The Role of Intellect and Heart

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

We have been given numerous faculties/qualities: intellect/reason, heart, sense, ego, conscience, partial-freewill, willpower, etc. When we make decisions, we use all these faculties simultaneously. In other words, it is not possible for us to completely shut off our emotions or our intellect at any given moment. We may think that we think and choose solely with our intellect, but so many other faculties play a role in each decision.

Our intellect looks at the apparent face of creation through the five external senses that collect information. Thus reason is not concerned primarily with the meaning of things. For instance, when we see a tea cup, we say, “There is a cup and there is tea in it.” We observe and tell what is apparently there. But we like the tea; we enjoy the taste; we feel sorry for those who do not have it; we want to share it with those who are in need of it…etc. Thus, actions we take have many reasons behind them, not only reason.

The plant grows as if the cells are reproducing themselves. Yes, this is true, but at the end it comes out as an extraordinarily amazing system. Although at first glance, when we observe creation it seems straightforward, all is going on smoothly. Cells multiply; the world revolves around itself… When we look at things carefully, all is precisely measured. The outcome of the precise angle of the world’s axis is amazing. Millions of events are attached to it and they are purposefully designed this way. Then our reason questions what this is and interprets it. While reason tries to interpret it, other human faculties come into this thinking process.

What does the heart entail? Having a heart means consciousness, emotions, senses, being considerate, wanting to help other people even strangers. When our expectations are fulfilled, we are pleased. If I see something I do not like, I wish it was not so. For example, we ask our sick friend to get well soon. This is not a rational desire. If he could get well soon on his own, he would not have been sick to begin with. So a greeting of “get well soon” expresses our hopes, although rationally, we know that to make the apparent system of creation help our friend to “get well” is not within our capacity. Our senses take us beyond the system of creation to its Creator. The system does not listen to me; it has no conscious, but our feelings require a conscious addressee. This leads us to the Conscious Creator of the system.

When we question whether the heart leads our intellect or vice versa, the matter becomes complicated. Reason looks at the causal relationship. On the other hand, the emotions do not concentrate on the casual relationship. The heart hopes and wishes. It gets frightened. Its limits are completely different than the limits of our intellect.

Let’s say I have 100 dollars. I know with my reason that I can only buy three or four books with this money but my heart wishes for so much more. It wants, for example, to feed all the poor. In the apparent causal relationship, there are no means to do so with what I have, but the heart still desires. I desire that no one hurt each other, that there be no wars, etc.

There is then a contradiction between reason and heart. They do not exclude each other, yet reason is very limited, whereas the heart seems to have no limits. While the heart hopes for infinity in everything, there is no absolute in creation. Everything we observe is limited, bound by time and space. Nothing in this creation that we observe or experience is unlimited. Hence, reason sees the limitations and measures them, while the heart does not recognize these limitations; it always hopes for infinite happiness and beauty.

The heart is the mirror of the divine attributes. The heart is the mirror of Rab (The Sustainer/Educator/Care-taker). The heart always looks beyond the causal network. It wishes for everything good, but eternally. The heart is one of our faculties that open up to the divine sphere. When we engage in retrospective thought and try to analyze what it means for our heart to hope for eternity, we realize that eternity is in the divine sphere. When we listen to our senses, we see that we desire eternal justice, peace and beauty. Even if we may not be able to describe what they are, we still wish for them. So human senses address somewhere or something that is beyond the limits of this creation. Even if our senses cannot see any means to realize it, to make it come true, our heart still wants it. There seems to be an apparent contradiction between what we see in this world and what we desire.

What my heart desires is not confirmed by what my intellect can see and can perceive. Since we cannot experience and confirm this desire for eternity, where did it come from? We can conclude that whoever made me gave me these senses, which look for something beyond the limits of this creation. These desires are innate in us; we are programmed this way. Everyone dies, everything perishes. But we still want eternity.

“I wish” is the heart; “I know I cannot” is the reason. Reason blocks the heart’s path to deciphering the meaning in creation, because reason only functions with causal relationships.

How can we utilize reason to help the heart and vice versa? Reason will say “I have this much food,” but the heart wants to share it with the hungry. This feeling is given to us as a promise, to understand that this desire will be fulfilled. We see this is a transient world, and our desires cannot be satisfied here. How can this feeling be a promise for eternity?  We see in our lives that the Creator always keeps His promises. The babies desire to walk and to speak, and those abilities gradually come. Whatever is promised to them is gradually realized. We have to train our reasoning with the help of the heart.

For example, Prophet Abraham (pbuh) was searching for the Creator and started to exercise his reason with the help of his heart. He observed and concluded with his reason that this amazing creation cannot happen accidentally in this perfect way. In a way, his heart was saying: “Yes you are right; look for the one who gives you all these senses, desires, and get to know the Creator of this universe, who is unlimited, and try to see His signs in creation.”

