Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III
Imam Ali and the Holy Quran
By Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi
9th August, 2011
The talk focused on key sayings of Imam Ali on the means of intellectually interpreting and spiritually assimilating the Holy Qur’an. These sayings indicate the subtle relationships between the Holy Qur’an, the principle of Walaya, and the process of spiritual realization.
Chairman: Ramadan is the month in which the holy Quran was revealed. It also happens to be the month in which Imam Ali was also sacrificed. Sometimes in our current terminology we say that it is a coincidence. But it is a coincidence that Allah wanted to indicate to the world the close affinity between Imam Ali and the Qur’an itself. Both happened in the same month.
So it is important to think of the role of Imam Ali, who he was, what association he had with the Holy Qur’an and I am sure our speaker is imminently qualified to talk about that. But before that I will just remind you of a couple of quotations from some imminent writers.
Thomas Carlyle wonderfully talked about Imam Ali. He said: “Noble minded, full of affection, fierily daring, chivalrous as a lion yet with the grace of truth and affection worthy of a Christian knighthood. I don’t know whether a Christian knighthood is appropriate.
The Arab poet Khalil Gibran wrote incredibly nicely about Imam Ali. Why shouldn’t anyone who has an open heart and clarity of thought to think, think of Imam Ali in the manner that thinking people think.
Gibran writes: “In my view Ali was the first Arab to have contact with and converse with the universal soul. He died a martyr of his greatness, he died while prayer was between his two lips. The Arabs did not appreciate his value until there appeared among their Persian neighbours someone who distinguished between gems and gravel. A bit strong perhaps. I think Gibran tends to write in that manner.
Finally before taking too much time from our wonderful brother who will be speaking on this topic is George Jordac who wrote an incredible book. He is still alive, 106 years old, living in Hamra in Beirut. So if someone wants to go and visit him I am sure he will be very pleased. He has written one of the best books. He is a Christian priest himself and this book was written way back in the 1950s. It has become very popular. It is called Ali Voice of Human Justice.
George Jordac says that Imam Ali started from nationality issues and without resorting to nationalism got to humanism. We all may come from different regions but to be nationalistic was to destroy humanity. But Imam Ali was above nationality in that sense and George Ordak said in a recent interview that he believed Imam Ali’s place was higher than that of Christ himself. This is open to debate of those issues.
Dr Reza Shah-Kazemi: Thank you all very much for coming tonight. I appreciate that you may have had to come through war-torn streets and I was one who was wavering whether I should venture out from the point of view of practicality and prudence. As always I was drawn out by the possibility of sharing with you, if not my knowledge which is very limited, at least my enthusiasm and my love for Imam Ali, for the Holy Qur’an and for Allah. That is all I ever really intend to do when I give these talks. I do not put myself forward as an expert or as a scholar, knowing very acutely people who are experts and scholars in this field where I am still very much a student. So all I can ever hope and pray to our Lord is that I will be able to share with you my enthusiasm based on the limited amount of knowledge which I have of these matters.
I want to start by referring to a prophecy of the Holy Prophet regarding the times perhaps in which we are living. Times of crisis, fitna, sedition and upheavals. And he was asked how we should cope with these crises when they come. One of the answers he gave in this particular narration was by simply referring to the book of God the Almighty and then he quoted verse 42 saying the book of God which falsehood cannot approach either from before it or behind it, is a revelation from the wise.
This was his answer. You cling to the book of God to which no falsehood has no access. This has several important meanings. Not simply that the book of God contains teachings that would help you to cope with the crises but also that the book of God is a living, dynamic presence to which we have access. It is a presence that can give us the inward graces to cope with outward difficulties.
In so many ways Imam Ali, especially towards the end of his life, was one who had to cope with the most appalling kind of crises, the most appalling kind of fitna and civil war. He did something similar to what the Prophet did when he spoke of the way out of crisis, out of trouble, trials and tribulations. He said : “One who has fear with piety (you might say a pious fear or a pious awe in relation to God), God will establish for him a mahraj, a way out.” This is from the Qur’an.
The Imam adds what is it that you have a way out of? And then he says he who has pious fear of God, God will establish for him a way out of various types of crises, fitnas and will establish for him a light out of all the darknesses.
