All people have an innate inclination to know their origin, final destination, and purpose in life. Traditional people knew the answers to these questions, but today, under the heavy burden of modern life and the influence of modern conceptions, we no longer know these answers. In fact, we know almost nothing about these essential problems arising from our very nature. Such ignorance does not change our situation, for all of us, whether traditional or modern, are born and die. Nothing, not even recent scientific and technological developments, can change these immutable facts. The only difference is that what was once a certainty has been replaced by doubt and fear.
Our situation has not changed at all as regards birth and death. Although contained by an infinitude, we are still finite beings who cannot escape being stirred by our very nature to try and understand the Infinite and Absolute. With regard to the Absolute and all states of being comprising the universe, we are what we have always been and always will be: the fairest creatures and the highest point of creation, yet possessing the potential to fall to the lowest point.
The Qur’an states that the process of creation is circular:
As He brought you forth in the beginning, so unto Him shall you also return
(7:29). Thus creation ends at the point from which it started. Atheists believe this as well, but conceive of matter, space and time, or something presentable in terms of four dimensions as the process’ starting and ending points. Matter has the least degree of perfection, and yet atheists hold it, in its most chaotic condition, to be the beginning and end of creation, which they consider accidental and purposeless. The Qur’an, however, says that existence starts with the highest state of perfection, proceeds downward to matter, and then turns upward to the point from which it started:
He regulates the affair from the heaven to Earth, then shall it go up to Him in one day the measure of which is a thousand years of what you reckon. (32:5)
The Creative Will designs and administers this process, and Divine Love, Grace, and Compassion are a priori factors in this Will’s manifestation. Therefore Compassion is the principle of the Infinite’s manifestation, which is why Sufis call the universe “the Breath of the Compassionate.” Each particle of existence is immersed in this Breath, which endows it with a sympathy for and attraction to other beings, and above all with its source: Divine Compassion.
And so each atom is regarded as the theophany of the Divine Names and Attributes. Mahmud Shabstari, in his Gulshan-i Raz (The Mystic Rose Garden), expresses the Divine Being as manifested in everything:
Know the world is a mirror from head to foot,
In every atom a hundred blazing suns.
If you cleave the heart of one drop of water,
A hundred pure oceans emerge from it.
If you examine closely each grain of sand,
A thousand Adams may be seen in it.
In its members a gnat is like an elephant;
In its qualities a drop of rain is like the Nile.
The heart of a barley-corn equals a hundred harvests,
A world dwells in the heart of a millet seed.
In the wing of a gnat is the ocean of the life,
In the pupil of the eye a heaven;
What though the grain of the heart be small,
It is a station for the Lord of both worlds to dwell therein.
— (Translated by E. H. Whinfield)
Since existence manifests God’s Grace or Compassion, creation’s order and hierarchy begin with the highest and most comprehensive created entity. This being is the compassion unto all worlds or beings, the possessor of all excellences in their highest degree of perfection. This entity, the most comprehensive in perfection and embodiment of God’s Compassion, is presented in various terms. However, the most appropriate ones are the Muhammadan Light or the Muhammadan Reality. Like sunshine radiating through everything that exists, the Muhammadan Light is actually the theater of the theophany of all Divine Names and Attributes, as well as the archetype of the cosmos.
view of creation with respect to the perfection of humanity
The hierarchy of creation unfolds itself in countless spheres of intellectual and angelic beings. The Qur’an calls these malakut, realms of unseen active spiritual and psychic entities. Each sphere is held by the one above it and holds the one below it, ending in the four dimensional sphere known as material being. Our world, the ‘alam-i mulk or ‘alam-i shahadat (the held-world or seen-world), is the lowest sphere, for it is held but cannot hold. It forms the hierarchy’s base, whereas the first and most perfect and comprehensive entity is its summit. This base contains no actual or creative thing, but is endowed with unlimited potential and ability to receive, and so forms the background of its upward and spiritually evolutionary movement.
In its upward course, therefore, matter begins with the simplest subatomic particles and proceeds to form atoms into nebulae and the solar system. These are then populated with such inanimate and animate things as plants, animals, humanity, and other conscious and intellectual beings, the nature and number of whom only the Creator knows. So far as Earth is concerned, the Creator causes inanimate elements to develop into plants, thus elevating them to the simplest degree of life. Life, being the result of God’s direct manifestation of His Attribute of Life and of His Name the Giver of Life without any cause, evolves through plants and animals until it reaches perfection with humanity, the most complicated and highest intellectual entity into which matter has developed. With humanity, creation’s hierarchy returns to its starting point.
We have been endowed with the power of discovery and invention, and have been taught “the names” (the keys to the knowledge of all things). We have been given the power to receive whatever is manifested by God’s Will, whether in the terrestrial, celestial, or supercelestial spheres, through our external and internal senses, and to reflect and reproduce whatever we receive. Although our celestial origin places us at the summit of creation’s hierarchy, we have to live upon Earth because of the vegetable and animal aspects of our existence. In other words, these contradictory features of our being—the angelic nature and the terrestrial crust hiding the spiritual core—cause us to live in this world and yet seek to transcend it.
The Qur’an defines our situation in a way that is at once perennial and universal: We created humanity of the fairest creature, and then reduced it to the lowest of the low (95:4-5). Created in the fairest stature, we nevertheless fell into separation and withdrawal from our celestial prototype—a condition the Qur’an calls the “lowest of the low.” Concerning this, a Sufi commentator writes that God created us as the most complete and perfect theophany, the most universal and all-embracing theater of Divine Names and Attributes, so that we might bear the Divine Trust and become the source of an unlimited effusion of light. He identifies the “lowest of the low” with the World of Natural Passion and Heedlessness. The grandeur of the human state, its great possibilities and perils, and the permanent nature of our quest after the Divine therefore lie at the very root of human existence.
Ibn Sina, a famous eleventh-century Muslim philosopher, expresses the idea that the human soul feels constrained to leave this world and to return to the angelic world from where it came:
... Now why from its perch on high was it cast like this
To the lowest Nadir’s gloomy and dear abyss?
Was it God who cast it forth for some purpose wise,
Concealed from the keenest seeker’s inquiring eyes?
Then is its descent a discipline wise but stern,
That the things that it has not heard it thus may learn.
So ‘tis she whom Fate does plunder, while the star
Sets at length in a place from its rising far,
Like a gleam of lightning which over the meadows shone,
And, as though it never had been, in a moment is gone.
— (E.G. Brown’s translation)
The cosmos continually reveals the eternal message of the Truth, and its finite forms reveal the traces of the Infinite. As ‘Ali ibn Ali Talib said: “I wonder about the person who observes the universe created by God and doubts His Existence.” The Qur’an says:
To God belongs the Kingdom of the heavens and of Earth, and God is powerful over everything. In the creation of the heavens and Earth, and in the alternation of night and day, are signs for people with minds who remember God standing and sitting and lying on their sides, and reflect upon the creation of the heavens and Earth: “Our Lord, You have not created this for vanity. Glory be to You! Guard us against the Fire’s chastisement. Our Lord, whomsoever You admit to the Fire You will have abased; and the evildoers shall have no helpers. Our Lord, we have heard a caller calling us to belief, saying: ‘Believe in your Lord!’ And so we believe. Our Lord, forgive our sins and acquit us for our evil deeds, and take us to You with the pious. Our Lord, give us what You have promised us through Your Messengers, and abase us not on the Day of Resurrection. You will not fail the tryst.” And their Lord answers them: ‘I do not waste the labor of any that labors among you, be you male or female—the one of you is as the other.’ (3:189-95)
Humanity needs revelation, which, like the cosmos itself, comes from the Infinite and the Absolute. Hence, revelation serves as the key for unfolding the mysteries of our being and of the universe. It is a gift from Divine Mercy that enables us to pass beyond the finite to the Infinite, and enables the human soul to move from the outward to the inward, from the periphery to the center, and from form to meaning.
This journey is none other than the mystical quest itself. Due to the soul’s intimate relation with the cosmos, this journey is at once a penetration to the soul’s center and a migration to the abode beyond the cosmos. The Divine Presence resides in both places. By following Islam’s outer form, we migrate to the inner and, by His Grace, transcend the finite world to regain our primordial angelic state and thereby complete creation’s circle. The spiritual path of Islam calls people to defeat their carnal souls so that they can be reborn as their angelic selves.
Those who find the Truth find Him in their souls;
Those detained halfway are hindered by conjectures.
Whoever truly seeks will truly find Him,
while the indolent can do neither;
For His servants on their spiritual journey,
He is the final destination.
Souls who do not recognize Him as a friend,
who do not die to themselves to be raised again in Him,
and who do not die for His sake
are utterly bereft and destitute.
Come, friends, let’s set out to reach
the realm of the Beloved;
And let us see the rose of His beauty
for a moment in light.
The world is pitiless and cruel,
all covered in fog and cloud.
It is but a loss and waste of time
to stay here even for a short while.
We are travelers, and our homecoming is with Him alone.
What an honor then to reach Him.
Faith is the only way to attain this aim
by His leave and grace.
