In the very first ayat which Sidi Kamardine recited, Allah SWT reminds us that He’s made all people from one self. The word used is nafs. And as we’ve understood nafs in our tradition, nafs is your individual identity. The sense that you have that you exist as a discrete, separate being.
The significance of this ayat that we all come from one nafs is that our condition – the root condition of our individual existence – for all human beings is exactly the same.
The core problem of being human – of being an individual – is that as soon as you define yourself as a being of your boundaries, you are making yourself separate form everything that isn’t you. And the moment you consider yourself separate from everything that isn’t you, you are confronted by the fundamental problem of that which is very small being confronted by that which is overwhelming.
How big is the rest of the universe with regards to you? It’s vast beyond description. It is overwhelming. The necessary implication of that which is very small, when it is confronted by that which is overwhelming, is to be overwhelmed.
So at the root of our existence, of our experience that we exist as individuals – and we all suffer from this, it’s part of the singularity of being human – at the root is absolute, blind terror. To be human is to be terrified. Because you are a very small being confronted by that which is vast, unmanageable and potentially overwhelming.
Allah SWT also tells us that with the dhikr of Allah, your heart becomes tranquil. In other words, this root agitation, this terror, which we are fundamentally pickled in, and which is the core condition of existing as a nafs, as an individual, has a remedy. There is something that takes this horror, and this terror and this fear and dulls it. It’s called the dhikr of Allah. In other words, there is a step of reflection that needs to happen that changes the character of the horror – which is a root condition – to something else.
When you recognize, in the first instance that despite the fact that you are very small and you’re confronted by that which is overwhelming, and yet you have not been overwhelmed, the character of the fear that you have when you view the other, changes to awe.
The difference between terror and awe is very small.
The difference between terror and awe is very small. Because they both have as a root condition this nervousness of that which is very small, compared to that which is vast. Awe does the same thing. But what is inside awe is not the same essence of terror, but it is the essence of appreciativeness. In other words when you recognize that there’s…that which is out there, that which is overwhelming does not seek to annihilate you but in fact has only ever had your own very best interest at heart, has only ever done the very best for you and has withheld itself from you, your experience of this terror changes to awe. To worshipfulness.
So this dhikr of Allah is partly what we have done tonight, which is to continue reciting the divine name until you can’t think. But it’s also to actually remember Allah. And when you remember Allah, you remember what has happened to produce you.
Allah SWT is outwardly manifest. In other words, His face is wherever you turn. So, wherever you look, the totality of what is in front of you, is His expression to you. To produce who you are now, has taken an orchestration of events from the very first event. From the big bang, things have had to have been woven together by an incredible Genius, to produce you now.
If there weren’t stars created, there wouldn’t be photosynthesis. If there wasn’t photosynthesis there wouldn’t be a leaf for you to eat, the sheep to eat and then there wouldn’t be a lamb for you to eat and you wouldn’t be.
So, it’s taken all of these things to happen to make you. By what genius? By your own genius? That’s outrageous! In other words, this vast thing out there, has with incredibly delicate Design, over ancient times, huge periods of time, woven together the conditions for you.
So who says that which is vast cannot be exact?
Of course it’s exact. It has made you.
Everything that you are, comes from other than you. Your earliest memory – the first time you opened your eyes, you would have seen other than you. So other than you, preceded you. Your last vision as you die will be of other than you. So when your eyes finally close, they will continue on, so other than you antecedes you, precedes you.
This face that He presents you, is absolutely… it precedes you, you’ve come from, it sustains you, you will go back into it, it is absolutely All There Is. It has granted you everything that you have. How can it be dangerous to you? How can it be hostile to you?
It’s not just in what He grants that gives me that awe, it’s also what He withholds.
So as soon as you remember the Rahma of your Rabb, and the incredible Generosity…I always find it so charming, people in Pakistan speak and they say, “Allah is so kind” and He is kind….this incredible Kindness granted you all of this, then you recognize that that which is overwhelming has, in fact, the deepest love for me, I’m its beloved. It hasn’t an interest in annihilating me. In other words, it changes my sense of terror to “Wow!” – Awe.
And it’s not just in what He grants that gives me that awe, it’s also what He withholds.
How many things could go wrong that could kill you right now? It’s an infinite number of possible variables. In fact, if you consider statistically, the likelihood of getting killed right now far outweighs the likelihood of taking your next breath, if you consider all the things that could go wrong. So, why aren’t you dead?
It can only be because that which is which is apparently random, dangerous, vast, annihilating, is withheld from you. So in what sense can we say that this universe that we’re in, is hostile to us and that there isn’t a guiding Rabb, a custodial Lord in-charge of this matter? It’s an outrageous proposition!
