by Zohair Abdul-Rahman MSc and M. Nazir Khan MD



The terms ayah (sign) and ayaat (signs) are mentioned over 400 times in the Quran collectively.1Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65. Rather than sentence or verse, the word used to the describe the smalls unit of complete meaning in the Quran is ‘sign’. Signs are entities that indicate meaning. Intuitively, we know that if something is called a sign, it has something to tell us. The Quran references articulated signs in the book itself (Ayaat Masmoo’ah [heard signs] or Ayaat Qur’aaniyya [Qur’an based signs]) and unarticulated experiential signs in nature (Ayaat Mashhoodah [witnessed signs] or Ayaat Kawniyya [existential signs]).2Miftah Dar as-Sa’adah, Dar alim Fawa’id 9th edition, p. 537 These semiospheres are the two ways that Allah communicates with humanity.

In more than 750 places in the Quran, we are directed to study both sets of signs.3Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65. For instance, the Quran urges the reader to contemplate the signs in the book itself, “Have they not pondered upon the Quran” (Qur’an 4:82), “A blessed book sent down so that they may ponder upon its signs” (Quran, 38:29), “We have sent down an Arabic Quran except so that you can comprehend” (Quran, 12:2). The Quran also guides the reader to study the unarticulated signs found around them, “And how many signs in the heavens and the earth do they pass by while they are turning away from it” (Quran, 12:105). “Say: Observe everything in the universes and the earth” (Quran, 10:101), “Say: Travel the earth and see how was the end of those who came before” (Quran, 30:42).

This article will explore both categories of signs in the context of semiotics (the academic study of signs) and the Islamic concept of light (nur). We will discuss the connection between the two classification of signs of Allah and the meaning that they represent. The profound relationship between the articulated signs of Allah found in the Quran and the unarticulated signs of Allah found in the world around us will also be investigated. Through this investigation, we will uncover the primordial religion (deen hanif) derived from humanity’s intended interaction with the signs of Allah.

The article is divided into 2 sections. Section I: Signs in Nature builds the case for conceptualizing nature as being made up of signs as opposed to the alternative view of reductionist naturalism. Section II: Semiotics of Signs discusses how meaning emerges from signs and examines its connection with nur (light).


Section 1: Signs in Nature

 There are essentially two ways of viewing the natural world: 1. We can choose to see the natural phenomenon around as representative of a higher order meaning, as the intended consequences of the Divine Will, or 2. we see the world as nothing more than the amalgamation of blind material, chemical and physical forces that ultimately bear no greater significance – a worldview referred to as naturalism.

Incoherence of Naturalism

Even in the minds of many Muslims, we often find the implicit assumption that the natural world we inhabit is the world described by science. It is a world of matter entirely reducible to vibrating particles, governed by mathematical equations described by the scientific endeavour – a mindset molded by the philosophical worldview of naturalism.4 Smith, J. & Sullivan P. Transcendental Philosophy And Naturalism, p. 11. This philosophy sees Reality as the physical world made up of exclusively natural entities. Therefore, Truth is reduced to merely accurate descriptions of the objective world. The Qurān describes this notion,

“…But rather most of mankind do not know. They only know what is apparent in the life of this world and they are willfully blind to the hereafter.” (Qurān, 30: 6-7.)

However, when we analyze the ontological and epistemological presuppositions that emerge from a worldview of naturalism, we find that they are not consistent with widely shared human beliefs and conceptualizations of the world.5Moran, D. (2008). Husserl’s transcendental philosophy and the critique of naturalism. Continental Philosophy Review, 41, 401-425. Naturalism denies beliefs of virtue, value and meaning itself. Virtue represents the idea of how people should act on the world. Virtues such as compassion, justice and courage are not made of matter and cannot be reduced to particles or atoms. Thus, if a person believes that Reality is exclusively what is made up of observable matter, it poses a problem to the belief of virtue. A similar line of reasoning can be applied to value and meaning. Aesthetic values of beauty and ugly, moral values of goodness and evil and spiritual values of purpose and growth all become delusions and fantasies of the mind. The meaning that emerges from relationships and life itself are also nothing more than illusions. Richard Garner, a contemporary philosopher, points out that naturalism and its indispensable view of atheism necessarily results in the disbelief of these metaphysical ideas.6