In materialist science there is only room for reason. Materialist scientists deny the desires of the heart. For example, for our desire to live eternally and the existence of an eternal Afterlife, they conclude “It cannot happen, it is only human imagination.”  Billions of people have the same imagination then? This desire for eternity is innate in us, and has been placed in us purposefully. We take the message we receive through the heart, and give another dimension to the cause and effect relationship observed with the reason. The heart tries to understand the meaning. Maybe the Creator is giving us a message, a clue about Himself. If the Creator whose creation we observe creates the human being from one cell or a tree out of a tiny seed, then He is revealing His Attributes, He can create everything out of simple things. He can create endless things. The heart is the seed of our desires. Out of this seed, the Creator is creating eternity.

We cannot see the truth without the heart. Without the help of the heart, the reason cannot reach the truth. Materialist science does not take the message of the heart into account. Belief without reason is also not desired. Just to say that something is true because the Qur’an says so, is not enough. God also gave us reason to use and to confirm the scripture.

How did we invent our wishes? The heart has a letter from God promising He will give all that we desire. Here, in this world, there are free samples of everything. The desire for eternity is a need like hunger; and just like all our physical needs are satisfied here, our desire for eternity will also be satisfied.

Our intellect is only one of the many faculties that make us who we are. Although we know that our parents are there (intellect), we go to visit them because we miss them (heart). We do not always act with our reason. Only reason causes hopelessness, arrogance and selfishness. Reason finds out this world is limited, and concludes that it wants all for itself. Colonialism, wars, power struggles, civilizations dominating the world are all a result of letting the reason dominate our being. On the other hand, the heart realizes its poverty and weakness. It hopes his friend gets well but does not claim “I will give health.” This realization is the door opening to God.

 


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

Tawhid is not Solely Belief

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

Tawhid is usually translated as “oneness of God.” However, its literal meaning is “unifying God.” Take note that it is a continuous verb! It is not just a belief but is a state of certainty (the literal meaning of iman/belief) that we need to strive to achieve continuously. It is not information stating that there are not two gods but just The One. Rather, it is a reality we are to live by every day. Belief becomes certainty (iman) and a means to witnessing God’s oneness (shahadah), if and when it is lived in daily life. This is what the Qur’an is about: teaching us how to live tawhid. All the divine scriptures revealed before the Qur’an also stated that there is one God. Then why was there a need for the revelation of the Qur’an and the 23 years of learning and practicing Islam (submission) by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions?

Most of the Meccan chapters (those revealed in the early years of Qur’anic revelation in Mecca) do not talk about social conduct or the dos and don’ts. They talked about existence, how to perceive creation and life. They sought to shatter the attitude that plagues many of us today: “I believe in one God, but I am very busy with other things.” These Meccan verses are about transforming all our actions into worship, acquiring a consciousness of tawhid, and living in accordance with that consciousness. They explain what tawhid is in different contexts and stages of our life. The Qur’an is not only saying there is one as opposed to two gods. Saying “there is no deity but God” is only the beginning. By saying it, we enroll in a life-long school where we will learn and practice tawhid

“There is no deity but God” has been understood in Islamic tradition as: “There is no Provider but God; there is no Healer but God.”

 

La ilaha illa Allah
No deity but God
No sustainer but The Sustainer (Razzaq)
No healer but The Healer (Shafi)
No merciful but The Merciful (Rahman)

 

It covers all contexts of life. For instance, who brings a baby into life; who takes care of her and raises her from a clueless being one day to a conscious, functioning adult the next? Is it the mother, society, or the Creator of all? Indeed, observing creation of a baby in the mother’s womb and after birth is one of the most unveiled, clear signs that there is no Rab (Lord, Care-taker) but God. However, in today’s world, positivist science that leaves out God, who is “The Cause of All the Causes,” is prevalent.

Yet, we need to probe deeper to see if scientific explanations and religion are contradictory. Science claims to explain how a seed grows into a tree and then gives fruit as if it is all happening mechanically, but it cannot adequately explain how and why. God says in the Qur’an that creation of everything is a sign/ayah of God, so we must reflect how it is happening. If we look at how photosynthesis happens, we can write pages of reactions. Scientists claim that the cells are doing all these reactions and get a Nobel Prize for this. If these cells perform photosynthesis on their own, then each of them deserves more than a Noble Prize! The cells require knowledge and power to be able to carry out photosynthesis. Where did they learn how to photosynthesize? Especially given that the many chemical formulas making up photosynthesis took scientists thousands of years to master.  Yet, how are they all doing the same thing, in different locations, like a cell in New Zealand and another one in Norway?

