God will say: "This is a day on which the truthful will profit from their truth: theirs are gardens, with rivers flowing beneath,- their eternal Home: God well-pleased with them, and they with God: That is the great salvation. (Quran 5:119)
When I started reading the Quran, I was drawn to the conversations. There were many conversations, from many minds and many dimensions. I liked to pause and listen to the conversation and, at times reread it repeatedly. Sometimes, I would lose track of time and try to finish the reading of the chapter after realizing I was on the same page after hours passed.
But the conversation would remain in my mind the rest of the day - making me wonder, making me lost in thought, making me listen deeply to the conversations between counselors and those seeking help. Overtime, I recognized a mindset, a voice, and the journey of truth seekers. And as you pause on their conversations and reflect on their journey, - certain confusions start to slowly be clarified.
In the previous blog, I discussed the importance of purification to perception and reception of faith. In this blog which will be split in two parts, I hope to focus on the journey and conversations of two truth seekers. I would like to begin with Salman al Farisi (Salman the Persian) - a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings. Salman's journey is the journey of one seeking God from the station of weakness. In the next blog, I will explore the journey to faith from the station of power.
Wazwaz: Shaykh Qays, I was reading on the story of Salman al Farisi, and as I read about his life, I recalled a certain event in my life. I was once asked to mentor a woman who converted to Islam. As I talked to her, she kept bashing her former faith, Christianity. I would try to ask her to reflect on learning Islam, but she was bashing Christianity. I finally asked her: "Did you reject Christianity or accept Islam? I can help you if you accepted Islam, but I am afraid I cannot help you if you are here because you rejected Christianity."
When you read about Salman al Farisi, he started off as a Magian, the faith of his father. He was loyal, sincere and devoted in his worship, until he came in contact with Christianity, He then reflected on the teachings of Christianity and accepted it. As he grew in his journey of faith, he did not attack the faith of his fathers or forefathers, but became dedicated to being a true and sincere Christian. Of course, he clearly disassociated from the faith of his father. Can you comment on the beginning of his journey?
Shaykh Qays: Well, it seems that much of what was written (and I must confess my own reading on this topic is sparse) on Salman focuses on his time as a Christian before encountering the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Salman's story may be said to show, more than anything else, the result of seeking God sincerely. God was guiding him in stages through the true knowledge (from the revelation) available in his time. There isn't, in fact, much emphasis on Salman's reflecting on monotheism in his journey. Rather, his heart inclined to the light of God.
In recounting his story (as Zahabi relates in Siyar A'lam al Nubala) he merely mentions that he liked their prayers and became attached to their way. We see in his journey how God guides whom He wills and does not harm or wrong anyone. What we mean by that, is that when the heart is inclined to God sincerely, then God will facilitate the journey of that heart. Salman's journey eventually led to the Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, which is proof of his sincerity. Of paramount importance in all of this is the place of the heart and its inclinations. The heart is, as it were, the focus of God's dealings with men and we ask Him for hearts that are pure.
Wazwaz: I have been monitoring the series of lessons entitled "O Beloved Son" by Habib as Saqqaf. In one of his lessons, he mentioned the importance of being true in the journey of faith. He gave the example that even if a shaykh or teacher is corrupt, that your truthfulness to the faith affects your heart and benefits you. I had to think about this as at first - I felt it hard to digest. Yet, as I reflected on Salman's journey, I learned about his perseverance. When he embraced Christianity, - the priest was corrupt. Despite, the priest's corruptness, Salman remained a true Christian, sincerely fulfilling his acts of worship. As I reflected on it, - I realized he did not accept Christianity to belong, or for social reasons. He embraced it out of conviction and seeking to be close to God. At times, people will see corrupt people of faith and use that as a justification to deny faith. But truth-seekers do not reason like that. Can you comment on that aspect of reconciling corrupt people within the faith?
Shaykh Qays: It goes back to the person's relationship with God Himself, and thus the heart as I mentioned. In the final analysis religion is all about the state of our being with God. Everything else is a means. Surat al Ikhlas (Chapter 112 of the Quran) - and monotheism - is about being directed to God and nothing besides. That is what monotheism is about. It isn't about the fact that monotheism makes more logical sense (in mathematical terms) than any other "ism". Neither is monotheism about belonging or self-justification. It is not about a particular faith in the sense of a label, or being true to a group or label. True faith has nothing to do with what others are doing or worldly interests. It's all about God. What the change of Salman's religion indicated is a true and direct connection to God so it was not harmed by the trials and tribulations that came his way – by way of unrighteous people. God gave him (and the people) relief by the death of that priest and replacing him with a righteous priest who lead Salman to other righteous people - though not without difficulty. Salman persisted and was true.
Wazwaz: After the corrupt priest passed away, Salman informed the church of his corruption, which responded with anger and crucified the priest. Salman remained committed and true in his devotions, since it was not people he was seeking, but truth. Truth seekers are committed to be true to themselves and their journey. He continued with the new priest, and this one turned out to be a truthful and sincere person, who was committed to the teachings. What made me appreciate his journey - is how he reconciled reality. He was not seeking utopia, self-service or an infallible priest who attacked others. One characteristic of a truth seeker is that they can differentiate between corrupt people and the teachings. Do you agree?
