The Qur’an presents God as intimately aware of human frailties: the heart under constant threat from the whisperings of the Devil, the temptations of worldly life, and its own selfish promptings. He does not leave humanity alone to become steeped in corruption, but rather sends prophets with guidance (hudá). This is in harmony with the fiṭrah that it encounters and yet is able to supplement it, so as to assist humankind in overcoming its weaknesses to confirm its covenantal agreement to believe in and worship God.
The Qur’an mentions in a number of places that humanity in general was once a single community (ummah wāḥidah). In Q. 1 0:19, “Humanity was a single community, then they split”; in Q. 2:213, “Humanity was a single community, then God sent prophets as bearers of good tidings and warnings, revealing for them the Writ with truth, so that they could judge between the people in that which they differed.” In other verses, such as Q. 16:93, 32:8, and 5:48, which presumably refer to a later stage of history, it is said that God could have kept the people within a single community, but that divine wisdom prevailed in allowing divergence between them.
An aspect of this wisdom is explained in Q. 49:13, “O humankind, We have created you from male and female and have made you peoples and tribes so that you may come to know one another. Certainly, the most noble of you in the sight of God is the most pious of you.” This verse can be read as a definitive rejection of any kind of ethnic supremacy. The creation of diverse nations makes possible the universal experience of encounter with those who differ greatly in culture yet share the same fundamental humanity. Making the criterion of measure taqwá ensures that material circumstance plays no part in the eventual eschatological success of moral actors.
As well as a general category for all of humanity, the word ummah can refer to a particular prophetic community, such as in Q. 7:159, “There is a group among the community of Moses who guide with the truth, and who act justly according to it (wa-min qawmi mūsā ummatun yahdūna bil-ḥaqqi wa-bihi yaʿdilūn).” Millah seems to be a specific term for the same idea and is especially associated with the legacy of the Prophet Abraham, as in Q. 16:123, “Then we inspired you to follow the community (millah) of Abraham devotedly; he was not a pagan.” The Qur’an also has an idea of brotherhood. At the level of humanity as a whole, Q. 4:1 states, “People, be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them spread countless men and women far and wide.” For the community of believers specifically, it emerges in Q. 49:10, “Truly the believers are brothers, so reconcile between your brothers. Be mindful of God; perhaps you will receive mercy.”
As a millah is formed around a prophet, such a community receives a particular dispensation of God’s sharīʿah. This concept of a divine law and moral code for humanity has an implicit scriptural basis, as well as the explicit statement in Q.45:18, “Now We have set you [Muhammad] on a clear religious path (sharīʿatin min al-amr), so follow it.” The word sharīʿah in Arabic is derived from the path that leads to a watering hole, symbolically conveying the way to what is most vital in life. It should be noted that in the Arabic lexicon of the Qur’an there is no clear distinction between the equivalents of ‘law’ and ‘morality,’ the two seamlessly blending in the term sharīʿah.
Numerous Qur’anic descriptions of the prophets and messengers highlight their role as bringers of glad tidings and warnings, referring respectively to the promise of Paradise and the threat of Hell. The general Qur’anic pattern is to describe each messenger of God as having been sent to his people with the repeated refrain, “O my people (yā-qawmī).” Uniquely, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is sent to the totality of humanity and jinn, as mentioned in Q. 21:107 and 46:29–31. In Q. 2:151, more detail is given about the purpose of sending the Prophet Muhammad to the inhabitants of Arabia:
We have sent among you a messenger of your own to recite Our signs (āyātinā) to you, purify you (yuzakkīkum) and teach you the Writ (al-kitāb), the Wisdom (al-ḥikmah), and[other] things you did not know.
The word āyāt can be used for signs, revelations, proofs, or Qur’anic verses. For this discourse about the Prophet, these ideas dovetail insofar as the verses of the Qur’an are presented as inimitable and therefore proof of its divine origin. The term thus connotes the means by which the Prophet establishes his authenticity as speaking for the divine and engendering faith in his community, without which he cannot proceed in his mission. Next, tazkiyah (spiritual purification) is mentioned, as it is only on the basis of interior change, for good or ill, that one ensures success or failure in the world and Hereafter. This can be associated with the higher level of spiritual excellence known as iḥsān: a going beyond the basic requirements of one’s obligations to develop one’s virtues.
Turning to the phrase al-kitāb wal-ḥikmah, I propose that a consistent reading can be developed by understanding the pair of terms, in general, as referring respectively to the revealed obligations conveyed by messengers and their wise purposes, a position that also finds support in the analysis of al-Farāhī. This interpretation avoids the charge that can be leveled at the gloss of the phrase as the Qur’an and Sunna by al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820) that it does not account for the full range of its scriptural usage.
Of course, just as the possibility of understanding the word kitāb to refer to the Law does not prevent it meaning the totality of the revelation, reading ḥikmah as the rationale of divine laws does not eliminate from the Qur’an wisdom not associated with rule-following. Such material is prominent in the many Qur’anic stories and parables. As mentioned in Q. 54:4–5, “Truly, warning tales that should have restrained them have come down to them—far-reaching wisdom (ḥikmatun bālighah)—but these warnings do not help.”
