Chapter 19: Faith as the Essence of Invitation of the Prophets (Part 4)
A Review of the Previous Discussion
So far, we have covered many subjects about faith. We said that, as inferred many Qur'anic verses, faith is the essence of the invitation of all the prophets of God. In particular, there were discussions about three subjects, viz. “the truth behind faith,” “the degrees of faith” and “the jurisdiction of faith.” Regarding the jurisdiction of faith, we said that faith mentioned in the Book and the Sunnah and leads to man’s success in this world and the Hereafter, while the lack of which leads to eternal damnation, is not faith in anything. From the viewpoint of the Book and the Sunnah, the jurisdiction of faith in the first degree is faith in God and the Messenger:
إِنَّمَا الْمُؤْمِنُونَ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ
Indeed the faithful are those who have faith in Allah and His Apostle. (24:62)
In discussing the degrees of faith, we said that just as faith has degrees and levels, unbelief which is its opposite, also has degrees and levels. In the same vein, we mentioned the obstacles to faith and the factors weakening it. One of these hindrances is the intellectual and academic skepticisms about God, the Prophet and the Resurrection, and in general, religion and religious issues. Because of the importance of this discussion, it is appropriate to embark on this discussion further.
“Prophetic Experience” and “Hermeneutic Interpretation” as Misgivings Aimed at Weakening the Faith
The discussion begins here when they say, “A prophet, whoever he is, is a human after all, and the human perceptions and understandings are prone to err. So, the perceptions of a prophet are subject to error and are thus not reliable.”
On the contrary, it is said that the perceptions and knowledge of a prophet (at least in the realm of issues pertaining to religion) is through the way of the divine revelation and since it comes from God the Exalted and that He has Absolute Knowledge and ignorance has no place in His Essence, it is free from error and is reliable.
The deniers of the reliability of the perceptions of the Prophet (S) advance the issue of “prophetic experience” in reply. This is the explanation of their contention: Revelation is a kind of demonstrative knowledge, and an extensive mental state is experienced by the Prophet. This is the same thing which is called “prophetic experience.” In the demonstrative knowledge, word and concept do not exist; rather, the known thing itself (and not its concept) will be present to the knowing person.
So, in revelation which is a kind of demonstrative knowledge, there is no word and concept. Those perceptions called “revelation’ which the Prophet acquires and have no word and concept must come out in the form of utterances, concepts and words in order to be expressed to others. Here, discussion on “prophetic interpretation” comes in. What the Prophet perceives as revelation is a demonstrative knowledge and totally personal and individual inner “experience” which is never accessible to others. In order for us to understand what transpired in himself and what perceptions he acquired, the Prophet embarks on speaking so as to bring out the non-transferable demonstrative knowledge in the form of transferable resultant knowledge (concepts and words).
This “interpretation” no longer comes from God; it is a product of the Prophet himself. That which comes from God is that inner experience which only the Prophet “feels.” The “Qur’an” is nothing but “a set of the Prophet’s interpretations of the revelation” because the Qur’an consists of concepts and words, and as we have stated, there is neither word nor concept in the revelation. The Qur’an, therefore, is the product and pursuit of the Prophet’s mind and the interpretation of the psychic perceptions, mental state, “feeling” and “experience” which the Prophet has acquired.
Now, as it became clear that the Qur’an is the interpretation of revelation and not the revelation itself, the additional point here is that every interpretation is affected by “the interpreter’s way of thinking.” A manifestation of this point is that you observe a lot that different, and even conflicting and contradictory interpretations of a thing or phenomenon will be presented. This is because “interpretation is affected by the interpreter’s way of thinking.”
Furthermore, the way of thinking of a person is a product of the time, society and environment of him and the individuals he deals with. The mindset of the Prophet is not exempted from this rule; it has taken form under the influence of the knowledge, learning and culture of that time and society. It is clear that the knowledge and learning of that time, especially in the Bedouin society of the Arabian Peninsula, was very defective in relation to the knowledge and learning of this time. Many superstitious and false elements existed at that time whose falsehood was established with the advancement of science and the progress and perfection of human civilization. Given this, the definite conclusion of these preliminary talks is that the Qur’an and its content are unreliable.
During these days, you heard or read elsewhere that some say that the Qur’an, like any other book and speech, can be criticized. Regarding this statement, we have to test the content of the Qur’an by means of knowledge and experience so as to know its truth or falsehood, or we have to see if the Qur’an is responsive and proportionate to the needs of society and humanity at this time, or not. If it is responsive, we will act upon it, and if not, it is clear that its consumption period has expired and must be set aside!
These are the contentions of the so-called religious or non-religious intellectuals during the recent years. All these statements and their likes are based on the same analysis that regards the revelation as the “prophetic experience” and the Qur’an as “interpretation of the revelation” and saying of the Prophet himself, and holds that the perceptions of the Prophet, like all other human perceptions, are prone to error.
