Thursday, December 20, 2007

Its (Not) Your Prayers

A voyaging ship was wrecked during a storm at sea and only two of the men on it were able to swim to a small, desert like island. The two survivors, not knowing what else to do, agreed that they had no other recourse but to pray to God.

However, to find out whose prayer was more powerful, they agreed to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite sides of the island.

The first thing they prayed for was food.

The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the land, and he was able to eat its fruit. The other man's parcel of land remained barren.

After a week, the first man was lonely and he decided to pray for a wife.

The next day, another ship was wrecked, and the only survivor was a woman who swam to his side of the land. On the other side of the island, there was nothing.

Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, more food.

The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him. However, the second man still had nothing.

Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship docked at his side of the island. The first man boarded the ship with his wife and decided to leave the second man on the island.

He considered the other man unworthy to receive God's blessings, since none of his prayers had been answered.

As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a voice from heaven booming, "Why are you leaving your companion on the island?"

"My blessings are mine alone, since I was the one who prayed for them," the first man answered. "His prayers were all unanswered and so he does not deserve anything."

"You are mistaken!" the voice rebuked him. "He had only one prayer, which I answered. If not for that, you would not have received any of My blessings."

"Tell me," the first man asked the voice,

"What did he pray for that I should owe him anything?"

"He prayed that all your prayers be answered."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Last Sermon

(This Sermon was delivered on the Ninth Day of Dhul Hijjah 10 A.H in the Uranah Valley of Mt. Arafat)

"O People, lend me an attentive ear, for I don't know whether, after this year, I shall ever be amongst you again. Therefore listen to what I am saying to you carefully and take these words to those who could not be present here today.

O People, just as you regard this month, this day, this city as Sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust. Return the goods entrusted to you to their rightful owners. Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you. Remember that you will indeed meet your Lord, and that He will indeed reckon your deeds. Allah has forbidden you to take usury (Interest), therefore all interest obligation shall henceforth be waived...

Beware of Satan, for your safety of your religion. He has lost all hope that he will ever be able to lead you astray in big things, so beware of following him in small things.

O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have right over you. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and comitted helpers. And it is your right that they do not make friends with any one of whom you do not approve, as well as never to commit adultery.

O People, listen to me in earnest, whorship Allah, say your five daily prayers (Salah), fast during the month of Ramadhan, and give your wealth in Zakat. Perform Hajj if you can afford to. You know that every Muslim is the brother of another Muslim. You are all equal. Nobody has superiority over another except by piety and good actions.

Remember, one day you will appear before Allah and answer for your deeds. So beware, do not astray from the path of righteousness after I am gone.

O People, no prophet or apostle will come after me and no new faith will be born. Reason well, therefore, O People, and understand my words which I convey to you. I leave behind me two things, the Qur'an and my example, the Sunnah and if you follow these you will never go astray.

All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and may the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me direcly. Be my witness, O Allah that I have conveyed your message to your people."

A Case Of Indigestion

A man came to Bahaudin Naqshband, and said: 'I have travelled from one teacher to another, and I have studied many Paths, all of which have given me great benefits and many advantages of all kinds. 'I wish to be enrolled as one of your disciples, so that I may drink from the well of knowledge, and thus make myself more and more advanced in the Way.

Bahaudin, instead of answering the question directly, called for dinner to be served. When the dish of rice and meat stew was brought, he pressed plateful after plateful upon his guest. Then he gave him fruits and pastries, and then he called for more pilau (rice), and more and more courses of food, vegetables, salads, confitures.

At first the man was flattered, and as Bahaudin showed pleasure at every mouthful he swallowed, he ate as much as he could. When his eating slowed down, the Sufi Sheikh seemed very annoyed, and to avoid his displeasure, the unfortunate man ate virtually another meal.

When he could not swallow even another grain of rice, and rolled in great discomfort upon a cushion, Bahaudin addressed him in this manner:

'When you came to see me, you were as full of undigested teachings as you now are with meat, rice and fruit. You felt discomfort, and, because you are unaccustomed to spiritual discomfort of the real kind, you interpreted as a hunger for more knowledge. Indigestion was your real condition.

'I can teach you if you will now follow my instructions and stay here with me digesting by means of activities which will not seem you to be initiatory, but which will be equal to the eating of something which will enable your meal to be digested and transformed into nutrition, not weight.'

The man agreed.

He told his story many decades later, when he became famous as the great teacher Sufi Khalili Ashrafzada.

...Wisdom of the Idiots, Idries Shah

Me, Myself and I

One went to the door of the beloved and knocked.
A voice asked: 'Who is there?'
He answered: 'It is I.'
The voice said: 'There is no room here for me and thee.'
The door was shut.

After a year of solitude and deprivation this man returned to the door of the beloved.
He knocked.
A voice from within asked. 'Who is here?'
That man said: 'It is thou.'
The door was opened for him.

Whispered Prayer Of The Rememberers

My God,
were it not incumbent to accept Thy command,
I would declare Thee far too exalted for me to remember Thee,
for I remember Thee in my measure,
not in Thy measure,
and my scope can hardly reach the point
where I may be a locus for calling Thee holy!
Among Thy greatest favours to us
is the running of Thy remembrance across our tongues
and Thy permission to us
to supplicate Thee,
declare Thee exalted,
and call Thee holy!

My God,
inspire us with Thy remembrance
alone and in assemblies,
by night and day,
publicly and secretly,
in prosperity and adversity!
Make us intimate with silent remembrance,
employ us in purified works and effort pleasing to Thee,
and reward us with the full balance!

My God,
love-mad hearts are enraptured by Thee,
disparate intellects are brought together by knowing Thee,
hearts find no serenity except in remembering Thee,
souls find no rest except in seeing Thee.
Thou art the glorified in every place,
the worshipped at every time,
the found at every moment,
the called by every tongue,
the magnified in every heart!
I pray forgiveness from Thee for
every pleasure but remembering Thee,
every ease but intimacy with Thee,
every happiness but nearness to Thee,
every occupation but obeying Thee!

My God,
Thou hast said - and Thy word is true -
O you who have faith,
remember God with much remembrance
and glorify Him at dawn and in the evening!
Thou hast said - and Thy word is true -
Remember Me, and I will remember you!
Thou hast commanded us to remember Thee,
and promised us that Thou wilt remember us thereby,
in order to ennoble, respect, and honour us.
Here we are, remembering Thee as Thou hast commanded us!
So accomplish what Thou hast promised,
O Rememberer of the rememberers!
O Most Merciful of the merciful!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Untying Knots

'The aim of prayer is not only the securing of particular favours, but also a purification of the soul: it loosens psychic knots or, in other words, dissolves subconscious coagulations and drains away many tensions of the soul, which presupposes that the soul be humble and truthful, and this disclosure, carried out in the face of the Absolute has the virtue of re-establishing equilibrium and restoring peace - in a word, of opening us to grace'...

'God tests by removing, man proves by renouncing. The renunciation may be inward and independent of facts; in that case it is detachment. He is detached who never forgets the ephemeral nature of what he possesses and who looks on these things as being lent to him and not as possessions'.

'Now our mental space - the substance or energy containing or producing thought - is in itself consciousness of divine reality; the mind emptied of all coagulations ‘thinks’ God by its very substance in ‘holy silence’ man being made in the image of God'.

...Prayer Fashions Man, Frithjof Schuon

In The Hearts Of Men

The moving and instructional epitaph on Mevlana Rumi's tomb reads:

'When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.’

And in one of his poems read this beautiful advice:

be like a river in generosity and help
be like the sun in tenderness and mercy
be like the night in covering the faults of others
be like the dead in anger and nervousness
be like the earth in modesty and humility
be like the sea in tolerance
be like your appearance (image), or appear like yourself.

I Try

Ahhhhh, sublime ... I Try by Macy Gray

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Of Pride

Spiritually speaking, pride consists in attributing to oneself what is due to God. It poisons and kills every value, for as soon as a good is claimed in its cause and in its essence by man, it is transmuted into evil: it embraces the limitations of the creature and engenders limitations in its turn; pride appropriates the divine gift and then strangles it. A good vivifies insofar as it comes from God, not insofar as it is handed on by man, nor above all insofar as it is usurped by man.

Man deems himself good even before God, who is Perfection, and when he endeavours to recognise his wretchedness, he again deems himself good on account of this effort.

... Prayer Fashions Man, Frithjoh Schuon

On Prayers

1. Establishing Prayer Develops Taqwa (Fear and Awareness of Allah):
“This is the Book in which there is no doubt, a guidance for those who have taqwa; who believe in the unseen, and who establish Salah, and spend out of what we have provided for them” (2: 2-3)

2. Prayer Is the Sign of a Believer:
“The believers, men and women, are protecting friends of one another; they enjoin good and forbid evil, and they establish Salah, and give Zakah, and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah will have His Mercy on them, and surely, Allah is All-Mighty, All-Wise.” (9: 71)

3. Establishing Prayer Leads to Allah’s External Blessings:
“So whatever you have been given is but (a passing) enjoyment for this worldly life, but that which is with Allah is better and more lasting for those who believe and put their trust in their Lord. And those who avoid the great sins and lewdness, and when they are angry, they forgive. And those who answer the Call of their Lord, and perform the Salah, and who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation, and who spend of what We have bestowed on them.” (42:36-38)

4. Those Who Pray Shall Have Nothing to Fear on the Day of Judgment:
“Truly, those who believe and do righteous deeds, and perform prayer, and give Zakah, they will have their reward with their Lord. On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (2:277)

5. Remain in Allah’s remembrance after prayer:
“When finished performing the prayer, remember Allah standing, sitting, and reclining, but when you are free from danger, perform the Salah. Surely, Salah is enjoined on the believers at
fixed times.” (4:103)

6. Command to Pray with Congregation:
“And establish Prayer and give Zakah, and bow down (in worship) along with those who bow down (in worship)” (2:43)

7. Special Command Regarding Punctuality of Prayer:
“Guard strictly the Prayer, especially the middle prayer. And stand before Allah with obedience.” (2:238)

8. Allah’s Help Comes Through Prayer:
“Seek help through patience and Salah; truly it is extremely difficult except for the humble true believers.” (2:45)

