The Nature of Revelation
HAT IS REVELATION? Is revelation merely a term used to describe the conscious or subconscious exploration of one's inner world, or is its source an external being, whose knowledge transcends that of humans?
Even people who believe in revelation differ in their understanding of its nature. For example the majority of today's Buddhists, Confucianists and Taoists consider their founders' experiences to have arisen purely from within their conscious or subconscious minds. As mentioned earlier they believe that truth exists within every soul as a part of nature. Inspiration to them is the instrument of contact with the fountainhead of this eternal truth. Other religions hold the view that revelation is an experience arising from an external source—an Everlasting, All-Wise God.
If we widen the scope of our study, we observe that many authentic cases of revelation are also reported outside the domain of religion. For instance, there are many interesting cases of highly complex information conveyed through revelation to some scientists.
In 1865 a German chemist, Friedrich August Kekule, was struggling to solve a problem in chemistry that had baffled all researchers. One night Kekule had a dream in which he saw a snake with its tail held in its mouth. This dream instantly put him on the right track leading to the solution of the perplexing question. Thus was unravelled the secret of the molecular behaviour in certain organic compounds, a discovery which created a revolution in the understanding of organic chemistry. He interpreted this dream to mean that in the benzene molecule, carbon atoms bond together to form a ring structure. This knowledge gave birth to the huge and highly developed field of synthetic organic chemistry producing a vast new range of synthetic materials. The contemporary pharmaceutical industry has become growingly dependent on synthetic drugs. Mankind is indeed indebted to that one dream through which Kekule resolved that problem.
Elias Howe was the first person to mechanize the process of sewing. He too received the answer to a problem that had frustrated him for a long time through a dream. In his dream he saw himself surrounded by savages, who threatened to kill him unless he designed a sewing machine. Being unable to respond he was tied to a tree and the savages started to attack him with arrows and spears. It surprised him to see eyelets on their spearheads. On waking from this dream, he immediately realized the solution, which led him to invent the prototype of the sewing machine that was to dramatically revolutionize the sewing industry. Through his dream he understood that he should consider placing the eye of the needle in its point.
It was this idea which helped him resolve a seemingly impossible task. It is difficult to visualize the sorry state in which man would find himself today without the blessing of this dream. What a revolution was created indeed by this revelation!
In view of many such experiences, one of the possible explanations that comes to mind is that revelation is a phenomenon arising from the subconscious. When the conscious mind is tired of pondering over intriguing problems before falling to sleep, it transfers those problems to the subconscious. During sleep the subconscious keeps reflecting on the data fed into it, and finally computes the much needed solution. Sometimes the solutions may be perceived through visions and sometimes heard in the form of verbal messages. This being so, would it mean that all types of revelation, in whatever manner they appear, are really messages from the subconscious without exception?
In the cases described above, it may well be argued that all the necessary pieces of information needed for the resolution of those problems were already in the conscious mind, the subconscious only proving to be a more powerful tool for synthesizing such information in some mysterious manner. Is this then the sum total of the entire human experience of inspirational revelation or are there other forms that lie beyond the scope of mental processes alone?
The major religions of the world believe that their prophets and also many other holy men received revelation from an external source called God. Others consider this to be a mistaken inference and do not accuse them of wilful fraud, since they could genuinely have mistaken a purely internal experience for a message received from an external source. But if this was so, then the foundations of all the so-called Divine religions would be on very shaky ground. The truth of such claims could only be proved if ample external evidence supports it.
As it would be too extensive and laborious a task to verify the truth of all such claimants individually, we shall only attempt to apply this criterion to the Holy Quran. The foundation of most major religions rests in the belief that there is a Supreme Creator Who, having created man, never abandoned him and continued to take interest in his affairs. It is He Who imparts guidance through His messengers, whenever and to whomsoever He pleases. He reveals knowledge of His existence and expresses His will to mankind to shape their lives in accordance with His instruction. If this is true then revelation will have to be treated as an independent source of knowledge, distinct from mere psychic inspiration, and rationality would occupy only a second place compared to it.
From the vantage point of the human mind, revelation seems to be an internal experience taking place within the sphere of the human psyche. For this reason Divine messages may well be confused with other similar experiences of the subconscious. Nearly all people at one stage or another of their life have some encounter with the workings of the psyche. The human psyche has a built-in mechanism which can create illusions and visions sometimes so clear that they appear to be real to the person who experiences them.
