart’s contentment, nearness to God) sound consistent with how I feel and what I expect (to the extent that I can think about the best possible life).

Such a place is connected in the verses under consideration to taqwa or rather to those who do taqwa – the muttaqin. The afraid, the fearful, the aware, the God-conscious – its not critical (unless you are going to be academic about it) what terms you use. the meaning is important but cannot be found in terms alone. I should expect my maker (and I personally do) to explain the meaning to me. What is it about doing “taqwa” (whatever it is) that connects it to gardens and springs? Is it true? How can I be sure that a muttaqi is (and therefore can be) in such a place? As well, how do i do taqwa in this way so that I may find myself in gardens and springs? Unless I am done with the verses and look elsewhere for answers to these questions, the verses are not done with me. I should listen to what follows in the Quran if it is my maker and not something else that I expect answers from.

51:16 says

آخِذِينَ مَا آتَاهُمْ رَبُّهُمْ إِنَّهُمْ كَانُوا قَبْلَ ذَلِكَ مُحْسِنِينَ

They are takers of what is given them by their Lord, indeed they were before this [before being in gardens and springs] those who were excellent/doers of what is beautiful.

In my view, the excellent and beautiful (which is what gardens and springs are also) is described as taking what my Lord gives me. When I take what I take as “given by the Lord” and not something else (e.g. chance or nature or myself or good luck or history or culture or tradition or things themselves etc), it is a beautiful thing to do and therefore takes me to the presence of what is beautiful (gardens and springs signify this desirable beauty). Before I find myself in the garden, I must take (all that I take anyway – do you not eat? do you not enjoy beauty? do you not love joy? perfect life? existence?) from the One who is giving to me NOT in return for anything at all that I have done, ENTIRELY unmerited and absolutely freely. I am taking existence from the self-existent, the giver of existence who has chosen to make me exist. I breathe, i chew, i walk, i see, i understand – i take so many things. Let me not jump though. At this point, I am just thinking that my maker is telling me: “take from Me! it will make your “Taking” a beautiful and excellent thing! try it! try taking from other than Me! see if you find such a “taking” wonderful and excellent or not. And if not, ask yourself: what went wrong?”

Now 27:86 tells me what rings true to me: “do they not see that we have made the night so that they may rest therein…?” And I say “yes sir! i do see what you did there and you did great! I love a good, restful sleep!” I love that there is night and quiet and calm and dark so that I can fall asleep and rest!”

And so when i read in 51:17 كَانُوا قَلِيلًا مِّنَ اللَّيْلِ مَا يَهْجَعُونَ, I wonder what to make of it. Realizing that people do not agree on the translation because the statement leaves room for different meanings, I find it plausible to try and understand it within my larger approach to revelation.

Talal Asad renders it “they would lie asleep during but a small part of the night” suggesting they rest/sleep little. This is strange to me. Why do the doers of excellent things sleep little? Why is it excellent to sleep little?

I do not see a connection between this lack of sleeping and the following verse that says وَبِالْأَسْحَارِ هُمْ يَسْتَغْفِرُونَ “and from their hearts they ask forgiveness”. I do not see why waking up at night is related to asking for forgiveness earnestly. I find myself emotional and foggy at night anyway. It is not the best time for sincerity. I already feel vulnerable and weak. anyways, i question what my maker is telling me in 51:17.

For now, I am going to render the verse according to what I understand about doing the excellent thing i.e. taking from my Lord. You see, in my world, sleeping less at night, keeping awake at night or waking up at night after just a little sleep are all signs of a lack of peace, signs of an agitated mind/spirit and restlessness. They are symptoms of dissatisfaction with some state of affairs, anxiety about some past/present or future state of affairs. It is, if i connect with the verse that came before, related to taking things in ways that do not put me in the presence of the eternal and perfect giver of whatever it is that I am taking. For example, i may take (enjoy) my children’s health and success at school or work but i may not take it as the givings of a giver of health, giver of success, giver of the joy i am taking in their health and success. This interest in their success and health then turns to worries about the same – i may be anxious about their continuing health and success, things that i have little control over! But we may not be always aware of clear about what it is that makes us anxious and restless. There may be a thousand different types of worries of loss and failure that have made homes in my heart. To me, this rings more true of how and why I can’t fall asleep much or easily. And what I understand the verse to be saying is what i would translate as

they [the muhsinin] are “few-are-the-nights-they-didn’t-sleep-much” types [i.e. they are folks who are at peace and don’t worry about the things they take – no guilt, no worries of loss when what was taken was meant to be taken and it is not lost but preserved with its source]

In other words, I understand the verse as describing the excellent person as the one who would be free from the worries that often keep people like me up at night. Once I understand this, then I can go on to say that perhaps whenever I realize how I have been torturing myself by “taking” from other-than-Him and thereby losing the source of those things, it weighs so heavy on me and i feel so terrible and harmed by myself that I can imagine staying up parts of the night regretting my stupidity and finding rest/comfort (greater than sleep) in turning to my Lord and asking him to forgive me for not seeing Him as the source of the beautiful things I am taking and enjoying. I can find relief in the realization that while I was depriving myself of the source of all things good, that source has not deprived me of himself and given me aversion and regret towards my actions. Why is there this regret? 51:19-23 make claims about what it is and what other things “in the earth” and “in the self” are.