“Oh you who believe! Seek help through patience and Prayer. Truly, Allah is with those who are patient.” (2:153)

9. Special Emphasis on Friday Prayer:
“Oh you who believe! When the call is made for the Friday on Friday, come to the remembrance of Allah, and leave off business. That is better for you, if you only knew! And when the Prayer has ended, you may disperse through the land, and seek the Bounty of Allah, and remember Allah much so that you may be successful.” (62:09-10)

10. Shaytaan Tries His Best in Finding Ways to Take You Away from Prayer:
“Shaytaan desires only to excite enmity and hatred between you with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah, and from the Prayer. So will you then not abstain (from these evils)?” (5:91)

11. Prayer Protects Against Evils;
“Recite that which has been revealed to you of the Book, and perform the Prayers. Verily, Prayer prevents from lewdness and evils. And indeed, the remembrance of Allah (by you) is greatest. And Allah knows what you do.” (29:45)

12. Friendship Should Be with Those Who Pray:
“Indeed, your protecting friend (Wali) is none other than Allah, His Messenger, and the Believers who establish Prayer, and give Zakat, and bow down (in prayer). (5: 55)

13. Allah’s Special Order to Women:
“And stay in your houses, and do not display yourselves like that of the times of ignorance, and perform the Prayer, and give Zakah, and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah wishes only to remove uncleanness from you, Oh people of the House, and to purify you with a thorough purification.” (33:33)

14. Hypocrites Are Lazy in Prayer:
“Verily, the hypocrites seek to deceive Allah, but it is He who deceives them; When they stand up for Prayer, they stand with laziness, only to be seen by men; and they do not remember Allah but a little.” (4:142)

15. Laziness in Prayers Leads to Rejection of Sadaqa:
“And nothing prevents their Sadaqa from being accepted from them, except that they disbelieve in Allah and in His Messenger, and that they do not come to Salah except in a lazy manner, and that they do not give Sadaqa except unwillingly.” (9:54)

16. Leaving Prayer Leads to Shirk:
“(And remain always) turning to Him (only), and be fearful and dutiful towards Him, and perform Prayer and be not of those who commit Shirk.” (30: 31)

17. Previous Nations Were Corrupted when Prayer Was Left
“Then, there came after them a generation who gave up Prayer and followed lusts; so they will be thrown in Hell.” (19: 59)

Fire and Rain

Fire and Rain - James Taylor

Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone
Susanne the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can't remember who to send it to

I've seen fire and I've seen rain
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again

Won't you look down upon me, Jesus
You've got to help me make a stand
You've just got to see me through another day
My body's aching and my time is at hand
And I won't make it any other way

Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again

Been walking my mind to an easy time my back turned towards the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it'll turn your head around
Well, there's hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things
to come
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you, baby, one more time again, now

Thought I'd see you one more time again
There's just a few things coming my way this time around, now
Thought I'd see you, thought I'd see you fire and rain, now

Friday, December 14, 2007

I Saw You Dancing Last Night

I saw you dancing last night
on the roof of your house
all alone.

I felt your heart longing for the Friend.
I saw you whirling
beneath the soft bright rose
that hung from an invisible stem in the sky.

So I began to change into my best clothes
in hopes of joining you,
even though I live a thousand miles away.

And if you had spun like an immaculate sphere
just two more times,
then bowed again so sweetly to the east,
you would have found God and me
standing so near
and lifting you into our arms.

... Hafiz of Shiraj

The Beginning Of Guidance

"You should not neglect your time or use it haphazardly; on the contrary you should bring yourself to account, structure your litanies and other practices during each day and night, and assign to each period a fixed and specific function. This is how to bring out the spiritual blessing (barakah) in each period.

But if you leave yourself adrift, aimlessly wandering as cattles do, not knowing how to occupy yourself at every moment, your time will be lost. It is nothing other than your life, and your life is the capital that you make use of to reach perpetual felicity in the proximity of God, the Exalted.

Each of your breaths is a priceless jewel, since each of them is irreplaceable and, once gone, can never be retrieved. Do not be like that deceived fools who are joyous because each day their wealth increases while their life shortens. What good is an increase in wealth when life grows ever shorter?

Therefore be joyous only for an increase in knowledge or in good works, for they are your two companions who will accompany you in your grave when your family, wealth, children and friends stay behind."

Deliverance From Error

As to those who, professing a lip-faith in the Prophet, adulterate religion with philosophy, they really deny inspiration, since in their view the Prophet is only a sage whom a superior destiny has appointed as guide to men, and this view belies the true nature of inspiration. To believe in the Prophet is to admit that there is above intelligence a sphere in which are revealed to the inner vision truths beyond the grasp of intelligence, just as things seen are not apprehended by the sense of hearing, nor things understood by that of touch. If our opponent denies the existence of such a higher region, we can prove to him, not only its possibility, but its actuality. If, on the contrary, he admits its existence, he recognizes at the same time that there are in that sphere things which reason can not grasp; nay, which reason rejects as false and absurd. Suppose, for instance, that the fact of dreams occurring in sleep were not so common and notorious as it is, our wise men would not fail to repudiate the assertion that the secrets of the invisible world can be revealed while the senses are, so to speak, suspended.

Again, if it were to be said to one of them, "Is it possible that there is in the world a thing as small as a grain, which being carried into a city can destroy it and afterward destroy itself so that nothing remains either of the city or of itself?" "Certainly," he would exclaim, "it is impossible and ridiculous." Such, however, is the effect of fire, which would certainly be disputed by one who had not witnessed it with his own eyes. Now, the refusal to believe in the mysteries of the other life is of the same kind. As to the fourth cause of the spread of unbelief---the decay of faith owing to the bad example set by learned men---there are three ways of checking it.

(1) One can answer thus: "The learned man whom you accuse of disobeying the divine law knows that he disobeys, as you do when you drink wine or exact usury or allow yourself in evil-speaking, lying, and slander. You know your sin and yield to it, not through ignorance, but because you are mastered by concupiscence. The same is the case with the learned man. How many believe in doctors who do not abstain from fruit and cold water when strictly forbidden them by a doctor! That does not prove that those things are not dangerous, or that their faith in the doctor was not solidly established. Similar errors on the part of learned men are to be imputed solely to their weakness."

(2) Or again, one may say to a simple and ignorant man: "The learned man reckons upon his knowledge as a viaticum for the next life. He believes that his knowledge will save him and plead in his favor, and that his intellectual superiority will entitle him to indulgence; lastly, that if his knowledge increases his responsibility, it may also entitle him to a higher degree of consideration. All that is possible; and even if the learned man has neglected practice, he can at any rate produce proofs of his knowledge. But you, poor, witless one, if, like him, you neglect practice, destitute as you are of knowledge, you will perish without anything to plead in your favor."

(3) Or one may answer, and this reason is the true one: "The truly learned man only sins through carelessness, and does not remain in a state of impenitence. For real knowledge shows sin to be a deadly poison, and the other world to be superior to this. Convinced of this truth, man ought not to exchange the precious for the vile. But the knowledge of which we speak is not derived from sources accessible to human diligence, and that is why progress in mere worldly knowledge renders the sinner more hardened in his revolt against God."

True knowledge, on the contrary, inspires in him who is initiate in it more fear and more reverence, and raises a barrier of defense between him and sin. He may slip and stumble, it is true, as is inevitable with one encompassed by human infirmity, but these slips and stumbles will not weaken his faith. The true Muslim succumbs occasionally to temptation, but he repents and will not persevere obstinately in the path of error.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers

Al-Ghazâlî was one of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics of Sunni Islam. He was active at a time when Sunni theology had just passed through its consolidation and entered a period of intense challenges from Shiite Ismâ’îlite theology and the Arabic tradition of Aristotelian philosophy (falsafa). Al-Ghazâlî understood the importance of falsafa and developed a complex response that rejected and condemned some of its teachings, while it also allowed him to accept and apply others. Al-Ghazâlî's critique of twenty positions of falsafa in his The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahâfut al-falâsifa) is a significant landmark in the history of philosophy as it advances the nominalist critique of Aristotelian science developed later in 14th century Europe.

His 11th century book The Incoherence of the Philosophers marks a major turn in Islamic epistemology, as al-Ghazali effectively discovered philosophical skepticism that would not be commonly seen in the West until René Descartes, George Berkeley and David Hume. The encounter with skepticism led Ghazali to embrace a form of theological occasionalism, or the belief that all causal events and interactions are not the product of material conjunctions but rather the immediate and present will of God.

On the Arabic and Muslim side, al-Ghazâlî's acceptance of demonstration (apodeixis) led to a much more refined and precise discourse on epistemology and a flowering of Aristotelian logics and metaphysics. With al-Ghazâlî, begins the successful introduction of Aristotelianism or rather Avicennism into Muslim theology. After a period of appropriation of the Greek sciences in the translation movement from Greek into Arabic and the writings of the falâsifa up to Avicenna (Ibn Sînâ, c.980–1037), philosophy and the Greek sciences were “naturalized” into the discourse of kalâm and Muslim theology. Al-Ghazâlî's approach to resolving apparent contradictions between reason and revelation was accepted by almost all later Muslim theologians and had a significant influence on Latin medieval thinking.

In the next century, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) drafted a lengthy rebuttal of Ghazali's Incoherence by another book entitled The Incoherence of the Incoherence; however, the epistemological course of Islamic thought had already been set by al-Ghazali and accepted by the Muslim world.

Extract below is taken from The Incoherence of the Incoherence, being the rebuttal by Ibn Rushd to The Incoherence of the Philosophers by Imam al-Ghazali, both books sitting on my bookshelf for the last 10 years, yet to be understood:

The Incoherence of the Philosophers:
The philosophers say: It is impossible that the temporal should proceed from the absolutely Eternal. For it is clear if we assume the Eternal existing without, for instance, the world proceeding from Him, then, at a certain moment, the world beginning to proceed from Him - that it did not proceed before, because there was no determining principle for its existence, but its existence was pure possibility. When the world begins in time, a new determinant either does or does not arise. If it does not, the world will stay in the same state of pure possibility as before; if a new determinant does arise, the same question can be asked about this new determinant, why it determines now, and not before, and either we shall have an infinite regress or we shall arrive at a principle determining eternally.

