Isn’t it the height of bad faith if we turn to God only after everyone else, or after 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, entitled: Futuh al-Ghayb, the saintly scholar and sayyid, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d.561H/1166CE) – the leading Hanbali jurist of Baghdad in his age – commences the third of his orations with these words:
إِذَا اُبْتُلِيَ الْعَبْدُ بِبَلِيَّةٍ تَحَرَّكَ أَوَّلًاً فِي نَفْسِهِ بِنَفْسِهِ, فَإِنْ لَمْ يَتَخَلَّصْ مِنْهَا اسْتَعَانَ بِالْخَلْقِ كَالسَّلَاطِينِ وَأَرْبَابِ الْمَنَاصِبِ وَأَرْبَابِ الدُّنْيَا وَأَصْحَابِ الْأَحْوَالِ وَأَهْلِ الطِّبِّ فِي الْأَمْرَاضِ وَالْأَوْجَاعِ، فَإِنْ لَمْ يَجِدْ فِي ذَلِكَ خَلَاصًاً رَجَعَ إِلَى رَبّهِ بِالدُّعَاءِ وَالتَّضَرُّعِ وَالثَّنَاءِ. مَا دَامَ يَجِدُ بِنَفْسِهِ نُصْرَةً لَمْ يَرْجِعْ إِلَى الْخَلْقِ، وَمَا دَامَ يَجِدُ بِهِ نُصْرَةً عِنْدَ الْخَلْقِ لَمْ يَرْجِعْ إِلَى الْخَالِقِ.
‘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 Holy Qur’an: When My servants ask you concerning Me, I am indeed close, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [Q2:186] And God 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. [Q.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; start of the third discourse. My translation is based on M. Holland, Revelations of the Unseen (Florida: Al-Baz Publishing, 2007), 11.