These are particularly relevant teachings to the times in which we are living, knowing full well that it is only in the remembrance of God that hearts can be at peace. Our souls, our bodies maybe swayed by the turbulence of the outer world. But if our heart is at peace they will only affect a relatively superficial aspect of our being and of our consciousness allowing our heart, the deepest level of our being and of our consciousness to be in imperturbable peace, peace based on absolute servitude.
That is a principle we get from the Qur’an, the surah which tells about those who believe and whose hearts are at peace in the remembrance. Is it not the remembrance of God that hearts are at peace?
So this remembrance of God takes many forms and one of them is the recitation of the Holy Quran. And in one of his prophecies Imam Ali talks about an age in which trials and tribulations will be many. And in one of the descriptions he gives Muslims, he says : “They will forget the book of God and they will consider nothing of less value than its correct recitation.” The right that the Qur’an has to be recited and the right way of reciting the Qur’an.
He put a great emphasis on this because the recitation of the Holy Qur’an is not only a form of dhikr and one of the most powerful and penetrating and intoxicating. It is also one of the ways in which we are able to assimilate in depth the essence of the prophetic message.
What I mean is that it is not simply the message textually speaking, or as a matter of discourse. I mean the essence of the prophetic message as a living, transformative presence which is what the Qur’an is.
One of the most remarkable sayings I came across in the research for my latest book which is entitled Spiritual Quest and it is all about Imam Ali’s teachings as regards the Qur’an and the principles Imam Ali applied to the Quran.
I came across a saying which states that he who recites the Quran it is as if he his having nebua (nabuwah) woven into his very being. It is as if he is weaving by degrees the very spiritual substance of nebua into his being.
So when we recite the Quran we are not simply imbibing a message or learning about a doctrine. We are engaging into and entering into and being entered by a prophetic presence. Except the imam says that you will never become a Prophet in the full sense. So nebua prophecy, prophethood is the exclusive prerogative of the prophet(s).
But what we have access to is the nebatin of nebua – the inner dimension of nebua which is what wilaya is. This is the first of the subtle relationships I want to speak about tonight. That subtle relationship between that wilaya which we may define for the time being as sanctity, holiness and spiritual authority.
The wilaya to which we have access which is called in theological terms al wilaya al muktasaba, the wilaya which can be acquired. That same truth to which we have access – not the spiritual authority of the wilaya of the prophets and the imams but the wilaya to which we have access is defined by Saeed Haider Amouli a great authority in the field of irfan as simply that. Wilaya is the inner dimension of nebua.
So when Imam Ali tells us that when reciting the Qur’an is as if by degrees. This nebua is being introduced into your very being by degrees. And what prevents us from becoming prophets is the fact that it is the spiritual presence entering into us when we give ourselves wholeheartedly to the Qur’an.
This entering into our being of the Qur’an by means of recitation is directly related to the concept, the principle of tajali. And this the third of three terms that I would like us to focus on during the talk. The first is tanzil, the second is tawil and the third is tajali. All three have a very important relationship with the Quran’s text and principle.
Tanzil I think you are all familiar with. It is the revelation as such. It literally means the coming down of the Qur’an, the revelation of the Qur’an. Coming down not in the sense that it was up and has now relocated and is down here but rather in the sense of a descent of a rope from heaven down to earth. Therefore there is a continuing vertical connection. So the Qur’an is just as much in God, in heaven, in the higher ontological degrees of this realm as it is in the material realm, on paper, in print being recited by us. That is the tanzil, the coming down without any change of location. A descent of the divine word into this realm as a book.
The second term is tawil and the tawil can be translated as esoteric, mystical or inner interpretations as opposed to tafsir which is the explanation of the outer meanings, the linguistic meanings, the historical context and so on.
But tawil literally takes you back to al awal, related to the same route. It is the process of retracing the revelation back to the beginning, back to the first and it is a process which is very intimately associated with wilaya but also in particular with the wilaya of Imam Ali.
In a famous narration which is given in both Sunni and Shia sources the Prophet said : “I have fought for the tanzil of the Qur’an and one of you will fight for the tawil of the Qur’an. It is reported that Imam Ali at that time was outside the tent or outside the group of companions to whom the Prophet was speaking. And he said the one who is going to fight for my tawil is the one who is mending my sandals. And at that time Imam Ali was mending the Prophet’s sandals outside the group.
