Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Beneficent (A Meditative Translation)

 بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم 

We begin every activity by reciting the first verse of the first chapter of the Qur'an: 
"In the Name of Allah, Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem." 
The first mentioned is the transcendent name: Allah. 
The second and third mentioned names express two types of outpouring of mercy = رحمة

Al-Rahman is the prior and more generous outpouring. As we shall see in today's selection from the Qur'an, Al-Rahman is the creator -- the author of our universe, the provider of the ultimate and prerequisite mercy of existence. Al-Raheem bestows mercy upon existing creation. 

I wish to offer a grateful meditative translation of the first few verses of the 55th chapter:

The Beneficent:
علَّم القرآن
He authored the scripture. 

While علَّم also means "to teach," as in common translation, it literally means "made marks," or wrote. In the ideal plane, prior to physical creation, which comes in the third verse, Al-Rahman authored two types of scripture: the sacred book that we recite, marked ideally on the preserved tablet اللوح المحفوظ, and the book of nature, on which the chapter expounds, to inspire gratitude in His discerning creations:

خلق الإنسان
He created the human;
علَّمه البيان
taught him discernment.

There is no "and" و or "then" ثم between the third and fourth verses. Discernment is the essential nature of the human, not an added feature. Hence endowing humans with discernment is the very act of their creation.

الشمس و القمر بحسبان
The sun and the moon follow precise mathematics,
و النجم و الشجر يسجدان
and crawling plants and tall trees submit (likewise).

The visible solar system (heaven, with lower case "h") may be read as a metaphor for the ideal world (Heaven, with upper case "H"), in which everything is precise and meaningful, like the mathematics of astronomy (and by extension all Physics). The seemingly messy world of earthly biology (different types of trees) also follows precise mathematical laws. The two verses thus tell us that "it is on earth as it is in heaven:" biology also follows precise mathematics and has meaning, even if we cannot (yet) discern them.

We now turn from the way things are, which is the realm of science, to the way things should be, which is the realm of ethics:

و السماء رفعها و وضع الميزان
He lifted the heaven and set down the scale:
ألا تطغوا في الميزان
Do not overweigh,
و أقيموا الوزن بالقسط و لا تخسروا الميزان
but weigh justly, and do not underweigh.

Lifting of the heaven may be read as a metaphor for absolute justice being inaccessible to us, while setting down the scale may be read as endowment with our intrinsic sense of justice, so that we may exercise it correctly, without increase or diminution.

و الأرض وضعها للأنام
And the earth was set down for all living creatures.

We are being prepared to accept that there are earthly life forms that are manifest and others that are hidden. Thus, examples of the bounties created on earth are chosen carefully in pairs that indicate manifest and hidden configurations:

فيها فاكهة و النخل ذات الأكمام
On (earth) are (manifest) fruits and date-palms with sheaths,
و الحب ذو العصف و الريحان 
and grains hidden in blades and fragrant leaves.

Two sets of examples were thus given, to make the metaphor unmistakably clear: The first pair of examples are fruits that are manifest and others (palm dates) that are hidden in sheaths. The second pair of examples illustrates how "leaves" may be protective cover (like wheat chaff) and may be themselves fragrant and edible, like Basel.

فبأي آلاء ربكما تكذبان
So, which of the bounties of your Lord do you deny, you two?

This verse addresses explicitly two types of discerning beings on earth: one manifest (humans) and the other hidden (jinn). The latter name literally means "hidden," as every conjoining of the Arabic letters "jeem" and "noon" indicates (e.g. جن الليل the night hides things in darkness, جنين is an embryo hidden in the womb, and so on). 

When I was a child, my late father taught us that every time we recited or heard this verse, which is repeated several times in the chapter, we should say: و لا بأي آلائك نكذب يا ربنا فلك الحمد "None of your bounties do we deny, our Lord, praise to you." When I searched for the Hadith, I found a slight variation narrated separately in a number of compendia on the authorities of Abdullah ibn Umar and Jaber ibn Abdillah. The version in Al-Tirmidhi was deemed by Al-Albani to be a good Hadith حسن. In this Hadith the Prophet (p) told his companions after reciting the chapter that they were less attentive than the jinn were, because the jinn always responded to the verse by saying:
 ولَا بشيءٍ مِّنْ نعَمِكَ ربَّنا نُكَذِّبُ فلَكَ الحمْدُ

Having addressed the two species of discerning beings, the chapter proceeds to tell us about their origins:

خلق الإنسان من صلصال كالفخار
He created the human from clay like pots',
و خلق الجان من مارج من نار
and created the jinn from swarming fire.
فبأي آلاء ربكما تكذبان
So, which of the bounties of your Lord do you deny, you two?

We are thus offered an explanation why we cannot detect or interact physically with the jinn: While we, humans, were created from the elements of the earth (oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and so on), the jinn were created from mass-less swarming fire. As the exegetes liked to say, their density is infinitely lower than ours, so our physical sensors cannot detect them, even though they are accessible through our imaginal sense ملكة الخيال, as the Sufi masters (most notably Mohieldin Ibn Arabi) liked to say.

رب المشرقين و رب المغربين
He is the Lord of the two beginnings and the two ends.
فبأي آلاء ربكما تكذبان
So, which of the bounties of your Lord do you deny, you two?

The rising of the sun in the East and its setting in the West are thus used as metaphors for beginning and end, and the hidden and manifest species have distinct beginnings and ends (as the Qur'an tells us elsewhere that the creation of jinn preceded the creation of humans و الجان خلقناه من قبل من نار السموم).

The next set of verses explain in metaphor how the two realms coexist with minimal intermingling:

مرج البحرين يلتقيان
He brought the two seas, they meet,
بينهما برزخ لا يبغيان
between them is an isthmus that they don’t transgress.
فبأي آلاء ربكما تكذبان
So, which of the bounties of your Lord do you deny, you two?

The metaphor here appeared elsewhere in the Qur'an -- referring multiple times to the manner in which higher-density salt water (now a metaphor for denser humans) and lower density fresh water (now a metaphor for the lighter jinn) appear not to mix at their meeting points where rivers pour into seas (at an estuary, with a salt front at which the two mix very slowly), as the difference in density causes layering and slow diffusion of the fresh water above in the salt water below, neither overwhelming the other. 

يخرج منهما اللؤلؤ و المرجان
Out of the two (seas) emerge pearls and coral reefs.
فبأي آلاء ربكما تكذبان
So, which of the bounties of your Lord do you deny, you two?

These are jewels created by secretions of hidden soft animals (inside oyster or mussel shells in the case of pearls, and inside the hardened coral reef by soft coral polyps). The forms of life that produce these jewels would die in an overly dense (salty) sea. The measured infusion of fresh water allows marine life to thrive and produce such jewels, just like our limited interactions with the ideal plane allow us to be creative in scientific discovery and art.

و له الجوار المنشآت في البحر كالأعلام
And to him also belong the structures, like mountains, that run in the sea.
فبأي آلاء ربكما تكذبان
So, which of the bounties of your Lord do you deny, you two?

While we may think that ships and other inventions are our creations, the verse makes it very clear: Allah is our creator, and to him we belong, along with all our mediated creations, which are still His, by a simple transitive property: و الله خلقكم و ما تعملون.

كل من عليها فان
All life upon (the earth) will perish
و يبقى وجه ربك ذو الجلال و الإكرام
and your Lord's face remains: majestic and splendid.
فبأي آلاء ربكما تكذبان
So, which of the bounties of your Lord do you deny, you two?