Religious Musings and Comments
It may be that we are able to divide people into two sorts: those seeking comfort and those seeking truth. A person needs to understand some basic things in this regard, the most essential of which is that comfort cannot be found by searching for it. Looking for comfort is really wishful thinking. The idea of searching for and finding comfort is wishful thinking and the action of searching for comfort is wishful thinking. If a person looks for truth, it may well elude him, yet it can be found, just he has yet to find it so it is not wishful thinking. Furthermore, if found truth can bring comfort. And even though truth may not be found and may not if found bring comfort, it is the only journey that has the chance of ending in something other than despair. That the search for truth carries with it no guarantee of success should not distract or deter us; it is laziness and egotism that we only do things upon a guarantee. Indeed it is due to this that people turn to wishful thinking, all reward and no consequences; but reality bites: seeking comfort is wishful thinking, and wishful thinking ends in only one guarantee, a guarantee that is not sought, the guarantee of desolation.
As we cast our modern gaze across the stories of our religious heritage, we say with our tongues and our minds, ‘This is not myth, these aren’t tales from the imagination!’ Yet our barren hearts, plagued with the endless sensory data surrounding us day-in, day-out, are too stubborn and inflexible to take in the vision, like the eye too old to bend into focus. We need, ourselves, the help of imagination to become visionaries in order that we remove the passing thought that the crux of our belief is mere fancy and not, after all, genuine; we need to transport ourselves to that time and that place of which we have heard tell. And spirited thus away, we need to imagine what was quite real and to feel what was then felt and by so doing, reinvigorate our hearts, confident that the clouds of myth will dissipate, condensing into a hard fact, immutable, becoming the solid base upon which true faith must stand in a heart malleable, alive.
What has dogma got to do with God? It certainly isn’t God. It certainly isn’t spiritual experience. But it is the map to God and it is the guide to understanding true spiritual experience in all its colourful forms. We cannot be guided by spiritual experience, for against what do we measure it? It may well be exciting, sensational even, but it leads us nowhere. Enlightenment? Enlightenment of what exactly? Dogma may seem dry, it may not be thrilling, but it is the thing that unifies the millions of personal experiences through the eons to a single direction and towards a singular goal. He created us with a handful of earth, a handful of many qualities and hues: black, brown, white, red and yellow; hard, rough, soft, smooth and fertile, yet earth all the same. He created us with a single purpose and a single path on which to travel. Dogma may not be feeling the presence of Allah, it may not be colourful or exciting, but it is the map. And as long as we are prepared to travel we have a chance of success, but without this map we will not be getting anywhere fast at all.
Allah only gives what there is, not what there is not. The good He gives us is the good there is, there is no alternative good, no substitute, there is no better or worse good, it is simply what He has given us. The happiness He gives us is the happiness that is, not the happiness there is not. We need to conform, to bend our souls to submission and accept the good He gives us, the happiness He gives us, the food He gives us, for regardless of what our eyes may tell us, regardless of what we wish and hope for, there isn’t any other to be had. More than what we are given is not ours, and taking less is charity from us to another, and then this in itself is a goodness from Allah and it too has no alternative, there is no other good but this. We need to be grateful, content and accept what He gives us or we will not only be miserable, but we will starve eternally, for along with all good, His is the only sustenance there is.
Forgiving and excusing are not the same, though often we conflate the two. We must be clear about which is which, for when we ask the only One who forgives sins to forgive us ours, there our request is truly for forgiveness. Yet implicit in His Name Al-Ghaffur is that He also excuses us, and this is something we need recognise by thanking Him. We ask for Him to excuse us as we ask Him to forgive us for sure. But one is a hope and one is beseeching.
Forgiveness is sought upon recognising that one has done wrong; it is when one recognises ones sin and then turns to Allah for that sin to be forgiven lest it be held against us. Not only are we able to achieve forgiveness, if Allah wills, but also we will be rewarded for having admitted our guilt and turned to, and thus recognised, that all power of forgiveness lies with Allah alone. If we did not transgress and then ask for forgiveness, Allah would have destroyed us and replaced us with a people who would have.
Excusing is different, almost opposite, because it says that you didn’t mean it; it was an unintentional mistake, an error that could not be helped. Allah overlooks these shortcomings, yet it is right and proper that we ask Him to overlook them and not merely expect it. This is gratitude and to ignore His favour is ingratitude. This request is in a different form from seeking forgiveness, which is bound most correctly in the ritual washing and performance of two cycles of prayer, Salatu Al-Tawbah.
Asking to be excused is admitting one’s shortcomings in an informal manner, we might say, through du’a (supplication). Forgiveness comes in where something is inexcusable; once we have exhausted our excuses there is nothing left but to resort to seeking forgiveness. We need to be careful not to be satisfied with our excuses and go away unrepentant and self-satisfied that we had, all along, a good one. We need to doubt that we had an excuse at all. We need ruthless honesty; we need to be sure when we need to be forgiven rather than simply excused, otherwise our confusion over the two will land us in deep water, and that water might well be Al-Hamim (boiling drink of the people of Hell)!
We are each of us bound to solitude, yet in this modern world struggle to find it, and thus often struggle to find ourselves. No man is an island but nor does he connect to any other except by greater or lesser perceived shared experience. For as we stand in ranks surveying the landscape unfolding before us, we can see the same but comprehend that vision differently. We cannot step out of ourselves, so we make bridges, however frail, to connect us to the common ground. We mould ourselves to fit and sometimes to misfit and by so doing, we belong. But we are always bound and bound to be alone. We can empathise, we can understand but we cannot know how another is. Sensations connect the outer to the inner and can be described to some degree in calculated scientific laws, in the arts, in literature perhaps, but how these feel to us is unique; how hot is hot? – is it comforting, painful, does it call into existence a memory, fear, loathing, a smile? We are bound to solitude in this way, an island of expressible but intangible feelings; language and frowns and laughter and waving are the bridges that we build to connect us to the common ground, and this too is a shared imagination in the end, a hope and an agreement.
We are cut-off because experience is unique, and though interconnected and intricate it is ever-creating our solitude; regardless how similar, there are always different feelings, different receptions, different relationships in what we experience. Solitude is necessary and we need to find it in order to find ourselves. For it is in this solitude that we exist – this solitude is who we are. We need, from time to time, to seek solitude and quietness and privacy in this world of noise and fuss and interference to enable reflection, meditation, contemplation; otherwise we are in danger of being swallowed or drowned out or overwhelmed. It is in this we find that there is always The One who knows us exactly as we are, not burdening us with more than we can bear, indeed, bearing for us our burdens more than we deserve.
Our solitude is our uniqueness. Even so we must build bridges and we must not merely maintain those bridges but strengthen them at every opportunity. Individuality must not consume us even though we are inevitably alone in ourselves. This individuality is extreme differentiation but it does not preclude a harmonious unity that makes us human, and more specifically, Muslim. The Ummah (Muslim nation/ community) is like one body, a type of unity; do not mistake this union as a loss or diminishing of individuality. A body comprises numerous and diverse organs, at once complimentary, different and necessary. Materially varied, functionally distinct, individually dignified, yet one coherent, mutually supportive body. We need to take refuge from the extremes of solitude and the overwhelming mediocrity of the collective in a balanced, harmonious union of individuals moving in the same direction with the same objective as guide: finding ourselves and finding Allah and strengthening the relationship between the two is a life’s work, it is our submission and our devotion. In the end, it is exactly this solitude we need to obtain in order for us to escape it: the whispers of hearts can only be heard by those who silently listen to them.
The vessel through which we are or are not guided to Allah is the heart. The heart of which I speak is beyond any mere pumping muscle. The heart of which I speak encapsulates the soul, intimately connects to our intellect and is the essence of our existence. Allah guides whom He wills. This is not to be supposed a simple and unconditional favouritism. If a man does not make or attempt to make his mind and character in the right direction, set himself on the right course with sincerity and earnestness, then no amount of searching will gain the least bit of success. As C. S. Lewis puts it, ‘sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as a clean one.’
When we set ourselves in the wrong direction, the direction of sin and transgression, our hearts become rusty, tarnished, the shiny gleam dulled, reflecting less the light of guidance than those hearts that are polished with good deeds, repentance, constancy and pure intentions. Guidance breeds guidance. Each of its rays can, when followed, crack and chisel and polish away those blackened spots of rust; but those spots, if left, will cause the heart to blur its vision of its Lord, and thus be misguided. In such a condition, whatever light of guidance penetrates it is distorted by the mind and character unpolished, corrupted and thus corrupting and therein we see the misguidance of the world…
Oh our Lord, please guide us and do not misguide us, make it easy for us and make it not hard!
How many times have we religionists heard from people who, when asked in what they believe reply, ‘I don’t really know, but I believe that there is something, something greater than all this’? We are tempted to think when confronted with such sentiments about how poor this ‘belief’ is, how empty and even, perhaps, how lazy to come to this thought and then stop, instead of following intuition, curiosity or common sense to a point further along the road that may reveal more of what this ‘something greater’ might be. But halt a moment. Whilst clearly wrong, whilst naïve and simplistic in this view, and even though blameworthy, we must understand these people are victims of one of the greatest achievements of wishful thinking yet conjured!
This idea of ‘something greater’ we can call Life Force, and it is born from our proclivities to ease and idleness, to satiating desires and avoiding consequences. This Life Force can be switched on and off, yet even if left on this Life Force will not bother you when you are up to no good for it is blind. It has no mind, no morals, it just is. When you are feeling good, on top of the world, riding on the crest of the wave, it is convenient and nice to think of the mysterious Life Force assembling before you the beauty of the world. It is an emotional comfort without any unpleasant consequences, and conveniently, an object of blame when you falter, fail or are besieged by tragedy. You hold it to account and it is so latent and dormant that it will not hold you to account. How attractive all this is – how delusional, false and what better example of wishful (un-) thinking? And all the while Judgement looms.