A Concise Reply to these Two Misgivings
As we have mentioned earlier, these accounts are baseless and untenable. We explained that in all the stages from the time of its issuance from the Source up to the time of having been sent down to the blessed heart of the Prophet (S) and the Prophet’s communication of it to the people, the divine revelations are under full protection. There is no doubt or skepticism about it and no force can bring disorder along this path. How could the Prophet memorize the entire Qur’an, and in the words of these gentlemen, interpret by himself while the Qur’an says that if he attributes to God even a letter, word, or verse, “We shall cut off his aorta and no one can hinder Us from doing so:”
إِنَّهُ لَقَوْلُ رَسُولٍ كَرِيمٍ وَمَا هُوَ بِقَوْلِ شَاعِرٍ ۚ قَلِيلًا مَا تُؤْمِنُونَ وَلَا بِقَوْلِ كَاهِنٍ ۚ قَلِيلًا مَا تَذَكَّرُونَ تَنْزِيلٌ مِنْ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ وَلَوْ تَقَوَّلَ عَلَيْنَا بَعْضَ الْأَقَاوِيلِ لَأَخَذْنَا مِنْهُ بِالْيَمِينِ ثُمَّ لَقَطَعْنَا مِنْهُ الْوَتِينَ فَمَا مِنْكُمْ مِنْ أَحَدٍ عَنْهُ حَاجِزِينَ
It is indeed the speech of a noble apostle, and it is not the speech of a poet. Little is the faith that you have! Nor is it the speech of a soothsayer. Little is the admonition that you take! Gradually sent down from the Lord of all the worlds. Had he faked any sayings in Our name, We would have surely seized him by the right hand and then cut off his aorta, and none of you could have held Us off from him (69:40-47)
The other skepticism in this context is related to a stage prior to this stage (i.e. the stage of interpretation) and about the principle of the apostleship of the Prophet. They say, “To which we have access are the same words and utterances which, as we said, are not the revelation itself but only its interpretation. Revelation is that demonstrative knowledge and personal experience happening to the Prophet, and we have no access to it negatively or affirmatively.
Practically, there is no essential difference whether we believe in his apostleship or not. What is tangible and accessible to us from his apostleship is this Qur’an which is supposed to be open to criticism, and if it wins in an acid test of knowledge and experience, we shall accept it and if not, we shall set it aside. That which exists in the demonstrative knowledge and the self of the Prophet from his apostleship is inaccessible to us, and in confirming and criticizing it we can say anything and pass a judgment. Therefore, the Prophet is at most like a scholar for us. So long as his presented ideas and views are not tested by means of common human knowledge, he will remain unacceptable to us. That is, in any case, the acceptance or non-acceptance of his apostleship has nothing to do with this issue.”
What we have said in reply to the previous skepticism is applicable here. The Qur’an says to the effect: “That which issues forth from the Divine Sacred Essence is identically, without any addition or lacking, transmitted to the heart of the Prophet, and the Prophet, in turn, recites exactly the same to the people, and in doing so, if he falsely attributes even a single letter or word to Us, We shall cut off his aorta.”
The Alleged Contradiction between Revelation, and Knowledge and Reason
Yet, another skepticism in this context is related to the Qur’an and its content. They say, “Whenever we refer to the content of the Qur’an or some narrations reported from the Prophet, we encounter some subjects which are not harmonious with science or reason. The same wrong facts inconsistent with science and reason are enough for us to doubt the correctness of all the verses and narrations and not to have faith in them.”
Similar to this skepticism existed from the very early period of Islam when there were devils from among humans and jinn who strived hard through different ways to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Qur’an. One of these ways which were employed during the time of the infallible Imams (‘a) was to look for alleged contradictions among the verses of the Qur’an. In doing so, they wanted to prove the Qur’an to lack credibility. We are doing a similar thing with respect to the New and Old Testaments, especially regarding the Four Gospels. For example, we say that there is something in the Gospel of Luke whose opposite exists in the Gospel of Matthew or Mark. So, it is obvious that none of them can be reliable.
At any rate, throughout history, some people strived to find such contradictions in the verses of the Qur’an, thus putting into question its credibility. Nowadays, the venture continues and many books with the subject of contradictions in the Qur’an have been written. The same skepticism is advanced in a different form and the main point they emphasize more today is the subjects in the Qur’an which are allegedly inharmonious with science and reason and are thus false. In this regard, they have a general proposition and then they embark on citing its manifestations and examples.
The gist of their general proposition is that the scientific subjects mentioned in the Qur’an are based on illusions and fancies of the scholars at the time, the falsity of many of which has been proven today. It is from here that all the subjects and content of the Qur’an will be deprived of credibility.
In mentioning the manifestations, they have enumerated numerous cases all of which cannot be covered here. We shall suffice ourselves to mention only one or two cases.
One of these cases is the issue of seven heavens which has been mentioned in numerous verses of the Holy Qur’an:
تُسَبِّحُ لَهُ السَّمَاوَاتُ السَّبْعُ وَالْأَرْضُ وَمَنْ فِيهِنَّ
“The seven heavens glorify Him (17:44)”
الَّذِي خَلَقَ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ طِبَاقًا
“He created seven heavens in layers. (67:3)”
Some people came out to say that these seven heavens are consistent with the Ptolemaic astronomy and planets. As you know, until prior to the new astronomy which is well-known as the Copernican astronomy, for a long time extending to many centuries, the prevalent and dominant theory in the science of astronomy was the Ptolemaic astronomical. The followers of Ptolemy believed that the universe is in the form of an extremely huge plan in which the earth is located in the center and there are nine spheres surrounding it and encompassing one another. The similitude they always used to cite is the different layers of the onion each of which is located over the other and surrounding it.
