Chapter 4: The Thaqalayn - the two weighty items

Prophet Muhammad (S) has said:

Verily, I am leaving among you the thaqalayn (two weighty and precious things) - the Book of God (the Qur’an) and my progeny (ʿitrah), the members of my household (Ahlul Bayt (‘a)). If you hold to both of them, then you will never go astray. These two will never separate from each other until they meet me at the Pool of al-Kawthar on the Day of Judgement.1

The belief in God comes naturally and by instinct to many. We can also establish His existence in our minds by using philosophical arguments as discussed in the previous chapter, though His existence is independent of our reasoning as He exists by Himself and is not in need of our reasoning to come into existence.

The entire universe is a sign (ayah) of God, pointing towards Him. He is not visible by the physical eyes, but the hearts can not deny His existence. He is manifest in everything as nothing is devoid of Him. Everything manifests God according to its nature and capacity. But there are two things where His manifestation is the most perfect and complete - one is His last book called the Qur’an and the second is His last prophet Muhammad (S) and his purified progeny.

In this chapter, I will attempt to discuss the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad (S) and his household as being the two most important signs (ayat) of God. Analyzing and discussing them is not a trivial task and I certainly lack the capacity and ability to comment on them, but I will make my best effort, by relying on Divine assistance.

1. The Qur’an

a. Historical Context

Six centuries after Jesus Christ the son of Mary (‘a), a man named Muhammad (S) rose in the Arabian Peninsula and declared himself to be the last messenger of God, acknowledging and attesting to the prophets and messengers who came before him like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ(‘a).

Muhammad (S) was not formally schooled and had no known teachers, and at the age of 40 he stated that he started to receive revelation (wahi) from God via the Arch-angel Gabriel through which he invited humanity towards monotheism – just as had been done by previous messengers. The first 5 verses (ayat) revealed to Prophet Muhammad (S) through the angel were:

بِسْمِ اللّٰهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ إِقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ خَلَقَ الْإِنْسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ إِقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ عَلَّمَ الْإِنْسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ

In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. Proclaim! (or Read!) In the name of your Lord and Cherisher, who created. Created the human being out of a (mere) clot clinging (to the wall of the womb). Proclaim! And your Lord is Most Bountiful. He who taught with the pen, taught the human being that which he did not know. (Quran, Surah al-ʿAlaq, 96:1-5).

This process of revelation continued at regular intervals for approximately the next 23 years with this series of revelations, in the form of verses (ayat) whose number by the end of the 23 years exceeded 6,000.

As the Prophet (S) started to narrate the revelations to his community of followers, he encouraged his companions to memorize the ayat and to write them down. These verses were compiled during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (S) in the form of a book known as the Qur’an (meaning: Recitation). The ayat of the Qur’an were arranged, by Prophet Muhammad (S), in the form of 114 chapters (suwar) of various lengths - some containing as little as three verses whereas others exceeded 200.

b. Qur’an is the Preserved Word of God

The ayat of the Qur’an are the actual verbatim of God as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (S) which makes this book distinct from other religious books like the Bible which in its current form, represents writings by various individuals based on Christ’s teachings, and are not necessarily the actual words revealed to him by God.

The Qur’an was initially preserved through memorization by the early Muslims and as at that time, paper was not readily available, initially the Qur’an was written down on leaves, stone tablets, animal skin and bones. This process of preservation of the Qur’an is quite extraordinary as in its current form, the Qur’an is exactly the same as it was 1,400 years ago when it was first compiled in the form of a book.

Moreover, despite over a billion followers who regard it as a sacred text, spread across all of the continents of the world and divided into dozens of sects, and multiple publishers promulgating it, there is only one “version” of the Qur’an:

إِنَّا نَحْنُ نَزَّلْنَا الذِّكْرَ وَإِنَّا لَهُ لَحَافِظُونَ

We have, without a doubt, sent down the Reminder (the Qur’an); and We will most surely guard it (from corruption). (Quran, Surah al-Hijr, 15:9).

c. Qur’an is a Reminder

The Qur’an describes itself as a Reminder. A Reminder to all of us about the real purpose of coming onto this earth and the ultimate purpose of existence:

وَهَٰذَا ذِكْرٌ مُبَارَكٌ أَنْزَلْنَاهُ ۚ أَفَأَنْتُمْ لَهُ مُنْكِرُونَ

And this is a blessed Reminder which We have revealed; will you then deny it? (Quran, Surah al-Anbiyaʾ, 21:50).

The daily struggle of life and competitions between people makes us oblivious of the real focus of where our efforts should be. Reading the Qur’an wakes us up from the slumber of materialism, and takes our focus back to the reality and gives us a true context of our role in this world:

وَلَقَدْ يَسَّرْنَا الْقُرْآنَ لِلذِّكْرِ فَهَلْ مِنْ مُدَّكِرٍ

And certainly We have made the Qur’an easy for remembrance, but is there anyone who will mind (and take admonition from it)? (Quran, Surah al-Qamar, 54:32).

4. Qur’an Confirms Previous Scriptures

Qur’an acknowledges existence of previous Divine scriptures like the Torah and the Bible and does not reject them. Qur’an is for guidance of mankind, a criteria to differentiate right from wrong.

نَزَّلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ وَأَنْزَلَ التَّوْرَاةَ وَالْإِنْجِيلَ مِنْ قَبْلُ هُدًى لِلنَّاسِ وَأَنْزَلَ الْفُرْقَانَ ۗ إِنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا بِآيَاتِ اللّٰهِ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ شَدِيدٌ ۗ وَاللّٰهُ عَزِيزٌ ذُو انْتِقَامٍ

It is He Who sent down to you (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the (Torah) Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong). Then those who reject Faith in the Signs of God will suffer the severest penalty, and God is Exalted in Might, Lord of Retribution. (Quran, Surah Ale ʿImran, 3:3-4).

d. Language of the Qur’an

إِنَّا أَنْزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ

We have sent it (the Qur’an) down as an Arabic recital in order that you may understand. (Quran, Surah Yusuf, 12:2).

The Qur’an was revealed in the Arabic language which is spoken by millions of people even today. Arabic is one of the Semitic languages -other commonly known Semitic languages are Hebrew and Aramaic.

In 7th Century Arabia, literature was primarily preserved in the form of oral tradition which were recited in social gatherings. Arabs were very proud of the eloquence of their language and could compose poetry extempore. Such was the pride in their language that they would refer to non-Arabs with the term “ʿajam,” meaning “mute” or “silent.”

Indeed, Arabic is a very eloquent language and even small phrases and sentences can convey a lot of meanings.2

Most verbs in Arabic are derived from a three letter root, which can then be modified to form different versions of the same verb to give a variety of meanings. Working with Arabic verbs reminds me of basic organic chemistry in which modification of a parent structure by the addition of chemical groups leads to different compounds with predictable nomenclature and properties. Similarly, Arabic root words can be modified, by the addition of letters which gives rise to a variety of meanings from the same root word.

In this background of a rich oral tradition of the Arabs, Prophet Muhammad (S) started conveying the verses of the Qur’an which literally mesmerized his audience. No one had heard such words before and locals were dumbfounded by what the Prophet was reciting. What made all of this even more perplexing was that Prophet Muhammad (S) was not known to have had any formal schooling and teachers. How can a man who lived with them for forty years, suddenly start speaking in a way that had not been spoken by anyone before him, they wondered. They started saying that he had been possessed by a spirit or has lost his mind:

أَمْ يَقُولُونَ بِهِ جِنَّةٌ ۚ بَلْ جَاءَهُمْ بِالْحَقِّ وَأَكْثَرُهُمْ لِلْحَقِّ كَارِهُونَ

Or do they say: “He is possessed”? On the contrary, he has brought them the truth, but most of them hate the truth. (Quran, Surah al-Muʾminun, 23:70).

وَمَا صَاحِبُكُمْ بِمَجْنُونٍ

And your companion (Prophet Muhammad (S)) is not insane. (Quran, Surah al-Takwir, 81:22).

As I mentioned earlier, the Qur’an essentially is an oral narrative from God which has been delivered to us by Prophet Muhammad (S).

Such was the captivating power of the Qur’anic recitation that those who did not believe in the Prophet (S) started to discourage others from even listening to it:

وَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لَا تَسْمَعُوا لِهَٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ وَالْغَوْا فِيهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَغْلِبُونَ

And the disbelievers say: “Do not listen to this Qur’an, but talk at random in the midst of its (reading), that you may gain the upper hand!” (Quran, Surah Fussilat, 41:26).

If one goes over the Prophet’s other statements, they will be able to tell that there is a clear distinction between the Qur’an and his regular daily speech – what is referred to as the hadith. I encourage the readers who are not familiar with the Qur’an to take a moment to listen to the Qur’anic recitation which are readily available online. Even though you may not understand it, but just listening to the Arabic recitation will capture your attention. Judge for yourself!

e. What is so Special about Qur’anic Arabic?

