The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Imprisoned in a Cage of Ice

Man-within-block-of-frozen-ice-with-eyes-openOne famous hadith emphasises the following fact, al-dunya sijn al-mu’min: ‘the world is a prison for the believer.’1 That being so, W.H. Auden’s lines may well be liberation: ‘In the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise.’

Another hadith, this time with a more liberating theme, teaches us this prayer of ardent longing: ‘O God I ask You for the delight of gazing at Your Face and the ardent yearning to meet You (allahumma inni as’aluka ladhdhatu’l-nazar ila wajhika wa’l-shawqa ila liqa’ika).’2

Most Muslims satisfy themselves with the outward form and practices religion offers. They know that submission to the rules – God’s commands and prohibitions – in the hope of being rewarded with the delights of Paradise, is enough to carry them through this earthly life and deliver them safely to the shores of the Hereafter. There are other believers, however, who have a yearning for something deeper; a need for something beyond paradisical delights – for God Himself. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah says: ‘Those who labour for the next world are of two kinds: those who work for recompense and reward, and those who work for spiritual stations and degrees; who vie with others to stand before God and be near Him.’3 ‘Thus,’ as he writes further on, ‘the labourers, in whom physical deeds predominate, work for rewards; whilst the gnostics (‘arifun), in whom inward practices predominate, work for rank, station and proximity to God.’4

To be clear, the Qur’an frequently mentions other-worldly delights which await the faithful, both as an incentive and a reward for doing good. Thus it speaks of gardens of blissful pleasures, luscious greenery and gushing fountains; unadulterated rivers of wine, milk and honey; mansions of gold and musk; tents of sapphire and glistening white pearls; youthful pages; wide-eyed maidens; a life of eternal youth and beauty; never-ending comforts and contentment. In short, all the pleasures and delights souls could wish for.

But for the yearning “seekers”, it is not enough to just know the truths of the religion with one’s mind or follow its rules with one’s body. ‘They want to taste these truths, as you taste a fruit, so that the whole of their being is flooded with this flavour.’5 Those on this path of longing for God feel compelled, by this love, to transcend such paradisiacal rewards mentioned above. They wish to worship God, yuriduna wajhahu, ‘seeking His Face.’ [18:28] Theirs is a voyage through the limitless, inward dimensions of Islam, so as to be led to the haqa’iq al-iman – the inward “Realities of Faith”. Theirs is unmistakably the sublimest path of tawhid, to worship God ka annaka tarahu – ‘as though you see Him.’6

Yet this is no call to fluffy spirituality or to subjective sentimentality. Before spiritual ecstasy, must come obedience and virtue. The outward prescriptions of religion not only govern our outward actions, they are, at the same time, the starting point for the inward journey. Without this starting point, there is no journey; without foundations there is no building. Not observing the outward duties of faith is to give the heart over to veils of disobedience, darkness, delusion and debris; it is to bar the soul from being illumined with any glimmer of guidance. Here, then, is the frozen heart in its winter of disobedience and divine discontent.

It is said that in our unredeemed souls, cluttered as they are with sins, dirt, filth and desires, we are, as it were, caged in a wall of ice. Ice is transparent to a greater or lesser degree, so occasionally we glimpse what lies outside the confines of our egotistical selves. Those possessed of the will to find God set about melting this wall of ice. But it needs heat to melt ice – to melt the frozen heart. It is loving obedience, coupled with intense longing, that generates this much needed heat. As the heart thaws, and then warms in its submission, knowledge and yearning, it is given to loving God, being gladdened by Him, knowing Him intimately, invoking Him constantly, and finding true peace in Him. Such is the Heaven of this World, about which Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah stated: ‘Truly, there is a Heaven in this world; whoever does not enter it, shall not enter the Heaven of the next world.’7

To sum-up: the straightforward understanding of faith which charaterises “ordinary” believers – following the rules so as to be rewarded with paradisical delights – is more than adequate for salvation. The Qur’an extols such a quest; and no one has the right to undermine it. Yet the same Qur’an speaks of a station purer still: that of lovers and yearners, knowers and gnostics: a multitude of those from days of old; but few from later times. [56:13-14] This is the station of those who desire neither this world, nor the next, but only the presence of their Lord. It is also the station where – as outward obedience is internalised, as faith and understanding are poured into prayer and as dhikr is made into the heart’s meditation and watchword – the seeker, even in this life, may find the taste of Paradise, the warmth of intimacy and the reality of Union.

1. Muslim, Sahih, no.2956.

2. This is part of a lengthy supplication (du‘a) related by al-Nasa’i, Sunan, no.1305. It was declared sahih by al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.1301.

3. Al-Wabil-al-Sayyib (Beirut & Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayyan, 2006), 138.

4. ibid., 139.

5. Gai Eaton, Reflections (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2012), 12.

6. Part of the celebrated “Hadith of the Angel Gabriel” recorded by Muslim, no.8.

7. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib, 102.

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13 thoughts on “Imprisoned in a Cage of Ice

  1. Seemee Khan on said:

    Reading this article makes me realise that the heart not only melts when you see an innocent child hug their sibling or a young person heed to the assistance of an elder! The true melting of the heart is for Him alone and I agree that a majority of us strive for Paradise as our ultimate goal. Striving to see Allahs Face gives me a higher purpose which I question myself, will I ever be worthy of? The article is a great reminder to us not to only seek the reward of Paradise but to work towards a meeting with our One and Only Creator (Al-Khaliq)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. zahid sheikh on said:

    Very true,we common folks are sunk so deep in a quagmire of Sins that we are oblivious to the horrors of the Hereafter. What little spirituality we aspire to we think will suffice to land us in Paradise.The Higher Station you mentioned is for ARIFOON. They are somehow assured in this world that theirs toil will not go unheeded by The Almighty and they will witness His Countenance.. I think nothing is lost yet if we increase our Spirituality and tread the pure path and follow the legacy left for us by our Beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) we will Inshallah succeed. Ameen

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  3. Abu Hamza on said:

    Salaamulaikum and jazakallah khair for an enlightening article. May Allah grant us all the blessing of seeing his face in the next life. The thought makes me shudder – such a station seems so distant when in reality, simply setting your foundations upon the deen have become so difficult. I have always struggled and continue to struggle on this most basic of steps towards Him. Most of the time it is difficult to accept that one is not from the munafiqoon let alone consider one may be amongst the arifoon! I pray to all of you to make dua that Allah sets my heart firmly upon the deen. Ws

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    • Amin. I too share similar sentiments about myself. But if we try to go in the general direction; to aspire to Him, there is always the hope in the divine generosity descending upon us to take us to Him.

      Like

  4. Abdur-rahman on said:

    Alhamdulillah Great article. May we all yearn to meet our Lord. Ameen

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  5. MashaAllah a much needed reminder, jazzaka Allahu khair..
    كل حق دون معرفته وهم وخداع…. وكل وجهة غير وجهته سراب وضياع
    إن حرمت معرفته… حرمت كل شيء
    وان وجدتها …فقد وجدت كل شيء

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  6. Bint A on said:

    Asalamualaikum wa rahmatullah br Abu Aaliya

    Though I totally understand the intent of the article which is to live life for a higher purpose than mere physical rewards, I would just like to ask to clarify a few things:
    -where the terminology of “Union” is mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah
    -where the concept of “spiritual ecstasy” is mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah and where the Prophet (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) guided us how to achieve it
    -where the concept of transcending our “egotistical selves” to achieve a state of spiritual ecstasy/divine love and transcendence originated from and if these terminologies have been derived from our Islamic tradition

    In my Eastern Psychology class we read about these concepts as originating from the Hindu and Buddhism states of nirvana and samadhi

    WaffaqakAllah,
    May Allah grant us all true knowledge and correct understanding, ameen.
    Wassalam

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    • Wa ‘alaykum al-salam Bint A, wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.

      As I am sure you are aware, when it comes to the shari’ah sciences (‘aqidah, fiqh, suluk, tafsir, mustalah al-hadith, etc.) the terminologies used are sometimes taken directly from the Book and the Sunnah, and at other times derived. What is important though is that whenever discussing any subject, one mirrors the terminologies established by our scholars for these sciences (keeping in mind the audience and the intended goal).

      I can assure you that all the terminologies used in the blog piece are part and parcel of the science of ihsan/suluk/tazkiyah/tasawwuf; and may all be found in Ibn al-Qayyim’s Madarij al-Salikin, or al-Qushayri’s Risalah, or al-Ghazali’s Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din. Ibn Taymiyyah has also employed them in various places, as per his Majmu’ Fatawa and his Risalah al-Iraqiyyah. However, translations can be a bit misleading. So let me first put Arabic terms to the above concepts, and then conclude with a few observations:

      1. Egotistical self: By that I simply meant al-nafs al-ammarah, or nafs for short (lit. “the soul that constantly incites towards evil”, and which I usually translate as ego, lower self, or beastial self). This, obviously is a Quranic term, and I have explained the various Quranic types of nafs in another blog, entitled Know Your Soul, Know Yourself, which can be read here.

      By “spiritual ecstacy” I mean wajd (which is the usual term used in this science); and this is derived from the idea of halawat al-iman or “sweetness of faith” and dhaka ta’ma al-iman, “tasting the sweetness of faith” – as per the authentic hadiths.

      By union (a historically more problematic term), I meant jam’. This union has nothing to do with the blasphemous belief of God indwelling in His creation or some of His creation physically merging or uniting with God – Exalted is He above such falsehood! But what is often meant by jam’ is (i) the will of the servant being completely “united” with the will of God; and (ii) that the servant worships God as though seeing Him.

      I have been extremely brief in justifying these terms. That is because my intent here was merely to show that such concepts are rooted in revelation; not to give a full explanation of them, as per their technical useages.

      2. We must be clear that we worship God, not to attain spiritual ecstacy or some sort of “buzz”, but because He alone deserves to be worshiped. Thus one offers salat to Him, whether one feels spiritual ecstacy or not. However, as Ibn taymiyyah has pointed out, because God is al-Shukur – “The Appreciative” – He puts a sweetness of experience in our acts of worship. So he who experience sweetness when he prayers, indicates that he has prayed well. If one does not find such sweetness, it means there is a shortcoming or defect in how we have performed that act of worship.

      I mention this because you implied that I wrote that one transcends the nafs (that is, one trains and tames the nafs so as to make it conform to the Divine Will) so as to experience ecstasy. But that is not what I wrote. Whatever spiritual gifts – in terms of ecstasy (wajd), miraculous occurences (karamat), spiritual intuition (firasah), etc – that comes to the worshipper, then they are not the goal of one’s worship or loving submission: God is the goal!. Those are gifts along the path to Him.

      3. That other spiritual traditions may have similar teachings about the soul is not surprising (nor is that reason to cast doubt on their validity as possible truths). Certain Eastern traditions have focused on purging the soul of its material or physical nature, so as to experience some sort of enlightenment. In doing so, they have learnt much about the soul and have devised various spiritual systems and terms for such purging. However, in Islam, purifying the soul is not a goal in itself. The goal is to worship God, sincerely, and with the utmost level of love and submission. If one purged their soul of its vices (arrogance, jealousy, etc. – even the need for sensual pleasure!!), but did not fulfil the requirements of tawhid, all such spiritual training would be utterly fruitless on the Day of Judgement. Why? Because we were created to worship Allah, not merely purge our souls of its vices. However, purifying our soul is part of actualising tawhid: that is, it is an obligation to learn to do so.

      That said, whoever engages in detaching the soul from material or worldly pursuits, will experience some level of spiritual wonder. But they count for nothing if they are not part of our servitude to God; nor will they be understood correctly if our belief or ‘aqidah concerning God – the Divine Reality – is not sound or correct.

      In conclusion: Such terms are part of the spiritual lexicon orthodox scholarship has long employed to describe the spiritual states and stations of the heart: or, if you wish, the a’mal al-qalb. Please do read the blog about the nafs, and also the one entitled: Are You Seeking with the Seekers or Sleeping with the Sleepers.

      May Allah grant us all the grace to purify our souls and be drawn close to Him, and to be enveloped in His forgiveness and love.

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  7. Bint A on said:

    JazakAllahu khairun brother for such a comprehensive and detailed reply that has clarified for me many things, may Allah increase you in beneficial knowledge, ameen

    I now understand that some of the Arabic terminologies may not be properly understood with their English counterparts and that is ultimately where I feel the confusion *still* lies. For myself and others who may have misunderstood your usage of the terms (such as “Union” -capital U, which I assumed to mean the commonly understood usage of the term which may pose to be an ‘aqidah issue) I humbly request that for future to include some footnotes that might clarify such terminologies for the lay-reader, or to actually include the Arabic terminologies such as halawat’l-iman along with their Eng. translation (sweetness of faith) that are translated more closely to the intended meaning.
    Terminologies such as spiritual ecstasy, union etc. carry certain specific connotations in the Eng. language and if not clarified properly, a reader may take away a different understanding of the issue which may desensitize us to other literature which use these very terminologies to promote incorrect beliefs or practices.

    I hope you consider my advice for future articles inshaAllah
    BaarakAllahu feek for taking time out to reply
    Wassalam

    Like

    • Thank you for your excellent suggestions and advice. I shall indeed keep them in mind in future articles.

      As for footnotes, I am trying to avoid long footnotes on the blog pieces. I am also keen on getting people used to the style and language our classical scholars have employed when writing about ‘ilm al-ihsan and suluk. Not only does such terminology tend to be more soul touching, but knowing these terms will also help us appreciate their writings on the subject far better. I often feel that when people attempt to translate Ibn al-Qayyim or Ibn Rajab, for example, their translations tend to be very formal, dry, departing from the actual style of the authors, and thus doing a great disservice to both them and the message.

      Please do keep reading the blog and offering comments and criticisms. Whatever is useful on this blog, then I acknowledge it is from Allah; and whatever is erroneous, incorrect and wrong, then I acknowledge it is from myself and shaytan.

      Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

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