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Ma‘rifah: Getting to Know God

allah-calligraphy-1When 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.

4. Ahmad, Musnad, 1:307; al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.11560.

5. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:473.

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.

7. Al-Fawa’id (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2001), 42-3.

Sacred Knowledge: How to Seek It & Be Saved By It?

articlesThe duties instated by faith are a necessary measure in order to regulate human affairs, guide man, prevent him from straying, as well as dissuade him from self-harm or harming others. By recognising that the Sacred Law (sharī‘ah) exists to guide and protect us, we can attain to a reasonable equilibrium in this world and joy in the next.

Vital to this is knowledge, for without it we would not know how to live out God’s will in our lives. As such, a core body of sacred knowledge has been made obligatory upon each Muslims to acquire and learn – which is what is meant by this celebrated hadith: ‘The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.’1

In our quest to gain and to grow in knowledge (‘ilm), the following seven considerations should be kept at the forefront of our mind:

1. God loves and honours the learned and the seekers of knowledge: God will raise to high ranks those who believe and those among you who have knowledge. [58:11] It is stated in a hadith: ‘Whoever traverses a path in order to seek knowledge, God will facilitate for him, due to it, a path to Paradise.’2 Another states: ‘The world and whatever is in it is cursed, except for the remembrance of God and whatever is attached to Him, and a scholar and a learner.’Knowing how beloved to Allah sacred knowledge is should help spur us on to learning sacred knowledge and valuing its acquisition.

2. Knowledge is a means to the goal, it is not the goal in itself. That goal is worship and action. ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge,’ states the following prophetic caution, ‘in order to compete with the scholars, or to argue with the foolish, or to turn peoples’ faces towards him, let him takes his seat in the Fire.’4 Similar sentiments echo in the following hadith: ‘Whoever learns knowledge by which is sought the Face of God, but he does so only to achieve some worldly gain, shall not smell [even] the fragrance of Paradise on the Day of Resurrection.’5 Abu Qilabah, one of Islam’s early pietists, advised: ‘If God gives to you knowledge, give to Him worship; and don’t let your concern be to merely narrate to the people.’6 Knowing that knowledge is a means should help focus our sincerity on singling-out Allah for His pleasure and acceptance in seeking sacred knowledge.

3. Learning knowledge must be prioritised. At the base of the pyramid is learning the fard al-‘ayn  – what is a “personal obligation” on each individual (in contrast to a fard kifayah, or communal obligation). Ibn Rajab said: ‘So it is obligatory on each Muslim to learn what is mandated by religion in terms of ritual purification, prayer or fasting. It is obligatory on those who possess wealth to know what is due from it in terms of giving zakah, financial maintenance [of one’s dependants], performing pilgrimage and aiding jihad. Likewise, it is obligatory on those in trade and commerce to learn what transactions are valid and invalid … Realise, too, that knowledge of the lawful and prohibited must also be learnt.’7

The golden rule in this regard is as follows: afḍal al-‘ilm ‘ilm al-hāl wa afḍal al-‘aml hifẓ al-hāl – ‘The best knowledge is knowledge of one’s [current] state, while the best action is guarding one’s [current] state.’8 That is to say, one must acquire as much knowledge as one requires so as to fulfil the obligation of the moment (be it a duty one owes to God or to others), or to refrain from the prohibition of the moment. Knowing that knowledge must be prioritised, as well as what to prioritise, will save us from the aimless confusion most people fall into concerning this matter.

4. As important as it is, one must never acquire secular or worldly learning while being ignorant of one’s fard al-‘ayn – knowledge of one’s “personal religious obligations.” Thus, whilst censuring those who adopt such a negligent attitude, the Qur’an says: They know the outward appearances of the life of this world, but are heedless of the Hereafter. [30:7] In light of this verse, al-Hasan al-Basri once protested: ‘By God! One of them knows about this world to the extent he can pick up a coin and tell you its weight and worth. Yet he doesn’t know how to pray properly!’9 Yet how many still choose to skate on thin ice, even today? For how many Muslims are there who are versed in the finer details of politics, football, fashion, celebrity culture, or just the latest social media gossip, yet are woefully ignorant about their fard al-‘ayn duties; content with leaving their religious knowledge at a precarious or infantile level.

5. The ideal way to learn is to study with qualified teachers who have been granted license (‘ijazah) to teach by recognised scholars. This next axiom is key: inna hādha’l-‘ilma dīnun fa yanẓuru ‘amman ta’khudhūna dīnakum – ‘Indeed, this knowledge is religion; so look from whom you take your religion’. In the absence of such teachers, form a study group, basing it on humility and the ability to say, “I do not know” when needed. Think, reflect, ponder, question – but never invent your own rulings or fatwas. Instead, cling tenaciously to the divine order: Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [21:7] Knowing this will help save us from the pitfalls many have stumbled into, by taking as teachers charlatans, DIY-da‘is and other pretenders unfit and unqualified for teaching sacred knowledge.

6. We must know our own level and harbour no pretensions about how little we really do know. Simple ignorance (jahl baṣīt) may not always be blameworthy. For the act of asking and being answered is usually cure enough for such lack of knowledge. But compounded ignorance (jahl murakkab) – ignorance of actually being ignorant! – is a different kettle of fish. One often finds those who paddle in such a pitiful state to be highly argumentative, hostile, bigoted and an enemy to the righteous. To this end, al-Khalīl b. Aḥmad once said: ‘There are four types of men: [1] One who knows and knows he knows; he is learned, so follow him! [2] One who knows and knows not that he knows; he is asleep, so wake him! [3] One who knows not and knows he knows not; he seeks to learn, so teach him! [4] One who knows not and knows not that he knows not; he is a fool, so shun him!’10

7. Lastly, it’s vital that knowledge be internalised and rooted in the heart, in order to beget reverent awe before God and humility before Man. Sound intention is key. Mālik b. Dīnār said: ‘Whoever learns knowledge so as to act by it, his knowledge humbles him. Whoever seeks it for other than that, only increases in pride by it.’11 Imam al-Dhahabi advised: ‘Whoever seeks knowledge in order to act by it, his knowledge humbles him and causes him to weep at himself. But one who learns knowledge just to teach, to give fatwas, or to brag and show-off, becomes foolish, arrogant, argumentative, perishes in his vanity and is despised by others: He is indeed successful who purifies it [his soul], and is a failure who corrupts it. [91:9-10].’12

We end with the words of the celebrated pietist, Yusuf b. al-Husain: ‘With courtesy (adab) you understand knowledge. With knowledge, your actions are rectified. With actions, you are endowed with wisdom. With wisdom, you understand worldly renunciation (zuhd) and are given to achieve it. With renunciation, you cast aside the world. By casting aside the world, you long for the Afterlife. With longing for the Afterlife comes the pleasure and acceptance of God.’13

Wa bi’Llahi’l-tawfiq.

1. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.224, and it is sahih. Consult: al-Manawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 4:267.

2. Muslim, no.2699.

3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2323, who said the hadith is hasan.

4. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2654.

5. Abu Dawud, no.3664. Al-Nawawi declared its chain to be sahih, in Riyad al-Salihin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2000), no.1399.

6. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1977), no.38.

7. Ibn Rajab, ‘Warathat al-Anbiya’, Majmu‘ Rasa’il Hafiz Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2002), 1:22-23.

8. Al-Zarnuji, Ta‘lim al-Muta‘allim (Karachi, Dar al-Bushra, 2010), 7.

9. Cited in Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 3:437.

10. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1538; al-Ghazali, Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Riyadh: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 1:220.

11. Iqtida al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml, no.31.

12. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 18:192.

13. Iqtida al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml, no.27.

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