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Miracles and Metaphors

by Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani

translated by Juan Cole.
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Chapter 2

Part II

Commentary on "Then it is Ours to explain it." (Qur'an 75:19)

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[Photograph on this page]

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It will not have escaped those with clear vision that God has stated, in many places in the Qur'an, that there are interpretations of the verses which are known only to Him. This is indicated by the verse, "And none knows its interpretation, save only God." and, "Nay, they deny what their knowledge does not encompass, though its interpretation has not yet come to them."[2-1] The explanation for this is as follows: When the Glorious Book was revealed, it contained prophecies and predictions of events that would take place in the world, which all the nations were to see and witness. Similar prophecies are found in the Pentateuch, the Gospel, and the books of the minor prophets of the House of Israel. These include prophecies that the sun will be rolled up and cease to give its light, the moon darkened, the stars scattered, the heavens cleft asunder, and the earth and sky transformed. All parts of the heavens will be covered by smoke and split by clouds. They predict that the earth shall quake, the mountains turn to dust, the moon and the sun unite, and so forth.

[2-1. Qur'an 3:7, 10:39.]

These mighty verses are such that reason rejects them, and so it is difficult for many souls to admit the possibility that they might come to pass and to accept them. Indeed, the occurrence of such events is considered utterly impossible, as has been established by the natural sciences and in astronomy. The pagan, polytheistic Arabs used to deny all the prophets who

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appeared from the line of Abraham, such as Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. They, therefore, paid close attention to these verses and discussed them, engaging in disputes with the companions of the Prophet over their impossibility, in order to entice the believers away from Islam. They stated that Muhammad was duping his people, deceiving his companions with verses such as these, promising them absurdities, raising false hopes, and convincing them of impossibilities. Then the above-mentioned verses were revealed. They indicate that the people only denied the verses of the noble Qur'an because the meaning was beyond their grasp and because they were ignorant of what was intended thereby. Actually, the meaning of those verses had not yet been revealed, and the interpretation of those statements had not yet been given to the people. This was precisely to alert them to the truth that these verses did possess rational significance, sublime meanings, and deliberately figurative interpretations. God would manifest these to them on a specified Day, after the expiration of a designated term. This is demonstrated by the verse, "Do they look for aught else but its interpretation? The day its interpretation comes, those who before forgot it shall say, "Indeed, our Lord's messengers came with the truth...."[2-2]

[2-2. Qur'an 7:53.]

It is obvious that the true interpretation of the verses of the Qur'an cannot be their literal meaning or their lexicological significance, which anyone who knows the Arabic language could comprehend. Otherwise, there would be no sense in the sacred verse: "And none knows its interpretation save God," or, "Nay, they deny what their knowledge does not encompass." Rather, the meaning of "interpretation" is the concealed significance with which He has endued

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these words through metaphors, similes, metonymies, and other figurative usages.

Were it not for people's misunderstanding of these subtle meanings and sublime significances in past ages, the prophets would not have concealed them behind a veil of metaphors and would not have communicated them with esoteric allusions. Thus it is written in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew: "All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: `I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.'"[2-3] It is also recorded in the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to John that Jesus said to his disciples, "I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you unto all the truth."[2-4] In the traditions of the Prophet are the sayings, "We, the concourse of prophets, were sent to address people according to the capacity of their minds." and in al-Bukhari through `Ali, "Speak to the people of that with which they are familiar; do you wish God and His Messenger to be called liars?"

[2-3. Matt. 13:34-35. The quotation is from Ps. 78:2, attributed to Asaph the Seer (2 Chron. 29-30).]

[2-4. John 16:12.]

It has been established that the world is advancing toward perfection, and that the spirits and hearts of men are certainly progressing toward the station of moderation and maturity. Thus they may one day attain to a level where they can understand the words of the prophets. This is required by the law of progress and advancement. God ordained that these verses be revealed from the tongues of the prophets, and He gave the task of unveiling their meaning and explaining their intent to the Spirit of God when he should descend from heaven. This was so that the hearts of the faithful might be strengthened and nurtured by the

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outward sense of the Holy Verses, so that the community might advance in the light of the true law, and so that the people might be enabled, in the meantime, to travel the far distances and to endure the extended interval between their own time and the expiration of the allotted term.