Basically, what we observe is that: Seed + Sun + Soil + Water ≠ Tomato. Each “cause” is also caused by another Cause, which has knowledge about and power on every other cause. Hence, we call God, The Cause of All the Causes. In the Qur’an, God teaches us that the cell is being created together with photosynthesis. Cells do not create anything because they, themselves are being made. Cells do not have any power or knowledge, but rather, God is the All-Knowing and All-Powerful who creates the cells, the reactions, and all the processes of photosynthesis.

The greatest falsehood of positivist science is its claim to objectivity. Taking God out of the picture is an interpretation, and interpretation is subjective! So despite its claim to being neutral and objective, science is interpreting. In any explanation of the world, there is always an interpretation. The way science presents what is happening renders each of the factors (cells, sun, water, etc.) as a small deity in itself. Therefore, in the Qur’an, God is calling us to question positivist science and what we do in our daily life. Our mistake is that we often talk of events as if they happen on their own and don’t look at them as signs/ayah. To believe that there is a Creator is the beginning of tawhid; only then do we feel the need to be taught by the Qur’an and how to apply it to our daily lives. Even if we might come to the conclusion that there is one God, it is only through the Qur’an that we learn who this Creator is.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of tawhid because this is the focus of the Qur’an. Only about 5% of the Qur’an (~ 360 verses) talks about the dos and don’ts (mu’amalat). What does the rest talk about then? We see that hundreds of verses talk about water, trees, the heavens and earth as signs/ayah, so that we reflect on them. Whatever the subject of a verse is, the aim is tawhid. Hence, if we claim that our teacher is the Qur’an, then we should follow its guidance and focus on tawhid. The Qu’ran teaches us the process of unifying God in everything we think and do by asking: where is the cause? This Qur’anic education of tawhid (unifying God) shall continue until it becomes automatic when we see things as signs manifesting God’s Attributes. If we attain this consciousness and see everything as a sign, then practice (praying, fasting, etc.) naturally follows. We would be disciplining our egos through the awe of God rather than the fear of hell.

For instance, where is tawhid in our understanding of death? God does not say in the Qur’an that we will return to Him one day; we are returning to Him continuously. For instance, where is my yesterday, where is my last year? Every moment has returned to Him. When we die at 80, it is only that moment that is returning to Him. All the past has already died and returned to Him. In a sense, this life and the next are parallel. It is not linear (life followed by afterlife).

In the Qur’an, God emphasizes prayer (salat) as the culmination of worship (ibadah). Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) says that the prescribed prayer (salat) is the ascension of the believer. Not everyone; just the believer! So if we live all day as a believer (mu’min), confirming that everything we encounter is a sign from God, only then our prayer (salat) will be the culmination of that state of mind and heart. The gist of salat is shukr (thanksgiving), so we are to see His signs, His grace and blessings everywhere and be filled with the desire to thank Him through prayer. If and when we are not living that iman in our lives and experience manifestations of God’s Attributes, then prayer will not be very spiritual for us. We may still pray out of fear of hell (which is still better than not praying at all) but we will not seize the full transformative potential of prayer. To achieve this, we need to go through the iman education of the Qur’an and work on transforming our mind and heart.

For instance, the period of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions is referred to as the Golden Age of Islam. The companions who were with him in Mecca are called arkan (pillars). If there are no pillars, buildings collapse. They received Qur’anic education from the Prophet (pbuh) for 23 years. This Qur’anic education was the essence of their value: why and how they became the stars of humanity. Without undergoing this Qur’anic education to train and humble our egos, any talk of politics or economic development of predominantly Muslim countries is empty.   The Qur’an directs everyone to find and live the truth. It does not only address certain people who happen to be born in a geographic location and call themselves Muslims. For example, in pre-Islamic Arabia, one characteristic of ignorance (jahiliyyah) was to help your friends even if they were wrong. What if those who call themselves Muslim are not right or just? Instead of siding with them solely because they are part of a group we identify with, we should focus on what is haqq (truth) and seek to implement it in our life.  Talking about politics may be an attractive subject, but we cannot build a house before building the pillars! The Qur’an first established the arkan (pillars) through years of Qur’anic iman education and then went on to building the social dynamics on these pillars. Likewise, we can see that exhausting all efforts to advance scientific innovation is desirable because it serves humanity in a material sense (such as prolonging life spans through breakthroughs in the medical sciences), yet these innovations make sense only after adequate importance is given to improving humanity’s understanding of life, reality of tawhid, etc.  Otherwise, we end up having very prosperous nations with people sunk in depression and frustration, as is the case with the highest suicide rates today seen in the “advanced” Scandinavian states. Without Godly principles in our lives, we can only find temporary happiness.

Another example of applying the principle of unifying God in our daily lives has to do with love: love of God and love of people around us. When we hear love of God, it might seem like something imaginary and intangible. Or from another perspective, if we do not feel that kind of a strong love for God, we might feel that we have to love God. However, love of God is neither imaginary nor intangible if we take the Qur’anic perspective of knowing God and coming to love Him as our knowledge of Him increases. And we come to that point by getting to know the manifestations of God’s Attributes (Asma al-Husna) in created things, including other people. Rumi has put it brilliantly:

 

We love the created because of the Creator. We come to love God through love of people and other created things. Loving created beings with the right attitude (aka. Because of the Creator) makes them more valuable in our eyes. We think of them as mirrors reflecting God’s attributes, and thus we fear to break such mirrors!”

 

Yet at the same time, loving people because of the Creator helps us not to get stuck at these mirrors, but be able to look beyond them to the actual source of light. They are only pointing to the actual source. So if anything were to happen to one of these mirrors, say when a flower or a friend dies, we say that it came from Him and returns to Him. It was a temporary reminder of Eternal Divine Beauty; hence, having learned that the source of its beauty is eternal, we do not despair. Likewise, all the good qualities we see in people (or any other creation) are manifestations of God’s Divine Attributes (Asma al-Husna). So our love for people is automatically directed to God. If the postman gives us a very valuable gift, knowing that someone else sent it to us, we do not necessarily focus too much on the postman (i.e. Flower=postman; flower’s beauty=the valuable gift brought by the postman; sender of the valuable gift=God). This does not mean though we will disrespect or not thank the postman.

So what is the source of hatred then? The ability to hate is also given to us by God. We did not learn to hate on our own. We were taught (programmed if you will) to hate dirt or bad smell. And thank God for this! So everything is given to us, and it is up to us what we do with it. This is where our partial-freewill comes in, and this is why we need the tarbiyah (education, training) of the scriptures.

Thankfulness is directly linked to tawhid; whereas kufr (disbelief; literally meaning to cover up) is a state of ungratefulness that originates from disbelief and results in more disbelief. Can we be thankful for anything if we do not acknowledge that it is from God?  If we think that we are the source of our achievements or things that “happen to come our way,” to whom or to what would we be thankful? In a sense, this is where everything loses meaning. Even if we achieve what we seek, a feeling of “so what?!” dawns on us. Yet, on the other hand, when we see that it is given to us, a peaceful thankfulness fills our heart. Even when we are cooking: we mix eggs, flour, sugar, etc., put it in the oven and something completely different and delicious comes out. We are surprised and thankful for this act of creation. Anything else would be shirk (associating partners with God). So to all those great cooks out there: don’t forget to give a heartfelt and mindful “Praise is due only to the Creator” each time J

 


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

Renewing our Faith

An Exegesis of the Prophetic Saying:

“Renew your belief with – There is no deity but God”

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1 ]

Is belief a fixed or a changeable phenomenon (whether or not it can increase or decrease)?  Another related question, to which most scholars gave a positive answer, is whether belief is renewable. Since we are created with forgetful/neglectful natures, we forget or neglect our belief, so we need to renew/reconfirm it. But why would we need to reconfirm our belief once we have already affirmed our belief in God?

The primary reason why we are encouraged to renew our faith is simply because creation is continuously being renewed. Creation points us to the Creator, and we acquire belief through witnessing the manifestations of God’s Attributes in the creation. Hence, as the universe changes, we need to reconfirm our belief in the Creator of that universe.

“Practice” does not only involve performing prescribed rituals. We have to also “practice believing.” Belief is not static, but alive and dynamic. Belief is not a status that we obtain, such as identifying ourselves as a Muslim and thinking our duty is finished. Belief is not obtaining an identity card; belief is lives with us and changes from minute to minute, hour to hour, etc. God prescribed guiding rules that organize human relationships, relations between humans and the other creation, ritual worship, plus another way of putting one’s belief into practice: renewing our belief through the signs we observe in the universe.

Our duty is to reflect on the creation and to acknowledge the real source of everything. Human beings constantly undergo change. We are tired, happy, hungry, etc. In every instance we need to establish the right relationship with God. To see the manifestations of God’s Attributes in all the qualities we have is the goal of our iman education. But this is not enough for a human being. We are created to have a relationship with the universe as well. While we have contact with the universe, we encounter manifestations of God’s Attributes. The universe may not be according to our wishes all the time, so we need to interpret things and events that we encounter as manifestations of God’s Attributes of Perfection. We are not tested only once, but in every event we encounter, we are being educated/tested. In institutionalized religion, you become a member of a church, you pay your membership, you join the congregation, and this is it. Your closeness with God is not related to your active relationship with the universe. You get advice from the clergy, but in Islam there is no clergy. So we are responsible for our own belief; we are on our own. So we cannot just say I am a Muslim, I am a member of a mosque, come to Friday prayer and so I am done. Religion is not an institution. Islam is submission; submission is a process; it is our relationship with our Creator.

Belief is not a claim, but a dynamic phenomenon. The most important aspect of Islam is the absence of institutions. From one aspect, the lack of institutions gives the believer freedom, yet from another aspect it gives greater responsibility since believers have a personal relationship with their Creator without an intermediary. Believing in your Creator is important, not the “God of your religion.” My Creator creates the sun for me. This is a complete change in point of view. When you confirm that God is your Creator, than this is your definition of who you are: “I am a created being, a servant of God,” and your life changes. Our faith must not only be strengthened when we go to the mosque. The entire universe is the house of God, and everything is prostrating to God. Our faith can only be strengthened when we contemplate on the signs/ayah in the scriptures and the creation.

The universe is changing, so God’s Attributes that I am supposed to witness are changing as well. One second it is rainy, the next it becomes too sunny. Day and night change. Everything is constantly being created anew. The same is true for human relations – each social event (say someone hurts you or someone pampers you) is a new opportunity for spiritual training. So in all my interactions (with other people, events, universe), there must be la ilaha illallah (there is no deity in creation, but God). Our relationship with the universe is the litmus test. Will I try to impose my expectations/desires onto the universe (which is impossible to accomplish and leads to stress/sorrow), or will I acknowledge that it is God who is organizing everything? No one says, “I will create the universe,” but we struggle to accept that events/things do not go as we want. I do not want it to rain (hence its Creator), so I am protesting the rain as if it is in my hands.

The first thing we will be asked when we die is: men Rabuk (Who is your Lord/Sustainer/Care Taker/Educator)? The question is not only, “Who created you?” We need to recognize that God is the Creator, but that is only the beginning. We need to also confirm that in every instant of our lives God is our Sustainer, our Care Taker. As human beings and as khalif representing God on earth, we have been given the potential to manifest all of God’s Attributes. We are the vicegerents or stewards of God on earth, because we can act here on behalf of God. All the abilities I have are from God, so I am acting in this world on behalf of God, in His name. This is why we are expected to act in accordance with the Attributes of God. For example, God is forgiving, merciful, and just, so I cannot act without wisdom, justice, and mercy. This is my duty as God’s vicegerent. We are not acting as a God, but in the name of God. We must try our best to choose the right thing, to reflect God’s Attributes, as a creature of God. However, we have been given the freedom to choose not to reflect these Attributes. We have to be very careful not to choose against God’s gifts to us – we should not be unjust, merciless, and foolish.

The other aspect of our stewardship is our relationship with the rest of the creation. When we interfere with the universe, we have to interfere in the name of God, not in the name of our desires. This is where the quarrel starts. I may appropriate God’s Attributes to myself, forget that I am being created, not heed His guidance, and choose as I want (submit to God’s Will vs. submit to my ego). If I forget I am here to act in the name of God, I start acting according to my own whims.  We have to implement God’s guidance into our life by using our freewill correctly. This is a personal responsibility. This is why there is no clergy in Islam. No one else can do it apart from me. The rules of the Qur’an are waiting to be implemented by human beings in their personal lives by themselves. This is why belief in God is a personal choice and a personal matter. Indeed we live in a society and have relationships, but we are personally responsible for our choices. If my friend is a wali, a friend of God, that does not save me. If somebody cannot give the Rububiyyah to God (admit that God is the Sustainer) in his own life, he cannot do it in his family, city, or country. This means acknowledging that God is the Creator and choosing to submit our freewill according to His will. Having a personal relationship with God is beautiful and safe. It is to know that you do not worship your own desires, nor can anyone bully you. Death is nothing to fear for such a believer. Even if we hear that doomsday is here, we say “my Most Compassionate Sustainer is operating it all,” so we are relaxed. The key to inner peace is in this realization: “It is the All-Wise and the Most-Merciful One who is administering my life, not me!”

This is why the main question is Who is your Rab/Sustainer/Administrator? Not who created you? We need to realize that our belief is dynamic and needs to be continuously renewed.

We might talk of being a submitter to God at three interrelated levels. Practice of rituals (ibadah), practice of shariah (Divine laws/guidance) at the societal level, and the personal practice of one’s belief, which is the core of everything. Living our belief entails living as the worshipper of God only. It is a personal conviction. To become part of the ummah (religious community), you need to submit yourself to God, not commit yourself to the ummah. For example, if you are going to college, and if you do not study well, you will be expelled from school. Even if you want to identify yourself with Purdue University and you wear a Purdue t-shirt, this does not make you a student there. The point of you being a part of the university is for you to learn and receive training. If you are not committed to your education, then there is no meaning for you to be part of the community anyways.

Claiming that I am a monotheist, there is only one God, is a necessary but not sufficient step. A person might ask, “Yes, creation witnesses that there is only one God, but when it comes to my life, decisions I make about my life, in how I interact with others, who is going to decide? Is it me or the Creator? Will I submit to His guidance or act according to my desires?” Claiming to be a monotheist does not solve the problem. Usually if someone claims to be an atheist, it means “I could not find any way to submit; I am not ready to look for it at all.” But if someone claims to be an agnostic, it means, “I know there is a God, but I do not want to submit to Him.”

Being a servant of God is beautiful; it means you are free from all other thousands of servitudes. It means: relax! If you really believe in God, everything is guaranteed as He wills. And the good news is that the One who is in charge is the Most-Compassionate and the All-Wise…

 


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

Education (Tarbiyah) of the Qur’an

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

Islamic scholars unanimously agree that the primary message of the Qur’an is tawhid. Tawhid is an Arabic word that is commonly translated as Oneness of God. Yet, the closest translation of the grammatical form of tawhid is “unifying God.” In other words, tawhid means continuously affirming or confirming that God is One. This mission is also summed up in the declaration of faith Lailaha illallah (there is no deity but God). At first it seems like a simple message that there is only one God as opposed to two or three. But is it really that simple? If it was that simple, what were the companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) struggling to understand for 23 years (the duration of Qur’anic revelations and his prophethood), sitting beside the Prophet (pbuh) to be educated (tarbiyah) by the Qur’an? Indeed, tawhid is at the heart of our relation with our Creator. The truth is simple, thus the statement is simple. Yet, surrendering one’s self to this truth is not an easy task that can be accomplished overnight. The following verse may be referring to this fact:

“(Some of) the dwellers of the desert say: “We believe (amanna).” Say (to them): “You have not believed (yuminu). Rather, (you should) say, ‘We have submitted (islamna) (to the rule of Islam),’ for faith (iman) has not yet entered into your hearts.”…” (Qur’an, 49:14).

Even though the companions changed their intentions fast and decided to surrender to God’s Will, it took them 23 years of education to transform their paradigms and completely surrender; and they were still praying that they would die as mu’min (believers)!

An overwhelming majority of people today do not claim that there are two or three gods. Yet, one of the major problems of human beings is assigning Divine Attributes to causes. If we see an egg, and assuming that we have never seen a chick coming out of an egg, could we ever imagine that out of this solid, lifeless thing a creature will pop out? There is seemingly no relation whatsoever between these two beings, a chicken and an egg. So causes are not even apparently effective in producing the outcomes, i.e. the effects. Yet, how is it that we fall into the trap of thinking that the egg “produces” the chicken? God creates everything in the same manner with the same order: for example, He always creates chickens from eggs, never from acorns…[2] So when we observe the same sequence of occurrences continuously, we come to forget the Judge (Hakim) and the Creator, thus attributing the Creatorship to the egg.

What are causes then? If God is indeed the All-Powerful and the All-Knowing, can He not create the tomato directly, without the causes? Yes, He could have. But it is part of the big picture/the divine plan to create the causes and the effects, and to make the causes a “veil” to His Divine Attributes. Let us think of the common message of the scriptures: all of them are reminding us that we have a Creator, and they expound on Divine Attributes of our Creator in a sense introducing Him to us. God teaches us in the Qur’an over and over again to ponder upon the signs (ayah) in the creation of things in the universe, and then in ourselves. In a sense, this is our life-long struggle (purpose of our creation) to see, think, feel, and act in the name of the Creator: Not to attribute the qualities of things to themselves; not to act in our name, appropriating our qualities, thinking “I am intelligent, I love, I do, etc.”

In this struggle, causes play an important role in helping us understand that there is One God. We observe the egg and the chicken, the atoms, and everything else to confirm this truth. We realize that an egg cannot in itself produce a chicken in a million years. We confirm that none of these things own any of the qualities they manifest. After we confirm that even the things that seem to be the most intelligent and superb cannot do a single thing on their own, we turn to ourselves and acknowledge that nothing in us is from ourselves. These processes are steps of submission that lead to certainty (iman) in belief in God’s existence and oneness.

Let’s discuss another example. Each of us is a sign pointing to the Divine Attributes of the Creator. For instance, if I act mercifully, I am only choosing with my partial-freewill to act as a mirror to the mercy of the Most-Merciful God. Also, I am created with an intrinsic quality to love what is beautiful. A flower is a sign pointing to the Divine Attributes of the Creator as well. It has been created beautifully by the Most-Beautiful One; it has been fashioned and designed in the most perfect manner by the Fashioner and the Designer. Moreover, me loving the flower (aka. the relation between me and the flower) constitutes another sign out of these two seemingly unrelated signs. When one ponders upon my reaction to the flower (feeling of love), there is absolutely no way to explain this feeling by materialist philosophy. Why would a creature, made up of flesh, blood and bones (just as a chicken is) suddenly have this feeling upon seeing a flower (whereas a chicken would eat the flower rather than appreciate and love its beauty)?

I just “claimed” that our feelings are also given by God. The discipline of medicine explains feelings through chemical reactions, which are only the causes created by God that cannot create the effects by themselves. The other alternative would be us creating them somehow, or them being created by themselves, or by chemical reactions. All the alternatives connote infinite, divine powers to causes and hence do not make sense.

Yet, one may ask: if God is creating all the feelings in us, what is the point of anger or jealousy, or for that matter any other feelings that we might perceive to be undesirable? The essential point is this: indeed these feelings are created and given to us by God, but these feelings, say anger, is not given so we say “I am an angry person, what can I do?” We observe purpose and wisdom in the creation of everything in the universe, thus we confirm that the Creator is the Most-Wise and does not create anything in vain. Hence, we conclude that there must be a wise purpose behind the creation of anger as well. Let’s say that we get angry at something. Since we have partial-freewill, are we going to carry on with this anger or are we going to control it? This is the struggle for self-discipline, hence training our ego/nafs to accept the reality as it is and not to have false claims of ownership over our intelligence, feelings, existence, etc. This discipline culminates in the fulfillment of our humanity.

Same is true for love also. No feeling, be it anger or love, is absolutely good or absolutely bad. It is how we use it that renders it good or bad in different instances. Just as a knife may be used to murder someone, it may help save a life when used appropriately by a surgeon. Thus, we must try to use these feelings, which are “tools”, with our partial-freewill to better ourselves, and understand that they are gifts from our Creator given to us for a wise purpose. For instance, anger is meant to be used against injustice or oppression.

How does this all tie back to tawhid and the education of the Qur’an? God teaches us in the Qur’an how to look at the signs to increase our knowledge of Him (marifatullah). Yet, the purpose of this knowledge is not just to increase our ‘information’ about Him. This knowledge is to transform us, to educate us in the way of tawhid, which is the only way to live peacefully without contradicting ourselves because tawhid is accepting the reality as it is. We are to confirm the Unity of God constantly by observing the outward and inward signs. And as we confirm His Divine Unity, we are to submit and surrender to the truth with all our being: our feelings, thoughts, and actions.

 


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

[2] What we call mu’jiza (miracle, literal translation is something that makes you [feel] helpless; makes you realize that you are helpless) is God creating something out of the “normal” order that He always does. For instance, He always creates babies from an egg and a sperm. Jesus’ birth to Virgin Mary is a miracle. It is in fact no more or no less “difficult” to create a baby without a sperm than it is to create one from an egg and a sperm. Both require infinite power and knowledge, and the One who possess infinite power and knowledge can do both.

Do We Need a Religion?

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

Religion means different things to different people. God uses the word deen in the Qur’an to refer to religion. Deen literally means path. By default, everyone has a path. An atheist’s path is atheism. A hippy has his path; a workaholic has her path, etc. So even if we consciously choose not to have a religion, we have one: that of not having a religion.  Given this, the question is why should we consciously choose a path (deen/religion) that “claims to be” revealed by God?

God creates us with certain physical needs to survive. For instance, God gave us the feeling of hunger and sleepiness so that we eat and sleep to maintain our metabolism. Likewise, God also creates us to believe and to worship Him. Practicing religion is the food of our souls. He creates us, and He knows best what we need. For instance, when a scientist produces a medicine, he also includes the prospectus explaining how to use it. He knows the best way that we can benefit from that pill and what not to do to avoid any harm.  If we decide to take all the pills at once, it will harm us instead of helping. Likewise, God creates us and all the things in this universe. He gives us physical and spiritual foods and explains us how to benefit from them and which ones to avoid. He teaches us how to pray to Him and how to follow the straight path to reach Him.

History reveals that corrupt political and religious leaders have repeatedly distorted religion and abused it to serve their interests. As a result, some people are prejudiced against organized religion and avoid it at all costs. However, we need to realize that a medicine is intrinsically good, and if used properly, it helps to cure the illness. This fact remains true regardless of those who abuse it and harm themselves or others. Hence, when sound religious doctrines are distorted by ill-intentioned individuals, this does not annul the validity or value of that religion. When studying any faith system, it is necessary to distinguish the religion (its principles outlined in the scriptures) from its imperfect followers.

