Prophet Muhammad




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By: Imam al-Ghazali (ر) in the Ihya’

Translated by: Dr. Muhammad A. Quasem


The fifth mental task is understanding [the meaning of the verses recited].

This is to seek, from [the meaning of] every verse [recited], explanations which befit it, since the Qur’an encompasses the discussion of the attributes of God (great and mighty is He!), discussion of His works, the discussion of the circumstances of prophets (may peace be upon them!), the discussion of the circumstances of those who considered them false and how they were destroyed, the description of God’s commandments and threats, and the description of Paradise and Hell (191).

As for the attributes of God (great and mighty is He!), they are put, for example, in His (exalted is He!) words, “Like Him there is nothing. He is All-hearing, All-seeing”; (192) and in His (exalted is He!) words, “He [i.e. God] is the Sovereign, the Most Holy, the Source of Peace, the Bestower of Security, the Protector, the Mighty, the Subduer, the Exalted” (193). The Qur’an–reader should reflect on the meanings of these names and attributes of God so that deep connotations may be disclosed to him. Underneath them are hidden meanings which can only be disclosed to those especially favoured [by God] to understand them. It is to this that ‘Alī (may God be pleased with him!) indicated by his words, “The Messenger of God (may God bless him and greet him!) did not hide from me anything which he concealed from people, except that God (great and mighty is He!) bestows upon a man understanding of His Book”(194). The Qur’an–reader should be greedy in seeking this understanding. Ibn Mas‘ūd (may God be pleased with him!) said, “One who wants to acquire [the core principles of] the knowledge of the ancient and the moderns should deeply study the Qur’an”. The greatest of all forms of the knowledge of Qur’an is under the names of God (great and mighty is He!) and His attributes; most people could only know about them certain matters suitable to their understanding and could not obtain knowledge of their depths.

As for the works of God (exalted is He!), they are discussed, for example, in His discussion of the creation of the heavens, the earth, and other things [such as rivers and mountains]. The Qur’an–reciter should understand from them the attributes of God (great and mighty is He!), since the existence of a work proves the existence of its Agent, and the greatness of the former proves the greatness of the latter. So he should view in the act the Agent and not the act. One who knows the True One sees Him in everything since everything originates from Him, returns to Him, subsists by Him and belongs to Him. Thus He is the all in reality. He who does not see Him in everything which he sees, is as if he does not know Him. One who knows Him knows that ‘everything save God is false’ (195) and that ‘everything will perish except Himself (lit. His face) (196).’ The meaning of this is not that everything will be falsehood in a second condition; rather it is falsehood now if its essence is considered in respect of itself, but it is not falsehood if its existence is considered in respect of the fact that it exists through God (great and mighty is He!) and His power. So it has existence by way of following [God] and sheer falsehood by way of independence [from God]. This is one of the principles of knowledge achieved through mystical intuition.

For this reason the Qur’an–reader – when he reads the words of God (great and mighty is He!) which ask, “Have you considered that which you sow?” (197), “Have you reflected on the sperm-drop that you emit?” (198) , “Have you reflected on the water that you drink?” (199), “Have you reflected on the fire that you kindle?” (200) – should not confine his thoughts to water, fire, seeds and sperm-drops. Rather he should reflect on the sperm-drop and know first that it is a small quantity of water-like substance the parts of which resemble one another. Then he should consider how it is [gradually] divided into flesh, bones, nerves and veins and how its limbs take different features – head, hands, legs, liver, heart and others. Then he should consider those noble attributes that make themselves manifest in it – hearing, seeing, thinking and others. Then he should consider the condemnable attributes that appear in it – anger, desire, pride, ignorance, lying and quarrelling, as God (exalted is He!) said, “Has not man considered that We have created him from a mere sperm-drop? Then he clearly disputes [the existence of his Creator]!” (201) Then the Qur’an–reader will reflect on these wonders so that he may ascend from them to a higher wonder of these wonders which is the attribute from which these wonders have proceeded. He will persistently be considering the making so that he will see the Maker.

As for the circumstances of the prophets (may peace be upon them!), when the Qur’an–reader hears how they (202) were considered false, beaten, and some of them were [even] killed he should understand from this God’s (great and mighty is He!) attribute of independence from His Messengers and from those to whom they were sent, and that if He destroyed all of them this will not affect anything in His kingdom. When he hears of God’s help to the Messengers in the end, he should understand the power of God (great and mighty is He!) and His will to further the truth.