Islam is the religion of unity, and all aspects of its doctrine and practice reflect this central and cardinal principle. The Shari‘a is a vast network of injunctions and regulations that inwardly relate the world of multiplicity to a single center and, conversely, is reflected in the multiplicity of the circumference. Islamic art seeks to relate the multiplicity of forms, shapes, and color to the One, to the center and Origin, and thereby reflect tawhid in its own way in the world of forms with which it is concerned.
Sufism and Tawhid
Sufism, Islam’s inner dimension, is the best way to achieve tawhid. The Islamic creedal statement shows that all Muslims believe in absolute Divine Unity: La illaha illa Allah (there is no deity but God).
Sufism seeks to free people from the prison of multiplicity, to remove any mental processes or physical actions that divert their ego-centers toward temporal and sensual desires, and to eradicate hypocrisy. In short, it seeks to make people whole, for only such people can become holy. People profess faith in God but live and act as if there were many deities, and so are guilty of polytheism and hypocrisy. As Sufism seeks to bring such a condition into the open and cure the afflicted person, its goal is to integrate each person at every level of his or her existence.
Such an integration is brought about by harmonizing all bodily, mental, and spiritual faculties, not by negating the intelligence, which so often occurs with modern religious movements. Sufism bases its methods upon observing the Shari‘a and, in particular, the daily prayers, which are a most powerful means of integrating people’s psychic faculties and harmonizing them with their corporeal being.
Sufism’s main method is continuous prayer. This is done in both quantitative and qualitative terms through invocation (dhikr), in which all otherness and separation from the Divine is removed and tawhid is achieved. Invocation, when combined with the appropriate forms of meditation (fikr), causes the emergence of an integrated pure and whole gold-like soul. After this, people use invocation to offer their souls to God so that they may return to Him in ecstasy.
Those who achieve this integration possess certain characteristics that anyone can see, for it leaves its imprint even upon their outer appearance, which necessarily reflects their inner state. Such people are cured of all spiritual illnesses by having their tensions and complexes removed, as their need for the transcendent has been met and satisfied, and not through modern psychoanalysis. Moreover, they do not compartmentalize their lives, for their thoughts and actions issue from a single center and are based on a series of immutable principles.
They realize the Islamic ideal of unifying contemplation with the practical and so do not act or think “normally,” for their contemplation and meditation are combined in the purest and most intense activity. As a result, they reflect Divine Unity and become the total theophany of the Divine Names and Qualities. They act and live in such a manner that all of their actions and words exude a spiritual fragrance and beauty. They are somehow in touch with that Divine Grace running through the universe’s arteries.
Such people have reached the goal of their lives and have no fear, which is so destructive to modern people. They see death not as total annihilation, but as a shift from a state of lesser sensitivity to a higher one. All of us belong to God, and the Qur’an states that each person and society moves toward God. Therefore death is only a shift and a change from one stage of existence to a higher one, and ultimately terminates with God.
Death does not destroy our internal or external sensory faculties, but rather refines and sharpens them. It only severs the conscious ego’s direct relationship with the outer material world, to which it is connected through the external senses. As material life veils human senses and consciousness, death sharpens all human faculties by removing this veil. A Prophetic tradition confirms this: “People are now in a state of sleep. They will awake when they die.”
So death is actually an ascension, a gate opening upon higher realities and pleasures of existence, not something to be feared by sincere Muslims. It is a transference from the dungeons of worldly life to the gardens of Paradise, from the world of labor and trouble to the abode of rewards. In another Prophetic tradition, God says:
My servants draw near to me through supererogatory works, so that I love them. When I love them, I am their ears with which they hear, their eyes with which they see, their tongues with which they speak, and their hands with which they take.
most advisable way to God for today
Said Nursi, a twentieth-century Muslim scholar, sought to combine religious and natural sciences with spirituality to produce “complete” Muslims. In his terminology, these would be Muslims having minds enlightened by natural science and hearts illumined by religious science and spirituality. He offers the following way:
There are many ways to Almighty God. All true ways have been derived from the Qur’an, but some are safer and more comprehensive and direct than others. The way I have derived from the Qur’an depends upon our perception and confession of helplessness and poverty before God’s Might and Riches, and upon affection and reflection.
This way is as sure as the way of loving God, or even safer, for it elevates you so as to be loved by God on account of your sincere devotion to Him. Your perception and acknowledgment of your poverty leads you to the Divine Name the All-Merciful. Affection is more effective than love, and leads to the Name the All-Compassionate. Reflection is brighter and more comprehensive than love, and leads to the Name the All-Wise. This way does not resemble the way of those Sufi orders that have developed a 10-step method to purify and sharpen their members’ 10 outer and inner senses or faculties and that prefer to recite God’s Names silently. Neither does it resemble those orders that practice public recitation and seek to purify their members from all defects contained in the soul’s seven stations.
