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Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FAITH AND PRACTICE IN ISLAM

Vincent J. Cornell

Knowledge without practice is like a tree without fruit. —The Moroccan Sufi Ahmad ibn Ashir of Salé

Faith in Islam is never blind. Although belief in the unseen is just as important in Islam as it is in other religions, there comes a point at which the spiritually aware human being transcends the level of simple faith. At this point the person is more than just a believer, for his or her spiritual consciousness has penetrated the fog of the unseen, leading to knowledge of the true nature of things. The Quran speaks of this progression from faith to knowledge as an inward metamorphosis in which belief (iman) is transformed into certainty (yaqin). This certainty is expressed in the Quran in terms of three types of knowledge of God, which were discussed by philosophers, mystics, theologians, and jurists during the Islamic Middle Period (the ninth through fifteenth centuries C.E.).

Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge

God's word, as revealed in the Quran, is the centerpiece of Muslim faith. Copying the Quran was the noblest of arts and luxury manuscripts were produced at all times. This copy, transcribed in 1491 by the noted Ottoman calligrapher Shaykh Hamdullah and lavishly decorated with arabesque designs, is a worthy testament to Muslim faith.

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Modalities of Certainty

The most basic and fundamental type of knowledge is the “knowledge of certainty” (ilm al-yaqin, Quran 102:5). This type of certainty, which is analogous to Aristotle's concept of intellectual knowledge, refers to the knowledge that results from the human capacity for logical reasoning and the appraisal of what the Quran calls the “clear evidences” (bayyinat) of God's presence in the world. It is also the knowledge that comes from the study of Islam through the Quran, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith), and books of theology and exegesis. By nature, the “knowledge of certainty” is rational and discursive, a point that the Quran acknowledges when it admonishes human beings to “travel throughout the earth and consider how [Allah] initiated the Creation” (Quran 29:20). The same type of knowledge is involved when the Quran presents rhetorical arguments for the existence of God: “It is [Allah] who brings things to life and causes them to die, and [Allah's] is the alteration of the night and the day. Will you not understand?” (Quran 23:80).

Over time and under the influence of contemplation and spiritual practice, the “knowledge of certainty” may be transformed into a higher form of knowledge of God, which the Quran calls the “eye of certainty” (ayn al-yaqin, Quran 102:7). This term, which broadly corresponds to Plato's concept of the “vision” of the intellect, refers to the knowledge that is acquired by the spiritual intelligence, which Islam locates metaphorically in the heart. Before attaining this type of knowledge, the heart of the believer must first be “opened to Islam” (Quran 39:22). Once opened, the heart receives knowledge as a type of divine “light” or illumination, which leads the believer toward remembrance of the Creator. Just as with the “knowledge of certainty,” with the “eye of certainty” the believer apprehends God's existence through God's presence in the world. In this latter case, however, what leads the believer to the knowledge of God are not arguments to be understood by the rational intellect, but rather theophanic “appearances” (also called bayyinat) that strip away the veil of worldly phenomena to reveal the divine reality beneath.

The metaphor of the “eye of certainty” is thus more than just a simple gloss on the axiom “seeing is believing.” From a spiritual perspective the one who holds knowledge of God, who perceives reality in this way, is the true “intellectual.” Unlike the scholar, who develops his or her skills through years of formal study, the spiritual intellectual does not need book-learning to apprehend the divine light. Although the Prophet Muhammad was barely able to read or write, he has always been regarded by Muslims as the greatest intellectual of Islam. A spiritual intellectual can be anyone, scholarly or otherwise, whose knowledge extends both outward, to take in the physical world, and upward, to realize his or her ultimate transcendence of the world through his or her link with the Absolute. Without such a vertical dimension of the spirit, the scholar's knowledge, whatever its extent may be in academic terms, is of little worth. By being blind to divine illumination, such a person is bereft of real wisdom, and according to a famous prophetic tradition amounts to little more than “a donkey carrying a load of books.”

The third and most advanced type of knowledge builds on the transcendent nature of knowledge itself. This highest level of consciousness is called the “truth of certainty” (haqq al-yaqin, Quran 69:51). Also known as ilm ladunni (“knowledge by presence,” Quran 18:65), this form of knowledge partakes directly of the divine reality and leaps across the synapses of the human mind to transcend both cognitive reasoning and intellectual vision at the same time. The “truth of certainty” refers to that state of consciousness in which a person knows the “real” through direct participation in it, without resorting to logical proofs and without objectifying either subject or object. Viewed in terms of Islamic sacred history, this type of knowledge characterizes God's Prophets and Messengers, whose consciousness of the truth is both immediate and participatory, because the knowledge on which it is based comes from direct inspiration.

Although Muhammad is the final Prophet of Islam, many scholars in the Islamic Middle Period were open to the possibility that divine inspiration could remain accessible to believers even after Muhammad's death. This possibility is symbolized in Islamic tradition by the figure of al-Khidr (Green One). Appearing first in the Quran as an unnamed servant of God and companion of the Prophet Musa (Moses), al-Khidr is endowed with a knowledge of the unseen that Musa himself lacks. The Quran describes this enigmatic sage, who is not a prophet yet partakes of divine inspiration, in the following way: “We have bestowed upon him a mercy from Ourself, and have taught him a knowledge from Our own presence” (Quran 18:65). Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad would later highlight the difference between al-Khidr's knowledge and the knowledge of prophets, while at the same time affirming its complementarity to prophecy. For example, in the Sahih al-Bukhari, or “sound collection” of prophetic traditions by Muhammad al-Bukhari (810–70), al-Khidr is depicted as saying to Musa: “Verily, I act on knowledge from the knowledge of Allah, which He has made known to me but has not made known to you, while you act on knowledge that He has made known to you but has not taught to me.”

