Does anyone think that the ocean is only what appears on its surface? By observing its hue and motion the keen eye may perceive indications of that ocean’s unfathomable depth. The Lord’s mercy and compassion are an Ocean with no shore, providing endlessly varied vistas for those who sail its surface; but the greatest wonderment and fulfillment is reserved for those “creatures of the sea” for whom that mercy has become their own medium.
The Lord beckons us through a Divine love and attraction which has been implanted in our hearts, a love that may be understood and felt consciously as Divine by some, and only indirectly as love for His creatures or creation by others. In either case the pull of our heartstrings draws us to those Mercy Oceans, just as our physical bodies feel drawn to a warm and gentle sea.
By means of the revelation of Holy Books and through the example set by Prophets and Saints, all human beings have been brought in contact with those Oceans. For humankind at large, these revelations serve as vessels or as “instruction manuals” for building and maintaining vessels that ply those most spacious seas, but for those who have the means to read between the lines, a great revelation emerges: that we are of that sea, that our place, our home is in the depths of that sea not on its surface.
The Holy Qur’an is an eminently unambiguous scripture, full of clear guidance for mankind at large, but there is much more contained in it than immediately meets the untrained eye. The discrimination to see into its depths is not only a matter of training, however, but a bestowal attainable only through sincerity and faith. There are endless levels of knowledge and wisdom through the depths of the Holy Qur’an, as its states:
“You shall surely ride stage after stage”
and the attainment of each stage imparts great benefit, not only for the one who has attained it but also for those around him, for mankind and for all creation.
One may ask, “To what ends so many hidden meanings?”. Understanding these meanings is the key to deriving their “wisdom essence”, and it is that essence that is an inexhaustible fountain, an elixir of eternal life. We may summarize the essence of the wisdom our Lord seeks to impart unto us through all His revelations in one word: Unity.
God, the Unique and Incomparable
The dominating theme of the Holy Qur’an is the Uniqueness and Incomparability of God, and the weakness and utter dependence of all creatures upon Him. By thus stressing His omnipotence and our powerlessness He reminds us of our affinity with all creatures, and bestows upon us the humble but honourable cloak of servanthood. Realize that you are no better than anyone else and that self-improvement may be attained through serving God and His servants, and you will have grasped the tools with which to shatter your idol of conceit, your egoism. Having attained humility, the tribulations of life will propel you towards your goal, as they are a constant reminder of our weakness, and are received, if not with thankfulness, at least with patience, in the knowledge that they are drawing us ever closer to ultimate Unity.
Our journey towards that goal first brings us away from the illusion of multiplicity, the impenetrable veil of the common man. That is the vision of endless diversity, of apparently independent existences of billions of creatures each striving to improve its condition and exert its willpower. The next stage is the realization of God’s omnipotence and our weakness. This realization inspires awe in the face of the majesty and might of Allah (Jalal), and one feels himself a most humble servant of a Most Transcendent Lord. Beyond this is the stage of intimacy (uns) at which the imminence of the Lord is perceived:
“And I am closer to man than his jugular vein”
At this stage one perceives His aspects love and beauty (Jamal). But the ultimate is beyond even the intimacy of “I and thou”, a Unity beyond duality, for He is All. That is the meaning of, “There is no God but He”. As long as we cling to the separateness of our physical and spiritual existence, we are far from our goal. Why do fear death? Because we are afraid of being nonexistent; that is why the soul and body each enable each other to exist in this realm, cling to each other so tenaciously. We may have to pay a high price to remain alive, but yet do we endure.
All of God’s Prophets had the same mission: to call people to Divine existence in the Lord, and to a lifestyle conducive to the attainment of that end. What exactly does such a lifestyle entail, and what are its implications? Once the idol of egoism is shattered, fulfillment is no longer found in self-aggrandizement. The emphasis shifts to seeking truth, purity and peace, to acquiring blessed attributes in the time allotted to us for preparing ourselves for that longed-for reunion. Worldly cravings and desires are drastically reduced, and the pursuit of a decent livelihood to support a simple lifestyle replaces voracious egoistic striving.
