By Jan-e-Alam Khaki
PROPHET Ibrahim is a prophet of great significance for all the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The Quran regards his example as “exemplary” (60:6). Many historical events and practices are attributed to him, like the building of the Kaaba as well as being put in fire by Nimrood, and having been saved from it. In this piece one such Abrahamic tradition — the ‘tradition’ of frequent questioning about the universe and of his Lord — will be discussed.
The Quran portrays Ibrahim as an inquiring prophet who kept on searching for knowledge related to life and death. Let us pick two key parables from the Quran which will reveal sufficiently how the great prophet used to search for various answers to fundamental questions about the Creator and the created.
The first is about his experience of the cosmos and baffling questions about the search for his Creator. The Quran narrates, “When the night covered him (Ibrahim) over, he saw a star; he said: ‘This is my Lord’ [Haza Rabbi]. But when it set, he said: ‘I love not those that set.’ When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord’ [Haza Rabbi].’ But when the moon set he said: ‘Unless my Lord guides me I shall surely be among those who go astray.’
“When he saw the sun rising in (splendour) he said: ‘This is my Lord [haza Rabbi]; this is the greatest (of all). But when the sun set he said: ‘O my people! I am free from your (guilt) of giving partners to Allah’ ” (6:76-78).
The second parable is about his questioning, now directed towards God, to show him how He gives life to the dead. “And when Ibrahim said: ‘My Lord! Show me how Thou givest life to the dead,’ He said: ‘Dost thou not believe?’ Ibrahim said: Yea, but (I ask) in order that my heart may be at ease [li yutmainna qalbi]” (2:260).
These Quranic verses reflect how Prophet Ibrahim kept on asking questions till he got answers. Sometimes he used his inductive logic to reach the conclusions (as in the case of the celestial bodies) and sometimes he asked his Sustainer (Rab) to inspire him for answers.
The interesting thing we might notice in these verses is that God, at no point, shows any indignation at being asked questions. Worrying about questions may be a human problem, not of God. In fact, God wants human beings to ask questions and learn more about His creation.
He rewards it, as can be seen from this verse again about Prophet Ibrahim. “[Similarly], we showed Ibrahim the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, [so] that he might be of those possessing certainty” (6:75).
The verse clearly shows that this favour was bestowed upon him not as reward for prophetic work, but to give satisfaction to his heart so that he could “possess certainty”.
In strict ‘religious’ families and schools, questions are discouraged lest they may lead to going astray. If questions are not to be asked about the self, the universe around us, the heavens and the Creator, how can an inquiring mind just ‘accept’ everything without asking questions?
Why would the Quran ask us to ‘reflect’, ‘to ponder’ on God’s creation? Is reflection possible without genuine and honest questions? Is creation of knowledge possible without asking discerning questions? After all, what is the value of faith accepted with fear and without understanding?
Lamenting the blind following of Muslim tradition, Allama Iqbal rightly said, “Had blind following been such a good thing, the Prophet [PBUH] would have followed his ancestors’ path.” (Kulliyāt-i-Iqbal)
When the Prophet (PBUH) asked the people to follow him, they used to say, “…Enough for us are the ways we found our fathers following. …” (5:104), the verse obviously referring to their attitude of traditionalism.
If one were to look at the Quranic methodology of dealing with questions, one will not fail to notice that it adopts an engaging and discursive style. Never is a question asked ever rejected. God responds to even ‘private’ questions regarding men and women (for example 2:222).
The Quran never shies away from responding to questions. If one were to ask questions that the Prophet and God were asked of any of our teachers today in schools/madressahs, one would simply be scolded for asking such ‘taboo’ questions.
Does this mean that we have adopted a different attitude towards asking questions than the one encouraged by the Prophet and God Himself?
Today good educational institutions, from schools to universities, encourage critical thinking skills. Should we stop our children/adults from asking questions? When people are stopped from asking questions, what happens? At least four consequences follow: breeding of hypocrisy (hiding of questions); alienation (from faith, because there is no real engagement); conflict between faith and reason; and finally, blind following.
Are these consequences worth having in a faith that commands us to ‘read’, and ‘reflect’ and ‘ponder’ on practically everything from the Heavens to the Earth as an integral part of its guidance?
Intelligent, responsible, constructive, reflective questioning enriches the human mind and soul. The quest for questioning is not simply a destination, but a journey.
As God’s creation is limitless, so is learning. And following the Abrahamic tradition so should be our quest for questioning. We should develop enquiring minds to create new knowledge and insights about the marvellous creation around us, thus fulfilling God’s command of reflection and contemplation.
Jan-e-Alam Khaki teaches Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies at a private university in Pakistan.