The Qur’an was revealed at the time when the Ptolemaic theory had absolute dominance in astronomy and no one doubted its accuracy. Anyone who expressed a contrary view would be ridiculed as if he had denied the day as day. As such, the Qur’an also makes mention of seven heavens.
The objection which usually comes to the mind is this: If it is such, the Qur’an is supposed to use the expression nine heavens, and since it has used the expression seven heavens which is inharmonious whatsoever with Ptolemaic astronomy, it follows that the said justification cannot be true.
In reply, they say, “Apart from the seven heavens, the Qur’an has also made mention of another thing called “Throne” [‘arsh]:
قُلْ مَنْ رَبُّ السَّمَاوَاتِ السَّبْعِ وَرَبُّ الْعَرْشِ الْعَظِيمِ
Say, ‘Who is the Lord of the seven heavens and the Lord of the Great Throne? (23:86)
Similarly, it has mentioned another thing called “seat” [kursi]:
وَسِعَ كُرْسِيُّهُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ
His seat embraces the heavens and the earth. (2:255)
Given this, the seven heavens plus the “throne” and the “seat” become “the nine Ptolemaic spheres.
Many Muslim scholars who were influenced by the Ptolemaic astronomy at the time used to receive such statements and explanations with acceptance. Of course, later on and through the research of scientists such as Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo, it became clear that neither the earth is the center of the universe nor the nine spheres ever exist.
Now, today’s “intellectuals” say that the Qur’anic expression seven heavens was based on the acceptance of the science of astronomy at the time and for years, Muslim scholars have interpreted this verse on the same basis. Now, since the falsity of the Ptolemaic theory is proved, the falsity of the view of the Qur’an and these Muslim scholars will become clear.
Another example to be mentioned in this context is related to Darwin’s theory of “the evolution of species.” As you know, Charles Darwin has a hypothesis in biology which holds that as the effect of mutation and leaps that have taken place in their chromosomes, animals have changed throughout the past millions of years, and the emergence of new generations of animals has been based on these leaps. For example, man has been regarded as originating from the monkey race.
In some cases, they have found manifestations to confirm this theory. Of course, this subject has not yet been accepted in biology itself, and at most it is regarded as a hypothesis and probability. Anyway, some have desired to cite this theory as one of the examples of the alleged conflict between science and religion regarding the Qur’an. According to them, what the Qur’an states about the origin of Adam and human beings is totally in conflict with this “scientific” theory, and this itself is the proof of the falsity of the Qur’an.
The Qur’an and the Nine Ptolemaic Spheres
In reply, we have to say thus: Concerning the comparison of the seven heavens with the nine Ptolemaic spheres, we have to complain against that group of our scholars who have made such a comparison notwithstanding the clear difference between seven and nine. Of course, none of these scholars has absolutely said that “the seven heaves” plus the “throne” and the “seat” is the same “nine Ptolemaic spheres” and they have dealt on it only as a probable case. Be that as it may, although they have accepted it only a probable case, gradually it became widespread that what is meant by “the seven heavens” is the same “nine spheres.” At any rate, if we pass by this issue, the fundamental problem is in such a comparison. The Qur’an mentions nowhere about the nine spheres, and it mentions the seven heavens in such a way that they cannot be compared whatsoever to the nine spheres.
The characteristics which it mentions about the heavens are different from the characteristics they have said about the spheres. One of the most vivid differences between the heavens described by the Qur’an and the heavens the Ptolemaic astronomy says is in the “permanence” or “mobility” of the stars. The Ptolemaic astronomy hypothesis holds that each of the stars is fixed and immovable in its own orbit. They said that what moves is the orbit itself and not the stars, and the movement of the stars follows the movement of the orbit. It is like a page in which you pin certain stars and then you turn it around. Here, the stars are fixed and the page turns around. Of course, following the movement of the page, the pinned stars on it spin around. Such a portrayal of the stars is in no way harmonious with the description of the stars in the Qur’an. The Qur’an describes the orbit [falak] in only two places, and in both places, it uses the expression yasbahun (swimming) in referring to the movement of the stars. In Surah al-Anbiya’, it states:
وَهُوَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ اللَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ وَالشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ ۖ كُلٌّ فِي فَلَكٍ يَسْبَحُونَ
It is He who created the night and the day, the sun and the moon, each swimming in an orbit. (21:33)
It also says in Surah Ya Sin:
لَا الشَّمْسُ يَنْبَغِي لَهَا أَنْ تُدْرِكَ الْقَمَرَ وَلَا اللَّيْلُ سَابِقُ النَّهَارِ ۚ وَكُلٌّ فِي فَلَكٍ يَسْبَحُونَ
Neither it behooves the sun to overtake the moon, nor may the night outrun the day, and each swims in an orbit. (36:40)
If you imagine a sea in the form of a sphere, it states that the sun and the moon are like fishes swimming therein. At most, it is an orderly movement, but it says anyway that they “swim” and “to swim” and “movement” are consistent. Therefore, the statement of the Qur’an about the stars is not harmonious with the hypothesis of the Ptolemaic astronomy, and according to this view, a movement is against that hypothesis and not acceptance of it. If, God forbid, the Prophet was under the influence of the scientific hypotheses of his time and he interpreted his demonstrative perception (revelation) in accordance with it, firstly, he would say that the spheres are nine, and secondly, he would say that each of the stars is permanent in its own orbit.
