The Mind of the Qur'an

Wa-Tawāṣaw Bi-l-Haqqi – Wa-Tawāṣaw Bi-ṣ-Sabr – Encourage Truth, Recommend Patience

The Mind of the Qur’an by Kenneth Cragg

Excerpts from chapter: “Perhaps … ”

“In the awe of the nature was a voice demanding to know ‘for what sin the buried babe was done away’ (81:8-9). For the earth cannot eternally hide infanticide. These nature invocations were the constant settings of Muhammad’s ethical summons. For the same reason natural convulsions were the mise-en-scene of final judgement (cf. 82:1-8 and 99). All, in the words of 85:3, is ‘by the witness and the witnessed,’ ‘by the beholder and what is beheld.’ Man is a sentient being. The world waits on his interpretation of its meaning. But it only allows him to make it as all the time the crisis of his own. So 91:1-10 joins in one solemnity the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the soul. If we will not learn how to bless, we shall learn how tragic is the curse.”

“Learn how to bless, the Qur’an reader certainly does, if he is alert. For there is a steady theme of praise. The refrain Al-Hamdu li-llahi or Laus Deo opens the Fatihah and the book. Some twenty-three times it occurs with Allah and a score more with the pronoun, or with Al-Rabb (the Lord), while Al-Hamid, the kindred adjective, occurs in fourteen verses.”

“In adoration we learn how to take our relationships. The recognition of God reverses the calumnies of men. It allies us with goodness. We have love more surely as a bond in the mundane when we celebrate it in the transcendent. In blessing the Lord we have a livelier benediction of our own towards our fellows. Life in the world is purified and simplified, silenced in its malignities and livened in its mercies, by the will to give God praise. We might say that ‘O ye holy and humble men of heart, bless ye the Lord,’ is a command which actually generates the quality it addresses. It may seem to some a mere illusion, a transcendentalizing which ends where it began – in man. But the will to praise knows its own music and finds itself in knowing it.”    

“Prophets, as in some sense the spiritual genius of their time and place, become in this way the symbol of what is at stake in human history. Their words and their very presence dramatize the claims of God. Their encounter with men is a catalyst of all that is implicit in human history. They move at the point of decisive climax and have their prophetic being in its inner tensions and its outward conflict. In them the la’alla of humanity, the ‘whether’ of response or non-response, comes to culmination. Public and person reaction to the prophet then emerges as the explicit form of reaction to the God whom he serves and for whom he speaks. Thus his reception in the world becomes a test case of the human relation to the divine will.”

“One verse, on which modern thought has often fixed in this connection, is that in 2:97: ‘He brought it down upon your heart‘ (‘ala qalbika). The context has to do with sceptics about the Qur’an, depicted as being thereby ‘at enmity with Gabriel,’ under whose wing Muhammad is alerted to the sequences of the Scripture. ‘Upon your heart‘ is often taken to denote the quality of travail and “existential” yearning entailed in prophetic vocation, as distinct from intellectual apprehension or verbal facility alone. It is also contrasted with the passivity of reception frequently implied in way Muhammad’s illiteracy has been understood. Traditional views of a purely inactive recipience on his part belong, of course, with the corresponding way in which the I’jaz, or ‘miracle’ of the Qur’an is understood, as wholly supernatural phenomenon answering to the speaker’s literary incapacity. Contemporary thinking, however, taking its cue from 2:97, and from the clear implication of 26:3, is encouraged to recognize a deep dimension of active emotion and spiritual quest in the experience of Muhammad with the Qur’an. Whatever is finally the fact behind belief in an entire verbal inbreathing of words it must surely not exclude the heart’s own urgent pressures as these arose out of the context of the time and place and the prophetic sense of a revelation to it.”

“It is surely in this realm of personal travail in the charisma of the Prophet that the reader must look for its deepest measure of the mind of the Qur’an.”

