Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (1)
In order to appeal to human beings’ hearts and minds, the Holy Qur’an has used a number of approaches. This has been in an effort to persuade humans to espouse the truth, which is traced back to God, and the true path, which leads to Him. It has been done in such a way as to allow the faith to touch on the innermost feelings of man. The spiritual experience should roam in the vast realm of the ideology, lest the faith be dulled by the barrenness of the thought, or the thought should give in to the rawness of the senses.
Storytelling is among the styles of dialogue the Holy Qur’an has adopted. The approach has been applied to different brands of storytelling. Some have been historical tales, which talk about the prophets of old and bygone generations; others have been meant to serve a moral purpose; and a third type of tale, which is precise and terse in what it tries to convey, usually discusses a certain position or a particular aspect of a certain human being.
In its aims and objects, the story is not intended to give us an account of history per se. It is not expected to dwell on portraying a picture only of what happened, so that it should be governed by the modus operandi of storytelling, especially the detailed account of the incident or the position.
The Quranic story is entwined with the main guidelines and message of the Holy Qur’an, i.e. the call to the way of God, guiding people to the truth, and eventually showing them the light to believing in God and submitting to Him. Thus, it seeks to deliver man from the darkness of dishonesty and malpractice to the light that is emanating from the heart of the Message in God’s realms.
In the historical facts and situations of which the Qur’anic story has told, it has sought to achieve all the aims [discussed above]. Sometimes it can be seen that particular historical stories have been repeated in more that one surah, because they have a bearing, as a whole or in part, on the context and the notion being discussed in that particular chapter.
As a result, the Quranic style advocates different approaches to telling the story. Sometimes a detailed account of the story is given, which may contain most of the characteristics of storytelling. At other times, it gives a summary, usually contained in one or two verses.
The style may tackle the story either from the start or the end, according to the idea or the aspect being discussed or handled, or the situation or position being highlighted or focused on.
The Quranic story stresses the unity of the Message
Among the aims of the Quranic story are stressing the unity of the Divine Message, the unity of the methods the messengers use to call to the way of God, the unity of the spiritual world they live in while making efforts to deliver the Message and in enduring the trials and tribulations in executing their missions, including the challenges mounted against them by their adversaries. This should serve as evidence of the one common path that God wanted His Messages to run along. It should also serve as a proof of the uniform problems that the activists confront at all times and places, regardless of the differences in circumstances of each and every mission and messenger. In the same vein, the Quranic story tries to highlight the uniformity that characterizes the motives of the unbelievers, the haughty, and the straying, in that these motives stem from personal inclinations. The unbelievers do not seem to be standing on any ideological ground in their rejection of God’s Message.
The history of the prophets, in all that they came to stand for, the problems they faced, and the achievements they made, was an important factor in achieving that aim. For this reason, the Holy Qur’an has discussed in detail their experiences and personal and public positions. This is so that Prophet Mohammad (p.), his companions, and those who have followed in their footsteps would find the lively picture of reunion between the past and the present of the Divine Messages. That is, without losing sight of the difference in time, place, and circumstances that had characterized each and every Message. Pondering their history would provide us with the opportunity to learn from their experiences in spreading the Message. Their history would provide us with the experience we require to withstand the pressures and odd situations, and thus give us the strength and resilience to weather adversity. It makes clear how God eventually perfected His victory on the prophets in anchoring their Messages firmly on the stage of life, against all the odds and challenges.
Also among the aims of the Qur’an is presenting life’s issues by way of giving examples, where the concept should be clearly defined. Thus the Quranic story has proved to be among the most successful methods of achieving this end result, by virtue of manifesting the notion in a live and dynamic real life setting, instead of talking about it in abstract terms.
Two distinct styles of Quranic storytelling
One can talk about two distinct manners of telling the story in the Holy Qur’an: reporting the incidents from the start of the tale to its end, and role-play, where each player in the plot plays his or her part in a transparent style. Interaction between the players then ensues.
The first approach deals with minor incidents of history. The storyteller here plays the role of guiding the listener to the fundamental points in a manner that borders on the instructive in filling the gaps.
The importance of the dialogue style of storytelling lies in its attempt to simplify and make understandable the concept all round, so that no aspect should remain ambiguous. This is because each party to the dialogue does their best to put across their point of view.
However, there is another point that distinguishes the dialogue style. It paints a live and dynamic picture of the scene. Thus, the reader lives the situations, one after the other, trying to visualize the climate of the historical occurrences through the activity of the heroes of the story as though he were living then. The reader does not only experience the narrative and its connotations, but also the dynamism and atmosphere that govern the entire story. It is obvious, therefore, that recounting the facts of the story per se cannot serve this purpose, although it should provide a detailed account of the situation.
This has been the reason why the Holy Qur’an has concentrated more on dialogue in telling a story in order to portray a lively picture of the history of the Message in its vitality in real life situations, which the Qur’an has desired to relate to the present, stressing the common denominator between all the Divine Messages. It may be said too that the Holy Qur’an has desired to raise the vital issues that relate to people’s lives in order to give them that extra dimension in their minds.
Here, we are trying to sail through some samples of Quranic stories that are told in a dialogue style, in the history of prophetic missions to deliver the Divine Message to people. Some stories should also touch on the fundamental issues as they simmer in real life situations. This should help the cause of propagating the way to God and the journey of Islam in life.
With the Prophets in Dialogue on their Message
Noah and his people
The Holy Qur’an has related the story of Prophet Noah (a.s.) in at least six chapters. We will discuss his story in the light of the Quranic style that seeks not to elaborate on all the details of the story. It has confined the discussion to those aspects that have a bearing on the prime objectives of the Message. Since we do not aim to analyze the subject of the plot, but to feel the dialogue that is taking place in it in order to get to the moral it is trying to impart, we are going to focus more on the dialogue.
Here, we are trying to empathize with Prophet Noah (a.s.) through the words he utters in the context of his noble task, his stand on the battleground, his approach to convincing others to embrace his thought in a climate of love and compassion that is symptomatic of the ideology he came to spread.
In this climate, we can see that the forces of unbelief that take part in dialogue with Noah are bereft of any meaningful thought or love which they can exchange with his. They paint a picture of a narrow-minded people who seem bent on not giving the words of Noah (a.s.) any chance to sink into their minds. They are adamant not to follow the climate of the Message, preferring to indulge in personal and class concerns. Thus, taking a position on the Message is, to their mind, tied to the personality of the Messenger and his social rank, the kind of followers the Message has attracted and their social and financial positions. This appears to be the case even without attaching any importance to the thought of where God fits in all that, and the Message’s significance in spiritual as well as human terms, especially for the future well being of the nation (ummah).
Now we move along with the mood of the Quranic dialogue in scene one of the story of Noah, as though there was no time lag.
The reasons the unbelievers give for rejecting belief
This position can be examined in these Quranic verses:
We sent Noah to his people (with a mission): “I have come to you with a Clear Warning: That ye serve none but God: Verily I do fear for you the penalty of a grievous day.” But the chiefs of the Unbelievers among his people said: “We see (in) thee nothing but a man like ourselves: Nor do we see that any follow thee but the meanest among us, in judgment immature: Nor do we see in you (all) any merit above us: in fact we think ye are liars!” (11: 25–27)
Noah calls his people to the way of Allah, warning them with torment, with an express fear for their safety, in the way someone’s heart goes out to their loved ones when they see that harm is coming their way.
He engages them in dialogue with a view to leading them to belief and to the right path; he urges them to respond to his call and discuss it. Yet, they seem to have nothing to do with the Message Noah has come to them with, concerning themselves with social and tribal allegiances. They look as if they are oblivious to their fate, which the Message has come to tell them of. Instead, their way of thinking is completely overtaken by personal and social rank concerns.
The verses mention the line of thinking of the unbelievers. Their stand vis-à-vis Noah’s Message is that there is nothing that could set Noah apart to take up that important position of prophecy, because they maintain that he is a human like them. That aside, to their mind, there is nothing that would entice them to respond to his call positively and follow him, particularly when those who did follow him are counted among the meanest among their folk. In their judgment, there will be no purpose served if they, being the dignitaries of their people, rub shoulders with the “inferior” elements of society.
So, in order for them to accept Noah’s call to belief, the prophet and his followers should come from a certain rank in the social pecking order. They have yet another reason for rejecting the Message. It is that Noah (a.s.) and his followers are not superior to them, so that they can carry the torch of the Message and call on people to follow it.
In the end, these justifications have led to the inevitable outcome, where the verse concludes with their words “in fact we think ye are liars!”, in that, according to them, the distinction between right and wrong is social merit, not the critical and rational judgment of the Message and its proponents.
Opening up to the truth
Since this is their rationale for rejecting his call, Prophet Noah (a.s.) has decided to reason with them on the same lines, in the hope that he may be successful in breaking the ice, and that they may address the real issues and concepts of the Message:
He said: “O my people! See ye if (it be that) I have a Clear Sign from my Lord, and that He hath sent Mercy unto me from His own presence, but that the Mercy hath been obscured from your sight? Shall we compel you to accept it when ye are averse to it? And O my people! I ask you for no wealth in return: my reward is from none but God: But I will not drive away (in contempt) those who believe: for verily they are to meet their Lord, and ye I see are the ignorant ones! And O my people! Who would help me against God if I drove them away? Will ye not then take heed? I tell you not that with me are the treasures of God, nor do I know what is hidden, nor claim I to be an angel. Nor yet do I say, of those whom your eyes do despise that God will not grant them (all) that is good: God knows best what is in their souls: I should, if I did, indeed be a wrong-doer.” (11: 28–31)
What Noah criticizes of their argument is that the questions of prophecy and the Message do not fit the straightjacket they try to put them in. The Message endures in the context of evidence, which testifies to its credibility. They have nothing to lose in approaching it with an open mind to know if it contains the truth. As for the humanness of the messenger, Noah does agree with them, for he does not try to raise the position of the messenger above that of mankind. He admits that he does not have any control over the treasures of the earth so that he might attract them financially. He cannot foretell the future so that people could follow him for his knowledge of their secrets. It is not in his power to elevate his human status to that of the angels, so that people might submit to him out of fear. He is but the Messenger of God, Who entrusted him with delivering His Message with clear proofs. All that it takes is for them to open their minds to it with no commitment, i.e. they are free to take it or leave it. No one is going to coerce them into accepting it, should they choose to head up a blind alley.
In his bid to understand why they reject his call to them the join the ranks of the faithful, Noah (a.s.) puts it bluntly to them that he is not in it for personal material gain, because the Divine messengers do not expect to be paid for their work. They hope that God will reward them in this life and in the hereafter. He then turns his attention to talking about his followers, whom they dubbed as socially inferior in accordance with a social structure that judges people in terms of their wealth, lineage, or power. He then announces to them that he cannot drive those believers away. They will meet God and submit before him the account of their deeds, firm in the knowledge that God will grant them lofty positions. That is, God does not look down on people for their color, wealth – or lack of it – or social standing. Rather, He judges them for their intentions and deeds. If He knows that they are well intentioned, He will reward them in the same measure.
Prophet Noah (a.s.) then raises before them the issue of powerfulness and weakness, in that if he were to turn them away, who is going to protect him from God? Are they going to offer him sanctuary from God’s punishment, if he has gone ahead with ousting those believers, who are the friends and soldiers of God? He is urging them to wake up from their slumber in ignorance and call to mind their positions, power base, and the kind of misguidance that overwhelms them.
He does all this in a loving and open way. Will they reciprocate? Say, by getting involved in dialogue. Nay, the response is a display of sheer arrogance and playing down the threat of punishment.
They are not up to dialogue, for they lack the evidence with which they can contest his clear proofs. They have nothing of substance to throw at Noah except intransigence, defiance, and impatience: “They said: ‘O Noah! Thou hast disputed with us, and (much) hast thou prolonged the dispute with us: now bring upon us what thou threatens us with, if thou speaks the truth!’” (11: 32). They even threatened him with stoning him to death if he did not desist from calling them to belief:
“They said: ‘If thou desist not, O Noah! Thou shall be stoned (to death)'” (26: 116).
What was his response? He does not want to brag about his ability to cause punishment to descend upon them. He has kept his integrity as the Messenger of God, who does not have control over what will become of him, be it good or evil. He does not end his call on a note better than it started with. At the outset, he proclaims to them that he fears for them from the chastisement of grievous day. His fear does not diminish, especially after they have rebelled against him without any evidence. Thus, his reaction is calm, as it draws on the spirit and strength of the Message: “He said: ‘Truly, God will bring it on you if He wills, and then, ye will not be able to frustrate it!'” (11: 33).
In dialogue, there always remains the personality of the Messenger, who cannot do anything without God’s will, exuding love and kindness for his people, yet showing composure and control over the situation: “Of no profit will be my counsel to you, much as I desire to give you (good) counsel, if it be that God wills to leave you astray: He is your Lord! And to Him will ye return!” (11: 34).
Then the decisive Divine intervention comes in to propose to Noah how he should respond to his people’s charge against him, i.e. of feigning the prophecy. God revealed to Noah to tell his people that he should be held responsible for all that he talks about and calls for, yet they should face the consequences of their intransigence, blasphemy, and rebellion. Thus, he draws the curtain on any further debate that is not going to yield any meaningful result: “Or do they say, ‘He has forged it?’ Say: ‘If I had forged it, on me were my sin! And I am free of the sins of which ye are guilty!'” (11: 35).
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (2)
Dialogue Starting With a Question (2)
Scene one of the story leaves no doubt as to the difference of style and focus between the prophets’ approach to calling to the way of God and that of their adversaries. The stark difference between the two approaches should give the activists, at any time and any place, food for thought, in that they should emulate the prophets’ approach. The approach is a combination of calmness radiating with confidence, responding to the challenge without animosity, and strength of evidence that is tinged with love and kindness. This is so as to leave the door open for the opponent to return through love, because lovingness is worthy of bringing the heart closer to the truth, whereas the mind could shy away from facing up to it.
At the same time, it gives a vivid and lively example of the Messages in their setting forth from a base of openness on the truth, in all its wide spheres, while the adversaries always seek to tread on narrow and twisted alleyways that can hardly have room for those who are already there, let alone others.
Scene two starts with God’s revelation to Noah, thus: “It was revealed to Noah: ‘None of thy people will believe except those who have believed already! So grieve no longer over their (evil) deeds’.” (11: 36).
The state Noah was left in after the dialogue reached a dead end
The Quranic chapter that is dedicated to telling Noah’s story, gives you an idea about the psychological state he was in after the dialogue with his people had reached a stalemate. He was on the verge of despondency. As a responsible prophet, he stood before God to give Him a lively account of his work all those years. He was reporting to God how he spared no effort to win some people over to his cause:
He said: “O my Lord! I have called to my People night and day: But my call only increases (their) flight (from the Right).
“And every time I have called to them, that Thou might forgive them, they have (only) thrust their fingers into their ears, covered themselves up with their garments, grown obstinate, and given themselves up to arrogance. So I have called to them aloud; further I have spoken to them in public and secretly in private, saying, ‘Ask forgiveness from your Lord; for He is Oft-Forgiving; he will send rain to you in abundance; give you increase in wealth and sons; and bestow on you gardens and bestow on you rivers (of flowing water). What is the matter with you, that ye place not your hope for kindness and long-suffering in God, Seeing that it is He that has created you in diverse stages? See ye not how God has created the seven heavens one above another, and made the moon a light in their midst, and made the sun as a (Glorious) Lamp? and God has produced you from the earth growing (gradually), and in the End He will return you into the (earth), and raise you forth (again at the Resurrection)? And God has made the earth for you as a carpet (spread out), that ye may go about therein, in spacious roads.'”
Noah said: “O my Lord! They have disobeyed me, but they follow (men) whose wealth and children give them no increase but only Loss. And they have devised a tremendous Plot. And they have said (to each other), ‘Abandon not your gods: Abandon neither Wadd nor Suwa’, neither Yaguth nor Ya’uq, nor Nasr’; They have already misled many; and grant Thou no increase to the wrong- doers but in straying (from their mark).
Because of their sins they were drowned (in the flood), and were made to enter the Fire (of Punishment): and they found in lieu of God none to help them.
And Noah, said: “O my Lord! Leave not of the Unbelievers, a single one on earth! For, if Thou dost leave (any of) them, they will but mislead Thy devotees, and they will breed none but wicked ungrateful ones. O my Lord! Forgive me, my parents, all who enter my house in Faith, and (all) believing men and believing women: and to the wrong-doers grant Thou no increase but in perdition!” (71: 5–28)
We would like to dwell a bit on this magnificent account, which Prophet Noah (a.s.) submitted to his Lord, describing in detail all the efforts he put in his noble task, especially the dialogues he conducted with his people to urge them to embrace belief in God, and giving feedback to the response he received from them. In his report, Noah prayed to the Almighty to exchange his people with others, because he had exhausted all the ways to convince them of his message. There was no room for another endeavor. A justification was given for his prayer for getting rid of them, i.e. the danger they might pose to future generations, because the climate in which they lived was conducive to everything that was vile, and that their offspring would follow their line. Nevertheless, he remained optimistic because resignation did not feature in the dictionary of the prophets, especially when the situation was tied in with the Divine will. In this regard, there are few points that are worthy of pondering:
1. The prophet does not leave any stone unturned
Noah, the prophet, did not leave any opportunity that was made available to him without reminding his people to reconsider their position and embrace the religion, as penitence would provide a fresh start, where darkness would be left behind. They rejected all his overtures, preferring to follow the affluent people who took it upon themselves to stand against any call to the bright way of God, as these forces got used to living in darkness, and for the aim of perpetuating it.
Thus, the Message makes it incumbent on the messenger and, by the same token, the Islamic call on the activist, not to let any opportunity pass without giving leeway for repentance. This is because the spirit of the Message is like the spirit of the military, which is capable of turning man into a power whose control is outside, i.e. because it is controlled by the Message in all its capabilities and times. It marches on, or comes to a halt, only when the Message says so. It has no freedom in going about its personal affairs, away from the command centre of the Message.
2. The revelation, not hopelessness, brings the mission to an end
Hopelessness did not find its way to the heart of Noah (a.s.). It was the Divine revelation that ended his prophetic mission, when it was revealed to him that none of his people was going to convert to his cause, apart from the few who had already done so. The revelation came in the wake of Noah’s reporting back to his Lord that all his efforts in trying to win them over to His way had come to very little, asking God to grant him victory over them.
3. Indignation is not for personal reasons
Noah’s prayer for his people was not driven by personal vendetta for the disappointment he suffered at their hands. Rather, it stemmed from his responsibility as a prophet who spared no effort to prove his case in dialogue with the unbelievers. When he saw no hope in them to try to mend their ways, he thought it fit to close an old chapter and turn over a new leaf, so that people may celebrate the triumph of belief over unbelief.
That was why he pleaded with his Lord to grant him victory over them because they represented the force that pulled the strings in society, which was predominantly atheistic. There was also the fear that that corrupt society was going to lead to a similar one.
4. The Divine Messages do not safeguard unwarranted privileges
The Divine Messages do not seek to protect the privileges of the affluent. Far from it, they come to make a great effort in restricting any unjustified concessions. The Messages endeavor to raise the standard of the downtrodden of society. That was why the poor and the needy, who were dubbed by the unbelievers as the most inferior class of society, were the followers of the Message and its faithful soldiers. They were the ones who were closer to God and His messenger; the reason being that they found their salvation in it in this world before the next.
