The Greatest Need for the Heart and the Mind: An Exemplary Character

The Education that Makes Man: Divine Teaching

Allah, glory unto Him, has rendered the earth and the skies to the service of human beings,[1] whom have not been left to wander irresponsibly in response to their Lord and their ambiance.[2] Expressed more clearly, the Almighty has guided both the universe and man by means of divine laws, decreeing thereby a sweet balance between freedom and responsibility in this life of trial, amplified in the verse below:

“And the sky He has uplifted; and He has set the measure, that you exceed not the measure” (ar-Rahman, 7-8)

This means that man ought to become one with the harmony prevalent in the universe. Just as there is not the least imbalance in this universe of vast proportions, humans must not give sway to the least digression on their journey towards adhering to the Almighty. Only those that are able to observe this balance for a lifetime merit being the wise, the happiest of both worlds. But those living a life of imbalance by giving rein to passing desires and short lived pleasures are simply ignorant of the mystery of coming to and passing through this life, unable to become one with the Divine harmony that resonates in the universe, incapable of comprehending it. What a waste it is that their lives pass in the lure of a deep whirlpool of ignorance, a prelude to their Hereafter, an ominous and even greater dismay.

The answer to this mystery lies hidden within the reality that is the human being. One thing for certain is that sent into this world for trial, man has thus been created with a potential for both right and wrong. A trial, after all, requires that one is endowed with the power to do both.

Dominating a person’s life both internally and externally, therefore, is a constant tug of war between right and wrong. Both desire control of the human frame. As much as there is an inherent power for right within, there is a power for wrong, valid for unrefined egos. Forces of reason, cognition and will alone do not suffice to aid good victory over evil in this incessant battle. Had they been enough, the Almighty would not have reinforced Adam (a.s) the first man He created, with prophethood, and would not have revealed to him the Divine Truths that grant one the goodness of both worlds. Quite the reverse, Allah, glory unto Him, has always steered humankind to the Real, through prophets and revelation. Reinforcing both reason and the heart with revealed books, He has subjected His servants to a spiritual training.

Reason is like a two-edged sword; it can lead one to both virtue and vice. True, human beings do attain the level of ahsanu taqwim, the highest rank one can reach, through the aid of reason; yet more often than not, it is owing to reason that they plummet to the pits of bal hum adall, a level of consciousness way below even of beasts. Reason must therefore come under discipline, none other than the training of Revelation and the teaching of Prophets. Provided it is under the supervision of Revelation, reason can then lead man to the shore. Deprived of the guidance of Revelation, on the other hand, it is sure to drown in a tragic end.

History has been witness many tyrants, with sound rational capacities, who have yet not felt the slightest remorse for committing the most brutal of massacres; for they perceived their brutalities as sound, rational behavior. Hulagu Khan, for one, drowned four-hundred-thousand innocent people in the waters of Tigris, without feeling the least guilt. Before Islam, many Meccan men used to take their daughters to bury them alive, amid the silent screams of their mothers that shed their hearts to pieces. Chopping a slave was no different for them than chopping wood; they even saw it as their natural right.

They too had reason and feelings, just like us, which however were like the teeth of a wheelworking the opposite direction, defiant of expectation.

Demonstrated by all this is the natural need human beings have for guidance and being directed, owing to the positive and negative inclinations and desires within. The direction given, however, must in turn be compatible with creational disposition; and this is possible only through education in the light of Revelation, that is the guidance and enlightening of prophets. Otherwise, a direction conflicting with creational disposition will only generate evil.

A feature that dominates a person’s character, whatever it may be, assumes an annihilatory role of its opposite. If right dominates, it makes wrong ineffective. If wrong is given the upper hand, it then tries to suffocate right. The inner conflict thus persists for a lifetime. It is for this reason that the Almighty has additionally blessed humankind with prophets and saints, as teachers of guidance. Only those reared by those skillful and inspiring hands have been able to develop their inner beauties, turning their wintry frosts into springs of vibrant blooms. The half savage society of the Age of Ignorance, for one, were able to develop into the most cherished generation of all time, thanks to the guidance of the Blessed Prophet (pbuh).

This is for no other reason than that as long as they stick by the guiding light of prophets, people will become servants of the kind Allah is pleased with, worthy of praise. If not, they are doomed for failure in the Divine test, fought between the ego and the spirit, and plunge to the pits of the lowest. The worldly life was in fact created to establish which side human beings would decide to take. Man directs either the positive or the negative inclinations with towards one of these sides, with his own will; a directing that is decided by the result of the battle between the spirit and the ego. Yet whilst the battle is decided, meanwhile, he is exposed to many influences. A stroll through a rose garden leaves one scenting beautifully of roses; just the same, a walk through filth is also destined to smear its mark. External influences are always visible, making human beings prone as being the most in need, among entire creation, of a refining guidance and education.

Falling into depravity at the expense of laying waste to this fleeting life, stem from the inner and outer conflicts, seemingly insoluble, man experiences. These conflicts are, in essence, caused by the fact that man bears, at once, the highest of virtues that are means of gaining nearness to the Creator and the most deplorable of bestial features.

Consequently, the inner worlds of those who have not come under that training and whose hearts are therefore yet be reconciled with peace resemble forests in which numerous animals dwell. Virtually disguised under their temperaments are the natures of numerous animals. Some are as cunning as foxes, while others are as ferocious as hyenas. Some take after ants and greedily stockpile, and others are as venomous as snakes. Some caress before they bite whereas others suck blood like slugs; there are yet others that hide deceit behind a smile. Each of these are attributes peculiar to certain animals.

A person unsuccessful in breaking the domination of his ego through spiritual education, thus unable to construct a firm character is under the constant siege of such deplorable habits. Many a person is dictated by the character of a single animal, while there are an added more dominating others. Besides, as their natures reflect onto their looks, it is not so difficult pick out their hidden characters, for those who understand. Their behavior is like a mirror that, without ever lying, reflects their inner worlds.

Is not communism, a system built upon the skulls of twenty-million victims, a reflection of a brutal heart? Are not the pyramids, graveyards for thousands just for the sake of one pharaoh, in fact atrocious monuments of oppression? For the many unmindful, they still amount to historical masterpieces that leave reason in awe. But considered from the vantage of the truth, do not they betray a portrait of cruelty, vicious enough to shock and frighten the most savage hyenas?

Proved by all this is the fact that once frogs rein supreme in society, everywhere turns into a swamp. When snake and scorpion like temperaments hold sway, society is exposed to their venom, instigating terror and anarchy. But if rose like temperaments govern proceedings, then the whole land turns into garden, reconciling society with peace.

The training of Revelation is therefore imperative. Those remote from such training, even if they do not exhibit displays of brutality and instead show signs of certain right conduct, always carry the potential of brutal behavior; for except for Divine training, all goodness acquired passes by. In times of difficulty, when egoistic desires run ravage, the crudeness and potential for the bad in those devoid of that sublime training transpire, to the light of day. An untrained ego resembles a cat with an appetite for a mouse; a cat that does not think twice about abandoning the exquisite food put in front of him, just upon the sight of a mouse, leaping ahead to pursue it, without hesitation. A human being is no different; lacking the training of divine measure, regardless of the numerous beauties the heart may be fond of, once the cat like ego is enticed by a mouse, however distant, it bids the heart to pursue it, at the cost of devastation. The lives of Pharaoh and Nimrod are but displays of coldhearted massacres, motivated by desires the size of mice.

A far cry that is from Divine training, which, let alone condoning the killing of innocent humans, commands delicacy, like a shivering candle, even against a slight infringement of the rights of others. The Blessed Messenger (pbuh) refrained from even severing a green branch. On the way to the conquest of Mecca, he commanded his army to proceed from the other side of the road, in order not to frighten a dog suckling her pups. Distraught by the sight of an ants nest burnt to ashes, it was again the Noble Prophet (pbuh) to remark, “Who could do such a horrible thing?” Immersed in the spirit of the Prophet (pbuh), sculpted by his clay of compassion, the Ottomans founded numerous waqfs, self-funded charity foundations epitomizing the zenith of mercy in their service, both for humans and animals alike. There were even waqfs established just for the purpose of caring for and nurturing animals. It is of little wonder today that we see reports, made by travelers journeying through the Ottoman dominions at the time, attesting to how cats and dogs were always lingering around people in Muslim neighborhoods, while in other quarters, they would look for places to hide at the sight of the shadow of a human being.

