BY OMAR AUSTIN
The notion of ‘ibaadah in Islam is a very important one, since it has to do with man’s active expression of his relationship with God. It is quite clear in the Qur’an that faith by itself is not enough, since it nearly always links
“those who believe” with “those who do what is fitting(salihah),”
and what is ‘fitting’ is precisely what is in keeping with the implications of one’s faith in God.
Since other speakers will be dealing with the details of the various rites of Islam which constitute the ‘ibaadaat, I feel that my purpose must be to provide a setting or framework for our discussions on this subject. I have therefore taken the liberty of examining the subject in its widest context, without a consideration of which I do not think we can properly under- stand lbaadah. That context is the whole idea of man’s relationship with God.
We can only properly understand ‘Ibaadah, when we see it as part of a total relationship with God. In this connection I also feel that it would be valuable to explore two other related themes of Qur’anic teaching which I think have been somewhat neglected. These are, the very important doctrine of ayah, and also the equally significant exposition of what might be called the Divine Polarity in the Qur’an.
‘Ibadah in Islam, as the Arabic word suggests, has to do with man’s ‘ubudiyyah or servanthood. It means faqr, need, poverty before God’s Sufficiency; It means our deficiency, inadequacy and insignificance before His Absolute Power and Reality or Truth. It means man as the little would-be god, ilaah, in the first part of the shahadah which says, laailaaha illa-Llaah. It means that we efface ourselves before His Face and annihilate ourselves before His Sole Reality.
However, ‘Ibaadah is only part of the story and can only be properly understood in relation to the other very important aspect of man’s relationship to God, namely his Khilafah or vice-regency, in which he is privileged to share in the Divine meaning and purpose in the world. In this aspect of his relationship with God, man stands before all creation as God’s appointed one, to whom all other creation is subordinate (musakhkhar) by God’s command. We must therefore try to understand the notion of ‘Ibaadah in relation to Khilafah.
As an introduction to a consideration of ‘Ibaadah within its wider context, I would first invite you to explore with me the implications of the two Qur’anic themes which I mentioned earlier, those of Ayah and Divine Polarity, since both of these themes help to illuminate the foundations upon which man experiences his relationship with God, whether as Khalifah or ‘abd.
God says in the Qur’an,
“We show them our signs on the horizons and in themselves.”
The word ayah here means “sign”, “symbol,” “evidence” and, by extension, “proof”. In other words, all that we experience outside ourselves in the world,-in the Universe, and also all that we experience within ourselves- or as ‘being ourselves’, are nothing other than symbols and signs, evidences of His reality and Being. In our customary state of illusion and error we tend to forget,. to ignore, His Face in all things;
“Wherever you turn,, there is the face (wajh) of God”.
What the Qur’an is telling us when it says over and over again, “and in this there are signs” is that what we experience of the world and of ourselves must teach us, demonstrate to us, and finally prove to us that Laa ilaaha illa-Llaah. (“there is no Divinity but Allah) When the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, said,
“He who knows himself knows His Lord” (man ‘arafa nafsahu faqad ‘arafa Rabbahu),
he meant what the Qur’an teaches; namely, that in ourselves, our states, feelings, urges, actions, etc., there are proofs of God’s Reality.
It is of the greatest importance that this teaching of Ayah in the Qur’an is nearly always linked with the notion of intelligence, perception, inner sense, intuition, awareness. In other words, in all things inward or outward there are evidences of Him, if only we be intelligent and aware enough to perceive them. it is quite clear from the Qur’an that what is meant here by intelligence is not that acquisitive filing cabinet faculty which now passes for intelligence. No. it is that inate, divinely inspired intelligence to which the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, was refer- ring when he said,
“Every child is born ‘ala-l fitrah’,
which is usually translated “Every child is born a Muslim”. Thus suggesting a profound truth; namely, that true Islam is indissolubly linked with the notion of that innate human intelligence which is conscious and aware of its origin in God.
As a prelude to our consideration of tile notion of Divine Polarity, it would be useful to look at two fundamental aspects of human experience as pointers to the nature of God and the way in which His reality is reflected even in those aspects of ourselves which we have come to regard as most of all our own. The two fundamental aspects to which I allude are firstly, that aspect of ourselves which welcomes and enjoys the world, the other person, the things outside ourselves, and secondly that other aspect of ourselves which shrinks from the world, the other person and retreats into itself and disdains any need of what is outside us. In other words that aspect of ourselves which goes out into the world and seeks to mould it in our own image, and that aspect of the self which would seek to destroy and deny all that is other than itself.
