Avoiding the one-eyed vision of Religion
By: Abdal-Hakim Murad
In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
The Dajjal, as everyone knows, has only one eye. Those ulema who are concerned to understand and apply their intuition rather than simply to act as historical relay stations have sometimes interpreted this attribute as a reference to the characteristic sickness of decadent religious communities; a sickness that will necessarily be at its most prevalent as the end of time approaches. The human creature has been given two eyes for reasons of obvious biological utility: the capacity for focusing so splendidly produced by the ciliary muscles in the eyeball (a superb technology most of us never pause to give thanks for) is nonetheless not a perfect instrument for the gauging of distance. Human beings need perspective: for hunting and for fighting; and for the efficient monitoring of children. And hence we have two eyes, as the Qur’an notes, asking for our faith and our thankfulness: ‘Have We not given him two eyes’?
The Dajjal, however, has one eye only; for he is sick. He represents, in human form, a cosmic possibility which occurs throughout history, gathering momentum as Prophetic restorations are forgotten, until, for a time during the last days, he is the one-eyed man who is king. There are several esoteric interpretations of this, but one in particular is perhaps the most satisfying and profound. It points out that the latter days are the time of a loss ofperspective. Distances and priorities are miscalculated, or even reversed. The name of Adam’s ancient enemy, Iblis, signals his ability to invert and overturn: yulabbis, he confuses and muddles mankind. And the Dajjal is in this sense a physical materialization of Iblis: he is the Great Deceiver insofar as he dresses virtue up as vice, and vice-versa. Examples spring all too readily to mind. For instance: once the old were respected and admired more than the young; today, it is the other way around. Once unnatural vice was despised, now it is the only practice that cannot be criticized in the films or in polite society. Once humility was praised, and pride was a sin; today there has been a complete inversion. No longer are we asked to control ourselves, instead we are urged to ‘discover’ ourselves. The nafs is king of the millennium. Those of you who saw the Queen forced to watch the orgy at the Greenwich Dome, a celebration of mindless erotic and athletic display that had nothing to do with the man whom the Millennium supposedly marked, will know this well enough.
It is the principle of the Dajjal that brings about this kind of evil. It is an evil that is worse than the traditional sort, which was simply the failure to practice commonly-respected virtues; because the new evil yulabbis: it inverts: it turns virtue into vice. It is, in this sense, one-eyed and without perspective. The sight by which we observe the outward world is composed of information from two separate instruments. When we speak of religious understanding, we speak of basira, perception guided by wisdom. And it is characteristic of Islam that wisdom consists in recognizing and establishing the correct balance between the two great principles of existence: the outward, that is, the form, and the inward, that is, the content: Zahir and batin, to use the Qur’anic terms.
The Dajjal sees with one eye. In this understanding, we would say that he is therefore a man of zahir, or ofbatin, but never of both. He is a literalist, or he is free in the spirit. The most glorious achievement of Islam, which is to reveal a pattern of human life which explores and celebrates the physical possibilities of man in a way that does not obstruct but rather enhances and deepens his metaphysical capacities, is hence negated. The miscreant at the end of time is, therefore, the exact inversion of the Islamic ideal.
At the beginning of our story, the balance between the zahir and the batin was perfect. The Messenger, upon whom be the best of blessings and peace, was the man of the Mi‘raj, and also the hero of Badr. He loved women, and perfume, and the delight of his eye was in prayer. The transition between moments of intense colloquy with the supreme archangel, and of political or military or family duty, was often little more than momentary; but his balance was impeccable, for he showed that body, mind and spirit are not rivals, but allies in the project of holiness, which means nothing other than wholeness.
The Companions manifested many aspects of this extraordinary wholeness, the traditional Islamic term for which is afiya, and the proof of whose accomplishment is the presence of adab. The luminosity of the Prophetic presence reshaped them, so that where once there had been the crude, materialistic egotism of the pagan nomad, there was now, barely twenty years later, a unified nation led by saints. It seemed that the crudest people in history had suddenly, as though by a miracle, been transmuted into the most refined and balanced. The pagan Arabs seem almost to have served as a preview of the temper of our age, and the man who came among them, unique among prophets in the unique difficulty of his mission, is the alpha amid the omega, the proof that an Adamic restoration is possible even under the worst of conditions, even in times such as ours.
