The Qur’an and Time

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History as memory

When the Qur’an talks of past events it speaks of them as if these events exist in our own memories as an integral part of our own selves. It asks us to recall these occurrences in the same manner in which we remember events from our own lives. “And remember We gave Moses the Scripture and the Criterion (Between right and wrong)(2:54)…. And remember Abraham and Isma’il raised the foundations of the House(2:127)….” It uses a methodology that encourages us to erase the distance between ourselves and these past events. It is telling us that this distance does not exist. The Qur’an asks us to be present at all times and all places where truth requires us to be present and not to regard humanity’s past as merely “tales of the ancients”(83:13) that are irrelevant to our times.

The Qur’an tells us that these memories are family memories – the family is that of Adam(s.a.), and Abraham(s.a), Moses(s.a.) and Aaron(s.a), Jesus(s.a.) and Muhammad (s.a.) and all the other messengers and their supporters recalled in the pages of the Qur’an. Between us and them there is no distance in love, respect, or honour. All distances are erased – the chronological time that separates us and them vanishes. With the Qur’an’s methodology we are with Moses(s.a.) when he confronts Pharoah, we are with Abraham(s.a.) when he destroys the idols, we are with the Prophet(s.a.) as he struggles to deliver the message. We are with him as he tells the story of mankind and awakens the memories and lessons of our own past within us.

So the Qur’an teaches us a new way to look upon history. It is not “ancient stories” but living truths. It teaches us to erase the distance between ourseleves and the past and to call forth the past like memories, till a total picture of the history of truth is formed – a history which spans all times and all places and is not restricted by any chronology. Memories are not distinct from us, they are an integral part of us. They define and shape us, they are not intellectual abstractions but are a living part of us, shaping our consciousness and our personalities. The Qur’an asks us to extend our memory beyond our individual selves and so unites our separate histories with the total history of humanity with the aim of highlighting the common thread of truth that weaves its way across the centuries.

Seeking patterns and principles

“Why dwell on the past?…Why put time and energy into remembering events that happened centuries ago?…Why not let the past be past and put it behind us once and for all?… Why does the Qur’an admonish us constantly to remember ?”

This is a very legitimate question and one that deserves careful consideration because the answer lies within the fundamental nature of Islam and of the Qur’an. It lies in the way the Qur’an views history and in the manner in which it illustrates history. The Qur’an is a book of rhythms and patterns both in its sound and construction as well as in its content and meaning. It does not view history as a linear process, as a sequence of events which succeed one another.

Rather it sees history as a pattern or series of patterns which occur over a period of time and which arise as the result of certain natural laws at work in society and within men. These patterns or rhythms in history are repeatedly illustrated in the Qur’an, for example, by references to past civilizations which have all followed the same pattern of rise, decay, and collapse. At the same time the Qur’an is a book of principles, of truths, which, if they are implemented, will allow men to break free of the repetitious cycles of history.

So in its approach to history the Qur’an does not reiterate historical events in great detail and length. But instead it distills the events down to their basic components in order to illustrate the principles to be learned from the events.

This can be seen most clearly in the way the Qur’an tells some of the stories found in the Bible. Wheras the Bible gives a detailed, linear account of an incident, the Qur’an boils the same story down to its essential ingredients in order to concisely and clearly illustrate, in a few lines, the lesson to be found at the heart of the event. The Qur’an lays bare the patterns which rule history and the principles which can free us of this rule and which can lead men to a fuller understanding of historical processes and man’s place within them.

Just as the hajj brings Muslims from all countries and of all languages and races together to create a form of social and spiritual Tauhid (or social and spiritual unity), so too does Islam’s approach to history create a form of historical Tauhid (or historical unity).

History becomes not merely a disjointed sequence of events but is bound by patterns and principles which act as a unifying force – a bridge between widely separated generations. The “principles” or “truths” of history are not bound in the confines of one era or by the rules and customs of one society but span all times and all societies.

Let me give you an example.

Why did Muslims choose the Hijrah (or migration), where the Prophet (s.a.) was fleeing for his life, as the event which pinpoints the beginning of the Islamic calendar? Why not choose the moment he recieved his first revelation, or the date of the first victory at Badr, or of the fall of Mecca to his army.

It is because the Hijrah was the transition point (the moment of a phase change) for a number of factors in the early stages of Islam. It marked the transition of the Muslim Ummah (community) from a handful of struggling individuals to a complete society in Medina. It marked the transition of the Prophet from preaching to political, social, diplomatic, and military action. And it marked the transition from virtually no growth to explosive growth of Islam. Migration, or movement from stillness towards a specific goal is a key concept in the Qur’an and one whose truth is borne out by historical reality. All civilizations arise “…on the heels of a migration….”(Ali Shari’ati). From the Biblical Exodus or migration of the Jews from Egypt, and the subsequent creation of Israel, to the most recent examples of Canada and America both of which arose following a migration.

