Reflections on the Qur'an: Commentaries on Selected Verses
M. Fethullah Gülen
NJ: Tughra Books
An average English reader is often familiar with the Shakespearean character Hamlet and his inaction—or rather, delay in action—being at variance with his strong aspiration to restore order to the world around him. Despite his beautiful country rotting around him, the young nobleman Hamlet vacillates between listening to the inner voice of "the man of contemplation" and the inner voice of "the man of action." The desolate quietness and inactivity of many intellectuals and thinkers of our modern age looks very much like the inability of Hamlet's taking action. And when they finally decide to carry out their ideas, they mostly end up taking the wrong action, as in the Shakespearean tragedy of Hamlet. One may certainly be a man of original thoughts and lofty ideals, but thoughts go in vain unless they are implemented in practical, daily life. Dr. Suat Yildirim rightly puts forward in his foreword to the honorable scholar and author M. Fethullah Gülen's Reflections on the Qur'an that, "Integrating theoretical knowledge and thought with action is very rare, and indeed according to many is even impossible. Undoubtedly this assessment is true to an extent, but there are always exceptions, like the works of Fethullah Gülen. A renowned scholar and man of action and thought, Gülen adds this new work to his existing collection of more than fifty [now seventy] books."
Our intellectually productive and spiritually proactive author epitomized long ago the very field of exerting effort and struggle in the two words "action and thought" in his book titled, Statue of Our Souls. Describing "thought" as the contemplative activity or "action in one's inner world," this man of action and mission states that deep contemplation and reflection can deepen us in our faith, but contemplation will be of little avail if it is not transformed into action in our practical lives. Having led a life marked by activism and a passion for the service of all humanity, Gülen conceptualized his idea of activism with the term "positive action" which can evidently be seen in the worldwide civil society initiatives he has inspired. His activism based on this positive action lies in his "deep spirituality," which is best reflected in his recent book, Reflections on the Qur'an: Commentaries on Selected Verses, recently published by the Tughra Books in New Jersey.
What is strikingly noticeable in this work are the proofs showing that the Qur'an is the greatest Divine gift to be understood and conveyed from the Mercy of God to the human mind for a thorough reflection. Indeed, everyone has the right to reflect upon the Qur'an to understand the messages in its verses; more than that, it is a duty upon those equipped with necessary, accurate knowledge. In this work, paying careful attention to the disciplines of tafsir methodology and having frequent references to both the classical and contemporary sources, including Bediüzzaman Said Nursi's Risale-i Nur Collection, the author approaches many issues from a different, wider perspective and presents new insights and fresh interpretations to the understanding of the modern age.
Activism as the Philosophy of Life
In this work, the author presents readers with an important "philosophy of life" in his exposition of the verse, "Therefore, when you are free (from one task), resume (another task)" (Al-Inshirah 94:7). He expounds on how believers should live their lives without wasting any minute and without leaving any gaps, "hasting from one activity to the other, fulfilling their duties that fall upon them within the framework of services rendered for God's sake and for the happiness of humanity." He advises believers to remain active all the time "by changing activities" and further recommends them to "rest by working and work while resting":
Indeed, a believer should always be active; both their working and resting should be an activity. In other words, believers should arrange their working hours in such a way that there should be no gaps in their lives. In fact, as a requirement of being a human, people should rest as well, yet this kind of resting should be an "active resting." For instance, when people whose minds are busy with reading and writing become tired, they can rest by lying and sleeping, but they can also rest by changing the work or activity they do. They may read the Qur'an, perform the Prayer, do physical exercise, or engage in a friendly conversation. After a while, they can return to their normal activity.