Shaykh Qays: Yes. I certainly do. One thing I would hasten to point out is, again, the role of the heart in making such distinctions. That ability to distinguish is not merely from mental processes but it comes from sincerity or genuineness in discharging what is due to God. Takleef is the Arabic term that refers to individual responsibility to God- whether it is actions like prayers or states like sorrow and penance - these are things we are responsible to God for having. That responsibility is never discharged except when it is sincerely for God. Everything that comes in our lives is a test of that sincerity. Salman's journey to reach Prophet Muhammad faced many trials: his devotion, his worldly success, his captivity and being made a slave. In it all was the central question: are you doing this for God or for yourself? And Salman passed the test. These trials and tribulations are typically, for lesser people, an excuse and justification to abandon the path to God. But we see in Salman's story that once one persists on that path, applies those actual teachings to oneself, and holds oneself accountable before God, that success will come. So, I agree, that one of the characteristics of people who seek the truth is their ability to recognize and apply the teachings that come from God to themselves and not conflate their actions with the antics of other created beings. Their faith is not contingent upon others being true to God; they are concerned with their own responsibility to God.
When the second priest passed away, he counseled Salman to continue his journey of faith and seek the coming Prophet in Madina. Salman took his advice and went searching for the Prophet, and along the way he was enslaved by Jewish man in Madina. He accepted his fate and later learned of the Prophet. He met the Prophet's companions and, recognized the Prophet based on the signs the priest taught him. The companions worked out an agreement to pay the Jewish man money to free Salman, who then embraced Islam. This is an important point to reflect upon. One pattern, I found as I listened to the voices of some people who were abused, is that once they are physically free from their oppressor, - they cannot recognize a good person from a bad person. See here
for a case in point. In fact, what was strange for me to understand was that, at times, some of these individuals will by, their own will, - choose to be with someone who was exactly like their oppressor.
For example, someone who hops from one faith to the other, - only to find one corrupt person of faith after another. From abusive parent to a pimp. From an abusive pimp to an abusive spouse. In all of these cases, they were looking for validation. Yet, truth-seekers seek guidance in their journey instead of validation. Even after they are oppressed and knocked down, they survive and can recognize a good priest, a Prophet, and good people. What makes them survive when others come out of trials not knowing how to tell good from bad apart? Can you comment on this?
Shaykh Qays: The pattern you have described is one characterized by an inability to follow the truth and an inclination to oppressive people and circumstances. This is a sign of a disease in one's heart. When something is wrong in an individual's heart - the person is veiled. As God says in chapter 2 (verse 7) of the Quran,
"God has put a seal on their hearts and upon their eyes is a veil..."
May he be our refuge. They do not respond properly to the truth or goodness, but they respond to fasad or corruption. When there is hatred or any spiritual disquiet in the heart, it will incline toward corruption or injustice. It does not mean they were unjust or corrupt towards other people, but they may incline to such characteristics and their hearts become attached to that and they are constantly victims. The heart itself has a problem, and remember how important the heart is when it comes to being guided. This is why God says "they are not aware" or "they do not perceive." There is corruption or wavering in it. The Quranic term is zaig. It can affect all people, including people of faith. That is why we pray:
"O God don't make our hearts waver after you have guided us." (Quran 3:8)
Wazwaz: When Salman embraced Islam, it was due to the teachings and not a rejection mentality. He wasn't trying to be oppositional or defiant or different. As was discussed in the blog on monotheism, he just traversed in his journey of faith. Islam was not a whole new religion. He continued to be true and sincere in Islam, and did not reject his identity, hence his name Salman al Farisi – Salman the Persian. He came to Islam, not to escape who he was or out of a rejection or trauma, but seeking God in truth. In every step, - he was very true to what he accepted. He enriched Muslims with the knowledge of the trench in the Battle of the Trench. What can we as Muslims learn from that aspect and his journey?
Shaykh Qays: One of the things that characterized people around that time was to follow convention. So just about everyone at that time believed in God, and when asked why they refused Islam - it was because they did not want to go against convention, and wanted to follow the faith of their fathers. Now, it is fashionable to go against convention and to defy even elders. That is not something that is good in and of itself when it is not accompanied by an acknowledgement of the truth. That is a disease, the way that I see it. It is very wide spread in the age we are living in. It is an age that encourages skepticism without affirming the definite truth of God. It is opposite to the classical theory, where - everyone acknowledged the truth of God. So the Quran asks the question often of those who reject faith, if you ask them:
"Who was the creator of the heavens and the earth?" (Quran 31:25)
"Who sends down water from the Skies?" (Quran 29:63)
They would all say it is God. So the Quran goes on to ask "Will you not think?", "Will you not hear?" i.e. as opposed to clinging to convention blindly.
