Revisiting basic assumptions – a preamble to reflections on sura al-nur

I am about to embark on an engagement with Surah al-Nur. I think it is important for me to revisit some of my basic assumptions to remind myself what I understand my concerns to be as I turn to revelation, what I take to be revelation’s nature and purpose and what meanings I take particular concepts to have, implicitly, as I reflect on the allegedly clear and definite signs my maker asks me to contemplate (surah nur being the case in point here).

  1. “Believers”, “unbelievers”, “truthful ones”, “liars”, “those who associate partners with God”, the “thankful ones”, “the ungrateful”, “those in authority over you,” “those who have deep knowledge” and other such descriptors – these are descriptors that are part of a discourse that claims to be guidance. You may think this is a banal and pointless statement. But I am consistently shocked by people who readily affirm this and then proceed to read such descriptors as sociological descriptors of what “already-is”. The concept of guidance is, by definition, about a state of being that is “not-already” (“misguidance is the “already” of the guidance that is “not-already”). A message that uses descriptors within the context of being a guidance is using descriptors, positive and negative, as alternative ways of being in the world, alternatives that human beings like me can choose between. The qualities and attitiudes it associates with various descriptors are all my potential future – they are what I can be. When I read something as a guidance (not just claiming that I am reading guidance), I do not descriptors of that guidance to be speaking about identifiable sociological or social grouprs of individuals. They are descriptors that name attitudes, individual attitudes that can become widely shared but remain individual attitudes insofar as I seek guidance as me (and not as a group).
  2. When an attitude is praised or associated with reward or when something is commanded to be done in a discourse that is revelation and guidance, it is a conceptual claim that I need to confirm or reject “as” guidance – do I find it true that such and such attitudes are associated, as far as I can reflect about the reality and the world I exist in, with the outcomes mentioned? Is the command mentioned in guidance, at work and established in the universe as I experience it? (of course “universe” includes what is out there and what is inside me, my heart/mind). Similarly, when an attitude or action is associated with a negative outcome, can I tell of this association (between a choice/attitude and an outcome) is true? Is it something I can witness in the world (if I contemplate the signs I am asked to contemplate). I shouldn’t decide on the matter before contemplating the signs. Otherwise, revelation’s claims will be accepted and rejected as true based on my current views and ideas, NOT based on ideas and views that revelation asks me to hold. I can only decide whether I am going to affirm or reject revelation’s claims (about the meaning of things) once I take up those meanings and witness the outcome/result for me as a human being. Without linking my affirmations and rejection on actual, witnessed, experienced outcomes, all my rejections and affirmations are mere theoretical speculations, dogmatic and irrational repetitions of claims and are equally (practically) useless and dishonest.
  3. A discourse that claims to be guiding individual souls cannot be read in a way that suggests that any person or group of people, based on self-identification as one type/group mentioned in the guidance, can take upon themselves to enforce “punishments” on other human beings that “they” decide fit a certain other description mentioned in revelation. all such readings are a violation of the basic premise that this message is meant to guide people (who cannot but assume their position to be of misguidance if they are to be guided by this message every time they contemplate its signs), via a contemplation and witnessing and thus affirmation of the signs it presents.
  4. When one turns to revelation as guidance, one already affirms that one has, as an individual conciousness, the ability to tell false from true, misguidance from guidance and that one’s choice to take guidance (and shun what one would see as misguidance) matters for one’s wellbeing and therefore any harm and benefit I may receive here and now is contingent on my choice. I do harm to myself and I do good for myself in the sense of using my freedom to choose what is harmful to me (I can do this because I can justify my choice to myself and claim that the harm is not from my choice but from reality itself (i could only choose x and x turns out to be harmful) and also I can be unware about certain choices of mine that could be responsible for the harm i experience and I may be reluctant to admit as such and take responsibility for my perceptions/interpretations of existence) and I can choose interpretations and meanings that are beneficial to me. Each person is free to decide what harm or good they want for themselves.
  5. Revelation’s own basic claim is that safety and security (iman) for a creature like me is with an affirmation of the One absolute source of all the good I see/witness in this world (existence, life, beauty) in their presence as well as when I perceive their lack (the lack points, as a sign, to the One who is sought and who is the owner of what is sought). Thus security is in affirming an eternal existence that is perfect without any lack. It’s claim is that the most basic wrong I do to myself is to take created beings as having a share in the qualities they display and hence start to trust these perishing, limited beings for the fulfillment of my needs and start to love those beings as if they were the true owners of those beloved qualities. I fail to unify, i fail to give back those qualities to their true sustainer and lord. Relating all things to their eternal source of good and perfection is the good I can do to myself according to revelation – to read/understand/gather all things in the name of God and covering up or denying or ignoring the sustainer and owner of these perfections and instead assigning them to limited, perishing beings is the harm I can do to my soul. Between these lived orientations – either refering all things to the One and receiving the messages they carry to me from Him OR referring them to other than Him (in addition to Him) and not receiving any messaage through them from/about Him, the Quran claims the former is what I should choose and lays out how such a choice is made by human beings, what it looks like, what harms it saves human beings from, what good it does and why it is the truthful choice to make. As I engage with revelation, I cannot forget that the ultimate good it wants me to choose (good for myself), as a matter of choice, is unifying deity and the ultimate harm (to myself) it wants me to avoid is association of partners with deity. These are claims that I need to witness the truth of here and now (the truth about the benefit of unifying and harm of associating for a creature with needs and desires like I do) in order to truthfully choose whatever I may choose. It is dishonest and useless to repeat revelation’s claims without either affirming or rejecting them and this applies to ALL the claims it makes because all of its contents are described as signs that I can see and read in this world.
  6. These signs are claimed to be “signs of God” i.e. revealing something about the absolute/unseen within the condition of the seen/limited and hence are always the non-physical “meanings” carried by things (physical or non-physical). These meanings are either messages and news for me about the existence and conditions of the unseen or they are simply news and messages about themselves and the seen (which is therefore assumed to have no sustainer giving them existence). For me, if I thought that beings exist on their own, I would not expect a sustainer or maker and would not look for revelation from such a maker. I reject as irrational the idea that the world and the beings in them are self-created and self-existent and self-sustaining. I don’t seem them having the abilities to do so. And on this point, I have nothing more to say to someone who claims that beings can exist without the necessary existence of some self-existent being, a maker and creator. Since I have already spoken about this in one of my first posts, I am not going to say more on this.
  7. In light of the above, any “numbers” the revelation mentions (number of people, length of time etc,) – all numerical references are to be seen within the context of guidance and indications for a being like me who has been given the ability to count and a being who assigns quantities and numbers to things. To me, it is a mistake to think that the numbers themselves are important. What is important about them is what is important about all of revelation – what they may indicate to me about the unseen and what they may help me realize about my benefit and harm, what they can teach me about the source of my existence and my relation with the source of existence (and hence my security/benefit) or else my insecurity/harm).
  8. To be continued…but I think that if someone does not understand or largely agree with the above-mentioned points, it would be exceedingly difficult for them to make sense of what I might say about any signs of revelation and perhaps more difficult when I speak about the signs in surah nur. God help me and be my guide…

Published by Faraz Sheikh

Faraz Sheikh

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