From Issue: 503 [Read full issue]
Waters of Divine Knowledge
What is the origin or source of a sense of "universal goodness" or "universal truth" in an individual? If it is true that God created human beings with an innate sense of right and wrong (fitra), it is also true that the Quran and the Sunna teach that this inner sense can be corrupted by persisting in sin, and that one can easily be led astray by one's selfish desires. It is for this reason that revelation is a theological necessity - to help guide us back to what is right. But how do we attain a true understanding of revelation if we are already emotionally and spiritually wounded people?
If we reflect upon the story of Hajar (wife of Abraham, peace be upon them) we find a way out of this dilemma. The spiritual matriarch of Islam shows us that we must first trust in God, and then struggle, using all means God has given us, to find the pure waters of Divine knowledge. Hajar found the holy water only because she was confident that God would provide for her, and then exerted all her energy and resources to find her provisions.
Thus, in the first place, we must use all the intellectual resources God has given us to attempt to understand the true meaning of the Quran. God gave Hajar two legs which she used to run back and forth between the mountains, and two eyes with which she looked for a source of water. God gave Muslims, individually and collectively, sight, hearing, and intellect to put at the service of studying the linguistic and historical context of the Quran. It is impossible for any one individual to master all these aspects of Quranic learning, even in a lifetime of study. A serious effort to understand the Quran, therefore, necessarily includes a deep engagement with the extensive scholarly tradition of Islam.
The second necessary condition for understanding revelation is the proper intention - to sincerely wish to be guided by God. This does not mean that non-Muslims and even atheists cannot contribute to the factual body of knowledge useful to contextualizing the Quran; but you cannot attain what you do not set out to find. The meaning of the revelation can only be accessed by those who believe that ultimate meaning is beyond the limited understanding of any human being and who sincerely turn to the Quran for the purpose of finding that meaning. However, attaining the state of humility that is characteristic of a sincere intention is not easy. How many individuals are confident of the purity of their intentions and the soundness of their hearts, yet clearly are deceiving themselves?
"The Story of the Qur'an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life" - Ingrid Mattson, pp. 229-231