By Special Correspondent New Age Islam
21 August 2015
Q: According to some schools of thought, God is to be found within ourselves. Hence, they stress the need for meditation on, and supposed discovery of, what they call ‘the Divine/ God/ godliness within us’, instead of the worship of what they consider an ‘external’ God. What is the Islamic position on this claim?
A: The ‘Indwelling God’ is a philosophical concept and not an established fact. If the concept of the indwelling God was factual, then every person should have experienced that God. However, there are only few persons who make this claim. People at large have never had this experience. Everyone knows that thirst and hunger are indwelling realities. So, had God been an indwelling fact, we would have been able to realize God just as we realize thirst and hunger. If only few people claim that they have realized that God dwells in them, while the larger part of humanity has not experienced this, it means that the concept of indwelling God is not correct.
The notion of a God who is imminent in human beings (and in everything else) and which one should discover with oneself, rather than outside oneself, is not in accordance with Islam. ‘God within’ is an abstract term, which has no rational or scientific basis. Therefore, such a notion can only lead to formation of vague ideas rather than a clear, rational philosophy. Islam is a reason-based philosophy. Abstraction is not in Islamic scheme of things.
Q: Is the notion of an indwelling God, God as dwelling inside human beings, akin to shirk or associationism?
A: I will not say that the notion of indwelling God is akin to shirk. According to me, this concept is an abstract philosophy without rational basis.
Q: God is omnipresent, so does it mean that He is present inside us also?
A: No, that God exists inside man is not Islamic concept. The Islamic belief is that God is constantly watching man and is aware of all his actions. Islam does not hold that God resides inside man as other bodily organs do.
Q: It is said that God created man in His image. The Quran says that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. If someone uses these to claim support for the notion that God resides within us, that He is not just somewhere ‘out there’, that human beings are ‘divine’ etc. (these are claims made, among some others, by many so-called ‘New Age’ ‘spiritualists’), what would your response, from the Islamic standpoint, be?
A: Deriving the above meaning from this verse of the Quran that you refer to is not right, because this verse means that God is aware of His creation. That God is nearer to us than our jugular vein does not mean that God is within us. The hadith which says that God has created man in His image means that God has partially bestowed on us some of the attributes that He possesses, attributes which have not been given to animals. The hadith does not have the meaning that God is inside us.
Q: Some claim that God is just another name for the totality of existence, and that since human beings are part of this totality, they are part of God and are not inseparable from Him and that by ‘finding ourselves’ we find Him. What is the Islamic position on this?
A: This is a concept that has no scientific basis. It may exist in books but no person has been able to find God by simply looking inside himself.
Q: Is the notion of an impersonal God, which some advocates of meditation posit, compatible with Islam?
A: There is no concept of impersonal God in Islam. According to Islamic teaching, we should love and fear God. We must know that one day we will be held accountable to God and that He has the power to punish and reward us. All our blessings are from God. The life-support system and every bounty we enjoy is given to us by God. This realization necessitates the belief in a personal God. If God were impersonal, then all this realization about God would disappear. God would then become a vague idea, rather than an entity whom we ought to love for all blessings and fear for wrongdoing.
Q: Some advocates of meditation do not agree with the notion of a transcendent creator God of the theistic religions. In place of this understanding of God, they claim that God is imminent in the Creation. In other words, they say, they believe that Reality or God is ‘non-dual’. What is the Islamic position on this? Is this ‘non-dualistic’ understanding of Reality the same as what is posited according to the concept of Wahdat al-Wujud that some Sufis talk about? Is this concept Islamic?
A: The concept of Wahdat al-Wujud is similar to the notion that reality is non-dualistic. However, this is not in accordance with Islamic teaching, which holds that the Creator and His creation are separate. The Creator is a being with a distinct entity, and everything else has been created by Him.
Wahdat al-Wujud is an un-Islamic concept. It is basically a version of the concept of monism, which is not derived from the Islamic scripture.
Q: Some advocates of meditation claim that through meditation one can attain what they call ‘self-realization’, which, they claim, is the apex or goal of the spiritual quest. In their understanding, worship of, and prayers to, God are not necessary for ‘self-realization’. What one needs to do, they say, to attain spiritual advancement is to learn to ‘be in the moment’, including by sitting still and keenly observing one’s breath or thoughts, for instance.
