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Islamic Theological Themes
A Primary Source Reader
By John Renard
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
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Qur'an and Hadith
EVERY VOLUME IN THE VAST LIBRARY of Islamic religious literature owes its inspiration, thematic content, and "technical" vocabulary in some measure to the Qur'an and Hadith and to the countless scholars who dedicated their life's work to elucidating those sources. Knowledge of key themes in the Qur'an and Hadith, and of the hermeneutical questions they raise, is essential to a fuller appreciation of the distinctly theological import of Islam's immense Prophetic legacy. The present chapter supplies the fundamentals of that knowledge.
THEOLOGICAL THEMES IN THE QUR'AN
A good deal of the Qur'anic text is of genuinely theological significance, whether inherently or by implication. The overall concept of divine revelation comprises the single largest theological category. At its broadest, it embraces not only a host of self-referential observations on the nature of the revealed text itself but a large number of narrative texts on some two-dozen prophets, ranging in length from a few lines to the whole of sura 12 with its literarily unified story of Joseph. Numerous brief texts allude to the Qur'an's divine origin, purity, clarity, veracity, and undeniability (e.g., 2:2, 10:1–2, 15:1, 24:1, and passim). References to Mu?ammad's role over some twenty-two years form the single largest subset of prophetic texts. Perhaps the second-most numerous category of theological texts consists of scores of often brief allusions to God's nature and relationship to His creation. References to a variety of specific "doctrinal" matters, from the nature of faith to eschatological themes, comprise a third major theological category.
Among the more important specific theological themes suggested in the Qur'an are divine transcendence and immanence; revelation in creation and through prophets; and the question of human responsibility even in the face of God's perfect knowledge, freedom, and power. The first two themes, divine transcendence and immanence, bookend what is arguably the most fundamental of theological paradoxes—God's complete otherness melded with intense divine involvement with created realities. These two concepts, tanzih (difference) and tashbih (similarity), overlap in such a way that the distinction employed in this chapter is a matter of emphasis rather than an absolute dichotomy—a "coincidence of opposites." The second pair, modes of divine disclosure, illustrates the pervasive nature of God's communication. And the last two concepts, divine omnipotence in tandem with human moral accountability, represent one of the most contentious of conundrums. All of these themes eventually became grist for the theological mill of subsequent generations of Muslims, some generating veritable storms of controversy. They represent a very small sample of the full array of theologically charged texts in this scripture. Here are some of the numerous, typically brief, passages that illustrate these themes.
Transcendence: Divine Throne and Footstool
God's transcendence and unlikeness to all that is not God (tanzih) is fundamental to any understanding of Islamic theology. Countless short scriptural texts advert to the perfect divine transcendent unity (tawhid), including several, like the celebrated Throne Verse, that incorporate important metaphors. Beginning with that text, here is a sample of key passages.
God—there is no deity but He; the Living, the Everlasting. Neither slumber nor sleep overcomes Him. To Him belong all that heavens and earth encompass. Who can intercede with Him, except by his leave? He knows all that surrounds [created beings], when they can grasp nothing of what He knows, except as He chooses. His Throne stretches across heaven and earth; sovereignty over them tires Him not, for He is the Exalted, the Magnificent. (2:255)
It is God who elevated the heavens without visible supporting pillars, then established Himself on the Throne, and made the sun and moon His subjects. Each [natural feature] moves along for a designated term, all matters under [divine] administration and [nature's] signs meticulously detailed so that perhaps you will believe in [your future] encounter with your Lord. (13:2)
It is God who fashioned the heavens and the earth and all that is between in six days, then established [Himself, or "sat"] upon the Throne. Apart from Him you have no protecting patron or intercessor. Will you not therefore be mindful? (32:4)
They do not measure accurately God's true sovereignty: on Resurrection Day the entire earth will be [no more than] one handful [lit., a grasping], and the heavens will be enclosed in His right hand. Glory to Him who far transcends what the [idolators] associate with Him. (39:67)
Blessed be the one who owns dominion, whose power is all-pervasive. It is He who created death and life, to discern who among you were loftiest in action. He is the mighty, the forgiving. He spread out the seven heavens, and the merciful Lord's work leaves nothing lacking. Examine it as you like, you will discover no blemish. (67:1–3; see also 57:1–6)
Worship the one who oversees all things. No [human] vision can encompass Him; rather it is He who encompasses all vision, and He is aware [of all things] in minutest detail. (6:102–3)
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In addition, a number of texts beautifully combine divine transcendence and immanence, thus providing a transition to a clearer articulation of immanence. Here is one such text: "Who responds to the one who calls out to Him in dire straits? And who removes evil [from you] and makes you [pl.] vicegerents of the earth? Is there [another deity] beside God? How little attention you pay. And who leads you in profound darkness on land and sea? And who dispatches, from the [depths of] His mercy, the winds with good news? Is there [another deity] beside God? God far transcends anything [idolaters] equate with Him" (27:62–63).