These are all manifestations of the level of matured training one has, or lack of it. Shedding enough blood to water the ground with it, is man; yet it is also man who gives his own blood to the save the life of the needy.

Though containing an intrinsic wisdom, in life, people of positive and negative characters endure together. To use an example, this resembles the agony forced upon a fawn locked in a barn full of brutish, grumbling beasts. Sometimes a generous coexists with a miser; at times it is a wise with a fool, or even a benevolent with an oppressor. The miser has little compassion; a coward, he lacks commitment. A generous, alternatively, is compassionate, humble and committed. The fool does not understand the wise. The oppressor thinks he acts with justice, a ready excuse to use force to crush those around him. In short, the angelic spirited survive together, in this worldly life, with hyenas; the former proceeding on the path of making acquaintance with and becoming a servant of the Real, the latter lost in the deception of assuming a life dominated by the habit of low creatures to be happiness, in a life controlled by consumption, lust and greed of the like.

Living in a world inhabited by opposite characters, in essence, is a difficult test; a test, however, a person is compelled to overcome. Passing the test of the world and being reunited with the Divine is the essential purpose human existence, which in turn requires one to slip away from bad attributes and obtain those that are praised, and thus live with the honor and dignity worthy of a human being.

Although spirit wise celestial, the body of a human being is of earth. Thus once the spirit returns to Allah, glory unto Him, so shall the body return into earth. Bodily, man carries the features of other organisms, the precise reason why the ego must be curbed through a spiritual training and refining and thereby feed and hence strengthen the spirit. Otherwise, one cannot be immune to becoming a victim, externally of Satan and internally of the transgressions of the ego, which then puts the spirit in a weak position.

The Quran states:

“And the soul and Him Who made it perfect…Then He inspired it to understand what is right and wrong for it; he will indeed be successful who purifies it, and he will indeed fail who corrupts it.” (as-Shams, 7-10)

The great Mawlana Rumi explains the right and the wrong residing in the inner world made mention by the ayah through the following analogy:

If you want the truth, o striver on the path of the Real, then know that neither Musa nor the Pharaoh are dead; they are well alive within you, concealed in your existence, continuing their battle in your heart. You therefore must search for these rivals within yourself!

He goes on:

Do not look to feed the flesh, in excess, and develop it…for it is a sacrifice destined for earth. Seek instead to nourish your heart, for it is that which is destined for high above, with honor.

Give little of what is sweet and fatty to the flesh. For those who feed it in excess are ultimate preys to the desires of the ego, and are lost into shame.

Feed the spirit with spiritual nourishment. Offer it mature thought, delicate understanding and like food, so that it leaves to its destination with strength.

An untrained ego is like a tree with rotten roots, signs of which are visible in its branches, leaves and fruits. A disease in the heart comes to light through the deeds of the body, spreading its harm. Symptoms of it are malice, jealousy, conceit and other attributes of the ego, awaiting necessary treatment. Rectifying these deficiencies become possible, firstly, through entering the path willed and shown by Allah, glory unto Him.

The two most basic tendencies allowing a human being to construct her character compliant with the pleasure of the Almighty are taking example and imitation.

The Tendencies of Taking Example and Imitation

From the moment he is born, man stands in need of an example. All ideas, beliefs and activities that shape a person’s life like language, religion, moral behavior and habits are developed through none other than surrounding examples and impressions received therefrom. Minor exceptions aside, this is generally the case. A child, for instance, only learns the language spoken by her parents; learning a second, a third or even a fourth language thereafter requires other examples. So in a sense, among other lesser factors, the education of a person consists in none other than getting her, as much as is allowed by the innate tendency of imitation, to imitate what is on offer to be taught, be it good or bad. This way, depending on her capacity to come under the influence of and imitate parents, relatives and the social environment, a person becomes either a good or a bad member of society.

Yet while there is relative ease in learning a language and other external skills, serious barriers impede the shaping of one’s religious, moral and spiritual world. Therefore, as long as this realm is not allowed to be trained by prophets and friends of the Real, a human being cannot resist being dragged into the ditch of ignorance and rebellion, turning their potential for eternal bliss to a miserable disaster.

The condition of those who take certain celebrities, swimming in the swamp of overindulgence, as role models and try to become like them, much to the peril of both themselves and their eternity, suggests a reckless waste of human potential and corruption of civilization. This is but a laying waste to the heart by instating on its throne, left empty and abandoned, the wrong people just for the sake of occupying it with something.

Enveloping the tricks of the ego in concrete examples, Mawlana Rumi –quddisa sirruh- illustrates below the strangeness in which man is deceived:

It is of no surprise that a lamb flees from a wolf, for the wolf is its enemy and hunter. But for lamb to fall in love with a wolf… that merits wonder.”

“Many a fish, while assuredly swimming in water, is caught by a hook, victim to the greed of its appetite.”

Humankind is therefore always in need of guides, with an elegance of heart and a refined spirit, to teach them of the tricks of the ego.

The Exemplary Characters of Prophets

As feeling affection for a person, admiring and trying to imitate his character is a tendency that arises from natural disposition, it is crucial for human beings to find the most perfect examples and follow their lead. It is for such reason that Allah, glory unto Him, the eternally Munificent, has not only blessed mankind with books of Revelation, but He has also sent prophets, living embodiments of those books, endowed with innumerable and supreme attributes.

They are such consummate personalities that they exude a perfection of behavior, in religion, knowledge and morality. Throughout history, each of these prophets has rendered exceptional service to humankind by virtue of excelling in certain exemplary conduct.

As for saints, the heirs of prophets and friends of the Real, they are wise, righteous and mature Believers who have:

Impeccably fused the esoteric and the exoteric of Religion which they have embroidered onto their personalities;

Reached a perfection of conduct through covering great distances with their hearts on the road of abstinence and piety;

Attained a depth of feeling and the zest of faith by virtue of extending their cognition and comprehension to the horizons of both worlds;

And whose entire resolve is to save humankind from bad conduct and the dark gutter of the ego and elevate them to good morals, the skies of spiritual maturity. They are the peaks of the behavioral perfection, taught by prophets spread across times, towering personalities to be taken after, for those who have not been fortunate to see a prophet. The teachings and advice they articulate in the language of mercy that revitalize hearts are essentially drops of spirituality, dripping forth from the font of prophethood.

Whenever one sees justice prevailing in a given society, whichever it may be throughout the world, a bond of mercy and compassion binding hearts together, or in a given society, if the rich run to the aid of the poor, the strong protect the weak, the healthy lend a helping hand to the ill and, again, the well-to-do feed the orphans, without a shadow of a doubt, these virtues have been handed own by prophets and those walking on their path.

The family of mankind that begun with Adam and Hawwa –alayhimassalam-, adopted as the foremost place of worship the area on which today stands the Holy Kabah, in Mecca. Spread across the world thereafter out of natural and social needs, guided from time to time by prophets, the Children of Adam continued their life of religion. As often as Divine Truths were tampered with by the ignorant, the Almighty sent prophets, through whom He effaced the tampering and revived religion. Continually saved throughout history from individual and social disarray, a mark of Divine Grace, humanity thus reached the Final Epoch.

Making its entrance into the world at long awaited last, at asr mark of its entire history, was then the Asr’us-Saadah, the Age of Bliss, presenting, at the very place where religious life had once inaugurated, a final display, the zenith of perfection this time, with the Blessed Muhammad Mustafa (pbuh). Inconceivable, it would be, to imagine a perfection beyond that of his, insofar as with him, the regular revival of religion through the sending of prophets came to an end, making Islam the religion Allah, glory unto Him, is pleased with.

We can therefore say that the Noble Messenger (pbuh), having embodied and actualized innumerable instances of virtue in his life, stands as the most perfect example to cater for the natural tendency of imitation within human beings. Success in imitating him is undoubtedly dependent upon an infatuation with his character and a wholehearted love.

[1].     See, Jâthiya, 13.

[2].     See, Qiyamat, 36.