Similarly, other verses describe the heavens in some expressions and subjects that are not harmonious with the Ptolemaic astronomy. The followers of Ptolemy said that out of these nine spheres, eight are related to the planets and one is the sphere of “the fixed and other stars” which is the eighth sphere and the ninth one is the sphere of “Atlas.” The “planets” mean the planets of the solar system which until that time more than eight planets had not yet been discovered. They said that each of these planets is in one sphere and there are eight spheres all in all. All the so-called fixed and other stars are located in the eighth sphere which is above the seventh sphere, and the last sphere is Atlas. This was the Ptolemaic astronomy’s portrayal of the nine spheres.
The Qur’an, however, as we have said, has firstly nowhere used the number “nine” in this regard; rather, it used “seven” instead. Secondly, it has not again said “seven spheres,” but it used the expression “seven heavens.” Besides, concerning the heavens which it has mentioned, in one place it states thus:
إِنَّا زَيَّنَّا السَّمَاءَ الدُّنْيَا بِزِينَةٍ الْكَوَاكِبِ
Indeed We have adorned the lowest heaven with the finery of the stars. (37:6)
In another place, it says:
وَلَقَدْ زَيَّنَّا السَّمَاءَ الدُّنْيَا بِمَصَابِيحَ وَجَعَلْنَاهَا رُجُومًا لِلشَّيَاطِينِ ۖ وَأَعْتَدْنَا لَهُمْ عَذَابَ السَّعِيرِ
We have certainly adorned the lowest heaven with lamps. (67:5)
In these two verses, dunya is not the genitive of sama’ [heaven], and sama’ ad-dunya does not refer to the heaven of this earth, as it is used conventionally. Instead, dunya is an attribute of heaven and it means “lower.” As-sama’ ad-dunya means “lower heaven”—the heaven which is closest to us. Keeping in view of this point, the meaning of these two verses is that “We have placed all these stars you can see as adornments of the heaven which is the lowest.” The Qur’an says that all these stars and planets are lamps of the lower heaven; that is, the lower heaven encompasses all these stars and above them. This is the view of the Qur’an about the “lower heaven” and we have no knowledge regarding the higher heavens, and the Holy Qur’an has not given explanation of them.
Now, how can this explanation be compared to the Ptolemaic astronomical theory? The Ptolemaic astronomy maintained that the seven planets of the solar system are in the first up to the seventh sphere while all the so-called fixed and other stars are in the eighth sphere. The Qur’an says that all the eight planets that had so far been discovered then, the planets that have been discovered later and all stars have been placed in such a manner that they are below the lower heaven, and as if “the lower heaven” is like a plane which is ornamented by stars.
This statement, on one hand, and that which the Ptolemaic astronomy says, on the other, are heaven and earth apart. Thus, how can it be claimed that the Prophet under the influence of his own astronomical hypotheses said such things?! These are contrary to the Ptolemaic astronomy. At the time, there was no hypothesis that a star “swims” in an orbit. Today, the science of astronomy has not obtained anything which encompasses all these stars and planets and what exist beyond it. From time to time, we witness the discovery of new galaxies and stars, which sometimes are millions of light years away from us, and in the language of the Qur’an, they are all below the first heaven.
The Qur’an has not given account of what this first heaven is and how the six other heavens are, and up to now, no science is able to discover them and it may remain so up to eternity. Yes, the interpretation of these verses given by some Muslim scholars and others who have desired to compare the seven heavens with nine spheres is a moral lesson for us not to rush in comparing the Qur’an with a scientific theory. In a bid to propagate and defend Islam, so long as there is a scientific theory or hypothesis to ride on, some Muslims strive by means of conjectural interpretations and exegesis to establish a relationship between Qur'anic verses and a certain theory, saying that the Qur’an has said so before and this is one of its miracles.
This practice is scientism. In such comparisons, necessary care and enough insinuations should be observed and one should not unreasonably go outside the pale of the Qur’an. One of the great ‘ulama’ of Egypt, named Tantawi, writes an exegesis entitled Jawahir al-Qur’an [Ornaments of the Qur’an] and tries to reconcile new scientific hypotheses with Qur'anic verses. In doing so, he has sometimes embarked on making so astonishing interpretations and commentaries. Anyway, this kind of works is not correct, and so long as we have not acquired lucid and definite confirmations, we should not mar the Qur’an. In brief, we have to behave with utmost caution. In most of these cases, man embarks on a thing which is beyond thinking and is improbable, and usually, to be certain that a verse speaks about the same thing which a certain scientific theory claims is very problematic.
In any case, one group of alleged contradictions between science and religion is like this one we have mentioned whose root is inappropriate and inopportune comparison of the Qur’an with some of the scientific theories.
