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Seeking Patterns and Principles

Patterns of History in the Qur'an

Added August 15, 2003

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“Why dwell on the past?... Why put time and energy into remembering events that happened centuries ago?...Why not let the past be past and put it behind us once and for all?... Why does the Qur'an admonish us constantly to remember?”

This is a very legitimate question and one that deserves careful consideration because the answer lies within the fundamental nature of Islam and of the Qur'an. It lies in the way the Qur'an views history and in the manner in which it illustrates history. The Qur'an is a book of rhythms and patterns both in its sound and construction as well as in its content and meaning. It does not view history simply as a linear process, as a sequence of events which succeed one another.

Rather it sees history as a pattern or series of patterns which occur over a period of time and which arise as the result of certain natural laws at work in society and within men. These patterns or rhythms in history are repeatedly illustrated in the Qur'an, for example, by references to past civilizations which have all followed the same pattern of rise, decay, and collapse. At the same time the Qur'an is a book of principles, of truths, which, if they are implemented, will allow men to understand, and perhaps for a time, break free of the repetitious cycles of history.

So in its approach to history the Qur'an does not reiterate historical events in great detail and length. But instead it distills the events down to their basic components in order to illustrate the principles to be learned from the events.

This can be seen most clearly in the way the Qur'an tells some of the stories found in the Bible. Wheras the Bible gives a detailed, linear account of an incident, the Qur'an boils the same story down to its essential ingredients in order to concisely and clearly illustrate, in a few lines, the lesson to be found at the heart of the event. The Qur'an lays bare the patterns which rule history and the principles which can free us of this rule and which can lead men to a fuller understanding of historical processes and man's place within them.

Just as the hajj brings Muslims from all countries and of all languages and races together to create a form of social and spiritual Tauhid (or social and spiritual unity), so too does Islam's approach to history create a form of historical Tauhid (or historical unity).

History becomes not merely a disjointed sequence of events but is bound by patterns and principles which act as a unifying force - a bridge between widely separated generations. The “principles” or “truths” of history are not bound in the confines of one era or by the rules and customs of one society but span all times and all societies.

For example...why did Muslims choose the Hijrah (or migration), where the Prophet (s.a.) was fleeing for his life, as the event which pinpoints the beginning of the Islamic calendar? Why not choose the moment he received his first revelation, or the date of the first victory at Badr, or of the fall of Mecca to his army.

It is because the Hijrah was the transition point (the moment of a phase change) for a number of factors in the early stages of Islam. It marked the transition of the Muslim Ummah (community) from a handful of struggling individuals to a complete society in Medina. It marked the transition of the Prophet from preaching to political, social, diplomatic, and military action. And it marked the transition from virtually no growth to explosive growth of Islam. Migration, or movement from stillness towards a specific goal is a key concept in the Qur'an and one whose truth is borne out by historical reality. Civilizations arise “...on the heels of a migration....”(Ali Shari'ati). From the Biblical Exodus or migration of the Jews from Egypt, and the subsequent creation of Israel, to the most recent examples of Canada and America both of which arose following a migration.

The principle of migration is also true on an interior level in terms of the migration of our inner selves away from personal stagnation and towards an awareness of God.

But the important point to stress here is that by being a specific instance of a universal principle, the Hijrah of the Prophet acquires a meaning and a force which lifts it out of historical time[1] and makes it relevant as a principle to all times. Now there are many such principles in the Qur'an and all these principles have many layers of meanings at many different levels, such as the social level, the political level, the individual level etc. These are all principles which find historical focal points in various persons, in various places, at various times in history.

Our remembrance of the events described in the Qur'an is done in order to acquaint each new generation with these principles. These are learned through our hearts as well as our minds because an intellectual understanding is, by itself, a cold and incomplete understanding. But when Truth is perceived by the “heart's mind”, to use a Qur'anic phrase then that truth comes alive in the individual and the centuries which separate him from the historical events and personalities melt away. This is why we remember events that happened so long ago and why we remember them the way we do. The Prophets and Imams were witnesses for the Truth, and their message to us is a message for all ages, all times, and all societies.[2]

“Witness your time. Witness between the truth and falsehood of your age.” (Shari'ati)



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  • 1 – Related Articles

    Time in the Qur'an

    Six days of creation

  • 2 – Non-Linear History – As already mentioned, the Qur'an does not follow a linear exposition and progressive timeline as, for example, the Bible does. It raises topics, not according to a successive historical progression, but according to its own unique inner pulse and rhythm. If it was in a historical, chronological order like a book of history or a biography, it would have been particularized to the chronology of history. The Qur'an, however, declares itself as timeless, as a book that cannot be particularized and limited to a specific historical context. “Verily this is no less than a Message to all the Worlds.” (Qur'an 81:27) Jafar al-Sadiq (a.s.) has said of it that “ will continue on its course as long as Heaven and Earth endure, because it enshrines a sign and a guide for every person and group to come.”

    The Qur'an breaks the chronological mould to declare itself free from the ties of time. It originates with God who encompasses time and is not constrained by it. The Book of the Realities of existence which the Qur'an calls “the Mother of the Book” is on a different plane of existence, outside of the flow of time as we know it. It is from this realm that the Qur'an descended to the Prophet's (s.a.) heart, and from there, degree by degree descended in the form of the specific words recited as the Qur'an. Nasir al-Din Qunawi writes, “The writing and the form of the letters and sounds originate in time, but what is written and recited is beyond time.”

    “And behold, it is with Us in the Mother of the Book, sublime indeed, wise...”(Qur'an 43:3)

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