What do you say about this?
A: This is a supposition. Self-realization is not possible without tadabbur or contemplation over God and His creation. God has a prime role in one’s realization. This is because every kind of thinking about the fundamental reality begins with the question of who created man. If we eliminate this, we will not have any right starting-point for our thoughts and understanding. The starting point of the art of thinking is to know the Creator. Without this, the process of thinking cannot begin at all.
Enlightenment is related to intellectual awareness. According to my knowledge, simply observing one’s thoughts cannot lead to intellectual development. Intellectual enlightenment is the result of a continuous thought process. And the claim that sitting still and observing one’s breath leads to enlightenment, too, is unscientific, because observing one’s breath is a physical phenomenon and so it cannot lead to spirituality, which is an intellectual attainment.
Q: Is it possible, as some people claim, to come to know oneself (or what they call ‘self-realization’) and God through one’s own efforts (such as through meditation), without the need for following the guidance of the prophets in the form of Divinely-revealed scripture?
A: No. Without scriptural guidance, one can only have a vague idea of God. One will not be able to get the details in this regard. For example, without scripture, although one may discover that there is a God, one cannot determine His attributes.
Q: There is a saying in Arabic that says that he who knows himself knows His Lord. What does ‘knows himself’ mean here?
A: The Arabic wording of this famous saying is: Man 'arafa nafsahu faqad 'arafa rabbahu, which means “He who knows himself, knows his Lord”. However, this saying does not prove the monistic concept of God. This saying means that if a person ponders over who created him, he would reach the realization that a Creator or God has created him.
There is no mysterious method to know oneself. We can know ourselves by following the same rational method as is used in science. For example, I cannot see anything directly with my eyes. However, if there is sunlight present, I will be able to see things around me. This leads me to the question: Why is there such meaningful compatibility between sunlight and my eyes? When I think along these lines, I discover the Creator.
Q: Some advocates of meditation say that the purpose of meditation is not to think or ponder on a particular subject, but, rather, to slowdown or even to completely stop the thinking process. They see this thoughtlessness as a lofty spiritual attainment.
Given that you have a very different approach—you stress that intellectual development and purification and refinement of one’s thinking is basic to spirituality—how do you assess the above-mentioned claim?
A: Enlightenment is an intellectual phenomenon. Thoughtlessness can only lead to intellectual stagnation. Stopping our thinking process halts the process of spiritual development. It is same as being in total darkness when one’s house is cut off from the power supply.
Q: Some advocates of meditation say that in prayer and worship we are talking to God, while in meditation, we quiet our mind so that we can listen to God speaking to us. What do you have to say about this?
A: Those who practice meditation generally do not believe in the independent existence of God. Their god is not a personal god. Rather, they believe in the concept of a non-personal god. Therefore, through meditation they cannot come into contact with a personal God. However, those who believe in personal God are, in principle, in a position to establish bilateral contact with God.
Q: How do you define meditation? How is it different from contemplation on oneself and reflection on the creation?
A: Meditation in the popular sense of sitting still and stopping your thinking process has no rational basis. This kind of meditation is an abstract philosophy. Abstract meditation of such kind may lead to ecstasy or Wajd, but not to any rationally understandable reality. In Islam, meditation is the same as contemplation or reflection on oneself and nature.
Q: Does Islam allow or approve of meditation?
A: Islam certainly allows mediation. However, in Islam meditation is not heart-based, but mind-based, which is called Tadabbur or contemplation in the Quran. Tadabbur means to reflect on, and ponder, over the realities of life and the signs of God spread out in the universe and to engage in rational analysis of events. Through this method we are in a position to understand higher realities. However, heart-based meditation or engaging in certain physical practices leads us to no such intellectual realization.
Engaging in thoughtless meditation is not an Islamic teaching. Meditation with tadabbur, or thoughtful meditation, is part of Islam. Meditation in Islam is based on thinking with reference to facts such as those stated in the Quran and the Hadith and that which can be known through study of the world of nature and human history. In Islam, meditation is not performed in vacuum or by stopping one’s thinking process.
Q: Some people who practice meditation claim that through deep meditation, one can fully dissolve the ego or the self and merge into the universe, becoming one with all, like a drop falling into the ocean. They claim that thereby one can experience great bliss, which they say is a very high level of spirituality. What do you say about this?
