Ibrah – lesson

لَقَدْ كَانَ فِي قَصَصِهِمْ عِبْرَةٌ لأُوْلِي ٱلأَلْبَابِ

Verily there is in their stories a lesson for people of understanding (Q. 12: 111).

The Qur’an contains many stories about historical events and people. Obviously, these stories only account for a very limited selection of all the events of human history. But there is a reason why specific stories are recounted in the Qur’an to the exclusion of many others. The social and cultural conditions for mankind’s life are constantly changing. When we read about the lives of historical people, it can sometimes feel as though we are reading about another species altogether; their life conditions seem completely alien to us and incomparable to our own. While this may be true of certain aspects of life, the simple fact that we are all humans means that we do in fact have a great deal in common. The great existential questions, for example, have always played a central role in our lives and will continue to do so in the future. As the Qur’an states, “their hearts are alike”. The same arguments that were put against earlier prophets were later used by Quraysh and are visible even in our times. The historical narratives in the Qur’an should thus be seen as archetypes; stories that can be taken from their original social and cultural contexts and applied to our own current situation. All that is required is some thought and reflection.

In the Qur’an, we are often called upon to reflect over past events in order to learn from them, and one of the Arabic words used in this context is iʿtibār. This word stems from the root ʿaynbā’rā’ which connotes the basic meaning of “to pass from one condition to another” (al-Isfahānī). It thus refers to a kind of movement, physical or abstract. For example, the verb ʿabara means “to cross”, and can refer to the crossing of a river but also to death (as dying is the crossing over from this life to the next). So, when we read stories of past peoples in the Qur’an, we are expected to lift the stories from their original historical contexts and transport them into our own time [1].

In some cases, this does not require much thought; we can, for example, quite easily identify Pharonic traits among those in power in Muslim countries today. Other stories require deeper reflection, and an understanding of symbols. The art of interpreting dreams is called taʿbīr al-ru’yah, where the verbal noun taʿbīr is from the aforementioned root. Most dreams are full of symbols and to be able to interpret them correctly, one must understand how the symbolism of the dream relates to the world as experienced when we are awake; water is often a symbol for life, feces can represent money, and so on. To understand one’s dream, it is usually necessary to consult somebody who is knowledgeable in the field, one who can transcend the boundary between dream and reality in search of the meaning of the dream. In the same way, some scholars are able to find new layers of meaning in the verses of the Qur’an by interpreting them on the symbolical level and thereby derive timeless interpretations. As an example, consider the following verse:

Kings, when they enter a country, despoil it, and make the noblest of its people its meanest; thus do they behave. (Q. 27:34)

This verse recounts a historical fact, but it also represent a deep spiritual reality. Historically, it tells us of the words uttered by the Queen of Sheba as she consults with her advisors. The symbolic reading of this verse, however, interprets the word “kings” as wealth and riches, “a country” as a person’s heart, and “the noblest of its people” as good thoughts inspired by God. When the love of wealth and riches penetrates into the heart, these good thoughts receive a lower status and are no longer given priority.

These sudden insights that a reader sometimes experiences while reading the Qur’an can be so powerful that they bring tears to the eyes [2]. One Arabic word for tears is ʿabrah. The Prophet – peace and blessing be upon him – said: “Verily, patience is at the first stroke of a calamity, and no one can control his tears (cabrah).”. (The first part is found in al-Bukhari and the second was related by al-Hasan al-Basri as mentioned in al-Jami’ al-Saghir). [3]

[1] The third post by Shaykh Amr inspired me to write this text http://www.lisanularab.org/forums/showthread.php?t=14&highlight=ibrah

[2] A beautiful speech by Shaykh Hamza where he deals with the relation between tears and lessons  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Z7oMC3aLZU

[3] This text was translated to English by brother Yaqub, may Allah reward him!

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One Response to Ibrah – lesson

  1. Read says:

    You cited the Messenger of God (peace and blessing be upon him) who said: True patience is at the first stroke of calamity:
    الصَّبْرُ عِنْدَ الصَّدْمَةِ الأُولَى

    I find it interesting how you tied S-b-r with ‘-b-r.

    Thank you for this gift.

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