The Qur’an and the Theory of Evolution of Species
Concerning the creation of Adam (‘a) and the different kinds of creatures, and the lack of conformity of the statement of the Qur’an in this context with Darwin’s theory of evolution of species, we have to say:
Firstly, the theory of Darwin has still remained a theory that is opposed by a great number of biologists. Just as some proofs of its accuracy are gathered, there are also numerous pieces of evidence proving that this theory is incapable of justifying and against and inconsistent with the claims of this theory. The opposition of the said biologists has been based on the fact that on one hand, it has no firm and credible proofs to substantiate this hypothesis, and on the other hand, there are abundant manifestations bearing contrary testimonies. Therefore, who has said that the theory of Darwin is a firm and definite theory in the science of biology? This theory is merely a hypothesis and probably will never be proven.
Secondly, let us assume that the theory of Darwin is an established theory. Yet, are the laws of empirical sciences perfect without having any error? Those who are familiar with the scientific laws and theories know well that many scientific laws have exceptions. For example, in mathematics, it is said that every number to the power of two and higher is greater and more than the number to the power of one.
However, in the same mathematics, it is said that number one is an exemption to this rule, and one to the power of any number is still equal to one. In chemistry, it is said that all metals are solid in normal temperature, but in the same science of chemistry, it is said that mercury is a metal but is an exception to this rule. In the normal temperature, mercury is liquid. In any case, once a thing becomes a scientific law, it does not mean that there is no exception. Now, assuming that scientific evidence established that the emergence of different species of plants and animals on earth is based on the chromosomal leaps and the same thing claimed by Darwin, is it impossible that this law has an exception or exceptions? We believe that the Qur’an is certain that even in case the hypothesis of Darwin is proved, there must be exceptions.
For example, one of these exceptions is about the birds which Prophet ‘Isa (‘a) made from clay (by God’s leave), and breathed into them and they turned into real living birds. We know that Prophet ‘Isa (‘a), like many other prophets, had not only one but many miracles. One of these miracles was that he made from clay forms of bird and then breathed into them a spirit and they became living birds. This was one of the miracles and signs that he performed to prove his apostleship. In this regard, the Holy Qur’an says:
وَإِذْ تَخْلُقُ مِنَ الطِّينِ كَهَيْئَةِ الطَّيْرِ بِإِذْنِي فَتَنْفُخُ فِيهَا فَتَكُونُ طَيْرًا بِإِذْنِي ۖ وَتُبْرِئُ الْأَكْمَهَ وَالْأَبْرَصَ بِإِذْنِي
And when you would create from clay the form of a bird, with My leave, and you would breathe into it and it would become a bird, with My leave. (5:110)
Even assuming that we accepted Darwin’s theory on the evolution of species, should we say that this bird of Prophet ‘Isa is a result of mutation and evolution of earlier species? Here, we either have to say, God forbid, that the Qur’an is telling a lie, or to accept that the emergence of such a bird is an exception to the theory on the evolution of species and outside the realm of it. The acceptance of exception to a scientific theory does not bring any harm. Now, what is wrong (assuming that the theory on the evolution of species is correct) if we say that the emergence of Adam (‘a), the father of mankind, is one of the exceptional cases of this theory?
The overall reply in these cases is that in principle the contradiction between two definite matters is impossible. It is impossible for a person to absolutely be certain and have faith in a thing, and at the same time, to be certain and have absolute knowledge of a contrary thing! As such, it is impossible for a definite knowledge (for definite certainty of being in consistence with reality) to say a thing, and on the contrary, to convey an opposing definite and firm verse or tradition. If such a thing seems true, it is a basic notion and through scrutiny and reflection, it will become clear that one of these definite things or both of them are allegedly and imaginarily definite, and in reality it is nothing but a mere idea and imagination or even an illusion. Just as in the said examples, we explained and clarified this issue.
Allegory and Metaphor in the Qur’an
The other issue they raise in relation to the Qur'anic verses, in a bid to undermine confidence to its outward meanings, is the following one. Yet, before embarking on discussing it, it seems necessary for us to give an introduction:
In every language, some words, expressions, sentences, and proverbs have come into being based on stories and legends, repeated in similar cases, and established with the passage of time. Nowadays, we use these expressions and proverbs without minding and knowing in most cases what their roots are and whether they are legendary or true stories. In any case, once it comes out in the form of a prevalent expression and proverb, no one will ask what its origin is, where it comes from, whether it is fiction or not, etc.
For example, there is a famous proverb in Arabic which says, “In summer, you spoiled the milk.” This proverb is used when a person wants to do something but because of misdeed and error being committed, he has earlier lost the opportunity at his disposal to do so, and it is no longer irreversible and of use. Similar to this proverb in Persian, we can mention, “Drinking medicine after the death of Suhrab.” In the Arabic proverb, the verb is marked with kasrah vowel at the end, which means that the addressee is feminine; so, a more accurate translation of the proverb comes in this form: “O woman! You spoiled the milk in summer.”