So that is the prophecy that Imam Ali would be the one who would have to fight not simply physically in wars which he had to do. The Prophet said Imam Ali will have to fight against three types of people. There were three civil wars the Imam had to fight against the ones who are hard-hearted.
But what is more significant is the fighting for the tawil in a spiritual sense. And this is given in a wonderful incident which shows at the beginning of these three battles the battle of Jamal when a Bedouin came and asked the Imam a question about the oneness of God. And the other companions said this is not the time of the place to ask such a question. The Imam said let him come and ask the question because this is what we are fighting for – to defend the truth of the meaning of the oneness of God at all levels and not simply the material level of tawhid as regards justice in society and politics but tawhid as regards its deepest and most mystical.
There were at least three groups: those who broke their oath of allegiance to him, the ones who rebelled against him – Muawiya and his people and then the third group of the khawaraj – the hard-hearted ones.
But what is more significant is the fighting for the tawil in a spiritual sense. And this is
Given in a wonderful incident which shows at the beginning of these three battles the battle of Jamal when a Bedouin came and asked the Imam a question about the oneness of God. And the other companions said this is not the time of the place to ask such a question. The Imam said let him come and ask the question because this is what we are fighting for – to defend the truth of the meaning of the oneness of God at all levels and not simply the material level of tawhid as regards justice in society and politics but tawhid as regards its deepest and most mystical.
On the field of battle there was a remarkable mystical interpretation of the meaning of tawhid. The Prophet said : “That which has no second does not enter into the category of number”. So we are not talking simply about the oneness of God which is one as opposed to many Gods. We are saying his oneness is a oneness that has no otherness. There is no existent reality apart from the one reality of God which goes through different grades and degrees of self manifestation. Hence we can understand. That “wherever you turn there is the face of God”. It is because there is no otherness to the divine reality. Whatever is real must partake of the divine reality, other than which there is nothing, therefore illusion.
So this is one of the ways in which he fought for tawil by giving these explanations, interpretations and openings for the people to go from the literary, the outward towards the inner. We have gone now from tanzil to tawil.
The third concept tajali is extremely important one because we are now talking about the self manifestation of God, self revelation of God, the self disclosure of God and the Imam has taught us that the Qur’an itself is the greatest mode of tajali where he says in sermon 147 that God has manifested himself to his creatures through or by his kitab. God has made himself manifest. God has made manifest that dimension of his ineffable reality that can be manifest retaining all of that hidden transcendence of the divine essence above and beyond all possibilities of formal manifestation.
So the difference between this kind of revelation and the revelation of a text simply is akin to me hiding something from you all in a box. You do not know what is in the box. I open it up and I show it to you. I have revealed something that was hidden. But the kind of revelation that we are talking about in tajali is much more like me having a mask over my face. I appear to be something else. Or a mask covers my face so you can’t see it and then I unveil my face. What I am showing to you is not an object apart from myself that I am revealing to you. What I am doing is showing you my true face. That is tajali. That is me showing myself as I really am not as I am behind this mask or behind this veil.
So tajali is a revelation of oneself, it is not revelation of disclosure of something other – an object. It is oneself that is being revealed here. Hence we can understand something of the transformative power of the Qur’an – why it is that in reciting it and not just intellectually pondering and meditating on the verses of the Qur’an – but actively submitting in recitation to this divine presence we are submitting to the manifestation of God. It is what in Christianity would be called the real presence. The presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. That is one of the closest analogies between the two faiths.
Just as the Qur’an tells us that Jesus himself was the word breathed by God into Mary, we know that the Qur’anic texts, the Qur’ani discourse is the word of God. In the hidden book that is now outwardly diversified in the form of a formal book. A book, a discourse, that we can participate in through recitation.
So this is the tajali that we have access to, the self manifestation of God. Let us make sure that we understand this concept before proceeding. In the Qur’an in the Surat Al Layl we have a reference to tajala the verbal form of this. It is when we are told “by the night when it encloses or hides and by the day when it displays when it is resplendent, it shines forward with itself.”
We are also told it is the day that reveals the sun. It is all about the sun and how it has its brightness, the moon follows the sun and in the third verse 4 by the third day it makes the sun manifest. It brings the sun’s rays to our sphere and makes it clear what the sun is.
I will conclude that this word is extremely important in the invocation of the divine name of God. Imam Ali describes dhikr as innovation. God has made the dhikr his remembrance, a polish of the heart by means of which the hearts come to see after being blind, come to hear after being deaf, yield after being resistant.
