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Refuting the gross distortion and misrepresentation of the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad and Islam, made by the critics of Islam

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List of all Issues | Summary 1 | Summary 2 | Summary 3‎ — completed, 28th June 2013


November 26th, 2014

Section II — Myths

In the study of Qur’ân, one comes across its following attributes[1] or varying hues which is a cure for the people (16:69)[2]:
 

Al-Kitâb (2:2) – the Complete Book
Al-Dhikr (38:1) – the Book which makes provisions for eminence, fame, reknown, honor and reminding
Al-Furqân (25:1) – the Book which distinguishes between right and wrong and which
is divided and revealed in portions, as the root word Firqah also means portions.
Al-Hikmah (17:39) – the Wisdom
Al-Hudâ (72:13) – that which guides and makes one attain the goal
Mubârak (6:93) – Blessed
Al-Mukarramah (80:13) – the Honored
Musaddiq (6:93) – confirming (the truth of previous Scriptures)
Al-Mauizah (10:57) – the Admonition
Al-‘Azîz (41:41) – the Mighty
Al-Hukm (13:37) – the Judgment
Al-Shifâ (10:57) – that which heals
Al-Tanzîl (26:192) – the Revelation
Al-Rahmah (2:105) – the Mercy
Al-Rûh (42:52) – that which gives life and is living
Al-Khair (3:103) – the Goodness
Al-Bayân (3:137) – that which explains all things
Al-Ni‘mat (93:11) – the Favor
Al-Burhân (4:175) – the clear Argument
Al-Qayyim (18:2) – the Maintainer
Al-Muhaimin (5:48) – the Guardian
Al-Nûr (7:157) – the Light
Al-Haq (17:81) – the Truth
Hablallâh (3:103) – the Covenant of God
Al-Mubîn (12:1) – that which explains
Al-Karîm (56:77) – the Holy
Al-Mâjîd (50:1) – the Glorious
Al-Hakîm (36:2) – the one full of Wisdom
Al-Marfû‘ah (80:14) – the Exalted
Al-Mutahharah (80:14) – the Purified
Al-‘Ajab (72:1:) – the Wonderful


The above attributes of Qur’ân by their very meanings and merits deflect any vestige of myth within its leaves. These attributes steer clear the readers from any read of the Book in which there is even hint of a myth. On the reverse those who so believe are by inference termed as disbelievers:

6:25. And some of them listen to you and We have cast veils over their hearts so that they do not understand it and a deafness into their ears. And (even) if they see every sign they will not believe in it. So much so that when they come to you they only dispute with you — those who disbelieve say: This is nothing but stories of the ancients.[3]


The key phrase for our discussion in the above verse – those who disbelieve say: This is nothing but stories of the ancients, also includes by implication the so called believers who try to sell the Message by generating myths from within the Book. The mythical interpretations of Qur’ân emanate from concrete read of its metaphors, parables, allegories and the prophecies, while ignoring the linguistic constructs in the diction of the Book:

An Important Principle[4] – In every writing or speech, whether it be the word of God or man, there are certain statements which are decisive and absolute and their meanings are secured from change and alterations, whereas there are other allegorical statements which are susceptible to different interpretations. These figures of speech and parables, no doubt, invest and invigorate the word with force and eloquence which creates an effect upon the human soul. But it should be clearly understood that all figurative statements which are susceptible to different meanings, must necessarily be interpreted in the light of decisive ones so that the interpretation must be in consonance with the fundamental principles and the spirit of the word. No article of faith and religious doctrine should be based on statements couched in allegorical words and metaphor; and the man who bases his belief on fables and figures, not only loses himself and goes astray but misleads others also into fatal error and disaster. With regard to such people the Holy Qur’ân has said:
 

Allah it is Who has revealed the Book to thee; some of its verses are decisive— they are the basis of the Book— and others are allegorical Then those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead, and seeking to give it their own interpretation. (3:6).

Jesus the Christ, we read in Mark (7:8) also uttered, a similar warning to the Jews, saying, Laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men.

Parable, it should be understood, is a similitude, a resemblance taken from natural things to impart to the people the knowledge of things spiritual. In order to give a stronger impression of what they taught, the prophets and other teachers made a free use of this forceful weapon. It catches the ear more easily and penetrates into the human mind.

