By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi
The first element is an appeal to Allah for provision and security. In the fuller version, this appeal is combined with an appeal to be protected from worshipping false gods. The reason is in condition of extreme insecurity human beings resort to any means that will help them. So if they think that some lesser gods/powers or some saints can provide their needs, and their need is desperate, they will pray both to this god and to this saint as well as praying to Allah. In Surat al-Baqarah God makes it explicit that those who are misled in this way are misled regardless of the quality and quantity of their provision.
The next part of his petition is situated during the raising of the House/the Haram. In this case he asks for acceptance of their labour which is a labour of worship. That is emphasised by his saying ‘You are the hearing and the knowing’. This emphasis tells us that divine attention to what human beings are doing encompasses the inner and the outer, the intention and the deed, and also the near and the far, the present accomplishment (of the building) and its future effects and consequences. So, this du`a for acceptance of their effort is a supplication that says: in that You are the hearing and the knowing, you know fully what we intend and desire by this effort, even if we do not fully know that, just as you know the future after this effort which for us is unseen; and since You hear our petition, then it must be, if it deserves to be, accepted. When believers pray with sincerity for their prayers to be accepted, they are always praying at the same time for their prayers to be worthy of acceptance and for the wisdom to be steadfast while the fulfilment of their efforts in the world unfolds over time as Allah has willed.
The next part of the du`a is explicitly about the future. All the Messengers are able to accept that they do not have knowledge or mastery of the effects and consequences of their actions. So Ibrahim prays ‘make us submissive to You and make our descendants a community submissive to You.’ He asks also that their manners of worship and sacrifice should be taught to his descendants and he asks on their behalf that God accept their repentance. This implies his awareness of the inevitability that some among his descendants will do wrong. (Perhaps this is a response to Allah’s saying on another occasion that His covenant does not include wrong-doers. It is an important reminder that virtue, and therefore the favour of Allah, cannot be inherited. There is no covenant with a people as such – something that most Jews still believe.) This particular part of the du`a ends with an affirmation that only God has the authority to accept repentance: only God can affirm that one who repents and desists from a sin can cease to fear that he may relapse into that sin or lapse into some other; only God can affirm that the chain of consequences of a sin is definitively broken. For this reason, neither the Messengers, those chosen by God, not any sincere believer can ever cease to pray for forgiveness, or cease to be in need of it.
In both parts of the supplication, we should note that the form of the du’a is a conversation between first and second person, between the ‘I/We’ of Ibrahim and his son, or all his people, and the ‘You’ of their rabb. The address is direct; it is not uttered about or through some third person. This is the dominant characteristic of the Abrahamic religions: God is One, and He listens to each single person. The needs of each creature are registered. God is not conceived as a logically necessary being, or first mover, who set up the world and then withdrew from it, leaving His creatures to their own devices. Nor is He conceived as some abstract form of ‘the sacred’, which somehow infuses everything but cannot be addressed. In the religion of Ibrahim, God is conceived as a Being, with a will and power to command, wholly transcendent and yet nearer to His human creatures than they are to themselves, intimately informed about them and concerned that they know and follow His guidance.
Ibrahim continues his appeal for the guidance of his people with a hope that God will raise among them a Messenger who follows God’s signs, teaches as much as is revealed to him from the Book and Wisdom, and so purifies them. There are several matters of interest here, in particular the meaning of ‘signs’‘ the Book’ and ‘Wisdom’. Following God’s signs means being able to look through the realities inside and around human life, the signs within ourselves and on the horizons. Ibrahim is the greatest example of this ability; he does not look at human events or natural phenomena as matters of fact, but always as signs, as matters of significance. The Book becomes a reality as the particular words conveyed from God, and best preserved in the Qur’an. These words are likewise signs which educate and formulate the relationship between human beings and the Creator, and instruct them in particular rites and cultural forms which preserve and deepen that relationship. Hikmah or Wisdom is the ability of those chosen by God as His Prophets and Messengers to apply the teaching of the Book, as conveyed to them, in their particular circumstances in the way that embodies and preserves that teaching. In other words, because the Book is given with the Wisdom to apply it correctly (i.e., without transgressing its boundaries) the teaching becomes established, not just as a creed but as a way of life, sustained over time and over generations. Again, note that the du`a with the affirmation is addressed directly to You, only You.
The response is a promise from Allah, which indicates that the du`a is accepted in respect of whoever from among his people (and this includes all those descended from Ibrahim and belonging to his confession or millah) wills to be saved and guided. Allah expresses this in the form of a rhetorical question: who turns away from the millah of Ibrahim except one who chooses to be foolish? God affirms that Ibrahim was among the elect in this world and among the righteous in the next. When his rabb commands him: ‘Surrender!’, he says, ‘I have surrendered to the rabb of all worlds and creations.’ For, who but one who chooses to be foolish would not surrender to the One who creates, cherishes, orders and provides for all his creatures? Ibrahim then transmits the same command to his sons, and their sons carry on his tradition. The name of this tradition is Islam. The religion and its adherents are named after the perfection of Ibrahim’s readiness to say aslamtu and to live by his word.