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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.

Are We 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.

The Signs of Bliss & Misery

c06d5c005fc611dfb18f000b2f3ed30fSome people are catapulted into the limelight; some have a quiet greatness thrust on them; most, though, live simple, ordinary lives. The ordinary believer believes in God and realises he is here through God’s purpose, love and compassion. So he lives each day as God’s blessing and acknowledges what he has he owes to God – and therefore, whatever he can he seeks to share with others. He does good deeds unassumingly and unostentatiously, because that is what believers do. The ordinary believer’s life, then, in its simplicity, radiance and gravitas, is actually quite extraordinary. In what follows, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah outlines the path of the believer’s life – content, meaningful and blissful – as well as pointing to its opposite. He writes:

‘From the signs of bliss and success is that a person, as he grows in learning, he grows in humbleness and compassion. As he grows in works of faith, he grows in fear and vigilance. As he grows in age, he diminishes in greed. As he grows in wealth, he grows in generosity and giving. And as he grows in strength and status, he grows in drawing closer to others so as to serve them and help fulfill their needs.

From the signs of misery is that a person, as he grows in learning, he grows in pride and conceit. As he grows in works of faith, he grows in boasting; belittling others; and having an inflated opinion about himself. As he grows in age, he grows in greed. As he grows in wealth, he grows in stinginess and miserliness. And as he grows in status and standing, he grows in vanity and arrogance.

All these matters are trials and tribulation from Allah by which He tries His servants. Through it, He makes some happy and blissful, while others are made wretched and miserable.’1

1. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 28.

The Qur’an & the Soul’s Alchemy

828px-Folio_Quran_Met_57.141The Prophet, peace be upon him, remarked, ‘The best of you is the one who learns the Qur’an and teaches it to others.’1 For Muslims, not withstanding the sheer beauty of its composition and its cadences, the Qur’an is a repository of revealed teachings, a roadmap for the journey through life, and a fountain of timeless truths to meditate upon; deepening endlessly one’s sense of the divine glory. Moreover, the Qur’an is of God: His Word, Wisdom and Divine Will. God says: We send down in the Qur’an that which is a healing and a mercy for the believers. [17:82] O mankind! There has come to you a counsel from your Lord, and a healing for what is in the breasts. [10:57]

Its name is indeed telling, for the word Qur’an, in Arabic, literally means a ‘recital’ or ‘that which is recited’. To this end the Qur’an is possibly the most read or recited book in the world. It is certainly the world’s most memorised book, and is probably the one that exerts the most influence over its readers. It is a book that has caused countless people throughout history to accept its message upon reading it, or hearing its recital. It has moved hearts to tears, healed spiritual wounds, incapacitated opponents, and astounded academics and artisans alike. The essence of its message is that there is only one God: Allah, who created and sustains the material universe and the world of human experience, and that only He is to be deified and worshiped.

The alchemical effect of the Qur’an, the deep transformative impact it has upon the human soul, is such that even its most ardent of opponents have been profoundly affected by it. One such example is of ‘Utbah bin Rabi‘ah who, on hearing the Prophet recite the Qur’an, was compelled by its sheer and utter sublimity to confess: ‘I have heard an utterance the like of which I have never heard. By God! It is neither poetry, sorcery nor soothsaying. O men of Quraysh, listen to me and do as I bid. Do not come between this man and what he is about, but leave him be. For by God, the words I have heard from him will soon cause a great stir.’2

This sublimity was felt too by Goethe (the nineteenth century German poet, novelist, statesman and scholar) who wrote in his West-Oestlicher Divan how, after inspiring initial astonishment and fear, the Qur’an ‘soon attracts, astounds, and, in the end, enforces our reverence. Its style, in accordance with its content and its aim, is stern, grand, terrible, ever and anon truly sublime. Thus, this book will go on exercising, through the ages, a most potent influence.’3

Thus it is a case of pouring the Qur’an’s healing over our spiritual wounds, and allow it to work its miracle: Is there any, then, to take heed? [54:17]

1. Al-Bukhari, no.5027.

2. Ibn Hisham, Sirah, 1:185, its chain is sound (hasan). Cf. Muhammad al-Ghazali, Fiqh al-Sirah, ed. al-Albani (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Hadithah, 1976), 113.

3. Cited in Shalabi, Islam: Religion of Life (USA: Starlatch Press, 2001), 25-6.

Ramadan: Becoming What We Were Born to Be

970952_378342775600795_2038395910_nToday sees the first day of Ramadan: the Muslim month of fasting (sawm). Observing the fasts of Ramadan unites Muslims the world over in common purpose and creates great social cohesion. But more than its social benefits, or benefits to the body (which is always a welcome side effect), Ramadan is principally designed to be spiritually and mentally transformative.

The whole point of fasting in Ramadan, the fourth pillar of Islam, is to foster a state of detachment from the world, as also from our ego and desires. This creates, as it were, a space in our souls for the remembrance of God and for awareness of His presence: O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may become mindful of God. [2:183]

Thus, that we become of those who are mindful of God and profoundly aware of Him (in Arabic, muttaqi) is, according to the Qur’an, what we were all created to be. And it is in accordance with such mindfulness that we have been called upon to mould our lives, actions and aspirations.

Ramadan, therefore, is that time of the year when our awareness of God sharpens and diligence to acts of devotion strengthen. Along with the five daily prayers and actually fasting, the main acts of devotion a believer engages in are: reading the Qur’an daily, aiming to complete it by the month’s end; becoming more charitable; seeking God’s forgiveness (istighfar) profusely; praying tarawih and night prayers; working to cleanse the heart from diseases like pride, vanity, ostentation, jealousy, greed and harbouring malice or ill will against others; empathising with the poor and learning to live for the poor; remembering God frequently; entreating God abundantly; guarding the tongue from lying, backbiting, slandering and gossiping; strengthening ties of relations; and being of greater service to others. It is through commitment to such acts that we start to become what we were born to be: muttaqi.

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