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Islam and Spiritualism ( 23 Jun 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Relationship between Genuine Worship and Inner Transformation from the Perspective of Islamic Spirituality

By Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu, New Age Islam

24 June, 2015

“Tawhid”: Faith in the Oneness of Allah as the Fountainhead of All Acts of Islamic Worship

            The Holy Qur’an proclaims to all who call themselves Muslims; “Say: He is Allah, the One and Only (Surah Ikhlas: 1)”. The very foundation of Islam rests on Kalimah-e-Tawhid (the Declaration of Divine Unity) where the doctrine of the absolute Oneness of Allah in its purest form is strongly emphasized. The Islamic creed states; “La-Ilaha-Illa-Llah” (There is no God worthy of worship except Allah). This testimony to Almighty Allah’s Oneness has the power to transform our earthly life of worldliness and materialism to the most sublime angelic state by inwardly reflecting and contemplating (Tafakkur) on the profound significance and the spiritual role that the Kalimah-e-Tawhid plays in our life as Muslims; which is nearness to the Divine Throne and eventual vision of Almighty Allah’s Beautiful Face. The inner reality of all forms of divine worship in Islam stems from the fountainhead of our faith in the Divine Oneness of Allah (Tawhid): and the ultimate goal of Tawhid (Islamic monotheism) is nearness (qurbah) to our Beloved Allah’s Everlasting Presence.

The Ultimate Purpose of Existence: To Give Worship and Render Loving Service to our Beloved Allah

            Our All-Majestic Allah declares in the Holy Qur’an: “I have not created Jinns and humankind except that they worship Me” (Surah Zariyat:56). Islamic worship (Ibadah) needs to be properly understood with this Qur’anic verse in mind, since this ayah gives us hints as to how we can truly worship Allah Almighty. The Arabic word “Ibadah” is related to other proximate words in Arabic like Abd, Abid, Abdi (words to mean “servant”), Abdiyyah (servanthood) and Ubudiyyah (to give ultimate worth/value, i.e., to worship). In worshipping Allah Almighty, we are exhibiting the undeniable truth that He is our Creator and we (and indeed, the whole cosmos) are his lowly creatures (See Shaykh Nasser al-Hurayni. Qamus-e-Alam; 6th abridged edition. Cairo, Egypt: Sayyidah Maimoonah Press, 1963, in the Ibadah entry). The whole of our existence is made for the sole purpose of giving praise and adoration to Allah Almighty at all times and in all spheres of our life. The word “ibadah” which is translated in English as “worship” literally means exhibiting the true character of humble servanthood. Hence all aspects and all moments of our life as Allah’s creatures are to be undertaken for the sole purpose of serving Him and should therefore become avenues of sincere adoration as well as humble submission to Allah Almighty’s heavenly decrees. The Islamic understanding of worship entails day-by-day “24-hour” servanthood to our Beloved Allah and moment-to-moment submission to His immutable decrees in all aspects of our life as His creatures who utterly depend upon Him for our daily sustenance and life’s existence. Since we will remain forever as Allahu Taala’s perpetual slaves, therefore for all eternity, the goal and end of our fragile existence is to worship Allah Almighty by our sincere and loving devotional service towards Him.

The Paramount Importance of Proper and Right Intention (Niyyah) in all our Acts of Worship