We notice here that religious history played a role in refuting the unjust criticism that says that divine religions have come to lull people spiritually so that the exploitative groups of society go about their business in cheating the less fortunate sections of society. They, therefore, maintain that the religious phenomenon is just another face of the mutual interests of the religious establishment and the forces of oppression and exploitation.
Ridicule vs. ridicule
The plan of meting out chastisement to Noah’s people started with God’s command to Noah to end his mission and start building the Ark, without giving him any leeway to intercede with Him on their behalf any more, for their fate was sealed.
Noah’s people started making fun of him for building the Ark in a landlocked area. The order from God to him was clear, in that he should trade ridicule with them, because they did not know what would become of their fate. They would have nothing to look forward to, except the deluge, which would drown everybody save the believers:
Forthwith he (starts) constructing the Ark: Every time that the chiefs of his people passed by him, they threw ridicule on him. He said: “If ye ridicule us now, we (in our turn) can look down on you with ridicule likewise! But soon will ye know who it is on whom will descend a penalty that will cover them with shame, on whom will be unloosed a penalty [ever]lasting.” (11: 38–39)
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (3)
Dialogue Starting With a Question (3)
Noah’s affliction with his son
There came the deluge. Noah and his band went aboard the ship. It was sailing as if in rough seas. The water level kept rising, flooding everything in its way – towns, villages, people, and animals.
Those were trying times for Noah (a.s.), for his son was adamant not to join in and board the ship with his father. He preferred to stick it out with the camp of unbelief alongside his mother who was of the same persuasion. The dialogue between father and son is brilliantly captured in the following Quranic verses:
So, the Ark floated with them on the waves (towering) like mountains, and Noah called out to his son, who had separated himself (from the rest): “O my son! Embark with us, and be not with the unbelievers!” The son replied: “I will betake myself to some mountain: it will save me from the water.” Noah said: “This day nothing can save, from the command of God, any but those on whom He hath mercy! “And the waves came between them, and the son was among those overwhelmed in the Flood. (11: 42–43)
And the floodwater receded: “Then the word went forth: ‘O earth! Swallow up thy water, and O sky! Withhold
(thy rain)!’ and the water abated, and the matter was ended. The Ark rested on Mount Judi, and the word went forth: ‘Away with those who do wrong!'” (11: 44).
Belief vs. family ties
Noah (a.s.) remained battling with the question of losing his son; he was trying to get to terms with the bereavement. God had promised him to save members of his family when he ordered him to put on the ship a couple [male and female] of each and every creatures, his family – except those whose affair was resolved – and those who had already joined the camp of belief. However, what seemed to escape Noah’s mind was that saving members of his family did not cover those members whose destiny was sealed. Noah turned his face to his Lord in supplication: “And Noah called upon his Lord, and said: ‘O my Lord! Surely my son is of my family! And Thy promise is true, and Thou art the Most Just of judges!'” (11: 45).
The answer came unequivocally. There should be a complete severance of relations between the prophet and the unbelievers, even though some of them were his blood relatives, thus: “He said: ‘O Noah! He is not of thy family: For his conduct is unrighteous. So ask not of Me that of which thou hast no knowledge! I give thee counsel, lest thou should act like the ignorant!'” (11: 46).
It was a somewhat blunt response, which contained a warning. It outlined for Noah the boundaries of his ties with members of his family. The yardstick being that of belief; beyond which no relationship should be contemplated.
Noah (a.s.) was basking in the glory and atmosphere of the Message, seeking refuge with God and asking His forgiveness, for he did not have any lingering doubts as to the truthfulness of servitude to God. He just wanted to know the essence of God’s promise in reality: “Noah said: ‘O my Lord! I do seek refuge with Thee, lest I should ask Thee for that of which I have no knowledge. And unless Thou forgive me and have Mercy on me, I should indeed be lost!'” (11: 47).
This section of the story of Noah, the prophet, concludes with God’s call to Noah and his companions, that they have been graced with His mercy and bounty:
The word came: “O Noah! Come down (from the Ark) with peace from Us, and blessing on thee and on some of the peoples (who will spring) from those with thee: but (there will be other) peoples to whom We shall grant their pleasures (for a time), but in the end will a grievous penalty reach them from Us.” (11: 48)
This has been the story of Prophet Noah (a.s.). It started with dialogues between him and his people, his son, and his Lord. It ended with him having a dialogue with his Lord, bringing his mission to an end by asking for clarifications of certain aspects, which he found ambiguous and were pressing for answers. In the end, God granted him, and the band of believers who followed him, peace and blessings.
The moral of this story
In conclusion, we should ponder a number of points from the last chapter in the story to learn some lessons for the present and the future.
1. Principle of reciprocity
Muslim activists may resort to the same policy used by the other party, in this case ridicule, should no other weapon be left in their armory. That is, it is not realistic that they reciprocate with kindness in situations where the response to amiability is ridicule.
The strategy, of the adversaries of divine messages, of trivializing these messages is a type of psychological warfare intended to unsettle the believers by portraying them as irrelevant, and consequently unworthy of being taken seriously. The prime objective of this game is to scare people away from the Message the believers are trying to spread. Thus, this strategy has not come into being by mere chance. It is driven by a well- thought-out plan. Accordingly, it has to be fought with the same vigor and resourcefulness, in that the activists should use everything at their disposal to perfect the art of making jokes at the adversarial ideologies and their exponents as a means of defending oneself and faith. This can drain the opponents mentally and morally, using the same weapon. This has been the aim of the Quran, in the story of Noah, when he was directed by God to use the same weapon of ridicule against his people.
2. Goodness of father vs. badness of son
It is not necessary that the offspring of the prophets be good like their fathers, albeit desirable. So the goodness of any person should not be a pointer to the righteousness of their posterity, because their being unrighteous should not necessarily be taken to mean unrighteousness of their parents. It should not escape anyone’s mind that sons and daughters are subject, in the way they conduct themselves, to social influences, be they good or evil, insomuch as they are the product of their own private climate, i.e. the family. The father should endeavor to bring his children up in the best manner and to the best of his ability. Should he succeed, he would have achieved his objective; if not, he would have discharged his duty.
The crux of the matter is in defining the responsibility within its lawful framework. The task of the messenger and any other activist is their calling people, including their own relatives, to the way of God. In executing their task, they are free to use any means at their disposal – by word and deed, carrot and stick, and directly and indirectly. Should they exhaust all the means in going about discharging their responsibilities, their work would be accepted, regardless of whether or not their invitation has been accepted, by people closer to them or those at large. Whatever the result might turn out to be, this would not detract from the position of the messenger.
3. Delivering the Message impartially should be paramount
The messengers should not fall prey to their personal preferences and feelings vis-à-vis their family members. They should not follow their emotions slavishly, should any member of their families prefer to side with falsehood rather than guidance and light. The Message should be the final arbiter in determining their relationship. There is no harm in relationships with others that are based on feelings, provided that they do not encroach on the principles of the Message. Yet, should the reverse happen, precedence should be given to the Message over the relationship. God says:
Thou wilt not find any people who believe in God and the Last Day, loving those who resist God and His Apostle, even though they were their fathers or their sons, or their brothers, or their kindred. For such He has written Faith in their hearts, and strengthened them with a spirit from Himself. And He will admit them to Gardens beneath which Rivers flow, to dwell therein (for ever). God will be well pleased with them, and they with Him. They are the Party of God. Truly it is the Party of God that will achieve Felicity. (58: 22)
This has been the story of Prophet Noah (a.s.) in his dialogue with his people, with all its implications on, and practical results for, the future trend of the call to the way of God. We may have gone outside the reach we have put down for the discussion in certain aspects. It is because getting engrossed in the climate of dialogue has required that in general terms.
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (4)
Hood and his people, Aad
This is another story of the Qur’anic stories that narrate the history of prophets and their peoples. It is that of Hood and his people, Aad. This story is mentioned in some eight chapters, such as A’araf, Hood, Mu’minoun, Shu’ara, Ahqaaf, Thaariyaat, Qamar, and Fajr. The Qur’anic style has varied in telling this tale, shuttling between the style of recounting the historical facts and the dialogue-style of storytelling.
In our exposition, we will concentrate on discussing the story within a dialogue setting. We shall endeavor to bring to light the characteristics of the approach of this prophet to dialogue with his people, which differ in some respects from Prophet Noah’s people and others. This is with aim of coming up with a variety of approaches that we can put to use in our contemporary life.
We shall discuss the subject of this story in the surroundings in which the dialogue was conducted between prophet and people.
To the ‘Ad people, (We sent) Hud, one of their (own) brethren: He said: “O my people! Worship God! Ye have no other god but Him will ye not fear (God)?” The leaders of the unbelievers among his people said: “Ah! We see thou art an imbecile!” and “We think thou art a liar!” He said: “O my people! I am no imbecile, but (I am) a messenger from the Lord and Cherisher of the worlds! I but fulfil towards you the duties of my Lord’s mission: I am to you a sincere and trustworthy adviser. Do ye wonder that there hath come to you a message from your Lord through a man of your own people, to warn you? Call in remembrance that He made you inheritors after the people of Noah, and gave you a stature tall among the nations. Call in remembrance the benefits (ye have received) from God: that so ye may prosper.” (7: 65–69)
A contest between two approaches
At the start, the approach of the unbelievers was to accuse the Prophet of stupidity and telling lies. His reply was more restrained and amicable. He called upon them to reflect on the issues and laws he had raised before them, reminding them that he was intent on giving them good counsel. He then calmly exclaimed as to why they could not comprehend the sending of a messenger among them, who was of their own. What was the justification for their refusal to accept that? He went on to remind them to call to mind God’s favors to them – of physical power, so much so that they could dig out houses in the rock. How they were given preference over other peoples, whom they ruled over. What was their reaction? Did they accept Hood’s invitation to ponder his message, so that they could engage him in dialogue to clarify the situation? None of that was forthcoming. They were bent on showing intransigence and haughtiness, forestalling any move towards change, accusing him of slandering the faith of their fathers and forefathers, reacting furiously, and challenging him to bring down on them the curse of punishment, which they thought he was incapable of making happen, or he was not serious in effecting it. This was their multi-faceted position on Hood’s argument. This had turned the good-intentioned honest argument into a dangerous stand-off: “They said: ‘Come thou to us, that we may worship God alone, and give up the cult of our fathers? Bring us what thou threaten us with, if so be that thou tell the truth!‘”
Yet, the response came sharp and enlightening, carrying in its turns ridicule of what they worshipped, i.e. idols that were bereft of any power to overcome anything, let alone the Omnipotent. What they worshipped were just names, which did not carry any weight or value, thus: “He said: ‘Punishment and wrath have already come upon you from your Lord: dispute ye with me over names which ye have devised, ye and your fathers, without authority from God? Then wait: I am amongst you, also waiting.'” (7: 71).
The shades of the picture are even more defined:
O my people! I ask of you no reward for this (Message). My reward is from none but Him who created me: Will ye not then understand? And O my people! Ask forgiveness of your Lord, and turn to Him (in repentance): He will send you the skies pouring abundant rain, and add strength to your strength: so turn ye not back in sin! (11: 51–52)
He touched a nerve when he raised their hopes of abundant water, to which they used to look forward in their desert land, in giving them more power that was a source of their boasting and vanity, and calling upon them to ask God’s forgiveness, the Lord who has control over all that. He warned them not to turn away from him, while being overwhelmed by crime, rebellion, and sin.
What was their response?
They said: “O Hud! No clear (Sign) that hast thou brought us, and we are not the ones to desert our gods on thy word! Nor shall we believe in thee! We say nothing but that (perhaps) some of our gods may have seized thee with imbecility.” He said: “I call God to witness, and do ye bear witness, that I am free from the sin of ascribing, to Him, other gods as partners! So scheme (your worst) against me, all of you, and give me no respite. I put my trust in God, my Lord and your Lord! There is not a moving creature, but He hath grasp of its forelock. Verily, it is my Lord that is on a straight Path. If ye turn away, I (at least) have conveyed the Message with which I was sent to you. My Lord will make another people to succeed you, and you will not harm Him in the least. For my Lord hath care and watch over all things.” (11: 53–57)
They snubbed his argument without any convincing counter argument; they turned down his invitation because they deemed him weak. They accused him of insanity for attacking their gods, branding him with a whole raft of pejoratives. However, he declared his disavowal of their setting up partners with God, both with His testimony and their own testimonial, in order that he could draw a line between both the parties in the end. As for the situation arising from branding him weak and insignificant, he countered that with the power of the All-powerful, which is capable of overcoming them by another people, after He had disposed of them, without their being able to do anything to stop that. Then he defied them if there was anything in their power they could do to harm him, leaving them under no illusions that they could not reach him.
Thus, this approach is worth pondering by the workers in the way of God, with a view to following its example in their work among the communities they live in and aspire to guide them to God’s path.
Comparing the Peoples of Noah and Aad
By contrasting both the stories of prophets Noah and Hood (a.s.) and their peoples, we can come up with these observations:
The line of thinking of the people of Noah was similar to that of the people of Aad, i.e. they had almost identical viewpoints with regard to (a) the personality of the prophet, (b) rejecting the feasibility of a human being becoming a prophet, (c) accusing the prophet of fabrications and telling lies, (d) branding him insane, (e) sanctifying the faith of their ancestors and their morals, and (f) dismissing the notion of resurrection. The reason for this similarity could be the proximity of time between the two peoples, as has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’an: “Call in remembrance that He made you inheritors after the people of Noah, and gave you a stature tall among the nations. Call in remembrance the benefits (ye have received) from God: that so ye may prosper” (7: 69).
The Divine Messages were on a collision course with the well-off section of society, which instinctively used to wage war against those Messages because they were under the illusion of feeling threatened and for fear of relinquishing their privileges. It is worth noting that the Divine Messages do no grant any concessions to any individual or group of people outside the remit of work and efficiency. This can be observed from the Quranic description of this group of people as opulent and the singling out of this portrayal when recounting real life situations.
The adversaries of the Messages were unable to prove rationally their case in rejecting those Messages. Their rejection was induced by their inability to come out from the status quo and embrace change.
The prophet, in Hood’s case as well as in Noah’s, stood his ground by giving good counsel, exercising restraint and forbearance, in trying to open a window on their hearts and minds, as perchance they might accept the truth and be guided to the right path, i.e. that of belief in God. He did all that without letting his personal anger take hold over him because, in discharging his noble mission, he did not have any personal choices. What governed his moves and the positions he contemplated, and eventually took, were the principles and the interests of the Message alone. These were the similarities between the stories of the two prophets, Noah and Hood, and their peoples.
What distinguished the latter from the former was that Hood’s people were far more powerful than Noah’s. This meant that they managed to mount a more determined opposition and show far greater intransigence, in which case they exerted more pressure on Prophet Hood.
Yet, Hood did not give in to their pressure and defied their physical power, in that it was God-given and that He is the All-powerful and He alone can strip them of it. Without His will they could neither earn any benefit nor cause harm, and neither death nor life.
He went further in defying them with the Power he derived from God, addressing them thus: “So scheme (your worst) against me, all of you, and give me no respite” (11: 55).
It is evident that, according to the prevailing circumstances, the style of dialogue was ranging from the mild, which was intended to open their hearts and minds to the truth, to the severe, which was meant to make the opponent see sense.
This has been the picture, which the story of Hood, in his dialogue with his people on the question of belief in God, the Qur’anic verses has been trying to paint. Maybe, the picture has revealed more than we have been able to put our fingers on.
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (5)
Saleh and Thamoud
This is another of the stories of prophets, which is not different from the other ones. These stories have a common thread that runs through all of them. They seem to share similar circumstances undergone by the prophets, the issues they raised and their style of dialogue with the unbelievers, especially their attempt to loosen the stranglehold of the rich and powerful on the disenfranchised and weaker sections of society.
However, the difference in Saleh’s story is that he was sent to his people with a sign from God, a she-camel that provided them with milk so abundant that it never ran out, no matter how big their number was. The drinking water was equally divided between the people and the she-camel, in that the day when she came to drink was hers alone and the day when they wanted to get water was theirs alone. Saleh’s people did not like the allocation of water, in that they saw in the animal defiance of their dignity and arrogance. They therefore killed it, heralding the punishment, which would descend on them fast.
Without going into the details of the story, we would like to dwell on two fundamental points that have characterized the dialogue in this story:
[The first point is] the attempt by the despotic forces to raise doubt in the minds of those who were deemed weak about the validity of Prophet Saleh’s Message. They managed this through posing a naive question, which ostensibly looked innocent as though they were pursuing the truth, but in reality their aim was to mislead the camp of belief into reconsidering their position, suggesting to them that the case was debatable. That is, it was not watertight. Nevertheless, the forces of belief were steadfast in adhering to their belief, so much so that the opposing forces had no alternative but to reveal their true face, a face of unbelief, arrogance, and violent reaction:
The leaders of the arrogant party among his people said to those who were reckoned powerless – those among them who believed: “know ye indeed that Saleh is a messenger from his Lord?” They said: “We do indeed believe in the revelation which hath been sent through him. The Arrogant party said: “For our part, we reject what ye believe in.” (7: 75–76)
Guile and evil
We would like to dwell a while on this point to ponder this method, which we may encounter from the forces of unbelief and misguidance. We may be approached in a seemingly nice way as to whether we are serious in what we believe in or in the issues we raise. They may be patronizing by claiming that we are wise, educated, and knowledgeable enough to reject such recipes for belief.
They are the same age-old devious methods used to play down the question of belief and doctrine, portraying it as though it detracts from man’s intellectual powers. Many, who see through the eyes of others or are receptive to such smooth talk, may unwittingly fall victim to these ways.
There is no objection to resorting to these methods with the dishonest among our doctrinal adversaries because of the irrational foundation on which they seem to be anchoring their unbelief, polytheism, and misguidance. The Holy Quranic has made many references to this state of affairs in its dialogue with the unbelievers and the polytheists, asking them to leave the judgment to their intellects, which would tell them that the objectionable beliefs they hold are irrational.
[The second point is] the attempt by the unbelievers to raise the question of Saleh’s social standing and how it was undermined by his “claim” of prophecy, in that they no longer had confidence in him. This was a tactic to persuade Saleh to give up on them and abandon his mission. “They said: ‘O Saleh! Thou hast been of us a center of our hopes hitherto! Dost thou (now) forbid us the worship of what our fathers worshipped? But we are really in suspicious (disquieting) doubt as to that to which thou invite us'” (11: 62).
Yet he responded to them with the logic of the Message. This is because the situation was crystal clear to him, on the one hand, and entrusting him with delivering the Message was a Divine grace, on the other hand. He looked at it this way: whatever he was presumably going to lose in social status, was going to be offset by the reward he was expecting from God. He was absolutely sure that there was nothing they could do to rescue him from the punishment of God for flouting His commands and taking up his people’s proposition, had he decided to do so: “He said: ‘O my people! Do ye see? If I have a Clear (Sign) from my Lord and He hath sent Mercy unto me from Himself, who then can help me against God if I were to disobey Him? What then would ye add to my (portion) but perdition?'” (11: 63).
Taking advantage of weaknesses
As we have done in the previous point, we would like to pause a little while here, to explore the method Saleh’s people used with him. In this method lurks a great danger that might threaten the Muslim activists, especially those who are vulnerable to matters of personal dignity, which are determined by social values and norms.