The only thing that exists is matter –> We are nothing more than collection of particles that exist without purpose –> There is no such thing as an ‘ideal’ way the world should be –> There is no ideal way of acting in the world –> There is no such thing as virtue, value or meaning

It is important to recognize that virtues, values and meaning existing as purely subjective realities is not coherent. The notion of virtue or value is embedded in the idea that the world ought to be a certain way. Naturalism states that the emergence of life and the world itself is the unintended consequence of blind physical forces and is not meant to be in any particular way. Thus, conceptions of virtue or value become incoherent in this worldview. Similarly, the notion of meaning is embedded in the idea that the world is about something. Naturalism cannot support the intentionality of the world and thus meaning becomes meaningless.

Furthermore, Edmund Husserl, the founder of the philosophical school of phenomenology points in his critique of naturalism that paradoxically naturalism challenges the foundations of science itself.7Moran, D. (2008). Husserl’s transcendental philosophy and the critique of naturalism. Continental Philosophy Review, 41, 401-425. Paul Davies, contemporary physicist, explains, “All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.”8 Science is nested in the presupposition that the world contains meaning and that it is intelligible to us. The logical consequence of naturalism is the denial of meaning and thus the entire system of science loses its foundation and becomes fundamentally incoherent.

Often, discussions surrounding truth are divorced from human behaviour. However, it is an essential dimension of understanding how people conceptualize reality. People act in the world based on what they believe about it. There are an almost infinite amount of actions that a person can be engaged in at any point in time. The choice a person makes is based on a belief about value. It is not possible to perform any action in this world without a value system. Even those who profess to not believe in values, implicitly affirm them simply by acting. The mere vocalization of the disbelief of values implies that there was value in making that statement over not making it. Even eating or drinking carries the implicit belief that self-preservation is important. That is a value judgement. Thus, human behaviour itself presents one of the most foundational problems of adopting naturalism. Behaviour requires a value system. And a value system requires the existence of a realm beyond matter.

The World of Signs

Historically, the Western world disregarded the natural world in the study of semiotics, focusing exclusively on language and man-made signs and symbols.9Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65. The Quranic paradigm advances the idea that the entire world is made up of signs,

Indeed, within the universes and the earth are signs for the believers. And in the creation of yourselves and the animals that He disperses are signs for those who have conviction.” (Qurān, 45:3-4)

In addition to the physical objects that occupy the world, the Qur’an also describes time and movement as signs,

And in the alternating night and day, and in what God sends down from the sky of provisions and the spring of life emerging from the earth after its death and the directing of the winds are signs for rational people.” (Qurān, 45:5)

Elma Berisha, a cognitive semiotician, explains that the Quranic qualification for sign is very broad, including anything that can be conceived of in creation.10Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65. She provides a non-exhaustive overview as organized in the Table 1.

But what does it actually  mean for something to be perceived as a sign? And why does the Qur’an make the concepts of signs the basis of our epistemology?

Consider an example. If one is driving and sees a red traffic light, that is immediately recognized as relevant and significant as opposed to seeing a red light that is simply hanging as decoration. The red traffic light is a sign that immediately triggers the cognitive understanding that traffic in a particular direction will temporarily stop to permit other road users the right away, and that red light carries a discrete behavioural instruction – “stop your car”. Basically, a perception (“red light”) is linked to a particular cognition (“I need to stop my car”).

The red traffic light is not a decorative adornment. It is a sign that immediately is recognized as relevant and meaningful by drivers at that intersection.

On materialism, all the events in our lives are as devoid of meaning and relevance as the static noise of a television display.

Now consider another example. A television displays static noise. The viewer perceives both sight and sound, but in this case the external stimulus is bereft of any deeper meaning or significance. This is mere stimulus, but not a sign. A sign is a perceived stimulus that is recognized as relevant based on conceptual background that allows the human mind to interpret the significance of the sign. The sign corresponds to a cognition, but it doesn’t just stop there. A sign allows one to organize additional thoughts around the initial cognition in order to develop more sophisticated and advanced thoughts. The more profound the sign, the greater it’s constructive capacity to engender new ideas, interpretations and thoughts.

