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Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 3

Having outlined the teachings that pertain to faith and submission, we now turn to the last of the three aspects of the natural state mentioned in the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام, beauty (ihsan). Iman and islam can be broken down into the categories given for each in the Hadith, but ihsan is simply “to worship God as if you see Him”; so while iman and islam are presented as specific creeds and practices, ihsan is a state of being. Islam and iman thus tell us what is the best thing to do and to think, but ihsan tells us how to do it. It is an attitude, intention, and way of life that should permeate all that one says, thinks, or does. Hence the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said to his companions, “God has ordained doing what is beautiful for all things.” When iman and islam are not beautified through ihsan, they lose their efficacy. The law becomes a dead letter that stifles instead of frees, and the creed becomes an empty doctrine that kills the heart by enclosing it in the precepts of the mind rather than enlivening both the heart and mind by infusing them with the light of truth. As one of the great scholars of early Islamic history wrote when commenting upon the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام, “Islam is the outer, iman is the inner and the outer, and ihsan is the reality of the outer and the inner.”[1] From this perspective, the reality of the “submitting way” is doing all things with beauty (husn).

Three Qur’anic passages discuss islam and ihsan together:

Who submits his face to God and does what is beautiful,
he has his reward with God,
he shall not fear, nor shall he sorrow. (2 : 112)

Who submits his face to God and does what is beautiful
has seized upon the firmest rope,
and to God do the affairs return. (31 : 22)

Who is more beautiful in religion
than one who submits his face to God,
does what is beautiful,
and follows the way of Abraham in pure faith. (4 : 125)

In Arabic, to submit one’s face means to submit one’s entire being, one’s essence; for the face, unlike other parts of the body, identifies who we are and is thus associated with our true nature. By joining together the states of submission and beautification, these three verses imply that the full depth of Islam -the reality of submission- is only attained through doing all that we can with beauty. This is because both islam and ihsan seek to control our passions and conceits, Islam by channeling and neutralizing them from outside through the pillars and the Shariah, ihsan by dissolving them from within. It should be noted, however, that when our passions and conceits are dissolved from within, many of the prescriptions and prohibitions that pertain to the outer neutralizing discipline do not need to be imposed because the actions they enjoin arise organically from our true nature (fitrah).

This world can never be perfect, but within the imperfection that defines our earthly existence, we can act beautifully. To do so is, in some small way, to make God present in the world, both by being conscious of God and because all beauty ultimately derives from God. As a famous hadith says, “God is beautiful and He loves beauty.”[2] And do not all things incline towards that which they love? According to the Qur’an beautification is part of God’s creative process:

It is God who made beautiful everything that He created. (32 : 6)

Who formed you and made your forms beautiful. (40 : 64)

He created the heavens and the earth through truth,
formed you and made your forms beautiful. (63 : 3)

God is thus the first to beautify; for us to beautify is to emulate God as best as we can. Although islam andiman are fundamental components of a complete human life, neither pertains directly to God. God does not submit; He can only be submitted to. God does not have faith or believe, rather,

He is the Knower of the unseen and the seen. (13 : 9, 39 : 46, 59 : 23)

For our Lord embraces all things in knowledge. (6 : 80, 7 : 89)

Ihsan is thus the mode of religious practice wherein the human being draws close to God by being as god-like as one can be; hence the Qur’an implores us,

Beautify as God has beautified you. (28 : 77)

Whereas God has made the outward forms of things beautiful, to be fully beautiful we must participate in the inner beautification of our characters; therefore the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم would pray, “God, you have made beautiful my creation (khalq), make beautiful my character (khuluq).”[3] Only after God has beautified one’s character is the human able to beautify in turn, for like comes only from like. This then leads to the continued beautification of one’s self:

Is not the recompense for beautifying
but beautification? (55 : 60)

As the character gradually grows in beauty, one participates more fully and freely in the beautification of his or her own soul and moves closer to God, the source of all beauty. As the Qur’an states,

Those who beautify
will receive beauty, and more. (10 : 26)

That which is most beautiful is God, for,

To Him belong the most beautiful names. (18 : 110, 20 : 8, 59 : 24)

In effect, the purpose of the Islamic tradition, or any religious tradition for that matter, is to beautify the human character. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “I was only sent to complete the noble character traits,”[4] and “Among the best of you is the most beautiful in character traits.”[5] The creeds explained in theology and the actions ordained in the Shariah are thus intended to engender a life lived in simple and utter beauty. A life lived in beauty is not lived on the periphery but in the heart. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “God does not look at your bodies, nor at your forms, He looks at your hearts.”[6] In fact, the heart determines all other dimensions of our being: “There is in man a clump of flesh. If it is pure, the whole body is pure. If it is polluted, the whole body is polluted. It is the heart.”[7] Nothing is more important for our final end than the state of the heart, for the Day of Judgment is,

A day when neither wealth nor sons shall profit,
save one who comes to God with a sound heart. (26 : 88)

When the heart is sound, the entire human is sound and the the ego has, in a sense, already died to the world.

The process of purifying the heart and slaying the ego is in a sense a process of learning how to worship freely with all that one is, not only because we are commanded to do so, but because it is pleasing to God. All of creation cannot but worship God in some way, for God is Absolute and we are contingent, God is the Creator and we are the created. As God tells us,

There is none in the heavens and the earth
that does not come to the All-Merciful as a worshipper. (19 : 93)

But human beings also have a degree of free will and thus have another form of worship prescribed for them so that they may freely choose to worship. This mode of worship takes form in the five pillars of Islam, the conditions of which are detailed in the Shariah, but this is only a bare minimum. For those who love God and are drawn to the Absolute, there is a degree of worship beyond the compulsory. These are the supererogatory devotions, such as reading the Qur’an regularly, performing extra prayers, fasting at times other than Ramadan, and giving alms beyond the required zakat. Sincere performance of the obligatory rites engenders a desire to please God more and draw nearer to Him, just as He draws nearer to us. This becomes manifest through increased devotion and remembrance of God, which then brings the worshipper even closer to God, for as God says,

Remember me, I am remembering you. (2 : 152)

Regarding the relationship between worship that is obligatory and that which is supererogatory, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said,

God says, “My servant draws near to Me through nothing that I love more than what I have made obligatory upon him. And My servant never ceases not to draw near unto me through supererogatory devotions until I love him. And when I love him, I am the hearing through which he hears, the sight through which he sees, the foot upon which he walks, the hand with which he strikes.”[8]

To reach the point where God is indeed the hand with which one strikes is not to imply union with God; rather it is complete awareness of our true nothingness before the Lord of the Worlds, Who is powerful over all things (2 : 255).

When one is aware of this fundamental reality, all that he or she does is an act of worship and beautification, and this is “to worship God as if you see Him.” For some this is a passing state that may last for a few moments, days, weeks, or months; for others it is supreme joy that will only be realized upon death. For the prophets and saints, it is the fullness of the human condition wherein on lives in the natural state, performing all actions with the perpetual awareness that,

He loves them and they love Him. (5 : 54)


NOTES

[1] Abu Nasr al-Sarraj, Kitab al-luma, ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmuad and Taha ‘Abd al-Zaqi Surur, eds (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Hadithiyyah, 1970), p. 22
[2] Muslim, p. 93, no. 147
[3] Imam Abu Zakariyya yahya b. Sharaf al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2000 CE / 1421 AH), p. 248, no. 784
[4] Imam Malik b. Anas, al-Muwatta’, trans. A’isha ‘Abd al-Rahman and Ya’qub Johnson (Norwich, England: Diwan Press, 1982), p. 438
[5] al-Bukhari, p. 1086, no. 6029
[6] Ibn Majah, p. 604, no. 4143
[7] al-Bukhari, p. 27, no. 52
[8] Ibid., p. 1160, no. 6502

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Submission, Faith, and Beauty – Introduction

The Religion of Islam

Joseph E. Lumbard

Zaytuna Institute

Dedicated to the hearts in search of the divine truth.
May God guide you with grace along the path.


Invocations

An invocation of God’s blessings and peace for the Prophet Muhammad:
“Peace and blessings of God be upon him.”

An invocation of God’s peace upon a prophet:
“Peace be upon him.”

An invocation of God’s peace upon two prophets:
“Peace be upon them.”

An invocation of God’s peace upon more than two prophets:
“Peace be upon them.”

An invocation of God’s peace upon a female companion of the Prophet:
“May God be pleased with her.”

An invocation of God’s peace upon a male companion of the Prophet:
“May God be pleased with him.”


INTRODUCTION

Islam is nothing new. It is a reaffirmation of the one truth that has always been and will never cease to be -there is no deity but God- la ilaha illa llah. This is the axis for not only the religion, but for the whole existence. To know and live this reality is the birthright of every human being. It brings peace, contentment, and nobility. Passionate predilections, conceits, and ignorance can, however, blind us to the truth, such that we become forgetful and heedless, putting vanity and falsity in its place. Despite the transgressions of human beings, reminders of this truth were periodically sent to humankind through the infinite mercy of God. These reminders were sent in the form of messengers or prophets who brought the revelations through which we are again reminded that truth is one, that all is created through this truth, and that our joy, contentment, and salvation lie in living in accord with this truth. This truth is encapsulated in the first half of the testimony of faith spoken by Muslims: “I testify that there is no deity but God” (ash-hadu an la ilaha illa llah).

