One reason that causes many Muslims today to be so untuned with Islam altogether is their distance from classical Arabic. Perhaps some of my classmates will remember the first day of ‘Ilm al-Balāgha class (the science of eloquence and rhetoric) with one of our favourite teachers a number of years ago. As the class began and the teacher introduced the art of eloquence, he said: “All the marāji‘ (jurisconsults), when they began studying, they had one purpose for their studies and that was to become jāhil (ignorant).”
There was an awkward moment of silence in class; what does he mean the goal of the marāji‘ was to become jāhil? From the day we entered the seminary we’re engaged in the process of learning and studying so that we could become well-learned, and in fact the complete opposite of a jāhil; an ‘ālim, but here our teacher was telling us that we should be working towards becoming a jāhil!? Our teacher laughingly responded, “Yes, they have to become like the jāhil Arabs from the time of the Prophet (p) if they really want to understand the eloquence, depth and beauty of the Quran.” We all took a sigh of relief and laughed it off as we understood the point he was trying to make.
However, it isn’t until you begin to have a go at reading the many tafsīr works written over the centuries by scholars of different affinities, creeds and schools, that you really begin to understand the actual significance of the point the teacher was trying to make. During the times we live in, it is common knowledge that someone who does tafsīr of the Quran will bring some assumptions in their interpretation of the Quran – and while some of these assumptions have to be kept away, some assumptions are very necessary if one wants to interpret the text correctly. At times you come across a tasfīr of a verse and you literally sit there scratching your head wondering, “how on earth did this exegete derive this meaning from this verse!?” What presumptions was the exegete making during the process of interpretation? Is the presumption even meant to be there, it is valid or not?
One of these presumptions is to determine the very ‘type’ of language the Quran is in. Yes, the language is Arabic, but how does Allah (swt) speak with people? Is He (swt) speaking as a storyteller where factual realities matter less and underlying principles are relevant? Is He (swt) speaking as a philosopher, a logician or a mathematician? Is He (swt) speaking as a mystic? Is He (swt) speaking as a scientist, a geologist, or a marine biologist? Is it a combination of all these or some of these or none of these? This is an extremely crucial presumption that needs to be determined before engaging with the Quran in order to avoid using words and sentence structures of the verses in meanings that were not intended and deriving absolutes from it when they were simply not meant. Nevertheless, the bare minimum all Muslims acknowledge is that it is a language employing the conventions of Arabic from its time, that [14:4] We have not sent a messenger except in the language of his people to clarify the message for them; and as a tradition goes: ‘Revelation was sent down from Allah (azwj) in Arabic, so when a Prophet from amongst the prophets comes forth, he comes forth in the language of his people.’1
We can tune ourselves with many concepts in the Quran when we are able to appreciate the linguistic conventions being applied around them. One prominent convention heavily used in the Quran is the isti‘ārah (metaphor). Just to illustrate this convention on a simple concept, consider the idea of mercy (raḥmah), a word used too many times in the Quran. When we look at how the concept of mercy is denoted, we find it being used in a number of figurative ways.
At times, the concept of Allah’s mercy is denoted as a spatial entity, such that through our decisions in this world we can bring ourselves in and out of it. For example:
فَأَمَّا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ بِٱللَّهِ وَٱعْتَصَمُوا۟ بِهِۦ فَسَيُدْخِلُهُمْ فِى رَحْمَةٍۢ مِّنْهُ وَفَضْلٍۢ وَيَهْدِيهِمْ إِلَيْهِ صِرَٰطًۭا مُّسْتَقِيمًۭا
[4:175] As for those who believe in Allah and hold fast to Him, He will admit them into His mercy and grace and guide them to Himself through the Straight Path.
وَأَدْخَلْنَـٰهُ فِى رَحْمَتِنَآ ۖ إِنَّهُۥ مِنَ ٱلصَّـٰلِحِينَ
[21:75] And We admitted him (Lut) into Our mercy, for he was truly one of the righteous.
