May 12, 2008
At first glance these stories (al-Baqura 258-260) seem unclear. So I am not surprised that Madeleine is flummoxed. And yet these verses deal with the most central issues of religion and the most enduring subject of human fascination.
To believe in a creator is to accept not only that life and death exist, but that there is a power beyond the natural processes of which we are aware, a power that not only created life and death but can bring about life after death.
The trouble is the living have no direct knowledge of the hereafter, that life after death actually exists. And yet, being human, we have inordinate curiosity, an infinite capacity to speculate, theorise and look for proof. We even succumb to the temptation to think the power and knowledge we can accumulate in this life is comparable to that of the creator.
So however flummoxed we might be, there can be no doubt the subject matter of these verses is intriguing. There is no greater mystery than the question of faith. So, perhaps, to expect the explanation to be simple is too optimistic.
I think that the Qur'an, as it so often does, is making us aware of distinctions, of different categories and orders of things that we need to understand if we are to make sense of faith as a way of living, according to the moral and ethical guidance and values it provides.
The debate between Abraham and the king sets out the distinction between earthly and divine power, and introduces the concept of Zulm, which means injustice but is particularly associated with injustice in the sense of tyranny and corruption. The words used here for life and death, Hayat and Maut, are as applicable to individuals as to societies, nations and civilisations, and to flora and fauna.
Abraham's exchange is with a king, who, like so many characters in the Qur'an, is not identified because it is not the specific person but what the character typifies which is important.
Classical commentators suggest he is Nimrod, son of Kanan, a sun worshipper and the arrogant ruler who built the Tower of Babel. His people would come to him to get food; and he would ask: "Who is your Lord?" To get food, they had to reply: "You are".
Abraham starts with a statement of belief: "My Sustainer is he who grants life and deals death." In response the king makes a statement of fact: "I too grant life and deal death."
What is the distinction here? Certainly, kings, emperors and governments command the power of life and death over people. They can empower a society to flourish or they can cause devastation through war. They can ensure people get the resources they need to sustain life or they can misappropriate or withhold these resources.
But however much power an earthly ruler has, it is not the creative power of the Almighty, the power to call the universe into existence, to cause the laws of nature to operate and to sustain them endlessly without effort, as explained in the verse of the throne.
Ultimately, all earthly powers are subservient and derivative of the creative power of the Almighty. And the point of understanding this distinction is that kings, emperors and governments are just as much in need of God-consciousness, of abiding by the limits and balance of God's guidance as any individual.
Recognising the limits of their power, recognising humility before the creat, sustaining power of God and God's ultimate judgment over all human beings is as necessary to kings as it is to paupers. No accumulation of or command over earthly power, power over nations and their people, exonerates or relieves rulers from responsibility if they do wrong and are guilty of zulm.
The next section of this passage concerns what might be described as the rise and fall of empires. This is an idea, a reference, an allusion that occurs frequently throughout the Qur'an. It is always presented as a topic from which we can gain important insights.
In this instance we have the example of a man who passes by the ruins of a town. It puts me in mind of tourists who visit the ruins of Pompeii, or some other ancient site. And the man asks that most human of questions: if all that was once so solid can so visibly crumble and pass into ruin: "How could God bring all this back to life after its death?"
The parable given in answer to this question is not merely that God, the creator of all things, including all the laws of nature, can will whatever he chooses. It also contains a warning about the delusion of time and how this can lead us to invest too much credence in the earthly power not only of kings and emperors but of the cities and towns and societies over which they rule.
We perceive time and power in earthly terms, the terms of our own mortality which gives us an illusion of permanence. But it is in the nature of human life to be limited, just as it is within the nature of societies to rise to prominence and then pass into history. God deals in eternals, in dimensions beyond our human perception. The promise of the hereafter, of returning to life after death, is not about life as we know it here and now. The God who created the laws of nature could suspend them. But learning how to live with and within the normal workings of the laws of nature, rather than asking for them to be suspended, is the real test of faith and our preparation for life in another dimension.
And so we return to Abraham, who at the beginning of the passage made the statement of belief: "My Sustainer is He who grants life and deals death." Clearly, as a prophet of God, Abraham was a believer. Yet, even he wants incontrovertible proof. So he argues with God: "My Lord," he says, "show me how you give life to the dead." God retorts: "Do you not believe?" "Yes," he replies, "but just to put my heart at rest." So even though he believes, Abraham still has a nagging doubt in his heart: he wants knowledge that can be proved. I find the distinction between knowing as belief and knowing as response to evidence made here fascinating.
The classical commentators found this verse to be the most puzzling in all of the Qur'an. But I see it in a less perplexing way: on one level it simply confirms that the possibility of doubt, which as we have seen is one of the main themes of al-Baqura, continues even for a prophet.
The answer to Abraham's question comes as a parable. He is asked to take four birds, train them, put them in separate hills, and call them. Like homing pigeons, they will come flying back.
Now, most classical commentators suggest that the birds have to be cut up, and their pieces placed separately on hilltops, if they are to rise from the dead. One again, I think classical commentators are up a gum tree. The essence of the parable comes from the fact that the birds are trained to respond to their trainer. The birds obey his call and fly to him even from distant mountains. The point is that if tamed birds can obey their master, he being neither their creator nor the author of their existence, would not God whose "throne extends over the heavens and the earth" be able to breathe life into dead bones, elevate or destroy societies and nations, create and extinguish planets and stars?
If the birds, which have been trained by a man for a short while who otherwise has no control over them, can become so obedient to their tamer, can God not have power to control the causes of life and death, of individuals and nations? The word used for birds in this passage, tair, has other meanings: the cause of good and evil, the source of misery and happiness, the origin of rise and fall. So the birds, just like in Hitchcock's film of that name, are complex creatures signifying a number of different ideas.
The birds have a more direct significance on another level: they are us. We too can be trained to return to our master. What is the Qur'an but a training manual for human nature, a way to ensure we return to our master and maker? As human beings we learn how the laws of nature operate and use this knowledge to our benefit and advantage. But we too are part of the laws of nature. Faith is a capacity we are endowed with from birth, but it is also a capacity that must be trained and exercised to grow strong and fulfil its potential.
We need to remember this passage follows the most exalted expression of the power and majesty of the Almighty, who is the creator of all things. And the consequence of the creative power of the Almighty is complete human freedom to believe or not to believe. It is also the freedom to inquire, ask question, to doubt and to think our way through the most difficult and enduring of problems.
How Accessible Are These Verses?
May 12, 2008
Yet again, this is a passage (al-Baqura 258-260) which flummoxed me. Does God raise people from the dead? Did God really bring someone back to life after they had been dead for a hundred years? And what does the story about the four birds mean - that God trains us to come back to him?
Increasingly, I'm troubled that the Qur'an is frighteningly opaque; that it requires so much training and study to understand. There are passages - like last weeks’ - which completely go over my head. Zia claims it is one of the most important in the Qur'an and writes movingly about its power but I'm afraid on a first reading I didn't grasp any of that. How long does it take to begin to see a fraction of what you see in this book Zia? Is it about context, the situation in which one reads it? Perhaps if one has heard recitations at one's mother's knee, in the mosque, from an early age, the phrases accumulate a depth of meaning.