Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III
Universality of the Quranic Message – Reza Shah-Kazemi
They are not all alike. Of the People of the Scripture there is a staunch community who recite the revelations of God in the watches of the night, falling prostrate.
They believe in God and the Last Day, and enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency, and vie with one another in good works. These are of the righteous.
And whatever good they do, they will not be denied it; and God knows the pious. (Quran 3: 113-114)
Thou wilt find the nearest of them [the People of the Scripture] in affection to those who believe to be those who say: Verily, we are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and they are not proud. (5: 82)
I believe in whatever scripture God hath revealed, and I am commanded to be just among you. God is our Lord and your Lord. Unto us our works and unto you your works; no argument between us and you. God will bring us together and unto Him is the journeying. (42:15)
And only discourse with the People of the Book in a way that is most excellent, save with those who do wrong. And say: We believe in that which hath been revealed to us and revealed to you. Our God and your God is one, and unto Him we surrender. (29:46)
And finally, it is worth repeating the following verse, which can justifiably be put forward as altogether definitive in respect of dialogue:
Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and hold discourse with them in the finest manner. (16:125)
The idea of the self-disclosure of the Absolute to itself by means of the relativity of “the other” lies at the very heart of Ibn Arabi’s metaphysics.28 The whole doctrine of this disclosure of God to Himself is summed up in the opening lines of Ibn Arabi’s most commented text, Fusûs al-hikam. The chapter entitled “The Ringstone of the Wisdom of Divinity in the Word of Adam” (Fass hikma ilâhiyya fî kalima âdamiyya) begins:
The Real willed, glorified be He, in virtue of His Beautiful Names, which are innumerable, to see their identities (a‘yân)—if you so wish you can say: to see His Identity (‘ayn)—in a comprehensive being that comprises the entire affair due to its having taken on existence. His Mystery is manifest to Himself through it. The vision a thing has of itself in itself is not like the vision a thing has of itself in another thing, which will serve as a mirror for it.29
Man alone reflects back to the Absolute all, and not just some, of the Divine qualities; it is for this reason that man is the “valid interlocutor”, the receptacle and the mirror of the Divine qualities, the “other” to whom and through whom these qualities are revealed. The function, then, of an apparent “other”, at the level of Divine self-disclosure of itself to itself, is to make possible a particular mode of self-knowledge. One recalls here the holy utterance, or hadîth qudsî,30 so fundamental to Sufi spirituality: “I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known (fa ahbabtu an u‘raf), so I created the world.” If the creation of the world springs from a Divine love for a distinct mode of self-knowledge, the Quran indicates that the differentiation, within mankind, in respect of gender, tribe, and race, likewise serves an essentially cognitive function:
O mankind, truly We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Truly the most noble of you, in the sight of God, is the most Godfearing. (49:13)
Distinction and difference are here affirmed as Divinely willed,31 and as means by which knowledge is attained. One should note that the word used in the phrase “that ye may know one another” is ta‘ârafû; and the word for being “known” in the hadîth of the “hidden treasure” is u’raf—both words being derived from the same root, ‘arafa. There is thus a clear connection with ma‘rifah, spiritual knowledge or gnosis, the essence of which is expressed in the famous hadîth, “Whoso knows himself knows his Lord” (man ‘arafa nafsahu faqad ‘arafa rabbahu). Thus, knowledge of self, knowledge of the other, and knowledge of God are all interwoven, and should be seen as complementary and mutually reinforcing, each element having a role to play in the plenary attainment of ma‘rifah.
The verse cited above is often given as a proof-text for upholding the necessity of dialogue, establishing the principle of peaceful coexistence, and indicating the divine ordainment of human diversity. Now while it does indeed support such principles, the import of the verse is deepened, its message is made the more compelling, and its scope more far-reaching insofar as it is consciously related to the metaphysical principle of self-knowledge through self-disclosure. Thus, dialogue here-below—a dialogue rooted in the sincere desire for greater knowledge and understanding both of “the other” and of oneself—can be seen as a reflection of, and participation in, the very process by which God knows Himself in distinctive, differentiated mode; that is, not in respect of His unique, eternal essence, but in respect of the manifestation of the “treasure” comprised or “hidden” within that essence, yielding the perpetually renewed theophanies of Himself to Himself through an apparent “other”, the “seeing of Himself as it were in a mirror”.
