Book Review: “A Perspective on the Signs of Al-Quran: Through the Prism of the Heart”
Turning Inward for Understanding the Quran: A Perspective by Saeed Malik
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
I confess that books by “recognized” Muslim scholars often leave me cold. I find their tone condescending, their discourse dense. Reading their books, I feel as if I am a captive student in a class, lectured to by a teacher who regards me as someone unworthy of his knowledge and wisdom. I know I shouldn’t feel this way. But I am a product of my experience, particularly when it comes to books, and sadly, this has been my experience and this is how I feel.
Which was why I found Saeed Malik’s “A Perspective on the Signs of Al-Quran: Through the Prism of the Heart” so engrossing and enjoyable. The author comes across as a friend, relaxed and soft-spoken, never strident nor didactic but speaking to the heart as only a true and trusted friend can.
Insight and understanding come to the humble and the receptive heart. This is the essence of Malik’s approach to the Quran. “Spirituality,” he states, “depends upon nothing else but personal sincerity.” This sincerity manifests itself only when one gives up on spiritual or religious chauvinism, which occurs when one thinks that he or she has a monopoly on God’s favor and grace.
When God talks about the believer and the disbeliever in the Quran, or the sincere and the hypocrite, or the oppressor and the oppressed, we should recognize that in our hearts dwell both. “Pharaoh and Moses are not mere historical figures. They represent the active opposing forces within our souls.” Likewise, “The Quran speaks to the states of doubt, ignorance, surrender and faith. These are states people find themselves in. More significantly, though, these are states within the searching heart.”
As soon as we acknowledge this, we begin to understand the Quran in a new light. We do not read God’s words as “us versus them” anymore. There is no longer any finger-pointing, or looking down on others. Instead, we look into our own hearts, containing both good and evil, and strive for the light to displace the darkness through reflection on the words of our Creator. It leads to personal responsibility and accountability, without which there can be no meaning, no peace and no justice.
I found this insight in Malik’s book enlightening and liberating. He reminds us that the “spiritual highway has many lanes. To quibble with this, from the perspective of any one religion, is to be sanctimonious rather than spiritual.” If only Muslims around the world paused to reflect on this!
But focusing inward is not an end in itself; it must manifest itself outwardly as tolerance, fellow-feeling, doing right by others. Malik illustrates his perspective by quoting Quranic verses throughout the book. He also frequently quotes the thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) to shed light on their spiritual meaning.
Rumi is among the best-selling poets in America today, which may make Malik’s book easier for readers to relate to than the typical discourse on spirituality. Rumi “locates knowledge in the heart rather than in the imagination or intellect. Even with all its vulnerabilities and weaknesses the heart cannot lie; for all its alleged powers, the intellect cannot but lie.” To emphasize how the heart opens itself through reflection, for instance, Malik quotes Rumi: “How should the foam fly without the wave? How should the dust rise to the zenith without the wind? Since you have seen the dust, see the Wind. Since you have seen the foam, see the Ocean of Creative Energy. Come see it, for insight is the only thing that avails.”
The chapters in the book – Reflection, This is my Lord, The Message, The Messenger, Scales of Justice, and so on suggest more the mysterious pathways of the heart than the discernible stages of the intellect. The last chapter – The Most Beautiful Rosary – lists 110 attributes of God, each explained with a verse from the Quran containing a reference to that attribute. This makes the book a valuable source of reference. An addendum containing all the supplications in the Quran, along with a selection of supplications taught by the prophet Muhammad, would have been convenient but this shows my ignorance more than any omission by the author.
“So that the mind could be led by heart,” writes Malik, “I studied the English texts (of the Quran) in the backdrop of a recorded Arabic recitation.” I found this fact extraordinarily moving although I cannot explain precisely why. Perhaps it has to do with how the seeking heart can experience miracles of intuition and insight aided by God’s grace alone.
The loving heart thrives on the evidence of things unseen. Scientific revolutions have made the world more mysterious than it ever was. Meaning eludes science. The human heart finds meaning only in its longing for a power greater than itself. “It is the loving heart,” as Malik writes, “soft and open, which receives the Truth of Unity.” Science is specialized and organized knowledge that can stand up to empirical testing. But the ineffable, the mysterious, the transcendent, these can be grasped only by hearts that seek to fuse with the “Truth of Unity,” however frail and flawed such hearts may be.
Saeed Malik’s “A Perspective on the Signs of Al-Quran: Through the Prism of the Heart” is a book I recommend to people of all faiths and no faith, for it speaks to the heart and to our common humanity.