“And it is He who created the Heavens and the Earth in Six Days – and His Throne had been upon water.” – Surah Hud 11:7
Although this verse appears as a small inconspicuous line of text, when tugged it unravels layers of coded meanings and offers us a more profound understanding of God. It also raises a two-pronged question.
First, what does the Qur’an mean by ‘throne’?
Second, why is God’s throne ‘upon water’?
Rabbi Ben Abrahamson, a Jewish scholar of Islam and Director at the Committee for Historical Research in Islam and Judaism, suggests that ‘a throne represents the connection between a King and His Kingdom. In this sense, it is not used in related literature to intend a physical throne, but a series of contractions between the most spiritual (heaven) to the most physical (earth).’
This symbolic association compels us to look beyond common associations of water as the source of all life or a vital resource to desert communities.
We all know that we cannot live without water. Surah Hud describes God’s throne as being not over any land mass, but over water – a powerful, ever-changing element and a building block of life. As Guy Proulx shares in his bookWater: The Universal Healer, water is both gently life-giving and violently destructive – there is nothing on Earth that water cannot break down.
Moving beyond this elementary understanding of water, the wordplay in this verse suggests that by being on water, God’s connection with His creation is characterised by two principles inherent in elemental water.
The first is our union with the Divine. Abrahamson elaborates: ‘We are taught that when God created the world, He created the physical, spiritual and higher worlds simultaneously using the same plan. So while the “water below” and “water above” refers in some way to physical creation, it also refers to the creation of a perceivable distinction between His attributes of transcendence and immanence. This is the impenetrable barrier between the things we can know and the things we cannot know. The Throne is above the water. It is above even the unknowable.’
The theme of barriers runs throughout my probe at understanding this verse. Though a single drop of water is small and solitary, I tend to think of water as a collective union of drops. Much like how water is a united collective of the individual, so is humankind.
When the Qur’an tells us that God’s throne is on water, I think it means that our aim is to be fluid like a body of water, where individual molecules do not compete to separate from a collective and where a collective is conscious of its unbroken unity. For example, the ocean cannot be separated from the waves, nor can the waves exist without the ocean.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor at George Washington University and Sufi adherent, supports this point in his book In Search of the Sacred. Nasr highlights that our goal is to ‘transcend the world of forms, to journey from multiplicity to unity, from the particular to the Universal.’ According to Sufi tradition, this can only be achieved by eliminating one’s ego to usher in an internal transformation.
Second, God’s throne is characterised by the notion of freedom. Water flows freely and it largely cannot be possessed, claimed or controlled. Despite all our technological advancements, we cannot control tides, tsunamis or hurricanes. In each of these, we witness the nature of God’s throne. Furthermore, as a representation of God’s ummah, or community, water shows us a natural state that is free from conflict and control.
In establishing a relationship between water and the ummah, I believe that this verse warns us against states of being that are unnatural to water’s yielding nature. Both individuals and the collective should shun possessiveness and authoritarian control. Yet, the presence of radical fringe elements within Islam is a symptom of Muslims being blind to the subtle lessons and warnings of this verse.
I see a disjointed ummah and individuals who are too engrossed in their quests for gain and glory to recognise the plight of any other individual. I see Muslims in name but not in deed or understanding. I see our attempts to control and divide ourselves as not only a human construct, but one that is antithetical to God’s law.
The purpose of religion is to bring us back to our natural state and true selves. I understand this verse as telling us that our natural state is freedom and union with both the Divine and each other. Failing and refusing to live in this state of grace results in a self-imposed exile from God.
In this day and age, verse 11:7 isn’t just a riddle – it’s a call to action.