rhodoraonline

QURAN IN RAMADAAN: The determined vs the uncertain

In excerpts and quotes, psychology of religion, Quran, Ramadaan on August 14, 2011 at 12:38 am

 12 Ramazaan, 1432:

إِنِّي وَجَّهْتُ وَجْهِيَ لِلَّذِي فَطَرَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ حَنِيفًا ۖ وَمَا أَنَا مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ 

I HAVE turned my face to Him who originated the heavens and the earth, as a man of pure faith; I am not of the idolaters.’ (Al-An’am, 79)
 
 
I came across the ayah more than a week ago in my recitation cycle but the topic once again proved very interesting and also analyzable from a psychological point of view, hence the delayed posting.
 
This line is the great conclusion to Quran’s description of Hazrat Ibrahim’s (alaihi-s salaam) deduction of the Truth from his observations.
 
Background
 
Allah ta’ala thus begins the great but succintly and beautifully described incidence in Sura An’am:  

وَكَذَٰلِكَ نُرِي إِبْرَاهِيمَ مَلَكُوتَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَلِيَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُوقِنِينَ  

AND thus We gave Abraham [his first] insight into [God’s] mighty dominion over the heavens and the earth – and [this] to the end that he might become one of those who are inwardly sure. (75)
 
 
 The lines describing the observations of the skies that Hazrat Ibrahim made before reaching his conclusions are immensely beautiful. Those familiar with tajweed should read with care (and preferably meaning in mind) for full effect:
 

فَلَمَّا جَنَّ عَلَيْهِ اللَّيْلُ رَأَىٰ كَوْكَبًا ۖ قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَ قَالَ لَا أُحِبُّ الْآفِلِينَ 

 فَلَمَّا رَأَى الْقَمَرَ بَازِغًا قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَ قَالَ لَئِن لَّمْ يَهْدِنِي رَبِّي لَأَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْقَوْمِ الضَّالِّينَ 

 فَلَمَّا رَأَى الشَّمْسَ بَازِغَةً قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي هَـٰذَا أَكْبَرُ ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَتْ قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ إِنِّي بَرِيءٌ مِّمَّا تُشْرِكُونَ

WHEN night drew over him, he saw a star. ‘This’ he said: ‘is surely my Lord’ But when it set he said: ‘I do not like the setting ones’. (76)
WHEN he saw the rising moon, he said: ‘This is my Lord’ But when it set, he said: ‘If my Lord does not guide me, I shall surely be amongst the astray nation’. (77)
THEN, when he saw the sun rise, shining, he said: ‘This must be my Lord, it is larger’ But when it set, he said: ‘O nation I am quit of what you associate (with Allah, the Creator). (78)
 
 
Some tafaseer-al-Quran describe elaborate stories to explain how, while the sun, stars and moon are open to observation any night, Hazrat Ibrahim seems to have done his deliberation at one go. However, more moderate mufassirs such as Maulana Taqi and Maulana Maudidi remind us that collapsing relevant snippets of happennings apart in time and condensing them into a single lyrical and succint narration is a common feature of the Qur’an; wherein details that do not matter at the place are simply left out. So here it seems.
 
What is apparent is that despite being raised in an environment where idolatory and worship of celestial bodies was the absolute custom and his own father was a respected sculptor of idols, Hazrat Ibrahim probably retained his doubts since the beginning, and after his observations and thinking, finally reject once and for all such ‘obviously’ ‘created’ ‘things’. He realized that something which is subject to such a firm set of rules and cannot deviate from those rules (of rising and shining and setting on a tic-toc schedule) cannot be the creator itself, and doesn’t really merit the designation of ‘deity’ that his society had accorded it. The one who must have created these large floating bodies in the skies must be the Sole Creator.
 
We know that he used to think nothing of the sculpted idols of his nation on grounds that they are powerless and really helpless sittting dolls that cannot eat or speak (in Sura Al-Anbya and Sura As-Saaffaat).  Thus after final deliberations regarding the religious customs of his nation, he turned away from all false gods and declared his allegiance to the Sole God in the words that make up the focused ayah of this post.
 
