What does the Qur’an have to say about studying and exploring alternative futures? In certain circles, the question itself is regarded as somewhat out of the ordinary if not downright blasphemous. The future is the domain of the Unseen; it belongs to God. Any attempt to predict the future is to play God. In other circles, the future is all about ‘prophesy’ – witness the sheer number of tomes dedicated to this phenomenon with titles like The Prophecies of the Holy Qur’an, Israel and the Prophecies of the Holy Qur’an, and The Prophecy and Warnings Shines Through the Mystifying Codes of the Holy Qur’an. Most of this is mindboggling, irrational material that serves as psychotherapy for a decaying culture. Its basic function is to drain the believers of all agency and turn religion – or more specifically theology – into a toxic brew.
A true appreciation of how the Qur’an talks about the future, and how it encourages a systematic study of futures, has been conspicuously lacking for a very simple, but powerful, reason: commentaries and interpretations of the Qur’an have followed a centuries old set pattern. Key Qur’anic terms relating to the future have been given certain meanings at the expense of other potential meanings, and both classical and the modern commentators have firmly stuck to those meanings. For example, the unseen (ghayb), can refer to the Hereafter; it is God – ‘the One who knows the seen and the unseen’. But ghayb also means ‘the unknown’, that which is currently absent and not visible but which can indeed be present and be visible in the distant time horizon. When we approach and read the Qur’an from a futures perspective we discover that it is the book of futures par excellence. By its content and context, it is thoroughly oriented towards the futures.
Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed to take them out of a corrupt present, the time of Prophet Muhammad, and guide them towards brighter and more just futures. The Qur’an describes itself as ‘Divine Guidance’ (hudā) or ‘spiritual light’ (nur) to those ‘who are conscious’ – muttaqīn – about their futures as well as the futures of the worlds (2:3, 16:54, 45:11, 20:123). The plural form for these terms in the Qur’an is highly significant (68:52, 12:104, 21:107). Even in conventional theology, the future in the Qur’an is not singular but plural. The Qur’an provides guidance to ‘people of faith’ and prepares them for the akhirah – the final future or the Hereafter, next world and other world as Muslims repeatedly translate and understand this term. This is actually quintessential of Islamic worldviews in which a human being has the gift of life on this world in order to make a difference through ethical excellence and selfless commitment to the betterment of all humanity, eventually leading, by the grace of God, to a ‘blissful hereafter’. But the Hereafter can also be ‘hellish’ (42:7) if a path of moral corruption and evil deeds is followed. So even when the basic tenets of faith are concerned, future is not singular.