Such rejecters were content with convention, while our purpose here on earth is not that, but to know God and worship Him. If we are aware of that purpose and pursuing it, like Salman, that will lead us to God. Monotheism is about realizing that everything is centered around God, not the creation and not the ego. If our purpose is self-centered - the human being is not directed to God and some form of venerating creation apart from God is present. That is where the diseases come from; their seeking some kind of fulfillment from creation or themselves apart from God and this will not bring guidance. If someone comes in contact with revelation - what will happen?
"It is God who sends down upon you the book which is truth and guidance in it..." (Quran 3:7)
This truth and guidance in it is what makes the difference between it being good to follow people or not being good to follow people. When the truth is present in people and one recognizes the truth in them whether it is one's parents, elders, teachers or mentor - then one follows the truth and does not stop short with them. When it comes to the Quran itself, God said He is the One who sent down the book. And in it there are verses of clear guidance, which are the essence of the book, and there are other verses which are ambiguous. And then God mentions the test of truthfulness.
As those in whose hearts there is zaig or wavering... they incline to the ambiguous verses pursuing dissension, with an attitude of contrariness, desiring its interpretation when none knows their interpretation except God. What we are meant to be seeking is God. And a true seeking of God requires a purity of the heart that entails not giving in to the corruption and diseases of the ego with self-service and with an attitude to things that are self-serving.
Wazwaz: We started the series of blogs by discussing your journey to Islam and how you did not follow convention - what stood out given your journey? What did you find in his journey that you can relate to?
Shaykh Qays: Well - most of what I was trying to bring out - namely, the heart-centric approach to guidance as opposed to the mind centric. This has been my experience as well as, it seems, that of many converts. People sometimes ask, "Who is it that inspired you to become Muslim?" There are many people that we consider ourselves to be indebted in terms of knowledge, advice, and mentoring. But ultimately, the decision to become Muslim comes down to one between me and God. It was not emphasized in Salman's journey explicitly, but it was apparent in how he describes what appealed to him. As a convert of sorts I relate to that. Salman journeyed with his life, his being, his consciousness, with everything that he saw and with his movement. He gave up everything that he had and depended on God. He was persistent and he would not give up. He had this trust, very firm trust in God. It was not self-confidence or a trust that goes back to himself, but a trust in God. And that manifested in his relationship with God. It wasn't about him and his ego or Satan or some other creature. It was all about God. That shows a true and real relationship with God.
So there are two things I would like to draw attention to in all this - two pillars. One is really trusting in God, which is about in doing what is required of one regardless the circumstances or what others may say or do. When my knowledge and conviction tell me that this is what is required then, regardless the circumstances, I do it out of conviction, not because I like it, not because it is soothing me, or materially beneficial. No. I do it because of conviction and this is trusting in God. May God make us firm upon that. And the second thing is being content with the knowledge that God has. God has knowledge of my true state. He knows what is happening in my heart. My actions are informed by my accepting that, not what this person will think of me, what this priest will think, and what my parent or uncle or aunt is going to think or say. It is about being content with what God knows of oneself and all else. When these two are present the heart will come to God, with His permission.
Wazwaz: Do you also agree that one of his characteristics of being true include that he was not demonizing those who oppressed him. Sometimes, people change faith and spend all their energy bashing their former faith. If you are convinced of your new found faith, then promote it, why obsessively bash something you are not convinced of, or no longer believe is the final narrative? We are not saying a person cannot firmly disagree with those teachings and constructively criticize them. What I am referring to is an obsession to demonize them, and to harm them. As we look at Salman's journey - there is no rancor. There was a healthy acceptance. Do you agree?
Shaykh Qays: I agree but some context plays a part with this point, especially in the West. Salman came to Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace and blessings) and he was able to recognize the people of truth and was accepted by the people of truth. Now while it is true that Salman is known as "the Persian" that does not mean he didn't disassociate himself with some aspects of his previous identity that were contrary to his faith.
In this article
- Abdul Hakim Murad answers the question – “Is joining Islam a rejection of one’s previous identity?" He explains regarding his British identity, - “In some sense every conversion entails that. But for many it also involves a reconnection with aspects of Britishness that have been lost to globalisation."
Likewise, when Salman accepted Islam, he firmly disassociated with understandings that are contrary to his new faith. The companions would sometimes come together and mention something of their genealogy. When it came to Salman, he would say - he was the son of Islam. That is how he preferred to be referred to and that is how he is known in our books of hadith and history: Salman, the Persian, son of Islam, father of Abdullah (God be pleased with him). Every conversion entails a disassociation from previously held understandings that are contrary to one's new found faith. Yet, still connected with aspects of his Persian identity that reconcile with his faith. Hence, his title "the Persian."
There is no rancor, but a desire for the truth, and a desire to clearly associate oneself with it and proclaim it. That is an important aspect of faith and seeking truth. Salman and the companions were nurtured well - they had the true guide in the way of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him peace and blessings) and through their legacy so do we. We ask God to make us unwavering in that way. And His is the praise.