The ability to reflect, to consider, is a vital gift with which not only humans, but all beings, are endowed. Every creature uses this gift in its own world in accordance with the pattern of its creation. Among animals, the ability to consider serves the preservation of bodily life and selfhood. Its scope is the furtherance of drinking and eating, the increase of ease, and the production of descendants. Therefore a wild animal’s way of reflection focuses on hunting and mating. Apart from that, it has no thoughts or concerns: those are its limits. It never considers the nature of the universe or the future of the world. With human beings, however, the picture changes.
Sensual mind and spiritual mind
Since human beings are created as the most honorable and valuable creatures in the universe, our accountability and mission are great. We are therefore endowed with an immense ability for contemplation.
Human beings can deserve Paradise not because of our sensual mind concerned with eating and drinking, the increase of ease, and the production of descendants, but because of our spiritual mind: the honor and dignity with which we have been specially endowed.
If a human being does not actively develop the capacity for spiritual reflection, the capacity can be lost. The resulting life of heedlessness will in the end bring nothing but repentance, in old age, for a life spent on nothing but foolishness in childhood, ignorance in adolescence, and lustfulness in youth. Eating, drinking, and gathering worldly possessions easily lead to our losing our ability to contemplate in a whirlpool of sensual desires. One mystic said, “For the wise, this world is a stage for the contemplation of divine art. For the ignorant, it is a stable for the accommodation of desires.”
Thus, what makes people truly human is an engagement in spiritual reflection that nurtures a climate of consciousness. Allah the Almighty wishes His servants to have faith in Him and to worship Him with profound awareness. And this is possible only by contemplating divine greatness.
Development of soul
One of the major responsibilities of the servant of Allah is to develop the soul through deep contemplation. Perfection in morality, kindness in behavior, vigilance of heart, and surrender in worship follow from contemplation that furthers a growing soul.
If we look at the beauties of creation as an object lesson, we will no doubt find illustrations of wisdom. We will notice an elephant, for example, managed by a ten-year-old child. We will see a mighty wrestler who has never been beaten by another wrestler forced down by a tiny invisible germ. So who is strong and who is weak? What are the meanings of power and powerlessness, existence and nonexistence?
When we observe the world reflectively, we discover many questions hidden in the depths of our souls. Where do we come from? Why do we exist? Why does the universe exist? What is the origin of the resources that sustain us? How should we live? What should we believe? Where are we going? What is the ultimate meaning of life? How can we work out the mystery of the reality of death? How can we make ourselves ready for death?
Such reflections, when accompanied by Qur’anic guidance and Prophetic tradition, lead the servant to an awareness of his or her own fragility and smallness. Contemplation reminds us that our sense of sovereign self-determination is a delusion. We are always in need of our Creator. Humans depend upon the Almighty Being to sustain us: all living beings must depend upon an Almighty Being. What a great mistake not be aware of this fact!
A believer who progresses toward maturity of soul through reflection harvests spirituality and wisdom in worship and service to Allah. A soul that is open to contemplation easily perceives that the direction of the body in prayer is the Ka`bah, but the direction of the soul in every moment is Allah. Hadrat Ali observed, “Worship without knowledge, and Qur’an-reciting without contemplation, do not bring as much benefit as expected!” The value of worship performed by an ignorant soul gradually diminishes, and sometimes that worship becomes nothing but exhaustion for the worshipper.
The friends of Allah, therefore, urge us to perform each prayer as if we were performing our final prayer, to fast in consciousness of Allah’s benevolence toward us, and to constantly reflect upon the poor. They recommend that we perform all of our worship as contemplation.
Abul-Darda (r.a) said, “An hour of contemplation is better than forty nights of extra prayers.” (al-Daylami, II, 70-71, no: 2397, 2400). Such a condition of contemplation makes one taste all prayers more deeply, and also leads to more commitment and greater gratitude toward Allah.
As belief is fundamental in religion, so is prayer. Yet prayers are acceptable only when they are performed with a reflective heart and accompanied by spiritual vigilance. Only then will the servant come closer to Allah. The Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) and the sincere believers of the subsequent generation were particularly distinguished by their contemplative hearts. Abdullah ibn Mas`ud told his friends, “You perform more prayers than the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) did. But they were more heedless of this world, and more heedful of the next.”
