by Abu Faydan Faridi
بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم
Man has been engaged in the search for knowledge and answers to questions regarding life and the origin and destiny of the universe for as long as he has been living on this earth, which – according to (evolutionary) scientific opinion – is some one and a half million years. Given that man is the only physical creature, as far as we know, to be endowed with an intellect, and has been searching for so long, is it not amazing that he has still not made much headway as to finding the answers to those essential questions? The reason for this can only be one of two: Either human intellect is so limited that it is inadequate to explore dimensions of existence that lie beyond the material realm of the cosmic set-up, or otherwise, the urgency of the quest has somewhat waned in the existential awareness of man.
The first ‘reason’ is not really tenable, because throughout human history there have always been enlightened individuals, who were either naturally gifted, or attained the realization of the subtler senses of perception, by which they had inspirational access to cosmic intelligence and cognizance of realities beyond the material edifice of creation. That leaves us with the pathetic reality that man in general, and particularly in our time has suffered a downward shift in his priorities, as a result of which his main concerns have become material affluence, physical comfort and sensual satisfaction to the total negligence of his spiritual needs.
Considerable progress has certainly been made in coordinating the coexistence of various life forms and fellow citizens on the planet, so that it is unlikely that you will become the breakfast of some other carnivore while going to the butcher on Saturday morning to buy the lamb chops for Sunday’s lunch. And of course life has become so much easier. Technological development has provided us comforts that our ancestors could never have dreamed of, and it continues to progress at such a breathtaking speed that one hardly has the opportunity to fully enjoy its gifts before they are outdated by newer, better ones. On the surface, it would appear as if ‘civilization’ has almost reached perfection, and that it is only a matter of time before all of mankind is able to reap the benefits, just as long as human beings play by the rules that they have set up and conditioned themselves to follow, as it is frequently projected in science-fiction.
But if we dig a little bit below this deceptive surface, and focus on the mental and spiritual condition of today’s man, in the realms that distinguishes us from our fellow inhabitants on this planet, we find quite a different picture. Some attitudes, orientations and behaviorisms, which were considered depravities and perversions in the past, are so widely practiced and defended that they have – or are just about to – become accepted social standards. Interestingly enough, this phenomenon manifests more strongly in the affluent and developed nations – the ‘First World’, as they are called − which are the standard bearers of technological progress. Most of the killer diseases of the past have come under control, and can be cured today, but at the same time, suicides, stress-related casualties, violence and terrorism are rising on a global scale. A large portion of scientific research and technological progress revolves around the development of timesaving processes and devices, but ironically, time has become the scarcest commodity in people’s lives.
If we consider the whole picture, it appears, as if simultaneously with the outward material progress, an inward ethical regression has been taking place. In other words, it seems that man is pampering all the outward and physical-material aspects of his existence, at the cost of his inward, spiritual assets, even though these constitute the very feature that makes him superior to his fellow creatures. So, what has gone wrong? … or is this the way, it is supposed to be?
The overall picture of humanity is composed of a multitude of smaller pictures, which portray the ‘lifescapes’ of the manifold human societies, and these in turn are compositions depicting smaller social units down to their individual members. To bring about a change in the big picture would require more than what intentional human endeavor could possibly devise. There are precedents in the history of human civilization, where societies had arrived at similar conditions, and in most cases the eventual change then came about in the form of some cataclysmic event or a violent martial subjugation of massive proportions; in a few instances also through a large-scale spiritual awakening at the grass-root level, granted by divine intervention. What appears to be most likely to happen from the present perspective is both, the cataclysm and the awakening more or less simultaneously…
Allah, has stated at several places in His Holy Book, that he could have guided mankind altogether had He desired so. This is a fairly strong indication that things have not gone out of hand, but that the situation is ‘tolerated’ by God. The Noble Prophet – may Allah’s Blessings abound with him – has also indicated that things would develop in this manner when he said that there would be no time after him, which is not worse than the period preceding it. In other words, until the end of this world, or of the current era of man’s existence, of which his earthly life-time was the apex, the situation of the human race would continually worsen. Obviously he was not referring to material comfort and affluence! Hence the overall situation of human kind is in perfect accord with the execution of the Divine Plan and destiny, and any human attempt to interfere with it would be as futile as trying to prevent the sun from setting.
At the same time, to adopt an attitude of total disinterest in one’s own individual situation, including the fulfillment of one’s social and private responsibilities, would be a very dangerous form of negligence – rather it would amount to outright ‘kufr’ [lit. meaning: disbelief, covering-up the truth, ingratitude]. Here lies the difference between Islam, which is trusting submission to the will of God, and fatalism, which is the cowardly refusal to make use of the strength and faculties God has placed at man’s disposal to fulfill his purpose in creation. Neither science nor philosophy have ever been − nor will ever be − able to provide an answer to the question of man’s purpose within creation. And the above described overall picture of man’s ‘evolution’ can at best serve as an indication towards where we have to look for an answer to this essential question, because mankind’s current situation is the direct result of man’s failure to fulfill his creational purpose.
If one asks the common Muslim scholastics about this purpose, they are always ready to quote the verse of the Holy Qur’an, where Allah – Pure and Exalted is He − states: “I did not create man and jinn except to worship Me.” Undoubtedly, this is the Supreme Truth in the Almighty, All-knowing Creator’s Own Holy Word. If ‘worship’ however is interpreted as meaning merely to perform a number of prescribed rituals, fasting, pilgrimage and giving a fixed amount of charity – as they explain when asked about the meaning of worship – it is hardly a satisfactory answer to the question of what our life is all about. There must be more to it.