In accordance with the Qur’anic doctrine of Ayah, we may see these two aspects, not merely as the perennially conflicting poles of our inexplicable life in the world, but as clear evidences of God’s truth.
Although the keynote of Islam is properly the teaching of irrefutable Divine Unity, it is quite clear from the Quran that God manifests His Unity to creation in two main ways; as the Creator and the Destroyer. The God Who pours out upon creation the Mercy of being and existence, and the God Who annihilates all things in re-asserting His Absolute Sufficiency in Himself; the Face of God which smiles upon and delights in His creation, and that Face which dismisses us and freezes to death all other than He.
This Divine Polarity is very evident in the Qur’an where God calls Himself “Possessor of Majesty and Bounty”, “The Uniquely Alone” and “The Source of all things”. But the two verses which most demonstrate it are firstly,
“Wherever you turn there is the face of God”
(that is, God evident and manifested in the world), and
“Everything shall perish save His Face”
(that is, God Alone and sufficient in Himself). The Polarity is perhaps best re- presented in that synthesis of all Islamic doctrine, Suratu-Ikhlaas, as also in the two parts of the shahadah:
“Say: God He is Unique, God the Eternal Source. He begets not, and He is not begotten, and there is nothing like unto Him.”
God the Unique is alone, incomparable, beyond all need or wish to create the worlds, or to manifest Himself in any way; He begets not.
Although this sentence may be interpreted, as it usually is, in the strictly doctrinal way, namely, as a refutation of Christian teaching, it surely has wider implications for the Universe as a whole when considered in relation to His Unity, or unassailable Oneness. God the Eternal Source (“Allah-hus Samad”) is God from whom all blessings of life and substance flow, without Whom the experience of the world and ourselves would vanish in an instant before the One. This is God as Rabb (Sustainer) of the worlds, Who wishes to give meaning and purpose to the tissue of phenomena upon which we pin so much hope and aspiration. He is not begotten, that is to say all possible effects, causes and phenomena proceed from Him Who is without cause, being the focus of all possible becoming.
Laa ilaaha illa-Llaah relates to al Ahad (The Uniquely Alone), since the first part of the shahadah negates all foci of our attention, aspiration or becoming except God. In God are all “gods”, including ourselves, resolved,
Wa ilayhi-l masiir (,’and to Him is the homecoming”);
wa ilayhi turja’u-l umour(“And to Him return the affairs for resolution”).
Muhammadun Rasoulu-Llah relates to as-Samad, in as far as Muhammad, as prototype of man as Khalifah (who is in turn the culmination of creation), represents creation as positive and full of meaning, but only as being Rasoulu-Llah (that is to say, ‘sent forth from God’, ‘proceeding from Him for His purpose’).
This revelation by God of His two Faces together with the frequently re-iterated teaching of phenomena as Ayat serves to illuminate the difficult question of man’s relationship with God.
When God creates us and proclaims “I (ana) am God” and “Am I not your Lord?” We respond as His vice-regent, “Yes, indeed!” As Khalifah, but more importantly as being conscious(yash’uroun) of so being, man is enabled to share with God in His creative and ordering function, to share in His infinite possibility and freedom, to work in partnership with Him as being that creature in whom God has manifested a spark of His consciousness. As Khalifah we are bodies illuminated by consciousness, consciousness of Him, of Truth.
As Khalifah man has undertaken the amaanah, the trusteeship of the universe, but being man, this sharing in the Divine “1”ness more often than not intoxicates him and he then imagines himself to be the “1”. The Qur’an alludes to the terrible risks involved in Khilafah, since man has an animal tendency to forgetfulness and unconsciousness, to forget that in creation
lahu-l mulku wa lahu-l hamd (“to Him is the Sovereignty and to Him is the Praise”),
to become unconscious of the fact that he is God’s agent in ruling the world-a function of His power. As Vice-regent however, fully conscious of his responsibility as Trustee, man reflects for the rest of creation God’s consciousness, majesty and power, like the great lbrahim and our Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon them) man stands as the Imam, the interpreter of God’s will, the mouthpiece of God’s Word. The terrible risk of forgetting, not only the Amaanah, but also the other Face of God and its implications for the human state, means to fall into arrogance, shirk (“associating partners with God”), zulm (“oppression”), and ultimately, meaninglessness.