According to Arab men of letters, the story of this proverb happened to a woman. The gist of the episode is that a man made proposal for marriage to a woman, but she refused to marry him. This man was affluent with abundant wealth, retinue and servants, but the woman still refused to become his wife. This took place in summer. Later, the woman was married to a poor man and gave birth to a child. After sometime, it came to pass that the woman and her husband had nothing to eat and their efforts were to no avail.
In order to ask for help, the woman was forced to knock on the door of the man who had first made proposal to her and to request an amount of milk for her child. The man refused her request, saying: “In summer, you spoiled the milk.” We do not know whether this story is real or not; yet, it is regularly used in analogous cases. As to what extent the story of Rustam and Suhrab is true is not very clear. Yet, we use the proverb, “Drinking medicine after the death of Suhrab.”
In these cases, no one asks why you use this proverb though its origin is a legend or it is not clear if it is true. Here, we are not concerned with its being a legend or a true story, and it does not bring any harm to us. In these cases, the aim is the transmission of the concept, message and secret pointed out in the proverb, and as to whether the origin of the story is fictitious or not has no importance at all.
For example, the Persian word divaneh [insane] means one whose mind is not working well. The origin and root of this word is the word div [demon]. Of course, demon is an imaginary and superstitious creature which has no external existence. Yet, it is imagined that one who is not in his mind is overpowered by the div and as a result, he has turned divaneh (literally, div-like]. Nowadays, as we use this word, we are not concerned about where this word is derived from or whether the demon is a real or imaginary creature. What is important is the concept. We apply the word divaneh to a person who is not in his right mind. In Arabic also, many Arab men of letters have said that the word junun [insanity] is derived from jinn, which is its root-word. Junun means to become jinn while majnun indicates one who has become jinn-like.
Like any other language, such words and proverbs are found in the Arabic language some of which have been used in the Qur’an. For example, in Surah al-Baqarah, we read:
الَّذِينَ يَأْكُلُونَ الرِّبَا لَا يَقُومُونَ إِلَّا كَمَا يَقُومُ الَّذِي يَتَخَبَّطُهُ الشَّيْطَانُ مِنَ الْمَسِّ
Those who exact usury will not stand but like one deranged by the Devil’s touch. (2:275)
The verse means that usurers are in a state of insanity and madness. The meaning of this expression of the Qur’an is that as the effect of extreme and beyond the limit attention of man to the world’s affluence, everything he thinks of will be money, account, book of records, being a creditor, and asking for payment of the credits. All his attention is this: “What percent it became; how much profit I had there; in this dealing what percent I lost; whether a certain credit is received or not… etc.”
The usurer is constantly engrossed with this thinking. Sometimes, he reaches a point when he experiences a state of insanity and always talks to himself about checks and jewelry while unconscious of the people around him. I myself have encountered such persons. Regarding this kind of individuals, the Qur’an says, thus: “Like one deranged by the Devil’s touch.” The Arabic word khabat is a kind of ailment, and among the Arabs, it is applied to those afflicted by mental disorder, describing them as having been deranged by the Devil’s touch. The Qur’an has taken from the Arabs’ customs and used this expression.
Once a person experiences a mental disorder, it has nothing to do with Satan, and it is not true that Satan has come and touched his head! This is exactly like the Persian expression divaneh which we use and whose etymological origin is div [demon]. Nonetheless, nowadays, when we say divaneh, we do not refer to the div at all. Instead, we refer to a person whose psychological condition is not good. Of course, let us not mind that at the present in some nooks and corners of the world there are such superstitions and those who think that the insane became such because of an encounter with the jinn and the like. I myself watched a movie in Germany in which there were insane people. They were brought in a so-called clinic where they were tied up and whipped in a certain fashion so as to cast out the devils from their bodies!
For example, they say that in some traditions in which the term Satan is used, it actually refers to microbes. However, since the Arabs and people of the time had no idea about microbes, the term Satan which was prevalent at the time was used.
At any rate, they again say that this type of cases is a proof that the Qur’an does not intend to express the truth and reality. The Qur’an aims to express the purport and substance, and along this way, it may use expressions and sentences which have no real basis, but the purport which is the expression of the meaning to the addressee is attained.
Reply to this Misgiving
In reply, we have to say that the existence of such expressions in the Qur’an does not weaken it or make it defective. This literary style is common in literatures in all languages, and if it is properly used in its own place, then it is among the literary rhetorical figures which imbue merit and excellence to the utterance. Sometimes, a figurative expression, metaphor, allegory, proverb, story, or the like is very effective in the conveyance of messages as it carries to the addressee a certain message.
As we have pointed out, in the literary and conversational usage, once such expressions are used, the speaker does not intend to endorse the origin of the story from which the word, expression or proverb is derived, nor does he intend to negate it. The aim is to convey a particular message through this word or proverb and not more than that. In so many cases, when using this kind of expressions, the speaker does not pay attention to its root and origin at all as he is heedless of it because it is not his concern. Besides, doing so brings neither benefit nor harm to his talk.
