Q. "That day will faces be resplendent, looking at their Lord." (Q75:22-23)

The Qur'an has stated that the faces of the believer on that day will be (resplendent) "fresh with joy and will be looking at their Lord." I understand that these couple of verses caused a thousand-year controversy during the medieval Islamic period, over the issue as to whether or not God will literally be physically visible to the believers in the hereafter. What is the significance of these verses and the natural medieval polemic that ensued?

A. The crisis ensued because -- this is my theory -- the scholars did not understand the nature of thematic tafsir. They did not look at the Qur'an as a whole, but rather took each verse as an individual revelation for the most part, and this obviously caused problems. Now the Qur'an in 6:103 specifically states: "God cannot be beheld by the sight." Yet 75:23 seems to clash with this. The obvious answer is that during this life, God cannot be seen, but that in the afterlife, He can be. But then the counter to this simplistic allegation is that Allah never specified that His nature would be changed after the Day of Judgment, or that ours would be enhanced to such a degree that we could perceive that which was before unfathomable.

The matter lies in the understanding of the word "Nazir." Does it only mean to see, when there are other meanings derived from the word that have no concept of sight? For example, the word for "wait" in Arabic is "Intazara," which is "NaZaRa" plus the two additives "I" and "T". "Nazir" as used in the verse you quoted, is Nazara, now converted into a verbal noun, by elongating the first syllable. The Sunnis who opted for a physical vision, relied on the apparent meaning of the verses, and several ahadith which purportedly state that the Prophet explained the verse to say we will see God as we see the full moon at night. Mujahid said: "In the verse, Nazar means "waiting" (intazara), seeking to find what is their lot with God in terms of reward and blessings." Ikramah is also reputed to have issued this explanation. Now whatever the controversies are, I find it difficult to look at any of them with a degree of respect given the tone of the preceding verses, especially since the matter is also tied into the literal meaning of "meeting" the Lord (Liqa).

Even if we assume that the people will be before God, can it not be like the encounter Moses had, viewing the glory of the Lord rather than the Lord in essence? In this case, the entire controversy becomes nonsensical and meaningless, for both sides will have fulfilled their goal. The Sunnis, in that yes, the believers see the Lord in terms of His Glory, not the essence. The Shias can maintain that the verse of 6:103 is not contravened since the Lord has not been seen in actuality. My personal take in spite of all of this, when I consider the verses that come after, is to interpret it as anticipation based on perception. Those who do good, and know that they did, will anticipate the pleasure of their Lord, their faces resplendent. Those who have not done good will anticipate with horror the revenge they perceive may be wreaked on them.

Posted April 22, 1999