(Reflections on Sheikh Hamza’s lecture on Book 1: On Knowledge)
The most popular purchase from the Travelling Light Series is Sheikh Hamza’s exposition of Book 1 of the Ihya. Perhaps this is because it is Sheikh Hamza, or maybe it is due to better publicity. Or most likely, is that the concept of the book strikes at the heart of the theological crisis that afflicts most Muslims in secular societies. At one point in a believer’s life, he/she will ask Why do I believe what I am meant to believe?
The question is not an easy one to answer, and so it is common to find Muslims pondering upon the truth claims of their religion. Their burden is not to have been with the Prophet in order to assess his character, or to understand Qurayshi Arabic and its linguistic style. They can only assess the truth by the literature and the characters of those who profess to live their lives according to the Sunnah.
What compounds the problem of justifying belief is the Western mind’s inherent push towards skepticism unless empirical or sensual. There is an aversion towards unjustified postulations, and that seeps into the way one approaches religion. While there are a growing number of people who submit themselves to a religion, the greater strides are being made by secularists.
So for the believer wishing to justify his belief in the absence of a Prophet, a weakness in their linguistic appreciation of the Arabic language, an anachronistic society, and the championing of secularism, he/she is confronted with a spiritual dissonance.
Ghazali’s conclusion to his own spiritual dissonance was not particularly intellectual. In his munqidh he concludes that after studying the thinking and methods of the sufis ” It became clear to me that the last stage could not be reached by mere instruction, but only by transport, ecstasy, and the transformation of the moral being.”
In other words, Ghazali found that in practice and meditation, one could have a true insight into the divine. But this too is not satisfactory for those who have committed their lives to the exploration of the Divine. The question for them is do I keep questioning my religion, or just practice as my religion has commanded.
The answer is both…and a third element. Ghazali’s Ihya is a voluminous tome that synthesises knowledge with practice. Yet, he was aware that the third element to the understanding the Divine mysteries was inspiration from Allah – something that is bestowed from up on high and at His will.
Once again, this too is not satisfactory for the questioning mind. However, he/she ignores their own self-constituency and personality. God has created man differently and our abilities in intellect, emotions, and strength are varied. Our will guides us accordingly, and we can refine and improve our abilities; however, some people will be naturally smarter, more emotional, stronger. Our natures vary considerably, and this nature (the fitra) was implanted by God.
Equally, it is understood that God places iman into the hearts of man, but the point at which He places iman into the hearts is not entirely clear. On the one hand, God expects that man should proclaim belief. The Quran speaks confidently about its own truth claims; yet on the other Ibrahim (AS), the people of Musa (AS) and the Disciples of Isa (AS) have requested evidence from God.
The story of the Disciples is instructive. The Quran states
” And when I inspired (Allah) to the Disciples, “Believe in Me and in My messenger Jesus.” They said, “We have believed, so bear witness that indeed we are Muslims. When the disciples said, “O Isa, Son of Mary, can your Lord send down to us a table [spread with food] from the heaven? [Isa] said,” Fear Allah, if you should be believers.They said, “We wish to eat from it and let our hearts be reassured and know that you have been truthful to us and be among its witnesses.” (5:111 – 113)
These verses encapsulates the problem of belief. The Quran asserts that Allah “inspired” (Awhatu) belief in the Disciples. And yet they still questioned in order for their hearts to be reassured. What occurred within the Disciples was a process which started with Isa’s ministry, followed by inspiration, and concluding with affirmation.
In the absence of a Prophet, affirmation in the way the Disciples requested will be difficult. However, the Quran is book of universal principles. The above verses highlight the importance of gaining knowledge of God’s commands and waiting for inspiration. For affirmation, it might not be something tangible like a table spread. Reassurance for the heart may come from something else.
The process is evident in Ghazali. He had knowledge, he was inspired to believe, but the affirmation and reassurance came from his Sufi practice.
Today, Muslims are trying to find a pure belief without the accretions of culture. They study, and they gain knowledge, and that strengthens or weakens their belief. However, to truly believe in God requires God to inspire that belief in a person. It then requires solidification, and that comes from practice. Knowledge is the starting point, inspiration is the middle point, and practice affirms.