Does Islam have a spiritual dimension for the spiritual perfection of humanity?
All people have an innate inclination to know their origin,
final destination, and purpose in life. Traditional people knew the answers
to these questions, but today, under the heavy burden of modern life and the
influence of modern conceptions, we no longer know these answers. In fact, we
know almost nothing about these essential problems arising from our very nature.
Such ignorance does not change our situation, for all of us, whether traditional
or modern, are born and die. Nothing, not even recent scientific and technological
developments, can change these immutable facts. The only difference is that
what was once a certainty has been replaced by doubt and fear.
Our situation has not changed at all as regards birth
and death. Although contained by an infinitude, we are still finite beings who
cannot escape being stirred by our very nature to try and understand the Infinite
and Absolute. With regard to the Absolute and all states of being comprising
the universe, we are what we have always been and always will be: the fairest
creatures and the highest point of creation, yet possessing the potential to
fall to the lowest point.
The Qur’an states that the process of creation is circular:
As He brought you forth in the beginning, so unto
Him shall you also return (7:29). Thus creation ends at the point from
which it started. Atheists believe this as well, but conceive of matter, space
and time, or something presentable in terms of four dimensions as the process’
starting and ending points. Matter has the least degree of perfection, and yet
atheists hold it, in its most chaotic condition, to be the beginning and end
of creation, which they consider accidental and purposeless. The Qur’an, however,
says that existence starts with the highest state of perfection, proceeds downward
to matter, and then turns upward to the point from which it started:
He regulates the affair from the heaven to
Earth, then shall it go up to Him in one day the measure of which is a thousand
years of what you reckon. (32:5)
The Creative Will designs and administers this process,
and Divine Love, Grace, and Compassion are a priori factors in this Will’s manifestation.
Therefore Compassion is the principle of the Infinite’s manifestation, which
is why Sufis call the universe “the Breath of the Compassionate.” Each particle
of existence is immersed in this Breath, which endows it with a sympathy for
and attraction to other beings, and above all with its source: Divine Compassion.
And so each atom is regarded as the theophany of the Divine
Names and Attributes. Mahmud Shabstari, in his Gulshan-i Raz (The Mystic
Rose Garden), expresses the Divine Being as manifested in everything:
Know the world is a mirror from head to foot,
In every atom a hundred blazing suns.
If you cleave the heart of one drop of water,
A hundred pure oceans emerge from it.
If you examine closely each grain of sand,
A thousand Adams may be seen in it.
In its members a gnat is like an elephant;
In its qualities a drop of rain is like the
The heart of a barley-corn equals a hundred
A world dwells in the heart of a millet seed.
In the wing of a gnat is the ocean of the
In the pupil of the eye a heaven;
What though the grain of the heart be small,
It is a station for the Lord of both worlds
to dwell therein.
— (Translated by E. H. Whinfield)
Since existence manifests God’s Grace or Compassion, creation’s
order and hierarchy begin with the highest and most comprehensive created entity.
This being is the compassion unto all worlds or beings, the possessor of all
excellences in their highest degree of perfection. This entity, the most comprehensive
in perfection and embodiment of God’s Compassion, is presented in various terms.
However, the most appropriate ones are the Muhammadan Light or the Muhammadan
Reality. Like sunshine radiating through everything that exists, the Muhammadan
Light is actually the theater of the theophany of all Divine Names and Attributes,
as well as the archetype of the cosmos.
What is the Islamic view of creation with
respect to the perfection of humanity?
The hierarchy of creation
The hierarchy of creation unfolds itself in countless
spheres of intellectual and angelic beings. The Qur’an calls these malakut,
realms of unseen active spiritual and psychic entities. Each sphere is held
by the one above it and holds the one below it, ending in the four
dimensional sphere known as material being. Our world, the
‘alam-i mulk or ‘alam-i shahadat (the held-world or seen-world),
is the lowest sphere, for it is held but cannot hold. It forms the hierarchy’s
base, whereas the first and most perfect and comprehensive entity is its summit.
This base contains no actual or creative thing, but is endowed with unlimited
potential and ability to receive, and so forms the
background of its upward and spiritually evolutionary movement.
In its upward course, therefore, matter begins with the
simplest subatomic particles and proceeds to form atoms into nebulae and the
solar system. These are then populated with such inanimate and animate things
as plants, animals, humanity, and other conscious and intellectual beings, the
nature and number of whom only the Creator knows. So far as Earth is concerned,
the Creator causes inanimate elements to develop into plants, thus elevating
them to the simplest degree of life. Life, being the result of God’s direct
manifestation of His Attribute of Life and of His Name the Giver of Life without
any cause, evolves through plants and animals until it reaches perfection with
humanity, the most complicated and highest intellectual entity into which matter
has developed. With humanity, creation’s hierarchy returns to its starting point.
