A Reading of the Quran from the Non-dual Perspective
The teachings and practices of all mystical traditions involve a special relationship. It is a relationship with one that symbolizes and forms a connection with the Reality that transcends our minds and senses. This relationship develops through affinity and love towards unity and identity. Christian mysticism begins with a recognition of the special qualities of Christ, and the seeker is drawn through love towards union with Christ. So too does the Buddhist gravitate to the Buddha. And thus the inner enquirer proceeds through forms to the universal.
The same essential principle applies, as it must, in Islam also. Islamic mysticism has a particular quality, which to some extent it shares with Jewish mysticism, in that the embodiment of higher truth which first draws the heart and mind of the seeker, is not a person, but a book, a written text—what is known to us as the Quran.
Perhaps there is some connection between this and the fact that Islam has produced an extraordinary wealth of mystical poetry, including that of Rumi, and the poet known to us as Hafiz. The name Hafiz means one who has memorised the Quran, and it seems that the poet we know by that name did so at an early age. These mystical writers and teachers are of great interest in themselves, and much of the literature about Islamic mysticism focuses on them. Here the intention is to try to keep the focus on the Quran itself; to consider what the Quran has meant to mystics who have grown up within Islam and what it may mean to all enquirers.
It should be noted here that there is a view among Islamic scholars that the Quran exactly as it was given in the original language has special qualities that cannot be translated, so in this sense all translations are seen as essentially commentaries on the original. With that said, here is what is thought to be the first part of the Quran as it was made known to Muhammad, although it is from Chapter 96 of the current arrangement:
Read! In the name of your Lord, who created, created man from a clot [of blood]. Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know. Yet man behaves arrogantly, because he thinks himself self-sufficient: truly, all will return to your Lord. [96, 1-9]*
As we may have heard, the word Quran comes from a root meaning to read, or recite. Here immediately are themes that run throughout: the supreme power of God; and that all praise is ultimately due to God alone. The words ‘taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know’ seem to refer to the idea we find in all traditions, that the purpose of revealed scripture is to tell us something we cannot know otherwise, about the higher truth and ultimate source of ethics. If we want to know about material and rational things, our senses and minds can tell us. But what is true transcendentally is beyond them. Our minds cannot know if there is a higher reality or how to approach that. The first role of revealed texts is to tell us that there is something beyond, and to indicate that the way to live in harmony and approach that is through ethical living and self-purification and devotion. This is the basis of religion as both an ethical code for all to live by, and as the starting point for those inclined to dedicate themselves to a personal search.
A recurring theme of the Quran is that God knows what is in our minds and our true motives.
Say, ‘God knows everything that is in your heart, whether you conceal it or reveal it; He knows everything that the heavens and earth contain; God has power over all things.’ [3, 29]
There are many references to earlier revelations:
He who purifies himself, who remembers the name of his Lord and prays, shall indeed be successful. But you prefer the life of this world, although the Hereafter is better and more lasting. This indeed is what is taught in the former scriptures—the scriptures of Abraham and Moses. [87, 14-18]
And there are many references to what follows from right and wrong thought and conduct.
Those who fear their Lord shall have gardens through which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever: and a goodly welcome from their Lord. God’s recompense is best for the virtuous. [3, 198]
Having looked into the Quran, it is clear that the question will come up in our minds of how are we to understand this. Is the meaning entirely obvious, or is there more than one way of understanding it? On this point there is a verse:
There is no deity save Him, the Mighty, the Wise One. It is He who has sent down the Book to you. Some of its verses are clear and precise in meaning—they are the basis of the Book—while others are allegorical. [3, 6-7]
The commentaries explain that the Quran deals with two sorts of subjects. The first concern worldly matters such as historical events and codes of conduct which can be understood and expressed directly. The second pertain to matters that cannot be understood by the human mind, such as the nature of God and the condition of infinity, and these are necessarily referred to allegorically. In this connection, a note of warning is sounded.
Those with deviation in their hearts pursue the allegorical, so as to create dissension by seeking to explain it: but no one knows its meaning except God. Those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it: it is all from our Lord.’ But only the wise take heed. [3, 7]
This caution is apposite, because it is easy for the mind to distort things, and for those with their own agendas to try to unduly influence others on such matters. As was said, questions beyond the under-standing have to be approached allegorically, and here it is essential that we proceed with all care and respect and sincerity. The mind must never assume an authority it does not possess, and it is a grievous error to try to influence others here in pursuit of one’s own interests. The only heart we can and should try to reform is our own.