The activists might be tempted into believing that remaining faithful to the task of calling people to God’s way might cause them to lose their social positions. The scaremongers try to give the impression that the two, i.e. the task and social rank, are incompatible. That is, society has devised certain mechanisms and criteria to value and judge its members. Naturally, what society has come to recognize as a quality should not necessarily mean that it is harmonious with that called for by religious dictates. However, what seems to be the believers’ lot nowadays are words like reactionary, backward and traitor, whereas descriptions such as progressive, outward looking, patriotic and faithful have come to characterize those in the opposite camp.
Some people may come to terms with this tendency, especially when they are cocooned, keeping a distance from the principles of the Message, as this situation has a bearing on the relationship between man and Message. That is, when the personal and social position take precedence over matters of belief. Such people can easily fall prey to sweet words as quickly as salt dilutes in water.
As the Quranic verses seem to suggest, the activists should keep abreast of their belief and message in life. This can provide them with the requisite strength to judge matters critically, in which case they will soon find out that it is wrong to subject “self-assurance” to the standards and norms of falsehood, instead of the criteria and ideals of the truth. The Muslim activists should be firm in the knowledge that the trust of the believers in them is the real worth of one’s confidence. The ones on the opposite side should rest assured that they are worthless in the eye of the true believers, for the devious methods they practice to bring pressure to bear on the believers to shake their confidence in themselves, is a foregone conclusion.
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (6)
Abraham and His People
There is another prophet of outstanding quality in the eye of God, as is apparent from the many superlatives used in his praise. This is just one of these descriptions, i.e. where God announces that He has taken Abraham (a.s.) for a friend: “Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to God, does good, and follows the way of Abraham the true in Faith? For God did take Abraham for a friend” (4: 125).
There is a plethora of references to Prophet Abraham (a.s.) in the Holy Qur’an, to the extent that his name or story are mentioned in no fewer than twenty chapters. In these chapters many aspects of his personality and life are discussed. His dialogues, be they soul-searching, those with his Lord, his people, the dictator of his age (Nimrod), or with the angels who brought him the news of what would be the fate of the people of Prophet Lot (a.s.) and gave him glad tidings of granting him offspring in old age.
Examining Abraham’s story offers many different approaches to dialogue in the process of discharging one’s responsibility in calling to the way of God, or expressing oneself in matters pertaining to the faith. In Abraham’s personality, the human prophet, as he lived all his life feeling the presence of God around him, we will discover that, to him, duty came before personal feelings, even in the most heightened situations where emotions could run high and take hold over the person.
As has already been discussed, Abraham (a.s.) conducted dialogue in three different situations. They were: (a) his soul-searching dialogue to find the path to God, (b) his dialogue with God to tread the road to belief that stemmed from the heart and mind, and (c) his dialogue with his people, in the wake of his destruction of their idols, where he confronted them with strong evidence of the fallacy of both their beliefs and conduct in life.
We have concluded that Abraham’s experience should provide Muslim activists with a good vehicle in the cause of God. Abraham’s soul-searching method should serve as an example that should be followed by the activists by creating the right conditions for dialogue in cultural and ideological seminars and other avenues where the activists come face to face with the masses and get acquainted with what concerns them. The participants may start their intellectual exchanges where the activists are in it to sharpen their wits as they are on a learning curve, ensuring that the other party should feel assured that they are not about to enter into a bruising brawl.
In so doing, the other party to the dialogue would be able to discover their fault without any qualms. To a certain degree this is akin to a reader of a book or a novel who comes to empathize with the characters of the story, which may lead in the end to discovering his own self and where he has gone wrong as a result. This approach, i.e. soul-searching, can be advocated in writings that are intended to express the views on doctrinal matters, be they for or against. Instead of the direct preaching style, soul-searching and soliloquy could be used.
Putting this approach to use should form the building blocks for the literature of Islamic call, guided by the Quranic experience, both in form and content. This would be in an effort to mix and cause the interaction of artistic tools for literary work with the practical basis for calling to the way of God.
Ideology and belief
In Abraham’s dialogue with his Lord, we may find an excellent example of how one can go about calling to the way of God. He asked his Lord to physically show him how He brought the dead to life again, so that he could have peace of mind. This approach should teach us how to handle the reactions of others to the ideas we raise with them. That is, we have to be fully satisfied that the strength of evidence we offer others to embrace our ideology should sink in their minds. Yet we should appeal to their hearts for the same objective and in the same measure. Only then should we feel secure in the knowledge that others would experience spiritual peace and security. Thus, we should not be taken aback if we are confronted with requests, such as the one Abraham asked his Lord to accomplish. God did not find Abraham’s request the least outrageous because he was sincere in his request to achieve certitude in his faith.
As you would expect, we are not in a position to entertain others’ requests in showing them a miracle along the same lines as God did with His prophet. Nevertheless, we can provide them with clear-cut ideas that are very close to their day-to-day situations. This will make them feel that the question of belief is with them, hand in hand with all that they do and in the relations they develop with others.
This explains the need for the activists to be in constant interaction with reality, so that they can understand it and deal with it as though it were a raw material necessary for manufacturing a product. This would lead us to breathe life into modes of religious instructions and raise awareness in the fields of knowledge. That done, we would be sure of success in extricating our work practices in the way of God from intellectual inertia, which might turn it into inanimate relics stacked in the museums of thought.
Putting this approach into practice would make it desirable not to stop at the thought and rulings we have inherited from bygone generations, which have acquired the eminence of being “public records”. Those “records” have become so rigid that whoever had the experience of reading them would feel as though they were going through a document that had been committed to memory.
What gives us the confidence to reach such a conclusion is that the Qur’anic approach has opened up on life in all its fields, small and large, be it cosmic phenomena or public/individual life, only to exhibit the evidence of the existence of God and of the great human values.
This approach, which has come about as a result of extensive experiments, leads us to realize that there may be other means that are waiting to be discovered on the way of our life, which is ever-changing and ever-developing in every department. That is, although the truth is an ever-fixed reality, yet the routes that may lead to it are not the exclusive preserve of a particular time, place, or individual. We might, in this regard, be inspired by these wise words, “The roads that lead to God are as many as there are human souls. And if men of old came to discover some truths, they have left out many others for us to uncover and impart to others.”
Seizing opportunities to engage in dialogue
The third type of approach Prophet Abraham (a.s.) espoused was the one he conducted with his people after he had torn down their idols. We may borrow this approach in certain situations where we feel the need to throw ourselves into the breach to engage the opponents in dialogue on those matters they seem to have failed to notice. Having conducted the dialogue, we may come out with conclusive evidence of their flawed argument or wanting conduct. Thus, they might be pushed into taking one of two positions: either (a) accepting the truth, or (b) showing open arrogance and intransigence, which is liable to make them lose their self-esteem and the respect of others. This in turn would minimize their capacity to influence others to walk the road of misguidance and deviation.
While advocating this approach we should not lose sight of opening the door on others’ ideologies and practices, in order to discover their strengths and weaknesses to make use of them in the battles of dialogue in the cause of faith.
These are some of the practical aspects of Abraham’s dialogues we can make use of. There were other modes of dialogue Abraham (a.s.) used with his people. However, the Quran does not mention in detail all that his people talked about. It has, though, made references to their stances. Their viewpoint was contained in the answer, or it can be detected from the universally known belief of polytheism. The Quran has touched on the latter, be it in the story of Abraham (a.s.) or other prophets at large, as has already been discussed in the section “Dialogue with the Polytheists”.
Standing up against the campaigns of harassment and scaring tactics
Let us dwell on these Quranic verses, which show some aspects of dialogue:
His people disputed with him. He said: “(Come) ye to dispute with me, about God, when He (Himself) hath guided me? I fear not (the beings) ye associate with God: Unless my Lord wills, (nothing can happen). My Lord comprehends in His knowledge all things. Will ye not (yourselves) be admonished? How should I fear (the beings) ye associate with God, when ye fear not to give partners to God without any warrant having been given to you? Which of (us) two parties hath more right to security? (Tell me), if ye know. It is those who believe and confuse not their beliefs with wrong – that are (truly) in security, for they are on (right) guidance.” (6: 80–82)
As we read these verses, we come to the conclusion that the polytheists wanted to instill fear into Abraham’s heart that their gods might harm him. They urged him to desist from challenging their associates and beliefs under the pretext of caring about his safety from the revenge of the gods that could be unleashed against him. It seems that they were under the illusion that their gods could harm those who dared to resist them, as is evident from the assertions of Noah’s people, thus: “We say nothing but that (perhaps) some of our gods may have seized thee with imbecility” (11: 54).
Abraham seized this misguided notion to fight back. He made it clear to them that his relationship with God was not built as a result of needing to vent psychological pressure on belief. Rather, it came about from God’s guidance, which enlightened his heart and mind with belief, thus responding to the light coming from God’s realm.
He started the dialogue with them from the question of fear and security, leaving them without any doubt that he did not fear their gods, regardless of the power they alleged their gods had. That is, God alone is the Creator of everything and the possessor of the power therein; nothing can bring benefit or cause harm, except with His will.
He countered their argument of warning him of the harm their gods might cause him, using the same ammunition, by raising the specter of fear of God in their hearts for setting up partners to Him without warrant. He concluded by posing them the question of a sense of security, that one can protect oneself from the partners with one’s own strength, which draws on that of God, or through His power, if one cannot put up a defense. That is the source of feeling secure. Conversely, how could the polytheists enjoy security before God’s wrath and might, which none can withstand.
As a result, security was the share of the believers, who did not tamper their belief with oppression, because the sense of security had been based on sound and strong foundation.
Since that dialogue was conducted between polytheism and monotheism, it would certainly have a bearing on the present day stand-off between the forces of belief and those of unbelief and misguidance. This is particularly so, when the defeatists’ challenges are being issued to the believers to weaken their resolve in calling to the way of God and belief, under the pretext of fearing for their safety from the forces of unbelief and misguidance, which possess all the material power, whereas the believers have none of that. This, the apologists maintain, may possibly shake up the position of the believers and deal a blow to their morale, leaving them paralyzed.
This method can also be used with the waverers among the believers who have had a nervous breakdown and whose morale has collapsed under the weight of the overwhelming forces of unbelief. Thus, they have been lulled into a false sense of security, preferring to stick it out with those who have lost their way, rather than adhering to the truth in adversity.
There may be a need for the approach to dialogue that Abraham (a.s.) used with his people on the question of security and insecurity, with a view to bringing the waverers back to the fold of belief. Abraham managed to revive in them the strength of belief in the Omnipotent to the exclusion of any other power. Then and now, believers are capable of standing up to the forces of defeatism and be counted. As the Quran has put it:
Men said to them: “A great army is gathering against you”: And frightened them: But it (only) increased their Faith: They said: “For us God sufficeth, and He is the best disposer of affairs.” And they returned with Grace and bounty from God: no harm ever touched them: For they followed the good pleasure of God: And God is the Lord of bounties unbounded. It is only the Evil One that suggests to you the fear of his votaries: Be ye not afraid of them, but fear Me, if ye have Faith. (3: 173-175)
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (7)
Abraham’s dialogue with his father
We move to Abraham’s (a.s.) dialogue with his father, who was an unbeliever1 like his people. In his work to the way of God, Abraham (a.s.) felt a priority to start calling on his father to embrace the faith, because his father’s remaining in the camp of unbelief could weaken his position, create problems that could impede his work, or bring about unexpected problems.
When it started, the dialogue was facing some problems for it was between father and son, in a society that attached a great value to the parents, so much so that their position verged on the sacred. It required the offspring to show unreserved submission to the will of the parents. As a result, Abraham (a.s.) was a little cautious. He was careful not use any inflammatory language, which might have been interpreted as injurious to his father’s person. Instead, the dialogue was high on the emotional, bordering on the entreating. You can tell that he was addressing a person who was very dear to his heart, and who was on the brink of falling into the abyss. The atmosphere was amicable:
(Also) mention in the Book (the story of) Abraham: He was a man of Truth, a prophet. Behold, he said to his father: “O my father! Why worship that which hears not and sees not, and can profit thee nothing? O my father! To me hath come knowledge which hath not reached thee: so follow me: I will guide thee to a way that is even and straight. O my father! Serve not Satan: for Satan is a rebel against (God) Most Gracious. O my father! I fear lest a Penalty afflict thee from (God) Most Gracious, so that thou become to Satan a friend.” (The father) replied: “Dost thou hate my gods, O Abraham? If thou forbear not, I will indeed stone thee: Now get away from me for a good long while!” Abraham said: “Peace be on thee: I will pray to my Lord for thy forgiveness: for He is to me Most Gracious. And I will turn away from you (all) and from those whom ye invoke besides God: I will call on my Lord: perhaps, by my prayer to my Lord, I shall be not unblessed.” (19: 41–48)
As can be read, Abraham tried to attribute the invitation to his father to embrace belief to the knowledge he had, of which his father had none. Thus, there was no social objection to the son calling his father to faith without encroaching on the position of parenthood. He had further reasons to engage his father in dialogue, in that his concern was for his father, should he continue maintaining his unyielding and misguided position, in which case he would earn God’s punishment.
His father’s response sprang from a feeling of heavy-handedness bestowed by a parent’s authority, which allowed the father to coerce his son to follow in his footsteps, threatening him with expulsion, should he not acquiesce. Thus, dialogue was non-existent. Instead, a command-and-obey style of relationship ruled supreme. This was the norm then, a relationship that was almost teetering on the master/slave one.
Nevertheless, Abraham (a.s.) did not relent and continued to maintain amicable ties with his father. He succeeded in reining in his feelings and blending them with his duty to deliver his father from the darkness he was in. Yet, when he saw no hope of his father mending his ways, despite his prayer for him to be guided aright, he declared that he would have nothing to do with his father, his own people, and the gods they worshipped, having discharged his duty towards them to the best of his ability.
Abraham’s prayer for his father to be forgiven his sins stemmed from his feeling that he might change his mind and go back to God. It had never crossed his mind that his relationship with his father would entitle the father to a special treatment. That is why he disavowed his father after he had exhausted all efforts in persuading him to join the camp of belief, and the fact that he was an arch-enemy of God.
In our work for the way of God, we can make use of this approach in countering the animosity of the people who relate to us in one way or the other. We can always let the atmosphere of kindness and love prevail in dialogue. This is capable of making the other party respond to the amiable climate, without giving in to our emotions to run the encounter, in which case we may unwittingly end up serving the interests of unbelief and misguidance. A good-natured style in such circumstances should not be taken to mean that it is a result of a spontaneous emotional need. Rather, it is part and parcel of a well-thought-out plan, whose characteristics are flexibility, understanding, and steadfastness.
In this light, it is desirable that we give this approach a boost in situations where firmness is called for. This is because some people might exploit the emotional side for something that does not serve the interests of the calling to the way of God, in the same way Abraham used the other approach. We should never lose sight of the fact that the overriding concern should be for keeping the dialogue guided by the wisdom with which God wants to permeate the work in His cause. In the end, we may feel the need to create the right conditions for the spiritual, in that parties to the dialogue should be reminded of God’s Grace and the activists should engage in supplication to win the other party over, by the example of humility, whispered prayer, and submission.
Abraham’s dialogue with his son
Ishmael (a.s.) was a grace from God bestowed on Abraham (a.s.) for a prayer he offered His Lord, thus: “‘O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!’ So We gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear” (37: 101–02). He lived alongside his father, sharing the father’s responsibilities and duties, accepting with him the covenant with God for them to build His House, thus:
Remember We made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Ishmael, that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer). (2: 125)
And remember Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House (With this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For Thou art the All- Hearing, the All-Knowing. Our Lord! Make of us Muslims, bowing to Thy (Will), and of our progeny a people Muslim, bowing to Thy (will); and show us our place for the celebration of (due) rites; and turn unto us (in Mercy), for Thou art the Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. Our Lord! Send amongst them an Apostle of their own, who shall rehearse Thy Signs to them and instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom, and sanctify them: For Thou art the Exalted in Might, the Wise.” (2: 127–29)
Thus, it can be said that Ishmael was shoulder to shoulder with his father in his divine mission and his spiritual activity, in as much as he was shadowing him in his public life – a faithful and devoted son.
A manifest trial
There was a trial in the making to test both father and son. They were put in a position that would shake the innermost convictions and feelings of any human. Abraham (a.s.) had a dream in which he was ordered by God to slay his son, Ishmael; to prophets, dreams were a kind of divine revelation.
What was the reaction of Abraham, the prophet and father at the same time? He was facing a gigantic task, which was challenging his feelings, with a view to giving his prophetic role an extra dimension.
Did the two roles, those of father and of messenger, clash? Was there an internal struggle between the two personalities, after he had experienced tense moments as to which side of his personality he would favour – father or prophet? The personality of the prophet won.
The Holy Qur’an did not allude to this side, for almost certainly that perceived internal struggle did not take place. This could be attributed to the fact that although the personas of the prophets are one, yet they are multi-faceted, all leading to God’s love and pleasure. This was manifest in the personality of Abraham (a.s.): “Behold! His Lord said to him: ‘Bow (thy will to Me):’ He said: ‘I bow (my will) to the Lord and Cherisher of the Universe'” (2: 131).
There was nothing to it, apart from submitting all to God, in person, offspring, possessions etc. So, if it was God’s wish that he slew his son, then so be it. This was no different from acting upon any other command, which did not entail any emotional dimension.
The father approached the son with the news of the Divine ordinance and while in conversation, the father wished that his son would respond positively to the command. “He said: “O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is thy view!” (37: 102).
What was the reaction of his son? Did he ask to be given time to think things over? No, it was the same reaction as the father had showed to the Divine command. It was the will of God. So, let us welcome it with all submission, forbearance, and strong faith: “(The son) said: ‘O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou will find me, if God so wills one practicing patience and constancy!'” (37: 103).
There the mission ended for it was already resolved that the dream/revelation should not entail executing the command to the letter. The whole process should stop at the scene of starting the slaying. Thus, the Divine order came to Abraham (a.s.) to refrain from going on with it:
So, when they had both submitted their wills (to God), and he had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), We called out to him “O Abraham! Thou hast already fulfilled the vision!” – thus indeed do We reward those who do right. For this was obviously a trial – And We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice: And We left (this blessing) for him among generations (to come) in later times: “Peace and salutation to Abraham!” Thus indeed do We reward those who do right. (37: 104–10)
The importance of the short dialogue that took place between Abraham and his son Ishmael lies in the fact that it paints a picture of the frame of mind with which Abraham received the command of his Lord, and that with which Ishmael received his father’s. That is, the father should slay the son; the latter should offer himself to help his father carry out the Divine order.
The moral of this tale is that it portrays the calmness of prophetic noble task, when the prophets submit to God’s will. It is a striking example of the uniformity of position between the human-prophet and the human-believer in theory and practice. This proves that the prophets did not talk only theoretically about sacrifice in the way of God. Rather, they went forth to translate the theory into real life situations. Any description falls short of giving a complete and true picture for this case, apart from the Holy Qur’an, which has done just that in the following verse.
God says: “And Abraham prayed for his father’s forgiveness only because of a promise he had made to him. But when it became clear to him that he was an enemy to God, he dissociated himself from him: for Abraham was most tenderhearted, forbearing” (9: 114).
