Pairs of qualities of the great teachers
Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 19 May 2023
“By the sun and its brightness! And the moon when it borrows light from it! And the day when it exposes it to view! And the night when it draws a veil over it! And the heaven and its make! And the earth and its extension! And the soul and its perfection! — So He reveals to it its way of evil and its way of good; he is indeed successful who causes it to grow, and he indeed fails who buries it.” — ch. 91, v. 1–10
وَ الشَّمۡسِ وَ ضُحٰہَا ۪ۙ﴿۱﴾ وَ الۡقَمَرِ اِذَا تَلٰىہَا ۪ۙ﴿۲﴾ وَ النَّہَارِ اِذَا جَلّٰىہَا ۪ۙ﴿۳﴾ وَ الَّیۡلِ اِذَا یَغۡشٰىہَا ۪ۙ﴿۴﴾ وَ السَّمَآءِ وَ مَا بَنٰہَا ۪ۙ﴿۵﴾ وَ الۡاَرۡضِ وَ مَا طَحٰہَا ۪ۙ﴿۶﴾ وَ نَفۡسٍ وَّ مَا سَوّٰىہَا ۪ۙ﴿۷﴾ فَاَلۡہَمَہَا فُجُوۡرَہَا وَ تَقۡوٰىہَا ۪ۙ﴿۸﴾ قَدۡ اَفۡلَحَ مَنۡ زَکّٰىہَا ۪ۙ﴿۹﴾ وَ قَدۡ خَابَ مَنۡ دَسّٰىہَا ﴿ؕ۱۰﴾
I have recited the first ten of the fifteen verses of ch. 91 of the Holy Quran, which is entitled ‘The Sun’ from its first word. The seventh verse refers to the perfection of the soul. Therefore the first six verses mention certain natural phenomena which human beings can observe, and we are meant to draw a conclusion from these about what perfection a soul should reach. These perfections were illustrated in the qualities and character of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. We notice that these natural phenomena are mentioned here in pairs, and each pair consists of two contrasting things: the sun and the moon, the day and the night, and the sky and the earth.
The first verse refers to the sun and its great brightness. The sun we see in the sky doesn’t seem to us very big, but in fact you could fit 1,300,000 earths into the sun! We can see that it is so bright that any other source of light or any star that we can see is extremely dim in comparison. If starting from the earth you were to travel further away from the sun, it will gradually appear less and less bright. But it will still remain brighter than any star for a very long distance. Even if you went 100,000 times away from the sun than the earth is, you would still see the sun as brighter than any star. Similarly, the Holy Prophet Muhammad brought such a powerful light of guidance in the world that all other lights faded in comparison, whether it was the lights provided by earlier revelations from God or the lights of knowledge discovered by human efforts. So the Holy Prophet acted as the source of a great light.
The sun is then contrasted with the moon in the verse: “And the moon when it borrows light from it!” The words translated here by Maulana Muhammad Ali as “borrows light from it” are talā-hā in Arabic. Talā means following something in the sense of imitating it, or copying what it is doing. The word used for reciting the Quran, tilāwat, also comes from this word talā, because you follow its script when reading it. But the application of this word to the Quran also indicates that you follow its teachings. There is a verse in the Quran saying literally: “Those to whom We have given the Book, they do its tilāwat as tilāwat ought to be done” (2:121) — یَتۡلُوۡنَہٗ حَقَّ تِلَاوَتِہٖ. Maulana Muhammad Ali translates it as: “Those to whom We have given the Book follow it as it ought to be followed”. Many other translators also translate it as “follow” (for example, Muhammad Asad and also Abdel Haleem and Talal Itani of recent times), although most have it as “recite it as it should be recited”.
Turning back to the verse about the moon and our translation that the moon “borrows light from it”, there are some other translators also who give a similar translation, that it “reflects the sun”. Most translate it as meaning that the moon follows the sun in the sky. If we apply this to the Holy Prophet Muhammad then he is the moon who takes his light from Allah. In relation to the people, the Holy Prophet is like the sun, giving them light. In relation to God, he is like the moon, borrowing its light from God. This is also a model for everyone to follow. Everyone should be both a teacher to people and a giver of knowledge to those who lack knowledge, and still be a learner and recipient of knowledge from those who possess more knowledge than him. In religious systems where there is a leader and he has disciples or followers, the leader is regarded as the source or fount of all knowledge, and the ordinary people are considered as mere followers. These attitudes are not allowed by Islam. The leader should be looking to learn from wherever he can find more knowledge, and the followers should have no hesitation in teaching those who know less than them. The human soul does not reach perfection unless it is both a learner and a teacher.