Another Quranic verse that can be given as a support for this perspective on the cognitive function of creation is the following:
I only created the jinn and mankind in order that they might worship Me.(51:56)
In his Kitâb al-Luma’, Abu Nasr al-Sarraj (d. 378/988) reports the comment on this verse given by Ibn Abbas: the word “worship” here means “knowledge” (ma‘rifah), so that the phrase illâ li-ya’budûni (except that they might worship Me) becomes illâ li-ya’rifûni (except that they might know Me).32 This interpretation is given also by several other prominent Sufi authorities, as well as some exoteric scholars.33 The very purpose of the creation of man thus comes to be equated with that knowledge of God which constitutes the most profound form of worship. But it is not just man that, in coming to know God, participates in the Divine dialogue, that is, the Divine self-disclosure of itself to itself; in fact, there is nothing in creation that does not obey the ontological imperative of “making known” the Divine treasure, even if it is the prerogative of man alone to “know” the Divine treasure, which he does in two ways: through correctly reading all the signs of God or the manifestations of the “hidden treasure”; and through knowing the essence of his own soul:
We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and in their own souls, so that it become clear to them that He is the Real. (41:53)
As regards the objective signs on the horizons, the Quran refers repeatedly to the universal law of “making known” the hidden treasure, doing so in reference to a broadly conceived notion of praise and glorification:
All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifieth God; and He is the Mighty, the Wise. (57:1)
The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein praise Him, and there is not a thing but hymneth His praise, but ye understand not their praise. (17:44)
Hast thou not seen that God, He it is Whom all who are in the heavens and the earth praise; and the birds in flight: each verily knoweth its prayer and its form of glorification. (24:41)
He is God, the Creator, the Shaper out of naught, the Fashioner. His are the most beautiful names. All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifieth Him, and He is the Mighty, the Wise. (59:24)34
Thus we see that in the Quranic perspective, every single thing, by dint of its very existence, “praises” and “glorifies” its Creator: its existence constitutes its praise. Every created thing bears witness to, and thus “praises”, its Creator; the existence of every existent “glorifies” the bestower of existence. But, more fundamentally, the existence of every existing thing is not its own; this existence “belongs” exclusively to that reality for which it serves as a locus of theophany (mazhar); there is no “sharing”, “partnership”, or “association” in being—no ontological shirk, in other words. Thus we return to the metaphysics of oneness: nothing is real but God. Each thing in existence has two incommensurable dimensions: in and of itself a pure nothingness; but in respect of that which is manifested to it, through it, by means of it—it is real. This is the import of the interpretation given by Ghazzali to the verse cited above, “Everything is perishing except His Face” (Quran 28:88). It is worth dwelling on the commentary he provides upon this verse; for it contains, arguably, some of the most radically esoteric ideas of his entire corpus, and also sums up many of the themes expressed thus far.
The commentary comes in his treatise entitled Mishkât al-anwâr (“The Niche of Lights”), which takes as its point of departure the famous “light verse”:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. [The lamp is] kindled from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth though no fire touched it. Light upon light. God guideth to His light whom He will. And God striketh similitudes for mankind. And God knoweth all things. (24:35)
28 “The term self-disclosure (tajallî)—often translated as ‘theophany’—plays such a central role in Ibn al-Arabi’s teachings that, before he was known as the great spokesman for wahdat al-wujûd, he had been called one of the Companions of Self-Disclosure (ashâb altajallî)”
(W. C. Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God [Albany, 1998], p. 52).
29 This is cited from a new translation of the Fusûs al-Hikam by Caner Dagli, which is due to be published by Kazi Press, Chicago, in 2001, and which is the most accurate and reliable commented translation of this major text in the English language.
30 That is, a saying in which God speaks in the first person, on the tongue of the Prophet, but which is not part of the Quran.
31 Cf. “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the differences of your languages and colors. Indeed, herein are signs for those who know” (Quran 30:22).
32 Kitâb al-Luma’, p. 40 (of the Arabic text). Ed. R. A. Nicholson, E.J. Gibb Memorial Series XXII (London, 1963).
33 See for example Hujwiri’s (d.456/1063) Kashf al-Mahjûb, one of the most definitive of the classic manuals of early Sufism, trans. R.A. Nicholson (Lahore, 1992), p. 267; and Qushayri (d. 465/1074) in his famous Risâla, trans. B. R. von Schlegell as Principles of Sufism (Berkeley, 1990), p. 316. As regards exoteric scholars, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, for example, cites the hadîth of the “hidden treasure”,
as well as the interpretation illâ li-ya’rifûni, at the end of his commentary on 51:56. See Tafsîr al-kabîr (Beirut, 2001), vol.10, p. 194.
34 This theme is expressed in several other verses. See for example, 13:13; 59:1; 61:1; 62:1; 64:1, et passim.
Please also read full article The Metaphysics of Interfaith Dialogue: Sufi Perspectives on the Universality of the Quranic Message by Reza Shah-Kazemi, which is a real treat to read – Click here to view the PDF
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