In terms of the process of thinking, the Quran utilizes a diverse set of terms that share the general meaning of contemplation but individually contain subtle differences regarding the intricacies of thinking. Some exegetes of the Quran have described 30 different terms that are used such as thinking (tafakkur
), reflecting (tadabbur
), and remembering (tadhakkur
) that are essential processes required to effectively extract meaning from the signs of Allah in the Quran and the natural world.54
This section of the article touches upon a concept known as metacognition—or “thinking about thinking”—that has become popular in recent years.55
The process of thinking about thoughts is a higher-order form of thinking that determines how we interpret the world around us. The cognitive strategy we choose to undertake in a given situation involves a metacognitive choice that will dictate the quality and quantity of knowledge we can abstract from it.56 These units of knowledge can then proceed to form conceptual frameworks through which future information is understood. Thus, the Quran provides us with the metacognitive guidance necessary to abstract meaning and truth from the world, providing us with conceptual frameworks that enable us to see the world as it really is.
Components of Contemplation
Ibn al-Qayyim includes a fascinating discussion on the different types of thinking in his book Miftaah Dar as-Sa’adah. He provides an explanation of the terms used in the Quran to denote contemplation. This section will focus on his discussion of tafakkur (thinking), tadhakkur (remembering), i’tibaar (realizing), and tadabbur (deliberating). The first two processes describe ways in which initial thoughts can emerge through deliberate choice (rather than automatically through the unconscious); the latter two describe how initial thoughts (whether automatic or deliberate) can lead to new insights and knowledge.
: To bring something to one’s cognitive space.”57
This is the main form of thinking the Quran references. Fikr is the most general of these terms and encompasses the process of bringing a thought to conscious awareness. Tafakkur is distinct from khawaatir in that it is a more deliberate process by which an individual chooses to direct and focus their thoughts. In this circumstance, the initial thought brought to consciousness is derived either from the environment or through an innate creative process that is independent of our environments. Hence, khawaatir involves a predominantly passive process while tafakkur is an active process.
: Bringing awareness of knowledge that requires attention after a person has been distracted from it or it is unseen to him: ‘Certainly those who are righteous, when a party of shaytaan touches them, they immediately remember (tadkhakkar
), then they gain insight’ (Surah A’raaf: 201).”58
When a person has been affected by the whispers of Satan or by their carnal passions, they are in dire need of this method of thinking. Tadhakkar
involves the ability to draw on knowledge that a person has previously acquired as a means of defending against the delusions of Satan and curbing their desires. When a person is overcome with jealousy stemming from ingratitude, materialism, and contempt for others, he must bring to mind knowledge of al-Qadar
(Divine Decree). By remembering that Allah distributes His bounties to whom He wills, one understands that being jealous of others involves challenging the validity of Allah’s Decree. Through reflection of this sort one gains insight into the diseases plaguing one’s heart as well as appreciation for one’s own blessings. When a person has been overcome by addictive urges stemming from a mind incapable of postponing gratification and a heart that craves pleasure, he must remember the One who he is disobeying, His power, His Might, His grandeur. In ‘Iddat as-Sabireen
, Ibn al-Qayyim advises the one overcome with passion to bring 20 different thoughts to conscious awareness. For the sake of brevity, we will mention just three of them.59
1. Remember Allah’s countless blessings upon you and that your disobedience will erect a barrier between you and them.
2. Remember that through your fulfilling of desires and attainment of temporary pleasure you will lose out on goodness both in this world and in the next. Faith, providence, and wealth all decrease as a consequence.
3. Remember that Allah has promised to replace what you leave for His sake with something much better. It is worth the struggle.
When a person draws these forgotten treasures from beneath the sands of his heart, he can repurchase his soul after almost selling it for a miserable price. Remembering these pearls of wisdom allows a person to break free from the delusions of Satan and see the world as it is, a journey towards Allah. He sees whatever hinders this path as challenges, and whatever facilitates the path as gifts.