The Qur’an has adopted the same manual. God, Who sometimes wants to make the people understand a point, uses the same common and well-known proverb among them without concern for the negation or affirmation of its origin. When the Qur’an says,
وَلَا تَكُونُوا كَالَّتِي نَقَضَتْ غَزْلَهَا مِنْ بَعْدِ قُوَّةٍ
“Do not be like her who would undo her yarn, breaking it up after [spinning it to] strength, (16:92)”
It only wants to state, “Be careful not to unthread your knot.” But as to whether the story of the woman who spins the cotton to make yarn and then undoes her yarn again is true or not is a thing which the Qur’an does not intend to affirm or negate. Similarly, as the Qur’an uses the expression majnun, it does not mean affirmation of the point that one who experiences junun [insanity] has been touched by the jinn.
In any case, the essence of the use of literary rhetorical figures such as allegory, figurative expression, metaphor, similitude, and proverb which the Holy Qur’an uses in numerous cases, does not weaken it and make it defective; rather, it can be regarded as among its strong points.
Meanwhile, is the existence of some figurative expressions, allegories and proverbs in the Qur’an a proof that the entire Qur’an is figurative, allegory, metaphor, and the like and nowhere have their corresponding senses been expressed? The answer is negative. Some have imagined or intended to convey such skepticism that the existence of this kind of expressions and cases in the Qur’an is a proof that no verse of it aims to convey the similar sense and the literal and outward meaning of its words. Instead, it points to a message and secret which must be understood.
It is clear that such a notion is false and such a misgiving is unjustified. If a person delivered a speech somewhere and cited proverbs in his speech, could it be concluded that his entire speech is a proverb? Figurative expressions, allegories, metaphors, and proverbs are the spices of speech and not the entire speech. In conversion and discourse, the accepted principle between the speaker and the addressee (in every custom and language) is that the similar sense of the words is the aim of the speaker.
If the speaker wants to use figurative and allegorical expressions, he will bring analogy. Of course, analogies are not always verbal. Non-verbal and so-called core analogies may be used. Sometimes, analogy is so clear that the addressee understands it and there is no need for the speaker to mention it. For example, when a person says, “This is ‘drinking the medicine after the death of Suhrab’,” everyone understands what he means and everyone knows that the speaker does not want to claim that Rustam, Suhrab and the drinking of medicine really existed or not. Everybody knows that here such a thing is not meant.
In the Qur’an also, like any other conversation and dialogue, the essence is to express the truth and convey the meanings of the words and sentences. If we want somewhere to claim that here are allegory, metaphor… etc. and the real meaning is not the aim, we are in need of analogy. If there is no analogy, we interpret it according to its real meaning. For no reason and without any analogy, we cannot always say that here is figurative and not the reality only because in some places allegories and metaphors are used.
In general, we have three classes of verses which are the subject of such misgivings: The first class consists of verses which are unreasonably compared by some individuals as their own personal conjecture to wrong scientific hypothesis and as the falsity of the hypothesis has become clear now, the falsity of this comparison is exposed. For example, the “seven heavens” were compared to the Ptolemaic nine spheres and its falsity is disclosed. In such cases, the defect cannot be attributed to the Qur’an. Instead, the problem is related to the improper comparison made by some individuals who wanted, come what may, to impose a scientific theory on the Qur’an.
The second class covers the verses that have expressed subjects in the framework of figurative expressions, allegories and metaphors, and some people by resorting to this group of verses want to conclude that the entire Qur’an is analogy, allegory, metaphor, and similitude, and none of its subjects is consistent and in accordance with the truth. In this case, we mentioned that the prime essence in the common conversations and dialogues of the wise is that the speaker conveys the real meaning of words and if it is other than this, he has to give an analogy. The existence of proverb, allegory, metaphor, and analogy in a language does not make all speeches and talks of the people speaking that language as interpreted figuratively and non-literally!
The third class constitutes the verses from whose exoteric meanings it can be deduced that they are not harmonious with the common scientific theories. For example, verses stating the manner of creating Adam (‘a) can be claimed to be inharmonious with the theory of the evolution of species; so, this point has been regarded as a proof of the falsity and lack of credibility of the said subject in the Qur’an.
Regarding this group of verses, we said that we should bear in mind that many of these scientific theories are still to the level of assumptions and not yet established. Secondly, the cases established have again in many instances not been established definitely and certainly and are only at the level that no defect in them has been detected so far. Yet, even their authors and proponents do not claim that the theory in question is definite and certain and that there is no possibility of being falsified. It is clear that if we assume that a subject can be deduced in the Qur’an in a definite form (real certainty and consistent with the reality), the conjectural scientific theory cannot serve as the proof of falsity of a definite subject understood from the Qur’an and traditions. Thirdly, so many of the scientific theories have exceptions, and the solution may be in paying attention to this point just as we have explained regarding Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species.
Question and Answer
Question: You said that the lower heaven consists of the stars and planets a part of whose boundless expanse has been discovered by science today. You can add to this expanse the expanse of the seven heavens which according to you as deduced from the Qur’an encompass these stars and planets and are located above them. Then, how did the Prophet (S) in a winking of the eyes traverse this distance and expanse while the wings of angels could be burned? How could the issue surrounding distance be reconciled with lifespan?