In many English-speaking societies, this truth is often misunderstood and mistaken for a type of paganism, largely due to a simple linguistic barrier. Muslims most often refer to God using the Arabic name Allah, which is a proper noun that designates the incomparable creator of the heavens and earth. Many non-Arabic speaking people mistakenly assume that Allah is the name of a deity who is distinct from the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Christianity, simply because they hear the word “Allah” used instead of the word “God”. This false assumption is refuted by the fact that both Arab Jews and Arab Christians also refer to God as Allah. The name Allah is the Arabic equivalent for God, and both terms can be interchanged synonymously. Because this book was prepared for readers versed in the English language, the word “God” will be used throughout except where Arabic terminology is specifically required.

The word Islam can be translated into English as “submission”. Contrary to the negative connotations of the word in common English usage, the meaning of submission as it pertains to Islam is “the act of recognizing the oneness of God” (tawhid). This submission is most often thought of as an act of bearing witness that there is no deity but God, although this is only its most elementary manifestation. To bear witness with one’s tongue and mind to God’s oneness is but the first step toward inner unification, wherein the dispersed elements of the soul are unified in the drive to realize the immutable truth and live in accord with it.

People who practice the religion of Islam are known as Muslims. The word Muslim can be translated into English as “one who submits”. Muslims believe that the last of God’s revelations to humanity is the Qur’an, which was revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel عليه السلام to the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه و سلم over a twenty-three year period (610 – 632 CE). Belief in the Prophet Muhammad’s status as a prophet (and by extension, the soundness of the revelation of the Qur’an) is affirmed in the second half of the testimony of faith: “and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God” (wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasulullah). For Muslims, the text of the Qur’an is the eternal and immutable word of God that has been preserved in its original form and language for over fourteen hundred years.

One Message, Many Messengers
The Qur’an was sent by God to remind humanity of the unifying truth of God’s oneness, and Muslims believe that this same truth was conveyed to every Prophet that came before the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. God tells us in the Qur’an,

And We never sent a messenger before you,
save that We revealed to him, saying,
“There is no deity but I, so worship Me.” (21 : 25)

God specifically addresses Moses عليه السلام: I am God! There is no deity but I. So worship Me (20 : 14). The Prophets Noah, Hud, Salih, and Shu’ayb عليه السلام said to their people in different lands and different ages,

O my people! Worship God!
You have no other deity but Him. (7 : 59, 7 : 65, 7 : 73, 7 : 85)

It is a fundamental principle of the Qur’an that every human collectivity has been sent a prophet. This principle is reinforced by the following verses:

And We have sent to every people a messenger,
that they may worship God.
(16 : 32)

And for every people there is a messenger.
When their messenger comes,
they are judged with equity and are not wronged
. (10 : 48)

Every human collectivity throughout history has thus been sent a reminder of God’s oneness. In this vein, every previous revelation is seen as a path of submission to the will of God. For God presents Islam as a way of life, not as a particular creed. Regarding Abraham عليه السلام, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God tells us,

Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian,
rather he was one who submitted. 
(3 : 95)

In another passage, Abraham and his son Ishmael عليه السلام, pray that they themselves submit and that those who follow them be a submitting nation (2 : 127 – 128). A few verses later, the Prophet Jacob عليه السلام, addresses his sons as follows:

O my sons, God has chosen the way for you.
So do not die but that you are those who submitted
. (2 : 132)

In the next chapter, the apostles say to Jesus عليه السلام,

We are the helpers of God! We believe!
Bear witness that we are those who submitted
. (3 : 52)

The whole of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is thus seen as different ways in which human beings have submitted to God throughout history. Thus the Qur’an tells us of Jews and Christians,

And when the Qur’an is recited to them, they say,
“We believe in it. Truly it is the truth from our Lord.
Truly before it 
[was revealed] we were those who submitted” (28 : 52)

The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “The prophets are half brothers: their mothers differ, and their way (deen) is one.”[1] The word deen, translated here as “way”, is usually translated as “religion”, but it actually conveys much more. It is an entire way of life with all the rules and regulations pertaining thereto, as in the words of Jacob عليه السلام cited in the previous paragraph, and in what is believed by some scholars to be the very last verse of the Qur’an to be revealed:

Today I have perfected your way for you
and have completed My blessings upon you,
and I have approved for you submitting as a way.
(5 : 3)

The Arabic root for deen is closely related to dayn, which means “debt” or “the repayment of a debt”. In this sense, deen indicates the manner in which human beings repay their debt to God, to whom they owe their entire existence. The most important verse for understanding the universal nature of this term states,

God has laid down for you as a way
that with which He charged Noah,
and what We have revealed to you,
and that with which We charged
Abraham, Moses and Jesus:
“Establish the way, and scatter not regarding it”.
(42 : 13)

In Qur’anic language, “the way” refers to both the recognition of the oneness of God and the submission to God and His messengers. This is considered the “right way” to live. As the Prophet Joseph عليه السلام says in the Qur’an,

Judgment belongs only to God.
He has commanded that you worship none but Him.
That is the right way, but most people do not know.
(12 : 40)

The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم and the Message of Islam
While the reality of the way that each messenger has taught is one, the forms differ. The way of submission revealed through the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is contained in the Qur’an and in his Sunnah (prophetic tradition). The Qur’an states,

You have an excellent example in the Messenger of God. (33 : 21)

When asked about the Prophet Muhammad’s character, his wife ‘A’isha رضي الله عنها said: “His character was the Qur’an.” The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is thus seen as the living embodiment of the message he delivered. From the beginning of his prophetic mission in the year 610 CE until today, all who follow the message he brought have seen in his words and actions the archetype of a life lived in full submission to the one God. The Prophet Muhammad’s function as God’s Messenger is inimitable, but in his daily life he confronted the opportunities, challenges, joys and hardships that befall any human being. He was an orphan, shepherd, merchant, husband,father, grandfather, warrior, general, politician, and more. He suffered great poverty and experienced great wealth. In the year 622, he was forced to emigrate because of persecution, and in the year 630, he returned as a triumphant hero. But in all of these modes he remained submissive to and mindful of the one God. The well-preserved record of his actions, sayings, and even tacit approvals provides a model for how we can too conduct ourselves with submission and mindfulness at every turn. To live in accord with the prophetic model is thus to live with continuous recognition of the oneness of God, wherein all the diverse elements of one’s life and being rotate around the eternal truth, unified in perpetual submission.

The effort to record and preserve the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is among the most remarkable achievements of human history. Scholars of many lands developed extensive sciences to safeguard the authenticity of this record and the manner of implementing it in the lives of Muslims from Arabia to Spain, India, China, and beyond. Altogether these accounts are known as the Hadith, and each individual account is a hadith. They contain information regarding everything from faith and the afterlife to family relations and rules of taxation and inheritance. Although the Hadith are second to the Qur’an in authority, they are far greater in quantity. The Qur’an is contained in a single book, but the hadith fill many volumes. Very often it is through the Hadith that one is able to understand the Qur’an. For example, the Qur’an instructs us to pray, but the Hadith tell us when to pray and how to pray. The Qur’an enjoins Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, but it is the specific teachings of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم that tell us how to perform the pilgrimage in a manner that is acceptable to God. Together, the Qur’an and Hadith are the cornerstones upon which the whole of Islam is built.

A few hadith are considered succinct summaries of the entire religion, touching upon every aspect of belief and practice. One that is commonly cited in this regard is known as the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام. It is transmitted by one of the Prophet Muhammad’s closest companions, the second caliph (Muslim leader) after him, Umar ibn al-Khattab رضي الله عنه. This hadith came from a time towards the end of the Prophet’s life:

One day when we were sitting with the Messenger of God صلى الله عليه وسلم, a man with very white clothing and jet black hair came up to us. No mark of travel was visible upon him, and none of us recognized him. Sitting down before the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, leaning his knees against his, and placing his hands upon his thighs, he said, “Tell me, Muhammad, about submitting.” He replied, “Submitting is that you bear witness that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, that you perform the ritual prayer, pay the alms tax, fast during Ramadan, and make pilgrimage to the House if you are able.” The man said, “You are right.” We were surprised at his questioning him and then declaring that he was right. The man said, “Now tell us about faith.” He replied, “Faith is that you have faith in God, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and that you have faith in the measuring out, both its good and its evil.” Remarking that he was right, he then said, “Now tell me about beautifying.” He replied, “To beautify is to worship God as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He nonetheless sees you.” The the man said, “Tell me about the Hour.” The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم replied, “Regarding that, the one questioned knows no more than the questioner.” The man said, “Then tell me about its marks.” He said, “The slave will give birth to her mistress, and you will see the barefoot, naked, destitute shepherds vying in erecting tall buildings.” Then the man went away. After I had waited for a long time, the Prophet said to me, “Do you know who the questioner was Umar?” I replied, “God and His Messenger know best.” He said, “He was Gabriel. He came to teach you your religion.”[2]

The remainder of this book is based upon this hadith. It is divided into four sections dealing with each of the elements mentioned: submitting or submission (islam), faith or belief (iman), beautification (ihsan), and the End of Time (also known as the Hour). From one perspective, submission, faith, and beautification are the three fundamental dimensions of the submitting way; they complement and complete each other. They are envisioned as three partially overlapping circles, and the place where all three circles overlap is the ideal that all Muslims strive to attain. One who embodies all three in their fullest depth and breadth is closer to living as a true human being in what the Qur’an refers to as the true nature (fitrah). This true nature is our original state before God and the innate disposition of all human beings.

The fitrah referred to above is the innate disposition of all human beings. People hold the full awareness of the oneness of God in their innermost core, but the darkness of the world veils them from its light. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Every child is born in the true nature. Then its parents make it a Christian, a Jew, or a Zoroastrian.”[3] This does not mean that all the previous religions are invalid, but rather that insofar as they have been corrupted, they no longer serve to bring about the state of submission that all prophets have practiced and taught.[4] The practice of Islam is susceptible to the same corruptions as previous dispensations, but it is up to the community of scholars to address and resolve these corruptions, renewing the religion for each generation. When not corrupt, all the various ways revealed by God are the means by which we can return to our true nature:

Set your face to the religion as one with primordial faith,
the true nature established by God,
according to which He brought people forth.
There is no changing the creation of God.
That is the right way, but most people do not know.
Turn to Him and revere Him,
perform the prayer, and be not of those
who associate others with Him.
(30 : 30)

From this perspective, the human being is not a fallen being in need of redemption but rather a forgetful being who must be reminded of God and of his own nature. It is said, “Who knows himself, knows his Lord.”[5] The Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام proposes that we return to the knowledge of God and ourselves by living in faith and submission and doing things beautifully.

All of the difficulties that confront humanity arise from an imbalance between the three dimensions of submission, faith, and beautification; for example, trying to beautify things without submitting is the height of vanity. trying to submit without beauty gives rise to the dry legalism of strident puritanical movements. Without submission, faith becomes blind ideology. And without beauty, faith becomes a corpus of vague ideologies, and the earnest teachings of all scriptures are reduced to empty slogans. Unfortunately, the forgetful, obstinate, and passionate human soul allows these dimensions to gradually grow apart on both the individual and societal levels. As this process reaches its nadir, the signs of the final hour alluded to at the end of the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام appear. Such times are referred to as trials (fitan, plural of fitna) in the Hadith literature. These trials will take many forms but will have a common root cause -forgetfulness and heedlessness. From an Islamic perspective, the only way to withstand such trials is to live a life that integrates submission, faith, and beauty. For even if the world is moving away from the fullness of the divine message, each individual can live it in his or her own life to the extent that he or she is able; this we should never fail to do.


Notes

[1] Imam Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad b. Isma’il al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2005 CE / 1426 AH), p. 610, no. 3443
[2] Imam Abu al-Husayn Muslim b. al-Hajjaj al-Qushayri al-Nisaburi, Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al’Arabi, 2000 CE / 1420 AH), p. 65, no. 8
[3] al-Bukhari, p. 240, no. 1385
[4] Editors’ note: According to some scholars, the position that all aspects of previous religions are not invalid is affirmed by the Qur’an and Sunnah. God mentions in the Qur’an, concerning judgments on the basis of the Jewish and Christians scriptures, Let the People of the Gospel judge by what God has revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by what God has revealed, they are rebellious profligate (5 : 50). In this and related verses (5 : 47 – 49) God affirms the validity of judgments issued on the basis of the scriptures present with the Jewish and Christian communities during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. Scholars who hold that the law of the communities who preceded the community of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is a valid source of law for the Muslim community, usher these verses as proof for that position. In the Sunnah, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم accepted the judgment of the Torah (Deuteronomy 20 : 12, as issued by Sa’d b. Mu’adh, against the Jewish tribe Bani Qurayzah. The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم described that judgment as “the judgment of God from above the seven heavens.” See Ibn Hisham, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1994 / 1415), 3 : 181. These and similar narrations support the idea that there is validity in the previous religions. Surely God knows best.
[5] This expression is often attributed to the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم with the wording “One who knows himself will know his Lord.” There is, however, no firm evidence to justify such attribution. Al-Sama’ni attributes it to Yahya b. Mu’adh al-Razi. For a discussion of this expression, see Isma’il b. Muhammad al-‘Ajluni, Kashf al-khafa’ (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1933 CE / 1302 AH), 2 : 262, no. 2532.