Tafakkur and Tadhakkur
together create a system that works to enrich the human mind with knowledge. Tadhakkur
is the process by which the heart constantly re-evaluates knowledge it has learned in light of new experiences, in order to gain deeper insight and firm grounding (fahm
). A person who knows that “Allah reigns Supreme over his matter” (Surah Yusuf: 21), realizes—no matter how alone he feels in this crowded world, or how conquered he feels by the negativity and pessimism of those surrounding him—that Allah’s Decree prevails over all. A person who brings this thought to conscious awareness as he goes through struggle or difficulty, and when he achieves relief and success, will gain a deeper insight into Allah’s role in his life. Thus, successive trials become easier, as his heart finds rest in remembering Allah. If a person does not engage in tadhakkur
of what he has learned about Allah whenever he encounters a new situation, he will eventually lose this knowledge and it will no longer impact his heart. The knowledge will “rust” in the heart, making it inaccessible at the times it is needed the most: “Rather their hearts have rusted because of what they earned.”60
Through sincere advice, motivational reminders, and inspirational encounters with the signs of Allah, this rust is shaved off allowing the previously acquired knowledge to float freely in our consciousness. Ibn Qayyim mentions, “(Tadhakkur
is done) so the heart does not lose the effect of its knowledge, and so it does not disappear.”61
The function of tafakkur
is described as “increasing one’s knowledge and allowing the heart to attain what it previously did not have.”62
Together, Ibn al-Qayyim explains, “Tafakkur
builds the heart and tadhakkur
preserves it. Tafakkur
are the seeds of knowledge. The rains come and nourish them (tafakkur
) and remembering (tadhakkur
) is its vaccination.”63
“I’tibaar: It is linguistically derived from ‘uboor, which means crossing. This is because a person goes from an original thought to a new realization (ma’rifah) through this type of thinking. This is the goal of i’tibaar. It is a constructive process whereby existing thoughts are synthesized to produce more profound and sophisticated realizations.
‘Certainly in their stories is a profound realization (‘ibrah) for the people of sound intellect.’ (Surah Yusuf: 111)
‘Certainly in that is a profound realization (‘ibrah) for the one who is in Awe.’ (Surah Nazi’aat: 26)
‘Certainly in that is a profound realization (‘ibrah
) for the people of insight.’ (Surah Ali-Imran: 13; Surah Noor: 44).”64
This is a secondary process that is enacted upon pre-existing thoughts in the mind. In the Quran, this process is linked with pondering over stories. The process by which the mind extracts profound lessons from a story is known as i’tibaar. Moving from a raw story to a profound realization through the bridge of i’tibaar involves the process of abstraction. This allows one to achieve a meta-lesson from the narrative that can be applied to one’s own life, despite obvious differences with the original story. For example, when we read about the story of Maryam and Zakariyya being able to bear children despite them believing it was not possible, we learn to conquer our own self-limiting beliefs and realize our full potential through the power of Allah. When we read about the dark story of the fall of Shaytaan, we gain insight into the satanic thoughts or diseases that may plague our own hearts and minds. When we read about the story of redemption of our father Adam, we are given hope for a better future and inspiration to change for the better.
“Tadabbur: It is called this because it is focused on the adbaar (the end) of a matter. It is the logical consequence of a starting thought. This is used in reference to speech:
‘Do they not consider the consequences of the speech (the Quran)?’(Surah Mu’minoon: 68)
‘Do they not ponder (yatadabaroon
) the Quran?’ (Surah Nisaa: 82).”65
is to follow a thought to either its logical end or starting foundation. On a practical level, tadabbur
of the Quran is the process by which a reader looks at a verse and determines the implications of its meanings for their life. When we truly consider the statement “My Mercy encompasses everything” (Surah A’raaf: 156) with tadabbur
while going through a difficulty, then we necessarily come to the conclusion that the pain, suffering, and difficulty I am going through is enveloped in Allah’s Divine Mercy. As Ibn al-Qayyim explains elsewhere, “Out of the wisdom of Allah, He has made pleasure give rise to pain, and pain give rise to pleasure.”66
Thus, the pain one is experiencing due to the loss of a loved one, a broken heart, financial restraints, social isolation or depression is all enveloped in the Divine Plan of Mercy and Wisdom. This is a firm belief of the believer as he sails through the strong winds of life, never losing hope. He has pondered over the verses of the Quran that speak of the bounties, blessings, and love of Allah for His slaves and has come to no other conclusion than, “So verily with hardship, comes ease. Verily with hardship, comes ease”67
(Surah Inshirah: 5-6).