As imperfect beings, we can only try to achieve the ultimate goals outlined in the scriptures. For example, in the days of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the several centuries following his life, Islam was implemented justly, resulting in an era of enlightenment and unprecedented improvements in human values, social conduct, arts, and sciences.  However, as people became decadent and strayed away from the Qur’an, social conflicts, injustices, and other atrocities emerged.  The religion stayed the same, but the followers changed, leading to completely different results.

If we want to know what Islam really is, we are to look at the Qur’an to learn why God creates us, what is waiting for us in the hereafter, and what we are supposed to do with our life. The Qur’an provides clear answers for these issues and the Qur’an and the example of Prophet Muhammad (sunnah) are the only criteria to assess the message. Judging any religion based on those who misuse it is misleading; for all religious doctrines tell people to be humble and just.

Another major reason why some people today refuse to submit to God’s guidance is the mentality instilled in us under the guise of humanism:  “believe in yourself.”   We are bombarded by TV, self-help books, and friends to have self-confidence, to take control of our own lives, live by our rules, and decide our destiny.  We talk about spirituality only when it fits into our other, more important plans.  In all the Divine Scriptures, God warns against this ego-trap and advises us to discipline our egos with humility.  Just because we are given the limited capacity to reason, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we know better than God. This mentality is a grave mistake that leads us to rebel against God’s guidance.  For instance, as explained in the Qur’an, God created Adam (pbuh) and ordered all the angels and the jinn[2] to bow down in front of him. However, Satan, who is a jinn, “reasoned” that since he was created of fire, and Adam was only made of clay, he was superior than Adam. Therefore, he disobeyed God’s command and obeyed his own deduction. Isn’t our attitude very similar to this? We assume that we know better than God. Even though He created this universe and us and is All-Knowing, we obey our egos and try to justify our disregard for God’s guidance.

This is exactly why God sent the Divine Scriptures and the prophets to guide us. Since God creates us and knows our weaknesses as well as the medicine to cure these weaknesses, He sent the medicine (the scriptures and the prophets) out of His compassion. God created the ego and offered us the medicine to cure it. But He also gave us the choice (partial-freewill) to take the medicine or not!  This is where things get really exciting and challenging.

Our souls were created long before we were sent to this world with a physical form, and in the realm of the souls we made a promise to God. He asked all the souls: “Am I not your God?” We all answered: “Yes, you are and we bear witness to this.” God has created us in a unique way different from the angels and animals. We have been given partial-freewill plus faculties (such as mind and heart) to help us use it correctly. Angels have intelligence but no freewill; they do what they are programmed to do. Animals, on the other hand, act by instinct (i.e. the way they are created/programmed) and cannot reason extensively. Yet we can use our logic to find God and to believe. At the same time, we have partial-freewill to obey or not obey Him. This is why we are responsible for our actions, and we will be held accountable for our beliefs and deeds. This is the toughest challenge in the universe. The angels worship and are not even capable of sinning, thus they are not going to be held responsible for anything. As for us, we have the noblest and most difficult responsibility among all creatures.

It is important though to remember that God is the Just and Compassionate Judge of the Day of Judgment. He does not hold us accountable for what He has not given us. Hence, everyone will be judged according to their capacity, intelligence, and willpower. Since “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an, 2:256), everyone is responsible for their own faith and deeds. Faith is between us and God, and no one can change what is in our heart by force. But what about those people who do not believe in God or worship false idols, like their egos? God says in the Qur’an:

 

Those who believe (i.e. professing to be Muslims) or those who declare Judaism, or the Christians or the Sabaeans (or those of some other faith) – whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good, righteous deeds, surely their reward is with their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve” (Qur’an, 2:62).

 

Those who do not believe in God or follow His guidance will be rewarded for their good deeds in this world, but not in the hereafter. For instance, if an atheist helps out in a soup kitchen, his reward is the inner peace he feels by helping others, yet he will not be rewarded in the afterlife (which he denies) for this act.

Thus, the ultimate goal of religion is to guide us to acknowledge our reality (that we are created beings), to discipline and humble our ego, and to submit to God’s Will by following His guidance in all aspects of our life. This means affirmation by heart and confirmation by actions. In other words, God has given us intelligence and freewill. It is our duty to seek Him and to lead our lives accordingly.

 


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

[2] Prophet Muhammad explained the existence of a species called jinn that are made of fire, are given partial-freewill and other faculties to choose between right and wrong, and will be held accountable in the hereafter. Conversely, angels are made of light (nur) and are not accountable since they do not have freewill and perform what they are programmed to do.