/ Perfection ~

Three Facets of Islam: Knowledge, Practice and Reality

 “What is Islam” is probably the most intriguing and diversely answered question being contemplated around the world today. I would like to propose in response to that question, that Islam is three things, a knowledge, a practice and a reality.

Firstly, Islam is a body of knowledge. And it is a very specific body of knowledge that we would not have if it were not for the revelation, advent and existence of Islam. This particular knowledge cannot be found elsewhere other than in the teachings of Islam, for the greater part of it did not exist - as knowledge - before the advent of Islam. In other words, It’s News!

Even though the reality to which some of this knowledge refers may have existed before the advent of Islam, and even from the beginning of time itself -, as a body of knowledge about that Reality it did not exist before the revelation of Islam, for that was the very purpose of the revelation, to reveal and make available for the benefit of humankind the final and complete body of knowledge describing the Nature of Reality and the Human Experience, once and for all. So, Islam is firstly a body of knowledge, and as such, it is well worth the time and energy required to learn from it.

Of this knowledge and of knowledge in general, our Prophet Muhammad (SAS) is recorded as saying:
"One who proceeds on a path in the pursuit of knowledge, God makes him proceed therewith on a path to the Garden. And, verily, the angels spread their wings for the seekers of knowledge, out of delight. Verily, every creature of the heaven and the earth asks forgiveness for the seeker of knowledge, even the fish in the sea. The merit of the learned over the devout is like the merit of the moon over the stars on a full-moon night. The learned are the heirs of the prophets, for the prophets did not leave behind a legacy of wealth but of knowledge. So whoever partakes of it derives a plenteous benefit." (Al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi, i, kitab fadl al-'ilm, bab thawab al-'alim wa al-muta'allim, hadith 1)

Secondly, Islam is a practice. And O, what a practice it is. What will describe to you the practice of Islam? How can it be conveyed? The practice consists of three concurrent actions, the sum total of which equals learning.

The first action and major part of the practice is study - the study of the knowledge of God brought to us with the advent of Islam.

The second action and major part of the practice is association - keeping company with and learning from the people of this knowledge. As an example, it is well known that in the early days many of the people known for their mastery of this knowledge could neither read nor write. Nevertheless, many of the more astute among the literate students would never publish without first having verified with these elders for truth in fact and reality. Association with the learned is essential for the infinite benefits that cannot be gained otherwise.

And the third action and major part of the practice is implementation - the personal implementation of your learning. And that implementation can be summed up in a single word denoting the action – that word is “surrender” -  Surrender to God and to the transformative effects of your practice. Don’t fight it and don’t fight for it. Surrender itself and the benefits derived from it – what it means and how it’s practiced - is yet another vast topic written about extensively elsewhere. The idea is that the Practice of Islam consists of Study, Association and Implementation.

So, I’m defining Islam as a body of Knowledge, a Practice consisting of study, association and surrender, and a Reality.

Before we get to the Reality let’s find out a little more about this knowledge that we are to study and implement - what is it and how do we learn it?

The knowledge and the practice of Islam is commonly summarized and taught in the form of five categories, or ‘pillars’. Briefly, they are: Shahadah, Salaat, Saum, Zakat, Hajj.
•    Shahadah is witnessing and the Profession of Faith
•    Salaat is a worship form, practiced on a formal and regular basis
•    Saum means fasting, specifically during the days of one particular month when the entire people do it
•    Zakat is a regular form of charity consisting of a percentage of your annual saving for distribution to the poor and needy; and
•    Hajj is pilgrimage, a formal visitation to the holy house in Mecca once in a lifetime if you are able.

A bit more detail:
Profession of faith is specifically one’s witnessing to the fundamental truth of Islam - that there is no God other than One, and that Muhammad is a truthful and honest messenger and representation of that One. The words of the profession of faith are formalized in the Arabic as Laa ilaha illa Llah, Muhammadur Rasullulah.

Shahadah, this first pillar, includes the endeavor to witness inwardly and profess outwardly the truth and reality of the faith that we are taught by the revelation of Islam and believe, upon investigation, to be true. 

