Deliverance from Error

Inspiration as Revelation

(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.

 

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Seeking Knowledge

(Reflections on Sheikh Hamza’s lecture on Book 1: On Knowledge)

There are three types of believer. Each one believes in God and the theological tenets of Islam, but have a different approach to its practice and epistemology:

  1. The Satisfied Antinomian – He does not grant much importance to following the law, but identifies himself as a Muslim.
  2. The Contented Follower – She practices the law, some are conservative, others are liberal, and accepts the Islamic theological and legal framework of a particular school. She deeply respects the scholars, classical and contemporary, and seeks knowledge as a means of knowing the law believing it is from God. They question by asking “What is…” or “How to” (e.g. What is Sheikh X’s opinion on abortion? How to distribute inheritance?)
  3. The Frustrated Seeker – They wrestle with Islamic beliefs, history and laws. Some will interpret the law in order to suit their own needs and therefore resemble the Satisfied Antinomian whereas others practice the law in order to gain proximity to God, and resemble the Contented Follower. Unlike the Contented Follower they are not sure they reach any proximity to God and feel frustrated. They seek knowledge by asking the question “Why”.

The delineations between the three are not exact, and there are overlaps as well as a spectrum within each group. But what is important to consider is that the categorisations provide an insight into how different types of believer approach seeking knowledge.

Seeking knowledge is important in Islam. Franz Rosenthal in his review of the importance of knowledge in the Islamic civilisation, Knowledge Triumphant, writes:

“There is no branch of Muslim intellectual life, of Muslim religious and political life, and of the daily life of the average Muslim that remained untouched by the all-pervasive attitude toward “knowledge” as something of supreme value for Muslim being. Ilm is Islam”.

Religious scholars exhort their congregation to search for knowledge “even from as far China” as the Prophet allegedly said. They stress the importance of gaining religious knowledge, something Ghazali classes as the highest form.

Seeking knowledge can be divided into two types. The first is to gather knowledge as established. In other words, to learn what has already been produced. For instance, Muslims are expected to learn the tenets of faith such as aqidah tahwiyyah, and follow a legal school. The second, and interdependent with the first, is to create new forms of knowledge through ones reasoning.

When it comes the second,  the first five centuries of Islam is important because scholars were creating knowledge through developing methodologies to find knowledge, pedagogies to disseminate knowledge and systems to secure knowledge.  For the Contented Follower, it is enough to follow the system.

For the Frustrated Seeker, it is not. Islamic educational systems are suffering atrophy and have been for over two centuries. Scholars emerging today are finding it difficult to uphold tradition in the face of legal monism and secularism, which impacts the Frustrated Seeker. In reaction, they will delve into the past for answers, but will not be content with the responses.

Instead they will question why and challenge tradition. Contemporary Islamic legal opinions are often too brief or too slavish. Scholars have a tendency of saying the Hanafis say this, or there is a hadith in Bukhari that says this, and hence Muslims should follow it. For contemporary questions in the Western world, they are either simplified opinions or are issued by Arab or sub-continental scholars that do not live in region. The reasoning process is sacrificed for simplicity.

The Frustrated Seeker wants to go deeper into why things are: theologically, legally, spiritually. They want to understand processes, purposes and consequences. They are not satisfied with simple obedience or absolute statements. In many respects they undertake the enterprise of the early scholars that forged the Islamic framework Muslims follow today.

Ghazali praised the early scholars. He identifies five qualities that they had: acquaintance with jurisprudence, worship, asceticism, knowledge pertaining to the next abode, and sincerity . Jurisprudence was only sufficient for this world; the latter four qualities were more important in securing the next abode.

Scholars stress that Muslims should focus on these four qualities and avoiding questioning too much. Indeed, it is reported that al-Juwayni lamented on his death bed that he wished he had the faith of the women of Nishapur, the village he was from. It was to suggest that the intellectual speculative work he had done was in vain, and really all that mattered was practice. Al Juwayni is mistaken.  For those bestowed  with a questioning disposition, their desire to explore the discomforting areas of uncertainty or challenge the certainties of scholarly opinion is not only to strengthen their own faith but to help others resolve their questions; to help them turn from the Frustrated Seeker to the Contented Follower.