That is one aspect of man’s condition and of his relationship to God. The other aspect is the one that more concerns us here: God does not only bestow upon us. Lest we should forget that He alone is God, that He alone has meaning, in showing us the Face of His incomparable Oneness, He reminds us that all claim to “I”-ness, being, and Reality is His alone. Before this Face we stand as slaves, as consciousness darkened by body. Whether willingly or unwillingly God imposes on us the penalty of forgetfulness. We are not only symbols of His majesty and might, we also demonstrate His incomparability by our weakness, failure, inadequacy and impermanence.
In this aspect God offers to us, not the Amaanah which we so shamefully misuse, but the hujjatun balighah the irrefutable proof of His supreme Reality and our utter insignificance, As regents in the world we may perhaps have suffered the delusion that God needed our services. Here such delusion is shattered by evidence of God’s complete self-sufficiency and disdain. He invites us in this aspect either to obey, recognise, and fear Him, or else be condemned to nothingness, death and oblivion.
Thus the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, said,
“Die before you die”
that is to say, surrender yourselves to His reality before He annihilates that which you had thought to be your reality’ in death. The meaning that He gave us as His Khalifah is here replaced by the inexorable purpose and end He imposes on us as servants. Wa ilayhi-l Masir, However, just as He offered us His mercy to enjoy the world as His agent and to see His face in all things, here also He offers a different kind of mercy, the mercy which enables us to see that the negative face of existence in all its terrors, catastrophes, failures, decay and wasting are not something from which we should shrink into ourselves, but evidences of the impermanence and nothingness of all except He, so that we might flee to Him.
“Flee to God”,
says the Qur’an, for
“there is no escape from Him but to Him.”
Thus just as we should perform all our activities in the world as His agents and in His Name, so were the ‘Ibaadaat given to us, imposed upon us to promote the consciousness that ail activities are for Him. While the world and our function in it has a tendency to externalise us and draw us away from our awareness of the meaning of what we are, the ‘Ibadat serve to pull us back again into the realisation of what we are and are not, to bring us back to the centre, to re-focus our dissipated consciousness on Him.
The ‘Ibadat are so called because, in performing them we are constantly being called back from our cosmic Imamate to the realisation that we are after all ‘ibaadu-Llaah (“slaves of God”). Thus a reluctance to perform the ‘Ibaadaat, reflects an aversion to being reminded of one’s true state, a desire to be left to enjoy the false hilafah of egoism. It means ultimately that we cling to the value we put on ourselves even though that value itself is only an Ayah of His value.
Before I proceed further in discussing the ‘Ibadat and their importance, I feel it would be helpful to draw together the different concepts I have been talking about, since they are not easy to grasp.
Firstly, I have discussed the Qur’anic notion of sign or symbol (ayah) which is, I believe, of fundamental importance in any understanding of what the Qur’an teaches us about God and man, God and the world and man and the world. I have suggested that this concept is not restricted to external phenomena only, but that it applies equally to inner phenomena, whether psychological, mental, emotional or spiritual, in short every aspect of cosmic existence, at all levels, serves to reflect and therefore to teach us something of God.
I then suggested that the two fundamental poles of the human dilemma, namely the positive-outgoing and creative-and the negative-withdrawing and rejecting-themselves serve as Ayat or evidences of a fundamental truth about God; namely that the Qur’an reveals to us two Faces of His Self-manifestation, the Bountiful, creating, unfolding aspect and the Aweful, Unique and contracting aspect. Following upon this one may see two distinct aspects in man’s relation- ship, both with God and with the rest of creation. Firstly, in relation to God the Ruler, the Giver, the Nurturer, man, in the true sense, fulfils the function of Khilafah, and as Khalifah he reflects the world-affirming attributes of God, standing before all creation as His appointed regent.
Secondly, in relation to God, the Supremely Unique, the Incomparable, the Overwhelming, man takes his place with the rest of creation and recognises his state of ‘uboudiyyah or ‘ibaadah, prostrating himself with all else that may be considered other than God before Him Who, in truth has no other, no partner.