The superb human quality of the Companions is one of the most moving and astounding of the Blessed Prophet’s miracles. Receiving alone the burden of revelation, and bearing virtually alone the responsibilities of family and state, he maintained such sanctity, humour, and moral seriousness that his world was transformed around him. Had you spent all that is upon the earth, you would not have reconciled their hearts, the Revelation tells him; but Allah has brought reconciliation between them. The political unification of Arabia, itself an unprecedented achievement, was only made possible by the existence of a spiritual principle at its centre, which melted hearts, and made a new world possible.
The Companions, as the most perfect exemplars of the Islamic principle of seeing with both eyes, were, as the saying goes, fursanun bi’l-nahar, ruhbanun bi’l-layl: cavalrymen by day, and monks by night. They united zahirand batin, body and spirit, in a way that was to their pagan and Christian contemporaries extraordinary, and which, in our day, when balance of any sort is rare, is hard even to imagine. Their faces radiated with the inner calm that comes of inner peace: ala bi-dhikriíLlahi tatma’innu’l-qulub: ‘it is by the remembrance of Allah that hearts find peace.’
Among the Companions’ own miracles was the creation of an astonishingly new language of beauty. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built while many Companions were still alive, triumphantly announces the divine will to save humanity through a new religious order. Under Islam, the world was made new. The war on the flesh, manifested in the new and strange shape taken by Christian celibacy, was at an end. The Sunna, emerging as a barely imaginable climax of human flourishing, became the ideal for the ancient world; an ideal all the more impressive for having been achieved.
When Islamic civilization was buoyant, everything touched by the hands of believers turned to gold. The Dome of the Rock is probably the world’s most beautiful building, the subject of countless studies by astounded art historians. Through its octagon, the square outline of the ancient Solomonic temple is resolved to a circle, and thus to the infinity of heaven. It announces the supremacy of the Muhammadan moment, the time out of time when the Station of Two Bows’ Length (qaba qawsayn) was achieved. No earlier religion had preserved the memory of so exalted and so purely spiritual a climax to its story, as a mortal man ventured where even the highest angels could not step.
And yet he returned to earth; and this is the secret of the Sunna’s majesty. He had been redolent in the splendour and power of the Divine presence, but he nonetheless returned to the lower ranks of the created order, to reform his people. Not because he preferred them, but because he loved them. He had seen with his purified heart, as the Qur’an reveals: The heart did not deny that which it saw. He bore a truth which hitherto they had only dimly intuited: the core of the human creature is the heart, and the heart is the locus of a vision so transcendent that even the Revelation speaks of it only allusively: He saw, of the signs of his Lord, the greatest.
When we take on the Sunna, and reject flawed patterns of behaviour which have been shaped and guided by the ego and by fantasies of self-imagining, we declare to our Creator that we accept and revere the profound revelation of human flourishing exampled by the Best of Creation. Every act of the Sunna which we may successfully emulate declares that our role model is the man who had no ego, and to whom Allah had given a definitive victory over the forces of darkness. Modernity holds out lifestyle options centred on the self, and on the lower, agitated possibilities of the human condition. Every word of every magazine now breathes the message of the nafs: explore yourself, free yourself, be yourself. Buy a Porsche to express your identity; dress in a Cacharel suit to make a statement about yourself; be seen in the right places. The result, of course, is a society which pursues happiness with great technical brilliance but which puzzles over spiralling rates of suicide, drug abuse, failed relationships, and ever more aberrant forms of self-mutilation. It is a society in denial, a society in pain.
By taking on the Sunna, a human being accepts a deep and total reorientation. For the Sunna is not one lifestyle option among many, simply an exotic addition to the standard menu. The Sunna tears up the existing menu by defying its assumptions. By living in the Prophetic pattern one pursues a paradigm of excellence that demonstrably brings serenity and fulfillment, and hence silences the babble of the style magazines. Living in credit, knowing one’s neighbours, and holding the event of the Mi‘raj constantly in view, confers membership of Adam’s family of khalifas. Living in debt, chasing mirages, and serving the nafs, renders the human being a definitive failure. We can be higher than the angels, or lower than the animals.
The Sunna, as the uniquely efficient vehicle of human improvement and illumination, hence embraces every aspect of man. Outward serenity is impossible without inward peace; and inward peace, conversely, is impossible when the body is behaving abusively.