In the book, one can clearly see a holistic approach from thorough contemplation and reflection to belief, from belief to its practice, and from practice to deeper devotion and consciousness of God. One can encounter an example of this all-inclusive approach in the exposition of the verse, "Whoever keeps from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and in piety, He enables a way out for him (of every difficulty)" (At-Talaq 65:2). Here, the author interprets the key concept of "taqwa," or reverent piety and righteousness, used in the verse in an extraordinarily exquisite way. He states that taqwa means observing the Divine ordinances in every walk of life, which requires, therefore, obeying both the religious commandments and the laws of God's creation and maintenance of the universe. The author calls the former (i.e., obeying the religious rules and commands) "internal piety and righteousness" and the latter "external piety and righteousness." He states, however, that it is not easy to attain taqwa, or reverent piety and righteousness in both dimensions. He further elucidates that the verse under discussion makes use of the word taqwa in verbal form to mean "keeping from disobedience to God and doing His commands in reverence for Him and in piety. The mood of the verb chosen expresses submission, admission, and adopting the action ordered with the verb used as an indispensable dimension or depth of one's nature or character. That is, it denotes thinking, acting, and living a life in obedience to God, fulfilling His commands, refraining from His prohibitions, and following His laws of the creation and maintenance of the universe and the laws He has established for life."
In the verse under discussion, the author also draws readers' attention to the necessity of observing Sunnatu'llah, or God's Practice, as much as the obligation of observing religious commandments. He says, "if we abstain from the unlawful, fulfill the obligatory commands in perfect sensitivity, avoid the dubious as much as possible, and even become cautious with respect to the allowable, and if we observe God's Practice or way of dealing with His creation—which we also call God's laws of life and creation and maintenance of the universe—God will then save us from the different degrees of difficulties into which we have fallen." He further states that a really pious person is one who believes and practices what he believes by fulfilling both his "personal responsibilities in devotion to God" and "social responsibilities within society." He also emphasizes that social responsibilities extend further beyond one's personal relationship with God.
Preserving this holistic approach throughout the book, the author focuses his efforts not on pure contemplation or abstract trains of thought, but rather on actively helping people to accomplish their duty of reflecting thoroughly upon the created books of the universe and man, along with the revealed book of the Qur'an—which is the written counterpart of the universe and the human.
Contemplation on the Outer and the Human Inner World for Renewal
On reflecting upon the "created" books of the universe and the human inner world, the author asserts, "Our lacking of such a comprehensive contemplation or reflection is our greatest problem and shortcoming. Truly, we are devoid of reflective thoughts that renew our faith and keep us alive at all times." While expounding on another verse that says, "We will show them Our manifest signs (proofs) in the horizons of the universe and within their own selves, until it will become manifest to them that it (the Qur'an) is indeed the truth" (Fussilat 41:53), the author first states that, "the signs and proofs of truth are dealt with in two categories," and then refers to those proofs that are provided by the universe as "external proofs" while he refers to the ones that are available within man himself as "internal proofs." As for the expression, "We will show," used in the verse under discussion, he says that it means "humanity will continue to see and discover more and more truths and admit that the Qur'an and the universe describe each other, that the Qur'an translates the universe, and the universe "reads" the Qur'an." He further elaborates on the issue as follows:
The proofs provided by sciences are not restricted to those that have already been discovered. There are still so many matters to be studied by sciences such as anatomy, physiology, psychology, biology, physics, and astrophysics that will be clarified in the future and provide numerous new proofs for the truth of all Islamic beliefs, including especially God's existence and Unity, the Qur'an as the Word of God, and our master Muhammad as the Messenger of God.
Should people successfully read the signs and proofs of these three "books", such people of perception could then advance safely towards walking along the broad, Straight Path, which is illuminated by the Qur'an and best applied in the life of the noble Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace and blessings.
Qur'an as the Greatest Miracle
In a hadith, the noble Prophet said, "Every Prophet before me was bestowed miracles because of which people believed, and the (greatest) miracle I have been given is the (matchless, miraculous) Qur'an which God has revealed to me (as guidance for the entire humanity and jinn). Therefore, I hope my followers will outnumber the followers of all the other Prophets on the Day of Resurrection." In order to help realize this glad tiding of the Prophet, the believers ought to reflect upon and truly understand the Qur'an, put it into practice in their daily lives, and thus benefit from its Messages greatly.