Shaykh Suhrawardi (may God sanctify his soul) said at the end of his book, Temples of Light:[2-5] "The insightful must believe in the soundness of the prophecies, and that their similarity is a proof of their reality. As it says in the Qur'an, `And those similitudes — we strike them for the people, but none understands them save those who know,' and as some of the prophecies warn, `I will open my mouth in a parable.'[2-6] Revelation was entrusted to the prophets, and its interpretation and elucidation were delegated to the most great, illumined, and bounteous Manifestation, the Comforter.[2-7] This is as Christ warned, saying, `I am going to my Father and your Father, that He might send you the Comforter, who will inform you of the interpretation,' and, `But the Comforter ... whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things.'[2-8] This was alluded to in the Qur'an: `Then it is Ours to explain it.'[2-9] and so forth. There is no doubt that the lights of the kingdom of heaven are descending to rescue the disconsolate. The radiance of holiness is spreading, and the path of truth is open, as the angry lightning informs us on a tempest-swept night." It is as God said, "It is He who looses the winds bearing good tidings with the hands of His mercy."[2-10]

[2-5. Yahya ibn Habash as-Suhrawardi, Hayakil an-nur, ed. Muhammad `Ali Abu Rayyan (Cairo: Grande Librairie Commerciale, 1957), pp. 87-88. Suhrawardi (1152/3-1191 A.D.) was born near Zanjan, Iran. He studied peripatetic philosophy and Islamic law in Maraghih and continued his philosophical studies in Isfahan. He then traveled, spending much time in Anatolia, and finally settled in Aleppo, Syria. There, his mixture of philosophy and mysticism became controversial. He was executed for heresy by the government of Salahu'd-Din al-Ayyubi (the Sunni Muslim leader, better known in the West as Saladin, who defeated the European crusaders and overthrew the Shi'i Fatamid dynasty in Egypt). Suhrawardi was charged with believing that God could send a prophet after Muhammad. This contradicted the Sunni orthodoxy that Muhammad was the last prophet.]

[2-6. Qur'an 29:43; Ps. 78:2.]

[2-7. Literally, Paraclete.]

[2-8. Paraphrase of various passages in John 14-16; John 14:26.]

[2-9. Qur'an 75:19.]

[2-10. Qur'an 7:57.]

From what has gone before, it is clear that all the prophets from Adam to their Seal, Muhammad, came to reveal the above verses and to spread the traditional glad tidings without concerning themselves with explaining them. This was owing, as we have said, to the

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inability of the people to bear their meaning and their incapacity to perceive their purpose. These prophets were only sent to guide the masses to the desired goal. They were content if the people attained a general faith, until their Book reached the end of its dispensation and the advance of the hearts toward the level of maturity was completed. At that time the promised Spirit of God would appear and reveal the concealed realities to them on the Resurrection Day.

Those possessed of understanding know that the most difficult task for any accomplished scholar is to attempt to explain something to a person incapable of grasping it. For if a reality is revealed to one who cannot comprehend it, he will deny its truth because of his inability to understand. The tradition from al-Bukhari we quoted above makes this clear: "Speak to the people of that with which they are familiar; do you wish God and His Messenger to be called liars?" The people would only end up in a state of unbelief after having had faith, and in apostasy after having obeyed. This contravenes the purpose for which the prophets were sent; it negates the plan prescribed for the chosen ones to follow. This is indicated by God's saying: "O believers, question not concerning things which, if they were revealed to you, would vex you."[2-11]

[2-11. Qur'an 5:101.]

They asked the Prophet about those mysterious truths and abstruse meanings, but he found it difficult to explain these to them because, as we have already said, they were incapable of grasping these truths and unable to bear them. He thus forbade them to question him about them or to delve into them. Humanity's growth of comprehension, and its spiritual progress, is just like the course of bodily growth and physical progress. A human being must drink milk during his infancy, while his body is growing and before it attains

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perfection. During this time, eating coarse foods will certainly harm him, and, indeed, a cooked meal might kill him. In the same way, while his mind is growing and his comprehension is maturing, he needs at first simple, literal statements and would be destroyed by grappling with abstruse meanings.

