Who am I? Who are we?
These are challenging questions. Who is supposed to answer them?
In a world where stereotyping, discrimination, and racial profiling have prevailed; in a world where false accusations and judgments are the order of the day; it is important to revisit the issue of definition. How do we define ourselves as human beings and who is responsible for this task?
In a Quranic Surah entitled “The Sun” or “Al-Shams” lies the answer as clear as the light of the sun. It starts by an oath: “By the sun and its glorious splendor; by the moon as it follows; by the day as it shows up the sun’s glory; by the night as it conceals it; by the heaven and its structure; by the earth and its expanse.” [91:1-6]
As they are introduced in this oath; the sun, the moon, the day, the night, the heaven, and the earth are explicitly defined. They were given only one direction to follow since the time of their creation. None of them had or has the chance and the capability to change its mission, function, or course.
“It is not permitted to the sun to catch up with the moon, nor can the night outstrip the day: each swims along in its own orbit.” [36:40]
“He said to the heaven and to the earth: come you together willingly or unwillingly. They said: we do come in willing obedience.” [41:11]
The Quranic discourse is a unique discourse, and the Arabic of Quran is a unique Arabic. Surah “Al-Shams” is a good demonstration of how Quran utilizes the Arabic language and subjects it to the cosmic outlook about Allah, the Universe, the Human being, and Life. The first six verses presented the different elements and phenomena of the Universe, each preceded by “the”, the article that is used to point to a defined and specific object or an abstract idea. What about the human self or “nafs” that appeared in the seventh verse of the oath? Was it preceded or defined by the article ‘the”? No! “By every soul and the proportion and order given to it.” [91:7]
In contrast with the Universe, each human soul is borne without a predetermined definition. The task of defining the human soul is solely accomplished by itself and after it is borne into this life.
In contrast with the Universe that is unidirectional, human beings are given a dual or bidirectional nature: the ability to choose between two major directions: “He enlightened it as to its wrong and its right.” [91:8] This freedom of choice grants all human beings the divine gift to define and add “the” to their souls.
Freedom of choice goes hand in hand with personal responsibility and accountability. The direction of “taqwa” leads to success; and wrongdoing leads to failure and disappointment. “Truly he succeeds that purifies it, and he fails that corrupts it.” [91:9]
The Surah then brings before us a true story where different human beings define themselves and choose between two different routes in this life, each leading to its respective consequences. It is the story of Prophet Salih and his experience with the people of Thamud. On one hand, we see Salih, defining himself as the Prophet of Allah, “rasul-o-Allah” bringing guidance to His people. The female camel, the proof of his prophecy, was defined as “the female camel of Allah” indicating the direction given to it. On the other hand, we see Thamud defining itself through its transgression and rejection of Prophet Salih in defiance, and directing their evil-doing to the sign and miracle of Allah. Although one person committed the crime and slaughtered the female camel, the whole community was convicted of the crime. This indicates that the crime was not an isolated event but was planned and agreed upon by the community and its leadership. “The people of Thamud rejected their Prophet through their ordinate wrongdoing. Behold, the wicked man among them was deputed. But the Messenger of Allah said to them: it is a she-camel of Allah! And bar her not from having her drink. Then they rejected him and they slaughtered her.” [91:11-14]
The criminal was not concerned about the consequences but he and his community suffered the consequences. They were destroyed while Salih and his followers were saved. “So, their Lord, on account of their crime, obliterated their traces and made them equal. And for him is no fear of its consequences.” [91:14-15]
Today, we are still facing the challenge of definition. Are we competent to define ourselves as individuals and as a community or give the opportunity to the opportunists to portray our pictures, draw our images, and twist the facts?
In conclusion, the Surah states beyond any reasonable doubt that everyone is entitled to his/her own definition. The responsibility of defining one’s self or soul is exclusively personal and cannot be delegated.
By Dr. Walid Khayr