So as soon as you start reflecting, as soon as you start doing some dhikr, reflection to this, where did I come from? How did I come to be here? How come I’ve not been annihilated? You start to realize that that which is apparently terrifying, and indeed, overwhelming, grants me everything I have and withholds itself from me so that I can be. In other words, my take on it is gratitude and it’s that gratitude that shifts the character of your experience of terror to awe.
And awe is the highest human experience. There isn’t one greater than that. The human heart has been made for this. The human heart … is doing what it has been made to produce. It’s the highest human attribute.
Now, as people, we have all sorts of strategies that – other than remembering our Rabb, other than the dhikr of Allah – we have other strategies which are designed to escape this terror of being that which is very small confronted by that which is unmanageably vast and overwhelming. And the first mechanism, the first …strategy that we have is that we collude with each other.
Human beings have to cooperate otherwise the totality of existence takes us out, because it is wild. So we learn from that. If we don’t look after each other…look at little Saadiya now, she’s absolutely beholden to her parents for at least another ten years. If as a community we don’t cooperate to keep her alive, she will die. And so it is with every human being alive. We cooperate to keep that which is potentially dangerous, away. But that creates a bad habit, and the bad habit is that we then think that we can manage that which is overwhelming just by working together. This is an outrageous habit.
We then think that we can manage that which is overwhelming just by working together. This is an outrageous habit.
So, we hide from what is overwhelming by literally creating walls of cooperation, and they’ve got two fundamental manifestations. The first is literally the walls of buildings, where we don’t have to be confronted by the bigness of the blue sky because we’re in the house. So, that’s kind of held away from us. If you put yourself in a place where you really get a sense of perspective on a very high mountain, get a sense of the view of things, then you know who you are. And you feel very small and you’re either in awe or you’re in terror. But fortunately we don’t put ourselves, or unfortunately we don’t put ourselves in those vantage points, where you can see things as they are, we come and hide inside buildings.
Now just because we’re inside a building and the walls intervene between you and the vastness out there, doesn’t mean to say that it’s disappeared. This is really … ostrich stuff. It’s still there. You just don’t see it! And we do the equivalent of that by our on-going talk to ourselves – yabba dabba dabba, yabba dabba dabba – that create the walls of habit, so we don’t look at what’s overwhelming.
The biggest blessing that we have in this journey of escaping our little collusions of mediocrity with other people, is trauma, any trauma. Because what trauma does is that it ruptures the boundaries of your integrity. All trauma does that. You have a sense that I’m discrete and then suddenly something penetrates you, something breaks through the barriers, you know. Trauma is the equivalent of a truck coming through the walls. Or a meteor coming through the ceiling. It is something that smashes in through your boundaries. Penetrates you.
Now, the miserable thing is, in our collusion with each other, when we survive these things, when we start talking to each other about them, we use this as evidence for just how dangerous the universe is and why we have to cooperate against it. Not realizing, that you’re still alive mate, this thing could have taken you out! Why did it stop just there?
Every time something truly traumatic happens, it gives us the opportunity to reflect.
Colleague of mine was coming back from a piece of work, sidi Eesa – years ago in 1990 I think – we’d just started our business, he was coming back from a piece of work and he drove under a truck and he was absolutely stuck with his head against the back of the headrest; and the truck bumper grated his cheekbone, inverted it, crushed it. It stopped just there. If that had gone a centimeter further, it would have popped his bone out of his head. That’s what trauma does. If it hasn’t killed you, it’s stopped just there. And when it stops just there, what does it say to you? It says, “Hey, wake up. Understand, a great catastrophe gets withheld.”
The only thing, the most useful thing…when we think of trauma, we think of that which is horrifying, that which devastates, that which penetrates – in fact, it is the most useful thing to us. Because every time something truly traumatic happens, it gives us the opportunity to do dhikr, to reflect, “But you know I could have been killed. Why wasn’t I? I wasn’t killed because the disaster was withheld from me.”
Subhan Allah. Alhamdolillah.
And then that thing becomes evidence for not how wild the universe is, but under what incredible governance the universe is. You know that bug just stopped just short of popping my breath. Just short of popping my breath. If it was not by Allah… And then what ends up scarring most people, for the select few, becomes that which liberates them. Because it causes them to reflect, it causes them to do dhikr, to see the traces of their Rabb, to make the only logical conclusion in an event like this and that is “If this thing wasn’t governed, I would be dead.”
May Allah grant us nearness to Him
May Allah grant us annihilation in Him
May Allah grant us the fortitude to stop running
May Allah grant us the strength and will to face the demons and to befriend all terrors
This discourse was given by Shaykh Ebrahim after a dhikr session on 15th October 2011.