UNORTHODOXIES IN SUFISM - AN ISLAMIC ANTHROPOLOGICAL STUDY
INTRODUCTION - Islam is the only universal religion i.e., instantly open to all without fuss or cost or pre-conditions. It is also the purest monotheistic by being universally egalitarian and meritocratic, i.e, favoring each only on the basis of personal and especially earned merit and nothing else .
Being so pure and egalitarian it bans priesthood and monasticism, curbs royalty. To protect the purity of its monotheism Islam resents displays of mentality and use of words giving suspicion of compromising Allah’s exclusive status. It should be utterly beyond similarities and comparison to His creatures. It is His exclusive right to be worshipped and asked for help by prayer.
Yet, APPARENTLY attempts at subverting Allah’s exclusive rights have not been lacking even among muslims. We said ‘apparently’ because things my not always be what they seem. But before we probe into this probability which we leave to the end we first analyse and evaluate the appearances of unorthodoxy peculiar to Sufism on the supposition that they are intended as shown.
If they are as they seem to be, namely honestly unorthodox then such Sufis were deceived by the beliefs and habits of other faiths and in fact they or their ancestors might have been converts from them. It must be very difficult to root out old habits in persons and traditions (which are national habits) in converted communities. Of course most of such national habits are correct responses to the natural environment and historical experience and therefore both innocent and beneficial. A hot countries food must be very watery while a cold one’s fatty. The same with habit (dress) and habitation. There are also bad habits however. Ritual abduction of the bride by the bridegroom for example or the rule that the bride must move in with the bridegroom’s family and live as a domestic servant for all. These are degrading and exploitative. Islam only need change these. Lastly there are beliefs and devotional practices established before Islam. Like saint and tomb worship or exorcism by beatings and other forms of torture for example. Islam exclude these and substitutes with the correct alternatives as we shall see. There is also less harmful habits like music and dance as part of religious ritual. These are so ingrained that a too strict opposition to them is bound to backfire and do more harm than good. Some wise compromises and accommodation may be necessary.
Why Sufis succeeded where strictly legalistic ulema failed is because Sufis, being wiser and insightful as well as tolerant and patient have always been prepared to let their prospective converts retain some of their traditions which have no precedent in Sunna in return for declaring the ‘shahada’ and bowing to the commandments of the Sharia. These done the new muslim nation is left to follow most of their habits unmolested which habits sometimes includes non-Islamic forms of religious devotion and even some suspect beliefs hardly justifiable by sound mainstream Islamic standards as laid down in the Qur’an and the better known bulk of the Sunna. Often these deviant claims and practices are basically harmless and should be let alone lest fitna erupst. But sometimes they fly too badly in the face of genuine Islam, cause harm and therefore need be tactfully but firmly tackled even if gradually. An inept handling causes so much fitna and resentful divisions that before a strategy is attempted it is helpful to be equipped with an understanding of the causes of the unacceptable deviant beliefs and practices. This essay attempts to provide that understanding. May Allah guide and help us.
MAJOR DEVIANT BELIEFS - By this we mean beliefs which is too common among the muslims of the world because these beliefs were shared almost by all religious traditions which preceded Muhammadan Islam- for we believe that all true prophets were also sent with Islam but their teachings were subsequently distorted. Only the form transmitted down to us by Muhammad sws is authentically Divine.
Among the deviants are ‘hagiolatry’ (saint worship), prophet-worship and use of charms, incantations and amulets and a host of other superstitions like avoiding certain days for certain acts, like avoiding travel on a tuesday. or fearing certain animals like the presence of an owl (bad omen), a number like 13. Big or small all such superstitions unfortunately survive a nation’s conversion to Islam and may also spread by travel and contact. Let us see how these superstitions came about.
By saint and prophet worship we do not mean the respectful visiting of their tombs or invoking their memories. These are not only halal but also meritious. Also asking Allah to grant our wishes for the sake of the honor (bihurmati) of the saint or the prophet or asking that their intercession is made available to us is intelligent. For intercession is valid on the authority of Allah’s Book as we shall see. What is wrong is praying to prophets and saints direct like praying to Allah. This is a remnant of pre-Islamic beliefs and practices very explicitly and emphatically banned and condemned by Allah in His Book, again as we shall see. And many other things. In order to see how we must first study the phenomenon called superstition.
THE BIRTH OF SUPERSTITIONS - We must first define superstition. It is a belief which has no basis in fact or origin in true Divine revelation, like the Islamic which is contained in the Qur’an and mainstream Hadith, for there have been false hadiths and still are which kept ulama busy for centuries worrying about and fighting against with variable success. Some have been so well-entrenched that belief in them has become a superstition dangerous to oppose.
How does a superstition arise? Let us trace the natural emergence and development of supernatural beliefs. Anthropologists, having studied primitive peoples in the course of the colonization of Americas, Africa and Australia and the Pacific islands found that these diverse peoples shared certain common beliefs despite the enormous distances separating them. The most common is ancestor worship. What is more this superstition was also current among the more civilized nations of the classical age, like the mighty Romans. It emerged and evolved like this. Because primitive life is a very dangerous existence the basic unit of social solidarity the family had to be very rigorously structured and accultured. One and the more universal form of it was regarding the father as the absolute ruler of the family. For all practical intents and purposes the father was regarded something like a god-king. He had absolute liberty of discretion on the welfare or punishment of the rest which included killing any member. When the father died he was naturally seen in dreams as all dead are. These dream sights convinced the primitives that the dead lived on as spirits in spirit bodies. And because the father was so highly regarded his spirit became a god for his bereaved family who then worshipped him. What does worshipping (ibadat) include? It includes glorification, i.e praising for supernatural powers and qualities- and supplication, i.e, asking supernatural help from the worshipped. We must always bear this definition in mind when we meet this subject of worshipping, because it will crop up often.
