According to the hadith literature, when Allah intends good for a person, Allah gives them a sound understanding of their religion: من يرد الله خيرا يفقهه في الدين
Allah tells us in the Qur’an:
Some of the English meanings of this Divine speech in Arabic are: “By time, truly humanity is in a state of loss, except for those who believe and do good deeds and help one another towards Truth and help one another towards patient perseverance.” (Qur’ān 103.1-3)
Imām al-Shāfi‘ī (died in year 820 of the Western calendar, may Allah have mercy on him), who was by any account one of the greatest scholars of Islam who ever lived, taught that this short chapter of just 3 lines was sufficient for the guidance of humanity. It tells us of the sweeping story of human civilization, with all of its beauty and tragedy, and informs us that out of the billions of humans that have walked this planet, only some have succeeded in their lives. What was the basis of that success? It was having two essential sets of personal attributes, and having a relationship to others based on those attributes.
The first attribute is faith (īmān). In deference to the vast traditions of the Muslim community, I will define faith as believing in 5 things: Allah, the Messengers (rusul), the Books (kutub), the Angels (malā’ika), and the Last Day (al-yawm al-ākhir). The second attribute is doing good deeds (‘amal ṣāliḥ). Again, out of deference to the vast traditions of the Muslims, I will highlight 5 essential good deeds: Declaring one’s faith publicly (shahāda), praying (ṣalāt), fasting (ṣawm), giving charity (zakāt), and going on the pilgrimage (ḥajj). This is not to say that these are the only articles of faith, or the only good deeds, but these 10 attributes (5 of which involve beliefs, and 5 which involve actions) are the essential bedrock of the path of Islam.
But sūrah al-‘aṣr (the name of this short chapter) also says there is something else which is essential, and that is helping each other to truth and patience. Life is hard, and life is complex, and if I don’t pick you up when you are down, and you don’t pick me up when I am down, we aren’t going to make it. Sometimes, we don’t know what we need to do, and we seek guidance. Other times, we know what we need to do, but feel a weakness inside ourselves, and so we seek support to overcome our individual weaknesses. At the end of the day, we are all in the same boat – flawed human beings striving to be something better, hoping that one day we’ll reach the goal.
These moments of ṣalāt al-jumu‘ah (Friday Prayer) are precious gifts. We come together in obedience to the Prophetic call, gathering here just as people far better than us used to gather in Madina at the feet of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him and his family). We emulate them as best we can, with faith, doing good deeds, and helping each other towards the Truth, and helping each other to persevere on the path. We hope to return each week to solidify and strengthen our faith. We try to leave aside that which makes us doubt for that which makes us truly believe in the promise of Allah. In short, the Friday congregational prayer, which is one of the symbols of Islam in society, is a manifestation of the path of the successful as described in sūrah al-‘aṣr.
Just as the first attribute of the successful is faith, the first article of faith is Allah. Islam begins and Islam ends with Allah. Without Allah, there is no Islam. While there may be sociological realities to the idea of being “culturally Muslim,” in ultimate Reality, there is no such thing. Allah is the creator of all that exists. Allah is the sustainer of all that exists. There is nowhere that you can turn, nowhere that you can look, and avoid Allah:
Some of the English meanings of this Divine speech in Arabic are, “To Allah belong the east and the west, and wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah. Truly, Allah is vast, knowing.” (Qur’ān 2.115)
Once a student went to his teacher and said, “I am going on a trip, and I fear that I will disobey Allah. Please give me something that will protect me!” The teacher responded, “Whenever you feel yourself about to sin, then go someplace where Allah cannot see you.” So when the student was on his trip, and felt an urge to disobey the Lord of the worlds, he ran to an empty room. But he knew Allah could see him. So he ran to the bathroom. But still Allah could see him. Wherever he went, he remembered that Allah could see him. So he turned to Allah, affirming that there was no refuge from Allah except in drawing closer to Allah.
Allah blesses us with the veil of forgetfulness. If we remembered Allah at all times, perhaps we would not be able to relate to anyone else. This is one of the meanings behind the famous story of Layla and Majnūn. Everywhere Majnūn looks, he sees Layla, and so the whole town thinks he is mad. But he is only mad with love, and sees the traces of his beloved wherever he looks. In truth, he is not mad – he just sees the world in a different way.