There is one major concept in one word of this ayah that I wish to share with my readers:
 
 
Hanif: the upright, the pure-faith one, the focused
 
Although my search in online Arabic dictionaries mostly yielded the meaning ‘upright’, wikipedia describes hanif as a term for one having the pure monotheistic faith typical of Muslims. The reference to Hazrat Ibrahim is obvious since he rejected other idols in favor of the Sole God. In one Qur’an search engine↓1, I found the following description of the root ha-nun-fa that makes up hanif:
 
To lean to one side, incline, turn away from error to guidance, incline to the right religion, stand firmly on one side, leave a false religion and turn to right.
 
In addition, in Urdu translations of Quran I have often read the word yek-su as a proper rendering of the concept. ‘yek’ means one and ‘su’ means direction. Whole, the word again refers to one who has got rid of other distractions and now sticks firmly to one well-chosen side.
 
All the meanings of the word hanif have a close relation to the above history of Hazrat Ibrahim (alaihi-s salaam). Naturally so, since Allah Himself associates the word so often with the prophet, throughout the Quran. (Basic root search on tanzil.net will confirm that 8 out of 12 times, the word is used in connection with the prophet, including the ayah above. The remaining instances are interpreted to have similar meanings as already referred to).
 
 
Of being hanif and ‘determination’
 
Later history of Hazrat Ibrahim confirms that once having made his decision, he was tested as fiercely as anybody could and yet did not deviate for the slightest moment from the firmness of his belief. How did he make such a strong decision that he turned out to be so determined? Apart from his being a prophet, the qualities of his decision-making are worth examining for our own learning. Many people in the world do not have the strength to make such a strong decision at all; many others (like us), when they do, are not so stoically adherent to it as he was all his life: we keep faltering, forgetting, ignoring, or chickening out.
 
 
The process of decision-making
 
Decision-making is obviously a mental process. It begins when a person is faced with a set of alternatives in the environment. The process is not restricted to humans; however, the scale from simple organisms to humans increases in complexity: the situations posing alternatives are complex, and some alternatives are not even directly related to sensory information (Berthoz, p. 86 in Plmerol, 2010, see below for reference link). The decision Hazrat Ibrahim had to make (it was in his younghood, certainly well before Allah Ta’ala guided him through His message) was thus a very complex one: multitude of choices well-embedded in his environment against the One choice for which no salient sensory help was available.
 
Back to theory: each alternative is weighed in terms of costs and benefits before settling on one. Now what costs and benefits the young Ibrahim must have considered, indeed, which must have propelled him towards his deliberations as desirable incentives vs aversive risks. I think the answer must be the contrast between nobility vs lowness that I have already posed in my last Ramadaan post. As a resummary I will quote one famous line from Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, with its translation:
 

وہ ایک سجدہ جسے تو گراں سمجھتا ہے 

ہزار سجدوں سے دیتا ہے آدمی کو نجات 

[Woh ek sajda jise to giraan samajhta hai
Hazar sajdon se deta hai admi ko nijat ]
 
The one sajda that you often find difficult
Relieves you from stooping to a thousand gods
 
 
Two contrasting human tendencies that exist side-by-side in any human are the drive to avoid unncessary risk and be safe, and the urge to realize one’s true potential which entails risk-taking (Raufaste and Hilton in Polmerol, 2010, p. 475). It’s clear which tendency must have been superior in Hazrat Ibrahim (alaihi-s salaam).
 
Finally, “after a complicated physiological process involving numerous parts of the brain, a dominant solution eventually inhibits all the other possible solutions” (Polmerol, p. 177). Thus the process of decision-making ends with a final choice which may  be expressed as an action or opinion.  In Islam, however, mere declaration of monotheism earns mere name tag; action is required to be a true hanif, which Hazrat Ibrahim proved to be, earning good mention from such a High Source.
 
 
The mechanisms of decision-making
 
Ideally, decision-making would be a tight logical process. All the available alternatives would be examined with an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis for each of them; the solution would be an optimal one in consideration of all this information.  This is the rational approach to decision-making. In most cases this absolute rationality is impossible, since the human mind cannot think of all alternatives nor do a true exhaustive analysis for each of them (Simon, 1997,  in Polmerol, 2010, p.166). The reason for this is the future.
 