So the primitives worshipped their ancestors.
A Roman family, via sons, had the duty of tending the graves of their ancestors with extreme care and devotion to the end of time if possible. The graves were regularly visited, tended and the occupant praised and prayed to. The equally natural extension or off-shoot of this family religion was the worshipping of national heroes which included the king or in the case of Romans their emperors. Romans sometimes also worshipped their living emperors. One, Caligula, not only imposed his worship on the people but also built a magnificent temple for himself where he regularly sat on a marble throne posing like one of the stone gods of Romans, e.g. Apollo and receiving daily homage from the senators and the general public just like the stone gods of the Roman pantheon. Among the Egyptians and Babylonians as well as many other classical imperial communities kings were all god-kings and remained as gods after their death. Which is to say, kings were regarded as the fathers of their subjects and therefore ended up as national gods. Their mausoleum graves (e.g. pyramids) became shrines.
However it was not only the kings who were adopted as gods. All sorts of national heroes also were. These included military greats, famous sorcerers, great shamans, mystics, great prophets and even poets and philosophers. Anybody who impressed a people in a big way could end up on the official of inofficial (popular) pantheon.
Now because every culture has its own values and special genius the gods they produced benefited from different qualifications. Because the Romans were a martial people their pantheon swelled up more from the joining of military heroes which the emperors were regarded to be. On the other end of the world the Hindustani peoples were enamored by and obsessed with miracle-workers like the yogis. Hence their gods came from yogi’s ranks. An interesting example of god production is the deification of Dimarchus, the slave who led a rebellion of slaves on the small Greek island of Chios (6th C. BC). He deposed the island hierarchy and founded a reasonably just and tolerant regime. He defeated all armies sent against him. In the end the old order was reinstated but Dimarchos’s fame was so well established and his services to the slave class had aroused so much admiration and gratitude in them that he was made the god of slaves and worshipped at shrines devoted to him.
But there was, another and equally lucrative source of gods. It was the adoption of the gods of a conquering or superior culture. For example, despite the fact that the Romans conquered the Greeks the flow of gods were from the conquered towards the conqueror. Romans were so impressed by the cultural achievements of their new subjects the Greeks that they plunged headlong into it and imported their whole pantheon to Rome in one piece. They only changed some names, like converting Aphrodite to Venus. Otherwise their statues and mythologies mainly retained their Greek forms. The same one and two-sided transfer of gods occurred all over the classical lands of antiquity. The Greeks for their part imported a number of gods from Egypt, among them Isis which from Greece reached Rome. The two also imported Jesus from Palestine and made him their only God but within a trinitarian frame. Old habits die hard and the Greeks and Romans could not resist to sweeten their new God with some subtle polytheistic esprit including the worship of the figure (often hanging from the cross) the emblem (the cross).
But despite the adoption of Unitarian Jesus polytheistic Greco-Roman habits could not be killed off. Thousands of junior Greek and Roman gods dotted all the lands of the empire which gods were worshipped and prayed to for hundreds of years and to whom many shrines were built and maintained and visited by pilgrims. These could neither disappear overnight, nor the populace’s addiction to them cured. Consequently these were naturalized to Christianity. To that end all the gods produced from the memories of ancient heroes were christened to be known as Christian saints. But the title ‘saint’ instead of ‘god’ did not mean much loss of status for the new heavenly appointees. They kept their aura of divinity as well as their enjoyment of popular worship including its both facets, praise and supplication. So both the Christ and ‘his’ new army of saints were worshipped side by side. To them were added over time many born Christian saints from among dead bishops and monks renowned for their piety.
Yet this polytheistic worshipping was more confined to the masses. The knowledgeable priesthood more reserved or at times confined their worship to the Christ and sometimes St Mary. But sometimes the popular saints enjoyed an advantage over the Otherwise far superior Christ. Each saint was a tried and tested specialist in a certain field of power; one was specialized in making rain come down while another in saving the sailors from the caprices of the seas. Also some saints were patrons of a given art or craft and each guild of artisans or tradesmen had their patron saint to worship and be looked after by. There were also adopted national patron sainst, like St George for the English. In short a peaceful co-existence emerged and continued between the new and supreme god Jesus and the old popular gods (although named not gods but saints- they were gods however before Christianity) with various specialities and portfolios who out of deference to the all-glorious newcomer the Christ gracefully consented to downgrade their titles from god to saint without but without losing their jurisdictions. This was then, very basically, the causation of polytheism before Christianity and its conveniently diluted survival into Christianity.
ISLAM’S ENCOUNTER WITH POLYTEISM - The first challenge facing Islam was the Arab polytheism. Arab’s being an overwhelmingly illiterate culture and as well as their bitterly divided social organization (mutually suspicious tribes spread over a vast landscape) their antiquity is shrouded in myth and contentiousness. This is more the case with Arabs who became the first audience of the Islamic message, the Hejazi Arabs. These were not so much racial Arabs as ‘Arabized Arabs’ (al A’rab al Musta’raba) meaning that they were other Semites who were descended from immigrants from neighboring lands.
Most important among this category of Arabs were the collection of clans forming the great tribe of Quraysh who regarded themselves as well as recognized by others as the descendants of Abraham (AS) through his son Ishmael (AS). At least these Arabs must have started their new identity as monotheists since they were the descendants of two great true Prophets named above. We find proof of this in their retention of the memory of their two great and incomparably glorious grandfathers as well as their deference to Allah as the Supreme God towering over their lesser gods like Lat, Uzza, Menat and Hubel (mostly daughter gods). If you ask where these very many lesser gods came from the answer is that they were both locally grown and imported. Bedouin Arabs, travelling from place to place had no time for gods to fix or look after and worshipped anything that came to hand and looked fascinating for some reason. A nice slab of stone, a tree generous with fruit or awe-inspiring for wild appearance was worshipped on the spur of the moment and depending on coincidental good luck adopted as a basically reliable god of sorts. So there could be, in principle, as many gods as the number of superstitious persons who were only very many thanks to the hardships and ignorance of the times. With so few means of protecting themselves from all sorts of dangers or obtaining their desires the nomad had to invent gods and comfort himself with their supposed help.
But another set of fewer yet more universal gods also emerged for national worship. Being constant travellers and traders Arabs plied far and wide and learned about and adopted many foreign gods. Thus the famous major god Hubel was imported from Syria only a few generations before the advent of the Prophet sws. Others like Baal, al Lat, al Menat… came the same way. So, the primitive pantheon at Kaaba was mainly populated by an assortment of foreign gods given Arab citizenship. Yet, as already said, Allah kept his Supreme position thanks to the origin of the Quarish in Abraham and Ishmael (AAS).
When Allah sent Muhammad sws as His Messenger this retention of Abrahamic memories and values helped a lot in defeating pagan gods and reinstating Abrahamic values and practices. Arabs, despite their naïve paganism and some savage habits were suitable for both monotheistic purity and legalistic regimentation. The stark desert environment plus the practical bend of mind of Arabs helped establish the pure monotheism required and the persuasive discipline of practical acts of piety. Arabs already knew of ablutions and circumcision as all Semites did. They knew pilgrimage and the animal sacrifice. They traced these back to their father Abraham (pbuh).
So, converts found it easy to appreciate the advantages of serving only one god who happened to be the already very prestigious Supreme God Allah and the obvious merits of cleansingly washing, dignifiedly praying and piously fasting not to mention helping the poor which positively appealed to the traditionally very generous and hospitable Arab temper. Islam’s appeal to kinship ties were music to the ears of clan-spirited Arabs. Islam’s appeal to sexual probity was so as well since Arabs were extremely jealous in matters of sex. Islam’s appeal to helping the oppressed was the same. In fact, despite their barbarism Arabs were morally much better than their more sophisticated neighbours like the Greeks and the Persians because they had retained a degree of Abrahamic noble traits as enumerated above. Allah reminded this to them as did His Messenger e.g. “(This is already) the way of your father Abaraham (pbuh). It was he who named you muslims from before (al Hajj, 78). So it can be said that the simple polytheism of Arabs died a simple and rapid death and left no lingering traces behind. But it was another matter with other converted nations to Islam. Before that however a deeper look into superstitions which are behind polytheism.
THE SUPERSTITIOUS MENTATION - We have already seen the emergence of gods from ancestor, king and hero worship. But there is another field and source of superstition. It is the field of explanation of events. Children and primitive men (who remain like children psychologically speaking) know that they make things work for them by identifying their uses and then exercising their will and muscle on them. But a man’s area of jurisdiction is a very small part of the universe, normally limited to where his limbs reach or can take him. And even that is conditional on many factors. For example he may tear off a small branch from a tree for his use but cannot uproot the tree itself. Even worse, he cannot make the tree grow faster or give more fruit or prevent the tree from drying up. Worse than worse, a lightning can come down from the sky and burn both him and the tree to ashes. Having learned that things can be changed by will and muscle it is only a simple act of imagination to infer that all the rest of the nature he cannot control must be controlled by bigger persons with bigger muscle who unfortunately for him are invisible and perhaps inaccessible as well.
Where are these giants or gods? Could they be the spirits of his ancestors who sometimes appear to him in his dreams? Or are there greater things? What about those giant mammoths or elephants or crocodiles? The unbeatable tiger? The deadly and stealthy jaguar? Or are there gods in the skies who can explain why rain and lightning keep coming down? Again, the natural events suurounding him are so numerous and of so many kinds. How could all such specialities be practiced without a god or spirit or giant specializing in each? After all in his tribe there are specialists for cloth, arrow or tent making etc. There is also the shaman who talks to the spirits and is also a healer. As he moves about he meets the members of other tribes who have their own gods. Through all such means a gradual pantheon of specialist and chief gods as well as their underlings the demons and fairies may gather. Then there is the problem of contacting these strange and superior forces. At this point come the technology of accessing, appeasing and exploiting them. Should we each try to access them or we need a priest (specialist) to mediate for us?
