Here 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:
 Knowledge that isn’t acted upon.
 Works of faith that are bereft of sincerity [to God] or conformity [to the shari‘ah].
 Wealth from which nothing is spent; so neither is joy gained by hoarding it, nor is it sent on ahead to the Afterlife.
 A heart empty of God’s love, yearning for Him, and intimacy with Him.
 A body devoid of obedience and service to Him.
 A love that doesn’t confine itself to the Beloved’s pleasure, nor does it comply with His commands.
 A moment of time not used to rectify one’s remissness, or seized to do good works and draw closer to God.
 A thought that dwells on what isn’t beneficial.
 Serving someone whose service doesn’t bring you closer to God nor does it rectify your worldly affairs.
 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.
When we compare our lifespans, wherein our lives unfold, to the age of the earth or to the visible universe of nearly fourteen billion years, it seems less significant than a drop of water in an endless ocean. To today’s materialists, life holds little significance beyond that of selfish genes and chance mutations (or of exploitation and unfettered consumption). To believers in Allah and His Oneness (tawhid), however, life is seen as a rich tapestry of signs and an arena of tests that grant us the opportunity of knowing Allah and of worshiping Him. I only created jinn and men, stresses Allah in the Qur’an, that they may worship Me. [51:56]
The famous Quranic exegesis (mufassir), Mujahid, explained Allah’s words: “that they may worship Me (illa li ya‘budun)” to mean: “that they may know Me (illa li ya‘rifuni).”1 The rationale here being pretty straightforward, which is that we can’t worship Allah without first knowing something about Him.
In his essay about divine love, Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns – “Inhaling the Breeze of Divine Intimacy” – Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote: ‘Allah created creation in order that they may worship Him, with love, fear and hope in Him. Allah, exalted is He, declares: I created jinn and men only that they may worship Me. However, Allah, transcendent is He, can only be worshiped after knowing Him. This is why He created the heavens, the earth and whatever is between them, as pointers to His oneness and majesty. Allah informs: Allah it is who has created seven heavens, and of the earth a similar number. His command descends throughout them, that you may know Allah has power over everything and that He encompasses all things in knowledge. [65:12]’2
So here we are told that the whole of creation was created li ta‘lamu – “that you may know” Allah, and know that His Command courses throughout creation and that His omnipotence and omniscience envelop all things. This, then, forms the deep wisdom behind why creation was created: to know Allah; know He is One, utterly unique, the sole Lord, Creator and Controller of creation, and that none deserves to be worshiped except Him.
As for the hadith frequently cited in sufi literature: “I was a treasure unknown, then I desired to be known. So I created creation and made Myself known; they then knew Me,” hadith masters declare this report to be a chainless forgery.
In his encyclopaedia of hadith forgeries and fabrications, Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari said about it: ‘Ibn Taymiyyah stated: “These aren’t the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and nor does it have any chain; be it sound or weak.” Al-Zarkashi and al-‘Asqalani said the same. Its overall meaning, though, is sound and takes its cue from Allah’s words, exalted is He: I only created jinn and men that they may worship Me. That is, “that they may know Me” – as explained by Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him.’3
That its meaning is sound is confirmed by the Qur’an and by a whole host of classical scholars. So here is a case where we needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
When speaking about Islam’s religious ultimate: Allah, the language of Islam and of its learned ones often make reference to the term, ma‘rifatu’Llah – having ma‘rifah of God. Ma‘rifah (which is derived from the word ‘arafa: “to know”, “to be acquainted”) may be translated as: knowledge of God. It is of varying degrees and tends to refer to knowledge which has been arrived at through reflection and contemplation, and then internalised and experienced by the heart and the senses. In other words, ma‘rifah is experiential knowledge (sometimes translated as “gnosis”). The deeper the reflection, the profounder the ma‘rifah.
Whilst elaborating on the following hadith: “Know Allah in times of prosperity and He will know you in times of adversity,”4 Ibn Rajab said:
A person’s ma‘rifah of his Lord is of two degrees: Firstly, a general ma‘rifah that entails acknowledging, affirming and believing in Him. This degree of ma‘rifah is common to every Muslim. Secondly, a more specific type of ma‘rifah which causes hearts to incline completely to Allah, be devoted to Him, seek intimacy in Him, be at peace whenever remembering Him, feel shy before Him and be in awe of Him. This level of ma‘rifah is the type around which the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) revolve. One of them said: “The paupers of this world have departed from it without having tasted the sweetest thing in it.” Someone inquired: What is the sweetest thing in it? He said: “Ma‘rifah of Allah; mighty and majestic is He.” Ahmad b. ‘Asim al-Antaqi said: “I wish not to die until I attain to ma’rifah of my Lord. I don’t mean a ma‘rifah in terms of merely believing in Him. But a ma‘rifah such that, when I know Him, I feel shy before Him.”’5
Now these levels of ma‘rifah may be likened to that of a man and his neighbour who’s just recently moved in next door.6 Initially the man becomes acquainted with his new neighbour in a general sense. He may learn of his name; his vocation; whether he is married or not. He will also learn of his general appearance and be able to recognise him when meeting him on the street. He may even, by asking around, be able to glean other facts about his new neighbour. Yet whatever facts he does learn about him will be at an indirect, impersonal level, unlikely to stir the heart into having any deep or abiding sense of respect and admiration for him. In fact, beyond acknowledging the neighbour’s existence or presence in the locality, his outlook towards him will likely be one of polite indifference. This is akin to the first degree of ma‘rifah spoken of by Ibn Rajab.