The Incoherence of the Incoherence:
This argument is in the highest degree dialectical and does not reach the pitch of demonstrative proof. For its premisses are common notions, and common notions approach the equivocal, whereas demonstrative premisses are concerned with things proper to the same genus.

For the term ‘possible’ is used in an equivocal way of the possible that happens more often than not, of the possible that happens less often than not, and of the possible with equal chances of happening, and these three types of the possible do not seem to have the same need for a new determining principle. For the possible that happens more often than not is frequently believed to have its determining principle in itself, not outside, as is the case with the possible which has equal chances of happening and not happening. Further, the possible resides sometimes in the agent, i.e. the possibility of acting, and sometimes in the patient, i.e. the possibility of receiving, and it does not seem that the necessity for a determining principle is the same in both cases. For it is well known that the possible in the patient needs a new determinant from the outside; this can be perceived by the senses in artificial things and in many natural things too, although in regard to natural things there is a doubt, for in most natural things the principle of their change forms part of them. Therefore it is believed of many natural things that they move themselves, and it is by no means self-evident that everything that is moved has a mover and that there is nothing that moves itself.; But all this needs to be examined, and the old philosophers have therefore done so. As concerns the possible in the agent, however, in many cases it is believed that it can be actualized without an external principle, for the transition in the agent from inactivity to activity is often regarded as not being a change which requires a principle; e.g. the transition in the geometer from non-geometrizing to geometrizing, or in the teacher from non-teaching to teaching.

The Alchemist of Happiness

During dinner after a lecture I gave tonight, someone commented how surprised she was that I did not make an entry on the recent screening of this wonderful documentary: Al-Ghazali - The Alchemist of Happiness.

The truth is: I have been extremely busy last week. But it has indeed been a true blessing for me to be in the company with the erudite scholar for a full week here in Singapore, who was also the executive director of this documentary, whom we had the great honour to hear and respond to questions to the screening of this documentary last weekend. Even after a few days of his return to Cambridge, I am still organising the gems of wisdom he has shared with me while in Singapore. Insya-Allah, if time and situation permits, I will share them in future entries.

In one of the earlier scenes of this documentary, the famous story of Imam al-Ghazali was told:

"There is a very instructive story about one of the greatest of the Islamic scholars, Al-Ghazali, who lived in the tenth century. He had been to the great university of Ray in Persia and, in his four years in the university, he had studied all the courses - philosophy, metaphysics, mathematics - and everything that could be learnt there. He was on his way back to his native town, hoping to make a career for himself, and, being a poor student, he attached himself - as an individual traveller would have had to do - to a caravan. As they were travelling along, a set of Bedouins attacked the caravan and robbed them of everything. Al-Ghazali had kept all his course notes in a little leather bag which was about all he had, and they took that too. So he went to the Bedouin chief, caught his stirrups and begged him to return this bag, saying that it was of no use to the Bedouins who could not read and that it was the fruit of his four-year learning at the university. The Bedouin cheif threw the bag at him and said, 'I thought you went to the university to learn, not to take notes.' Al-Ghazali was very struck with this and went back to the university for a further four years, taking no notes at all but really thinking about it all to such good purpose that he became the leading philosopher."

Herein lies a lesson for us: to understand the purpose of knowledge. The last few entries I have made were directly related to the importance of knowledge. But, knowledge in itself is not the end, it is the means to an end. Similar stories as al-Ghazali, such as of Rumi, are also known to us. The obvious follow-up question is therefore: what is this end?

To me, it is towards knowing the Unknown - ie, God. Admittedly, it is not possible for us to completely understand Him, as our faculties are limited in nature. But, as we have philosophized on this matter earlier, it aids us in our journey towards reaching Him. Knowing Him allows us to know ourselves, to know our challenges ahead, to know our relationship with Him, to know of His other creations - to know how we manouvre and keep ourselves on track towards returning to Him. That knowledge is our 'friend' in our journey - it is the Light showing us the way out of a dark tunnel.

We kept mentioning that our life is a journey. But what is that 'journey' that we spoke of? Indeed, it is the return to our fitrah - and that is to return to Him, in the original purpose of the story of our creation. In a philosophical sense, it is to return to where we came from, before the Fall. In a practical sense, it is simply to return Home from where we came from.

There are many ways to decipher al-Ghazali's The Alchemist of Happiness. But to me, the simplest way is to appreciate all that he wrote as the tools which we need to facilitate our return journey Home.

And again, therein lies his genius: all of us are making this return journey Home whether we realise it or not, but most of us are not equipped with the appropriate provisions to go Home. Al-Ghazali managed to capture this spirit simply and left his legacies through his works. In this troubled times that we live, al-Ghazali understood that a prepared slave of The Almighty, with sufficient provisions to make his way Home, is a happy, peaceful and confident slave. To many, being a slave is degrading. To those who know, it is an honour.

To me, that makes al-Ghazali, amongst many other things and accolades attributed to him, a true alchemist of happiness. And we don't have to think very much of the position of a happy slave in the eyes of the One Who Creates.


Friday, December 7, 2007

Instruction Of The Student


Earnestness, perseverance, and assiduity are indispensable in the quest for knowledge. This is indicated in the Quran, in the very words of God, the Exalted, Those who have earnestly striven in Our cause, We shall surely guide them to Our ways (29:69); and O John [Yahya], take the Book with power (19:12). It is said that he who seeks something and is industrious [in so doing] shall find it; and he who knocks at the door and is persistent shall enter. And it is said that you will reach what you desire [only] to the extent that you pursue it. It is said as well that the industriousness of three kinds of people is essential in [the pursuit of] knowledge and understanding: the student, the teacher, and the father, if he is among the living.

The most influential factors in [strengthening] memory are industriousness and commitment. Reducing one's consumption, [increasing] prayer at night, and reading the Quran are also factors for [improving] one's memory. It is said that nothing increases memory retention more than reading the Quran silently; and reading the Quran silently is most excellent, for [the Prophet] said, "The most excellent among the works of my community is the reading of the Quran silently." Al-Shaddad ibn Hakim saw one of his deceased brothers in his dream and said to him, "What thing did you find the most useful [for your Afterlife]?" He replied, "Reading the Quran silently." One should say when lifting the Quran, "In the name of God, and glory be to God, and praise be to God, and there is no God but God, and God is the greatest, and there is no power or strength except in God, the Exalted, the Mighty, who knows the number of all the letters that ever were [written] and that ever shall be written throughout the centuries and ages." And let it be said after each prescribed [prayer], "I believe in God, the One, the Unique, the Truth, who has no companion; and I do not believe in any [deity] besides Him." [One] should also pray much [that God send] blessings and peace upon the Prophet (peace be upon him), for he is a mercy for the worlds.

On Taqwa

Abu Dhar Jundub bin Junadah and Abu Abdul Rahman Mu’adh bin Jabal, radiyallahu anhuma, reported that the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam, said:

Fear Allah wherever you may be; follow up an evil deed with a good one which will wipe (the former) out, and behave good-naturedly towards people.”

Taqwa is one of the most important and comprehensive Islamic concepts. The term is derived from its root "waqayya" which means “to protect.” Taqwa therefore means to protect one own self from the severe punishment of Allah by following His guidance.

Some translate Taqwa as “to fear Allah”. However, fearing Allah is only one aspect of this comprehensive concept. Ali ibn Abi Talib, radiyallahu anhu, defines it as: “Fearing Allah, adhering to His commandments, being content with what He provides one with, and getting ready for the Day of Judgement.”

Mohammad Asad translates it as “to be conscious of Allah.” It might be better according to some Muslim linguist to use the transliteration of this Qur’anic term and keep it as it is.

The term has been mentioned many times both in Qur’an and Sunnah. Allah the Almighty says:

"O believers! Have Taqwa of Allah as is His right to have Taqwa. And die not except while you are Muslims" [ali-Imran 3:102]

By realization of Taqwa a Muslim is granted many bounties and blessings which he/she may gain. Among them are: the Love of Allah, a criterion by which to judge and distinguish between right and wrong, a way out of difficulties, matters will be made easier for him/her, sins will be remitted, guidance, help to acquire beneficial knowledge, prosperity and success.

According to Ibn Rajab's view as well as other scholars, Taqwa is to fulfill obligations and avoid prohibitions and doubtful matters. It is the advice of Allah to all humankind, and it is the advice of all prophets, alayhim al-salam, to their people. Prophet Mohammad, sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam, used to advise and continuously remind his Companions about Taqwa in all his talks and on different occasions.

Those who define Taqwa as “fearing Allah” look at the concept as a motive, because according to early scholars the minimum level of fearing Allah is what motivates a Muslim to fulfill obligations and keeps him/her away from prohibitions.

Taqwa does not imply perfection. Those who have Taqwa are subject to commit sins. However, if they do so, they repent right away and follow up the bad deed they have done with a good deed to wipe the bad one out as mentioned in this hadith. This clarifies the debatable issue between some scholars: whether or not avoiding minor sins is considered an aspect of Taqwa.

Allah the Almighty and all Merciful has left the door of forgiveness opened to many means by which the punishment for a sin might be removed. To do good deeds right after bad ones to wipe them out is one mean. This is mentioned in Surah Hud, ayat 114: "Verily, the good deeds remove the evil deeds."

There are other ways and means by which sins are forgiven as stated in the Qur’an and Sunnah such as:

* Istighfar (seeking forgiveness by supplication)
* Taubah (repentance)
* Du'a’ of Muslims for one another
* The intercession by the Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam
* The intercession of pious Muslims
* Performing the daily five prayers regularly and on time
* Afflictions
* The torment in the grave
* The horrible scenes and events of the Last Day
* The mere Mercy and Forgiveness from Allah

If we do a good deed, Allah will reward us by guiding us to do another good deed. Hence, doing a good deed will lead to doing another good deed. Doing a bad deed without regretting it or without istighfar or wiping it out by doing a good deed will most likely lead to doing another bad deed, whether of the same type or of a different type. By doing a bad deed with that attitude makes the person subject to repeat it again and again and doing other bad deeds becomes possible until the heart of that person is “sealed” and the person turns into a transgressor.

It is an obligation that every Muslim should treat others, deal with them, and interact with them in a good manner. Ibn Rajab says in his commentary: “Having good character is a characteristic of Taqwa. Taqwa cannot be complete without it. It was mentioned here by itself due to the need for explicitly explaining that point. Many people think that Taqwa implies fulfilling the rights of Allah without fulfilling the rights of humans. Therefore, the Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam, explicitly stated that he/she must deal with people in a kind manner. This ruling is stressed in many other hadiths, of which the following are some:

Piety and Righteousness is being of good character.” [Muslim]

The believer with the most complete Iman (faith) is the one with the best behavior.” [Ahmad and Abu Dawud]

There is nothing heavier in the scales than good character.” [Ahmad and Abu Dawud]

The Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam, made Iman (faith) and good character as the main basic criterion whether or not to accept a man for marriage.

To fear Allah, the Almighty, to adhere to His commandments, to follow doing a bad deed with a good deed to wipe it out, and to deal with others in a good manner and good character are all aspects of the concept of Taqwa.

Gems of Wisdom

Hatim Al-Asam was among the friends of Shaqiq Al-Balkhi. One day Shaqiq asked Hatim "You have kept my company for thirty years, what have you gained in the course of these years?" Hatim replied: "I have gained eight benefits. I hope my salvation and safety are embodied in them. Shaqiq asked Hatim to mention them.

Hatim Al-Asam said:

The first benefit: I observed the creation and saw that everyone had loved one another and passionately desired whom he loved and longed for. Some of the beloved accompany sent the lover up to the brink of sickness and death and others to the gate of the graveyard. All of them return and leave them alone. No one goes into the coffin with them. I looked into the matter and said to myself: 'The best beloved is that which would enter the tomb with the lover to console him'. I found it to be nothing else than good works, so I took this as my beloved, to illuminate my grave for me and to comfort me in it and not leave me alone.

The second benefit: I saw people were following their lusts and hastening towards the desires of their souls; I meditated on the saying of Allah (God) "But as for whoever has feared the majesty of his Lord and has refrained his soul from lust, truly the Garden shall be his dwelling place". Convinced that the Quran was true and right, I began to deny my soul (its pleasures) and hurried to combat it and refused its passionate desires, until it enjoyed real satisfaction in obedience to Allah, the Exhalted.

The third benefit: I saw that every human being is trying their best to accumulate as much as they can from this world and then holding onto it strongly. I meditated on the Quranic verse "What is with you must vanish; what is with Allah must endure". So I gave freely my worldly possessions for His sake by distributing them among the poor so that it would be my provision in the future with Him, the Exalted.

The fourth benefit: Some people I observed think that their dignity and honour lie with their family and large clans. Others claimed honour and dignity in abundance of wealth and children and they are proud of it. Some believe that honour and power lies by appropriating the wealth of others, doing injustice to them and shedding their blood. Others consider dignity by spending wealth extravagently and in a foolish manner. I meditated on the saying of Allah: "The most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most righteous amongst you". I chose righteousness for myself, convinced that the Quran is right and true, and the claims and opinions of those people (at the time) are false and temporary.

The fifth benefit: I found people slandering each other and speaking ill of one another out of envy of fortune, power and knowledge. I meditated on the saying of Allah: "It is We Who divide their livelihood among them in the life of this world". I realised that the dividing of livelihood is entirely in the hands of Allah since the beginning of time. Therefore I never envied anyone and was satisfied with what Allah had given me.

The sixth benefit: I saw people becoming enemies of one another for different reasons. I meditated upon the saying of Allah: "Verily Satan is an enemy to you, so treat him as an enemy". I become aware that enmity with anyone but Satan was not permissible.

The seventh benefit: I saw everyone working hard exhausting themselves in obtaining food and sustenance, tempted by doubts and forbidden things. They degrade themselves in humiliation. I pondered over the saying of Allah: "There is no creature on earth but its sustenance is dependent on Allah". I knew that my livelihood is guaranteed by Allah.

The eigth beneift: I saw everyone relied on a created thing, some on currency, some on wealth and property, some on trade and craft and some on creatures like themselves. I meditated on the saying of Allah: "And whosoever places his reliance on Allah, sufficient is Allah for him. Allah will surely accomplish His purpose. Verily for all things has Allah appointed a due proportion. I therefore placed my full trust in Allah" (We should all try to do the same). He is sufficient for me and He is the best Disposer of affairs.

At this point Shaqiq said: "May Allah bless you and grant you success. I looked into the Old and New Testament, the Zabur (Psalms of David) and the Quran and have found that the four books revolve around these eight benefits. Whoever works according to them is working according to these four books".

Hatim Al-Asam and Shaqiq Al-Balkhi were two pious Muslims. This story relates from the year 810AD.

Dear Beloved Son: Knowledge

Extract: Counsel 3. Knowledge

To counsel others is an easy matter, the difficulty is accepting advice since it is bitter for those who follow their own inclinations and desires. They love the forbidden from the depth of their hearts. This is more applicable to seekers of knowledge and students of learning, those of them who are busy in the grace of spirits and the benefits of this world.

They believe that mere abstract knowledge, without proper action, will rescue them. This is the belief of the philosophers. Praise and Glory be to Allah, The greatest of all. They do not know this much, that when they acquire knowledge, if they do not work according to it, the indictment against them is certain.

The Messenger of Allah said: "The person most severely punished of the Day of Judgment is the learned one who did not follow Allah's guidance and did not benefit from his knowledge."

It has been narrated that someone saw al-Junayd after his death in a dream. Al-Junayd was asked: "What news do you have Abal Qasim?" he replied: "Perished are the speeches and vanished are the allusions, nothing benefited us except the prostrations which we made in the middle of the night."

The Whispered Prayer Of The Beseechers

In the Name of God,
the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate

My God,
though my stores for travelling to Thee are few,
my confidence in Thee has given me a good opinion.
Though my sin has made me fear Thy punishment,
my hope has let me feel secure from Thy vengeance.
Though my misdeed has exposed me to Thy penalty,
my excellent trust has apprised me of Thy reward.
Though heedlessness has put to sleep my readiness to meet Thee,
knowledge has awakened me to Thy generosity and boons.
Though excessive disobedience and rebellion
have estranged me from Thee,
the glad tidings of forgiveness and good pleasure
have made me feel intimate with Thee.

I ask Thee by
the splendours of Thy face
and the lights of Thy holiness,
and I implore Thee by
the tenderness of Thy mercy
and the gentleness of Thy goodness,
to verify my opinion in expecting
Thy great generosity
and Thy beautiful favour,
through nearness to Thee,
proximity with Thee,
and enjoyment of gazing upon Thee!

Here am I,
addressing myself to the breezes
of Thy freshness and tenderness,
having recourse to the rain
of Thy generosity and gentleness,
fleeing from Thy displeasure to Thy good pleasure
and from Thee to Thee,
hoping for the best of what is with Thee,
relying upon Thy gifts,
utterly poor toward Thy guarding!

My God,
Thy bounty which Thou hast begun - complete it!
Thy generosity which Thou hast given me - strip it not away!
Thy cover over me through Thy clemency - tear it not away!
My ugly acts which Thou hast come to know - forgive them!

My God,
I seek intercession from Thee with Thee,
and I seek sanctuary in Thee from Thee!
I have come to Thee
craving Thy beneficence,
desiring Thy kindness,
seeking water from the deluge of Thy graciousness,
begging rain from the clouds of Thy bounty,
requesting Thy good pleasure,
going straight to Thy side,
arriving at the watering-place of Thy support,
seeking exalted good things from Thy quarter,
reaching for the presence of Thy beauty,
wanting Thy face,
knocking at Thy door,
abasing myself before Thy mightiness and majesty!

So act toward me with the forgiveness and mercy
of which Thou art worthy!
Act not toward me with the chastisement and vengeance
of which I am worthy!

By Thy mercy,
O Most Merciful of the merciful!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Nature's Raised Voice

"Polar ice caps" and "very far away" is what comes to mind when I think about the Antarctic. What I hadn't appreciated was that there are a few places on earth where there has never been any war, where the environment is protected and where scientific research has priority.

The Antarctic is the world's least explored continent, but it has come into increasing focus for many of us through the debates around global warming. It emerged yesterday that the UK is looking to claim sovereign rights over a vast area of the remote seabed off Antarctica. This claim is controversial for many reasons. Firstly, it seems to defy the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty drawn up in 1959 which stated that no new claims will be made over the continent. Secondly, neighbouring south American countries may well contest that their own proximity to the continent gives them equal if not prior entitlement to this area.

Of the many objectives of the treaty, that there should be no disputes over territorial sovereignty and the promotion of international scientific cooperation stand out as a remarkable reflection of countries working for a good greater than territorial gain or national pride. But with global warming opening up new previously unexplored waters for us, with oil reserves in decline in many parts of the world, the desire to tap into more of the earth's potential resources may well prove too tempting.

In the Qur'an the relationship between God, man and the earth's resources is a complex covenant. The notion of stewardship and the earth being left in trust to man is stated again and again, but though nature is a creature of God with its own dignity, nature is also a blessing for man. So, we mustn't feel guilty about using what has been created for us, we must not feel guilty about our impulse to probe further into the skies and deeper into the oceans; these are all signs of the divine. But this creativity must have a more noble purpose in which we need to rethink how to explore without exploiting, want without wasting and produce without polluting.

Though each of us may be accountable for our stay on this planet, the earth will tells it own stories. As the Qur'an states, "When the earth shall quake violently and the earth shall bring forth its burden and man shall say, 'what's happening', on that day it shall tell its stories." Nature is not some neutral field that will remains silent. For some, the recent tsunamis, floods and hurricanes are signs that nature has already raised its voice.

... BBC, Thought For The Day (18 Oct 2007), Prof Dr Mona Siddiqui

Civilizations And The Challenge For Peace

Another scholar in town whom I had the privilege of hearing her delivered a passionate lecture on "Being Human" yesterday was Professor Mona Siddiqui.

