And whenever your Sustainer brings forth their offspring from the loins of the children of Adam, He (thus) calls upon them to bear witness about themselves: "Am I not your Lord?"—to which they answer: "Yes, indeed, we do bear witness thereto." [Of this we remind you] lest you say on the Day of Resurrection: "Verily, we were unaware of this." (7:172)
According to this verse, every soul was required, at some point, to bear witness to its recognition of the Divine Existence and Unity. Qur'anic commentators continue to debate when this covenant was made. Therefore, we will look at a few considerations as to when and how and to whom this question was put.
• When we were as yet nothing and received the command Be!, we gave an affirmative existential response to God's creative act, which is represented or dramatized as a question–answer or a covenant.
• When were still in the form of atoms or even particles not yet formed as atoms, the Lord of the Worlds, Who cherishes and leads everything to perfection, made these particles feel the desire and joy of being human. He therefore took the promise and covenant from them, which is considered a "Yes" from all atoms to God's creative call, though it was far beyond their own power to even imagine such an affirmation.
Such question–answer or offer–acceptance is not in words or statements. For this reason, the event has been interpreted allegorically by some, as if the question were put, answered, and had a particular legal value and effect, although it is not an actual verbal or written contract. In fact, without taking into account God's power and innumerable ways of communicating with His creatures, considering this covenant to be an ordinary contract can lead only to difficulty and error.
This acknowledgement and declaration, this covenant bearing witness against ourselves as regards our recognition of the Divine Existence and Unity, is the ground of our knowing and feeling ourselves, of comprehending that we are nothing other than ourselves. In other words, this covenant is the ground of self-knowledge. It means that we start to look into the mirror of knowledge (ma'rifa), witness the realization of diverse truths reflected in our consciousness, and acknowledge and declare that witnessing. However, the offer–acceptance, the perceiving–making perceived, the covenant, is not overt or amenable to direct perception. Perhaps it becomes perceived after many warnings and orders, and thus the significance of moral and religious guidance, counselling, and enlightenment.
The ego or self (nafs) is created and entrusted to us so that we may know and declare the Creator's Existence and Unity. Therefore, we prove God's Existence with our own existence, and show God's Attributes with our own attributes. For example, our deficiencies and imperfection show God's all-sufficiency and perfection; our privations show God's wealth and abundance; and our inability, weakness, and poverty show God's power, favor, and benevolence. The covenanted self is God's first favor and bestowal upon humanity. Our proper response is to know and declare God's Existence throughout creation and to perceive His Light in all lights. This is how the primordial covenant is fulfilled. The covenant is like a command that is accepted through understanding the meaning of the magnificent Book of Creation written by the Divine Power and Will, of our comprehending the secrets of the lines of events.
The question–answer of the covenant should not be thought of in a material or corporeal sense. God commands beings according to their particular individual nature, and listens to their needs and speech and whatever issues from them. Thus, He understands all and fulfils their needs. In the scholastic theologians' terminology, the Almighty understands all languages and dialects; issues commands and communicates truths in them; explains and expounds humanity and the universe; and takes promises and makes covenant with them in the form of words, for which the technical term is kalam-i lafzi. There is also a Divine Speech specific to animals as inspiration, and to angels as divine discourse. Although their precise natures are unknown to us, obviously it is non-verbal and consists of different manifestations of the so-called kalam-i nafsi.
Divine Speech is so diverse and extensive—from the inspiration coming to the human heart to the discourse addressed to the angels—and the forms of communication between the Creator and His creation are so different and occur in such different realms that those who inhabit one realm cannot hear or detect the communications belonging to another realm.
It is a serious mistake to suppose that we can hear everything. It is generally accepted that the range of our hearing, like our sight, is quite limited. What we see and hear is almost nothing when compared to that which we cannot see or hear. For this reason, God's communicating with the atoms or systems within this creation, His composing, decomposing or re-composing them, occur in such sublime ways that our limited perceptive powers cannot detect or understand them.
We cannot know exactly when God made this covenant with us, for such knowledge is beyond the ability of our limited senses and faculties. In fact, He might have made it not with our whole being, but with a specific part, such as our soul, conscience, or one of the soul's sub-faculties.
There is general agreement that the human soul is an entity independent of the body. Since the soul came into existence before the physical body, and in a sense has a particular individual nature outside of time, and since the questioning and acceptance in the covenant was with the soul, our limited powers cannot comprehend or report it fully. The soul hears and speaks without words and voice, as it does in dreams, and communicates extrasensorily and without the medium of sound waves, as in telepathy. This special form of communication is registered and recorded in its own specific way. When its time is due, it will assume its specific form and, using that language, speak and bring to the mind all original associations. At that time, we will see that the covenant has remained imprinted upon the human soul. In addition, it will be adduced as an argument against its possessor on the Day of Judgment.
The souls of all human beings were gathered in a realm that was not veiled by an intervening realm, and so saw everything clearly. After this, they gave God an oath of allegiance. When He asked them to witness against themselves: "Am I not your Lord?" they replied: "Yes, we witness that You are our Lord and our God." However, as is common today, some people have never turned to that section of their soul (their conscience). Thus, they have not come across that profoundly inherent covenant in themselves, for they have no interest in it and have not tried to see beyond the corporeal world that intervenes between them and reality.
If their minds were not clouded by the conditioning biases under which they live, they would see and hear the answer to the covenant in their conscience. This is the main purpose of inward and outward, as well as subjective and objective contemplation and search. Engaging in such activities saves the mind from self-obsession and frees ideals. With an open mind and a genuinely free will, people can try to read the delicate writings in their consciences. Some people who have habituated themselves to looking into the depths of their hearts cannot discover in books the thoughts and inspiration they acquire through such inward observation and contemplation. Even the allegorical meanings and allusive signs in the Divine Books can become manifest in their true profundity if studied in such a manner. But people cannot attain such a profound level of inward observation and contemplation, or understand what they might discover there, if they cannot overcome their own selves.
Let's look at the when of this covenant. It is really difficult to derive anything definite from the Qur'an and Hadith on this matter. Some commentators argue that the covenant is taken in the realm of atoms, when the person is in a state of uncomposed, separate atoms, and with the atoms and the soul of which the person will be composed. Others say that the covenant is taken while the sperm is travelling toward the egg, when the individual begins to form in the mother's womb, when it becomes a foetus, when spirit is breathed into the foetus, when the child reaches puberty, or when the person is religiously responsible for his or her actions.
While each claim has its own supporting arguments, it is difficult to show a serious reason for preferring one to another.
In fact, this event could happen in the realm of spirits, in a different realm where the soul relates to or gets in touch with its own atoms, in any embryonic stage, or in any stages till the individual reaches puberty. God Almighty, Who realtes to both past and present simultaneously, Who sees and hears past and present together at the same instant, could take the covenant at all of the stages mentioned. As believers, we hear such a communication from the depth of our consciences and know that our hearts have borne witness to such a covenant.
As a stomach expresses its emptiness in its own language, as a body tells its aches and pains in its own words, so the conscience informs us of this event in its own language and words. It suffers pain, distress, and affliction. Moaning with pangs of regret, it becomes restless to keep the promise made, and always hopes for the good and the best. When it draws attention by its sighs and moans, it feels relieved, fortunate and happy, just as children do when they draw their parents' attention. When it cannot express its need or find anyone to understand it, it writhes in pain and distress.
Are there any rational proofs that the covenant really took place?
Some issues that are difficult to explain by reason. Yet the possibility of such things can be mentioned. In fact, we cannot object to what God has affirmed.
Essentially, the Almighty speaks to His creations in many ways. We also use different ways and styles when communicating with others. Apart from words, we have various outer and inner faculties, sentiments and perceptions, mind and soul. Sometimes we speak to ourselves in words audible only to our hearts and minds. Such speech is not utterance, but pertains to the soul or self. At times, we communicate with others using these non-verbal methods.
At times we speak, hear, and listen to conversations in our dreams. But those who are awake and nearby hear nothing. After waking up, we tell them what we spoke and heard. So this is another mode of speech.
Some awake people can see the pictures or tablets shown to them from the World of Ideas and speak to its inhabitants. Materialists do not believe in such things, and may refer to them as hallucinations. It does not matter; let them say so... But we know that one of Prophet Muhammad's distinctions was that he was granted vision of the such tablets, pictures from the World of Ideas and from other worlds, and that he conveyed to humanity what he saw, heard, and understood. So this is another mode of speech.
Revelation to the Prophets is yet another. We know that the Prophet was fully awake and conscious when the Revelation came. Sometimes he would be lying on the ground with his head on his wife's knee, sitting and leaning against a Companion's shoulders, while his knee was touching the knee of the Companion sitting next to him, or among a group of people. At such times, he felt, received, and experienced the revelation with its full weight, and conveyed the Divine message in its entirety. Those in his presence realized, from what they could see, that the Prophet was receiving Revelation, although they could not hear it. They could "hear" and understand it only after he communicated it to them verbally. It was as if the dimensions were different.
Another way of speaking is Divine inspiration. God inspires saints, and influences, imparts, or dictates something into their hearts in such a way that they can deduce something. When they guess, or speak or act, God makes them do or say just the right thing by His mercy. So this is yet another mode of speech.
Another way of communication from heart to heart, and from mind to mind, is telepathy. This method is defined as sending thoughts or messages to another person's mind by extrasensory means. Many scientists have studied this phenomenon in the hope of benefiting from it. The atheistic and materialist Soviet regime did sustained work on telepathy, no doubt in the hope of gaining a military advantage.
Based on the above, it is clear that God created numerous, perhaps unlimited, modes of speech and communication.
Returning to the question of "Am I not your Lord?" in the primordial covenant, we do not know how God asked this question. If it took the form of Divine inspiration to saints, it would not be correct to expect some kind of audible voice. If it was a question asked of the soul, certainly it would not resemble a question asked of the body or flesh—or vice versa.
The crucial point here is that if we attempt to evaluate what they see, hear, or experience in other realms with worldly criteria and measures, we will end up in error. A hadith states that the angels Munkar and Nakir interrogate the dead in their graves. So, to whom or what do they direct their quesitons? But whether they question the soul or the body, the result is the same. Though the dead hear the questions, others buried nearby and living passers-by cannot hear them. Even the most sophisticated modern listening devices placed in or near the grave will not detect anything, for it takes place in a different dimension. Some scientists have claimed that there are many more dimensions than just the three that are familiar to us. As place, context, and dimensions change, the mode of interrogation and communication must change and assume an appropriate form.
As the primordial covenant is between God and our soul, we cannot expect to feel and retain the influence of that instant in any physical way. Rather, we should expect it to be reflected in our conscience, as only our conscience and the inspirations that come to it can sense such a thing. Once, while I was talking about this issue, someone told me that he did not feel that question and answer of the covenant in himself. I replied: "Not feeling it is a difficulty for you. Try to solve it."
As for me, I felt it and remember quite well that I did so. If I am asked how I feel it, I say that it is by my desire for eternity, and by my infinite desire despite my limited, transitory existence. Essentially, I cannot know and comprehend God because I am limited. How can I comprehend the Unlimited, the Infinite, the Everlasting, the Absolute, the Almighty? But because of my endless desire and enthusiasm for the Infinite and Eternal, I realize that I feel it. I aspire to infinity and eternity, even though I am a tiny creature in a limited world in a limited universe; one destined to live for a while and then die; one whose range of views and opinions are expected to be fixed, confined, and narrow. Despite this I yearn for Paradise, the Vision of God, and the Divine Beauty. If I owned the whole world, my anxieties and griefs would still torment me. Because I have such aspirations, I say: "I felt it."
Our conscience, with all its subfaculties and sections, always tries to remain attached to God and never lies. If you give it what it requires, it can attain peace and tranquillity. That is why the Qur'an points out that our heart, which is a subtle inner faculty, can attain peace only if the conscience can attain it: For without doubt in the remembrance of God do hearts find satisfaction (13:28).
Such philosophers as Bergson, leaving all rational and traditional proofs aside, argue that the conscience proves God's existence. The German philosopher Kant said: "I felt the need to leave behind all the books I read in order to believe in God." Bergson refers to his "intuition," and his only proof is his conscience.
Yes, one's conscience is in agony if it rejects God, for it can find ease and satisfaction only through belief in God. If we really listen to what our conscience is saying, we will feel the desire for the Eternal and Abiding God. This feeling, perception, or quality is equivalent to the response of: "Yes, we bear witness thereto" to the question: "Am I not your Lord?" expressed silently within the human conscience. If we pay close attention, we can hear this voice, which wells up from the depths of our souls. To look for it in our mind or body is futile, for it already exists, latent and inherent, in every human conscience. However, it can prove its existence only on its own terms. Only those close to the state of the Prophets and saints, and who follow their ways, can see it clearly and make others see it.
Such matters cannot be proven in the manner of a simple, physical existent like a tree. However, those who listen to their conscience, who turn their gaze inward and observe what happens there, will see, hear, and know the primordial covenant between us and our Maker.