This series is a study of concepts which feature prominently in The Quran. The words representing these concepts appear tens, if not hundreds, of times and form the backbone of its philosophy. This study is based on my own personal method of study called ‘Qira’ah Wujudiyyah’ (QiWu) or ‘An Existential Reading’. It does not necessarily represent any other Quranist although our methods may overlap. The point of QiWu is to transcend any religious or historical connotation but rather to find a meaning that fits our experience of life.
‘Ibaadah ( عبادة) is a foundational idea in The Quran, appearing more than three hundred times in various forms. I have chosen to translate the word as ‘worship’ which readers may take to indicate a performance of rituals. This is, however, not what I mean at all. ‘Worship’ in English has a wide variety of connotations including servitude, devotion and attachment. I believe these meanings are contained in the Quranic concept rather than rituals.
In the earlier parts of this series, we have looked at explanations of worship which are relatively abstract. In this particular essay, we will look at practical demonstrations of the concept. Quran is replete with stories of various personalities. These personalities are said to give us lessons in life (11/120, 12/111, 54/5) and concrete demonstations of how Quran’s abstract ideas come are realised. Given that, it is important to put our metaphorical/archetypal hats on in order to fully absorb these life lessons.
Ch 7 (Traditionally known as Al-A’raaf) is the first chapter in the Quran to give us a series of the stories told us in sequence. Starting from Vs 59 with the personality Nuh, all the subsequent personalities give their people the same formula related to worship. This continues all the way to Vs 93. After that, from Vs 94 to Vs 102, there is a formulation of what took place in these stories. An induction, if you will. Then a new phase starts in Vs 103 but that is not part of this essay.
Let us return to 7/59-93. In these narratives, five personalities are mentioned: Nuh, Hud, Salih, Luth and Shu’aib’. They were sent to their respective peoples and, with the exception Luth (the reason of which we will analyse below), their opening statement to them were:
يَاقَوْمِ اعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ مَا لَكُمْ مِنْ إِلَهٍ غَيْرُهُ
O my people, worship God. There in no god other than He…
Given that these four personalities say the same thing (Nuh in 7/59, Hud in 7/65 , Salih in 7/73 and Shu’aib in 7/85) we can conclude that the programmes they propose to their people are explanations of the concept of worship. What are these programmes?
In the case of Nuh, the program is obviously the building of the ark which is alluded to in 7/64. They denied him and thus did not participate in this process. The ark here, if we were to read it symbolically, represents a vehicle of safety and refuge in the midst of dangerous situations which threaten to overwhelm us. We may visualise our very nations to be ‘arks’!
Next comes the story of Hud who is mentioned for the first time in 7/65. The people of Hud are called the ‘Ad. These people came after the people of Nuh and achieved an unparelled state of achievement. However, they started to give authority to elements which had none from Allah. This alludes to worship of forms and institutions. They created a false reality for themselves away from reality.
After this, came the story Saalih and his people, the Thamood. The unique element in his story is the naaqah or the she-camel. If we understood this symbolically, it refers to the economic engine of a society. That which takes us forward, replicates and provides for our needs. How we must care for it rather than to hamstring it. It would then take care of us.
Now comes the story of Luth at 7/80. As mentioned before, there is no statement to worship of Allah. Why is this the case? If we analyse the sequence of narratives, Luth’s people were already at the state of oppression already unparalleled up to that point. Rather, his story shows what happens when the above three principles are ignored.
After the story of Luth, comes the story of Shu’aib. Shu’aib brings the most fundamental advice to his people. The advice relates to the ethics between people and making sure that rights are fulfilled. Shu’aib’s story is the first principle in rebuilding society after destruction. However, his people did not follow his instructions.
So what can we filter from the stories above with regards to worship?
1. Build a social vehicle which protects its passengers
2. Continuing to purify our worship from false realities
3. To care for the society’s economic engine
4. To build social relationships with justice
All these are included in Quran’s concept of worship. Hence, in order to worship God, we must follow the above principles. Only then can human societies survive and thrive.