The Sufi Path is a process of amanesis (remembrance, realization). In pre-eternity, God asked the spirits: Alastu bi Rabikum (Am I not your Lord)? When we come into this material existence, we forget about pre-eternity and the task of life is to remember our way back to the truth concerning the nature of our essential relationship with God. This process of remembering or recollecting is known as amanesis.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
The Dynamic Between Faith and Doubt: A Sufi Perspective
days ago a friend who is not Muslim raised, in passing, several indirect
questions about the idea of fasting and its possible value. When one asks
Muslims about the issue, many of them will provide an array of reasons as to
why Muslims fast.
instance, some Muslims will say that it helps one to empathize with, or -- at
least for a month's time -- walk in the shoes/sandals of, those who are poor
and who go hungry on a regular basis (and this assumes that the poor actually
have shoes/sandals in which to walk). Or, alternatively, some Muslims will
point out that fasting is intended to assist individuals to develop the sort of
discipline that will deepen one's commitment to Islam by constraining the usual
appetites and inclinations of the nafs or ego, while some other Muslims indicate
that fasting carries numerous benefits for physical health, and still other
Muslims might mention the idea that fasting helps one to disengage from the
activities of this world and concentrate more on the spiritual life. When
queried about the fasting issue, some Muslims might refer to the five pillars
of Islam and indicate that fasting is one of the means through which an
individual can work his or her way toward Paradise, as well as a means through
which the Muslim world can become strengthened as an ummah or spiritual
community. Some Muslims will say that the rationale for fasting is a
combination of all of the foregoing reasons.
all of the foregoing ideas might be off the mark to some extent. The Qur'an
doesn't list any of the aforementioned possibilities as the reasons why fasting
is important. On the other hand, the Qur'an does indicate, in a variety of
ways, that fasting, when carried out with a proper niyat or intention, has
value ... that it can help cleanse us.
question then becomes: cleanse us from what? Well, one possibility here is that
fasting -- as well as the other pillars of Islam -- can help cleanse us in
relation to misdeeds.
leads to the question: What is a misdeed? Oftentimes, the definition of a
misdeed will vary with someone's theological orientation and inclination.
are actions and intentions that obstruct truth. We all have tendencies within
us that prevent us from realizing the nature of truth to varying degrees ... we
hide the truth and we hide from the truth.
following account is often attributed to Ra'bia of Basra (may Allah be pleased
with her). More specifically, there was a Sufi who came upon the saintly woman
on a hill overlooking the city. He is reported to have engaged her in conversation
which, among other things, included his passing judgment on the people of the
city because, according the man, many of those individuals did not keep the
fast, or did not say their prayers, or did not go on Hajj, and so on. Ra'bia
(may Allah be pleased with her) is reported to have responded to the man by
indicating that: "Thy existence is a sin with which none other can
remember my own shaykh once confiding in me that the Muslims in the community
used to criticize him for so many different reasons, and, yet, if they were to
know his real faults, they would tear him to pieces ... alluding, perhaps, to a
saying by a previous Sufi saint that the sins of the saints are the virtues of
the common person. My shaykh was someone who observed the rigors of a 40 day
seclusion on more than 17 occasions, along with observing quite a few 21 and 19
day periods of seclusion ... he was someone who kept the night vigil quite
frequently ... he was someone who was constantly engaged in remembrance of God
... he was someone who served the Muslim community -- often at a cost to
himself -- and, yet, he considered himself to have faults.
is an exercise in the dynamics of doubt and faith. I fast because I have come
to trust, according to my own capacity and spiritual station, the words of the
One Who has indicated to me, via the Qur'an and my shaykh, that fasting has
value, and without necessarily knowing what the precise character of that value
might be, I acquiesce, by the Grace of God, to what is being indicated as a
valuable thing to do.
fast, I observe phenomena that take place within me. I discover things about
myself -- both strengths and weaknesses. I see the dynamics that come into
play, and I begin to reflect on those dynamics concerning the character of the
forces that are being manifested.
body or my emotions or my mind puts up a struggle and are reluctant to go along
with the fasting idea because they don't see what the value of such a practice
is from their point of view, I see doubt square off against faith and begin to
circle about looking for openings through which to attack and, perhaps,
vanquish that faith.
engaging doubt head on, one begins to understand the nature and contours of
faith -- not as an exercise in blind, dogmatic belief in this or that idea or
possibility, but as a living, dynamic process of exploration into the unknown
using the instruments of mind, heart, spirit and so on. Through experience, and
if God permits, one begins to develop a sense of dhawk or taste for
distinguishing among a variety of forces ... one begins to understand certain
dimensions of oneself and the world with varying degrees of depth, breadth, and
does my faith concerning Islam come from? After all, I didn't grow up in a Muslim
community, and, in fact, Islam didn't even register on my phenomenological
radar until I was going into my final year of undergraduate life in university,
and, quite by accident (?) came across someone who was a Muslim.