أَمْ يَقُولُونَ افْتَرَاهُ قُلْ فَأْتُوا بِعَشْرِ سُوَرٍ مِثْلِهِ مُفْتَرَيَاتٍ وَادْعُوا مَنِ اسْتَطَعْتُمْ مِنْ دُونِ اللّٰهِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ صَادِقِينَ

Or they (the disbelievers) may say: “He has forged it (the Qur’an).” Say: “(If this is the case then) Bring ten chapters forged like them, and call (to your aid) whomsoever you can, other than God, if you speak the truth!” (Quran, Surah Hud, 11:13).

أَمْ يَقُولُونَ افْتَرَاهُ قُلْ فَأْتُوا بِسُورَةٍ مِثْلِهِ وَادْعُوا مَنِ اسْتَطَعْتُمْ مِنْ دُونِ اللّٰهِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ صَادِقِينَ

Or do they say: “He forged it”? Say: “Bring then a chapter like it and call (to your aid) anyone you can besides God, if you speak the truth!” (Quran, Surah Yunus, 10:38).

By the 3rd Century AD, Arabic had developed into a full-fledged written language – although it was present in a written form before the coming of Islam and the revelation of the Qur’an, however those who could read and write the language were few and far between. It was through the encouragement of Prophet Muhammad (S) and his successors and the Qur’anic verses which stressed on the importance of knowledge and its preservation that the skills of reading and writing Arabic took a greater level of prominence in the early generations of Muslims.

Although an ancient language, today Arabic still retains its deep-rooted rules of grammar, syntax and vocabulary which makes it an archetype of the entire family of Semitic languages.

The Qur’an was delivered orally and written down over 1,400 years ago, but even today a native Arabic speaker who has basic proficiency in the style of Qur’anic Arabic can read the Qur’an in its revelaed language and understand most of its meaning. This is in stark contrast to other ancient texts whose languages often do not survive such prolongued periods of time (e.g. Latin is no longer in widespread use) and even if they do, the language is modified to such an extent that even the native speaker has difficulty understanding the original text.

Take for example Shakespeare’s plays which were written 400 years ago in early modern English. Many native speakers today will have difficulty following the text and will need some help in understanding Shakespeare’s original works. Now compare the texts from old or middle English which were written around the same time as the Qur’an and without a doubt, most native speakers of English will not be able to read them, let alone understand them.

I present one example which is an Old English, Caedmon poetry hymn from the 7th Century to show this reality3:

Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur— sue he uundra gihuaes
eci dryctin or astelidæ
he aerist scop aelda barnum
heben til hrofe haleg scepen
tha middungeard moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin æfter tiadæ
firum foldu frea allmectig

The modern English translation of this hymn would be:

Now [we] must honor the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory -
As He, the eternal Lord, established the beginning of wonders.
He, the holy Creator,
first created heaven as a roof for the children of men.
Then the guardian of mankind, the eternal Lord,
the Lord Almighty, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands, for me.

This is not the case with Qur’anic Arabic. It is as if alongside the preservation of the Qur’an, the Arabic language has been preserved as well.

The Qur’an has great consummate power and beauty, it takes hold of its listeners and often address the reader directly by saying “O you who believe or O mankind”; it is neither prose nor poetry, but it has its own unique style; it intermingles both metric and non-metric speech; its words rhyme with each other producing a unique sound; its profound meanings appeal to the intellect and its acoustics stir up the soul generating a spiritual impact on the reader and the listener; it produces vivid imagery using words which stir up the imagination; and finally, it combines rhetoric and cohesive features to produce unique sentences which also have subtle meanings.

I present an example of two short chapters from the Qur’an, however I must point out that the beauty of the language is completely lost in the translation. Nevertheless, if you cannot read Arabic, attempt to listen to these two chapters in their original language, and notice that despite having different syllables in the sentences, they still rhyme at the end.

a. Surah al-Ikhlas (chapter 112)

بِسْمِ اللّٰهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيم

قُلْ هُوَ اللّٰهُ أَحَدٌ اللّٰهُ الصَّمَدُ لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ 3 وَلَمْ يَكُنْ لَهُ كُفُوًا أَحَدٌ

In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
Say: He is God, the One and Only; God, the Eternal, Absolute; He has no offspring, nor is He born from anything; And there is none like unto Him. (Quran, Surah al-Ikhlas, 112:1-4).

b. Surah al-Kawthar (chapter 108)

بِسْمِ اللّٰهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيم

إِنَّا أَعْطَيْنَاكَ الْكَوْثَرَ فَصَلِّ لِـرَبِّكَ وَانْحَرْ إِنَّ شَانِئَكَ هُوَ الْأَبْتَرُ

In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
We have granted you (O Muhammad), the Fountain (of abundance). Therefore turn towards Your Lord in prayer and sacrifice. Surely it is your enemy who will be cut off (from future hope – his progeny). (Quran, Surah al-Kawthar, 109:1-3).

The Qur’an presents an open challenge to anyone who can produce a work like it - ten chapters - or even one! In response, there have been several attempts throughout history to take on the Qur’anic challenge. Even as late as 1999, a book in Arabic called The True Furqan was produced to match the Qur’an. True Furqan while trying to imitate the eloquence of Qur’an, has only brought embarrassment to the author. For example, the very first line of the very first chapter of “The True Furqan” starts by saying that “Behold this is the authentic True Furqan that We inspire”. This is an in incorrect statement as “True Furqan” is not an inspiration from God but authored by non-Muslim Arabs.

f. What Makes the Qur’an a Unique Book?

There are many things which make the Qur’an a unique Book. I will mention a few of them here:

1. The Qur’an is a living miracle of Prophet Muhammad (S). It has survived for past the 1,400 years and remains unadulterated. Despite millions of copies in circulation from multiple independent publishers, there is only one “version” of the Qur’an which exists with no modification to its original script. This is a unique aspect of the Qur’an which is not seen in any other book.

2. The Qur’an was not given to mankind in the form of a physical book - rather it was given as oral speech. The Qur’an is the accumulation of a series of verses (ayat) from God, to the Prophet (S) which was eventually assembled into the form of a book shortly before the passing away of Prophet Muhammad (S). These ayat were not delivered at one time but rather, over a period of 23 years. What is very interesting is that there is a remarkable resemblance in the style of all the verses without any significant change over a period stretching almost 23 years. We know that human beings evolve and change over time, and so does their thinking and style of speech. Our thinking and world view at the age of 24 is very different from when we cross 40 and then 60 years of age. If the Qur’an was created by a human being, then its style should have changed with time, however we don’t see this change or evolution in speech over the 23 year period.

3. The ayat of the Qur’an were never physically written by Prophet Muhammad (S) himself, but by his close family members and companions who acted as scribes. The Prophet helped them in placing the verses and chapters in their correct order and sequence, ultimately determined by God. During the period of compilation of the book, there was no revision or editing done of the verses of the Qur’an as revelation once given by God and narrated by the Prophet (S) to his community was final. This is very different from books authored by human beings which always need revision or editing. While compiling a book the author goes back again and again to edit, modify and improve on what one has written. But this was not the case with the Qur’an. This aspect was also essential in having only one version of the Qur’an. Had there been any modifications or revisions, there were bound to be more than one version of the book. This is another unique aspect of the Qur’an that is not seen with any other book, religious or otherwise.

4. When we write books it usually follows an order or structure which in turn reflects the author’s style of conveying his thoughts. Certain chapters come first and others later. There is usually an introduction, main body of the book and then a conclusion. Generally speaking, books have to be read in this sequence to get to the author’s point of view. We do not see this style in the Qur’an however. The chapters do not have to be read in a sequence; the chapters carry complete meaning in themselves. Even single ayat often gives a complete meaning in themselves and as such, the formatting of the Qur’an is unique and is not seen in any other book.