وَفِي أَمْوَالِهِمْ حَقٌّ لِّلسَّائِلِ وَالْمَحْرُومِ

and in all that the possess a due share unto those who ask and those deprived

وَفِي الْأَرْضِ آيَاتٌ لِّلْمُوقِنِينَ

AND in the EARTH there are signs for those [who, when they see the signs, will be] who are certain [about what the signs point to]

وَفِي أَنفُسِكُمْ أَفَلَا تُبْصِرُونَ

just as within your own selves [are also signs]: do you not see?

وَفِي السَّمَاء رِزْقُكُمْ وَمَا تُوعَدُونَ

And in the heavens is your sus­tenance and all that you are promised

وَرَبِّ السَّمَاء وَالْأَرْضِ إِنَّهُ لَحَقٌّ مِّثْلَ مَا أَنَّكُمْ تَنطِقُونَ

for, by the Sustainer of the heaven and the earth, this is the very truth – like what you speak

Regret and asking for forgiveness is a sign that i) there is right and wrong ii) that i want the right and not the wrong iii) that the One who makes me regret wrong wants for me what is right and iv) the regret he gave me by making me see something as “wrong” is a sustenance for me because it shows me what is right and makes it desirable for me.

When I feel I need to give to a needy person, it is a sign in myself that shows that whoever gives me this “need to give” is One who wants to give me what He makes me need. If I experience the feeling of giving to the one who asks, I can see this as a sign that my own asking for the things i need (life, love, beauty etc) is being provided for and will always be provided for by the source. In my desire to meet another’s need is the sign that my maker is One who wants all needs met and has the capacity to meet all needs. my capacity and will to give is nothing but a sign, in myself, that shows me His will and capacity to give. My sense of giving becomes sustenance for me – it provides me with evidence that my ultimate needs will surely be met.

The earth too, with all the provisions that come to me through it, becomes full of signs of provision and sustenance. The heavens too – water that is sent down from it, the foods and nourishment and sustenance that is sent to me through it, become full of “sustenance” for me. This sustenance becomes a sign to everlasting provision by the One who I see sending it here and now, through/in the earth and the sky and in myself.

The last verse then says, “the sustenance you get from within you (the compassion for the poor), the earth and the sky (the water, the soil, the vegetation and then all kinds of foods) are promises (ma tu’adun). They are signs and they are promises of sustenance by the source, who is One who employs the earth and the self and the heavens, at his command, to convey His Lordship to me. He is Lord of the earth and heavens and so the claim is that the sustenance I witness in the earth and the sky is the result of the acts of a sustainer. His lordship is conveyed clearly by what He makes the earth and heavens “say”, as clearly as my use of words/sounds is a means for meaningful speech. The speech of the heavens and the earth, if i see the signs therein that tell me that the One who controls them and employs them, is a sustainer who is showing me that He wants to give me a life of gardens and springs, an eternal paradise, is as clear and true as the communication of meaning and intention that humans accomplish with the use of language and words. The self, the earth and the heavens are speaking truthfully about a Lord. They are conveying His “words” to me. They are His words to me. I am being addressed. The feeling of compassion for the poor is telling me that my Lord is compassionate. The earth’s provisions and the wind and water of the heavens are telling me that my Lord is a generous and powerful sustainer. Through them my Lord is communicating to me what He wants for me: total and perfect provision, unending and perfectly satisfying sustenance. He is tell me this. Where is he telling me this? In myself, in the earth, in the sky. These are His witnesses to me. They witness to His intention to provide for me forever. They witness that I am meant to be provided for by Him. They tell me that there exists a realm where His absolute provision, which is here communicated to me in signs that I can hear in the self, in the earth and in the heavens, will be given to me without any death or end.

The verses here are asking me to hear the speech of creation – the truth of the One who will give me everlasting life and everlasting sustenance and contentment is being spoken to me, just like human beings speak to each other in language. The speech of creation is conveying a promise – a promise by the Speaker of heavens and earth (heavens and earth are like words – of everlasting compassionate sustenance. If I hear the self, hear the earth and hear the heavens, the Quran claims that I can hear this promise. It claims that it is the promise that I need to hear. And it is truthfully heard by hearing the self, the earth and the heavens, which are witnesses to the truth of the promise of everlasting sustenance.

It goes without saying now but let me say it nevertheless – to do “taqwa” is to hear the self, the earth and the heavens tell me about the promise their Lord/sustainer is making to me by making them in the way that he does. when I hear them and hear the promise of everlasting, perfect life, I am being one of the muttaqin.

Published by Faraz Sheikh

Faraz Sheikh

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