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Insān and Nisyān

Does it not occur to them that there was a time when they were nothing?

(Qur’an, 76:1)

The Chapter of the Human, Surah al-Insān, begins with the above quoted rhetorical question to accentuate the forgetfulness of mankind in the Qur’an. Unanimously, the root system of the Arabic language reinforces the underlying theme of this verse, as the Arabic word for human, insān, is derived from the word forgetfulness, nisyān. Qur’anic exegesis scholars interpret the state of “nothingness” in this verse as the stage of conception / fertilization of humankind, when one was merely “a drop of water (sperm) in which there was neither intellect, nor hearing, sight, head, hands, feet, etc.”[1]Conforming to this interpretation, through the art of rhetoric, Allah (‘azza wa-jal) stresses on how hastily humans forget their oblivious origin and Edge God Out, in the very first verse of a chapter dedicated to humanness.

The distinguished Turkish folk poet and Sufi mystic, Dervish Yunus Emre, also alludes to this helpless nature of humankind in his poems, such as when he says:

All thanks to the One and Only,

Who created everything from nothing.

In essence we are nothing indeed,

So what are (material) belongings?

He sent us down here to see,

That nothing lasts forever.

So tell me,

What are all of Solomon’s riches?”

This stanza outwardly emphasizes the prior adopted position from, first, a broader perspective with the use of an all-encapsulating everything to highlight the importance that creation only contains value due to being the creation of the Creator, since before Him, there is nothing, and then narrows this general scope to humankind in the next line through his use of the pronoun we. Although the “nothingness in essence,” in this line can be understood complimentary to the earliest stage of human-life similar to the before-mentioned interpretation, Dervish Yunus adopts a slightly different approach and tackles the definition of “essence” as almost, for lack of a better term, nakedness— at any and every stage of life— in the following lines when he rhetorically questions the worth of worldly possessions. By doing so, Yunus Emre stresses on the blatant reality that no matter how much one attempts to hold onto the things of this finite world, or believes exile assets are capable to conceal one’s evident nakedness (nothingness) underneath, are faulty, even if they have as much as King Solomon. Reiterating this helpless state of humankind within the presence of God, he reminds his listeners that at the end of the day, they will leave this earth in the same fashion they arrived: naked, helpless, and alone. Yet, he implies, because humans are forgetful by nature and definition, they feel coolness beneath the shade of their (!) gains during their healthy and prospering years. To summarize, engulfed in the charm of their ego, they view themselves responsible for their achievements and ignore the Ultimate Sorcerer behind all, believe what they have collected over their lifetime will veil their frail origin, or feel they have earned salvation via their own means, thus repudiating the mercy of God. However, from the earlier-explained state of “nothingness”, it is obvious that whatever degree of perfection one may have arrived at, they did not make themselves, just how they can not make a single strand of hair, or alter their five fingers any differently to serve a hand’s purpose better. Therefore, whoever reaches this epiphany, will be aware that God’s mercy is as great as His power and wisdom (Ghazzali), and without his will, even the strongest of winds can not budge a single leaf in its place.

To conclude, the interpretations conveyed serve to remind the reader of the nihilistic core of human natality, as the innate forgetfulness neglects one on the edge of a vortex formed by the absence of this cognizance. The proposed rhetorical question in the discussed verse paradoxically brings forth the might of God through the triviality of mortals. It is crucial to note that it also foregrounds a caveat for one to live in accordance with this realization, since, with utmost caution it can be said that this verse is God’s way of letting one know that they should fear feeding into their potential of claiming supremacy— afterall it is God that has exalted them to the rank of caliphate from a time when they were nothing.

[1] Imām al-Ghazzali, The Alchemy of Happiness


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