Peace, one and all…
Whilst the Quran is, undoubtedly, a written scripture, its essence is as the kalam Allah, the ‘speech of God’. As Divine speech the Quran records the Prophet’s (as) unfolding relationship with God, and because of its paradigmatic nature, it can also become God’s speaking to us, within the context of our unfolding lives. As such, the Quran is, ultimately, a book of spiritual guidance and advice, a book of divine communion. Thus, in Surah Ta Ha, the 20th chapter of the Quran, we find the following verses:
‘So [Prophet] be patient with what they say – celebrate the praise of your Lord, before the rising and setting of the sun, celebrate His praise during the night, and at the beginning and end of the day, so that you may find contentment – and do not gaze longingly at what We have given some of them to enjoy, the finery of this present life: We test them through this, but the provision of your Lord is better and more lasting. Order your people to pray, and pray steadfastly yourself. We are not asking you to give Us provision; We provide for you, and the rewards of the Hereafter belong to the devout’
(Quran 20:130-132, translated by MAS Abdul Haleem)
This entire chapter is traditionally understood to have been revealed in Mecca. In this series of verses, the Prophet (as) is advised to bear criticism and ridicule with patience. ‘Be patient with what they say’. Don’t take it to heart. Don’t allow negativity to poison your heart. Ignore malicious gossip, unjust criticism and mockery, focus instead on God. We are not instructed to respond in kind. We are not instructed to plot our revenge. We are told to simply ignore them and focus on the well being of our own hearts.
The Prophet is instructed to ‘celebrate the praise of your Lord’. As this poor one has found, focusing sincerely on praise generates gratitude, and gratitude, as the twin sister of patience, is another key element in dealing with hostile environments. Little by little, being thankful helps remove bitterness, that angry feeling of ‘why are people attacking me?’. Being thankful helps cleanse our inward selves of resentment, an insidious spiritual poison.
Focus on God, offer grateful praise, and do so at specific, important times of the day. Set aside a moment or two at these times to pray, and to remember God. Interestingly, this verse is understood to be one of the key proof texts for the five canonical daily prayers (the salat). Whilst this is true, the deeper instruction here is to worship God at all times, and in all circumstances. Inward discipline of character is built being built here, in two significant ways. Firstly, we are being encouraged to turn our attention to time, and to how we spend it. Given that patience is essentially a particular attitude towards time, this is doubly important. Finding a daily routine is important, to whatever extent we can manage. Secondly, bearing criticism with patience can help build character. Life is not always easy. There are tests along the way. Inward strength is a key element in overcoming life’s challenges.
‘So that you may find contentment’. Contentment translates rida. The Dictionary of Quranic Usage offers this definition: ‘to agree, to accept, to consent, to be pleased, to be satisfied, approval, contentment, acceptance; favour, grace’ (p. 368). Patience, gratitude, praise and inward resolve are all essential elements in acceptance of life’s ups and downs. We come to see that each new thing is sent our way to teach us some new lesson, to instill some new quality, or to develop our spiritual aspiration.
More deeply, our acceptance of divine decree brings forth God’s good pleasure in response. Our rida is met by God’s rida. In that sense, our constant pursuit of ‘happiness’ becomes the search for contentment and acceptance. Such contentment is one of the very highest levels of spiritual attainment, one that God actively wants for us. God does not want us to be divided within ourselves. A person characterised by such contentment is described thus elsewhere in the Quran:
‘[But] you, soul at peace: return to your Lord well pleased and well pleasing; go in among My servants; and into My Garden.’ (89:27-30)
Our next verse reinforces this message by encouraging us to be content with our duly allotted portion:
‘and do not gaze longingly at what We have given some of them to enjoy, the finery of this present life: We test them through this, but the provision of your Lord is better and more lasting’ (20:132)
Be patient with the things people say, and don’t judge the worth of their words by their external wealth. Wealth isn’t always a blessing, especially if it obscures our ability to see things properly. Moreover, gazing longingly at what others have can lead to jealousy and to bitterness and resentment once again. This poor one has been allowed to see just how corrosive resentment is to our spiritual health. Small wonder then that we are again counselled to steer clear of it. Wealth and poverty are part of life’s tests, and are a means by which we are taught to value reality over appearance. God’s provision is better for us, though it is necessary to trust that promise and rely on it. We are given exactly what we need, exactly when we need it. Again, the difference between appearance and reality is underlined: need is not the same thing as desire. Gratitude is called for once again, because gratitude reconnects. The phrase ‘better and more lasting’ (khayrun wa abaqa) is repeated in Surah al-A’la (one of my favourite chapters), underlining the point that the Divine wants us to become spiritually mature:
‘Prosperous are those who purify themselves, remember the name of their Lord, and pray. Yet you [people] prefer the life of this world, even though the Hereafter is better and more lasting.’ (87:14-17)
This highlights a key feature of the Quran. The repetition of key words and phrases can allow us to navigate the book more easily. Hearing khayrun wa abaqa in one place reminds us of other verses where this same formula is used, which allows us to come at a given issue from a range of different vantage points. This is important in helping us to understand that the Quran explains itself to us, if we enter into a living relationship with it, and its Author.
Verse 132 builds on this message:
‘Order your people to pray, and pray steadfastly yourself. We are not asking you to give Us provision; We provide for you, and the rewards of the Hereafter belong to the devout’
The Prophet (as) is told to establish steadfast prayer, for himself and his community. This led to the development of communal prayer. It is as if we are being told: ‘Continue your own prayers. Focus on God. But now, remember that you are part of a community. Pray together’. Prayer in a loving spiritual community is a truly beautiful thing. It necessitates a shared unity of purpose and a deep caring for each other, an active loving-kindness. It also necessitates honesty and humility. We need to be humble, to treat each other well, and to understand human shortcomings: because our own service is far from perfect we should be tolerant of what we perceive to be the mistakes of others. Allowing our conventional boundaries to dissolve, our everyday ‘I’ to melt into ‘we’, is what helps mature us, (as the Opening Chapter subtly suggests).
The next section encourages us to be on our guard against arrogance: ‘We are not asking you to give Us provision; We provide for you’. Our prayers don’t feed God. They add nothing to the Divine Infinity. They are for our benefit, both individual and collective. We need God. We are forced to confront ourselves, to question our motivations: are we being sincere in our attempt to grow? Who are we really undertaking all this effort for? An ongoing re-evaluation of our intentions is a healthy part of any spiritual life. We are also being reminded that all provision comes from God, and not our society’s apparent elite. Everything we need for our growth is being slowly given to us, in appropriate measure. Pray. Make zikr. Be humble.
‘The rewards of the Hereafter belong to the devout’. Quranic references to paradise are numerous and encourage us to work for the Divine. There is another way to translate this concluding phrase, however. The Study Quran translates this passage as ‘And the end is for reverence’. Reverence, or taqwa, is often translated as ‘God-consciousness’ and indicates an attitude of constant awareness of God’s presence. I find understanding this passage in this manner particularly powerful. The end of result of all our spiritual growth, of all our inner development, is a living, moment by moment awareness of Reality, and a sustained understanding of the spiritual demands of each new situation. Reverence is also an awareness of the sacredness of all things. We become aware that all of our successes and our failures, all of our weaknesses and our strengths, take place within a deeper oneness, and are part of a greater whole.
And our last prayer is in praise of God, Sustainer of all the worlds.
Ask olsun! May love increase!