The Perceptible and the Unseen: the Qur'anic Conception of Man's Relationship to God and Realities Beyond Human Perception

By Umar F. Abd-Allah

Umar F. Abd-Allah, “The Perceptible and the Unseen: The Qur’anic Conception of Man’s Relationship to God and Realities Beyond Human Perception,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 209–64.

The Perceptible and the Unseen: The Qur’anic Conception of Man’s Relationship to God and Realities Beyond Human Perception

Umar F. Abd-Allah


At the time of the symposium, Umar F. Abd-Allah was chairman of Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri in history and English. He received one Ph.D. in English literature from Cornell and another in Arabic and Islamic studies from the University of Chicago. Professor Abd-Allah’s interests include the language of the Qur’an, comparative religion, and the origins of Islamic legal theory. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and North Africa.


Even in the modern age, in which the instruments of technology have magnified the powers of the human mind to a degree never before imagined, the modest radius of human perception and its inherent limitations remain primary epistemological facts of the human condition. Our perception of the present moment constitutes only a small portion of the reality that envelops us; we stare myopically into the past and can only vaguely anticipate the future. The imperfection of human perception—the fact that the knowledge of man, however much he knows, is forever dwarfed by the vast domain of that which he does not and even cannot know—is one of the first foundations of religious speculation. That dimension which lies beyond the threshold of human perception—the world of God and supernatural beings, the infinite circumstances and particulars of the past, present, and future—is a natural focus of religious teaching. Although their answers sometimes differ, each religion addresses the reality of the unseen in human consciousness. What exists in that world? How can man acquire knowledge of it? What bearing does it have on his suffering and well-being in the material world? How is man’s destiny and meaning of life connected to it?

Such questions were not asked only in another age, although for many today—given comforts of advanced technology and relative self-assurance that the material conditions and natural forces of our world are under adequate control—they may not have the urgency which they once had. Moreover, modern man, by virtue of his remarkable success in manipulating the material environment, is predisposed to look in the material world and not the dimension of the unseen for solutions to those problems which pertain directly to his material well-being or suffering. Furthermore, since the time of Kant, philosophical speculation in the West has gravitated from the metaphysical toward the more empirical and fundamentally epistemological dimensions of human consciousness. But for many, the realm of the unseen still holds the answer to fundamental philosophical questions about the nature and destiny of man and the world he lives in. Intermediaries between man and the unseen, those who claim to speak authoritatively about the world, remain an important part of human society. Somewhat peripheral figures today, in the past—especially in the preindustrial societies of the medieval and ancient worlds—such intermediaries and their representatives (shamans, diviners, oracular speakers, prophets or their spokesmen) appear universally to have played a more central and conspicuous role in their societies and cultures.

Islam draws a conscious dichotomy between that dimension of reality which lies within the purview of man’s perception and his five senses and that dimension which lies beyond. It calls the first of these the realm of the perceptible or of the visible (‘alam ashshahada) and calls the second of them the realm of the unseen (‘alam al-ghaib). To believe in the unseen, according to the Qur’an, constitutes the first and most essential requirement of those who would seek guidance; such belief requires, in turn, acceptance of the three fundamentals: the absolute oneness of God (at-tawhid), the institution of prophecy (ar-risala; an-nabuwa), and the coming of the hereafter or return (al-ma’ad). But to believe in the unseen is not to know the unseen or even to desire knowledge of it beyond these fundamentals and the subsidiary beliefs connected to them. God alone, in the view of Islam, is the knower of the unseen and the visible, this being one of the unique attributes of godhood (uluhiya) and the lordship (rububiya) which He shares with no created being. Man has the means to know and understand the perceptible, and the Qur’an clearly directs him to make it the object of his speculation and investigation. But he has no means of delving into the unseen and knowing anything about it other than conjecture except through the vehicle of prophecy. Only by means of prophetic revelation, according to the Qur’an, can man acquire that definitive knowledge (‘ilm) of the important essentials of the unseen as they relate to his being which must be the foundation of his religious life. Like the religion of the biblical prophets, Islam declared other means of intermediation between man and the unseen to be illegitimate and invalid. It abolished the offices of the pre- Islamic shamans, oracular speakers, and diviners. Moreover, Islam emphasized in this process an approach to and a preoccupation with the unseen radically different from those of the pre-Islamic shamans and diviners. Their fundamental concern and that of the people who relied upon them had been with whatever good or evil the unseen held in store for particular persons or their tribes and clans in this world. Islam categorically rejected this emphasis and directed attention to those aspects of the unseen that emphasize God’s omniscience and the ultimacy of the Last Judgment—in other words, to matters which have direct bearing on the spiritual and moral edification of man in this world and which focus his energies on positive action to fulfill the moral imperatives of the Islamic worldview.

But in the Qur’anic view, although the realm of the unseen lies beyond the powers of perception of the human mind and cannot be known except through the medium of prophecy, the realm of the unseen does not constitute a single continuum which extends through the realms of the visible and the unseen together; the two worlds are not antithetical or diametrically opposed. Indeed, they constitute two different worlds only from the standpoint of human perception. From the standpoint of God the entire spectrum of reality, in the Qur’anic view, lies within the realm of the perceived and known. Moreover, because of the utter compatibility between the realm of the perceptible and the realm of the unseen, man’s short existence within the realm of the perceptible should remain continually alive to the reality of God and those essential elements of the unseen which touch man’s moral and spiritual life.

According to the Qur’an, God created man with an instinctively believing nature (fitra), which has inherent knowledge of God and is oriented toward Him. Furthermore, the world of the perceptible which surrounds man is filled with the signs (ayat) of God, which continually remind man of God’s presence and His concern with the creation. Such signs of God are no longer to be viewed as omens or to be interpreted for purposes of divination. Rather, in the Qur’anic view, they are man’s bridge of certainty linking him with the greater realities of the unseen—the oneness of God, the Resurrection, and the Last Judgment—which have been taught by the prophets. In the Qur’anic view, the key to human dignity is man’s ability to believe in God from the context of the perceptible world and without the ability to witness the unseen. Those who can live within the realm of the perceptible and yet believe in the greater realities of the unseen on the basis of the prophetic reports, confirmed by the implicit guidance of the ayat of God in the world and the instinctive knowledge and spiritual aptitude of the fitra of the human soul, are those who, in the Qur’anic idiom, have eyes with which to see, ears with which to hear, and tongues with which to speak. Those who destroy this aptitude and who make the realm of the perceptible a barrier between them and the greater realities of the unseen are, in the Qur’anic view, blind, deaf, and dumb—more reprehensible than the beasts of the earth. They are the dead, while believers alone are the living.

Pre-Islamic Parallels

Divine Intermediaries in the Ancient Civilizations of Western Asia. Both the role of intermediaries—shamans, oracular speakers, and diviners—in the religious and cultural life of pre-Islamic Arabia and the prophecy of Muhammad in that context are to a remarkable extent similar to models in other parts of Western Asia in the ancient world. Clearly a strong element of continuity links religious practices of the pre-Islamic Arabs and those of the ancient Near East, just as fundamental parallels appear between Zarathustra, the biblical prophets, and Muhammad. Non-Muslims are frequently inclined to interpret such similarities as evidence of direct or indirect borrowing, of similar cultural legacies and backgrounds, or, occasionally, certain universally shared psychological and spiritual traits. Muslims, on the other hand, are inclined to interpret such parallels as evidence of the integrity of the Qur’anic claim that the prophetic message of Muhammad came as a confirmation and fulfillment of the original messages of the earlier prophets. One of the great prophetic and scriptural religions of the world, Islam regards itself as the primordial archetype of a universal monotheism which God revealed to the earth through numerous prophet-messengers (rusul; mursalun) and prophets (anbiya’; nabiyun), both biblical and nonbiblical, Qur’anic and non-Qur’anic, whom he sent at different times to different places. The prophecy of Muhammad, who, according to Islamic belief, was the last of the prophets and prophet-messengers of God, marks only the end of the prophetic age and the culmination of revealed religion. Muhammad’s teachings, according to the Quran, confirmed and fulfilled the revelations of the prophets before him. His teachings were not new but old, the restoration of original prophetic teachings as old as man himself that had been lost, then renewed, then lost or rendered obscure again because of the disobedience and deviations of religious communities entrusted at various times with preserving the prophetic message. Islam (literally “peace through submission to the One God”) was in its Arabian context the religion of Abraham restored, who himself, according to the Qur’an, had with his son Isma’il (Ishmael) restored monotheism among the Arabs in his own time; and Islam, the religion of Abraham, was in direct continuity with the messages of Noah, Moses, Jesus, and the other major and minor prophets of history. [1]

The complex and varied religious practices of ancient Mesopotamia reflect a fundamental preoccupation with that aspect of the unseen which has direct bearing upon man’s mortal well- being or suffering. Ancient Mesopotamian religion’s interest in the unseen was pragmatic—chiefly concerned with discerning the future and predicting the probable success or failure of human undertakings. The gods and spirits of the ancient Mesopotamian world were seen as merciful to the extent that they would communicate the propitiousness of human undertakings through omens, warning signs, or, rarely, by speaking directly through oracles. If a particular undertaking seemed inauspicious, it could still be successfully undertaken by using ritual and cultic means for assuaging unfavorable gods and spirits. [2]

The oracular speakers, although a noteworthy part of the religious life of ancient Mesopotamia, were less important than the diviners, who throughout ancient Mesopotamian religious history stand at the center of upper-class social life and affairs of state. Less expensive divining techniques appear also to have been a fundamental part of the day-to-day life of the general people. The diviners were the “scientists” of the ancient Mesopotamian world, and the application of their art at the more sophisticated levels required extensive apprenticeship and study, close observation and recording of the natural world, the ability to read and research the studies and observations of the past, and the training to make inductive conclusions about the import of ominous phenomena. Analysis of the livers of sacrificial animals was probably one of the oldest techniques of Mesopotamian divining, but others included examining other entrails of sacrificed animals, observing astrological movements, augury (divination through the movements of birds), interpreting dreams, interpreting extraordinary events and occurrences, and so forth. [3] Oracular speakers—who in ecstatic states would speak directly in the names of particular gods or spirits—never appear to have received the social approval or encouragement of ancient Mesopotamian diviners. Records of events that include oracles have been found in the Old Babylonian city of Mari in the west of ancient Mesopotamia but simply confirm their apparently peripheral role. Their position appears to have been enhanced considerably in the later neo-Assyrian and Akkadian periods, but even here they remained secondary to the court diviners. [4]

Divination was also an important part of the religious life of ancient Egypt, although the ancient Egyptians did not develop such elaborate rituals. There is also evidence of oracular speakers in ancient Egypt, although oracular literature in Egypt constitutes a relatively rare genre. Moreover, much of the surviving oracular literature of ancient Egypt prophesies about the future without relying upon any intermediary but rather reflects the wisdom and acumen of the writer. [5] In ancient Syria and Palestine, the lands of the Fertile Crescent immediately west of Mesopotamia, both diviners and oracular speakers were apparently central to the religious and cultural life, although most of the evidence for the existence of such figures is biblical. [6] In contrast to ancient Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian conventions, the oracular mode of intermediation was probably most prominent among the Amorites, the Western Semites, and their neighbors within Syria and Palestine, although techniques of divination coexisted alongside those of direct intermediation. The book of Deuteronomy (18:10–11) prohibits both types as “abominations” (to’abot), rebukes “one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire” (presumably a reference to child sacrifice or a cultic practice of eliciting oracles from the deified dead), and bans the diviner (qosem qesamim), the soothsayer (me’onen), the augur (menahesh), the sorcerer (mekashshep), the charmer (hober haber), those who inquire of ghosts (sho’el Cob), the wizard (yidde’oni), and those who seek oracles from the dead (doresh ‘el-hametim).

