The Humble "I"

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Archive for the tag “yearning for God”

Hunger Games & Harmful Hopes

ghost-fog-wallpapers_128171Poetry, it is said, is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful meanings.’ The following poem is no exception. For the poem speaks of a love beyond earthly love; of a deep yearning for what may soothe our sorrows. Though not at all religious, believers may uncover in the poem powerful symbols of religious sentiment: seekeing, yearning and a love sublimer than any earthly love – the heart’s hunger for God.

In his 1822 poem, One Word is Too Often Profaned, the English Romanitc poet, Percy Shelley, wrote:

I can give not what men call love;
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heaven’s reject not:
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion of something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow?

Poetry like this often presents us with powerful imagery that can help us to reflect upon the theme of “Meaning”. For ‘In some poetry,’ the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, ‘there is wisdom.’

Shelley sees in the moth’s desire for the star a poignant symbol of the heart yearning for something which is profound, compelling, sustains hope and soothes us from our immediate sphere of sorrow. Now for reasons we don’t fully understand, moths have a tendency, an innate, inborn nature, to be attracted to light. Starlight and moonlight attracts moths; so do candlelight and floodlights. But there is something of a problem for moths. A candlelight at night will attract moths, but they end up being consumed in its flame. Floodlights on a football pitch attracts moths, but will vaporise them on first contact. The innate longing of a moth for light, if it is the wrong source of light, can lead to its own destruction.

There is a parallel here with the human situation. Man, too, has a deep hunger for what will truly satisfy him – and that longing Islam tells us is for God. In the Qur’an, one of God’s Beautiful Names is al-Kafi – “The Sufficer”, “He who satisfies all needs”. It follows, then, that when we turn our backs on the Sufficer, we shall continue to remain unsatisfied and unfulfilled.

Another of God’s Names is al-Nur – “The Light”, for God is the light of the heavens and the earth, says the Qur’an [24:35]. Muslims hold that creation is a theophany (tajalli), a manifestation, of the Divine Names. Hence if God were not light, there’d be no light anywhere in creation: neither physical nor spiritual.

As human beings, we have an innate hunger for God’s light – for God – and in the absence of that light there is only an unfulfilled restlessness within us. Like the moth attracted to harmful sources of light, we too can misdirect our hopes and longings to things that may harm us, as they fail to deliver what we had expected. The objects of our desires have a marked tendency to frustrate us in that everything we hoped would bring meaning into our lives ends up disappointing us. A most obvious point in case is our current monoculture with its many quick-fixes and promises of fulfilment.

In fact, such yearning for God may even be subverted or perverted, in that one could end-up making a ‘god’ out of created beings or forces. For whenever the love, longing, devotion, loyalty and submission that is due to God, is focused on other than Him, or others along with Him, then this is idolatry – shirk. For as Islam sees things, whoever loves something, desires it, values it, and centres their hopes; fears; love and loyalty around it, submitting to it independently of God, then this, for them, is a deity, a god, an object of sacrilegious worship. Some there are who make a god of wealth, others make gods of women, still others make a god of their own whims and desires. Asks the Qur’an: Have you seen him who takes his whims for his god? [25:43]

Of course we have!

Doing Good for God or Reward from God?

One famous hadith teaches us this prayer of ardent longing: ‘O God I ask You for the delight of gazing at Your Face and the ardent yearning to meet You (allahumma inni as’aluka ladhdhatu’l-nazar ila wajhika wa’l-shawqa ila liqa’ika).’1

Most Muslims satisfy themselves with the outward form and practices religion offers. They know that submission to the rules – God’s commands and prohibitions – in the hope of being rewarded with the delights of Paradise, is enough to carry them through this earthly life and deliver them safely to the shores of the Hereafter. There are other believers, however, who have a yearning for something deeper; a need for something beyond paradisical delights – for God Himself. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah says: ‘Those who labour for the next world are of two kinds: those who work for recompense and reward, and those who work for spiritual stations and degrees; who vie with others to stand before God and be near Him.’2 ‘Thus,’ as he writes further on, ‘the labourers, in whom physical deeds predominate, work for rewards; whilst the gnostics (‘arifun), in whom inward practices predominate, work for rank, station and proximity to God.’3

