The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that an individual cannot be compelled by the government to provide incriminating information about herself – the so-called “right to remain silent.”
The Quran says that humans will be witnesses against their own “selves” in the hereafter (75:14). This can be illustrated by an example of a person who takes poison. For his punishment, there is no need for security guards, police stations, courts, judges, or jail. His punishment is hidden inside the poison.
Similarly, for punishment for his bad actions, the Quran says that the human will be a witness against his own self; that he will give evidence against his own self, i.e., he will stand against himself as a witness as everything is recorded what he did in the world:
إِنَّا نَحْنُ نُحْيِي الْمَوْتَىٰ وَنَكْتُبُ مَا قَدَّمُوا وَآثَارَهُمْ ۚ وَكُلَّ شَيْءٍ أَحْصَيْنَاهُ فِي إِمَامٍ مُّبِينٍ
Verily, We shall indeed bring the dead back to life, and We shall record whatever [deeds] they have sent ahead, and the traces [of good and evil] which they have left behind: for of all things do We take account in a record clear. (36:12) [Asad]
This is the way the Quran describes, which is the action-consequence regarding the accountability of actions performed here in this world! There will be no loopholes that humans will be able to offer there; there will be no arguments that could deceive others or could allow for self-deception. There will be no possibilities of these things in the Hereafter or in a society established on the basis of Quranic values in this world. The believers in these values (i.e., Momineen) of that society will never do such things in the first place; neither will they deceive themselves nor will they deceive others. If by chance there are some who behave otherwise, the laws and institutions of justice would be so complete and perfect that arguments based on falsehood and self-deception won’t work. The Quran says about the record of his (mis)deeds which is highly revealing and instructive:
وَكُلَّ إِنسَانٍ أَلْزَمْنَاهُ طَآئِرَهُ فِي عُنُقِهِ
And We have fastened every man's deeds to his neck; (17:13) [Hilali & Khan]
Human’s record of deeds tied to his neck
Today, there are many ways to save records. But in the old days, documents on paper (or parchment) used to be rolled and tied with rope. This became known as document or دستاویز because it was enfolded by hand. Sometimes it was kept inside a cylindrical metal container to protect it from weather elements. Anyway, the Quran says that everyone’s record of deeds will be tied to his neck and:
وَنُخْرِجُ لَهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ كِتَابًا يَلْقَاهُ مَنشُورًا
and on the Day of Resurrection, We shall bring out for him a book which he will find wide open. (17:13) [Hilali & Khan]
There will be no need for any witnesses
What a beautiful way to put this! His record of deeds will be tied to his neck and it will be opened that day, and he will be told to read it himself:
(It will be said to him): “Read your book.” (17:14) [Hilali & Khan]
كَفَى بِنَفْسِكَ الْيَوْمَ عَلَيْكَ حَسِيبًا
You yourself are sufficient as a reckoner against you this Day." (17:14) [Hilali & Khan]
After this, there will be no need for a prosecutor or witness or evidence: You will give evidence against yourself; you will be your own witness; you will be your own prosecutor. There will be no need to bring anyone else.
Shortcomings of the man-made justice system
The process the Quran has described above regarding justice and accountability for one’s actions resides inside of human beings, whereas the system of justice of any society is based on external institutions and entities: such as courts, juries, witnesses, police, and prosecutor. That is why at every step there is a chance of error: an innocent person might get punished and a criminal might go free. If all these are within the human, then there is no possibility that any criminal can go free; because everyone's record of deeds will be hanging in his neck. It is rolled up and hidden now but at that time (in the afterlife), it would be opened up and one will be told to read it himself; be a witness against your own self, and give evidence against yourself. This is the unique style the Quran has adopted to explain it via a practical example so that it becomes explicitly clear to everyone!