The priesthood is born! But what about finding these gods? Like in hunting do we have to go into the wilderness in the hope that we can locate them somewhere somehow and catch them? How difficult were those days when we lived by hunting game and gathering herbs and fruits? We solved these problems by domesticating suitable animals (penning and herding) and also domesticating suitable plants (agriculture). Then why not domesticate gods? How that shall be? Why, since they are like us even if greater may we not attract them to us by hospitality and tribute? A temple is then built up and images for gods made in the hope that those spiritual beings will come and dwell in them for our convenience. Once becoming residents they certainly expect from us tribute. Food comes first. So offerings of food and precious objects are taken to the temple (and consumed by priests). When things get too bad for us we become afraid that not good enough foods and goods were taken to our gods and they were resentful. What better food? What is more generous than top quality food- the human flesh and blood? Then comes that only too prevalent human sacrifices in antique religions. Even Abraham AS thought that he had to sacrifice his son to God. That was the norm at the time. Of course Abraham was revealed that in a dream but it was a test by Allah- no more. It paved the way for the abolition of human sacrifice and its replacement by animal sacrifice.
So, did such domesticated pagan gods hear and help their supplicants? Yes and no.
Yes. Because priests or priestesses hid themselves in the idols and responded to the supplicants answering their questions or acknowledging their requests. All great pagan temples as well as some isolated shrines had resident priests and priestesses who performed this function. These were not ordinary men and women but very gifted psychics and counsellors. Perhaps the most famous of these were the oracles of Delphi in ancient Greece. At Delphi stood a magnificent temple complex on a mountain top erected to the honor of god Apollo. For centuries Greeks great and small made pilgrimage there taking rich offerings and asking for divine advice and help as given through the mouth of the resident oracle, a priestess. She was of help firstly because she was a born psychic and a trained Gnostic with deep insight into human mind and heart and like an extraordinary psychiatrist, counsellor or sufi sheikh (take your pick) she was able to make her customers discover for themselves the right answers and get the motivation to succeed in their planned enterprises. From our own sufi perspectives there can be no doubt that Allah did help His servants out of His compassion irrespective of their doctrinal errors or spiritual shortcomings for after all they could know no better. The fact is that deep down everybody Allah is present without being physically inside him of course but by spiritual jurisdiction as the Lord of All worlds. He is nearer to everybody than his or her jugular vein and He is under no censure to do as He Almighty chooses and pleases.
That a similar root of polytheism and oracle tradition existed in Arabia is shown by certain reports by early muslim historians. In one account it is reported from Ibn Abbas (RA) that Arab pagan gods, just like the Roman, were mythicalized conversions from Arab heroes or imports again based on heroes in the country of origin. Western historians also are explicit in this. So it is a historical consensus based on long and distinguished evidence. As for oracles we again learn from Arab historians and in fact from Ibn Ishaq’s celebrated ‘Sirat (Biography) of Rasul Allah” that when some sahaba were sent by the victorious Prophet sws to demolish pagan shrines in Hejaz women priestesses were seen running away from the ruins. In a truly realistic Hollywood epic “Land of the Pharaohs” (Warner Bros 1952) we see priests hiding in the labyrinths bored into the huge god statues of Egypt thundering commands to the crowds visiting the god or answering their appeals. So all paganism is a pious fraud first invented by intelligent and sensitive individuals and then systematized, used or abused by a priestly class. At the bottom of all is man’s inevitable weakness and the saving role of his imagination in addressing his spiritual plight in the face of the thousand trials and tribulations of life. Our Creator Allah judges as He pleases but the fact remains that polytheism in one form or another have existed among men to this day and when they didn’t know better their Creator did not disappoint them entirely. To see how and why is next.
THE MECHANISM OF SALVATION - By salvation I mean two things. Lesser salvation and greater salvation. Both are provided by Allah (What we mean by ‘Allah’ is we shall see in a moment).
Lesser salvation is one’s being delivered from a danger or affliction as a result of appealing to a spiritual being one believes in. This is granted on account of the appealer’s sheer desperation which motivates in him a surge of faith. And as the saying goes “faith moves mountains”. It does not matter to what he appeals so long he believes in its powers. In other words it is the faith that matters.
How does it work? As we said, in every person of some sense and decency there is a fundamental recognition of God Whose a working image is planted in him as his birthright. All his life he keeps hearing about God or gods or other spiritual beings such as angels, saints or ancestral spirits whom he comes to give some credence to and entertain some reverence for. It does little matter whether these holy beings are real persons or powers or figments of imagination. One or more of these become foci and points of reference in his subconscious mind and when he is in a life crisis out of which he sees or can find no way he as a last resort and out of desperation begins to appeal to one or more of them. The emotions stirred by such desperate appeals cause such a turmoil and purposeful rearrangement in his whole mind (both conscious and unconscious) that either or both of the following happens: One- A flash of genius occurs in his mind and shows him what to do.
Two- People he is in contact are unconsciously so influenced and stricken by the subliminal messages his mind and its attachment his body’s language is broadcasting that they feel an irresistible urge to help him. Who won’t recognize a woman in disrtress for example and not feel compelled to do something about it, provided he or she is a decent sensitive soul? All of us must have the queer experience meeting some person who helplessly display certain body postures and movements and such a disturbed quaoity of voice that his appearance becomes a command that must be obeyed. We feel we are being sucked in a relationship where we have to grant something to the fellow. If we are decent and sensitive of course which most people are. Aware of this ‘weakness’ in most of us beggars, political demagogues, gifted salesmen, sexual seducers take advantage of us. People in tragic situations have this compelling image innocently and they deserve our sympathy. So do influence us spiritually gifted and accomplished individuals like sufi sheikhs and gurus and shamans of of other religions. People afflicted with a painful plight and looking and praying for help broadcast quite unconsciously subliminal messages which can be picked up, unconsciously processed and responded to by others who themselves are sensitive enough.
So on top of a serious supplicant getting help from his deep nervous centers which produce for him saving or comforting ideas other sensitive people close at hand or far way may pick up his distress signals and respond with saving action. All these ultimately boil down to the work of the said deep-down God image in him which then produces in his mind all those winning arrangements as well as distress calls which sometimes attain telepathic levels- sending messages from mind to mind.
At this point I must assure the reader that telepathy does exist but because it happens under extraordinary situations it is difficult to produce and study it under experimental conditions. The materialist who denies it as he denies all valid spiritual claims must realize that the science he depends on is that narrow 19. century science which did not know about what modern science is talking about and experimenting with. The least that he should be aware of is the fact that time and space are interconvertible as matter and energy are and it is theoretically quite orthodox now to imagine space shrinking while time dilating and vice versa. In fact these theoretical insights have been repeatedly confirmed by experiment. What is telepathy if not the travel of mental messages over a shrunken space and slowed down time between two locations?
The brain do produce electromagnetic radiation which must be related what it is thinking and which also must travel at the speed of light. However weak this radiation may be picked up by another brain miles away simply because no radiation completely exhausts itself and though radiation should be pickable by another though apparatus as TV radiation caused by studio images are picked up by TV sets miles away. What do we want, the radiation caused 15 billion years ago by the Big Bang is still with us, arriving from billions of lightyears away and converting into visible and audible signals in our sensitive pick-up apparatues like radio telescopes. Of course I am not assuring you that this is the mechanism of telepathy but that tis is a perfectly scientific hypothesis which can be proven or falsified by reliable enough experiments. Or rather what I mean is that we can no longer dismiss psychic or spiritual claims on scientific grounds because the new physical theories are as strange as these said claims themselves pushing aside ordinary concepts like time and space and physical determinism which looked to rule out any event these concepts seemed to make impossible. A recent experiment now seems to confirm the possibility of teleportation. Using special laser beam techniques elementary particles were made to dissolve in one location and reform at another bypassing both time and space. Common sense abhors such eventualities but today’s scientists have long deduced theoretically as well as proven experimentally that our common sense is just that- common and that the deeper we look into the secrets of the universe the more uncommon things get and the more laughable our common sense become.
At this point it is opportune to look at what God means. This word has two perfectly interrelated meanings: Ontological and neuro-psychological. Ontology means philosophy of reality- I mean ideas about the ultimate nature of things. Ontologically speaking than Allah is the Ultimate Reality which underlies, underwrites and surrounds all realities which are created by that Ultimate. As such Allah is unknowable. Because knowing is understanding and understanding is controlling and a controller is superior to what it controls. If Allah is superior to His creatures and utterly above their category then He should be unknowable by them as far as their sensory perceptions are concerned. It is He alone Who knows, who understands and Who controls all and not the other way round. Therefore some Gnostics, including some Sufis who aim at or claim to have attained the Divine Essence (Adh Dhat al Ilahi- fana fillah) or ‘seen’ Allah must be deceived. And many saner and greater Sufis like imam Rabbani (d. 1624) agree. He keeps repeating that all supposed perceptions or attainments of the Essence must be discarded by the mystic explorer as delusions. Sufi or any other Gnostic practices and sacrifices whatever their sincerity or intensity cannot fathom or conquer the Divine Secret. It is a prize no price can buy. But short of that Divine favors are endless and mind-blowingly grand and magnificent. Persons cannot simply bear the ‘sight’ (penetrating the essence) of God. We have incontrovertible proof of it in the Book of Allah, viz.
“When Moses said ‘o Lord appear to me so that I look at Thee’. God said ‘You can NEVER see ME. But look at the mountain instead. If it can stand its ground then you can see Me’. When his Lord shone to the mountain He sent it to pieces. Moses fainted. When he came to he said ‘Thou art High Exalted beyond all limitations. Assuredly I have repented; I am the first of those who give up and surrender” (al A’raf 143). Because Moses was spoken to by Allah at his meetings with Allah on the mountain but he only heard a voice.