Professor Mona Siddiqui is a British Muslim academic. She is currently the University of Glasgow's Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding, as well as the Director of its Centre for the Study of Islam. She is also a regular contributor to Thought for the Day and Sunday on BBC Radio 4, and to The Times, Scotsman, The Guardian, The Herald and (since February 2007, as its first regular Muslim columnist) The Tablet.

Born in Pakistan, she took her BA in Arabic and French at the University of Leeds (graduating in 1984), and her MA in Middle-Eastern Studies and PhD in Classical Islamic Law at the University of Manchester (graduating in 1986 and 1992 respectively). She is or has been a member of the Advisory Boards for Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, Scottish Asian Arts, IB Tauris Religious Studies project, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in March 2005 and of the Royal Society of Arts in October 2005.

She cites her areas of specialism as classical Islamic law, Law and gender, Early Islamic Theology and Thought, Contemporary legal and ethical issues in Islam, and modern Arabic literature. Professor Siddiqui's only published book is a hundred page general publication on 'Reading the Qur'an', published by Granta Books. She is fluent in French and Urdu and married with three children.

The following is an extract of her speech at the 61st Session of the United Nations General Assembly:

'Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, It’s a huge honour to be invited to speak here and my sincere thanks to … I hope that as someone who enjoys both an academic and a public profile, I may be able to make a useful contribution to the second day of this gathering. I speak as a Muslim who has grown up in the UK, a western academic of Islam and one who works regularly with various UK media. I also feel strongly that there is a responsibility on all in civil society to stay engaged with contemporary religious and political challenges.

Most current debates on religion, intercultural and intercivilisational dialogue have a backdrop - 9/11. Since 9/11, it has become a common assumption amongst many scholars, public bodies and the media that religion has resurfaced in public life as a force to be reckoned with. It is as if religion has only recently pushed its way forward form the private realm to be part of the public psyche against all odds, demanding social recognition and political acknowledgment. But religion or religious faith broadly understood in the world’s major traditions never was simply a private issue. It is simply that in the west, over the last 30 years or so, we had become accustomed to measuring religious belief by certain visible criteria such as attendance at churches, number of church weddings etc and as this attendance declined, it was equated with increasing secularisation in society - a rapid fall in observation of formal religion. In this assessment, the impact of religions other than Christianity were not quite as relevant in our social structures for they belonged to the culture and ideologue of the other, the other whose religious allegiance, however different was largely within private space and thus not so visible. This trend was unproblematic for it seemed to fit the liberal democracies of Western Europe, still officially Christian and with a fairly loose notion of Christianity as the main backdrop. Yet, as many observers have noted, different religions were and have been on the rise over the past few decades in almost every part of the world except in Western Europe - in south America, north America, Hindu India, Pakistan and other Muslim countries and of course, Buddhist Asia – religion didn’t re-appear suddenly after 9/11, it had been on a gradual rise for many years.

Despite this observation, the major shift has been that 9/11 has pushed religious discourse to the level of political and public discourse in the western world. Religion is being seen as either the biggest obstacle or the biggest solution in the pursuit of global peace. For many religious expression is the same as religious fanaticism. In the case of Islam, Muslim fanaticism was an anti western expression, more precisely an anti-American force, which even if practiced by a few, would win the day if American military might did not take steps to curb what they perceived as a real and global threat. The October 15th edition of Newsweek, captured this concern vividly in its cover: `Why they hate us – the roots of Islamic rage and what we can do about it.’ The `they’ implied the whole Muslim world and the Muslim faith as a monolith and the `us’ was the other monolith, the West, with America lying at the heart of this cultural entity. Though I would strongly contest the usefulness and relevance of such phrases such as the clash of civilisations or Islam and the West all of which express a false bipolarity between the so called Muslim world and the Western world, these concepts have again been revived and continue to lie at the basis of so much discussion on faith, politics and society.

Such language and such images have shaped the way we talk about religion and particularly Islam. In todays context, we have to be very careful with theological language. The exploration of theological language can not be seen as an ivory tower exercise which breathes and dies in textbooks. No, it is a living and passionate reality, it travels thousands of miles and echoes within peoples hearts and minds and in so doing affects peoples social, political and political realities at all levels, local, national and international. Global communication is now faster than ever, the audience is bigger, the language is instant that is the colossal reality of globalisation but it is also sweeping and dramatic, words lose depth of meaning for the same words are used to describe so many different phenomena

The media in all its forms can pitch this kind of discourse to its own preferences. Let us not forget that for many people all over the world, the media is their biggest source of knowledge. The responsibility on the media can therefore not be over emphasised. The media carries the onus of furthering real debate, not skimming the surface and certainly not sensationalising. This is difficult for it is in the nature of media to be brief and to be of the moment. Bu the media leads debate and journalists are increasingly assuming celebrity like status – their voices carry weight, their words carry meaning. Over the last couple of years there have been various instances:

The cartoon crisis in which the whole Muslim world became equated with effigies being burnt left many with that uncomfortable feeling that nothing had changed since the Rushdie affair. The publication of the cartoons were not about the defence of freedom of speech that red herring brought out always as the ultimate achievement of western civilisation; these images and their aftermath sparked off the deeper debate - can Islam and the Muslim world really understand, accept and respect the notion of civil, diverse societies where there are competing moralities and divergent discourses, where nothing is sacred and everything is up for critique? Perhaps this is the price for freedom of expression but the violence within certain Muslim communities confirmed the suspicion many have that Islam is a complete idiosyncrasy in the west. In my opinion, this is not media hype but a issue which many Muslims are reluctant to address.

Jack Straw, the former British foreign minister’s request to a veiled woman in his constituency in Blackburn, to take of her veil, sparked off more than just the debate about clothing. Whatever his motives the fact remained that the whole issue has become less about clothing and more about the relentless debate about Muslims in Britain. I must admit that I received more calls about veiling by the print and radio media in one morning than I did about the London bombings in a whole week. As women are so often used to reflect liberal or conservative societies, these images defining and potent. Dress has been subsumed under our current rhetoric about terror and multiculturalism and in an odd sort of way, epitomises a very different kind of fear. The veil has changed as an iconic image. It no longer conjures up images of the mystery and lure of the East, rather it has come to represent everything the West has struggled against. The face veil (niqab) symbolises a barrier to open communication, efforts to attain some semblance of gender equality, and comfortable and open relations between men and women.

Journalists have a responsibilty to reflect what they see and hear and there should be no political correctness for fear of upsetting communities and faiths. I don’t want the media, polite society to resent Islam and religion as a whole. If religious voices must accept that they are only one voice within multiple voices, the media must also recognise that the world contains more believers than non-believes – freedom of expression must therefore be accompanied by sensitivities around beliefs which many hold central to their being.

But journalist can also reach into peoples lives and move the reader into self-reflection and soul-searching. I think that there is a real hunger in society for religious and ethical debate and whilst many academics shy from public debate, the media can fill this vacuum by being trusted partners at a time when people feel victimised and when talking about God and religion is seen as talking down liberty, choice and democracy.'


It’s quite a hard thing to respect
A God who our prayers would accept,
We splash and we preen
Then we fidget and dream,
So proud to be of the Saved Sect.

... Contentions 11 (No. 99), Abdal Hakim Murad

Islamic Spirituality: The Forgotten Revolution

Timothy J Winter, or known as Abdal Hakim Murad is the Sheikh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Divinity School, University of Cambridge. He is one of the few contemporary Muslim figures who is equally well-versed in both Islamic intellectual disciplines and modern Occidental academic methods.

He graduated from Cambridge University with a double-first in 1983. He then lived in Cairo for three years, studying Islam under traditional teachers at Al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world. He went on to reside for three years in Jeddah, where he administered a commercial translation office and maintained close contact with Habib Ahmad Mashhur al-Haddad and other ulama from Hadramaut, Yemen.

In 1989, Shaykh Abdal Hakim returned to England and spent two years at the University of London learning Turkish and Farsi. Since 1992 he has been a doctoral student at Oxford University, specializing in the religious life of the early Ottoman Empire. He is currently Secretary of the Muslim Academic Trust (London) and Director of the Sunna Project at the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University, which issues the first-ever scholarly Arabic editions of the major Hadith collections.

Shaykh Abdal Hakim has published several translations of Arabic texts. Among them are Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâlî’s The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife (Kitâb dhikr al-mawt wa mâ ba‘dahu): Book XL of The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihyâ ‘ulûm al-dîn), and On Disciplining the Soul (Kitâb Riyâdat al-nafs) and On Breaking the Two Desires (Kitâb Kasr al-shahwatayn): Books XXII and XXIII of The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihyâ ‘ulûm al-dîn). His other works includes Imam al-Bayhaqi's Seventy-Seven Branches of Faith, and 'Selections from the Fath al-Bari'.

He gives durus and halaqas from time to time and taught the works of Imam al-Ghazali at the Winter 1995 Deen Intensive Program in New Haven, CT. He appears frequently on BBC Radio and writes occasionally for a number of publications, including The Independent; Q-News International, Britain's premier Muslim Magazine; and Seasons, the semiacademic journal of Zaytuna Institute.

He is General Editor of the Islamic Texts Society's al-Ghazali series. His translations of Al-Ghazali’s On Death and What Comes After and On Disciplining the Soul have been acclaimed. He is a member of Pembroke College, Cambridge and holds the Sheikh Zayed Lectureship in Islamic Studies. He is also Director of Studies in Theology at Wolfson College, the Trustee and Secretary of The Muslim Academic Trust, Director of The Anglo-Muslim Fellowship for Eastern Europe and President of the UK Friends of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He contributes regularly to the programmes at Zaytuna Institute.

As a practising spiritual person, it is difficult to list all his works as he tends to be quiet of his contributions. He lives with his wife and children in Cambridge, UK.

The following is an extract from an article entitled: Islamic Spirituality - The Forgotten Revolution:

'How should we respond to this disorder? We must begin by remembering what Islam is for. As we noted earlier, our deen is not, ultimately, a manual of rules which, when meticulously followed, becomes a passport to paradise. Instead, it is a package of social, intellectual and spiritual technology whose purpose is to cleanse the human heart. In the Qur'an, the Lord says that on the Day of Judgement, nothing will be of any use to us, except a sound heart (qalbun salim). [Sura 26:89. The archetype is Abrahamic: see Sura 37:84.] And in a famous hadith, the Prophet, upon whom be blessings and peace, says that

"Verily in the body there is a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the body is all sound. If it is corrupt, the body is all corrupt. Verily, it is the heart."