Thoughts to Behavior
Human beings are capable of impeding or acting contrary to impulses or thoughts that arise in their minds. Furthermore, they are able to engage in metacognition to change or incorporate thoughts into networks of knowledge. The process by which a conscious thought becomes knowledge and then behavior is outlined by Ibn al-Qayyim who states that there are five cognitive-behavioral stations that are causally linked, “And so there are five states: fikr
(thought), which gives rise to ‘ilm
(knowledge), which gives rise to a haal
(paradigm or conceptual architecture) that stimulates the heart, which gives rise to an iraada
(motivational drive), which gives rise to an ‘aml
Expanding Ibn al-Qayyim’s Model
Fikr, Ilm, and Haal
The first step is (1) fikr, which involves bringing awareness of new information or thoughts to one’s mind. As a person recalls the new information to guide his or her decisions, he engages in tadhakkur and it becomes (2) ilm. If the information does not aid a person on their spiritual, intellectual, and moral journey, it has not reached the level of knowledge and stays at (1) fikr. Thus, knowledge is defined by its ability to bring benefit to a person’s life. As bits of knowledge develop from the things we think about, they become arrangements of knowledge. The patterns of these arrangements of knowledge are determined by our logic and reasoning along with our character. For example, words in a sentence are strung together based on the rules of grammar to produce a meaningful statement. However, the choice of content stems from our character and values. If a person values truth, the content of his speech will always be truthful. If a person is selfish, then the sentences he constructs will be used to manipulate others. In this analogy, the words represent knowledge, grammar represents rationality, and the sentence itself represents the specific arrangement of knowledge. Thus, pieces of knowledge are connected in arrangements based on rationality, just as words are connected in arrangements based on grammar. The end-products are knowledge structures. These represent anchors, axioms, starting points, and foundations through which we interpret subsequent information about ourselves and our environment. This information is transformed into knowledge and added to existing knowledge structures to build new foundations or to build and enrich existing ones. Following our analogy with language, the sentences that represent our knowledge structures are further combined to produce paragraphs. These paragraphs are combined to produce passages, which are subsequently combined to produce a complete book. The entire arrangement that emerges from our set of knowledge structures is the (3) haal (conceptual architecture).
The Heart as a Lens
The conceptual architecture of the mind is the lens of the heart through which the environment is processed. This lens is referenced in the Quran,
“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass is as if it were a pearly star and it is lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree…”69
As Ibn al-Qayyim explains, the glass represents the heart, and the lamp represents the light of faith that illuminates the soul.70
One of the reasons why glass is used as a symbol of the heart is because of its clarity. Ibn al-Qayyim says, “By its clarity, (the believer) sees truth and direction.”71
When the physical light of this world reflects off the ayaat (signs) in creation and is perceived by the heart, the light refracts and produces an image. The clarity and depth of the image is based on the complexity of the conceptual architecture. More complex architectures are derived from richer and wider knowledge structures combined with intelligence and good character. The image represents meaning that is abstracted from the signs of Allah.
Three Orders of Meaning
This meaning can be classified into three levels. The first order of meaning emerges from the empirical features of the signs. It requires the sensory system of the mind to be able to perceive. The meanings associated with it are in the domain of khabar (description). For instance, a particular rock formation can be explained scientifically by merely describing its appearance, shape, color, and composition. This is meaning that has emerged from the sign in the form of khabar. This can be regarded as (1) fikr.
The second order of meaning arises from rational deliberation upon the sign and is known as (2) ilm. Cognitive processes are required to abstract meaning in relation to the etiology or purpose (hikmah) of a particular natural phenomenon embedded in a wider context. Continuing from the previous example, explaining the geological processes that led to the rock formation along with its current role in the ecosystem of a particular geographical area would all qualify as second-order meanings. Second-order meanings have resulted in great technological advancement throughout history, especially in recent centuries.
