God does not need our worship

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As God does not need our worship, why need we do so, and if we do, why not do it in whatever way we wish?

If we consider the condition man is in this vast universe, it is that of a needy dependent. Man is neither omnipotent, nor self-sufficient. He is in need, constant need, of many things vital even for mere survival, which are not wholly within his power to obtain. At the same time, he is weak and vulnerable: many circumstances can arise which can harm him and obstruct and overturn his most cherished and determined purposes. He is beset by worries, illnesses, calamities that can ruin his life’s work in a single moment. As against the sheer scale of what is around him, the number and the variety of plants, trees, animals, rivers and mountains, the awesome power of natural forces, the grandeur of the heavens, he is bound to reflect on his own frailty and relative insignificance. That reflection, that profound impression of his own helplessness and smallness compared to the tremendous harmonies and scales of the order all around him, awaken something deeply embedded in his soul which bids him to acknowledge the Divine and to worship. He is bound to consider the existence of some great mysterious power behind or beyond nature which controls the objects and events around him. Since everything he can observe is patently dependent on some other thing, since everything is transient, nothing he can see or touch can be that which he needs to worship. Rather, both reason and experience lead him to conclude that there is a Supreme Being, a Transcendent Will, beyond the visible, tangible harmony of the universe, who guides and controls all things and who must, therefore, be the goal of his worship.

Reflecting more carefully on existence, man notes the all-compassing lawfulness and order, the uniformity and regularity of things and events, their obedience to an All-Powerful Will in the universe. He thus realizes that everything has a part in that lawfulness and order which is its purpose or duty. Being himself just a part, he concludes that his existence cannot be a purposeless accident, but that he too must have a purpose and duty to fulfill.

Observing existence in its aspect of aesthetic beauty, he finds it excellent to a degree impossible to emulate. From the human form itself, to the vigorous, lively beauty of the innumerable forms and colors of the earth, to the glory of the stars and planets, everything calls to his heart, building in it something more than awe, an ardor and longing to know the Creator and Owner of all this that so thrills and delights his senses and his mind. It is as if everything in this world had been designed and produced elsewhere and then simply put before man for him to marvel at, even as he uses and profits from it. The world is presented to man like a table richly laid with fruits and vegetables, and ornaments of every kind for his use and delight. As he stretches his hand to any of these gifts, he inevitably senses the presence of the Giver, and so experiences a still greater joy and wonder. Were babies able to formulate thoughts and express them, they would certainly say that the milk they suck is as if prepared and sent from a different realm just because they need that milk. They would express gratitude and reverence to the One who nourishes in this way through the mother’s breast.

In the formal language of religion, we would say that sentiments and conceptions such as these aroused in human consciousness, as it were by nature, are a stage in acknowledging the Beautiful Names and Attributes of the Creator making Himself known through His creation. For every blessing, every excellence, every beauty, speaks of the one who created or enabled or provided it. Every system, balance and order, indicates one who established and sustains it. In sum, man is bound to worship God in response to His making Himself known. Setting out from this fact, some of the Muslim theologians belonging to the Mutazilite and Maturidi schools, say that if no Prophets had been sent, if there had been no guides (murshids) to direct people, even then man is bound, simply by looking at the facts manifested in the universe, to come to know God and act accordingly. There is much evidence to support this argument. Before Islam came to them, many people, including Muhammad, (later the Messenger of God, upon him be peace), were born in the heart and citadel of pagan and polytheist idol-worship, Makka: no one showed them the way to God no-one spoke to them, not even to Muhammad, of the Oneness of God (tawhid). And yet there was a desert nomad, a Bedouin – desert man – who said: ‘Camel droppings point to the existence of a camel. Footprints on the sand tell of a traveller. The heaven with its stars, the earth with its mountains and valleys, and the sea with its waves – don’t they point to the Maker, All-Powerful, Knowing, Wise and Caring?’ If a mere Bedouin, who knew only sand and desert, could have such a conception, what of others, such as the man, later appointed the Messenger of God, Muhammad, whose breadth of perception and understanding were to save the world? Long before the Divine Revelation came to him, he realized the meaning of the world, perceived the Truth (al-Haqq) in the grand book of the universe, and began to search for it. Taking refuge in the Cave of Hira, he devoted himself wholly to worship. ‘A’ishah, narrating directly from Khadijah, in a hadith recorded at the beginning of Bukhari’s great Sahih (Bukhari, Bad’ al-Wahy, 3), said that he gave himself up wholly to prayer, only occasionally coming home to take some provisions. This certainly indicates that man has the capacity to reach some degree of knowledge and so worship God by means of his own perception and comprehension. It would be useful to narrate here the last words and consideration of Zaid bin ‘Amr, the uncle of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. As God willed, this man did not live long enough to see the prophethood of Muhammad, but he felt intuitively the truth of Islam in the air, the meaning and significance of the coming of the Prophet Muhammad. He could not know how to name what he felt almost to the full. He had his family members gather round his death-bed, and said: The light of God is on the horizon. I certainly believe that it will emerge fully very soon. I am already feeling its signs over our heads.’ Addressing God, he went on: ‘O Great Creator! I have not been able to know You thoroughly. Had I known, I would have put my face upon the ground before You and never raised it in quest of Your pleasure’ (Ibn Sad, Tabaqat, 1, 161–2; Ibn Hajar, al-Isaba). Evidently, a pure conscience, not corrupted or conditioned by pagan-ism and polytheism, can, seeing the splendour and harmony of the creation, understand its own station and duty within that creation, and seek to serve and please the One who created and ordained all things.

