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Islamic Humanism – Reflections on Sura al-Takwir

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By Hamdija Begovic

“It is a strange kind of humanism that denies something quintessentially human: religion.”

The quote isn’t exact since I, for the life of me, cannot remember who came up with it, and I’ve grown tired of sitting and typing in variants of it (substituting “uniquely” for “quintessentially”, or “opposes” for “denies”, etc.) in the Google search bar, in hopes of tracking it down. At any rate, I believe that the above, probably flawed, version of this great quote succeeds in conveying the idea.

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I have always been struck by the apparent cynicism of the more aggresive anti-religionists who try to combat this uniquely and quintessentially human reality, in the name of humanism. It is obvious that spirituality and belief in God comes naturally to us humans, and to ask (or demand, as some do) that we abandon this means, in effect, that we are asked to quash a part of what makes us human. Now, the fact that something comes naturally to us doesn’t necessarily have to mean that it is true, but the point is that hostility against a phenomenon that is clad with the two abovementioned adverbs and adjective makes “humanism” seem an ill-chosen epithet. The snobbery that exudes from some of these guys doesn’t help, either.

In contrast to this, I feel that Islam presents a different type of “humanism”. To understand what I mean, we first have to identify a couple of implications of the materialist worldview. This worldview entails, as it were, that the well-off and privileged have an advantage against their counterparts when it comes to guidance (in the sense of knowing truth); the one who can afford the best education (in particular a philosophical education, right?) will have greater access to the truth about God and religion than a poor person who cannot afford an education and has to rely on his intuition in forming his belief. In Islam, however, we know that those scholars who dabbled in speculative philosophy and returned to ahl al-Sunnah made a point of praising the pure aqeedah of the “old grandmother” who relies on her intuitive belief about God coupled with the text of the Qur’an and Sunnah bidun ta’wil. And therein lies my point. Guidance is accessible to all, it isn’t exclusive to the one possessing economic, social and cultural capital or, for that matter, intellectual prowess. And the ultimate significance of this is that the same goes for happiness – guidance in this world and bliss in the akhirah is accessible to all, not only the privileged. This type of humanism is more humane than the materialistic (especially anti-religion) one. And it is my feeling that Sura al-Takwir, among other things, conveys this message of Islamic Humanism.

The sura can be divided into three, or four, sections. First, a description of what will happen on the Day of Judgement. Then, the oaths. After that, the answer to those oaths. And then, an appeal to humankind.

The first section gets your attention by discussing an aspect of the Unseen. Now, the Unseen and the unknown fascinates us, and many times it frightens us. And the first ayat of Sura al-Takwir talk about a particularly frightening aspect of the Unseen. It mentions the horror that awaits all of us: the Judgement Day. The fact that we cannot know what our personal fate will be on that day makes it all the more frightening to hear about it, and so the first section stirs up fear in us, and it intensifies the feeling of obscureness, of being in the dark; this is our reality. Death and our personal fate in the afterlife are a frightening mystery to us. In the end, these first ayat actually make us feel extremely frail as human beings due to our own incapacity to transcend this darkness.

And the second section begins by advancing the same concept through the oaths:

فَلَآ أُقۡسِمُ بِٱلۡخُنَّسِ

So I swear by the retreating stars –

ٱلۡجَوَارِ ٱلۡكُنَّسِ

Those that run [their courses] and disappear –

The imagery is clear. A pitch-dark night wherein the light, in the form of stars, is absent. More darkness. Despair and, perhaps, a slight panicky sensation. But then, a hint of relief:

وَٱلَّيۡلِ إِذَا عَسۡعَسَ

And the night as it ‘as’as

‘As’as actually means two oppsite things: it refers to the night as it approaches, i.e. the beginning of the night, as well as its recession, i.e. the beginning of the dawn. At any rate, the intensity of the darkness begins to weaken. Light is coming, the feeling of us being in the dark is receding.

وَٱلصُّبۡحِ إِذَا تَنَفَّسَ

And by the dawn when it breathes

Now the stranglehold of the darkness loosens and allows for the breath of light, so that it may extend and illuminate the world. For:

إِنَّهُ ۥ لَقَوۡلُ رَسُولٍ۬ كَرِيمٍ۬

[That] indeed, the Qur’an is a word [conveyed by] a noble messenger

The light of God has reached us, and we are no longer in darkness. This section – we are now in the third one which contains the answer to the oaths – goes on to emphasize the fact that this Qur’an and the Prophetic message, in contrast to the state of darkness, is one hundred percent clear and trustworthy. It is sent down by a completely trustworthy angel, whom the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) saw clearly.The point is that all the obscureness and frailty evoked earlier is now gone and replaced by this assurance and confidence. Now we have got powerful (notice the phrase used to describe Gabriel:ذِى قُوَّةٍ) and clear (again, notice the phrase used to describe where the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) saw Gabriel:بِٱلۡأُفُقِ ٱلۡمُبِينِ) guidance.