Worship – salaat - is that one learns the prayer form and performs it alone or in congregation at specific times throughout the day.

Fasting – saum – is encouraged generally but specifically from dawn ‘til dusk every day throughout the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, called Ramadan.

Charity – zakaat – is an annual contribution of a small percentage (2.5) from one’s savings, for distribution to the poor and needy.

And pilgrimage - Hajj - is travel in the holy way in quest of knowledge and experience but specifically once in a lifetime to Mecca to circumambulate the holy house, the Kaabah.

There is obviously much, much more involved in the study or attempt to encapsulate or formulate the revealed knowledge, but one observation springs to mind which leads me to the most interesting part of this study. I’d like to propose the possibility, for the sake of further discussion, that of the five “pillars” mentioned above, four are outward actions with inner meaning and one is an inner action with outward meaning.  We might agree that the outward formalities - the ‘meat’ of the outward life, the ‘shari`at’ if you will - are the worship, the fast, the pilgrimage and charity. None of these are ambiguous. One does them or one does not, and, they have a specific time and place.

Shahadah, on the other hand – witnessing – does not. It is not limited to time and place, in fact it demands, requires and guides to the transcendence of time and space, being required in time and space only minimally. For the witness, It is either an ongoing reality or it is not. And it cannot be actually monitored from outside oneself except for one’s ability to reiterate the symbolic words - required formally at specific time, and which anyone can do with a little bit of practice. Is that what we are doing? Are we saying the words without truly realizing the reality behind them?

What do I mean by ‘realizing’? As with all words, the word ‘realizing’ has a sound, it has a shallow and more deeply understood meaning, and it has an often-overlooked reality. “Oh, I realize that!” – we often say in passing, meaning that we know it to be true… we recognize, in passing, the truth of something - but do we ever bother to contemplate the significance of that truth? Do we really know what it actually is?

These three levels of understanding are always an important topic and I’ve brought it up many times now. Why is it so important? Simply because we often mistake - it is common and accepted to mistake - the first level of understanding as the "be all and end all" of understanding – to "know" that something is true, and with that it is dismissed. Rarely and only on important occasions are the implications, the meanings, of that accepted truth more deeply considered. For example: we hear that someone’s friend, with whom we have no connection at all and only a passing interest, is dying of old age. Oh, that’s sad. My condolences to the family – hope they don’t take it too hard. What’s for lunch? Now we hear that an obscure rich uncle is dying of old age, and the amount of consideration we give it is radically different. "Did he remember me? What if….?"

Contemplating the significance of something is the secondary, intermediate form of realizing. It intermediates between a partial realization and a full, complete and total realization.

So I ask again. Do we actual contemplate the significance of the words of witnessing? Or do we just say them in the obligatory and somewhat meaningless fashion to fulfill the requirements of salaat?

And what would be our reason for the practice of realization – contemplating the significance of something - if not to realize it fully, as in take complete ownership of it, or to know enough to dismiss it as unworthy, in our own mind, of being owned. Isn’t that why we think of stuff - to own it or dismiss it? Most stuff gets dismissed. Only few things are worth the effort of ownership. We’re far more apt to dismiss things that we are to exert the effort to own them. One might even call it a habit - our habit of dismissal - but isn’t it possible to throw that baby out with the bathwater?

Are we overlooking the reality in our desire for illusion?

Allah asks in Qur`an Karim: 
“O mankind. What foolishness is it that distracts you from the mercy of your Lord?”

Interestingly, He calls it foolishness. And He says:
“Al Haaaqah! Wa maa adraaka maa al Haaaqah.”
“The Reality! And what will it take to show you the reality?”

See how Allah is telling us how much He wants us to realize the Reality? And how He trivializes the world and its myriad distractions by referring to it as mere foolishness?

Allah tells us elsewhere that the realized are the truly successful – "ulaa`ika hum al muflihun". Why is this not our priority 24/7?

When we make realization our 24/7 priority it will be our only reality and then we will have the true success and be no longer worried, bothered or dominated by the trivialities of life. They will take their proper place rather than occupying the primary place in our minds and being the dominant force of our thoughts.

How can we know of the blessing, benevolence and endless beauty of Allah unless and until we cast ourselves upon it? He says: “And those who cast their trust on Allah have indeed taken a reliable handhold.”

We’re reviewing Islam as one of three religious contemplations – Iman (the Power of Belief) and Ihsan (the Perfection of Unity) being the others - and positing its existence in three aspects: one as a body of knowledge, two as a practice comprising study, association and implementation, and now it’s time to look at Islam in its third and most fascinating aspect - as a Reality.

Reality – or, "what are we missing here?"

The goal of Surrender is to know and live in the Reality of God– that we may know and perceive the Divine life with every breath, word and action. To live in our reality as created - guided, knowing and surrendered to Divine Will - and to carry none of the illusions of separation and independent selfhood any more at all. Total Surrender to God is true Spiritual Liberation. It is to be free of the compulsions of our comparative, competitive egoic delusion, and surrendered completely to the reality of our true existence in Al-llah! It is to walk through the veils, to be oblivious to our selves and aware only of our life in God. For that is truly All we Need. 

Realization begins with envisionment, or ideation. Ibn Arabi wrote a whole treatise on The Use of Imagination as an Approximation to Reality. We really do have to see it, and we really can. Imam Ali, when asked if he could see God, replied: “Would I worship a God I could not see?” So how do we go about seeing the reality of God? We do that through the exercise of our belief. Yes. Exercise. Practice Believing. After all - we are commanded to believe. Belief is not an accident as most people seem to think. It is a conscious choice. What we believe, we will see.

Islam is a reality on so many different levels. Firstly, it exists. Whether we like it or not, believe it or not, want it or not, love it or not, whatever. It’s there, and it ain’t goin’ away! Secondly, it’s a
revelation to some, a confirmation to others, and an enigma to many. Thirdly, behind every word there is a meaning and behind every meaning there is a reality. Allah taught Adam the names of all things, and Allah is teaching us the reality of words. So what is the reality behind this word, Islam? Its ultimate practice is surrender. And what is the reality of surrender, and by extension, the reality of Islam? Here is the meat of the matter.

Islam is the key to the gates of God’s own Heaven. This is a reality that can only be realized through practice. It cannot be realized through theorizing but through the actual practice of realization. Hence the emphasis on the three stage of realization. Accept no substitutes for completion.

This is part of a sermon from Imam Ali found in Nahjul Balgha

“Have you fully realized what Islam is? It is indeed a religion founded on truth. It is such a fountainhead of learning that several streams of wisdom and knowledge flow from it. It is such a lamp that several lamps will be lighted from it. It is a lofty beacon illuminating the path of Allah. It is such a set of principles and beliefs that will satisfy every seeker of truth and reality. Know you all that Allah has made Islam the most sublime path for the attainment of His supreme pleasure and the highest standard of His obedience. He has favored it with noble precepts, exalted principles, undeniable wisdom, undoubtable arguments and unchallengeable supremacy. It is up to you to maintain the eminence and dignity granted to it by the Lord, to follow it sincerely, to do justice to its articles of faith and beliefs, to obey implicitly its tenets and orders and to give it the proper place in your lives''.

Amir al-mu'mineen, peace be upon him, said: “This world is a place for transit, not a place to stay. The people herein are of two categories. One is the man who sold away his self (to his passions) and thus ruined it, and the other is the man who purchased his self (by control against his passions) and freed it.

“There are two kinds of workers in the world. One is a person who works in this world for this world and his work of this world keeps him unmindful of the next world. He is afraid of destitution for those he will leave behind but feels himself safe about it. So, he spends his life after the good of others. The other is one who works in this world for what is to come hereafter, and he secures his share of the world without effort. Thus, he gets both the benefits together and becomes the owner of both the houses together. In this way, he is prestigious before Allah. And should he ask of Allah anything, he shall not be denied.

