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Historically Specific vs. Universalist Understanding of the Quran

Praise be to God! There is no other god except God. So many times when people use the Quran and try to argue about a certain point, they lean so much, especially the traditional Muslims, they lean so much towards a historically specific understanding of the Quran, which means that when they read a verse or try to tell you about a verse, they will insist that the verse refers to a specific historical event, and according to them, all the other understandings are wrong. Well, we do not deny that a lot of those verses refer to specific historical events, events which really happened. They are not only metaphors, they really happened. However, if the Quran did not specify that event specifically in the Quran, it was on purpose, because that verse does not refer only to that specific historical event, but it also refers to a universal description of a certain issue. Unfortunately, for many people, knowing the specific historical event, pushes them to deny the universal application of that verse. And “universal” means that the verse refers to any time, regardless of history, or to many different times in history (in our times, in the past, and in the future). This is what we can call “universalist” understanding of the Quran. Again, this does not deny the specific historical events, but it helps us to understand more than that, which also includes in itself that specific historical event. However, that specific historical event can not be the most important part of that verse. A specific event in history can not be more important than a universal principle which applies to all times. So, in this sermon let’s read some verses from the Quran, for which the specific event in history is already known, and the attempt here is not to deny it, but to show that it is far less important than the universal understanding to which that verse applies.

Let’s start with Sura 111. It says,

“Condemned are the works of Abu Lahab, and he is condemned.

His wealth and whatever he has accomplished will never help him.

He has incurred the blazing Fire.

Also his companion, the carrier of fuel.

With a natural-rope necklace.”

Now, the story of Abu Lahab, the uncle of Muhammad who opposed Muhammad, is well known. However, do you think that in the book which God intended to reveal for the whole world, God chose to simply trash-talk one of Muhammad’s uncles, because if we understand it as a specific historical event, this Sura does not teach us much else. It just trash-talks Abu Lahab. It does not tell us what Abu Lahab did to deserve the condemnation or what his wife did exactly. However, if we decide to understand it as a universal message, then we learn much more, in addition to the specific historical event. So, to understand this Sura universally, let me also translate the word “Abu Lahab”. The word “Abu Lahab” in Arabic literally means “the Father of Fire”, and the Father of Fire is Satan. So, let’s read the Sura again with the new understanding and see that it makes more universal sense now.

Condemned are the works of the Father of Fire (Satan), and he is condemned.

His wealth and whatever he has accomplished will never help him. (Verse 17:64 informs us that Satan owns wealth).

He has incurred the blazing Fire. (Of course)

Also his companion, the carrier of fuel. (which is a mechanism in Hell to keep Hell going)

With a natural rope necklace. (which means that that mechanism is tied to something to keep it stable, and useful for Heaven).

Now, as you can see, this universal understanding is relevant for all humans. It’s not just about a local tribal dispute anymore.

Let’s read another example: Sura 94.

“Did we not open your chest? And removed from you your burden. Took weight off your shoulders. We exalted you to an honorable position. With pain there is gain. Indeed, with pain there is gain. So, when you are done, then strive. Seeking only your Lord.”

Now again, most ignorant people will insist that this refers to a specific historical event only, and nothing else. They tell the story of how Muhammad’s chest was opened and washed with snow and things like that, and we are not trying to deny it. However, it is much more important to understand this as a universal story. For example, let’s understand it as the story of all believers who go through a surgery anywhere in the torso, because it really applies to all of them. So, let’s read the same Sura again, but without thinking about a specific historical event:

“Did we not open your chest (o you who went through surgery)? And removed from you your burden (the health problem). Took weight off your shoulders. We exalted you to an honorable position. With pain there is gain (so surgery has health benefits). Indeed, with pain there is gain. So, when you are done (with healing), then strive (go back to striving as usual). Seeking only your Lord.” 

Now, if we understand it like this, then we learn something deeper, and universal. First, it teaches us that it is ok to have surgery, if you have some serious health problem, something which burdens you. And this is important, because had this Sura not existed, then from other verses in the Quran we would have to conclude that surgery is prohibited, because there are verses in the Quarn which tell us not to shed blood, and also not to distort the creation of God, and that is true, but those are for voluntary cases, voluntary plastic surgery and things like that. Here in this Sura, it tells us that there is an exception to allow surgery which is done for health problems which burden you, because with pain there is gain, and the pain is the surgery, and the gain is the resolved health issue, hopefully.