Another, and this time impersonal and therefore determining is this verse “La tudrikuhul absar wa huwa yudrikul absar wa huwal latiful khabir” (al An’am 103), i.e. ‘Visions cannot reach Him but He reaches all visions. He is the Subtle and the Aware”. He Almighty did not say anything about this inability on the part of His servants to see him is confined to this world and not to the hereafter. How could Allah’s statement on such a fundamental matter be as inept as to forget such an exception and let His servants in the dark so that they would have to depend on hadith which, however reliable, could never be as certain as the Qur’an? And what is even more silly is to think that for any being to be credible or enjoyable it must be visible and its essence consumable! This is utter spiritual ignorance. Allah is so perfect, so great so unlike to His anything and anybody that He alone can make us fully happy without coming to hand like a pigeon or appealing to sights like a rose. It is His spiritual Presence that overwhelms us without any qualities being scrutinized- it is such a total and undifferentiated bliss to be blessed by Allah’s rahmat that concepts and words like ‘seeing’ and even ‘tasting’ are inadequate as well as out of place. It is He Who reaches out to us and blesses us in an ineffable way about which we have no comparisons or diagnostics to make. He is Himself One without partner and remains so and we are His created servants and remain so. No ifs no buts and no use to have ambitions for more. If one is blessed by the undifferentiated, utterly ineffable and incomparable rahmat of Allah as a personal and unique favor he forgets about all ambitions however lofty because those ambitions are made ridiculous and reduntant at once and forever!
Some believers however still persist in claiming the visibility of the Divine Essence and quote the ayat to support their claim. “There are that Day faces shining with happiness looking at their Lord” (al Qiyama 22). But the ayats of the Qur’an must be understood in the light of other ayats and not in isolation. Since the verses we quoted are categoric and explicit on the matter the counter quotation need be interpreted to remove the obvious clash. There Allah says ‘naziartun’ i.e ‘looking’ which is not exactly the same as seeing. Furthermore the root NZR implies also expectation. So the correct meaning should be “On that Day are faces shining with happiness looking to (expecting the unending favors) of their Lord”. Had they been seeing their Lord they would be so overwhelmed that they would cease to exist- I mean cease to exist, not transformed or absorbed into Allah. Allah needs neither needs an addition to Himself nor any addition could know itself and enjoy anything. It just ceases and loses all the rewards as a result for being a good and forgiven servant. But some hadiths are also quoted to support the ‘visionist’ view but as frequently is the case hadiths fly in the face of the explicitness of the Qur’anic statements.
Futhermore, there is a hadith more reliable than all the rest, the one in Bukhari about Gabriel’s visit to the Prophet. Among other things Gabiel asks him “And what is ‘ihsan’ (best quality piety)?” to which the Messenger of Allah sws replies “It is worshipping Allah as if you are seeing Him. FOR ALTHOUGH YOU ARE NOT SEEING HIM HE IS SEEING YOU”. Rasulullah sws told the truth. He desribed the most pious, extra bright worshipper as one who, believing without doubt that Allah is seeing him he worships Allah with an all-out sincerity and truthfulness as if he is seeing his Lord”. Such perfection most certainly existed in the Prophet sws himself first and the best among his sahaba for we have in the Qur’an references to then existing companions blessed with ihsan (). If the Prophet sws and his best sahaba did not claim attaining the vision of the Essence of Allah how some sufi pretenders talk about it as if seeing Allah or attaining His Essence is something like obtainable by fasts, seclusions or one look from their sheikh? Gods of myth from Apollo to Isis to Jesus may be so accessible because as products of mind they are subject to mind (Jesus (pbuh) however is a true and great prophet like Muhmammad (sws)). But Allah is the Ultimate Reality to Whom all are subjected and overwhelmed by and neither human mind nor spirit can bear His unveiled shining forth (tajalli).
A rival hadith however is quoted “You shall see your Lord like you see the full moon”. Asking for forgiveness from Allah and His Messenger I humbly think that this is not a true hadith despite being in the Bukhari. Because seeing Allah direct is too outruled by the verses and the hadith we already quoted. Additionally, the metaphor of full moon is a very bad one in my humble opinion, First of all it likens Allah to that big looking but in fact small satellite which is furthermore dependent on the sun for its light which light is very poor in comparison. Secondly as an object it is only a tiny part of the heavenly canopy with far greater rivals everywhere. Lastly how on earth Allah the Most Infinite and Majestic could be dwarfed into a small object among billions of other objects and be a slave of our perception as everything else in creation may be? How foolish for men in paradise to look and see Allah as they would see the moon while back on earth and comment on its pocked and shadowed beauty about its qualities while munching on dates and kissing their houris? It is better to take refuge in another far more convincing and enlightening hadith that “If something reported to y you from me comforts your heart I am nearer to it than you are. If instead the report troubles your heart I am farther away from it then you are”. How excellent of you ya rasulallah sws!
That many hadith were invented for both pious and impious reasons is an established fact among all muhaddithin (hadith scholars and such hadiths may be examples. In this context another still less likely hadith may be quoted to show to how silly lengths some zealots may go in their zeal to feed us on a diet of pious frauds they cannot do without. “When the Prophet sws ascended the heavens and came to the precincts of Allah he knocked on Allah’s door. But no answer came. He knocked again and again. At last Allah opened the door and apologized for the delay ‘Ya habibi (my darling) I was busy saying salawat on you and I could not interrupt”. Look at the sheer absurdity! Allah can only do one thing at a time, He lives in a hut like and old beggar saying his beads and prayers and is caught occupied by His servant whom He sent for so uniquely a moment ago! The ostensible pious foolish reason is demonstrating how meritious is saying salawat on the Prophet sws and even Allah must be subjected to the servantly obligation of saying it in such exclusive absorption that he cannot open the door when the darling He is so zealous about at long last comes to Him asking for His embrace! Now see how this so-called hadith flies in the face of both the Qur’an and real hadith.
