Getting to Know Allah
It Wasn’t Always Like That
Arabs: Before and After
45:20 This (Qur’an) is an illumination for mankind, a guidance and mercy unto a people who believe with certainty.
Virgil Gheorghiu in his admiring biography of the Prophet, La vie de Mahomet, writes about a pre-Islamic Arabia that was home to a multitude of cultures and religions. For this author, pre-Islamic Arabs were dynamic, creative, fun-loving and tolerant.
Ernest Renan (1823–92), French historian and critic, writing about pre-Islamic Arab society, described it this way (my translation).
I am not aware in the entire history of civilisation of a more gracious, more loving, more vibrant society than that of the Arabs before Islam … [it was a time] … of unbound freedom, lofty sentiments, a nomadic and chivalrous way of life, [a land] of fantasy, joy, mischievousness, bawdy impious poetry, refined love-making …
Ernest Renan, cf. Robert Montagne, La Civilisation du désert
Barnaby Rogerson paints a similar picture of the inhabitants of the peninsula and the Middle East before the Islamic conquest in his flattering biography The Prophet Muhammad. His vivid travel-log-like writing has you imagining that you are with the Prophet on his voyages throughout the Middle East, meeting the people he meets, hearing the stories he hears – stories that will find their way into the Koran. It’s a magical, fantastical place, a good time to be alive.
So what happened? Islam happened. Islam became the religion of the inhabitants of the peninsula and the Arabs, in T.E. Lawrence’s words, became a people of “primary colours.”
They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white … They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questioning. They only knew truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.
This people was black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition. Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes … they never compromised; they pursued the logic of several incompatible opinions to absurd ends, without perceiving the incongruity.
They were a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellect lay fallow in curious resignation. Their imaginations were vivid, but not creative.
T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Even in the Koran you get a glimpse of the Arabs before Islam, not as unthinking pagans as Allah would have us believe, but as rational to the core, spiritual human beings in the best sense of the word. This is evident in their coherent, logical, reasoned response – which Allah denounces as following their fancies – when asked to accept, without question, the world view of the self-proclaimed illiterate mouthpiece of a do-it-all, know-it-all god.
A group of Meccan men’s fancy, of which Einstein would have approved and which remains my favourite, was their explanation of aging and life and death, revelation 45:24.
45:22 Allah created the heavens and the earth in truth, so that every soul may be rewarded for what it has earned; and they shall not be wronged.
45:23 Have you seen him who has taken his fancy as his god and Allah has led him astray knowingly, and set a seal upon his hearing and his heart, and placed a veil upon his sight. Who, then, will guide him besides Allah? Do you not remember?
45:24 They say: “There is nothing but this our present life. We die and we live and we are only destroyed by time.” However, they have no certain knowledge of this; they are only conjecturing.
Tough, principled characters these Meccan unbelievers! It took Allah opening the gates of Hell for them to finally give in to “utter despair”.
23:76 We seized them with the punishment; but they would not submit to their Lord and they would not supplicate.
23:77 Until We opened up against them a gate of terrible punishment and, behold, they were in utter despair.
Conjecturing about the Seen and the Unseen, to use Allah’s terminology about what we know and what we don’t know, has been associated with the beginning of wisdom by Western philosophers and Eastern sages since man started to look beyond the superstitions which purported to describe his surroundings and a possible world beyond.
Many Meccans, despite being told not to think too much or they would be held to account, revelation 17:36, were comfortable with conjecture and said so, revelation 45:32.
17:36 Do not pursue what you have no knowledge of. Hearing, sight and the heart – all these [you] shall be questioned about.
45:25 And when Our Signs are clearly recited to them, their only argument is to say: “Bring our fathers back, if you are truthful.”
45:26 Say: “Allah gives you life, then causes you to die, then musters you unto the Day of Resurrection, which is undoubted. Yet most people do not know.”
45:27 To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and when the Hour shall come, on that Day the negators (sic) shall lose.
45:28 And you will see every nation kneeling; each nation being called unto its Book: “Today, you shall be rewarded for what you used to do.
45:29 “This is Our Book which speaks against you truly. In fact, We used to record what you were doing.”
45:30 As to those who believed and did the righteous deeds, their Lord will admit them into His Mercy. That is the manifest triumph.
45:31 But as for those who disbelieved [they will be asked]: “Were not My Signs recited to you, but you waxed proud and were a criminal people (the Meccan unbelievers)?”
45:32 And when it was said: “Allah’s Promise is true and the Hour is undoubted”, you said: “We do not know what the Hour is. We only conjecture and are by no means certain.”
45:33 Then the evil of their deeds shall appear to them and they will be smitten by that which they used to mock.
45:34 And it will be said: “Today We forget you, as you forgot the Encounter of this your day, and your abode is the Fire and you will have no supporters.
45:35 “That is because you took Allah’s Signs in jest and the earthly life lured you.” So today they will not be brought out of it and they will not be allowed to repent.
45:36 Praise, then, be to Allah, the Lord of the heavens and the Lord of the earth, the Lord of the Worlds.
45:37 Unto Him is the grandeur in the heavens and on the earth, and He is the All-Mighty, the All-Wise.
Allah would not tell them when the Hour would strike and bring about the “Encounter” i.e. Judgement Day and therefore it is only logical – the pre-Islamic Arabs being a reasonable confident people – that they would admit to not knowing. Such a rational people could be expected to speculate about the time, the place and how Allah would pull off such a thing, if such a thing was even possible.
In Allah’s Universe, you may not even conjecture about what He tells you you do not know; and what He tells you is the truth which you must believe "with certainty", no matter the incongruity.
The disincentive that is Allah’s blanket embargo against seeking knowledge of what He tells you you do not know, and not to question what He reveals as to how His Creation functions, may be partly responsible for the Muslims world, which constitutes 21 percent of the world’s population (2011), having produced only 10 Nobel Prize laureates, with only two in the physical sciences (1979 physics, 1999 chemistry).
Another is the inordinate amount of worship and glorification time Allah demands (if prayer is the answer, than the world may eventually owe Islam an enormous debt).
Not to be overlooked is the requirements of an Islamic education where priority is given to learning Arabic and attempting to memorize the Koran in its entirety; the negative impact on critical thinking just as damaging, if not more, than the time not available to non-religious subjects which Islamists consider very much a pre-occupation of the ignorant.
The period before Islam, on the Arabian Peninsula, is generally referred to by Muslims as Jahiliya, the time of ignorance when world views as numerous and as varied as the colours of the rainbow flourished. Then Allah sent His last messenger and that multi-coloured view of the universe changed to black and white and humankind’s relationship with its Creator was demoted to that of mere supplicants of a vain and vengeful God.
The Prophet’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 with his followers marks this alleged transition from ignorance to enlightenment. The year of this exodus is known as the Hijra or Hegira. The Hegira begins the Muslim calendar and is represented as 1 AH or 1 al-Hijra.
As you read the revelations surrounding the Meccan unbelievers’ statement about the ravages of time, and about expressing doubts, you may be left to wonder as to the meaning of ignorance.