Thus, to return to the two aspects of man’s experience of himself which I have called Ayat. True man goes out into the world to display God’s majesty, not his own, and, in the other aspect, he effaces himself in God’s self, rather than rejecting the world on his own terms.
in our Khilafat, our faith and trust in God are essential, that we might perform our function with sincerity and awareness. In our ‘ibaadah, or ‘Uboudiyyah our dedication of our action to God is necessary, so that in performing the ibaadaat we may symbolically re-consecrate our actions. This brings me to comment on the wonderful symmetry of the arkaanu-l Islam (pillars of Islam”) namely; shahadah, salah, sawm, zakah, hajj.
The first of the Arkaan is the Shahadah which, as I have tried to show, synthesises the entire teaching of Islam on God and man. The other four Arkaan may be said to implement the Shahadah in various ways. The Salah and the Hajj have to do with our orientation, inwardly towards the centre, or outwardly towards the Ka’bah which is its symbol. The Sawm and the Zakah have to do with our intention, inwardly as giving ourselves back to Him in rigorous obedience, or outwardly as giving ourselves back to Him in others. In the Salah we re-orientate ourselves towards Him, in the Hajj we make the world a means to the same end. In the Sawm we reflect God’s lack of need and assert our spiritual being over our physical being. In the Zakah we reflect God’s Bounty.
Thus the ‘Ibadat, like all other things teach us, as Ayat the truths essential to our salvation, which means that without awareness of Him (dhikr) we are meaningless and purposeless, an experience from which the modern world is increasingly suffering.
It has been well said, “There is no activity without truth,” and the ‘Ibadat are there to remind us what the truth is, for it is only on the basis of the truth of our basic ‘uboudiyyah that we may proceed to go out into the world and act as God’s Khalifah. If we go out before creation to promote our own purposes and desires, that is if we usurp the “1”ness of God, creation which is also His reflection will absorb and devour us, and if we pretend that there is none higher than us and refuse to acknowledge our submission to God, He will destroy us.
As it says so ominously at the end of Surah Maryam
“Can you see any one of them now, or hear so much as an echo of them?”
It is precisely because there are, as the Qur’an suggests, such great dangers in Khilafah that the ‘ibaadaat are so necessary. Because God gives man the Khalifah so much scope and responsibility and because creation sees reflected in him the power and majesty of God, man has a tendency, frequently alluded to in the Qur’an, to arrogate to himself as an individual the power and majesty of which he is simply a manifestation, and tends to play god, assuming to himself the very purposes and designs which belong to God alone.
He forgets that he was
‘a thing not worth mentioning”.
The risks of ‘Ibaadah are not so great, since man is quite incapable of reflecting God’s Unique attributes, as he reflects God’s creative attributes Man may wield power, but only for a span; man may display great brilliance, but only within limits. Thus the Shahadah teaches us firstly that all meaning, purpose and reality are from God and secondly that only as modelled on Muhammad, he who was sent from God and whose life was a living dhikr or remembrance of God, may we claim to share in God’s reality.
The prayer (Salah) teaches us, not only to remember Him, but also that as part of creation, as ‘abd, we must join with creation in exalting the praises of our Creator; that we must bow down our bodies and surrender our puny selves to the Supreme Self.
The fast (Sawm) teaches us that our bodies must never be allowed to smother our spirit, that we are more than animals in that we share in His consciousness, that our physical selves must obey our spiritual knowledge and be reminded of the death to which it must come. It teaches us also that, as bodies, we need God to remain alive, while God has no need of us,
wa-Llaahu ghaaniyyun ‘ani-l’aalamiin (“And Allah is Wealthier than all the worlds”).
The Zakaah teaches us that what we have and possess belongs to God and that just as we have need of His Bounty, so we must recognise that need in others and give ourselves back to Him in them.
The Hajj teaches us that all our aims and goals in life are but signs of the supreme goal and end (wa ilayhi-lmasir), and that all our efforts to achieve our goals are but dim reflections of the life struggle and labour to arrive at the Truth. The journey to Mecca is the symbol of the Siratu-l Mustaqim, of the way from intention to realisation, of the way from our egos towards the greater self of the Prophet from our own homes to the refuge of His mercy.
Text of a talk given at the FOSIS Tenth Annual Gathering, 21st to 23rd December 1973, at the Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire. Dr. Austin is a Lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Durham.
December 1973-January 1974