Allah azza wa jalla said “O believers, go to the call of Allah and His Messenger when they call you to what revives you. Know that Allah penetrates between man and man’s heart and you shall indeed be gathered to Him (al Anfal, 22). A hadith shows how the Prophet on one occasion interpreted this verse. One companion was called by the Prophet sws to come to him but he delayed because he was in saying his prayers. When he explained “Did you not what Allah said.. and quoted this verse. Which means one need to attend to the call of Allah and His Messenger (sws) even if he is already doing something Allah or His Messenger (sws) enjoined on him. It is for t his reason that a muslim must ABANDON his prayers if he learns another servant of Allah, whether muslim or not, human or animal is in danger or even when likely to be unhappy. So, the Prophet was picking up and putting down with great love and care his baby grandchildren when they clinged to him as he prayed including when he was leading the prayer (imam)! But we have seen muslims who cannot wait to finish their salat to fly at a child who had been noisy behind him and beat the child to pulp in the name of Allah! But to go back to our point the ayat and hadith just quoted shows the unlikelyhood of Allah being either confined to the single task of saying salawat or delaying the Prophet’s (sws) access. And of course the extreme literal and gross understanding of the Divine words “Allah and His angels send blessings on the Prophet”. All ulama are agreed that this means Allah’s mercy and help and not muttering prayerful words as we humans can only do. Disgusting jahalat isn’t it?
The same exaggeration of potential human powers we see in the case of some sufi claims about the Prophet’s (sws) and saints’ impossibly great functions and powers, like monitoring and controlling the universe events while living or from beyond the grave. They say “the Prophet did not die, he is ever alive, seeing, hearing and controlling everything. In fact he has been so even before coming to this world. This is an exact duplication of Christian claims about Jesus and Buddhist claims about Buddha and more surprisingly the suggestions made until recently to young school children in Maoist China about the Great Helmsman Mao tse Tung and Ataturkist Turkey about Ataturk. Nursery and early primary children were told “you are Mao’s or Ataturk’s children, he is always seeing you. You should behave like his true children, idealistic, patriotic, honest, hardworking etc. which suggestions put the childrens hair stand on end and compete as to who could read poems praising the immortal leader more gloriously etc. All of which again was the exact continuation of converting ancestors and later heroes into gods by their admiring people and manipulative leaders. This method of over-valuing a historical figure can be so embellished and exaggerated that the people in question are made drunk by him soaked to their bones which drunkenness then renders them liable to absolute control and any degree of exploitation for the leaders now represent the myth god they created and enjoy the publics worshipping obedience in god’s name.
Unfortunately it was not only Christianity that was similarly hijacked ann abused by exploitative myth makers but Islam also but to a far lesser extent has been similarly abused. This has been the case in both the Sunni and Shia camps. An extremist minority among both, claiming, as always since millennia, a special gnosis which revealed to them the Divine nature of their hero on whose behalf then they appointed themselves as intermediaries and asked for and obtained the subjection and taxes of their believers. In the case of Islam the extremist fringe of Shia made Ali God while the extremist fringe of Sunni Sufis made Muhammad sws God except in name.
Since according to them Muhammad (sws) is running the whole universe from its creation to its end as an omnipresent and omnipotent spiritual force this means that he and Allah is one and the same but the ‘secret’ is so precious that the populace is denied it and only the initiates it is disclosed to. Again this is an exact and uninterrupted continuation under Islamic guise the ages old Gnostic mystery traditions followed in Babylon, Egypt and Greece which were the hot houses and nurseries of myth gods and goddesses and also of god men. The addicted mental sorcerers descending from their ancient masters penetrated Islam, albeit far less than earlier religions and continued their trade in human souls with the same mercenary skills and profits. As before they again succeeded to instal a pantheon of spiritual beings drawn from men, established effective shrines for them or Islamized pre-Islamic shrines, instituted worship to them in the downgraded form of only calling on them for their needs. In some cases the claims are so brazenly outspoken that the supplicants are asked to pray direct to the saint and leave aside praying to Allah on the grounds that only the saint is accessible and will respond and Allah will not because the supplicant’s faith in Allah is not strong enough yet! Of course everything Allah and His Messenger (sws) actually taught us is the exact opposite.