It is noteworthy that this verse is indicative of a one-to-one dialogue style, i.e. between Abraham (a.s.) and his father. However, the style took a different turn when they were engaged in dialogue in the presence of others. The tempo would be raised or lowered according to the plan put in place. Here, in these verses, is an example of this:
Behold! He said to his father and his people, “What are these images, to which ye are (so assiduously) devoted?” They said, “We found our fathers worshipping them.” He said, “Indeed ye have been in manifest error – ye and your fathers.” They said, “Have you brought us the Truth, or are you one of those who jest?” He said, “Nay, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He Who created them (from nothing): and I am a witness to this (Truth). And by God, I have a plan for your idols – after ye go away and turn your backs.” (21: 52–57)
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (8)
He addressed them in another verse, thus: “Is it a falsehood – gods other than God – that ye desire?” (37: 86). The mood here is unwavering and direct; the main thrust of which seemed to be that of reciprocity – force for force. However, in another verse, it is noticeable that his tone was mild yet tough. Abraham (a.s.) appeared to make an intelligent and sudden move, intending to switch the atmosphere from dialogue on idols to the ambience of a scene where he was in God’s audience in total submission, only to numerate His favors to him, suggesting that man’s fate is in God’s hands. After this, he immediately moved to saying a special prayer, invoking Him, with utter humility, to answer it. This is a manifestation of the spiritual experience belief instills in man’s life:
And rehearse to them (something of) Abraham’s story. “Behold”, he said to his father and his people: “What worship ye?” They said: “We worship idols, and we remain constantly in attendance on them.” He said: “Do they listen to you when ye call (on them), or do you good or harm?” They said: “Nay, but we found our fathers doing thus (what we do).” He said: “Do ye then see whom ye have been worshipping, Ye and your fathers before you? For they are enemies to me; not so the Lord and Cherisher of the Worlds; who created me, and it is He Who guides me; Who gives me food and drink, and when I am ill, it is He Who cures me; Who will cause me to die, and then to life (again); and who, I hope, will forgive me my faults on the Day of Judgment.
“O my Lord! Bestow wisdom on me, and join me with the righteous; grant me honorable mention on the tongue of truth among the latest (generations); make me one of the inheritors of the Garden of Bliss; forgive my father, for that he is among those astray; and let me not be in disgrace on the Day when (men) will be raised up; The Day whereon neither wealth nor sons will avail, but only he (will prosper) that brings to Allah a sound heart; those apostles We endowed with gifts, some above other.” (26: 69–89).
We can make use of this style of dialogue in calling people with whom we have emotional ties. This brief Quranic dialogue has illustrated how one can handle similar situations with clarity of vision and purpose. We can experience the atmosphere of this dialogue and emulate it in real life situations.
As we live the scene, where belief rules supreme, doing away with all feelings of worry and uncertainty, we might also make the connection between this scene, of Abraham (a.s.) and his son, with that of Noah (a.s.) and his son. Here, one can detect some distinctions and differences between the two prophets, although each of them has a lofty station with His Lord, thus: “Those messengers We endowed with gifts, some above others” (2: 252).
The ultimate moral we should derive from experiencing this scene is that it symbolizes the highest echelon of ideals that Islamic education should build on, i.e. in marrying the principles and the practicalities of life and making them interact. This should be so in order that believing generations would follow the examples of active and pioneering religious history as well as original religious instructions, so much so that the body of concepts and ideals would be regarded as having a bearing on, and significance for, the lives of the believers, not abstract ideals per se.
Abraham’s dialogue with Nimrod
Prophet Abraham (a.s.) was a contemporary of a vicious and despotic ruler. The latter was so arrogant that he thought himself a god, who should be worshipped to the exclusion of the One God. Although the Quran did not mention his name, yet religious stories of the prophets call him Nimrod. However, name or no name is of little, if no, importance, because significance emanates from people who set good examples in the decisive positions and original experiments they represent.
In his dialogue, Abraham was unequivocal in his position with Nimrod. Abraham raised with him the question of divinity and how it is linked to Omnipotence, which Nimrod, the dictator, would have none of. Arguing the question of life and death, Abraham put his case that it is God, his Lord, who causes life and death. The tyrant seized the opportunity to play with words and replied that he could cause people to die or live, in that he could reprieve a person who was sentenced to death, or execute him, thus causing him to die. He concluded that, in that regard, he was not different from Abraham’s God.
Abraham (a.s. )did not leave him to bask in what he perceived to be a triumph over him. He mounted a determined challenge against him. Natural phenomena are of God’s making. So, he challenged him into changing the course of the sun in its rising and setting. Could he cause it to rise from the west? Nimrod was left speechless. This is how the Holy Quran describes the dialogue between the two men:
Hast thou not turned thy vision to one who disputed with Abraham about his Lord, because God had granted him power? Abraham said: “My Lord is He Who Gives life and death.” He said: “I give life and death”. Said Abraham: “But it is God that causes the sun to rise from the East: Do thou then cause him to rise from the West.” Thus, was he confounded who (in arrogance) rejected faith. Nor doth God give guidance to a people unjust. (2: 258)
Sabotaging the plan of deception
The message we can get from Prophet Abraham’s dialogue with Nimrod is that we should be able to counter those who attempt to falsify the truths, whether they are ones that relate to doctrinal issues or those that have a bearing on matters of life. No doubt, those quarters aim to pull the wool over the eyes of the naive among people. So, by focusing the debate on matters that are crystal clear, we can contribute to denuding the tactics of the misguided and the devious.
In achieving this goal, we should be conversant with the methods of misguidance that target simple people. We should also be familiar with the direct and straightforward ways that are capable of countering the slyness of the deceitful. These ways should be sound and strong enough as not be undermined or resisted. This, of course, requires the activists to keep up to date with the changing scene of life and the laws that govern it and guide its steps, in full conscience, comprehensiveness, and openness.
The prophetic preponderance
Discussing the dialogue in the story of Prophet Abraham (a.s.) represents [just] one aspect of his life, because our purpose has been to examine the characters that bore the responsibility of calling to the way of God, not to make an exhaustive study of their lives. However, we have managed to reap good results regarding the approach to dialogue in the way of God and the dynamic aspects of work in His cause.
As we conclude the narrative about Abraham, we must reiterate that his brilliant moral fiber struck an accord with God, in that he was calling to mind the feeling of the relationship between the Creator and the created, so much so that you can feel that mood. To him, God existed in every corner of his life – while eating or drinking, in sickness or in health, in this life or the hereafter, and in life and death. This is so because he felt the dire need for God’s help in everything, especially in his work in delivering the Divine message he was entrusted with, which needed a lot of effort and sacrifices.
Perhaps, the strength of his character and spirit made him overcome with forcefulness and serenity of mind all the situations that confronted him in his life, without letting fear find a way to his heart.
This is the practical outcome we get from Abraham’s mission in life, which we should put to use in cultivating and shaping the Islamic devout person so that they can discharge their responsibility of Islamic work for the Message and life alike, from a position of submission to God in word and deed.
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (9)
Dialogue in the Story of Moses
The story of Moses (a.s.) occupies more space in the Holy Quran, so much so that it has been mentioned in some thirty places. The significance it has for our ever-changing world is that, with his strong character, Moses entered life at a very turbulent and difficult period right from his birth. His was a society that was oppressed and subdued. From his earliest years, he lived a life that was far from perfect. These experiences he lived to tell of. They hardened his iron resolve to face up to the difficult situations of life, a life that as soon as the struggle had pulled it away
would revert to finding solace in God Almighty.
A critical situation
Before he was revealed to, Moses had lived a hard life that had made an impact on his character. He had experienced some concern and uncertainty about Pharaoh’s might and his overwhelming presence over the heads of his people.
Although he felt rather apprehensive when he was entrusted with delivering the Divine Message to Pharaoh, yet he was up to the task of propagating true belief in God, in that, in discharging his responsibility, he wanted to draw on the strength of God as well as on that of his brother. His frame of mind is brilliantly captured in the following Quranic verses that describe his dialogue with his Lord:
“Go thou to Pharaoh, for he has indeed transgressed all bounds.” (Moses) said: “O my Lord! Expand me my breast; ease my task for me; and remove the impediment from my speech, so they may understand what I say: And give me a Minister from my family, Aaron, my brother; add to my strength through him, and make him share my task: That we may celebrate Thy praise without stint, and remember Thee without stint: For Thou art He that (ever) regards us.” (20: 24–35)
As the verses suggest, although Moses did not turn down the job, yet he was not sure that he would be able to carry it out to the required standard. That is, delivering the message should be given its due regard, as it needed awareness of the surrounding circumstances, a foresight into the future and, above all, an articulate person who could put the message across with finesse. In another verse, you can see him pleading with God that there were things that might render him unsuitable for the job, such as he had already killed a man, thus: “).And (further), they have a charge of crime against me; and I fear they may slay me” (26: 14
Thus, his requests from God were dictated by his own circumstances. He asked his Lord to
“expand me my breast; ease my task for me; and remove the impediment from my speech, so they may understand what I say: And give me a Minister from my family, Aaron, my brother; add to my strength through him, and make him share my task”, so that both of them could share the responsibility from a position of strength. The response came from God, thus: “Allah said: ‘Granted is thy prayer, O Moses!'” (20: 36).
In the second chapter of the story, we come across Moses and Aaron standing shoulder to shoulder, when Aaron was charged with the task of giving support to his brother in delivering the Message. Both the brothers expressed their feeling as to the gigantic task that was put on their shoulders:
“Go, thou and thy brother, with My Signs, and slacken not, either of you, in keeping Me in remembrance. Go, both of you, to Pharaoh, for he has indeed transgressed all bounds; but speak to him mildly; perchance he may take warning or fear (God).” They (Moses and Aaron) said: “Our Lord! We fear lest he hasten with insolence against us, or lest he transgress all bounds.” He said: “Fear not: for I am with you: I hear and see (everything). So go ye both to him, and say, ‘verily we are apostles sent by thy Lord: Send forth, therefore, the Children of Israel with us, and afflict them not: with a Sign, indeed, have we come from thy Lord! And peace to all who follow guidance! Verily it has been revealed to us that the penalty (awaits) those who reject and turn away.'” (20: 42–48)
Relying on absolute power
Defining the task was made manifestly clear, as Pharaoh overstepped his bounds and pushed his luck. He had to be sent a messenger to convey to him God’s words so that he could be brought back to his senses with that which could appeal to his heart and could send shivers down his spine with the threat of use of force of the Almighty, which was capable of destroying his might, if need be.
The Divine design was, first, to appeal to his heart with gentle and loving words, in the hope that he might respond to the call of the truth. The hope was that he might be reminded of God’s graces and bounties on him, and of His chastisement.
Moses and Aaron (a.s.) were alarmed that Pharaoh might transgress against them, as he had all the material power in his arsenal, compared to their insignificant one.
God tells them not be afraid because they draw on the Might of the Omnipotent, who bestows power on the powerful, and that He has control over such power and the powerful alike. God further assures them that He is with them in whatever they say or do. Everything happens with His knowledge and under His gaze. He then instructs them what to say.
At the outset, they have to inform Pharaoh of their capacity as the prophets of God, so that he is aware of their identity and whom they represent when they discuss matters with him. The target of their mission and demands would be freeing the Children of Israel, who were oppressed, from the clutches of repression and punishment. After setting them free, they should be given freedom of movement and they should be left with Moses and Aaron to start a new life, away from Pharaoh’s repression and excesses. Then the two brothers would present Pharaoh with the miracle that would prove the veracity of their prophecy, cautioning him of God’s punishment, should he chose to brand them liars and shun the Words of God
The dialogue between the two messengers and God ended after He had explained to them the terms of reference of their mission, only for the mission to be set on the road of execution. In their capacity as the messengers of God, with a mandate to speak in His name, they started the dialogue with Pharaoh thus:
(When this message was delivered, Pharaoh) said: “Who, then, O Moses, is the Lord of you two?” He said: “Our Lord is He Who gave to each (created) thing its form and nature, and further, gave (it) guidance.” (Pharaoh) said: “What then is the condition of previous generations?” He replied: “The knowledge of that is with my Lord, duly recorded: my Lord never errs, nor forgets, He Who has made for you the earth like a carpet spread out; has enabled you to go about therein by roads (and channels); and has sent down water from the sky. With it have We produced diverse pairs of plants each separate from the others. ‘Eat (for yourselves) and pasture your cattle: Verily, in this are Signs for men endued with understanding. From the (earth) did We create you, and into it shall We return you, and from it shall We bring you out once again’.” (20: 49–50)
For a start, Pharaoh chose to ignore any knowledge about the Lord of Moses and Aaron, Whose Message they delivered to Pharaoh. Therefore, he tried to ask them about whom their Lord was, just to give the impression, before his people, that the issue could relate to some unknown person who might be competing with him. Moses’ answer dawned on Pharaoh in an all-encompassing word, putting the questioner in an unenviable situation, i.e. that of an ignoramus. How dare he ask such a question when he lives in this magnificent world where everything, be it small or big, testifies to the existence of God. He has given every being and entity in the whole universe the gift of existence. He then organized everything in such a fashion that it serves what it has been created for, according to flawless natural laws.
How can a person deliberately ignore all that, or pretend not to know about it, while everything in existence looks them in the eye. God’s presence is in the earth we walk on, in the sky, which sends the rain pouring, turning barren land into one heaving with life and flora. The similitude of such a person who is feigning ignorance, is that of him who closes his eyes to the reality of his own existence.
Pharaoh turned to another question, aiming to divert attention away from the answer he could not provide, to a marginal issue, which was capable of inflaming feelings and creating an atmosphere of animosity against the Message and the messengers. It was that of the destiny of the bygone generations who were not believers. Moses’ answer was that only God knew what they did, that it was all recorded, and that they would be called to book to answer for their deeds on the Day of Judgment.
Moses then went back to talk about God, His creation of the earth, which He spread out, adorning it with ways that make it inhabitable and His creation of the heavens, which give nourishment to the earth with the rainwater it sends down to benefit man and animal. He then gave Pharaoh an account of man’s journey in life, from the cradle to the grave to standing before God.
This was a skilful move by Moses (a.s.) to corner Pharaoh, who was running away from continuing the discussion on God Almighty, lest Moses should influence those around them who were listening attentively to the arguments and counter-arguments of the two men. Never before was Pharaoh confronted with a call and debate of such nature and intensity.
This dialogue has significance for our work in many respects:
1. The activists’ task and personal considerations
The activists should not turn their backs on the task of delivering the divine message. This should be the case, regardless of the state of mind they are in. Fear and uncertainty should not be a pretext to abdicate responsibility. They should ponder the matter in the same way Moses (a.s.) did when he was first called up to duty. What he did was to seek audience with God in supplication and prayer, explaining his position that it was not in his capacity to shoulder the full burden of Message. Thus, he pleaded with God to provide him with the spiritual strength required to be up to an acceptable standard. Moses did not stop there. He appealed for more support, by requesting that the Message be boosted further by another person whom he was sure could help him carry out his mission in the best possible manner.
These Quranic verses should provide us with this moral: the activist should not fall victim to his egotism, which would prevent him from seeking outside help with his work, or from accepting the offer of help from others for fear of losing his independence in discharging his duty. He may also think that, in the eye of others, he is not competent enough to shoulder practical responsibilities.
The reason being that the issue of active work in the arena of calling to the way of God is not a personal one. Rather, it is the faith that the activist holds and is responsible for. Accordingly, matters of success or failure are of a public nature rather than a personal one. So, when he decides to roll up his sleeves and enter the fray, he should be prepared to study all the basics that should contribute to making the task a success. This attitude should prevail across the board, be it the people he co-operates with or the means he uses to achieve the objectives. We should emulate Moses when he pleaded with his Lord to let his brother, Aaron, share the responsibility with him. Moses’ position encapsulates the highest standards of having a sense of responsibility. He did not have any qualms about asking for that which would benefit the work in the cause of spreading the message, especially in the areas where Moses found himself lacking.
It is a great Quranic lesson for those who, when working in the way of God, wish to look at this work from a personal self-centered perspective. This is bound to preclude a person from joining forces with others, in a bid not to give the impression that they are dependant.
2. Feeling the presence of God
God wants the workers in His way to feel His presence in all the situations they may encounter. They should feel His company overseeing their work and that of their adversaries. Feeling God’s presence is capable of giving the workers the required boost to combat any feeling of frailty in situations where they come face to face with the challenges and exaggerations of their adversaries. With this sense of security with God, the workers would not feel lonely, nor would they buckle under the pressure of others.
3. Two important pillars
In the realm of activity, the workers should espouse the approach that would make the hearts and minds of others respond to the sound of God’s words. This should encourage them to be articulate, calm and collected and give them confidence. On the other hand, they should avoid using complex or insensitive language, let alone adopting an annoying posture that is liable to give the impression of indecision and shakiness, which would in turn call for an shaky response. This can be avoided when it is known that the divine message draws on two realistic truths:
(a) The workers should not put any obstacle between themselves and others, be they mental or doctrinal, because this is bound to form a barrier against understanding the message and eventually embracing it. This is very important, in that it should not leave the other side with any excuse that they have not been approached with the message and had it explained thoroughly to them. Should they choose to remain impervious, this shall be their fate: “That those who died might die after a clear Sign (had been given), and those who lived might live after a Clear Sign (had been given)” (8: 42).
(b) Deep conviction that no matter how arrogant man may become and how distant he might be from God, there is still the possibility that he can be receptive to the truth and what is good. This is due to the intrinsic good drive within his psyche. Such innate nature is capable of responding to a gentle wake-up call that would send it roaming the spiritual world where tranquility and reflection rule supreme. For that reason, we should appeal to any person, irrespective of how far they might have deviated from the right path, with the nicest of words and the most gentle of methods, in the hope that they might create the right spiritual conditions for guidance.
This would explain the Divine instruction to Moses and Aaron (a.s.) to talk to Pharaoh in a tender way, in the hope that the nice words would find a way to his heart. Moreover, warning him of an impending divine punishment, should he choose to continue in the way of misguidance, might make him yield.
4. Not losing sight of the dialogue’s aim
The activists should keep abreast with all the methods the adversaries could use to steer the dialogue away from its main purpose and aim. There, the tactful and clever move should come in to keep the dialogue on course, exactly as Moses (a.s.) did in his dialogue with Pharaoh, as has already been discussed.
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (10)
The magicians vs. Pharaoh
We are still with Moses’ story. This time, it is the turn of the magicians, whom Pharaoh mobilized from all over his kingdom to counter the Divine miracle Moses (a.s.) had earlier promised to demonstrate as a proof of the veracity of his prophecy. For his part of the deal, Pharaoh promised to reward the magicians, should they triumph over Moses (a.s.). The magicians showed their wizardry. Moses (a.s.) threw in his staff, which turned into a serpent, devouring all the trickery the magicians had demonstrated. Having realized that what Moses (a.s.) did was not in his power, but a miracle from God, they defected to his side in a sincere and true conversion. Pharaoh was seething with anger, as he suspected that what the magicians did was a conspiracy they had hatched in collaboration with Moses (a.s.).
Consequently, he did not want to admit that the magicians’ conversion to the cause of belief was a genuine one. This, of course, is symptomatic of all tyrants who cannot prove their case with strong evidence, and who choose not to comprehend that popular response to, and support for, the forces of change that stem from the strength of feeling for change and aspiration to throwing off the yoke of subjugation. Failing that, those despots seem to attribute rebellion against them to what they perceive as scheming by their enemies.
In a bid to intimidate the magicians, Pharaoh resorted to psychological warfare, threatening them with punishment – chopping off their limbs and executing them – to coerce them into changing their minds. The magicians had already resolved the issue. They were not going to budge in the least. Their position was an honorable one, demonstrating clearly what standing firm in faith against what the forces of unbelief and tyranny can do.
