Reading the Signs of Allah

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia

makkah environs hira cave

Sunrise over Makkah and its environs. Picture taken from the Mountain of Light (Jabal al-Nur) near the Hira Cave.

The entire universe worships its Creator with paramount joy and pride, with neither fatigue nor boredom ever befalling it. This is a truth which humans, owing to their restricted aptitude, will never be able to comprehend. As a result of their arrogance and ignorance though, human beings have developed their own perceptions in relation to many a secret of both the animate and inanimate worlds that surround them. However, most of the existing views and theories are dubious, at best, as they rest on no definite epistemological source. The unsurpassed and only source of trustworthy knowledge in this regard is revelation, that is, the revealed knowledge wherein many secrets of other worlds have been disclosed by the Creator and Sustainer of every creature, as well as the knowledge that derives its authority and orientation from the revealed word. This reality notwithstanding, there are many people who favour the ‘knowledge’ based on assumptions and superstitions over that which is based on the wisdom granted by the Creator and Lord of the universe. Certainly, due to their ideological and epistemological disparities, people’s outlooks on the realities of life vastly differ, often resulting in the creation of not only irreconcilably different but also conflicting cultures and civilizations.


For example, Allah mentions that all the created objects, celestial and terrestrial, are His obedient servants:

“Do you not know that to Allah prostrates whoever is in the heavens and whoever is on the earth – the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, the moving creatures and many of the people? But upon many the punishment has been justified. And he whom Allah humiliates – for him there is none that can bestow honour on him. Indeed, Allah does what He wills.” (Qur’an 22: 18)

“Whatever is in the heavens and on the earth exalts Allah and He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.” (Qur’an 61: 1)

“The seven heavens and the earth and whatever is in them exalt Him. And there is not a thing except that it exalts (Allah) by His praise, but you do not understand their (way of) exalting. Indeed, He is ever Forbearing and Forgiving.” (Qur’an 17: 44)

Furthermore, all nature bears witness to Allah’s oneness, power, wisdom and goodness. All of it contains signs, the unearthing of which leads the believer to an appreciation of the wonders of Allah’s creation, bringing them thus closer to their Lord. It goes without saying, therefore, that nature, in a sense, participates in revealing the truth to humankind; it is, in fact, a revelation in itself. Accordingly, in addition to having the composed or written Qur’an for guidance, it could be duly asserted that humankind has a cosmic or ontological ‘Qur’an’ too for the same purpose. (Seyyed Hossein Nasr) Both revelations complement each other as it were, in furnishing people with the necessary substance so as not to let them betray the trust of inhabiting the earth. It follows that those who fully submit to the divine Will, and also read, understand and apply the written Qur’an, will easily see upon the face of every creature, letters and words from the pages of the cosmic ‘Qur’an’. For this reason does the Qur’an refer to the phenomena of nature as signs or symbols (ayat), a term that is also used to describe the very verses of the Qur’an.

In relation to this, Allah mentions as in numerous verses in the Qur’an that:

“Indeed, within the heavens and the earth are signs (ayat) for the believers.” (Qur’an 45: 3)

“And on the earth are signs (ayat) for the certain (in faith).” (Qur’an 51: 20)

These are the verses (ayat) of the clear Book.} (Qur’an [12: 1] [26: 2])

In his classic Book of Animals, al-Jahiz, a prominent Muslim scholar of the ninth century, writes, reflecting the unique Islamic view of reality, that the miracles (signs) of Allah’s creation are as manifest in the most insignificant as in the grandest. “I would have you know that a pebble proves the existence of God just as much as a mountain, and the human body is evidence as strong as the universe that contains our world: for this purpose the small and slight carries as much weight as the great and vast.”

Hence, the whole of the earthly existence is called ‘alam, which means the world and which is derived from the words ‘alam, ma‘lam and ‘alamah, which all mean symbol, sign, signpost and indication. The world as an independent entity, thus, is a sign itself pointing to the existence of its Creator and to the oneness of His Being. In its multifaceted tiers, however, the world comprises inestimable signs with a variety of modes, expressions and intensities. This undeniable truth led a poet to assert:

Oh, what an oddity…How is it that Allah is disobeyed,

How can a disbeliever deny Him,

When in every single thing there is a sign,

Revealing that He is the One! (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

It is because of this that Islamic science is anchored in the Muslim scientists’ attempts to unearth, comprehend and appreciate the signs of Allah in nature, followed by drawing on whatever such signs can offer to the good of humankind and its civilizational headway. As proven in the history of Islamic civilization, this is best done when the Noble Qur’an is wielded in the one hand and the power of reason in the other with solid bonds connecting them. A one-sided approach to studying the world phenomena will never be able to lead humankind as far as an approach that combines the authority of both reason and revelation can. In the same vein, a conflict, either methodological or ideological, between the proponents of the two epistemological foundations is as bad as a one-sided approach in knowledge acquisition. The last two scenarios have also been proven beyond any doubt as correct by the history of Islamic civilization, as both of them accounted for one of the main causes that brought about a sharp decline in its downfall.

In Islam, while discharging their mission of leadership, humankind is to concentrate neither solely on this world and neglect the hereafter nor solely on the hereafter and neglect the requirements and benefits of this world. While making use of this world, furthermore, humankind is to lay emphasis neither on its physical dimension at the expense of the spiritual nor on the spiritual dimension at the expense of the physical. A healthy balance between the two is to be meticulously struck in order that one is ensured a prospect of enjoying the good of both worlds. Life’s best motto is clear in the words of Allah:

“But among them is he who says: Our Lord, give us in this world (that which is) good and in the hereafter (that which is) good and protect us from the punishment of the fire.” (Qur’an 2: 201)

When commenting on this verse, ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali inferred that, “The proper Muslim attitude is neither to renounce this world nor to be so engrossed in it as to forget the future life.”

The Muslims’ relationship with this world is exemplified in the following verse:

“But seek, through that which Allah has given you, the home of the hereafter; and (yet), do not forget your share of the world. And do good as Allah has done good to you. And desire not corruption in the land. Indeed, Allah does not like corrupters.” (Qur’an 28: 77)

In his book Science and Civilization in Islam, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, while dwelling on the subject of ‘Natural History’ states: “Nearly all these works were written to show the wisdom of the Creator in His creation. Most Muslim natural historians, like the medieval Christians, sought to study natural history not for ‘curiosity’ but in order to observe the ‘signs of God’, the Vestigia Dei, so that they were continually drawing spiritual and moral lessons from the study of the kingdoms of Nature, and saw in the world of Nature a unified domain in which Allah’s wisdom is everywhere manifested.”

This remarkable Islamic philosophy of nature and the whole of the universe, as both a concept and sensory reality, had some serious implications for the life and thought of the Muslims in every time and place. The Muslims readily answered the divine call to open their cognitive senses and observe all of life’s phenomena, thus ascertaining the greatness, wisdom and supremacy of the Creator. Certainly, gratifying sheer curiosity was the least significant factor in this honourable enterprise. However, the most decisive factors were those related to, firstly, reading and grasping the messages of the signs of Allah; secondly, driving the frontiers of science and technology to new levels; and, thirdly, discovering new physical laws based on which life unfolds so that they could be subjected to the service of humankind, the Creator’s vicegerents on earth.

It is certainly for this reason that the terms ‘ilm and ‘alim, which mean knowledge and the one who knows or the scholar respectively, are derived from the words ‘alam, ma‘lam and ‘alamah which all mean symbol, sign, signpost and indication – just like the word ‘alam which means the world, as pointed out earlier. A scholar (‘alim) is so called because they are the ones who read and know the signs of Allah better than anybody else. As a result, they eventually become a sign, so to speak, themselves, as they disseminate the knowledge they gain to others, and exude the light they generated whilst learning and applying the knowledge and wisdom they acquired. Thanks to scholars, people are able to not only see, but also obtain the light and use it to see further and read the signs for themselves. Hence, knowledge acquisition, application and dissemination are of the most highly regarded feats in Islam. Small wonder then, that the first revealed words to the Seal of Prophets, Muhammad (pbuh), were those directly related to the questions of reading and knowledge acquisition in the name of Allah, the Lord of the universe, (Qur’an 96: 1-5)

The life phenomena, regardless of whether they operate in the heavens or on the earth, or whether they are huge or small, are seen as definite signs saturated with meanings and life-force. They are intended for the vicegerent on earth to whom everything in the heavens and on the earth have been subjected, so that they can carry out their vicegerency assignments as effectively and smoothly as possible. It goes without saying, therefore, that every believer should work on fostering a close and intimate relationship with the natural surroundings. They are to read, explore, benefit from and sustain nature’s riches. The relationship between nature and genuine believers is a reciprocal one, that is to say, believers humbly and gratefully take from nature whatever is necessary for their well-being, but they also gladly and generously give in return whatever is needed and expected from them so that the delicate natural equilibrium is upheld. A believer sees and reads nature in his/ her very self, and a number of aspects of their self in nature. They know that both themselves and nature are created for one another, and that there is no life for either one without the other. Every human being is a micro cosmos also permeated with the signs of Allah, just like everything else:

And on the earth are signs for the certain (in faith); and in yourselves. Then will you not see?” (Qur’an 51: 20-21)

Surely, the closer and more intimate the relationship one has with nature, the stronger and certainly healthier an impact such an affiliation can have on one’s outlook on existence, one’s demeanour and spiritual well-being.