5. The Qur’an covers a variety of subjects from monotheism to ethical instructions, human nature to natural phenomenon, stories of previous generations, to life after death. These topics are spread throughout the Qur’an and a single topic is not confined to a specific chapter. For example, one of the most commonly discussed subjects in the Qur’an is the story of Prophet Moses (‘a). It is narrated throughout the Qur’an (in 44 different locations) in different chapters mixed with other topics and is not confined to a single surah. This again is very different from a typical book in which the author usually writes about a specific topic in detail in one chapter and then discusses something else in the next chapter. The Qur’an does not follow this style. A particular topic is often dispersed in various chapters of the book but even with this style, the message still gets across easily and there is no discordance or contradiction in the various discussions of the same topic, and this scattered and fragmented composition completely shatters human style of speech.4 In my opinion it is nearly impossible for a human being to discuss thousands of different topics in one book where a particular topic is not confined to a particular section of the book but dispersed throughout the book. If someone tries to do that, most likely the book will not make any sense at all to the reader, however the ayat of the Qur’an move from one subject to another without losing the attention of the reader. Let me quote a section of Surah Yasin (36) to demonstrate this:

وَمَنْ نُعَمِّرْهُ نُنَكِّسْهُ فِي الْخَلْقِ ۖ أَفَلَا يَعْقِلُونَ وَمَا عَلَّمْنَاهُ الشِّعْرَ وَمَا يَنْبَغِي لَهُ ۚ إِنْ هُوَ إِلَّا ذِكْرٌ وَقُرْآنٌ مُبِينٌ لِيُنْذِرَ مَنْ كَانَ حَيًّا وَيَحِقَّ الْقَوْلُ عَلَى الْكَافِرِينَ أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا أَنَّا خَلَقْنَا لَهُمْ مِمَّا عَمِلَتْ أَيْدِينَا أَنْعَامًا فَهُمْ لَهَا مَالِكُونَ وَذَلَّلْنَاهَا لَهُمْ فَمِنْهَا رَكُوبُهُمْ وَمِنْهَا يَأْكُلُونَ وَلَهُمْ فِيهَا مَنَافِعُ وَمَشَارِبُ ۖ أَفَلَا يَشْكُرُونَ وَاتَّخَذُوا مِنْ دُونِ اللّٰهِ آلِهَةً لَعَلَّهُمْ يُنْصَرُونَ لَا يَسْتَطِيعُونَ نَصْرَهُمْ وَهُمْ لَهُمْ جُنْدٌ مُحْضَرُونَ فَلَا يَحْزُنْكَ قَوْلُهُمْ ۘ إِنَّا نَعْلَمُ مَا يُسِرُّونَ وَمَا يُعْلِنُونَ أَوَلَمْ يَرَ الْإِنْسَانُ أَنَّا خَلَقْنَاهُ مِنْ نُطْفَةٍ فَإِذَا هُوَ خَصِيمٌ مُبِينٌ وَضَرَبَ لَنَا مَثَلًا وَنَسِيَ خَلْقَهُ ۖ قَالَ مَنْ يُحْيِي الْعِظَامَ وَهِيَ رَمِيمٌ قُلْ يُحْيِيهَا الَّذِي أَنْشَأَهَا أَوَّلَ مَرَّةٍ ۖ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ خَلْقٍ عَلِيمٌ الَّذِي جَعَلَ لَكُمْ مِنَ الشَّجَرِ الْأَخْضَرِ نَارًا فَإِذَا أَنْتُمْ مِنْهُ تُوقِدُونَ أَوَلَيْسَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ بِقَادِرٍ عَلَىٰ أَنْ يَخْلُقَ مِثْلَهُمْ ۚ بَلَىٰ وَهُوَ الْخَلَّاقُ الْعَلِيمُ إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُ إِذَا أَرَادَ شَيْئًا أَنْ يَقُولَ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُونُ فَسُبْحَانَ الَّذِي بِيَدِهِ مَلَكُوتُ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَإِلَيْهِ تُرْجَعُونَ

Whoever reaches old age, We reverse in natural disposition. Do they not have sense (to see)? We have not taught (Muhammad) to versify, nor is it worthy of him. This is nothing but a reminder and illuminating discourse. So that he may warn him who is alive and feels, and justify the word against those who do not believe. Do they not see the cattle among things We have fashioned by Our power, which they own, whom We made subservient to them so that some of them they ride and some they eat? And they derive other advantages and drinks from them. Even then they do not offer thanks, and take other gods apart from God that they may perhaps give them help. They will not be able to help them and will be brought (to Us) as their levied troops. So be not grieved by what they say. We certainly know what they hide and disclose. Does not man see We created him from a drop of semen? Even then he becomes an open contender, and applies comparisons to Us, having forgotten his origin, and says: “Who can put life into decayed bones?” Say: “He who created you the first time. He has knowledge of every creation, who gave you fire from a green tree, with which you ignite the flame.” How can He who created the heavens and the earth not be able to create others like them? Why not? He is the real creator All-Knowing. When He wills a thing He has only to say: “Be,” and it is. So all glory to Him who holds all power over everything, to whom you will go back in the end. (Quran, Surah Ya Sin, 36:68-83).

Just pay attention to how the subject matter shifts from one topic to another without losing attention of the reader, while at the same time giving profound meanings and guidance. There is no other text that I have come across that has this style. This is indeed very unique.

The tone of the Qur’an is very different from typical human speech and thus, when we read the Qur’an it does not appear to be the speech of a human being. In some ayat, intense kindness and forgiveness of God is manifest:

قُلْ يَا عِبَادِيَ الَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُوا عَلَىٰ أَنْفُسِهِمْ لَا تَقْنَطُوا مِنْ رَحْمَةِ اللّٰهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللّٰهَ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعًا ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ

Say: “O My servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of God; for surely God forgives all sins, for He is Oft-Forgiving, the Most Merciful. (Quran, Surah al-Zumar, 39:53).

In other verses, His Majesty and Splendor of His authority is apparent:

الَّذِي خَلَقَ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ طِبَاقًا ۖ مَا تَرَىٰ فِي خَلْقِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ مِنْ تَفَاوُتٍ ۖ فَارْجِعِ الْبَصَرَ هَلْ تَرَىٰ مِنْ فُطُورٍ ثُمَّ ارْجِعِ الْبَصَرَ كَرَّتَيْنِ يَنْقَلِبْ إِلَيْكَ الْبَصَرُ خَاسِئًا وَهُوَ حَسِيرٌ

He who created the seven skies one above another; you see no incongruity in the creation of the Beneficent God; then look again, can you see any disorder? Then turn back the eye again and again; your look shall come back to you confused while it is fatigued. (Quran, Surah al-Mulk, 67:3-4).

We can clearly see that the speech and tone of the Qur’an is not a typical human speech – we simply do not speak like this!

By presenting these few examples, I have attempted to convey that the Qur’an is not a typical book. After reading the Qur’an - even in its translations - one can easily come to this conclusion that this is not human speech.”

g. Qur’an is a Book of Guidance

الر ۚ كِتَابٌ أَنْزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ لِتُخْرِجَ النَّاسَ مِنَ الظُّلُمَاتِ إِلَى النُّورِ بِإِذْنِ رَبِّهِمْ إِلَىٰ صِرَاطِ الْعَزِيزِ الْحَمِيدِ

Alif. Lam. Ra. (This is) a great Book which We have revealed to you that you may bring mankind, by the permission of their Lord, out of different kinds of darkness into light, to the path of the All-Mighty, the Praiseworthy. (Quran, Surah Ibrahim, 14:1).

The Qur’an is primarily a book of guidance for humanity. It is an ocean of knowledge whose depth cannot be reached, and whose vastness cannot be crossed. It provides knowledge about those things whose knowledge is not accessible to mankind by using sensory perception and intellect alone. Its primary subject is monotheism, God’s attributes and names. It talks about a system of guidance in place for mankind to understand the purpose of their existence and what they are supposed to do during their life on earth. It narrates stories of previous generations to whom various prophets were sent, culminating in the prophethood of Muhammad (S).

نَحْنُ نَقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ أَحْسَنَ الْقَصَصِ بِمَا أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنَ وَإِنْ كُنْتَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِ لَمِنَ الْغَافِلِينَ

We narrate to you the most beautiful of stories, in that We reveal to you this (portion of the) Qur’an; though before this, you were among those who knew it not. (Quran, Surah Yusuf, 12:3).

It discusses life after death and how to prepare for it. It has sublime ethical messages and prescriptions for our spiritual growth. The Qur’an also discusses various natural phenomenon and gives insight into the workings of both the physical and metaphysical universe.

وَنَزَّلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ تِبْيَانًا لِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةً وَبُشْرَىٰ لِلْمُسْلِمِينَ

And We have sent down to you the Book explaining all things, a guide, a mercy, and glad tidings to the Muslims. (Quran, Surah al-Nahl, 16:89).

The Qur’an is a light which helps us see things as they are using the eye of our intellect. Its teachings help us lead a balanced and purposeful life.

h. The Meta-Physical Reality of the Qur’an

As we have said, the Qur’an has been sent down for the guidance of mankind. In the physical realm of existence, it is available to us in an easily understandable speech compiled in the form of a book. But the Qur’an also has a meta-physical reality which is present in the higher realms of existence. The manifestation of the reality of the Qur’an in this world is in the form of a book. Thus, the Qur’an represents one reality but in different degrees.

حم وَالْكِتَابِ الْمُبِينِ إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ وَإِنَّهُ فِي أُمِّ الْكِتَابِ لَدَيْنَا لَعَلِيٌّ حَكِيمٌ

Ha, Mim. By the Book clear in itself and clearly showing the truth. We have made it a recitation (a Qur’an) in Arabic so that you may reason (and understand it and the wisdom in its revelation). Surely it is in the Mother Book with Us, exalted, firm and decisive. (Quran, Surah al-Zukhruf, 43:1-4).

Just as the Qur’an is one reality in different degrees, its ayat also have multiple levels of meanings. Some meanings are apparent and obvious, whereas others are subtle, and thinking deeply on them or comparing them with other ayat or narrations will make them clear. Still there are other deeper meanings which are only known to those who have spiritual insight. Let us take the example of this short ayah:

فَلْيَنْظُرِ الْإِنْسَانُ إِلَىٰ طَعَامِهِ

Then let each person look towards their food. (Quran, Surah al-ʿAbasa, 80:24).