Now, let’s read other verses, to show you that we can learn much more from a universal understanding of them, and not just rely on the historically specific event. In Sura 49, for example, verses 4, and 5, we read:

“As for those who call on you from outside the walls, most of them do not understand. Had they been patient until you came out to them, it would have been better for them. God is Forgiver, Most Merciful.”

Now, the historically specific event is well known for this verse. A group of people mocked Muhammad by yelling from outside his house, while Muhammad was inside, and these verses were revealed as a response to that. However, that was only a minor reason for that revelation, but it was not the whole reason for the revelation. And it is very clear here in this verse, that Muhammad is not mentioned, that specific historical event is not mentioned. The verses talk about a general universal case which applies to all messengers, and actually very often to most believers, and actually even more today, because in the past people would rarely call people from outside of the wall, but today, we can be called always from outside the walls with telephones and internet. That’s what telephones are – a call from outside of walls. So, this is actually sort of a prediction about the discovery of telephones and internet – a call from outside of the walls. So, let me read the verse again, and see what they say universally:

“As for those who call on you from outside the walls (through internet, with messages, phone calls and so on), most of them do not understand. Had they been patient until you came out to them, it would have been better for them. God is Forgiver, Most Merciful.”

And this is true. Most people who contact Alban Fejza don’t understand. Alban Fejza gets about twice as many messages from non-submitters or haters than from the believers or submitters whom he likes and respects. Usually, those ignorant messages come from people with anonymous names, but those messages do come. And by the way, whenever we receive messages which might show lack of understanding from someone within us, then we immediately should realize that we haven’t strived enough against those outside of us, because the rule is that most of the messages a believer receives should be from people who don’t understand. So, if you don’t receive messages at work, or from clients, or from religious opponents, from people who don’t understand, then you are pretty much left with messages from within us, and most of them then will be misunderstood messages. So, the moral of the story is that the only way for us to stop misunderstanding each other in our communication through internet is to strive against outsiders. So, an internally focused community causes disputes and misunderstandings. We should focus our energy against the outsiders, so we don’t end up having bad feelings against each other.

Now, let’s take another example of a verse which is unnecessarily narrowed down to a specific historical event, when the meaning of the verse is clearly more universal. For example, verse 2:108 says,

“Do you wish to demand of your messenger what was demanded of Moses in the past? Anyone who chooses disbelief, instead of belief, has truly strayed off the right path.”

Now, the Muhamedans will insist that here it is talking about Muhammad, based on a certain specific historical event which they might have heard, and the half-submitters will insist that it is talking about Rashad Khalifa, but the reality is that this verse universally talks about any messenger who is sent from the time this verse was revealed until the End of the World. Why do people see the need to narrow it down to a specific messenger? It’s not mentioning the names or the characteristics of any specific messenger. It applies universally to any of them. Now, we have to be careful, of course, because some of the historical stories of the Quran can not be read as universal stories, because they simply are not, or they might be only partially universal. So, let’s take an example where the story seems like it might be universal, but then once you read the whole Sura, you realize that it is only partially universal. For example, Sura 105 says,

“Have you noted how your Lord dealt with the cohabiters of the elephant? Did He not cause their plans to fail?”

Now, this part of the Sura is actually quite universal, despite the fact that the story of the people of the elephant is a well-known story which happened during the year when Muhammad was born. The king of Ethiopia wanted to occupy Mecca with an elephant, but his plan backfired. However, these two verses do not claim to refer specifically to that event. The verses only say that the cohabiters of the elephant ended up with failed plans. Now, if we understand this universally, this would mean that the people of the past who cohabited with elephants across any time, they ended up with failed plans, they did not have their plans realized. And when your plans are not realized, you generally remain poor. This means that regions where elephants live are generally poor across history. So, let’s check this. Here is a world map which shows where the elephants live:


And now here is a map which shows world poverty:

Can you see the very high correlation? And this high correlation is true across history. For example, in the past one type of elephant was the mammoth.