Let us now imagine the man decides to know his neighbour directly and introduce himself to him; frequently visit him; socialise with him; and, over time, form a sincere and faithful friendship with him. He is now able to see and experience, at first hand, his neighbour’s fine character, kindness, generosity, knowledge, wisdom, compassion and other virtues which can only be known through direct contact. Such an intimate awareness of his neighbour will eventually evoke in the man a profound respect and admiration for him, and a deep, abiding love for him. It is probable; guaranteed, even, that his neighbour will now begin to disclose to him many of his most private and cherished thoughts, and share with him many of his most intimate feelings, which could never have been known even with a lifetime’s worth of indirect observation or investigation. Rather, this knowledge is only granted to him out of the neighbour’s own desire to be more intimately known, and from the man abiding by the rules of courteous conduct (adab) in seeking to know and draw closer to his neighbour. This reflects the higher degree of ma‘rifah.
As for how ma‘rifah of Allah can be inspired and instilled in our hearts, Ibn al-Qayyim (Ibn Rajab’s most cherished teacher) tells us: ‘In the Qur’an, Allah invites His servants to attain ma‘rifah in two ways: The one, by contemplating the creation. The other, by meditating upon the Qur’an and contemplating its meanings. The first are His signs that are seen and witnessed; the second, His signs that are read and understood.’7
Contemplating the Creator’s handiwork within creation enables us, at least to some extent, to admire His wisdom, splendour and sublime power. This, in turn, inspires reverence and love of Allah in human hearts. For the natural world is like a mirror, itself beautiful while reflecting an even greater beauty of Allah. If the starry heavens elicit in us a sense of awe; if a newly sprung red rose evokes in us a sense of beauty; if the solemn stillness of an autumn woodland kindles in us a sense of sublimity, then how much more awesome, beautiful and sublime must the Creator of such things be? Appreciating the splendour of the creation and being enchanted by it is, therefore, a means of knowing and glimpsing the still greater splendour of its Maker.
As for the Qur’an, in demonstrating Allah’s tawhid, it depicts a vivid portrayal of Allah. This is so we may attain a more immediate awareness of Him, through pondering over His acts and attributes of perfection, by which He makes Himself known. When the Qur’an depicts such attributes – like when it says that Allah is wise, just, majestic, omnipotent, generous, compassionate, loving and forgiving – it insists Allah possesses such qualities in utter perfection. This ‘divine disclosure’ is, again, aimed at inspiring hearts to incline to Allah in reverence, awe and loving submission.
Therefore, amidst the dramas of the world, and amidst its songs of joy and sorrow, the Qur’an asks each of us to know their Maker and to live out our lives in conscious awareness of Him. Those who worship Allah with such awareness, and in accordance with Islam’s Sacred Law or shari‘ah, are led by it to an even deeper awareness. So it is that Allah, in His overwhelming generosity and perfect grace, elevates those who are imperfect, weak and ignorant, yet strive to subdue their lower souls, open their hearts to His light and seek to know and draw closer to Him.
We ask you, O Allah, to deepen our ma‘rifah of You, fill our hearts with love and awe of You, grant us sincerity in our worship of You, and not to be deprived of Your shade; on the Day there shall be no shade but Yours. Amin.
1. Cited in al-Baghawi, Ma‘alim al-Tanzil (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2010), 4:235.
2. Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns, 60.
3. Al-Qari, al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah fi’l-Akhbar al-Mawdu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.353. Almost identicle words have been reproduced in al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al–‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), no.836.
6. The simile is culled from Sayyid Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Islam and Secularism (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1998), 80-81. My thanks goes to Shaykh al-Afifi, of Oxford, for pointing this valuable book out to me.
What is love? How is it to be defined? Can it be defined? Can love really be put into words? There are profounder questions still for believers, like what is love of God? And how can we nurture God’s love in our hearts? In fact, to say that this is Man’s greatest existential question would, in all likelihood, be an absolute understatement; for such is its centrality to a life of true faith.
