بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
The following essay is a transcript of an interview of Dr. Fareeha Khan conducted by a Christian scholar of religion. He had asked her to select a passage of the Qur’an and discuss it, in order to “learn how the Qur’an comes to life for mainstream Muslims.”
The verse that I have chosen is the penultimate verse of the ninth sura of the Qur’an, Surat al-Tawba, the Chapter of Repentance, the 128th verse.
“There has come to you from amongst your own selves a messenger. The things that trouble you grieve him and he is ardently anxious for your well-being. And towards the believers he is especially kind and compassionate.” [Quran: 9:128]
This verse has a deep personal resonance for me. About nine years ago, in the middle of 2004, I had a really bad fall. My husband and I were hiking, and I climbed onto something I shouldn’t have. I slipped and fell and had some serious injuries. That moment was one of the most physically trying things I ever faced in my life, but spiritually it was very important and meaningful. Through it, I realized my complete dependence on God.
When I got out of the hospital and returned home, I was homebound for about two months. Early on during that time, I received a call from my father-in-law, checking in on how I was doing. He’s a pious, spiritual person, and he made a lot of prayers for me. He then gave me a sort of spiritual prescription in the form of the above verse. He told me that the Prophet had once told one of his Companions to recite this verse for mending broken bones. I started reading this verse (in Arabic) as a kind of litany, as often as I could, and it really was in my heart often during that time when I was recovering. And so this particular verse became very dear to my heart.
I’d actually never heard of this verse of the Qur’an being used for healing before. Yet I didn’t question it because I knew that my father-in-law was a person of knowledge, and I trusted his piety and his understanding. I had known that the Verse of the Throne (2:255) is powerful in many different ways and is used for different reasons. I had also known about the use of the opening chapter of the Qur’an. There is a hadith of the Prophet where some of the Companions were traveling out in the desert and they needed food. They came upon a tribe in the desert and asked if they could be taken in and given some refuge, but the tribe refused them. So they went out and encamped on their own in the desert. After some time one of the members of that tribe came to them and said, “We have someone who is suffering from an illness. We don’t know how to treat him. If you can treat him, we’d be willing to compensate you.” And so one of the Companions of the Prophet went back with that Bedouin. He recited the first chapter of the Qur’an (the Opening, al-Fatiha) over the sick person, and he became healed.
Afterwards when these Companions came back to Medina, the Prophet was told about the story, and he said to that Companion, “How did you know that the Fatiha can be used like that?” Apparently, the Prophet had not taught him to use the Fatiha in this way. The companion had an intuitive understanding that somehow the Fatiha would be a source of healing for that Bedouin. But the Prophet confirmed that the Companion had done the right thing. I’m assuming the verse that I chose for my discussion today has that kind of a story attached to it as well.
So after my fall, this verse brought me a lot of comfort. I was overwhelmed, I think, with the spiritual experience that I’d had when I’d fallen. I had a powerful consciousness of the Divine and of my dependence on Him. How does this verse relate? It is communicating that the messenger of God is someone of deep concern for his ummah, for those who follow him, and for those to whom he’s been sent to preach. He has a deep concern for all of humanity. There I was, a human being who’s utterly dependent on the sustaining and the power and the will of God, but what is it that acts as the connecting factor between that lowly, powerless human and the Almighty? The point of perfect connection is in the being of the Prophet Muhammad. He’s the one who directs people, as the prophets before him, like Jesus and Moses and all the other prophets. They were the means through which God, this transcendent being, becomes close to us, so that we can know Him. There’s really no other way that we can know Him and have His presence be made meaningful in our lives.
In another part of the Qur’an, God says about Muhammad that he was sent as a rahmat li’l-alamin, as a mercy to all of creation. Why is this one individual going to be a mercy for all of creation? As Muslims we believe that God created us so that we could worship Him and adore Him and know Him and love Him. As modern people we rely on our intellects and rational faculty to be able to discern things that are true, but our intellect is extremely bound. We can see through signs that God has placed throughout the universe that He’s there. We should get away from our electronic devices for a second, and just look up and expand our field of vision to what’s happening outside in the universe. One of my teachers, Umm Sahl, mentioned that they took the Hubble telescope and focused it in on a tiny little section of the visible sky, and the dots that they had assumed were stars turned out to be galaxies. The current estimate is that there are two hundred billion galaxies in the universe. If that is so, then our intellect should lead us to conclude that this didn’t come out of nowhere. We can sense that there is something that brought all of this into existence. But in our minds we can’t even fathom the creation or existence of two hundred billion galaxies, so what does the Creator look like? The human intellect can’t get there on its own. It is these messengers and prophets that God sent who direct us to God and to our true purpose. They show us how grateful we should be for the fact that we have been created and that we have the ability to know God.