Excerpts from chapter: “The Trouble of Man”

“Every sensitive reader soon perceives that the Muslim scripture is a book of dark shadows. Despite the strong assurance, the celebration of light and victory, its perspective of human history is grave and anxious. Past civilizations are mirrored in the ruins they have left.”

‘How many a city given to evil have We made to perish and it is fallen on its own towers: how many an abandoned well, how many a fine palace.’ [22:45]

“So runs Surah 22:45. Archealogy is thus a lesson in retribution. For these wrecks are not merely the vestiges of time and of decay. They are the requital of folly and perversity. Time, it is true, overtakes all mortal things in the reckoning of frailty. But, within it, is the accusation which may overwhelm it in the reckoning of doom. This grim quality of history belongs with the Qur’an’s vision of a humanity pointed between prophecy and disaster. The good of obedience proceeds within the conflicts of evil. Rebellion ripens for apocalyptic judgment and the sure nemesis of God.”

“Throughout in the narrative of the prophets runs their urgent, but often unheeded, contention for the truth. Obduracy dominates the human story. “Most of them never give thanks.’ ‘In their hearts there is a sickness.’ ‘Most of them do not know.’ The duty of truth is, therefore, unremitting, ever urging its cause against the irresponsive and the irresponsible. The prophetic tenacity is everywhere exemplary. But in its vindication the evil is subdued rather than transformed. Minor prophets, minor tribes, major prophets, major tribes – the pattern tallies. The human habit of inertia and resistance repeats its cycle of indifference, ridicule and enmity, and moves on to doom. Judgement is re-assuring in that it makes good the Tauhid, or unity – the indefeasibility of the divine power, though there remains here a deep paradox. In the Quran the polarity of law and judgment, over against lawlessness, terminates all questions.”

“How gravely, then, does it move in ‘the trouble of man!’ It is odd that Islam and its Scripture have been sometimes claimed for optimism. There it, is true, an instinct for success and triumph. God is sought and found in vindication. Yet there remains within its pages the most forthright indictment of mankind.”

‘When the earth casts forth her burdens and man cries: ‘What ails her?’ on that day she will tell her tidings.’ [99:2-4]

“Humanity through history has lain heavy upon the good earth, wasting her beauty, polluting her bounty, raping her treasures, and flouting her covenants in hard defiance of her Lord. The ‘burdens,’ in the context of Surah 99, are the bones and bodies of the dead summoned from their graves. But these, in their generations, were parties and victims in the passions and struggles of exploitation. The earth that holds their remains has borne grievously with their deeds.”


In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

When Earth is shaken with her (final) earthquake
And Earth yieldeth up her burdens,
And man saith: What aileth her?
That day she will relate her chronicles,
Because thy Lord inspireth her.
That day mankind will issue forth in scattered groups to be shown their deeds.
And whoso doeth good an atom’s weight will see it then,
And whoso doeth ill an atom’s weight will see it then.

Surah: Al-Zalzalah – Chapter: 99 – Verse: 1-8

“’Man’ as 4:28 remarks, ‘is created weak,’ with a liability, that is, to pervert and distort the powers that belong with his positive dignity and privilege. He is, we might say in the double sense of the word, a ‘liable’ creature – responsible to yield account, yet conniving against his own good.”

“These phrases about weakness and ‘bias’ towards wrong do not suffice as a basis for any final Quranically argued philosophy of human nature, isolated as they are. They suggest no elaborate doctrine and they are early in the Prophet’s mission. But their realism persists, as we must see, within the more confident pragmatism of the later political years, and there is no mistaking its urgent quality. The passages about birth are so frequent and striking that the reader must let his imagination respond to their pre-occupation. In the current world of human flood-tide, so different from the precarious human tenure that found insurance in frequent pregnancy, there is new force in the Quranic reverence for birth. The main verses are 22:5, 23:12-14, 32:7-9, 35:11, 36:77, 40:67-68, 53:46, 56:58, 76:1-2, 77:20-22, 80:18-20, 82:7-8, 86:5-7, and 96:2. They see the womb and the embryo as God’s mercy in man’s gift. Surah 23 is perhaps the most explicit.”