There has been a certain reluctance on the part of classical scholars when it comes to defining love (mahabbah). It is not that they haven’t tried, but that the definitions have tended to be causes, symptoms, effects or consequences of love, instead of love itself. A general description of love as mayl or “inclination” aside, some have felt that those who’ve attempted to define love have done so in terms of their own experiential taste, or dhawq; or to the extent of their own yearning for God, or shawq.
Such hesitancy is found in Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah who, when discussing the matter of love, chooses not to give his own definition, but instead lists thirty suggestions of others; noting how they are either incomplete definitions or they are descriptive of love’s consequences. The only definition to gain near acceptance (though not quite a definition) is a rather lyrical description from a young Junayd al-Baghdadi who speaks about the self-effacement of the lover of God in the worship and service of Him.
Thus, in winding-up his attempts at defining love, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah says: ‘The Thirtieth – being the most comprehensive of what is said about it: Abu Bakr al-Kattani related that a discussion concerning love took place in Makkah (may God, exalted is He, honour it) during the pilgrimage season. The shaykhs spoke about it, with Junayd being the youngest of them. They asked him: Tell us your opinion, O Iraqi? With his head bowed and his eyes filled with tears, he said: “When the servant is effaced from himself, united in his Lord’s remembrance, renders what is due to Him, and sees Him with his heart, then his heart is set ablaze by the lights of divine awe; and his drinking from the cup of divine love is made pure and the Compeller lifts the veil of the unseen to him. So when he speaks, he speaks through God. When he utters, he utters about God. When he moves, he moves by God’s bidding. When he is resting, he rests with God. So he is for God, by God and with God!” The shaykhs burst into tears, saying: What more can be said. May God reward you, O crown of the gnostics.’1
However one defines love, at its heart is the idea of ma‘rifat al-kamal – ‘recognising perfection’. One of the great doors for man to nurture a deep and abiding love of God is appreciation of God’s acts of kindness and beneficence to His creation. ‘Hearts,’ it has been said, ‘have been created with a natural disposition to love those who do good to them.’ As this appreciation deepens, the lover is lead to a still greater door: the door of ma‘rifat al-kamal – recognition of God’s utter beauty and perfection in terms of His acts (af‘al), attributes (sifat) and essence (dhat). In one celebrated hadith, we read: ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty.’2 Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah writes:
‘The greatest way of knowing God is to know the Lord via His beauty, transcendent is He: which is how the elite from creation know Him. The rest know Him through one of His attributes, while the most perfect of them know Him by way of His perfection, awe and beauty – [while affirming that] there is nothing that even remotely resembles Him in terms of attributes. Now if, for argument’s sake, all the creation had beautiful forms, then the most beautiful of them (inwardly and outwardly), when compared to the Lord’s beauty, would be dimmer than the dimmest candlelight as compared to the blazing radiance of the sun. It suffices [to know] about His beauty that “If He were to remove the veil from His Face, the splendour of His countenance would consume His creation as far as His gaze extends.”3 It [also] suffices that every beauty, inner or outer, in this world or the Afterlife, is His handiwork. What then of the beauty of the Creator of such handiwork?’4
He also said: ‘Thus, His names are all beautiful. His attributes are all perfect. And His acts are all wise, beneficial, just and compassionate. As for the beauty of His essence and what it is like, then it is something known only to Him; no other knows it. None of His creatures possesses any knowledge of it, except that some whom He honours are given some acquaintance of it … Indeed, a servant progresses from knowledge of the divine acts, to knowing the divine attributes; and from knowledge of the divine attributes, to knowing [something about] the divine essence. Whenever he witnesses anything of the beauty of the divine acts, he infers from it the beauty of the divine attributes; and from the beauty of the divine attributes, he infers from it the beauty of the divine essence.’5
Such is the significance of ma‘rifat al-kamal, that in almost every verse of the Majestic Qur’an there is mention of God’s beautiful acts and perfect attributes. For God wants the recognition of His perfection so that it leads to the love of His very essence; that is, to the love of Him.
1. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 3:447-8.
2. Muslim, no.91.
3. As reported in Muslim, no.293.
4. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2008), 264.