The following verses tell the tale of the magicians’ debate with Pharaoh, and how they first agreed to contest Moses’ claim in return for Pharaoh’s promised material reward, and how the outcome turned out to be a conversion to Moses’ cause:
So there came the sorcerers to Pharaoh: They said, “Of course we shall have a (suitable) reward if we win!” He said: “Yea, (and more) for ye shall in that case be (raised to posts) nearest (to my person).” They said: “O Moses! Wilt thou throw (first), or shall we have the (first) throw?” Said Moses: “Throw ye (first).” So when they threw, they bewitched the eyes of the people, and struck terror into them: for they showed a great (feat of) magic. We put it into Moses’ mind by inspiration: “Throw (now) thy rod”: and behold! It swallows up straight away all the falsehoods that they fake! Thus truth was confirmed, and all that they did was made of no effect. So the (great ones) were vanquished there and then, and were made to look small. But the sorcerers fell down prostrate in adoration, saying: “We believe in the Lord of the Worlds, The Lord of Moses and Aaron.” Said Pharaoh: “Believe ye in Him before I give you permission? Surely this is a trick that ye have planned in the city to drive out its people: but soon shall ye know (the consequences). Be sure I will cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will cause you all to die on the cross.” They said: “For us, We are but sent back unto our Lord: But thou dost wreak thy vengeance on us simply because we believed in the Signs of our Lord when they reached us! Our Lord! Pour out on us patience and constancy, and take our souls unto thee as Muslims (who bow to thy will)!” (7: 113–26)
A bloody conflict
The Holy Quran put us in a different atmosphere with this dialogue, which the previous verses did not touch, thus:
So the magicians were thrown down in prostration: they said, “We believe in the Lord of Aaron and Moses”. (Pharaoh) said: “Believe ye in Him before I give you permission? Surely this must be your leader, who has taught you magic! Be sure I will cut off your hands and feet on opposite sides, and I will have you crucified on trunks of palm-trees: so shall ye know for certain, which of us can give the more severe and the more lasting punishment!” They said: “Never shall we regard thee as more than the Clear Signs that have come to us, or than Him Who created us! So decree whatever thou desires to decree: for thou canst only decree (touching) the life of this world. For us, we have believed in our Lord: may He forgive us our faults, and the magic to which thou didst compel us: for God is Best and Most Abiding. Verily he who comes to his Lord as a sinner (at Judgment), for him is Hell: therein shall he neither die nor live. But such as come to Him as Believers who have worked righteous deeds, for them are ranks exalted, Gardens of Eternity, beneath which flow rivers: they will dwell therein for aye: such is the reward of those who purify themselves (from evil).” (20: 70–76)
Pharaoh did not want them to embrace what Moses brought without his permission, as though the process of accepting the faith required his assent, as had been the case with any other activity of life.
This is true of all tyrants at all time and in any place. They always want to overbear on people, even in the way they think because they do not want them to ponder anything else, only regurgitate, instead, what they dish out to them. They do not want them to believe in anything apart from what they want them to follow. Thinking is banned and believing in the Divine is forbidden, except with the seal of approval of the authorities, which seem to have control over the people’s bodies as well as their minds.
In an attempt to ameliorate the shock and embarrassment he suffered, for what had happened constituted a blot on his rule, especially the fact that the rebels were among his close circle of followers, Pharaoh tried to play down the significance of the magicians’ defection. He tried to portray the situation as though their conversion was not a real challenge against his authority; rather, it was a joint conspiracy between the magicians and Moses (a.s.) as, according to Pharaoh’s words, he was their master who taught them the art of sorcery. Thus, they rallied to their masters’ support to announce him the winner over Pharaoh.
Pharaoh’s threat to the magicians did not bear fruit, i.e. in making them reconsider their position. They did not yield to Pharaoh’s fuming shouts, telling him to his face: We are not going to give you preference over the evidence of the truth we have seen, come what may. Do whatever you want to do with us. Should you decide to kill us, it would not bother us the least, because we would achieve martyrdom in the way of God, for upholding His word. And you, however, are nothing but a mortal; you can neither protect yourself, nor anyone else. By contrast, God is Everlasting and He is the only guarantee, because He is the Owner of everything, including you. Thus, His is the best reward over everything in this world.
That was a great stand of holding fast to belief in adversity. It is an example of the standoff between the forces of unbelief and tyranny on one side and the forces of the truth and belief on the opposite side.
At this juncture, we feel a great need to reflect on such a stance against the tyrants and their threats. They are attempting to gag Islamic thought, which they do not want people to consider as a source of inspiration except only as far as they determine applicable, i.e. where their interests are served. They want it to be an agreeable façade behind which depraved and wrong practices can be hidden.
Those great examples in the history of the prophetic missions put forward this Quranic slogan in practice: “Whatever ye are given (here) is (but) a convenience of this life: but that which is with Allah is better and more lasting: (it is) for those who believe and put their trust in their Lord” (42: 36).
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (11)
Moses’ dialogue with his people
The Holy Quran has reported many instances where Moses conducted dialogue with his people on a host of issues. In the main, the majority of his people showed lack of discipline and understanding of his Message. In certain situations, their role was akin to that of a nosy person who raises many questions endlessly, and with no apparent purpose. Had they acquiesced to the divine injunctions, they would not have ended up having to do more than was originally required of them. Referring to the story of killing a cow, Prophet Muhammad (p.) was quoted as saying: “Should the Israelites have intercepted any cow and slaughtered it [according to God’s command], God would have accepted their offering. But, they were so unyielding in their demands, that God was harsh with them.”
This is how the Quran has described the story of His command to them to kill a cow:
And remember Moses said to his people: “God commands that ye sacrifice a heifer.” They said: “Makest thou a laughing-stock of us?” He said: “God save me from being an ignorant (fool)!” They said: “Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us what (heifer) it is!” He said; “He says: The heifer should be neither too old nor to too young, but of middling age. Now do what ye are commanded!” They said: “Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us her colour.” He said: “He says: A fawn-coloured heifer, pure and rich in tone, the admiration of beholders!” They said: “Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us what she is: To us are all heifers alike: We wish indeed for guidance, if God wills.” He said: “He says: ‘A heifer not trained to till the soil or water the fields; sound and without blemish’.” They said: “Now hast thou brought the truth.” Then they offered her in sacrifice, but not with good will. (2: 67–71)
They were ordered to slaughter a heifer. At first, they did not take the matter seriously. They thought, or pretended to think, that it was a joke. They did not seem to give much weight and reverence to the position of the Prophet (a.s.). They did not seem to make the connection between what they asked about, i.e. of the dispute and finding the killer on the one hand, and the command to kill the cow on the other. Once, they realized that it was serious, they seemed to be treating it as a free play, as might be inferred from the way they put the questions.
Moses (a.s.) handled the situation with calmness and resilience. With every question they asked, the answer came with strings attached, so much so that they ended up incurring a larger than expected expense.
We have to deem this approach as a practical educational tool intended to slam the door in the face of those of Moses’ people who took Divine injunctions lightly, by trading questions on their details, so much so that they felt it was ordinary. Yet, they were taught a lesson that inquisitiveness, be it in jest or earnest, comes with a price, especially when nosiness emanates from trifling with and encroaching upon the position of authority, where there should be no room for humor, as all its lines of responsibility and terms of reference had been clearly defined; for this reason, it was no laughing matter.
Asking for clarifications where ambiguity arises
The moral we draw from this situation and dialogue is that Muslim activists should receive the instructions, as simple and clear as they have been outlined, without trying to attach to them extra constraints or stipulations. If the order has been issued with no strings attached, then let it be. If there is blurring of the lines or lack of clarity, the first person in command would bear the responsibility of any wrongdoing. The activists should not be held responsible for something, which was not made clear to them at the outset, according to the rational principle “Punishment is repugnant where no clear statement was provided”.
There is no objection to the activists’ attempts to seek clarification to what they can see hazily, or to what could be interpreted in more than one way, in order to define clearly the boundaries of responsibility from the start to the finish. This should be viewed as part and parcel of a sense of loyalty and responsibility, lest the activists should be lost in the maze of diverse interpretations and probabilities. This, of course, should be confined to the ambiguous of issues, which could leave one grappling with uncertainty and doubt, and which in turn could constitute legal responsibility.
The following story related from Prophet Mohammad (p.) should shed some light on what has just been mentioned. He addressed his companions, thus:
Allah has commanded you to perform hajj. Ukasha bin Muhsin, or it was said Suraqa bin Malik stood up and asked: Every year, O you Messenger of God?! The Prophet chose to ignore him, until he repeated the question twice or three times when the Prophet yelled at him: Woe unto you! What guarantee would you have, if I said: Yes. By God, if I said it, it would have become compulsory, and if it did, you could not have put up with it. And if you abandoned such a duty, you would have reneged. Leave out what I have left out. Those, who were before you, were eternally damned because they used to ask a lot of, and pounce at, their prophets. So, should I order you to do something, do whatever you possibly can; where I forbade you, keep a distance from that I declared prohibitive.
In this tradition , there might be a reference to the position of the Israelites vis-à-vis the question of killing a cow. There might also be a directive to the Muslims to accept the commands and prohibitions without undue questioning, lest they should become tougher on them.
Moses’ people confronted him in other situations, which served as pointers to their arrogance, ignorance and childish mentality; these verses tell of yet another story and debate between the two sides:
We took the Children of Israel (with safety) across the sea. They came upon a people devoted entirely to some idols they had. They said: “O Moses! Fashion for us a god like unto the gods they have.” He said: “Surely ye are a people without knowledge. As to these folk – the cult they are in is (but) a fragment of a ruin, and vain is the (worship) which they practice.” He said: “Shall I seek for you a god other than the (true) God, when it is God Who hath endowed you with gifts above the nations?” (7: 138–40)
Did that request make sense, coming from a people whom Moses had just snatched from the jaws of Pharaoh’s repression? Were they going to be the building blocks in the edifice Moses had hoped to erect and spread the Word of God and liberate the entire society? As is known, Moses’ struggle was not motivated by personal or nationalistic considerations. It came about as a result of executing his prophetic mission, which had found in the masses a good force to move forth and affect change and build a new life. He also had found in the Children of Israel a group of people who were very close to matters of belief, in that they formed the opposition force to Pharaoh, and all the corruption and wrongdoing that he stood for.
This is how the dilemma of Moses (a.s.) with his people should be construed. He was disappointed with them. They let him down, after the fierce struggle he waged against Pharaoh and the difficult situations he went through, not least by escorting them to safety, miraculously, to the other side of the river. So, what sort of request [fashioning of a god] was that? Where did this leave monotheism and the Lord of Moses, professing Whose oneness was the cause of all the upheaval that took place? Were not the miracles they had witnessed sufficient to reinforce their faith, as the magicians did when they defied Pharaoh in embracing belief and hoisting its banner high?
However, Moses (a.s.) did not lose his temper, because the magnitude of his mission did not leave him any room to cave in to any of his personal feelings. Thus, his answer was two-pronged. While he completely dismissed the idol worshippers as a bunch of misguided people, who would certainly face annihilation and eternal damnation, he warned his people of a severe chastisement. Yet, he reminded them of the favors God bestowed on them, not least by freeing them from the clutches of repression to the light of freedom and security. He made it clear to them that divinity was not a matter for man to exercise wishes or choices whether to stick with this god or that. Divinity is the truth that permeates man’s mind and soul and lightens his way.
This kind of immature mentality can be found in some Islamic communities, although in a different situation. Some people, among the rulers or others, may come across a new “craze” brought to the fore by the forces of unbelief and misguidance. This might come in the form of a social trend or an ideology propagated by the East or the West. As novelties, some people could be lured by the luster of these trends, so much so that they wish to mimic them, not for a sensible reason, other than jumping on the bandwagon. This could lead to their making mistakes, if not deviations from the right path, both in their personal as well as public life. For any person to follow this trend or the other is a recipe for disaster, in that they will turn into guinea pigs for a myriad of trendy thoughts. As a consequence, they will lose their character and their way.
This can be clearly seen in how some Islamic societies try to run their lives. You may find such communities where, while thinking on Islamic ideology lines, their social practices run contrary to those ideological lines. This is true of political as well as economic activity. These practices mirror, to a certain degree, the mentality of the Israelites who asked Moses (a.s.) to invent to them gods and norms of life on the same lines that others had, as has already been mentioned in the above-quoted verses.
However, the main thrust of the true divine message prevails in the end. That is, as Moses proved his people wrong then, so it will be this time round, for the root of the problem is the same, although it may outwardly look different. That is, the truth is one and constant and thus should not be subjected to personal choices. Rather, it is governed by realistic and objective determinants, which would decide whether it would endure or wither away.
Here is another showdown between Moses (a.s.) and his people, which is indicative of their juvenile mentality; they rejected faith because they did not see God manifestly: “And remember ye said: “O Moses! We shall never believe in thee until we see God manifestly,” but ye were dazed with thunder and lighting even as ye looked on. Then We raised you up after your death: Ye had the chance to be grateful” (2: 55–56).
It is apparent from these verses and others, for that matter, that this issue was the subject of debate between Moses and his people, which led nowhere, in that he was unable to make them relent and come back to the right path from that of arrogance and misguidance. He did not have any alternative but to turn to God in prayer that He might accede to their request of seeing Him. His people, or some of their representatives, whom Moses selected to accompany him in his appointment with God, might have witnessed the sight of Moses pleading with God. There, before God, Moses stood, asking Him, in a direct manner, to grant them their wish. His plan was to put them in the thick of the experience, which was to shock them to the core. That is, it was not possible to see God, for the simple reason that none can stand the Light that He emanates, or any other manifestation of his Might. To this the Quran has alluded, i.e. “manifestation of glory”, which cannot mean His physical appearance, because it is impossible, in that He is not corporeal:
When Moses came to the place appointed by Us, and his Lord addressed him, He said: “O my Lord! Show (Thyself) to me, that I may look upon thee.” God said: “By no means canst thou see Me (direct); But look upon the mount; if it abide in its place, then shall thou see Me.” When his Lord manifested His glory on the Mount, He made it as dust. And Moses fell down in a swoon. When he recovered his senses he said: “Glory be to Thee! To Thee I turn in repentance, and I am the first to believe.” (7: 143)
The author of Majma’ul Bayan, [a Quranic commentary] advocates this opinion, which he traces back to the Sunni School of Thought (al-Jumhour), i.e. when his people were gripped with shivers, Moses (a.s.) turned to God and said: Do you punish us for something only the insolent among us has done? This is indicative of the fact that asking to see God in person was not his idea, in that he attributed it to the impudent among his people. This was a way of continuing the dialogue with them from a different angle, after he had failed to convince them to see sense in a direct way.
This is the opinion we subscribe to, on the basis of what we infer from the exoteric meaning of the Quranic verses, on the one hand, and from some traditions, on the other. This, of course, is contrary to the interpretation of many exegetes who did not discern properly the outward meaning of the verses, ending with a mismatch between their own interpretation and what the verses denote.
That aside, what we are trying to underline here is the approach Moses used in his dialogue with his people when they behaved like children and demanded to clearly see God. Since their request did not make sense from an ideological religious viewpoint, especially as they were supposed to be familiar with the notion of monotheism, he had no choice but to use a practical approach, i.e. by making them experience at first hand the response to their request, a quake that shook them to the core and left them no opportunity to say anything else or remain rebellious.
That is why we come across Moses (a.s.) invoking God to pardon him for that request, in that it was a sin that required those who committed it to ask for forgiveness, so that they could return to the fold. This was Moses’ way of implying to his people to adopt the same position, being the real culprits behind that abhorrent demand, whose acceptance they made a provision for going back to the right path.
The Holy Quran tells of another incident involving the conduct of the Israelites during the absence of Moses to meet his Lord. They took for worship an idol molded in the image of a calf, and rebelled against his brother, Aaron. This was yet another blot on their record of misguidance, which Moses had to engage them in dialogue on, and which they could not rationally defend:
The people of Moses made, in his absence, out of their ornaments, the image of calf, (for worship): it seemed to low: did they not see that it could neither speak to them, nor show them the Way? They took it for worship and they did wrong. When they repented, and saw that they had erred, they said: “If our Lord have not mercy upon us and forgive us, we shall indeed be of those who perish.” When Moses came back to his people, angry and grieved, he said: “Evil it is that ye have done in my place in my absence: did ye make haste to bring on the judgment of your Lord?” He put down the tablets, seized his brother by (the hair of) his head, and dragged him to him. Aaron said: “Son of my mother! The people did indeed reckon me as naught, and went near to slaying me! Make not the enemies rejoice over my misfortune, nor count thou me among the people of sin.” (7: 148–50)
As is evident they were at a loss. Their position was akin to that of a child who got his hands burned after dabbling in fire and realized his fault after it was too late. We may gather from Moses’ showdown with his brother that the people did not treat Aaron as equal to his brother, despite the fact that they were equals. Yet, he [Aaron] could not sway them from the vile deeds they were committing.
In yet another confrontation between Moses and his people, he pleaded with them to fight the tyrannical forces so that they could enter the holy land under their sway. They brushed his plea aside in apparent rudeness:
Remember Moses said to his people: “O my people! Call in remembrance the favor of God unto you, when He produced prophets among you, made you kings, and gave you what He had not given to any other among the peoples. O my people! Enter the holy land which God hath assigned unto you, and turn not back ignominiously, for then will ye be overthrown, to your own ruin.” They said: “O Moses! In this land are a people of exceeding strength: Never shall we enter it until they leave it: if (once) they leave, then shall we enter.” (But) among (their) God-fearing men were two on whom God had bestowed His grace: They said: “Assault them at the (proper) Gate: when once ye are in, victory will be yours; But on God put your trust if ye have faith.” They said: “O Moses! While they remain there, never shall we be able to enter, to the end of time. Go thou, and thy Lord, and fight ye two, while we sit here (and watch).” “O my Lord! I have power only over myself and my brother: so separate us from this rebellious people!” (5: 20–25)
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (12)
Moses turns to God
The Israelites were refusing to respond positively to Moses’ call to them to wage jihad, preferring to relax in safety and security, and leaving Moses alone in the battlefield, in a situation similar to when a commander’s soldiers desert him in the thick of the fight. This was an indication that they did not attain the level of belief Moses had wished they would reach, especially after all the efforts he put in redeeming them from the clutches of Pharaoh and his repression. Against this background, Moses had no alternative but to turn to God with a final entreaty, for he had exhausted all the ways possible to put his people on the right track.
It seems that Moses was not different from other prophets who had to fight on two fronts, that of the adversaries and that of their own followers. After they had felt that there was nothing more they could do, they had recourse to God to bear witness that they had done their level best, beseeching Him to perpetuate the chasm between them and the corrupt people.
This is the practical lesson the workers in the way of God must learn. When they face rebellion and disappointment, they should feel contented with what they have achieved, never feel sorry, and be satisfied with the effort they put in discharging their responsibility. They should have peace of mind because they have been carrying out God’s will in delivering His Message. Their final submission should be before God to present Him with their last report, outlining the effort they put in the work and the problems they encountered. Thus, their mission should either come to an end, or there might be another mission to be had somewhere else.
Moses’ dialogue with the good man
In the last chapter of Moses’ story, we linger on his dialogue with a good man he met. This is a unique tale, in which God had desired that Moses be exposed to a completely new experience, which the prophets with missions must handle when faced with unforeseen circumstances.
In a nutshell, the story concludes that behind what the eyes can perceive and the mind concludes, there are hidden matters. Those out of sight things could change the whole picture and consequently the conclusion, i.e. they might turn out to be diametrically opposed to the initial conclusion the person has come up with.