Much of the history and teachings of the ancient Iranian prophetic figure Zarathustra may always remain in obscurity, but it is clear from what can be discerned about him that there are remarkable parallels between his life and teachings and those of the biblical prophets and the prophet Muhammad after them. Messenger of Ahura Mazda (the wise lord), the supreme deity of Zoroastrianism, Zarathustra—who probably lived in Eastern Iran toward the end of the second or the beginning of the first millennium B.C.E.—preached a monotheism which militated against the paganism of pre-Zoroastrian Iran: a religious universe teeming with aggressive deities, the warlike ethics of its warrior bands, and cultic practices centered around sacrifice and priestly ritual. Zarathustra’s message was emphatically antiritualistic and antisacrificial, emphasizing an inner religiousness of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” It brought him—like the biblical prophets and the prophet Muhammad—into sharp conflict with the polytheistic religious hierarchy of his society. He condemned the religious beliefs and practices of his contemporaries as the fruit of ignorance and illusion and denounced their gods (the daevas) as false. Zarathustra sought to end the intermediation and the ecstatic practices of the kavis, karapans, and usijs—priests, religious figures, and wise men of the old order—and their enmity toward him constituted his major source of opposition, resulting ultimately in his assassination, as an old man, by a karapan priest of the former religious hierarchy. [7]

The Hebrew tradition of Mosaic prophets shows unequivocal antagonism toward pagan techniques of intermediation. Such opposition between the prophetic and pagan modes of intermediation is epitomized in the biblical accounts of the monarchical prophets Elijah and Elisha in their struggle to destroy the cult of Baal with its oracular speakers, who held great power over the kings and large numbers of the people of Israel. [8] However, biblical accounts of the early prophets of Israel describe them as exhibiting ecstatic traits, and their record contains examples of clairvoyance, foreseeing and foretelling, wonder-working, and magical actions, although such traits are not common among the major prophets in the biblical tradition. The terms hozeh and ro’eh (seer), which are occasionally used about the early prophets, suggest that they prophesied events to come in a manner analogous, in the view of some scholars, to that of the pagan diviners and oracular speakers. Use of the Greek prophetes to translate the Hebrew nabi’ (prophet) also seems to have contributed to such a conception of the early prophets, although other scholars argue that the Greek prophetes served other functions in addition to foretelling the future and that the original sense of the word was probably more “forth-teller” (proclaimer) than “foreteller.” [9]

 The etymology of the Hebrew word nabi’ has not been established. Some believe that it was borrowed from another ancient Semitic language; it appears, however, that the original sense of the word was “one who calls” or “one who is called.” [10] The paradigm of prophecy in the Islamic religion is essentially the same as that of the Mosaic prophets of the biblical tradition. In both, the office of prophecy began with a call—often in the form of a vision—and was not an instinctive aptitude or disposition of one’s personality, as appears generally to be the case with oracular speakers. The prophet received his message from God, occasionally through the intermediation of an angel (mal’ak). The prophets played a central role in the religious and cultural life of ancient Israel and were not simply monotheistic substitutes for the diviners and oracles of the ancient world, although they claimed the exclusive authority to speak to the people on behalf of God and the realities of the unseen world. They were bound to speak God’s messages exactly as received and they could not filter or alter the content of their revelations. According to the Mosaic tradition, God would destroy any prophet who spoke false words or spoke on the behalf of other gods. But although the messages of the prophets would warn or make promises of things to come, their messages primarily contained commands from God and religious teachings which the people were morally obliged to hear and obey. [11]

The Pre-Islamic Arabian Background. Accurate understanding of the pre-Islamic background within which Islam arose is essential to the full understanding and the proper evaluation of the Islamic religion. For it was against this background that Islam articulated itself, and it was in this context that its first and most important religious and ideological struggles took place. Continuity characterizes a number of areas between the thought and practice of the earliest Muslims and the worldview and culture in which they had been born; neither outwardly nor inwardly had the coming of Islam constituted an absolute transformation. The pre-Islamic Arab would, for all the minor and the radical transformations in the new society, still have noticed many things with which he was readily familiar. But these elements of continuity are not as important for understanding the dynamics and the historical accomplishments of Islam as the elements of discontinuity—those vestiges of an earlier religion and social order which, in many cases, were utterly obliterated except for literary and historical remnants. Islam’s dramatic movement—vivid impressions of which form the most fundamental and abiding images and ideals of Muslim religious consciousness to this day came in the wake of its uncompromising challenge to the religious hierarchy and the sociopolitical oligarchies of pre-Islamic Arabia. And Islam kept the religious and ideological “abominations” of its enemies in view, from its more imperious rhetorical statements to its seemingly inconsequential directives regarding mundane circumstances of day-to-day life, from the categorical declaration of the absolute Oneness of God to the everyday etiquette of invoking God’s mercy upon one who sneezes.

There is sufficient literary evidence to show that the pre-Islamic Arabs used the words al-ghaib (the unseen) and ash-shahada (the visible) in a manner similar to though apparently not identical with their usage in the Qur’an. The two words constituted a semantic pair but appear to have been used in an essentially worldly sense; that is, al-ghaib referred to that dimension of material reality which lay outside immediate human perception, or the future, and ash-shahada referred to the content of immediate perception. Still pre-Islamic Arabs may not have used them consciously to divide reality into the realm that lies beyond human perception and that which lies within. [12] Nevertheless, the world of the Unseen—the realm of God (Allah), [13] the lesser gods, the angels (al-mala’ika), and the spirits (al-jinn)—had a deep effect and ubiquitous influence on the religious and cultural life of the pre-Islamic Arabs. The peoples of pre-Islamic Arabia included Jewish and Christian tribes, Zoroastrians in the east along the Persian Gulf, indigenous Arab monotheists (al-Hunafa’) who were neither Jew nor Christian, and—the majority—idolators (mushrikan) who associated (ashraku) lesser gods, angels, and spirits with God in their worship of him. In general, these tribes practiced animal sacrifice and intermediation with the spirit world to secure material benefit and avoid harm. Animal sacrifice was so closely tied to intermediation that it was essentially a part of it. The attempt to learn from the spirit world and to harness its forces through means of intermediation was the major preoccupation of the religious life of the idolatrous pre-Islamic Arabs. Drawing near to God, the gods, and the spirits (at-taqarrub) and having means of access (at-tawassul) to their knowledge and their powers to effect benefit or harm were the objectives of various types of oracular speakers, shamans, diviners, and other intermediaries and the objects of cultic rites and special poems (ash’ar) and prayers (ad’iya), both oral and written. [14]

Although the pre-Islamic Arabs believed in Allah, the supreme God and Creator of the heavens and the earth, and a number of lesser, intermediate gods, to whom they did not ascribe such attributes, the jinn (the unseen spirits of the earth) received greatest attention in their religious life and practice. They deemed the jinn to have an importance that they did not attribute even to the gods. Intermediation with the spirit world—”drawing close” (attaqarrub) and “finding means of access” (at-tawassul)—characterized dealings with the jinn more than intermediation with the gods; consequently it appears valid to say that the pre-Islamic Arabs essentially conceived of the jinn as an inferior order of terrestrial gods, even though it was not their custom to refer to them as such. The Qur’an attacks sharply both worship of the jinn and the tribal belief that connubial relations between Allah and the daughters of the most illustrious jinn had produced the angels, the daughters of God (see, for example, Qur’an 6:100; 34:41; 37:158; JA 6:710, 738–39). The belief that angels were daughters of God had the practical effect of elevating the status of the jinn in pre-Islamic religious practice; for, according to the tribal thinking of that society, it meant that the jinn—the closest of all created beings to man—had special access to God Himself through the good offices of His daughters, their own maternal kinsmen.

Pre- Islamic Arabs divided spirits into two sorts: the evil and unclean, and the clean and benign. Although intermediation was directed at both types of spirits, cultic and ritual practices probably centered on the evil jinn and the shayatin (satanic spirits) who could inflict harm and bring chaos. Out of natural fear, they devoted much attention to meeting the needs of and attempting to appease the evil spirits (JA 6:706, 709).

Both evil and benign jinn, however, were analogous to the human society and culture of pre-Islamic Arabia. Male and female, the jinn procreated, ate, drank, slept, grew old, and eventually died. Of all beings in the created world, they were the most like man. They had genealogies; they formed families, clans, and tribes. They had tribal leaders, tribal arbitrators (hukkam), and even kings (muluk). Their tribes, moreover, behaved like the Arab tribes themselves. They feuded with hostile tribes; they made alliances and pacts with other tribes of jinn and, on occasion, with certain tribes of human beings. They protected their allies, their clients, and their prot6g6s, and they would surely avenge the murder of any of their tribal members or of those associated with their tribes. Like pre-Islamic Arabs, there were sedentary jinn and nomadic jinn; there were jinn who traveled by night and jinn who traveled by day (JA 6:711–14).

The powers of the jinn far exceeded those of man, although in single combat it was conceivable that a man could kill a jinn, even the invidious ghul of the isolated deserts—as, on one occasion, the famous poet Ta’abbata Sharran is reported to have done (JA 6:712–13). Jinn, with their prodigious strength, could travel swiftly from region to region and into the heavens; indeed, it was by access to the heavens that they were believed to have knowledge of future events. Although the jinn usually remained in their invisible spirit state, pre-Islamic Arabs believed that they could assume the shapes of human beings and animals, especially snakes, dogs, and scorpions. The jinn were most dangerous in their spirit state, simply because they could attack without being seen. Renowned for their eloquence, they were believed to inspire poetry; indeed, poet Ta’abbata Sharran’s name means “he carried an evil one under his arm.” Whereas the Arabs prided themselves on their fifteen masterly poetic meters, the poetic meters of the jinn reportedly numbered in the thousands. Close to the world of men and the nature of men, jinn, more than other creatures, were capable of feeling strong emotions of both love and hatred toward human beings. The evil eye of the jinn’s envy was more pernicious than the evil eye of a human being; a hostile jinn could cause sickness, plagues, fevers, epileptic seizures, demonic possession, and insanity (al-junun). One who was insane was said to be majnun, that is, possessed by a jinn. But jinn would also fall in love with human beings and, by taking the form of a human being, have sexual intercourse with them. The genealogies of certain tribes were traced to the children of such unions. Love, friendship, and other strong personal bonds between jinn and the pre-Islamic Arab intermediary were the reason for the jinn’s assistance in providing information about the unseen (JA 6:711–14,723–25).

There were also animistic elements in pre-Islamic Arab religion, such as the veneration of certain rocks, trees, wells, and caves that were believed to be imbued with spiritual efficacy and power. Such places and objects were the focus of pilgrimages, immolations, prayers, and special rituals which would harness the forces of such places for the spiritual and material benefit of the worshipers. Although not themselves part of the unseen world, these objects and places were deemed to possess a latent power which emanated from the spirits or the gods of the unseen (JA 6:706).

Shamans and Oracular Speakers. Pre-Islamic Arabia, like the lands of the Fertile Crescent, believed in both spirit intermediaries, who dwelt in the unseen world and would provide information about it, and diviners, who would discern the unseen through the interpretation of natural phenomena. Although shamans and oracular speakers—those who made direct contact with the spirit world—seem to have been more prestigious and influential in pre-Islamic Arabia, diviners, especially at lower social levels, were probably more common. Certainly there were a number of simple divining techniques which one could use with little or no expense. Use of oracular speakers and shamans, on the other hand—especially the famous ones—was often a costly matter, as were the more sophisticated divining techniques, which required the services of professional diviners.

The kahin (shaman, soothsayer, oracular speaker-feminine kahina) stood at the top of the religious hierarchy for idolatrous pre-Islamic Arabs. As a rule, the kahins came from the most powerful clans within each tribe.

The kahin’s influence generally derived from his social standing within the tribe, his family and kinship relations, the comparative strength of his tribe, and his record in making successful predictions, giving sound counsel, and solving matters of arbitration. For in the absence of a central judiciary administration, a kahin’s judgment in arbitration depended on his personal prestige and the backing of his tribesmen, although they also sometimes secured ransom or hostages in advance. [15]

Both the kahin and the ‘arraf and the sahir (sorcerer), a shaman-like figure who had direct contact with spirits, were closely, although not inseparably, connected with the religious and cultic life of pre-Islamic Arab idolatry. The idols of the gods, for example, would have kahins who looked after their maintenance and spoke on their behalf. Frequently the kahin would carry out his functions within the house or temple in which an idol was lodged. Many kahins also worked in their own houses or would retire to secluded or partially secluded places to make contact with the spirits (JA 6:763–71).

Very little important business was conducted in the pre-Islamic Arab tribes without consulting one or more kahins. The concluding of pacts and alliances, the making of war, the launching of attacks and raids, the discovery of criminals and murderers, the establishing of problematic genealogical connections, counseling marriage to a particular man or woman—all came under the aegis of the kahin. He was, moreover, the chief guardian of Arab customary and tribal law; he solved difficult questions of inheritance, served as arbitrator (hakam) in disputes between individuals, clans, and tribes, called upon oracular powers to determine questions of guilt or innocence if disputed, and also ensured that judgment was in keeping with the precedents of tribal law. The revenge of unrequited wrongs—especially murders—was itself a quasi-religious practice in pre-Islamic Arabia, but the moral duty of revenge (ath-tha’r) could not legitimately be assumed until one had sought redress through an arbitrator—generally a kahin—and had failed. [16] The tribes also relied upon their kahins to warn them of impending enemy raids or natural calamities or to predict good times. Kahins were sometimes called upon to find lost articles or strayed or stolen animals. (Finding of lost articles was more commonly the office of the ‘arraf.Kahins would often accompany their tribes into battle or on raids to inspire the tribal warriors to fight bravely.