The other question is: Has Satan not vowed to lead astray the human beings, and is usury not one of the ways of perdition and one of the prohibitions to which man succumbed through the temptation of Satan? It seems that contrary to those who want to examine the Qur’an by scientific principles, you try not to accept any solid fact, and to compensate man’s lack of knowledge with devotion? Why is it not possible for Satan to have communication with man? In view of this role of Satan in the deviation of man, how can the issue of man’s duty be justified?
Answer: The issue of the Holy Prophet’s ascension [mi‘raj] in which he traversed the distance between the territorial spheres and the galaxies in a very short span, witnessed many things and returned and according to some traditions, its time span was so short that the water jug that fell had not yet dried (during the Prophet’s return from the ascension) how could such a thing be reconciled with the scientific laws? This is a question that must be approached in two ways. One way pertains to the verity of traversing such a great distance not to mention its time span which is beyond our comprehension. How could it be possible for man?
This is especially true if we consider the fact that at the time, advanced technological devises such as space missile, spaceships, oxygen tank, solution to the problem of weightlessness, and others were not yet at the disposal of mankind. The answer to this question is related to this famous discussion what relation does miracle have with natural factors? In this respect, this question is exactly like asking: How did the staff of Prophet Musa (‘a) turn into a snake, swallow all the snakes of the magicians and turn again into a wooden staff? Every answer we give to the rest of miracles and their comparison to the natural factors will be the answer we give here. In brief, the general reply is that concerning miracles, a set of metaphysical factors which we do not know play in. God is aware of them and He grants those factors at the disposal of His prophet or any other person He wishes. Given this, once there is the discussion on the intervention of metaphysical factors beyond the reach of man, it no longer makes a difference whether the Prophet (S) would have gone as far as Mars or traversed all the seven heavens. This journey took place by the will of God and by means of metaphysical factors at the disposal of God the Exalted, and we have information of their details.
The second aspect of the issue of ascension is this: How could such a very short span of time apart from the manner of conducting the journey be possible? This answer to this question is easier than the previous. You know better than I do that time is a relative thing. It is different among various spaces and spheres. In Einsteinian physics and the law of relativity, it can be shown well how time is a relative matter, and at the speeds closer to the speed of light, how two different times will expire, for example, for a person seated inside an airplane which is moving at light speed and for a person on the surface of the earth witnessing and watching the airplane moving.
Therefore, keeping in view the issue of the relativity of time and the law of relativity, to some extent it can be imagined how it could be possible to travel a long distance and expanse at such a very short period. An example is “traveling around the world” which you have heard, and apart from the prophets and the Imams (‘a), some saints of God can, for example, in a winking of the eyes, traverse a long distance from a desert to Mecca, Medina, or any other place. Of course, the main answer in all these cases is that which we have to accept, i.e. apart from these natural and common factors, there is a set of metaphysical factors which we do not know.
Regarding the third question on the issue of man’s derangement by means of Satan in the explanation of verse, “Like one deranged by the Devil’s touch,” and the issue of usury we have cited, we have to say that different interpretations of this verse have been given. Some have said that for the usurer to be like someone deranged by the Devil’s touch means that the said person will gradually lose his business-related memory. Just as if a person became insane he cannot think properly and analyze issues, the usurer commits error and mistake in analyzing his business concerns.
The Arabic verb yatakhabbat [deranged] means that Satan, as the effect of his touch, damaged the person’s mind. The erroneous thinking of the usurer can be attributed to any evil source including Satan. Of course, we have to bear in mind that ‘Satan’ is not identical with “Iblis.” Iblis in reality is the name of the devil (shaytan) who deceived Adam and Hawwa' (Eve), but ‘Satan’ is a common name which can be applied to every devil and source of evil, including man and jinn. The ‘Satan’ who is in touch with the usurer is a person who inspires erroneous thoughts to him. Of course, what appears in the text is that the usurer is likened to a person deranged by the devil’s touch.
Whatever the case may be, the question here is: Why has the Qur’an used this expression: “deranged by the Devil’s touch”? Does the Qur’an want to say that insanity is the effect of the Devil’s touch? Some have said that it is true that Satan is actually in touch with the insane, but it is not known to us the mode of this touch and how it contributes to the person’s insanity. For example, in Surah an-Nas, the Qur’an says that Satan puts temptations into our breasts: “Who puts temptations into the breasts of humans. (114:5)” Can we really feel anything of this insinuation [waswasah] in our breasts? In case of insanity, Satan is in touch with the mind and senses of the person, but it is unknown and imperceptible to us.
In any case, what I have mentioned about this verse along the discussion was based on such an interpretation. Yet, there are other interpretations which are in no need for these justifications at all. For example, some have said that this expression is used only as a proverb and it is like the verse which says, “Like her who would undo her yarn, breaking it up.” From the second verse, it cannot be concluded that the Qur’an wants to endorse the real existence of an old woman who undoes her yarn and the story about her; rather, it is only a proverb. In this verse which says, “Like one deranged by the Devil’s touch,” it cannot be concluded that the Qur’an wishes to endorse that the cause of insanity is Satan’s being in touch with man. In the same vein, it cannot be concluded from the terms junun and majnun that insanity is the result of the touch of jinn and devils; rather, it is a word set for the concept of insane in Arabic and the Qur’an which is also in Arabic has used it.