By: Shaykh Naeem Abdul Wali Edwards
“If you would trust in God as is His right to be trusted He would give you your provision as He gives it to the birds, they leave their roosts hungry and return satiated”, said the final universal Messenger, Muhammad. Similarly the author of the Gospel of Mathew has his closest brother, Jesus saying to the crowds around him, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” A little later he addressed them as, “O you of little faith?”
The word faith originally meant something akin to placing one’s trust in someone as when we say we have ‘faith’ in a friend or in an ideal. As Karen Armstrong said, “Faith was not an intellectual position but a virtue: it was the careful cultivation, by means of rituals and myths of religion, of the conviction that despite all the dispiriting evidence to the contrary, life had some ultimate meaning and value”.
It is the disease of the modern age that this understanding of faith being something inherently holistic that renders the heavenly dispensations perplexing to the children of modernity. The Quran states, “It is not piety that you turn your faces to the east or west, but piety is a person who believes in God… These words are quite significant in their Arabic original, unfortunately their fecundity being lost in the English translations. For clearly they indicate that there must be an engendered personification of an abstraction, an idea of ‘piety’, or bir, and that the locus of this accident is man. Bir, piety as the great Quranic exegete as-Suyuti said: “is the doing of good, in all its manifest realities”. Reflexively the author of Acts has Peter saying when asked to describe Jesus as, “…he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him”. This is of the prophetic legacy and largesse.
The Prophet Muhammad said once, “Mankind are the dependents, or family of God, and the most beloved of them to God are those who are the most excellent to His dependents”. It is in loving our brothers that true anchoring faith is manifested, for he said, “Not one of you believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself”. Great Muslim scholars of prophetic tradition such as Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani and Sharafuddin an-Nawawi have said that the words ‘his brother’, or akheehee, mean any person irrespective of faith. Similarly, the author of the Gospel of Luke has written concerning Jesus: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher”, he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” He replied, “How do you read it?” He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your strength and with your entire mind’, and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” Of course this the parable of the Good Samaritan, someone outside the orthodox Jewish tradition, yet a man manifesting the doing of good which characterizes the people of God. Seeing beyond ourselves, to others is quintessential to true heavenly religion, something inherently antithetical to modernity.
Individualism uniquely characterizes modernity; in the language of classical Islamic spirituality it is called annaaniyya. It impedes us from being able to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and Muhammad. As Huston Smith rightly says when speaking of it: Modernity induces us to believe that there is no right higher than the right to choose what one believes, wants, needs or must possess. This gives us ‘the culture of narcissism’. Yet, heavenly dispensations seek from us the setting aside of our ‘annaniyya’, our ‘I-ness’. This is the prophetic norm, demanding of us emulation.
Emulation is cardinal in the divine economy. The author of the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus saying: A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. Muhammad in speaking of ritual prayer said to his companions: “Pray as you have seen me pray”. And God in speaking to the community of Muhammad says: If you love Me, then follow me and God will love you. For God situates between the sons and daughters of Adam prophets, that their faith is known in their setting aside themselves in preference to the prophet if their community. Again the author of the Gospel of Mathew has Jesus say: Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it. Muhammad said: Not one of you truly believes until I am more beloved to him than his parent, child and all mankind!
When Moses asks God as to whom will he say has sent him to Pharaoh, the 2nd Century BCE Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint has God saying ‘ego eimi ho On’, or ‘I am that which is’. Similarly God through the Quran in speaking to Moses says at the burning bush, “Indeed it is I, your Lord, remove your sandals, for you are in the sacred valley of Tuwa, I have chosen you, so listen carefully to what is revealed, ‘Indeed I, I am God, there is no deity save for Me, worship Me and establish ritual prayer for My remembrance.” For Moses is to be sent to a man who transgresses, ‘God to Pharaoh for indeed he has transgressed’, but when Moses confronts him Pharaoh’s response is to address his own people and say , “I am your lord most high”. It is this pharonic self-description of the divine prerogative of true ‘I-ness’ that was his down fall and the bane of modern man.
William Shaddon of Columbia University’s College of Physicians when reflecting back on his career remarked: “Continued observation in clinical practices leads almost inevitably to the conclusion that deeper and more fundamental than sexuality, deeper than the craving for social power, deeper even than the desire for possessions, there is a still more generalized and universal craving in the human makeup. It is craving for the knowledge of the right direction—for orientation”.
Muhammad and Jesus both came into the world, as the prophets before them, to keep God-centeredness the Reality which supersedes all other realities. That the axis about which individuals, communities and ultimately civilizations pivot themselves upon is the vertical heavenly axis, not the horizontal ‘forward’ that is of modernity as Archibald MacLeith said, “a world ends when its metaphor dies, and modernity’s metaphor—endless progress through science-powered technology—is dead”. Both Jesus and Muhammad had their ascensions, for the Christians, Jesus’ return is an expectation; for the Muslims, Muhammad’s return brought them heavenly provision that restores mankind, that first and foremost engendered in ritual prayer. The standing towards the qibla, the physical act direction of ‘turning’ one’s face towards the Kaaba, itself an earthy reflection of a paradisal, heavenly structure, the Bait l’M’amur, is about finding orientation. So when man can not immediately ascend to heaven, God facilitates by manifesting something of it in the here and now of his earthly existence. Thus, in the upwardness of these ascensions points the prophetic compass; an indication, or ayat, for the people of God.