Rich and Poor
Rich and powerful people were often at the forefront of opposition to the Prophets, as, lacking the spiritual training that might have enabled them to handle power and wealth with detachment, they saw their power or their wealth as the essence and affirmation of their existence-and so vehemently opposed any change in the status quo. The poor and powerless were generally more receptive as they did not feel so threatened by the advent of a new spiritually-oriented order. Certainly they also believed that money and power were the criteria of existence, but they figured, “We have nothing and are nothing anyway, so what do we have to lose by going and listening in?” Then, when the Prophets called them to the Lord they could easily renounce attachment to worldly values, and said, “We have left behind everything but ourselves”. As for those who really meant what they said, from the poor who renounced little and from the rich who had to struggle hard to renounce worldliness, the essence of the message was then imparted: “Now, leave yourselves behind and approach the Ocean of Unity”.
Abu Yazid al-Bistami (one of the greatest Masters of the Golden Chain) approached the Divine Presence and “knocked on the gate”. He was asked, “Who is there?” “I have come, Oh my Lord”, replied Abu Yazid. He was told: “There isn’t any place here for two. Leave your ego behind and come”. When Abu Yazid once again approached the Divine Presence and was asked who it was, he said: “You, oh Lord”.
Once Abu Yazid was asked about acts of worship and devotion of two different categories: those indicated by the example of the Holy Prophet (Sunnah) and those made obligatory through Divine Revelation (Fard). He said: “Sunnah is the abandonment of worldliness and Fard is the abandonment of all but He Alone”. So many people claim to follow the Sunnah but their hearts are awash in love of worldly pomp. As for what is obligatory, Fard (usually understood as the minimum acceptable level of religious observance), Abu Yazid has penetrated to the heart of the matter, as that total surrender is the ends to which all the means (acts of worship) are really directed. Obligatory, also, because at the time of death all must leave behind everything besides Him, whether they are ready or not.
The Lord is beckoning us to enter that Ocean of Unity while we are yet in this life, to dissolve as sugar dissolves in tea. When the sugar dissolves you can no longer say, “This is sugar and that is tea”. Our Lord’s invitation to join in His Unity is always extended, and it is our fate to suffer until we respond to that invitation. As long as we cling to our claim of autonomy we will have to bear the brunt of the hard lessons that this world has to offer us – and cry out in pain. Let go and nothing can harm you.
A Story of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani
When Abdul Qadir al-Jilani used to address his followers his individuality would sometimes become completely veiled by a cloak of Divine attributes or of Prophetic attributes. When he was in such a state the Divine would manifest through him, anhis speech would become awe-inspiring, but, to those who had not yet attained a sufficiently high station, very disturbing and even shocking.
Perfection may only be understood by perfectly complete individuals, and not at all by the unregenerate man. As for those on the way of Truth, they understand perfection in accordance with their respective levels of development, and the followers of Abdul Qadir Jilani were not on a level to be able to receive those outpourings.
Once a Grandshaykh was addressing his followers from the pulpit of a mosque. He recited a verse of the Holy Qur’an and explained it a little. Then he said:
“This explanation will help everyone here understand this verse on a level corresponding to his attainment, but its real meaning is not for you. You can’t understand what I am saying. There is only one person in attendance who has been able to appreciate the deep meanings of this discourse-and he is hiding behind a pillar wearing a veil. My words have been directed to that person-not to you-understand this, and do not think of yourselves as the suitable receptacles of every piece of precious wisdom. If you hear something from me that you understand, then fine and well, make good use of it on your way, but if you hear something you do not understand, be careful not to reject it. Whenever that occurs just hold your peace and be humble enough to accept that it may have been directed to someone else in the audience, someone who has attained a higher potential of understanding than you have”.
Then that Grandshaykh proceeded to another, even deeper level of meaning of that verse of the Qur’an, and said: “Now, this is even beyond the level of that person behind the pillar”.