Although principally and invariably a spirit medium, the kahin would sometimes also use divining techniques—conjuring by idols, examining the liver, entrails, or bones of sacrificial sheep, drawing omens from the movements and sounds of birds and other animals or from unusual natural phenomena, or interpreting dreams. By far the most common technique of the kahin, however, was securing information from a spirit or from gods and spirits with which he was tied by close personal bonds. The familiar spirit of the kahin was called most frequently his tabi’ (follower) or ra’i (one who sees or is seen), although the expressions sahib (companion), mawla or wali (close friend, patron, client), and shaitan (demonic spirit, no pejorative connotation) were also used. Tabi’ and the feminine tabi’a were generally used for describing a jinn-lover (JA 6:711–14). Although some accounts tell of kahins going into difficult and exhausting ecstatic states, the kahins appear, in general, to have had much more natural relationships with their familiar jinn, whom they could see (hence, perhaps, ra’i) although others could not. The kahin is sometimes described as receiving information from his tabi’ by means of inspiration or revelation (wahi) and pronouncing them in the form of saj’—that is, short, rhymed verses of varying meter, characterized by vague words and obscure references (JA 6:755–61).

Both the kahin and the sahir (sorcerer) required a payment in advance which was termed al-hulwan (from the root “to be sweet”). The hulwan was set by means of bargaining between the kahin and his client. Technically, the kahin shared it with his tabi’; thus, the tabi’ also had to agree, a device that enabled the kahin to profit even in cases in which his social relation to his clients might have dictated according to custom that he offer his services for less. Since the fees demanded could be substantial, pre-Islamic Arabs would often test the kahin’s effectiveness by hiding an object, which the kahin was asked to find, or by asking obscure questions about the client, the answers to which the kahin could not ordinarily be expected to know (JA 6:761–62).

Pre-Islamic Sorcerers. The pre-Islamic Arab kahin and sahir (sorcerer) both made some form of direct contact with spirits and both required the advance payment of a hulwan. But the kahin contacted the spirit world chiefly for information, while the sahir effected some harm or benefit through the medium of the spirits. Within the pre-Islamic world, therefore, the sahir constituted one of the most important means of harnessing the latent powers of the unseen world. Unlike the kahins, the sorcerers apparently had no cultic and ritualistic functions; nevertheless, the extent of their practice can be deduced from numerous references throughout the Qur’an to sihr (sorcery) and related words. The familiar spirits of the sahir were jinn, like those of the kahin, and were also called by the same names: tabi’; ra’i, and shayatin. The sahir called upon their powers to produce love or hatred, sickness, distress, or visual hallucinations. But sorcery in pre-Islamic Arab society was associated with medicine, and the Arabic tibb (medicine) stood in its pre-Islamic context for the medicinal arts of the sorcerer, who in that capacity was referred to as tabb and sometimes tabib, while one who was under the spell of a tabb was referred to as matbub or tabib. In addition to curing a number of physical ailments and sicknesses through his spirit powers, the pre-Islamic sahir was also deemed able to cure various types of insanity, which is not surprising, considering that the pre-Islamic Arabs associated insanity with spirit possession.

The pre-Islamic raqi (charmer, sorcerer) held a position similar to that of the sahir, although he primarily provided amulets, charms, and other devices and techniques to protect the client against sorcery, the evil eye, fever, and sickness. The most famous sahirs of pre-Islamic Arabia were reportedly from Jewish tribes and were believed to derive their skills ultimately from Babylon. In general, however, Arab Jews and non-Jews practiced sorcery, while the office of the kahin was essentially the exclusive reserve of Arabs (JA 6:739–45, 751–54, 762).

Diviners. Diviners and divining techniques were probably more common in pre-Islamic Arabia than direct spirit mediation through the kahins, although spirit intermediaries—the kahins and sahirs—appear to have had higher status. The ‘arraf (one who knows; an emphatic noun) may have stood at the head of the hierarchy of diviners, although neither his profession nor his status is clear. Some pre-Islamic Arabs, for example, apparently drew no distinction between the kahin and the ‘arraf. The prophet Muhammad explicitly prohibited both offices, implying a technical difference between the two. Unlike the kahins, the ‘arrafs were not apparently associated with ritual and cultic practices; they did not function within the houses and temples of idol worship, nor did they rely upon tabis or ra’is. One divining technique was khatt, rapidly drawing a number of straight lines in smooth sand or soil with a special instrument. The diviner would then slowly erase the lines. If a single line remained, the undertaking would be deemed inauspicious; a pair of lines denoted good fortune. The ‘arraf was also believed to have the ability to read one’s destiny from the signs and markings of one’s body. Children were often brought to ‘arrafs to have their futures foretold through such techniques. ‘Arrafs also found stolen or lost items and animals. Interestingly, al-’Ukkaz, one of the most important annual fairs in pre- Islamic Arabia, was also a major center for ‘arrafs (JA 6:772–74).

Pre-Islamic Arabic idiom contained a number of other specialized titles for different types of diviners and their techniques. The ‘a’if, for example, divined by studying the movements and the sounds of birds and animals and by reading the entrails of sacrificial animals. The zajir’s office appears to have been restricted to augury and did not include animals other than birds (JA 6:774 -75). Munajjim and hazza’ were applied to diviners who studied the movements of the stars and other celestial bodies. The hazi (cf. Hebrew hozeh) specialized in al-khatt, although he also interpreted the movements and sounds of birds, particularly the sounds of the raven (JA 6:775–76, 783). Special kahins used divining arrows azlam, aqda in the presence of their particular idols to determine the favor or disfavor of the god toward particular matters; but the common man also carried personal divining arrows which he could consult. Likewise, the common man would himself observe the flight and movements of the birds and animals that crossed his path at the beginning of an undertaking and drew omens from them. The everyday life of the pre-Islamic Arab was, indeed, filled with such omens—many of them as commonplace as yawning and sneezing—both, incidentally, viewed as evil omens presaging injury to others (JA 6:776–82,786–800).

Islam systematically assailed reliance in oracular speakers, diviners, and the practices and superstitions associated with them. It declared such intermediaries and their practices to be taghut (gross transgression against God), the heavens sealed against the kahin “mixed with a hundred lies.” The offices of the kahin and ‘arraf and the practices of the sahir were outlawed. The payment of a hulwan was prohibited as sin. Muhammad directed his followers to ignore evil omens and proceed with their undertakings if they were morally legitimate, by invoking the help of God. The prophet did not prohibit his followers from taking heart in auspicious signs, but he directed them all the same to “leave the birds perched in the trees.” Divining arrows and the like were declared an abomination, their use tantamount to breaking one’s covenant with God. Islamic etiquette directed Muslims simply to cover their mouths when they yawned and required that one praise God after sneezing, while others invoked God’s mercy upon the sneezer. Neither sneezing nor yawning were considered evil omens (JA 6:756–59, 762, 772, 800). But Islam, in addition to these and many other specific prohibitions and alterations in pre-Islamic Arab custom, radically transformed the very conception of the realm of the unseen and man’s relationship to it and to the material world around him.

The Islamic Definition of the Perceptible and the Unseen

Al-ghaib (the unseen) and ash-shahada (visible) are, as we have mentioned, semantic pairs in classical Arabic. Izutsu refers to such words as “correlation words,” each of which presupposes the other and derives its full significance from this integral correlation, even when used in isolation. [17] Classical Arabic affords many such correlation words, which are significant in understanding the structure of the Qur’anic world view. For example, ad-dunya (the world at hand, or the life of this world) is such a correlation word in Qur’anic semantics as well as in general Arabic usage. Literally a feminine comparative adjective meaning “the nearer, closer, lower” life, ad-dunya always points, even when used in isolation, to alukhra or al-akhira (the other world, the world to come, i.e., the hereafter), with which it is explicitly tied in Qur’anic usage. [18]

 Al-ghaib and ash-shahada have connotations which are not conveyed immediately by their English translations as the unseen and perceptible. Ash-shahada in modern standard usage means either the act of bearing witness or the testimony which is given. In early Arabic, however, the primary meaning of shahida, the verb from which the noun ash-shadada is derived, was “to be present,” “to be on hand,” and hence able to witness and bear witness to that which occurs in one’s presence. The proper synonym of shahida in classical Arabic, therefore, is hadara (to be present, to be in the presence of something, to appear before someone or something). Its antonym in early and classical Arabic idiom is the verb ghaba, to go away, to go out of sight, from which is derived the noun al-ghaib. Thus, the verb continues to be used for the setting of the sun and other celestial bodies. Ghaba also was often used in a more restricted sense to stand for “going away on a distant journey” (i.e., safara), and in such contexts shahida still constituted its semantic pair, standing in that case for “remaining behind in the village or encampment” and, hence, being present and on hand. [19]  In ancient Arabic usage, a married woman whose husband was away on a journey was referred to as “imra’at mughib,” while a woman whose husband was present was “imra’at mushhid,” from the root shahida. [20]

Because of its semantic background, al-ghaib in its Qur’anic context refers to all things that stand without human perception—whether they stand outside of it by virtue of their nonmaterial nature as in the case of God and the angels or whether they have not been perceived or have not been retained in perception—as, for example, future events, forgotten things, or things of any period which are material but unknowable, as for example, the number of fish in the sea. The word, therefore, does not denote only supernatural realities.

In contrast, ash-shahada primarily refers not only to things within the range of man’s five senses but also, by virtue of their limited proximity to man in time and place, to things that are both perceived and retained in consciousness. God is called ash-Shahid in the Qur’an and extra-Qur’anic Islamic textual sources because He is proximate to all things—although also absolutely transcendent and distinct. He perceives and is knowledgeable of each detail. Ash-Shahid as a name describes God simultaneously as omniscient and omnipresent. Ash-shahid with reference to human beings means a religious martyr, from its passive participial meaning, “one who has been brought into the presence of another.” For in Islamic belief, the sincere shahid is alive, having been brought (uhdira) spiritually into the presence of God in Paradise. [21]

Belief in the Unseen as Opposed to Detailed Knowledge of the Unseen

Belief in the unseen in identified toward the beginning of the Qur’anic text as an essential attribute of one who would seek divine guidance. [22]

Alif. Lam. Mim:

This is the book: In it there is no misgiving, a Guidance for those who are conscientious [toward God],

Who believe in the Unseen, perform the daily prayer as it is meant to be performed, and who give generously of that which We [God] have bestowed upon them,

And [for those] who believe in that which has been revealed unto you [O Prophet], and that which was revealed before you and Who have absolute certainty [of belief] in the Hereafter. (Qur’an 2:1–4) [23]

The direct object of the verb “to believe” (amana) can be introduced by the preposition bi (in), as in this verse, or by the preposition li (to, for), as, for example, in Qur’an 26:111. When amana is used in conjunction with the preposition bi, however, that preposition adds greater meaning to the verb by virtue of its use as the element of transitivity in other verbs. This semantic enrichment is referred to by Arab grammarians as tadmin (the assimilation of one meaning to another). In the case of amana, use of bi lends it the associative meanings of “to recognize and acknowledge as valid” (i’tarafa bi), “to have fullest confidence in” (wathaqa bi), and “to submit to and recognize as valid” (adh’ana bi). [24] As a consequence the Arabic expression, “they believe in the unseen,” is at once richer and more expressive than its English rendition. Moreover, because of the semantic pairing in Arabic of alghaib and ash-shahada, some commentators contend that the original Arab receptors of the statement “they believe in the Unseen” would have heard the double entendre “they believe in the Unseen just as unequivocally as they believe in the perceived” (JA 1:115).

Generally speaking, traditional Qur’anic commentators did not understand this reference to belief in the unseen as belief about the existence of an unseen, spiritual dimension of reality. Some commentators interpret another Qur’anic passage, 45:24, as evidence that some Arabs had a materialistic view of the universe which denied the existence of greater nonmaterial realities; this interpretation is conjectural. In any case, Arabic and Islamic history shows that the overwhelming majority of pre-Islamic Arabs believed firmly in the existence of a highly consequential spiritual dimension. Thus, many commentators hold that “belief in the unseen” presumes belief in the spiritual dimension of reality and means in these opening verses of the second sura belief in the fundamental articles of faith regarding the unseen as set forth in Islamic belief. It refers, then, to such things as belief in God, the physical resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, the hereafter, and so forth—things which Islam commands human beings to believe but which lie beyond the immediate confirmation of the five senses. [25] Belief in the unseen means therefore, according to the commentator at-Tabatabai, belief in the three fundamentals: the absolute unity of God (at-tawhid), the phenomenon of divine prophecy (an-nabuwa), and the hereafter (al-ma’ad), Moreover, he continues, this definition of the unseen is either alluded to or specifically indicated within these first four verses of the sura. Conscientiousness toward God (at-taqwa) necessarily implies in its Qur’anic and Islamic context belief in the Oneness of God and ethical behavior in accordance with that belief. Belief in prophecy is implied in the fourth-verse reference to belief in the revelation of Muhammad and the earlier prophets—divine revelation being, par excellence, that dimension of prophecy, according to Islamic belief, which pertains to the unseen. This same verse ends with an explicit reference to belief in the third fundamental, the hereafter (T 1:45–46).