Mindful of this commandment, under which all the other commandments of Islam are subsumed, and which alone gives them meaning, the Islamic scholars have worked out a science, an ilm (science), of analysing the 'states' of the heart, and the methods of bringing it into this condition of soundness. In the fullness of time, this science acquired the name tasawwuf, in English 'Sufism' - a traditional label for what we might nowadays more intelligibly call 'Islamic psychology.'

At this point, many hackles are raised and well-rehearsed objections voiced. It is vital to understand that mainstream Sufism is not, and never has been, a doctrinal system, or a school of thought - a madhhab. It is, instead, a set of insights and practices which operate within the various Islamic madhhabs; in other words, it is not a madhhab, it is an ilm. And like most of the other Islamic ulum, it was not known by name, or in its later developed form, in the age of the Prophet (saw) or his Companions. This does not make it less legitimate. There are many Islamic sciences which only took shape many years after the Prophetic age: usul al-fiqh, for instance, or the innumerable technical disciplines of hadith.

Now this, of course, leads us into the often misunderstood area of sunna and bid'a, two notions which are wielded as blunt instruments by many contemporary activists, but which are often grossly misunderstood. The classic Orientalist thesis is of course that Islam, as an 'arid Semitic religion', failed to incorporate mechanisms for its own development, and that it petrified upon the death of its founder. This, however, is a nonsense rooted in the ethnic determinism of the nineteenth century historians who had shaped the views of the early Orientalist synthesizers (Muir, Le Bon, Renan, Caetani). Islam, as the religion designed for the end of time, has in fact proved itself eminently adaptable to the rapidly changing conditions which characterise this final and most 'entropic' stage of history.

What is a bid'a, according to the classical definitions of Islamic law? We all know the famous hadith:

"Beware of matters newly begun, for every matter newly begun is innovation, every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in Hell." [This hadith is in fact an instance of takhsis al-amm: a frequent procedure of usul al-fiqh by which an apparently unqualified statement is qualified to avoid the contradiction of another necessary principle. See Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, tr. Nuh Ha Mim Keller (Abu Dhabi, 1991 CE), 907-8 for some further examples.]

Does this mean that everything introduced into Islam that was not known to the first generation of Muslims is to be rejected? The classical ulema do not accept such a literalistic interpretation.

Let us take a definition from Imam al-Shafi'i, an authority universally accepted in Sunni Islam. Imam al-Shafi'i writes:

"There are two kinds of introduced matters (muhdathat). One is that which contradicts a text of the Qur'an, or the Sunna, or a report from the early Muslims (athar), or the consensus (ijma') of the Muslims: this is an 'innovation of misguidance' (bid'at dalala). The second kind is that which is in itself good and entails no contradiction of any of these authorities: this is a 'non-reprehensible innovation' (bid'a ghayr madhmuma)." [Ibn Asakir, Tabyin Kadhib al-Muftari (Damascus, 1347), 97.]

This basic distinction between acceptable and unacceptable forms of bid'a is recognised by the overwhelming majority of classical ulema. Among some, for instance al-Izz ibn Abd al-Salam (one of the half-dozen or so great mujtahids of Islamic history), innovations fall under the five axiological headings of the Shari'a: the obligatory (wajib), the recommended (mandub), the permissible (mubah), the offensive (makruh), and the forbidden (haram).[Cited in Muhammad al-Jurdani, al-Jawahir al-lu'lu'iyya fi sharh al-Arba'in al-Nawawiya (Damascus, 1328), 220-1.]

Under the category of 'obligatory innovation', Ibn Abd al-Salam gives the following examples: recording the Qur'an and the laws of Islam in writing at a time when it was feared that they would be lost, studying Arabic grammar in order to resolve controversies over the Qur'an, and developing philosophical theology (kalam) to refute the claims of the Mu'tazilites.

Category two is 'recommended innovation'. Under this heading the ulema list such activities as building madrasas, writing books on beneficial Islamic subjects, and in-depth studies of Arabic linguistics.

Category three is 'permissible', or 'neutral innovation', including worldly activities such as sifting flour, and constructing houses in various styles not known in Medina.

Category four is the 'reprehensible innovation'. This includes such misdemeanours as overdecorating mosques or the Qur'an.

Category five is the 'forbidden innovation'. This includes unlawful taxes, giving judgeships to those unqualified to hold them, and sectarian beliefs and practices that explicitly contravene the known principles of the Qur'an and the Sunna.

The above classification of bid'a types is normal in classical Shari'a literature, being accepted by the four schools of orthodox fiqh. There have been only two significant exceptions to this understanding in the history of Islamic thought: the Zahiri school as articulated by Ibn Hazm, and one wing of the Hanbali madhhab, represented by Ibn Taymiya, who goes against the classical ijma' on this issue, and claims that all forms of innovation, good or bad, are un-Islamic.

Why is it, then, that so many Muslims now believe that innovation in any form is unacceptable in Islam? One factor has already been touched on: the mental complexes thrown up by insecurity, which incline people to find comfort in absolutist and literalist interpretations. Another lies in the influence of the well-financed neo-Hanbali madhhab called Wahhabism, whose leaders are famous for their rejection of all possibility of development.

In any case, armed with this more sophisticated and classical awareness of Islam's ability to acknowledge and assimilate novelty, we can understand how Muslim civilisation was able so quickly to produce novel academic disciplines to deal with new problems as these arose.

Islamic psychology is characteristic of the new ulum which, although present in latent and implicit form in the Quran, were first systematized in Islamic culture during the early Abbasid period. Given the importance that the Quran attaches to obtaining a 'sound heart', we are not surprised to find that the influence of Islamic psychology has been massive and all-pervasive. In the formative first four centuries of Islam, the time when the great works of tafsir, hadith, grammar, and so forth were laid down, the ulema also applied their minds to this problem of al-qalb al-salim. This was first visible when, following the example of the Tabi'in, many of the early ascetics, such as Sufyan ibn Uyayna, Sufyan al-Thawri, and Abdallah ibn al-Mubarak, had focussed their concerns explicitly on the art of purifying the heart. The methods they recommended were frequent fasting and night prayer, periodic retreats, and a preoccupation with murabata: service as volunteer fighters in the border castles of Asia Minor.

This type of pietist orientation was not in the least systematic during this period. It was a loose category embracing all Muslims who sought salvation through the Prophetic virtues of renunciation, sincerity, and deep devotion to the revelation. These men and women were variously referred to as al-bakka'un: 'the weepers', because of their fear of the Day of Judgement, or as zuhhad, ascetics, or ubbad, 'unceasing worshippers'.

By the third century, however, we start to find writings which can be understood as belonging to a distinct devotional school. The increasing luxury and materialism of Abbasid urban society spurred many Muslims to campaign for a restoration of the simplicity of the Prophetic age. Purity of heart, compassion for others, and a constant recollection of God were the defining features of this trend. We find references to the method of muhasaba: self-examination to detect impurities of intention. Also stressed was riyada: self-discipline.

By this time, too, the main outlines of Quranic psychology had been worked out. The human creature, it was realised, was made up of four constituent parts: the body (jism), the mind (aql), the spirit (ruh), and the self (nafs). The first two need little comment. Less familiar (at least to people of a modern education) are the third and fourth categories.

The spirit is the ruh, that underlying essence of the human individual which survives death. It is hard to comprehend rationally, being in part of Divine inspiration, as the Quran says:

"And they ask you about the spirit; say, the spirit is of the command of my Lord. And you have been given of knowledge only a little." [Al-Qur'an 17:85.]

According to the early Islamic psychologists, the ruh is a non-material reality which pervades the entire human body, but is centred on the heart, the qalb. It represents that part of man which is not of this world, and which connects him with his Creator, and which, if he is fortunate, enables him to see God in the next world. When we are born, this ruh is intact and pure. As we are initiated into the distractions of the world, however, it is covered over with the 'rust' (ran) of which the Quran speaks. This rust is made up of two things: sin and distraction. When, through the process of self-discipline, these are banished, so that the worshipper is preserved from sin and is focussing entirely on the immediate presence and reality of God, the rust is dissolved, and the ruh once again is free. The heart is sound; and salvation, and closeness to God, are achieved.

This sounds simple enough. However, the early Muslims taught that such precious things come only at an appropriate price. Cleaning up the Augean stables of the heart is a most excruciating challenge. Outward conformity to the rules of religion is simple enough; but it is only the first step. Much more demanding is the policy known as mujahada: the daily combat against the lower self, the nafs. As the Quran says:

'As for him that fears the standing before his Lord, and forbids his nafs its desires, for him, Heaven shall be his place of resort.' [Al-Qur'an 79:40.]

Hence the Sufi commandment:

'Slaughter your ego with the knives of mujahada.' [al-Qushayri, al-Risala (Cairo, n.d.), I, 393.]

Once the nafs is controlled, then the heart is clear, and the virtues proceed from it easily and naturally.

Because its objective is nothing less than salvation, this vital Islamic science has been consistently expounded by the great scholars of classical Islam. While today there are many Muslims, influenced by either Wahhabi or Orientalist agendas, who believe that Sufism has always led a somewhat marginal existence in Islam, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the classical scholars were actively involved in Sufism.

The early Shafi'i scholars of Khurasan: al-Hakim al-Nisaburi, Ibn Furak, al-Qushayri and al-Bayhaqi, were all Sufis who formed links in the richest academic tradition of Abbasid Islam, which culminated in the achievement of Imam Hujjat al-Islam al-Ghazali. Ghazali himself, author of some three hundred books, including the definitive rebuttals of Arab philosophy and the Ismailis, three large textbooks of Shafi'i fiqh, the best-known tract of usul al-fiqh, two works on logic, and several theological treatises, also left us with the classic statement of orthodox Sufism: the Ihya Ulum al-Din, a book of which Imam Nawawi remarked:

"Were the books of Islam all to be lost, excepting only the Ihya', it would suffice to replace them all." [al-Zabidi, Ithaf al-sada al-muttaqin (Cairo, 1311), I, 27.]