God had willed that Moses should go through this “on-the-job” training with one of God’s less famous good servants. God endowed him with wisdom and imparted to him His knowledge. The significance of this experience was that it had a direct bearing on Moses’ legislative acumen, i.e. in his capacity as prophet. That is, when giving his rulings on certain issues, he should bear in mind that not all things could be judged by their outward appearance, for once the unknown side was revealed, the outcome would be different. This principle is a common one that is applicable to judgments of a public nature, and those concerning special cases:
Behold, Moses said to his attendant, “I will not give up until I reach the junction of the two seas or (until) I spend years and years in travel.” But when they reached the junction, they forgot (about) their fish, which took its course through the sea (straight) as in a tunnel. When they had passed on (some distance), Moses said to his attendant: “Bring us our early meal; truly we have suffered much fatigue at this (stage of) our journey.” He replied: “did thou see (what happened) when we betook ourselves to the rock? I did indeed forget (about) the fish: none but Satan made me forget to tell (you) about it: it took its course through the sea in a marvelous way!” Moses said: “That was what we were seeking after:” So they went back on their footsteps, following (the path they had come).
So they found one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed Mercy from Ourselves and whom We had taught knowledge from Our own Presence. Moses said to him: “May I follow thee, on the footing that thou teach me something of the (Higher) Truth which thou hast been taught?” (The other) said: “Verily thou wilt not be able to have patience with me! And how can thou have patience about things about which thy understanding is not complete?” Moses said: “Thou wilt find me, if God so wills, (truly) patient: nor shall I disobey thee in aught.” The other said: “If then thou would follow me, ask me no questions about anything until I myself speak to thee concerning it.”
So they both proceeded: until, when they were in the boat, he scuttled it. Said Moses: “Hast thou scuttled it in order to drown those in it? Truly a strange thing hast thou done!” He answered: “Did I not tell thee that thou canst have no patience with me?” Moses said: “Rebuke me not for forgetting, nor grieve me by raising difficulties in my case.” Then they proceeded: until, when they met a young man, he slew him. Moses said: “Hast thou slain an innocent person who had slain none? Truly a foul (unheard of) thing hast thou done!” He answered: “Did I not tell thee that thou can not have no patience with me?” (Moses) said: “If ever I ask thee about anything after this, keep me not in thy company: then wouldthou have received (full) excuse from my side.”
Then they proceeded: until, when they came to the inhabitants of a town, they asked them for food, but they refused them hospitality. They found there a wall on the point of falling down, but he set it up straight. (Moses) said: “If thou had wished, surely thou couldst have exacted some recompense for it!” He answered: “This is the parting between me and thee: now will I tell thee the interpretation of (those things) over which thou was unable to hold patience. As for the boat, it belonged to certain men in dire want: they plied on the water: I but wished to render it unserviceable, for there was after them a certain king who seized on every boat by force. As for the youth, his parents were people of Faith, and we feared that he would grieve them by obstinate rebellion and ingratitude (to God and man). So we desired that their Lord would give them in exchange (a son) better in purity (of conduct) and closer in affection. As for the wall, it belonged to two youths, orphans, in the Town; there was, beneath it, a buried treasure, to which they were entitled: their father had been a righteous man: So thy Lord desired that they should attain their age of full strength and get out their treasure – a mercy (and favor) from thy Lord. I did it not of my own accord. Such is the interpretation of (those things) over which thou was unable to hold patience.” (18: 60–82)
We do not want to expand on this story in the way the writers of prophetic stories did, in that we are doing away with trying to know the name of the person whom Moses accompanied on his learning curve – was it al-Khidher or someone else? Where was the place where the fish found its way back to the water, after it had been grilled, as is claimed? All of this does not concern us as what we are dealing with is the subject of dialogue in the Holy Quran.
What we have found interesting in this story is the following:
1. Sublime ethical values
This can be demonstrated by the humility shown to knowledge and scholars, regardless of the positions in the social or religious hierarchy the teacher and the student might be occupying. The divine ethics can be found in the gentle words Moses addressed the good man with and the humble request he made to him: “May I follow thee, on the footing that thou teach me something of the (Higher) Truth which thou hast been taught.”
2. The direct approach
What is salient in the story is the practical and direct approach the trainer used with his apprentice. It is apparent that the approach was free from any flattery and wiliness that could be dictated by social structures, as is the case nowadays. Devious ways are in vogue, just to impress others and turn them into numbers on the list of followers, in a bid to attach pomp and give aura to the position of the teacher, regardless of whether or not there is benefit to be reaped of his knowledge, or whether the students are up to the standard of making them learn something of substance from their teacher.
That good man was different from others [such as Moses] in the extent of his true knowledge of reality. Although he shared with others the knowledge of the visible side of matters, yet, unlike them, he owned an insight into the invisible side, as in many cases the outward appearance belies the truth. Thus, others either rejected his way of doing things or could not put up with it. As a result, remaining in his company became unrewarding, or so it seemed. Staying with him appeared to generate more controversy, which did not serve anyone’s interest, nor did it benefit the truth in the least.
In this light, and at the outset, the good man made it clear that Moses would find most of what he was going to do beyond the pale, for a simple reason, i.e. man might not fathom that which he did not have knowledge about. Thus Moses promised him patience and total obedience. The good man’s condition was that Moses should not ask him about anything, unless he said so, no matter how strange it might have looked. That was why their relationship was that of companionship, based on the pursuit of knowledge in a framework of discipline and realism.
3. Exemplary discipline
The actions of the good man were testing Moses’ patience, not least for believing they were unlawful, especially the incidents of killing the boy and scuttling the boat. The first incident, killing the boy without an apparent reason, represented a crime against the human soul. The second incident constituted a crime against the property of others, putting other people in harm’s way, and neglecting the principle of using one’s energy in protecting oneself from hunger, especially those who did not uphold ideals in their public life. Thus, Moses’ complaints were unremitting until the last incident, which was preceded by his giving an undertaking to show restraint and the good man’s giving Moses (a.s.) the freedom to part company with him should he choose to remain confrontational and show impatience.
This was how the case turned out to be, i.e. Moses’ patience snapped. After the good man had stuck to his word of parting company with Moses, he explained to him all the actions he had carried out to which Moses objected, in that God decreed them all and that he was instrumental in implementing them.
However, this study is not concerned with critically evaluating those actions, i.e. whether they were in keeping with the general guidelines of the Sharia law, or special cases governed by their own circumstances. All that we are after is to make use of the dialogue we have experienced in making reference to two salient points that have a bearing on the work of the activists in the way of God.
The activists must live and breathe with discipline, patience, and quiet while going about discharging their duties in public life, provided that the parties which they represent or collaborate with are up to the level of confidence all round, i.e. ideologically, religiously, and practically. They should not hasten to object to the orders issued to them, showing displeasure with any actions that might go contrary to what they are familiar with. This sort of reaction might adversely affect the work and result in indiscipline among the ranks of workers. The activists may speak their mind when the time and circumstance are right.
The believers should accept with patience and submission the divine instructions imparted to them, which they may not be used to. This is because God knows best what is good and what is bad. Should they have any lingering thoughts, they can critically examine such thoughts, and then they can explore the rationale behind the instructions, in which case they might arrive at their own conclusions.
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (13)
Lot and his People
Unnatural sexual act
Here is another of those prophets who were sent by God to a particular community with a specific mission. The prime objective of Lot’s noble task was to address sodomy, which was prevalent in that community. It threatened the normal conduct that God has desired for mankind to follow in their eating, drinking and all other needs, including sexual pleasure. Pleasure is not a subjective matter, insomuch as it is fulfilled alongside the need for reproduction and preservation of the human race. Should the sexual drive take to perversion, which may stem from a psychological complex, it would divert this desire from being a natural need to something that is concerned with providing personal enjoyment per se. Thus, the whole human concern would be confined to deriving pleasure in a variety of depraved ways. This is likely to turn man into a slave to his own desires, which might be motivated by a perverted imagination.
This is the reason why almost all religions have to make homosexuality a forbidden act because this is in keeping with the natural path they want man to walk in, satisfying his natural needs in a normal way.
The Holy Quran has given this subject the importance it deserves, where the story of Lot has been mentioned in some eleven chapters, reiterating that sodomy is a repugnant practice because it represents a departure from satisfying one’s sexual needs in the way God has preordained. It has been described as a deed that is vile, evil, monstrous and objectionable.
Lot was sent to the people who invented that “fashion”. This is apparent from God’s words: “We also (sent) Lot: He said to his people: ‘Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you?” (7: 80). God did not send a special emissary to address a particular problem, unless it was a threat to ethical, as well as social, life.
As we read this Quranic story, with all the bitter dialogue it demonstrates, Lot’s efforts become self-evident, in that he tried, by carrot and stick, to make his people desist from the lewd behavior they were practicing; a practice that had had a stranglehold over the entire community. The people of Lot did not only show intransigence, they took their transgression one step further by attacking his guests inside his house. They took advantage of Lot’s perceived weak position to commit more excesses against him, since he lacked the means, including personal physical strength and the power base, to defend himself.
The prophetic approach
His approach was not different from that of other prophets. It was calm, yet forceful. He was so friendly that he offered his daughters to his people in marriage because they were pure. They bluntly turned his offer down because they were not in the right mental frame to adopt a conventional sexual relationship between men and women. As is apparent from Lot’s dialogue with them, they appeared to have abandoned their wives.
Yet, when he spoke to them about their immorality, he did not mince his words, as he rebuked them for it. He made it abundantly clear that he was averse to their depraved conduct. This position was characteristic of the prophets. That is, when they reached a dead end with their people, they used to bring the dialogue to an end, by unequivocally distancing themselves from the rebellion and depravity of their people. This is so as not to leave any lingering doubt about where the prophets stand. Also, this position was called for so as not to leave any one with any impression that the prophets wavered in their resolve. At the outset, they were clear of what their noble task involved. They ended their mission as they had started it, with clarity of vision and resoluteness.
The following Quranic verses tell of the dialogue between Lot (a.s.) and his people in a number of situations:
The people of Lot rejected the messengers. Behold, their brother Lot said to them: “Will ye not fear (Allah)? I am to you a messenger worthy of all trust. So fear Allah and obey me. No reward do I ask of you for it: my reward is only from the lord of the Worlds. Of all the creatures in the world, will ye approach males, and leave those whom Allah has created for you to be your mates? Nay, ye are a people transgressing (all limits)!” They said: “If thou desist not, O Lot! Thou wilt assuredly be cast out!” He said: “I do detest your doings. O my Lord! Deliver me and my family from such things as they do!” (26: 160–169)
And (remember) Lot: behold, he said to his people: “Ye do commit lewdness, such as no people in Creation (ever) committed before you. Do ye indeed approach men, and cut off the highway? And practice wickedness (even) in your councils?” But his people gave no answer but this: they said: “Bring us the Wrath of God if thou tellest the truth.” He said: “O my Lord! Help Thou me against people who do mischief!” (29: 28–30)
This is the common approach that had bound all the prophets together, whether they were sent to deliver a universal message or a particular one. That is, the prophet introduced himself as the messenger of God, fully aware of the trust that was put in him and the interest of the people he was sent to. He did not expect to be paid for what he set out to do, as his reward would come from God. All that he needed them to do was to obey him in submitting to God, be pious, and follow the road where their interests lay, both in this world and the hereafter. The Prophet appealed to his people to abandon their crooked ways and be on the right path.
This was just what Lot did with his people. He was not surprised at the response he received from them to his invitation to mend their ways. They had become addicted to the lewdness they were doing. It had become ingrained in their psyche. They did not want to talk about giving up the addiction. They accepted neither counsel nor reproach from anyone. To them, the issue was not a matter of right or wrong, good or bad, because it was a deep-rooted practice, which they did not want to abandon, come what may.
It was this stance that dictated the tone of their debate with Lot (a.s.). So they did not heed his admonitions and warnings of impending punishment, if they were not to see sense. They responded with threats to evict him and his family from their village. They challenged him to bring down the punishment he was threatening them with, if he was truthful. It was the age-old position of people who, although they can feel guilty, try to vent their anger on others, telling them to their face: This is what we do and shall not abandon. Go away and do whatever you like. Do not bother us with your talk. This had been the reaction of the adversaries of the prophets, from time immemorial, in that there seemed to be no place for an honest and well-informed debate, apart from issuing threats and requesting the wrath to descend forthwith.
The Divine happy ending
In some of the verses you can detect the depressed frame of mind, Lot (a.s.) appeared to have been in, especially when the guests knocked at his door. He felt embarrassed because of the behavior of his people in satisfying their depraved sexual desires. This was what he faced when the angels called on him, assuming a human appearance. Lot’s people were waiting for this opportunity, rushing to his house and asking him to let go of his guests. In the dialogue that ensued between Lot and his people, he tried his best to make them give up his guests, yet to no avail. The showdown ended with a kind of surrender on Lot’s part, since he had no power to defend himself and his family, let alone his guests. Yet he had great confidence in God’s victory. Thus, he turned to Him in prayer, asking for that victory when he and his family would escape his people’s harm and aggression.
God’s answer came fast. Those guests of his, whom he could not protect, came with the power that would destroy the arrogance of his people and their wicked ways. Complete annihilation of his people, including his wife – who was collaborating with them and condoning their practice – was in the making. Thus, the punishment, which they were calling for, and making fun of, was fast approaching.
This is how the Holy Quran relates the story:
When Our messengers came to Lot, he was grieved on their account and felt himself powerless (to protect) them. He said: “This is a distressful day.” And his people came rushing towards him, and they had been long in the habit of practicing abominations. He said: “O my people! Here are my daughters: they are purer for you (if ye marry)! Now fear God, and cover me not with shame about my guests! Is there not among you a single right-minded man?” They said: “Well dost thou know we have no need of thy daughters: indeed thou knowest quite well what we want!” He said: “Would that I had power to suppress you or that I could betake myself to some powerful support.” (The Messengers) said: “O Lot! We are Messengers from thy Lord! By no means shall they reach thee! Now travel with thy family while yet a part of the night remains, and let not any of you look back: but thy wife (will remain behind): To her will happen what happens to the people. Morning is their time appointed: Is not the morning nigh?” When Our Decree issued, We turned (the cities) upside down, and rained down on them brimstones hard as baked clay, spread, layer on layer, Marked as from thy Lord: Nor are they ever far from those who do wrong! (11: 77–83)
Lessons to be learned
What do we learn from this story/dialogue? This is what we will try to sum up:
1. Destroying the edifice of immorality
It is incumbent on the Muslim activist to discern the importance of the Islamic standpoint, i.e. putting human sexual relations on an even keel. This has come across very clearly in the Quranic narrative of this story, not least by reiterating this aspect several times. This has also been made manifestly clear by the punishment meted out to Lot’s people, who invented this depravity.
Accordingly, we have to plan to put this aspect of Islamic legislation in a right and comprehensive framework. Islam wants man to be insulated from any form of unsavory conduct. This being so as to put him on the right track in achieving the great goal of life that is anchored on a solid basis.
At this juncture, we may have to address the question of sex and its role in life, which has swept through human thinking. Sexual freedom has come to the fore in this day and age. The parameters put in place to practicing sex, licit and illicit alike, are perceived as an affront to man’s liberty. Those demands have been met with a chorus of shouts, so much so that gay and lesbian parades are now commonplace in Western countries. They call for homosexual freedom to be enshrined in legislation, so that civil laws cater for human needs. They claim that this is a natural course to solve the problems of many groups of people, who still feel constrained when it comes to fulfilling their pressing needs. Strangely enough, these campaigns succeeded in gathering momentum in some European conservative countries. The British Parliament passed a law legalizing homosexuality. This was done under the pressure of the practice becoming widespread, especially among the higher echelons of power and society. Abnormal sexual practices took another turn by condoning marriages between couples of the same sex, i.e. a man to a man and a woman to a woman. There was even talk of solemnizing such “wedlock” in churches.
We have to face this dangerous trend with a typical Islamic approach. That is, you should not criticize any negative phenomenon outright. Rather, you must look for the real causes and the ideological justifications as well as social conditions, which gave rise to such improper conduct. By critically examining the social realities where these tendencies emerged and developed, you should be able to demolish the wrong bases and arguments on which they stand. This could be done with reference to Islamic principles and norms for building the individual and society on sound foundations, away from deviations and defects.
2. Rediscovering conceptions
This can be done through pondering the terminology that the Quran used to describe sodomy in Lot’s campaign against it. If we analyze words such as lewdness, wickedness, overindulgence and monstrosity in detail and in a modern context, we should be able to prove their effectiveness in the movement of Islamic activism in life. This is so, because words can become archaic when their connotations die out by virtue of changing times and outlooks. However, the meanings may assume a new reality, should we be able to give them a new life by clothing them with new attire. We should be successful if we manage to tie in these meanings with the results brought about by abnormal sexual practices. We can then show modern man a vivid and lively picture of all the meanings that had been imparted by the Holy Quran to early Muslims.
If, for example, we take the words “monstrous” and “wicked”, we may not be able to invite any rejection of the sexual malpractice because the reality of the sordid situation turned it into a “commendable act” after it had been an “abominable one”, and “good” after it had been “bad”. This is on account of its becoming an expression of man exercising his personal freedom and choice.
In this case, we need to delve deep into the words to revivify the meaning in them that would render the meanings of “monstrosity” and “wickedness” as mere superficial adjectives. We should aim to reinforce the umbilical relationship between the meaning of the words and the malpractice, in that it has a direct effect on the interests of man, on a private as well as public level. They have a bearing on man’s future and destiny. In a way, it is like a fruit that may initially taste delicious, yet it may leave a long-lasting bitter aftertaste.
Once we resolve this question, we should soon find out that man’s exercising of his freedom should not be subjected to personal choices at any cost, such as his personal well-being and future. Rather, the issue is the place of that freedom in the entire movement of life and society. The individual may, in certain situations, feel the need to forgo his own personal preferences for the good of his freedom in matters of destiny. Thus, venting personal inclinations could turn into a monstrous thing because it might clash with the individual’s life and future.
3. Abandoning nervousness
Controlling one’s anxiety is the lesson we should learn from Lot’s way of facing up to his people. He was blunt in explaining to them how disastrous the result of their practice of sodomy was and how adversely it would affect their capacity to pass rational judgment on things. After he had explained everything to them and how he viewed their vile deeds, he distanced himself from what they were doing and turned to his Lord. In all the verbal exchanges he had with them he was dignified, calm, and collected. He was neither tense nor did he use any inflammatory language, which might have led to injuring their feelings or sidetracking the main issue. This approach was part and parcel of the prime aim of his invitation to them to mend their ways, by convincing them of the strength of his argument and evidence. His aim was never to vent his anger at them, humiliate them, or look down his nose at them. Unfortunately, many Muslim activists, who let their personal feelings control their actions, are prone to just that. They should know full well that the task is one thing and their personal feelings is another. The two do not gel.
4. The promised triumph
The hope for victory should be kept alive in the heart of the activist because God gives victory to those working for His cause in many ways, regardless of how long the oppression might last. This is manifestly clear from Lot’s story and how God came to his rescue at a very critical time, i.e. when he was almost on the brink of giving up
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (14)
Shu’aib in Dialogue with his People
This is another of the stories of prophets who were sent to deal with specific types of misconduct. This time it is not a sexual but an economic one that has a bearing on people’s life. Those people were cheating on others in measure and weight. This is how the Holy Quran speaks about them: “Woe to those that deal in fraud, Those who, when they have to receive by measure from men, exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due” (83: 1–3).
