The Basic and the Circumstantial in the Qur’anic Discourse
By Dr Mohammad Abuhamdiyyah, New Age Islam
This is an independent objective reading of the Qur’anic discourse, in which the core of the universal message is distinguished from the circumstantial and particular materials, which were relevant to the time and place of its revelation. In this restructured study, which covers historical, political and existential materials, two aspects have been stressed and expanded. The first is the methodology used in Prophet Muhammad’s preaching and practice in order to achieve the objectives of his main mission. This methodology was briefly mentioned in the earlier study as the politics of preaching. In this study it is expanded under the term ‘accommodation’.
The achieving of the aim of Prophet Muhammad’s mission was empirical and dynamic, depending on the environment and the circumstances that faced him at that time. That is why seeking the ideological objectives of Muhammad’s mission for the present day, one is only bound by the overall view of the Qur’an that is directed to all mankind for all times and places and not by the devised practices, which were relevant to those times in that particular part of the world. Muhammad during his mission has accommodated various groups, Meccans, Jews and Christians, in order to bring them to the core of his universal mission as will be seen in chapter 2. The point is that to achieve the main objectives of the Qur’anic discourse the methodology of approach should be relevant to the addressed audience or community and learn from Muhammad’s dynamic practice.
However before that we look very briefly at the concepts of the deity that developed in the East Mediterranean region and especially those in the Jewish Bible and the Christian New Testament. This first chapter serves as the natural background for the Qur’anic discourse on the concept of God. This is very important for our main subject because the Qur’an was born in the same region with the same linguistic and ethnic backgrounds and did not appear in a vacuum or in isolation. In the pursuit of this we are guided by the texts of each of these three scriptures as they are now before us, regardless of when these texts were thought or alleged to have been finalised[i], in order to arrive at the overall message each conveys concerning the concept of God and his relationship to humanity, and thus we are able to see whether the Qur’anic discourse adds anything new. Treating the texts of the Scriptures as our factual materials is the most reasonable way as each Scripture has an overall view and each acts as the source of inspiration to its followers.
Whenever human beings arrive at new ideas concerning subjects of interest they always start with some aspects of the older existing ideas. The ideas dealing with the meaning of life in our world, which go under worldviews or religions, are no different from other subjects, which human beings deal with. The new builds upon the old adding something extra, which may produce a new direction. For example, the background to the Jewish Bible is that of the Canaanite religions or gods as well as those of Egypt and Mesopotamia as the Canaanites were sandwiched between the latter two neighbours; that of the Gospels is the Jewish Bible and to some extent Greek philosophy because the Greek culture was pervading intellectual life at that time; and that of the Qur’an is both of the preceding bibles together with the general culture pervading the Arabian peninsula at large including material related to the religious practices in Mecca and the surrounding areas.
Both Jews and Christians are addressed in the Qur’an, so their fundamental distinguishing beliefs according to their scriptures and practices were kept in the mind of Muhammad when they were addressed, but the approach was not confrontational but positive, conciliatory and accommodating. In order to see this approach and how it changed with changing circumstances one has to look at the whole of these addresses in the Qur’an in order to see the overall picture since they were made piecemeal and in time according to the responses and the practical attitudes of the addressees towards the new Muslim community. It will be seen that the Qur’an generalized the monotheism of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible by removing the exclusivity of God and its henotheistic aspect, and put all peoples of the Earth on equal footing before God, the only God for all humanity, concerning His care, love and anger.
Furthermore, the dogma that Jesus is Divine, being the Son of God, is replaced by the concept that God is absolutely One and that Jesus was only a prophet of God sent to the Children of Israel as declared in the Gospel of Matthew (15:24). The Qur’an stresses that all human beings are partly divine and moreover each created thing is a word of God. As will be seen in chapter 7 on revelation, all living beings are inspired and receive revelations in the course of life and this occurs in the process of learning dealing with their environment.
The second new aspect of this study deals with the integration of existence, consciousness and learning, which together with the basic orientation recommended for human beings in this world, form the core of Muhammad’s mission.
After pointing out the Qur’anic concept of God we start with texts relating to the creation, the emergence of the human being and the notion of ‘tasbeeh or continuous motion’, the concept that everything in this world is born with a disposition to learn and thus is evolving and moving towards its destination, namely returning to the originator. This is followed by discussing the concept of the nafs (self, person, personhood) and what the Qur’an calls ‘fard, individual or monad’, which is free and acts in the light of the various appetites essential to life.
The Qur’anic discourse tells us that our existence in this world has two complementary modes or aspects. One aspect of our existence is absent (hidden) from our vision and cannot be observed, such as the self, the ‘I’, or the spirit of God, and thus unknowable by our senses, which the Qur’an calls ‘al-ghayb’ mode. The other mode or aspect is the world that is presented to us and our bodies are part of, the so-called material world, which we see and observe and can investigate. But the Qur’an tells us also that at the core of this material world of ours, which we observe and we are part of, is the light of God without which no enlightenment would occur. The Qur’an calls the latter mode- the world of presence, the world we find ourselves in, the world of al-shahaadah, the witnessable mode. These two aspects or modes are complementary and both are needed for our existence. The Qur’an tells us that only God knows the two modes of existence, which we utilise in our life, but we are learning and our horizons are expanding all the time as we are God’s successors on Earth. Together these two modes enable us to perceive things and are at the centre of our experiences and enlightenment.
Using the literal interpretation of ‘qalb’ (usually translated as heart) to mean the process of attuning together or turning over our mental models that crop up in our heads about what we observe until some conjugation, satisfaction and hence enlightenment occur, allows us to arrive at the meaning of the mind (‘aql in Arabic). The theological foundation of learning and the basis of how we make sense of things we interact with in our world then fall naturally into place. The theological foundation of orientation for the human being in this world and the purpose of our existence as well as the basic guidelines to be followed by individuals and by the various communities in this world are then presented.
Finally it is worth pointing out again that the Qur’an as shown by Muhammad’s practice stresses that the orientation, the direction seeking the face (countenance) of God, for human beings in this life is what matters across the ages, and not the contents of everyday life practiced at a certain age or in a certain area, which relate to secular matters, that is matters related to everyday living in this world. The contents of everyday living change all the time due to innovations because of learning and also due to changes in circumstances, hence the dynamism of legislation guided by the course of life direction is essential.
Thus we are interested in the core of the Qur’anic message to humanity, as stated generally in the text, independent of the circumstances and backgrounds of the people Muhammad addressed at that time. Each age has its own circumstances, and each community has its own background and so anyone trying to point out the core principles of the Qur’anic discourse, must take into account the background and circumstances of the audience addressed and do the necessary accommodations, as Muhammad did at his time and determine how far the direction of life as practiced deviates, if any, from the basic direction recommended by the Qur’an. One starts from there and is not bound by the historical circumstances at the time of Muhammad, but only by the directional quest towards God, the practice of social justice within a given community and of peace and harmony with other communities of this world.
At the end of this study we glance at the state of affairs of the present day Muslims and relate this state of downfall to the deterioration that set in soon after Muhammad’s death.
[i] This is due to the fact that the majority of Western authors, realizing that the Bible took a longtime to be finalized, decided that the Qur’an must fall in the same category as the Bible. In this process those authors presumed that later Muslim editors learnt from the Christian and Jewish literature and composed or redacted the Qur’an, which exists today.