The principle of migration is also true on an interior level in terms of the migration of our inner selves away from personal stagnation and towards an awareness of God.

But the important point to stress here is that by being a specific instance of a universal principle, the Hijrah of the Prophet acquires a meaning and a force which lifts it out of historical time and makes it relevant as a principle to all times. Now there are many such principles in the Qur’an and all these principles have many layers of meanings at many different levels, such as the social level, the political level, the individual level etc. These are all principles which find historical focal points in various persons, in various places, at various times in history.

Our remembrance of the events described in the Qur’an is done in order to acquaint each new generation with these principles. These are learned through our hearts as well as our minds because an intellectual understanding is, by itself, a cold and incomplete understanding. But when Truth is percieved by the “heart’s mind”, to use a Qur’anic phrase then that truth comes alive in the individual and the centuries which separate him from the historical events and personalities melt away. This is why we remember events that happened so long ago. That is why we remember them the way we do. The Prophets and Imams were witnesses for the Truth, for Islam, and their message to us is a message for all ages, all times, and all societies.

“Witness your time. Witness the conflict between the truth and falsehood of your age.” (Ali Shari’ati)

Non-linear history

As already mentioned, the Qur’an does not follow a linear exposition and progressive timeline as, for example, the Bible does. It raises topics, not according to a successive historical progression, but according to its own unique inner pulse and rhythm. If it was in a historical, chronological order like a book of history or a biography, it would have been particularized to the chronology of history. The Qur’an, however, declares itself as timeless, as a book that cannot be particularized and limited to a specific historical context. “Verily this is no less than a Message to all the Worlds.” (Qur’an 81:27) The Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (a.s.) has said of it that “…it will continue on its course as long as Heaven and Earth endure, because it enshrines a sign and a guide for every person and group to come.”

The Qur’an breaks the chronological mould to declare itself free from the ties of time. It originates with God who encompasses time and is not constrained by it. The Book of the Realities of existence which the Qur’an calls “the Mother of the Book” is on a different plane of existence, outside of the flow of time as we know it. It is from this realm that the Qur’an descended to the Prophet’s (s.a.) heart, and from there, degree by degree it took the form of the specific words recited as the Qur’an. Nasir al-Din Qunawi writes, “The writing and the form of the letters and sounds originate in time, but what is written and recited is eternal.

‘And behold, it is with Us in the Mother of the Book, sublime indeed, wise..” (43:3)”

Trans-historical religion

In the Qur’an, the key “events” which determine man’s metaphysical makeup all take place outside the flow of time as we know it. They take place in a different plane of existence than this material plane – in a “trans-historical” plane.

One of these events is the creation of Adam and the teaching of the names to him. “When thy Lord said unto the angels: lo! I am about to create a mortal out of mire, And when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My Spirit, then fall down before him prostrate….And We taught Adam the names (realities) of all things….” ( Qur’an, 38:72…) These events take place outside of the flow of history as we understand it.

Islam is not a religion rooted in a single historical event through which God enters history – instead all the key events take place outside history, in pre-eternity.

Another event is the pre-eternal covenant made between God and the human spirits (all of the descendants of Adam). This is expressed in the form of a question which God asks the human spirits before allowing them to enter into the physical plane of existence. “Am I not your Lord?” (7:172). They all answer in the affirmative. All of the Prophet’s have come throughout the entirety of history to remind men of their fidelity to this pact. The Qur’an also often refers to itself as “a reminder”

A third event is mankinds acceptance of a “trust” offered them by God. “We did indeed offer the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof. But man undertook it (the trust);…” (33: 72,73)

These key events all deal with the metaphysical nature and capacity with which man is created. A concurrent event, the teaching of the names (or realities) of all things to Adam, indicates that within man (within his metaphysical makeup) exists a vast storehouse of knowledge, or a capacity, through which he can comprehend mysteries that even the angels are unaware of.

The Qur’an constantly urges mankind to “remember” – to become aware of their inner nature through this remembrance and to awaken that nature. These “pre-eternal” events are events that are perfectly real without taking place in historical time. If time is considered as a horizontal progression, these events take place along a vertical axis, one which stands above all times and all places. The Qur’an attempts to awaken us to this hidden aspect of ourselves – it is a reminder to a humanity that is “sleeping” and a call for us to awaken from our amnesia, our “forgetfulness” regarding the essential nature of our being. It is a reminder that beneath the horizontal aspect of our existence is a truly vast vertical dimension.

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