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Spirit of inquiry

July 27, 2018


THE Quran consistently invites human beings to apply sama (ears) and basr (eyes) to acquire knowledge. Because at birth man knows nothing. Only by the use of these organs of cognition (ears, eyes) one begins to know the world and cultivate a memory. The Quran inspires human beings to elaborate on these organs of cognition, so that a deeper understanding of the cosmos and human self can be discovered.

Observe and understand the behaviour of heavens and earth. Look at the motion of the sun, moon, earth and stars. Just consider their order and regularity. All move in their determined paths. No irregularity is observed in this ordered behaviour day in and day out. The reflection on order of the physical system will lead an observer to the Ultimate Maker of this cosmological order.

The Ultimate Maker who is Creator of everything in this universe, from the smallest to largest; from dry to wet; from seed to plant. The profound knowledge is written in a Manifest Book. The laws that govern the order of human self as well as cosmos are recorded in this book. By application of the organs of cognition one can access the knowledge and meanings of this Manifest Book.

Take the word ‘sama’. The root meanings of this word are ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’. Both hearing and listening are the function of ears. So ears occupy a pivotal place in the reception of acoustic and auditory information from the external environment. Listening is an authentic mode of knowledge acquisition, and the Quran testifies to this fact. Allah calls upon the Prophet (PBUH) to “Listen to what is being recited unto thee (by Jibreel), be attentive to this recitation. ...” To Hazrat Musa, Allah says, “Listen and uphold with strength (Book of Torah)”.

Much of our cultural knowledge is transmitted by means of listening.

The Quran says that, “Surely, Allah is hearing and knowing”. At another place in the Holy Book, Allah says, “I listen and respond to your prayers”. ‘Samih’ is a divine attribute of Allah; Allah personally hears what His creatures have to say to him. During Ramazan, Muslims engage in a collective form of listening (sama) of Quran. This collective listening has a profound social impact on the collective behaviour of the community. On Eidul Fitr, I have seen personal animosities dissolve due to feelings of warmth, care and compassion created in hearts by collective listening of the Quran.

Modern research in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, music and anthropology also corroborates the epistemological nature of the auditory experience of ears, which was testified to by the Quran so many centuries ago. Much of our cultural knowledge is transmitted by means of listening. Stories of heroes and narratives of battles are sung by the folk singers and handed down to posterity by means of cultural voice.

Qawwali/sama is yet more proof of the power of cultural transmission of spirituality and ethical life by means of organised listening. Rauscher and colleagues have reported in Neuroscience Letters that listening to Mozart’s music enhances spatial-temporal reasoning by the brain. Voisin, for example has discovered in his research that listening in silence activates auditory areas in brain. According to French psychologist Jean Piaget, active listening plays a basic role in the construction of our mental models of reality and knowledge.

‘Basar’ (eyes) is another important word employed by the Quran. The root meanings of ‘basar’ are to see, to enlighten, to perceive and to realise. It also means visual, eyesight, vision, ocular, perception. ‘Yubsaron’, ‘tubsaron’ are plural nouns, which mean collective seeing and collective perception or thinking and reflection by human beings etc.

Baseer (Perc­eiver, Seer) is one of the divine names of Allah. The Quran asserts that, “Surely Allah sees/perceives His servants/people”, that Allah sustains His creatures with His merciful sight, filled with compassion, care and generosity. In Surah Najam (53:17), the power of Prophetic sight is revealed. The Quran says, “The sight [of the Prophet] did not swerve, nor did it transgress [its limit]”. That he perceived the Divine Light of his Lord and his perception did not wander. He ‘saw’ his Lord twice; once near sidra tul muntaha and second by the ‘great horizon’.

Contemporary research in neuroscience and cognitive science also testifies to the fact that human sight (eyes) plays a crucial role in conscious visual experience. There is a complex network of neuronal structure that goes on to shape images, colours, solid objects as well as our sense of time and space. Vinette and his research group have reported how the eyes play a crucial role in effective processing spatio-temporal dynamics of face recognition in a flash.

It is clear from the above that the divine gifts of sight and sound can lead one to the ultimate truth of the universe.

The writer is a cultural psychoanalyst.

Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2018