            As Muslims, we are perfectly aware that in the obligatory aspects of worship, there are certain forms or postures, ceremonial actions and devotional disciplines prescribed by the Shariah for the various acts of worship’s proper execution, accomplishment and fulfilment. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that our Holy Prophet (pbuh) stressed that over and above the formal aspects of worship; the rightness of our intention (Niyyat) is of paramount importance. For the Holy Prophet Muhammad, the proper intention in all our acts of worship is that we perform them solely for the pleasure of our Beloved Allah (Raza). There is a well-known Hadith accepted as sound and verified by all Ahlus Sunnah scholars past and present: “Actions are judged solely by intention” (Hazrat Imam an-Nawawi, Hadith-e-Arbaien [Forty Hadiths]. Lahore: Dawat-e-Islami; 1967, p.3; Hadith #1). The above hadith was considered crucially important by the eminent scholar of Hadith, Hazrat Imam An-Nawawi; this is why he placed this Hadith as first (Hadith Awwali) among the forty Hadiths he collected. In his Bustan-e-Arifin, Imam An-Nawawi called this Hadith “al-Laati A’layha Madar Al-Adab-Ul-Islamiyyah (the axis and pivot characterizing the summit of Islamic conduct). In this book, Imam An-Nawawi says that Islam insists upon the right intention (Niyyat) in the performance of any external deeds related to worship; furthermore Islam stresses unequivocally that the true value of any outward forms of worship are directly assessed by the rightness and sincerity of our intentions in performing our devotional acts (See Hazrat Imam An-Nawawi, Bustan-e-Arifin [The Garden of the Enlightened]. Karachi, Pakistan: Dar-al-Ruhani, 1984; pp. 40-42; see also the entry: “Ikhlas [Sincerity] and having Conscious Niyyah in all Affairs of Ibadah” in the same book). As per Imam An-Nawawi, a worshipper can perform outward forms of an act of worship with wrongful intention and vain purpose such as to make a show (ri’ya) of his devotions and to boast (Takabbur) of his piety; and these wrongful intentions diminish and nullify the spiritual value of his worship. Hence, only those devotional acts done with the right intention (which is Raza, i.e., doing actions solely to please Almighty Allah) marked by authenticity (Ikhlas) can lead the worshipper to inner spiritual purification and inward transformation. Outward forms of worship devoid of sincere intention are worthless and are nothing but vain and capricious acts which Almighty Allah absolutely hates and strongly detests.

            The Holy Qur’an solemnly warned all Muslim devotees: “So woe to the worshippers who are neglectful of their prayers, those who want but to be seen of men, but refuse to supply even neighbourly needs” (Surah Ma’un:4-7). In this Qur’anic ayah the importance of praying with the right intention is succinctly emphasized. Salaah (the formal prayer in Islam), and the most important obligatory act of Islamic liturgical worship commences with Niyyat. No prayer is deemed performed even if one goes through the “motions of prayer” if such prayer lacks Niyyat. Once Niyyat is brought to one’s mind and heart before prayer commences, the worshipper then concentrates towards the performance of Salaah itself where he refrains from thinking of anyone and anything else except reflecting upon Allah’s greatness while filling his heart and mind with Allah’s remembrance (Dhikr ul Allah).

Worship as Means of Conscious Awareness to the Reality of the Divine Presence and as Vehicle to our Inner Transformation

            During Salaah, the worshipper faces with one-pointed absorption and humble attention (Khushoo) to the Qiblah, which is the direction of the Holy Ka’abah, Allah’s glorious house. The genuine believer who longs to behold the Beautiful Face of Allah knows that the all-pervading divine Presence (Hudhur/ Hadhrah) is not restricted to a specific location. Allah’s divine Presence is everywhere and at all times and in all climes (Surah Baqarah:115). The Holy Qur’an itself declares empathically: “Allah is with you wherever you are” (Surah Hadid:4). The spiritual reality and the innermost significance of facing the Qiblah can be explained in one beautiful Hadith-e-Qudsi: “All the heavens and all the earth cannot contain My Majesty; but I dwell in the heart of a true believer” (Quoted by Hazrat Imam Al-Ghazali in his Ihya-al-Ulm-ud-Din [The Revivification of the Faith]. Cairo, Egypt: Sunni Classics Reprint, 1969; p. 56). To face Allah’s glorious house (the Ka’abatullah) attunes our entire physical existence to be mindful of Allah’s divine Presence and inwardly denotes Oneness (Tawhid) and one-pointed concentration (Tawwajuh) and humble attention (Khushoo) in which our whole heart focuses its spiritual gaze, sentiments of love and feelings of worship in Almighty Allah’s holy Presence.

            The Holy Qur’an states: “We are nearer to him (i.e. the worshipper) than his jugular vein (to himself)” (Surah Qaf: 16). Our sincere worship brings us closer to our Beloved Allah since worship is a means to our inner reflection and heartfelt realization that Almighty Allah is ever near to all those who call upon His Name in loving remembrance. In many Hadiths of the Prophet, the worshipper is exhorted to develop profound awareness of Allah’s presence by means of his regular acts of worship; this means that through the regularity and constancy of our worshipping Allah, our belief in Him will become a living faith borne by true and genuine realization of certainty (Ilm-al-Yaqeen) as we regularly commune with Him in our prayers and remembrance of his Glorious Name. The Holy Qur-an says: “Worship your Lord until certainty (Yaqeen) descends upon you” (Surah Hijr:99). Hadith-e-Jibrail elaborated this Qur’anic verse by this statement: “Ihsan (authentic goodness) is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you cannot see Him, then indeed He sees you” (Al-Bukhari and Al-Muslim. Kitab-ul-Ihsan: 23).