Such experiences belong to a wide range which can be categorized in brief as dreams, verbal messages, musical sounds, images and impressions. In the case of the deranged or those whose minds are in a high state of excitement, their experiences can be so intense that they may create horrifying hallucinations which could drive them mad. Raging fevers can also produce similar states of mental excitement. Apart from this, there are experiences of a completely different nature which generate orderly, soothing and comforting dreams and visions, pacifying the mind and ridding it of many a lurking fear and premonition which sometimes people suffer from without identifying the cause. Again there are messages delivered in clearly heard distinct voices which sometimes are delivered by human or angelic apparitions, or in the voices of unseen persons. If they too could be explained as products of human mind and psyche, all spiritual experiences would be relegated to the realm of psychic phenomenon!
Where then, is room for revelation and Divinely revealed visions? That is the all-important question, which should be clearly addressed and answered. Man's mind is provided with all the mechanisms needed to receive or create such impressions. But God also, whenever He deems it fit, may directly operate this psychic mechanism. To find an answer to this vital question, one needs to examine it at greater length—a task which can be made easier by dividing it into subcategories.
As the subconscious mind can stir up hallucinations and ravings, so also it is capable of creating orderly and meaningful visions and messages. The mind in its inner recesses may go on ruminating on a subject without being conscious of it and eventually develop an answer previously unknown to the conscious mind. It goes on working on a problem until it gets an answer which it can transmit to the higher conscious level of the mind through dreams, visions etc. The results obtained by this process are always within the scope of the available data, which has already been fed to the mind. This process may not necessarily require the influence of an outside agency to be activated. Even a criminal may develop an ingenious plan to commit crime through this process of subconscious inspiration. But it should not be forgotten that the results of inspiration are always related to the data available to the human mind, and can never step beyond it.
sychic Experiences other than Hallucinations
Hallucinations resulting from madness or the use of drugs, are created because man's mind becomes overexcited and the same subconscious machinery within man is consequently worked up. In such cases, the results produced are disjointed. Most often an outside observer can easily tell that such visions are merely the scattered segments of one's fancy comprising incoherent ravings or fearsome visions. The outside observer can also easily recognize the state of utter confusion and desperation which usually accompanies such disorders. But apart from this it is also possible for the subconscious mind to spin meaningful well-organized images with a message to deliver. Also it is possible for the subconscious to communicate with the conscious mind as though purposefully. What remains to be determined is the possibility of any outside agency influencing the human mind by employing its internal mechanism.
Wide scale research and experimentation by parapsychologists carried out on a scientific basis has proved this to be possible. The mind of one person can activate another person's mind and direct it to think in accordance with his command. Research into such phenomenon is now being carried out at many universities and, according to the result of such studies, it is not only possible, but it commonly happens in everyday life that sometimes automatically and sometimes through conscious attempts, the ideas of a person can be transmitted to another person's mind without the employment of any material medium.
A hypnotist can concentrate on the minds of others and create impressions which are in fact planted upon them by the hypnotist himself. As commonly observed in psychic healing, the purpose of hypnotism is to bring the hidden secrets of a subject's mind to the surface, or to encourage the power of his mind to heal him.
It so happens that many a time a deranged patient has lost the courage to confront his own disturbing thoughts. He buries them deep, but not deep enough. They lie somewhere between the conscious and the subconscious mind in a restless state. With a little help from the outside, he ultimately musters enough strength to throw them to the surface and get rid of them. This phenomenon can be likened to any small object lodged under the skin which, unless removed, may cause insufferable agony and restlessness. The job that the knife of a surgeon performs is carried out by a hypnotist's suggestion in the case of a psychic patient.
Telepathy is another mode of paranormal communication which does not employ any suggestion. Without the agency of any known scientific medium, one person's thoughts are transferred to another, without verbal or visual contact. It happens like two tuning forks of the same frequency. If one is resonated, the other would also begin to resonate.
If hypnotism and telepathy work in reality—and there is much evidence that they do—then why cannot God employ the same mechanism for transmitting His command to humans? Why should He not be able to employ the same to convey His will to man?
ther Experiences of Subconscious
Dreams are a truly universal phenomenon shared by people of all countries and all ages, yet dreams do not belong to one category alone. Dreams in most cases are a product of human psyche. The way the subconscious deals with the daily inflow of data reflects the concerns and problems that a particular person is facing. Today the study of dreams has gone far beyond the Freudian era of theorization. Much research is being carried out with the help of advanced electronic equipment.
However, from the religious point of view, there are two types of dreams—those which are generated by psychic factors, and those which are of Divine origin and carry a deeper significance. They may portend future mishaps or bring glad tidings. They may reveal information of which the viewer had no knowledge whatsoever prior to that particular dream. Such dreams bring to a sharper focus the probability of the existence of an invisible, conscious, transcendent, External Being who can, if He so pleases, communicate with humans on whatever subject He chooses.
Enough evidence from religious experiences can be quoted to prove the case in point. But those who do not believe in religion will find it difficult to accept such evidence as valid. This is so because if one accepts the proposition that a Superhuman Conscious Agency can activate the human mind, it would be tantamount to the belief in the existence of God—a fact to which a large number of secular thinkers and scientists are extremely allergic.
