Quranic Reflection No 586. Āyāt 16:78 – The Senses and Awareness

وَاللَّهُ أَخْرَجَكُم مِّن بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالْأَبْصَارَ وَالْأَفْئِدَةَ ۙ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ

Wallāhu akhrajakum min butūni ummahātikum lā ta‘lamūna shay’an waja‘ala lakumus-sam‘a wal-abasāra wal-af’idah, la‘allakum tashkurūn.

And Allah has extracted you from the wombs of your mothers not knowing a thing, and He made for you hearing and vision and intellect that perhaps you would be grateful.

(Sūrat al-Nahl, No 16, Āyat 78)

The Quran reminds human beings of various blessings bestowed upon them by the Almighty Allah. These reminders are to create awareness of the existence and Oneness of Allah, and the realization of His mercy upon them. In this verse Allah ‘azza wajall talks about the blessings of knowledge and understanding, derived from the senses and the intellect. The human being in the womb has no knowledge. In that small and confined environment that is acceptable. But when the baby comes into the large world, ignorance must be countered with knowledge. Awareness is required to lead life as a human being. Thus, he is equipped with the senses and the intellect to help in cognition of the world.

A question that arises is that this verse says the human being has no knowledge when he comes into this world. Yet we know that he has some form of instinctive knowledge or fitrah that he is born with. This includes the inclination to worship and know God, the innate understanding of good and evil, etc. If we had this knowledge from before why does the verse not acknowledge that? According to Tafsīr-e Namūneh the knowledge in the fitrah of the human being is not actualized or brought into action except after coming into the world. The potential for it is present within the human being but it does not bloom fully until it comes into the world. Through seeing and hearing things, an image of life is formed and sent to the intellect. Slowly these formed understandings of reality became stronger as life goes on.

The verse mentions hearing first and then sight, although sight has an apparently bigger role in human activity. This is because hearing is activated first in a baby. It starts hearing first and after a period begins to see. Accustomed to the darkness of the womb, the eyes do not have the readiness to see light and will be closed initially when entering the world. The ears on the other hand can hear while in the womb. They hear the mother’s heartbeat as well as other sounds. Hearing is also more comprehensive than sight. A human being can only see that which is around him but can hear long distance. Even those who cannot read and write are always able to hear things from others and learn.

The blessing of awareness is one of the most important gifts of Allah (swt). Not only does it pave the way for a real and spiritual understanding of life, but it also helps with living well on earth.  The blessings of insight brought about by seeing, hearing, and intellect differentiate the human being from other creation. Thus, the verse ends with the concept of gratitude. Perhaps the human being will become aware of the vastness of Allah’s bounties and be grateful, albeit in an inadequate way.

This verse is a powerful reminder of the need to be grateful for the senses which we take for granted everyday. They are what can make us the best of creation.

Source: Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh.