By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
27 Sep 2017
Making Sense Of Divergent Creeds In Islamic Legacy And What Does It Mean To Be A Witness.
The Prophet (SAW) attempted to wean people away from hell that is basically constituted of false views – false absolutes. People are corrupt because their views are corrupt. Ignorance is the root of evil. Commonly we see people worshipping their egos/beliefs, judging others, full of anger and complaints, envying fate of others, anxious about pseudo problems, confusing past with timeless Tradition, fighting with themselves, their children and their doubts. That is why right view and right understanding are so important for felicity according to all religions. But how sad to note that it is hard to get access to them as religion is reduced to ideology, faith to belief, Beyond-Being and Being to personal God, God to a Super-being, Islam (the Religion) to Islam (a religion). How come there will be illumination if philosophy vetoed, mysticism suspected and debate largely proscribed? Suspicious of beauty, joy, poetry, play, love, and celebration, we find cut and dry legalism imposing in the name of Islam.
Many educated Muslims find the idiom of classical creedal formulations of their religion difficult to comprehend and many others have lost the zeal and have only some cultural affinity with Islam. How do we speak about Islam then? We do have some remarkable books touching issues of Islamic doctrines such as Maulana Idris Kandhlivi’s Ilm-al-Kalam, Shibli’s Al-Kalam, Manazir Ahsan Gilani’s Ad-Din-al-Qayyim (all these authors have made use of Ibn Arabi and his key doctrine Oneness of Being in these works/elsewhere!) that address many important questions regarding God, Book and afterlife quite brilliantly. However even their idiom is in parts difficult to appreciate. And their readings of theological other suffer from certain problems due especially to some problematic assumptions in more theologically than metaphysically oriented classical sources they appropriate and non-availability/inaccessibility of works that better define self understanding of other traditions.
Formulations of both the dominant Ash’arite and now often invoked Mu’tazilite theologies suffer from certain limitations and that explains continuing legacy of bitter polemics then and now. Ibn Taymiyyah and others pointed out some real problems in both of them. However the issues arising out of framing or interpreting what has been traditionally received from authentic sources that foremost theologians including Tahawi and Ibn Taymiyyah and major commentators on creeds till date remain a matter of violent contestation. Political factors in later consolidation of different creedal formulations have been now unearthed by diverse scholars. Issues raised with new urgency by diverse philosophers of religions and newer developments in theology in Abrahamic faiths are largely ignored in representative modern works on creed.
Given extreme polarization on almost all important issues connected with definition of shirk and claimed manifestations of the Sacred in space and time – note bitter polemics on such issues as shrine veneration, grave “worship,” sacred relics – and divisions on the issues of Ilm-al-Gayyib, most of faith healing practices, posthumous agency of certain souls and rather inadequate attention to such important problems as problem of evil, eternity of hell and fate of believers in other religions, the task before a contemporary Muslim theologian is immense. In this context I propose revisiting/appropriating great Masters/Sages who express in different idiom that helps communication better in 2017. The following building on insights of past and present sages (to be explicated in future columns) on the basics of Islam may help in the task:
Islam consists in seeking to submit to Truth – the Truth that has infinite faces and can’t be adequately framed in the language of propositions of different creedal formulations (such as those of Abu Hanifa, Tahawi, Ibn Taymiyyah) and that transcends any formulation we could ever conceive of and thus one must be open, vulnerable to receive any of the infinite truths that constitute the world of experience and that are or will ever be discovered or call for our attention. Thus Islam is best not approached as a package of answers to real and hypothetical questions but a methodology to remain open or receptive to the truth/Haqq that imposes itself in a given situation. Traditionally received/revered statements of Aqaid are, however, valuable means to an end (Iman/gnosis) that itself resists any adequate statement in language.
Only the Real can say I, not you and me. To say I believe/attest this or that is simplistic, even distorting unless “I” is sublimated/transposed/identified with the Self. Our job is to let go our egoistic projection including the dream that we are anything. Is/Are is affirmed of Being, nor Mr So and so. The question is not of proving/disproving God’s existence but of proving our dignity/rank as we find in Rumi’s Fihi Ma Fihi (It Is What It Is) so that we have truly found ourselves and nothing short of Absolute can be our final rest/“object” that in turn judges all our claims. Ours is a derived, participatory, loaned existence.