The point here is that yes, as humans we are in a dark and frail state, as I imagine some existentialists would say (incidentally, Jean-Paul Sartre has a book called “Existantialism is a Humanism”). But the light, in the form of God’s guidance, is here so that we may transcend this pitiful state. We cannot transcend it alone, but only through accepting God’s guidance. It is clear and powerful. And availible to all:

وَمَا هُوَ عَلَى ٱلۡغَيۡبِ بِضَنِينٍ۬

And Muhammad is not a withholder of [knowledge of] the unseen.

The Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) doesn’t withold the knowledge, the light, from the weak and poor ones, those who cannot get an education. It is accessible to all, whether or not you possess cultural, social and economic capital. This is the Islamic Humanism, that offers every human a chance for happiness. Take it!

فَأَيۡنَ تَذۡهَبُونَ

So where are you going?

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11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Bucketofdreams

    November 20, 2010 at 2:57 AM

    SubhanAllah!

    And, mashaAllah! This is awesomely written! =)

  2. Nida

    November 20, 2010 at 8:31 AM

    Beautiful insight to wake up to a bright saturday morning! :) may allah bless the writers and they taste it’s sweetness in this life and the hereafter….

  3. AnonyMouse

    November 20, 2010 at 9:57 AM

    Very, very well written, masha’Allah.

  4. Ify Okoye

    November 20, 2010 at 10:47 AM

    I love Surah at-Takwir and appreciated your explanation, may Allah reward you with good. I remember the days when my crew and I had an aversion to all things religious, it seemed so natural then, hard for me now to try to understand that perspective. Alhamdulillah, for the blessing of Islam.

  5. Sabour Al-Kandari

    November 20, 2010 at 2:10 PM

    Excellent work, mash’Allah!

  6. Daughter of Adam (AS)

    November 20, 2010 at 4:41 PM

    alhamdulillah a’la ni’matil islaam.

  7. Yahya Ibrahim

    November 20, 2010 at 5:05 PM

    Bismillah

    Masha Allah very nice.

    ‘as ‘as is the entirety of night..starts to get dark and darkens further until it repeals in the same modality as it arrived.

    light to dark to light

    At times we live thinking its rough and difficult..then it really darkens…

    You cherish the light only then

    O Allah lighten our burdens and grant us success in this dunya and the next

    • Omar

      November 20, 2010 at 7:57 PM

      ameen

  8. Mu'adh

    November 20, 2010 at 9:16 PM

    Nice work, mashaAllah. I find the title redundant, though, because the tradition of Islam is quite humane, more so than what is today commonly called humanism. But I can see why the title would be such, to convey the idea of the article across to the intended audience. Surah al-Takwir is one of my favorite surahs, the message is very important, thank you for this article.

  9. Mantiki

    November 22, 2010 at 3:42 AM

    Spiritual experiences are still common today. I am a 57 year old Australian man and my my first memory of such an experience is very similar to that described. I must have been around 3 ears old because I had the concept of words such as “Mum”. Basically my experience was that I fell asleep and then “awoke” to find “myself” floating in an infinite void. I had no body – feeling somehow that my consciousness was that of a point with position but no size. I had the feeling of being the only thought in an immense Void. There was not complete emptiness as I was aware of a number of enormous cubes tumbling through the darkness. To me, this nightmare seemed to last an eternity without end but somehow it did end and I awoke.

    My next experience was when I prayed for redemption as a 19 year old. Nothing happened initially, as I did so as a kind of experiment but at some point, my feelings unaccountably went from being a “rational” observer to being a blubbering crying mess convinced that I was worthless and that the universe was indeed cold and empty. When I did so again in desperation, I repented in the name of Jesus, and was immediately flooded with the feeling of an immense Love. I felt immediately that I was without sin and was “told” not to worry and that the Universe is unfolding according to God’s plan and will.

    I repeat my experiences not to convert people to Christianity but to re-assure people that there is a loving God and that we should not cower in fear before Him but reflect his Love towards each other. I see that people often have similar experiences when near death – often meeting their deceased parents and relatives and friends – even those that they were not aware had died. I have also had more mundane but still remarkable “psychic” experiences such as accurate premonitions and often wonder if my near death from an accident when I was 12 months old left me more sensitive to the unseen part of our universe. Apparently this is also reasonably common. In consequence I no longer fear death or God – knowing that He loves me.

    Peace and Love to you all!

  10. Nahraf

    November 22, 2010 at 10:47 PM

    Interesting.

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