It needs no ghost to tell you that the allegorical statement, if interpreted literally, will make senseless and absurd reading. Now turn over Qur’ân and read:
 

(i) Those who swear allegiance to thee (the Prophet) do but swear allegiance to Allah The hand of Allah is above their hands (48:10).
(ii) So you (the Prophet) slew them not but Allah slew them, and thou smotest not when thou didst smite the enemy, but Allah smote him (in the battle of Badr) (8:17)
(iii) So the heaven and the earth wept not for them (Pharaoh's people) nor were they respited (44:29).

If one should take into his head to think that the Most High God, too, has hands and feet and other parts of the physical body like ourselves, or that the heaven has also eyes which shed tears like human eyes, it will certainly be an absurdity of the highest order. Allah's hand signifies power and triumph. And the weeping for a dead man signifies the remembering of his good qualities or actions which often draw tears from the eyes. The heaven and the earth wept not when Pharaoh's people were seized with Divine chastisement, for they had neither the love of God in their hearts nor had they done anything good for men, that their good qualities should have been remembered either in heaven or the earth.”

The above arguments by Mirza Masum Beg can be seen in a working example from Qur’ân in the parable about heaven in the hereafter as extension of heavenly life experienced on earth:

2:25. And give good tidings to those who believe and do deeds of righteousness, that there await them gardens from beneath which the streams flow. Every time they are given any kind of fruit from them (- the gardens) to eat, they will say, `This is the same we were given before.' They will be given it (- the fruit) in perfect semblance (to their deeds). They shall have therein companions purified (spiritually and physically), and will abide therein forever.[5]

If one were to take above parable about heaven in a literal sense of a physical heaven, then the next verse makes it clear that it would be an error:

2:26. Indeed, Allâh does not disdain to cite a parable of (a thing) even (as small as) a gnat or (of something) smaller than that. (Be it as it may) those who have believed know that this is a true (parable) from their Lord. As for those who disbelieve say, `What could Allâh mean by (citing) such a parable?' Many does He adjudge to be erring because of these (parables) and many does He guide through them. Yet it is only the transgressors whom He adjudges to be erring because of them.[6]

Is it not strange that skeptics of metaphors in Qur’ân do not flinch for a moment when they use the metaphors in their own daily living? For example, the common term ‘heartburn’ has no associated burning (of a fire) and that too in the heart. They fully understand the metaphorical meanings of such a term because it reflects its experience. Based upon this understanding they use antacids and a class of medications called proton pumps inhibitors for medical equivalent term of acid-reflux or gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), which has nothing remotely common with the heart. “In fact, the American College of Gastroenterology reported that GERD symptoms cost the U.S. nearly $2 billion each week in lost productivity. Yet a 2004 IFFGD survey showed that many Americans don't know what GERD is.”[7] Americans might not know what GERD is but they for sure know what heartburn is[8],[9]. In terms of money, the term ‘heartburn’ costs billions of dollars for its alleviation, yet it is a term freely used because it conveys fully the anguish that a person experiences.

Qur’ân too refers to ‘heartburn’ but in the similitude of an emotional state, the anguish of hell:

10:5-9. And what should make you know what the crushing torment is? (It is) the Fire set ablaze by Allâh, and which rises over (the feelings of) the hearts (- the origin of a man’s hell). It (- Fire) will be closed in on them (so as not to let them escape from it and also increase for them the torture of heat). (The flames of the Fire will rise) in (the form of) huge outstretched columns.[10][Emphasis added]

Similar to Hell, Heaven too in Qur’ân is a metaphorical construct understood by allegorical references to the present life experiences. The limitation to our imagination is that it is time and space bound. The Heaven and Hell as described in Qur’ân are more of a state than a space or a place:

32:17. And no soul knows what (comforts) lie hidden for them (–the believers in the form) of a joy to the eyes as a reward for their righteous deeds.[11]

Just as Qur’ân speaks of the past and the present, it also addresses the future in prophecies. Prophecies too by their very definition are to be interpreted and not to be read literally in the manner that miracles are sometimes erroneously translated and understood in a literal sense. Maulana Muhammad Ali sifts through a general misunderstanding that confuses a prophecy with a miracle:

As a matter of fact the faith which the fulfilment of a prophecy creates in one's heart is not even created at the occurrence of a great miracle, because a miracle may contain some elements of doubt in it, but the fulfilment of a prophecy is in fact a 'talking witness' which stands before friends and foes alike. Moreover at the occurrence of a miracle there are only a few persons present who witness its truth but a prophecy after its fulfilment does not stand in need of another evidence. It becomes an evidence itself.[12]

Additionally, prophecies are hidden in the metaphors. The metaphors only act as a veil:

42:51. It is not given to a human being that Allâh should speak to him except by direct revelation or from behind a veil or by sending a messenger (- an angel) who should reveal (to him) by His command what He pleases. Indeed, He is the Most Sublime, the All-Wise.[13] [Emphasis added]

With the passage of time, when the veil is lifted, the prophecy comes to its natural manifestation. The example is that of veil of dream that the king at the time of Prophet Joseph saw as well as the veil of metaphor in his dream:

12:43. Now (it so happened that one day) the king said, `I saw (in a dream) seven fat kine which seven lean ones were eating, and seven green ears of corn and (as many) others withered. You nobles of the court! explain to me the real significance of my dream if you can interpret dreams.'[14]

To the ordinary mortals, such a veil of dream and metaphors can create confusion for its meaning:

12:44. They said, `(These are) confused dreams and we do not know the interpretation of such confused dreams.'[15]

Whereas, the true interpretation that lifts the veil is a felicity granted to only a few –This (my ability to interpret, you should bear in mind) is a part of that knowledge which my Lord has imparted to me [i.e. Joseph] (12:37). In the case of king’s dream Prophet Joseph interprets it as follows:

12:47. He (- Joseph) replied, `You shall sow for seven years working hard and continuously and let what you have harvested remain in its ear excepting a little whereof you may eat.
12:48. `Then there shall follow seven (years of famine) of great severity (and) these (years) shall consume all the stores you have laid by in advance for them except a little which you may have preserved.
12:49. `Then, thereafter shall come a year of rains in which people shall be relieved and in which (season) they will press (fruit and seeds).'[16]

Thereafter, as we know from other sources that king followed Joseph’s advice and the seasons and harvests followed as predicted.

Symbolism and Allegory in Qur’ân is comprehensively dealt with by Muhammad Asad in his translation and commentary of Qur’ân – ‘The Message of The Quran’. Below is the reproduction of Appendix I:

Symbolism And Allegory In The Qur'an: WHEN studying the Qur'an, one frequently encounters what may be described as "key-phrases" that is to say, statements which provide a clear, concise indication of the idea underlying a particular passage or passages: for instance, the many references to the creation of man "out of dust" and "out of a drop of sperm", pointing to the lowly biological origin of the human species; or the statement in the ninety-ninth surah (Az-Zalzalah) that on Resurrection Day "he who shall have done an atom's weight of good, shall behold it; and he who shall have done an atom's weight of evil, shall behold it" – indicating the ineluctable{unavoidable} afterlife consequences of, and the responsibility for, all that man consciously does in this world; or the divine declaration (in 38:27), "We have not created heaven and earth and all that is between them without meaning and purpose (batilan), as is the surmise of those who are bent on denying the truth."

Instances of such Qur'anic key-phrases can be quoted almost ad infinitum, and in many varying formulations. But there is one fundamental statement in the Qur'an which occurs only once, and which may be qualified as "the key-phrase of all its key-phrases": the statement in verse 7 of Al-'Imran to the effect that the Qur'an "contains messages that are clear in and by themselves (ayat muhkamat) as well as others that are allegorical (mutoshabihat)". It Is this verse which represents, in an absolute sense, a key to the understanding of the Qur'anic message and makes the whole of it accessible to "people who think" (Li-qawmin yatafakkarun).