In compliance with the miraculous nature of the Qur'an's eloquence, the author explains matters in this extensive commentary on selected verses of the Qur'an with consummate succinctness without tiring the reader. In doing so, he analyzes a matter from different perspectives, and if need be, he clarifies the matter in detail without causing any objections or further questions. He presents matters in such a systematic and persuasive manner that the addressee becomes fully satisfied and enlightened.
The author thoroughly explains, for instance, how believers will attain prosperity in both this world and the next through their adherence to the holy Prophet's greatest miracle and how their honor and happiness will widely be circulated throughout the world by means of the Qur'an in his exposition of the verse, "Now We send down to you a Book which contains what you must heed in life for your honor and happiness. Will you not, then, reason and understand?" (Al-Anbiya' 21:10). Here, the author expounds first on the fact that the addressee of the Divine Message, "We send down to you a Book," is "all humanity," beginning with the Companions of the Prophet and including all of humanity and all times to come until the end of the world. He puts forward that the Almighty God "promised the first addressees of the Qur'an, explicitly, and all those to come later, implicitly, that they would gain reputation and glory through the Book—the Qur'an—sent down to them." He elucidates that the word "dhikr," which is used in the verse and given the meaning of honor and happiness as well as reputation and glory, also suggests advice and preaching, "The hadith, 'Religion is advice,' which is short in wording but comprehensive in meaning, highlights this reality." The author presents more insights into what the verse further suggests: "While the states and communities around you complete their lifespan and withdraw from the stage of history one after the other, you will be able to exist eternally owing to this blessed 'dhikr'—the Qur'an." He further says that the Qur'an is the "reference source for everyone" who wants to learn more of the true religion of Islam and embrace it.
Speaking for the Sake of the Reform of the Addressee
The author frequently draws attention to the Qur'anic style of speaking sincerely and for the sake of the reform of the addressees while giving advice to them or warning them because of their wrong. In his exposition of the verses, "Go, both of you, to the Pharaoh, for he has exceedingly rebelled. But speak to him with gentle words, so that he might reflect and be mindful or feel some awe (of Me, and behave with humility)" (Ta-Ha 20:43-44), the author emphasizes that "speaking with gentle words" (even to such people as the relentless enemy of God and despotic tyrant Pharaoh) should be an indispensable attribute of the spiritual guide or conveyor of the Message. He further elaborates on "gentleness" not only in speech but also in behavior and manners as part of the nature of such people. If not, he says, the addressees will move away. If one acts in this way, however, there might appear some who "might reflect and be mindful" of God.
Reminding us of the principles of loving for God's sake and hating for God's sake, the author further states that "a person is loved for his virtues and perfections and is disliked because of his vices and evils. So our hate is directed toward attributes and deeds, rather than the persons themselves. The Qur'an describes those who sin and do wrong as those who wrong themselves. Therefore, we pity those who wrong themselves and desire their reformation. In any event, we should be gentle and kindhearted and act gently in conveying Islam to others. Even if our addressees do not accept Islam, we have done our duty."
While providing further insights on this Qur'anic manner of addressing people for their guidance and reform in his exposition of another verse in Suratu'l-A'la (87:9) which says, "So remind and instruct (them in the truth) in case reminder and instruction may be of use," the author corrects certain misinterpretations by saying:
If we do not consider the reason why this and similar other verses were revealed, some inaccurate interpretations may arise, such as "Why do I continue reminding and instructing since they are of no use!" or "I have gone to them many times, but they do not pay heed," or "Those people are not qualified to believe; therefore, it is useless to continue preaching them." The verse says quite the opposite... Indeed, conveying God's Message to people and calling them to believe in it is God's command which must be fulfilled incessantly. While doing this, we should not consider whether people will accept it or not.
He further states that the conditional clause in the verse under discussion, "In case reminder and instruction may be of use," has the meaning of emphasizing our responsibility of conveying the message rather than limiting it.
An eloquent, powerful speech, the Qur'an, which was revealed for the guidance and benefit of people, absolutely has the potential and capacity to give benefit. Some may not benefit from it while there are many who do benefit from it and are guided! Therefore, we should understand the verse in discussion as, "Remind and instruct, because it is definitely of use."