As for the circumstances of the deniers of God, e.g. the people of ‘Ād (203) and the people of Thamūd (204),and the evil that happened to them, the Qur’an–reader’s understanding of these should result in a feeling of fear of God’s assault and His revenge; and he should give special consideration to his [own] portion of these and remember that if he is inattentive [to his religious duties] and ill-mannered and is deceived by the delay of punishment which is accorded to him, divine revenge may overtake him and the sentence [of punishment] may be executed.

Likewise, when the Qur’an–reader hears the descriptions of Paradise and Hell and all other things in the Qur’an, e.g. promises and threats, hope and fear, he should try to understand the meanings proper to each case. It is not possible to enquire about that which will be understood from this description (205),for that has no end, but everyone gets from it (206) that measure of valid understanding which is vouchsafed to him. “There is nothing green nor dry but is recorded in a Clear Book” (207) . “Tell [people]: If the ocean became ink for [transcribing] the words of my Lord, surely the ocean would be exhausted before the words of my Lord came to an end, even though We augmented it with the like of it” (208). It is for this reason that ‘Alī (may God be pleased with him!) said, “If I will I can load seventy camels with the exegesis of the Surah of the Opening of the Book.” The purpose of what we have discussed above is only to indicate the method of understanding [Qur’anic verses] so that the door of it may be opened to the reciter. To fathom it is not the coveted thing in this respect. One who has no understanding of what is in the Qur’an, even though this understanding is of the smallest degree, is included in the words of God (exalted is He!), “Some of them appear to listen to you [i.e. Muhammad], but when they go forth from your presence they ask those who have been given knowledge: What has he been talking about just now? These are they whose minds God has sealed up” (209). That by which God sealed up [their minds] consists in the obstacles which we shall soon discuss in connection with the obstacles of understanding [the Qur’an]. It is said [by a gnostic], “A novice cannot be a [perfect] novice until he finds in the Qur’an everything that he wants and until he can distinguish between decreasing and increasing benefits [from reading it] and feels sufficient with his Master as opposed to people.”



The Recitation and Interpretation of the Qur’an, translation of Book Number 8 of Ihyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn of Imām Abū Hāmid Muhammad al-Ghazālī, by Dr. Muhammad A. Quasem, National University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, 1979, p. 65-69.



191 All this is discussed in some detail in al-Ghazālī’s Jawāhir, pp. 9-17.
192 Qur’an 42:11
193 Qur’an 59:23
194 An-Nasā’ī, Sunan, Qasāma, 13; al-Bukhārī, Sahīh, Diyyāt, 24, 31; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 1, 79.
195 This expression seems to have been derived from the well known Dīwān of Labīd Ibn Rabī‘a (d. 40, 41 or 42 A.H), an Arab poet of the pagan period who lived into the days of Islam and who became a companion of the Prophet in 9 A.H. (an-Nawawī, op. cit., II, 70f.; Ibn Hajar, op. cit., III, 307-309; Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, op. cit., III, 306-310. The verse of the Dīwān which seems to have influenced al-Ghazālī’s expression is: (Here, the translator Dr. Muhammad A. Quasem has quoted the verse in Arabic).
       The Prophet called this verse: “The truest words which any poet has spoken”. See al-Bukhārī, Sahīh, Adab, 90, Manāqib al-Ansār, 26: Muslim, Sahīh, Shi‘r, 3-6; Ibn Mājah, Sunan, Adab, 41. As-Sarrāj has also cited this verse of Labīd in his Lumā’, p. 110.
196 Qur’an 28:88
197 Qur’an 56:63
198 Qur’an 56:58
199 Qur’an 56:68
200 Qur’an 56:71
201 Qur’an 36:77
202 (This has an explanation which is a matter of detail, part of which is in Arabic).
203 ‘Ād is the ancient tribe mentioned in the Qur’an as well as in pre-Islamic poetry. It was a mighty nation that lived immediately after the time of the prophet Noah, and became haughty on account of its great prosperity. It disobeyed the prophet Hūd who was one of its people, and on account of this, they were, with the exception of Hūd and a few pious men, swept away by a violent storm. See Qur’an 7:65, 74, 9:70, 11:50, 59, 60, 14:9, passim.
204 Thamūd is the name of one of those old Arabian peoples which had disappeared some time before the advent of Islam. The prophet Sālih was sent to guide these people along the right path. The whole people was destroyed when it disobeyed him. See Qur’an 7:73, 9:70, 11:61, 68, 95, 14:9, passim.
205 (This has an explanation which is a matter of detail, part of which is in Arabic).
206 (This has an explanation which is a matter of detail, part of which is in Arabic).
207 Qur’an 6:59.
208 Qur’an 18:109.
209 Qur’an 47:16.