TWO ÂYAHS THAT run together in the Quran “film” for us the arresting parable of those who do not follow the prophets or put their faith in the knowledge they have taught us. Fittingly, these verses are cast in the Divine Light of Sûrat Al-Nûr.
Watch the Quran’s inimitable linguistic cinematography shimmer into the perfect imagery of the world’s benighted in action and then glimmer with the profoundly powerful experience of the visualization of the beclouded from behind their own eyes. Read it slowly:
As for those who have disbelieved, their works are like a mirage in a leveled plain. The thirsting man thinks it is water—until when he approaches it he finds that it is nothing. Instead, in the Hereafter, he shall find only Allah there. Then shall Allah render him his wicked account in full. For Allah is swift in reckoning.
Or they are like one lost within veils of darkness in a fathomless sea covered by waves, above which are waves, above which are thick clouds—veils of darkness, one above the other. Should he thrust out his hand, barely would he see it. For one to whom Allah does not provide light, he has no light at all. [Sûrat Al-Nûr, 24:39-40]
Imam Ibn Taymiyya has astutely characterized the people whom this parable describes as “skeptical, perplexed, and ignorant of the truth,” and more often than not, “conceited in their ignorance.”
Misery to the divinely confounded, to be sure.
But pity be you and me.
For most of the people whose words, thoughts, and judgments we Muslims now ardently admire and emulate exactly inhabit this category of uncivilized disbelievers whose spiritual disarray and moral confusion these âyahs expose and condemn.
These are the ones whose writings we most quote. These are the teachers whose beliefs we urgently note and rehearse to our gatherings after we regurgitate them on our tests.
These are the opinion molders for whose “vision” we close our own eyes to take theirs as our own, the political leadership whose whirling direction we dervishly follow down any available lizard hole, the cultural trendsetters, whose fashion, flourish, and fickle faux rebellion we fancy ourselves as mimicking.
Is it any wonder, then, that we have become blind, dizzy dandies instead of farsighted, guided, solemnly dignified men?
The reason for our misguidance even though we are believers is simple. We lack knowledge. And our deficiency is self-inflicted. Moreover, we have chosen to not become knowledgeable in a very specific way.
Oh yes. We harbor a part of knowledge, the mathematics, medicine, agriculture, and commerce of the world. But what our fathers in faith before us termed “useful” knowledge, we now have very little of because that is knowledge bequeathed exclusively to the prophets and conveyed only, or in the best way, by them.
Prophetic knowledge. That is the pursuit which the world, and we rushing headlong after it, have abandoned. That is why we are misguided. That is why we follow the utterly deluded, disoriented disbelievers denounced by Allah in these two âyahs. Because they promise us what our hearts truly yearn for. They promise us the world.
Of course, they cannot give us what they promise. It does not belong to them, for one. They don’t know how to get it, truly, anyway, at least not in a way that does not destroy it even as they grasp for it. It is, indeed, a chimera, a phantasm, a hallucination—like their power and their wealth and their hollowed out bodies propped up on the platforms of our virtual societies. Nothing they have is of any real substance.
It is true that we Muslims have the knowledge of belief, belief in the tawḥîd, the oneness of Allah. That is because knowledge is of three kinds. One of these is that God exists. That He is One. That He has total knowledge and power, irresistible will and infinite wisdom, and limitless mercy, as He chooses. We know this category of divine truth because Allah has made it self-evident within and without us and given us the reason and impulse to discern it in the life of the world.
Most of us still have this knowledge because our parents and community have made it tangibly available to us as an identity, even if only in its rudimental form. Others of us have come to it through a mental search for the truth.
But as far as the details of this knowledge of tawḥîd, things divine and the truths of religion, we remain largely unlettered. We are similar to the Quran’s description of the generally low level of religious knowledge among the Jews of Madinah at the time of the Prophet œ. Rather, among them are the illiterate, having no knowledge of the Scripture other than vague fancies. Thus they do nothing but conjecture. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:78]
‘Illiterate’ here means with respect to divine revelation, waḥy. Such is the knowledge we and our world of being most direly need, or we will be destroyed. For revelation contains the full complement of moral knowledge that human beings need to conduct themselves rightly in the face of the conditions of the world and its vicissitudes.
The reason for this is that the perfected corpus of moral knowledge encoded in divine revelation exactly coincides with the truth, al-ḥaqq, that is the true substance with which Allah has created us and all creation. And the only source of this kind of knowledge—the knowledge of things divine and the truths of religion, which are the truths of perpetual happiness—is the Prophet œ.
Again, Ibn Taymiyya:
He knows them best, is most eager to preach them to the masses, and most competent to formulate and expound them. He is above every human being in knowledge, will, and competence—virtues required to accomplish his mission perfectly. Everyone else is deficient in knowledge, has a distorted idea of things, or lacks the urge to preach what he knows either because he is seeking something else, harbors fears, or is bereft of sufficient power to expound his ideas clearly and forcefully in the face of, and to inure to, the conviction of the people.
It is only by the words delivered to us by the Prophet œ that we can detail our belief in Allah, and so become enlightened in our thought and perception. And it is only by the conveyance of the Prophet that we can elevate our humanity through our specific comportment and behavior in the world in accordance with what he instructs us to do and uphold, and to refrain from and stand against.
The priests and presidents of the world cannot guide us. Its savants and saints will not help us. Its poets and beautiful people cast no model for us.
Life is all about coming to certainty. And that certainty lies only in the Quran—both in its perfect rational arguments and in its plainly stated miraculous truths and proofs—and in the tradition of its Messenger Muhammad œ, whose very life is waḥy, both in its da¢wah and demeanor, that is, in his spoken word, be it reasoned explanation or uttered truth, and in his proffered works, be they ritual or practical action.
If we do not know these—not about them, but these details themselves—and we waste our life and time chasing after the mirage-addled, or plunging in behind those drowning in the impenetrable darkness of an ocean of unbelief, then truly we know almost nothing and our tawḥîd comes to naught.
Truly Ramadan Karîm