Immanence: The Verse of Light and God's Anthropomorphic Features
Often less appreciated by non-Muslims are the numerous allusions to God's accessibility and affinity with His creation (tashbih). Here the images of pervasive light and references to God's face, eyes, and hands offer a sense of this dimension of the divine being. On the other hand, texts describe human beings as capable of surprisingly intimate connection with the Creator.
God is the light of heaven and earth. Picture His light as a niche within which there is a lamp, and the lamp is within a glass. And it is as though the glass were a glittering star lit from a sacred olive tree neither of east nor west, whose oil would fairly radiate even without the touch of fire. Light upon light, and God guides to His light whom He will. (24:35)
To God belong the east and the west and no matter where you turn, there is the face of God. Truly God is all-suffusing.... (2:115)
I am truly near: I answer the prayer of the petitioner who beseeches me. Therefore let them respond to me and have faith in me, that they might receive guidance. (2:186)
Everything on earth perishes; but the face of your Lord remains, majestic and most revered. (55:26–27)
We created the human being and are aware of his most intimate thoughts; we are nearer to the individual than the jugular vein. Indeed, to his right and his left sit two [angels] intent on [his thoughts]; no expression of his eludes an attentive guardian. (50:16–18)
Your Lord knows what is concealed in the [idolaters'] inmost beings, and what they disclose. (28:69)
[God explains to Moses how He saved the prophet as an infant, telling his mother to cast the baby into the river, which would then deposit the vessel on the bank:] I surrounded you with my love so that you would be nurtured under my eye. (20:39)
The Jews say, "The hand of God is shackled." May their hands be shackled, and cursed may they be for what they assert! On the contrary, His two hands are expansive in their reach [so that God] lays out resources as He wishes. (5:64; see also 51:47)
God's hand rests on the hands of [those who pledged themselves to Muhammad at Hudaybiya]. (48:10)
Know that God intervenes between the human being and his heart. (8:24)
There is no living being that God does not grasp by the forelock. (11:56)
It was He who fashioned the heavens and the earth in six days, and then sat upon the Throne. He knows what goes into the earth and what emerges from it, what descends from heaven and what ascends to it. He is with you wherever you may be, and God's vision (basir) includes all you do. (57:4)
Do you not see that God knows what is in the heavens and what is on earth? Never will three converse privately but that He is the fourth; nor five, but that He is the sixth—nor among fewer or more, but He is with them wherever they may be. (58:7)
Whether you conceal what is in your inmost being or divulge it, God knows it. (3:7)
When my servants ask you [Muhammad] about Me, I am indeed near; I respond to the invocation of every petitioner who calls out to Me. (2:186)
On that Day, faces [of some will be] radiant as they gaze upon [or: toward] their Lord. (75:22–23)
Revelation in Creation and through Prophets
God's commissioning of an unbroken line of prophetic emissaries beginning with Adam forms the most evident theological medium of revelation in the formal sense. But the Qur'an's consistent use of the striking imagery of signs (ayat) on the horizons and within the individual person expands the concept of revelation considerably. One of the most evocative scriptural verses (ayat) in this context even suggests that one could think of the earth herself as God's "first prophet." Referring to apocalyptic signs that the end has come, the text says, "On that day, she [earth] will publish her news, for your Lord will have revealed [that] to her" (99:4–5). The term translated here as "revealed" is from a root otherwise used almost exclusively to denote revelation to prophets (awha)—apart from the human prophets, God has communicated thus only with the earth and, curiously, the bee. I begin here with a sample of the many self-referential texts in which the Qur'an describes its own revelatory credibility and a longer text on the specific issue of the scripture's "inimitability" (a hermeneutical theme to be addressed more fully in the next chapter) in the context of the public's demand for "miracles" from Muhammad.