We have been endowed with the power of discovery and invention,
and have been taught “the names” (the keys to the knowledge of all things).
We have been given the power to receive whatever is manifested by God’s Will,
whether in the terrestrial, celestial, or supercelestial spheres, through our
external and internal senses, and to reflect and reproduce whatever we receive.
Although our celestial origin places us at the summit of creation’s hierarchy,
we have to live upon Earth because of the vegetable and animal aspects of our
existence. In other words, these contradictory features of our being—the angelic
nature and the terrestrial crust hiding the spiritual core—cause us to live
in this world and yet seek to transcend it.
The Qur’an defines our situation in a way that is at once
perennial and universal: We created humanity of the fairest creature, and then
reduced it to the lowest of the low (95:4-5). Created in the fairest stature,
we nevertheless fell into separation and withdrawal from our celestial prototype—a
condition the Qur’an calls the “lowest of the low.” Concerning this, a Sufi
commentator writes that God created us as the most complete and perfect theophany,
the most universal and all-embracing theater of Divine Names and Attributes,
so that we might bear the Divine Trust and become the source of an unlimited
effusion of light. He identifies the “lowest of the low” with the World of Natural
Passion and Heedlessness. The grandeur of the human state, its great possibilities
and perils, and the permanent nature of our quest after the Divine therefore
lie at the very root of human existence.
Ibn Sina, a famous eleventh-century Muslim philosopher,
expresses the idea that the human soul feels constrained to leave this world
and to return to the angelic world from where it came:
... Now why from its perch on high was it
cast like this
To the lowest Nadir’s gloomy and dear abyss?
Was it God who cast it forth for some purpose
Concealed from the keenest seeker’s inquiring
Then is its descent a discipline wise but
That the things that it has not heard it
thus may learn.
So ‘tis she whom Fate does plunder, while
Sets at length in a place from its rising
Like a gleam of lightning which over the
And, as though it never had been, in a moment
— (E.G. Brown’s translation)
The cosmos continually reveals the eternal message of
the Truth, and its finite forms reveal the traces of the Infinite. As ‘Ali ibn
Ali Talib said: “I wonder about the person who observes the universe created
by God and doubts His Existence.” The Qur’an says:
To God belongs the Kingdom of the heavens
and of Earth, and God is powerful over everything. In the creation of the heavens
and Earth, and in the alternation of night and day, are signs for people with
minds who remember God standing and sitting and lying on their sides, and reflect
upon the creation of the heavens and Earth: “Our Lord, You have not created
this for vanity. Glory be to You! Guard us against the Fire’s chastisement.
Our Lord, whomsoever You admit to the Fire You will have abased; and the evildoers
shall have no helpers. Our Lord, we have heard a caller calling us to belief,
saying: ‘Believe in your Lord!’ And so we believe. Our Lord, forgive our sins
and acquit us for our evil deeds, and take us to You with the pious. Our Lord,
give us what You have promised us through Your Messengers, and abase us not
on the Day of Resurrection. You will not fail the tryst.” And their Lord answers
them: ‘I do not waste the labor of any that labors among you, be you male or
female—the one of you is as the other.’ (3:189-95)
Humanity needs revelation, which, like the cosmos itself,
comes from the Infinite and the Absolute. Hence, revelation serves as the key
for unfolding the mysteries of our being and of the universe. It is a gift from
Divine Mercy that enables us to pass beyond the finite to the Infinite, and
enables the human soul to move from the outward to the inward, from the periphery
to the center, and from form to meaning.
This journey is none other than the mystical quest itself.
Due to the soul’s intimate relation with the cosmos, this journey is at once
a penetration to the soul’s center and a migration to the abode beyond the cosmos.
The Divine Presence resides in both places. By following Islam’s outer form,
we migrate to the inner and, by His Grace, transcend the finite world to regain
our primordial angelic state and thereby complete creation’s circle. The spiritual
path of Islam calls people to defeat their carnal souls so that they can be
reborn as their angelic selves.
Those who find the Truth find Him in their
Those detained halfway are hindered by conjectures.
Whoever truly seeks will truly find Him,
while the indolent can do neither;
For His servants on their spiritual journey,
He is the final destination.
Souls who do not recognize Him as a friend,
who do not die to themselves to be raised
again in Him,
and who do not die for His sake
are utterly bereft and destitute.
Come, friends, let’s set out to reach
the realm of the Beloved;
And let us see the rose of His beauty
for a moment in light.
The world is pitiless and cruel,
all covered in fog and cloud.
It is but a loss and waste of time
to stay here even for a short while.
We are travelers, and our homecoming is with
What an honor then to reach Him.
Faith is the only way to attain this aim
by His leave and grace.