The Muslim, who sees with both eyes, and hence sees the modern world for what it is: a naive victim of the oldest of all illusions, which is the belief that human flourishing occurs when the needs of the outward are met, and that inward excellence is nothing but the vague myth of intangible religion, is hence truly Muslim to the extent that he rejects imbalance. Loyal and loving adherence to the details of the fiqh will change to obsessive and neurotic behaviour when the inward meaning of the sunna is absent. Hence the Dajjal is often an exoterist. But he may be an esoterist also, when he falls prey to the fatal myth that religion is about inward perfection alone, and that this can be achieved even when the outward conduct is deeply flawed by a failure to be shaped by a pattern of courteous human life manifested by the supreme figure of a more contemplative and dignified age.
In our times, thanks to a dajjal-type lack of perspective, some Muslims are suspicious of the traditional talk of azahir and a batin. It seems too esoteric, mysterious and elitist. The word batin itself appears faintly heretical: one thinks of extreme antinomian groups such as the medieval Ismailis, for instance. And yet the concept is purely and entirely Qur’anic, and was never controversial among the classical ulama.
In fact, an important part of the healing that the Qur’an offers can be found in its insistence that religion includes, and unites, an outward and an inward dimension. Let me give you some examples, which no-one in his right mind could describe as controversial. For instance, Allah says: Wa-aqimi’s-Salata li-dhikri: ‘and establish the Prayer for My remembrance’. He tells us that the prayer is not an arbitrary command, a set of physical movements which earn us treats in the hereafter. It has a wise purpose, which is to help us to remember Him. The believer at prayer is not just offering his physical form as a token of submission to the divine presence whose symbol is the Ka‘ba. He, or she, is worshipping with the heart. The body of flesh bows towards the Ka‘ba of stone; while the invisible spirit bows to the invisible divine. Only when both of these take place is worship truly present.
Another example: Allah says: ‘Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those who came before you.’ Why? ‘La‘allakum tattaqun’ – ‘that you might learn taqwa.’ Fasting has a zahir and a batin, an outward and an inward. And neither is of any use without the other. As a hadith says: ‘Many a fasting persons gains nothing from his fast, apart from hunger and thirst.’ In other words, without a batin fast, an inward fast, the fast is only formally, mechanically correct. It is like a body without a spirit, which is nothing more than a corpse. The one who fasts, or prays, or performs any other religious act, without his spirit being in it, is like a zombie, whose mind and spirit has gone away from the body, to another place. And this is not how Allah wants us to be when we worship Him.
Another example. Regarding the sacrifices on the day of Eid al-Adha, Allah says: ‘Their flesh and blood will not reach Allah; but the taqwa that is in you reaches Him.’ Without correct intention, and presence of mind, in other words, without a proper disposition of the batin, the sacrifice is just the killing of an animal. In a sense, it is worse, since a slaughter that did not pretend to be religious would at least be sincere; whereas one that purports to be for God, but in its inner reality is not, is a kind of hypocrisy.
In fact we could say that the zahir without the batin leads fatally to nifaq. If we are not enjoying the divine presence during our worship, if our minds are elsewhere, if we have switched on a kind of autopilot, then we are practicing rusum: outward forms, a husk without a kernel. To any visible or invisible onlooker we are proclaiming by the outward form of the act that we are worshipping God; but in our inward reality we are doing nothing of the kind. Riya’ – ostentation – is possible even if we are alone. Even if we know that no-one knows we are praying, or fasting, we can still commit riya’. How? By showing-off to ourselves. By going through the motions of the prayer, we gratify our own self-image as pious, superior people. To the extent that the prayer lacks a batin, that will be a mortal danger. Even if our minds are concentrated on the meaning, our souls may be disengaged. And to the extent that the prayer, or the fast, or the Hajj, or the qurbani, does have an inner reality, we will be less interested in showing-off to ourselves, in taking the nafs as our real qibla. The act will lead us, we will not lead the act.
This is what sayyiduna ‘Umar, radiya’Llahu ‘anhu, meant when he said: ‘The thing I fear most for the safety of this Umma is the learned hypocrite.’ When asked how one could be both learned and hypocritical, he said: ‘When his learning does not go beyond verbal knowledge, while his heart remains untouched.’
Another example, from the Qur’an – and remember, this teaching of the interdependence of zahir and batin is purely Qur’anic. ‘And they give food, for love of Him, to the poor, the orphan, and to captives. We feed you only for the sake of Allah; we desire for no reward or thanks from you.’ Here the revelation is insisting that charity, too, becomes ibada only when it has an inward reality as well as an outward form. And that inward reality is not primarily mental: as in ‘Fine, it’s zakat time, bismi’Llah, I make the intention to do this for Allah’. That is only the most basic requirement. The passage states that charity is to be done ‘ala hubbihi – out of love for Allah. That requires far more than the simple silent formulation of a niyya. It can only be achieved when one’s heart is in it, since love, hubb, resides in the heart, not the mind. Charity without love is heartless.