But although the Qur’an requires belief in these “great realities,” it does not command the reader to seek detailed knowledge of the unseen. Indeed, it discourages the believer from excessive preoccupation with aspects of the unseen which have no direct practical importance to his spiritual and moral edification. The Qur’an states: “And they ask you about the Spirit [ar-Ruh]. Say: The Spirit is a matter among those pertaining [only] to [my Lord] and of which only He has knowledge, and you, [O people], have been given of knowledge but little” (Qur’an 17:85).

Ar-ruh (the spirit) has a number of meanings in the Qur’an, as does its Hebrew counterpart ruah in the Bible. Sometimes it refers to angelic messengers, sometimes to spiritual aid, sometimes to divine revelation itself. In that context it would be similar to the biblical usage of ruah to indicate prophetic ecstasies. Although some commentators have held to this particular meaning of ar-ruh in this verse, many others have understood the verse as answering a question about the Spirit of God in the most general sense (A 15:155–64; T 13:198) and thus constituting a rhetorical and not a theological answer. For the purpose of the Qur’anic response is not to inform the people about the theological subtleties of the Spirit but rather to indicate that preoccupation with these kinds of questions is undesirable, for in the view of some commentators, the answer is beyond the capacity of most or all of the people (T 13:200; A 15:153; Q 4:224).

The commentator an-Nisaburi notes, however, that this verse should not be understood as a categorical prohibition against metaphysical speculation about realities of the unseen. [26] Although metaphysical understanding of the nature of the Spirit is difficult to attain, metaphysical understanding of the nature of God Himself is much more difficult. Yet the Qur’an abounds with verses which invite the human imagination to reflect on the wonders of God and His being (N 15:73). An-Nisaburi’s point seems well taken, and one might consider as an example the parable of light (Qur’an 24:35–42), a long and beautiful analogy between God, the light of the heavens and the earth, and a radiant crystal lamp of olive oil within a niche in a house of worship. A crucial difference between the Qur’anic response to questions about the Spirit and the numerous passages that allude to the wonders of the great realities of the unseen is the fact that the information about the Spirit was directly solicited, while these other passages are, as it were, freely given in token of God’s bounty. The Qur’an contains a number of solicited responses to questions that begin similarly, “They ask you about. . . . Say: . . .”yas’alunaka’an. . . . qul: . . .”). The Qur’anic responses to these questions vary considerably, depending on whether the question pertains to practical matters of taklif (man’s moral responsibility to obey revealed law) or to metaphysical and impractical questions. Such questions and their answers become, in the context of Qur’anic revelation, matters of immediate concern to the entire Muslim community and, consequently, establish religious and behavioral norms. Verses like the parable of light occur incidentally as embellishments to other discussions. Although such questions may have originated with a single person, they represent questions of the entire community to the prophet of God. In responding to them, the Qur’an also evaluates the question, indicating whether it constitutes a legitimate concern for the community.

Examples of other questions addressed to Muhammad concern the phases of the moon (Qur’an 2:189), which are used to determine the season of pilgrimage and other religious observances; what amount of their wealth inquirers should contribute to the cause of Islam (Qur’an 2:215, 219); conducting war during the sacred months of Rajab, Dhu-l-Qi’dah, Dhu-’lHijjah, and Muharram (Qur’an 2:217); the legal status of wine and games of chance (Qur’an 2:219); the treatment of orphans (Qur’an 2:220); laws pertaining to women during their menstrual cycles (Qur’an 2:222); the marital status of women (Qur’an 4:127); laws of inheritance regarding those who die without ascendant or descendant surviving kinsmen (Qur’an 4:176); what the law has made permissible (Qur’an 5:4); and the division of booty in war (Qur’an 8:1). All of these questions begin with the same wording as in the verse about the Spirit, but these are all matters of immediate importance to the practice of Islamic law and the Islamic code of behavior in the life of the community. As a consequence, the Qur’an indicates that the questions represent valid communal concerns, and it answers them in specific detail.

The eighteenth chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Kahf (the cave), contains three stories which occur nowhere else in the Qur’an, Each pertains to the ghaib of the historical past: (1) the story of the Sleepers of the Cave (2) the story of Moses and his spiritual teacher, al-Khidr, and (3) the story of Dhu-’l-Qarnain (literally, “he whose headpiece has two horns”). [27] Unlike the first two stories, the account of Dhu-’l-Qarnain begins with the formula: “And they ask you about Dhu-’l-Qarnain. Say: . . .” (Qur’an 18:83). The Qur’an goes into surprising detail in presenting each story, even though they seem to have no immediate value. Nevertheless, as traditional and modern Qur’anic commentators have observed, the questions about the Sleepers and Dhu-’l Qarnain were presented to Muhammad by his opponents to test the validity of his claim to prophecy. Apparently no question was asked about Moses and al-Khidr, so their story may be an unsolicited incidental. Moreover, as commentators like at-Tabataba’i demonstrate, the Qur’an does not present these stories as quaint or elaborately detailed accounts but as prefigures of the eventual success of the Muslim community, then young and vulnerable. Thus these tales are inspiring stories of earlier believers whose examples early Muslims could emulate in their own struggle (T 13:235–391; cf. Q 4:2255).

In Surat Taha (Qur’an 20:105–106) another apparently impractical question is asked: “And they ask you about the mountains. Say: My Lord will reduce them utterly to dust and lay them low like the valleys, leaving them barren and empty with no living thing.” The importance of this question and answer lies in the cultural and religious context of pre-Islamic Arabs. They saw mountains as the preeminent symbol of permanence and strength. Doubters found it difficult to believe that God could obliterate the mountains on the last day, as eschatological verses of the Qur’an promise. Thus, by entertaining this question about the mountains, the Qur’an at once vindicated the omnipotence of God and asserted in the most vivid and profound terms the integrity of the Islamic doctrine about the last day and the events that will accompany it. [28]

In contrast, the prophet Muhammad was frequently asked when the hour of judgment would come; the Qur’anic response is essentially the same as the answer about the Spirit:     

They ask you concerning the Hour [of the coming of the judgment]: When will the time of its fulfillment be? Say: The knowledge of it is with my Lord alone; none will unveil it toward the time of its coming but He. It is a matter that weights heavy in the heavens and the earth and will overtake you as a sudden and unexpected event. They ask you about it as if you had intimate knowledge of it and took pleasure in being asked. Say: the knowledge of it is with God alone. But the majority of mankind have no [true] knowledge. Say: I do not possess the power to cause benefit to my own soul or to ward off from it harm except to the extent that God wills, and, if I have knowledge of the Unseen, my life would have been filled with abundance of good things, and trouble would have never afflicted me: I am only one who gives warning of a Divine punishment to come and good tidings of Paradise for a people bound together by belief. (Qur’an 7:187–188)

They ask you concerning the Hour [of the coming of the judgment]: When will the time of its fulfillment be?

On what basis could you [possibly] inform them of its time of coming? The ultimate knowledge of it rests with you Lord alone. You are but a warner for those who stand in fear and awe of its coming:

It shall seem on the day when they [finally] behold it as if they had not lingered on this earth but a single evening or [a single night] and the following morn. (Qur’an 79:42–46)

While affirming that the prophet himself does not have access to the knowledge of all details of the unseen, these verses—like the verse about the Spirit—also support the Qur’anic principle that such knowledge is not essential to the community of believers. Indeed, some Islamic commentators observe that it is part of God’s wisdom to hide the knowledge of the coming of the hour as well as the knowledge of the particulars of each individual’s future and the time of one’s death. The complete absence of such knowledge is intended as a source of spiritual and moral edification, since it requires the believer to prepare continually for the unexpected, for the end of his life, and for the moral consequences of judgment that come ultimately with death (A 21:109–111; N 9:98–100; T 8:371).

The first of these passages specifies that the prophet is not a “knower of the Unseen,” does not have direct access to particular aspects of the unseen at will, and hence does not usurp a function that belongs to God alone. Muhammad’s comment, “If I had knowledge of the Unseen, my life would have been filled with abundance of good [things], and trouble would have never afflicted me,” is his renunciation of divination and foretelling. To the Arabs of his generation, preoccupied with predicting when prices would rise or fall, when and where the rains would come, which pasture lands would be best, the outcomes of wars, etc., the courageous redefinition of prophethood marks a clear break with pre-Islamic religiousness. In the words of some commentators, the verse proclaims the thorough ‘ubudiya (lordship) of God. Delving into such aspects of the unseen is not the legitimate concern of the prophet or the community which follows him.

Moreover, the passage also implies that some among the pre-Islamic Arabs to whom the prophet preached did see him as a shaman-like kahin figure: “They ask you about it as if you had intimate knowledge of it [and took pleasure in being asked].” (The semantically rich hafiyun’anha carries both connotations of intimate knowledge and taking pleasure in being asked). Understood in this context, therefore, these verses also emphasize that not having such knowledge is not a defect or inadequacy in the prophet or any other human being (N 9:100; T 8:372).

God as Exclusive Knower of the Unseen

God is frequently described in the Qur’an in terms of His knowledge of the unseen. He is, for example, ‘alim al-ghaib wa-sh shahada (knower of the unseen and the perceptible, Qur’an 6:73; 9:94, 105; 13:9; 23:92; 32:6; 39:46; 59:22; 62:8; 64:18). He is ‘allam al-ghuyab (the supreme knower of [all] unseen things, Qur’an 5:109,116; 9:78; 34:48), and throughout the Qur’an He is described repeatedly by adjectives indicating His exact knowledge of all particulars, be they hidden or manifest, future or past, exoteric or esoteric, exterior or interior: al-hakim al-khabir (the all-wise, having knowledge of all things, especially hidden things), al-batin (knower of all things interior), az-zahir (knower of all things exterior), and so forth. Such references to God, as the commentator at-Tabataba’i observes, often occur in the context of references to the Last Judgment and the ultimate rewards of heaven and hell, where the justice of God’s judgment depends on the fullness of His knowledge (T 7:146). Here again, we observe how the context of such Qur’anic references to God as knower of the unseen are—like other dimensions of the Islamic conception of the unseen—fundamentally linked to spiritual edification and the imperative of moral action.

God, according to Islamic belief, is absolutely unique. His uniqueness is one of the fundamental attributes of His oneness. He has no likeness and no opposite. Attributes such as eternal life, omniscience, omnipotence, and absolute transcendence with absolute proximity to all being are, as a consequence, attributes to His godhood (ulhiya) and His lordship (rububiya). Knowledge of the unseen and the perceptible, which fails under the rubric of God’s omniscience, is, according to Islamic belief, one such unique and essential attribute. “Say: None of the beings who dwell in the heavens or on the earth have knowledge of the Unseen but God, nor do they have any perception of when they will be resurrected from the dead. Nay, the knowledge which they [the disbelievers] have will come utterly to naught in the hereafter: Nay, they are in doubt about the hereafter itself: Nay, they are with regard to [the hereafter] completely blind” (Qur’an 27:65–66). God’s exclusive knowledge of the unseen is absolute. No other creature in the heavens or on earth can have such knowledge and thus cannot be gods (T 15:385).

Those two verses occur within a broader discussion establishing the unique divinity of God. God’s unique knowledge of the unseen, coupled with His power over the heavens and the earth, further indicate His godhood and absolute perfection (A 20:9; Q 6:2661). Moreover, the larger discussion also expresses the Qur’anic theme that religious belief must be based upon definitive knowledge (‘ilm) and not upon conjecture (zann), which is the foundation, it argues, of the idolatrous religious conceptions of the pre-Islamic Arabs. Thus, by emphasizing that God alone has knowledge of the unseen, these verses—in addition to excluding other beings from divinity—also state quite clearly that God alone, as knower of the unseen, can be the only source of sound religion. In the Islamic context, this means that only prophetic religion—religion revealed to man by God through prophecy—can be authentic religion. Commentator an-Nisaburi adds that the reference in the second verse to doubts (shakk) about the hereafter established the conjectural nature of religious belief among Muhammad’s opponents. For shakk, in the Qur’anic view, comes from lack of knowledge (‘ilm), from ignorance and conjecture, and is thus different from negligence (ghafla), to which the Qur’an also refers as a source of error. Ghafla springs from a lack of concern about the very subject matter of religious knowledge, irrespective of its content (N 20:9–11).

The Qur’an also establishes the unseen as God’s unique possession: “ . . . Knower of the Unseen: Thus, He make manifest to no one the [unfathomable] Unseen, which is His, Except to that person with whom He is well-satisfied [to have elected] as a Prophet-Messenger . . .” (Qur’an 72:26–27).

Knowledge of the unseen, this unique possession of God, is also portrayed in the Qur’an as a matter of supreme value. It is precious knowledge. Hence, God’s knowledge of the unseen and His sole possession of it are often described with the image of keys to the treasuries khaza’in, mafatih:

Say: Behold, I [call you and take my stand] on the basis of a manifest proof from my Lord [which makes the Truth distinct from falsehood]; yet you have disbelieved in Him. I do not have in my presence [or my power] that [punishment] which you in your sarcasm wish for me to make come quickly:

Ordination of judgment rests with God alone: He makes Truth stand out distinctly, and He is the best to judge between falsehood and Truth.