What distinguishes Shu’aib’s story and his dialogue with his people from Lot’s is that Shu’aib’s position within his people was far stronger than Lot’s. He came from a very powerful tribe. This had made his appeal to his people rather strong, yet tinged with friendliness. There was a divine air about it. He was trying to win them over to his side of the argument in an amicable way.
Shu’aib’s approach won him a great following among the oppressed and disenfranchised segments of his clan. With them he faced up to the arrogant, repressive, and rich elite among his people. This could be attributed to the nature of his message and the principles he came to spread. Tampering with measurements and weights is a kind of economic exploitation that is usually perpetrated by the rich and powerful who are, by and large, driven to such practices by egotism. Thus, they resort to taking advantage in what they sell or buy fraudulently, be it in measurement or in weight. Let us experience the atmosphere of the story of this reformist Prophet through the Quranic dialogue, which he conducted with the adversaries of his message:
To the people of Madyan We sent Shu’aib, one of their own brethren: he said: “O my people! Worship God; ye have no other god but Him. Now hath come unto you a clear (Sign) from your Lord! Give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things that are their due; and do no mischief on the earth after it has been set in order: that will be best for you, if ye have Faith. And squat not on every road, breathing threats, hindering from the path of God those who believe in Him, and seeking in it something crooked; but remember how ye were little, and He gave you increase. And hold in your mind’s eye what was the end of those who did mischief. And if there is a party among you who believes in the message with which I have been sent, and a party which does not believe, hold yourselves in patience until God doth decide between us: for He is the best to decide.”
The leaders, the arrogant party among his people, said: “O Shu’aib! We shall certainly drive thee out of our city – (thee) and those who believe with thee; or else ye (thou and they) shall have to return to our ways and religion.” He said: “What! Even though we do detest (them)? We should indeed invent a lie against God, if we returned to your ways after God hath rescued us therefrom; nor could we by any manner of means return thereto unless it be as in the will and plan of God, Our Lord. Our Lord can reach out to the utmost recesses of things by His knowledge. In God is our trust. Our Lord! Decide Thou between us and our people in truth, for Thou art the best to decide.” The leaders, the unbelievers among his people, said: “If ye follow Shu’aib, be sure then ye are ruined!”
But the earthquake took them unawares, and they lay prostrate in their homes before the morning! The men who rejected Shu’aib became as if they had never been in the homes where they had flourished: the men who rejected Shu’aib – it was they who were ruined! So Shu’aib left them, saying: “O my people! I did indeed convey to you the messages for which I was sent by my Lord: I gave you good counsel, but how shall I lament over a people who refuse to believe!” (7: 85–93)
We now move from this dynamic scene and standoff to another where the style of dialogue between the prophet and the arrogant party is somewhat different, especially on the detailed aspect of the message and the challenges it faced:
They said: “O Shu’aib! Does thy (religion of) prayer command thee that we leave off the worship which our fathers practised, or that we leave off doing what we like with our property? Truly, thou art the one that forbeareth with faults and is right- minded!” He said: “O my people! See ye whether I have a Clear (Sign) from my Lord, and He hath given me sustenance (pure and) good as from Himself? I wish not, in opposition to you, to do that which I forbid you to do. I only desire (your) betterment to the best of my power; and my success (in my task) can only come from God. In Him I trust, and unto Him I look. And O my people! Let not my dissent (from you) cause you to sin, lest ye suffer a fate similar to that of the people of Noah or of Hud or of Saleh, nor are the people of Lot far off from you! But ask forgiveness of your Lord, and turn unto Him (in repentance): For my Lord is indeed full of mercy and loving-kindness.”
They said: “O Shu’aib! Much of what thou sayest we do not understand! In fact among us we see that thou hast no strength! Were it not for thy family, we should certainly have stoned thee! For thou hast among us no great position!” He said: “O my people! Is then my family of more consideration with you than God? For ye cast Him away behind your backs (with contempt). But verily my Lord encompasses on all sides all that ye do! And O my people! Do whatever ye can: I will do (my part): Soon will ye know who it is on whom descends the penalty of ignominy; and who is a liar! And watch ye! For I too am watching with you!” (11: 87–93)
In this dialogue, the following points become clear:
1. The crooked way
The issues Shu’aib (a.s.) had discussed should throw some light on his people’s conduct, especially in their business dealings with others. They sought to cheat people and sow sleaze in the land. They practiced all ways possible to turn away from the right path of God and intimidated others not to follow it, leading them astray.
2. Chauvinistic vs. ideological struggle
Shu’aib did not want to set off a struggle with his people on tribal lines, in that he kept his tribe outside the game. This would drag the struggle into self-centered issues and revive age-old enmities. He sought to rouse in them the desire to reflect on things, so that an honest and well-informed debate would ensue between the believers and unbelievers among his people, until God adjudicated in the matter, for He is the best of judges. Ideological debate is capable of yielding results for all parties, not least by finding new common ground to be shared by the antagonists.
3. Broken dialogue
Shu’aib’s people were not serious in engaging in serious debate with him on the issues he raised. Instead, they were poking fun at him and his religion/prayer, which prompted him to stand up against their going astray, especially for not relinquishing the ways they inherited from their forefathers and for doing with their property what they liked. They went on to be patronizing, in that they said he could not be serious because he was a wise and right-minded man who did not behave outside social norms, or could not do what would land him in trouble. They resorted to threatening Shu’aib’s followers to either abandon their new religion and go back to the fold or to face expulsion.
While rejecting all forms of intimidation and blackmail, Shu’aib cautioned them against God’s wrath. He reminded them of the fate of bygone peoples who chose to stand against the Messages of the prophets and how in the end they faced calamitous fate. While sparing no effort to sway the arrogant among his people from their antagonistic stance, he made it clear to them that he and his followers were not going to buckle under the pressure because their cause was not a personal one. Theirs was an issue of right and wrong, which have a bearing on both this life and the hereafter. Firm in the knowledge that they had been delivered from utter darkness that would have led to their annihilation, they were not for turning. Thus, they never contemplated any compromise whatsoever. Shu’aib was clear in his mind. That is why he did not entertain any thought of weakness or wavering. Yet, he never gave up on God’s support, beseeching Him to decide between the two sides for He is the best arbiter.
4. The right criterion
The declaration of the unbelievers that they would have stoned him had it not been for Shu’aib’s tribe, was an indication that his power base was a force to be reckoned with and that his tribe provided him with an insurance policy against the harm that would have otherwise befallen him. However, Shu’aib differed with them on that argument because he told them that they were mistaken, i.e. no matter how strong his tribe was it amounted to nothing before the might of the Almighty. He further explained that his tribe’s power was limited to the resources it owned, viz. human resources, wealth, or weapons, whereas God is Omnipotent. So, it was wiser that they should fear God’s might rather than Shu’aib’s own tribe. In the end, he threatened them with God’s punishment, which was nigh.
The unbelievers continued their campaign to sway the believers by arguing the issue on a profit-and-loss basis. Following Shu’aib would, according to their calculations, lead to material as well as moral loss. However, after punishment had been meted out, the Holy Quran makes it clear to the believers that loss was the lot of the unbelievers, who were the losers in both this world and the hereafter. As for the material as well as moral gain, there is no doubt which party garnered it.
5. Responsible, not irresponsible, freedoms
The unbelievers’ rejection of the legal provision that makes fraud illegal may be attributed to a mistaken belief, i.e. the absolute freedom of man over his property. That is, no law should encroach upon this freedom in any way. This was the main thrust of their vehement argument, “Or that we leave off doing what we like with our property?”
Yet, Shu’aib was faithful to the divine code, which recognizes freedom in the context of the public interest and what ensures for life its perfect equilibrium. Thus, in its drive to constrain or grant freedom, i.e. in decreeing what is permissible and what is not, the divine law seeks to make this balance prevail. Fraudulent practice, as that taken to by a group of Shu’aib’s people, was a kind of wily exploitation and transgression against people’s rights and a plundering of their property. This was bound to upset the equilibrium that religions have come to apply in society and people’s lives, in that all parties should be given their fair share when they deal with each other. That must be so, for it is in keeping with the doctrinal preponderance that regulates responsibilities and rights between people. That is, fraudulent practices were declared illicit to prevent corruption in the land.
All this leads us to conclude decisively against the calls propagating the doctrine of free market, which advocates freedom of any commercial activity, irrespective of whether it is detrimental to man’s welfare or not. It is evident that such doctrine has put in place the legal framework to protect the perpetrators of malpractices, be they political, economic, or social. Such practices are indulged into under the pretext of free trade, which is motivated primarily by profit and loss, away from any moral or humane considerations.
This is clearly manifest in modern capitalist ideology, which encourages and protects these practices under the semblance of economic freedom, which, according to its proponents, is one of the main pillars of the question of freedom in the world. This ideology has paved the way to the birth of colonialism, which enslaves peoples and exploits their natural resources, and turns them into consumer entities to buy its industrial products. It goes without saying that this malpractice would inevitably lead to perpetuating backwardness, ignorance, and superstitions. It would also lead the despotic powers to suppress harshly any inclinations to achieve political as well as economic liberation and independence.
A by-product of colonialism has been the sowing and perpetuating of religious, social, and regional differences and turning them into intractable armed conflicts, which are bound to sap the energy of those peoples and drain their resources. That, of course, is in an effort to produce and sell more arms to feed the appetites of the warring factions. This in turn is liable to make the politicians in the countries where conflicts are rife, natural clients for arms producing nations, just to keep the conflict alive and kicking whenever there was hope that these conflicts seem to be receding.
This dialogue rejects unequivocally economic freedom in its capitalist model, which is devoid of any moral or human considerations. Instead, it advocates that the wider human interests should govern financial freedom where equilibrium should rule supreme in life. Thus, its legislative principle, i.e. the wider human interest, is unvarying. That is, it is one, regardless of time and place.
At this juncture, we reckon it is imperative to remind many believers and Muslim activists, working in the cause of God, to be mindful of that delicate line that separates economic freedom, as it is expounded by capitalist ideology, from that espoused by Islam, in its legislation for private ownership and protecting it. Capitalism espouses the slogan of the people of Shu’aib, when they protested against his call not to do with their property whatever they wished on account of personal freedom. Whereas, Islam promotes the motto of Shu’aib, “I only desire (your) betterment to the best of my power”. “And do no mischief on the earth after it has been set in order.” That is, he believed in private ownership, provided that the owners did not seek with their wealth to corrupt both people and land, i.e. by squandering its resources. So, if wealth turns into a tool of corruption, Islam moves to constrain it forcefully so that life goes on, enjoying responsible, not irresponsible, freedom.
6. The great importance of economics
What should be gathered from the importance that Islam attaches to the story of Shu’aib (a.s.) is that the economic dimension had a great significance in the dynamism of the prophetic missions. It is so important that it has a priority over other domains of legislation, not least because of its relationship with the question of maintaining equilibrium in life.
In this light, we deem it necessary to remind Muslim activists to lend this subject a greater share of focus in their work. They have to put great emphasis on Islamic legislative aspects in order to give the right perspective of Islamic solutions to economic problems. In concert, they have to fight deliberately shady economic activity in all its facets, because the Holy Qur’an, in the story of Shu’aib, did not denounce his people’s practice of cheating in measurement or weight in itself, but rather, for its bad impact on the life of people. That is, it is a corruptive practice that could bear heavily on the weak and poor in their dependency on the rich and powerful. This should enable us to combat unlawful exploitation, monopoly, and illicit trade, which are detrimental to health, ethics, freedom, and integrity. Deceit, stealing, bribery, interest-based systems, and all practices that are geared towards corrupting political and social realities should be resisted in the same vein and measure. This stand-off should turn into an open war on monopolists, exploiters, those who dabble in usury, cheats, thieves, the merchants of politics and religion, and war and civil strife mongers. This is because all those categories of people aim to profiteer at the expense of people’s lives and stability.
This stance is the one that would present to people the comprehensive system to regulate life, in all its spheres, on a solid basis. Such stand is also capable of pre-empting any move by anti-Muslim forces to succeed in neutralizing Islam. Those forces work hard to smear Islam and paint a bleak picture of it as representing some sort of utopian set of rules and regulations that have no relation to man’s real life and concerns. They also seek to wage media war against the workers in the cause of Islam, in that they portray them as the natural allies of monopolistic and exploitative regimes. They further allege that those workers acquiesce to economic malpractice and its perpetrators, and that they only raise their fingers against doctrinal and moral decadence that might have a bearing on economic misconduct.
We raise these issues so as to face them with a well-thought-out plan, which should be part and parcel of a comprehensive one for propagating Islam among the people. Obviously, this is the realistic Islamic way, which the Qur’an has affirmed in its lawgiving, conceptions, and practical progress, in that it is an extension of all prophetic divine missions.
This approach can pull us away from the narrow-minded reactive mentality that is subject in its outlook to echoing what others dictate to it. Such a mentality has given hostages to fortune because it lacks originality of thought and proactive thinking. It is unable to predict problems and work to forestall their occurrence. The greatness of any movement lies in its achievements in the theatre of life where the pluses outweigh the minuses, and profit taking is commonplace. Then, and only then, would reactions, should they take place, be outside the circle of mistakes, i.e. a way of protest by others for being unable to find faults.
This is the significance of Qur’anic lawgiving and storytelling. It raises a host of issues, only to give the opportunity to man to reflect on them objectively and calmly, which should result in walking the right path.
7. The decisive word
The last chapter of Shu’aib’s story ends with him standing over the smithereens of his people who perished in punishment. There he stood, reminding them that he did his best to convey to them the Divine Message and that he gave them good counsel. Yet, they chose to rebel against it. Thus, he had no regrets for what had befallen them, which was due to their unbelief and intransigence. No remorse for their fate was due because they were against life that draws on the Will of God.
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (15)
We encounter in the Holy Quran the story of Joseph (a.s.), which is eventful. He had hit rough patches from a tender age. He was the victim of a plot hatched by his brothers to get rid of him out of envy. Having survived that one, he ended up in captivity. He then had to fend of the temptation, and finally the attempted rape, by the wife of his master, which wrongfully landed him in jail for a long period. After his release, he was appointed the prime lieutenant to administer the affairs of the country. Thus, his powerful position enabled him to weather the detestable feelings of his brothers and turn them into a brotherly loving relationship, and finally his success in realizing the family reunion.
Here we are not trying to put emphasis on the development of the story, in its changing scenery. Rather, we will be trying to pause at the short dialogues in the story to see, through them, how lively, expressive, and crystal clear the pictures of the lives of the prophets had been. These are the examples the Holy Quran wants us to follow. We shall follow those dialogues step by step.
Joseph and the wife of the chief minister (al-Aziz)
But she in whose house he was, sought to seduce him from his (true) self: she fastened the doors, and said: “Now come, thou (dear one)!” He said: “God forbid! Truly (thy husband) is my lord! He made my sojourn agreeable! Truly to no good come those who do wrong!” And (with passion) did she desire him, and he would have desired her, but that he saw the evidence of his Lord: thus (did We order) that We might turn away from him (all) evil and shameful deeds: for he was one of Our servants, sincere and purified. So, they both raced each other to the door, and she tore his shirt from the back: they both found her lord near the door. She said: “What is the (fitting) punishment for one who formed an evil design against thy wife, but prison or a grievous chastisement?” He said: “It was she that sought to seduce me from my (true) self.” And one of her household saw (this) and bore witness, (thus) “If it be that his shirt is rent from the front, then is her tale true, and he is a liar! But if it be that his shirt is torn from the back, then is she the liar, and he is telling the truth!” So, when he saw his shirt – that it was torn at the back – (her husband) said: “Behold! It is a snare of you women! Truly, mighty is your snare! O Joseph, pass this over! (O wife), ask forgiveness for thy sin, for truly thou hast been at fault!”
In the city, ladies said: “The wife of the Aziz (chief minister) is seeking to seduce her slave from his (true) self: Truly hath he inspired her with violent love: we see she is evidently going astray.” When she heard of their malicious talk, she sent for them and prepared a banquet for them: she gave each of them a knife: and she said (to Joseph), “Come out before them.” When they saw him, they did extol him, and (in their amazement) cut their hands: they said, “God preserve us! No mortal is this! This is none other than a noble angel!” She said: “There before you is the man about whom ye did blame me! I did seek to seduce him from his (true) self but he did firmly save himself guiltless! And now, if he doth not my bidding, he shall certainly be cast into prison, and (what is more) be of the company of the vilest!” He said: “O my Lord! The prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me: Unless Thou turn away their snare from me, I should (in my youthful folly) feel inclined towards them and join the ranks of the ignorant.” So his Lord hearkened to him (in his prayer), and turned away from him their snare: Verily He hears and knows (all things). (12: 23–43)
This is the entire picture of his story with the wife of the chief minister. The atmosphere was rife with temptation and everything that was conducive to leading one astray. Joseph (a.s.) was in the prime of youth when his sexual drive was in full zest. On the other hand, the wife of the chief minister was a female who was infatuated with Joseph, who was exceptionally handsome. Because of living under one roof, the climate was conducive to admiration bordering on the obsessive on the part of the woman. The situation was further aggravated by the husband’s absence from home most of the time because of his high position and responsibilities in government. The woman could not suppress her sexual urge. For his part, Joseph was busy with something different. His heart was full with the light of faith and the loyalty he felt for his master.
The story, thus, did not mention any move on his side to try to seduce the woman. She made the first move and attempted to rape him, by locking the doors and saying that she was ready “Now come, thou (dear one)!“. In creating the right conditions for a sexual encounter, she thought he was going to fall victim to her advances. What was his response?
In all composure, he said “God forbid!” followed by the words of loyalty “Truly (thy husband) is my lord! He made my sojourn agreeable!” He went on to summarize the whole situation, thus, “Truly to no good come those who do wrong!“
She was doing herself injustice by committing that sin. At the same time, she was doing her husband injustice by betraying him. As for Joseph, he would never have forgiven himself if he had reciprocated; the guilt would have haunted his conscience forever, not least for doing disservice to himself and proving ungrateful to his master who gave him shelter and took him under his wing. She did not yield to Joseph’s unreserved rejection to her manifest invitation to have sex with him, in the belief that he was showing timid restraint or he was afraid of the consequences of his deed, had he gone ahead with it. She was adamant, indulging in aggressive tempting behavior to weaken his resolve. He might have grown receptive to her incessant demand as might be gleaned from the phrase “and he would have desired her“.
However, it was a momentary distraction that was instigated by the echo of temptation. Nevertheless, no sooner had he regained his composure by the call of faith inside him, he would have returned to defend himself against her determined sexual assault, thus: “But that he saw the evidence of his Lord: thus (did We order) that We might turn away from him (all) evil and shameful deeds.” That was a great testimonial to the high standard of belief attained by Joseph at that phase in his life. This would lead us to conclude that what we described as momentary distraction did not amount to more than that. It remained within the domain of feelings and emotions, in that it did not translate into action. This was through strong self-discipline.
Joseph had no option but to flee with his religion, belief, and morality. Yet, she did not let go of him, chasing him to the door and ripping his shirt. However, both were in for a surprise, as her husband was at the door. She feigned to have been the victim, accusing Joseph of attempting to rape her and suggesting the kind of punishment he should receive for “his vile deed”. Nevertheless, Joseph’s blamelessness was manifest in his cracking voice, the purity of his soul and in the general state he was in, so much so that her husband was sure that he was whiter than white. Yet, he did not take any action against his wife, preferring to censure her attempt and considering it a woman’s guile. Thus, he asked her to pray for forgiveness for her great sin and transgression.