Our author refers to the following two mistakes that have usually been made while interpreting another verse that says, "Certainly, she (minister's wife) was burning with desire for him (Prophet Joseph); and he would have desired her had it not been that he had already seen the argument and proof of his Lord" (Yusuf 12:24). He states that, "Joseph, a sinless, sincere Prophet, is approached like an ordinary man overwhelmed with his emotions and desires," and, therefore, the verse is interpreted from this wrong perspective: "She desired, and was moved toward him; and he desired, and was moved toward her, but just at that point he saw the evidence of his Lord and stopped." As for the second misinterpretation of the verse, he says, "There are others who approach the issue contrary to human realities and claim that Prophet Joseph, upon whom be peace, had no sexual desires. This would imply a defect of a Prophet of God and is utterly unrealistic."
Intrinsic Relations among the Verses
The author effectively raises awareness in the reader that the verses of the Qur'an interpret each other and make references to one another. One can, therefore, see clearly in this work how the individual verses of the Qur'an are intrinsically related with some other verses and with the totality of the Qur'an. For instance, the author shows this intrinsic relation among verses when he elaborates more on the aforementioned subject of the believers' honor, reputation, and dignity in his exposition of verse 28 of Suratu'l-Kahf as follows:
Islam has always existed and will continue to exist with its own dynamics. It gets its unbeatable power from God. For this reason, whoever holds fast to Islam truly and sincerely is destined to be honorable and dignified, while whoever breaks with it is condemned to be despicable. The history of Islam offers plenty of examples of this.
The author presents further insights on the same subject in his exposition of another verse in Suratu'l-Maedah about the attributes of the chosen people who have taken the responsibility to represent the Religion and convey its message to others. These are the people who are "most humble towards the believers, dignified and commanding in the face of the unbelievers, striving (continuously and in solidarity) in God's cause, and fearing not the censure of any who censure..." (Al-Maedah 5:54). In his analysis of the verse, the author states that a believer's honor and dignity lies not in their social status, wealth or profession but in being a believer. He says:
Indeed, all might, dignity, and glory belong to God, to His Messenger, and to the believers as pointed out clearly in Suratu'l-Munafiqun (63:8). Therefore, we should continue serving Islam everywhere-at home and in schools, in the streets and at the markets-feeling in ourselves the honor and glory of Islam without fearing the censure of anyone who will censure and without feeling any inferiority complex in the face of unbelievers. While stating the attributes of the dignified community which God will raise up to exalt Islam, the Qur'an also miraculously points to certain characteristics of our time.
In relation to these believers who are "dignified and commanding in the face of the unbelievers" and who would come in the distant future after the Companions, the author further states that these chosen people "are not stern as the Companions were against the uncivilized disbelievers of the desert. Since at the present the victory over hostile ideas is through persuasion rather than force, it will be enough for us to stand firm and dignified with the honor of Islam in the face of the unbelievers." Of course, this part of the respectable author's analysis alludes to another verse in Suratu'l-Fath where he makes this comparison of the chosen people with the Companions, who were "firm and unyielding against the unbelievers, and compassionate among themselves" (48:29). While the first praiseworthy quality of the Companions is given in the verse as their being "firm and unyielding against the unbelievers," their second quality is given as being "compassionate among themselves." In the verse under discussion, however, the author asserts that those chosen people that would come centuries after the Companions are described first as "most humble towards the believers" and then as "dignified and commanding in the face of the unbelievers," thus giving precedence to humility and the persuasion of the civilized people of modern times. In this way, it is made aware that Qur'anic verses, just like the one under discussion, extend ropes of relations to all times after their revelations no matter when and in what circumstances they were revealed.
Reasons of Revelation and Universal Messages
Indeed, this issue is one of the striking characteristics that is immediately noticeable in the book! Drawing the reader's attention to the universality of the Qur'an, the author says, "Since the Qur'an is a universal Book, its messages are also universal." Therefore, interpreting a verse "only according to the reason it was revealed would limit the scope of the verse," he says in his exposition of the verse, "Who is more in the wrong than he bars God's places of worship, so that His Name be not mentioned and invoked in them" (Al-Baqarah 2:114).