Say: Were I to have in my power that [punishment] which you seek to hasten, the matter [of dispute] between me and you would have been decided. Yet [know that] God is the most knowledgeable of those who do wrong and are workers of oppression. In his possession [alone] are the keys to the treasuries of the Unseen: None has knowledge of them but He. He knows that which is on the land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls to the ground but that He has knowledge of it, nor is there a seed hidden within the dark recesses of the earth nor anything succulent or dry, [living or dead], but that [knowledge of] it is [recorded] in a [wondrous] Book that makes all things clear. (Qur’an 6:57–59)

The Arabic expression mafatih al-ghaib (“the keys to the treasuries of the unseen”) affords this translation because mafatih is the plural of two words, miftah (key) and maftah (treasury; makhzan, that which is guarded under lock and key). Consequently, both meanings can be read into their common plural. The Qur’an frequently uses the less equivocal word khaza’in (treasuries) in the same or similar contexts (see, for example, Qur’an 6:50; 11:31; 17:100; 38:9; 52:37; 63:7; 15:21). Consequently, some commentators prefer to read mafatih also as “treasuries.” It might also be noted that placing the prepositional phrase “in his possession” (wa ‘indahu) at the beginning of the sentence creates the semantic effect of what the Arab grammarians call hasr (restriction), implying that only God is characterized by this attribute; i.e., it is restricted to him (N 7:121; T 7:124–25).

The image of the unseen as treasuries implies the great value in knowledge of the unseen. All of the particulars of the unseen are, like precious jewels, locked away in a treasury to insure their preservation. This passage begins with an emphatic declaration of the absolute certainty (yaqin) of the prophet Muhammad’s call and his knowledge from God, who is characterized by this attribute of omniscience. One might also note the clear linkage in these verses—as elsewhere in the Qur’an—between God’s exclusive knowledge of the unseen and His ultimate judgment of mankind. In these verses, God is indeed the “best to judge between falsehood and Truth”: and “the most knowledgeable about those who do wrong and work oppression” because he has the keys to the treasuries of the unseen. The verses begin with reference to God’s knowledge of the unseen but end by reference to his comprehensive knowledge of all the details of the perceptible world: the “relative Unseen” (al-ghaib an-nisbi), which, although it lies within the scope of man’s perceptive faculties, lies beyond his perception and retention because of the limitations of his senses. According to some commentators, these graphic illustrations are made in the concluding verse because few human beings are able to recognize on principle the astounding implications of saying that God has sole possession of the keys to the treasuries of the unseen. Thus, reference to his knowledge of each leaf which falls, each seed hidden within the dark recesses of the earth, and so on, helps to make this abstract principle more concrete.

It should also be added that this reference to God, who holds knowledge of the unseen under lock and key, would imply very clearly m the pre-Islamic Arabian context that the kahins and their intermediary spirits are completely excluded from it (see N 7:120–22; A 7:168–73; T 7:124–29). Although the details of the unseen are very valuable, man does not need such knowledge for his welfare in this life. An-Nisaburi contends that the closing reference to God’s knowledge of such seemingly insignificant particulars as the falling of a leaf from a tree or the presence of a seed in the earth is tied to the theme of moral and spiritual edification which occurs generally in the Qur’an in conjunction with references to the unseen. If God has attached such value to these things that he has recorded their occurrence in his wondrous book, then how much more important—according to the logic of the Qur’an—must be the thoughts, words, and deeds of each human being, which God also records in preparation for His judgment (N 7:121).

Vital Prophetic Link to Knowledge of the Unseen

God, according to the Qur’anic commentators, knows the unseen by virtue of His essence (dhat). All other creatures may have access to the unseen only when God imparts such knowledge directly (ta’lim) (T 20:53) through that greatest of God’s bounties to mankind, prophecy. Such great realities of the unseen—the Oneness of God, the hereafter—the core of religious truth—is essential to man’s prosperity in this life and the hereafter; thus, the mercy of prophetic revelation makes it possible for mankind to attain its greatest potential. Though the prophet has no independent knowledge of the unseen, he has true knowledge from revelation which he follows in obedience and submission. As a human being different from other human beings, he has legitimate authority over others because his revealed knowledge makes him “one who sees clearly” in the midst of others who are blind (N 7:114; T 7:155–57):

Say: I do not say unto you that I have in my possession the treasuries of God, nor do I know the Unseen, nor do I say unto you that I am an angel: I only follow that which has been revealed unto me. [But] say [unto them also]: Is he who is blind on a par with him who sees clearly [and perceives]? Do you not then reflect [on the error of your ways]? And give warning through [this revelation] to those who stand in fear [and expectation] of being gathered together into [the presence of] their Lord, having for themselves save Him no protector and no intercessor, that, perhaps, they be conscientious [toward their God]. (Qur’an 6:50–51)

Both verses, as at- Tabataba’i observes, constitute an Islamic definition of the nature of prophets and prophecy. The ‘ubudiya (servanthood) of the prophet is very clear in terms of complete subordination to God, from whom he receives his revelation and whose dictates he must follow. He does not have direct access to the treasuries of God or knowledge of the unseen as a whole (T 7:97; cf. A 7:156). Nevertheless, although thoroughly human and subordinate to God, the prophet has greater stature than other human beings. By virtue of the revelation which he receives from God, he is basir (having clear vision and perception), while those who lack such knowledge are ‘a’ma (blind). Thus the prophet has the authority to lead the community—just as those who have clear vision and understanding have the responsibility to guide the blind

(T 7:97; cf. N 7:112). The authority of the prophet rests, therefore, in his definitive knowledge (‘ilm) of the great realities of the unseen which he has received through revelation from God, the supreme knower of the unseen. Similarly, the authority of the ‘ulama’ (religious scholars) within the Islamic community, either clergy or sacerdotal class, rests in possessing this legacy of ‘ilm which they have received from their study of the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions. In the Islamic view, the ‘ulama’—the heirs of the prophets, according to hadith (prophetic tradition)—have by virtue of their knowledge an authority analogous to that of the prophet himself.

In another passage, the Islamic paradigm of prophecy emphasizes the complete dependence of prophets upon God for their knowledge of the unseen and the high quality of knowledge of the unseen revealed to them. These verses, in the view of Qur’anic commentators, also embody the Islamic principle of the infallibility of the prophets and the corresponding implication that the diviners and the spirit intermediaries of pre-Islamic Arabia did not have access to the knowledge of the unseen nor the divine protection accorded to prophets (T 20:54–57; A 29:96–98; N 29:72):

Say: I do not know whether that [ultimate punishment] of which you have been forewarned is at hand or whether my Lord shall allot for it a [longer] interval:

Knower of the Unseen: Thus does He make manifest to no one the [unfathomable] Unseen which is His,

Except to him whom He is well-satisfied [to have elected] as a Prophet-Messenger: And He sends forth [the angelic forces of heaven] to watch over him, from before him and from behind him,

That He make manifest that [the Prophet-Messengers] have communicated the messages of their Lord: Yet He has encompassing knowledge of [all that they do and all that transpires about] them, and He takes account of every thing, one by one, [which exists]. (Qur’an 72:25–28)

According to the Arabic semantics of the verse, God affords His prophet-messengers al-izhar ‘ala-l-ghaib; that is, makes the revealed truths “manifest” to them but also gives them power, as it were, over ‘ala, their knowledge (see A 29:98). God imparts His message after this fashion and then carefully protects His prophet-messenger in the act of delivering the message so that His message, His revelation of the great realities of the unseen essential to human salvation, reaches mankind exactly and without distortion or alteration (see T 20:54).

 Knowledge as Opposed to Conjecture. Prophetic revelation is man’s only means of gaining explicit and definitive knowledge of the great realities of the unseen that affect his destiny. The Qur’an repeatedly contrasts such definitive, revealed knowledge (‘ilm) with the surmise and conjecture (zann) of human beings who speculate about the unseen without the benefit of revealed knowledge. Such verses emphasize that mere conjecture (zann) about the unseen can never constitute a valid basis for religious belief and practice. Traditional Islamic theologians, on the basis of this position, articulated the corollary that the only essential items of Islamic doctrine are those set forth unequivocally and definitively with the revealed textual sources of Islam: the absolute Oneness of God, the physical resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels, the reality of the hereafter, and so forth. Other articles of faith—particularly those containing ambiguities of textual references, etc.—cannot be made central to Islamic doctrine, even if they are deemed to be generally correct. Consequently, all Muslims must accept the “definitively demonstrable” (qat’i) articles of faith, categorically set forth within the Qur’an and the sunna, but a Muslim’s faith may not be termed unacceptable for differing on the interpretation of a teaching whose textual sources afford, semantically and otherwise, a plurality of legitimate interpretations—as long as the interpretation he follows is among those which can be supported by one of these interpretations.

The opposition between revealed knowledge about the unseen (‘ilm) and conjecture is summarized in the Qur’an 6:115–16:

And the words of your Lord are perfected in Truth and Justice, in precept and command: There is nothing which can alter His words, for He it is Who hears and knows all things.

And if you should obey most of those who are upon the earth, they would lead you astray from the path of God: Behold, they follow only conjecture and do naught but surmise.

Another passage is:

Those who have associated [false objects of worship with God] will say: “Had God not willed, we would not have associated [anything with Him] nor would our fathers before us nor would we have declared anything to have been prohibited [which we have declared unlawful].” In like fashion did those who were before them disbelieve until [ultimately] they tasted the severity of Our [wrath].

Say [unto them]: “Do you have in your possession any definitive knowledge (‘ilm), which you might bring forth to show us? Indeed, you follow only conjecture (zann), and you do naught but surmise.” Say: [Know], then, that the ultimate truth and the manifest proof rest with God alone. Indeed, had He willed, He would surely have guided you, all of you together. (Qur’an 6:148–149)

By denouncing adherence to conjecture (zann) and surmise (khars) in matters of religious belief, both verses require that Qur’anic revelation be followed instead. The perfect and unalterable “words of my Lord” in the first verse portray graphically the lofty status Islam associates with the revealed message. These words are “perfected in Truth and Justice,” which, in the view of some commentators, means that they are complete and perfect sources for all dimensions of the religious message. For the prophetic message, in the Islamic view, consists primarily of teachings or precepts of truth and codes of behavior and law. Truth and justice are predicates of each of these aspects of the prophetic message respectively (N 8:9; cf. A 8:10; T 7:328–29; Q 3:1195). The first and second verses also indicated that the conjecture under condemnation pertains to religious belief. In the first verse, for example, it is conjecture about the path of God which, if followed, would lead one away from the path. The second verse specifically condemns conjecture about doctrinal matters and religious law, for the verse condemns the theological position of shirk (associating false objects of worship with God) and the religious taboos of the pre-Islamic Arabs of declaring, on the basis of conjecture, certain types of camels and the like to be unlawful for food (see F 2:175).

An-Nisaburi notes with regard to the first of these verses that the statement that most of the people of the earth would lead one astray, if they were obeyed and followed, also implies without saying that most of the people of the earth—in the absence of prophetic revelation—are in fact astray. It is, of course, because they have already gone astray that following them would lead one astray (N 8:10). The second verse implies that the idolators (mushrikan) referred to have invoked a theological argument of absolute determinism (jabr) to justify their idolatry: “Had God not willed, we would not have associated anything with Him nor would our fathers before us nor would we have declared anything to have been prohibited which we have declared unlawful.” It should be noted that the closing verse, after having rejected the validity of their appeal to absolute determinism, ironically inverts their claim by asserting that God in His omnipotence, had He willed, could have constrained them to receive guidance despite their recalcitrance: “Indeed, had He willed, He would surely have guided you, all of you together.” Although these verses affirm free will against the argument of absolute determinism, it is also important, as some commentators observe, that these verses indicate that the nature of the will of God—the very question of free will and the like—is a question pertaining to the unseen. Ultimately, therefore, it must be answered by reference to ‘ilm-prophetic, revealed knowledge and cannot be answered on the basis of conjecture and surmise. The Qur’an challenges the idolators, therefore, to produce their ‘ilm, yet as commentators observe, the question itself is rhetorical, sarcastically pointing out the fact that they have no ‘ilm at all which they can produce (see Q 3:1227; N 8:50).