Inner Transformation in Worship Occurs When the Lowly Human Character is Decorated with Allah’s Beautiful Attributes

            Worship (Ibadah) inwardly transforms our faith in Almighty Allah into a conscious and living awareness of His divine Presence (Hudhur Ilahiyya) leading towards the recognition of the True Sovereignty of Allah Almighty in our lives and our perpetual servanthood to His Majesty as articulated by our pre-existent souls (ar-ruah) in the Primordial Covenant (Ahd-e-Alast), which was narrated in the Holy Qur’an in this manner: “And (remember) when thy Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their reins, their seed, and made them testify of themselves, (saying): Am I not your Lord? They said: Yea, verily, [Thou art]” (Surah A’araf:172). In relation to this Qur’anic ayah (verse), there is also a Hadith-e-Qudsi that records this profound and beautiful saying of our Almighty Allah: “I was a hidden treasure and desired to be discovered, hence I created the whole cosmos” (Cited in Futuhah-al-Makkaiyah (Meccan Revelations) by Hazrat Shaykh-ul-Akbar Muhaiyyaddin Ibn Arabi, Vol.2; p. 112). For Hazrat Ibn Arabi, the true intents and purposes in Islamic worship or Ibadah are the following: as venue in recognizing Him as our Creator and Sustainer (Rabb), as platform to know and love Him and as a training-ground for our Nafs (self) to submit to His holy will in every aspects of our life. All sincere acts of worship take a worshipper to the sublime summit of divine awareness, where he is enabled to feel the blissful Presence of our Beloved Allah in his day-to-day life. The effect of this divine consciousness in the believer’s existence becomes so deep that he totally becomes oblivious of anything except the Majesty of Allah Almighty.

            Likewise, let us not forget that the importance of all physical and external acts of worship cannot be ignored as Muslims are solemnly enjoined to perform these acts of worship as required by the Shariah (Islamic Law). However, we must transcend or go beyond the mere performance of outward forms of worship by properly understanding these devotional and ritual acts to be our means of reaching the goal that these acts intend to achieve; the goal or ultimate intention of all our worship is to manifest our eternal servanthood in respect to Allah’s Sovereignty, to achieve nearness (Qurba) to the Presence of Allah and to attain His good pleasure (Raza). Hazrat Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi says in his Masnawi: “Our Lord has decreed: ‘Prostrate yourself to Me, so you may draw near to me’… ” (Quoted by Maulvi Abdussatar Burhani Naqshbandi in the book Hayat-e-Maulana Rum [The Life of Maulana Rumi]. Hyderabad, Pakistan: Idaraah-e-Tasawwuf, 1964; p.115.). In this short but meaningful quote, Hazrat Maulana Rumi points to us very clearly that our bodily prostrations, and indeed all our external forms of worship are vehicles by which our spirits can ascend (mi’raj) to Allah’s divine Presence.

            Inward spiritual transformation is a result of our loving service to our Beloved Allah. As we have seen previously, the Qur’an puts under the same rank of the impious those so-called Muslims who are neglectful of their prayers, those who loved to be shown by people when they perform their devotional acts of worship, and those who neglect to offer charity and refuse to show mercy to the needy and to the disadvantaged (Surah Maun:1-7). These verses clearly show that all our acts of piety and worship should transform us inwardly by making our spirits conduits and expressions of Allah’s character of mercy and compassion to the world in need of our loving concerns. The relation between the “formal” aspects of worship and the “spiritual” effects that these forms of worship result in the inner life of believers is magnificently expressed and exemplified in the Masnawi, where Hazrat Maulana Rumi reported that Almighty Allah informed Prophet Moses:

“Ways of worship have profound impact upon my lovers. All forms of worship glorify me and in glorifying Me and giving me due honour, my lovers get a glimpse of my glorious and divine Attributes. It is not Me who benefits from these acts of worship; it is my lovers who benefit from the results of their fervent worship and their sincere devotion of Me. In their true worship of me and in their constant remembrance of my Name—gradually but surely—they mirror and reflect My divine character and imprint (Naqsh) these attributes into the inner recesses of their souls.” (Quoted by Maulvi Abdussatar Burhani Naqshbandi in the same book Hayat-e-Maulana Rum [The Life of Maulana Rumi], Ibid. p.117.)

