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Transparency Before God (Sura 11, Verse 5)

Surely He Knows What is in the Hearts (Respecting Privacy)

Added May 03, 2007

Transparency before God
“Now surely they fold up their breasts that they may conceal (their enmity) from Him; now surely, when they use their garments as a covering, He knows what they conceal and what they make public; surely He knows what is in the hearts.” (Qur'an 11:5)

This verse addressed the hypocrites (and those who harbored a secret hostility to the Prophet) who sought, through veiled words and actions and through insinuation and suggestion, to undermine the Prophet's authority and the authority of the revelation. Their attempts to conceal the nature and extent of their hostility from the Prophet and the believers was like trying to conceal their enmity from God.

Their pulling their garments over themselves is a manifestation, an external symbol of this inner concealment. Since they carry antagonism and rancor in their mind's heart this inner state generates in them an extreme tension. Fearful of betraying through glance, gesture, or word some fractional indication of the intensity of their malice, they draw their garments over themselves, hoping the draped fabric will conceal any accidental bodily betrayal and make opaque the dark intentions which turn within their inner self. They have already folded their hearts around the core of their discontent, not in order to weaken and shut down the discontent but to protect and nurse it. It smolders within them fanned by the heated movement of contemptuous and mocking thoughts, causing them to fear that others will discern in their aspect and mannerisms its embers - the precursors to malevolent flames. And so they conceal and hide with every artifice available to them, enclosing themselves in “...darkness upon darkness...” (Qur'an 24:40) - closing their hearts, feigning with their outward expressions, deceiving with their physical form and appearance. They dissemble to disguise the turmoil that grips their thoughts, while they remain ignorant of a fundamental reality - that all existence, down to the innermost secrets of the heart, is utterly transparent to God.

Veils and barriers exist for us, not for God, the creator of veils Who “knows the secret, and what is yet more hidden” (Qur'an 20:7) “He knows the stealthy looks and that which the breasts conceal.” (Qur'an 40:19) “...And there falls not a leaf but He knows it, nor a grain in the darkness of the earth, nor anything green nor dry but (it is all) in a clear book.” (Qur'an 6:59)

The understanding of God's knowledge and position compared to human knowledge and the human situation is entirely absent in the hypocrites. A verse like this is an awakening for us as well - to the fact that everything in existence is utterly open to Him, including our innermost deliberation and intentions. Competing strains of thought, stirrings and desires on the threshold of consciousness, tendencies of personality on the fringes of our awareness, the blurred mixture of knowledge, reflexivity, and habit that color our intentions and our actions and which impinges on every aspect of our understanding - all are transparent before God. “He knows what is before them and what is behind them, and they cannot comprehend anything out of His knowledge except what He pleases....” (Qur'an 2:255) This is one reason for consistently engaging in “astagfir allah” or turning to Allah - as a corrective and healing action on our innermost selves - as a simultaneous recognition of the vagaries, conflicts, and immense complexity within our own mental world and as a supplication (dua) for guidance from the One who understands this complexity better than we know our own selves.

There is a prophetic hadith that says that we should worship and behave as if we see God, because, even if we do not see Him, He sees us. The knowledge that our thoughts and inner motions are transparently observed allows us to become aware of those very thoughts and inner stirrings. It is like that moment of startlement, of self-awareness, or of self-consciousness that arises when you suddenly realize that something you thought you were doing in privacy actually has an audience. There is an instantaneous toggling of self-consciousness from a dormant or low-level awareness to an intensely active and self-aware state. When this awareness arises from being cognizant that God has placed “watchers” over each of us, it can allow us to move away from being led by nearly subconscious processes of decision making that are powered by the reflexive reactions of our lower nafs (nafs amarra) to a more cognizant process.

“And certainly We created man, and We know what his mind suggests to him, and We are nearer to him than his life-vein. When the two receivers (recorders) receive, sitting on the right and on the left. He utters not a word but there is by him a watcher at hand....And every soul shall have with it a driver and a witness.” (Qur'an 50:16-18)

Technology can provide some generous, if severely limited, pointers and analogies to religious concepts. If we look at some of the computer worlds in which our children play, we can see a crude and feeble mechanistic parallel to some religious concepts - such as the transparency of our minds before God. In programs that create a simulacra of aspects of reality, such as some of the popular simulation games, the player is given various tasks such as constructing, administrating, and acting within a miniature world - one inhabited by sim-people. These tiny iconic characters act according to various computer generated traits, inclinations, and behaviours. Select a sim-person and you can glimpse their simple algorithmically-generated thoughts, desires, and motivations. Because everything occurs within the software generated simulacra, every detail and aspect of the generated world and its inhabitants can be monitored - everything is recorded and known - their movements, their inner states in terms of their simulated wants, desires, or dislikes (designed to add spice to the simulation) - everything private or public is visible to the person playing the game. In the games this is done to provide information to the player so he can adjust the game environment based on the desires, motivations, and actions of the sim people. As well, the software records everything that happens in the game in such a manner that the player can replay and watch, from a myriad different angles and viewpoints, anything that happens in different parts of the simulated world.