The activity of the human mind functionally requires the presence of signs. The human mind is comprised of thoughts, ideas, concepts, emotions, all of which need to be linked together by some associations, based on some notion of which things are relevant to what. This allows cognitive structures to be organized and arranged in a particular way to permit a human being to make sense of the world and how to act in it. This is, in essence, what it means for something to be recognized as truth, Haqq. It serves as a scaffold for constructing a higher resolution understanding of the world.


Table 1:

Sign Type Verse
Natural Phenomena “Indeed, within the universes and the earth are signs for the believers” (45:3)
Supernatural Phenomena “If We willed, We could have sent down to them a sign from the sky for which their necks would remain humbled.” (26:4)
Warnings “And nothing has prevented Us from sending signs except that the former peoples denied them. And We gave Thamud the she-camel as a visible sign, but they wronged her. And We send not the signs except as a warning.” (17:59)
Blessings “He causes to grow for you thereby the crops, olives, palm trees, grapevines, and from all the fruits. Indeed in that is a sign for a people who give thought.” (16:11)
Punishments “And We showed them not a sign except that it was greater than its sister, and We seized them with affliction that perhaps they might return [to faith].” (43:48)
Celebratory Feast Said Jesus, the son of Mary, “O Allah , our Lord, send down to us a table [spread with food] from the heaven to be for us a festival for the first of us and the last of us and a sign from You. And provide for us, and You are the best of providers.” (5:114)
Languages “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” (30:22)
Text “And when We substitute a sign in place of a sign – and Allah is most knowing of what He sends down – they say, “You, [O Muhammad], are but an inventor [of lies].” But most of them do not know.” (16:101)
Historical Events “So today We will save you in body that you may be to those who succeed you a sign. And indeed, many among the people, of Our signs, are heedless” (10:92)
Artefacts “And their prophet said to them, ‘Indeed, a sign of his kingship is that the chest will come to you in which is assurance from your Lord and a remnant of what the family of Moses and the family of Aaron had left, carried by the angels. Indeed in that is a sign for you, if you are believers.’”(2:248)
Inherited Knowledge “And has it not been a sign to them that it is recognized by the scholars of the Children of Israel?” (26:197)
Technology “And a sign for them is that We carried their forefathers in a laden ship.” (36:41)
Human Beings “And [mention] the one who guarded her chastity, so We blew into her [garment] through Our angel [Gabriel], and We made her and her son a sign for the worlds.” (21:91)

Section II: Semiotics of Signs

Abstracting Meaning from Signs

Meaning arises from a person’s ability to make distinctions between signs in a given sign-set.11Ibid For instance, the ability to understand a spoken English sentence is predicated upon the receiver discriminating between words in the sentence. Failure to distinguish words from each other will result in an incomprehensible singular sound. This is why it is difficult to understand a person when they are speaking very fast. The speed makes it difficult for the mind to differentiate the words and so it sounds “gobbled up” to the listener.

Another way of looking at meaning is as a mechanism to simplify a complex world.12Peterson, JB. (2007). The meaning of meaning. International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 1(2). This is closely connected to the process of discrimination described above. When a person can appropriately distinguish between categories, concepts or ideas within a given phenomenon, they are able to understand it better. They haven’t necessarily understood the phenomenon completely, as it is more complex with more potential meaning than a person can possibly fathom. For example, a person can look at the sky above them and see sun, cloud and blue sky. He has distinguished 3 different parts of the sky and that has resulted in a certain level of understanding. A person unfamiliar with the objects of the sky, may see it all as one thing and fail to understand them as separate phenomena. This person has abstracted less meaning from the sky and has an insufficiently ordered view. However, the person that recognized the 3 separate phenomena cannot claim to have understood the sky in its totality. The more learned a person is, the more distinctions they can make. Perhaps they understand that there are different types of clouds that result in further differentiation – cumulus, stratus, cumulonimbus, and so on. There may be something that the particular pattern of clouds in the sky indicates in terms of portending weather. Furthermore, a person can know what the cloud, atmosphere and sun is made from and proceed to differentiate further within each phenomenon. This microscopic differentiation can go all the way down to the level of quarks and atoms and potentially beyond.