The second problem is that in most religions this phenomenon is spoken of with such an air of the supernatural, the bizarre and the fantastic, that it is hard for scientists to subscribe to their credulity. The dramatization of the spiritual experiences of the past saints and prophets on the part of their followers does not serve their cause or the cause of truth for that matter. It only succeeds in obscuring and befogging the reality of such Divine Communications to an extent that no clear separating line can be drawn between the yarn of human fancy and the noble reality of spiritual experiences.
Among Divine Books, the Holy Quran by virtue of being free from interpolation, deals with spiritual issues and experiences in natural and rational terms, rejecting the demand of the non-believer for the supernatural. When studied in the light of the Quranic account, miracles and signs never violate the laws of nature.
The well known miracle of Mosesas for instance, though believed by the People of the Book to be of a supernatural character, is presented in the Quran in a simple, rational, matter-of-fact style. Yet it would take more than a cursory glance to fathom its underlying meaning. It is not cryptic yet the real intent eludes particularly those who read it with preconceived ideas of a supernatural event. Here we illustrate the Quran's treatment of this miracle.
He replied, 'Throw ye.' And when they threw, they enchanted the eyes of the people, and struck them with awe and brought forth a great magic.
And We inspired Moses, saying, 'Throw thy rod', and lo! it swallowed up whatever they feigned.
So was the Truth established, and their works proved vain.1
Here the Quran speaks of an incident in which the magicians of the Pharaoh are described to have cast their spells, not on the ropes they threw, but on the eyes of the spectators, a clear description of mesmerism. No breach of any laws of nature is involved at all. To counter this mesmeric illusion, God employed His superior will through Mosesas to shatter the spell cast by the magicians. Hence the Quran does not claim that the staff of Mosesas had actually devoured the ropes; it only pronounces that the staff of Mosesas swallowed what the magicians had fabricated—that is the false images of ropes turned into snakes.
The same episode is covered in another Surah which throws more light on what actually happened:
Moses said to them: 'You throw your cast first', and lo their cords and staves appeared to him as though they were moving (like snakes) under the influence of their spell, as if they ran about.
At this, Moses conceived fear.
We (God) said: 'Fear not, it is you who will emerge victorious.'2
In this verse, the Quran speaks of Mosesas himself having been influenced by the psychic powers of the magicians. This implies that Mosesas could not have broken the spell of the magicians by the power of his own mind when he threw his staff. Psychologically it is impossible for the mind to break the spell of a mesmerizer who has already succeeded in subjugating it. Hence it could not have been Moses who countered the magicians' spell with his own will.
It was this aspect of the whole incident which turned it into a miracle. Otherwise any man with stronger will-power could have directly frustrated the efforts of the magicians. No one could judge better than the magicians themselves, who were in a position to realize that it had to be the Hand of God working on the side of Mosesas. They had witnessed Mosesas to have fallen under their sway like all other spectators. How then could his mind liberate itself as well as the minds of the spectators from the magicians' spell? Incidentally, this verse also lifts the veil from the so-called mysteries of magic. What the magicians produced were not real serpents made out of ropes and sticks, but only an illusion created by their psychic power.
Revelation is just another name for the product of human psyche but only when commanded and controlled from on high by God Himself. We can reasonably conclude therefore, that God must have created such a highly advanced and intricate receptive system within the human mind for the ultimate purpose of communicating with Him. Divine revelation therefore has nothing of the bizarre and unnatural about it.
Every human mind is provided with the aptitude to communicate with other human beings through this extrasensory means of perception. It is important to warn the reader that the refined built-in apparatus we are talking about works with reliability and dependability in proportion to the quality of the truth of the person involved. A false man's imagination can run wild with the images of unreal and unsubstantial things. His wishful thinking can create for him false dreams, a mere product of his psyche. But the person who is habitually straightforward, honest and true is very unlikely to let his imagination run riot and produce chaotic visions and sounds. That is why the apostle chosen by God to deliver His message to mankind has to be absolutely true, honest and trustworthy. It is his integrity which vouches for the unadulterated purity of the message. Hence the truth of the recipient plays the most vital role in guarding and protecting the purity of the revelation. No wonder that in all Divine books, all prophets are described as truth personified. The truth is the most authentic proof of the genuineness of their claim and the validity of the message they deliver.