A frequently cited summary of the Qur’anic doctrine that ‘ilm alone must be followed in matters that pertain to religious belief in the unseen is:

Divine not that of which you have no definitive knowledge [‘ilm]: [Your] hearing, [your] sight, [your] heart—for each of these are you responsible [and regarding each of them will you be questioned]. (Qur’an 17:36)

Most commentators understand the Arabic la taqfu (divine not) to mean something more like “do not pursue” or “do not preoccupy yourself with.” The primary sense of the verb qafa, yaqfu, from which this negative command comes, is to track or to follow after, although it has a number of other connotations as well (see Mj 2:758; F 3:227; N 15:34; A 15:72; T 13:92; Q 4:2227). I prefer the rendition of ar-Raghib al-Isfahani-the great Qur’anic semanticist who takes la taqfu to mean “judge not on the basis of divination (al-qiyafah) or conjecture (zann).” Although the verb qafa comes from the root QFW, while quyafah from the root QYF/QWF, the two roots often merge with each other and occasionally share identical meanings.

Qur’anic commentators generally agree that this verse refers to conjecture in matters of religious belief and cognate concerns that pertain to the unseen (see A 15:73) where revealed knowledge alone is acceptable. The faculties of hearing and sight are, as at-Tabataba’i observes, the chief faculties by which knowledge is acquired; the heart (al-fu’ad), in its Qur’anic context, is the seat of feeling, reason, and understanding—therefore that faculty by means of which knowledge comes to its fruition in human beings. It should be noted that the Qur’an uses the demonstrative pronoun ula’ika to refer to these faculties—an especially meaningful reference in this connection, for in standard Arabic usage it refers to rational beings. The Qur’an therefore speaks as if each of these faculties had a life and identity of its own and were an independent locus of reason. Moreover, the demonstrative pronoun ula’ika refers to things far away from the speaker; thus, in addition to emphasizing the important status of these faculties themselves in the sight of God, using this particular demonstrative pronoun (ha’ula’i would be used for rational things at hand) sets them on a lofty and distant pedestal (see T 13:95; A 15:74–75). In characteristically Qur’anic fashion, this verse, while incisively establishing the greatness of man’s faculties of perception and knowledge, concludes by referring to the moral responsibility which necessarily comes with man’s possession of these God-given gifts. They are to be used for discovering the dictates of truth and justice and living in accordance with them. Possessing such attributes confers that responsibility, and man will ultimately be questioned on his obedience to that requirement (Cf. T 13:92–93, 95). Sayyid Qutb notes that the verse establishes an appropriate modern criterion for human thought; unlike the amoral scientific method, it emphasizes joining the spiritual and moral capacities of the human heart with reason in the search for truth and progress (Q 4:2227).

Belief in the Unseen Within the Limits of the Perceptible World

The Inherent Nobility of Mankind. In the Islamic view, human beings—the children of Adam—have been created, like Adam, their father, in the very best of molds. They possess the potential—not exceeded by even the angels of God—to be among the best of all created beings. These gifts of potential greatness are also coupled with a negative potential to be, like man’s adversary, Satan, among the most evil of created beings. Indeed, man’s negative potential is so great that he can violate his nature and cease to be human, cease to be himself. Man is, however, basically good, in the Islamic view; he inherited no original sin from others. Consequently, when man is evil, he contradicts his own soul; when man is great, he is then truly man, fulfilling the dictates of his noble soul. Man’s inherent goodness bespeaks the dignity which God has bestowed upon him among all creatures:

Behold, We, [God], have conferred great dignity upon the children of Adam and have borne them over the land and the sea, providing them sustenance of the good things of the earth, wholesome and pleasing, and We have favored them far above many beings whom We have created. (Qur’an 17:70)

All of God’s creations have been formed in an excellent fashion (Qur’an 32:7), yet of all created things, man has been fashioned in the most excellent manner:

Verily, We have created man in the best of conformations; then We reduce him to the lowest of the lowly, except for those who believe [in God] and perform deeds of righteousness: For theirs shall be a great reward without end. (Qur’an 95:406)

The Arabic taqwim conformation would appear here to refer to man’s outward form; certainly other verses in the Qur’an draw attention to the beauty and nobility of the human form. Taqwim, however, also refers to both the inner .and the outer properties of man which buttress his dignity. [29] It should also be noted that the verbal noun taqwim, having the primary etymological sense of making a thing stand firm and upright, emphasizes the inherent uprightness and goodness of the human soul. Taqwim is a synonym of taswiya (making a thing sound, giving it due proportion, making it stand upright), which the Qur’an also uses for describing the manner in which God has created the human soul:

[Consider] the human soul and that Power Who gave it due proportion and then endowed it with [knowledge of] the evil and the good [of which it is capable]: Indeed, he who purifies it shall have attained the ultimate success [after which there is no failure], while he who pollutes it shall have deprived [himself of all happiness]. (Qur’an 91:7–10)

The excellence of the human form, man’s upright stature, the types of foods which man eats, the sustenance with which he has been provided, the shelters within which he lives, the clothing he wears to beautify his appearance and to protect him from the elements, his ability to travel with relative ease across the land and over the seas—all of these indicate, in the Qur’anic view, the great bounty God has bestowed upon man and the special mercy and providential care (‘inaya) that characterizes God’s lordship relationship with man, his merciful intervention into man’s life. Thus, man himself becomes a sign (aya) of God’s manifest and merciful presence in the world; indeed, in the view of the Muslim mystics man is a microcosm of the macrocosm in which he has been created: “And there are on the earth manifest signs of God’s presence for those endowed with certainty of faith, and so likewise are there such signs within your very selves: Can you not see, then, and perceive!” (Qur’an 51:20–21). Among these signs, according to Qur’anic commentators, is the conspicuous individuation of the human species, itself indicative of the fact that man is a species of highest status—for the more individuated a species, the greater it is by comparison with less individuated species (see T 1:116–18; Q 1:57, 355–56; 14:401–2; Qr 1:281–82). Each human being is distinctly and conspicuously different from other human beings—they have different faces, different voices, different accents, and so forth. This, in the view of a number of commentators, is the meaning of the verse: “And among His signs to you of His greatness are the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations in your tongues and your colors: There are in this, of a certainty, signs for those who have true knowledge” (Qur’an 30:22). In Arabic, “tongues” (alsina) includes all modes of human speech and not just distinctive languages—languages, dialects, accents, and even different tones of the voice (A 21:21; Qr 14:17; Q 4:2241).

The hallmark of human excellence in the Qur’anic view is human intelligence and those faculties directly associated with it, most notably the ability to speak and to write. As a result, man can have insight into himself, his world, and God; hence, man’s possession of these faculties is also the basis of his moral responsibility toward God, his creator (see T 13:155–56; Qr 10:293–94; Q 4:2241). Ar-Rahman (the most merciful God), sura 55, enumerates God’s blessings to man. Many commentators hold that the sura lists them in order of their greatness, beginning with the gift of language (Qr 20:119; T 1:116–18): “God, the most-Merciful, imparted the knowledge of the Qur’an, created man and imparted unto him the knowledge of clear and lucid speech” (Qur’an 55:1–4).

The Excellence of Man and the Burden of Moral Responsibility. The dignity of man is not a gift carelessly or freely given. In the Qur’anic view, it implies a weight of moral responsibility comparable to the gifts and potential which man has received. This weight of moral responsibility (taklif) is the standard for man’s earthly life by which he will be judged in the resurrection and given eternal life—reward or punishment—in the hereafter. Indeed, the conspicuous individuation of the human species, in the view of Qur’anic commentators, is not merely an indication of human excellence with regard to other species but a manifest sign (aya) of the unique moral responsibility which each human being bears and by which each will be judged. It is, therefore, both the distinct honor and burden of man to have been designated, in view of his excellence, God’s vicegerent (khalifa) in the earth. Adam was meant to be God’s khalifa on the earth before the Fall, and the Fall, as al-Qurtubi observes, did not result in the depravity of Adam’s soul. In Islamic belief, God forgave Adam for his fall. Rather it was Satan in his disobedience who became depraved and fundamentally evil through the Fall (Qr 1:321, 281–82). The following verses treat vicegerency of man and allude clearly to his inherent excellence (he instructs the angels and God orders them to prostrate themselves before Adam) and his moral burden: 

And [call to mind] when your Lord said unto the angels: “Behold, I am about to establish a vicegerent (khalifa) on the earth.” They replied: “Will You establish on [earth] one who will spread corruption in it and shed blood, while it is we who exalt your glory and praise, affirm Your perfection, and hallow Your [name]?” He answered: I know that which you do not know.

And he imparted [unto Adam] the knowledge of all the words [for all things] and then presented the things named before the angels and said: “Tell Me the words for these [things], if what you say is true.” They responded “Glory be to You [in Your perfection], we possess no knowledge save that which You have imparted to us: You, in truth, are the all-Knowing and the all-Wise.”

[God] said: “Adam, inform them of the words for [all] these [things].” And once he had informed them of the words for them, [God] said unto the angels: “Did I not say unto you that I possess the knowledge of the Unseen in the heavens and the earth and that I know [all] that you do outwardly and all that you [inwardly] conceal?”

And [call to mind also] when We, [God], said unto the angels: “Prostrate yourselves before Adam.” They then prostrated themselves before him except for Iblis [Satan]: He refused and gloried in his arrogance and thus became of those who [knowingly] reject [God] and deny his favor. (Qur’an 2:31–34)

It is He, [God], Who has established you as the vicegerents (khalifa) of the earth and has raised some of you in degrees of excellence above others in order that He might test you regarding that which He has bestowed upon you: Verily, your Lord is swift in retribution; yet, behold, He is indeed most forgiving, most merciful. (Qur’an 6:165)

It is He, [God], Who has established you as vicegerents (khalifa) upon the earth: Thus, [know] that whoever [willfully] rejects [God in disbelief and ingratitude] shall bear the burden of his disbelief, and the disbelief of the disbelievers increases them in their Lord’s sight only in loathsomeness, and the disbelief of the disbelievers increases them only in [greater and greater] loss. (Qur’an 35:39)

As God’s vicegerent upon the earth, man carries the moral responsibility to establish order, justice, and prosperity throughout the world. Consequently, man is accountable if he fails to meet these objectives as a result of negligence and irresponsibility. However, his reward hereafter will be the greatest of honors if he has sincerely tried to attain these goals. In the Qur’anic view, man’s inability to perceive the realities of the unseen directly without the mediation of prophets and prophet-messengers is not a defect in the excellent nature with which he has been created. On the contrary, the moral test which man undergoes on the earth, his attempt to live up to the standard of God’s vicegerency, his greatest moral, ethical, and spiritual achievements, are meaningful only because they take place within the realm of the perceptible, the great truths and the impending realities of the unseen: As the Qur’an emphatically and repeatedly teaches, when the veil of the unseen is removed at the time of the Resurrection and men witness the realities of the unseen, all human beings will believe, all will loathe evil, all will desire to do good, but only those will be justified who had believed, worked righteousness, and withstood evil before knowing the consequences of such acts.

At the same time, however, the boundary between the perceived and the unseen is never a barrier between man and God in this world. For the excellence of the human soul, according to Islamic belief, also consists in the fact that God in his providential care (‘inaya) and justice has endowed each soul with an instinctive predisposition (al-isti’dad al-fitri) to know God and the realities of the unseen within the limitations of the perceptible world. Moreover, God has given creation the power to reflect His majesty, presence, and power, and to prefigure the impending realities of the unseen; thus, the material world becomes for the believer an objective correlative confirming what the prophets have taught and what the soul unconsciously knows. Such implicit guidance, which in Islamic belief encompasses all aspects of man’s being and environment, reflects God’s desire to guide man and be both merciful and just in requiring heavy responsibilities from him. Consequently, it is man’s ability to believe in the unseen, to serve and worship a God whom he cannot see, touch, or hear, and his ability to attain full moral and spiritual edification under such circumstances which constitute the roots of human dignity. It is those characteristics of the human soul which, according to Islamic belief, release man’s positive potential. When God commanded the angels, who initially perceived only the negative potential of the human spirit, to bow down before Adam, he was providing evidence of that positive potential.           

The Nature of Man’s Soul. The inherent nature of the human soul is, as we have seen, excellent, endowed with dignity and innate moral sense, untainted by the depravity of original sin, yet capable of great evil as well as great good. This inherent nature (fitra) is essentially the same in all human beings in all times and places, regardless of sex, ethnic group, or situation. Moreover, Islam, according to the Qur’an, is the universal religion of the human fitra: “And so set your face steadfastly toward the one, true faith in sincerity and devotion, turning away from all that is false, in accordance with the inborn nature (fitra) with which God has created mankind. There is nothing that will alter the nature of that which God has created” (Qur’an 30:30). The universality of the human fitra alluded to in this verse is made quite explicit in the following hadith, ascribed to the prophet Muhammad: “No child is born but that it is born following the fitra. It is the child’s parents who make it become a Jew, a Christian, or a Magian. Likewise livestock give birth to offspring that are sound and completely whole: Do you find in their offspring any marks of branding or other inflicted blemish?” (Qr 14:27). A similar hadith states that each child’s fitra remains intact until it is able to express itself in speech; then its parents are able to alter the child’s inherent religious predisposition. [30]

Traditional Islamic scholars interpret passages like these to characterize the fitra as having an instinctive knowledge of God, His oneness, and the lordship relationship between God and man:

And [call to mind] when your Lord brought forth from the loins of the children of Adam [all of] their progeny and called them to bear witness regarding themselves, saying [to them]: Am not I your Lord? They replied: Indeed You are, and [to this] have we borne witness. [Of this We remind you] lest on the Day of Resurrection you say: It is something of which we were completely unaware. (Qur’an 7:172)

Behold, We [God], offered the trust (al-amana) of moral responsibility to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to take it and had great fear of it. Yet man took it upon himself, and, lo, he has become a great doer of injustice, exceedingly ignorant.

