Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Despair and Disbelief (Themes of the Quran Series)

Despair and disbelief are related to one another, according to the Quran: “None despairs of God’s mercy except people who disbelieve” (12:87). What’s implied here specifically is the loss of hope for God’s compassion as a quality of those who willingly or unwittingly scoff the sacred, or, as the word kufr strongly suggests, those who are ungrateful to the point of denial. This verse and others like it have long helped people negotiate trials and difficulty that come with life for reasons discussed below. Its message is entirely optimistic. It is one of the foundational teachings of the Quran, thoroughly “normative” in the sense that its meaning is not dependent on revelatory context nor affected by it. It is meant to engender hope as a daily state of mind that is beyond abrogation.

The verse is not, however, a couple of things: First, a pietistic device, a passage to perfunctorily remember when caught in the straits of hardship, a thing to “do” because it’s proper. Nor does the passage imply a “doctrinal” connection between disbelief (kufr) and despair (ya’isa), as if the presence of one quality instantly results in the other or is proof of it. The temptation to render a layered verse to a flat formula is the swiftest way to molest the beauty of scriptural passages and to invite a serious loss of nuance or even secret. However well-intended the objective maybe, the most good that such a flattening job can do is inspire the Quran’s reader to mechanically push away feelings of despair and despondency because to succumb, at the very least, would be mimicking a trait of disbelief, a condition that has no easy remedy in the Hereafter.

Rather, it is a passage that exposes the rickety connection between appearance and reality, between surface and truth. In the big picture, this is one of integral purposes of revealed scriptures: to keep human beings from being stranded in the realm of strict common perception and thus develop the habiliments that pierce the materialistic veil. Hope is one of these, an emotional limb potentially as effective as any physical component of our being. Despair, on the other hand, is uncovered as severely disempowering.

It is significant that the Quran extols this teaching at the tongue of the Israelite patriarch Jacob as he was counseling his sons. Jacob, by customary measure, had every reason to consider despair: his prized son (Joseph) falling victim to some ruse and, later, his blessed Benjamin likewise disappearing, all at the machinations and moral quagmire of Jacob’s elder sons, who, we should remember, were ultimately supposed to be charged with carrying out the spiritual offices of the Family of Jacob—the arch-Israelite prophet whose his eyes turned white from grief over his losses and the envy-inspired ruse behind the scandals. To hear a tested and great man like Jacob deflate despair at a very difficult and trying moment in his life is especially meaningful because humans require more than platitudes to be moved. It helps greatly to hear these words with the subtle proof of empathy and, of course, credibility, which the speaker of this passage offers. This, in itself, says a lot about relevance and divine defense of it.

It is also significant that this passage was revealed in Surat Yusuf (the Chapter of the Quran named after Joseph son of Jacob). This sura was revealed at an extremely difficult time for the Prophet Muhammad in Makkah, when he had lost his beloved wife Khadija and his protective uncle, Abu Talib. The Qurashite elite were pressing down on the Prophet, now unprotected and more vulnerable. A few of the Prophet’s companions had reached their wit’s end and begged the Prophet for answers as to when will God’s help come. In this context, this longest narrative in the Quran (Joseph’s story) was sent down.

The link between despair and disbelief implies that disbelief or ingratitude conditions the mind to accept despair as the logical reaction to a pointless world, in which tradition and the sacred narrative of life are thought to be forged or formerly lovely things now expired. Like every seminal teaching of the Quran, the Book’s aggressive handling of despair is firmly connected with the transcending truths that all scriptures were charged to constantly remind people of.

In other words, if the world were truly a product of some accident, a magnificently fortuitous collision, and if there were no God, no Hereafter, and no hope for a meaningful life; or if the world and cosmos were necessary emanations of a God-like superior being but who is indifferent to His own emanation and has no extra-worldly plan, then despair would not only be appropriate, but the only truthful response to have. The mere limitation of life, with an end that has absolutely nothing beyond eternal interment in dirt, would properly reduce hope to utter nonsense. Soil and decay as our homecoming cannot be consoled by anything, no matter how poetic the elegies of such a life may be attempted, or the sheer force of mirth, distraction, and affluence—irreconcilable by any argument or hemp.

Separated by generations, contexts, geographies, and social norms, messengers, prophets, and scriptures are amazingly united in affirming that existence does have a Maker who is active in the purposeful nature of all being (the “worlds” or ‘alamin in Quranic parlance), and to Him is our return (a post-soil existence) and that He is a merciful God. In this light, with this awareness of an afterlife in which all injustices will be settled and all good requited and much sin forgiven, despair looks more like the lie and has absolutely no footing in reality. The linkage between despair and disbelief becomes clearer, and not a matter of dogma, while hope becomes the appropriate response and truthful. And since truth is important in religion, to dismiss what connects with it, like hope, is a dismissal of the truth. To resist hope and deny it a place on one's mind, then, is to resist truth. Among the many crises the world faces, a crisis of hope must be ranked near the top. People are not misguided into seeking contentment. The problem, however, is relying on the fleeting stuff of this world for happiness because people despair finding it anywhere else, especially in the unseen realm.

Linguistic considerations:
Ya’isa is best translated as “one who despairs” or one who is plunged into despondency. It is the condition of a person who has lost of hope for something. It also means the emotional quality of a person who has given up trying to do or get something: This day, those who disbelieve are in despair of [obstructing] your religion; so fear them not, and fear Me! This day I have perfected your religion for you, and completed My favor upon you, and chosen Islam for you as religion (Quran, 5:3). Another important theme with regard to despair relates to the strange human character of falling into despair when one is tested, though before he or she had been aloof and haughty with the blessings they had received — giving little thought to the source of one’s comfort and, in fact, believing that it was one's right to have it: If We let man taste mercy from Us and then withdraw it from him, he becomes despairing, ungrateful (Quran, 11:9). When We bestow blessings upon man, he turns away and becomes aloof on his own. But when evil afflicts him, he despairs (Quran, 17:83); Man never wearies of praying for good things. But when calamity afflicts him, he despairs and loses hope (Quran, 41:49).

[A sister word is derived from the tri-literal Arabic qanata (with a dot beneath the “t”, alas the limitation of on-line transliteration). It also refers to despair, nuanced toward despondency.]


Anonymous Irving said...

What an excellent and wise Scholarly thesis :) In Master of the Jinn, ingratitude is indeed the greatest sin. The existential despair of unbelief in anything more than this material life is a veil of the Truth. The Sufi consider the path of love to be the antidote for that veil.

Ya Haqq!

8/23/2006 1:37 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Thank you, Irving. To tell a story that advocates any veil-breaker, like love and hope, is a service to humanity. In fact, it is one of the purposes of art in human life. I can't wait to get to your book. Pray that I get over my reading drought in fiction.

8/24/2006 8:41 AM  
Anonymous razarumi said...

Great post - fascinating stuff.

8/30/2006 9:47 PM  

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