It does not exist today, but that type of elephant lived in the northern regions of the world where Canada, Russia and Europe are today:

and in the past those used to be the poorest regions of the world. As the mammoth went extinct in those regions, those regions got richer. Now, the question is, what does poverty have to do with elephants? Well, the elephants and people because of their large brain size are competitors in this world, and whenever people dominate the environment, they get wealthy, and indirectly the elephants are outcompeted. This means that there is no way to eradicate poverty in this world, unless we destroy the environment, which destroys the elephant, and there is no way to prevent climate change, unless we decide to keep poverty going. Climate change is real by the way, a little bit, but there is no solution to it, unless the choices people make are choices which keep poverty going around the world. So, the world has a choice. Would we like to prevent climate change, or would we like to help poor people get richer? It’s either one or the other, or both a little bit. But, it’s not possible to solve both problems completely at the same time. Either we make decisions which eradicate poverty, which also will effectively drive the elephants near extinction, or we try to save the elephants, and keep the poverty with it. However, as you can see the maps do not completely match. That is because this correlation is only partly universal, but not completely universal. So, it’s mostly true that elephants and poverty are correlated, but not completely true. And we can see that the match between poverty and the elephants is not completely universal once we read the following verses in the Sura of the Elephant. The following verses say: “

He sent upon them swarms of flying creatures (drones). That launched on them burned stones (bombs and bullets). He made them like chewed up hay.”

Obviously, this is a specific event, because we don’t see people of those regions being hit with burned stones. However, because this is partly universal, and partly referring to a specific event, these types of verses are verses where specific prophecies about this world can be extracted, because this Sura applies universally during some times, and not during other times. So, one way to understand this Sura is like this:

During the End Times, around the time of the Mahdi, some people from Sub-Saharan Africa, or maybe even South East Asia, in the remaining pockets of the religious fanatics, they will try to occupy Mecca, but they will be defeated with drones which will launch burned stones (bombs and bullets) to them, and will make them like chewed up hay. Someone might say that this Sura is referring to the past. That’s true, but this Sura will be read even just before the End of the World, and when those people read it, it will be referring to their past, and part of their past is our future. Now, had God wanted to tell us that this Sura only applies to that specific event which happened in the sixth century, God would have said so, and would have mentioned the name of the tribe, or the time, or the name of the king, or more details which would exclude the possibility that it would happen again. However, God intentionally left it like this open, saying “cohabiters of the elephant”, and that’s it, because it is talking about more than just the sixth century. It is talking also about the 23rd century, and partially about all centuries, any cohabiters of the elephant, any people who live with the elephant and how that is connected with failed plans. By the way, the elephants were never meant to be domesticated anyway. They are wild animals because the Quran mentions other animals which are meant for riding and for other useful things, but that’s another issue.

So, this is one example of understanding the Quran as more than just a story about a specific historical event. Obviously this method of universalist understanding of the Quran is abused from time to time by many people, because in most of the Quran, the verses are actually only historically specific, which means that they refer to one and only one event in history. For example, when God mentions the stories of Moses and Jesus, and Abraham, and Joseph, and David, and Solomon and so on, no one can come today and claim that those verses also apply to them, because there was only one Moses, and only one Jesus, and so on. The details which are given about those stories, about Pharaoh, and miracles and all that, they make those events historically specific only. There are deeper metaphors in them, which are universal, but the event is a one-time event. So, there is also a tendency, especially today, by more liberal Muslims to abuse the universalist understanding of the Quran, by completely ignoring the historically specific event. However, for most of history, the religious elites have abused the Quran in the other direction by insisting to understand some universal stories as only historically specific stories. So, the Quran is abused both ways by people. Sometimes, they will narrow down the meaning of a verse, when there is no need to do it, or they will try to make a verse universal, when it is clearly talking only about a specific historical event. And this issue is actually too complicated to discuss in detail, which is why whenever we read the Quran, we seek refuge in God from Satan the rejected, and God protects the believers from the ideas of Satan, and lets the disbelievers get those Satanic ideas. Verse 56:79 in the Quran says that no one can understand the Quran except the sincere. And when people are sincere, God guides them to understand the historically specific events as historically specific events, and the universal stories as universal stories.