Imam Nawawi himself wrote two books which record his debt to Sufism, one called the Bustan al-Arifin ('Garden of the Gnostics', and another called the al-Maqasid (recently published in English translation, Sunna Books, Evanston Il. trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller).

Among the Malikis, too, Sufism was popular. Al-Sawi, al-Dardir, al-Laqqani and Abd al-Wahhab al-Baghdadi were all exponents of Sufism. The Maliki jurist of Cairo, Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha'rani defines Sufism as follows:

'The path of the Sufis is built on the Quran and the Sunna, and is based on living according to the morals of the prophets and the purified ones. It may not be blamed, unless it violates an explicit statement from the Quran, sunna, or ijma. If it does not contravene any of these sources, then no pretext remains for condemning it, except one's own low opinion of others, or interpreting what they do as ostentation, which is unlawful. No-one denies the states of the Sufis except someone ignorant of the way they are.' [Sha'rani, al-Tabaqat al-Kubra (Cairo, 1374), I, 4.]

For Hanbali Sufism one has to look no further than the revered figures of Abdallah Ansari, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Ibn al-Jawzi, and Ibn Rajab.

In fact, virtually all the great luminaries of medieval Islam: al-Suyuti, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, al-Ayni, Ibn Khaldun, al-Subki, Ibn Hajar al-Haytami; tafsir writers like Baydawi, al-Sawi, Abu'l-Su'ud, al-Baghawi, and Ibn Kathir [It is true that Ibn Kathir in his Bidaya is critical of some later Sufis. Nonetheless, in his Mawlid, which he asked his pupils to recite on the occasion of the Blessed Prophet's birthday each year, he makes his personal debt to a conservative and sober Sufism quite clear]; aqida writers such as Taftazani, al-Nasafi, al-Razi: all wrote in support of Sufism. Many, indeed, composed independent works of Sufi inspiration. The ulema of the great dynasties of Islamic history, including the Ottomans and the Moghuls, were deeply infused with the Sufi outlook, regarding it as one of the most central and indispensable of Islamic sciences.

Further confirmation of the Islamic legitimacy of Sufism is supplied by the enthusiasm of its exponents for carrying Islam beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world. The Islamization process in India, Black Africa, and South-East Asia was carried out largely at the hands of wandering Sufi teachers. Likewise, the Islamic obligation of jihad has been borne with especial zeal by the Sufi orders. All the great nineteenth century jihadists: Uthman dan Fodio (Hausaland), al-Sanousi (Libya), Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza'iri (Algeria), Imam Shamil (Daghestan) and the leaders of the Padre Rebellion (Sumatra) were active practitioners of Sufism, writing extensively on it while on their campaigns. Nothing is further from reality, in fact, than the claim that Sufism represents a quietist and non-militant form of Islam.

With all this, we confront a paradox. Why is it, if Sufism has been so respected a part of Muslim intellectual and political life throughout our history, that there are, nowadays, angry voices raised against it? There are two fundamental reasons here.

Firstly, there is again the pervasive influence of Orientalist scholarship, which, at least before 1922 when Massignon wrote his Essai sur les origines de la lexique technique, was of the opinion that something so fertile and profound as Sufism could never have grown from the essentially 'barren and legalistic' soil of Islam. Orientalist works translated into Muslim languages were influential upon key Muslim modernists - such as Muhammad Abduh in his later writings - who began to question the centrality, or even the legitimacy, of Sufi discourse in Islam.

Secondly, there is the emergence of the Wahhabi da'wa. When Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, some two hundred years ago, teamed up with the Saudi tribe and attacked the neighbouring clans, he was doing so under the sign of an essentially neo-Kharijite version of Islam. Although he invoked Ibn Taymiya, he had reservations even about him. For Ibn Taymiya himself, although critical of the excesses of certain Sufi groups, had been committed to a branch of mainstream Sufism. This is clear, for instance, in Ibn Taymiya's work Sharh Futuh al-Ghayb, a commentary on some technical points in the Revelations of the Unseen, a key work by the sixth-century saint of Baghdad, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani. Throughout the work Ibn Taymiya shows himself to be a loyal disciple of al-Jilani, whom he always refers to as shaykhuna ('our teacher'). This Qadiri affiliation is confirmed in the later literature of the Qadiri tariqa, which records Ibn Taymiya as a key link in the silsila, the chain of transmission of Qadiri teachings.[See G. Makdisi's article 'Ibn Taymiyya: A Sufi of the Qadiriya Order' in the American Journal of Arabic Studies, 1973.]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, however, went far beyond this. Raised in the wastelands of Najd in Central Arabia, he had little access to mainstream Muslim scholarship. In fact, when his da'wa appeared and became notorious, the scholars and muftis of the day applied to it the famous Hadith of Najd:

Ibn Umar reported the Prophet (upon whom be blessings and peace) as saying: "Oh God, bless us in our Syria; O God, bless us in our Yemen." Those present said: "And in our Najd, O Messenger of God!" but he said, "O God, bless us in our Syria; O God, bless us in our Yemen." Those present said, "And in our Najd, O Messenger of God!". Ibn Umar said that he thought that he said on the third occasion: "Earthquakes and dissensions (fitna) are there, and there shall arise the horn of the devil." [Narrated by Bukhari. The translation is from J. Robson, Mishkat al-Masabih (Lahore, 1970), II, 1380.]

And it is significant that almost uniquely among the lands of Islam, Najd has never produced scholars of any repute.

The Najd-based da'wa of the Wahhabis, however, began to be heard more loudly following the explosion of Saudi oil wealth. Many, even most, Islamic publishing houses in Cairo and Beirut are now subsidised by Wahhabi organisations, which prevent them from publishing traditional works on Sufism, and remove passages in other works considered unacceptable to Wahhabist doctrine.

The neo-Kharijite nature of Wahhabism makes it intolerant of all other forms of Islamic expression. However, because it has no coherent fiqh of its own - it rejects the orthodox madhhabs - and has only the most basic and primitively anthropomorphic aqida, it has a fluid, amoebalike tendency to produce divisions and subdivisions among those who profess it. No longer are the Islamic groups essentially united by a consistent madhhab and the Ash'ari [or Maturidi] aqida. Instead, they are all trying to derive the shari'a and the aqida from the Quran and the Sunna by themselves. The result is the appalling state of division and conflict which disfigures the modern salafi condition.

At this critical moment in our history, the umma has only one realistic hope for survival, and that is to restore the 'middle way', defined by that sophisticated classical consensus which was worked out over painful centuries of debate and scholarship. That consensus alone has the demonstrable ability to provide a basis for unity. But it can only be retrieved when we improve the state of our hearts, and fill them with the Islamic virtues of affection, respect, tolerance and reconciliation. This inner reform, which is the traditional competence of Sufism, is a precondition for the restoration of unity in the Islamic movement. The alternative is likely to be continued, and agonising, failure.'

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Concept of Tawhid: Pharaoh and Moses

Another of Prof Vincent's article entitled: "I am Your Lord Most High": Pharaoh and the Sins of Hubris in the Qur'an.

The basic theological principle of Islam is tawhid, the oneness or unicity of God. In the Qur'an, this concept is summarized in Sura 112, the "Sura of Sincere Belief" (Surat al-Ikhlas), and its text is commonly recited in the Islamic prayer:

Say: He is Allah, the Unique,
Allah the Perfect, beyond compare.
He gives not birth, nor is He begotten,
And He is not, in Himself, dependent on anything.

The idea that God is one, unique and transcendent, constitutes the fundamental message of the Qur'an. Indeed, one can go so far as to say that tawhid is what the Qur'an is "really" about. Nearly every Qur'anic discourse, in one way or another, serves to demonstrate the existence of Allah -- the One God, absolutely independent, absolutely transcendent, and immanent yet utterly beyond compare.

Tawhid is also what Islam is "really" about. The Arabic word, Islam, connotes surrender, submission, or giving oneself up to another's disposal. A full understanding of tawhid implies that universal or primordial Islam's submission to God as the sole master of destiny and ultimate Reality -- is an ontological state that pertains to all created beings. Unlike animals, angels and jinn, the other sentient beings mentioned in the Qur'an, humans are endowed with the capacity of choice. Because humans are endowed with choice, it is incumbent upon them that their acknowledgement of tawhid be a matter of choice. The most important sign or token of this acknowledgement is the conscious submission of a person's individual will or ego to The One who manifestly is. This act of submission is what the Qur'an means by Islam. Only when both the faith and practice of one's Islam are in accord with a full understanding of tawhid can a person truly be called a Muslim, "one who submits to God."

Similarly, a formal act of submission and a reaffirmation of tawhid through symbolic gestures constitute the "meaning" of the Islamic prayer. At its most basic level, prayer is a form of remembrance. From the perspective of the individual Muslim believer, prayer constitutes one's remembrance of the essential reality of tawhid, one's remembrance of human contingency before the Divine Absolute, and one's remembrance of human weakness before the manifestation of Divine power and potency. In Understanding Islam (Comprendre l'Islam), Frithjof Schuon, the noted esoterist and specialist on comparative religion, sums up the Islamic God-man relation in the following terms:

'Islam is the meeting between God as such and man as such. God as such: that is to say God envisaged, not as He manifested Himself in a particular way at a particular time, but independently of history and inasmuch as He is what He is and also as He creates and reveals by His nature. Man as such: that is to say man envisaged, not as a fallen being needing a miracle to save him, but as man, a theomorphic being endowed with an intelligence capable of conceiving of the Absolute and with a will capable of choosing what leads to the Absolute.'

In Islam, fundamental error consists in rejecting or misunderstanding the concept of tawhid -- in holding that the Absolute is not absolute, or that it is relative, or that there is more than one Absolute, or that the relative itself is absolute. Sin consists in actualizing this error on the level of human behavior. In the Qur'an, Pharaoh personifies fundamental error and sin through his denial of the uniqueness of the Absolute and by his hubris in considering himself more than a mortal man.