The obvious meaning is that we should pay attention to what we are eating, making sure that it is not harmful to us. However, a secondary meaning can be that we should make sure that what we are eating has been earned from a lawful source and not through wealth earned through illicit means. But an even deeper meaning that has been mentioned in the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (S) and his successors (‘a) is where they explain “food” in this verse as being a metaphor for “knowledge” and thus, we must look at the source from which we obtain our knowledge – especially religious knowledge. We need to question the ideology of the person from whom we are learning, because any knowledge that we absorb will influence our own thinking and values.

i. Discussion of Natural Phenomenon in the Qur’an

The Qur’an is a complete manifestation of God available to us in the form of a book. The nature or the cosmos is also nothing other than a manifestation of God. The Qur’an is not a book of science, but it does touch upon various objects in nature, natural phenomenon and encourages the exploration of nature:

إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ وَالْفُلْكِ الَّتِي تَجْرِي فِي الْبَحْرِ بِمَا يَنْفَعُ النَّاسَ وَمَا أَنْزَلَ اللّٰهُ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مِنْ مَاءٍ فَأَحْيَا بِهِ الْأَرْضَ بَعْدَ مَوْتِهَا وَبَثَّ فِيهَا مِنْ كُلِّ دَابَّةٍ وَتَصْرِيفِ الرِّيَاحِ وَالسَّحَابِ الْمُسَخَّرِ بَيْنَ السَّمَاءِ وَالْأَرْضِ لَآيَاتٍ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْقِلُونَ

Verily, in the creation of the skies and the earth and in the alternation and the sequence of the night and the day and in the ships that sail in the ocean carrying the things which are useful to the people and in the water which God sends down from the clouds with which He brings the dead earth into life and (in) all sorts of crawling animals which He has spread all over it and (in) the turning about of the winds and (in) the clouds subjected to (His) law between the heavens and the earth, there are, indeed, signs for a people who use their understanding. (Quran, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:164).

I will briefly examine three natural objects and phenomenon that have been touched upon in the Qur’an to show that this book deliberates upon facts which were unknown to mankind in 7th Century Arabia.

1. Iron

وَأَنْزَلْنَا الْحَدِيدَ فِيهِ بَأْسٌ شَدِيدٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ

And We have sent down Iron which has great strength and wherein is material for violent warfare and for many other uses for humanity. (Quran, Surah al-Hadid, 57:25).

Elements like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen are the basic building blocks of the physical universe. They differ from each other in terms of the number of protons present in their nucleus. Elements are arranged in the periodic table based on their atomic weight and chemical properties, starting from the simplest element called hydrogen, continuing to over a hundred known elements with increasing atomic weight. Ninety-four of these occur naturally and others are made synthetically. One of the most abundant elements found on earth is iron (its Atomic Number is 26).5

Humans learned to use iron several thousand years ago and the use of iron has helped advance human civilization tremendously.

Iron is extracted from the earth through mining and is then modified for various uses. One can speak about the nearly 100 elements found in the periodic table and ask why the Qur’an makes specific mention of iron, and then states that it has been “sent down” and it has “might power” in it? This is in contrast to the general understanding that iron comes from the earth and it does not “come down” from somewhere else.

It is estimated that there are over 100 billion galaxies in the universe each made up of billions of stars. These stars, like our sun, combine hydrogen (its Atomic Number is 1) to form helium (its Atomic Number is 2) through a process known as nuclear fusion resulting in the release of a tremendous amount of energy which is responsible for the heat and light coming from the sun. The tremendous energy produced by nuclear fusion in the sun provides an outward pressure that resists its collapse under its own gravity.

This process can go on for several billion years until the entire amount of hydrogen is converted into helium.

However, there are stars in the universe which are much bigger in size than our sun which can burn their hydrogen fuel much more quickly and convert all of their hydrogen into helium in a shorter period of time than the sun can.

As these massive stars begin to collapse due to their own gravity, tremendous temperature is achieved resulting in the nuclear fusion of helium atoms during which, three helium atoms combine to form a higher element in the periodic table called carbon (its Atomic Number is 6). Carbon then combines with helium to form oxygen (its Atomic Number is 8). In this way, higher elements in the periodic table are produced until we reach an Atomic Number of 26 - Iron!

Iron is the densest and the most stable of all atomic nuclei. When a massive star’s core has transformed into iron, then no further nuclear fusion can take place and the star begins to collapse under it’s own gravity which produces a massive explosion called a supernova. Thus, elements higher than iron are produced during this supernova explosion.

Therefore, massive stars are the source of all of the naturally existing element and even us - our bodies are literally stardust.6

Now if we go back to the ayah of the Qur’an and re-examine it then we can understand why Qur’an mentions that iron has been “sent down” as opposed to “coming from earth.”

Iron is the most stable and densest atom in which there is “mighty strength.” Iron is responsible for critical reactions in photosynthesis (through which plants produce oxygen), energy transport in the mitochondria (which gives energy to organisms to carry out the cellular functions), and the transport of oxygen via hemoglobin (which contains iron).

In short iron is one of the most fundamental elements in nature without which life as we know it would not be possible, and it truly has come down from outer space.

One can ask why not mention other important elements in the Qur’an like oxygen and carbon as opposed to iron. Well the obvious answer is that people in the 7th Century in Arabia were not familiar with carbon or oxygen, but they had familiarity with iron. So this ayah of the Qur’an - while it was relevant to people living in the 7th Century, contains facts which are correct even after 1,400 years of scientific advancement.

2. Fingerprints

أَيَحْسَبُ الْإِنْسَانُ أَلَّنْ نَجْمَعَ عِظَامَهُ 3 بَلَىٰ قَادِرِينَ عَلَىٰ أَنْ نُسَوِّيَ بَنَانَهُ

Does the human being think that We cannot assemble his bones? Actually, We are able to put together in perfect order the very tips of his fingers. (Quran, Surah al-Qiyamah, 75:3-4).

Resurrection of the dead back to life is a common theme in the Qur’an; and when the Qur’an gave this message, many people objected as to how can someone who has been dead for ages be brought back to life, when nothing is left of them except for their bones?

The Qur’an answers their objection in a number of places but in one particular ayah it mentions that not only can God bring dead bones back to life (obviously recreating the human being’s bones, clothing them with tissue, fat, muscle, skin and giving it life again), but that God can even re-assemble an individual’s very fingertips.

A question comes up that why talk about fingertips? Is there something special about fingertips?

What we know now is that each person has unique fingerprints. The uniqueness of fingerprints was first described in the medical literature in 1880 by the English physician, Henry Faulds.7

This is something which was certainly not known in the 7th Century in Arabia that each individual has unique fingerprints.

Therefore, the implication of this ayah is that not only can God bring a dead person back to life, but He can even restore minor details such as the fingerprints which in turn ensures each person’s individuality and accountability for their actions.

3. Development of the Human Embryo

وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنْسَانَ مِنْ سُلَالَةٍ مِنْ طِينٍ ثُمَّ جَعَلْنَاهُ نُطْفَةً فِي قَرَارٍ مَكِينٍ ثُمَّ خَلَقْنَا النُّطْفَةَ عَلَقَةً فَخَلَقْنَا الْعَلَقَةَ مُضْغَةً فَخَلَقْنَا الْمُضْغَةَ عِظَامًا فَكَسَوْنَا الْعِظَامَ لَحْمًا ثُمَّ أَنْشَأْنَاهُ خَلْقًا آخَرَ ۚ فَتَبَارَكَ اللّٰهُ أَحْسَنُ الْخَالِقِينَ

We create the human being from an extract of clay; then We reduce him to a drop of sperm (and placed him) in a safe depository; Then We form the sperm into a clot; then We develop the clot into a lump of flesh; then We fashion bones out of this lump of flesh, then We clothe the bones with flesh, thereafter We evolve him into another being. Therefore blessed be God - the Best of Creators. (Quran, Surah al-Muʾminun, 23:12-14).

Human embryology is a science that deals with the development of the embryo in the womb of the mother.

Initially the sperm from the male, and an egg from the female join to form a zygote. This zygote then undergoes a series of changes during the nine months of gestation resulting in the birth of a human baby. The first eight weeks of development is called the embryonic period during which most of the organs are formed. After eight weeks of gestation, the fetal period starts which lasts until the birth of the child.

Pre-natal human development is a multi-staged process starting from the zygote. The zygote undergoes rapid cell division to form a mass of cells called morula which then develops a cavity inside it and is changed into a blastocyst. At the end of the first week of gestation, the blastocyst begins its attachment to the lining of the uterus and this attachment will later turn into a placenta and will serve as the life-line for the growing embryo. At this the stage embryo starts to secrete the human chorionic gonadotrophin hormone (HCG) which is clinically tested in a mother’s urine to confirm pregnancy (this is usually detected in commonly used home pregnancy tests).