Hence part of the brilliance of the Qur’an is its insistence that Allah is not worshipped by outward forms; but that He has established certain outward forms as a context within which we can do ibada: since ibada, as an expression of devotion and servitude to our maker, reposes in the heart. A disposition of the heart is always true; a disposition of the body may be true or false.
The Qur’an’s message is unmistakeably that the human creature is a composite whose dimensions must be brought into harmony with each other if our Adamic possibility as true worshippers may be realised. So ours is a religion of zahir and batin. Our enemies see only the outward forms, and assume that this is hypocrisy, ‘Pharisaic formalism’. Some use the traditional New Testament language by which St Paul attacked Judaism: ‘the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.’ In fact, this is a common theme of a certain kind of traditional Christian criticism of Islam. As such, it clearly represents the borrowing of an even older theme in Christian theology: that of antisemitism, as a weapon which will serve in the battle against the Saracen. Muslims, inconveniently, are not mentioned in the Bible, but some Christians have instead used the anti-Law polemic of Paul as a stick with which to beat Muslims, by situating us in a Biblical context. It is evident, however, that this will not serve. There are some Muslims, it has to be admitted, whose preoccupations are mainly or even exclusively with outward form – a Pharisaic Islam, we might say – but that is not the way of traditional Muslims. For traditional Islam has always cultivated in a rich and profound way the inner dimensions of faith. Most of our poetry, for instance, is about the batin, not the zahir. If Islam was as they suppose, then most of our poetry would be about wudu, or the rules for inheritance. But it is not.
I hope that the Qur’anic insights I have cited are quite enough to explain why the traditional ulema of Islam speak of the religion’s having a zahir and a batin. Shaykh Shahidullah Faridi, the great English saint of the 20th century, put it as follows:
‘If it is necessary to observe the outward ordinances of the faith, it is equally necessary to develop within ourselves those qualities which are their soul. These two are complementary and one cannot exist in a sound state without the other.’
Shahidullah Faridi himself, like virtually all the educated converts to Islam in this country, was attracted to the religion primarily because of its inner riches. Those Muslims who today spend most of their time talking aboutshari‘a, and regard the batin as peripheral, are unlikely to make many such converts: there is no reason why sensitive, educated people should be attracted to the husk, if the kernel is so well-hidden that it might as well not exist. They may even, by wild, merciless and hikma-less behaviour, repel thousands.
Zahir and batin are the terms I have used. They are concepts clear from the Qur’an. There are other terms which convey roughly the same distinction. For instance, the terms shari‘a and haqiqa. Outward act, and inward state. Again, the distinction is Qur’anic. According to Imam Abu Ali al-Daqqaq, it can even be derived from the Fatiha. Allah asks us to say: iyyaka na‘budu wa-iyyaka nasta‘in: ‘You we worship’: this is shari‘a; and ‘You we seek for help’: the divine response, which is from haqiqa. The pairing of the principles gives us this fundamental distinction: the initiative from man, which is shari‘a, and the generous outpouring from Allah, which is haqiqa.
Imam al-Qushayri makes a still more subtle point. He says:
‘Know that the Shari‘a is also haqiqa, because He Himself made it obligatory. And haqiqa is also shari‘a, because the means of knowing Him were made obligatory by His command.’
In other words, this bifurcation, indicated in the Fatiha, which we repeat every day without pondering its depths, is in reality two sides of one coin. Shari‘a is not Shari‘a without haqiqa; because without an inward reality and an approach to Allah the outward forms are useless; and haqiqa is nothing without shari‘a, becauseshari‘a is the set of forms by which haqiqa can be known. Each is sound only when it points accurately to the other.
Imam Abu Bakr al-‘Aydarus, rahmatullahi ‘alayh, explains it in terms of the Qur’anic verse: ‘Those who strive in Us, We shall surely guide to Our ways.’ He writes: The ‘striving’ is the Shari‘a, and the active response to its injunctions, which will cause one to be led to His ‘ways’, is in turn a reference to the Haqiqa.’
Imam al-Qushayri drives home this vital point by saying: ‘Every shari‘a which is unsupported by haqiqa is unaccepted. And every haqiqa which is not controlled by shari‘a is unaccepted.’
