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The role of the mind in knowing Allah

Date: 17/01/2004 A.D 25/11/1424 H

By His Eminence, the late Religious Authority, Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah (ra)

Translated by: Manal Samhat

With regards to the mind’s ability to reach the level of appreciating the greatness of Allah, the Most Exalted, we believe that Allah granted the mind enough freedom to open up to all the horizons it can reach in the universe, in life, in man and in one’s self. The reason is that Allah created the mind free, and He removed any obstacles that could prevent it from opening up and moving freely to reach the necessary cognitive and cultural results through the tools it possesses and the means it acquires.

In this respect, it is mentioned in “Nahjul-Balaghah” that a man stood before Imam Ali (a.s.) and asked him to talk to the people about Allah as if he is actually seeing Him. It was as if the man was telling him: we want to know Allah as if we can actually see Him, whereby our idea of Him would be as clear as possible and almost concrete, so the Imam replied: “… and do not measure the Greatness of Allah after the measure of your own intelligence (mind), or else you would be among the destroyed ones”. This was part of the sermon called the Sermon of Skeletons (Khutbatul-Ashbah).

How to know Allah

Imam Ali (a.s.) also says in this part of the sermon: “Then look on questioner”, as if the Imam was demonstrating for the man the methodology he should follow in order to get to know the means that could introduce him to Allah, “be confined to those of His attributes which the Quran had described and seek light from the effulgence of its guidance”, for the Quran has set the methodology that enables one to get to know Allah, by contemplating His creation. Allah says in His Glorious Book: “And (those who) reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord! Thou hast not created this in vain!” (03: 191), and: “Behold all that is in the heavens and on earth” (10: 101), and try to open up to the universe by unraveling its secret and increase your knowledge in the cosmic system, as well as the elements of greatness embodied therein and study history well to deduce beneficial lessons from it, as in Allah’s saying: “Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with (the tribe of) ‘Ad” (89: 06), or His saying: “Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with the possessors of the elephant?” (105:01). Therefore, one should start from within himself, for Allah says: “We will soon show them Our signs in the Universe and in their own souls, until it will become quite clear to them that it is the truth” (41:53), or inside the entire human reality in the past, present and future.

As we can see, Allah has talked about His attributes, and this is what was mentioned in some Hadiths by Imam Ali Bin Al-Hussein, Zein Al-Abideen (a.s.), where he discusses the means to know Allah through His attributes in the light of the Holy Quran. It is narrated that ‘Asim Bin Hameed said: “Imam Ali Bin Al-Hussein (a.s.) was asked about unification, and he answered: ‘Allah, the Most Exalted, knew that at the end of time there will be deeply thoughtful people’”, meaning people who are well-versed in knowledge as they try to dig deep into the connotations of the words and do not settle for their apparent meaning, “so Allah revealed: ‘Say: He, Allah, is One’”. If one contemplates this small Ayah, he will get to know Allah in the horizons of His oneness; as simple as the nature of unification may be without any sophistication or complication. The uneducated can learn about this oneness with all its simplicity and the educated can dig deep into these attributes whereby he gets to know how there is no one but Him, how Eternal and Absolute He is, how there is no one before or after Him and how elevated He is above all creatures.

Allah says: “Say: He, Allah, is One.Allah is He on Whom all depend. He begets not, nor is He begotten. And none is like Him” (112:1-4), whereby one can comprehend all the following connotations: “what is the meaning of Allah’s oneness? What is the basis and depth of this oneness? What are the mental evidences that establish it and refute ascribing partners to Him? Moreover, Allah is the One on Whom all creations depend, the one to Whom all creatures refer, be they plants, humans, animals or non-living things that resort to Him being the Master and the Dominant over all things… Therefore, we cannot picture Allah the way we picture living things that beget and be begotten; rather, He is Eternal and like no one of His creatures.

