By Hazrat Inayat Khan
An ideal is something to hope for and to hold on to, and in the absence of an ideal hope has nothing to look forward to. It is the lack of idealism which accounts for the present degeneration of humanity in spite of all the progress it has made in other directions. There are many kinds of ideals: principles, virtues, objects of devotion; but the greatest and highest of all ideals is the God-ideal. And when this God-ideal upon which all other ideals are based is lost, then the very notion of ideal is ignored. Man needs many things in life, but his greatest need is an ideal.
Without ideals man can fulfill neither his obligations at home nor those outside his home. A man with an ideal, whether in business or in a profession or in politics, in whatever walk in life, will prove to come up to the standard of everyone else. When we look at life, when our mind has sobered from life's continual intoxication, then we can see the futility of life, its falsehood, its changeability, its illusive character. Then the importance of that same life which we considered in our intoxication to be so real begins to fade away, and its reality loses colour; something which we saw as beautiful during this intoxication seems now to be quite different from what we had thought.
At this moment of soberness man begins to realize that there is nothing in anything, neither in this life nor in the hereafter; and if there is anything that could come to the aid of his reason at that moment of disillusion it is the ideal, the ideal which he has made in his heart. It is this ideal which supplies all that is lacking, all that hides beauty from his vision.
For the one who has the God-ideal before him, the absence of this changeable world makes no difference; he has something, which is greater than anything else. The sacrifice of someone who has suffered a great loss in life in order to keep his principle is not so hard for him to bear, for his ideal gives him the strength to stand firm. There is no one who is perfect in this world, and even in those whom we love and adore and respect we shall always find some lack, some want. And if there is something lacking in every entity, in every being, and we have nothing to fill it with, what must be the consequence? Nothing but disappointment.
Is this not the source of the tragedy in the lives of thousands and thousands of people? The general complaint is that one's brother or sister, wife or husband, child or parents do not come up to one's ideal, that they are not as one would wish them to be. But how can they be? They are different from us, our imagination has not made them, and they are different entities. We have our imagination and we wish them to fit in with our imagination, but this is not possible. And how many souls one finds in the world constantly sorrowing over this question! If there were an ideal, that ideal would help to bring every person all that he lacks. In this way all that we lack in our life, whether money, position, power or rank, all these gaps can be filled by the ideal, and it is the ideal which is the strength of our hope and our very life.
Those who think that God is not outside but only within are as wrong as those who believe that God is not within but only outside. In fact God is both inside and outside, but it is very necessary to begin by believing in that God outside. From our childhood we have learned everything outside. We learn what the eye is by looking at the eyes of others; everything we see in ourselves we have always learned from outside. So even in order to learn to see God we must begin by seeing God outside: as the Creator, the Judge, the Knower of all things, the forgiver; and when we have understood Him better, the next step is that the God that we have always seen outside we now also find within, and that completes our worship. If we have only found Him outside then we are His worshippers, but we remain separate from him and there is no communion, which is the purpose of life.
[Extracted from the section titled “The God-Ideal” in Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals (The Sufi Message Vol IX)]