Reclaiming the Question

You wake up one day to find yourself in an ornate and decorated room. You have no recollection of who you are or how you got there. From the moment you are conscious, you are beset by a relentless curiosity: Who am I? Why am I here? You are attempting to make sense of the situation that you find yourself in. The aim of this metaphor is to illustrate an elemental fact: as humans, we find ourselves in an existential situation. We find ourselves participating in a reality – the cosmos – that is not our own making. We are, as Martin Heidegger put it, thrown into the world. As such, we are essentially constituted by a dynamic consciousness that is driven towards meaning in order to obtain insight into reality and its ultimate grounds. The search for ultimate grounds emerges because as humans, although we have a number of concerns (e.g., familial, financial, political, etc.), our ultimate concern is, and ought-to be, our existential situation that is embodied in two questions: where-from? And, where-to?

However, as with the wonder and curiosity that animates our childhood, this existential curiosity can wane and be replaced. This is all the more true in a secular world, or what Marcel calls a “broken world” wherein human beings are reduced to what is worldly: functions through their occupation, social status, and the tradition of the forefathers. [1] What is lost in a broken world is the human being as “the Question,” whose primordial fidelity is to the spirit of inquiry. In a world wrought by consumerism and imagery, it is becoming all the more difficult to reclaim what is essential to our very being in order to reflect on our existential situation. The perfunctory repetition of tasks, consumption, and communication in the everyday world submerges the consciousness into what the Qur’an calls al-ghafla which literally means “absence of a thing from the mind,” “forgetfulness” and “intentional neglect.” [2] Throughout the Qur’an, God “describes the situation in which people do not deny Him – they even acknowledge that he “rule and regulates all that exists” – but still they are not conscious of Him.” [3] The Qur’ān notes that this was the very first tribulation of the Adamic man (Q 20:115) The word ghafla correlates directly to the Qur’ānic term of “man” which is insaan. The Arabic word for man is insaan, one of the roots of which is nisyan which means to forget. Ghafla is that state wherein an-nisyan becomes a ruling principle, that is, it becomes a condition or state of being. As such, in the state of ghafla, Man loses his concern with existential questions and takes up mundane concerns that divert him from what is existential.

How does the Qur’an make sense of this intentional neglect, despite the fact that the world abounds with signs that evoke within human beings a sense of wonder? The Qur’an thematically distinguishes between two modes of being-in-the-world: between the world-as-dunyā and the world-as-âlam,  which differ in consciousness or perception. The former refers to the world of objects, wherein things serve as an instrumental function for the nafs. The latter refers to the world of signs wherein things point to an origin, to a cosmos, and their absolute origin, God. The dunyā is a closed world. The âlam is open to that which is beyond itself. The dunyā, whose Arabic root  means that which is “close” and “lowly,” is brought “near and veils the experience and consciousness of man.” [4] This results in the alienation of man from his primordial self (and its ontological exigence) and from God. The Arabic word used for alienation is b’ud which also means “distance.” The dunyā then becomes an expanding distance between the self and God. It occupies and creates “spaces” of diversion.

The Qur’an was revealed to liberate the human being from this state of alienation by evoking consciousness,  making the human being aware of their existential situation. “The immediate purpose of the Qur’an in this reflective observation of Nature is to awaken in man the consciousness of that of which Nature is regarded a symbol.” [5] Hence, the awakening subject, through a transformative perception, makes the passage from the dunyā to al-âlam or the cosmos al-Sabuni defines as “the universe is the name of all beings other than Allah because it is a sign for his existence of the Maker [Allah].” [6] The Qur’an does this through at-tadhakkur, which means to remember or to recall. The Qur’an does not draw our attention to what is beyond our reality but to what is immediately present and what they reveal. The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, refers to this as “recognition”:

“But what is recognition? It is surely not merely a question of seeing something for the second time. Nor does it imply a whole series of encounters. Recognition means knowing something as that with which we are already acquainted” … “Recognition always implies that we have come to know something more authentically than we were able to do when caught up in our first encounter with it. Recognition elicits the permanent from the transient.” [7]

Muslim scholars referred to recognition as nazar, meaning, insightful seeing, “the ordering of matters known in such a way as to arrive at matters previously unknown.” [8] Through tadhakkur as recognition, the Qur’an releases the human from the tension between the contingency of their being in the world and the desire for insight, or their ultimate concern. The Qur’an does not deposit information into the mind but begins by opening the mind through the evocation of existential awareness. The Qur’an draws our attention to both the “written book” (al-kitab al-mastur) and the “visual book” (al-kitab al-manzur) wherein the former refers to the Qur’an itself and the latter refers to the cosmos. The world that is used for “verse” is ayah which refers to both the uttered letters of the Qur’an as well as the signs in the cosmos, “We will show them our signs on the horizons an in their very selves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth” (Q 41: 53). These are verses and/or signs that are meant to be read which in turn signifies an active relationship of disclosure between consciousness and the signs of God, “investigate (unzuru) all that is in the heavens and earth” (Q 10:101). The act of seeing is not reducible to a sensory capacity but designates a way of being. Hence, the Qur’an distinguishes between basar and basirah, the former referring to mere “sight” whereas the latter refers to “insight.” Basirah is a way of seeing that culminates in recognition. As such, the Qur’an not only radically transforms the relationship between man and God but also between man, nature and the cosmos.

Works Cited 

[1] Marcel, Gabriel, The Philosophy of Existentialism, translated by Manya Harari, New York: Citadel, 1995

[2] Lane, Edward William. Arabic-English Lexicon, London: Williams & Norgate, 1863

[3] Bouguenaya, Yamina. Living with Genuine Tawhid: Witnessing the Signs of God through Quranic Guidance. Receiving Nur Publications, 2016. 

[4] Al–Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib. Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam. Penerbit UTM Press, 2014.

[5] Ozturk, Sevcan. Becoming a Genuine Muslim: Kierkegaard and Muhammad Iqbal. Routledge, 2018.

[6] Davutoglu, Ahmet. “Islamic Paradigm: Tawḥīd and Ontological Differentiation.” Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory. 1st ed. Lanham: U of America, 1994.

[7] Han, Byung-Chul. The Disappearance of Rituals. Polity Press, 2020 

[8] Brown, Jihad Hashim. “Metaphysical Dimensions of Muslim Environmental Consciousness.” Tabah Essays Series,(3) (2013)

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash


About the Author: Ali Harfouch has a Masters in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut. He researches and writes on Islamic political theology and modern political theory. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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