A few weeks ago, I was teaching a session on the Qur’an at a Christian seminary in Denver (Iliff Seminary).  It was a marvelous and joyous experience.

As part of that class, I was walking the students through multiple passages of the Qur’an, including the ones dealing with Abraham.    The Abraham narratives in scripture are key for Muslims, Jewish, and Christian audiences, including the Sacrifice narratives.   We studied these passages closely, which brought us to this amazing passage:

Behold! he said to his father and his people,
“What are these images to which you are so intensely devoted?”

Qur’an 21:52

The word that is translated as “images” is tamaathil.    In light of other passages in the Qur’an that discuss the same passage, most translators use the word “images” or even “idols” to translate it.

But the word tamaathil has another meaning:   metaphors, allegories.
It is a meaning more common in the realm of literature.

tomb of Ibrahim, in Palestine.

tomb of Ibrahim, in Palestine. from Wikipedia.

Read in that light, the meaning of the verse, the challenge posed by Abraham to his community, is one that startles us out of our own intellectual and spiritual slumber: Why do we attach ourselves to these metaphors? Why are we so devoted to these allegories in scripture?

This is not a call for radical spiritual anarchism, and certainly not a call for doing away with beautiful interpretations that we have derived from our sacred traditions over the last 1400 years.   (If I believed in that, I wouldn’t spend the last twenty years of my life teaching about various religious traditions.)

Rather, my question is something both more simple and more bold:  If some of the allegories and metaphors of yesteryears no longer work for many of us, why do we continue to attaching ourselves to them?

In the Qur’anic conversation, the community simply responds by stating:

They said, “We found our fathers worshipping them.”
Qur’an 21:53.

Abraham calligraphy

Abraham calligraphy from Wikipedia.

To which the response of the prophetic tradition is:

Abraham said, “Indeed ye have been in manifest error
– you and your fathers.”
Qur’an 21:54.

So what if we ponder this verse as speaking not of idols, but rather of metaphors/allegories?

Are we clinging today to metaphors and allegories of our ancestors as they clung to their idols?

What are some of the metaphors from scriptures (all scriptures, not just the Islamic ones) that no longer serve us, no longer bring us closer to God, yet we insist on clinging to them?

"This is the tomb of our Lady Sarah, may God be pleased with her, the wife of the Prophet al-Khalil (Intimate Friend) of God, may the peace of God be upon him." in the tomb of Patriarchs.   (Khalil, Palestine--named after Abraham the Khalil).

“This is the tomb of our Lady Sarah, may God be pleased with her, the wife of the Prophet al-Khalil (Intimate Friend) of God, may the peace of God be upon him.” in the tomb of Patriarchs. (Khalil, Palestine–named after Abraham the Khalil). From Shutterstock.

Let us explore a few of such metaphors that no longer bring humanity closer to God:

*metaphors and allegories that speak of humanity being divided into faithful and infidels.   Instead, what would be like to conceive of each one of us, and each of our communities, being a struggle, a process, between light and darkness, beauty and selfishness?

*Notion of a personal God.  It is one thing to sacralize the human.  It’s another to personify the Divine.   If God has a face, a hand, a front, a behind, what is “outside” of God?    What if instead we came to conceive of God as the totality of love, the perfection of harmony, and pureness of beauty?    Light?  Existence?  The Universe and the beyond-universe?

*notions of the superiority of men over women.   Enough said.

*Passages that speak about the relationship between humanity and creation through the metaphors of domination and control, as opposed to co-existence and harmony.

*Tribal conception of humanity.   What if we came to see the metaphors of scripture as speaking to us in the language of the societies of the age of scriptures, which were all tribal societies.    What if we began by insisting that the oneness of God has to be seen as always being linked to the oneness of humanity, the oneness of creation, the oneness of the cosmos?   What if we were to realize that we are to belong to God, to become God’s, rather than God becoming ours—even being on “our” side to the exclusion of others.

This is not a call to do away with God, with scripture, or with the prophetic tradition.   Far from it.   On the contrary, it is a reminder to pause, and expose the metaphors and allegories of all of our traditions (including what we have come to see as sacred and ultimate, including the notions of incarnation, Chosen People, “descent” of revelation, etc.) as not truth in and by themselves, but rather as metaphors, as allegories?

And what if we imagined the prophetic presences, then and now, standing before us, calling us to God, to wholeness, to unity, to love, to justice, and asking us:

Why do you cling so steadfastly to the metaphors of your ancestors?

What would be our answer?
Would it be, as the pagans of the age of Abraham did, that we do so only because we found our ancestors doing so?

And do we owe it to our own selves, to our children, and to God Almighty, to scrutinize worn-out metaphors?

May God help us in coming up with metaphors that work for more human beings today.
May God help us in cultivating a consciousness that will enable us to come up with meaningful metaphors in each generation.

5 Comments

  1. “Would it be, as the pagans of the age of Abraham did, that we do so only because we found our ancestors doing so?”

    Isn’t that a huge part of Islam, following the example of Muhammad and the “rightly guided caliphs”?

    So you are no Salafist?

    • even if one was to believe that believers must follow prophet Muhammed and the ‘rightly guided’, the first principle to follow would that they adapted rulings to their particular historical and cultural circumstances, so we should do the same.

      • “the first principle to follow would that they adapted rulings to their particular historical and cultural circumstances,” Aren’t you saying the exact opposite of Omid? Not that i mind that. But I accually agree with him this time. Is it not the historical and cultural adaptations he is talking about? Isn’t that why there are child brides and FGM? Lack of women’s rights do to an ancient cultural patriarchy? “Men are the maintainers and protectors” holds women in a perpetual state of childhood. The tribalism of Islam is one of it’s scariest elements. The ummah vs the kufar is one of the most detrimental narratives in the modern world.

        • Hi Yaqin,

          I liked your first point. One of the many, many problems with this blog post is that it’s fundamentally authoritarian. it still stresses following the “Prophetic tradition,” but by urging reinterpretation of that tradition and claiming ownership over good sounding concepts like love, light, justice, etc., it reserves authority to decide what the Prophetic tradition means to, well, people who agree with Professor Safi.

          No matter how nice a position sounds, if the reasoning used to arrive at it is oppressive, then the implementation will almost invariably be oppressive. Just look at Communism. Or, perhaps more appropriately, modern Islamism.

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