Meaning can also result from reverse differentiation, where a person sees a diverse set of objects as a whole in relation to something else. Following our previous example, a person can telescopically zoom out and see the sky as part of the planet earth, which is part of a solar system, which is part of a galaxy, which is part of a cluster galaxy and beyond.


Comprehensive and Distinguished Signs

These two processes (integration and differentiation) are alluded to in the Quran, “A book whose signs are uhkimat (comprehensive) and then are fussilat (distinguished) from One who is Wise and Acquainted.”(Quran, 11:1) The Quran describes the meaning in its own articulated signs as resulting from both differentiation and integration. The process of excavating these meanings from the articulated signs of Allah is a science that has over a thousand-year history and is known as Uloom at-Tafseer (Science of Interpretation). The vast majority of work in exegesis deals with understanding the signs through the process of differentiation; namely, breaking passages down into individual elements, sentences and words, and detailing the meaning of each individual component to arrive at a conclusion. A growing area of focus in the last few centuries has been an integrative comprehensive approach that identifies themes in the Quran and chapters attempting to discover eloquent patterns embedded in the text. The fields of study that have emerged in this area include tanasub al-Ayat (recognizing inter-textual links between passages), maqasid al-suwar (identifying over0arching objectives of each chapter), and tafseer al-Mawdu’i (studying a particular topic thematically in several passages throughout the Qur’an). In this regard, the Quran resembles the universe that can also be analyzed and appreciated from both a micro and macro level.

The Quran also explains that Allah distinguished (fasl) the unarticulated signs, rendering them meaningful, “He is the One who made the sun shining and the moon illuminated determining for it its stages so that you can know the number of years and account (for time). Allah created all of that with a purpose, He distinguishes the signs for people of knowledge.”(Quran, 10:5) This fascinating passage explains the source of meaning in the universe and why it is intelligible through the process of distinguishing of signs performed by Allah.

Ibn al-Qayyim describes the entire intellectual pursuit of truth as a quest to simply distinguish and discriminate.13Kitab ar-Ruh, Maktabah Tawfeeqiya, 2012, p. 369 Fundamentally, a person must distinguish truth from falsehood at every level of analysis. He focused on distinguishing truth from falsehood in relation to virtue such as the difference between nobility and arrogance, generosity and extravagance, discipline and rigidity and optimism and wishful thinking. He analyzes more than 35 of these dualities. He also explained falsehood as a failure to appropriately distinguish things as they ought to be. Ibn al-Qayyim gives the example of failing to distinguish animal from human when deliberating on the ethics of meat consumption.14Ibid This can either lead to cannibalism or veganism, but both are predicated upon the failure to distinguish human from non-human creature.

Semiotics as an Indication of the Divine

The scholars of semiotics have grappled with the problem of anchoring apparently arbitrary signs, such as the words in a given language that do not seem to correlate with their represented meaning. Thus, the words of language are conceived as a system of signs that are socially learned. This necessitates a point of origin that initiated the entire system of arbitrary signs, that subsequently evolved into the diverse set of languages seen today. The point of origin cannot have been socially learned, since there was a time where no one was using any system of arbitrary signs. The point of origin also cannot have emerged naturally because then it would not be arbitrary. Another problem articulated by C.S. Pierce, one of the most significant figures in semiotics, is the issue of infinite semiosis. Semiosis is the process of making meaning from the environment or language. The basic axiom is that the more a person can differentiate between signs, the more meaning they are able to achieve. Thus, the more a person deconstructs a sign, differentiating its parts, the more meaning they can produce.15Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.

Infinite semiosis refers to realization that the process of differentiation can potentially be infinite. How can this be concluded? Both of these problems point to the dependency of semiospheres such as language on an external agent to render the entire system of semiosis meaningful.

