In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful
Most probably, every Muslim knows the significance of the ninety-sixth chapter of the Qur’an (Surah Al ‘Alaq) for its first five verses: “Read in the Name of your Lord who created; created humanity from a clinging substance. Read, and your Lord is Most Generous. He taught with the pen. He taught humanity that which it did not know” (96:1-5). These were the first of the more than 6,000 verses of the Qur’an revealed to our Beloved Muhammad (pbuh). It is an expression of God’s love for the best of His creation: the Lord is exhorting us to read, to explore His universe. When we do that, we will find Him there, and He will teach us that which we did not know.
Perhaps many Muslims’ familiarity with this chapter stops there. Yet, in the next verses lies one of its most significant messages: “Verily the human being transgresses when he sees himself as self-sufficient” (96:6-7). The verses are at once descriptive and proscriptive. On the one hand, the verse describes the tendency of the human being to forget his or her utter dependence on God when he or she is able to provide for himself or herself, i.e., “when he sees himself as self-sufficient.” Once one forgets that he has come from God; once she forgets that it is God who truly sustains her, that it is God who is truly providing everyone with the tools of perceived self-sufficiency, then the human being is liable transgress on earth.
As a result, in the words of Muhammad Asad, “the concept of ‘morality’ as such loses all its meaning.” When someone sees himself as totally devoid of the need for God, what would stop him from violating the rights of others if he sees such violation to be in his self-interest? If someone does not remember that God is the source of his power – and thus fully able to stop what he is doing – what would stop him from hurting other people? Lying? Stealing? Murdering? No doubt, there are countless people on earth – with no belief in God whatsoever – that have a kindness approaching that of the Prophets (peace be upon them). Nevertheless, the fact remains that, when people forget about God, they are liable to transgress.
This dynamic holds true in many other situations. How many times do we know of people who, being self-sufficient of their bosses at work, begin to slack off in their duties? How many times do we know of people who, knowing full well that they can’t get fired, continually try to push the limits of what they can get away with? What about those of us who have radar detectors, especially the most fancy shmancy ones, in their cars? Don’t we feel that we can then speed with impunity? How about those of us who cheat on their taxes? “Verily the human being transgresses when he sees himself as self-sufficient.”
Those who ordered U.S. soldiers to abuse detainees at Gitmo, and Iraq, and Afghanistan must have seen themselves to be “self-sufficient.” Those in the Bush Administration who believe America can do whatever she wants around the world must see themselves to be “self-sufficient”; they must also perceive America as being “self-sufficient.” The terrorists who maim and murder innocent human beings must perceive themselves to be “self-sufficient.” On so many levels in our world, the Divine Wisdom of these verses in surah Al ‘Alaq ring true every single day. It has to be because it is God who is speaking.
I, in fact, have been struggling with these verses for the past several weeks now. At the end of June, my current employment contract will end, and I have taken another job elsewhere. I can’t wait to start my new job. Those two facts have made the temptation for me to slack off at my current place of employment enormous. “I have a great job waiting for me elsewhere,” I tell myself, “so, why am I still working hard here?” Almost as soon as I harbor such thoughts, the voice of God chimes in my head (and I am not hallucinating): “Verily the human being transgresses when he sees himself as self-sufficient.”
Yet, what stops me from slacking off? The next verse: “Verily to your Lord is the return [of all]” (96:8). I am returning to my Lord, and He will ask me about why I slacked off at work before the term of my employment contract finishes. He will ask me about all the transgressions I committed because of my perception of being self-sufficient. The Lord will take everyone who has ever transgressed on earth, for whatever reason, to task for their transgressions, and He reminds us of this in 96:8. And there will be no one to shield us from the judgment of God on that Fateful Day. No inquiry can prevent our prosecution before the Lord on the Final Day. No plea bargain can be struck before God on the Day of Reckoning; we will all have to face the consequences of our transgressions before the Lord.
If those who abused Muslim detainees understood this, they would not have committed their abuses. If those who wage illegal war on the basis of faulty intelligence – if not outright lies – understood that they will return to their Lord, they would have paused before sending our brothers and sisters into harm’s way. If the terrorists who kill innocent people understood that God is watching, they would not commit their wanton slaughter. If those who slack off at work understand that, in the words of verse 96:14, “Do they not know that it is God who sees [all]?”, they will not try to “get away with murder” at work. When we know that we will be accountable before the One Who knows all and sees all, it will serve to restrain the human tendency to transgress against others.
Let me reiterate: there are scores of good, wholesome people who do not transgress against others and do not believe in God. But, there are many, many, many more people who do believe in God and yet still transgress, many times in the name of God. The verse addresses these people. Some have wondered to me whether God really cares about what I put on my 1040 form, or what I do at work, or what how I drive on the expressway. I believe He does, and that belief guides my conduct each and every day. Now, I am not perfect. I have lost count of the times I have forgotten that the Lord sees and watches all that I do and that I will one day return to Him to answer for my actions. But that is the whole purpose of the Qur’an: it is, as it says, a dhikr, or “reminder.” Therefore, let him who wills remember.
This was originally published on MuslimWakeUp!