The Preserved Tablet

Last week, we analyzed surah al-Qadr and came to some conclusions about the nature of revelation and predestination. We asked the question: how could it be that in the Islamic tradition, two separate events comprise the ‘initial revelation’ of the Quran? Our answer was that the commands of the Quran, in the sense of the Christian concept of Logos, pre-exist their manifestation to humanity. We thereby introduced a distinction between the potentiality and the actuality of God’s word.

But this still leaves us with a paradox. If God’s word somehow existed prior to its actualization, how can we account for the fact that the Quran mentions historically-contingent things, like the course of battles and specific individuals? This question is a deep philosophical point in Islam, with a long history. To engage with it, we’ll need to introduce the concept of the preserved tablet.

The source: surah al-Buruj

بَلِ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا۟ فِى تَكْذِيبٍ
وَٱللَّهُ مِن وَرَآئِهِم مُّحِيطٌۢ
بَلْ هُوَ قُرْءَانٌ مَّجِيدٌ
فِى لَوْحٍ مَّحْفُوظٍۭ

Nay, those who disbelieve are in denial
And Allah encompasses them from behind
Nay, it is a glorious Quran
In a preserved tablet

The interpretation

Buruj means great stars or constellations. To the Greeks, the celestial bodies followed perfect and unchanging orbits: suspended in time, beyond our mortal conception of it. The Preserved Tablet, which comes at the end of surah al-Buruj, expresses a similar idea of eternality. It is the place where God’s command, already predestined, exists.

There are many Quranic themes that echo this idea. It is frequently recounted that mankind cannot will anything but God’s will, an idea which challenges our intuitive notion of free will. Using the imagery of the preserved tablet, we might say that mankind’s will is already inscribed in the tablet.

Another related term is the ‘mother of the book’, umm al-kitab, which appears in the Quran three times and alludes to a source of the Quran itself. In (13:39) we find that Allah eliminates what he wills or confirms; and with him is the mother of the book. And in (43:3-4): Indeed, we have might it an Arabic Quran so you might understand; and indeed, it is in the mother of the book, exalted and full of wisdom.

The Arab polymath Jabir Ibn Hayyan said of the word umm or mother: “The Arabs call every comprehensive matter that contains several specific areas an umm. For instance, they call the skin that surrounds the brain, umm arr-ras [umm of the head]. They also call the flag that gathers the ranks of the army an umm.”

So, what does it mean to say that the Quran is in the ‘mother of the book’? We can understand this in the same sense that we understood the distinction between the Quran as potentiality and the Quran as actuality. The Quran itself is the actual, embodied form of God’s Logos, whereas the umm al-kitab or lauh al-mahfuz is the Logos itself: God’s inscribed word.

Quranic createdness and Islamic jurisprudence

That the Islamic concept of the inscribed tablet is analogous to the Christian Logos nicely explains the following historical argument. It was a well-known paradox among Christian scholars that Jesus represents something contradictory: he is the Logos incarnated, but the Logos is timeless. Therefore how can we account for the fact that he interacted with things manifesting in time, and became limited in time in the first place?

After the death of Mohammad, similar questions were posed to Muslims who subscribed to the idea of the Quran as part of the lauh al-mahfuz. How could the Quran be a part of the timeless word of God when it was revealed over time, relates to aspects of the temporal world, and so on?

This question is essentially one of createdness. If one believes that the Quran was created, then you are given room to say that it is from an eternal, uncreated Logos, and was influenced by other created things in the world (battles, personalities, dialogues, and so on). However, if one believes that the Quran is uncreated , they would adhere strictly to the idea that no such separation exists between God’s Logos and its manifestation.

This question, far from being an abstract philosophical one, carries important consequences for Islamic law. If you believe that the Quran is uncreated, very little can be done in terms of interpreting it. It is the ultimate authoritative text to the letter, since even these letters themselves pre-existed the creation of the word. This hard-line, literalist approach is — regrettably, — well known to the world.

However, if you believe the Quran is created, then you are given grounds to question those timeless, eternal aspects which comprise its uncreated source. This means that verses can be understood in the context of their sociocultural origin, and their interpretation may vary based on the historical context of the viewer. This is a radically different idea than that posed by the literalist interpreter.

The need to come one way or another on this topic was so important in Islamic history, in fact, that it was the subject of a bloody inquisition, or fitna, in 800. The ruling party, the mu’tazilites, were a rationalist legal philosophy which asserted that the Quran was created. The mu’tazilite prince al-Ma’mun even went so far as to torture a well-known dissident philosopher, Ibn Hanbal, who would go on to found the conservative Hanbali school. Today, it is the uncreated Quran which finds most creedence among major sunni schools of jurisprudence.

Using the preserved tablet to understand (3:7)

So far, we’ve seen how the concept of the lauh al-mahfuz represents the eternally-present, uncreated source of the Quran. This is also a concept captured by the phrase umm al-kitab, since we are told that the Quran itself emerges from this ‘primordial creative matrix’.

Umm al-kitab also appears in the most notorious verse in Islamic jurisprudence: verse 7 of ali Imran, which delineates between al-muhkamat and al-mutashabbihat:

It is he who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are muhkamat — they are the mother of the book — and others are allegorical (mutashabbihat); then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it an interpretation. But none know its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: we believe in it, it is all from our Lord; and none do mind except those having understanding.

Many translators render muhkamat as the ‘powerful or decisive’ verses, owing to its root verb hakkama which means to make strong. However, it’s worth noting that hakkama derives from the root H-K-M meaning to judge or command, and I therefore prefer the idea that the muhkamat are the commandments of the Quran.

We are told two things about the commandments of the Quran in this verse. The first is that their alternative, what are called ‘allegorical’, are those whose interpretation is pursued by ‘perverse hearts’. This implies that the commandments are primary to all other parts of the Quran.

The second thing is that these commandments comprise umm al-kitab. This is a profound point which once again brings up the intersection between interpretation and createdness. If the most important parts of the book partakes of the eternal , then (3:7) appears to be an invitation to find the timeless aspects of the book.

I want to end on the note that surah al-Asr leaves us. It reads:

وَٱلْعَصْرِ
إِنَّ ٱلْإِنسَٰنَ لَفِى خُسْرٍ
إِلَّا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ وَعَمِلُوا۟ ٱلصَّٰلِحَٰتِ وَتَوَاصَوْا۟ بِٱلْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا۟ بِٱلصَّبْرِ

I swear by the ages [of time],
Mankind is certainly at a loss,
Except for those who believed and did righteous deeds and enjoined one another in truth and enjoined one another in patience

The text presents these aspects as, in some sense, the truths of the ages. Might this then be a place to start looking for the eternal commandments behind the Mohammadian revelations?

Next time

What do these reflections about lauh al-mahfuz and God’s preserved decree mean for the idea of free will? The next article will explore this question through Ibn Arabi’s notions of the creative vs obligating command.

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