For the Frustrated Seeker, seeking knowledge is a journey, a long arduous journey, the destination of which is not certain. But they persevere, hoping, like Ghazali, that they reach a state of contentment.

Being Muslim is Not the Natural State

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Every single child is born upon the fitrah, and then his parents may make him into a Jew or Christian or Magian. Similarly, animals are born unbranded. Have you ever found an animal born branded until you brand it yourselves?Prophet Muhammad

There is a tendency for Muslims, pepped up with the love of their religion, to view the conversion of a non-Muslim to Islam, as a reversion. They argue that these individuals are returning to their original state of being a Muslim. They are reverts.

Such an overarching belief has many implications. It presupposes that the “revert” knew the truth before, and fought his way back to his original state of being a Muslim. This is perplexing as the hadith never states that every single child was born a Muslim. Instead it uses the word ‘fitrah’, which is usually translated as natural state, and wrongfully translated, on occasions, as Islam.  By this misinterpretation, Muslims can get caught up in their own pride and ignore the burdens their religion places upon them. In life, being a Muslim is not a get out of jail card.

Defining the ‘fitrah’ as connected to a religion is problematic. Most adherents of an organised religion, Muslims included, like to believe that their religion is objectively the truth. They ignore the leap of faiths they themselves have to make at some point where reason is not the guiding force.

So to decry other religions for being illogical is a subtle sign of hypocrisy as the proponent has failed to look at himself in the mirror. To believe a religion on account of its law and/or its ritualistic practices is not enough to justify its veracity.

Ghazali rightly observed that Christians grew up to be Christians, Jews grew up to be Jews and Muslims grew up to be Muslims. Therefore, the Fitrah, the natural state, was not the religion that defined the person, it was something else. He writes in his Deliverance from Error “ I was moved by a keen desire to learn what was this innate disposition in the child, the nature of the accidental beliefs imposed on him by the authority of his parents and his masters, and finally the un-reasoned convictions which he derives from their instructions”

Upon this keen desire, Ghazali commenced his journey, a journey that sought incontrovertible knowledge of the Divine. It was a journey of the mind and spirit, and a search for the providence of all creation. Ghazali did not doubt the existence of God, or the truth of his religion. His doubts stemmed from an emotional uncertainty as to whether he was sincere in his beliefs. Having knowledge of material facts was not enough. Following religious rituals was not enough. Sincerity in one’s belief went beyond the words and traditions of the religion.  It resided on a spiritual plain that could not be found unless one journeyed inward.

As walking sticks on the journey, Ghazali used the universal tools of all religions. He used prayer, fasting, solitude, silence, contemplation, and humility as means of finding the sincerity he felt he lacked. It was not an easy journey.

The outcome was a return to the natural state, and that natural state was not being part of a religion; it was being a believer of God, or a Mu’min, where one’s soul witnesses the Divine.  That is the whole purpose of revelation. Indeed, the Prophet’s own journey started with a quest for sincerity. His sojourns to Mount Hira were at a time where he had no religion, just belief and the universal walking sticks professed by all religions. In the cave, he found sincerity through his ascetic efforts, spiritually returning to that day when God asked am I not your Lord?

Ghazali never disavowed his religion and its obligations. But for him to fully make sense of his position with the Divine, he had to undergo a spiritually purifying journey. In doing so, he wiped away the influences of his parents, customs and traditions – just as the Prophet had done – to reveal the true purpose of the natural state of all humans…and that is to sincerely humble oneself in worship and awe to the Divine.

This is the reversion, something even Muslims cannot claim for themselves as most are caught by the stranglehold of their traditions. Searching for sincerity without the influences of society is not easy.  It is a struggle, but it does giving meaning to our existence.