Consequently, Islam pays much attention to the concept of the environment with all its components. The Islamic environmental ethics is such an important subject in Islam that its principles have been comprehensively laid down in the main sources of Islam: the Noble Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Islamic view of the environment is somewhat epitomized by the assertion that humankind’s relationship with the environment is so significant that in some instances it takes precedence over other deeds carried out by humans, hence either benefitting them or destroying them. There are many verses in the Qur’an, as well as in the hadiths of the Prophet (pbuh), that attest to this.


Spiritual illiteracy and blindness

The universe is replete with the signs or ayat of the Creator which if properly studied lead people to duly understand, appreciate and worship Him. Such an undertaking, similarly, would lead to a proper comprehending, recognizing the actual value of, and an apt dealing with, nature. Being thus at ease with the world, a person will then become at ease with himself and his primordial nature (fitrah). He will confidently know who he is, why he was created and where he was heading. Only then will he become genuinely useful to himself and to others; only then will he turn himself into a productive civilizational force.

The Noble Qur’an harshly criticizes the notion of ‘ghaflah’ in connection with certain people’s relationship with the signs that Allah has richly spread through each and every layer of creation. ‘Ghaflah’ literally means inattention, heedlessness and negligence, but in the context of reading and comprehending the signs of Allah, the term could be construed as ‘spiritual illiteracy’ or ‘spiritual blindness’. Events and occurrences in nature to some people signify many things and pass on many messages. However, to other people whose senses have been impaired or blinded, the same occurrences appear as dead, dull and represent nothing.

This situation is akin to two travellers who have lost their sense of direction. One is literate, competent and eager to overcome his predicament, while the other is illiterate yet indifferent to what he was up against. However, they remain in the same condition until a sign is found. When a sign is discovered, to the delight of the first person, his major troubles appear to be over. The second person, in contrast, despite the existence of a clear sign is unable to benefit at all from it. The sign tells him nothing, regardless of how long he gazed at it. The most that he can gain from it is that it contains something that, nevertheless, is beyond both his grasp and interests. Moreover, due to his precarious condition, the same sign easily increases confusion and insecurity in the person, thus perpetuating his appalling psychological and spiritual state.

The Qur’an records that due to their arrogance and focus on some flawed pursuits, some people’s senses become blinded, resulting in them being unable to see and read the signs of Allah which are literally scattered everywhere:

And how many a sign within the heavens and earth do they pass over while they, therefrom, are turning away.” (Qur’an 12: 105)

Indeed, it is tragic that such people remain short of perceiving the true meaning of life and death through the signals and messages of Allah’s signs until they die. It is only when they die that the veil impeding their faculties is removed, and the pressure of the lures of their lusts is eliminated, thus making their sight sharp and the clarity of their vision great. Heretofore their senses have been blinded because they constantly turned away from and forgot Allah’s Message and His incalculable signs, which have not been instituted save for the sake of humankind’s total emancipation and deliverance. ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali writes about this in a beautiful fashion: “What is stupor or unconsciousness to this probationary life will be the opening of the eyes to the next world: for Death is the Gateway between the two. Once through that Gateway, man will realize how the things which he neglected or looked upon as remote are the intimate Realities, and the things which seemed to loom large in his eyes in this world were shadows that have fled. The things he wanted to avoid are the things that have really come to pass. Both Good and Evil will realize the Truth now in its intensity.

