When my maker says that something is written or determined for me (or for those who are safe and therefore for me insofar as I too want to be among the ones who are referred to as safe), I can either assume this claim to be true without knowing it is true (which is what I would do if I took this to be some kind of law or rule or “will of God” that I need to obey/follow) OR I can take it as a claim which, if true, would be an indication, a message of guidance or good news or a reminder that addresses a need that would be otherwise unaddressed and which would leave me unsafe and insecure. In the latter case, my response would be to try to confirm or affirm the truth of such a claim by looking at what is within the reach of my perception and knowledge (and also within the reach of my imagination). I shall ask myself: do I see/witness what is claimed to be “written” by a verse as indeed written? Is it really something written/determined insofar as I, as a human being, find safety in it and and left unsafe without it? [I should take the same attitude when verses start with “And if/when they ask you..” or “they ask you regarding…”] I should ask myself – is this my question? Do I ask this? Am I asked this (by myself or others)?
Let’s turn briefly to 2:178-179. If you accept tradition and traditional readings and categories and assumptions etc., what I say below would likely be strange and nonsensical to you. You should then go with what makes more sense to you.
Here is a tip for getting in the right zone (according to me of course) when turning to revelation. Imagine that you were changing your shirt in front of a mirror to go to an important work meeting or to the park with your family or a meeting with some friends for some much needed “good time.” As you take your shirt off, you notice a large dark red spot on your skin around the rib cage. You try to rub it off thinking it may be some sort of stain. but its not a stain. You try to feel pain or discomfort around it but there is none. And yet there is this large deep red spot you can’t just shake off. At this point, your brother walks into the room, tells you that he had noticed the spot earlier and had taken secret blood samples for testing and reveals to you that the spot is a cancer spot. Its stage 4 cancer and that you have around 3 months to live. you go to your meeting or the park or to your friends. Then you come home. You have tried to live “normally” for a couple of hours with death staring you in the face. It took effort to go through those two hours as if everything was fine. Now, tired and despaired of being normal/happy with certain death facing you, you turn to whoever put you here. Whatever is that you feel you want to know from your maker and the maker of this world, whatever truth you think you need to know about life and death and about life and yourself, seek that truth as you read 2:178-179 [or any other verse from any revelation]. If you don’t feel you are losing something you don’t want to lose, there is nothing for you to save/gain by turning to your maker and his message.
When I feel fearful and insecure (or ready to contemplate how insecure I am), I feel truthfully addressed by a call to/about those who are secure/safe. I am listening. It gets my attention.
Revelation claims that in the case of whatever it is that I see murdered/killed/destroyed or contested, it is written (in my soul) that it must be compensated and restored or restored to uncontested/unblemished perfection. What I see the consummate destruction is the destruction of life itself – death!
But here is also a truth – I see it beautiful to ‘let go’ and not ask for compensation. And so I may find myself “forgiving” my brother in an uneven exchange, I may give to others without demanding reciprocity. This generosity, this willingness to not expect/demand back exactly what I may give to another is re-described in this verse. It is NOT to be seen as my virtue, my magnanimity, as somehow “real” goodness (doing without expectation of return) but instead as the mercy of my maker. He has put this possibility in me so that I can taste His mercy and His lessening of the burden of reciprocity for His creatures – when I forgive/grant others in line with what I find excellent/good (maruf) without expecting return, it is so that I can see/witness that my Lord is merciful and one who eases burdens!
What can happen is that I can turn God’s mercy into a claim about how I am. I may say to myself “I am a person who does not expect return or compensation. I do everything selflessly and it is beautiful to do so always!” And then I may take this attitude and turn to everything that is murdered (“kullu shayin haaliqun” the Quran claims) and say, “That is ok! I am fine with life coming to end with death! It is generous of me to think this way. It is too demanding and uncharitable to expect or demand an exact compensation!” And so I may try to convince myself that life is beautiful and good even as it ends with death. And everything is good and nice even as it is perishing and will perish permanently. And I am fine with it. This is the stance that this verse challenges in me.
It says no! you can’t be safe unless what is lost, is returned in kind! I do not want to compromise a freedom except that it brings me freedom. I do not wish to give up a devotion (e.g. to justice) except that a devotion (e.g. to justice) is restored to me. i do not accept that a person that is beloved (here indexed as a woman) is taken away from me except that the person is returned to me! In the Quran’s claim, notwithstanding God’s mercy that is manifest when human beings do not demand back what they are owed by others, human beings love what they have and do not want it murdered. The only loss that is really acceptable is one that is compensated in kind and therefore no real loss at all!
Verse 2:179 makes a deeper claim: only as “compensation/return” is life truly life for me! If I want the life I have without losing it, I cannot get it! I will have to lose it. But if I see that the life I have now is from my maker. Only in losing it (to him), handing it to him now (and to His officials when they arrive to take the soul), do I secure it with Him and then can expect back from Him, the One who gave it to me without me doing anything to merit it and who wants me to have it forever. In qisas, in taking life back from Him in return for giving it to Him, is life for me! It is a happy irony that I am giving back what is not mine anyway and yet expecting return for it! But He is the one who has made me for life, made me wanting life! All he asks of me – now that he has made me wanting life and yet has made everything dying – is that I realize He is the one who makes me want compensation for what I have been given. It is, as if, He acknowledges that once He has given me life and made me aware of all that is beautiful and beloved, He cannot at the same time be someone who can deprive me of all this. He is One, he addresses my nervous soul, from whom my soul EXPECTS (by His will) retaliation and compensation in kind. Qisas is written for me, the Quran claims. And if life is what I want, life that is truly life, life without any imperfection or defect or death, I should realize that I can only have it if I put it in His hand. Putting my life in His hand is, from my perspective, a loss of life or death. And so as a human being, I should think of the life that I really want as something I can only get as a compensation from the One I give it up to. If I reflect and if I am aware that there is One who gave me my life I would see, the Quran claims, that I can only really have life as something returned to me, not something I can just claim as mine without giving it up to anyone.