||Conversion as the Moment of Truth (1 of 1), Read 33 times |
||Issues: The Islamic Personality|
||Thursday, March 27, 2003 09:20 PM |
In search of answers worth asking about?
Where search becomes discovery.
This article is taken from the author's book "The Seeker and the Way" available with Noordeen Publishers in Malaysia at http://www.asnislamicbooks.com/
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Moment of Truth
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Say: Who is the Lord of the seven heavens. And the Lord of the magnificent Throne? They will say Allah! Say: Are you then filled with fear? (23: 86-88)
WITHIN THE FRAME of the Islamic worldview, truth is self-evident. In other words, man has direct access to the truth and the truth exists to be recognized by man. Man can recognize God and he can come to know Him. On a purely instinctive level, on the level of sheer intelligence, man is ready to understand God. It is self-evident to man, for example, that he does not enjoy a meaning and an end in and of himself, but rather seeks a truth other than himself, a truth beyond his own limited perception of self. Similarly, like the world itself, man knows that he depends on a cause that determines everything, a cause that measures and protects and from which we cannot escape. However, realizing the truth that man is nothing and God is everything is one thing. Giving oneself completely into God’s hands through surrender and worship is quite another thing.
Ultimately, every conversion, indeed every turning toward the Divine is a blessing from God. God chooses and man is chosen. Nevertheless, one can discern a pattern of spiritual evolution within a person’s life that is worth mentioning as part of the process of becoming a Muslim. When I reflect upon my own childhood, I can vaguely remember some of the instinctive fear akin to spiritual awe that I felt in my heart for the idea of God. I remember myself as an unusually devout child when I think back upon those distant times. In my infancy and youth, I remember an innocent and natural attachment to the Divine Presence that even today I can only recreate with sincere devotion and concentration. An amazing characteristic of childhood is indeed its sweet and uncomplicated naiveté that reaches out and instinctively remembers the divine source. This is before the child can learn to consciously separate himself from God and attach himself to the world. They say that childhood is the time of innocence, a time still close enough to the remembrance of the paradise lost. The innocent young soul has yet to abandon its newly lost connections with eternity, and the desire of the paradise is still instinctive and fresh. When I remember these spiritual emotions as I glance back upon my childhood, I am struck by the boldness of my spiritual feelings and the purity of my loving attachment to God.
These genuine spiritual emotions lasted well through my adolescence until the time I entered the mainstream of life during my 20s. When I entered the university, I was already beginning to suffer some inner confusion and self doubt. My traditional attitudes began to weaken as I was confronted more and more with the secular and contemporary attitudes of my friends and the environment I lived in. Traditional dogma didn’t make sense to me anymore, and the demands of the secular world were simply too imposing, too tempting, and too convincing to refuse. I eventually abandoned my spiritual inclinations and my spiritual emotions in what amounted to a worldly naiveté and I fully embraced the dunia of this world.
I don’t mean to exaggerate. My experience was common enough and is reflective of the experience many people today are suffering, perhaps unconsciously on the inner level, as they shed their spiritual attachments and cling to the illusion of an earthly freedom and a human fulfilment that is clearly impossible without the aid of Heaven. As I mentioned earlier, a profound religious choice almost demands a rite of passage that amounts to a kind of “dark night of the soul”. It is an inner passage of self doubt and inner despair that is fully in keeping with the Quranic verse that states: Allah has created man in the best of forms, and then cast him down to the lowest of the low (95: 4-5).
I was slowly becoming an empty glass, drained of all value and substance, without meaning or vision, an ego without a soul, or a fragment in search of the Whole. I tried to cultivate a kind of personal religion, if for no other reason than to keep despair at bay. I never denied the idea of God outright as many people gladly do nowadays. The secular attitude, for all of its attractions and subtle temptations, never really convinced me. But my personalized religion ran out its natural course. I finally realized that it was merely the delusions of my own ego, as if the mind had successfully outwitted the soul and closed off all doors to the latent spirituality within me.
Eventually the dark night of the soul reaches its ultimate conclusion, its lowest, most intense point, when one is either lost or begins to see the light and turns towards God. For one brief moment, there is a realization, if one is so blessed, of how insignificant we truly are without God and without the spiritual perspective that channels grace down to us and that ultimately saves. There is a brief second that amounts to the spark before the flame or the flash that precedes light. A person realizes that this is it: It is either God no nothing, and one has the presence of mind to choose God. Perhaps this happens on some unconscious level. A person is made to feel once and for all the absolute need for God, and he feels this in his innermost heart and soul, wherein the Absolute resides. According to the well known hadith qudsi, God has spoken the words: “The heavens and the earth cannot contain Me, but the heart of My believing servant does contain Me.” At the threshold of spiritual discovery, a man of despair becomes finally a man of faith. He can really feel this absolute need for God in a way that he never experienced before. From that moment on, there is no doubting the Divinity, and faith begins to take root once again in the ground of the soul. Say: I worship Allah, completely sincere in my religion, for Him alone (39: 14).
I did pass through such a crisis nearing despair just prior to my conversion to Islam and if this be a necessary prelude to the opening of the spiritual eye, then so be it. There is no doubt that this dark experience represents for me the winter solstice of my life. It was the absolute low point of a divine test, a pause before the turning and an inner hesitation before a new spiritual initiative that could replace the doubt and confusion I was suffering from. Beyond the inner spark or flash of light lay an inner burning to pursue a life of spirituality and follow a path that would lead to perfection and enlightenment, an inner burning to identify oneself through a witnessing and surrender to a reality that is in fact God.
This inner burning was nothing short of a desire to perfect oneself through a process of knowing oneself, or to try to become what one is in his very nature and being, namely a reflection of the higher Spirit and the Ultimate Reality. Otherwise, the alternative is to run the risk of loosing one’s identity, one’s dignity, one’s intelligence, and one’s sense of self. God sets man free with His infinite possibility in a way that the world never can, and provides the keys to an understanding that can be found within man’s own being.
* * * *
When God chose to communicate a revelation to His thinking creation, He sent down the message through a perfect human being and a messenger who was sufficiently developed spiritually to be able to contain and absorb the tremendous power and import of the message. The messenger acts as a go-between, a man capable of bridging the gap that exists between God and the rest of humanity. It is only fitting then, that an individual man should lead another person back to Islam, by the power of his spiritual presence, by his knowledge and by his capacity to enlighten and liberate.
In my own case, two people were involved in the process that led to my conversion, the first to pay the way, the second to open the door. I will therefore take this opportunity to thank them, once and for all time, and extent my heart-felt gratitude to two fine Muslims, without whom these reflections nor my Muslim life would have been and is possible. My friend Ismael was able to open a heart of stone to the higher emotions, without shattering it to pieces. Thereafter, Haneef, an intelligent man in the truly spiritual meaning of the word, was able to open my closed mind to the possibilities of Islamic spirituality and to the Truth that supports all of existence. For the both, the blessings and peace that all true Muslims have been promised.
Many years have now passed since I first travelled to the Middle East to teach English at one of the local universities. The details of the setting and the locale are not important to these reflections; what is important is the encounter that took place between me and Haneef, an Indian professor of Cybernetics whom I met when I first arrived in the Middle East. My hardened heart had already been made more pliant by the insistent and subtle urging of my friend Ismael. By the time I met Haneef, my determination to disbelieve had already suffered severe blows and my proud indifference to the spiritual truths had been considerably weakened.
When I finally met Haneef, I was well prepared for his crisp intelligence, his electric presence, and the freedom that he allowed me to be intellectually curious. He never imposed himself or his ideas on me, in keeping with the Quranic injunction that that is no compulsion in religion. On the contrary, he had a subtle, gentle way of not insisting upon anything in our discussions about religion. He had answers, but he withheld them until I asked the appropriate questions. A person can accept the truth, he told me precisely because he has the freedom to deny the truth. Eventually, the seeds he planted began to grow, so that the spiritual knowledge he wanted to impart could eventually become a wisdom rooted in the ground of my own evolving soul.
Every religion has its own particular form that contains its own spiritual message, Haneef told me, but the final end is always the same.
“And what is that,” I asked him, perplexed but intrigued.
The transcending of the human individuality through a grace called down by man’s worship and devotion, he said with assurance. Throughout history, but especially now, man needs to regain the lost contact with the Spirit of God. Man has to sensitize his soul once again to the Divine Magnetism. He can accomplish this by finding his own center, in order to counter-balance the centrifugal force of a world in which the soul becomes less and less a unity, less simple, less sincere, and more a multiplicity, more unbalanced and dispersed.
We are living in difficult times, he continued to insist. Life has always been conditional and precarious, but never with such an intensity as during these times that have all but witnessed the disappearance of the traditional world. Life may have always been conditional, but until now man always enjoyed an inner consciousness that made him a gate of departure and the only exit from the confines of the individual ego. Through his own being, a person could escape from the entrapment of this world, in Arabic and Quranic terminology the dunia. In other words, man is his own open door toward the inner self, and this leads towards immortality in God. Haneef repeated a beautiful expression of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. “The dunia is the prison of the believers and the paradise of the disbelievers.”
The enigma of the human experience and what actually makes man ‘human’ as such is that man contains a paradox and a mystery within himself. The challenge is to superimpose the mystery of God upon his own mystery. If the paradox within man were to be resolved and the element of mystery withdrawn, then the human factor within man would vanish altogether and man as such would no longer be necessary. No, Haneef said, at the heart of the Islamic message is the truth that man’s primary duty, indeed the sole reason for his existence is to penetrate into the heart of his own paradox to reveal to himself the mystery that is God. Only on the earthly plane can man raise the level of his consciousness to the point where Allah’s mystery becomes man’s own, when his own meagre ego, or ‘I-consciousness’ can become the ‘He-consciousness’ that is implicit in the name of God.
Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth, Haneef recited from the Holy Quran. this must mean, he said, that man is in the shadow of God, a pale reflection of the Divine light, but a reflection nonetheless and the human image of the Divine. In fact, man is the human vehicle of the divine attributes and qualities. “Quality yourself with the qualities of God,” the prophet of Islam once said. The tragedy of the modern times is that man is forced to turn to religion, not because of what it is, with its gift of knowledge, its subtlety and its incredible practicality; but because of what he is, or is not, within himself. The inner harmony of the religion is merely the polar opposite of the outward disharmony that is reflected well-nigh everywhere during these times, but no place more poignantly than in man himself, who is forced to turn inward and upward as the only means of reasonable escape to the magnetic pull of the earthly sphere. Traditional man wanted to know himself and through himself come to know God. “Know thyself in order to know God” is a well-known Islamic saying of the prophet. Today, man seeks in every manner to escape from himself, through money, power, materialism, self-image; but alas this is not possible because he has invested everything in his own reflection and no longer understands himself to be a reflection of the Divine Being. Man is his own god, that is what he has to live with during these times.
Haneef was relentless in his expose of the contemporary and modern day world. Within us, he advised me, we are basically three fragments in search of a whole, including aspects of the animal, the human, and the divine. To be animal is to be less than we are; to be divine means to take part in the absolute quality that is at the heart of all existence; to be human means to find a balance between the two norms of expression, the one animal and the other divine. Man must express himself as he truly is in his human nature. This is man’s fitrah mentioned in the Quran, Haneef told me, which in Islam is a human nature that is originally pure and innocent. Man can evolve toward a state of perfection by being ‘perfectly himself’, which means that he represents in his own way the attributes and qualities that distinguish the Divine Being. Man must be himself and not the false persona that the human personality projects during these times. By surrendering to the Truth, he can become his own truth.
How can man be himself seemed to be a logical question, and so I asked it, knowing full well the human lie that we project to the world around us in the name of a personality and an essence that is supposed to reflect a truth.
Such simple questions require difficult answers, Haneef replied, but both the questions and the answers are necessary, especially during these pivotal, indeed critical times. We need the essential knowledge of God that is contained in the Quran, or in any valid revelation for that matter, and we need to respond to this knowledge in some practical way in our lives. If God speaks to mankind through sacred words a knowledge that will guide him toward happiness, perfection, and ultimately enlightenment, then so also is man capable of rendering back something that is essential to God even. A well-known hadith expresses this sentiment quite succinctly: “I existed in solitude and wanted to be known. Therefore, I created the world.” Because god wanted to be known, man became a human consciousness. In this way, the human factor is raised to the dignity of the metaphysical factor. God and man share in the intimacy of His and we, with a meeting of minds and a union of hearts in which God is most divine and man is most human.
Haneef’s discussions inspired trust and hope. I felt drawn into a new and unexplored realm that promised to reach down into depths I never knew existed. I don’t mean to imply that what is set down here on paper represents a ward for word that he told me. Rather it is an approximation and a synthesis of the process that took place in my associated with him that led me along a very distinct path toward my ultimate conversion.
In particular, I remember long conversations in which Haneef discussed the mentality of people today and the interest in psychology that proposed so many theories of man, without offering any real conviction. He went on at length, for example, about man’s ego since this is a term that is accepted in common parlance and plays a major role in how people in the modern era understand themselves in relation to the world.
The concept of ego has taken the place of the concept of the soul in the mind of may people today, Haneef told me. Ego consciousness is centered purely in this world, whereas the soul is understood to be the exclusive creation of God and fused by His Spirit. The modern day understanding of reality comes primarily from man’s ego. Our psyche looks out into the enigmatic world of shapes, images and shadows, but we never know to what extent the shadowy forms are caused by our own limited consciousness, or whether they possess a reality of their own beyond our perception of them. Ego consciousness does not have access to the Whole. Therefore while it accumulates a host of facts and impressions of an external nature, the ego has a hard time understanding the meaning behind the shadowy images of the material and natural world, and allows them no value in and of themselves. If man has become an empty shell, then so has the world become a form without substance, or a body without a soul.
If man could fully express himself as the totality and the whole that he is in principle, then truly he would be a human being in divinis. Instead, modern man, by his own choosing ironically enough, remains a fragment being in search of the Whole.
I wanted to agree with him, partly because he made a lot of sense, a partly because I had experienced this fragmentary quality he spoke of. A man without a spiritual vision and without a consciousness of the Absolute isn’t a man as such.
In some way, Haneef went on, we are suffering from a split personality. He laughed until his shoulders shook. Let’s go ahead and out-psychologize the psychologists. We live parallel lives in a parallel universe, and this is no more fittingly reflected than in the life of the ego and the life of the soul. The life of the ego pulls us down into the gravity of the earth, and the life of the soul lifts us out of ourselves by the magnetism of the Divine Center. The illusion of parallel lives will terminate at death of course, since the reality of death will destroy the ego and allow the soul to pass on to other levels of experience and in quite another dimension than that of the earthly sphere.
The ego’s absolute knowledge of the relative destroys man’s relative knowledge of the Absolute. In other words, the nature of the ego is to love itself rather than the Divine. The life of the ego is the life of the lower self. It amounts to a blatant awareness of our own ‘me-ness’ that is based purely on the empirical world of things. The ego desires this life only, the dunia. The life of the soul is the life of the higher self. It is the essence of the created one in quest of the Creator, the seeker in search of the Sought, the lover in love with the Beloved.
The ego is the personal statement of all that is transient and false, the soul is the personal expression of all that is eternal and true. The ego claims: “I am here!” while the soul humbly asks: “Why am I here and whither?” The ego is the illusion, dreaming dreams in which we dream ourselves. The soul is the existing and eternal reality of the individual, a fragment of the Universal Spirit. The ego seeks false gods that confirm its own identity; the soul seeks the Center whose magnetism is irresistible and whose truth is absolute. Hell is the response and resting place of the ego wanting to be the Absolute. It exists here on earth as a state of mind in which people suffer legitimate misery and despair, an earthly experience that serves as a prelude and warning. Paradise is the home of the soul in search of the Absolute. It exists also as a reality here on earth and enjoyed in the minds of the faithful as genuine happiness and peace as a foretaste of the heavenly paradise that has been promised.
Haneef never tired of discussing these issues, and I for my part never tired of listening to him. He seemed to be bringing me to the threshold of spiritual experience within the context of the religion of Islam through a process of psychology, as if by imprinting on my mind an understanding of the psychology of man and the necessity of the life of the soul, which is none other than a human life in the shadow of God.
Perhaps he knew it, perhaps he didn’t, but I was in fact standing on the threshold, hovering on the knife’s edge of spiritual realization. I was beginning to understand that the religion of Islam is as simple as it is profound, and that the divine message is fully accessible to the extent that the heart of man is open and ready I was beginning to see that the truth of Islam can be reduced to an infinitely simple and clear sacred formula, and still retain its profundity, its depth, and its mystery.
* * * *
One day, Haneef seemed to want to lay aside his explanations. Perhaps he felt that the moment of truth had arrived, I don’t know. “Now, I would like to ask you a question,” he said, as I sat with him expectantly.
“By all means,” I replied.
“Do you believe in God,” he asked me point-blankly.
I was taken in surprise by the directness of his question. My first impulse was to say no, my second to say yes. The denial in me reflected years of conditioning. Etc…….., but realized later that it was a necessary first step. One has to take a stand somewhere, sometime and for me the moment of choice had come.
“I have always believed in God,” I frankly admitted to him without hesitation. “I have always taken comfort from the idea of the existence of God, even if I had no idea how to realize His presence.”
“Do you believe in a superior Intelligence that has no equals?”
Once again, I said “yes,” thinking that God would not be God if He fell short of this most fitting description.
“Shall we call this intelligence Allah?”
“I don’t know,” I hesitated. “If you say so,”
“It is not I who say so. He has identified himself with the name of Allah in the Quranic revelation. He is Allah, meaning the one to be worshipped, and the revelation is God’s communication to humanity.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, thinking: Yes, everything has a name, and so too God has spoken to man in this way and given Himself an identity, for man’s sake no doubt. I opened my eyes and looked into Haneef’s own. “Allah,” I said, but more than merely saying a name, I was asserting a belief and he knew it.
“:If Allah speaks sacred words to mankind, He needs a man big enough, strong enough, deep enough, complete enough, and man enough to be able to receive these words and this knowledge,” Haneef went on. “He needs a go-between, a messenger, a perfect man, to first absorb and then to convey the message.”
“Muhammad,” I replied, thinking once again in the affirmation, yes, this must be. Is God going to speak to every man or any man, to me or to you, or is He going to send down His knowledge to His own messenger (rasul) and friend (habib)?
“You have said it, not I.”
“What have I said?” I asked perplexed.
“The shahadah or the great witnessing in Islam. God and messenger, knowledge and action, doctrine and practice, the two essential elements of a single all-encompassing truth. A sacred formula simple enough to say with the tongue yet powerful enough to shatter false worlds, and profound enough to penetrate into both the human heart and the heart of the universe itself.
“What are the words of the sacred formula,” I asked?
“:There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger,” Haneef said. “It is the formal summary and complete synthesis of the entire message of Islam. For the believer, it is the source of the ultimate knowledge and sets the seal on the one Reality. There is no reality, but the one Reality; there is no truth but the one Truth.”
“How does it sound in the original Arabic,” I asked Haneef, thinking what are the sacred words, what are the cosmic sounds of the divine speech?
La ilaha illa ‘Llah, Muhammadan rasulu ‘Llah, my friend entoned slowly and meaningfully.
Outwardly, with my voice, I repeated the Arabic words, taking immediate note of their sonorous, other-[worldly quality; but inwardly, I was not my usual cool, collected self, for I was beginning to come to the realization that faith and practice brings with it real experience, spiritual experience, which is nothing short of an inner experience that is both real and undeniable.
Haneef shook with laughter.
“What’s so funny,” I asked him.
“You’re a Muslim and you don’t even know it.”
“You already have in your heart, what your mind is reluctant to place on your lips. Without a little help from me,” he added.
I smiled and said: “Perhaps you’re right, yes, perhaps you’re right.” Inwardly, I knew that my Muslim life had already begun; indeed has always existed as an inner reality that needed only the catalyst of a human experience to make it known once again and realized. This human encounter had finally brought this truth out of me into the light.
The moment passed quickly into time, but its memory lingers on and its enduring significance has never failed me. The moment of truth, however, never passes us by. It exists in time as an eternal reality, just as man exists in time as a temporal reality, spiritually human in order that he may become humanly spiritual. We have only to meet the moment with our own moment of truth, and this meeting prefigures the divine meeting, when God and man are reunited once again through the doctrine of Unity, the one at one with the Only One (al-Ahad), not just as a celestial reality but also as an earthly experience.