If a character in that simulated world was conscious, their reality and their sensory perception would be limited to the simulated world they inhabit. They would be completely oblivious to the fact that their innermost thoughts are transparently visible, and they would have no idea that all that they say or do is recorded, down to the minutest detail as the recording mechanism is built subtly and invisibly into the fabric that underlies, supports, and generates the computer universe in which they dwell. This is analogous to the verse “All is recorded in a clear book....On the day when Allah will raise them up all together, then inform them of what they did: Allah has recorded it while they have forgotten it” (Qur'an 78:29 and 58:6) The sim-people's simulated senses can only perceive the simulated world in which they live and not the invisible mechanisms which underlie it and support it - their awareness is limited to perceiving the reality depicted on the screen. If another simulated character were to come and inform them that in fact their innermost thoughts are transparent and that everything they think or do is recorded it would be a difficult thing to believe. When you dwell in a closed system, ordinary perception cannot move beyond the enclosing system.

Note: If they were further told that after their sim-life ends they could be brought back again, their skepticism would likely increase. Their situation would be like that of the people spoken of in the last part of verse 11:7: “Yet, if you, O Muhammad, tell them: 'You will be raised again after death', those who disbelieve will surely say: This is nothing but open superstition.” (Qur'an 11:7)

While the Qur'an repeatedly and powerfully emphasizes the transparency of all existence before God, it makes it clear that this type and level of knowledge is reserved for God. God's knowledge being complete, there is no possibility of misunderstanding - He will take into account all perspectives, all contingencies, all conditions, all circumstances when dealing with His creation. Humans can never encompass all perspectives and cicumstances, so the possibility of injustice, bias, and misinterpretation accompanies all unnecessary uncovering of private personal matters. For human society there are rules, principles, boundaries, and guidelines by which the society may encourage order and maintain a peaceful and harmonious existence, but the Qur'an and the hadith place definite limits on the manner in which these boundaries are to be monitored and enforced. A surveillance society, one which not only monitors its citizens but seeks to penetrate or remove their privacy, is seen as one which has sought to appropriate for its government a disproportionate leverage over its citizens. While God has placed penetrating watchers over each human soul (“there is by him a watcher at hand”), he has not permitted those in positions of authority to exercise such surveillance over the people of their society. “We have not sent you as a watcher over them....” (Qur'an 42:48)

A society that uses technology allied with the organs of governmental power to impose an authoritative and intrusive scrutiny in order to bend its citizens into acquiescent conformity will devolve irresistably into tyranny, and away from mercy. “And when you impose control over men, you control like tyrants....If you controlled the treasures of the mercy of my Lord, then you would withhold (them) because of greed....” (Qur'an 26:130 and 17.100) Such a society seeks to take upon itself a mantle of godlike power and so immediately begins a fall away from God and towards arrogance and a rulership based on suspicion. “O you who believe, avoid suspicion...and do not spy on one another, nor let some of you disparage or denounce others....” (Qur'an 49:12)

In a technocratic future it may become possible to cast a technological net of surveillance that is so wide and so efficient in its ability to penetrate human privacy that its effectiveness approaches the levels of scrutiny available to the players of some simulation games. While the Qur'an points out that existence is absolutely transparent before God it also points out that God has drawn many veils over his creation and that some of these veils are veils of privacy placed as a mercy and as a token of dignity and respect between people. These are veils which it is an injustice and a violation to remove - levels of privacy and ethical behavior which are to be upheld. “You should not enter the houses (secretly) at their backs....” (Qur'an 2:189) This an allusion to refrain from trying to uncover what rightfully remain private and concealed. Do not seek backdoors or stealthy ways to uncover what is none of your business. The Prophet and the Imams had a persipicacity and insight deeper and more penetrating than the knowledge available to us with all our technology. People's lives and motivations were transparent to them. Yet they respected the limits, the barriers, and the boundaries with which God graced human relations and interactions - they allowed to remain veiled that which should be veiled. They only “entered houses by their doors....” (Qur'an 2:189) respecting, protecting, and guarding the privacy of those over whom they had authority.

“For people possess faults, which the ruler more than anyone else should conceal. So do not uncover those of them which are hidden from you - it is only incumbent upon you to remedy what appears before you. God will judge what is hidden from you. So veil imperfection to the extent you are able....And loose from men the knot of every resentment....” (Imam Ali - letter to Malik al-Ashtar) [1]



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