Islam is the religion of unity, and all aspects of its
doctrine and practice reflect this central and cardinal principle. The Shari‘a
is a vast network of injunctions and regulations that inwardly relate the world
of multiplicity to a single center and, conversely, is reflected in the multiplicity
of the circumference. Islamic art seeks to relate the multiplicity of forms,
shapes, and color to the One, to the center and Origin, and thereby reflect
tawhid in its own way in the world of forms with which it is concerned.
Does Muslim Sufism comply with the Islamic
creed of Tawhid?
Sufism and Tawhid
Sufism, Islam’s inner dimension, is the best way to achieve
tawhid. The Islamic creedal statement shows that all Muslims believe in absolute
Divine Unity: La illaha illa Allah (there is no deity but God).
Sufism seeks to free people from the prison of multiplicity,
to remove any mental processes or physical actions that divert their ego-centers
toward temporal and sensual desires, and to eradicate hypocrisy. In short, it
seeks to make people whole, for only such people can become holy. People profess
faith in God but live and act as if there were many deities, and so are guilty
of polytheism and hypocrisy. As Sufism seeks to bring such a condition into
the open and cure the afflicted person, its goal is to integrate each person
at every level of his or her existence.
Such an integration is brought about by harmonizing all
bodily, mental, and spiritual faculties, not by negating the intelligence, which
so often occurs with modern religious movements. Sufism bases its methods upon
observing the Shari‘a and, in particular, the daily prayers, which are a most
powerful means of integrating people’s psychic faculties and harmonizing them
with their corporeal being.
Sufism’s main method is continuous prayer. This is done
in both quantitative and qualitative terms through invocation (dhikr), in which
all otherness and separation from the Divine is removed and tawhid is achieved.
Invocation, when combined with the appropriate forms of meditation (fikr), causes
the emergence of an integrated pure and whole gold-like soul. After this, people
use invocation to offer their souls to God so that they may return to Him in
Those who achieve this integration possess certain characteristics
that anyone can see, for it leaves its imprint even upon their outer appearance,
which necessarily reflects their inner state. Such people are cured of all spiritual
illnesses by having their tensions and complexes removed, as their need for
the transcendent has been met and satisfied, and not through modern psychoanalysis.
Moreover, they do not compartmentalize their lives, for their thoughts and actions
issue from a single center and are based on a series of immutable principles.
They realize the Islamic ideal of unifying contemplation
with the practical and so do not act or think “normally,” for their contemplation
and meditation are combined in the purest and most intense activity. As a result,
they reflect Divine Unity and become the total theophany of the Divine Names
and Qualities. They act and live in such a manner that all of their actions
and words exude a spiritual fragrance and beauty. They are somehow in touch
with that Divine Grace running through the universe’s arteries.
Such people have reached the goal of their lives and have
no fear, which is so destructive to modern people. They see death not as total
annihilation, but as a shift from a state of lesser sensitivity to a higher
one. All of us belong to God, and the Qur’an states that each person and society
moves toward God. Therefore death is only a shift and a change from one stage
of existence to a higher one, and ultimately terminates with God.
Death does not destroy our internal or external sensory
faculties, but rather refines and sharpens them. It only severs the conscious
ego’s direct relationship with the outer material world, to which it is connected
through the external senses. As material life veils human senses and consciousness,
death sharpens all human faculties by removing this veil. A Prophetic tradition
confirms this: “People are now in a state of sleep. They will awake when they
So death is actually an ascension, a gate opening upon
higher realities and pleasures of existence, not something to be feared by sincere
Muslims. It is a transference from the dungeons of worldly life to the gardens
of Paradise, from the world of labor and trouble to the abode of rewards. In
another Prophetic tradition, God says:
My servants draw near to me through supererogatory works,
so that I love them. When I love them, I am their ears with which they hear,
their eyes with which they see, their tongues with which they speak, and their
hands with which they take.
Can you advise a Sufi way for
this modern age?
A most advisable way to God
Said Nursi, a twentieth-century Muslim scholar, sought
to combine religious and natural sciences with spirituality to produce “complete”
Muslims. In his terminology, these would be Muslims having minds enlightened
by natural science and hearts illumined by religious science and spirituality.
He offers the following way:
There are many ways to Almighty God. All true ways have
been derived from the Qur’an, but some are safer and more comprehensive and
direct than others. The way I have derived from the Qur’an depends upon our
perception and confession of helplessness and poverty before God’s Might and
Riches, and upon affection and reflection.
This way is as sure as the way of loving God, or even
safer, for it elevates you so as to be loved by God on account of your sincere
devotion to Him. Your perception and acknowledgment of your poverty leads you
to the Divine Name the All-Merciful. Affection is more effective than love,
and leads to the Name the All-Compassionate. Reflection is brighter and more
comprehensive than love, and leads to the Name the All-Wise. This way does not
resemble the way of those Sufi orders that have developed a 10-step method to
purify and sharpen their members’ 10 outer and inner senses or faculties and
that prefer to recite God’s Names silently. Neither does it resemble those orders
that practice public recitation and seek to purify their members from all defects
contained in the soul’s seven stations.
