When Allah swears by something or uses it as witness for something, Allah actually forces man to think and ponder about the world within him as well as the world outside him
Many chapters of the Quran begin with Allah swearing by some natural object. Translators and exegetes of the Quran across the world either translate such ayats as if Allah is really swearing by the natural objects or Allah is actually using the natural objects in question as witnesses for something extraordinary. The first position is held by majority of the translators, while the second one is a minority point of view; however, the second one seems to be more logical both from literary and linguistic perspectives. The present article is an attempt to look at a couple of such ayats in the Quran.
Allah says in the Quran: “By the sun and the way it spreads light (The sun and its spread of light are witness)”; “ I swear by the sky which has huge constructions in it and the promised day…(The sky which has huge constructions in it is the witness and the promised day is the witness…)”; “I swear by the sky and the morning star (The sky is the witness and the morning star is the witness)”; “I swear by the morning and the ten nights (The morning time is the witness and the ten nights are the witness)”; “I swear by the fig and olive trees and the mount Sinai and this peaceful city (The fig and the olive trees and the Mount Sinai and this peaceful city are witness)” and many more like ayats.
The following questions arise in the mind of the reader: Why does Allah swear by these objects or present them as witnesses for something? What is the implication of such witness accounts that the Quran offers in different objects? There could be many more questions but I will try to offer some possibilities with regard to these questions only.
First of all, an interesting thing that one may think of is that Arabs lived in deserts and must have been watching the sky and its amazing beauty with a different eye and clarity. Since Allah talks to them in their own language and metaphors, it is quite natural that in order to build an argument regarding something extraordinary, metaphoric and symbolic expressions like the above-cited ones would be used. Most of such expressions appear in Makkan chapters wherein Allah argues with Makkan people on His Oneness and life after death. The arguments put across by Allah are either rooted in man’s own internal world or in the world of phenomenon; therefore, Allah swears by these objects and uses them as witnesses for something man does not know or does not recognize despite his knowledge of all these things. It could be argued that Allah uses it as a powerful device for turning the attention of man from the known to the unknown.
Second, when Allah swears by something or uses it as witness for something, Allah actually forces man to think and ponder about the world within him and the world outside him. Such an emphasis on thinking and pondering about these things is aimed at opening the eyes of man to such possibilities of thinking and understanding which go beyond the material aspects of human life. Man generally analyses the material and structural form of things and the classification thereof; however, man’s eye does not penetrate the Reality and the Truth that exists in a non-material form. All the objects used in these ayats are material in form; however, when Allah uses them as witnesses there is an indication that such a systematic and beautiful world of phenomenon is neither without a creator nor is absolute unto itself. The transitoriness of the material world is foregrounded and so is the world that man is going to enter after his death. The symbolic significance of such oaths and expressions of witnessing is thus suggestive of something that is outside the world of phenomenon.
Carrying forward this argument, one may say that Allah uses the world of phenomenon as witness to something that man as a result of forgetfulness tends to ignore. In most of the Makkan chapters the Quran uses nature and objects of nature as testimonials for either proving His own oneness or the possibilities of life after death as the logical necessity. Wherever such debates are touched or arguments on this subject are made, references to nature or testimonials of nature are presented as a logical proof of something apparently unknown. The argumentation, therefore, tends to be rational and logical as well.
Third, in literary language when something has a symbolic and metaphorical significance in a text, it is presupposed that the primary addressees of that text understand that symbolic and metaphorical implication; therefore, it is but natural that Arabs understood the metaphorical significance of the way such expressions were used in the Quran for communicating an idea that they had lost meaning of. Moreover, it is also implied by such expressions that the addressee is capable of thinking and pondering on the metaphorical significance of such expressions; otherwise, the user of such expressions would have avoided it. Allah uses such expressions in the Quran because He knew Arabs were capable enough to explore their full process of signification. In this context, Arab readers as well as non-Arabs can fully well understand why Allah uses the sun as witness and what are the most possible associations thereof. The same is true about night and all other things.
Fourth, in literary or non-literary language, when something is presented as a testimonial/ witness for something, it simply implies that the testimonial is closely connected with the idea for which the testimonial or witness is being offered; therefore, going by this argument, all the natural objects point to singularity of the Creator and his control over everything small or big in the universe. The proof of the Creator’s singularity is, according to the Quran, not only a matter of simple logic but also the need of the universe, as multiplicities of control and power thereof would render the universe anarchic. Similarly, life after death is a logical necessity without which the meaning of this world would not be complete. Arguments to this effect are found elsewhere also in Makkan chapters of the Quran. Needless to mention, Makkan chapters are full of ayats that force the reader to think, ponder, reflect and arrive at the conclusions which the Quran has summed up at different places.
Fifth, Arabs would talk precisely and effectively; therefore, the Quran uses their own style of discussion and argumentation. Since many small Makkan chapters of the Quran begin in this style: “By the sun…”; “By the night…”; “By the sky…”, one, therefore, may conclude that it was a style known to Arabs and it also implies that by using these natural objects as witnesses, Allah actually wants to focus the attention of Makkan people on something extraordinary which they would ignore or would refute as a result of corruption that their belief system was suffering from. The Quran used this style to bring home the point that the Creator of the Universe is One and He also deserves to be worshipped; that He has been sending His apostles among the people in order to remind people of the purpose for which they have been created by God; that one day, life on this planet would come to an end and there would be a Day of Judgement on which justice in all its forms would be established by God.
Sixth, the function of witnessing that we see God has assigned to different natural objects is suggestive of the whole of creation around us acting as signs of God’s creative power; in other words, every natural object becomes an ayat itself, as like the ayats of the Quran all objects of nature do also call for thinking and reflection, so that man may identify and recognize the purpose for which he and whole Universe have been created. According to Iqbal, “khuda tujhay dillay fitrat shannas dey/ suqut e gul o lala say kalam paida kar” which means, “May God bless you with a heart that appreciates nature/ You would definitely start conversing with the silence of flowers”. The moment man understands the signification of all the things of nature around him, meanings would gush forth and the journey from known to unknown becomes quite easy.
Seventh, while science deals with matter and material forms alone, religion is beyond and above science as it enables the imagination of man to believe in God and worship Him, though He is non-material and invisible to the eyes of man; nevertheless, the Quran uses a highly powerful literary language for establishing the belief in One God and the manifestations of this belief. It is at times deductive and most of the times inductive in its approach. The different oaths/witnessing expressions that we see in the Makkan chapters of the Quran are a precise but effective way to open the eyes of man through his engagement with the internal and external world, thereby making him discover the Truth of all the truths and the Reality of all the realities.
Concluding, one is reminded of an Urdu couplet while reading such ayats of the Quran: “Patta patta buta buta haal hamara janay hai/ Janay na janay gul hi na janay baagh to saara janay hai.”