Book 21: Wonders of the Heart

The Purpose of Revelation

(Reflections on Imam Ghazali’s Book 21 “ On Wonders of the Heart” and Book 22 “ Disciplining the Soul)


An oft disregarded aspect of the Abrahamic religious narrative is that revelation was confined to tribes. The duty of Prophets was to convey the message to their tribe, to their immediate sphere of concern. Only Ibrahim (RA) and Musa (RA) had confrontations with leaders of kingdoms, namely Nimrod and Pharoah, respectively. Dawud (RA) and Sulaiman (RA) ruled Kingdoms, but the size and scope is subject to debate. It certainly was not the size of the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian empires.

Regardless, it is claimed God sent down 125000 Prophets; only 4 of whom appear to have greater political import beyond the politics of their tribe.  It was not until the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that there was a quest for religious expansion. Even Isa (RA)’s mission was directed towards the Jews of Israel; the growth of Christianity was remarkable for an absence of prophetic providence.

The Abrahamic religious narrative, therefore, is one predominately focused on the community, not political dominance. Abrahamic monotheism is focused on character development, not realpolitik. The starting point always begins at home, and separate to wider stately affairs.

Hence for religious growth, community is the immediate concern; although the boundaries of the community are difficult to delineate. Nevertheless, focus is not community expansion – tribes generally remained insular as seen by the tribes of Israel – rather it is spiritual expansion. And the starting point for spiritual expansion is knowledge of the divine.

Accusations of political quietism will obviously be leveled at this point. As expressed, our ethical compass calls for activism in the face of injustice. But this is separate from the key objective of revelation: God’s providence.  Certainly, most Quranic stories links a societal problem with God’s disapproval, and therefore many would argue that religion is inherently ethical and a champion of justice. Yet beyond the injuries to man, religious purpose calls for an acceptance that the first principle for human action is worship; that is independent, concentrated, and unadulterated worship. As the Quran says “And I did not create Man and Jinn except to worship”.

To develop that spiritual core is difficult and challenging. Muslims are far too confident about the fundamental principle of worshipping God. Except, in the absence of God’s tangible presence, concretising it within is a far more challenging enterprise than mere expressions of the Shadaha and illusions to the cosmic brotherhood of the ummah.

Ghazali saw the heart as the gateway to the divine. Unfortunately, the heart is cluttered by habits and desires for the world. To unclutter it is an arduous process only achievable by the ardent. Decluttering the veneer of the heart requires both commitment to worship as well upholding decency in interacting with others. Choosing the latter over the former is destined to push worshipping God into the background; while choosing the former over the latter provides no evidence of God’s providence to the unaware.

Undoubtedly, Islamic consciousness is rising in the world: men with beards, women with hijabs, the halal economy and the Islamic pedagogy finds presence. However, the tendency towards identity or upholding traditional values is emblematic of this rise in consciousness. It is easier to chart ones ‘Muslimness’ in this way. To know God, unfortunately, is a far more difficult affair – The Prophet spent days in solitude on Mount Hira before revelation came. The Abrahamic religious narrative rests upon concentrated, independent worship to have value, otherwise it is mere ideology. Thus revelation was predominately to small communities, because when the consciousness is narrow, it is easier to remove the clutter on the heart, and open the gateway to the Divine.

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