By Dr. Jasser Auda
There are some conditions and etiquette related to isolation and entering the state of reflection as mentioned in the previous stop. If one abides by such conditions, he can attain the Divine spiritual lights and his heart shines as Ibn `At’illah describes it in the word of wisdom under discussion. Before beautifying the heart with lights and virtues, it has to be cleaned up from flaws and shortcomings.
Ibn `At’illah says: “There is nothing more beneficial to the heart than an isolation that allows it to enter a state of reflection. How can the mirror of the heart shine if the material images are covering it? How can the heart journey to God if it is chained by its desires? How can the heart ever hope to enter the Divine Presence if it has not purified itself from its forgetfulness?”
We are going to talk about three meanings.
The first meaning is about the heart’s shininess with spiritual illumination and its relation with the universe and material things. Therefore, Ibn `Ata’illah is asking: how can the mirror of the heart shine if the material images are covering it?
The second meaning is about the desires and how the heart journeys to God despite the existence of such desires. Therefore, Ibn `Ata’illah is asking: How can the heart journey to God if it is chained by its desires?
The third meaning is about the Divine Presence. Ibn `Ata’illah is asking: How can the heart ever hope to enter the Divine Presence if it has not purified itself from its forgetfulness?
God’s Presence means God’s always being with the servant. God says; “… behold, God is (only) with those who believe!” (Al-Anfal 8:19) , “… seeing that God is with you, you are bound to rise high (in the end); and never will He let your (good) deeds go to waste.” (Muhammad 47:35), “… and know that God is with those who are conscious of Him.” (At-Tawbah 9:36), “And be patient in adversity: for, verily, God is with those who are patient in adversity.” (Al-Anfal 8:146), “… for, verily, God is with those who are conscious of Him and are doers of good withal!” (An-Nahl 16:128) All those are in God’s Presence.
The question is how should one attain God’s Presence although the heart is filled with desires?
Material things, earthly life, people, and desires are all imprinted in the heart as the picture is imprinted in the mirror. This is a wonderful simile.
If we suppose that this heart is the mirror, then what is there in this heart? Is it filled with people, the money, the job, the family, the food, the car, the house, etc.? Or is it filled with light?
Here I do not mean that we should not care about our families, our job, and other material things. What I mean is: what is there in the depth of the heart? Do we see light in this heart? God says:
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is, as it were, that of a niche containing a lamp; the lamp is (enclosed) in glass, the glass (shining) like a radiant star: (a lamp) lit from a blessed tree – an olive-tree that is neither of the east nor of the west the oil whereof (is so bright that it) would well-nigh give light (of itself) even though fire had not touched it: light upon light! God guides unto His light him that wills (to be guided); and (to this end) God propounds parables unto men, since God (alone) has full knowledge of all things. In the houses (of worship) which God has allowed to be raised… (An-Nur 24:35-36)
God’s house is where you isolate yourself to worship Him alone so that you can attain the Divine Light. In the divine hadith the Prophet reports from God that He said: “Neither My Earth nor My Heavens can contain Me, but the heart of a believing Servant contains Me.”
Therefore, only the heart of a believing servant can contain God as the hadith states. Light eliminates darkness and this is the nature of light.
But how the heart is illuminated with God’s Light while its mirror is imprinted with material images and Aghyar. Aghyar is an expression used by those who are journeying to God which means everything other than God. Is this what is in the heart or is it filled with God’s light and remembrance?
Ibn `Ata’illah is asking: how can the heart journey to God if it is chained by its desires? Not all desires are prohibited. Islam is not against desires and did not prohibit them. However, Islam regulates the issue of desires. God did not create a desire which is prohibited because Universal laws of God and general Islamic rules maintain the instinct and human nature.
God did not prohibit anything that He made a characteristic of our nature such as eating, drinking, sexual desire, speaking, laughing, chanting in a good voice, etc. However, Islam regulates this natural disposition, i.e. eating should be regulated this way, drinking should be regulated that way, etc. Islam prohibited some foods, drinks, and some forms of marriage. Unlike other belief systems, desire, in Islam, is not prohibited in itself and it is not a sin in itself. What is prohibited is some parts of the desire under certain circumstances.
The problem is not desire itself, but how it covers the heart so that it cannot journey to God. God says:
And God wants to turn unto you in His mercy, whereas those who follow (only) their own lusts want you to drift far away from the right path. (An-Nisaa’ 4:27)
Therefore, Ibn `Ata’illah is asking: how can the heart journey to God if it is chained by its desires? These desires make you attached to earthly life. If you always think of your desires, they will take you away from God. Therefore, the isolation should be free from desire even if it is a lawful desire. God says:
… but do not lie with them skin to skin when you are about to abide in meditation in houses of worship. These are the bounds set by God: do not, then, offend against them. (Al-Baqarah 2:187)
This is one of the rulings of i`tikaf and this is the only verse that clearly mentions i`tikaf. However, it is a clear evidence for the topic of isolation.
As for how the Prophet (peace be upon him) applied this sunnah, it is reported that he used to do i`tikaf in the last ten days of Ramadan. In the year in which he died, he did i`tikaf for twenty days. It is reported that he performed i`tikaf in months other than Ramadan. Therefore, i`tikaf is not only confined to Ramadan and it can be observed in other months.
Then Ibn `Ata’illah asks: How can the heart ever hope to enter the Divine Presence if it has not purified itself from its forgetfulness? This is a good expression. Ibn `Ata’illah says forgetfulness is like the state of impurity and the isolation is the washing that will purify you from this state of impurity, the impurity of forgetfulness.
If you neglect remembering God and you remember something else, then you have to seek God’s forgiveness. You have to remember God a lot so that He purifies your heart. This is one of the benefits of isolation.
Every Muslim should devote part of his time to remember God. Do not say that you do not have enough time. This is unacceptable. It is a matter of half an hour or an hour during which you isolate yourself, remember God and reflect on Him. Therefore, Ibn `Ata’illah says in the next word of wisdom: “Postponing good deeds until you have free time is an indication of an immature soul.” Do not say “I do not have time, even half an hour, for this isolation.” This is an unacceptable argument.
We ask God the Almighty to purify us form the impurity of forgetfulness and from being chained by our desires. We ask Him also to grant us His Light. We ask God to place light above us, to place light below us, to place light in front of us, to place light on our right, and to place light on our left. Finally, we ask Him to place light in our hearts.
The article is excerpted from “Some of Al-Hikam Al-Ataiyyah” (The Path to God: A Journey with Ibn `Ata’illah’s Words of Wisdom In the Light of the Quran, the Prophetic Tradition, and Universal Laws of God- By Dr. Jasser Auda