Here another question does inevitably arise, and that is the nature of the Quran itself. Is it divine, or of the world, or partly both? Can we even understand this? Again, this is a kind of question that arises in all spiritual traditions; in all religious philosophies there is special interest in the nature of the bearer of the message. This is bound to happen because they form the bridge and inhabit both the world we experience through our senses and the reality beyond. So one of the most discussed questions in Christian thought is the nature of Christ—is he human or divine? As is well known, after much debate and conflict, a view was reached that now forms the official teaching of the church, involving the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. In Buddhism, the Buddha is understood to have been a man who experienced a varied life, and also an embodiment of the Buddha nature, which abides beyond all limitations, and which is the eternal basis of all.
In Islamic thought there is an equally central question, on the nature of the Quran. Simplifying a lot, we can identify two schools of thought, which are sometimes known as the rationalists and the traditionalists. The rationalist view is that as the speech of God, the Quran was preceded by God: it appeared at a particular time and place and was created by God at that time. The traditionalist view is that the Quran is entirely of God; it is not touched by place and time, so it was not created like everything else that was created by God, but rather it is co-eternal with God. There was a time when the traditionalist view was considered heretical; now it is accepted by the majority of orthodox Islamic theologians.
It will readily be seen that much complexity arises if we consider these two interrelated questions: how far is the meaning of the Quran unambiguous or is it to be interpreted; and is it entirely divine and co-existent with God, or is it in some degree shaped by the particular time and place at which it appeared to humanity?
From the point of view of the mystics and those who are interested in inner exploration, it is not necessary to be committed to an intellectual doctrine. These issues involve the nature of God and eternity, so they are beyond what the intellect can fully determine. This is where the way of enquiry is to seek to draw closer in love, reverence and communion. What is important here is our sincerity and dedication. There is a well-known passage:
God: there is no deity save Him, the Living, the Eternal One… He knows all that is before and all that is behind... [People] can grasp only that part of His knowledge which He wills... He is the Sublime, the Almighty One! There shall be no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error... God is the patron of the faithful. He leads them from darkness to the light. [from 2, 255-257]
That there shall be no compulsion in religion is foundational. This follows from the principle that what matters is our true motives and values. The nature of God, or the sublime, is beyond the grasp of the intellect. What reason, and our sense of love and beauty can do, is to clear away the inner obstacles that obscure the light. These obstacles are uncontrolled thinking, unruly emotions, prejudices, desires for worldly status and power, and all the rest. It is these that the seeker strives to reform, in order that one may be inwardly open and sensitive to the subtle influence of what is called here the light by which God leads his devotees. This is the basis of the mystic path, or the way of inner enquiry, in all traditions.
We have looked into the Quran, and considered some of the questions that immediately arise. At this point let us note some striking facts about the Quran and the circumstances in which it was revealed, which are familiar to those who have grown up amidst the teachings and culture of Islam. And this will lead us into further reflection on the essential teachings of the Quran itself.
Up to the time of the Quran, Mecca, and in particular the Kaaba, was a place where many idols and local gods were worshipped. At the time, that is the sixth century of the common era, the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity was established in much of what had been the Roman empire. Yet the Kaaba at Mecca was a major shrine and pilgrimage site associated with older beliefs in many gods. And it was exactly here that the Quran appeared, stating in the strongest possible terms that there are not many gods but only the one true God.
It is also clear that at this time and place, the law was essentially a matter of physical strength. Families and clans looked after themselves; and the right to lead was based on the capacity to take care of their own, but for those without strong families and clans, there was no provision or protection.
According to the traditional accounts, the man we know as the Prophet Muhammad had become a prosperous merchant and respected figure at Mecca, yet apparently something within increasingly impelled him to withdraw to the hills outside Mecca for solitary contemplation. And then, as we know, through him a message was communicated, with a force that has affected the history of the world. As we have seen, the essence of this message is that there is no God but the one true God, and that all human beings should be treated kindly and justly. It is taught that there is a great reward for those who follow these precepts, and frankly terrible consequences for those who do not. Nothing is hidden from God, and in the end everyone will be rewarded exactly according to their acts. It is said that anything can be forgiven and remedied if we sincerely recognise our errors and mend our ways. However if we persist, the consequences must follow. It is a grave error to try to appear righteous but actually to practise deceit and exploitation. In the Quran, these things are expressed in a way that overwhelmingly affected the minds of those who first heard it at the time, and it remains one of the world’s most influential religious texts.