It often comes as a surprise to the non-Muslim to discover that the most widely mentioned prophet in the Qur'an is Moses. In a number of Qur'anic narratives, Moses is depicted as a Messenger (rasul) and bearer of divine authority (sultan). In these passages, Moses wields the signs and credentials of authority that God has bestowed on him as part of a campaign for spiritual, moral, and social purification (tazkiya), justice ('adl), and prosperity (thawba Allah). More than the just the political liberator of his people, the Qur'anic Moses is a Messenger of the divine word and liberator of the human soul. In the course of the Qur'anic narrative he transforms the tribe of Israel (Banu Isra'il), the oppressed and lowly slaves of the lordly Pharaoh, into a paradigmatic community of divine guidance (umma) -- a community whose servitude now belongs only to God.

In the Qur'anic narrative, Pharaoh appears as Moses' foil: his grandeur, limitless worldly authority, and pretended divinity contrast sharply with Moses' simplicity, lack of rhetorical fluency (Moses is depicted as a stutterer in the Qur'an), and complete dependence on guidance from above. Yet despite his personal shortcomings, the Qur'an mentions time and again that Moses, not Pharaoh, is the one who possesses true authority (sultan). In Arabic, the word sultan means "holder of power." Depending on its context, this word can mean a divinely guided leader, a ruler, or even a dictator, whose authority is based on the force of arms alone. Unlike the truly authoritative leadership of Moses, which is described in the Qur'an as a divine mission (risala) to carry God's word (kalam) to Israel and the people of Egypt, the leadership of Pharaoh is depicted as completely illegitimate, based as it is on power, oppression, and vanity. The most conclusive proof of Pharaoh's illegitimacy lies in his outrageous claim of divinity -- an act of hubris unparalleled by any other in the Qur'anic narrative:

"Pharaoh said: "O Chiefs! I know of no God for you but myself. Therefore, O Haman! Light me [a kiln] out of clay, and build me a lofty palace that I may mount up to the god of Moses. For verily I believe that Moses is a liar!" [Qur'an 28:38]

"And [Pharaoh] was arrogant and insolent in the land -- beyond reason, he and his hosts. They thought that they would not have to return to Us!" [Qur'an 28:39]

"Has the story of Moses come to you? Behold, his Lord called to him in the sacred valley of Tuwa: "Go to Pharaoh, for he has transgressed all bounds, "And say to him: Do you wish to be purified? And should I guide you to your Lord so that you may fear him?'" Then Moses showed [Pharaoh] the Great Sign (al-aya al-kubra). But he rejected it and disobeyed. Then he turned his back, striving hard [against God]. And he collected [his hosts] and made a proclamation, Saying: "I am your lord most high!" (ana rabbukum al-a'la)" [Qur'an 79:15-24]

The belief in the divinity of Pharaoh in New Kingdom Egypt (when the term, "Pharaoh" was first used as a royal title) is well attested. The Egyptian people identified Pharaoh with the sky god Horus and with the sun gods Ra and Amon. After death, Pharaoh was transformed into Osiris, god of the dead and father of Horus, and passed on his sacred powers to his son, the new Pharaoh and the new Horus. Pharaoh's divine status was also believed to endow him with magical powers. His uraeus (the serpent on his crown) was believed to spit flames at his enemies. In addition, Pharaoh was all-powerful, knowing everything and controlling nature and fertility. As a divine ruler, he was believed to preserve the divine order, called ma'at. He was responsible for his people's economic and spiritual welfare, and dispensed justice to his subjects.

These historical tokens of Pharaoh's divinity provide striking contrasts to the divinely bestowed "signs" (ayat) of authority ascribed to Moses in the Qur'an. Pharaoh was associated with the gods of the sun and the sky. Moses was sent as a Messenger by the One God (Allah or al-Ilah, "The God"), who reigns above both sun and sky. ("Moses said: "Oh Pharaoh! I am a Messenger from the Lord of the Worlds. It is my duty to say nothing but the truth about God." [Qur'an 7:104-5])

Pharaoh gave birth to a new god, Horus, by delegating his powers to his son. In the Qur'an, Moses delegates (awzara) the duties of prophethood (but not his custodianship of the divine message) to his brother Aaron. The magical powers believed to be controlled by Pharaoh are contrasted in the Qur'an with the divine miracles given as tokens of grace to Moses by Allah. Moses' transformation of his shepherd's staff into a serpent may well be an ironic echo of the Egyptian belief in the fire-spitting cobra of Pharaoh's uraeus. ("Then Moses threw down his staff, and behold, it was a serpent! And he drew out his hand, and behold, it appeared white to the onlookers!" [Qur'an 7:107-8]. "And we inspired unto Moses: "Throw down your staff! For it will swallow all of the falsehoods that they may devise!" [7:117])

Finally, the Egyptians believed that Pharaoh controlled the divine order. Moses, along with the other Islamic prophets, exhibited an intuitive knowledge of the divine order and governed the affairs of his people through the Law of Divine Command (shari'ah min al-amr) [Qur'an 45:18]. This latter term refers to more than just the divine governance of human affairs. It also carries the connotation of the "way of the world" or the natural order, analogous to the Egyptian concept of ma'at, and the Vedic concept of rta.

In the Qur'anic narrative, even the miracle of the parting of the sea is related, at least indirectly, to the concept of tawhid (Qur'an 2:50). In this passage, Allah proclaims: "Remember, We parted (faraqna) the sea and saved you, and drowned the men of Pharaoh before your very eyes." The Arabic word faraqna, meaning "parted," is the root of the word furqan, a term used in the Qur'an to refer to the prophets Muhammad, Moses, and Aaron, to the fasting month of Ramadan, and to the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur'an. Theologically, the term furqan means "criterion" -- that which separates truth from error. As we have seen, the fundamental criterion in Islam is tawhid, the acknowledgement of the One and Absolute, and the disavowal of the plural and contingent. The miracle of the parting of the sea and the drowning of Pharaoh's army is the final furqan or criterion given by Allah to Moses which proves the truth of his message. With this miracle, Allah puts the final lie to Pharaoh's claims of divinity by destroying the greatest army of the time. Even more ironically, it is a miracle in the service of the weak against the most powerful ruler of the day. How could anyone fail to heed such a lesson? The conceit of Pharaoh, which was to assert that the contingent (himself) is absolute (godlike and self-sufficient), was dashed to pieces by a force he was unable to control.

To summarize, Pharaoh in the Qur'an is the epitome of the arrogant, unjust, and egoistic man of power, who calls those below him to worship at the altar of his conceit. Acknowledging the truth of tawhid in his heart, he deliberately suppresses this truth in order to arrogate to himself the attributes that rightfully belong to Allah. For the thirteenth-century Andalusian Sufi Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, (d. 1240) Pharaoh epitomized the perversion of the vice-regal function of man by attempting to rule in his own name and without the guidance of Allah's Law. By contrast, Moses epitomized submission to tawhid and the divine Law, without the intermediary power of self-reliance (tadbir). For Ibn 'Arabi, the great paradox of the Moses narratives was that Pharaoh was aware of the reality of Moses' Messengership, as well as of the truth of tawhid, but refused to acknowledge either of them openly. In a complex and counter-intuitive chapter on "The Wisdom of Highness in the Mosaic Word" in his book Fusus al-Hikam (lit. "The Ring-Settings of Wisdom Teachings"), Ibn 'Arabi depicts Pharaoh as playing the role of Moses' antagonist like an actor playing a role in a drama. He knows that his words and actions are false, but he persists in his creation of falsehoods, thus fulfilling the divine will by parodying in his conceit the true authority that God reveals through Moses.

For 'Arabi, the figures of Moses and Pharaoh are inseparable from each other, like conjoined twins, each representing a contrasting yet complementary aspect of the human condition. This is why Pharaoh can be understood as obeying the Law of Allah while flouting the tenets of divine justice. It is also why he can be understood as acknowledging tawhid at the very moment that he appears to reject it. For Ibn 'Arabi, the key to "The Wisdom of Highness in the Mosaic Word" can be found in the verses where Pharaoh mockingly asks Moses, "And what is the 'Lord of the Worlds?'" [Qur'an 26:23]. According to Ibn 'Arabi, Pharaoh was fully aware of the answer to his question, and only asked it so that Moses could give the answer that his role required him to give:

[Moses] answered:
"The Lord of the Heavens and the Earth and what is in between-- if you are among those who have attained certainty."
[Pharaoh] said to those who surrounded him: "Do you not hear?"
Then [Moses] said: "Your Lord and the Lord of your fathers, from the beginning."
[Pharaoh] said: "Verily this Messenger of yours who has been sent to you is possessed!"
[Moses] said: "Lord of the East and the West, and all that is in between, if only you had sense!"
[Pharaoh] replied: "If you take any god other than me, I will surely make you a prisoner!"

In Ibn 'Arabi's hands, Pharaoh's words become pregnant with double meaning. When Moses affirms the identity of Allah as Lord of all things, Pharaoh exclaims, "Do you not hear?" appearing to rebuke Moses, but actually affirming the truth of what he says. When Moses next describes Allah as the deity of a specific group of people (in this case Pharaoh's royal ancestors), Allah rebukes Moses' apparent shortsightedness by making Pharaoh say, "Verily this Messenger of yours is possessed!" When Moses returns to divine transcendence by proclaiming that Allah is Lord of the East and the West and all that is in between them, his understanding of the true nature of tawhid is affirmed by means of Pharaoh's parody of the divine commandment: "Thou shalt have no other god before Me."

As a final irony, Pharaoh (in Ibn 'Arabi's interpretation) is both destroyed by Allah and "saved" by being drowned in the crashing waves of the sea as he pursues the fleeing Israelites. As his body is crushed by the waves, his soul is "drowned" in the ocean of divine foreknowledge. If only Pharaoh had known, says Ibn 'Arabi, of the true highness within himself! The highness of the human being as vicegerent of Allah, whose altar is lit by a miraculous fire within -- a theophany of the divine, like the burning bush that spoke the word of Allah to Moses:

Like the fire of Moses, which [Pharaoh] perceived in the extremity of his need,
He, too, was the divinity, but was not aware of it!

Ka nari Musa ra'aha 'ayna hajatihi,
Wa huwwa al-Ilah, wa lakin laysa yadrihi