Our life is a journey towards Allah. We need clear signs for guidance. Quran uses the concept of “Ayah” to point to the different signs in Revelation, in the Universe, and in human history.
In Quran- the Revelation in its final, perfect, and complete form- the “Ayah” is the unit of meaning or lexeme that, in conjunction with other units, allow us to see the structure and the construct of Quran: “It is to Us to compile it and to construct it. But when We construct it, you follow its construct.” [75:17-18]
The human intellect interrogates Quran to get from it the meaning, the direction, and orientation of the human movement and actions. Revelation, in this sense, constitutes the reference and the guidance for the human intellect. In other words, Revelation is the meta-intellect: “We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran, in order that you may reflect, understand, and learn wisdom.” [12:2]
Quran, uniquely, calls each and every element and phenomenon of the Universe an “Ayah”. The human intellect interrogates and engages the Universe in a dialogue in order to understand its structure: Rain coming down and giving life to the dead earth is a sign or “Ayah for those who listen” [16:65]
The bee producing from within their bodies a drink of varying colors wherein is healing for the people- “Verily in this is a sign for those who give thought.” [16:69]
The Night and the Day; the Sun, the Moon, and the stars “are signs for those who are wise” [16:12]
The more we understand the Universe and its structure, the more we are capable of moving and navigating through it and making our life easier and more possible. In a very unique and interesting synthesis, Quran brings to our attention the common theme of finding the structure of the Universe and that of Quran through the genre of the oath: “Furthermore, I call to witness the setting of the stars- and that is indeed a mighty oath if you knew- That this is indeed an honorable Quran.” [56:75-77]
Exploring the relationship between the different settings of the stars in order to understand the structure of the Universe should not be different from exploring the structure of Quran in order to interpret our conditions and respond to our questions.
Quran urges us to move constantly on this earth and find out how things started and how events unfolded. As Quran captures and narrates for us the history of different groups of people, whether it is the experience of Moses with the Pharaoh; or the argument of Ibrahim with his father and his people; or the story of Noah and the flood; or the rejection of Hud, Salih, Lut, and Shu’ayb by their respective co-citizens. At the end of each narrative, Quran says: “Verily in that is a sign or Ayah.” [26:174]
Using the same concept of the “Ayah” in history is a clear indication for humans to reconstruct human history with the project of prophecy as its backbone. Quran goes further to indicate that history is not a mere sequence of events, but an important source of knowledge. This knowledge is acquired by transforming success or failure, progress or decline, into lessons learned. Quran calls such lessons “Ibra” derived from the verb “abara” which means to cross and move from one level to another. The Chapter of Yusuf that described his detailed experience ended like this: “There is, in their stories, lessons and instruction for those endued with understanding. It is not a tale invented, but a confirmation of what went before it- a detailed exposition of all things, and a guide and a mercy to any such as believe.” [12:111]
In the context of human history, Quran also uses the term “Ayah” or “Great Ayah” to refer to events that happened to prophets and messengers, while their people found them unfamiliar to their daily routine. People have called them “miracles,” a term that has no equivalence in Quran.
This form of “Ayah” played a major role in supporting the authenticity of the message of various Prophets; as in the case of Moses confronting the Pharaoh: “Then he (Moses) did show him the great sign.” [79:20], or in the case of Prophet Salih addressing Thamud: “O my people! This she-camel of Allah is a sign to you.” [7:73]
This strategy ceased with Prophet Mohammad ﷺ. Yes, Mohammad ﷺ was honored with great signs like his predecessors such as the journey of Isra’a and Miraj; but they were not used to prove the prophecy of Mohammad. Furthermore, Quran did not yield to the insistence of the Prophet’s opponents to see such signs. In every instance, Quran would respond by referring them to the Universe and history that are replete with signs equivalent to those found in the building blocks of Quran itself: “They say: Why is not a sign sent down to him from His Lord? Say: Allah has certainly the power to send down a sign. But most of them understand not. There is not an animal on the earth, or a bird that flies on its wings, but communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book.” [6:37-38]
With Mohammad ﷺ, humanity has entered a new era- the era of reading, writing, and documenting, the era of reasoning, critical thinking, abstract thinking, reflecting, imagination, creativity, and symbolism.
The universal concept of “Ayah” goes beyond the meaning of a “verse” or “sign.” The linguistic root of the word “ayah” consists of the two Arabic letters: “Alif” and “ya.” Together, they form “Ay” the common article in the Arabic language to ask a question. Therefore, the “ayah” in Qur’an, in the Universe, or in history constitutes a question that requires an answer or answers at multiple levels of understanding. Therefore, the best approach to interrogate the Revelation, the Universe, or human history is through the power of the open-ended question. The right answer to a question is a new question of higher quality and at a broader horizon that brings us closer to the truth without owning or appropriating it.
Quran is unique in introducing the universal concept of “Ayah” to refer to the building units of the revelation, the phenomena in the universe, and human experiences through history. This generalization elevates our approach to the revelation, the universe, and history to the level of science. However, each one serves a specific function: The “Ayah” in the universe responds to the challenge of “action” required in this world. The “ayah” in the revelation responds to the challenge of the “direction of the action.” Every human experience in history is transformed into an “Ayah” in order to extract from it the lesson, the moral, or what Quran calls “Ibra” derived from “Obour” which means crossing into a higher and better understanding and quality of life.
Three recommendations are suggested:
- All efforts must be mustered to bring back the Muslim society into the world in a structured and systematic manner. When we look back at the scientific achievements of our predecessors, they must rekindle in us the spirit of facing the universe, interrogating it, and using it as a reference for our actions that make our lives better and more possible
- Revive the Science of Nature of Cultures that Ibn-Khaldun initiated using the most recent advances in humanities so that history can be viewed not as succession of events but a source of lessons and “ibra.”
- A new Quranic science is urgently needed. We may call it: The Science of Extracting the Direction from its Reference (The Quran), as suggested by a contemporary social scientist and thinker.
By Dr. Walid Khayr