In my notes on the above-mentioned verse of Al-'Imran I have tried to elucidate the meaning of the expression ayat muhkamat as well as the general purport of what is termed mutashabih ("'allegorical" or "symbolic"). Without a proper grasp of what is implied by this latter term, much of the Qur'an is liable to be – and, in fact, has often been – grossly misunderstood both by believers and by such as refuse to believe in its divinely inspired origin. However, an appreciation of what is meant by "allegory" or "symbolism" in the context of the Qur'an is, by itself, not enough to make one fully understand its world-view: in order to achieve this we must relate the Qur'anic use of these terms to a concept touched upon almost at the very beginning of the divine writ – namely, the existence of "a realm which is beyond the reach of human perception" (al-ghayb). It is this concept that constitutes the basic premise for an understanding of the call of the Qur'an, and, indeed, of the principle of religion – every religion – as such: for all truly religious cognition arises from and is based on the fact that only a small segment of reality is open to man's perception and imagination, and that by far the larger part of it escapes his comprehension altogether.

However, side by side with this clear-cut metaphysical concept we have a not less clear-cut finding of a psychological nature: namely, the finding that the human mind (in which term we comprise conscious thinking, imagination, dream-life, intuition, memory, etc.) can operate only on the basis of perceptions previously experienced by that very mind either in their entirety or in some of their constituent elements: that is to say, it cannot visualize, or form an idea of, something that lies entirely outside the realm of previously realized experiences. Hence, whenever we arrive at a seemingly "new" mental image or idea, we find, on closer examination, that even if it is new as a composite entity, it is not really new as regards its component elements, for these are invariably derived from previous – and sometimes quite disparate – mental experiences which are now but brought together in a new combination or series of new combinations.

Now as soon as we realize that the human mind cannot operate otherwise than on the basis of previous experiences – that is to say, on the basis of apperceptions {conscious perception} and cognitions already recorded in that mind – we are faced by a weighty question: Since the metaphysical ideas of religion relate, by virtue of their nature, to a realm beyond the reach of human perception or experience – how can they be successfully conveyed to us? How can we be expected to grasp ideas which have no counterpart, not even a fractional one, in any of the apperceptions which we have arrived at empirically?

The answer is self-evident: By means of loan-images derived from our actual – physical or mental – experiences; or, as Zamakhshari phrases it in his commentary on 13:35, 'through a parabolic illustration, by means of something which we know from our experience, of something that is beyond the reach of our perception" (tamihilan li-ma ghaba 'anna bi-ma nushahid). And this is the innermost purport of the term and concept of al-mutashabihat as used in the Qur'an.

Thus, the Qur'an tells us clearly that many of its passages and expressions must be understood in an allegorical sense for the simple reason that, being intended for human understanding, they could not have been conveyed to us in any other way. It follows, therefore, that if we were to take every Qur'anic passage, statement or expression in its outward, literal sense and disregard the possibility of its being an allegory, a metaphor or a parable, we would be offending against the very spirit of the divine writ.

Consider, for instance, some of the Qur'anic references to God's Being – a Being indefinable, infinite in time and space, and utterly beyond any creature's comprehension. Far from being able to imagine Him, we can only realize what He is not: namely, not limited in either time or space, not definable in terms of comparison, and not to be comprised within any category of human thought. Hence only very generalized metaphors can convey to us, though most inadequately, the idea of His existence and activity.

And so, when the Qur'an speaks of Him as being "in the heavens" or "established on His throne (al-'arsh)", we cannot possibly take these phrases in their literal senses, since then they would imply, however vaguely, that God is limited in space: and since such a limitation would contradict the concept of an Infinite Being, we know immediately, without the least doubt, that the "heavens" and the "throne" and God's being "established" on it are but linguistic vehicles meant to convey an idea which is outside all human experience, namely, the idea of God's almightiness and absolute sway over all that exists. Similarly, whenever He is described as "all seeing", "all-hearing" or "all-aware", we know that these descriptions have nothing to do with the phenomena of physical seeing or hearing but simply circumscribe, in terms understandable to man, the fact of God's eternal Presence in all that is or happens. And since "no human vision can encompass Him" (Qur'an 6:103), man is not expected to realize His existence otherwise than through observing the effects of His unceasing activity within and upon the universe created by Him.

But whereas our belief in God's existence does not – and, indeed, could not depend on our grasping the unfathomable "how" of His Being, the same is not the case with problems connected with man's own existence, and, in particular, with the idea of a life in the hereafter: for, man's psyche is so constituted that it cannot accept any proposition relating to himself without being given a clear exposition of its purport.