As a matter of fact, Allah, as Imam Zein Al-Abideen (a.s.) says, pointed out in Al-Hadeed Surah to some of His attributes by which we can get to know Him, where He describes Himself, and without which we have no direct knowledge about Him, for He says: “Whatever is in the heavens and the earth declares the glory of Allah, and He is the Mighty, the Wise.His is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth; He gives life and causes death; and He has power over all things, He is the First and the Last and the Ascendant (over all) and the Knower of hidden things, and He is Cognizant of all things. He it is who created the heavens and the earth in six periods, and He is firm in power; He knows that which goes deep down into the earth and that which comes forth out of it, and that which comes down from the heaven and that which goes up into it, and He is with you wherever you are; and Allah sees what you do.To Him belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth; and to Allah are (all) affairs returned.He causes the night to enter in upon the day, and causes the day to enter in upon the night, and He is Cognizant of what is in the hearts” (57:1-6). These Ayahs touch upon how Allah controls the day and night, for He enjoys dominion over the heavens and the earth, and so on…

Imam Zein Al-Abideen (a.s.) continues to say: “Whoever seeks beyond that will perish”. The reason is that when man wants to know something, whether Divine or related to Allah’s creation, he has got to have a concrete experience or the physical means that allow him to know that thing or its constituent elements; whereas Allah is unseen when it comes to the means man has, for we cannot meet Allah face to face, or feel Him the way we feel other creatures. Therefore, it becomes clear that we do not have the means to know Him through the constituents of His Divinity or to know the actual and realistic attributes He enjoys. But in this case, how can we know His attributes? We can get to know Him through what the mind envisages through our senses, led by studying the Quranic methodology for that. We can get to know Allah by thinking about His creation, and through the features of His greatness whenever they are manifested and through the blessings and graces He bestows upon us. As such, we get to know Him through the attributes He describes himself with, for no one knows Him except Him… Interpreting the Ayah: “Say: He, Allah, is One”, it is narrated that Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq (a.s.) said: “These verses define Allah's relation to His creation. He is the One, Unique, Eternal, and Absolute. He does not have shadow so one can hold Him but it is He who holds things by their shadows. He knows the unknown and is known to every ignorant person. He is only One. He is not in His creatures and His creatures are not in Him. He does not feel nor can others feel Him (physically). Eyes cannot see Him. He is so High that is near and is so near that He is far. Although disobeyed, yet He forgives. When obeyed, He is appreciative. His earth does not contain Him, nor do His heavens bear Him. He holds all things through His power and He is Everlasting and Eternal. He does not forget or amuse Himself. He does not make any mistakes or play. There is no lapse in His will. His judgment is rewarding and His commands are effective. He does not have a child to become His heir nor is He begotten so His power would be shared. And there is no one like Him”. It is also narrated that Imam Al-Baqir (a.s.) said: “Talk about the creations of God, but do not talk about the Supreme Self of God”, since what Allah creates has a concrete presence that you are able to know through materialistic and concrete means, for you are able to feel it and live with it. On the other hand, you do not have the means to know God’s Supreme Entity, “since the discussion on the entity of God increases nothing except the discussant’s own intellectual perplexity”, for many philosophers dug deep into the issue of the Entity of Allah and all what they got was more perplexity and confusion as they did not have the means to know Him.

The mazes of imagination

It is narrated that Imam As-Sadiq (a.s.) said, addressing his companion, Muhammad Bin Muslim: “People remain logical until they talk about Allah. If you hear them talk about Him, say: ‘there is no god but Allah, Whom there is nothing like Him’”. It is as if he is telling him to let the people keep their talk about Allah, the Most Exalted, logical and reasonable, by touching upon some of His attributes in the fields where His greatness and absolute ability are manifested. But if they start to discuss the very Entity of Allah, they must be reminded that this Entity is neither for them to discuss nor is it within their experiences, for if they do that, they will only reach dead ends and they will find themselves in endless mazes. This is similar to the experience of he who wants to know something that is beyond his experience, so the issue will be governed by illusions and not the mind, for the latter cannot operate in conditions that are unclear or in fields of knowledge that it is not familiar with. It is narrated that Imam Al-Baqir (a.s.) said: “Beware of pondering over (the form and shape, etc. of) God. However, if you want to marvel at His greatness, then look at the greatness of His creation”, meaning that in order to know the greatness of the Creator, behold the greatness of what He creates.