Truly this is a sending-down of the Lord of the Universe, with which there also descended to your heart the Trustworthy Spirit [i.e., Gabriel], so that you might be among those who give warning, in a pellucid Arabic tongue. (26:192–96)
[This is] a Book sent down to you [Muhammad]—and let there be no constriction in the core of your being (sadr) because of it—so that through it you might warn the believers and bring them to mindfulness. [Addressed now to the people:] Adhere to what has been sent down to you [pl.] and do not pursue protecting friends other than Him. How fleeting is your mindfulness. (7:2–3)
[This is] a Book whose signs/verses are unambiguous, then laid out in detail by the One who is Wise, Aware. [Its message is that] you must not serve any but God. [Say, Muhammad:] Truly to you [pl.] I have been sent from Him as a warner and a herald. (11:1–2)
These are the signs/verses of the clear Book. We have sent it down as an Arabic recitation [Qur'an], so that perhaps you will understand. (12:1–2)
These are the signs/verses of the Book, and what has been sent down to you from your Lord is the perfect truth, though most human beings do not believe. (13:1)
[This is] a Book that We have sent down to you [Muhammad], so that you might bring humankind out of darkness into the light, by permission of their Lord, to the Path of the One Almighty and Praiseworthy. (14:1)
When We substitute one sign/verse in place of another, and God knows best what He sends down [progressively], they say [to Muhammad] "You are nothing but a charlatan [or: forger]," but most of them do not understand. Say: the Sanctified Spirit [Gabriel] has brought it down from our Lord in truth, in order to affirm those who believe and as a guidance and good news for those who surrender [to God]. Truly We know that they say, "A mere mortal instructs him." The language to which they allude cynically is patently foreign, whereas this is a pellucid Arabic tongue. (16:101–3)
Say [Muhammad:] Were all of humankind and the Jinn to assemble for the purpose of bringing the likes of this Qur'an, they would not bring forth its counterpart, even if they colluded intently. And in this Qur'an, we have truly explicated for humankind all manner of similitude. Still, the majority of humankind receives it ungratefully at best. They say, "We will not believe you [Muhammad] until you bring forth a spring welling up from the earth for us; or [until] you own a garden of date palms and grapes, and make the rivers within them flow freely and copiously; or [until] you make the firmament fall, as you claim it will to put us to shame; or [until] you bring God and the angels forth; or [until] you own an ornate palace, or ascend into the heavens. No, indeed, even if you ascend, we will not believe until you send down to us a book that we can read." Say [to them]: "Glory to my Lord! Am I anything other than a mortal man and a messenger?" (17:88–93)
Behold, in the heavens and the earth are signs for those who believe. And in your creation, and all the wild creatures He has scattered over the earth, are signs for a people of firm faith. And the alternation of night and day, and the sustenance that God sends down from the sky, to revive the earth after its death, and the shifting of the winds—these are signs for a people who understand.... Here is vision for humankind, guidance and mercy.... (45:3–5, 20)
Among His signs are night and day, sun and moon. Do not bow to sun and moon in worship; worship instead the God who created them, if indeed you are among His servants. And even though human beings are [too] haughty, some in God's presence never tire of prostrating themselves before Him night and day. (41:37–38)
And in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variety of your languages and ethnicities, are signs of God for every living being. In the quotidian pattern of repose in sleep, too, and in your drive to gather good things are signs for those who are attentive. And in the lightning whose appearance engenders apprehension and longing in you, and in the resuscitating rain falling from the firmament are signs for those who seek understanding.... We have sent messengers before you [Muhammad], each bringing to a people manifest proofs of their mission.... It is not you [Muhammad] who make the dead attentive, or alert the deaf to the message if they stubbornly reject it. It is not you who lead the blind forth from their intransigence. You can nudge to attentiveness only those who give credence to Our signs and who have [already] surrendered to God. (30:22–23, 47–53 intermittently)
We believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham and Isma?il and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and what was given to Moses and Jesus and what was given to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction among them and to Him do we surrender gratefully [lit., we are muslims to Him]. (2:136; see also 29:46)
[God speaking to Muhammad:] It is not fitting that God should speak to a human being except by inspiration [wahy, a technical term indicating revelation given to a prophet], or from behind a veil, or in commissioning a messenger that he might deliver a revelation by God's leave.... So by our command we have revealed to you spiritually. You knew neither the scripture nor the faith, but we have made of it [the Qur'an] a light by which we guide whomever we choose among our servants. And it is you who guide to the Straight Path, the Path of God to whom belong what is in the heavens and what is on earth. Do not all things move toward God? (42:51–53)
Excerpted from Islamic Theological Themes by John Renard. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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