By Hazrat Inayat Khan
There are four stages of belief. The first stage is the belief of the follower. This belief reminds one of sheep; where one goes, all the others follow, and that is the belief of most people. If a person stays in the middle of the street looking at the sky, in ten minutes time a hundred people are also looking at the sky. Four people will attract four hundred, and four hundred will attract four thousand. That is why the number of believers at this stage is so great; there is no limit to it. Whether it is a right or a wrong belief, they are only attracted by someone else and they all follow.
The second stage of belief is faith in authority. A person believes because it is written in such and such a book, or said by such and such a person. This is a slightly better belief, because if a man of this kind is not sure of himself, he is at any rate sure of some personality, of a certain sacred book or scripture. It is a more intelligent belief, and the one who refuses to believe in this way makes a great mistake, for it is the second step on the path of belief. If one cannot believe in someone who is better acquainted with certain things, one will never learn anything. And no doubt, belief in a person is greater than belief in a book. Very often a man says, 'How wonderful! I have read it in a book, so I believe it.' He believes it to such a degree that even if someone else says that it is not so, he will still remain convinced that what is written in the book is true.
The third belief is that of reasoning, which means that everything one believes one reasons out within oneself. This is a still greater belief; but how few there are who reason it out! There are also many who begin to reason before arriving at this third stage, and then they cannot progress as they should because two stages are left out. Some begin to reason in childhood, and if they have no proper guidance, reason will lead them astray. It is a great problem today how to bring up children. Parents think nowadays that by giving the children the belief that has been held in the family they may make them narrow, yet at the same time they have no substitute, no other belief to give them in its place. In this way, children grow up without belief and to believe later on is very difficult.
During my travels in Europe and elsewhere I have seen the great difficulty of this question, for there are many who say, 'We were not taught any particular belief, we have not been taken to church. We have not got any direction in that line; and now we begin to feel a longing to have some belief, but we do not know how to believe. We are too old now to take to a belief.'
Belief should be sown in the heart in childhood. It is just like a person who only starts playing the violin at thirty years of age. If he had begun at five years of age, in twelve years' time he would perhaps have developed the faculty of music, whereas now it is too late.
When a person has reached the age of thirty or forty and has already made an ego for himself, when he has learning and knowledge and has become centred on material thought, it is too late to begin to believe in something. By that time, he should have gone from one belief to another in order to arrive at a high belief. No doubt, for a person who really wants to seek for truth, it is never too late, yet loss of time is a great loss; no other loss can be compared with it. Life is an opportunity, and if this opportunity is lost it is a great pity.
Now the difficulty with the belief of a reasoning person is this, that if reason leads and belief follows, belief will never have a chance to take root. Reason will always crush it. But if belief leads and reason follows, the belief will be purified and carried very far because reason supports it. Thus reason can either crush belief or support it, and if reason supports belief it becomes a great belief; no one can change it. But if reason crushes it then belief cannot exist. This is why it is the custom among the Arabs to give belief to a child even before it knows how to speak. Then later reason springs up and crushes undesirable elements in the belief and raises it to a higher grade of knowledge.
But there is another stage of belief, the fourth stage, in which one's belief may be called conviction. It cannot be changed when it has culminated in conviction. Where does this belief come from? It comes from the divine element in man, known both as love and as intelligence. It is known in these two different aspects but in reality they are one in their essence. If there is no intelligence there is no love; if there is no love there is no intelligence. Love springs from intelligence and intelligence lives from love. And thus they are two aspects of the same thing. Unbelief comes from lack of intelligence and lack of love. A person has belief in accordance with the extent to which he shows these two aspects.
A sympathetic person is inclined to believe what one says and to trust; an unsympathetic person is inclined to disbelieve and distrust. In order to trust there must be sympathy. It might be that a person is sympathetic and not intelligent, but intelligence will be there just the same, although it may be hidden by what one sees, because in reality these two things are one.
Taking these four stages of belief; the man who has the first kind of belief, like the sheep, will say, 'Yes, I believe in a soul because they say there is a soul. I believe in God, and I believe in a hereafter because people say that when they die, they will go on living somewhere.'
The man who has the second kind of belief will say,' I believe in a soul because it is written in the book, I believe in a hereafter because the Master has said there is a hereafter. I believe in God because the Prophet has taught us to worship and to pray to the Father in heaven.'
When the third person is asked, 'How can you believe in the soul?' he says, 'Nothing comes out of nothing, there must be something for something to emerge. If my individuality is only a body, then where has it sprung from, where is its source? Do not sense, intelligence, consciousness, all show that I am not only an earthly being, but that I am something different, something larger and greater and higher than matter? I have been told of a being, which is unseen, which is called the soul. Just as the eyes cannot see themselves, but others can see them, so it is with the soul. The soul cannot see itself; as the eyes can see everything but themselves, so the soul sees all things but not itself. ' And if one asks him, 'But do you believe in the hereafter?' he will say, 'I cannot have been non-existent before coming on earth, it is only the existent which can exist. As I have existed before, then afterwards too, I shall exist. This is only a phase, a phase we call life. […] I cannot be born only for a certain time and cease to exist when I die. That is why I think there is a life in the hereafter.' And if a person asks him, 'Do you believe in God?' He says, 'Certainly. There are different parts of one's being: hands, feet, and head. They each function, yet they are all called myself; it is one being. If this is true, then the whole universe is nothing but particles of God's life and the Absolute is one Being. God therefore is all, and all is God. All comes from God and all returns to God, who is the source and goal of all things. Then God is the ideal towards which I direct my concentration, I am trying to reach perfection by means of that perfect ideal which I call God.'
But when we come to the man who has reached the fourth belief, which is faith and conviction, not everyone can understand his language. If one asks, 'Have you a soul?' he says, 'I am the soul, and God is only my cover.' If one asks, 'Do you believe in a hereafter?' he says, 'The hereafter I see here; it is not afterwards. I see the past and present and future all at the same moment.'
That man lives in eternity. His language cannot be understood by everyone, reason cannot perceive it, because it is beyond reason. […] And if one asks him, 'Do you believe in God?' he will answer, 'Do not ask me about my conception of God. I live in God, I am in God, and more than that, I cannot say.'
[Extracted from the section titled “Belief” in Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals (The Sufi Message Vol IX)]