Ibn Abbas, one of the blessed companions – may Allah be pleased with him – has given the explanation that “…except to worship Me” means “…except to know Me”, which would make the purpose of man’s existence the gnosis of his Creator. This is corroborated by a ‘hadith qudsi’1, according to which God says, in connection with the act of bringing creation into existence: “I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known”. In another famous ‘hadith’ the Noble Prophet is reported to have said words to the effect: ‘Who has attained cognizance of his own self, has recognized his Lord.’
These three elements: worship of God¬, knowledge of God and self-knowledge, are interrelated and cannot be separated from each other.
Worship that is not based on, and does not lead to this knowledge, is but a futile exercise; and knowledge that does not prompt man to worship his Creator, is but useless mental ballast, and self-knowledge that excludes the acknowledgement of God is vanity and illusion. This threefold complexity holds the answer to the most essential question, which anyone, possessed of intellect, will be confronted with, once that intellect awakens: “What am I here for?”
For all of these three elements, God has put indications along the path of our life, “…signs on the horizon and within their selves”, as they are described in the Generous Qur’an.
The parameters of worship and of a correct life-transaction in our dealings with God, our fellow creatures and our own selves are clearly laid down in the legacy that the Noble Prophet Muhammad – Allah’s Blessings abound with him – has left behind, which are the Book of Allah and his ‘sunnah’, i.e. the example of his own life and conduct. As a matter of fact, all the prophets that God raised among or sent to various communities came with a Divine Revelation and the teaching of an exemplary pattern of conduct, which did not differ from each other in their essential content. Our insistence on the Muhammadan version should in no way be understood as a bias against, or denigration of the earlier revealed versions of the Divine Message, rather it is a confirmation of them! The Book of Allah − the Generous Qur`an that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad − decidedly upholds their confirmation in several places2; it even makes it quasi a condition to believe in their authenticity, to be eligible for receiving guidance from the Qur’an!3 Having been born into it however, or deliberately chosen it as our Path, our adherence to the Muhammadan Way, is both, a matter of spiritual courtesy and one of spiritual expedience. The former, because it is the Light of the Noble Prophet – ‘alayhi_ssalatu wa_ssalam – through which we have received our guidance in the first place, and the latter, because his ‘package’ is the latest update of the Divine Message, commensurate with man’s current position in the ongoing process of human progress and development. Who would nowadays try to cross the ocean in a steamship or sailing vessel to reach a destination on the other side of the globe?
Apart from this, there have always been and will always be illumined human beings, who, by their life transaction, have become a living testimony to the functioning of the triad of worship, self-knowledge and Gnosis.
The significance of worship does not lie in the correct performance of rituals in the first place, but in serving the Creator within the creation − unconditionally and without self-interest. Then it is met with Divine Acceptance, and attracts the well Pleasure of God, and the servant is confirmed by his Master and helped and carried. By experiencing this over and again, man’s vain delusions and wishful thinking regarding his own self are gradually shattered, and true self-knowledge emerges, realizing he does not wield any power, other than what the Author and Owner of all Power has empowered him to wield; that he does not have at his disposal any resources, other than what the Author and Owner of all Resources has entrusted him with as a short-term loan; that he has no control over anything whatsoever. The only thing, where he has been given a free hand is his intentions, but the power to independently enact those intentions he does not have. If he submits to these realizations, man cannot but arrive at the ultimate awareness that he is, as a matter of fact, on every level of his existence in the total and unconditional bondage of his Divine Creator and Sustainer.
One, who experiences this recognition of his own reality and of the Reality of his Creator Lord, at first as a witness, and eventually as a participating self, like a corpse in the hands of the Washer, would never give up this servitude for all the freedoms in the world. It is the quintessence of freedom; it is tasting God’s absolute unrestrictedness with his entire being; he becomes an expression of the Divine Attribute “Fa’alun lima yurid” – the Doer of what He pleases. These are the people, whose hearts He has enlightened to recognize His Truth, as mentioned earlier in this article, the people, whom God mentions as the exemplary recipients of His guidance in the oft- recited plea “…guide us to the Straight Path, the path of those whom You have favored…”, in Surah Fatihah.
Although the potential for the conscious and perpetual experience of this Divine Encounter is present with every human being by virtue of His Own Spirit-Breath that God instilled into Adam, the majority of mankind does not attain it and they remain veiled from the reality of their selves instead of seeing it, as long as they dwell in this mortal body, because of their vain pursuit of enriching their selves in significance, status, power and possessions4. Allah has nevertheless given man a natural indication of the direction in which to turn in order to attain some degree of self-knowledge. God has bestowed certain specific gifts, likings and inclinations in the nature of every one of us. If we follow and cultivate them, we are not only bound to find out a lot more about ourselves and His creation, but are also likely to spend our lives a great deal more fulfilled and happier than if we let them go waste for the sake of other pursuits or engagements that might, perhaps, earn us a little bit more in terms of material rewards, but also kill us inwardly, and thus deprive us of the time and the peace of mind to even enjoy it.
1 a prophetic tradition, based on non-Qur’anic divine revelation in which God has revealed to the Prophet certain things about Himself – In this particular case this tradition has been transmitted by Shaykh Muhyiuddin Ibn Al Arabi, who received it from the Noble Prophet himself in a vision.
2 “This Qur’an could not have been produced by other than Allah, but it confirms that, which came before it, and expounds of the Book, wherein there is no doubt, from the Lord of the Worlds. [10:37 – Yunus];
“…We make no distinction between one and another of His Messengers….”[2:285 – Baqarah]
3 “This is the book without doubt; in it is guidance for those, who are in fearful awareness, … and who believe in that, which has been revealed to you and which has been revealed before you…” [2:2,4 – Baqarah]
4 The mutual rivalry for increase diverts you , until you visit the graves, but no, you soon shall know; if only you knew with certainty ! [102:1-5 – At-Takathur]