Teaching and Learning in the Qur’an

Vincent J. Cornell
University of Arkansas

We Hear and Obey.

In Islam, God is the ultimate source of knowledge and the Qur’an is the primary source of religious learning. The Arabic term Qur’an is a verbal noun that carries the connotation of a “continuous reading,” “recital,” or message that is recounted or listened to over and over again. Thus, the term may be translated into English as “recitation,” “recital,” or even “teaching.” God “speaks” the Qur’an and human beings learn by listening.? The response of Muslims to God’s command is, “We hear and obey” (2:285). Those who actively listen to God’s teachings and obey his commands prosper and are saved (24:51); the hypocrites who say, “we hear” but do not listen (8:26) do not respond to the call and are lost. Muslims are encouraged to “listen to God’s verses when they are recited,” and should not “become arrogant, as if [one] had not heard them” (45:8).

Clearly, as far as the Qur’an is concerned, God teaches by speaking with the voice of authority; human beings learn by listening to God’s voice through the text of the Qur’an and by submitting to his authority. Although in contemporary Islam much is made of following the call ( da’wa ) to the truth, in Qur’anic discourse the person who hears God’s call submits and obeys (cf. Higton , 2-3, 4-5).? This, after all, is the basic meaning of the term, Islam : to submit to the dictates of the divine Word. Because the existential relationship between humans and their Creator is expressed in terms of a lord-servant ( rububiyya vs. ‘ubudiyya , literally, “slavery”) relationship, the condition of obedience itself is logically prior to the form?such as following God’s call?that obedience takes: “When thy Lord drew forth their descendants from the children of Adam, He made them testify concerning themselves [saying]: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They replied, ‘Yes, we do so testify'” (7:172). ???

The Books of God and the World.

Throughout the Qur’an, divine revelation, and especially the Qur’an itself, is called a “book” ( kitab ). ? However, this term should not be understood as just an ordinary book. In medieval Arabic, the term kitab stood for any type of dictated communication, whether it was written or verbal.? The Qur’an refers to itself as Umm al-Kitab , “Mother of the Book” or “Sourcebook” (13:39). As such, it acts as a model of divine communication and as a sort of “teacher’s guide” to divine pedagogy. One learns from this book that divine pedagogy is based on a methodology of what today would be called “active learning.” To use the terms that Mike Higton applies to learning in the New Testament, divine pedagogy in the Qur’an is a method of participatory learning that is based on an interleaved reading of two complementary sacred texts: the Qur’an and the lived world around us (cf. Higton , 5-6).

An aya , a verse of the Qur’an, is a teaching in the speech of God (9:6). A sign of God in nature is also called an aya .? In Lisan al-‘Arab (The Tongue of the Arabs), Ibn Manzur (d. 1311-12), one of the most authoritative lexicographers of premodern Islam, defined aya as a “sign” ( ‘alama ), a term that is etymologically related to the verb “to teach” ( ‘allama ) and whose relevance to modern semiotics cannot be overlooked. The purpose of these divine signs, whether they are to be found between the covers of the written Qur’an or in the “book” of nature, is the same: it is to teach human beings about the nature of the Divine Reality. To be a person of knowledge ( ‘alim ), one must learn two registers of divine discourse: the Arabic text of the Qur’an and the “text” of the natural world. ? The world is a book to be studied and learned by the person of knowledge, just as the word of God is a book to be studied and learned by the religious scholar. The prophet Abraham read the signs of God in the stars, the moon, and the sun, and understood God to be the creator of the universe (6:75-79). ? Likewise, the prophet Solomon was inspired by God to learn the “discourse of the birds” (27:16).

Thus, from the Qur’anic perspective, Muslims are “People of the Book,” but they do not study the Book in an ordinary way. ? The Qur’an makes it clear that spiritual learning is interactive ; it is meant to transcend passive learning or rote memorization. ? Significantly, the Qur’an most often uses the Arabic verb “to study” ( darasa ) when referring not to Muslims, but to Jews or Christians. These earlier “Peoples of the Book” are depicted as missing the spiritual point of Islam by fetishizing the word of God and by approaching the divine message in an unreflective way. An example of such a depiction can be found in the following verse:

A subsequent generation succeeded them and inherited the Book. They take whatever they find in this lower world and say, “It will be forgiven us.”? If something similar came to them, they would take it again. Have they not accepted the Covenant of the Book, such that they should say naught about God but the truth? And they even studied ( darasu ) what is in [the Book]!? The Abode of the Hereafter is better for the God-fearing. Do you not remember? (7:169)

Learning by Seeing (Qur’an 6:101-106).

The only use of the verb darasa in the Qur’an that does not refer to Jews or Christians is in Surat al-An’am (6. The Cattle): “Thus do we display our signs ( ayat ), so that they may say to you [Muhammad], ‘You have indeed studied ( darasta )!’? And so that we may make [the Message] clear for a people who understand” (6:105). ? Here, the practice of formal study is referred to in a mocking tone, for in the context of the wider discourse in which the verse appears, real learning is “learning by seeing” (cf. Higton , 2).? This latter type of learning is referred to in the Qur’an as “The Eye of Certainty” ( ‘ayn al-yaqin , 102:7).? In the following verses, learning by seeing involves the visionary experience of revelation, the display by God of signs to be read by those with discernment, and spiritual sight as a form of consciousness, the sight that comes from the “eye” of the soul:

Such is Allah, your lord.? There is no god but He, Creator of All Things. So worship him, for He is the Agent ( Wakil ) of All Things.

Vision does not comprehend him, but he comprehends all vision. He is the Caring ( al-Latif ), the Fully Informed ( al-Khabir ).

Visions ( basa’ir ) have come to you from your Lord. ? Whenever one sees, it is for the sake of his soul, and if one is blind, it is against [his soul]. I am not your keeper.

Thus do we display our signs so that they may say to you [Muhammad]: “You have indeed studied!” ? And so that we may make [the Message] clear for a people who understand.

So follow what has been revealed to you from your Lord. There is no god but He.? And turn away from those who assign partners to him (6:102-106).

The concept of “learning as seeing” that appears in this discourse broadly corresponds to Plato’s idea of the “vision” of the intellect; it refers to the knowledge that is acquired by the spiritual intelligence, which the Qur’an locates metaphorically in the heart. Before attaining this type of knowledge, the breast of the believer must first be “opened to Islam” (39:22).? Once the breast is opened, the heart assimilates God’s teaching as a divine “light” or illumination (39:22).? With the Eye of Certainty, what leads a person to knowledge of God are not arguments that are to be understood by the rational mind, but rather theophanic “appearances” ( bayyinat ) that strip away the veil of worldly phenomena to reveal the divine Truth. These theophanies constitute a self-evident argument for anyone with understanding.? The importance of such self-evident arguments to the acquisition of religious knowledge is reflected in the fact that Sura 98 of the Qur’an is entitled al-Bayyina .

The Teaching of Wisdom (Qur’an 2:30-39).

One of the most important uses of the Arabic verb “to teach” ( ‘allama ) in the Qur’an can be found at the end of verse 113 in Surat al-Nisa’ (4, The Women), where the revelation of the Qur’an is portrayed as a wisdom teaching: “Allah has revealed to you [Muhammad] the Book ( al-Kitab ) and the Wisdom ( al-Hikma ) and taught you ( wa ‘allamaka ) what you did not previously know ( ma lam takun ta’lam ).”? It is clear from this passage that there are two main vehicles for God’s teachings: written scripture, in the form of the revealed text of the Qur’an, and the subtextual “Book of Wisdom” that complements the written scripture. The semiotic nature of these wisdom teachings can be discerned in verses 30-39 of Surat al-Baqara (2, The Cow), which introduce humanity’s divine vicegerency and describe the temptation and expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. ? In the first portion of this discourse we are informed that God taught Adam the “names” of all things:

And [God] taught ( ‘allama ) Adam all of the names. Then He placed [Adam and Eve] before the angels and said, “Make known to me the names of these if you indeed uphold the truth ( in kuntum sadiqin ).”

[The angels] said, “All glory is yours!? We have no knowledge ( la ‘ilma lana ) except that which you have taught us ( illa ma ‘allamtana ).? Verily you are the Knowledgeable ( al-‘Alim ), the Wise ( al-Hakim ).

[God] said, “Oh Adam! ? Make known to them their names.” ? And when [Adam] had made known to them their names [God] said, “Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of the heavens and the earth ( ghayb al-samawati wa al-ard ), and that I know what you reveal and what you conceal (2:31-33)?”

In these verses, the “names” that God teaches to Adam stand for the essential natures of things.? By teaching Adam the “names of all things,” God bestows upon humanity the wisdom of both the inner essences and the outer forms of created things. This ability to understand both overt and subtle truths is fundamental to the concept of wisdom in the Qur’an. For the Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), the “names” that God taught to Adam were, in a sense, God’s own names, because all of existence is a manifestation of the divine names.? In Book 558 of al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Revelations) Ibn ‘Arabi states, “In truth, our entities are [God’s] names. ? They can be nothing other, for in His own self God decrees and differentiates affairs” (Michel Chodkiewicz, William Chittick, and James W. Morris, The Meccan Revelations Volume I ).? According to Ibn ‘Arabi, when the angels say to God, “We have no knowledge except what you have taught us,” they are actually saying, “We have no knowledge of our existence apart from what you have made known in us.” In other words, the self-knowledge of the angels, like the self-knowledge of all sentient beings, is not newly learned knowledge. ? Rather, it is “old” knowledge. It is, in effect, a remembrance of times that have been lost ( une recherche du temps perdus ) to present-day consciousness, an existential remembrance of the primordial covenant struck between creature and Creator at the beginning of time: “He made them testify concerning themselves [saying]: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They replied, ‘Yes, we do so testify'” (7:172).

Qur’an 18:54-82.

The most famous parable of teaching and learning in the Qur’an is the narrative of Khidr the hermetic sage (18:60-82), of whom God says, “We taught him knowledge from our own presence” ( wa ‘allamnahu min ladunna ‘ilman ) (18:65). This “knowledge from God’s presence,” which is referred to in Islamic literature as ‘ilm laduni , defines the wisdom ( hikma ) that is the goal of divine pedagogy.? Surat al-Kahf (18, The Cave), where the Khidr narrative appears, contains three stories that are presented as parables in the manner of wisdom traditions: these are the narrative of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the Khidr narrative, and the Dhu’l-Qarnayn (The Two-Horned One) narrative, which Muslim exegetes have associated with the Alexander romances of late antiquity.? The Khidr narrative in particular is a parable of discipleship whose use of the imagery of a fish, a boat, and the sea is somewhat reminiscent of Mark 1:16-20 in the New Testament. This narrative is prefaced (18:50) by a reminder of the earlier narrative of the creation of Adam and of God’s command to the angels to acknowledge Adam’s vicegerency (2:30-39). The text goes on to state that God has explained the meaning of numerous parables in the Qur’an, but that human beings remain, for the most part, argumentative and contentious (18:54). “Who,” asks the Qur’an, “is a greater wrongdoer than one who is reminded ( dhukira ) of the signs of his Lord and turns away from them, forgetting what his hands have wrought? ? Verily, we have covered their hearts with veils, lest they understand it, and over their ears we have placed deafness.? So if you call them to guidance, they will never come to guidance at all” (18:57).? This, indeed, is one of the messages of the Khidr narrative, in which the Prophet Moses is unable to remain patient with the unexplained? and seemingly unexplainable? actions of his mysterious guide. Ultimately, Moses is rejected by Khidr as an unworthy disciple because his lack of patience denotes a lack of obedience. This is one of many reiterations in the Qur’an of the point made at the beginning of this paper: that learning demands first of all obedience and a willingness to listen and “see.”

Knowledge by Remembrance.

Verse 18:57 above also reminds us that divine pedagogy, whether it is in the form of the written Qur’an or the wisdom tradition that acts as its complement, relies before all else on the ability of the heart to remember what it has “heard” or “seen” of the divine truth. In the Qur’an, the verb “to remember” ( dhakara ) appears in one or another of its forms?in the sense of remembering, recalling, invoking, recollecting, or remembrance?no less than 280 times.? It is far more common than any variation of the verb “to learn,” and the frequency of its appearance underscores the importance of remembrance as a tool of divine teaching.? “All that we relate to you of the stories of the Messengers of God,” says the Qur’an, “is for the purpose of strengthening your inner heart ( fu’ad ).? In this [Qur’an] is the Truth, a warning, and a remembrance ( dhikra ) for the believers” (11:120). According this and other similar verses, the greatest sin committed by humans is ghafla , the forgetfulness of the self-evident truths that every created being was born to remember.?

Ultimately, all of the “hearing” and “seeing” that is part of learning God’s wisdom in the Qur’an takes place in the heart, which is the site of spiritual intellection.? Although the pedagogy of the Qur’an also speaks to the mind as a means of approaching knowledge, it is clear from numerous passages that the mind, in its love of argument and attachment to rational intellectual processes, may actually hinder remembrance and render one “deaf” or “blind” to God’s message. In a letter to the Sufi Abu ‘Uthman al-Makki, the master of the Sufi way Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd of Baghdad (d. 910) speaks in the following terms of the scholar ( ‘alim ) who lives entirely in the mind and is spiritually tone-deaf to God’s Wisdom:

The circumstance which prevents you and those in your state from achieving your goal after . . . long hours of study and protracted meditation in collating your knowledge and increasing its scope, is your inclination towards indirect sophistical interpretation and your predilection for worldly standards of which you yourself are unaware. Now there are many types of those devoted to indirect interpretation.? There is the type who is aware of his own failings and recognizes his hidden fallibilities, but nonetheless continues to interpret indirectly; [such a person relies] on fallible knowledge and from time to time forgets the inherent weakness in his method of deducing knowledge. There is also the type that favors indirect interpretation with the objective of clear and proven truth in his deduction. But in this process he cannot escape his own unwitting prejudice, which must influence him in his aim. As a result, he has an overweening trust in the conclusions which he achieves and relies on them exclusively . . . [Such] people are they who have based their guidance on the exposition of men whose counsel though sincere is wanting, men whose fate it is not to light on the ultimate truth which they seek. (Ali Hassan Abdel-Kader, The Life, Personality, and Writings of al-Junayd , 132-135).

In contrast to the scholar who is prevented by his own mind from learning the divine Wisdom is the sage or wise man ( hakim ), who realizes that whatever he says or knows is meaningless unless it is first sanctioned by God. The wise man, echoing the teachings of the Qur’an, counsels the scholar to open his heart to God’s wisdom and to realize that knowledge gained by remembrance is superior to the knowledge gained by formal intellection. ? This path, the way of the sincere student of the soul, is the only path toward the attainment of true knowledge. ? Such a person, according to Junayd, “walks in the footsteps of the prophets and follows the way of life of the friends of God ( awliya’ Allah ) and the righteous ( salihin ).? He does not stray after innovations, nor does he refrain from accepting the agreed traditions of Islam.? In learning he is expert, well grounded, and strong and his attitude is clear, explicit and balanced . … Such are those who have filled and beautified their lives with the remembrance of God.? They pass their lives in good and fine works and they leave behind for their fellow men a praiseworthy memory and the brilliance of their light shines clearly for their fellow creatures” (Ibid, 143-144).


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