"So do not claim yourselves to be pure; He knows best who it is that guards against evil." Qur’an 53:32
This blog is part of conversation with Shaykh Qays from Qibla Online Academy for the Islamic Sciences. The conversation will unfold in a series of blogs aiming toward a better understanding of Islam and Muslims. In the last blog, the conversation explored the meaning of faith. I want to continue the conversation and this time focus on the importance of the meditative activity of zikr (remembrance of God) and the purification of the heart in perceiving and receiving faith.
Wazwaz: Shaykh Qays, it is my understanding that the mind on its own based on studies like here and here performs all sorts of rationalizations all the time, without our conscious knowledge. As the second link concludes at the end, "it is sometimes easy to form the impression that we know the reasons for the things we do and think. Continually feeding this misapprehension is our need to feel in control of ourselves." The reality is - the mind is a tool, and not a source of knowledge. Studies like those the links mention confirm that our mind is more likely to conjecture and rationalize than to reason. We may think that we are making choices, when in reality we are being manipulated or letting our mind feed false understandings of our self. For this reason, Islam encourages self-knowledge. As some Muslim scholars mention - the one who knows himself, knows God.
I heard a lecture by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf on the purification of the heart and in it he mentions that the seat of cognition is the heart and not the mind. I want to start this conversation by focusing on the heart as the seat of cognition, and how important is the meditative activity of zikr (remembrance of God) to faith?
Shaykh Qays: To begin it should be noted that revelation in general addresses the human condition at a level that is far beyond the scope of observational sciences. That point is important to our discussion because the reality that is referred to in the Quran is different from the reality that is sought by the empirical sciences which consider the human being's seat of cognition to be brain tissue. The studies you have referred to look at how the mind draws conclusions about physical or at least measurable “realities” and conclude that there are many internal factors that affect our conclusions.
Yet one could point out that despite those internal factors and the complex nature of the process of rationalization we still learn and are able to conduct studies like the ones referred to, and build complex and useful machines that work, making use of physical laws, to our advantage. Subconscious rationalizations are part of how and what we think so there is no need to assume that what we “really think” is an objective reality outside of or apart from them. To me the articles you have mentioned do not demonstrate a state of manipulation, but they show the ephemeral nature of physical reality and the wondrous way the human mind deals with it.
On the other hand revelation is not concerned with the physical, mental, or emotional factors that inform our subconscious thoughts as processes. It is not even primarily concerned with the meditative activity of zikr (remembrance of God) in itself, but it is concerned with the final result- whether we can appreciate the meaning of things and live according to that meaning. So we find passages such as:
"What, have they not journeyed in the land so that they have hearts to understand with or ears to hear with? It is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts within the breasts." Quran 22:46
Generally in the language of revelation, as you have rightly conveyed from the venerable Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (Allah protect him), the seat of cognition is called the heart. In the verse I mentioned it is with that heart that we understand and hearts can also be blind. Some classical scholars have noted that the head has two eyes and the heart also has two eyes and that if the former two are blind but the latter two see the individual isn't harmed while if the opposite obtains he is harmed. What is also of note in that verse is the encouragement to journey in the land in order to draw inferences and see the meanings and truths concerning the oneness of God and the light of revelation indicated in the ruins of those who rejected the truth and perished. That is a very powerful form of remembrance and reflection connected to the lives of past people.
As for remembrance itself it is mentioned along with the heart in this verse:
"Is it not time that the hearts of those who believe should be humbled to the Remembrance of God and the Truth which He has sent down, and that they should not be as those to whom the Book was given aforetime, and the term seemed over long to them, so that their hearts have become hard, and many of them are ungodly?"
In this verse as in perhaps most verses of the Quran remembrance refers to the Quran itself and by inference all activity, from prayer and meditation to journeying in the land that is connected with cultivating the message of the Quran in our lives. The verse issues a stern warning to Muslims to have hearts that are in awe before the Remembrance and not be like the previous believers who were given scripture but whose hearts, over time, became hard with worldliness and the pursuit of lusts. The message is clear - that the seat of cognition, the heart, can, if left to idle worldly pursuits, and heedlessness, become hard and corrupt regardless of the labels we may identify ourselves with. Muslims have a duty to take steps to prevent that from happening.
