Learning to Ask Questions: The Cases of Abraham and Noah (p) in the Qur’an

Umeyye Yazicioglu
University of Virginia

Among other things, the Quran is a call to ask questions. The first believers in the Quran’s message were the ones who could break the shell of complacency and question the legacy of their forefathers. [1] The questions that the Quran invites its reader � or hearer � to ask are “simple” questions. These questions are meant to penetrate the thick veil of carelessness and familiarity that covers our eyes so that we see the world under a fresh light. It is through these questions one comes to the threshold of faith or moves up the ladders of certainty in faith. I will name this questioning to which the Quran repeatedly calls us: “primary” questioning.

There are also questions mentioned in the Quran as accounts of certain people’s questions. Some of these are ‘bad’ questions, which are asked by “wrongdoers,” and others seem to be ‘good’ questions, asked by messengers of God or believers in some context of tension. When Jesus’ (p) disciples or Abraham (p) ask for a sign of resurrection, they are granted it, but when the potential or actual unbeliever asks about how God resurrects the dead he is told that a boundless suffering is prepared for him. The aim of this essay is to try to see what makes a certain question a right one in the Quranic discourse. My thesis is that the questions asked without due attention to the primary questioning are ‘bad’ ones, while questions asked in due order, i.e. after reflecting on the existential questions stirred up by the Quran, are deemed good questions. It is as if certain underlying questioning practices should be cultivated before other questions could be asked. In this sense, I think, the aim of the Quran is not to eradicate questioning but discipline it, and to teach us how to ask questions. After very briefly treating the ‘primary questioning’ in the Quran, I will take the questions of Noah and Abraham (p) in the Quran as sample cases of asking questions the right way. Before I move into my discussion, however, I would like to clarify some of my assumptions in reading these Quranic passages.

Rules for Reading the Quran

There are several general rules that were helpful in my reading of these Quranic passages.

First is the idea that to whom the Quran is speaking is no less important than who is speaking in the Quran. In other words, when reading these scriptural passages a Muslim keeps in mind not only that its author is Divine, but also that the Divine is talking to us , the creature.� This is also named as tanazzulat al ilahiyya, [2] i.e., God’s speaking on the level human being can understand. So the question is not simply what God means in a given passage, but what God means to communicate to me there.

Another rule that is deemed crucial is to read a given Quranic passage in the perspective of maqasid al Quran, or the overall purposes of the Quran. In other words, a faithful reading of the Quran comes through reading a piece from it in the view of the whole. Traditionally there have been slightly different views of what these overall aims of the Quran are. In general, however, it is agreed upon that the Quran is about faith in one God, and human life in connection to and in response to this God known with different attributes, such as mercy, power, wisdom. [3] The idea is that the aim of the Quran is to get across these major motifs even when it is addressing a minor narrative detail or a ‘natural’ phenomenon.� In anything the Quran speaks of, from a woman’s complaint about her husband, to a bee making honey, to financial contracts � the Quran’s aim is to make God more known to us. [4] � Its primary aim is not about giving technical information about history or nature, nor to provide literary entertainment (hence the Quran’s insistence that it is not “poetry.”) In B. Said Nursi’s words, the Quran does not talk about the things for their own sake but for the sake of their signification of God to us [5]

Another hermeneutical rule, which plays a crucial role in the works of major traditional exegetes, such as al Tabari (d. 923), al Tha’labi (d. 427), and al Razi (d. 1210), is the idea that the Quranic verses can have more than one meaning. Their conviction that the word of God cannot be exhausted justifies a rule of polyvalence in the exegetical tradition: any interpretation that does not undo the plain sense is an aspect of intended meaning of the given verse. [6] �� Al Ghazali insists that the individual reader of the Quran should not be misled to think that Quran signifies only those meanings that have been handed down from early Quran authorities. [7] The criticism on the part of some modern scholars that often there is no one interpretation agreed upon by Muslim commentators may be taken as a compliment. [8]

Finally, a word on extra-Quranic sources. Traditional exegesis often provides background to Quranic verses. � Not surprisingly, the main source is the narrations of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, (p), which is also considered a form of Revelation, though distinct from the Qur’an. They are often very helpful in interpreting a given passage. There is also a body of information with varying degrees of authenticity called “circumstances/occasions of revelation,” ( asbab al nuzūl ). � It talks about the historical situation in which a given verse was revealed. Next, there are other sources derived from bible and Jewish folklore, which are used to help to “fill in” the details especially when the passage is a narrative piece. These details, termed as Israiliyyat , were traditionally deemed helpful or at least not harmful as long as it did not contradict the plain sense of the Quran. However, in using Israiliyyat , there is also the danger of over-explaining the unmentioned details of a story, and especially in the modern exegesis there is a complaint that these details included in traditional commentaries often cloud the message of the Quranic passage. This tendency I share to some extent; additional information given in some commentaries was not very helpful for the questions I bring to these passages.

Part 1: The Call to Ask Basic Questions

Familiarity has risks. � We may be often unappreciative of a valuable thing simply because we have had it repeatedly. Through the lens of familiarity many great things seem unimportant to us. It is this veil of familiarity ( ulfat ) that the Quran seeks to render aside. � Everything from the simple glass of water to a ‘normal’ bird is in fact a miracle- not because we cannot “explain” them “as yet,” nor because they are rare, but because despite our intense familiarity with them and our ability to develop hydraulic or thermodynamic rules about them, they are still wonderful. As Charles Mathewes rightly notes, in directing all our interest to technical knowledge, we miss a very crucial part of being human: to wonder and ask questions. [9] It is precisely this shell of clich�d explanations that the Quran seeks to break open through its invitation to ask questions: “how many a sign is there in the heavens and on the earth which they pass by [unthinkingly,] and on which they turn their backs.” [10]

Here is one passage among many in which the Quran invites people to stop and think about things that they have taken for granted without much thought.

It is We who have created you, why, then you do not accept the truth? Have you ever considered that [seed] which you emit? Is it you who created it � or are We the source of its creation?

We have indeed decreed that death shall be [ever-present] among you: but there is nothing to prevent Us from changing the nature of your existence and bringing you into being [anew] in a manner unknown to you. � And, [since] you are indeed aware of the [miracle of your] coming into being in the first instance � why, then, do you not bethink yourself?

Have you ever considered the seed which you cast upon the soil? Is it you who cause it to grow � or are We the cause of its growth? [For,] were it Our will, We could indeed turn it into chaff, and you would be left to wonder [and to lament], “Verily, we are ruined! Nay, but we have been deprived [of our livelihood.]”

Have you ever considered the water you drink? Is it you who cause it to come down from the clouds � or are We the cause of its coming down? [It comes down sweet-but] were it Our will, We could make it burningly salty and bitter: why, then, do you not give thanks? (Qur’an 56:57-72)

And, again:

Do they not look at the sky above them � how We have built it and made it beautiful and free of all faults? And the earth we have spread it wide, and set upon mountains firm, and caused it to bring forth plants of all beautiful kinds, thus offering an insight and a reminder unto every human being who willingly turns unto God. (50:6-8)

Among the first hearers of the Quran there were those who just could not understand how the mention of simple tiny things, (for the Quran even mentioned small creatures like ant, spider and bee) could be reconciled with eloquence of the Quran.The Quran insists, however, that:

Behold, God does not disdain to propound a parable of a gnat, or of something [even] less than that. Now, as for those who have attained to faith, they know that it is the truth from their Sustainer – whereas those who are bent on denying the truth say, “What could God mean by this parable?” (2:26)

To reiterate, the fact that we keep seeing a certain event and can even trace, name and describe it, does not mean that the event does not deserve our awe anymore. The different colors of plants (Quran 16: 78), or the formation of the baby in mother’s womb (see: Quran 16: 13, 69; 35:28) are wonderful , even if we “explain” them with fancy names, such as ‘photosynthesis’ or ‘tropoblast differentiation.’ In this sense the Quran’s call is not about faith in extraordinary events but rather about the faith in the maker of the “ordinary.” � This must be one reason why Muhammad (p) often redirected the requests of people for extraordinary miracles to reflection on creation. � He was sent primarily to teach how to read the “ordinary” signs of God, rather than to perform extraordinary miracles. In this respect, the traditional insistence that even though Muhammad (p) did perform miracles, his major miracle was the Quran is very meaningful: the greatest miracle is the one which shows that everything is a miracle. �� According to the Quran, this is not just Muhammad’s (p) task, but rather is the task of all messengers. �� We turn now to two of these messengers, Noah and Abraham (p) to see how this basic questioning becomes a framework for all other questions.

Part 2: Learning the Etiquette of Asking Questions

According to the Quran, both Abraham and Noah (p) called their people to pay more attention to the world around them and to their own selves, and to think anew those things that they took for granted. Noah (p) says the following, for instance:

What is amiss with you that you cannot look forward to God’s majesty, seeing that He has created [every one of] you in successive stages? Do you not see how God has created seven heavens in full harmony with one another, and has set up within them the moon as a light [reflected] and set up the sun as a [radiant] lamp? And God has caused you to grow out of the earth in [gradual] growth; and thereafter He will return you to it [in death]: and [then] He will bring you forth [from It] in resurrection. And God has made the earth a wide expanse for you, so that you might walk thereon on spacious paths.(71:13-19)

The story of Noah in the Quran parallels the biblical account. �� He stays long years among his people (29: 14), calling them repeatedly, both openly in public and secretly in private. (71:9) Yet, the people insist on rejecting Noah’s message, and God tells Noah to build the ark. [11] � Then, God brings the flood and commands Noah to get into the ship:

“Place on board of this [ark] one pair of each [kind of animal] of either sex, as well as your family � except those on whom [Our] sentence has already been passed � and all [others] who attained to faith!”

Next, comes the crucial episode for our purposes:

So the Ark floated with them on the waves (towering) like mountains, and Noah called out to his son, who had separated himself (from the rest): ‘O my dear son! Embark with us, and remain not with those who deny [the truth]!’

The son answers by saying that he will betake himself to the mountain, and it will protect him from the flood. Noah warns:

“Today there is no protection [for anyone] from God’s judgment, save for those who had earned [His] mercy!”

At that moment a wave comes between Noah and his son, and the son drowns.

Noah was distressed that his son had died as an unbeliever in the flood. This is indeed a heartbreaking moment in the story�(this is where the reciter of the Quran in annual Ramadan prayers at Kaba breaks into tears, and this is the point my little nephew brings up whenever we speak of the story of Noah, upon him be peace.) � Had not God promised that his family would be saved? [12] How could this happen? � Theoretically Noah (p) could do several things with this troubling question. One option, which is a seemingly pious one, would be to suppress it, (and there are some commentators who feel the need to explain why Noah �upon him be peace� did bring this question up. [13] ) Another option would be to rebel against God saying that He did not keep his promise. But, Noah (p) does neither of these. Rather, he puts his question in the form of a prayer:

And Noah called upon his Sustainer, and said: ‘O my Sustainer! Verily my son was of my family; and verily Thy promise always comes true, and Thou art the most just of all judges!’ (11:45)

In other words, he starts reasoning with premises that he is sure of- he is not only sure that his son is from his family, but he is also sure that God keeps His promises and that God is just. He does not suppress his question, since he is aware that like any other creature and event, this question is a potential sign of God. Besides, since he is clear in his “basics,” that is, because he has been reading God’s other signs in the universe, he is sure that God is all Merciful, Wise and Just. � Hence, he has no reason to be afraid of asking the question. And, for these very same reasons Noah does not rebel against God, either, for how can he erase all at once the proofs he had seen for God’s justice and promise?

And, it is because of this way of asking questions that Noah (upon him be peace) is able to receive an answer. So, continues the Quranic account: “[God] said: ‘O Noah, behold, he was not of thy family, for verily, he was unrighteous in his conduct. � And thou shall not ask Me of anything whereof thou hast no knowledge: thus, behold, I admonish thee lest you become one of those who are ignorant.” Noah, then, ends up retracting one of his premises- the premise that he took for granted without much thought. He gains a new definition of family- a more profound understanding that all believers are one family, and that the faith bond surpasses blood bonds. Noah readily answers in praise and prayer to this new insight.

Another exemplary way of framing questions is seen in Abraham (p), narrated in Quran 2:260. In this episode, he asks a question about resurrection: “Behold! Abraham said: ‘My Lord! Show me how Thou give life to the dead.'” And, God answers with a question: “Do you not then believe?” Of course, God would know Abraham’s faith better than Abraham (p) himself. Here the principle of tanazzulat al ilahiyya is explicitly useful: the speech is not just Divine speech but Divine speech addressed to the creature, God is speaking to Abraham, hence God’s question is for Abraham’s (upon him be peace) and our sake rather than being for God’s information. Thus, He must be asking this so as to teach him (and us) that the orientation with which one asks a question is decisive in getting answers. Abraham (p) answers: “Yes, [I do,] but [I ask] in order that my heart may be at ease.” As a response, God shows him a sign. This means that his question has been accepted, while there are many other requests of miracles that have been rejected in the Quran (e.g. 20: 133).

Here, I would like to underscore the way Abraham puts his question, he puts the question as someone who gets his premises right. Or, as one commentator puts it, he asks it with courtesy ( adab). � This courtesy is evident right from the start, for he begins with “O my Lord/ Sustainer.” [14] He asks as someone who had asked the basic questions about the world in the light of Revelation and realized that God is all powerful. [15] Yet, this awareness, the fact that he is a believer, does not make him suppress his question, the need of his “heart” to actually see another example of resurrection. [16]

Some of the traditional commentaries go into details of why Abraham could have asked such a question. These commentators provide different contexts for this question, some of which are a bit unexpected [17] , but they all agree that he was not asking this because he underestimated God’s power. Rather, the question was a request to move up from one certainty level to a higher one. Indeed, as one commentator said, only the knower of God [‘ arif billah ] asks such a question, for he would want a higher degree of certainty. [18]


In one of his articles, Rowan Williams asks how we are “authorized” to speak of God and he discusses how theology learns its language. [19] Williams is rightly worried that if we take revelation as something static and dogmatic, then revelation will be “heteronomous,” an alien view imposed from “an elusive ‘elsewhere.'” [20] As an antidote, he proposes that revelation should be seen as a dynamic event, “that break[s] existing frames of reference and initiate new possibilities of life.” [21] Williams notes that on the one hand, revelation is an event that ‘grasps’ us (to use Paul Tillich’s terminology), which “opens up a world” �in Ricoeur’s words� that is not made by us. Hence, it is calling us beyond ourselves. From an Islamic perspective this may correlate with the Quran’s insistence on casting aside the shell of familiarity to see “ordinary” things anew, as signs of God.

On the other hand, this request of the Quran to ask questions is not a heteronomous imposition on us but a reasonable, comprehensible request. As Williams emphasizes, encountering revelation is not a passive act; it emerges also by the questions of its witness: “Thus revelation is a concept which emerges from a questioning attention to our present life in life of a particular past.” [22] �� He notes that only when the community reconstructs itself in response and in guidance of revelation that it can be “authorized” to speak of God. As a Muslim, I take this to be parallel to Abraham’s and Noah’s (p) “authorization” to ask questions about God. The right questions are possible only after one opens oneself to the new way of reasoning that the Scripture brings.

Finally, journey to God is a journey of learning how to ask questions. �� As Charles Mathewes interprets Augustine’s continued search for God after his conversion, the activity of asking questions is “a basic mode of being-in-the-world.” [23] � Faith does not suppress questions, rather it encourages them and gives them a direction.� Indeed, when one moves beyond that threshold into faith, the questions do not cease. � Though they take a different form, they still serve to strengthen the faith. An important consequence of this is that faith is not seen as dogmatic and static; rather it is seen as open to questions and ever evolving. And this is the point where “questioning blossoms� into exegesis,” encountered both in creation and Scripture. [24]

Appendix: Test Cases: Wrong Questions

The wrong questions, according to the Quran, are the ones that are asked in pride, without due fairness to overall human experience in the world, questions that are asked out of arrogance. The Quran has different ways of dealing with them: sometimes simply mentions them, with no comment — assuming the stupidity of the question is clear to a careful reader, sometimes it answers them by exposing the distorted way the question is put in, and sometimes it directly warns not to ask these types of questions. Here are some examples of these “wrong” questions mentioned in the Quran.

The “Cow” Incident:

The longest chapter of the Quran, “The Cow,” gets its title from an incident narrated at 2:67-73. � The story is about how Children of Israel postponed carrying out a command of God by asking for more details:

And lo! Moses said to his people” “Behold, God bids you to sacrifice a cow.”� They said: “Dost you mock at us?” He answered: “I seek refuge with God against being so ignorant.” Said they: “Pray on our behalf unto thy Sustainer that He make clear to us what she is to be like.” [Moses] replied: ‘Behold, He says it is to be a cow neither old nor immature, but of an age-in-between. Do, then, what you have been bidden!” Said they: “pray on our behalf to thy Sustainer that He make clear to us what her color should be.” [Moses] answered: “Behold, He says it is to be a yellow cow, bright of hue, pleasing to the beholder.” Said they: “Pray on our behalf unto thy Sustainer that He make clear us what she is to be like, for all cows resemble one another; and then, if God so will, we shall truly be guided aright! � [Moses] answered, “Behold, He says it is to be a cow not broken-in to plough the earth or to water the crops, free of fault, without markings of any other color.” Said they: “At last thou hast brought out the truth!” and thereupon they sacrificed her, although they had almost left it undone.”

Their questions come not from a genuine need to know but from their reluctance to carry out the command. Thus their questions do not help them progress in any way, only makes their duty more difficult. �Ibn Abbas (d. 687), an early authority on Quranic interpretation, said “if [in the first instance] they had sacrificed any cow chosen by themselves, they would have fulfilled their duty; but they made it complicated by themselves, and so God made it complicated for them.” [25] This abstaining from unnecessary questioning became, in turn, a principle of Islamic law, according to which unnecessary questions are not to be asked so as not to make the rules more difficult for the believers.

When is the Judgment Day?

Another type of wrong question that the Quran frequently mentions is the question of unbelievers about the time of Judgment Day. This question is asked by unbelievers as a response to the Quran’s invitation to faith. “But they ask: ‘When is that promise [of God’s judgment] will be fulfilled, [answer this o you who believe in it,] if you are men of truth?'” (21:38; also see: 7:187; 10:48 ). In neither of these instances, is there an “answer” to this “when” question given by the Quran, (except for the statement that knowledge of the Last Hour is known only to God)�because the question is a wrong one. It is asked with a prejudice, not to verify or refute the faith in the Judgment Day. � That is, even if one knew the exact time of the Judgment Day, that would not help in either verifying or rejecting the claim of the Quran that one is accountable for one’s deeds.

Can God Resurrect Us?

Also, in the Quran wrong questions about resurrection are mentioned, and this is indeed a good contrast with Abraham’s (p) request for a special sign. The unbelievers are narrated as saying: “Why- after we have died and become mere dust and bones, shall we, forsooth, be raised from the dead? And, perhaps also our forebears of old?” (37:16-17) � Quran’s and Muhammad’s (p) answer is a call back to the “basics,” i.e. to the fact that resurrection is constantly taking place all over, such as in the formation of a living fetus out of the dead substance, the reviving of the earth in spring and so on. “Is man, then, not aware that it is We who create him out of a [mere] drop of sperm- whereupon, lo! He becomes an open contender in argument. � And, he coins for Us a simile, and is oblivious of how he himself was created! [And so,] he says, ‘ who could give life to bones that have crumbled to dust?’ ” (36:77-79, italics mine) As a reply the Quran reminds these “basics” that are overlooked: “Say, He who brought them into being in the first instance will give them life [once again], He has full knowledge of every act of creation.” (77:78-79). But, again, these basics are not imposed but suggested in a reasonable manner, here Quran turns to talk of “signs” in creation that point to the ability of God to give life after death. (77:80-81).


[1] And those who failed to rethink their presuppositions were the ones who were hostile to the message: “But when they are told, “Follow what God has bestowed from on high, some answer ‘Nay, we shall follow [only] that which we found our forefathers believing in and doing.’ Why, even if their forefathers did not use their reason at all, and were devoid of guidance?” (2:170) See also 5: 104.

[2] Al Ghazali describes this as follows: “[it is] the bounty of God and His kindness towards His creatures in descending from the throne of His majesty to the level of their understanding.” ( The Recitation and Interpretation of the Qur’an: Al Ghazali’s Theory , tr. by Muhammad Abul Quasem, London/ Boston/ Melbourne: Kegan Paul International, 1982) Also see, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, The Words: From the Risale-i Nur Collection, ( tr. by Sukran Vahide, Istanbul: Sozler Publication, 2002), 200, 401.

[3] The point is that the whole Quran is infused with these aims. �� For al Ghazali (d. 1111) the overall purposes of the Quran can be summarized into six, three basic and three complementary: “definition of the One called on; definition of the Straight Path that has to be followed to journey towards Him; and definition of the state whereby He may be reached. The other three are complementary: description of the state of those who respond to the call and of the subtleties of the Divine art manifested on such people; description of the condition of the deniers and their abasement and ignorant obduracy in the face of the truth; teaching how the way-stations on the journey to God Almighty are established and how the provisions necessary for the journey, and the necessary capacity and awareness, may be obtained.” �� According to Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) Qur’an revolves around four matters: Godhead, prophethood, the hereafter, and Divine Decree and Determining ( al-qada and al-qadar ). Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Musa al-Shatibi (d. 1388) notes that Divine unity, prophethood, and the resurrection of the dead and instruction in Law. See Ziyad Khalil Muhammad al Daaghamin, “The Aims of the Qur’an in Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Thought,” A Contemporary Approach to Understanding the Qur’an: The Example of the Risale-i Nur 20 th -22 nd September, 1998 , by The Istanbul Foundation for science and Culture tr., Sukran Vahide. (Istanbul: Sozler Nesriyat A.S., 2000), 356-257.

[4] See also Ghazali, 65-69.

[5] See: Words, 143-144; 273-274.

[6] Al Thalabi understands the verse 31: 27 that reads as “If all the trees in the earth were pens and the ocean [were ink] �seven oceans after it to replenish it, the words of God would not be exhausted, God is All- hearing, All-seeing” as pointing to this inexhaustibility of Quran’s meaning. Walid A. Saleh, Formation of the Classical Tafsir Tradition: the Quran Commentary of al Tha’labi , (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2004), 2. Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) also notes that the Quran “is perpetually new for any of those who recite it.”

Quoted in Michel Chodkiewicz, An Ocean without a Shore, Ibn ‘Arab�, the Book, and the Law, tr. by David Streight, (Albany, NY : State University of New York Press, 1993), 25.

[7] See Ghazali, 89-105.

[8] As Andrew Rippin suggests the search for one “real” meaning for a given verse is not a helpful approach in Quranic studies. � Approaches to the History of Interpretation of the Quran, ed. Andrew Rippin, (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1988), 5.

[9] Charles T. Mathewes, “The Liberation of Questioning in Augustine’s Confessions,” Journal of American Academy of Religion, 70:3, Sept 2002, 543-546.

[10] � In this paper I have used primarily the translation of Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Quran . ( Gibraltar: Dar Andalus, 1980), but also benefited from the translations of Yusuf Ali and Marmaduke Picktall. The latter two are available on line at: http://islamicity.com/mosque/quran/

[11] The following episode is narrated in Quran 11:40-46.

[12] In fact already in the promise before the flood an exception was mentioned, ” except those on whom [Our] sentence has already been passed.” Noah (p) seems to have overlooked this exception, or as al Shawkani (d. 1834) notes in his Fath al Qadir he might have thought that the exception did not apply to his family but to other apparent believers. [Unless otherwise noted the commentaries mentioned in this paper are available in original Arabic from http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp ]

[13] Some of the commentators seem to be troubled about what made him ask such a question: did he expect that his son should have a special treatment unlike other wrongdoers? �Or is he upset about the fact that any disbeliever is punished at all? Did he expect that an insistent wicked person be saved? (After all, the whole point of the flood is that the wrongdoer will face the bitter consequences at the end; and Noah himself asked that this happen [54:10; 71: 26-28]). Of course none of these are possible for Noah, (p), because he is a messenger of God, someone chosen and sent by God to set a good example for the believers. � Hence the commentators bring different explanations of how Noah (p) came to ask such a question: he did not understand the exception phrase in the promise, or maybe he had thought that his son was a believer, while in fact the son had been a hypocrite Razi notes, here, that Noah made a mistake in ijtihad , which is deemed an innocent mistake not a sin in Islamic tradition. Whatever the misunderstanding was on the part of Noah (upon him be peace) the fact that he did, at least temporarily, perceive a tension between the promise and what has happened is good for us. For, it gives us the opportunity to formulate a good question out of that puzzlement.

[14] Quoted in Razi, Tafsir al Kabir.

[15] Abraham (p), as the example of an ideal believer and muslim in the Quran, displays instances of this basic questioning. His story of arriving at faith (or for some commentators re-confirming faith) after a series of questioning is narrated in the Quran, (6:74-79), where we find him questioning the beliefs of his people in the light of observing the universe and arriving at the conclusion that none of the objects that his people idolized deserved worship. Quran interprets this conclusion as: “and, thus We showed Abraham the ‘ power and the laws of the heavens and the earth’ [ malakut ] , so that he might (with understanding) have certitude .” (6:75, italics mine) Abraham’s (upon him be peace) breakthrough was not only a reflection on the outer world but was also on his inner self. ((see 6: 76; 19: 41-42; 37:88), see also Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Quran, (Minneapolis, MN : Bibliotheca Islamica, 1989), 69).

[16] This reminds of another episode in the Quran, concerning the disciples of Jesus (p): “Behold! The disciples, said: ‘O Jesus the son of Mary! Could thy Lord send down to us a repast from heaven?’ Said Jesus: ‘Fear God, if ye have faith.’ They said: ‘We only wish to eat thereof and satisfy our hearts , and to know that thou hast indeed told us the truth; and that we ourselves may be witnesses to the miracle.'” (5:112-113) � Jesus prays for the miracle, but only after making sure that this request is made in the proper context, taqwa , consciousness of God. God’s reply to Jesus’ (p) is in turn with a warning�signifying that the sign will serve its purpose only with those with the right orientation.

[17] These contexts seem to imply that Abraham (p) asked the question more because of an external condition than an inner need for more certainty in faith. One example is that Abraham (p) was told that he was a friend of God and God would show a special sign, so he asked to be able to see he was indeed a friend of God. � [See classical commentators such as, Razi, Tafsir, and Nasafi, (d. 1310) Madarik al Tanzil wa Haqaiq al Ta’wil .]

[18] Razi, quoting from Ibn Arabi, in Tafsir.

[19] Rowan Williams, “Trinity and Revelation,” Modern Theology , 2: 3 (April 1986) pp 197-212.

[20] Ibid.,. 197.

[21] Ibid.,. 199.

[22] Ibid. (italics mine.)

[23] Mathewes, “The Liberation of Questioning in Augustine’s Confessions,” 549.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibn Abbas (d. 687) was one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (p). al Tabari, quoted in Asad, 15.