In the above two verses, it is as if Allah’s (swt) mercy was a room or a large treasure chest in which we can be admitted or be expelled from it, as long as we do righteous deeds and obey Him (swt). In another verse, mercy is compared to treasure, and the distribution of the treasures – instances of mercy – contained is solely in the hands of God. He chooses to give from it to whomever He wishes. When He does give from His mercy to those deserving of it, no one can come in His way:
أَمْ عِندَهُمْ خَزَآئِنُ رَحْمَةِ رَبِّكَ ٱلْعَزِيزِ ٱلْوَهَّابِ
[38:9] Or is it because they possess the treasuries of the mercy of your Lord—the Almighty, the Giver of all bounties.
مَّا يَفْتَحِ ٱللَّهُ لِلنَّاسِ مِن رَّحْمَةٍۢ فَلَا مُمْسِكَ لَهَا ۖ وَمَا يُمْسِكْ فَلَا مُرْسِلَ لَهُۥ مِنۢ بَعْدِهِۦ ۚ وَهُوَ ٱلْعَزِيزُ ٱلْحَكِيمُ
[35:2] Whatever mercy Allah opens up for people, none can withhold it. And whatever He withholds, none but Him can release it. For He is the Almighty, All-Wise.
However, given that worldly instances of His mercy are limited and incomparable to the instances of mercy in the hereafter, in this world His mercy can only be “tasted” by us and serve as a means for us to demonstrate our deservingness of His eternal mercy in the hereafter:
وَمِنْ ءَايَـٰتِهِۦٓ أَن يُرْسِلَ ٱلرِّيَاحَ مُبَشِّرَٰتٍۢ وَلِيُذِيقَكُم مِّن رَّحْمَتِهِۦ وَلِتَجْرِىَ ٱلْفُلْكُ بِأَمْرِهِۦ وَلِتَبْتَغُوا۟ مِن فَضْلِهِۦ وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ
[30:46] And one of His signs is that He sends the winds, ushering in good news of rain so that He may give you a taste of His mercy, and that ships may sail by His command, and that you may seek His bounty, and perhaps you will be grateful.
Cognition of Allah’s mercy in light of these metaphors allows the readers of the Quran to experience and observe His mercy in their daily lives. As opposed to someone whose only understanding is limited to an abstract mental concept without a clear reference point for it in the world that surrounds them. Allah (swt) gives numerous examples of His mercy in the Quran alone: the rain, the seasons, the night and day, the celestial bodies, protection from error and misguidance, the Prophet (p) and even revelation itself – just to name a few. When one approaches and observes these things, they should be seen for what they are, objects of mercy. When approaching the Quran, one should truly see themselves as having been allowed to enter into the abode of His mercy and be grateful that He did not expel us from it; when we experience the change in seasons, instead of bemoaning it, one should truly consider these changes for what they are, a small taste of the treasures of His mercy; when one finds solace in their marital life, they should truly see their relationship for what it is, a clear manifestation of God’s mercy; when one is guided on a matter and uncovers the truth, it is a mercy of God upon them and they should be grateful to Allah (swt) for it.
Perhaps one of the instances of despair in Allah’s mercy – a major sin – in the modern world is exactly this: when humans are no longer able to see that they are surrounded by instances of His mercy; when they no longer believe their actions have any transcendental implications for them that will make them deserving of His mercy in this world and the hereafter. Instead, they are led to perceive the world in a way that dictates to them that all that is around them is an absurdity, meaningless, a series of coincidences and accidents, or hardships and troubles that have no end or answers. With this subjugation, humans may consider even the most profound objects of His mercy a burden or a nuisance. Whether it is as simple as complaining about the season, or severe matters like neglecting the Quran, showing disregard to our parents and spouse, or the strange phenomenon of reacting negatively to the gaining of knowledge that forces one to do away with a long-and-dearly held ignorance – none of these are dealt with as objects of mercy from Allah (swt).
For a human to be suppressed with these ideas surely implies that the concept of mercy has become a mere abstract concept with no reference point in the external world, while the Quran depicts a very real image of it. The concept, therefore, becomes no different to us than a word we hear in a language we are unfamiliar with, and to which we show absolutely no reaction.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.