Sometimes an intuitive experience, without sound or vision, may in reality be a type of external revelation. Many a saintly person describes such experiences of losing his awareness of the world around him and sinking into a state of inner consciousness. He returns to the surface of the outer realities at last, carrying a message like a pearl diver breaks surface with a handful of pearls. Seemingly the subject in this case has an inner experience of something which at its source is without words or images. It is just an intense, ecstatic experience which begins to wear robes of words as it emerges. Yet the impact on him is so powerful as though he had heard someone speak to him directly and clearly during his conscious hours of wakefulness. But the external revelation cannot be identified merely by the impression of the receiver or the manner in which he describes that experience. The only dependable criterion apart from the verified, well-established truthfulness of the person, is the nature of the contents. It is not enough for the receiver to be true, but the contents of the revelation must also bear an internal testimony of their truthfulness.
The distinction mentioned above, between psychic experiences and a genuine revelation from on high, may not be clearly understood by the unfamiliar. Yet the person involved often recognizes it to be a message from on high because the nature of the message is totally unrelated to his personal knowledge and psychic experience.
But the genuineness of revelation is more reliably identified by outsiders with the help of external evidence. The external evidence may be available to contemporary people, or it may not be available because it may emerge later in time with the emergence of things which are predicted. None could have imagined them because they belong to a future era of knowledge and discovery. The truth of such revelations are in fact meant to convince the people of later ages whose advanced knowledge testifies to the truth of Divine revelations of the past. Hence it is not at all difficult, for the observers as well, to distinguish between psychic experiences on the one hand, and genuine communication from God on the other.
OW we turn to a prophecy based on Divine revelation which, though addressed to the contemporary generations, had an element of surprise for the people of the future as well.
The case in point can be illustrated with reference to a famous dream of a king of Egypt, which was later interpreted by Prophet Josephas. According to the Quran, this dream was narrated to Josephas, while he was serving a prison sentence under a false charge. It was a strange dream, which had baffled the great sages of the king's court, but did not present any difficulty to Josephas who rightly discerned its underlying message. It was this wise and masterly interpretation by him which was completely supported and testified by the events of subsequent years.
In his dream the king had seen seven healthy, green ears of corn, and seven dried ones, carrying hardly any seed. He also saw seven lean cows devouring seven others who were strong and fat. When he related this dream to his courtiers demanding an interpretation, they dismissed it as mere subconscious ravings of his mind, carrying no significance.
Now it so happened that a servant of the king who had served a term with Josephas in the same prison was present at this occasion. He too had seen a strange dream while in prison, which Josephas had correctly interpreted, indicating that he would soon gain his freedom and return to serve his master, the king, once again. Hoping that Josephas might possibly interpret the dream of the king as well, he suggested that he should be sent to meet him. Having obtained permission, he visited Josephas in prison and related the king's dream to him. Josephas immediately grasped its significance and explained it so logically that there was no ambiguity left.
Upon his return to the king, the servant related Josephs'as interpretation which ran as follows:
In the seven years which would commence from the time of the dream, God would shower His blessings upon Egypt in the form of abundant rains, resulting in bountiful crops and fruits. After these seven years of bumper harvests, seven lean years would follow bringing drought in their wake. These years would result in disastrous famine unless crops from the previous seven years were saved and stored to compensate for the loss of the drought years.
This interpretation impressed the king so profoundly that he issued orders for the immediate release of Josephas who, opted instead to remain in prison until a fair enquiry was held and the false charges against him were dropped. It was after he was honourably acquitted and the real culprit confessed her crime, that he agreed to be released. He was exceptionally honoured by the king and was appointed minister of finance and economic affairs in his government.
To the surprise of all, the events foretold in the dream came to pass exactly as interpreted by Josephas which not only saved the people of Egypt from disaster but also benefited the nomadic tribes and the populace of neighbouring countries. The same events also resulted in reuniting Josephas with his family.
A dream like this with its subsequent fulfilment could in no way be dismissed as a glutton's overfed fancy. But it took a Josephas to interpret it. This should suffice to illustrate how the internal psychic mechanism is activated by God with a purpose. Thus, a definite meaningful message is delivered by Him and a portion from the realm of the unseen is transferred to that of the seen. However, it should be remembered here that the psychic mechanism under discussion is not exclusively employed by God or the subconscious mind.
There is a third possibility also mentioned in the Holy Quran:
Shall I inform you on whom the evil ones descend?
They descend on every lying sinner.
They strain their ears towards heaven, and most of them are liars.3
According to these verses, the false people and habitual liars may have this mechanism activated by their satanic disposition and as such their falsehood disguised as revelation misleads them, and those who follow them. This is a third category of the functioning of the psychic mechanism. The decisive factor will always be the truth or falsehood of the person who is subjected to such experiences. The false people will have false revelations. Hence in the final analysis the revelation of the untrue can always be recognized by the satanic element it contains and the false promises delivered therein.
- Translation of 7:117–119 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
- Translation of 20:67–69 by the author.
- Translation of 26:222–224 by the author.