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Comparisons, allegories, and examples from the world around us are used in the Qur’an by God to not only illustrate a point, but evoke emotion. These examples enrich the lessons, by associating a concept (like resurrection) to the world around us (like plant life after rainfall); and through them higher meanings become more familiar and recognizable. Yet, human beings, who are the most contentious of creatures, do not always reflect. Led instead by passion—and the seeking of lower desires—human beings become blind to not just these examples within the Qur’an, but also the world around them from which these examples are drawn. They do not witness the signs (ayāt) in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day. Nor do they recognize the examples within the Qur’an (like those following) but, instead, ask “by this what does God mean?”
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Imam al-Ghazali once said,
“The tongue is the counselor, the mind the interpreter and the heart is what is affected.“
Ghazali’s words present a succinct way of conceptualizing our relationship with the world around us. We are surrounded by various stimuli (including events, people, statements… etc) that, due to our interpretation of them, causes an internal reaction; a reaction that initiates a feeling and subsequent behavior. What matters more often, almost more so than the stimuli, is our interpretation of it. For example, the rubbing of a tree branch along the side of the house. Is is it the wind, or a person outside the home? Whatever you believe it is, will cause you to feel a certain way and behave in a way that may reinforce your interpretation. This is especially apparent when one has a misunderstanding about others, and then treats the person based upon this wrongful assumption.
Often times incidents we consider negative are actually due to misunderstandings; maybe through blowing it out of proportion, not placing it within a more broad perspective, or seeing it as falling short of unreasonable standards. Sometimes we don’t know how we should interpret something, and we find ourselves confused or mentally exhausted.
At this time we might seek the help of another; hoping they can help put things in the right perspective. In many instances this may work and we may start to see things in a way we had not before, a way broader than we had previously conceived. Or, we may find ourselves still stuck with our skewed perception.
One day a man approached the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and asked whether having trust in God meant that a believer should not tie their camel (to prevent the camel from running away). The Prophet, peace be upon him, said in reply, “Trust in God and tie your camel.” Of the many lessons that can be derived from this is that while we have complete trust in God, we must also take the means He has provided for us to obtain success in this life. The same is the case in protecting one’s self and one’s property.
Just last night I experienced something that made me think of this man and his question. There have been near my home several car burglaries so I made sure to make my roommate’s car (that I have been left to manage in his absence) extra safe. I removed anything from the vehicle that might tempt someone to break in to steal it. I hid the GPS unit, put some items in the trunk, and even moved all the quarters and dimes that inevitably pile up out of sight. I then parked the car underneath a street lamp, and, of course, locked it.
As the seasons change it is a cause for reflection, like in the “alternation of Night and Day”, these are “indeed signs for those of pure understanding” (Al-Imran; 3:190). Like in the very “creation of the heavens and the earth” and “the sailing of ships upon the sea”, and “the rain which Allah sends down from the skies”, and “and the beasts of all kinds”, and in ”the change of the winds and the clouds which they trail like their slaves”. These indeed are signs “for a people that are wise” (Al-Baqarah; 2:164).
To what knowledge is it that these signs do point, and who are the “wise” that can read them with “pure understanding”?
The Qur’an repeatedly calls our attention to the universe and the many signs around us, but how do we read them?