The third and final order of meaning arises from a myriad of cognitive processes along with psycho-spiritual states described in the Quran. Distraction and vice hinder a person’s ability to recognize this level of meaning. The Quran consistently explains the signs of Allah as being perceptible only by people with faith, conviction, knowledge, and intellect through the actions of contemplation, remembrance, deliberation, listening, and seeing. The fundamental cognitive process that occurs at this level is known as Qiyaas bil-Awlaa
(High-order Analogy). This is referenced in the Quran, “And to Allah belongs the highest analogy.”72
Thus, relying on purely literal and syllogistic thinking will blind a person from this order of meaning. Qiyaas bil-Awlaa
involves abstracting values (moral, intellectual, and spiritual) from the natural world and appropriately recognizing their ontological and epistemological dependence on the Divine (ma’rifah
). The values that are abstracted are Divine Names and Attributes manifested in a limited form in this reality. The beauty, majesty, and awe that arise from gazing upon the rock formation, along with the recognition of the metaphysical basis for these values in the Divine constitute the essence of this highest order of meaning.
Processing Third-Order Meanings
The processing of all meanings primarily occurs through the (3) haal
of heart as described earlier. Specifically, third-order meanings require a more complex conceptual architecture that remains untarnished. Some lenses have become tarnished, rendering them blind to this layer of meaning. Ibn al-Qayyim says, “And if tarnish builds up, blackens, and envelops the heart completely, the heart’s reflective quality and perception will be totally lost, so that it will neither accept what is true nor reject what is false.”73
The Quran often describes the psycho-spiritual state of people who are unable to perceive the light that emerges from the signs of Allah. In fact, this reality is first expressed as early as the third page of the Quran,
“Certainly, those who reject faith, they are indifferent to your warnings and will never believe. Allah has sealed their hearts and ears and veiled their sight. For them is a painful punishment.”74
The Haal inspires Iraadah
When the conceptual architecture is formed from our knowledge, reasoning, and good character, it stimulates the heart, resulting in the phenomenological experience of spiritual stations. The meanings perceived in the signs of Allah stir the heart toward tawakkul (reliance on Allah), sabr (perseverance and patience,) shukr (gratitude), khawf (fear), mahabba (love) and rajaa’ (hope). These spiritual stations are experienced as a person sees the Names and Attributes of Allah through His signs. From this stage, our (4) iraada (ambitions, will, choices, and decisions) emerge. From one’s will and ambitions come (5) behavior and action.
Ibn al-Qayyim concludes from his theory of the connection between thought and behavior,
Fikr is the beginning and the key to all that is good. And this (framework) should make clear the significance and value of tafakkur and that it is the most virtuous and beneficial action the heart can engage in until it was even said, ‘Engaging in tafakkur for one hour is better than one year’s worth of worship.’ Fikr is what takes a person from the death and slumber of distraction to being awake and alive. From what he hates to what he loves, from worldly dependency to worldly independence, from the prison of this world to the freedom of the next, from the constraints of ignorance to the expansion of knowledge, from the disease of desire to the cure of turning to Allah, from blindness, deafness, and dumbness to the blessings of sight, hearing, and the profound understanding of Allah, from the disease of doubts to the relief of certainty.75
Then what is the state of a person who does not engage in tafakkur? Ibn al-Qayyim makes a beautiful analogy of the heart as a piece of land. It can either grow from the seeds of your thoughts, or your greatest enemy can seize the land and sow whatever he wishes:
Shaytaan encounters the land of the heart as empty and barren, so he plants seeds that will lead to satanic thoughts giving rise to passions, forbidden urges and desires. This will then lead to (forbidden and destructive) actions. But if the land of the heart is busy with good and beneficial thoughts regarding one’s purpose in life, thinking about accountability and the next life, its eternal delights and painful punishments, then there will be no room for one’s desires.76