A: This is a false belief. It is not taught by Islam. As a matter of fact, this kind of meditation does not exist. Spirituality, according to Islam, is based on contemplation on realities and the actual facts of life. Contemplating in vacuum cannot lead one to spiritual enlightenment.
According to Islam, spirituality leads to intellectual development. God created man with unlimited capacity, but this capacity, which is a gift of nature, is in the form of potential. Man needs to turn this potential into actuality—by thinking, reflecting and contemplating. The other name of this process of unfolding of the mind is ‘intellectual development’. Therefore, Islamic spirituality does not require one to abandon the material world or to engage in certain physical practices to attain some mysterious bliss. Rather, spirituality is a rational process of thinking and reflecting over realities of life. Part of this is what I call the ‘art of conversion’—that is, converting material events into non-material or spiritual experiences and lessons.
We live in this world where we face various kinds of situations. We have to develop the ability to extract intellectual or spiritual food from our different observations and experiences. For example, when the Prophet saw a bird flying in the sky, he told his companions that the hearts of the people of Paradise would be like that of the birds. This means that just as birds show no malice and hatred even when shooed away, only those people are competent to be settled in Paradise who, despite living in the midst of negativity, maintain their positive thinking. This is an example of learning a spiritual lesson through a physical observation.
Similarly, when the Prophet saw the lunar eclipse, he told his Companions that it is among the signs of God. Thus, study and knowledge of the universe leads one to discover its Maker and Designer.
Q: Some people are on the look for spiritual ‘experiences’. They are looking for forms of religion or ‘spirituality’ that make them ‘feel good’, ‘happy’ or ‘ecstatic’. They say that this is a criterion or measure of truth—what is true for them, they say, is what makes them happy, joyful and comfortable. If some forms of so-called spiritual exercises give them a feeling of ‘ecstasy’, they think that this is what they are looking for and that this is the truth.
What do you think about this understanding of spirituality based on the so-called ‘feel good’ factor, where truth is seen as equivalent to whatever seems to make one ‘feel good’ or ‘feel happy’ or ‘ecstatic’?
A: Certain spiritual experiences may give one ecstasy, but they cannot give a person joy in the rational sense. Real happiness is a rational phenomenon. Until one is rationally satisfied about the way to find happiness, one cannot find happiness.
Q: Recently, I met a man who claims to practice a certain form of meditation, who says that blanking out the mind, making it totally empty and thought-free is a great spiritual accomplishment. What do you say about this?
A: According to me, this is mere word play, because the state described by these words cannot in reality be experienced by an individual.
Q: Some people claim that the aim or the highest level of spirituality is the dissolution of the ego or the individual self and its abiding or total immersion or abiding in God. Do you agree with this? Is this notion Islamic? Is it taught in the Quran or mentioned in the Hadith? Is this notion scientific? Is it at all possible for the individual ego, no matter how spiritually-advanced, to be completely dissolved before one’s physical death?
Some people claim that there have been great mystics (including Sufis) whose egos were totally effaced through various spiritual practices. What do you think this claim?
A: According to Islam, the ego is part of human nature, and, therefore, one cannot attain the dissolution of the ego. The ego will remain alive as long as a human being is alive. The ego can only be managed, and not eliminated from the human personality. The claim by certain Sufis that they attained an ego-free state is false, as it goes against human nature. The ego cannot be eliminated. It can only be managed. This management is possible through rational thinking and not abstract meditation.
Q: What is the Islamic approach to overcoming negative thoughts?
A: There is only one way of converting our negative thoughts into positive thoughts, and that is by way of introspection and by de-conditioning our minds.
Negative thinking can be eliminated by realizing that it only leads to self-killing—that it cannot harm anyone outside of us. This discovery alone helps in overcoming negative thoughts. For example, anger and hate are to be attributed to collective existence, and not to any particular person. Where there is collective existence, there are also negative thoughts. You cannot eliminate this phenomenon from collective existence. This realization helps us to keep patience and be tolerant, which, in turn, helps overcome negative thinking.
Q: What method or methods do you suggest for deconditioning and reconditioning the mind?
A: Engaging in objective analysis of things and introspection is the only way of deconditioning. There is no other workable formula in this regard.