Our way consists of four steps and is the Shari‘a (or the truth) itself; it is not a Sufi order. Its fundamental principles consist of following the Sunna, performing the religious obligations, avoiding the major sins, performing the five prayers properly, and praising, glorifying, and exalting God after every prayer. The steps are as follows:
The first step is expressed by: Do not justify and hold yourselves sinless (53:32).
The second step is indicated by: Be not as those who forgot God–and so He caused them to forget their own selves (59:19).
The third step is pointed to by: Whatever good visits you is from God; whatever evil befalls you is from yourself (4:79).
The fourth step is shown by: All things perish except His Face and His good pleasure (28:88).
The following is a brief explanation of these four steps.
First step: Never regard yourself as infallible and sinless. Since you love yourself first on account of your evil-commanding self, you will sacrifice anything to satisfy it. You praise yourself as if you were a deity, and believe yourself to be without defect. You strive so insistently to prove yourself free of guilt that others consider you to be full of self-love. You exploit the faculties given to you for praising and thanking God by glorifying your self. Given this, you resemble those people mentioned in: who takes as his [her] god his [her] own desires and fancies (25:43). You praise, rely on, and admire yourself. To be purified of such attitudes, regard yourself as fallible and liable—even susceptible—to error.
Second step: As the verse: Be not as those who forgot God—and so He caused them to forget their own selves teaches, you are oblivious and unaware of yourself. You do not want to remember death, although you always consider others mortal. You hold back when confronting hardship and rendering service, but believe that you should be the first one rewarded when it is time to collect the wages. Purifying yourself at this step involves carrying out your responsibilities, being prepared for death, and forgetting whatever reward you might obtain.
Third step: As the verse: Whatever good visits you is from God; whatever evil befalls you is from yourself teaches, your evil-commanding self always ascribes good to itself and feels conceited. In reality, you should perceive your defects and insufficiency and then thank and praise God for whatever good you can do. According to the meaning of: Prosperous is the one who purifies it (91:9), your purification at this step consists of knowing that your perfection lies in confessing your imperfection, your power in perceiving your helplessness, and your wealth in accepting your essential poverty and inadequacy.
Fourth step: As the verse: All things perish except His Face and His good pleasure teaches, your evil-commanding self causes you to consider yourself as completely free and existent in your own right. Furthermore, you claim divinity for yourself and rebel against your Creator, Who alone deserves worship. You can save yourself from this perilous situation only by perceiving the truth that everything, with respect to its own self, is essentially non-existent, contingent, ephemeral, and mortal. In addition, you must realize that you are existent, experiencing and experienced, only because you are a mirror reflecting the Majestic Maker’s Names and entrusted with various duties.
Here, you can purify yourself by perceiving that your existence lies in acknowledging your essential non-existence. Considering yourself to be self-existent, you fall into the darkest pit of non-existence. In other words, relying on your personal existence and thus ignoring the Real Creator causes your ephemeral, fire-fly-like personal existence to be drowned in the infinite darkness of non-existence. But if you abandon pride and egoism and recognize that you are only a mirror in which the Real Creator manifests Himself, you attain to infinite existence. One who discovers the Necessary Being, the manifestations of Whose Names cause all things to come into existence, is counted as having found everything.
This way is the method of affection and reflection, as well as that of recognizing your own incompetence and insufficiency. This four-stage way leads to its objective rapidly, since it is the easiest and most direct way. Recognizing your incompetence leads you to rely on God alone, for it means that you have freed yourself from your evil-commanding self’s influence. Love, regarded as the quickest route, can lead to the true Beloved only after the false, ephemeral beloved is no longer loved. This method is safer than other ways, for it obliges you to recognize your incompetence and ascribe all defects to yourself.
This way is a main highway, one that is much broader and more universal, for it allows you to attain a constant awareness of God’s presence without denying or ignoring the universe’s actual existence, as demanded by believers in the Unity of Being (Wahdat al-Wujud) or Unity of the Witnessed (Wahdat al-Shuhud). Instead, it admits the universe’s actual existence, as proclaimed in the Qur’an, by ascribing it directly to the Majestic Creator. It considers all things as mirrors reflecting the Divine Names’ manifestations, and views creation as manifestations of His Names and thus devoted to His service, as opposed to being self-existent and self-perpetuating. It saves you from heedlessness by allowing you to travel to Him through everything, by making you always aware of His presence.
In short, this way considers beings as neither existent nor working on their own behalf; rather, it states that beings function as signs and officials of God, the All-Mighty.
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