Knowing God entails worshipping Him. Since He provides every blessing to us, service is owed to Him. Among those blessings is the blessing of prayer itself and its proper forms and means. God formulates the prayers lest, in a clumsy ardor to please, we should speak or act in an inappropriate or stupid way. Otherwise. we might witness people saying such things as – where are Your knees, O Lord, that I may place my face upon them, or Your hand to comfort my head – and other such graceless and misleading expressions. Revelation rescues mankind from this ignorance of not knowing how to pray. Thus, by God’s revelation through His Messenger we learn that, to enter fittingly into the state of prayer, we must follow certain rules. Before beginning, you must purify yourself by wudu. As you begin you must say Allahu akbar, meaning that God is greater than any preoccupation or distraction, greater than your self (nafs), so that only God is Great. To indicate surrender, you must stand in a peaceful, respectful stillness, with hands bound together in front. From that moment on, you must concentrate as fully and deeply as possible. Then, according to your degree, you may experience in spirit the ascension granted to God’s Beloved Messenger. According to the quality of your concentration and sincerity, you experience the desire for and joy of ascent to the places to which the Prophet ascended. As you rise up inwardly so you bow down bodily, graceful, to renew your surrender and express your humility. As you do so, you experience a different stage in your servanthood, and you prostrate in fuller reverence and humility. According to the depth of your surrender there, you enter into different realms. In the hope of further progress you will raise your head a while from the first prostration, to rest and go fresh into the second. Then you may experience the meaning of the hadith in Sahih Muslim: The servant is never closer to God than when he is prostrating himself in worship. Make more supplications while prostrating; and the meaning of the verse: ... Who sees you when you stand and your movements among those who prostrate themselves (al-Shu’ara’, 26.218–19).

Prayer in forms taught through Divine teachings and guidance is the best worship which flows from that love, awe and submission before God, that belief in Him and knowledge of His Divine Being bring about. So that we might not speak or act inappropriately or stupidly, we follow the patterns prescribed by God and His Prophet, by which means we both please Him further and do what is best for our own benefit.

Also consider the difference between the ways in which human beings and animals come into existence. Almost from the very moment an animal is born, it seems to have been sent to this world after having been trained in another and perfected in all its faculties. Within a few hours or days or months, it comes into full possession of its natural capacity to lead its life according to its particular rules and conditions. A sparrow or a bee, for example, acquires in less than a month or, rather, is inspired with, the skill and ability to integrate into its environment in a matter of twenty days, to do which a man would require twenty years. This means that the basic obligation upon animals, their essential role does not include seeking perfection through learning, or progress through scientific knowledge; nor does it include prayer and the petitioning for help by displaying their impotence. Their obligation or role in creation is to act within the bounds of their innate faculties, which is the mode of worship specified for them.

Man, by contrast, is born with no knowledge of life and his environment and with a need to learn everything. Unable to know entirely the conditions of life even after twenty years, he needs to continue his learning until the end of his life. He appears to have been sent to the world with so much weakness and inability that it may take him as much as two years only to learn how to walk. Only after fifteen years can he distinguish between good and evil, and by virtue of living in a society, attain to a point where he can choose between what is beneficial and what is harmful to him.

Thus, the essential duty of man, the one intrinsic to his existence, must be to seek perfection through learning and to proclaim his worship of Him Who sends him to the world. He should look for the answer to such questions— Through whose compassion is my life so wisely administered? Through whose generosity am I being so affectionately trained? Through whose favor and benevolence am I being so solicitously nourished? Then he should pray and petition The Provider of Needs in humble awareness of his needs, even one in a thousand of which he is unable to satisfy.

This means that man has come to this life to seek perfection through knowledge and prayer. Everything by its nature is essentially dependent on knowledge. And the basis, source, light and spirit of all true knowledge are knowledge of God, and belief is the very foundation of this knowledge.

In any walk of life we need help, guidance and counsel. Imagine a well-wisher comes and gives you good advice in the running of your business – make economies here, investments there, do this to avoid being cheated, do that to use manpower more efficiently, and so on – and this well-wisher makes no charge whether you accept or refuse his advice. Surely, unless you were insane, you would accept the advice. In the same way, if we follow the manner of prayer prescribed by God we avoid the pitfalls of excess and impropriety, and obtain advantage and blessings beyond our imagination. It may be that as we utter Allahu akbar, we press a button that releases the divine Rahma (Mercy) for us and our souls are inspired upon a journey like that of the Prophet’s mi’raj (journey to heaven), upon him be peace. It may be that, as we recite the Fatiha, the opening sura of the Qur’an, we may be opening the way into the highest mystery. In fact with every word, gesture and movement, and the pattern of these in the prayer, we may be opening hidden doors and secret locks leading to hidden realms and to eternal bliss. All the ways are straightened and the doors opened by prayers; also, our recitals and supplications are heard in the presence of God, and the Angels gather around us when we prostrate with sincerity. No one can claim that such things do not happen—rather, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad confirm that they do. That is why the most accepted pattern of worship is the one prescribed by God. When a person buys a machine for his use, he is foolish indeed if, instead of following the instructions that come with it, he makes up his own. Similarly, the Creator knows the best way for us to operate, to prosper in this world and the eternal life hereafter. It is wisdom therefore to follow the pattern of worship prescribed by the Creator and demonstrated by His Messenger, upon him be peace. In truth, it is only Muslims whose form of worship, with its wonderful simplicity and grace, is done as prescribed by God and which is pleasing to Him. That is a very great favor from God to the Muslims. Throughout the centuries, those who have, by God’s leave, devoted themselves to the renewal and revival of Islam, have always been the best and most correct in prayer. And this is still true today. It is we who need to worship God; not God who needs to be worshipped—He is free of all need. May He grant us the favor and honor to worship Him rightly and with sincerity.

 

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