Imam al-Haddad, in one of his most famous poems, says:
Wa-kullun ‘ala nahj al-sabili’s-sawiyyi lam
yukhalif li-amrin akhidhan bi’sh-shari‘ati
Wa-inna’lladhi la yatba‘u’sh-shar‘a mutlaqan
‘ala kulli halin ‘abdu nafsin wa-shahwati
‘All of the righteous were on the straight path,
never violating any command, holding to shari‘a
For truly, the man who does not follow shari‘a,
Is in every case the slave of his nafs and his own desires.’
Imam al-Ghazali, rahmatullah alayh, spent much of his life making this point, in some very sophisticated ways. Let me read to you his very passionate defence of this Qur’anic principle:
‘f you are educating yourself, take up only those branches of knowledge which have been required of you according to your present needs, as well as those which pertain to the outward actions such as learning the elements of prayer, purification, and fasting. More important however, is the science which all have neglected, namely, the science of the attributes of the heart, those which are praiseworthy and those which are blameworthy, because people persist in the latter, such as miserliness, hypocrisy, pride and conceit, all of which are destructive, and from which it is obligatory to desist. Performing these outward deeds is like the external application of an ointment to the body when it is stricken with scabies and boils while neglecting to remove the pus by means of a scalpel or a purge. False ulema recommend outward deeds just as fake physicians prescribe external ointments [for virulent internal diseases]. The ulema who seek the akhira, however, recommend nothing but the purification of the nafs and the removal of the elements of evil by destroying their nursery-beds and uprooting them from the heart.’
A key component of the Ghazalian agenda is the restoration of balance between outward and inward. And the Imam himself realised that the balance comes about primarily through cultivating the inward. For a balance, which is the true meaning of al-sirat al-mustaqim, is a subtle thing, and requires wisdom, and wisdom only exists when the soul is illuminated.
The crisis of the modern world is a crisis in both zahir and batin. It takes different forms amidst the ruins of different civilizations. In what was once the Christian world, zahir has been lost or even turned on its head: homosexual marriages in church, the approval of the lottery by bishops, and other symptoms of collapse. The symptoms are more advanced in formerly Christian countries than elsewhere, because, as St Paul believed, Christianity has no shari‘a. It is always reinventing itself as something that can be believed, as T.S. Eliot put it, and nowadays this inevitably takes place under pressure from secular ethics. In the Islamic world, there are also deep problems. But these arise not through lack of shari‘a as such, but through a lack of balance between outward and inward. Much Muslim revivalism today focuses on the outward, and appears to regard the inward as of secondary importance. The result is wild behaviour and consistent failure, for Allah proclaims in the Qur’an that the success in the world of religious communities depends on their spiritual condition. He does not change us until we change what is within ourselves. The failure of any Islamic movement is decisive proof that that movement has not gained the required inward harmony, wisdom and spiritual depth.
The modern world therefore offers, in mad abundance, both of the Dajjal’s aberrations. There is preoccupation with form, and there are also, in increasing varieties, a preoccupation with ‘spiritualities’ which require no irritating moral code. In the West, New Age spirituality is replacing Christianity as the faith of many young and educated people. It promises a typical Dajjalian deceit: the gifts of the spirit may be had without paying a price, or changing one’s treasured ‘lifestyle’.
The Sunna is the Dajjal’s great enemy in the modern world, because it rejects both of his promises. No human being can flourish on the basis of pure Law, or pure physical satisfaction, or of spiritual practices devoid of implications for society and personal conduct. For us, religion is about integrity and completeness. And yet, there are no grounds for complacency. The Sunna itself is today a contested concept. A materialistic world necessarily influences the forms of religion which grow within it; and some Muslims today adopt forms of Islam that define the Sunna in a one-eyed way. Either such advocates are pure esoterists, with a cavalier attitude to the formal duties gifted by revelation; or (and this is among mass-movements more frequent) they mutilate the Sunna by minimising or even negating its inward dimensions. Any following of the externals of religion which is not made profound, compassionate and wise by an active and transformative spiritual life, will be a mere husk without a kernel: abrasive, hostile, self-righteous, lashing out at the innocent, and thriving on schism and controversy.
May Allah enable us to open both our eyes, and hence to see things in due proportion, and to respond in a way that brings reconciliation, light, and wisdom among the descendents of Adam.
Posted on November 24, 2014, in ARTICLES and tagged Allah, avoiding, avoiding the one-eyed vision of religion, God, islam, knowledge, learn, Religion, vision, vision of religion. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.