In Sura Yasin, (Q. Chapter 36) there is a reference to a people who have shackles around their necks, and barriers and veils around them (vv. 7-9) Who are these people? Not surprisingly, the Quran mentions no specific names here. As usual, the Quranic intent is not about labeling any particular person or people. Rather, our Maker is revealing to us the truth of certain attitudes that any one of us can have (and we usually lapse into these attitudes, hence the Quran repeatedly cautions us against them.) These are the people, “who will not believe,” (v.7) and for whom the messengers cannot do anything, for they choose to reject the messengers. (v. 10) Such descriptions are key clues if we want to take the guidance of the Quran seriously, i.e. personally.
When we reject the messengers of God, when we resist belief in One, what is the result? Shackles around our neck, and barriers and veils around us. Sounds harsh? Indeed it is. And, pay attention to who is being harsh on who- I am being harsh on my own self, I am the one who prefer shackles over belief. This is a result of our own doing! How so? Let us look a bit deeper. What is really meant by shackles? Let us re-read the verse: “Behold, around their necks We have put shack¬les, reaching up to their chins, so that their heads are forced up.” (v. 8) Raising one’s head up is interpreted by commentators as the symbol of arrogance. Remember that earlier in the sura it referred to dignity that comes through belief. Arrogance would be a fake replacement for dignity. Turning away from belief, resisting to surrender first looks like a moment of power. In reality, it is debasement. Is not the metaphor of the Quran so powerful: raising up your head through shackles, such a fitting metaphor for our attempt at ‘fake dignity’ through baseless claims that we bind ourselves with. Your head is raised high, but through shackles! What a petty dignity! This is the metaphor for when we shackle ourselves with illusionary assumptions that ultimately harsh on ourselves. We pretend to be in control of our lives, we pretend to have explained the world around us, and we deny our utter dependence on the One, the Source of Mercy and Power. It looks empowering first, and yet it leaves us as wretched beings in a world of chaos, blind chance and merciless struggle and scarcity!
How about the veils and barriers, what are they? As the verse says “and We have set a barrier before them and a barrier behind them, and We have enshrouded them in veils so that they cannot see.” (v.9) Without any claim to exhaust their meaning, one can say that the Quranic reference to these highlight the role of our attitudes in our life journey. The prophet is the same prophet, and he brings the same most precious message to everyone. And yet, if I choose to not listen, if I insist on resisting, then the messenger of God is still there, but I have put up a veil that will prevent me from seeing and hearing and being transformed by it. There is no forced transformation by messengers, if I choose to resist, then I will remain untransformed. Veils and barriers- what a powerful image of our choices! The barriers are around us, through them we only prevent ourselves. That is, our wrong choices restrain and imprison us. It is our choices that shape our experience guidance. I think it is so profound that the Quran makes reference to consequences of our choices (shackles and forced up necks) along side with an emphasis on the decisiveness of our choices (veils and barriers in the case of insistent unbelief).
All of these descriptions is again a call, an invitation from the One who “shall indeed bring the dead back to life,” (v. 12). Thus, the verses that mention shackles, veils, and barriers are followed by reference to those who choose to open themselves up to God. Verse 11 announces who will benefit from the messengers of God: the ones who are willing to remember, (or in Asad’s translation, “willing to take the reminder to heart,”) and to have awe before the Most Gracious. Remembering, awe, gracious, and unseen are key words here. Opening ourselves up to messengers is not hard: it is about remembering something already deep inside us, that there is an Unseen Merciful one that is behind all and we are honest in being in awe. No ego games, no unsubstantiated fears, no myths about a merciless world.
Once we are open to receive the mercy, then we are ready to receive messengers. And Sura Yasin turns, from v. 13 on, to its famous story of three messengers sent to a town. Why three messengers, and what is that town? Let us meditate on these next time, inshallah.
~Yamina Bougenaya (thanks to Isra Yazicioglu for editing)