By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
04 May 2017
We often assume God is worried or concerned about our sins and we have a long list of them. And the funny – and tragic – part is that we keep thinking more about what God doesn’t mind. God does mind certain things that we mostly don’t mind. Let us ask if God minds about all or some percentage of around a million questions asked to jurists on daily basis by Muslims – one can find them on sites on Islam or Fiqh manuals. Let us also ask that even if God minds are we advised to mind what He minds in others’ lives. Some think God is worried about our dressing room routine – Burqas/Hijabs/length of Shalwar/hair style. Some want to help God in managing certain issues they think He takes cognizance of and these include such things as women employment, personal aesthetic in grooming, music, festivals/birthdays/anniversaries celebrated in traditional or folk style, all kinds of “idolatrous” or “pagan” beliefs and practices, myths and tales and what not. So let us investigate if God cares/not cares and pray “Teach us to care/and not to care.”
The issue may be rephrased as: What is it that obstructs our Falah (felicity) here and hereafter and especially hereafter as that is invoked here by those who think either way. The test that one is required to pass is, in Islamic terms, holding fast to Ad-Deen – Deen-ul-Qayyim.
Now what actions obstruct our road to felicity? Primarily, major sins, according to the Islamic tradition. Now who isn’t guilty of major sins if their number is stretched to hundreds as some jurists have listed them or thousands if we go by listing all the influential Fatwas? However, we need to note wide divergence amongst jurists on this issue and can consider the view defended by major figures that restricts (or classifies/derives from) them to seven or even lesser number (longer list is deductively – and at times problematically – derived from them). However, let us focus on those sins amongst them that we are often charged with or we charge our fellow believers with.
We note that there is no debate on those sins as they are considered, universally across traditions, grave moral failures. What are mostly debated in juristic manuals and cause most of anxiety and guilt are not moral failures but perceived deviations from some arbitrarily set standard or norm that God doesn’t seem to be interested in to warrant deep anguish regarding their fulfilment.
It is often forgotten by legists who make certain legal opinions as if a matter of life and death and resent picking and choosing the most convenient opinion from across schools in a given case, that hell only punishes gross violation of moral law and that moral law is essentially shared by Semitic religions ( and, in their own ways, by non-Semitic ones as well) and arguably, to a remarkable extent, by secular circles as well (as far as its tenets affect this worldly social equilibrium).
A review of eschatological corpus of Islam reveals mostly silence on the issues – or God’s non-interest – that are vehemently advocated by legists and one wonders whom to make responsible for unnecessary guilt, hardship and mostly unpopular moral policing by the State. Issues that divide Muslim legal schools or “modernists” and “traditionalists” mostly make little or no difference to one’s otherworldly prospects and as such should have been less rigidly taken or the other position more empathized with by either camp.
Much of the legal corpus sustains varied orthodox readings and there is “dissent between the various schools on almost all questions of law” implying certain neutrality/wide latitude in terms of otherworldly implications. Since the widely agreed list of actions (major sins) that need to be publicly cognized/punished by the State and/or have primarily otherworldly costs are very few (and mostly recognized as crimes by secular laws elsewhere as well), we should be able to settle most of significant controversies between Islamists and their critics or reformists. Gender justice, for instance, could be squarely faced from this felicity centric perspective as divergent interpretations upheld by more liberal or “feminist” camp don’t entail otherworldly danger.
Middle Path to which both philosopher-sages (Aristotle, Nagarjuna and Confucius) and the scripture of Islam invite, means, in its deeper understanding as can be had from classics of ethical philosophy and metaphysics, steering clear of any position that has tendency to become absolutist. Sermons and Fatwas often fall prey to absolutism, absolutising legal opinions which are human interpretations or fallible attempts to capture the Divine Norm.
Prayer that is ultimately demanded or saves is not 5 times ritual prayer but the prayer that defines the essence of religio-mystical consciousness, is established (“Aqeemus-Salat”) rather than recited/read/performed in certain mechanical routine manner, makes one participate in Mi’raj, is offered in any circumstances (sitting, standing, driving, in the state of war or in disease or stress) with or without routine formal features, is ultimately geared to maintaining attention or awareness of breath /the present moment – and this is perpetual obligation (Farzi-Dayim) on every human being. (It doesn’t mean ritual prayer isn’t a sanctified means to achieve the end but that its form is relative and its unchangeable kernel and end – Zikr – needs to be guarded) For missing ritual fasting no otherworldly punishment is indicated in the tradition.
But let us not forget attachment to stomach, to lusts is a major sin. Modesty as an expression of human dignity and negation of pride/indulgence can’t be unconnected to Felicity and thus emphasized. And modesty will be understood by different cultures differently. Even the same person appropriates the ideal of modesty differently based on climate and conditions. The same applies to Sama/music debate. The harmonious use of sounds leading to God-consciousness/Felicity is good.
Such issues as legitimacy of certain arts, role of philosophy, Sufism, jobs in corporate sector including banking, length of Shalwar etc. can be resolved in the cool and clear understanding of what constitutes the Divine Measure/Limit and its link to Felicity.
After we have learnt to care and not to care, we find a still point that is God that finally dissolves our question or worry. So it boils down to finding/tasting God rather than worrying about Him. We need to worry how far we are from the still point of our existence, the serenity of the witnessing self that watches the play rather than judges it, the verdant freshness, freedom and innocence of Spirit that is incorruptible by sin.
The highway to this destination is littered by small cares that really matter – having contempt for no person as person (judging their ideologies is another matter), treating the other as if He/she is God in disguise, not inventing excuses to refuse helping the other (even in such “trivial” matters as offering lift), not thinking of oneself as better than anyone we ever meet, ever keeping smiling, not taking affairs of life too seriously but rather playfully, joking or laughing our way through this sorrowful odyssey that life is, doing everything in a style caring for beauty at every level, finding joy or something to be grateful for in every little thing/event, doing anything we like provided we have love in our hearts as motivation (Augustine) and don’t hurt anyone (Hafiz) and don’t forget what ultimately determines our end: right use of intelligence in practical sphere (we call it ethics), in cognitive sphere (we call it wisdom). In simpler terms we can say that all life’s blessings here and hereafter have been linked to right understanding and that in turn in linked to our openness to love.
Whenever one is in doubt regarding certain issue consider the golden test of asking conscience that the Prophet (SAW) suggested besides what Augustine formulated in his seminal work De Doctrina Christiana: validity of any interpretation rests on its furtherance of love of God and love of neighbour which are the first two commandments. Let us keep asking religious scholars of highest eminence only (who know tradition intimately including Maqasid and can interpret received wisdom in contemporary postmodern idiom) and then let us not ignore the clarification of many related issues in the works of sages/Hukama. And then one tastes something of inexhaustible Divine Mercy and sees how indeed religion is not hard to practise but a joy that has been revealed according to our request, so to speak. With every morsel one enjoys saying Alhamdulillah, sweet angels’ wake one up gently at Tahajjud, Namaz is a Mi’raj and sin is not attractive but hateful and sin, not sinners are judged negatively.