The Qur'an tells us that man's life in this world is but the first stage – a very short stage – of a life that continues beyond the hiatus called "death"; and the same Qur'an stresses again and again the principle of man's moral responsibility for all his conscious actions and his behaviour, and of the continuation of this responsibility, in the shape of inescapable consequences, good or bad, in a person s life in the hereafter. But how could man be made to understand the nature of these consequences and, thus, of the quality of the life that awaits him? – for, obviously, inasmuch as man's resurrection will be the result of what the Qur'an describes as "a new act of creation", the life that will follow upon it must be entirely different from anything that man can and does experience in this world.

This being so, it is not enough for man to be told. "If you behave righteously in this world, you will attain to happiness in the life to come", or, alternatively, "If you do wrong in this world, you will suffer for it in the hereafter". Such statements would be far too general and abstract to appeal to man's imagination and, thus, to influence his behaviour. What is needed is a more direct appeal to the intellect, resulting in a kind of "visualization" of the consequences of one's conscious acts and omissions: and such an appeal can be effectively produced by means of metaphors, allegories and parables, each of them stressing, on the one hand, the absolute dissimilarity of all that man will experience after resurrection from whatever he did or could experience in this world; and, on the other hand, establishing means of comparison between these two categories of experience.

Thus, explaining the reference to the bliss of paradise in 32:17, the Prophet indicated the essential difference between man's life in this world and in the hereafter in these words: "God says, 'I have readied for My righteous servants what no eye has ever seen, and no ear has ever heard, and no heart of man has ever conceived" (Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi). On the other hand, in 2:25 the Qur'an speaks thus of the blessed in paradise: "Whenever they are granted fruits therefrom as their appointed sustenance, they will say, 'It is this that in days of yore was granted to us as our sustenance' – for they shall be given something which will recall that [past]": and so we have the image of gardens through which running waters flow, blissful shade, spouses of indescribable beauty, and many other delights infinitely varied and unending, and yet somehow comparable to what may be conceived of as most delightful in this world.

However, this possibility of an intellectual comparison between the two stages of human existence is to a large extent limited by the fact that all our thinking and imagining is indissolubly connected with the concepts of finite time and finite space: in other words, we cannot imagine infinity in either time or space – and therefore cannot imagine a state of existence independent of time and space – or, as the Qur'an phrases it with reference to a state of happiness in afterlife, "a paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth" (3:133): which expression is the Qur'anic synonym for the entire created universe. On the other hand, we know that every Qur'anic statement is directed to man's reason and must, therefore, be comprehensible either in its literal sense (as in the case of the ayat muhkamat) or allegorically (as in the ayat mutashabihat); and since, owing to the constitution of the human mind, neither infinity nor eternity are comprehensible to us, it follows that the reference to the infinite "vastness" of paradise cannot relate to anything but the intensity of sensation which it will offer to the blest.

By obvious analogy, the principle of a "comparison through allegory" applied in the Qur'an to all references to paradise – i.e., a state of unimaginable happiness in afterlife – must be extended to all descriptions of otherworldly suffering – i.e., hell – in respect of its utter dissimilarity from all earthly experiences as well as its unmeasurable intensity. In both cases the descriptive method of the Qur'an is the same. We are told, as it were: "Imagine the most joyous sensations, bodily as well as emotional, accessible to man: indescribable beauty, love physical and spiritual, consciousness of fulfilment, perfect peace and harmony; and imagine these sensations intensified beyond anything imaginable in this world – and at the same time entirely different from anything imaginable: and you have an inkling, however vague, of what is meant by 'paradise'." And, on the other hand: "Imagine the greatest suffering, bodily as well as spiritual, which man may experience: burning by fire, utter loneliness and bitter desolation, the torment of unceasing frustration, a condition of neither living nor dying; and imagine this pain, this darkness and this despair intensified beyond anything imaginable in this world – and at the same time entirely different from anything imaginable: and you will know, however vaguely, what is meant by 'hell'."