As well as being the messenger, we know that Muhammad became the leader of the community that formed of those who accepted this message, and when the vested interests of the old guard tried to suppress and oppose them, he fought and led a war to establish the right to exist for a society based on the principles of one true God and the just treatment of all. In this Muhammad completely succeeded, and united Arabia in monotheism. This happened in his lifetime, and in the following decades his successors took control of the lands that had once formed the mighty Persian empire, and much more. All this is familiar to those who have grown up with the Quran and Islam.
The message that shaped these events is expressed in verses such as these (always remembering the limitations of translation):
From those who repent and mend their ways and make known the truth, I will certainly accept their repentance: I am the Ever Relenting, the Most Merciful. Those who deny the truth, and die as deniers, on them shall be the curse of God and of angels and of men altogether. Under it they shall remain forever; their punishment shall not be lightened, nor shall they be granted respite. Your God is one God. There is no deity save Him. He is the Compassionate, the Merciful. [2, 160-63]
As well as these overall principles, in the Quran we find specific matters treated in considerable detail. For example concerning inheritance:
Men shall have a share in what parents and relatives leave behind, and women shall have a share in what parents and relatives leave behind, whether it be little or much. This is ordained [by God]. If other relatives, orphans or needy people are present at the time of the division, then provide for them out of it, and speak kindly to them. [4, 7-8]
As we see, if these precepts were fulfilled, regarding the rights of women and protection of the vulnerable, this would be an outstandingly enlightened society. The consequences of wrong-doing in these respects is stated unequivocally. The same passage goes on:
Those who are concerned about the fate of their own helpless children if they should die and leave them behind should show the same concern for orphans. Let them fear God and uphold justice. Those who consume the property of orphans unjustly are actually swallowing fire into their own bellies; soon they will burn in the blazing Flame. [4, 9-10]
We remember that these teachings were given at a place and time where the old worship of many gods was a way of life, and where clans and families thought they had to look after their own by all possible means, because that was what everyone else was doing.
Let us return to the most important message of all in the Quran, from which all the rest follow, that there is only one God. It is said:
Your God is one God. There is no deity save Him. He is the Compassionate, the Merciful. (2, 163)
This is a message for mankind. Let them take warning from it and know that He is but one God. Let those possessed of understanding take heed. (14, 52)
They are deniers of the truth who say, ‘God is one of three.’ There is only One God. (5, 73)
The consequences of error in this connection are correspondingly severe:
God will not forgive anyone for associating something with Him, while He will forgive whoever He wishes for anything besides that. Whoever ascribes partners to God is guilty of a monstrous sin. (4, 48)
What then are the consequences of right thought and action? On this we find passages such as these:
As for those who believe and do good works, We shall make them enter gardens through which rivers flow, to dwell therein forever; therein they shall have pure spouses, and We shall admit them into a dense shade. [4, 57]
Those who fear their Lord shall have gardens through which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever: and a goodly welcome from their Lord. [3, 198]
For those who believe and do good deeds—We do not let the reward of anyone who does a good deed go to waste—they shall dwell in the gardens of eternity where rivers flow at their feet. Reclining upon raised couches, they will be adorned with bracelets of gold, and will wear green robes of fine silk and heavy brocade. An excellent reward and an excellent resting place! [18, 30-33]
This is a small sample of many such verses. So, if we want to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of truth and goodness, what does this mean for us?
Firstly, we may be assured that we are to be guided by the essential principle that there is only one God and the way is devotion to God alone. It would be an imperfection then, to make an idol, or an end in itself, of the gardens of paradise, and to seek to please God in order to enjoy them. Our dedication to Truth is to be for the sake of Truth, not gardens of paradise, however sublime. And we remember that the nature of eternity, it is accepted, falls within what can only be spoken of allegorically. From this it follows that paradise is to be understood along the lines of closeness to God. Closeness to God is certainly where ordinary thoughts and words are inadequate. The mystic strives to restrain the individual will and mind and give way to the universal— this is the starting point of mysticism in all traditions.