Nobody is thinking that Allah needs no duplication of His work of running the universe or responding to His servants’ distress. The work for universe He assigned to His angels and not saints and prophets and furthermore the angels are only veils from behind which Allah runs everything in full without helper, partner or adviser. Once here, we may also look a bit deeper into this replacement of the angels by saints in extremist sufi cosmology. In such Sufis there is a general forgetfulness of angels whom Allah mentions so frequently in the Qur’an. They are hardly mentioined in sufi literature and all their functions are quietly assigned to saints. For example, Allah uniformly and continuously states that He runs the universe through (from behind a veil in the form of) His angels DO NOT MENTION ANY UNIVERSAL FUNCTIONS FOR ANY DEAD OR LIVING MEN. Sufis ignore this completely and quote exclusively their awlia (saints) doing all the work which is scripturally and canonically attributed to Allah’s angels. It is as if their ‘six articles of the faith’ reads “Amentu billahi wa awliyaihi wa kutubihi etc…“ (I believe in Allah and in His saints … etc) instead of “Amentu billahi wa MALAIKATIHI wa kutubihi etc…” (I believe in Allah and in His angels and His Books etc…”. What a spectacular gaffe and aberration! For example Allah always explains His help in war to muslims as His sending hosts of angels like in Badr and other invisible hosts like the hurricane that demolished the Quraishite camp at the battle of the Trench (handaq). But in all sufi stories of Divinely helped battles of muslims it is not the angels or any powers deployed by Allah which bring the help but it is the named sufi sheikhs who run to the rescue! Sometimes they appear on the battlefield (another prerogative of the angels themselves) and kill the enemy while in other cases the rescuing is done from a distance, from the comfort of their couches by moving their arms for example in symbolic acts of fighting. These claims as beliefs are indentical with the yogic and must have been taken over from them irrespective what Allah revealed in His Qur’an. Why?
I tell you why. Because they want to claim the same quasi divine powers themselves but know that without allowing the same for the Prophet sws their claim will look ridiculous. So they also contaminate and compromise his image in the same dip like gangsters try to involve the police in their crimes so that they can keep them in line by blackmailing as well as paying them commissions at one and the same time. All this to make their pre-Islamic Gnostic delusions, pretensions, privileges and profits to survive into Islam! So far for the lesser salvation, delivery from worldly dangers.
As for the greater salvation this is altogether different. Here the aim is salvation from a long-term disaster- that coming from an immature or infantile bestial ego which we may call the lower self. This lower self of ours is behind all the man-made evil tormenting this world’s population. All malicious lies and acts, all unjust harm caused to persons, all heart-breaking treacheries and insults are the work of this lower self. To see the difference it makes to human behavior and sense of well-being suppose that a handicapped person is walking the street limping, shaking and perhaps dripping saliva at his mouth. There are among us such dark-souled and uncharitable adults that they will look down on this fellow as well as shout abuse at him. But this person may be a very cultivated, fine gentleman who somehow lost his health such. He will feel great pain from being so unkindly and abusively ridiculed. On the other hand a fine young child, say about 10, may also see this patient and smile at him kindly and even say a sweet hello, eyes misted with sympathy. This child must be far superior to the adult beast in spiritual qualities. He or she outgrew the lower self now lives from a higher self. The so-called adult on the other hand is as low in his self as the day he was born but only worse for failing to advance despite having lived far longer.
This reality that we begin our conscious existence at a lower spiritual level and in order to live a worthier life and contribute to a happier society we need climb higher and higher until we attain our highest potential in human goodness- this reality or this necessity is behind all true religious efforts on the part of both the founders of true religions and their conscientious believers. And also behind Sufism which only means an enhanced awareness of and intention for the said self-improvement. This definition of a true religion may invite another question. Which religion is true and what is the criterion. For modern liberal if not atheistic view is that all religions are equally valid or vain. That does not concern us.
The answer is hidden in the definition which will take us to the answer to the question about God: The objective of a true religion is elevating its believers to their highest possible moral/spiritual potentials. Because the center of focus in a true religion is on God which some psychologists see as our very best image of ourselves which we may one day make reality the value of a religion is directly related to its God’s quality. That not all gods’ qualities are of the same value is undeniable. For example Greek and Roman gods were hardly more than magnified images of Greeks and Romans as they actually were- liars, cheats, enviers and robbers etc. One god abducts and kills another, another rapes this, still another steals the assets of others etc. At the other end of god-images we find Islam’s God Allah. Muslim experts haste to draw our attention to something here. It is that Allah’s qualities are of two categories. Qualities of majesty which reflect His irresistible power to dominate all creation no matter the creatures resistance. Among these qualities of majesty are those implied by Divine Names like al Qahhar (the Utter Destroyer) and al Muntaqim (the Avenger). Which means with His justice and according to His wisdom He may destroy or punish some of His creatures. Cultivation or appropriation of these qualities of majesty are normally outside the aims of Islamic development of our spiritual potentials. Of these only those related to the rule of justice apply to us. For that we do need some rigor and harshness or people wreck all social life. I mean we must sometimes punish.
The second category is the qualities of grace. These are soft and beautiful qualities implied by Divine Names like al Rahman (universally merciful) and al Rahim (mercifully forgiving), al Halim (indulgently waiving retribution), al Wahhab (Generous giver) and as Salam (Giver of Peace) etc. Muslim spiritual aspirant should take this side of the Divine Image to model himself on. And thase qualities of grace do not stop at these end results of a holy character. All other benign qualities leading to them are also to be acquired. These include al Hakim (the Wise), al Haqq (True), al Sadiq (Loyal and Truthful), al Karim (Noble and Generous), Al Rauf (Tender) and al Wadood (concernedly and responsively loving) etc. Who can deny that such moral and spiritual qualities meke up the loftiest possible list of heavenly and saintly character and disposition and therefore Islam presents us with the Supreme God of whom there is no partner nor can there be a rival. Muhammad (sws) reflected all the qualities of grace and wisdom of His Lord and just the right small amount of majesty in the service of justice. Which means Muhammad (sws) is the ultimate ideal for emulation.