The next pair of verses is as follows: “And the day when it exposes it to view! And the night when it draws a veil over it!” The words “exposes it to view” and “draws a veil over it” refer to the world. In day time we see things around us exposed to view and at night it is as if there is a veil over them. The “day” in the Quran stands for working in the world and making a hard struggle and the “night” stands for contentment of mind and turning to Allah in solitude, away from worldly concerns. In the Quran the Holy Prophet is told to rise and pray during a part of the night, and it goes on to say to him:
“Surely We shall charge you with a weighty word (i.e. an important message to convey). The rising (to pray) by night is surely the firmest way to tread and most effective in speech. Truly you have by day prolonged occupation” (73:5–7).
During the day, the Holy Prophet was busy in all kinds of work, “prolonged occupation”. He did his personal work, his domestic work, work for the community, in fact labouring for his community of followers, and preaching and teaching. These were his duties in relation to the world around him. Although he of course prayed and led prayers during the day, but in this he was constrained by his duties to the people around him and the people’s convenience. At night he had the scope to devote himself and his mind entirely to God. In God he sought solace, strength, comfort and reassurance. Again, the human soul does not reach perfection unless it makes a hard struggle in the world, for both worldly purposes and spiritual purposes, and also turns to God. He is anxious to do his work as best he can, and yet he is tranquil that he will succeed.
Looking at it another way, during the day we earn things which are required for our physical and bodily needs. A part of the night can then be devoted to activities which are required for our spiritual well-being.
Then we move on to the last pair of qualities: “And the heaven and its make! And the earth and its extension!” The heaven is vast, above us, and the earth is vastly spread under us. This indicates that we should have the highest aspirations and goals to achieve, and yet still remain humble, realistic and, as they say, grounded in reality. Having risen high, we must not become delusional. The Holy Prophet Muhammad had the highest of aspirations, the goal of reforming the world. Yet he himself was in the worldly sense an uneducated person. He achieved a great part of his aspirations when Islam spread throughout Arabia and he became the ruler of the whole country. Such a great achievement from humble beginnings would have turned the mind of someone else in his place and created in him an inflated sense of self-importance. Such a sense is now called hubris, meaning excessive confidence in your own self and believing that you are all-powerful. Some researchers in the field of medicine, psychiatry and human behaviour have made a study of the behaviour of modern political leaders in the Western world. They have concluded that a number of these high-achieving individuals fell victim to hubris which distorted their personality.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> According to a journal The Psychiatrist, published by the Cambridge University Press, the first characteristic of a leader displaying hubris is that he “sees the world as a place for self-glorification through the use of power”.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Now the Quran mentions the Pharaoh of the time of Moses as having what is now called hubris. The Quran tells us:
“And Pharaoh said: Chiefs, I know no god for you besides myself; … And he was unjustly proud in the land” (28:38–39).
Let us compare this with the revelation which came to the Holy Prophet when he was at the height of his success, with people all over Arabia accepting Islam and acknowledging him as their leader and as Messenger of God. It is a very short chapter, ch. 110, entitled ‘The Help’:
“When Allah’s help and victory comes, and you (O Prophet) see people entering the religion of Allah in companies, celebrate the praise of your Lord and ask His protection (from weaknesses). Surely He is ever Returning (to mercy).”
This tells the Holy Prophet that at such an unprecedented time of victory, brought about by God’s help, with people entering into his religion in massive numbers, he must first of all celebrate the praise of His Lord. That means he must glorify God instead of indulging in the self-glorification which is a symptom of hubris. Then he must remember his own mortal frailties and ask God for protection that he might not fall prey to any such human weakness in the time of his victory. Finally, he must hope for mercy from God, which is always open and available.
Let me quote a British scholar, Reginald Bosworth Smith, who wrote in 1874 about the success of the Holy Prophet as follows:
“On the whole the wonder is to me not how much, but how little, under different circumstances, Mohammed differed from himself. In the shepherd of the desert, … in the reformer in the minority of one, … in the acknowledged conqueror, in the equal of the Persian Chosroes and the Greek Heraclius, we can still trace a substantial unity. … Power, as the saying is, no doubt put the man to the test. It brought new temptations and therefore new failures, from which the shepherd of the desert might have remained free. But happy is the man who … can stand the test as well as did Mohammed.” (Mohammed and Mohammedanism, p. 93–94).
So may Allah enable us to follow the example of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and develop and display the pairs of qualities mentioned in these verses, ameen.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> See article in The New Yorker.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Psychiatry and politicians: the ‘hubris syndrome’, Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 January 2018. See link.