From this, the difficulty the Prophet faced when the Qur'an was revealed can be understood, as can the stress he underwent when he recited the verses. For they used to question him concerning their true reality and significance, and he used to move his lips and try hard to find a way of elucidating to them. This was because of the difficulty of explaining something to a person incapable of grasping it, and the equal difficulty of abandoning the effort lest this be attributed to impotence. Then the verse was revealed, "Move not thy tongue with it to hasten it."[2-12] That is, to hasten the explanation of its hidden meanings and its mysterious interpretations. It continues, "Ours it is to gather it, and to recite it,"[2-13] (as God ordained that it later be gathered by the rightly guided caliphs, may God be pleased with them all).[*] He added, "Then Ours it is to explain it."[2-14] That is, when the community, because of its advancement by means of the holy Islamic law, attained the highest degree of perfection and when hearts became capable of grasping what is concealed in the Books of God, the All-Glorious, the Most High — then would the morn of attainment dawn, the Spirit descend in the clouds of glory, the mists of error be dispelled, and the Lord manifest Himself in the most glorious robes of beauty. He would explain to

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them the interpretation of the Book, reveal the quintessence of God to His servants, in every respect.

[*. The official edition of the Qur'an was collected and published under the third caliph, `Uthman (r. 644-656 A.D.). This was accomplished by a team of scholars under Zayd ibn Thabit, probably between 650 and 656 A.D.]

[2-12. Qur'an 75:16.]

[2-13. Qur'an 75:17.]

[2-14. Qur'an 75:19.]

From what we have said, the meaning of the saying reported from Ibn `Abbas is clear: "The Prophet — peace be upon him — used to undergo stress from receiving revelations, and would move his lips." Then he said, "I am moving mine as the Prophet used to move his."[2-15] For whenever any mature scholar is questioned by someone who is unable to grasp abstruse meanings, or is interrogated by someone who has never attained an understanding of sublime matters, he experiences stress and difficulty, stammers in his speech, faces the dilemma of attempting to make his questioner understand, and moves his lips in his utterance. It is not reasonable to maintain that this stress derived from the ringing of revelation, as some have interpreted this verse. For revelation involves no ringing, and ringing involves no difficulty. Revelation is only the descent of verses upon the breasts of prophets and messengers. This is shown by God's saying, "Nay; rather it is signs, clear signs in the breasts of those who have been given knowledge; and none denies Our signs but the evildoers," and "Brought down by the Faithful Spirit, upon thy heart, that thou mayest be one of the warners, in a clear Arabic tongue. Truly it is in the scriptures of the ancients."[2-16]

[2-15. Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 1, with English trans. Muhammad Mushin Khan (Medina: Islamic University, 1971), p. 5.]

[2-16. Qur'an 29:49; 26:193-96.]

Did the authors of those commentaries, which are hardly better than adolescent musings, think that the divine revelation, which the leaders of Sunni Islam term "the Preexistent Speech," consists of chains and bells, that it produces clanging and ringing? They depend for this view on some weak traditions and absurd ideas. How base their ruminations! How wretched is that to which they have compared the verses of God,

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despising and disdaining His words! How many calamities have these foolish commentaries brought upon the Holy Scriptures — opening the door to opposition, objection, refutation, and criticism of the divine words! See the "Discourse on Islam" written by the Englishman George Sale and the comments on it by Hashim Ash-Shami. Subject them to close scrutiny. The criticisms with which these two scholars attack the Qur'an derive in reality from the commentaries of glosses and interpreters. The absurdity of the latter can now become clear because of the swift progress that can be seen in the advancement of understanding and reason, and the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge and science. How many are the tribulations these criticisms and disputes have brought upon nations and religions! They have opened the gates of hatred and enmity. They have resulted in wars and attacks which have caused so much blood to be spilled that such treatises and essays as the present one cannot hope to describe it. Let us here close our discourse. Peace be upon the peacemakers, and upon those who open the doors of affection and love between all men.

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