Work of God

October 04, 2013

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THE Quran has been the focus of attention for people across the globe for centuries as they have tried to disentangle the network of meanings contained in it.

Because of that, as well as its fascinating linguistic beauty and poetic flow, it has remained captivating for both scholars and common people alike.

Closer reading of the Quran shows that its major focus lies in another dimension, and that is nature (fitrah). The study of nature is one of the central themes of the Quran as a means of appreciating God’s powers of creation. It is perhaps because of this overwhelming focus of the Quran on nature that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan juxtaposed two key concepts: the Word of God and the Work of God.

He argued that there is harmony between these two realms of knowledge. He was pejoratively called a ‘naturee’ (follower of nature), for consistently following this line of reasoning for Quranic interpretations. Sir Syed gladly accepted the accusation, saying that even God talked about it strongly in the Quran. He argued that nature is another term for religion; nothing in religion is against nature.

Following him, Dr Ghulam Jilani Barq titled one of his books Do Quran (Two Qurans), referring to the book and nature as two divine books. He maintains that we learn about God as much from the Quran as from nature. Many other scholars have also adopted the same view, directly or indirectly.

This argument promotes the view that as the Quranic verses (the Word of God) act as ‘signs’ (ayaat) pointing towards God, similarly, nature (the Work of God) is God’s ‘sign’ (ayat) that helps believers understand the Divine.

Nature is a storehouse of symbols, where both God’s immanence as well as transcendence intersect; a space that connects the divine and the human in fascinating ways. Pertinent to quote here is a hadith which reports God as saying: “I was a hidden treasure and when I wanted to be known, I created creation.”

The Quran shows Allah’s existential proof not just from the metaphysical world, but consistently from the physical world as well. The powerful symbol the Quran uses extensively for His proof is ayaat (signs).

A verse that shows how much importance the Quran gives to these ‘signs’ as reflections of God’s proofs in nature says: “Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day — there are signs for those who understand (Ulul al-Baab). Those (Ulul al-Baab) celebrate the praise of Allah standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth. …” (3:190-191).

This verse not only commands the remembrance of Allah at all times, but also reflection on the world around us as an integral part of the practice of faith. A Muslim leader once rightly remarked: “The man of faith who fails to pursue intellectual search is likely to have a limited comprehension of Allah’s creation.”

In another verse, Allah refers to even more mundane things — animate and inanimate — as His signs: “Then do they not look at the camels, how they are created? And the heaven, how it is raised? And the hills, how they are set up? And the earth, how it is spread?” (88:17-20).

All these verses point towards the Work of God, the universe, to see how He has created the magnificent heaven and the earth and everything in them, which Sir Syed calls the Work of God. The Word of God inextricably is linked with the Work of God. The whole edifice of faith is situated in the natural world; prayers and rituals, good deeds, the entire religion of Islam (and previous faiths) unfolded in this very world.

In an Islamic context, any diminishing of the importance of this world and its study is bound to undermine the very purpose of religion. This is not to underestimate the other world; but we should not forget that this world, as a hadith tells us, is the cultivating field (mazr’atul aakhira) for the other world.

Tragically, many of us tend to ignore this aspect of faith — the Work of God (nature). The height of this attitude is reflected in an Urdu verse that Sir Syed himself, with disdain, has quoted, which says, “Knowledge is only the knowledge of religion, fiqh, hadith and tafseer. Anybody who reads other than these becomes impure”.

Probably the Boko Haram movement in Nigeria follows this trend of thinking, where they believe that studying books other than of the religious kind is haram.

We need to ask ourselves: what is ‘religious’ knowledge in Islam? According to the discussion above, one can easily argue that in Islam, ‘religion’ covers practically all aspects of human life, therefore, useful knowledge of all realms of human life and nature is ‘religious’ in the widest sense.

In sum, the Word of God commands us to reflect on the Work of God by education, contemplation, and experimentation, leading to all sorts of discoveries about the mysteries of the ‘hidden treasure’ of God, and ‘harvesting’ more yield from this field of actions.

Today, thankfully, we benefit from so many wonderful discoveries that many scientists have made by reflecting on the Work of God. Muslims need to pay greater attention to this aspect in more serious ways through research and exploration.

The writer teaches Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies at a private university in Pakistan.