So this is how the inner sun can be brought to light – the remembrance. This helps us to understand why it is this relationship between self manifestation and transformation can take place within us. It is a self manifestation of God through the Qur’an that is akin to the self manifestation of God to Moses when he asked to see God. God said you will not see me but look at the mountain and if it stays in its place then you will see me.
When God showed himself to the mountain the mountain crumbled and then Moses himself is described as falling prostrate at this self manifestation of God. It is related that the recitation of the fourth imam was so beautiful that when people walked past and heard him reciting they fell into a swoon. And what you have is not just the beauty of his recitation but the combination of the transcendent meaning, of thergic power and of this elegance of the Quran: this melodic, mystical, magical, transformative musical power of the Qur’an combined with the transcendent meaning and this thergic power, the power to make God present is was what made the people swoon when they heard this recitation.
What is the relationship between this tajali, the tahwil and the cosmos and our own access to spiritual realisation which is the main theme of this talk. I have mentioned one of the principle means of spiritual realisation which is the recitation of the Holy Qur’an. You are making this discourse enter which is the very spiritual, inner substance of nebua. It is transformative.
Imam Ali teaches us some other very important openings to the mystical relationship between the Qur’an, Prophethood, wilaya, the cosmos and our own souls when he says in a poem in his diwan :
“You think you are just this insignificant speck but within thee is encapsulated the greatest universe. So you are the manifest book (referring to the Qur’an, the book which makes clear).
You who by the letters of the book which make up the substance of your own soul and heart, you make manifest what is hidden. So you disclose by virtue of this universe which you contain within yourself everything that remains concealed in existence. You disclose it just as the outer cosmos discloses the total reality of God.”
In sermon 108 he says that God is the one who manifests himself, who has manifested himself to his creatures through his creatures or through creation. He is the one who manifests himself to his creation, through his creation. So each and everyone of us as creates of God manifest something of the divine to each other. If the entire cosmos is a mode of tajali of God (of God making himself manifest) and if we are akin to, analogous to the book by virtue of containing within ourselves the letters that are symbolically representative of the entire realm of existence, what the imam is alerting us to in the series of sayings brought together in a constellation of intertwined and mutually illuminating stars is this: that the holy book, the whole of the cosmos, and your very soul and all modes by which God manifests himself to himself through the creation.
These are the three fundamental levels: the cosmos, the human soul and the Qur’anic discourse. Many of you must be thinking of the verse which tells us: “We will show them our signs or our verses. We will show them our signs on the horizon and in our own souls and it will become clear to them that God is the truth.”
So you have here using the Greek term, a microcosmic principle. Microcosm, a small world. The Sufis have made much of these saying of Imam Ali speaking about the world, in which man is seen as the small universe, the microcosm and the world is like large. There is an analogical correspondence and where there is an analogical correspondence there is a possibility of spiritual resonance, bringing into harmony the soul, the Qur’anic discourse and the whole of the cosmos all in a hymn addressed to the divine making it clear that God is the absolute reality.
It is these resonances and inter-relationships between our heart, the Qur’an, nebua and the whole of the cosmos which I think is extremely helpful in our quest for purification, coming closer to God through what we all too often take as being perfunctory and ritualistic instead of participatory and sacred. The recitation of the Qur’an and the saying of our daily prayers which all involve the Qur’an.
Now to some deeper aspects of these relationships. One of the key principles of Imam Ali in relation to the Qur’an is this:
“The book of God is that by means of which you see, you speak and you hear. Parts of it speak through other parts, some parts bear witness to other parts.”
This is the basis on which the great alam Tababatai wrote his Al Nizam, the tafsir of the Qur’an.
Parts of the Qur’an speak to other parts, parts of it bear witness to other parts. This means that you can’t understand any fundamental theme or concept in one part of the Qur’an without bearing in mind and meditating upon the verses throughout the Qur’an that bear on the same theme. So you bring them all together before you can really claim to have understood any concept or doctrine of the Qur’an.
This is the key hermeneutical principle. It is called in modern hermeneutics, textuality. Within the text you have meanings that relate to each other. The imam is telling us that this is the only means by which you can understand the Qur’an.