As the month of Ramadan fast approaches, and as Muslims the world over await its arrival in joyous anticipation, here is a short piece by Ibn al-Qayyim to help prepare its welcome. He says, while commenting on the following hadith:
‘God enjoins upon you the fast. Indeed, the likeness of that is as a man carrying a sack-full of musk in a crowd of people, all of them revelling in its fragrance. For the breath of someone fasting is more fragrant to God, exalted is He, than the smell of musk.’1
The Prophet uses the imagery of a person carrying a sack-full of musk hidden from view, under his clothes, after the habit of those who carry musk. Likewise, fasting is hidden from the eyes of people and unperceived by their senses. The fasting person’s limbs fast (abstain) from sins; his tongue fasts from lies, foul speech and false witness; his stomach fasts from food and drink; and his genitals fast from sexual union. If he speaks, he says nothing to violate his fast; and if he acts, he does nothing to spoil his fast. All his speech is salutary and wholesome, as are his deeds – just like fragrance one smells while sitting next to the bearer of musk. Anyone who sits with a fasting person benefits from his presence and is safe from false witness, lies, foul language and wrongdoing. This is the fast prescribed by the Sacred Law; it is not simply abstinence from eating or drinking.
Hence, one sound hadith has it: ‘Whoever does not refrain from speaking and acting falsely, or acting ignorantly, God does not need him to refrain from food and drink.’2 In another hadith: ‘Perhaps a fasting person gains nothing from his fast except hunger and thirst.’3
True fasting, then, is when the limbs abstain from sin and the stomach from food and drink. As food and drink can break the fast or spoil it, so sins can cut off its rewards and spoil its fruits; as if one had not fasted at all.4
1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2867; Ibn Hibban, no.1222. The hadith is sahih.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.1903.
3. Ibn Majah, no.1690; al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman, no.3642.
4. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Beirut & Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006),59-60.
In this enchanting piece of writing, taken from his slim anthology of miscellaneous spiritual benefits, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah discusses the preeminence of Adam, peace be upon him, over the rest of creation.
At the centre of this Adamic distinction are the twin gifts of: Then God fashioned him, and breathed into him of His spirit. [32:9] And secondly: We taught Adam the names of all things. [2:32] So it is with these two gifts – one of being infused with a spirit or ruh, the other of being taught knowledge unattainable by even Angels – that Adam’s merit and preeminence over even that of the Angels came to be. In what follows, Ibn al-Qayyim unveils to us ten reasons or wisdoms behind Heaven’s plan for deferring the creation of this marvel and enigma called Man:
‘The first thing created was the Pen, so as to write down all that would be before it actually came to be. Adam was the last of creation to be fashioned, for which certain wisdoms abound:1
Firstly, preparing the home before [the arrival of] the dweller.
Secondly, that he is the purpose for which all else was created: be it the heavens, earth, sun, moon, land or sea.
Thirdly, the Most Proficient Maker completed His handiwork with His most splendid and most intended creation, just as He began it with His most elementary work.
Fourthly, that souls always anticipate endings and finales, which is why Moses initially says to the magicians: “Cast whatever you wish to cast.” [10:80] Once people saw what the magicians had to offer, they were in eager anticipation of what was to come next.
Fifthly, that God deferred the best heavenly scripture, prophet and community for the end age; made the Afterlife better than the present life; and made the final stage more perfect than the initial stage. What a difference there is between the Angel [Gabriel] saying to the Prophet: “Read!” and him replying: “I cannot read!”,2 and between God’s saying: This day have I perfected your religion for you. [5:3]
Sixthly, that God gathered together in Adam all that He had scattered and diffused in the various other types of creation in the cosmos. Hence man is a microcosm, but he contains the macrocosm!
Seventhly, that Adam was the quintessence and climax of creation. Thus it was fitting that his creation should come after that of other created entities.
Eighthly, because of his preeminence over the rest of creation, God prepared for Adam all his needs, benefits, instruments of living and means of subsistence. In fact, he had barely raised his head, save to find all of this ready and waiting [for him].
Ninethly, that God wanted to manifest Adam’s nobility and excellence over the rest of creation, so He preceded it with the creation of others. The Angels assumed: “Even if our Lord does create that which He wishes, no creature will be as honourable to Him than us.”3 Yet when He did create Adam and told them to prostrate themselves before him, his merit and excellence over them – due to his knowledge and gnosis – became clear. When he lapsed into “sin”, the Angels thought his merit would be annulled: they never anticipated Adam’s latent potential for servitude and repentance. So when he did repent to his Lord in utter submission, the Angels then realised God’s secret in creating Adam that was hitherto known only to Himself.
Tenthly, that since God began creation with the Pen, it was only fitting He conclude it with Man. For the Pen is an instrument of knowledge; but Man is the actual knower. This is how God manifested Adam’s virtue over the Angels, by gifting him knowledge not privileged to others.’4
1. That is, last in terms of genus or species; not in terms of actual acts of creation.
2. Part of Islam’s founding story, as per al-Bukhari, no.3; Muslim, no.160.
3. As per Abu’l-Shaykh, al-‘Azamah, 5:1561.
4. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2008), 89-90.