To wake up, in the most comprehensive sense of the word, not only to the real significance of life, but also to the corollaries of one’s blindness and ignorance while in this world at the juncture of one’s departing from it, is too little too late an accomplishment. Hence, the Noble Qur’an repeatedly communicates that such a belated realization is always accompanied by bitter remorse, disappointment, grief and endless self-reproach on the part of the unfortunate human being. However, once tasting death and passing through the gateway separating this probationary life from the hereafter takes place, there is no return. The time for repentance will then have passed. There is absolutely nothing that can be altered at this juncture, and the whole process reflects the permanent and divinely instituted laws of existence as the Qur’an states:

But you will never find in the way (that is, established method) of Allah any change, and you will never find in the way of Allah any alteration.” (Qur’an 35: 43)

Allah gives us an example of this:

“(For such is the state of the disbelievers) until, when death comes to one of them, he says: My Lord, send me back ? That I might do righteousness in that which I left behind. No! It is only a word he is saying; and behind them is a barrier until the Day they are resurrected.} (Qur’an 23: 99-100)

Sure, the ‘blind’ persons’ realization of their real state in the hereafter will be such an excruciating experience because they were deliberately blind to Allah’s signs in this world, and hence, they will be resurrected blind as well, excluded from Allah’s grace and His unbounded favours:

And whoever turns away from My remembrance – indeed, he will have a difficult life, and We will raise him on the Day of Resurrection blind. ? He will say: My Lord, why have you raised me blind while I was [once] seeing? ? [Allah] will say: Thus did Our signs come to you, and you disregarded them; and thus will you this Day be forgotten.” (Qur’an 20: 124–126)

Due to this, in Islam, faith is normally associated with light, knowledge, wisdom, alertness and meditation, all of which are conditioned by the vigilance, cultivation and proper utilization of the human cognitive senses. Conversely, in Islam infidelity is normally associated with darkness, ignorance, negligence, blindness, thoughtlessness and apathy, all of which are conditioned by the impairment and mistreatment of the human cognitive senses. Accordingly, right knowledge leads to and buttresses faith; ignorance commands and cements faithlessness and vice. The Qur’an clearly indicates this scenario on many an occasion. A very interesting Qur’anic style is to frequently bring up the concept of heavenly signs, either in the Qur’an or the natural world, in the same contexts as the concepts of faith, spiritual well-being, knowledge, comprehension, making right judgments, contemplation, proper usage of cognitive senses, and so on.

It follows that those who are most Allah-conscious and fear Allah most of all amongst humankind are the learned ones:

And among people, moving creatures and grazing livestock are various colours. Only those fear Allah, from among His servants, who have knowledge. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Forgiving.” (Qur’an 35: 28)

They are those who dedicate their time and resources to reading about, discovering, recognizing and appreciating the signs of Allah in both the revealed Qur’an and the Book of Allah’s creation. As an ultimate result of their knowledge and achievements, they set to intensify their profound worship of Allah and unselfish service to humankind. They do so because they recognize how meaningful, noble and advantageous the pursuits rooted in faith and wisdom are, as well as how hollow, ruinous and pathetic the pursuits rooted in ignorance and faithlessness are.

Knowledge, which is based on combining the two readings, the reading of revelation and the reading of nature, is the key to every good in both worlds. One’s real achievements and happiness are commensurate with what and how much one reads, and with what and how much one knows. Both ignorance and ‘erroneous readings’ are the maladies that bring misfortune upon those who subscribe to both or either of them. It is difficult to ascertain which one of the two diseases is worse. As the Prophet (pbuh) used to implore his Lord to protect him from the evil of ignorance, he likewise often sought refuge with Allah from ‘knowledge that brings no benefit’.

Based on the above, it is not difficult to understand why the whole earth has been made for the Muslims as pure and hence as a worthy place of worship (Sahih al-Bukhari); why the Muslims are strongly encouraged to traverse the earth and witness as many signs that operate within different contexts as possible (Qur’an [22: 46]; [29: 20]; [12: 109]); why no harm is to be inflicted on anybody and anything for whatever reason (Sunan Ibn Majah) and why all actions of Allah’s faithful servants must be constructive and enlightening. Nor is it difficult to understand why the believers are fond of staying in touch with the natural environment as much as the prevailing conditions are able to permit. Total isolation from nature’s kingdoms, no matter where and under what circumstances, is never a voluntary and enjoyable option for an enlightened servant of Allah. Total isolation from nature means a denial of access to a prime source of divine inspiration and light. Such should be seen as an offence with some potentially hazardous spiritual and mental corollaries. Interacting with nature is likely to inspire, stimulate, enlighten and soothe, whereas the opposite tends to stultify, depress and exasperate.

This is readily apparent in the ways the Islamic built environment has been perceived and created all the way through. For instance, the notion of the residential and institutional courtyard in the Islamic built environment surely became one of the most identifiable components throughout the history of Islamic civilization and in almost every geographical region. There were many factors that called for such an extensive usage of courtyards, however, intimately interacting with the fundamental elements of nature and the outside space, thus bringing nature to the core of an edifice and making it function as nature-friendly, was one of the most significant factors.

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