But let us look at the first part of the saying. The book of God is that by means of which you see, you speak and you hear. Now that reminds us very much of the prophetic definition of the Wali of Allah when in the hadith al nawasir we are told by the Prophet that God has established nothing that he loves more than then obligatory duties by means of which we come closer to him.
But then in the hadith Qudsi he says of the sayings of God through the Prophet: “My slave does not cease to draw closer to me through supererogatory devotions (nawafir) until I love him and when I love him I become or I am the hearing by which he hears, the sight by which he sees, the hand by which he smites, the foot whereupon he walks. What is very important about this saying is that it is preceded by a declaration of war against Mawilah. So this is implicitly a description of God’s friends, the saints of God, the ones who perform the obligatory devotions but go further with supererogatory ones to the point where God says I become the very means by which he sees, he hears, he moves, he walks. The divine reality objectively speaking penetrates the human being to such a degree that we can’t see, we can’t hear, we can’t do anything with our hands or our feet unless it be by the power of God.
But how many of us are aware of this unitive reality, this presence of God within us and through us? What is the change that comes about for those who are giving themselves to Allah with all their being and in return for this gift of self to God he reveals to the Auliah [plural of Wali] that he is their very being, he is the very source of their power, the source of their faculties. That is why we can translate this not as I become the hearing because you could say does God change from not having become the hearing to now becoming the hearing. No.
The Muslims are told it was not you that killed them but God it was who killed them. God was the means or the power by which anything could be done. The difference between the Muslims who act is that it is God who is acting through them.
It is beautifully expressed in the Qur’an: it was you who slew them not when you slew them in battle. It was God who slew them. Then he says you did not throw the dust, when you threw the dust it was God who threw it.
In relation to the Muslims generally its simply you did not kill them, God slew them. It does not say when you slew them. This indicates mystically and in terms of tawil and the commentaries we have this shows definitely the fina of the actions, the effacement of our actions, knowing that we do nothing God acts through us. The one who comes back to his consciousness and the realisation that he does nothing on his own account, that he is nothing on his own account. This is the wilayah, the unitive dimension coming through the Prophet of all beings objectively which is subjectively understood, mystically realised by the prophets and saints. And this is what we have a possibility of glimpsing to the extent that we give ourselves to the nawafar, to the extent that we go beyond simply obligatory duties which are the foundation and then go on to the supererogatory and the dhikr Allah is the most important of these supererogatory with the recitation of the Qur’an and all of the prayers.
I talked about this unitative dimension, this wilayah that passes through. We have to take careful note of verse 55 of the surah al maida where the wali is defined in the Qur’an. It is an extremely important point in establishing the oneness of wilayah to which we also have access. We are told in this verse truly your only wali is God. And then we are told and his Prophet. So now we are told you have this wali who is God but you also have the Prophet who is God who is wali.
Then you are told not only is there this duality but all the believers are included in this category. Those who believe. Now we are talking about a multiplicity of ulwiyah and not just this oneness. The divine wilayah. But then the verse goes on to say that those believers who pray and give zakat they are in a state of bowing.
And it is known in the Sunni and Shia tradition alike that Imam Ali was in Rikku when a beggar entered the mosque and asked for alms and the Imam simply did an ishara to his ring and the beggar took the ring and sold it.
We are told here that we have four categories of wilayah and all of them are identified with this one unique principle. Your source of wilayah is God, he is the only real wali, then the Prophet obviously, then the believer and then we are told Ali Ibn Talib in particular as the archetypal perfect representative of wilayah, accessible to all of us as a model of emulation.
We emulate the Prophet in his wilayah, we emulate the imams in their wilayah but the Qur’an tells us in verse 55 it means that from the mystical point of view that this wilayah muktabassa, the sainthood that can be acquired through our actions, through our intentions, our attitudes, our inner purifications is accessible to us. It is the wilayah that was personified outwardly by Imam Ali who was the outward manifestation of the batin of nebua.
This is not to say the Prophet was not a wali. He was the greatest of the ulwiyah but Imam Ali personified that dimension of the prophetic essence to which we have access. We do not have access to nebua in so far as it is prophethood but we have access into that dimension of nebua which is its spiritual essence which does not play any function in terms of outward leadership. Aspire to become ulwiyah and if we do not we are not fully human. Aspire to become friends of God in this unitive dimension, our being all the way up to the divine being through representatives of ulwiyah above us: the representations of the prophets, the imams, all the way up to the divine name referring to the spiritual patron, friend, the guide. There are degrees of this wilayah and we have access to those degrees.