“Truly, We created man as a progeny of clay and set him as a living seed in a
secure lodgement. The seed We created into an embryo and the embryo into
tissue and the tissue into bone and the bones We garbed in flesh, so bringing
forth another creation. Blessed then be God, the fairest Creator.”

Surah: Al-Mu’minun (The Believers) – Chapter: 23 – Verse: 12-14

“Men falsify their calling. Crucial decisions accumulate into destiny. ‘Has there ever been over man,” ask Surah 76 in its opening verse, ‘any flux of mortal time within which he has of no importance?’ The question is perhaps enigmatic. It seems to mean that there are no intervals of exemption from the issues and the pressures of his being. Surah 76 goes on to speak of birth, faculties, guidance, response and final destiny. In the well-doers God’s mercy is displayed: in the evil-doers his righteousness is vindicated. If, with the English poet, the external ‘world is charged with the grandeur of God,’ the Musim’s ‘world is charged with the greatness of God, and in that awareness ‘the world of all of us’ is truly understood. Mankind is laid under the authority of an entire Lordship and a conclusive judgement.”

“The basic sense of zalama is to do wrong, to treat wrongfully, to deal unjustly, with or without an object. It is the act of falsifying in not according what is due, whether to things or to people, to truth or to trust. It means distortion and perversity, tyranny and evil will. Shirk, or idolatry, says 31:13, ‘is great zulm.’ It is wrong against God done by the idolater in denying the true worship and so distorting what is due to God and what is true about God, namely his indivisible, inalienable sovereignty. More frequently zulm denotes wrong against fellow humanity – injustice, deceit, fraud, slander, treachery, calumny, robbery and the rest. Most eloquent of all is the re-iterated notion of zulm al-nafs, the wrong of the self against the self. ‘It was their own selves they wronged,’ we find in numerous passages (for example, 2:57, 3:117, 7:160, 177, 9:70, 10:44, 16:33, 16:116, 20:40 and 30:9. Compare also 3:135, 4:64, 11:113, 14:45 and 34:19). Some times the accent here is clearly on the contrast: it was not God but themselves they wronged. The concern is with the divine immunity rather than with human diagnosis. But, even so, the very desire for the divine to be inviolate concedes the force of the human rebuke.”

“There is nothing human or material that can compensate for the inward consequences of the evil done. There is nothing in the whole world one can exchange for oneself (compare 10:54, 13:18 and 39:47). This is the sort of world in which evil-doing corrupts the evil-doer and distorts his being, so that he stands self-condemned and self-betrayed. This is a fact of the situation, quite aside from the related issue as to what the divine revelation to this self-destruction of man is understood to be. But we are studying the Quranic ‘trouble of man,’ not the trouble of God about man.”

“While zulm is a concept which has to do with human exchanges through all their broad range, social, moral, economic, nifaq belongs squarely with the religious realm, even when it takes political forms. It is a much rarer term and occurs, mainly in the participle form, and then invariably in the plural, namely al-munafiqun, or (fem.) al-munafiqat. It has to do with the issue of sincerity which emerged in the political days of Muhammad’s mission.”

“The word nifaqa means ‘to play the hypocrite,’ or ‘to be dubious reliability, a suspect character.” It may be linked also with the idea of selling – in this case one’s conscience, so becoming a dissembler or a cheat.”

“Most of the Quranic occurrences of nifaq are in the political context. Surah 68 has the title: Al-Munafiqun. It deals with the wiles and plots and pretexts of the dissemblers, whom it likens to ‘propped up timbers.’ In 3:167 we find them a menace to militarily discipline, in 8:49 quislings under pressure, and in 4:138 f., 5:57, and 33:60-61, vacillators guessing at their shifting fortunes.”

