The thoughts shared in the last post will insha’allah continue in future posts. The present piece is not in continuation of the last one but deliberately included in the same series as I want to aggregate all my readings and reflections related to Quran at one place.
An important element of Quranic discourse – and a kind of indirect proof of its Divine originality – is how it pushes the reader towards an almost natural and impulsive mode of pondering. This is sometimes achieved by countering the inner-most arguments developing deep within the folds of the human self. In his autobiographical journey towards Islam from atheism, Dr. Jeffrey Lang shares how he used to encounter responses to his questions as he interacted with the Quran on day to day basis. In fact, most of the Quranic interlocutors would agree that this observation is not a totally extraordinary experience and often there are moments when an unbiased and persistently reflective reader would feel as if his subconscious is laid bare before the Quran.
Being structurally as well as linguistically more coherent and direct, shorter Surahs  towards the end of the Quran better depict these characteristics of brevity and candor and this one, i.e., Al Mulk (the Dominion), is indeed no exception.
In what can be called a thematically single and well connected unit, a reader is warned regarding temporal nature of human life and this world, through an invitation to reflect upon the multifarious dimensions in which God’s Omnipotence is depicted in the observable universe. Being a frequently adopted style throughout Quran, this warning is delivered categorically by repetitively invoking the person of the Prophet by using explicitly the vocative case قُلْ implying that interlocutors of the Prophet were actively engaged with him where verses of the Quran were continuously serving as part of the ongoing dialogue.
Using observable phenomena in nature as a symbol pointing towards an Omniscient (67:14) and Omnipotent (67:1) Designer, the reader is asked to literally look upwards and observe the universe and creation of skies (67:3-5), look down and observe the creation of earth and how it facilitates movement like a tamed and domesticated camel (67:15) , and again pointed above to watch the flight and suspension of birds (67:19).
At first sight, this indeed looks like a straightforward framing of teleological argument, which is critically reviewed by Iqbal in these words :
The teleological argument is no better. It scrutinizes the effect with a view to discover the character of its cause. From the traces of foresight, purpose, and adaptation in nature, it infers the existence of a self-conscious being of infinite intelligence and power. At best, it gives us a skillful external contriver working on a pre-existing dead and intractable material the elements of which are, by their own nature, incapable of orderly structures and combinations.
Even though, Iqbal’s critique of the argument emanates from an altogether different motivation (i.e., aiming at philosophical framing of the argument which is obviously distinct than the Divine formulation; and the latter cannot possibly be restricted under one of the classical arguments for the existence of God), a reader primarily accessing the revelation philosophically may still remain unsatisfied on closely similar grounds as Iqbal. Yet another kind of agnostic reader may feel utterly unmoved by Quran’s call to find the flaws in the perfect design of natural world. Take for instance, the case of this classic argument for denial in someone like Russell :
When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. […] Moreover, if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. […] Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out, it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.
Quranic discourse tends to address most of such counter-arguments all over the revelation; however, in this Surah specifically, part of the above limitations are overcome by what can be called a carefully refining of somewhat mechanistic God-Nature relationship (as viewed in classical framing of the argument) with the one of considered Divine intention and purpose . In my view, this is achieved right in the beginning when the concept of death, which essentially implies transformation of of all life into an eventual mote of cosmic dust in a world without God, is not only attached with the Divine creativity but also given a greater and completely logical purpose of Divine judgement regarding who ultimately succeeds in achieving the moral good (67:2).
As if providing a possible rejoinder to Russell’s last remark, Quran forces the reader to remain attentive to this world as much as the other.
Without picking up this important nuance, the whole argument is rendered too simplistic and seemingly based on mechanistic Designer/ Designed duality. On a different note, these initial verses tend to transpose the way how an atheistic argument would approach this whole issue of life and death, i.e., by turning one’s attention to other things. Quranic argument like the atheistic stand is also rooted in the natural world but unlike the latter, this natural world – in its existence as well as extinction – is not considered to be moving towards a purposeless decay but serving as a test bed for human conduct.