[And so it is] that God will punish the hypocrites, both men and women, and the men and women who associate [false objects of worship] with God. And so also is it that God will turn in forgiveness and mercy to the believing men and the believing women: For God is, indeed, most forgiving, most merciful. (Qur’an 33:72)

From these and similar texts, Muslim scholars hold that God made with all human beings in the premortal existence a universal primordial covenant, the basis for all the later prophetic covenants established between God and particular religious communities in history. As part of the legacy of this covenant, the fitra imprints each soul as it begins its secondary existence with immediate (daruri), intuitive knowledge of God and the great realities of the unseen that pertain directly to human destiny (see Q 3:1391–94; T 8:322; K 3:245–49; Qr 7:314–16).

Thus, though man is charged with the moral obligation to believe in God and the great realities of the unseen even though they lie beyond his immediate perception, God provides intuitive knowledge linking man with the world beyond. The Qur’an repeatedly refers to its message and those of earlier prophets as a “remembrance” (dhikr, dhikra) or “that which causes one to remember” (tadhkira, tadhkir), while it calls upon the recipient of the Qur’anic message to “make himself remember,” to “call to mind” (tadhakkara, idhdhakkara). The revealed message is neither foreign nor new, even though it pertains to realities which lie beyond man’s mortal experience; on the contrary, it reminds him of primordial knowledge and of a primal experience deeply imprinted upon his soul: “And, therefore, continue to remind (dhakkir) [them], for this remembrance (adh-dhikra) greatly benefits those who believe. I have not created the [hidden] spirits of mankind but that they serve and worship Me” (Qur’an 51:55–56).

The Created World as Mirror of God’s Presence. One of the most dominant themes in the Qur’an is that the creation is filled with ayat, with signs and portents of God’s presence and of his continual and merciful intervention in the world. It is, moreover, one of the most fundamental capacities of fitra that it senses and understands these ayat; they constitute, as Izutsu has pointed out, one of the most profound communications—albeit nonverbal—between God and man, reflecting God’s desire that man receive guidance in this world and that man’s faith in God, even though it is faith in the unseen, lead him to absolute certainty and conviction. [31] Although each finite thing is an aya (sign) of the infinite, it is the Quran’s custom to draw attention to the symbolism of everyday ayat: the rhythm of the seasons, day and night, weather, birth, life and death, and so forth. The pre-Islamic Arab searched the physical world for omens—the rare, even freakish accidents of nature. No doubt the Qur’anic emphasis upon normative, day-to-day ayat which continually encompass man’s life is deliberate, aimed at fundamentally altering the pre-Islamic attitude toward the unseen. The Muslim cannot see the world as a place for omens; instead he sees the fabric of material reality both in its day-to-day events and in its rarest manifestations as dyed with the glorious presence of God whose creative act accounts for it all. Moreover, by focusing man’s attention on the miraculous and marvelous in the mundane, the Qur’an seeks to wake him from his stupor of negligence (ghafla), to make him see the world anew as the wonder which it is—a wonder which cannot account for itself. Furthermore, while the pre-Islamic Arabs sought omens to discern the propitiousness of their undertakings, the Qur’an directs man to look at the ayat of the world to buttress the truth of the unseen realities set forth in prophetic guidance, to see reflected the oneness of God, His great power in creation, His omnipresent hand, His bounty and mercy. The creation of life within the womb of the mother, the coming of the rains and the revival of the dead earth, and similar natural events are signs that prefigure the resurrection of the dead and new life in the hereafter.

This theme, closely linked to concepts discussed earlier, is illuminated in these verses about the ayat of God in the created world and the implicit guidance they provide the believer:

Behold, in the creation of the heavens and the earth; the alteration of the night and the day; in the ships that move swiftly over the sea bearing things beneficial to man; in the waters—dew, rain, and ice—which God sends down from the sky, giving thereby life to the earth after it was dead and causing to multiply thereon all manner of living creatures; and in the change of the winds and the clouds running their appointed courses between the heavens and the earth: In all of these there are signs (ayat), indeed, for a people who use their reason. (Qur’an 2:164)

And among His signs (ayat) [to you of His greatness] are the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations in your tongues and your colors: There are in this, of a certainty, signs for those who have [true] knowledge. (Qur’an 30:22)

And We, [God], shall show them Our signs (ayat) upon the distant horizons and within their very selves until it shall become manifest to them that this revelation is, indeed, the truth. (Qur’an 41:53)

And there are on the earth [manifest] signs (ayat) [of God’s presence] for those endowed with certainty of faith,

And so likewise are there [signs] within your [very] selves: Can you not see, then, and perceive? (Qur’an 51:20–21)

The World as Ornament or Symbol. To clarify the Qur’anic conception of the ayat of God, Izutsu draws upon Karl Jaspers, who makes the symbolic nature of the world one of the roots of his philosophical system. Seen on the level of common understanding, for example, a tree is simply a tree. However, perceived on a higher level of true existence or true existential reality, a tree becomes something new, something wondrously unfamiliar. In Qur’anic parlance, this second level is that of perceiving the things of the world as ayat; it is the level of perception of those who use their “intellect” or “reason” (‘aql), those who “reflect” (tadabbaru) and “think deeply” (tafakkaru), those who have “(true) knowledge” (‘ilm), and so forth. One who perceives the world on this level, as Izutsu points out, “suddenly finds himself in a strange world, standing in front of God.” The world, having taken on symbolic power to mirror the infinite, becomes, according to Jasper’s image, a chiffreschrift, a vast code of ciphers, a code, however, which only those can read who perceive the world at the level of true existence. [32]

It would probably be correct, in terms of Qur’anic semantics, to refer to the level of commonplace understanding as perception of the world as ornamentation (zina), while the higher level would be that of perceiving the ornamentation of the world as ayat. The theme of the beautiful ornamentation of the world runs throughout the Qur’an; it is especially central, however, to the message of Surat al-Kahf (the mountain cave), sura 18, as at-Tabataba’i demonstrates in his commentary:

Behold, [We], God, have made that which is upon the earth to be a [beautiful] ornamentation for the earth in order that We may test [human beings] as to which of them is the best in conduct and deed.

Yet, verily, We will reduce [ultimately] all that which is upon its [surface] to barren dust, a bleak and desolate plain. (Qur’an 18:7–8)

Although the English word ornamentation often conveys a sense of superficiality, perhaps gaudy or trivial, the Arabic zina of the world is not evil, according to the Qur’an. It is man’s incorrect attachment to it which is evil; if man takes a correct attitude toward it, it becomes a source of good for him and his society. Man is to enjoy the zina of the world in the spirit of justice and judicious moderation, realizing that it has no inherent value, cannot itself fulfill his soul or bring happiness, and that love for it must always be secondary to the moral responsibility inherent in man’s dignity. Man can properly enjoy the zina of the world in understanding that the world’s beauty and goodness originate in the same source of its symbolic power to mirror God—it is the handiwork of a unique, merciful, and omnipotent Creator, who in His wisdom has created in the most excellent fashion all that He has created and who has created each thing for a purpose and nothing in vain.

Vision and Blindness, the Living and the Dead. Prophetic revelation, be it that of the prophet Muhammad or of earlier prophets, is described in the Qur’an as light (nur) (see, for example, Qur’an 4:174; 5:15,44,46; 7:157; 42:52; 6:8; 64:8). It illuminates man’s soul, calls forth the power of the material world to evoke the remembrance and awareness of God, imparts to man true vision, and gives life to his soul by linking it with the great realities of the unseen. In the following verses the Qur’an is referred to by a similar image as basa’iru min Rabbikum (manifest proofs from your Lord that make you see and understand). Basa’ir, the plural of basira, comes from the root BSR, which connotes having clear vision and, consequently, clear understanding:

Such is God, your Lord: There is no god [no object of worship], but He, Creator of everything [which exists]. Therefore, worship and serve Him, for He it is Who has everything under His care. Human vision (al-absar) cannot see Him; yet He encompasses [in His sight] all human vision: He is infinitely subtle and unfathomable (al-latij), Knower of all things [hidden and manifest] (al-khabir).

Manifest proofs (basal’ir) have now come to you [all] from your Lord, enabling you to see and to understand: Whoever, therefore, chooses to see and perceive (fa-man absara), does so for his own benefit, and whoever chooses to remain blind (fa-man ‘amiya), does so to his own detriment. And [say to them, O Prophet]: I am not a keeper over you. (Qur’an 6:102–4.)

These verses categorically describe God as unseen: “Human vision cannot see Him.” Yet revelation has enabled man to perceive and to understand him; it has given the believer eyes with which to see, while those who turn away from it have chosen spiritual blindness.

This theme of blindness and vision, death and life, occurs frequently in the Qur’an:

 . . . Behold, it is not [their] eyes which become blind, but blind have become the hearts which are in [their] breasts. (Qur’an 22:46)

Verily, you cannot make the dead to hear, nor can you make the deaf hear your call, once they have turned their backs and gone away.

You cannot guide the blind out of their error: None can you make hear [your call] except those who believe in Our signs and willingly submit themselves to Us. (Qur’an 30:52–53; cf.27:80–81)

 . . . It is but a remembrance (dhikr) and a divine discourse (qur’an), making all things clear,

In order that he give warning to those who are alive and that the Word [of God] be fulfilled against those who [knowingly] reject [God[ and disbelieve. (Qur’an 36:69–70)


Islam fundamentally reoriented the attitude of the pre-Islamic Arabs to the unseen. It abolished all types of mediation between man and the unseen except that of prophetic revelation, a position analogous to that of the great biblical prophets and, apparently, to the ancient Persian prophetic figure Zarathustra before them. Islam directed man to reflect on the world perceived by his five senses, the realm of the perceptible, yet emphasized that limiting man’s senses to the realm of the perceptible did not constitute a barrier between him and the great realities of the unseen. On the contrary, although man had no direct access to the unseen save through the mediation of prophets, his soul and the created world were filled with signs of God, confirming the prophetic message and providing a path to certainty about the, unseen within the context of the perceptible. Thus, in the Islamic view, the inherent knowledge of man’s soul (fitra) and the signs of God (ayat) in creation constitute a primal communicative link between God and man, nonlinguistic, intuitive, and unconscious. Together the fitra and the ayat of God form a network of implicit guidance throughout the realm of the perceptible, an implicit guidance which buttresses the explicit guidance in the messages of prophetic revelation. The ayat of God are not omens. They do not foretell the success of undertakings, forewarn of failure or misfortune, or mirror the pleasure or the displeasure of God’s will. Neither through direct contact or divination from omens in the realm of the perceptible can man, according to Islamic belief, discern his destiny or the immediate future. Moreover, Islam deemed such a preoccupation with the unseen to be morally reprehensible, detrimental to man’s moral and ethical edification. To fulfill the purpose of life and attain fullest moral and spiritual development, man needed to believe in only the major realities of the unseen: the oneness of God, prophetic revelation, the judgment, the hereafter, and so forth. The inability of man’s fitra to sense the realities of the unseen through the ayat of God lay at the root of human dignity and facilitated man’s spiritual and moral perfection within the realm of the perceptible.

The dichotomy between the realm of the perceptible and the realm of the unseen is meaningful only from man’s finite consciousness. In the omniscience of God, all reality constitutes a single continuum, eternally known and perceived. The duality between the perceptible and the unseen is, from the viewpoint of man, epistemologically but not existentially real. Existentially, reality constitutes a single continuum; thus, the realms of the perceptible and the unseen do not constitute antithetical and contradictory worlds. Despite qualitative differences (lower and higher, less and more perfect), they are not mutually exclusive orders of existence. Thus, man’s earthly life, although bound to the realm of the perceptible, stands forever upon the threshold of the unseen. Symbolic and emblematic continuity links his experience within the perceived world and the great realities of the unseen, which yet are native to his soul and explicitly described in prophetic revelation. Far from being a defect in his constitution, man’s inability to directly witness the unseen is necessary so that man’s life in the world constitutes a valid moral test. It is only in such a context that his spiritual and moral accomplishments are meaningful.