I want to explore this in the time we have left. I would just like to quickly refer to a more practical point on the level that we might be able to identify with as individuals struggling to overcome our weaknesses, our own faults and most of all our own pride. This is very closely related to everything I have been saying.
You may say that the surat al Qaf (No 18) is completely dominated by the theme of wilayah. The way Kidhr relates to Mousa, the answers he gives, the fact that wilayah is described in one of the verses as pertaining only to God and then talking about two men who possess gardens which are described.
I just want to talk about one of these subtle relationships as an intimation of the kind of thing that becomes accessible to us if we bear in mind some of the teachings of Imam Ali on the tawil and the hermeneutical approach to the Qur’an.
In this surah Al Qaf two men are speaking about their gardens and one of them says mine is much greater than yours. And I do not believe that any of this will perish and even if I am brought back to God he will give me better than this.
This man is a believer in God but he is proud of what he possesses and he deems of little significance his friend, his neighbour who has much less than him. Now this neighbour says to him don’t be a disbeliever. Don’t engage in kufir and don’t be a mushrik. This is confirmed as soon as the man’s garden is destroyed. He says if only I had not engaged in shirk. If only I had not associated with my Lord anything else meaning that his act of pride is pride for possession of his garden was implicitly an act of shirk of association, of polytheism. Hidden shirk is something which all of us have to be aware of. This is defined as being more difficult than a black ant over a dark stone on a moonless night. That is how subtle that is to detect within oneself.
It is not overt shirk of worshipping a stone or an idol. The shirk hafi is worshipping your own hawa, your own whimsicality your own caprice. Possibly the best translation of hawa is egotism – selfishness.
The Qur’an in two places tells us do you see the one who takes his hawa to be his Allah, do you see the one who takes his own egotistical desires to be his God. In another place – do you see the one who takes his God to be his desire? The same idea but put the other way around.
So the extent to which we establish our own egotistical desires and the object of devotion for ourselves. We are devoted to what gratifies us we are falling into the very opposite of the waliyah of Allah. It is the waliyah of the shatan. Imam Ali gives a kind of commentary on what the Qur’an does again in the surat Al Qaf warning us not to take shatan, iblis, the devil and his progeny as friends, as our patrons.
When Iblis refuses to prostrate before God, God warns us, do not take this iblis, this being and his progeny as your ulwiyah. They have a kind of waliyah as well. The waliyah of Shatan can sometimes be summed up in one word ‘pride’.
When Imam Ali comments on the various verses that refer to satanic pride, refusing to obey the commands of God he draws us deeper into the meaning of that disobedience. On the surface God says prostrate to Adam. All the angels prostrate. Iblis who is not an angel who is a jinn refuses. And Imam Ali helps us to see that this refusal is not just a disobedience of his manifest plane. It is also a disobedience based on pride. The Qur’an tells us that Iblis said you made him out of clay and you made me out of fire so Iblis is taking pride in his creation of fire just as the man in the surat Al Qaf is taking pride in the fact that he possesses a greater garden than his neighbour. In the end he says if only I had not been a polytheist by associating my possession with myself and my hawa and therefore becoming a polytheist. If only I understood all this as belonging to God.
So when Shatan refuses to obey this command, takes pride in his being made out of fire rather than clay, Imam Ali tells us that this give Iblis a wonderful description. He is defined as the abasement. He becomes the leader of the fanatics really drawing our attention to something very important about fanatical psychology. It is inherently a form of pride of shirk of making ones hawa so intense, so much so that one insists that he is right and everyone else is wrong.
So Iblis is described as the leader of the fanatics and the forebearer of the proud people. Imam Ali tells us in this sermon beware in case he infects you with his disease through his whisperings, his encouraging, his incitement.
Satanic insulation is directed at that dimension within our souls which is receptive to the same prideful, self glorification that resulted in the fall of Iblis himself. That is what the insulations are all about, be proud, elevate yourself, do not lower yourself before others.
Back to the sermon “be resolute” the imam tells us “in placing self abasement above your heads, casting self glorification beneath your feet, removing from your necks”.