The city was awash with gossip and rumor about what happened. To counter that, she invited a number of women to her house and asked Joseph to join them. They were taken aback by Joseph’s angelic beauty, concluding that she was excused for what she had done and they were apologetic, to the extent that they might have entertained the thought of seducing him. There and then, she said she was not sorry for what she did and that she would keep trying until he fell to her advances. Maybe, there were other attempts by her after that womanly conference. Joseph (a.s.) started to feel the pressure and turned to invoke the power of prayer, seeking help with his Creator “O my Lord! The prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me”. Thus, faith was still living vibrantly inside him, urging him to withstand the temptations. He was inclined to go to prison rather than fall prey to the sexual advances, and turned to God in humility and supplication “Unless Thou turn away their snare from me, I should (in my youthful folly) feel inclined towards them and join the ranks of the ignorant.”
That was a sign that he had reached the limits of forbearance and resilience. God answered his prayer by rescuing him from the women’s ensnarement. He ended up in prison after the wife of the chief minister had used every weapon in her armory to entrap him. Faith had scored a victory over misguidance, morality over immorality. The prophet emerged from the experience unscathed, scoring a victory over others and himself [his desires]. He had the best of both worlds, a battle-hardened individual with a sublime standard of integrity. He would then face people with his practical experience as well as his ideological acumen, only to prove to them that resisting temptation was not alien to his strong character. Rather, it was an expression of a real situation the prophet faced, which he turned to his advantage. Likewise, people can face the same situation and emerge triumphant, drawing on the strength of faith in God.
The most salient scene in this dialogue is that of the believer being subjected to constant inner struggle, and trying to resist going astray under the enticement of sexual longing. In eloquent response, he prefers to stick with his belief regardless of the sacrifices and sufferings.
The dialogue between Joseph and the wife of chief minister was condensed. And yet it has captured the whole situation of a flagrant sexual attack on her part and an unmistakable rejection on his. However, given the twists and turns of the story, you might notice that there are underlying long dialogues between both the chief characters of the story, not least by her failed attempts to entice Joseph to have sex with her, including the all-women party she gave in her palace. Perhaps this should throw indicate that there might have been a long talk by those women to persuade him to give in to her sexual advances. This is borne out by the fact that he turned to his Lord in prayer to save him from the guile of all the women.
In the discourse related by the Quranic verse, you come across a living example of the unwavering position of belief versus temptation. This is so as to explain that the call to observe chastity in sexual relations is not a far-fetched idea. It is a reality as has already been manifested in Joseph’s case. His position remained constant throughout the entire unpleasant experience.
The story is also trying to tell us that man must remain faithful to his original word and position, if it emanates from a deep sense of conviction. Thus, it would remain much stronger than all adverse words and situations.
Joseph in prison
Then it occurred to the men, after they had seen the signs, (that it was best) to imprison him for a time. Now with him there came into the prison two young men. Said one of them: “I see myself (in a dream) pressing wine.” Said the other: “I see myself (in a dream) carrying bread on my head, and birds are eating, thereof.” “Tell us” (they said) “the truth and meaning thereof: for we see thou art one that doth good (to all).”
He said: “Before any food comes (in due course) to feed either of you, I will surely reveal to you the truth and meaning of this ere it befall you: that is part of the (duty) which my Lord hath taught me. I have (I assure you) abandoned the ways of a people that believe not in God and that (even) deny the Hereafter. And I follow the ways of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and never could we attribute any partners whatever to God: that (comes) of the grace of God to us and to mankind: yet most men are not grateful. O my two companions of the prison! (I ask you): are many lords differing among themselves better, or the One God, Supreme and Irresistible? If not Him, ye worship nothing but names which ye have named – ye and your fathers – for which God hath sent down no authority: the command is for none but God: He hath commanded that ye worship none but Him: that is the right religion, but most men understand not. O my two companions of the prison! As to one of you, he will pour out the wine for his lord to drink: as for the other, he will hang from the cross, and the birds will eat from off his head. (So) hath been decreed that matter whereof ye twain do enquire.”
And of the two, to that one whom he considers about to be saved, he said: “Mention me to thy lord.” But Satan made him forget to mention him to his lord: and (Joseph) lingered in prison a few (more) years. (12: 35–42)
This dialogue discusses a crucial matter in the domain of calling to the way of God. It is that Muslim activists should not make imprisonment, if they ever experience it, a prelude to surrendering to their personal predicament. They should not overindulge in looking forward to freedom at the expense of their noble task, i.e. that of serving the Message, to the extent that they might risk becoming far removed from it. Rather, they should turn the prison into a hive of industry in the cause of God. Prisons could be fertile grounds for sowing the seeds of good thought because of the nature of the environment. Such surroundings are conducive to bringing inmates closer to spiritual tranquility, and pulling them away from all materialistic and social influences, which in turn can make them feel the proximity of God and His Omnipotence. On the other hand, a prison environment can make the inmates more receptive to dialogue and lend a listening ear to what is said because they feel the need to escape mentally from the situation they are in and spend more time on new things that are capable of filling their time.
This is evident from the prison chapter of Joseph’s story. He listened to his prison mates speaking about the dreams they saw in their sleep and asking for interpretations. He entertained their request, seizing the opportunity to resume his work from within the prison walls in calling to the way of God. At the outset, he put them at ease, promising them that he was very well versed in interpreting dreams in order to finally win them over to the belief in the One and Only God.
He started the conversation by speaking about himself and his faith, which had come as a result of deep-rooted conviction based on strong evidence. He then attacked the misguided thoughts that were based on worshipping gods other than God, or setting up partners to Him. He made it clear to them that that type of worship did not make sense and had no logical basis. However, he did not hide his desire to come out of prison, asking the inmate, whom he thought was going to be released and reinstated in his job, to mention his name during his audience with the king. Nevertheless, his companion forgot to do so, leaving Joseph languishing in prison several more years. This is the tale of a divinely guided prophet who lived every moment of his life thinking of his noble task, with scant regard for his personal matters.
In this day and age, we have witnessed the importance of prison environments, in that they offer the opportunity for spreading the Message and engaging in dialogue. This state of affairs has led many organizations and political parties to send some of their elements to prisons to propagate their doctrines among the inmates.
Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (16)
Joseph, a free man
We are given more morals and lessons in the final chapters of Joseph’s story. However, we are not going to dwell on those chapters here. We will, however, conclude our discussion by bringing to the fore the dialogue between Joseph and the king, when Joseph was summoned by the king to be informed of his appointment as secretary to the treasury, in order to handle the impending economic crisis the country would go through, according to Joseph’s reading of the king’s dream. Joseph made his acceptance of the post conditional on clearing his name of the charge of attempting to rape the wife of the chief minister, by insisting on calling the women – whom the wife of the chief minister had invited and confessed in their presence that she was after Joseph (a.s.) – to give evidence and exonerate him:
The king (of Egypt) said: “I do see (in a vision) seven fat kine [cows], whom seven lean ones devour, and seven green ears of corn, and seven (others) withered. O ye chiefs! Expound to me my vision if it be that ye can interpret visions.” They said: “A confused medley of dreams: and we are not skilled in the interpretation of dreams.” But the man who had been released, one of the two (who had been in prison) and who now bethought him after (so long) a space of time, said: “I will tell you the truth of its interpretation: send ye me (therefore).” “O Joseph!” (He said) “O man of truth! Expound to us (the dream) of seven fat kine whom seven lean ones devour, and of seven green ears of corn and (seven) others withered: that I may return to the people, and that they may understand.” (Joseph) said: “For seven years shall ye diligently sow as is your wont: and the harvests that ye reap, ye shall leave them in the ear – except a little, of which ye shall eat. Then will come after that (period) seven dreadful (years), which will devour what ye shall have laid by in advance for them – (all) except a little which ye shall have (specially) guarded. Then will come after that (period) a year in which the people will have abundant water, and in which they will press (wine and oil).”
So the king said: “Bring ye him unto me.” But when the messenger came to him, (Joseph) said: “Go thou back to thy lord, and ask him, ‘What is the state of mind of the ladies who cut their hands’? For my Lord is certainly well aware of their snare.” (The king) said (to the ladies): “What was your affair when ye did seek to seduce Joseph from his (true) self?” The ladies said: “God preserve us! No evil know we against him!” Said the Aziz’s wife: “Now is the truth manifest (to all): it was I who sought to seduce him from his (true) self: He is indeed of those who are (ever) true (and virtuous).” “This (say I), in order that He may know that I have never been false to him in his absence, and that God will never guide the snare of the false ones. Nor do I absolve my own self (of blame): the (human) soul is certainly prone to evil, unless my Lord do bestow His Mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (12: 43-53).
From this dialogue, we can learn the following:
1. Shouldering responsibility calls for a clean record
In order to accept the appointment, Joseph had no choice but to demand the clearance of his name from the unproven charges that landed him in prison. According to him, this was a prerequisite because his office meant that he had to regain public confidence. He looked at the affair from a public, rather than a personal, perspective. To his mind, the public office he was going to hold would necessitate that he should clear his name. Failure to do so would constitute a hindrance to his message reaching a wider audience.
By sticking to his guns and the strength of his position, Joseph succeeded in forcing the culprits to publicly confess that they lied. Then, and only then, he accepted the appointment with confidence and peace of mind. Here is a lesson for Muslim activists to be drawn from Joseph’s uncompromising stand. They should abide by the strength of their conviction and case. It is very important that they discuss the charges made against them and defend themselves where possible, leaving that which could not be clarified fully to some other opportune time. This has a bearing on the interests of the noble task they are entrusted with. The activists should not be in a position to say: We do not need to protest our innocence as long as we know for sure that we are innocent and God Almighty is aware that we are truthful in submitting to Him and earning His pleasure. There is no way they can do that because personal satisfaction that one is wrongfully accused should not be a license to keep quiet and not contest the charges, so long as they can do so. They should go about this by making their mind up that it is not a personal matter. Rather, it is a public right. It is within everyone’s right to be in the right position to discuss all issues, with a view to arriving at satisfactory and clear conclusions. Such conclusions would then be turned into added force to boost the movement and its activists.
2. The activists between acquiring knowledge and taking part in power
We should be able to understand from Joseph’s story, especially his dialogue while he was in prison and after his release, one of life’s fundamental realities. That is, it is incumbent on the workers in the way of God to pursue the acquisition of knowledge, to better the chances of their own advancement, which would, in turn, gives good returns to society. In so doing, they would be better positioned to influence the masses.
This, however, may lead to taking part in running the affairs of the nation (ummah), which would in the end serve to achieve the objective.
It goes without saying that should this happen, they must be absolutely sure that they are going to maintain their integrity and religion from falling prey to the lure and trappings of power. In the final analysis, what should matter is one’s noble task in life, which should be discharged with self-denial. So, should they be not so sure about resisting the temptations of power and keeping on the straight path, they should stay put and do their level best without much ado.
This is the reality of Joseph’s story. His expertise in interpreting dreams opened the door wide for him to win his two prison mates over to his cause and eventually secure his own release from prison. His knowledge earned him the king’s confidence and paved the way for him to occupy one of the highest echelons of power, the official in charge of the economy. This had stood him in good stead in the field of calling to the way of God and steering the economy towards serving social justice that God and His messenger are pleased to see done.
3. Miracles top the list of knowledge
In the nature of the miracles performed by the prophets, there is a manifestation that they come at the top of any field of knowledge or skill prevailing at their time. This would make people grow in confidence and identify with the prophet for seeing him far more knowledgeable than them. At the time of Prophet Moses (a.s.) sorcery was widespread. His staff, which turned into a serpent devouring all the trickery the magicians had shown, came at the top of that craft. The act was so sublime that it was outside the reach of witchcraft, to the extent that the magicians had no choice but to prostrate themselves to God and become believers in His message without waiting for permission from Pharaoh. In the case of Prophet Jesus (a.s.), medicine was the number one discipline. God sent him with the miracle of raising the dead, giving back the blessing of sight to the blind, and curing lepers. Those were feats, which made him win the people’s hearts and minds, so much so that a section of them went astray into believing that he was divine. Literary excellence and linguistic elocution were the prime virtues of the Arab society at the time of Prophet Mohammad (p.). The Holy Quran was his miracle, as it challenged all men of letters and eloquent speakers into imitating its style, and yet they could not.
All this gives us a clear idea about the place of knowledge and the role well-informed activists could play in the service of their mission on the way of God. It is capable of earning them the respect of people and defeating the challenges of unbelievers and hypocrites.
4. Evangelism exploits knowledge to serve its design
The missionary movement and colonial powers planned very well and got prepared for spreading the Gospel. Many of their activists majored in many disciplines and fields of knowledge, which would eventually open the doors of universities, hospitals, international conferences… etc. for them. This has made their entry into society through its widest doors a foregone conclusion. Consequently, they have had great influence, if not a stranglehold over the culture, well being and system of society. On another level, the European orientalist movement was made subservient to the aims of the missionary movement, which was bent on sullying the image of Islam, its Prophet and all that it stands for in culture, and finally drove it out from the lives of people. We have experienced first hand the designs of imperialistic organizations, which seek to have an impact on society by sending much-needed people with the required know-how. This is bound to make them pull strings in people’s lives.
5. The sublime position of Joseph towards his brothers
At the end of this remarkable story, we come face to face with yet another noble position taken by Joseph. This time, it is his magnanimous position on his brothers, who confessed their crime in plotting to kill or get rid of him out of envy. His faith in God and his steadfastness in adversity, which led him eventually to rule supreme, made him forgive and be kind to them without their knowledge. Once they came to know about it, that gracious position made them apologize to him for their wrongdoings. For his part, he pardoned them without overbearing, thus: “They said: ‘By God! Indeed has God preferred thee above us, and we certainly have been guilty of sin!’ He said: ‘This day let no reproach be (cast) on you: God will forgive you, and He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy!'” (12: 91–92).
Here, we see Joseph again in a situation where he expresses his submission before God, when he was reunited with his parents and elevated them to the throne. He did not talk about his story in detail, apart from the fact that he concluded that it was, in all its phases, a grace from Him. He was self-effacing before his parents and brothers, whom he did not reproach for their transgression against him because, to his mind, their problem was that of Satan’s instigation. For their part, once they discovered that they had been in the wrong, they returned to the right path where God is.
In the end, Joseph (a.s.) turned in prayer to God to make Him bear witness to his real feelings about all the trials, tribulations, and successes he went through, of asking for His support and protection:
And he raised his parents high on the throne (of dignity), and they fell down in prostration, (all) before him. He said: “O my father! This is the fulfilment of my vision of old! God hath made it come true! He was indeed good to me when He took me out of prison and brought you (all here) out of the desert, (even) after Satan had sown enmity between me and my brothers. Verily my Lord understandeth best the mysteries of all that He planneth to do, for verily He is full of knowledge and wisdom. O my Lord! Thou hast indeed bestowed on me some power, and taught me something of the interpretation of dreams and events – O Thou Creator of the heavens and the earth! Thou art my Protector in this world and in the Hereafter. Take Thou my soul (at death) as one submitting to Thy will (as a Muslim), and unite me with the righteous.” (12: 100–01)
The ultimate lesson
In Joseph’s story there are many lessons for the workers in the way of God to draw. They should follow his footsteps when they progress from small positions and make great leaps, after experiencing thick and thin and utilizing all their energy in the arena of struggle. They should, when their time comes in reaching the summit, not be like peacocks prone to showing off. They should not be like those who cannot resist the trappings of power and fall to its temptations, forgetting in the process their duty towards their Lord, and doing themselves injustice. They may also turn all the divine triumphs into ones that have been achieved by their personal efforts per
And yet, there are others, who are among the very few, who stand tall to assert that the procession of the divine messages should take precedence over life’s aspirations and that divine successes are not the exclusive preserve of the individual. They are divine graces that God bestows on the workers in His way, endowing them with talent and competence to be used in spreading the Message. Thus, there should be no place for conceit or looking down on people. Rather, there is only a place for humility based on man’s faith in his Lord and his feeling of dependency on Him in everything, and that there is neither power nor refuge except with God, the Most High, the Omnipotent.
This story is a practical lesson that the workers in the way of God should learn, so that they follow in the footsteps of the prophets who felt a sense of humility before victories and prayed to Him for any glimmer of success or progress. You should also invoke the power of prayer in adversity because His is the final word. So, in success or in failure, you have to turn to Him.
A great part of Joseph’s story discusses the emotional side of the human soul. Here we would like to dwell on this subject by raising two mind-provoking thoughts, which we can deduce from the way the Quran has told the story:
1. Religion does not disapprove of passions
Religion has not declared the subject of discussing emotional matters a taboo. People should feel free to talk about this subject, including love stories, provided that they serve the intents and purposes of the Message. These stories would in the end depict a position where man’s will triumphs over the human feelings and sexual drive. Thus, the person who emerges gaining the upper hand over his desires would represent the true person who is entwined with God’s Message. Such a person would serve as a paradigm to Islam’s realism in its laws and doctrines. The stories may depict some tragic episodes for men and women who had followed the crooked way in satisfying their sexual needs. Such stories should serve as a deterrent to others as not to tread the same path. This should help to start planning for responsible Islamic literature, in which there can be a love story beside social, political, and other matters.
In so doing, the Islamic approach to calling to the way of God would open a window of opportunity through which Islam’s law and ideology shine on people’s lives. This is with the aim of making it abundantly clear that Islam is not confined to certain aspects of life. It is there to permeate those domains of man’s life that relate to feelings and emotions too. This would render false the notion that Islam would not have anything to do with these sentimental issues. There is no way that this can be true after the Holy Quran and Scripture have talked about these issues in many places.
However, artistic guidelines have to be put in place, with a view to putting this literary activity on an even keel, within the main Islamic framework for ideology and calling to the way of God, as is the case with other literary trends.
2. Religion and sexual education
Religion talks about sexual relations, both normal and abnormal ones, in a natural manner, precisely as is the case with any other human relationships. This is indicative of the fact that knowledge about that aspect of human relationships is not a demeaning one, as social customs seem to suggest. On the contrary, Islam does not stand in the way of spreading sexual education within a sound plan, away from the climate of sexual arousal, like any other domain of education. This is particularly so, when it is evident that many Quranic verses and prophetic traditions call a spade a spade.
We can go further to say that Islam encourages such education, not least because many legal injunctions relate to sexual relationships between men and women. Examples of this are ritual bathing (ghusl) after sexual intercourse, restoring physical purity to the body after a monthly period or childbirth, etc. Upholding these commands and fulfilling such duties satisfactorily would not be achieved unless one knew in detail the functions of male and female reproduction organs/systems. The adage has it, “There is no place for shyness in religious matters”.
In this light, we can say that Islam is in favor of the call for sexual education, not from the perspective that maintains that ignorance would engender psychological complexes but rather, from a standpoint that rejects the mentality that considers dabbling in sexual matters a shameless behavior or a taboo. Furthermore, sexual education has a bearing on practicing certain acts of worship or stopping short of embarking on others. This would render sexual education a sacred religious duty. In a nutshell, we aspire to spread sexual education through the Quranic stories and Islamic lawgiving, besides the solid building of the Islamic character, away from all inferiority complexes and negative influences.
It is quite natural, therefore, that we put a lot of effort into studying the Book and the prophetic traditions, so that we can arrive at Islam’s comprehensive view on the sexual question. This is because it is considered one of the central issues that occupy a big part in social and educational thinking these days. This would be in response to a fundamental stance that makes it incumbent on us to exert the effort in deducing Islam’s position on any issue that comes to the fore and every trend that imposes itself on life, lest Muslims should remain at a loss in the midst of conflicting opinions.