The blastocyst undergoes the process of gastrulation resulting in the formation of a three layered embryo. These layers are called the ectoderm, mesoderm and the endoderm. The ectoderm gives rise to skin and nervous system, endoderm to gastrointestinal and respiratory organs, and the mesoderm to muscle, bones and blood.8

The Qur’an - though not a book of science - also talks about the multi-staged development of a human fetus. It describes various stages of human development in a simplified manner. It is worthy of mentioning that other ancient religious texts like the Hindu Garbha Upanishad and Jewish Tamlud written before the Qur’an also talk about the embryonic development.9

The Qur’anic discussion of the multi-staged human fetal development is not only quite accurate, but also alludes to the existence of the human soul at the time of an early developing fetus. This concept was later developed by Mulla Sadra to explain the development of the human soul through a process which he termed as trans-substantial motion (See Chapter 14).10

In this brief description of the Qur’an, I have attempted to describe why the Qur’an is a very unique book. From the eloquence of its language, immutability of its words over the last 1,400 years, the unique style of its layout, the profound meanings, the spiritually uplifting message, and an accurate description of physical and metaphysical realities - this book is clearly from a non-human source.

It is a “physical proof” for those who seek such proofs, for the existence of God. Unless someone can produce a masterpiece like the Qur’an, it remains an indisputable ayah (sign) for the existence of God and a guide for mankind.

God has made it (the Qur’an) a quencher of thirst for the learned, a bloom for the hearts of religious jurists, a highway for the way of the righteous, a cure after which there is no ailment, an effulgence with which there is no darkness, a rope whose grip is strong, a stronghold whose top is invulnerable, and an honor for one who loves it, an excuse for one who adopts it, an argument for one who argues with it, a witness for one who quarrels with it, a success for one who argues with it, a carrier of burden for one who seeks the way, a shield for one who arms himself (against misguidance), a knowledge for one who listens carefully, a worthy story for one who relates to it and a final verdict for one who passes judgements.”11

2.The Messenger (S) and his Ahlubayt (‘a)

In the several thousand years history of mankind on the earth, there have been individuals amongst us who have claimed to be the representatives of one God. They appeared in different eras and at different locations.

Some were in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq), others were in Palestine, Egypt and Arabia.

These individuals claimed that they were receiving revelation from God and their mission was to invite mankind to the ideology of monotheism.

In the beginning, their message faced numerous challenges from the status quo and was slow in acceptance, but with time their teachings became the basis of the most successful social movements in our history.

Even after the passage of thousands of years, billions of people still adhere to their teachings and feel proud in being part of their movement. One such personality was Prophet Muhammad (S) who rose in Arabia in the year 610 AD, and is regarded by some people as the most influential man in the history of mankind.12

Prophethood and Imamat (Divinly-Appointed Leadership)

Prophet Muhammad (S) and others before him including Prophets Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus (‘a) were the recipients of Divine revelation – known in Arabic as wahi. With the death of Prophet Muhammad (S), the phenomenon of Divine revelation stopped completely, however the preservation and implementation of the message continued through his successors known in Islamic terminology as the imams.

There have been twelve such imams who are the true inheritors of not only Prophet Muhammad’s (S) message, but of all of the Divinely appointed prophets before him.

The first amongst them is ʿAli (‘a), the final Prophet’s son-in-law, followed by Hasan (‘a) and the Husayn (‘a) - the two grandsons of Prophet Muhammad (S) through the marriage of his daughter Fatima (‘a) with ʿAli (‘a). They are followed by nine imams from the lineage of Husayn (‘a). Along with numerous Islamic sources, a reference to them can actually be found in the Bible as well:

And as for Ishmael13, I have heard you: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.14

The imams are the true inheritors of the prophets, the storehouse of knowledge, the doors to true faith, the straight path to God, an argument and proof of God against people. They are a manifestation of His light, the essence of His wisdom, center of His blessings, possessors of His command; obedience to them is obedience to God, and disobedience to them is tantamount to disobedience to God.15

The prophets and imams are a clear sign and proof of God. They reflect all of the Divine names and attributes in their being to the fullest, and studying their lives forces one to reflect on God.

In this section I will give examples from the life of three individuals namely Prophet Muhammad (S), his son-in-law ʿAli (‘a), and his grandson Husayn (‘a).

Instead of focusing on certain “miraculous acts” performed by them, I want to highlight some aspects of their character which show their clear distinction from the others which in turn is due to their complete immersion in the ideology of monotheism.

1. Prophet Muhammad (S), the Last Messenger

Prophet Muhammad (S) grew up in an era dominated by pagan customs and values. During that time, there was widespread idol worshipping, constant tribal infighting, little regard for human rights, abuse of slaves and total disrespect towards women. In fact, it was not uncommon for fathers to bury their newborn daughters alive out of the shame that they felt on the birth of a daughter.

Even during this time, Muhammad (S) was known in the community with two unique titles, al-Sadiq (The Truthful) and al-Amin (The Trustworthy). The Prophet (S) invited people to the path of monotheism, high morals and respect for human rights, and what made his message so successful was his sublime character, his quality of humbleness, the show of love and kindness towards people – and all of these are actually a manifestation of the teachings of the Qur’an.

Let me quote a few incidents from his life:

A. Anas b. Malik used to serve at the Prophet’s (S) house and used to prepare meals for him. One day, Prophet Muhammad (S) was fasting and was due to return home in the evening to break his fast. Anas had prepared a meal for him, however that night, the Prophet (S) was late in returning home. Anas thought that he must have broken his fast somewhere else, so he decided to eat the meal which he had prepared for the Messenger. When Prophet Muhammad (S) returned home later that night, he started looking for his meal but did not find it. Instead of asking any questions to Anas, the Prophet (S) got busy with his night prayers and went to bed hungry. Anas realized that the Prophet had arrived home and may not have broken his fast, so he inquired from another person who had accompanied the Messenger of Allah who confirmed that indeed the Prophet (S) had not broken his fast. Anas was really embarrassed when he learned about this as it was his job to prepare meals for him and after fasting and travelling the entire day, Prophet Muhammad (S) had to go to bed hungry, and was due to fast the next day also.16

وَإِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٍ

And most surely you (stand) on an exalted standard of character. (Quran, Surah al-Qalam, 68:4).

This small incident in the personal life of the Messenger of God gives an insight into the sublimity of his character. If we were put in a similar situation, many of us would be angry or at least upset at not being able to find anything to eat. After fasting and travelling the whole day especially when we are anticipating a meal at the end of the day, many of us will likely get upset and take it out on the person whom we think is responsible for it.

The Prophet of Islam not only controlled his anger, but more importantly, he acted in a way as to not show that he has not eaten, to avoid causing embarrassment to the person who was responsible for preparing the meal.

This truly is outstanding, that even in this situation he is more mindful of not causing any embarrassment to another person and is more concerned about others than himself.

Those who make an effort to improve themselves and try to polish their mannerism know that acting like this does not come easily - it requires a very high degree of self-control and empathy.

B. Prophet Muhammad (S) invited the people of Mecca and the surrounding areas towards the path of monotheism and felicity in this life and life of the next world. He discouraged idol worshipping and asked his followers to be mindful not to violate the rights of others. His movement challenged the status quo and he faced stiff resistance from the local community and its leaders. He and his followers were severely persecuted, many were tortured and forced to migrate to other areas. The Prophet (S) along with his extended family and some companions faced an economic and social boycott for three years during which they had to live in the desert, cut off from the rest of the community. Due to the harsh living conditions of the desert, at the end of this three year old boycott, the Messenger of God (S) lost his beloved wife Khadija (‘a) as well as his uncle Abu Talib (‘a) who brought him up and was like a father to him. The people of Mecca used to throw garbage and the carcasses of animals on him, calling him names, throwing stones at him and even conspired to assassinate him; and after thirteen years of struggle, the Prophet (S) was forced to leave Mecca and settle in the town of Medina. Even in Medina he and his followers had to go through numerous wars in which he lost many of his beloved companions and relatives including his uncle Hamza - whose body was also mutilated by the pagans of Mecca. Eight years after being forced out of Mecca, the Prophet’s (S) movement gained such strength that along with nearly 10,000 followers, he marched towards Mecca and took it over without shedding even a single drop of blood. He was now in a position to take revenge and punish those who had persecuted him and his followers. The Meccans not only tried to suppress his movement and force him out of his hometown, they also harmed him personally and because of the embargos and wars on him and his community, he ended up losing his beloved wife and two uncles. After twenty years of struggle, at this moment of triumph, Prophet Muhammad (S) was capable of persecuting his enemies.... but he did not. He was magnanimous to them and being a prophet of mercy, he forgave them all.