In other words let self abasement be what you consider a goal. Abase yourself before God. Let self glorification be something contemptuous to you. Do not seek to glorify yourself because that is going to ruin your soul. It will be your perdition. Then he says remove pride from your necks and take up humility as the fortified watch tower between you and your enemy.
And that really is a message worth thinking about deeply and acting on with all our hearts. Let us take up humility as the fortified watch tower. If you are on watch for your enemy, if you are really doing what the Qur’an tells us to do which is to beware of the enemy, the adornment of the enemy adorns things for you and the biggest adornment for you will be your pride.
So if you are really in the greater inner jihad to fight against the enemy what is your fortified watch tower. To see what is coming from the enemy is humility. Take up humility as the fortified watch tower between you and your enemy. If you are humble shatan has no hold over you. The enemy cannot get to you if you have humility. And that is why the imam’s sayings are so full of calls for total humility.
He says the sin that grieves you is better in the sight of God than virtue which makes you proud. The sin that will make you unhappy is much better in the eyes of God is much better than the virtue that makes you proud. That is how important it is to be virtuous. And he says that every act of your showing off, every act of riah is a act of shirk. It is an act of association or polytheism.
Why? Because when you show off you take pride in what you know instead of saying I know nothing. God alone is the knower and if I have any access to that it is by virtue of that and has nothing to do with my ego. So if I show off because of what I possess I am falling foul not just of this relatively innocent thing called pride of conceit. I am falling foul of that which shatan wants from me and that which gives him victory over me. The enemy has won to the very extent that I show off. This is the importance of this virtue of riah.
The imam also says in his letter to Malik Al Ashtar against pride: “Beware”. Remember the context of this letter. He is appointing Malik Al Ashtar to be his governor of Egypt, the most prosperous of all the provinces in the imam’s terrain. Plenty of opportunities for self aggrandisement for wealth, corruption and all these things. So he says to him in this magnificent letter which really should be read again, again and again. It has so much depth, so much wisdom and is all in the way the imam is teaching his appointee as governor to govern himself as well as to govern the populace he is in charge of.
So it is all about self dominion as a prerequisite for authentic Islamic government of others. You cannot control, govern or rule over others unless you are absolutely sure that at least you are striving for the will to govern yourself and not see your wealth, your power and your authority as a source of self aggrandisement He says in one place in the letter: “never say I order and I am obeyed. Never allow your psychology to be dominated by this thought. Remember who appointed you in your position and remember who appointed this person in his position and then the grandeur of God will bring you back to your senses. It will take you away from this delusion and you will return to the akl, the object, the intellect so you can see things as they really are.
So in this letter he says “beware of being self satisfied.” The expression of this sin is called ajub – self satisfaction, complacency, marvelling at one self. Beware of being self satisfied. Beware of being over confident in what you find impressive about yourself. Don’t have this confidence about what you find impressive about yourself. Beware of loving to be flattered.
Now listen to the conclusion to this passage. For these are among satan’s most reliable opportunities – the best opportunities he has – to efface the virtue of the virtuous. “To have this effacement to get rid of to wipe out the virtue of the virtuous – by making them impressed with their own virtue. With what they find impressive about themselves.
Source – Courtesy Abrar Islamic Foundation
– Reza Shah-Kazemi studied International Relations at Sussex University and Politics at Exeter Universities before obtaining his PhD in Comparative Religion from the University of Kent in 1994. He has authored several works, including: Spiritual Quest: Reflections on Qur’anic Prayer according to the teachings of Imam ‘Ali (IB Tauris, 2011); Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism (Fons Vitae, 2010); Paths to Transcendence: According to Shankara, Ibn Arabi and Meister Eckhart (World Wisdom, 2006); Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ‘Ali (I. B. Tauris, 2006); The Other in the Light of the One The Universality of the Qur’an and Interfaith Dialogue (Islamic Texts Society, 2006). Formerly a Consultant to the Institute for Policy Research in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Dr Shah-Kazemi is at present a Research Fellow with the Department of Academic Research and Publications where he is Managing Editor of Encyclopaedia Islamica, the English translation and edition of the on-going multi-volume Persian Great Islamic Encyclopaedia (Da’irat al-Ma’arif-i Buzurg-i Islami). He is currently writing a monograph on Tolerance in Islam, and a volume of essays entitled: In the Spirit of Dialogue: Essays on Islamic Spirituality and Inter-religious Understanding.
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