The traces of Allah are all around us. Have you ever stood at the edge of the ocean and looked out, marveling at the beauty and peace conveyed in that moment? Have you ever stood on a mountain, and looked out upon a valley, and felt that this world was far vaster than it feels in daily life? Have you ever flown on a place, and looked at the clouds stretching out into the open sky, a sign of an expansiveness we can never encompass?! At those moments, and at all moments, we are witnessing the Acts of Allah (af‘āl Allāh). No human hand can create such beauty. No human mind can bring forth something so powerful that it moves the spirit of even the most corrupted hearts. The whole universe is a sign of the One who created it and controls it.
The immensity of time and space, as we live in a universe that is approximately 13.8 billion years old and approximately 92 billion light years from one end to the other (if in fact the universe is spherical), is a drop of water within the ocean of existence. It is reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “The life of this world compared to the Hereafter is as if one of you were to put his finger in the ocean and take it out again, then compare the water that remains on his finger to the water that remains in the ocean.” This is the creation of Allah – realms of existence far beyond what we are capable of observing with the Hubble telescope.
Even our own imaginations point to the existence of Allah. Allah knows that which is, that which can be, and that which can never be. All of the worlds that we dream up in our heads are comprehended by Allah. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Pride and Prejudice, The Color Purple – these are ultimately not the creations of human minds. They are contained in the pre-eternal and perfect knowledge of Allah. In no way, is anything, hidden from Allah, nor will there ever be.
Allah is neither male nor female, but rather creates male and female. Allah is not bound by time nor space, but rather created time and space. A universe is no bigger in relation to Allah than an ant, nor is 10 billion years longer for Allah than 10 seconds. Allah says about Himself:
Some of the English meanings of this Divine Speech in Arabic are, “He is the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. He has made for you pairs from among yourselves, and pairs among cattle: by this means does He multiply you. There is nothing like the likeness of Him, and yet He is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” (Qur’ān 42.11)
We affirm His dissimilarity to all that we know, and yet we can comprehend the idea of His omniscience. But at the same time, we really can’t. For example, you are looking at me. You see me from one particular vantage point, based on your eye’s ability to see a certain spectrum of light. Now know that each one of your vantage points is known to Allah. He sees what everyone is seeing, and what I see. Now know that Allah sees all that is in this room from infinite vantage points. Now know that Allah sees all of those vantage points in all spectrums of light simultaneously, and we start to move towards spiritual bewilderment in the presence of the Divine Reality, what the Sufis call ḥayra.
Allah says of Himself:
Some of the English meanings of this Divine Speech in Arabic are, “No vision can grasp Him, and yet He grasps all vision. He is above all comprehension, and yet acquainted with all things.” (Qur’ān 6.103) This is the reality behind the phrase Allāhu akbar (Allah is greater). Some think it is a chant, or a type of rallying cry, but in actuality it is the most succinct and profound formula for the exalted reality of the Divine in the history of religious thought. Allāhu akbar!
Allah knows, at this moment, the location of each of the particles that makes up you as a unique creation. When particle physicists look for the essential ground of matter, they keep coming up with things that are smaller and more fleeting. At one point in time, we imagined protons, neutrons and electrons to be the fundamental building blocks of cells. Now, we know that those particles are made up of even smaller particles called quarks, and they blink in and out of existence in tiny fractions of a second. Allah not only knows all that, He knows exactly where each quark is in the universe at this moment, it’s velocity, and so on.
In this room right now there are so many biological, chemical, and physical processes that no human effort, even if we spent trillions of dollars doing so, could describe this moment in all of its complexity, let alone create it or re-create it. At yet Allah creates all moments – every Friday congregation in every masjid on the face of this planet, and all moments in time and space with all of its mind-numbing complexity. As Allah, glorified and exalted, states:
“and that is not difficult for Allah.” (Qur’ān 14.20)
This is the Creator we believe in. When our minds rush to understand Allah, we are left bewildered. When our hearts rush to embrace Allah, they come back overflowing. Yet when we turn to Allah in our prayer, and ask the Possessor of all Might and Majesty, Allah hears and responds. As long as the tongues of human beings have speech, we will never tire of speaking of the Beauty and Majesty of Allah, the Lord of all the worlds, and yet, we will never do justice to the realities behind the words that we chose to describe Allah as best we can.
Allāhu akbar - God is greater – الله أكبر
Lā ilāha illa Allāh – There is no god but Allah - لا إله إلا الله
Whatever I have said that is true is from our Lord, and whatever I have said that is false is from my shortcomings.