“I wonder at the miser who is speeding toward the very destitution from which he wants to run away and misses the very ease of life which he covets. Consequently, he passes his life in this world like a destitute, but will have to render an account in the next world like the rich.”

I continue:
Islam is the gateway to the heavenly life. There is no problem in the world that Allah has not the answer to or that cannot be resolved by surrender.

And what does surrender mean? It means the giving up of conflict, the relinquishment of personal desires for a yet greater good. Hadith tells us that the world is divided into two camps, called Dar ul Harb and Dar ul Islam - the land of peace and the land of war. In Arabic, the word “land” can easily be changed into the word “state”. So we are divided within ourselves and the state which we pay attention to or feed will be the predominant one. If we pay attention to Peace, and God is Peace, then Peace will suffice us and we will need nothing else. If we pay attention to war, or to the conflicts within ourselves, then these conflicts will occupy our minds and there will be no peace. The choice is simple. To Surrender and enter Heaven, as God commands, or to continue fighting for our personal worldly goals. Prophet Isa (AS) has told us that in no wise shall ye enter into the Kingdom of Heaven except ye be as little children  So it’s on us to connect with our primordial innocence, by releasing our attachment to our personal childhood and ego-driven worldly goals. And we do this by the grace of Allah who has sent us the pathway and teaching of Islam. It is said that each salaat is the equivalent of bathing in a waterfall of pure water. It is said that all sins are forgiven from one salaat to the next. It is said that the sins of the year are forgiven every Ramadan, and that the sins of a lifetime are forgiven upon the completion of Hajj. Surely these are the transformative events in our lives that we pray for when we say: Ihdina siratal mustaqim, Guide us on the straight path, the path that leads to our purification and the re-uniting with our divine souls. The following of this path is the practice of Tasawwuf, Sufism, self-purification. It should be the only thing of real interest on our minds because it is told that the attainment forgiveness, completion and fulfillment in God is the beginning of a successful worldly life. Having fulfilled our primary obligation, all things will be added unto us.

Islam is a reality coming from and leading to The Reality. And Allah says: “And how shall I impress upon you The Reality?”

The question was asked: Why is Muhammad the Master of the Universe? And the answering adds to the knowledge of Reality. Hadith tells us several things from which a picture of the truth (our reality) can be drawn. And as we believe, so shall it be.
•    Hadith Qudsi: I was alone and wanted to be known, so I created my own reflection.
•    Hadith Qudsi: I took a handful of light from my face, cast it forth and said: Be Muhammad.
•    Fact: The name Muhammad means the most praiseworthy (of Allah's creations).
•    Hadith: Our Prophet (SAS) said: I was a prophet before Adam was water and clay.
•    Shaykh Muhammad Ibn al Habib says in his illustrious Diwan that Muhammad is the first of the lights of manifestation from the Ocean of Divine Essence.
•    It is also taught in hadith, and quite understandable to the Sufi Gnostics, that Muhammad was the first Light of creation. And from his light came the lights of the other prophets, and from their lights the lights of the saints, and from their lights the lights of the believers, and from their light the lights of the rest of humanity.
•    He is the Qutb of the Universe because he is the first of Allah’s creations. It only stands to reason that if Allah wanted a reflection of Himself Allah would create such a perfect reflection in the real world, and then in this world create the circumstances for its manifestation.

So to recap: Islam is one of three religious contemplations given to us for guidance: Islam, Iman and Ihsan. Each of these is a study in its own right, coming from and leading to the heavenly life that Allah has promised the believers, and each of which is well worth the time and effort to study, contemplate and realize.

Islam has three aspects or facets: It is a body of knowledge, a practice consisting of study, association and implementation, the major part of which is the learning and practice of Surrender, and a Reality, partially described in the hadith above, the realization of which is our primary obligation to God because from and after that all things will be added unto you. And as you believe, so shall it be.

It is for these reasons that we practice and magnify our praises to Allah and invoke Allah’s Blessings upon Our Rasul Karim and his beloved and noble family, who stood, lived and died for the true teachings of this reality that they might be preserved for us and for all posterity.