Not classically opposing but nevertheless an ostensibly reasonable counter-question can be that when will this promise of ultimate day of judgement be fulfilled (67:25), to which the Prophet is simply asked to respond that he does not possess such knowledge, as he is merely given the mission to convey a clear warning (67:26). Faith, therefore, is not always based on positivist empirical grounds (67:12).
The acme of this Divine drama as well as response to deniers’ myopic reasoning is set in the hereafter where groups of the persistent deniers, after being thrown into the animated Hell, will be asked whether no warner has been sent to them with the warning. To which, they will reply that warners were indeed sent to them but they rejected them and considered them deluded (67:7-11).
Perhaps the most peculiar and interesting point in these verses is Quranic commentary on rationality. The human faculty of reason, as the dialogue (67:7-11) quite clearly establishes, if used judiciously, must lead man to use natural world as a symbol to infer existence of God and a greater plan in creation. “Is then one who walks headlong, with his face grovelling, better guided,- or one who walks evenly on a Straight Way?”, asks Quran from the ones who ascribe to reason as an ideal in itself and blinds themselves to the actual ideals in the process (67:22).
Just like it is reasonable enough to believe in warnings given to us daily by people whom we fully trust, it is also rational to believe in the warnings given to us by human beings whom God chooses as His messengers. It is perhaps correct to contend that reason, according to Quranic view of rationality, is not an ideal in itself but a means to achieve the only true ideal of conceiving and appreciating the Divine consciousness scattered everywhere in the cosmos .
Among the obvious philosophical difficulties of understanding this kind of Quranic discourse – where the argument is rooted in the warning as well as the person of the warner – is the question whether a contemporary reader should differentiate between the direct and indirect recipients of the revelation. In my view, the point regarding warner’s proximity to those being warned clearly differentiates both kind of recipients in how they employ their respective faculties of reason; as what was originally a two-dimensional approach of warning – closely binding the person of Prophet as well as the Revelation – has been transformed into a single textual dimension for later communities after the Prophet.
This indeed is among the common semantic difficulties (albeit usually ignored) which a careful reader of the Quran, especially the one carrying the burden of historical interpretation, faces too often. Important among some other difficulties specific to this Surah are the exegetical issues whether the idiomatic meaning of phrase رُجُومًا لِّلشَّيَاطِين can be taken in verse 67:5 ; and what purpose is possibly intended when Quran employs a language that apparently confines God to celestial space (67:16-17) .
- Shah Wali Ullah categorizes these Surahs as Mufassal in Al-Fauzul Kabir fi Usul al-Tafsir (although the categorization is not originally from him but coming from the classical tradition of exegesis) and this is the seventh and last group of according to Amin Ahsan Islahi’s grouping in Taddabbur-e-Quran.
- Islahi shares great insights on idiomatic constructions in 67:15 in his Taddabbur-e-Quran.
- Muhammad Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.
- Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian.
- For detailed analysis of Iqbal’s critique and transformation of traditional philosophical arguments for existence of God, see Basit Bilal Koshul, Muhammad Iqbal’s Reconstruction of the Philosophical Argument for the Existence of God in Muhammad Iqbal: A Contemporary.
- Muhammad Asad gives brief but good insights regarding these verses in his Message of Quran. For detailed critique of modern views of rationality in relation to human psychology and its inter-relationship with knowledge, ideals, instincts and self, see Muhammad Rafiuddin, Ideology of the Future.
- Asad, for instance, translates the verse idiomatically by rendering it to refer to astrologers who use patterns and positions of stars to make futile and random guesses.
- This indeed seems to be a metaphorical figure of speech not implying literal confinement to heavens above, as human beings sometimes symbolically (and almost naturally) refer to the celestial spaces while mentioning God. Some translators have rendered the particle فِي as possessive rather than implying the usual meaning of containing within, which is a linguistic stretch in my opinion.