Genuine Worship Results in Loving Compassion Characterizing a Proper Human Person: Performing Acts of Mercy to the Needy Solely for Allah’s Sake 

            For this final portion of this article, it is beneficial to quote another Quranic passage that illustrates the relevant spiritual dimension of Islamic worship as it directly relates to the practical demand of responding in charity, love and compassion to the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the marginalized in the society. The Holy Qur’an says:

“It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards East or West; but righteous is the one who believes in Allah and the Last Day, and the angels, and the Book, and the prophets, and gives away wealth out of love for Him, to the near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and to set the slaves free; and keeps up prayer, and pays the poor-rate [i.e., charity]: and the performers of their promise when they make a promise, and the patient in distress and affliction and in the time of conflict [adversities]. These are they who are truthful; and these are they who keep their duty.” (Surah Baqara: 177).

            In explaining the above verse, Hazrat Muhaiyyaddin Ibn Arabi commented that although in Islam, there exists a specific direction and prescribed liturgical postures by which a Muslim faces when praying, yet the Quran equally acknowledges that the divine Presence (Hudhur/Hadhrah/Sakinah) of Allah is found wherever His true devotees worship Him with sincere longing, genuine devotion and pure love. More importantly, for Hazrat Ibn Arabi, Surah Baqara:177 encourages true worshippers to go beyond (i.e., to transcend) the ritual and formal demands of the different ceremonial expressions of worship and focusing further on the importance of acquiring the divine imprint of Allah’s Holy Attributes to be reflected in one’s heart while performing these various forms of worship. For Ibn Arabi developing the divine characters of mercy, love and compassion within one’s being is one of the foremost goals that should enliven all forms of our worship. This means that aside from satisfying the good pleasure of Allah, human compassion towards others and persevering faith in the midst of trials and difficulties should likewise be the end goals of all our external forms of worship (See Shahabuddin Maliki, Light from the Sayings of Shaykh-ul-Akbar Ibn Arabi. Decca, Bangladesh: Markaz Towheedi, 1977; p.63).

            Hazrat Ibn Arabi further explained that in Islam, the divine purpose of the various prescribed acts of worship is for the spiritual education and practical training of humankind, aside from the avowed aim of glorifying or praising our Beloved Allah. For Hazrat Ibn Arabi, more than outward manifestations of piety, the crucial intention of the Quran is for the Islamic Ummah (community) to produce proper human beings who are humanely sensitive to the needs of others (See Shahabuddin Maliki, Ibid; pp.69-70). The Quran therefore articulates very explicitly that in the all-encompassing Islamic perspective concerning worship as Ibadah, all our acts of devotion to Allah Almighty is meant to acknowledge the Divine Sovereignty of Allah in our lives as His lowly and humble servants and at the same time it is meant to divinely transform our materialistic existence and worldly attitudes by endeavouring to inwardly transform us into compassionate and “humane” persons who act with benevolence, kindness, justice and equality to every creatures solely for the intention (Niyyat) of gaining our Beloved Allah’s good pleasure and approval.

            May our Beloved Allah have mercy upon the Ummah of our Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) so that all those who name themselves “Muslims” will truly live a life of genuine servanthood to Almighty Allah’s divine commands through the regular practice of authentic worship solely for the sake of Allah’s pleasure. May our mind, heart and soul be decorated and beautified with Almighty Allah’s divine Attributes so that we will be enabled by Allah’s grace (Ni’mah) to properly exhibit and showcase the beauty of Allah’s religion, Islam to the world. Amen—a thousand times Amen!

Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu is Associate Professor-VI of Philosophy and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines (UP), Cebu City. He was former Academic Coordinator of the Political Science Program at UP Cebu from 2011-2014. His research interests include Islamic Studies particularly Sunni (Hanafi) jurisprudence, Islamic feminist discourses, Islam in interfaith dialogue initiatives, Islamic environmentalism, the writings of Imam Al-Ghazali on pluralism and tolerance, Turkish Sufism, Muslim-Christian dialogue, Middle Eastern affairs, Peace Studies and Public Theology.