The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “3 minute meditations”

Regrets & Missed Opportunities

5421944290_8dacb6fe85_oHere are some brief words from Imam Ibn al-Qayyim about missed opportunities and squandering benefits. The Qur’an says: Say: ‘Shall We tell you whose works will bring the greatest loss?’ Those who efforts have been wasted in the life of this world whilst thinking they were doing good. [18:103-4] There are people whose smug self-righteousness is so ingrained that they go through life spreading corruption; campaigning to alter clear-cut religious precepts; or making a show of their piety – imagining all the while that they are acquiring virtue. Ultimately, such people shall suffer the worst of regrets. For their labours yield no real benefits and are emptied of God’s purpose for them. ‘Of all the words of mice and men,’ wrote an American novelist and satirist, ‘the saddest are, “It might have been.”’

Ibn al-Qayyim lists ten matters that he wishes us to meditate over, so as not to be of those who are ridden with regrets in the Afterlife, forever mumbling to ourselves: ‘It might have been!’ He writes:

‘Ten things which, if lossed, have no benefit:

[1] Knowledge that isn’t acted upon.

[2] Works of faith that are bereft of sincerity [to God] or conformity [to the shari‘ah].

[3] Wealth from which nothing is spent; so neither is joy gained by hoarding it, nor is it sent on ahead to the Afterlife.

[4] A heart empty of God’s love, yearning for Him, and intimacy with Him.

[5] A body devoid of obedience and service to Him.

[6] A love that doesn’t confine itself to the Beloved’s pleasure, nor does it comply with His commands.

[7] A moment of time not used to rectify one’s remissness, or seized to do good works and draw closer to God.

[8] A thought that dwells on what isn’t beneficial.

[9] Serving someone whose service doesn’t bring you closer to God nor does it rectify your worldly affairs.

[10] Your fear of, or hope in, someone whose forelock is in God’s hand, and is himself a captive in the divine grasp: possessing no power to bring about harm, benefit, death, life or resurrection.

The greatest of these losses, and it is the real root of all losses, are two things: wasting the heart, and squandering time. The heart is wasted when the world is given priority over the Afterlife; time is squandered by procrastination. Corruption stems entirely from following caprice and procrastination: rectification stems from following right guidance and preparing for the Encounter.’1

1. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 162.

Turning to God After All Else Has Failed Us

image-by-Robert-GoldsteinIsn’t it the height of bad faith if we turn to God only after everyone else, or everything else, has failed us? Isn’t that trivialising God’s greatness that we’ve put Him last on our list? If so, will He still listen to my plea for help? Should I still turn to Him? Or will it be a case of: ‘The cheek of it!’?

In his celebrated volume of spiritual discourses, called Futuh al-Ghayb, the venerable Shaykh and sayyid, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d.561H/1166CE) – the leading Hanbali jurist of Baghdad in his time and a spiritual master par excellence of his age – commences the third of his orations with these words:

‘When the servant is tried with some difficulty, his first impulse is to try and cope with it by himself. If he is unable to extract himself from it, he looks to others for help, such as those in power, important officials, people of means and influence, or medical experts; if disease or physical ailment is involved. If he still finds no relief, he then turns to his Lord with prayers of petition, humble entreatment and offerings of praise. As long as he feels he can cope on his own, he will not turn to others; and so long as he can count on others, he will not turn to the Creator.’1

It seems a poor thing to turn to God as a last resort; to remember Him when all else fails us; to lift our hands to Him only when the ship is going down. If God were proud He would never accept us on such terms. But God is not proud. Instead, Kind, Caring and, Merciful – God will have us even if we have shown that we have preferred others over Him and that we come to Him only because we are now at a dead end. Indeed, it does not really proclaim the glory of God if we chose Him only as an alternative to Hell; and yet even this He accepts. Such is God’s mercy and kindness; such is how He forgives and overlooks His glory’s diminution. In fact, God says in the Qur’an: When My servants ask you concerning Me [tell them] I am indeed close, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [2:186] God further states: Say: ‘O My servants who have transgressed against their own souls! Despair not of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins; for He is the All-Forgiving, All-Merciful. [39:53]

Further on in the very same discourse, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir speaks about how, when the person’s illusions of self-sufficiency are shattered – and for the person’s sake they must be shattered – and as he is made to realise that none can help him or grant him relief except God, God responds to his servant’s humility and brokenness and shades him from distress. For God accepts His servants however they may come to Him – if not in loving submission, then by trials and troubles, or by simple fear of the eternal flames; unmindful, even, of His glory’s diminution.

1. Futuh al-Ghayb (Cairo: Dar al-Maqtam, 2007), 22. My translation of the passage was based on M. Holland, Revelations of the Unseen (Florida: Al-Baz Publishing, 2007), 11.

Don’t Stop Making Dhikr Because Your Heart Isn’t In It

Islam-Prayer-Beads-Hand‘I’m remembering Allah, but my heart’s not in it; what’s the point’ is a typical anguish for many of us? ‘When I make dhikr, my heart doesn’t have focus, it’s all over the place. Is there any use’ is another one?

So should we stop making dhikr because out heart lacks focus on Allah; because there isn’t any hudur al-qalb – “presence of heart”? There are some who are dead set on the issue. There is no point in making dhikr when the heart is heedless, to do so would be making a mockery of dhikr – or so they’d have us believe.

But that’s not quite right. That’s not what those whom Allah has blessed with a huge share of fiqh and profound insight into the realities of faith (haqa’iq al-iman) teach us. Instead, as Ibn al-Qayyim explains, dhikr ‘is sometimes performed with the heart and tongue, which is the best dhikr; sometimes with only the heart, which ranks second; and sometimes with only the tongue, which ranks third.’1 And whilst dhikr with the tongue alone does not yield the fruits of gnosis (ma‘rifah), divine love (mahabbah) and intimacy (uns) as does dhikr with the tongue and heart combined; nonetheless, it still has its benefits. In fact, for most people it begins with dhikr of just the tongue. Imam al-Ghazali wrote: ‘It starts with dhikr of the tongue; then by the heart being pressed into remembering; then the heart remembering spontaneously.’2

The truth of the matter is that if we were to make dhikr only when our hearts were fully present, absorbed and focused on Allah, most of us would never make any dhikr at all! Masters of the inward life instruct us that if, whilst engaging in dhikr, we drift into the valleys of heedlessness and idle thought, when we realise we simply bring our hearts back into focus and continue in our dhikr. In this, as with all other matters, it is Allah’s fadl and karam that we rely upon; not our own efforts.

Perhaps the finest articulation of this reality (the reality of dhikr with just the tongue, and dhikr with the tongue and heart combined) is presented to us by Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari in his celebrated Hikam or collection of “Spiritual Aphorisms”. In one such aphorism, he states:

‘Do not abandon dhikr because you do not feel the presence of Allah therein. For your heedlessness of the dhikr of Him is worse than your heedlessness in the dhikr of Him. Perhaps He will lift you from dhikr with heedlessness (ghaflah) to dhikr with vigilance (yaqza); and from dhikr with vigilance to dhikr with presence (hudur); and from dhikr with presence to dhikr wherein everything but the One being remembered becomes absent: And that, for Him, is not difficult. [14:20]‘ 3

In his commentary to the Hikam, al-Shurnubi teases out some of the subtleties in the above aphorism. He writes: ‘Do not, O aspirant, forsake dhikr – which is an invitation to sanctity (manshur al-walayah) – because your heart isn’t present with God in it, due to it being preoccupied with worldly distractions. Instead, remember Him in all states and conditions. For your forgetfulness of His dhikr, in that you abandon it entirely, is far worse than your forgetfulness while making dhikr of Him. For at least, in this state, your tongue is moving in His remembrance, even if your heart is heedless of the One remembered. Perhaps you will be taken, by His grace, from dhikr with heedlessness to dhikr with vigilance; in other words, with an attentive, awakened heart; for this is the courtesy (adab) which befits His Presence; and from dhikr with vigilance to dhikr with presence, presence of His closeness; and from dhikr with presence to dhikr where all becomes absent except the One being remembered. So the person is “lost” even to his own dhikr … When dhikr flows from the tongue in this state, it does so spontaneously, without intent. Instead, his tongue only utters what the Manifest Truth [Allah] wants it to, for such a person is at the Station of Divine Love – which the [next] hadith refers to: ‘ … and My servant continues to draw near to Me with optional works (nawafil) so that I love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, and his tongue with which he speaks.’4 None knows the reality of this lofty station except the spiritual wayfarers (salikun). So accept it wholeheartedly, even if you aren’t from its people: and follow not the desires of those who have no knowledge. [45:18] And hold tightly to the means, then the veil shall be lifted for you: And that, for Him, is not difficult. [14:20]’5

1. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 176.

2. Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2006), 87. Also see the related article on this blog: How to Nurture Presence of Heart with God.

3.  Ibn Ata’illah, al-Hikam al-Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.47.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.6137. Even though the meaning is sound and correct, the phrase: ‘his tongue with which he speaks’ is not part of the wording of this particular hadith. This phrase occurs in a hadith related by Ibn Abi Dunya, al-Awliya, no.45; Ahmad, Musnad, 4:256; and others. But the chains all have defects in them and are therefore da‘if. See: Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:331-32.

5. Al-Sharnubi, Sharh al-Hikam (Beirut & Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2008), 111-12.

Think Before You Text, Tweet or Speak!

twitter_keyboard-d1e079745afd757a6b2597e5e169973ae837a5cb-s6-c30‘A still tongue makes a wise head’, says one proverb. And in other one: ‘The wounds of a sword may heal one day; the wounds of the tongue, they never may.’ And then there is this note of caution: ‘Speak when you’re angry and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.’

While it is certainly true that great good can come from the tongue, it is also true that it can stir up immense enmity and strife. The tongue, despite it being a small organ of the body, has an influence wholly disproportionate to its size. How many conflicts, divisions, divorces and distresses have been triggered by angry words and unbridled tongues! Regretably, the tongue as a source of evil is something our communicative and social-networking culture seldom considers. In contrast to the modern urge to endlessly yap, yell and yodel (or rather I should say, text, tweet and tag), our ancients recognised that when a carpet of silence is laid, wisdom begins to settle.

As part of his celebrated and encyclopedic anthology of transmitted prayers from the Prophet, peace be upon him, al-Adhkar, Imam al-Nawawi (d.676H/1277CE) devotes a separate chapter on the obligation to guard the tongue and the merits of silence. The following is a translation of the opening segments of that discussion:

‘Know that it is required of every legally responsible person (mukallaf) that they guard their tongue from all types of speech, save that which contains an overriding benefit. Whenever speaking or keeping silent are equal in their benefits, then the Sunnah is to refrain from speaking. For speech which begins as permissible can quickly degenerate into what is forbidden or disliked. In fact, this occurs a lot, or is more often the habit; and there is no substitute for safety.

It is related in the Sahihs of al-Bukhari [no.2018] and Muslim [no.47]; on the authority of Abu Hurayrah, may God be pleased with him; who relates that the Prophet, peace be upon him, declared: ‘Whoever believes in God and the Last Day, let him speak well or keep quiet.’

I say: The soundness of this hadith is agreed upon and contains an explicit stipulation that one must not speak unless one’s words are good and that the benefit in doing so is clear and preponderant. Whenever there is uncertainty about the benefit being preponderant or not, one remains silent. Imam al-Shafi’i, may God have mercy upon him, has said: “When one intends to speak, let him think before he does so. If there is an overriding benefit, let him speak; if in doubt, let him desist from speaking until the benefit is clear.”‘1

Of course, nowadays, it’s not just our speech that we need to be concerned about. We need to guard what we text or tweet about too; for that too is part of our speech. The above words of Imam al-Nawawi, and the numerous hadiths that caution against the sins of the tongue, equally apply to our texts and tweets on social media. If talk can rapidly degenerate into what is haram, our texting or tweeting can do so too. Indeed, received wisdom informs us that: Not everything that is good should be said, and not everything that is said should be spread. After all, as the saying goes, ‘The fool’s mind dances on the tip of his tongue’ – I suppose we could add, ‘… and his twitter thumbs and fingers!’ Today, such wisdom has been largely thrown to the wind, to be replaced by hasty, trigger-happy texting and tweeting (the upshot of which can be damaging and damning, in both this world and the life to come). Let’s not let our tongues, or our activities on social media, become the nail in the coffin of our spirituality. As the Prophet, peace be upon him, once said whilst pointing to his tongue: ‘Restrain this. Is there anything that topples people on their faces into Hellfire other than the harvests of their tongues?’2

1. Al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 535.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2616, who said: the hadith is hasan sahih.

*This blog first appeared on The Humble I on 16th August, 2012, with the title: ‘Think Before You Speak.’ Here it has been revised, updated and reposted.

Revering the Symbols of God in an Age of Irreverence

Kaaba-7The Qur’an says: Whoever reveres the symbols of God, that is from piety of hearts. [22:32] Symbols (sha‘a’ir) refers to signs, marks or emblems by which something is known to belong to some particular body or group of people. Flags, for instance, are sha‘a’ir; as are those religious rites and practices which are emblematic of, or specific to, certain religious communities.

Here, the symbols of God being spoken of in the above verse refer to those well-known, external commands and prohibitions emblematic of Islam: the prayer, adhan, fasting, pilgrimage rites, the prohibition of pork or of drinking intoxicants, etc. Revering and venerating God’s symbols shows veneration for the One who sent them; which is from piety of hearts.

The signs that one reveres God’s sha‘a’ir are: fulfilling their demands; keeping to their limits; being attentive to accomplishing them correctly; hastening to them when they are due; and to be sad, disappointed or contrite if having missed any of their benefits. Another sign of veneration is to feel anger when God’s symbols are mocked or reviled, and sadness when they are disobeyed.1 Such anger, I must add, isn’t the uncontrolled, egotistical kind that causes faces to be twisted or contorted beyond recognition, and mouths to froth with frenzied rage and pathetic political imbecility. God forbid that the dignity of a believer should be so degradingly compromised.

Revering the symbols of God, and the Sacred Law of God, becomes ever more difficult when one lives in an Age of Irreverence, as we do. For treating someone or something, not just with courtesy, but with deep respect – for that’s what reverence calls for – can be an uphill task. The ego is ever eager to demean the sacred and drag things down to the lowest common doleful denominator. The pursuit of its own diktats, cravings and impulsive desires is what the ego is about; not the pursuit of virtues, or the growth of the Spirit. Whatever good is inherent in any liberal democracy, is being demonstrably erased by the unstoppable entrenchment of an ego culture. Affluenza is what British psychologist Oliver James has named it. For embedded in the philosophy of political liberalism, and consumerism, is the principle of pandering to the ego, and a reverence for irreverence.

As today’s liberal prescriptions become ever more intolerant; and ever more eager to suppress, stigmatise and demonise any significant dissenting voices, honouring God’s symbols (especially in respect to morality and gender relations) becomes much more difficult. Even so, we mustn’t be bullied into failing to state the correct Islamic rulings in such matters, nor be browbeaten into silence: And whoever reveres the sacraments of God, that is better for him with his Lord. [22:30].

1. Cf. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 32, 39.

Celebrating the Prophet ﷺ

Prophet Muhammad PBUHThere have been times throughout history whereby the heavens have opened and the celestial light cleansed certain human souls who, as a result, were divinely invested with prophethood (nubuwwah) – the highest condition possible for any human being. For a prophet is a bridge, as it were, between heaven and earth; Creator and creation, helping us to recall our purpose of being and our ultimate return.

One hadith has it that Allah sent a hundred and twenty-four thousand such prophets to the peoples of the earth:1 And every people had a guide. [13:7] When the revelatory wisdoms of one prophet faded or were forgotten, the link was reforged by the sending of another prophet. The last person to be invested with prophethood was the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, after whom the prophetic age came to a completion and close. The Qur’an says:  Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets. [33:40] As to the remaining ages of this world, the heavenly link would be reforged and renewed by scholars and saints; but never again by prophets.

Rejoicing in the sending of the Prophet, peace be upon him, the Qur’an says: Allah has surely shown favour to the believers by sending them a Messenger from their midst to recite to them His signs, and to purify them, and to instruct them in the Book and in wisdom; whereas before this they were in clear error. [3:164] Not only did the Prophet bequeath to mankind knowledge that could quench their inborn thirst for matters spiritual and sacred, he came with perfect guidance for their temporal affairs too. So for Muslims, the Prophet is by far the greatest of the heavenly gifts to have ever descended upon the human realm; so much so that the shari’ah has actually marked the day on which he was born and when he first received revelation as a commendable day to fast. This, as a heart-felt thanks to our Creator for this precious of gifts and most wondrous of blessings.

The Prophet, upon whom be peace, was once asked about the significance of fasting on Mondays; so he replied: ‘This is the day on which I was born and which revelation first came to me.’2 Elaborating upon this hadith, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali says:

‘[In it] there is an indication that it is desirable to fast on those days where the favours of Allah upon His servants renew themselves. The greatest of the divine gifts to this nation is the manifestation of Muhammad, peace be upon him, to them and of him being sent to them as a Messenger. Allah, exalted is He, reveals: Allah has surely shown favour to the believers by sending them a Messenger from their midst. For the blessing of him being sent to this nation is far greater than of causing the heavens, the earth, or the sun, moon, winds, night, day, rainfall, food, vegetation or other things to actually exist. For these gifts are for the creation in general – even those of humanity who are disbelievers in Allah and His Messenger and the final meeting with Him; those whose response to the favours and graces of Allah is sheer ingratitude. As for the favour of sending Muhammad, peace be upon him, then by it the blessings of this world and the Afterlife were completed, and the religion Allah chose for His servants perfected. So his acceptance is the actual cause for their felicity in this world and the Afterlife. Thus, fasting on the day that Allah’s favour to His servants is renewed is not only good and excellent, but it is also a way to reciprocate Allah’s favours that are renewed at such times, with an abiding sense of gratitude.

‘Similar to this is fasting the day of ‘Ashura wherein Allah saved Noah from the Flood, and Moses and his people from Pharaoh and his army; drowning the latter in the sea. Both Noah and Moses, peace be upon them both, showed their gratitude to Allah by fasting [that day]. Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, [also] fasted this day out of emulating those Prophets of Allah. He said to the Jews: “We have more right to Moses than you.”3 He thus fasted that day and instructed others to do so too.’4

Rejoicing in the sending of the Prophet, peace be upon him, is undoubtedly a central aspect of every believer’s faith – for it is his light and life that warms and illuminates believing hearts: O Prophet! We have sent you as a witness, and as a bringer of good news and a warner, and a caller to Allah by His permission, and as a lamp giving light. [33:45-6] As for celebrating the Prophet’s mawlid or birthday, annually, peace be upon him, this is an area of legitimate differing among the scholars and should not be made into a source of division or discord. Those who hold there is a shari‘ah basis to do so, will do so; those who don’t won’t. But none would disagree that celebrating the Prophet’s life on a daily basis – by adhering to his teachings, emulating his character, deepening our love and veneration of him, and habituating ourselves to abundantly invoke salawat or blessing of peace upon him – is where we all need to be heading. And unto that the believer holds!

1. As per Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 5:265. The hadith with its collective chains yields a final grading of hasan; as demonstrated in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadiih al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2005), no.2668.

2. Muslim, no.1162.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.2004; Muslim, no.1132.

4. Lata’if al-Ma‘arif (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 2007), 236-7.

Amusing Our Hearts to Death

maxresdefaultOne hadith states: ‘Laugh not too much; for too much laughter deadens the heart.’1 This isn’t to say that laughter or humour must be avoided altogether; for laughter and light-heartedness, in moderation, are prophetic Sunnahs that helps lighten burdens, ease anxiety and bring about joy to oneself and to others. Indeed, there is little virtue in always looking grave and solemn: And that He it is that makes to laugh and makes to weep. [53:43] And as the Prophet, peace be upon him, remarked: ‘O Hanzalah! There is a time for this and a time for that.’2 Yet, as the above hadith shows, to overindulge in laughter is a lethal poison that kills the heart spiritually.

The eleventh century hadith master, ‘Abd al-Ra‘uf al-Munawi points out: ‘Making a habit of laughing diverts one from deliberating over matters of importance.’3 When life becomes little more than “a bundle of laughs,” then the heart’s spiritual death has well and truly set in. Al-Munawi again: ‘The laughter that kills the heart comes from being frivolous and careless in the world. The heart has [spiritual] life and death: its life lies in continuous obedience [to God]. Its death, in responding to the call of other than God; be it one’s ego, desires, or the devil.’4 In fact, in the prophetic teachings, a cheerful countenance and an easy-going nature (one hadith says: ‘The believers are amiable and easy-going: al-mu’minun hayyinun layyinun.’5) is to be tempered with the sobering recollection of God, death, the Afterlife and the imminent Judgement and Accountability. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, urged: ‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures [i.e. death].’6 A heart desensitised to such realities, or numbed to their recollection, is a heart that has had the stuff of life sucked out of it.

The Qur’an warns about being diverted or distracted through things of the world: ‘O you who believe! Let neither your wealth nor your children divert you from remembrance of God. Those who do so, they are the losers.’ [63:9] In houses which God has allowed to be raised up, where His name is remembered. In them is He glorified morning and evening. By men whom neither merchandise nor trade distract from the remembrance of God. [24:36-7] Trade, riches, possessions, and the pursuit of thrills and pleasures so preoccupy most people, so as to make them oblivious to all else; unless hearts are tuned to the higher purpose of their existence. Wealth and children and partaking of permissible worldly pleasures are all lawful, and are to be a means to maintain our connection with God; unless and until they distract us from the worship and remembrance of Him. If we lose ourselves to the world, we ultimately lose everything.

Tragically we are now a culturally obese society, continuously feeding on an excessive diet of trivial amusement and entertainment. This over-consumption of laughter and frivolity, as noted before, distracts most of us from more serious considerations: war, famine, disease, environment, disintegration of society and breakdown of the family; as well as existential issues more serious still, that relate to our Creator, the Afterlife and our purpose of being. Our continued addiction to all this joviality and diversion has made us a society wherein we are, in the words of Neil Postman’s deftly entitled book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

O people! Fear your Lord, and fear a Day when the parent will not be able to avail his child in any way, nor the child to avail his parent. God’s promise is the truth. Let not the life of the world deceive you, nor let the deceiver deceive you concerning God. [31:33]

1. Ibn Majah, no.4193.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2014.

3. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 2:157.

4. ibid., 5:52.

5. Al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.139.

6. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2307.

The Natural & Primordial Faith

Plato-and-socrates-590x433During the 4th century B.C., or thereabouts, a series of dialogues or discussions were penned by Plato, one of the greatest of the Ancient Greek philosophers, which dealt with a number of profound existential themes: the origins of moral virtue, the value of justice, the nature of love, the reality of the soul, what defines good governance. Many of the dialogues take the form of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, posing questions to a person or a group so as to help them examine the validity of their beliefs and to wean out any contradictions.

In one such dialogue, The Meno, Socrates takes an ignorant slave boy and, by asking him a series of questions, manages to extract from him the fundamental axioms and rules of geometry. Having done so, Socrates insists that the boy knew the foundations of geometry all along. He had merely forgotten them. In Plato’s belief, each person is born with an innate knowledge of things; including knowledge of what is good and evil, right and wrong. Thus a baby lives close to the truth, but as it grows up it forgets and so falls into ignorance. Through proper inquiry, Plato suggested, knowledge may again be “recollected”.

Now in Plato’s exaggerated conviction about knowledge lies an elemental truth about human nature. The Qur’an makes it known that simply by being born into the human condition, man possesses a certain intuitive knowledge of, and an attraction to, truth, beauty and goodness. In Islam, such an innate recognition is part of man’s primordial nature, or fitrah which, in a way, may be said to resemble the “conscience”. So set your face to the upright religion, the primordial nature which God has instilled in man, says the Qur’an [30:30]. Hence, as turned out from God’s creative hand, man is born pure and innocent, inclined towards virtue, possessing an inborn capacity to sense, as it were, God’s divinity. Man’s fitrah, therefore, is to love God, truth, and beauty, and to feel an aversion towards selfishness, falsehood and evil. Such is his true nature; much as the nature of a lamb is to be gentle or a horse to be swift.

Islam’s view of human nature, therefore, is an optimistic one. Unlike in Christianity, which insists that everyone is born into a state of original sin, the Islamic faith begins with the premise that man is essentially a creature of goodness, and that any veering away from this norm is as a result of his socialisation and upbringing. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: ‘Each child is born upon the primordial nature, but it is his parents that make of him a Jew, Christian, or Magian.’ [Bukhari, no.1358] These three religions, well-known to the Prophet’s companions and contemporaries, are here contrasted with the “primordial nature” which, as the Qur’an sees it, consists of man’s instinctive recognition of God. Fitrah, in other words, is here equated with Islam.

So in the cosmology of the Qur’an, every human being is born predisposed to Islam, the primordial religion (din al-fitrah), and is perfectly capable of receiving the truths manifested by the light of divine revelation: that God is One, Unique, possessing the attributes of perfection, and that none deserves to be worshipped save Him. But man, when entangled in customs, distractions, whims, selfish desires and false teachings, becomes contentious, slavish, hankering after what is forbidden, and deflected from the pure worship of the One true God. And it is precisely for this that prophets were sent and heavenly scriptures revealed: to help man recollect his purpose of creation and to retrieve this fitrah.

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