Common to all the genuine schools is the advice that here the individual must proceed with great respect and care, and will need guidance. It is essential not to be tricked by whims and idiosyncrasies that actually spring from the imperfect mind. So at this point, Christians and Buddhists will attend with much care to the example and teachings of their ideal, and their spiritual directors, if they have one. And seekers in the Islamic tradition are most careful to follow the Quranic injunctions to be fair and kind, and most of all, never to give the reverence due to God and God alone to anyone or anything else. A sincere enquirer might read such verses as these with much interest:
The satisfaction of worldly desires through women, and children, and heaped-up treasures of gold and silver, and pedigreed horses, and cattle and lands is attractive to people. All this is the provision of the worldly life; but the most excellent abode is with God. Say, ‘Shall I tell you of something better than all of these? For the God-fearing, there are gardens in nearness to their God with rivers flowing through them where they shall live forever with pure spouses and the goodwill of God…’ The only true religion in God’s sight is complete submission to God. [3, 14-19]
One verse refers specifically to something beyond anything the mind can imagine:
God has promised the believers, both men and women, gardens through which rivers flow, wherein they will abide, and fine dwelling places in gardens of eternity. But the good pleasure of God is greater still. That is the supreme achievement. [9, 72]
Here, what cannot be indicated in words and only hinted at as ‘the good pleasure of God’, is said to be the supreme achievement. One can appreciate the guidance and comfort such verses could give to someone who has grown up with or into the teachings of the Quran and is seeking to draw nearer to Truth, remembering always that God and the infinite are beyond any ideas that can be formed in the mind.
Something more follows from what is repeatedly said in the Quran —that God knows what is in our hearts, that is, our true motives, whatever we may say or do outwardly. Everything that happens in our mind then is known and revealed to God. It follows from this that God is the inner light that illumines the mind, and that God is the one who knows our thoughts from within. Thoughts and experiences come into the mind; impulses to pursue our individual pleasures and interests arise in the mind; the understanding that it would be better to act morally according to the universal good, also appears in the mind. We have the feeling called conscience that we are divided against our deeper self if we do not act morally. All this is illumined equally and known from within, by God. Thus God is the true light and knower in us. Here again we have reached the mystic idea found in all traditions that God is our true and higher self.
The critical point here is that this does not mean that our mind or anything individualised about us is God; everything limited in the mind is precisely what is not God, and what is not our true Self. Again, we have reached the limit of reason and language, and the sincere seeker will proceed with the utmost respect and self-restraint. In the Quran is a well-known verse on the presence of God within:
We created man—We know the promptings of his soul, and are closer to him than his jugular vein... [50, 16]
The seeker knows that God, supreme Truth, is a reality and a power infinitely greater than the individual. And it is also understood that what keeps us away from a full realization of this reality are the defects of our own hearts. It is the shreds of insincerity and reservation and clinging to limited objectives that prevent us from giving ourselves wholly and solely to Reality.
The Quran emphasizes that God knows entirely our inner world; when we make sincere efforts, anything can be resolved. Anything we hold back from God, anywhere that we give the recognition due to God to anything else, precisely this will keep us from the paradise of no distance from God.
Another feature of Islamic mysticism of which the roots are found in the Quran is the importance of remembering God.
Remember your Lord deep in your very soul, in all humility and awe, without raising your voice, morning and evening—do not be one of the heedless. [7, 205]
Those who believe and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of God—surely in the remembrance of God hearts can find comfort. [13, 28]
I have chosen you. So listen to what is being revealed. I am God. There is no deity save Me; so worship Me alone, and say your prayers in My remembrance. [20, 13-14]
In the teachings of the Islamic mystics, sometimes collectively known as the Sufis, we find that two fundamental practices are to remember God, and to depend entirely on God. Sometimes this remembering takes the form of repeating, or chanting together, His name and verses about Him, but essentially remembrance of God is to be practised at all times. Standing on this basis, the main challenge is to deal with the instabilities and disturbances of the lower mind. The foundations of all this are found expressed in the Quran with a force that still does literally change the world, outwardly and inwardly. A dedicated seeker in the Islamic tradition may open the Quran and find words like these, speaking directly to the heart:
Thus We have sent among you a Messenger of your own to recite Our revelations to you, purify you and teach you the Book and wisdom, and to teach you what you did not know. So remember Me; I will remember you. Be thankful to Me and do not be ungrateful. [2, 151-2]
Finally, we might conclude with the 35th verse of chapter 24, widely known as The Verse of Light. Among the mystics who have reflected at length on this is Al Ghazzali.
God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
His light may be compared to a niche containing a lamp,
the lamp inside a crystal of star-like brilliance
lit from a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west.
The [luminous] oil is as if ready to burn
without [fire] even touching it.
Light upon light;
God guides to His light whom He will.
God draws such comparisons for mankind;
God has full knowledge of everything.
*Translations of the Quran are from the copyright-free version by Wahiduddin Khan, distributed internationally by Goodword Books.