Side by side with these allegories relating to man's life after death we find in the Qur'an many symbolical expressions referring to the evidence of God's activity. Owing to the limitations of human language – which, in their turn, arise from the inborn limitations of the human mind – this activity can only be circumscribed and never really described. Just as it is impossible for us to imagine or define God's Being, so the true nature of His creativeness – and, therefore, of His plan of creation – must remain beyond our grasp. But since the Qur'an aims at conveying to us an ethical teaching based, precisely, on the concept of God's purposeful creativeness, the latter must be, as it were, "translated" into categories of thought accessible to man. Hence the use of expressions which at first sight have an almost anthropomorphic hue, for instance, God's "wrath" (ghadab) or "condemnation"; His "pleasure" at good deeds or "love" for His creatures; or His being "oblivious" of a sinner who was oblivious of Him; or "asking" a wrongdoer on Resurrection Day about his wrongdoing; and so forth. All such verbal "translations" of God's activity into human terminology are unavoidable as long as we are expected to conform to ethical principles revealed to us by means of a human language; but there can be no greater mistake than to think that these "translations" could ever enable us to define the Undefinable.

And, as the Qur'an makes it clear in the seventh verse of Al-Imran, only "those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the divine writ which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out [what is bound to create] confusion, and seeking [to arrive at] its final meaning in an arbitrary manner: but none save God knows its final meaning."

 

[1] Adapted from “Names of the Holy Book,” p. 2-A, The Holy Qur’ân, Eighth Edition (2008) As Explained by Allamah Nooruddin, Rendered into English by Amatul Rahman Omar, Abdul Mannan Omar, Copyright © Noor Foundation International Inc.
[2] Al-Nahl – The Bee: Nooruddin
[3] Al-Anam – The Cattle: Muhammad Ali – Zahid Aziz
[4] Miracles of Jesus the Christ, by Mirza Masum Beg, p. 28-31, 1968, publisher: Malik Zafarullah Khan, Secretary Jamaat-i-Ahmadiyya, Rawalpindi, West Pakistan (excerpted).
[5] Al-Baqarah – The Cow: Nooruddin
[6] Al-Baqarah – The Cow: Nooruddin
[7] http://www.iffgd.org/site/news-events/press-releases/2005-1125-gerd-costs
[8] “Proton pump inhibitors are the most powerful class of antacid drugs. It's the third highest-selling class of drugs in the U.S. In 2009, doctors wrote 113.6 million prescriptions for the drugs. Prevacid 24HR, Prilosec OTC, and the combination medication Zegerid OTC that contains a PPI and sodium bicarbonate are available without prescription. GERD has been treated widely with pharmaceutical medications, which may have helped to decrease GERD hospitalizations. In 2004, 27 percent of elderly Medicare patients used GERD medications such as antacids and antisecretory agents, spending a total of $5.6 billion.” – http://www.hcup-us.ahrq.gov/reports/statbriefs/sb44.jsp – with reference to: Stagnitti, M.N. The Top Five Therapeutic Classes of Outpatient Prescription Drugs Ranked by Total Expense for the Medicare Population Age 65 and Older in the U.S. Civilian Noninstitutionalized Population, 2004. Statistical Brief #153. December 2006. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. (link: http://www.meps.ahrq.gov/mepsweb/data_files/publications/st153/stat153.pdf)
[9] Top 100 Most Prescribed, Top-Selling Drugs, Medscape Medical News, by Megan Brooks, August 1, 2014: the proton pump inhibitor esomeprazole (Nexium, AstraZeneca), at roughly 18.6 million prescriptions; and sales through June 2014 $6,303,738,580. (link: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/829246)
[10] Al-Humazah – The Slanderer: Nooruddin
[11] Al-Sajdah – The Prostration: Nooruddin
[12] “Promised Messiah and Mahdi” by Maulana Muhammad Ali, p. 36, translated into English by S. Muhammad Tufail M.A., Ahmadiyyah Anjuman Ishaat Islam, Lahore (W. Pakistan), Third Edition, pub: 1959.
[13] Al-Shura – The Counsel: Nooruddin
[14] Yusuf – Joseph: Nooruddin
[15] Yusuf – Joseph: Nooruddin
[16] Yusuf – Joseph: Nooruddin

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