The next thing the Quran says about the Day of Judgment or the Day of Accountability is that it will happen in this world as well if the society is established according to the Quranic values. In that case, individuals and society as a whole will reflect the Quranic values. In whatever form our history has reached us, there are certain events that spring up as shining examples of that Quranic society. Among these events, from the period of the Prophet ﷺ and the rightly-guided Khalifas, is the one where someone came to report that he has committed a crime. No one saw him committing the crime. He himself realized and came to report it and asked that he be given appropriate punishment. He was told that in order to discharge judgment there was a need for an eye-witness. He said that I am an eye-witness against myself. He knew that the punishment could be death. But he kept insisting that he should be punished according to the law. Is this not then, the same thing that the Quran says about reading one's own record of deeds; being a witness and giving evidence against one's own self, and doing one's own accountability?
If society could be structured of this type, then this will be the case. There would be a deep conviction in the Law of Requital in society. If someone happens to commit a crime, then he will immediately reflect on it that there is no way he would escape punishment. That is the reason that person (mentioned above) came to report the crime against himself as reported in the history of the early period of Islam. We must have the Iman that accountability of our deeds is bound to occur in the Hereafter; and here in this world as well, when the society is established on the basis of the Quran.
Deciding the meaning of the Quran
ثُمَّ إِنَّ عَلَيْنَا بَيَانَهُ
and then, behold, it will be for Us to make its meaning clear. (75:19) [Asad]
There are two types of meanings that come out after sufficient thought and understanding. The words are the same but one has to decide whether to take literal meaning or to take metaphorical meaning. In every language this is true: words have literal meaning as well as metaphorical meaning. The Quran also has this characteristic. An Arabic word has many metaphorical meanings. When deciding on a metaphorical meaning of a word in a verse, one has to have in front of him all other verses where that particular word has appeared. Putting all these verses together brings out the metaphorical meaning that is appropriate and fits well in that verse. Some past scholars took the literal meaning of a word in a verse in isolation from other verses where that same word appeared. Now, if the verse is related to some concrete reality then its effect would not spread further and cause harm. But, if the verse was related to a commandment or a law, then the impact of taking a literal meaning would be far reaching and harmful. So, when it is told that the Quran is sufficient for our guidance; that it is a complete code of life and constitution – then it requires great thought and understanding in the Quran. The Prophet (PBUH) used to judge matters according to the revelation sent down on him (5:48).
In this process, no help should be sought from any extra-Quranic sources. Allah’s revelation to the Prophet (PBUH) is written in the Quran (6:19). There is no verse in the Quran which says that Allah’s revelation to the Prophet (PBUH) is outside the Quran.
When they help to draw up the code of life that has to be taken from within the Quran then we require people who have a broad understanding and in-depth knowledge of the Quran. When all the verses of the Quran on a topic are collected together; and both literal and metaphorical meanings are considered in determining the appropriate meaning of a particular verse – then there is no verse of the Quran that remains unclear.
How seriously do we take the Qur’an? Do we live by it and die for it as instructed by Allah? Or, do we pay mostly lip service by reciting it to earn rewards for the Hereafter? In probing the human psychology of evasion, Allama Iqbal advises: Ai Musalmaan apne dil se pooch Mullah se na pooch. [O Muslims! Ask your own hearts, not Mullahs.] So, we must question our own hearts – why do we not seek to understand the Qur’an on our own? Why do we solely rely on fatwas and others’ understanding of the Qur’an? Or, are we waiting to hear what we want to hear?
Allah says the Qur’an is more valuable than any treasure we can accumulate (10:58). So, do we really consider the Qur’an as the most valuable treasure in our lives? How much of our day- and night-time hours do we devote to it? To what extent our understanding of it is compromised by our lack of willingness to study it?
Indeed, listening to and reciting the Qur’an has become extremely popular among religious Muslims. However, how many of us are able to understand what is being recited? Moreover, how much importance in our lives do we attach to this understanding? Further, what does it take to understand the Qur’an?