In this verse Muhammad is called rasul, a messenger. He’s bringing a communication from God, reminding human beings that He’s there, in case we forget. And we as human beings definitely have a tendency to forget. We become focused in on the difficulties and the trials and the enjoyments of our everyday; we might forget that there is something more to my life than just having a quiet afternoon with my friend, which is itself a beautiful thing. The messenger is one who communicates what the purpose of life is. And the verse states that he’s come from amongst ourselves—he didn’t just fall out of the sky. He’s not an angel; he’s a human being. But he has this directive to help humanity back to God. This messenger could have been someone who was harsh or stern, or constantly berating us for all our faults. But the Prophet Muhammad was not this way. This verse describes his khuluq, which is the personality or the character traits of the Prophet. He has a lot of love and concern for the people whom he’s addressing. So he’s haris ‘alaykum, “ardently anxious for you,” that you get the good in your life, that you realize the purpose of your life, that you don’t fall away by the wayside, that harm doesn’t come to you, that you don’t get turned away from submitting to the divine. Any hardship in your life is a heavy difficulty for him. The suffering of the community brings him pain. He is described as Ra’uf and Rahim, full of kindness, affection, and compassion.
In the Qur’an it says that God has given you signs within the universe and from within your own selves. According to Muslim belief, God is transcendent and completely other than all of His creation. At the same time, the names that He calls Himself most frequently in the Qur’an are al-Rahman and al-Rahim, the all-merciful and the compassionate. These divine attributes are very near, and they seem very attached to the human being. This tells us that God wants to be known by the human being, that He wants us to come toward Him, that He wants Himself to be close to us, and that this is due to Him loving us. The theme of love is throughout the Qur’an. Knowledge of God as Creator and of God’s tawhid or oneness was given to every prophet, who then communicated it to his people. However, by the time of the Prophet Muhammad, while there was some idea of tawhid in some human societies, clear knowledge of God’s oneness and God’s attributes had been lost. Jesus was the last prophet before him, and he had also brought this knowledge of Allah, but over time what he had taught had been altered and its core forgotten.
So, if God wants to be known, and the knowledge of how He should be properly known is not existent anymore in the world, then the coming of Muhammad is a huge deal. It’s a really powerful manifestation of the power and mercy of God. There are innumerable signs throughout the universe, but if there’s no real way of deciphering them, no translation key, the signs are themselves meaningless. Muhammad is that translator who deciphers what it means that there is this immense, powerful, beautiful, perfectly ordered and rhythmed universe, what it means that your own body has so many thousands and thousands of mechanisms going on within itself at this very moment that keep you up and breathing and being able to talk to me and me being able to talk to you. If we reflect on these things for a second, we know that there’s “Something.” We’ll have a momentary transcendental experience of “Wow, that’s just really amazing!” But then where do we go from there? Where do we take that “wow” feeling? We can’t, at least according to Muslim belief, get to the ultimate end of that understanding without a proper guide. The fact that the messenger is someone who is loving towards us, who is showing this deep concern towards us, who is worried about us, who is not frustrated or angry with us, not forcing us to do certain things—all of these reflect the way that God himself is towards us, in a way that no one else can. This verse captures for me some of the essential qualities of the Prophet himself, and that in itself becomes a sign that directs me further toward God.
My being immersed in the study of Islam requires of me that I be a kind of ambassador, willing to talk to people about my religion and clarify for them things they don’t understand. Many things are confusing on a civilizational level when it comes to Islam, such as issues regarding women and our roles within society and within family. Muslims living in the West, as well as those who are not Muslim, are wondering, what is it with Islam and the way it treats women? I feel called upon to do something. When I reflect on how to go about teaching and explaining such matters, this verse acts in a way as a kind of tether. It keeps me grounded when I get frustrated with people for not getting what I’m trying to say or what I believe is true. I really need to be gentle, like the Prophet, if my concern is to help someone, to bring them good in their life. The point for me should not be simply to win an argument or to avoid looking like the bad Muslim. I need to be grounded in divine intention. The Prophet serves as a model for this, as a model of mercy and blessing toward others.9
- This interview transcript is taken with permission from Birkel, Michael, Qur’an in Conversation, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014, p. 109-114.