The variable of future makes everything uncertain. New, better alternatives may arise in the future. Chosen alternative may turn out to have unforseen consequences. Left out alternatives may turn out to be better than initially asumed. Etc. In Hazrat Ibrahim’s case, unforseen consequences did come up such as being thrown in a fire, having to leave one’s hometown, etc, but by that time future had already rewarded him with prophethood thus removing any possibility of uncertainty. But what about before the first message from God arrived, what about then?
 
In going through his deliberations, did he unconsciosly rely on recognition-primed decision-making? Now what is that? I quote wikipedia here: “Recognition-primed decision (RPD) is a model of how people make quick, effective decisions when faced with complex situations. In this model, the decision maker is assumed to generate a possible course of action, compare it to the constraints imposed by the situation, and select the first course of action that is not rejected.” The question is what suggests this first, intuitive course of action? According to one scholar (Polmerol, 2010, p. 158)↓2, such an intuition is suggested by “an affective, visual, or other stimulus” [the underlining is mine], “the recognition being that of matching to some pattern in making the decision”.
 
Above, we’ve seen that experts already recognize that in complex human decisions all alternatives are not suggested by sensory stimuli. So what could be the ‘pattern’, the ‘stimulus’ that the to-be-prophet must have recognized that was enough to embue him with such a near-certainty about his first-choice alternative? Is it that God has already embedded deep inside us some inkling of the True Reality that holds fast when all the other outside, apparent and obvious alternatives have been cancelled out by the rational mind? It turns out, He has:
 

وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِن بَنِي آدَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ

 أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ ۖ قَالُوا بَلَىٰ  شَهِدْنَا ۛ

أَن تَقُولُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَـٰذَا غَافِلِينَ  

AND recall (O Prophet) when your Lord brought forth descendants from the loins of the sons of Adam, and made them witnesses against their ownselves. asking them: ‘Am I not your Lord?‘ They said: ‘Yes, we do testify.’ We did so lest you claim on the Day of Resurrection: ‘We were unaware of this.’ (Al-A’raf, 172)
 
This is an unconscious memory that will surface at the conscious level after death removes us from this ‘cover-up’ world. This is the one that guides the fortunate among the non-believing ones towards the right path. Prophethood is not an excuse for being able to connect with this memory. Many stories of conversion will attest to how an inner drive led people to see prevailing customs and conceptions for what they were and to enter the honest quest for truth which Allah does reward.  
 
Now it’s time to turn to the other end of the continuum and see what prevents us, the ordinary human beings, to have strong decision-making power in the arena of faith.
 
 
The pitfalls of decision-making
 
Decision-making is not foolproof and the two factors that make it so are risk and uncertainty. Humans have a tendency to avoid risk or losses which makes them a biased decision-maker when risks of a situation are highlighted above benefits. This is a well-known phenomenon for psychologists called as framing effect. Humans also tend to lack tolerance for ambiguity which makes uncertainty a highly unpleasant emotional and mental state. Let’s overview these major pitfalls separately.
 
 
Risky Business
 
What kind of risks dissuade people from making the right choice or from sticking to it through thick and thin given the set of alternatives we have been considering in this post?
 
…I will have to face criticism, ridicule or oppression from others who do not think as I do…. I will be cut-off from my family or friends…. I will have to sacrifice my time and effort for the sake of worship…. My lifestyle will change…. I will have to confront and quiten the arguments of friends and family…. I will lose the petty comforts I am accustomed to…. I will have to drop many low habits which were fun and cool…. I will be left alone in the world if I change my religion…. I will be accused of accepting a terrorist religion by my acquaintances… etc…
 
For many people in the world unfortunately, the negatives, the risks get to be highlighted automatically far above the benefits when they begin thinking seriously about choices of faith. There are many reasons for it. For one, the alternative choices are more prevalent, familiar and habitual,  easily accepted and taken for granted, and we fear we are leaving so many things for the sake of a big and difficult step. Others: family, friends, institutes, media, reinforce the thinking all the more. At this point, many people do not realize that people adhering more firmly and consistently to the tenets laid down by the One True God are also leading comfortable, fulfilled and happy lives though certainly within the necessary limits imposed for our own good. Another major reason is that the benefits of the Choice tend to be long-term and seem to develop gradually, whereas the benefits in the alternatives are immediate and often exuberant and flamboyant. Thus it is easy to be impatient enough to be trapped by the transient and short-term manifold pleasures.
 