The Prophet of God (S) said:

I shall say to you just as the Prophet Joseph had said to his brothers: ‘No harm upon you; go, for you are free’17

In the end let me quote a French historian, Lamartine where he states:

If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and astounding results are the three criteria for human genius, then who could dare to compare any great man in modern history with Muhammad? The most famous men created arms, laws and empires only. They founded, if anything at all, no more than material powers which often crumbled away before their eyes. This man moved not only armies, legislation, empires, peoples and dynasties, but millions of men in one-third of the then inhabited world; and more than that, he moved the altars, the gods, the religions, the ideas, the beliefs and souls…. his forbearance in victory, his ambition, which was entirely devoted to one idea and in no manner striving for an empire; his endless prayers, his mystic conversations with God, his death and his triumph after death; all of these attest not to an imposture but to a firm conviction which gave him the power to restore a dogma. This dogma was two-fold, the unity of God and the immateriality of God; the former telling what God is, the latter telling what God is not; the one overthrowing false gods with the sword, the other starting an idea with the words. Philosophers, orators, apostle, legislator, warrior, conqueror of ideas, restorer of rational dogmas, of a cult without images, the founder of twenty terrestrial empires and of one spiritual empire, that is Muhammad. As regards all the standards by which human greatness may be measured, we may well ask, “Is there any man greater than he?”18

2. ʿAli - the Commander of the Faithful

Imam ʿAli (‘a) by relation, was Prophet Muhammad (S)’s cousin and later became his son-in-law. From the time of ʿAli’s (‘a) birth inside of the Kaʿbah, he was brought up, taught and trained by the Messenger of God (S). ʿAli (‘a) was the first true successor after the Prophet’s death, and later went on to become the fourth caliph of the general Muslim population.

ʿAli (‘a) was an embodiment of noble virtues and high morals, and his bravery was unmatched. During the heat of a battle when others deserted the Prophet (S), ʿAli (‘a) stood by him; he was an ocean of knowledge and wisdom, his oratory left listeners spell bound, wealth and position had no value in his eyes, he was extremely kind and courteous and looked after the destitute and orphans, justice in its perfection was crystallized in him, such was his charisma that even his enemies could not help but like him. His virtues are countless and are at their peak in his personality. He was described by the final Messenger (S) as the one who:

…embodies the knowledge of Adam, the insight of Noah, the endurance of Abraham, the asceticism of John the Baptist, and the courage of Moses.19

I will describe two examples from Imam ʿAli’s (‘a) life - one showing his wisdom and wit, and the other displaying his courage and self-control - both due to his unmatched belief in monotheism.

a. ʿAli’s (‘a) Knowledge and Wisdom

A narration from Prophet Muhammad (S) says:

O ʿAli, I am the city of knowledge, which is Heaven and you, O ʿAli are its gate.

ʿAli’s (‘a) sermons and teachings have been compiled in a book called Nahj al-Balagha -The Peak of Eloquence - which is not only a masterpiece of Divinely-inspired knowledge and wisdom, but also uttered in the most eloquent Arabic language.

In this book, he extensively talks about monotheism, the reality of life in this world, the hereafter and various other topics ranging from the behavior of bats to rules of good governance. This book also contains numerous aphorisms about everyday topics useful in daily life. In addition, he is also credited for developing the fundamental rules of Arabic syntax and grammar.20 His teachings are the fountainhead of Islamic philosophy and rationality as well as esoteric knowledge about religion which have become the basis of Islamic mysticism. I have also quoted him at multiple places throughout this book. He is credited to have said:

Ask me (about anything) before you lose me.21

In one instance, a man approached him and asked him if humans have free-will or are they bound by pre-determination? ʿAli (‘a) asked the questioner to lift one foot off of the ground. The man complied. Then he asked him to lift the second foot also. The man responded that it is impossible to lift up both feet at the same time to which ʿAli (‘a) replied:

It seems that you have free-will, but there are limits to it as well.22

Through this very simple and easy to understand example, Imam ʿAli (‘a) solved a great philosophical question about man’s free will and pre-determination which countless philosophers have also attempted to answer but none have been able to do so with such simplicity and so succinctly (More about this in Chapter 8).

There are numerous other examples that can be given as well about ʿAli (‘a)’s knowledge, but to understand more about this man and his level of understanding, I encourage the readers to refer to the book, The Peak of Eloquence. H

b. Valor of Imam ʿAli (‘a)

During the early days of Islam, Imam ʿAli (‘a) took part in numerous military expeditions and was always victorious - no matter how difficult the circumstances were. There was no one on the entire Arabian Peninsula who could equal him in the art of swordsmanship during a war, and anyone who confronted him was comprehensively defeated. Because of his might, he was known as the “Lion of God.”

During the heat of a battle, Imam ʿAli (‘a) would firmly ground his feet in one place. He neither retreated in the face of an onslaught, nor did he chase the retreating enemy, however his real bravery did not lie in his fearless conduct during the battles, but rather in his ability to master his ego through his unmatched devotion to monotheism. Let me quote one instance during a battle which has been narrated by the famous Persian poet, Rumi, in his Mathnawi.23

During one of the battles, Imam ʿAli (‘a) was able to overcome his enemy and was about to finish him off. The fallen enemy out of desperation spat on ʿAli (‘a)’s face. At this, Imam ʿAli (‘a) held his sword and did not kill him at that moment. He then took a walk and came back and finished off the enemy. When asked why did he spare the enemy initially, Imam ʿAli (‘a) replied that when the man spat in his face, this made him angry and he did not want to kill his enemy for his own personal anger, but he wanted to do it purely for the sake of God.

In describing this event, Mawlana Rumi states the following:

Anger (is a) king over kings, but (it is) my slave; I have also tied anger underneath the bridle.

The sword of my restraint has struck the neck of my anger, and God’s anger has come upon me like mercy.

I am drowned in light even though my roof is destroyed, I became a garden, even though I am (called) the Father of Dust.

Since a cause (other than God’s cause) came (into my mind) during the battle, I found (it) suitable to hide (my) sword.

So that one loves for (the sake of) God, may become my name, (and) so that one hates for (the sake of) God may become my desire.

So that one gives for (the sake of) God may become my generosity, (and) so that one withholds for (the sake of) God may become my existence.

In another instance, an enemy soldier lost his sword while fighting against Imam ʿAli (‘a) and was sure that he would now lose his life. Imam ʿAli (‘a) was ready to strike him but stopped when he noticed that he was unarmed and so the Imam asked the enemy solider to run away and save his life. The enemy soldier was astonished at this behavior and asked ʿAli (‘a) why is he sparing his life, to which the Imam replied:

We the Ahlul Bayt (‘a) do not kill any person who is unable to defend himself.

The soldier said:

If what I hear about your generosity is true, then let me see if you will give me your sword.

ʿAli (‘a) immediately handed over his sword to the enemy, and the enemy soldier said:

Who will defend you now against my attack?

The Commander of the Faithful (‘a) replied with calmness:

O ignorant man! If He (God) so Wills, He will defend me. Neither you nor anyone else can cause even the slightest harm to me. If death, which is sure to come, is destined for me now, then by God, no one can save me.

This reply showed Imam ʿAli’s (‘a) complete trust in God, and his conviction. In fact, it left the enemy so impressed that he decided to join Islam instead of fighting against it.24

At the end of his life, Imam ʿAli (‘a) was struck on the head with a poisoned sword while prostrating to God in the Grand Mosque of Kufa (present day Iraq), and when hit, he immediately shouted, “By the Lord of the Kaʿbah, I am successful.”25

He died two days later from this wound and the poison that had spread in his entire body.

At the time of his death, ʿAli (‘a) was the ruler of a vast Muslim empire stretching from Africa to South Asia.

During those last few days, his assassin was brought to him. He noticed that the assassin was uncomfortable due to a tight rope tied around his hands. He asked the rope to be loosened, and he then offered the assassin a drink. The assassin refused the drink thinking that it may have been poisoned to which the Imam said, “Had he taken the drink I would have forgiven him.” He told his family to offer the assassin the same food that he was being offered. He then asked that the one who had fatally wounded him be struck only once as he was struck once also – as a show of implementing the Islamic option of retribution.

Let me ask you what makes a man pay attention to the rights of his assassin and show kindness to his enemy? This kindness by Imam ʿAli (‘a) to his own assassin is due to his complete submersion in monotheism. Instead of a desire to take revenge and give a painful punishment to his assassin, he was mindful of his enemy’s rights and well-being.

قَالَ عَذَابِي أُصِيبُ بِهِ مَنْ أَشَآءُ ۖ وَرَحْمَتِي وَسِعَتْ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ

He said: “(As for) My chastisement, I will afflict with it whom I please, and My mercy encompasses all things.” (Quran, Surah al-Aʿraf, 7:156).

3. Imam Husayn (‘a) - The Chief of Martyrs

Prophet Muhammad (S) said:

Indeed Husayn is lamp of guidance and the ark of salvation.

Prophet Muhammad (S) had two grandsons - Hasan (‘a) and Husayn (‘a) through his daughter, Lady Fatima (‘a) who was married to his cousin Imam ʿAli (‘a). After the death of the Prophet (S), the early Muslims disputed on his successor and Imam ʿAli (‘a) was not chosen as the first caliph (successor of the Prophet ), though many regarded him to be the rightful successor - they were later called the shiʿa (followers) of ʿAli (‘a). The majority of the Muslim community regard ʿAli (‘a) is the fourth caliph.