If the kitāb and ḥikmah brought by messengers within the Qur’anic worldview are understood as the divine Writ and its wise purposes, it becomes important to relate this to the wider life of the people. The key verse that allows this broader conception is Q. 57:25, “We sent Our messengers with proofs (al-bayyināt), the Writ (al-kitāb) and the Scale (al-mīzān), so that people could uphold justice (li-yaqūma al-nāsu bil-qisṭ).”
This is a particularly important verse as it draws together the various threads discussed hitherto, and acts as a point of departure for the presentation of the theme of societal justice. Here the messengers are given three elements: proofs to establish their credentials, similar to the term āyāt discussed above; the Writ, obligations of revealed Law; and the Scale, insight into the measure of morality, or natural law, set within the creation. This mirrors Q. 42:17, “It is God who has revealed the Writ with truth and the Scale.” These elements are provided for a very particular reason, empowering humanity to establish justice (qisṭ). The term qisṭ is one of the two Arabic words in the Qur’anic vocabulary that most closely correspond to ‘justice’ in English. The other one is ʿadl. Based on a study of their linguistic and scriptural meanings, it can be suggested that these two terms have different connotations beyond the general meaning of justice: ʿadl an internal quality of equity, qisṭ a justice established concretely within the social sphere.
This understanding of qisṭ
, combined with the previous discussions of mīzān
, makes possible the following definition: societal justice is the condition of society realized by the Wisdom of God’s Writ, which matches the scale of moral value. Such a just society is the highest moral aspiration of human civilization as a collective activity, manifesting within it all other praiseworthy values, such as mercy, goodness, and piety. For each person, their dīn
consists of attempting to fulfill human stewardship of the earth and a successful resolution in the Hereafter. As al-Attas points out, the concept of dīn
necessitates the establishment of a cosmopolis on the earth with certain general features. These include “the natural tendency of man to form societies and obey laws and seek just government.”1
Implicitly, then, the Qur’anic discourse posits the just society as built upon natural law foundations. In the Qur’an, this pattern is embodied in the person of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ who lives at the culminating point in sacred history, receiving the final revealed code in the cycle of reform and corruption. Thus, in Q. 33:40 he is described as khātam al-nabīyīn (the Seal of the Prophets), which matches the statement in Q. 3:81 that God took a pledge from the prophets confirming his authority over them. This is mirrored in several verses that state the community of believers are to act as witnesses for other communities, in both the world and the Hereafter, with the Messenger as a witness for them. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is thus envisaged within the Qur’an as the delegate of divine authority and the final successor to all prophets—the khalīfah of God par excellence. However, the very fact that the Qur’an is addressed to the Prophet ﷺ, rather than about him, means that exegetes have often found evidence for the foregoing in subtleties of expressions, rather than unequivocal statements. Al-Alūsī (d. 1270/1854) analyzes Q. 2:30, “When your Lord said to the angels, ‘Indeed I am placing upon the earth a khalīfah (idh qāla rabbuka lil-malāʾikati innī jāʿilun fī al-arḍi khalīfatan).’” He argues that turning the address directly to the Prophet highlights that he has the greatest portion of the stewardship mentioned. The Qur’an pictures the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, like the Prophet Abraham before him, as the exemplar of conduct to be followed, “The Messenger of God is an excellent model (uswatun ḥasanatun) for those of you who put your hope in God and the Last Day and remember Him often” (Q. 33:21). This excellence is in the higher purposes for which human beings have been created, both proximate, establishing societal justice as God’s stewards, and ultimate, making a successful return to Him in the Hereafter.
The personal narrative of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is also relevant here. The following phrase is repeated twice in the Qur’an in Q. 9:33 and 61:9:
He is the one who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth, in order to reveal to him the religion, all of it, despite the dislike of the pagans (huwa alladhī arsala rasūlahu bil-hudā wa-dīni al-ḥaqqi li-yuẓhirahu ʿalá al-dīni kullihi wa-law kariha al-mushrikūn).
A nearly identical phrase occurs in Q. 48:28, but replaces”‘despite the dislike of the pagans” with ”and God suffices as a witness (wa-kafá billāhi shahīdan).” This verse can be read as indicating that the divine revelation will be completed despite the enmity of those who oppose the Prophet, an interpretation attributed to the Companion Ibn ʿAbbās.
In contrast to this, one strand of classical exegesis, widespread in modern translations of the Qur’an, understands li-yuẓhirahu ʿalá al-dīni kullihi as ‘to make it dominant over all other religions.’ However, this view does not fit well with the linguistic construction of the verse in two respects. First, the word dīn here is singular not plural. Second, when the Qur’an uses the expression aẓhara/yuẓhiru x ʿalá y it does not refer to dominance, but rather to making something known. Examples are Q. 66:3, which refers to God revealing something secret to the Prophet connected with his wives, and Q. 72:26, which states that God does not reveal the unseen to anyone (the exception of His chosen messengers is given in the next verse).
A further point is that both Q. 9:33 and 61:9 follow verses mentioning God “perfecting His light.’” This can be understood in the sense of successive revelations to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ illuminating his knowledge of God’s Writ. The process was declared complete during the Prophet’s only pilgrimage in 10/632, when he recited the famous words of Q. 5:3, “Today I have completed your religion (dīn) for you, perfected My favor upon you and am pleased with devotion (or: Islam) as religion for you (raḍītu lakum al-islāma dīnan).”