By Irshaad Hussain
History as memory
When the Qur'an talks of past events it often speaks of them as if these events exist within our own memories or in a collective human memory as an integral part of our own selves and of our human heritage and nature. It has a unique methodology in that it asks us to recall some past historical occurrences in the same manner with which we remember events from our own lives, as if they exist in our own individual, personal storehouse of experiences.
"And remember We gave Moses the Scripture and the Criterion (between right and wrong) (Qur'an 2:54).... And remember Abraham and Isma'il raised the foundations of the House (Qur'an 2:127)....And remember We divided the sea for you (Qur'an 2:51)....And remember We took your covenant (Qur'an 2:63).... Remember Your Lord inspired the angels (Qur'an 8:12)....This is a word of remembrance to those who remember (Qur'an 11:114)....And remember Jesus, the Son of Mary, said....(Qur'an 61:6)." It uses a language and a direct mode of expression that encourages us to erase the distance between ourselves and these past events, these historical events, by pulling them to the forefront with a compelling immediacy of attention. It seems to be telling us, through its technique of expression, that this historical distance does not exist in any real, metaphysical, essential sense.
The Qur'an asks us to be present, in our own era, wherever truth requires us to be present and it requires that presence to be a deeply rooted presence, not a superficial, ineffective, fleeting presence. It asks us not to regard humanity's past as merely "tales of the ancients" (Qur'an 83:13), or as quaint historical footnotes that are irrelevant to our times and our own modern notions about the nature of things, about the nature of society, of humanity, of morality. It presents the world as more than just matter, as more than a chronological string of occurences. Rather, it posits an essence and reality to certain events that lifts those events out of time, giving them a presence in a higher reality, in a deeper, more substantial layer of existence, and thereby makes their essential truths accessible to all times and places.
So when the qur'an speaks of Moses and Aaron, of Zachariaha and Maryam, of the various prophets and men of knowledge that have walked the earth it raises their stories out of historical time and into a universal time. It presents them almost as universal memories and then it asks us to remember, to recall.Then it tells us that these memories are family memories - the family is that of Adam (s.a.), and Abraham(s.a), Moses (s.a.) and Aaron (s.a), Jesus (s.a.) and Muhammad (s.a.) and all the other messengers and their supporters recalled in the pages of the Qur'an. Between us and them there is to be no distance in love, respect, or honour.
All distances are erased - the chronological time that separates us and them vanishes, like an ephemeral veil that dissolves at our touch. With the Qur'an's methodology we are with Moses (s.a.) when he confronts Pharoah, we are with Abraham (s.a.) when he destroys the idols, we are with the Prophet (s.a.) as he struggles to deliver the message. We are with him as he tells the story of mankind and awakens the memories and lessons and truths of our own past within us.
So the Qur'an teaches us a new way to look upon history. It is not "ancient stories" but living truths. It teaches us to erase the distance between ourseleves and the past and to call forth the past like memories, till a total picture of the history of truth is formed - a history which spans all times and all places, a history whose essence is imprinted in the substance of reality and which is not restricted by any earthbound chronology.
Memories are not distinct from us, they are an integral part of us, of our knowledge, of who and what we are. They define and shape us, they are not intellectual abstractions but are a living part of us, shaping our consciousness and our personalities. The Qur'an asks us to extend our memory beyond our individual selves and so unites our separate histories with the total history of humanity with the aim of giving substance to our ephemeral, fleeting lives and uniting us with the common thread of truth that weaves its way across the centuries.Meta-historical religion
In the Qur'an, the key "events" which determine man's metaphysical makeup all take place outside the flow of time as we know it. They take place in a different plane of existence than this material plane - in a "trans-historical" or "meta-historical" plane, where time has a different flow and flux so that the relation of that world to this must be viewed as a hierarchical rather than a linear relationship.One of these events is the creation of Adam and the teaching of the names to him. The Qur'an says, "...Thy Lord said unto the angels: lo! I am about to create a mortal out of mire, And when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My Spirit, then fall down before him prostrate....And We taught Adam the names (realities) of all things...." (Qur'an 38:72...)
These events take place outside of the flow of history as we understand it. They are metaphysical, rather than exclusively physical in nature. They are metaphysical answers to the question "What is man? What is contained in his essential nature and what is his potential?"Islam is not a religion rooted in a single historical event through which God enters history - instead all the key events take place outside history, in pre-eternity in a different hierarchy of existence.
Then a "descent" to this world takes place through which these timeless events enter into the realm of cause, effect, and chronological, linear time.Another event spoken of in the qur'an is the pre-eternal covenant made between God and the human spirits (all of the descendants of Adam). This is expressed in the form of a question which God asks all of the human spirits before allowing them to enter into the physical plane of existence. He asks, "Am I not your Lord?" (Qur'an 7:172). They all answer in the affirmative, the implication being that everyone who is born into this world has agreed in substance (in the essence of their soul) to this covenant, and that although we may have no conscious knowledge or memory of this pact, its reality is woven into our very nature.
This world is a place of distraction and forgetfullness but at our core lies the metaphysical truth of this covenant and one of the purposes of religion is to awaken to consciousness an awareness of this bond between God and man as well as all the concealed potentials that flow from this bond. All of the Prophet's have come throughout the entirety of history to remind men of their promise of fidelity to this pact. The Qur'an also often refers to itself as "a reminder", as a call towards taqwa, towards an awakened, aware consciousness.A third event spoken of in the qur'an is mankind's acceptance of the "trust" offered to them by God. "We did indeed offer the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof. But man undertook it (the trust)...." (Qur'an 33: 72,73).
These key events all deal with the metaphysical nature and capacity with which man is created. A concurrent event, the teaching of the names (or realities) of all things to Adam, is an indicator that within man (within his metaphysical makeup) exist vast storehouses of knowledge, or a capacity for knowledge, through which he can comprehend mysteries that perhaps even the angels are unaware of (signified by their bowing down before Adam).The Qur'an constantly urges mankind to "remember" - to become aware of their inner nature through this remembrance and to awaken that nature.
These "pre-eternal" events are events that are perfectly real without taking place in historical time. If time is considered as a horizontal progression, these events take place along a vertical axis, one which stands hierarchically above all times and all places. Man's essence, because of his origin and nature, participates in this hierarchy. His actions, his movements (mental and physical) in this world, and the state of his nafs (essential self) that results from those actions has an impact on the full substance of his being - throughout its vertical axis. The Qur'an attempts to awaken us to this hidden aspect of ourselves - it is a reminder to a humanity that is "sleeping" and a call for us to awaken from our amnesia, our "forgetfulness" regarding the essential nature of our being. It is a reminder that beyond the horizontal aspect of our existence is a truly vast vertical dimension, an unseen ocean of possibilities and nascent potentials.