Apart from that, others also have difficulty of accepting or allowing a change of thought and lifestyle in a well-intentioned person. Needs such as the need for control, authority; the belief of oneself being in the right and deigning to stop someone else from the ‘stupid’ choice; or the hidden discomfort that is caused in one’s ownself when soemone else thinks of taking the bold step on issues oneself has been ignoring, avoiding or running away from… all these factors play a role so that our own acquaintances are sometimes the biggest barrier in taking the right steps.
 
These difficulties confuse the purpose and feul the intensity of the many uncertainties that have already troubled the changing person’s mind.
 
 
To be or not to be …. that is the question
  
Uncertainties plague even those who do believe in God. Does He really listen to us when we call? How is that possible? How can He take care of so many things at once? Among so many of His subjects do I really count? After all that I have done will He forgive me or must I suffer through Hell, before reaching Heaven? These uncertainties make our beliefs weak and dissuade us from being sincere or doing more than we currently do in the way of purity and goodness.

However, the uncertainties of those who do not believe at all (or do not really believe despite appearances) blaze like a burning wind in the desert of mind. Who really made this world? Or did it evolve itself? Who are truer, the scientists of today or the religious scripts of old? Is religion really a necessary part of life or just one of many areas, neglectable and forgettable? Is God really there?  What happens after death? Why death at all? Can it be avoided? Is there really a life after death or is it the end, the total, absolute, final end, and how does that feel?

 If you doubt the existence of God, you must also doubt the existence of Afterlife for that is then pointless. And it’s then that the idea of Death becomes the horrible, terrifying end that anyone wishes to avoid at all cost. Shakespeare’s famous verses from Hamlet (Act III, Scene I, lines 63-95) are so apt here  (I have underlined the more accessible and relevant portions):
 
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
 
And then…
 
Thus conscience* does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
 
 
Is there a solution….?
 
God has not left us without answers to many of the key questions whirling around in an uncertain mind. Any basic text or popular nonfiction will tell you to at least systematically find out information about your alternatives before choosing between them. Unlike pious people of old and dark times who arrived at monotheism purely on their own, without any explicit guidance (there are many documented examples from the pre-prophethood era of Hazrat Mohammad (sallahu alaihi wasalaam); we have the advantage of having a Guidebook, A Manual, A Reference-work of the highest calibre, waiting to be consulted with a rational mind.
 
 Although I always used to read Qur’an in a traditional way, when I started to read it in the true sense of the word I discovered that Qur’an has an answer for all the boggling, dissuading, or unnerving questions that can pervade the human mind who is misguided in any form. By any form I mean misguidance in the form of atheism, polytheism, idolatory, or even any of the misguidances prevalent in the vast Muslim nations including the kind encountered in the South Asian subcontinent (revering pious men to the extreme, according them godly status, etc).
 
At this point I must give way to the direct and chastising invitation in the Qur’an itself:
 

 أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ أَمْ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبٍ أَقْفَالُهَا

DO they, then, not reflect on the Qur’an? Or are there locks on their hearts? (Sura Mohammad, 24)
 
  
 
 Notes
 
1. It’s the Quran verses application on facebook and belongs to the same group responsible for creating the Beautiful Online Quran tanzil.info (I have begun to refer my readers to every ayah I quote on tanzil.info) and well as for developing the Quran Explorer software.
 * interpret as ‘conscious thought’
  1. […] QURAN IN RAMADAAN: The determined vs the uncertain […]

  2. i learnt many things from this post. has clarified many ambiguities!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: