The sha’air of Allah, manifestations of Truth
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Limitations of human perception directly impact our ability to realize absolute truth using only sensational or scientific methods. Nevertheless, humans have the ability to understand higher order truths based on meanings and subjective experiences that address an inner part of their consciousness, a reality beyond the reach of science. Languages that can directly address these esoteric meanings are the bridge between the physical world and the higher order world of Unseen knowledge. Divine revelation, delivered in human language, provides us with means to perceive a higher order of truth, natural laws in Creation we can only understand but never prove scientifically, since they are beyond the direct perception of our instruments of observation. Thus is the importance of faith in the human moral journey, to uncover the universal values that science by itself cannot.
Even so, there is a fundamental role that the physical world plays in our understanding of universal values. Here, events that happen in our sensational worldly life can be projections of higher order truths. The visual and sensational aspect of the physical world resonates faster and easier in our minds as compared to the theoretical and abstract expressions of language, which includes all forms of speaking, reading, and writing.
This relationship between the deeper, abstract linguistic principle and the shallower, yet more visible, sensational experience is where the value of an analogy resides. The Prophets, peace be upon them, delivered a large amount of their teachings via parables, stories, or analogies. Analogies are sensory examples that can project a concept into a concrete idea. Because everything in the physical world is a projection of higher order truth and values, resemblance between two different instances can lead us to derive similarities between them in other respects.
For example, the similarity between the rotation of the moon around earth, with its effect in maintaining a stable motion, can lead us to look for rotations as means of stability in general. The rotation of money in a community (spending and investing, as opposed to hoarding) is a sign of the sustainability of that community, like a stable orbit.
In fact, using analogies is an implicit acknowledgment of the existence of higher order values that govern every physical action or movement. In the Arabic language, the words are related to sounds that evoke meanings beyond the physical world. People who master speaking the language would seek analogies in an attempt to explain deeper, hidden meanings. In pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, a poem would almost always start with an analogy that serves as an introduction to the meaning the poet intends to convey.
Islam benefited from this inherent structure in the Arabic language, as it was the chosen language of divine revelation. The pre-Islamic Arabs already had language with which they described and knew Allah:
وَلَئِن سَأَلْتَهُم مَّنْ خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ لَيَقُولُنَّ اللَّهُ ۚ قُلِ الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ ۚ بَلْ أَكْثَرُهُمْ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
If you ask them, ‘Who created the heavens and the earth?’ They will surely say, ‘Allah.’ Rather, most of them do not know.
Surat Luqman 31:25
The problem was that their knowledge of Allah had been obscured by several modes of idolatry that entered the region after Abraham and Ishmael, peace be upon them.
The link between universal values and our repetitive human experiences, which continuously remind us of the presence of higher order values, is a truth that the Qur’an has named as sha’air, usually translated as ‘rituals,’ but which conveys an even deeper meaning. The word sha’air comes from the root meaning ‘to perceive, feel, or experience.’ They are rituals that project deeper, unseen universal values into the world. As Allah said:
وَمَن يُعَظِّمْ شَعَائِرَ اللَّهِ فَإِنَّهَا مِن تَقْوَى الْقُلُوبِ
Whoever honors the rituals of Allah, verily it is from the righteousness of the hearts.
Surat al-Hajj 22:32
Al-Suyuti comments on this verse in Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “They are called sha’air because they point to what is known to be guidance.” So the symbols of Islam – prayer, charity, fasting, the Hajj pilgrimage – are not merely empty and repetitive rituals, but rather are the manifestation of universal values and higher order truth underlying them. They are meant to stir up positive emotions and leave an impression on one’s heart.
Some examples of the sha’air will suffice to explain their significance. One such ritual is the running between the two hills in Mecca, called Saffa and Marwa, as part of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. The action recreates the running of Hajar, the mother of Ishmael, peace be upon her, as she searched for water in the barren desert after Abraham was commanded to leave them.
It seemed like a desperate situation, but the lesson is that Allah always provides for those who rely upon Him. Hajar did not simply sit and wait for water to come, but instead she relied upon Allah in prayer and took action. The ritual is mentioned in the Quran alongside the value behind it:
وَلَنَبْلُوَنَّكُم بِشَيْءٍ مِّنَ الْخَوْفِ وَالْجُوعِ وَنَقْصٍ مِّنَ الْأَمْوَالِ وَالْأَنفُسِ وَالثَّمَرَاتِ ۗ وَبَشِّرِ الصَّابِرِينَ الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُم مُّصِيبَةٌ قَالُوا إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَيْهِمْ صَلَوَاتٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ ۖ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُهْتَدُونَ
إِنَّ الصَّفَا وَالْمَرْوَةَ مِن شَعَائِرِ اللَّهِ ۖ فَمَنْ حَجَّ الْبَيْتَ أَوِ اعْتَمَرَ فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِ أَن يَطَّوَّفَ بِهِمَا ۚ وَمَن تَطَوَّعَ خَيْرًا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ شَاكِرٌ عَلِيمٌ
We will surely test you with something of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives, and fruits. Yet give glad tidings to the patient, who when afflicted by calamity, they say, ‘Verily, to Allah we belong and to Him we will return.’ Upon those are the blessings and mercy of their Lord, and they are among the guided.
Verily, Saffa and Marwa are among the rituals (sha’air) of Allah. Whoever performs Hajj pilgrimage to the House, or Umrah, there is no harm upon him if he runs between them. Whoever volunteers good, surely Allah is appreciative of it.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:155-158
As in this passage, Hajar was tested with fear and thirst, but she was rewarded with her prayer, patience, and action with the blessings and mercy of Allah. Hence, the ritual of Saffa and Marwah is a living embodiment and reminder of this important lesson.
Another example of an Islamic ritual is during the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. The pilgrims who visit Mecca are not allowed to argue, hunt, fight, or insult each other. They are also obligated to dress in the same simple clothing. The underlying truth is that all people come to Allah as the same, regardless of their social status, wealth, or reputation. Muslims must assemble on the basis of this essential equality between human beings and believers:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تُحِلُّوا شَعَائِرَ اللَّهِ وَلَا الشَّهْرَ الْحَرَامَ وَلَا الْهَدْيَ وَلَا الْقَلَائِدَ وَلَا آمِّينَ الْبَيْتَ الْحَرَامَ يَبْتَغُونَ فَضْلًا مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ وَرِضْوَانًا ۚ وَإِذَا حَلَلْتُمْ فَاصْطَادُوا ۚ وَلَا يَجْرِمَنَّكُمْ شَنَآنُ قَوْمٍ أَن صَدُّوكُمْ عَنِ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ أَن تَعْتَدُوا ۘ وَتَعَاوَنُوا عَلَى الْبِرِّ وَالتَّقْوَىٰ ۖ وَلَا تَعَاوَنُوا عَلَى الْإِثْمِ وَالْعُدْوَانِ ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ ۖ إِنَّ اللَّهَ شَدِيدُ الْعِقَابِ
O you who have faith, do not violate the rituals (sha’air) of Allah, or the sacred month, or the sacrificial animals, or the garlands, or those coming to the Sacred House seeking bounty from their Lord and His satisfaction. When you finish the pilgrimage, then you may hunt. Do not let the hatred of a people who obstructed you from the Sacred Mosque make you transgress. Be just and cooperate in righteousness and piety, and do not cooperate in sin and enmity. Be mindful of Allah, for Allah is severe in punishment.
Surat al-Ma’idah 5:2
The outward ritual and rules of the pilgrimage, such as upholding the sanctity of the city, are directly connected to the inward lives of the pilgrims. Even though some idolaters among the Quraysh obstructed the Muslims from completing their pilgrimage, the enduring lesson of the pilgrimage is to not allow hatred in our hearts to control our behavior. We must be fair and just to everyone, even people who were not fair to us.
Yet another example is the connection between Islamic rituals, such as Ramadan and Hajj, to the lunar calendar. The rituals require us to continually observe the pattern of the moon, and thereby reminds us of the deliberate natural order of things. If the ritual can be arbitrarily changed by people, then it carries no larger meaning. Violating the timing of these great rituals would be to violate the idea of a natural, divine order itself:
إِنَّمَا النَّسِيءُ زِيَادَةٌ فِي الْكُفْرِ ۖ يُضَلُّ بِهِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا يُحِلُّونَهُ عَامًا وَيُحَرِّمُونَهُ عَامًا لِّيُوَاطِئُوا عِدَّةَ مَا حَرَّمَ اللَّهُ فَيُحِلُّوا مَا حَرَّمَ اللَّهُ ۚ زُيِّنَ لَهُمْ سُوءُ أَعْمَالِهِمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ لَا يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الْكَافِرِينَ
Verily, the postponing of the sacred month is an increase in unbelief, by which the unbelievers are led astray. They make it lawful one year and forbid it another year, to make the number correspond to what Allah has forbidden and thus make lawful what Allah has forbidden. The evil of their deeds was made pleasing to them. Allah does not guide people who disbelieve.
Surat al-Tawbah 9:37
The idolaters would tinker with the lunar calendar so they could get out of the restrictions the calendar represents; they wanted to shed blood in sacred times and places, and otherwise break the rules and indulge their whims. By fudging the calendar to get what they want, the rules lose all of their purpose and meaning. For this reason, the rituals of Allah cannot be changed lest we miss the lesson of their higher order truth.
In our journey towards faith and wisdom, deeper knowledge of the Creator and the creation, the Islamic rituals are intended to direct our attention to the fundamental moral essences that define them. Our task to not only uphold the outward laws of these rituals, but also the inward spirit they represent; the physical projection of the absolute truth in the Unseen.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.