Even if this was revealed to denounce the Assyrian and Babylon kings and Romans who banned the Jews or Christians from worshipping in Baytu'l-Maqdis in Jerusalem and the Makkan polytheists who prevented the Muslims in Makkah from worshipping in the Masjidu'l-Haram, further interpretation is appropriate...This verse relates to anybody who bars God's places of worship, so that His Name cannot be mentioned and invoked in them. The use of the "places of worship" in the plural also corroborates this interpretation of the verse. Therefore, those who wanted and attempted to crucify Jesus are greater in wrongdoing than others no matter when they live. Similarly, those who have banned people from worshipping in Baytu'l-Maqdis are greater in wrongdoing than others; those who prevented God's Messenger and his Companions, from entering the Ka'bah and worshipping in the Masjidu'l-Haram as well as those who follow them in barring people from mosques in all ages are greater in wrongdoing than others. Likewise, the ones who leave the mosques and masjids abandoned and those who prevent believers from their religious practices do the greatest wrong.
Our author here includes all those who bar people from places of worship and who are thus denounced by the verse, starting from such ancient tyrants as Nebuchadnezzar, Shapur, Titus, and Adrianus to all the wicked people who attack the places of worship in any period of history, including the brutal forces that will demolish the Ka'bah and the Masjidu'n-Nabawi at the End of Time.
Psychological Exegesis in the Stories of Prophets
Oftentimes, the author turns the reader's attention to the need for the psychological exegesis of the Qur'an, saying that the exegetes have as yet devoted very little attention to the psychological aspects of the Qur'an. He does this especially when he expounds on the stories of the Prophets and the bygone nations mentioned in the Qur'an. The respected author asserts that the stories of the Prophets and their peoples are neither figurative nor symbolic; all the Qur'anic characters are the real flesh-and-blood figures that present us with the never-fading embodiments of certain truths. Through the eye of the modern man, he reads like a book all the words, actions, manners, and mindset of, for instance, the tyrant Pharaoh, relentless Capitalist Korah, and such hypocrites as the wives of Prophets Noah and Lot who betrayed them, siding with unbelievers against the Prophets. While he clearly portrays their psychology and character traits and presents us with clear hints to be able to recognize such hypocrite people, Pharaoh-like despots or Korah-like ultra materialists and thus see their projections in our own times, he extends ropes of relations to the modern age and raises in us the awareness for the need to take necessary precautions against such evil people.
On the other hand, through the narratives of the lives of the Prophets, he raises in the reader the awareness towards achieving the aim of becoming the living embodiments of the Qur'an. Often, the author strongly recommends the readers of the Qur'an to "try to make the connection between the time, place, conditions, and the figures mentioned in the verses and their own time and place and the very conditions surrounding them" in order to truly benefit from them and see their similar projections in their own times. He further says, "If we view the narratives in the Qur'an as certain stories about certain bygone peoples, our benefit from it will be little." He asserts, however, that the door to its blessings and benefits will be opened if we approach it with the conviction that the Qur'an addresses us directly.
In conclusion, the core message this essential work gives to its audience is the necessity of understanding and reflecting upon the messages of the Qur'an, committing to them, and then acting upon them in their own practical lives. Throughout the book, readers can certainly see the fasla'l-khitab-clear, effective and decisive communication of ideas towards achieving this end. Being quite exceptional in his decisive and persuasive communication of messages in the book, the author achieves addressing both the scholarly and the general audience of the contemporary age. His minimal use of technical terms of the field of Qur'anic exegesis enables his message to reach a wide and diverse readership. Without lowering the quality, he has penned the book in a grand but simple manner comprehendible to the average English reader. As a final point, following the good example of our respected author who completes his exposition of most of the verses with a heartfelt prayer that is in compliant with the general message of the relevant verse, we pray to our Lord to grant him continued success in his services and to make this book be a means of tremendous reward for the author and beneficial for the wider audience—both Muslims and all interested seekers striving to explore the depths of meanings and purposes of the Divine Speech.
Book review by Huseyin Bingul