time (and this was back in the mid-1960s) , I was an orderly in a private
mental health facility. The individual in question was a client.
really interacted with the gentleman and actually didn't come to know anything
about the beliefs, values, or practices of Islam through him. However, I do
recall how, from time to time, he would engage in what I later came to know to
be 'wudu' -- that is, ritual ablution ... although Western diagnosticians might
have seen it as some sort of indication of compulsive-obsessive behavior. We
have labels for almost everything, but understanding of almost nothing. I am
reminded of the saying attributed to Hazrat Abu Bakr Sidiq which indicated that
realization of our inability to comprehend God was itself a kind of knowledge.
not know anything about that Muslim in the aforementioned mental health clinic.
But, I feel fairly confidant that in his own way he was exploring the strange
country of the soul that combines elements of both faith and doubt ...
something that whether we are considered to be sane or mentally ill tends to
haunt us throughout our lives.
introduced to the methodologies that explore the realms of faith and doubt
through a Sufi shaykh. I came to Islam through the Sufi path.
five pillars of Islam form a key part of the aforementioned methodologies.
Consequently, fasting, being one of the five pillars, is one of the tools that
forms the set of methods through which life experience is engaged.
is rooted first and foremost in a certain understanding concerning the nature
of experience. Remember the Qur'an's reference to the Bedouins who said that
they believed and were informed that they should say that they submitted
because faith had not yet entered their heart ... faith is form of seeing and
engage experience and, God willing, we begin to develop an appreciation for the
nature and character of such experience. We come to rely on the understanding that
arises through that sort of appreciation concerning the nature of experience.
comes through experience. Doubt is the instrument which helps refine the
character of what we understand or what we think we understand in relation to
faith ... if we cannot countenance the
presence of reasonable doubt concerning the alleged veracity of
what we understand -- or believe we understand -- then what does this say
about the quality of one's faith?
the Muslim individual whom I saw -- but did not study -- in the aforementioned
mental health clinic, my whole life has been an exploration of the boundary
conditions of the non-linear dynamics involving faith and doubt ... of trying
to distinguish between the real and the false. What do I actually know and not
just believe? Who and what can I trust? How should I best spend my time? How do
I guard myself against premature closure on all of the important spiritual,
political, economic, social, moral, and conceptual issues with which I
and the rest of the world are confronted? When is doubt warranted?
is a species of understanding that contains elements of both what is known and
unknown. Faith is an ordering of the dynamic antagonism between what is known
and unknown that points in a particular direction ... it is the sextant of the
soul by which I plot my way through the unchartered waters of life and navigate
through the many doubts that populate those waters.
is my able assistant who constantly asks me concerning whether, or not, I am
using the sextant correctly or whether, or not, my calculations are accurate or
whether there might be some other better way to chart the course through
unchartered waters. Doubt is my friend ... he helps keep me honest.
doubt is always about me ... about what I do, and do not, understand concerning
the nature of my experience ... about what can be relied on, and what cannot be
relied upon, with respect to such understanding ... about what stands in need
of clarification and refinement and further experiential data.
doubt comes to me and asks me why I am fasting, it tends to make me stop and
reflect on the matter. I can't give a precise answer to doubt's queries, but I
do have a deep, abiding sense -- honed through many years of experience
witnessing first-hand the on-going struggle between faith and doubt -- that
fasting helps orient the compass of my heart to point in a direction that gives
-- as a function both of the known and the unknown -- what I believe is the
best opportunity for me to discover that for which I am searching ... namely,
the truth concerning my existence.
The following 13-minute
talk by Lesley Hazleton is a very good one. I might quibble with a few of the
things she says toward the beginning of her talk when she describes what
Muslims allegedly believe about the first Quranic revelation -- for instance,
she contends that Muslims believe that the first revelation constituted a
direct contact with the Divine, when, Muslims generally believe that the
contact was via the Archangel Jibriel ... although, on the other hand, if one
takes the first part of the Shahadah to its mystical conclusion -- namely, that
there is no reality but God -- then, Archangel Jibriel is but an existential
loci of manifestation that cloaks the presence of God, and, therefore, the
point made by Lesley might be, in an indirect fashion, correct even though many
Muslims do not necessarily believe things in the way she describes.
I especially tend to agree with
many of the things which Ms. Hazelton says toward the end of her talk when she
indicates that if the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) were to reappear
today, he would be deeply saddened and upset with the manner in which so many
of the original teachings of Islam have become distorted and corrupted in order
to serve the theological, political, cultural, and economic interests of those
Muslims who do not seem to have taken the struggle between doubt and faith all