Our Lord wants us to contemplate His dignity and greatness, the mystery and wisdom inherent in the universe, and His benevolence toward His servants. As a result, we will understand that this life is transitory and that eternal life follows upon it. We will be good, committed, and humble servants of Allah.
Contemplation by the Prophet (pbuh)
The exemplary life of the Prophet (pbuh) shows us the importance of contemplation for the spiritual progress that our Lord wishes to see in His servants. The Prophet (pbuh) used to pray so long at night that his feet would swell. When he closed his eyes in sleep, his heart would remain awake. Even at rest he never stopped being in contemplation and remembrance of Allah.
A’ishah (r.ha), the wife of the Prophet and Mother of the Faithful , gives us an account of how vigilant and contemplative a servant the Prophet was.
“One night the Prophet (pbuh) asked me, “O A’ishah! Would you permit me to spend all night worshipping my Lord?”
I answered, “I certainly like being with you, but I like better whatever makes you happy.”
So he (pbuh) made ablution and started to pray. He (pbuh) cried while he was praying, so much that his beard, robe, and even the floor where he prostrated became wet.
When Bilal came to call the community to morning prayer, he found the Prophet (pbuh) in this condition. He asked, “O Prophet! Why are you crying? Your past and future sins have all been forgiven!”
And Prophet (pbuh) told him, “Should I not be a thankful servant? I swear that tonight I was given such verses that those who do not reflect should be pitied! Then he recited:
Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day there are signs for people of understanding, those who remember Allah standing and sitting and lying on their sides and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord! You have not created this in vain! Glory be to You; save us then from the chastisement of the Fire.(Al `Imran, 3/190-191; Ibn Hibban, II, 386; al-Alusi, al-Ruh al-Ma`ani, IV, 157). .
The Prophet (pbuh) wept all night when these verses were revealed. His tears fell like dew that a rose would envy. And the tears of the faithful who vigilantly contemplate the divine dignity and greatness in this world will be the ornament of their passing nights, and a light against the darkness of the grave.
The Prophet (pbuh) practiced contemplation even before he started to receive revelation, while in seclusion in the cave on Mt. Hira. There he worshipped the Creator through contemplating the order of the heavens and the earth, as his ancestor Prophet Abraham had done. And after revelation began, he persisted in that mode of contemplation until his death. All his speech was remembrance of Allah and all his silence was contemplation. Thus he said:
“My Lord enjoined that my silence be a form of contemplation.” (I do recommend the same to you).
“Contemplate the creation of Allah.” (ad-Daylami, II, 56; al-Haythami, I, 81).
“There is no worship equal to contemplation.” (Ali al-Muttaqi, XVI, 121).
Ahmad al-Rifa`i said: “Contemplation was the opening worship of the Prophet (pbuh). He had the habit of reflecting upon Allah’s creation and His beneficence before every prayer. We are, therefore, meant to practice contemplation, and to make use of it to take lessons.”
So let us live in an atmosphere of contemplation. Those who love the wisdom displayed in the universe are worthy of the Prophet (pbuh).
The vision of a blind man: an example of reflection
The Companions of the Prophet who were spiritually trained by him displayed a reflective attitude that aided them against the accidents of this world. Here is an example.
Abdullah ibn Maktum, who was a blind man, was eager to join the Muslim army before the battle of Qadisiyah. When he was told that he was exempt, he was deeply saddened. Then he reflected upon himself as a committed servant. He announced, “I can be useful even as I am. Since I cannot see the swords of the enemy, I can carry the flag in the vanguard without fear. Our soldiers will follow me with courage!” The condition of this blind Companion is a striking example for those who have eyes to see….
Reading the Book of Life
Nothing in the universe has been created in vain. Every atom manifests the wisdom and goal of creation, and draws hearts to faith and love of Allah in a special way. This “speaking” of even voiceless things is called the language of state (lisan al-hâl). Real contemplation means to hear such language as it deserves to be heard.
Looking at events with our outward eyes alone cannot produce a mature perception of life. Observation must be accompanied by reflection. Only through mutual acts of mind and spirit can our experience of the world become an education. Only then can divine transfiguration operate to make our souls mature, powerful, and vital.
Nothing can quench our thirst for contemplation so much as comprehending and loving the Creator of the Universe. It is said in the Qur’an:
Surely it is through the remembrance of Allah that hearts are set at rest.(Ra`d, 13:28).
Our Lord sustains everything. Every occurrence in this world is bound to determined causes, and science is engaged in discovering how these causes work. However, the Causer of all causes is Allah alone. Therefore any scientific knowledge or theory that does not point to Allah, the creator of the human mind and natural law, is necessarily incomplete. It can lead to nothing but blind alleys.
Allah has commanded us, “Read!” We need to comprehend that command if we are ever to escape from blind alleys and useless efforts. We must adopt it as our approach to all problems and situations at all stages of our lives, since following it leads us to the source of wisdom: the primordial. Through keeping to this method, minds and hearts gain intelligence for understanding the divine will.
So let us observe all occurrences in the universe through the window of faith, and take lessons from them; let us build up our souls with contemplation. Then pearls of wisdom – insights into the divine will at the core of events – may, Allah willing, form in our hearts.
Discovering the profound: tasawwuf
The practice of tasawwuf, or Sufism, has trained many spiritual pioneers. In fact, its core is the training of the soul and the attainment of spirituality. Tasawwuf is a path that leads to the Divine Being by passing into the spiritual depths with wisdom. It is not a path that requires giving up worldly life entirely and confining oneself to seclusion. As the great poet and mystic Yunus Emre said, Sufism is not a patched cloak or a special turban; it does not mean chanting the names of Allah and nothing more.
Tasawwuf means, above all, to contemplate one’s responsibilities and think over one’s failures, and to make headway in comprehension of the meaning of life. It means renouncing selfishness, deepening contemplation, and moving, stage by stage, to an honorable position ending in eternal ascent.
Imam al-A`zam Abu Hanifah said, “If you want to join those Knowers, your silence should be contemplation, your looking should be lesson-taking, and your desire should be commitment to service. Those are the three features of the Knowers of Allah.”
Contemplation contributes greatly to spiritual maturity in tasawwuf, since the actual objective is not to perform prayers or good deeds with an uninvolved heart, but to submit oneself to the will of the Creator in sincerity. This can only be achieved through conscious contemplation.
Contemplation of death
We can revive the heart and reach perfect spirituality only by giving up self-centeredness. Therefore the Prophet (pbuh) advised, “Remember death, that destroys all pleasures.” (Tirmidhi, al-Qiyamah, 26). The life of this transitory world is nothing but an instant compared to eternal life in the Hereafter. So is it wise to give preference to momentary desires?
The earth we walk on today is filled with the corpses of billions who lived before us. Their uncountable shadows overlap one another. Born into the shop of this world, they walked down an aisle filled with both selfish and spiritual needs and inclinations. After picking out either one sort or the other, they left this world through the door of death.
We will pass through the same gates. A day will come for each of us that is followed by no tomorrow. Its exact date is unknown. The declaration of our Lord is decisive:
Every soul must taste of death, then to Us you shall return. (Ankabut, 29/57).
This world is a classroom where we take lessons. It is our responsibility to be diligent and sincere students in this classroom. Let us not to be deceived by the notion that we are here in this world to stay!
To contemplate death is to find meaning in remembering the ultimate unknown moment before we face it. Such contemplation works by keeping us away from obsession with selfish desires; it prepares us to meet our Lord and makes us able to give a good account of ourselves in His presence. Its goal is the transformation of the face of death from an aspect of horror to an aspect of beauty. When we have overcome the lower self through contemplation of death, then we are ready to face the next world. Death is perceived as an unavoidable prelude to meeting with Allah. Then the terror of death that thrills through minds turns into anticipation. Death becomes one’s wedding night, as the great Sufi Mawlana Jalaluddin said: a night of union.
So we need contemplation, perhaps more than anything else. The more we contemplate, the more success we have in educating the soul, developing strong faith, performing sincere prayers, undertaking good deeds, and awakening in ourselves a spirit that expands toward the horizon of eternal life.
May Allah help us gain mature consciousness and perception! May Allah grant us a spiritual breeze from the serene atmosphere of the Prophet (pbuh), his Companions, and the Friends of Allah! May Allah help us find peace in noble thoughts and feelings, and keep us away from the evils of selfishness! May Allah help us to apply His order” Read!” by examining all the incidents of life in the light of faith!
. Al-`Ayni, al-Umdah al-Qari, al-Sharh al-Sahih al-Bukhari, Beirut, nd. I, 61; XXIV, 128.
. Ibrahim Canan, Hadith Ansiklopedisi, XVI, 252, no: 5838.