In a Hadith by Imam Zein Al-Abideen (a.s.), he says, addressing Abu Hamza: “O Abu Hamza, Allah cannot be described by limitations”, for Allah is Absolute; Absolute in His knowledge, Absolute in his ability and Absolute in all the positions of greatness. He cannot be limited by anything; rather, they are His creatures who are limited. In this respect, I recall what I pointed to before, when back in the fifties, a number of atheists or doubters posed a very controversial question that was circulated by some Lebanese journals: “Can Allah create something that is greater or bigger than Him or can He not?” If you answer that He can, then this means that there can be something that is greater than Allah, even if just hypothetically, while you say “Allah is the Greatest”, and if you answer that He cannot, then this means that He does not have power over all things. I was asked this question back then and my answer was as follows: “The question in itself is wrong, for the issue of the greater and less great is applied to what is limited and finite, and not to the unlimited and infinite. As such, when it comes to Allah, one cannot talk about anything that is greater or less great than Him, for He is limitless, for “greater” means that its size is bigger than the size of another thing, and “less great” means that its size is smaller than the size of another thing. This only applies to the limited entities that have a certain size that can be compared to others, enabling one to say that it is greater or less great. Actually, this is what Imam Zein Al-Abideen (a.s.) pointed to in some of his sayings. Before getting into what the Imam said, let us look into his personality, as some picture him as a sick man who used to cry all the time, and that he was tied up with humiliation in Damascus and so on. They present this picture and leave out that he was a leader for the human march and the master of the Islamic cultural phase at the time. Although he was all that, who among us knows Imam Zein Al-Abideen (a.s.) in the cultural and spiritual aspects of life and the doctrine? As such, we wrong our own Imams (a.s.) more than those who lived in their age have wronged them, for the latter imprisoned them in real jails, while we locked them up in our intellectual backwardness… Back to our subject, the Imam (a.s.) highlighted the aforementioned point, saying: “Our Lord is above description, so how can the finite describe the infinite who ‘No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision.He is the Subtile, the Aware’”.

We also come across what was narrated on the authority of Imam Ali (a.s.) who put an end to the thought of falsehood in a more courageous way than that he used to kill “Marhab” and “Amro Bin Wid”, for fighting the thought of falsehood represents the utmost courage in the soul and mind that is by far greater than the courage one needs to kill a man using physical strength, courage and maybe even arms… He (a.s.) was asked: “How did you recognize your Lord?” He answered: “I have recognized Him through what He had Himself recognized”. He (a.s.) was further questioned: “And how has God recognized Himself?” The Imam answered: “God has no likeness to any form – nothing that the mind perceives is like Him – nor can He be felt through the senses – He is part of the unseen, the world of Divinity and the world of spirits whose elements and entity cannot be approached in any way – nor imagined by analogy with mankind – in terms of His knowledge in everything and dominion over all – He is near us in spite of our distance from Him – in the sense that He is not like any other – He is farthest – from being grasped by the mind and depicted in the imagination – in spite of being nearest – in terms of the concept of causality, considering that He is the cause of the creation, and everyone is in need of him – He is above everything – by His Might, Dominion and Supremacy – and it cannot be said that there is anything above Him. He is in front of everything but cannot be said to be in the front (in the sense of direction) – because He is not concrete – He is inside everything (has created and knows the essence of everything) but not like one (material thing) into another – Him being inside everything is not physical or materialistic in a way that He would be encompassed by these things – He encompasses everything but not like one (material) thing encompassing another – as if He was inside something and now He is out of it – Glorified is He who is like this and nothing else is like Him. Therefore, the Imam (a.s.) suggests to us that we should get to know Allah through the methodology He determines to know Him.

Determining the intellectual reference

Now, we will go back to explaining the sayings of Imam Ali (a.s.) in the Sermon of Skeletons (Khutbatul-Ashbah), where he says: “be confined to those of His attributes which the Quran had described and seek light from the effulgence of its guidance – for the Quran is the light, as Allah says: “Indeed, there has come to you light and a clear Book from Allah” (5:15), for the Holy Quran and nothing else is what lights up the other’s way – Leave to Allah that knowledge which Satan has prompted you to seek – for this led people to grow more perplexed and occupied with what they could not grasp through the whisperings of Satan – and which neither the Quran enjoins you to seek – the methodology of this knowledge was not mentioned in the Book, nor did it include the connotations of Allah’s attributes – nor is there any trace of it in the actions or sayings of the Prophet and other leaders (A`immah) of guidance – as it was not issued by those who possess knowledge through what Allah has taught them, as in the case of the Prophet (p.) whom Allah opened his heart and mind to knowing Him, and the Imams of guidance, whom the Prophet (p.) and the Quran had taught. Whenever Imam Ali (a.s.) used to talk about his knowledge of Allah, he would say: ‘Were the cover to be removed, I would not increase in certainty’, as if he was saying that his knowledge of Allah has reached the extent that even if the seven skies were revealed to him and he got to know all what is behind them, his certainty about Allah would not increase nor would his knowledge of Him increase, for his knowledge of Him has reached such a level that no certainty can exceed – This is the extreme limit of Allah's claim upon you – meaning that you should leave it to Allah, for he did not grant you all the means to know Him – Know that firm in knowledge are those who refrain from opening the curtains that lie against the unknown, and their acknowledgement of ignorance about the details of the hidden unknown prevents them from further probe – for Allah says in His Glorious Book: ‘but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord; and none do mind except those having understanding’ (3:7), meaning that they did not get knowledge of what is inside the hidden and inside the unseen, and they did not even possess the necessary means to acquire such knowledge, yet this does not prevent them from believing in Allah through what they know, nor does it prevent them from succumbing to Allah despite of what they do not know – Allah praises them for their admission that they are unable to get knowledge [that is] not allowed to them. And He called not going deep into the discussion of what is not enjoined upon them about knowing Him firmness – for the firm in knowledge are firm in terms of their commitment to what they know without claiming that they can know what they actually cannot – Be content with this and do not limit the Greatness of Allah after the measure of your own intelligence, or else you will be among the destroyed ones”.

Imam Ali (a.s.) proposes the issue of getting to know Allah in the way so that man would guarantee for himself the integrity and uprightness of the knowledge he acquires. And the proposed way to know Allah entails an implication to how man should educate himself, by opening up, talking and engaging in discussions and dialogues, and by considering the means he possesses to get to know what he studies, without infringing upon the knowledge of what he does not possess its culture and means. This is the same as a person who talks about medicine, yet he has no specialty in it, or the person who talks about engineering without having knowledge or expertise in it, and so on.

One should only talk about and discuss the matters he is well-versed at, and he should only say what he is actually capable of getting hold of, and forsake what he has no knowledge of to the people of expertise. In this way, we can achieve to our societies and nation what we are seeking. Those who lead the nation culturally, scientifically, jurisprudentially, politically and religiously should be well-versed at what they use to lead. As for those who do not have the necessary knowledge, they have to stay away from any position of leadership, or cultural responsibility or any other responsibility that requires knowledge in any of its aspects… As such, the nation would be educated on the basis of not allowing the ignorant to lead it or assume any other responsibility that requires knowledge in a certain field. Through this suggestion that opens up to Allah, we also inspire that we ought to deal with what we know and forsake what we do not know.

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