In 1882 Nietzsche in his The Gay Science declared that God was dead. He told the parable of a madman running one morning into the marketplace crying out ‘I seek god!’ When the amused bystanders asked if he imagined that God had emigrated or taken a holiday, the madman glared. “Where has God gone?” he demanded. “We have killed him—you and I! We are all his murderers!” Nietzsche’s madman believed that the death of God had torn humanity from its roots, thrown the earth off course, and cast it adrift in a pathless universe. Everything that had once given human beings a sense of ultimate direction had vanished. “Is there still an above and below?” he had asked. “Do we not stray, as though through an infinite nothingness?” Without the compass of prophetic inheritance, the whole dynamic of our future-oriented, forward thinking, progressive culture renders us unable to orient ourselves. Perhaps it was the bitter fruit of this that William Shaddon had observed in the years of his clinical practice. The paths laid out by Jesus and Muhammad become impossible to discern, and we become as the jurists of Islamic sacred law in describing a drunken man as being one who cannot discriminate between up from down.
Without God as the centre, the heart of a man does not, however, remain a void, but is filled with something else, namely himself, as Karl Marx a ‘prophet’ of the new age said: “Humanism is the denial of God and the total affirmation of man.” The author of Luke has Jesus in the Parable of the Sower saying: “But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it and by persevering produce a crop.” Muhammad five centuries later affirms his brothers teaching by saying, “Indeed God has vessels among the people of the Earth, the vessels of your Lord are the hearts of His wholesomely righteous servants, the most beloved to Him are those which are most clear and gentle.” He also said, “Is there not a morsel of flesh in the body that if it is healthy the whole body is healthy and if it is corrupted the whole body is corrupted? Is it not the heart?” We must ask ourselves, what does modern man know of the heart as spoken of by Yeshua and Muhammad, for it has become peripheral and the mind has taken centre stage. As the Quran teaches it is not the eyes of the head that are blind but the eye of the heart, it is the eyes of the head that are from the gateways to the intellects understanding of reality, again horizontal, but it is the heart that receives what it does from the divine from the heavenly, or vertical.
Jesus in speaking of the heart spoke of persevering and thus ‘produce a good crop’. God uses similar language in the Quran when He affirms, “Indeed the believers are successful!”, again the English misses the strength of the original Arabic. The word ‘falaah’, translated as success, linguistically means to cultivate the land and produce an abundant crop, the word ‘fallaah’ meaning farmer and husbandman of the soil. Speaking of the soul God says, “Indeed acquiring abundance is for the one who purifies it, and laid to waste is the one who debases it!” Acquiring of this ‘abundance’ is in knowing how this is done not that it is to be done. The alchemists of old searched for a tincture that would turn all metals into gold, it seems modern man with all his material based advancements fails to have the skill to undertake this let alone knowledge of the alchemy of the heart.
Muhammad said: “Every heavenly dispensation [deen] has a unique character trait, the character trait of Islam is modesty, or haya”. Haya is a derivative of the word hayya, which means to live. Every prophetic message is about life-givingness, the author of the Gospel of John has Jesus saying: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. This biblical verse indicates a universal, life-givingness at the same time it particularizes the unique character trait of Jesus’ call as being centred on love; the universal is confirmed by the Quran: “O you who believe, respond to the call of God and the Messenger when he calls you to that which gives you life.” Muhammad one day while speaking to his companions said: “Show God modesty as is His right to be shown modesty”. In the Arabic he said, “istahyuu” an intensive of the verb ‘hayy’, it’s primary lexical meaning to ‘give life’ or ‘cause to live’. The prophetic demand than implies that there is a divine desire through the agency of the Muhammad for mankind to have life.
The Muhammadan differentiating characteristic though is mercy. “We have not sent you except as a mercy to all creation”. A divine prophetic utterance, hadith Qudsi, where God speaks through the Muhammad, not by revelation but inspiration has God saying: “I am God, I am the All-Merciful (Rahman), I created the womb (Rahim) and derived it from My name.” It is in the wombing quality of prophetic religion that life is ensured. All that Muhammad brought from his Lord to mankind is about the means of making sacred life in this world, for it is merely a place of reflection of the reality of life which occurs in the Garden. The act of revelation or ‘re- velum’ is a pealing back of the layers to expose the Truth.
Modern man in his secular, homo-centric existence has lost the scent of Paradise. Before Anas ibn Nadhir was martyred he said to Sa’d ibn Muadh, “How wonderful the scent of paradise, O Sa’d, I find it coming from the other side of Uhud!” That was the reality of men and women who sat at the blessed foot of a prophet; such is the loss of children of modernity. For us to recapture that reality will only possible by holding on the rope of God: revelation and prophetic precedent as handed to us by the chain of prophetic inheritors, for the Muslims the Saints and Scholars of the Islamic Sacred tradition. God has not left us bereft of guidance, and as Sayyid Hossein Nasr said: “In accordance with the real nature of things it is the human that must conform to the Divine and not the Divine to the human”.