Our way consists of four steps and is the Shari‘a (or
the truth) itself; it is not a Sufi order. Its fundamental principles consist
of following the Sunna, performing the religious obligations, avoiding the major
sins, performing the five prayers properly, and praising, glorifying, and exalting
God after every prayer. The steps are as follows:
- The first step is expressed by:
Do not justify and hold yourselves sinless
- The second step is indicated by:
Be not as those who forgot God–and so He caused
them to forget their own selves (59:19).
- The third step is pointed to by:
Whatever good visits you is from God; whatever
evil befalls you is from yourself (4:79).
- The fourth step is shown by:
All things perish except His Face and His good
The following is a brief explanation of these four steps.
First step: Never regard yourself as infallible
and sinless. Since you love yourself first on account of your evil-commanding
self, you will sacrifice anything to satisfy it. You praise yourself as if you
were a deity, and believe yourself to be without defect. You strive so insistently
to prove yourself free of guilt that others consider you to be full of self-love.
You exploit the faculties given to you for praising and thanking God by glorifying
your self. Given this, you resemble those people mentioned in:
who takes as his [her] god his [her] own desires
and fancies (25:43). You praise, rely on, and admire yourself. To be
purified of such attitudes, regard yourself as fallible and liable—even susceptible—to
Second step: As the verse:
Be not as those who forgot God—and so He caused
them to forget their own selves teaches, you are oblivious and unaware
of yourself. You do not want to remember death, although you always consider
others mortal. You hold back when confronting hardship and rendering service,
but believe that you should be the first one rewarded when it is time to collect
the wages. Purifying yourself at this step involves carrying out your responsibilities,
being prepared for death, and forgetting whatever reward you might obtain.
Third step: As the verse:
Whatever good visits you is from God; whatever evil
befalls you is from yourself teaches, your evil-commanding self always
ascribes good to itself and feels conceited. In reality, you should perceive
your defects and insufficiency and then thank and praise God for whatever good
you can do. According to the meaning of: Prosperous
is the one who purifies it (91:9), your purification at this step consists
of knowing that your perfection lies in confessing your imperfection, your power
in perceiving your helplessness, and your wealth in accepting your essential
poverty and inadequacy.
Fourth step: As the verse:
All things perish except His Face and His good pleasure
teaches, your evil-commanding self causes you to consider yourself as completely
free and existent in your own right. Furthermore, you claim divinity for yourself
and rebel against your Creator, Who alone deserves worship. You can save yourself
from this perilous situation only by perceiving the truth that everything, with
respect to its own self, is essentially non-existent, contingent, ephemeral,
and mortal. In addition, you must realize that you are existent, experiencing
and experienced, only because you are a mirror reflecting the Majestic Maker’s
Names and entrusted with various duties.
Here, you can purify yourself by perceiving that your
existence lies in acknowledging your essential non-existence. Considering yourself
to be self-existent, you fall into the darkest pit of non-existence. In other
words, relying on your personal existence and thus ignoring the Real Creator
causes your ephemeral, fire-fly-like personal existence to be drowned in the
infinite darkness of non-existence. But if you abandon pride and egoism and
recognize that you are only a mirror in which the Real Creator manifests Himself,
you attain to infinite existence. One who discovers the Necessary Being, the
manifestations of Whose Names cause all things to come into existence, is counted
as having found everything.
This way is the method of affection and reflection, as
well as that of recognizing your own incompetence and insufficiency. This
four-stage way leads to its objective rapidly, since it is the easiest and most
direct way. Recognizing your incompetence leads you to rely on God alone, for
it means that you have freed yourself from your evil-commanding self’s influence.
Love, regarded as the quickest route, can lead to the true Beloved only after
the false, ephemeral beloved is no longer loved. This method is safer than other
ways, for it obliges you to recognize your incompetence and ascribe all defects
This way is a main highway, one that is much broader and
more universal, for it allows you to attain a constant awareness of God’s presence
without denying or ignoring the universe’s actual existence, as demanded by
believers in the Unity of Being (Wahdat al-Wujud) or Unity of the Witnessed
(Wahdat al-Shuhud). Instead, it admits the universe’s actual existence,
as proclaimed in the Qur’an, by ascribing it directly to the Majestic Creator.
It considers all things as mirrors reflecting the Divine Names’ manifestations,
and views creation as manifestations of His Names and thus devoted to His service,
as opposed to being self-existent and self-perpetuating. It saves you from heedlessness
by allowing you to travel to Him through everything, by making you always aware
of His presence.
In short, this way considers beings as neither existent
nor working on their own behalf; rather, it states that beings function as signs
and officials of God, the All-Mighty.
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