The apparent duality between the world as zina (beautiful ornament) and the world as aya (sign of God) is also an epistemological and not an existential fact. A function of man’s perception and the inclination of his heart, this dichotomy is necessary, according to Islamic belief, so that existence in this world constitutes an appropriate test for man’s soul. The world in itself, however, constitutes a single reality. Because it exists as the flawless handiwork of God, man can perceive it as beautiful and attractive ornamentation in itself and also as a sign of God’s perfection and relation to the world. Although the material world is sufficiently beautiful and rewarding to tempt man’s high soul, it is not sufficient to fulfill his soul. Preoccupation with the world for its own sake, therefore, will necessarily lead to injustice, unhappiness, and evil. When man can see the world only as ornamentation, only as an object in itself, he becomes, in Qur’anic parlance, blind and deaf, dead in life, even though he has physical sight, physical hearing, and biological life. For when the world of the perceptible has become for man an object in itself, he lives in contradiction to his own being. On the other hand, when man lives justly and judiciously with the zina of his material world, its beauty taking on the emblematic power to mirror the world of reality beyond—when it ceases to be only zina and becomes also aya—then man is truly man, his existence is linked through the perceptible to the unseen. Worthy of the dignity God has bestowed upon him, he is alive and awake; he has eyes with which to see and ears with which to hear; he is then capable of being God’s vicegerent (khalifa) on the earth and of fulfilling the purpose for which he was created.


[1] See, for example, Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes in the Qur’an (Minneapolis and Chicago: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980), 80–87. This work can also be consulted as an introduction to other fundamental paradigms of the Qur’anic worldview.

[2] See A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 171–83, 206–23; and his “Perspectives on Mesopotamian Divination,” in La divination en Mesopotamie ancienne et dans les regions voisines, 14th Recontre Assyriologique Internationale (Strasbourg, 2–6 juillet 1965), Travaux du Centre d’Etudes Supérieures Spécialisés d’Histoire des Religions de Strasbourg (Paris: Presse Universitaires de France, 1966), 36–40.

[3] See Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia, 206–27; his “Perspectives,” 37–38; Robert R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973), 29–31. I would like to note, without attempting to detract from the overall quality of Lindblom’s work, which I am not qualified to judge, that his short discussion on Islamic parallels and especially on the prophecy of Muhammad is misleading and reflects, unfortunately, misconceptions and inaccuracies which are still too frequent in Western scholarship pertaining to Islam.

[4] See Wilson, Prophecy and Society, 90–111, 118–28; Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia, 221–22. Translations of the oracular records of Mari are available with discussions and analysis in Friedrich Ellermeier, Prophetic in Marl and Israel, Theologische und Orientalistische Arbeiten, Band 1 (Herzberg am Harz: Verlga Erwin Iungfrau, 1968), 76–165.

[5] Wilson, Prophecy and Society, 124, 128.

[6] Ibid., 129.

[7] See Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 1: The Early Period; Handbuch der Orientalistik, ed. B. Spuler et al, Erste Abteilung: Der Nahe und der Mittlere Osten, Bank 8: Religion (Leiden/Cologne: E. J. Brill, 1975), 11–12, 186–91, 279–80; Gherardo Gnoli, Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland: A Study on the Origins of Mazdeism and Related Problems, Instituto Universitario Orientale: Seminario di Studi Asiatici; Series Minor 7 (Naples: Tipografia Don Bosco, 1980),181–93, 227–28; Lindblom, Prophecy, 31–32.

[8] Wilson, Prophecy and Society, 194–212.

[9] See Lindblom, Prophecy, 49–56, 61, 217; Wilson, Prophecy and Society, 130, 139. In Lindblom’s view the terms hozeh and ro’eh indicate that the revelatory experiences of the early Hebrew seers were partly visual and partly auditory (55–56). Regarding prophets, see Lindblom, 1; cf. H. W. Parke, Greek Oracles (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1967), 13–16.

[10] Wilson, Prophecy and Society, 137; cf. Lindblom, Prophecy, 100.

[11] See Wilson, Prophecy and Society, 156,162–64, n. 54,211,251; Lindblom, Prophecy, 54–56, 61–65; 217–18.

[12] See Toshihiko Izutsu, God and Man in the Koran: Semantics of the Koranic Weltanschauung (Tokyo: Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1964), 82–85.

[13] To remove common Western misconceptions, it should be noted that Allah, even in its pre-Islamic context, denoted the supreme deity, who had no equal and was deemed the creator of the heavens and the earth. Derived from the Arabic root ‘LH, from which comes ilah (a god, cf. Hebrew eloh, god, from which the biblical elohim, God). Allah probably comes from al-ilah (the God). Pre-Islamic Arab Jews and Christians used Allah to stand for the Abrahamic God of the Bible, and, like Muslims, Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians use the word Allah in that sense today.

[14] See Jawed ‘Ali, Al-Mufassal fi Tarikh al-’Arab qabl al-Islam (The Topical Study of the History of the Arabs before Islam) (Beirut: Dar al-’llm-li-Malayin; Baghdad: Maktabat an-Nahdah, 1968–1973), 6:705–6; hereafter cited parenthetically as JA.

[15] See Emile Tyan, Histoire de l’organisation judiciare en pays d’Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960),41–43; JA 6:763–77.

[16] Tyan, Organisation judiciare, 29–33, 51; JA 6:763–71.

[17] Izutsu, God and Man, 85. Izutsu’s subsequent work, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an (Montreal: McGill University Press, 1966), which grew out of his God and Man and other earlier works, is a valuable study of a number of such correlation words that make up the core of Qur’anic ethical semantics. The academic and scholarly quality of Ethico-Religious Concepts is superior to that of God and Man; both books, however—especially in light of the fact that their subject matters do not completely overlap—are among the best works currently available in English for the investigation of the language and the fundamental conceptions of the Qur’an, Regarding Izutsu’s views on the nature of Qur’anic semantics, see Ethico-Religious Concepts, 3–15.

[18] See Izutsu, God and Man, 84–89. Izutsu suggests that the frequent occurrence of ad-dunya in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry implies that the concept of the hereafter—al-ukhra, al-akhira, the natural semantic counterpart of the word must have also been present in pre-Islamic Arab society, even if not as pronounced. M. M. Bravmann, in his The Spiritual Background of Early Islam: Studies in Ancient Arab Concepts (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972), 32–38, has also discussed the frequent occurrence of ad-dunya in pre-Islamic Arab poetry. While also holding that ad-dunya is a correlation word, Bravmann contends that its pre-Islamic semantic partner was not al-akhira but al-bu’ad or al-ba’ad (the distant lands and territories of the horizon), as opposed to the immediate encampment or tribal area at hand. Ad-dunya is often referred to negatively in such poetry, not because the life of this world is viewed negatively, but because the dunya in this territorial sense was the realm of women, children, the aged, the timid, and the sick; it was that relatively safe world in which heroic attainments were unlikely—unlike the distant bu’d of the horizon, which was fraught with danger but which also afforded adventures and acts of manliness (muru’a) and heroism. Ad-dunya was the retreat of the meek, while al-bu’d was the realm of the dauntless and heroic Bedouin traveler.

[19] Shahida is used in this sense, for example, in the Qur’anic verse pertaining to the Fast of Ramadan (Qur’an 2:185), “fa-man shahida minkumush-shahr (then whoever among you ‘witnesses’ the month) . . .” Many traditional commentators understood shahida to mean in this context, “whoever among you is not on a journey (gha’ib)but at home in his village or encampment.” Note also Qur’an 74:13, banun shuhud (sons by his side), referring to sons who because of their father’s prodigious wealth are not constrained to go on long and dangerous journeys in search of a livelihood. See Muhammad ibn Mansur, Lisan al-’Arab (The Language of the Arabs) (Beirut: Dar Bairut, Dar Sadir, 1388/1968), 1:654–57, 3:238–42; al-Husain ibn Muhammad ar-Raghib al-Isfahani, Al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Qur’an (Unusual Qur’anic Expressions), ed. Muhammad Sayyid Ki’lani (Cairo: Matba’at al-Halabi, n.d.), 267–68, 366–67; Al-Mu’jam al-Wash (The Intermediate Lexicon), Majma’ al-Lugha al-’Arabiya (Tehran: Al-Maktaba al-’Ilmiya, n.d.), 1:499, 2:673–74.

[20] The feminine form of the adjective was not used, since like a number of other adjectives of this type, it was never applied to men.

[21] See Lisan al-’Arab, 3:238–39, 242; Al-Mufradat, 267–68; AI-Mu’jam, 1:499–500.

[22] It must be noted, however, that the expression in this verse, “those who believe in the Unseen” (al-ladhina yu’minuna bi-l-ghaib) also affords another reading as “those who believe in God while they are in the unseen,” i.e., when they are alone and not seen by others or when—as a necessary condition of earthly life—they cannot witness God witnessing them. This ambiguity arises out of the semantic possibilities of the preposition bi (in), which, when used with the verb amana (to believe) designates the object of belief when the verb has a transitive sense. But this preposition is also used to designate the place in which something occurs, and this would be its use in this verse if amana is read in its nontransitive, complete (tamm) sense as meaning “to have belief.” A number of traditional commentators—although hardly all of them—prefer this second rendition, probably in view of the numerous Qur’anic verses in which the expression “bi-l-ghaib” (in the unseen) is clearly used in a locative sense. See Qur’an 5:94; 21:49; 35:18; 36:11; 50:33; 57:25; 67:12. These other verses do not use bi-l-ghaib in conjunction with the verb amana, however, but with transitive verbs like khafa (to fear), khashiya (to fear; to hold in great awe), and nasara (to come to another’s aid; to champion), which take direct objects and do not use the preposition bi to express their transitivity. These verbs do not have the ambiguity implicit in amana; moreover, their direct objects are explicitly mentioned—e.g., to fear God in the unseen—whereas amana, in the verse above, would have to be read either as tamm (nontransitive; abstract) or as having an elided object, if bi-l-ghaibis to have a locative sense.

[23] Translations from the Qur’an are my own; I have, however, often consulted The Message of the Qur’an, trans. Muhammad Asad (Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1980), which, to my knowledge, is the best English translation currently available.

[24] See al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn al-Husain, Ghara’ib al-Qur’an wa Ragha’ib al- Furqan (The Marvel of the Qur’an and the Desired Elucidations of the Furqan [the Criterion, another name for the Qur’an]), ed. Ibrahim ‘Atuwah ‘Iwad, 30 vols. (Egypt: Matba’at al-Halabi, 139011970), 1:145, 149; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as N by volume and page. Shihab-ad-Din Mahmud, Ruh al-Ma’ani fi Tafsir al-Qur’an al-’Azim wa-s-Sob’ al-Mathani (The Spirit of the Meanings in the Interpretation of the Most Illustrious Qur’an and the Seven Oft-Repeated verses), 30 vols. (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ at-Turath al-’Arabi, 1970), 1:110; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as A by volume and page.

[25] N 1:149; A 1:45–46; ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Ialil (The Commentary of the Illustrious Qur’an) (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’ -rifah, 1970), 1:23; Sayyid Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (In the Shades of the Qur’an) (Beirut: Dar ash-Shuruq, 1393/1973), 1:39–40, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as Q by volume and page; Muhammad ibn ‘Ali, Fath al-Oadir:Al-lami’ baina Fanni-rRiwaya wa-d-Diraya min ‘11m at-Tafsir (The Enlightenment of the Omnipotent God: A Work Combining the Disciplines of Tradition and Intellect with Regard to the Science of Commentary) (Egypt: Matba’at al-Halaba, 1383/1964), 1:34hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as T by volume and page; Muhammad Husain at-Tabataba’i, Al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an (The Scales of Balance in the Commentary of the Qur’an) (Beirut: Al-Matba’a at-Tijariya, 139011970), 1:45–46, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as T by volume and page.

[26] Cf. Lindblom, Prophecy, 57–58.

[27] A number of modem commentators note the great similarity between Dhu-’l-Qarnain in the Qur’an and the ancient Persian king Koresh (Cyrus), who released the Jews from the Babylonian captivity and helped them rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, as described in the books of Daniel, Isaiah, and Ezra and in the writing of Herodotus. They also note archeological discoveries that depict Koresh wearing a helmet with two long horns (see T 13:382,391–92).

[28] See Q 4:2352–53 and Muhammad ibn Ahmad, Al-lami’li-Ahkam alQur’an (The Summa of the Legal Rulings of the Qur’an) (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al’Arabi, 1387/1967), 11:246, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as Qr by volume and page.

[29] See Muhammad al-Amin ibn Muhammad al-Mukhtar, Adwa’ al-Bayanfi Idah al-Qur’an (The Radiant Lights of the Clear Discourse [i.e., the Qur’an] for Illuminating the Meaning of the Qur’an through the Qur’an) (Saudi Arabia: Muhammad ibn ‘Iwad ibn Ladin, 1400/1980), 9:330.

[30] Imad-ad-Din Isma’il, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-’Azim (The Commentary of the Magnificent Qur’an) (Beirut: Dar al-Andalus, 1386/1966), 5:359–60, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as K by volume and page.

[31] Izutsu, God and Man, 133–39.

[32] Ibid., 134–35.