Light Carries Meaning

Meaning embedded in the Divine signs is explained in the Islamic tradition as nur (light). Meaning that emerges from the signs of Allah represents a high-ordered form of light that is beyond the physical realm as described by contemporary theologian, Sa’id ibn Ali-Al-Qahtani, author of the famous Fortress of a Muslim prayer compilation, “There are two types of light. The first type is empirical light (nur hissi) that exists in the physical world…The second type is the semiotic light (nur ma’nawi) that is perceived through the spiritual heart.”16Sa’id ibn ‘Ali al-Qahtani, Sharh Asmaa Allah al-Husna fee Dawu al-Kitab wa Sunnah, p.159

Ibn al-Qayyim expands,

“There is light that is intelligible (ma’qool) and processed by the eyes of the heart and there is physical light that is perceived through the physical eyes.”17The Invocation of Allah: Al-Wabil al-Sayyib min al-Kalim al-Tayyib, p. 66.

“Inner vision beholds it (light) with a perception linked to the heart in the same way that the objects of physical sight are linked to the eye.”18Ibid, p. 77

The link between light and meaning also exists within the English language. We often refer to people who gain knowledge as being en-light-ened. Physical light clarifies our physical surroundings and spiritual light clarifies our metaphysical surroundings. Just as physical light provides us with physical guidance in space-time, semiotic light provides intellectual guidance for our belief structures and moral guidance for our behaviour. Most importantly, it provides us with knowledge of Allah that enables us to traverse the path toward Him, as we grow in our knowledge and actualize good in the world.

The signs and the meaning that they represent are both emitting light. The light that is reflected from the physical sign is physical light processed by the physical eye and the light of meaning is processed by the spiritual eyes in the heart. The Quran states, “It is not the eyes that are blind, but rather it is the hearts in the chests that are blind” (Quran, 22:46).

When this light is perceived by the heart, the human being becomes enlightened. Then when a person acts according to this light, their bodies become encompassed with it. They become a sign for others, as their positive behaviours reflect forth the light that initially entered their heart.

For instance, when a person is inspired by the Mercy of Allah he sees in the world. He or she is perceiving this light with their spiritual eyes. When they act in a manner consistent with this quality, perhaps by showing love and care to a drown-trodden child, they are reflecting their light onto their limbs through that action. When they act, their body exudes that same light that entered the heart. Others around them can perceive the light that they were initially inspired with. In summary, the goal of a believer is to bring light into their hearts to elevate their soul, stirring them to action, resulting in light that emanates from their being.

Ibn al-Qayyim explains, “This is why the Prophet asked his Lord so fervently to put light in his flesh and bones, muscles, hair and skin, his hearing and sight, above and beneath him, on his right and on his left, behind him and before him – saying, ‘and make of me light’. In short, he would ask his Lord to make every particle of his inner and outer being into light…”19The Invocation of Allah: Al-Wabil al-Sayyib min al-Kalim al-Tayyib, p. 61

To conclude this section, the process of taking something as a sign involves the following steps:

  1. Recognition of the stimulus and its relevance
  2. Differentiation and integration
  3. Interpretation to construct meaning and obtain enlightenment
  4. Mobilizing new cognitions towards values and goals

The fourth stage will became more evident throughout the course of the next article.

Read Ayaat: Experiencing the Divine Signs.


References   [ + ]

1. Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.
2. Miftah Dar as-Sa’adah, Dar alim Fawa’id 9th edition, p. 537
3. Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.
4. Smith, J. & Sullivan P. Transcendental Philosophy And Naturalism, p. 11.
5. Moran, D. (2008). Husserl’s transcendental philosophy and the critique of naturalism. Continental Philosophy Review, 41, 401-425.
7. Moran, D. (2008). Husserl’s transcendental philosophy and the critique of naturalism. Continental Philosophy Review, 41, 401-425.
9. Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.
10. Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.
11. Ibid
12. Peterson, JB. (2007). The meaning of meaning. International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 1(2).
13. Kitab ar-Ruh, Maktabah Tawfeeqiya, 2012, p. 369
14. Ibid
15. Berisha E. (2017). The Qur’anic Semio-Ethics of Nature. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 8: 47-65.
16. Sa’id ibn ‘Ali al-Qahtani, Sharh Asmaa Allah al-Husna fee Dawu al-Kitab wa Sunnah, p.159
17. The Invocation of Allah: Al-Wabil al-Sayyib min al-Kalim al-Tayyib, p. 66.
18. Ibid, p. 77
19. The Invocation of Allah: Al-Wabil al-Sayyib min al-Kalim al-Tayyib, p. 61
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