Some forty years after Prophet Muhammad’s (S) death, ʿAli (‘a) was assassinated and the caliphate of the Muslims eventually came to a man named Muʿawiya, through a peace treaty signed between him and Imam ʿAli (‘a)’s eldest son Imam Hasan (‘a).

Shortly thereafter, Imam Hasan (‘a) was poisoned to death during the reign of Muʿawiya and a few years later, prior to his own demise, Muʿawiya nominated his son Yazid to become the caliph of the Muslims – not only was this against the conditions of the peace treaty which Muʿawiyah had signed earlier with Imam Hasan (‘a), but it also laid the foundation for the rule of monarchy which is against Islamic principles of government.

As for Yazid, he was an openly lewd, immoral young man unfit to hold the office of caliphate of the Muslims. He forced everyone to pay allegiance to him either through threats or through offering large bribes. Yazid also ordered Imam Husayn (‘a) to pay allegiance to him or else face death, to which Imam Husayn (‘a) replied:

A person like me can never pay allegiance to a person like him.

For the Imam (‘a) to accept Yazid as the leader and representative of the Muslims would have undermined and brought about irreparable damaged to the entire movement of the Divine religion which his grandfather, Prophet Muhammad (S), and the other prophets before him had helped to establish and which his father Imam ʿAli (‘a) and elder brother Imam Hasan (‘a) had helped maintain and preserve. It was not possible for him to accept Yazid at the helm of affairs of the Divine religion no matter what the cost was and because of this, he clearly said:

If the religion of Muhammad (S) does not stand except for my blood (to be shed), then swords come and kill me!

What followed was an epic stand by Imam Husayn (‘a) along with his family and companions against the tyrannical and unjust regime of Yazid - a stand the like of which the world has never seen, nor will ever witness.

In the following section, I will give a brief account of what befell the grandson of the Prophet (S) on the plains of Karbalaʾ, a city in present day Iraq, in the year 61 AH - fifty years after the Messenger of Islam’s death - an event which changed the course of history of Islam forever and set a very lofty example of perseverance and patience against injustice that has no equal in the entire history of mankind.

After refusing to pay allegiance to Yazid, Imam Husayn (‘a) was forced to leave his hometown of Medina along with his family including the women and the children.

He initially settled in the city of Mecca for a few months and was looking forward to taking part in the annual pilgrimage of the hajj, however he was again forced to leave Mecca a day before the hajj rituals began due to the presence of assassins, disguised as pilgrims.

Along with his family and close companions, they started to travel towards the city of Kufa, in present day Iraq, where he had a significant following. Before his caravan reached Kufa, he was confronted by some of Yazid’s soldiers, led by a commander named Hurr.

Hurr’s army had lost its way and had run out of water and his soldiers were dying of thirst. Even though Hurr was there to stop him, Imam Husayn (‘a) ensured that all of the soldiers and animals in Hurr’s army were given water. Although Hurr was grateful for Imam Husayn’s (‘a) benevolence, he had to act on the government’s orders and did not allow Imam Husayn (‘a) to travel towards Kufa. The Imam (‘a) camped near the bank of the Euphrates river at a place known as Karbalaʾ - a name which literally means a place of trial and tribulation - in present day Iraq.

Shortly thereafter, the government reinforcements started to arrive and laid siege around the Imam’s camp. They forced Imam Husayn’s (‘a) camp to moved away from the Euphrates, and eventually blocked all access to the water. During the few days when they were in the desert plains, negotiations were held between Imam Husayn (‘a) and Yazid’s forces who were demanding that the Imam pay allegiance to the illegitimate caliph which he refused. They also blocked his way so he could not go back.

Imam Husayn (‘a) along with close to one hundred (some historians differ and state he was accompanied by seventy-two close family members and companions) was now completely surrounded by nearly 30,000 government soldiers and a war was inevitable. It was clear that if a war breaks out, there was no chance that the Imam or his companions would survive.

A night before the battle, Imam Husayn (‘a) asked his companions to leave in the darkness of the night as Yazid’s forces were only interested in fighting with him. He even extinguished the lamp so no one would be embarrassed to leave, but astonishingly none of his companions left. They preferred to die with him rather than live without him! Such loyalty is rarely seen.

The next morning on the day of ʿAshuraʾ (the tenth day of the first month of the Islamic calendar), Imam Husayn (‘a) and his companions came face to face with 30,000 men in Yazid’s army. The Imam (‘a) was travelling with his family members including women and many small children. Their thirst and hunger of three days was evident on the faces of everyone, especially the young children who were raising their cries because of the intense thirst.

Seeing this scene, Hurr, a commander in Yazid’s army who had earlier blocked the Imam from travelling forward was getting impatient. His conscious was making him restless. He remembered how earlier, Imam Husayn (‘a) had quenched his thirst and the thirst of his soldiers and even his horses and other animals were given water, and now because of his actions, the small children in Imam Husayn’s (‘a) camp are wailing from thirst.

Hurr asked himself: “How can I let Yazid’s forces massacre Prophet Muhammad’s family?”

He had to make a decision between fighting against Imam Husayn (‘a) and facing eternal damnation or joining the Imam’s camp and facing certain death. He chose the later, and ashamed, with his eyes cast down, he walked towards Imam Husayn’s (‘a) camp seeking pardon. The Imam forgave him immediately and let him fight on his side.

Before the fighting broke out, Imam Husayn (‘a) tried to dissuade Yazid’s forces from killing him. He reminded them that he was the only surviving grandson of their Prophet and that he had done nothing wrong. However Yazid’s commanders were promised monetary rewards and governorships of the Muslim lands and so they were eager to fight against him.

After dawn on the 10th day of Muharram, the fighting broke out. Imam Husayn’s (‘a) companions - though thirsty for three days - fought valiantly vowing not to leave their leader alone. One by one they fell giving the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their leader.

Then it was the turn for the Imam’s family members. Seventeen family members that day including his sons, brothers, nephews and cousins were ruthlessly killed. Imam Husayn (‘a) made efforts to personally go and collect the body of each fallen soldier and bring it back to his camp. Those who have buried a close family member or a friend know how difficult it is to carry the dead body of even one relative. Imam Husayn (‘a) did it dozens of time that day.

The most prominent amongst them was his son ʿAli al-Akbar (‘a) whom Imam Husayn (‘a) loved immensely and his dear brother ʿAbbas (‘a). When ʿAli al-Akbar (‘a) went forward towards the enemy after bidding his father farewell, he noticed someone is coming behind him. He turned around and found his father Imam Husayn (‘a) following him. ʿAli al-Akbar (‘a) stopped and asked his father why is he following him? To this Imam Husayn (‘a) replied: “O son you don’t know what is like for a father to send his young son to die”. The death of ʿAli al-Akbar (‘a) truly left him heart broken.

The Imam also lost his dear brother ʿAbbas (‘a) that day, whom the enemy feared the most due to his unrivalled chivalry and battlefield skills. Both of the arms of ʿAbbas (‘a) were severed while attempting to fetch water from the Euphrates for the young thirsty children in the camp of Imam Husayn (‘a). On losing him, Imam Husayn (‘a) said: “My back has been broken.”

Eventually, when everyone had been killed, it was now Imam Husayn’s (‘a) turn to go forth. Since morning he had lost close to one hundred companions and family members. He was tired, thirsty and heart-broken – physically and mentally exhausted. He came to the women’s tent for the last time to bid them farewell; and at that time his infant son ʿAli al-Asghar (‘a) fell down from his crib. The baby had not had any milk to drink for three days as his mother was unable to produce any due to the severe dehydration.

Imam Husayn (‘a) had a plan – he took his infant son to the battlefield and asked the enemy soldiers to give some water to the infant as the baby had no fault in this conflict. As the baby was exposed to the scorching heat of the day, he was opening and closing his mouth like a small fish does when it has been out of the water for some time and is about to die.

Many of the enemy soldiers could not bear the sight of a father requesting the enemy soldiers to give some water to his infant son and started to cry. However, they showed no mercy on that day and one of the enemy soldiers shot a three-pronged arrow which struck the six-month old baby’s neck – it slit his throat and pierced into his father’s arm. The baby moved his arms like a bird flapping its wings as life seeped out of his tiny little body. Imam Husayn (‘a), holding his now lifeless infant son in his arms, started to walk back towards the tent, but he had the impossible task of delivering the news of the slaughter of his infant son to his mother. Seven times he moved forward and seven times he moved backwards saying:

Indeed we are all from God and back to Him is our eventual return. Satisfied at Your (God’s) decree, and submitting to Your (God’s) command.

After burying the baby in the ground behind the camp, Imam Husayn (‘a) was ready to head towards the battlefield to meet his own fate.

He bid farewell to the women and children in his camp asking them to remain patient in the face of the calamities that will come upon them after his death, as Yazid’s forces would invade the tents, loot them of their belongings and take them all as prisoners. His four-year daughter Sukayna (‘a), clinged to her father’s feet not letting him go as she knew that whoever goes to the battle field never came back. Imam Husayn (‘a) gently persuaded her to let her go.

Imam Husayn (‘a) gave his last will and testament to his only surviving son ʿAli Zayn al-ʿAbidin (‘a) - the only man who could not fight due to the severe illness he had. The Imam reassured his sister Zaynab (‘a) and asked her to look after the surviving women and children after his death - especially his four year old daughter Sukayna (‘a).

Imam Husayn (‘a) then mounted his horse and charged towards the enemy. After a day long battle he was injured, tired, and extremely thirsty, but more importantly heart-broken at how his grandfather’s nation had treated him and his family. Nevertheless, he attacked them ferociously. One man who was injured, tired and thirsty and has lost his entire family is attacking several thousand soldiers and forcing them to retreat! No one had seen such a courageous fighter who had no fear of the enemy, who penetrated deep into the enemy’s rank, like a hungry lion attacking a herd of sheep, dismembering their formations and making them run like headless chickens in all directions.

The enemy soldiers did not have the courage to fight him from close range, rather, they preferred to shoot arrows at him from a distance. Imam Husayn’s (‘a) armor was pierced with innumerable arrows and he had lost a significant amount of blood. Then, one arrow pierced through his chest gushing out a fountain of blood. The Imam could not stay on the back of the horse and fell down.

Imam Husayn (‘a) was now laying on the ground injured and bleeding. Such was the fear of him in the enemy ranks that they dare not approach him for close combat – even in this state. They waited to see if he was still alive. Some of them started to move towards Imam Husayn’s (‘a) camp, at which he raised his head and said to leave the women alone:

If you have no religion, then at least be free men. Do not attack the women while I am still alive!

They respected his wish and spared the women’s camp for a little while.

Then one of them approached Imam Husayn (‘a) and mounted on his chest. The Imam was heard praising God, remembering Him. He had done his part in fulfilling his duty. He had sacrificed everything that a person can possibly sacrifice for God, for the sake of upholding His religion.

In this situation when the Imam (‘a) laid injured on the hot sands of Karbalaʾ ready to die, such radiance was coming from his face that none had seen such a noble countenance and a calm demeanor in the face of such colossal calamities.

The enemy soldiers started to strike the back of Imam Husayn’s (‘a) neck with a dull dagger. He was struck twelve times, eventually beheaded like a sheep while he lay thirsty on the hot desert plains of Karbalaʾ.

The loyal horse of Imam Husayn (‘a) came galloping back towards his camp as if to give news of what had happened. Seeing the empty saddle of Imam Husayn (‘a) on the horse, the women and children started to wail. The only question young daughter Sukayna (‘a) had was my father given some water before being killed?

After the decapitation, his head was mounted on a spear with the enemy soldiers celebrating. They had killed the grandson of their own Prophet, only fifty years after passing away of the Prophet of Islam (S).

Soon after Imam Husayn’s (‘a) death, the enemy soldiers attacked his camp and started to loot the valuables from his family members. They set the camp on fire and took the women and children as captives. To add insult to injury, they then robbed the Imam’s body of his armor and clothing and trampled his body with the horses’ hoofs, leaving Imam Husayn (‘a) and his companions’ bodies without a burial on the sands of Karbalaʾ.

Among the captives was Imam Husayn’s (‘a) sister Lady Zaynab (‘a). She took charge of the surviving women and children. The caravan of captives was paraded through different cities enroute to Damascus in Syria, the capital of Yazid’s empire. In Yazid’s court Lady Zaynab (‘a), delivered fiery sermons, shaking the conscious of the Muslims as to what they had done to the Prophet’s family. She and Imam Husayn’s (‘a) only surviving son, ʿAli Zayn al-ʿAbidin (‘a) ensured that the supreme martyrdom and the message of Islam do not go to waste and the memory of his sacrifice was kept alive.

Indeed, both Imam ʿAli Zayn al-ʿAbidin (‘a) and Lady Zaynab (‘a) were successful as the memory of Imam Husayn (‘a) is still alive today, over 1,350 years later. The evidence of this claim is that there is not a single major metropolis in the east or the west today where Husayn’s (‘a) sacrifice is not remembered every year during the first ten days of the first Islamic month of Muharram – and more especially on the 10th day, known as ʿAshuraʾ.

Processions are taken out in his memory and his story is repeated in a wide variety of languages - whether it is in Australia, many of the countries in Africa, throughout Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and North America - there is no place on the earth where Imam Husayn (‘a) is not remembered every year by his followers.

The peak of this remembrance is in the form of the annual pilgrimage on the day of Arbaʿin – literally forty – which takes place exactly forty days after the commemoration of the day of ʿAshuraʾ - in Karbalaʾ Iraq, in which upwards of thirty million people from all across the world including Christians and Hindus gather in the very small city and pay their homage to the Imam.

His message, as they all attest to, is universal and eternal. He taught humanity how to take a stand for their principles and not to bow down to tyranny and oppression. He taught humanity how to be courageous in the face of oppression. Imam Husayn (‘a) accomplished this and is a beacon of inspiration for all of those facing oppression because of his firm conviction in monotheism - an ideology by which he lived and for which he died.26

The 12th Imam, al-Mahdi (‘a) has been quoted as saying:

O people of the world! My grandfather Husayn was killed while he was thirsty!

In this section I have attempted to give a few glimpses from the lives of three personalities whose lives centered on monotheism. They lived by this ideology and died for it.

Studying their life in an unbiased manner forces one to think about God. Some may move the focus on those things which took place in the lives of these three personalities and even other figures in Islam which we are unable to relate to in our contemporary society – practices such as polygamy. However, it is important to know that in the context of life in 7th Century Arabia, polygamy was perfectly normal and an acceptable behavior.

Even after the passage of 1,400 years, these personalities are still admired and idealized by billions of people. One must ponder what is in their lives that continues to affect so many people until today? The fact is that the prophets and imams are the path to God, a door to Him, the true face of monotheism, and His greatest sign. God is known through them; and those who want to know God must know them, and reach God through them.

  • 1. Hajjaj, Muslim ibn al-, Sahih Muslim, English translation, Book 31, tradition 5920-3.
  • 2. Author: For the record, I am not a native Arabic speaker.
  • 3.
  • 4. Sells, Michael, Approaching the Qur’an, Early Revelations. White Cloud Press, Oregon, 1999.
  • 5. Gray, Theodore, Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. Black Dog and Leventhal, 2009.
  • 6. Mee, Nicholas, 2012, Higgs Force, Quantum Wave Publishing, Marple, UK.
  • 7. Faulds, Henry, On the Skin-Furrows of the Hand. Nature 22, 605 - October 1880.
  • 8. Moore, Keith L., T.V.N. Persaud, Mark G. Torchia. The Developing Human, Clinically Oriented Embryology, 9th Edition, Philadelphia, Elsevier.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Shirazi, Mulla Sadra, translation by Latimah-Parvin Peerwani, Spiritual Psychology. The Fourth Intellectual Journey in Transcendent Philosophy, Volumes VIII and IX of The Afsar, First Edition, London, ICAS Press.
  • 11. Nahj al-Balagha, Sermon 198.
  • 12. Hart, Michael, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, 1978, Revised Edition, 1992.
  • 13. Prophet Muhammad (S), is the direct descendent of Prophet Ishmael (‘a).
  • 14. Bible, Book of Genesis, 17:20.
  • 15. Mafatih al-Jinan, Ziyarat Jamiʿa al-Kabira.
  • 16. Dar Rah Haqq’s board of writers. A Glance at the Life of the Holy Prophet of Islam, Alavi Foundation, New York, 2000.
  • 17. Shirazi, Sayyid Muhammad, Sadiq, The Prophet Muhammad, A Mercy to the World, published by Yasin Publishing with the permission of Imam Shirazi World Foundation, p. 119. Online at:
  • 18. Lamartine, Histoire De La Turquie, Paris, 1854, v. 2, pp. 276-277.
  • 19. Amuli, Jawadi, Life of Gnosis. A Mystical Study of Imam ʿAli’s Life; Isra Publication, 2014, Richmond Hill, ON., Canada. pp. 86-87.
  • 20. Jordac, George, The Voice of Human Justice, Ansariyan Publications, Qum. Online at:
  • 21. Nahj al-Balagha, Sermon 189.
  • 22. Editorial:On Freedom and Necessity by M. ʿAli. Lakhani).
  • 23. Rumi, Maulana, Mathnawi, book 1:3800. ʿAli and the enemy who spat on his face
  • 24. Ahmed, A.K., The Hidden Truth about Karbala, Ansariyan Publications, First Edition, 2007, Quds Press. Online at:
  • 25. Razwy, Sayyid Ali Asghar, A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims. Published by World Federation of KSIMC, UK. Online at:
  • 26. Najmi, Mohammad Sadiq Najmi, Translated by ʿAli Murtaza Zaidi, Husayn bin ʿAli - Sermons, Sayings and Letters From Medina till Karbala; Publisher Dar-al-Thaqalain. Karachi Pakistan.