The central insight in Ibn Taymiiyah’s Al-Ubodiyyah amounts to affirming our poverty in relation to the Absolute and the realization that we can become rich only by the gift freely bestowed by the Real/Other. Our essential contingency or poverty means we must live in relationships and with an attitude of gratitude/reverence of that which fills me with being and joy that accompanies the gift of being. This gratitude to That Which Is is called Iman. Since existence remains a mystery to conceptual intellect as Stace notes (“Nothing answers the question what is It” as Al-Jili put it) I must be content to gratefully affirm this Mystery (Gayyib) and I discover great joy flows from this affirmation and this is tasting something of heaven here and now. I discover Life/Existence as a Question and earnestly seek to keep it alive and that makes me live and bloom with wonder that is a heavenly manna that sustains us in the “desert” of the world.
My contingency means friendship, family and community are central to my life. I owe to the other my very identity and that explains why I am asked to surrender, to submit to this non-self/Other/Real and that is Islam that has been one and only religion mankind has received from heaven from Adam to Muhammad (SAW). God has approved only one religion – the religion of submission to Truth, the path that leads to perfection/creation of beauty (Ihsan). The truth commands submission by its association with Beauty as Whitehead noted. And if one remains true to our real nature, Fitrah, one embraces this attitude of submission thus proving true to the claim that one is grateful for the gift of life. The prophets don’t bring new messages but affirm what is inscribed in the depths of our being regarding the Absolute and what we owe to It. Ibn Tufails’ Hayy bin Yaqzan illustrates this point and attention to the notion of intellect and intellection is what Revelation really calls for.
We are required to make use of our own treasures. No external authority requires our obeisance. To know ourselves (the Self in us) is the sole demand of scriptures. The Prophet is there not to call us to the person called Muhammad (Islam is not Muhammadanism) but to the Din-i-Hanif and established way – Tradition/Sunnah – that has been, in essence, affirmed by all those who have not forgotten their primordial covenant/true nature and stand praised/sanctified. Our passions, our ego, our tendency to forget or ingratitude make us heedless towards this primordial covenant of the soul with the Self/Spirit and necessitate Revelation. Saints and Hukama are those who especially guard against these negative tendencies and come to discover the treasure within that is then affirmed by the prophets and they in turn become best explicators of the wisdom of the prophets. All widely acclaimed Hujjat-al-Islams/Mujaddids are sages/Hukama whose station is next to Muhaddas (applied to Omar) and far higher than Ulema and also higher than saints (as noted by Ismail Shahid in Abaqat).
We are required to read/contemplate books of self (Anfus) and cosmos (Aafaq) to fulfil our potential as humans. We are called to learn from prophets, sages, saints and poets who inherit them and all of them preserve and teach us the Tradition that is our true Home and salvation. This tradition has not necessarily to do with past or custom but is timeless and like language one is, indelibly, already marked by it. It is defined as that which connects man to Heaven/Perfection/Reality/Being.
God question is best addressed by traditionalist sages by seeing it as Being question and considering theology as autology (science of Self).
Beliefs (Aqaid) are human attempts to formulate what can only inadequately be grasped of the faith (Iman) deepened by gnosis that grounds/unites/transcends beliefs.
When we understand theological notions in deeper metaphysical/esoteric terms and existentially relate to them, we find Islam has been, to a significant extent, able to reach out to generality of men in all cultures and is the Religion that has already established itself to the chagrin of Mushriks. Every moment, in every heart, is a battle fought between forces of shirk and Tawhid. Sayyidna Hussain’s calling is addressed each moment to all of us. Our every act is either authentic or inauthentic and the call of conscience/Law/Revealed Norm calls for a response. Our Iman suffers decrease or increase and we can’t claim to be immune to doubts, temptations, and distractions.
All of us need continuously to pray for right guidance and to remain in the middle path that often eludes us especially those who are complacent about it and wear Islam on sleeves. Be it Rohingya or Syria or Kashmir or oppressed humans anywhere in the world, all of us are summoned to act or at least not to forget and keep the memory alive. (Isn’t remembering Karbala the redemptive force of memory?) Who can claim to witness the truth that our spouses, families, communities, “enemies”, “alien” traditions, schools, “sects,” classes embody? Islam is a question or summon we usually fail to attend to. Who is not guilty? Who is ready to be consumed by Love in “Shahdat Gah-I-Ulfat”? Who is a Muslim? Who remains a Mu’min throughout a day, not to speak of throughout life? Who can face the truth “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” and get liberated by the Name of God/Zikr/Void that dissolves the ego and his vanity and all false absolutes.