To be clear, the Qur’an frequently mentions other-worldly delights which await the faithful, both as an incentive and a reward for doing good. Thus it speaks of gardens of blissful pleasures, luscious greenery and gushing fountains; unadulterated rivers of wine, milk and honey; mansions of gold and musk; tents of sapphire and glistening white pearls; youthful pages; wide-eyed maidens; a life of eternal youth and beauty; never-ending comforts and contentment. In short, all the pleasures and delights souls could wish for.

But for the yearning “seekers”, it is not enough to just know the truths of the religion with one’s mind or follow its rules with one’s body. ‘They want to taste these truths, as you taste a fruit, so that the whole of their being is flooded with this flavour.’4 Those on this path of longing for God feel compelled, by this love, to transcend such paradisiacal rewards mentioned above. They wish to worship God, yuriduna wajhahu, ‘seeking His Face.’ [18:28] Theirs is a voyage through the limitless, inward dimensions of Islam, so as to be led to the haqa’iq al-iman – the inward “Realities of Faith”. Theirs is unmistakably the sublimest path of tawhid, to worship God ka annaka tarahu – ‘as though you see Him.’5

Yet this is no call to fluffy spirituality or to subjective sentimentality. Before spiritual ecstasy, must come obedience and virtue. The outward prescriptions of religion not only govern our outward actions, they are, at the same time, the starting point for the inward journey. Without this starting point, there is no journey; without foundations there is no building. Not observing the outward duties of faith is to give the heart over to veils of disobedience, darkness, delusion and debris; it is to bar the soul from being illumined with any glimmer of guidance. Here, then, is the frozen heart in its winter of disobedience and divine discontent.

It is said that in our unredeemed souls, cluttered as they are with sins, dirt, filth and desires, we are, as it were, caged in a wall of ice. Ice is transparent to a greater or lesser degree, so occasionally we glimpse what lies outside the confines of our egotistical selves. Those possessed of the will to find God set about melting this wall of ice. But it needs heat to melt ice – to melt the frozen heart. It is loving obedience, coupled with intense longing, that generates this much needed heat. As the heart thaws, and then warms in its submission, knowledge and yearning, it is given to loving God, being gladdened by Him, knowing Him intimately, invoking Him constantly, and finding true peace in Him. Such is the Heaven of this World, about which Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah stated: ‘Truly, there is a Heaven in this world; whoever does not enter it, shall not enter the Heaven of the next world.’6

To sum-up: the straightforward understanding of faith which charaterises “ordinary” believers – following the rules so as to be rewarded with paradisical delights – is more than adequate for salvation. The Qur’an extols such a quest; and no one has the right to undermine it. Yet the same Qur’an speaks of a station purer still: that of lovers and yearners, knowers and gnostics: a multitude of those from days of old; but few from later times. [56:13-14] This is the station of those who desire neither this world, nor the next, but only the presence of their Lord. It is also the station where – as outward obedience is internalised, as faith and understanding are poured into prayer and as dhikr is made into the heart’s meditation and watchword – the seeker, even in this life, may find the taste of Paradise, the warmth of intimacy and the reality of Union.

1. This is part of a lengthy supplication (du‘a) related by al-Nasa’i, Sunan, no.1305. It was declared sahih by al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.1301.

2. Al-Wabil-al-Sayyib (Beirut & Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayyan, 2006), 138.

3. ibid., 139.

4. Gai Eaton, Reflections (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2012), 12.

5. Part of the celebrated “Hadith of the Angel Gabriel” recorded by Muslim, no.8.

6. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib, 102.

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