“Four times, in apposition to nifaq, is the phrase: ‘those in whose hearts there is sickness (marad) (*:49, 33:32 and 33:60), which occurs elsewhere also in the context of unbelief, hostility and perverse dealing (see 2:10, 5:52, 9: 125, 22:53, 24:50, 47:20, 47:29, 74:31).”

“It may well be that munafiqun, in the Qur’an. were, in fact, a political party, organized and vigorous. Even so, their ‘sickness’ – if the term applies – was more than opposition! How to understand the ‘more’ and how to meet it – this is the perpetual calling and burden of ‘religion.’”

“’Waked sudden in’ exactly describes the Quranic picture of post-mortal experience. Waiting there, are all the ‘forwardings’ of man’s vital span. In perhaps the gentlest of the many passages on eternal destinies we read:

“O you who believe, hold God in awe. Let a soul look to what he has forwarded for a morrow. Hold God in awe. God is cognizant of all you do. Do not be like those who forgot God and God caused them to forget themselves. These are the wanton with life. the denizens of the fire are not as the denizens of the garden. The denizens of the garden theirs is the triumph.”

“Here is the essence of the Quranic reading of life – faith, identity, awe before God, cumulative destiny, unfailing known-ness to God, the danger of self-loss, and the final sequel.”

“Standing, as we are, within the mortal range – albeit the mortality with these dimensions – the question stays. Can the sense of contrast – these and those, the triumph and the tragedy, the winning and the wasting – be so static and so absolute? La Yastawiya, says the verse. It sounds a strange under-statement with which to distinguish heaven and hell. Yet perhaps in that every modesty a wiser one than the utter sharpness of pictorial contrast. Certainly the things we forward through the web of years are always wrought in ambiguity. Scales cannot sift. But nothing can be truly weighed unsifted. Even our virtues we many not call our own. In our sins are the schemes of a thousand factors beyond our birth and choosing. Islam has always been close to realism. It does not find virtue in asceticism. It has never disengaged evil from the necessities of power and or the state. All is tangled and contorted in its earthly incidence. To find it tidily adjudged beyond death must surely be taken as a profound conviction of divine justice – a justice to which to entrust all things including the very pictures under which we think of it.”

“The fire and the garden, then, must be seen to dramatize what they cannot simplify. If they suspend ambiguity it can only be to illuminate more starkly the elements that comprise it. The trouble of man is not that he has no destiny but that reaching it takes him through the enigma and the paradox, through the struggle and the crowd. And all of these, with himself, stand within the summons of God. That summons, the Qur’an assures us, begins and ends in justice and mercy. More than this, about the divine revelation to his answer, it will not say.”

“There would be no trouble, if there were no summons. Were there no summons, there would be no men. Of the final reckoning the Qur’an says, in words it is wiser not further to interrogate: ‘Truly the good deeds outweighs the evil deeds.’ This suffices both for fear and hope. The Qur’an has no words for yesterday. Mortality is this vale of soul-making, the shaping of the personal eternity.”

Excerpts from chapter: “Directive and Direction”

“The Qur’an in its authority is directive – emphatic, revered, fundamental. But what direction do its possessors take with it and from it? Every religious authority, in the end, turns on the terms of the obedience of those who receive it as authority. Even where the authority is unquestioned, it is because acceptance is unquestioning. The guidance is always a receiving by the guided and the quality of the one will hinge on the temper of the other. However men understand the light in their hands and how it came there, it is they who relate it to the darkness into which it shines. Islam is what the Qur’an defines and enjoins: it is what Muslims read and acknowledge.”     

Dar al-Islam, the house of Islam, was an expression on the map, with frontiers separating it from Dar al-Harb, the house of strife not yet subdued to the law and order of Islam. But this physical or military distinction is plainly out of date. Its age-long institutional expression, namely the caliphate, is defunct. There is no feasible prospect of the forceful expansion of Muslim rule ending in universal dominion.”

Author: Kenneth Cragg

Publisher: George Allen & Unwin

Year: 1973