Wazwaz: As Muslims, our faith teaches us that humans are born in an honorable state. However, like Shaykh Yahya Rhodus mentions in this video, at around 5:31 - when we enter the world, the diseases of the world, societal ills and our own sins affect our heart and state, hence purification of the heart to its original state is obligatory.
As you know, perceiving the truth is not enough. Satan for example is a theist. He is also described in the Qur'an as a monotheist - who claims to fear God. The story of Satan is important for believers as it emphasizes that mere perception or recognition of truth is not enough. Would it be accurate to say that God doesn't just simply accept people the way that they are and that we must strive to keep ourselves pure?
Shaykh Qays: You are absolutely correct, merely recognizing or distinguishing the truth is not faith it is simply acknowledging the obvious. Faith is in choosing to submit to the Truth, disbelief is belying it. Disbelief is indeed associated with diseases of the heart especially pride. While those diseases do not rob us of the capacity to recognize or choose, they do affect our choices and make acceptance of the truth difficult or impossible. So yes, those who would stay firm on faith would do well to keep their hearts pure and free of evil traits of character.
Satan is indeed the fittest example of how a disease of the heart can result in disbelief after belief. God says about him (in chapter 2, verse 34) that he “rejected, was arrogant and was of disbelievers”- the first verb that applies to him was a choice, he chose not to submit to the truth and rejected the command of God which as an act of arrogance and disbelief. His arrogance lead to his disbelief.
So the question that all people who believe in God and the Last Day should ask is, did God accept Satan just as he was? Obviously the answer is no. So there are certain things God does not accept like disbelief and persistence in traits such as arrogance that lead to it. God, Most High, commands purity and does not accept less than purity. And that is for the benefit of man. So in the Quran we read:
“God does not desire to make any impediment for you; but He desires to purify you, and that He may complete His blessing upon you; haply you will be thankful.” Quran 5:6
That verse was revealed in the context of the laws of ritual purification but it's meaning applies to all of revelation with its laws that pertain to all of man's faculties- the point is not hardship it is purification, purification that is essential to faith.
Wazwaz: Purification of heart is something we seek from God, just like guidance, since no one can really identify fully their faults and diseases. Some diseases require a spiritual doctor, some God manifests to us through trials and tribulations to call us to deal with them. There are prayers that we are taught to make seeking Allah to aid us in purifying our hearts. And we should seek for our hearts to be purified sincerely for Allah's sake. Can the state of our hearts or the purification of the heart affect our true reception of faith?
Shaykh Qays: Well, the reality is that faith is, itself, the first level of purification of the heart. That is how close the two are. When God says in the Quran to the Prophet (peace be upon him),
“Whomsoever God desires to try, you cannot avail him anything with God. Those are they whose hearts God desired not to purify; for them is degradation in this world; and in the world to come awaits them a mighty chastisement;” (5:41)
the reference to those whose hearts “God desired not to purify” were those who claimed belief outwardly but in their hearts they did not believe.
An intelligent believer who reads that verse should fear such a fate for himself and seek purity from God, Who alone grants it. That purity is in the cultivation of faith which we spoke of in the previous question, it is a central aspect of religion as taught by the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Prophet, when teaching about the most important aspects of religion itself, spoke about “excellence” along with physical submission to, and belief in God, His prophets, and the unseen. He described that excellence as worshiping God “as though you see Him”.
In the Quran God says,
“Surely God commands justice and excellence...” (16:90)
which appeals to the same sense of living a life of purity, characterized by devotion, justice, balance, humility and so on which don't come except through effort that, in turn, requires knowledge.
“...those who put effort in Our cause, surely We shall guide them in Our ways; and God is with those of excellence.” (29:69)
One must believe correctly in God and know the commands of God, His “ways” as the verse says starting with what He has enjoined of ritual obedience and remembrance such as the daily prayers for that purity to take place in order to be of “those of excellence”.