An obstacle in understanding the Qur’an stems, on the one hand, from the mistaken belief that salvation in the Hereafter is achieved by faith alone and not by understanding the meaning of the Qur’anic verses. Therefore, Muslims do not consider it worthwhile to spend time and intellect in exploring the depth of Qur’anic meanings in the same way that other areas of interest are explored. Furthermore, some Muslims have assigned such special status to past Islamic scholars and Imams that the latter’s works are considered sacred and beyond error. In this case, the question arises: Should all Qur’anic interpretations be frozen in their time and space? No doubt, these scholars of the past did their best critical thinking and research into the Qur’an during their time; and their works are a treasure for us. However, why do most of their followers shut the door for further critical thinking and research into the Qur’an? In fact, as human knowledge evolves, it becomes imperative for us to enhance, reinterpret, and advance the past understanding of the Qur’an. The Quran is very clear on this point:
سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الْآفَاقِ وَفِي أَنفُسِهِمْ حَتَّىٰ يَتَبَيَّنَ لَهُمْ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ
In time We shall make them fully understand Our messages [through what they perceive] in the utmost horizons [of the universe] and within themselves so that it will become clear unto them that this [revelation] is indeed the truth (41:53). [Asad]
A further obstacle in understanding the Qur’an is the susceptibility of human beings to take shortcuts. If we believe that simply reciting the verses of the Qur’an (without understanding them) is sufficient to bring lots of rewards – here as well as in the Hereafter – then why should we struggle to understand the Qur’an? Ingenious shortcuts to wealth, prosperity, good health, and multiple rewards in the Hereafter through the recitation of certain words, and verses, and even by simply running one’s finger on the words of the Qur’an are commonplace in the collective Muslim experience.
This has led to a mental malaise wherein Muslims fail to recognize and revere the value of acquiring Islamic knowledge and understanding of the Qur’an. In turn, this lack of understanding of the Qur’an and our subsequent failure to act upon it has led to our present deplorable status in the world. How else to explain the position of the more than fifty Muslim countries which depend on others even for their physical survival despite the fact that they own the richest resources of the Earth? How else to explain the behavior of Muslims colluding with non-Muslims to inflict suffering on other Muslims?
Regaining our lost dignity
Is there any hope for us to regain our lost dignity? The Qur’an proclaims there is. The Qur’an says that Muslims should never despair of Allah’s mercy and blessing (39:53). It says that the Book of Allah is always there to help them at every step but … But it can only help those who want to live by it and not those who simply want to read or recite it for earning some easy rewards for the Hereafter. The Qur’an is for the living and not for the dead: لِّيُنذِرَ مَن كَانَ حَيًّا (36:70.
However, living by the Qur’an requires that we, Muslims, understand it first. In order to understand it, however, we have to use our minds. Moreover, in order to use our minds, we have to spend time and effort, we have to struggle and persevere, just as we do for other things in life. There are no shortcuts in this process. This is Allah’s law of requital. Without proper input, one cannot get proper output.
We must make a sincere pledge towards understanding the Qur’an and then trying to live by it. According to Allama Iqbal:
Gar tu mi khwaahi Musalmaan zeestan
Neest muumkin juz ba Qur’an zeestan
[If you wish to live the life of a Muslim, then it is not possible except to live by the Qur’an.]
Moreover, we must quit imitating the past, for imitation destroys our potential and damages our “self.” Allah says that if all the trees on the planet became pens and all its oceans became ink, the words of Allah (i.e., the meanings contained in them) would not be exhausted (31:27, 18:109). How then can we say that books written in the second and third century after the Prophet (PBUH) contain all the knowledge that we need to understand the Qur’an? Allah enjoins every Muslim in every age to use his/her reason, intellect, and knowledge to understand and explore the meanings of His revelation. Allah says:
إِذَا ذُكِّرُوا بِآيَاتِ رَبِّهِمْ لَمْ يَخِرُّوا عَلَيْهَا صُمًّا وَعُمْيَانًا
And those who, when they are reminded of the Ayat (proofs, evidence, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) of their Lord, fall not deaf and blind thereat. (25:73) [Hilali & Khan]
That is, when Allah’s verses are presented to us, we should not submit to them by ignoring our intellect, wisdom, rationale, and reason. We should not respond to them as if we were deaf and blind.
أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ ۚ وَلَوْ كَانَ مِنْ عِندِ غَيْرِ اللَّهِ لَوَجَدُوا فِيهِ اخْتِلَافًا كَثِيرًا
Do they not then consider the Quran carefully? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein much contradictions. (4:82) [Hilai & Khan]