When Jilani came to himself his followers informed him of the nature of his utterances while in that state of absence from himself. Jilani then told them: “Oh my sons, if it is true that I say things contrary to the Shariah (Divine Law), then you must smite me with your swords”. What Jilani meant by “contrary to the Shariah” meant, in fact, “contrary to your understanding of the Shariah”, as people are not all on the same level of understanding Shariah.
At the next gathering Jilani again said something belonging to the realm of the knowledge of Allah Almighty. Then, in accordance with the Shaykh’s instructions the followers drew their swords and began to strike-but their swords passed through the Shaykh’s figure as readily as they would pass through thin air. They slashed and slashed but it was as if his body were a mirage.
When Jilani came to himself again his followers told him: “Oh our Master, you again spoke such words”. “What did you do about it?” “As you instructed us, we struck you with our swords, but they passed through you as through thin air”. “Then I must not have been there. There was no more Jilani to be cut by your swords. Jilani was dissolved in the Oneness of the Lord, Almighty Allah. It was He Alone speaking to you”.
Certainly some people will raise objections, saying that there is no scriptural evidence for the contention that Allah may speak through an intermediary other than a Prophet. Both the Qur’an and the Torah mention that Allah spoke to Moses through a burning bush, and every believer accepts that. In your opinion, which is a more noble vessel for Divine Light, a more noble instrument for Divine Wisdom, bush or man? Is man or bush the “crown of creation”? Are there any grounds upon which to reject this point?
When a person attains the station of Unity he leaves behind his own existence and is admitted to the Lord’s existence, so that Divine Oneness overtakes him: you may see him as Jilani, but he is not Jilani.
We all stagger under the weight of the burden of this life, but we bear that burden only because we have not set it down. Some foolish people are not satisfied with carrying only their own loads but envy the loads of others. The result is this that as long as you carry that weight of the ego so many others attack you, and you are pierced by arrows and spears, slashed by swords of envy and enmity. Attaining the gate of Oneness with the Almighty is the only way to be released from the sufferings of this world, and all of God’s Prophets have imparted methods for attaining this goal. However, man’s resistance is very great, and, generally the larger our share of worldly fortune the tighter do we grasp it.
The Law & the Way, Rich & Poor
That is one of the main, reasons why Divinely Revealed Law, throughout the ages, has required the rich to give charity to the poor. Besides the obvious benefits of relieving the poverty of the recipient and keeping envy away from the threshold of the donor, the charity or poor-due trains the well-to-do person to renounce some part of his wealth, and thus to purify it and himself. This is why the poor-due is called Zakat, or purification. Purification from what? From our attachment to separate existence.
Shayban ar-Rai was a simple shepherd, and also one of the great Sufi saints of the early Islamic era. He lived during the times when the four renowned Imams of the Sunni schools of canon law were busy compiling the canon of their respective schools. One of those great scholars, Imam Shafii, considered Shayban ar-Rai to be his spiritual mentor.
Another of the four great Imams, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, being skeptical of such an illiterate Shaykh, decided to ask him a very elementary question to ascertain his level of knowledge. Imam Shafii warned him: “Beware of thinking of him as a simpleton, for if you ask him a question with that preconceived notion, he will understand your hidden intention and put you to shame.”
Imam Ahmad was, however, determined to pursue his course, so he asked him: “What is the rate of Zakat that all non – indigent Muslims must pay to the poor?”. “Which Zakat are you inquiring about–your Zakat or ours? According to your variety of knowledge or according to our way?” Surprised and always suspicious of heresy, Imam Ahmad asked: “What? Do you claim that there are two rates of Zakat in Shariah (Divine Law)? I would like to know what they are, and on what evidence you base your claim”. “According to Shariah as it applies to you and to those who are on your way, it is incumbent upon every person to give away one fortieth of his gold, silver, livestock and goods to the poor. According to the Shariah, as it applies to His slaves, the slave and all he possesses belong to the Master. So, on our way, from every forty, forty is for our Lord and nothing for us”.
Then Imam Ahmad asked him: “On what authority do you base this? Who is your Imam, and what is your chain of transmission back to the Prophet?” “Our Imam is Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (the first Khalipha of Islam): he gave all his wealth for the sake of his Lord”.