The importance of the commands and prohibitions, relating to both the limbs and the heart, that make up what we call the Sacred Law or Sharia cannot be overstated when it comes to appreciating the importance of purity in Islamic teachings. It is the Sacred Law that provides the practical and objective framework for making the effort that the path of purity requires. Virtue and vice are known by the Sacred Law as revealed to Muhammad (peace be upon him). Men aren't left to their own desires to ascertain them.
So if one wants to identify the righteous, for example, to keep their company one looks for those who most closely follow the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and who encourage the study and practice of the Sacred Law. And when one observes disregard for the Sacred Law (whether in oneself or others) then that is a practical indicator of corruption which would not have been manifest were the Law not there. Through knowledge of the commands and practice we are thus guided in a real and practical sense in the “ways” of God.
Some people find the scope of the prophetic teachings, from daily ritual prayer to provisions for marriage and trade, daunting. But they are not there to be a burden; they are there to help us realize a consummate purity and excellence inwardly and outwardly. If that isn't happening in our lives then there is no excellence and therefore no purity nor faith to speak of.
Wazwaz: Can you expand on the verse (5:41) that you mentioned? We see also in verse 2:174 – the same warning. And it is a warning. In the Qur'an we read:
"it is not Allah's will to purify their hearts." (5:41)
"Allah will not address them on the Day of Resurrection. Nor purify them" (2:174)
Shaykh Qays: Given what was said earlier, these verses and others like them simply state the truth of the matter. When man chooses disbelief and evil he neither harms God nor incapacitates Him, Most High. Rather, man's choosing would not be possible without God so that those who reject the truth will not be purified by God and once that occurs, it is but the will of God. So for God is the praise and for man is the choice. The purification is in the choices we make (to follow the command of God or not) and intentions we formulate (whether we act for His pleasure or not) in all the decisions that we execute in life.
The one who lives and acts for God alone and seeking His pleasure is the one who keeps his heart open to faith. And we ask Allah, Most High for help in achieving that.
Wazwaz: Final question. Let us just say that a person finds within him/herself traits that are against the Sacred Law. We discussed that it is a form of misguidance to feel oneself is damned and go into despair. It is also a misguidance to consider another human being damned. So you struggle to purify the ego, but you fail. You keep struggling and struggling and you keep failing. What if your inclinations are too strong and your failures cause you to be depressed and feel like a failure?
Shaykh Qays: This is an extremely important question that returns to our very first interview - it returns to the matter of Tawhid or true monotheism. It is all too easy to think that because the Sacred Law exists and it consists of commands and prohibitions that that is what religion is about. The Quran is very clear about what religion is about: God, and our relationship with Him. I have come across groups of Christians, for example, who criticize Islam for being too "legalistic" and for having at its core the idea that salvation is through works. When Muslims fall into despair it is for the same reason- thinking that religion is about works or anything other than God when, in fact, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
"'No one of you will enter Paradise because of his works.' The said, 'Not even you Oh Messenger of God?' He said, 'Not even I, unless God, Himself, envelops me in His mercy and grace...'"
The law, virtue and morality are means to God, Most High they are not the end. We are commanded so that, as I noted earlier, we make our best effort then either we fail or we succeed. Whatever the outcome, we are to return to God, Most High. If we succeed in obeying God then we owe Him gratitude for His grace in facilitating our obedience. That gratitude should be an internal state of thanks that finds expression in a greater commitment to His command. If we fail to obey and fall into sin then we should likewise return to God with repentance and try again. Repentance is an internal state of remorse that finds expression in acts of repentance (like the prayer of repentance) and a resolve not to return to the sin. In both gratitude and repentance we are to rely on God and be sincere.
So for the true believer the point is always God; success and failure, happiness and sadness are means not cause for depression or giving up, nor self-righteousness and egoism. One either achieves piety or dies trying; either way one is in the grace of God, Most High. That is what life and Religion are about. That is Tawhid in practice.