Thus, according to both the word of God as expressed in the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, faith in Islam has as much to do with what today would be called theoretical and experiential knowledge as it does with simple belief. This multidimensional conception of knowledge comprehends a reality that lies hidden within the phenomenal world yet can be revealed by the human mind and the vision of the spiritual intellect through the signs of God that are present in the world itself. In the Quran, God calls on humanity to “bear witness to what you see and what you do not see . . . a Message sent down from the Lord of the Worlds . . . verily this is the Truth of Certainty” (Quran 69:38–39, 43, 51).

The Quranic notion of religious belief as dependent on knowledge is actualized in practice in the term Islam. In Arabic islam is a verbal noun that is derived from the root aslama, which means “he gave up, surrendered, or submitted.” In purely etymological terms, islam thus signifies the idea of surrender or submission. Following this logic, the religion of Islam can be characterized as the religion of self-surrender: Islam is the conscious and rational submission of the contingent and limited human will to the absolute and omnipotent will of God. Such a complete surrender of one's personal will clearly is not easy for everyone and is likely to be resisted by the human ego. Islam's advocacy of self-surrender should not be thought of as irrational, however, or dismissed as the product of a passive or fatalistic mentality. On the contrary, the type of surrender Islam requires is a deliberate, conscious, and rational act made by the person who knows with both intellectual certainty and spiritual vision that Allah, the God who is the subject of the Quranic discourse, is reality itself. This knower of God is the muslim (fem. muslimah), “one who submits” to the divine truth, and whose relationship with God is governed by taqwa, the consciousness of humankind's responsibility toward its creator.

But consciousness of God alone is not sufficient to make a person a Muslim. Neither is it enough to be merely born a Muslim or to be raised in an Islamic cultural context. The concept of taqwa implies that the believer has the added responsibility of acting in a way that is in accordance with the three types of knowledge previously discussed. The sincere believer must endeavor at all times to maintain herself in a constant state of submission to God. By doing so, she attains the honored title of “slave of God” (abd Allah, fem. amat Allah), for she recognizes that all power and all agency belong to God alone: “Allah has willed it. There is no power but Allah’s” (Quran 18:39). Trusting in the mercy of her divine master, yet fearing God's wrath, the slave of God walks the road of life with careful steps, making her actions deliberate so that she will not stray from the path that God has laid out for her (Quran 1:5–7). Such is the epistemological “leap of faith” that Islam requires of its believers. It is an all-encompassing and highly personal type of commitment that has little in common with the academic understanding of Islam as a civilization or a cultural system. Rather, this “leap of faith” has much more in common with the spiritual perspective of the “born-again” Christian or the mystic within a traditional religion, whose heedless soul is “resurrected” or awakened by the light of the truth. This similarity between the spiritual knowledge of Muslims and the adherents of other religions is a reminder that religious experience is not limited to specific peoples or cultures; it is universally human in nature.

Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge

When praying, worshipers separate themselves from the ground with a mat or rug. Wealthy people might use a beautiful prayer carpet, such as this exquisite wool and silk example made in the seventeenth century under the Mughal emperors.

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The universality of religious experience is an important premise of the Quran's argument against the profane or secular life. Taking a different tack from the hadith (the corpus of prophetic traditions that provides detailed instructions on how to act as a Muslim in specific ritual or moral contexts), the Quran is less concerned with defining creedal boundaries than with affirming the universal obligation to believe in one God. The Quran thus speaks of broad verities of religious experience to which every human being can relate. Similarly, when dealing with religious practices, the Quran is less concerned with the details of ritual than with the meaning that lies behind the rituals it prescribes. The details of ritual practice, which serve to define Islam for most believers, are usually left for tradition to define. By speaking in a transcendental voice and presenting a discourse that is relevant to human experience in general, the Quran overcomes the cultural limitations of the Arab civilization in which it was originally revealed and makes its message accessible to peoples of different cultural backgrounds. This universalism has never been more important than in the present day, when the majority of Muslims are South or Southeast Asian in origin and when only one-fifth of them are Arabs.

Such a transcendence of culture is necessary for any religion that aspires to universal validity. As the vehicle for the word of God, it is necessary for the Quran to overcome linguistic and cultural differences and express itself in a metalanguage that can be understood even when its original Arabic is translated into a non-Semitic tongue such as English or Indonesian. An example of this metalanguage can be found in the tripartite model of knowledge previously discussed. Despite the exceptionalism of postmodern philosophy, which accentuates cultural boundaries by hypostasizing the notion of difference, the comparative study of human societies reveals that most people—whatever their experiences and regardless of variations in culture—think in similar ways and have similar wants and needs. Responding to this fact, the Quran seeks to establish a common foundation for belief that is based on such shared perceptions and experiences. Over and over again, the Quran reminds the reader to think about the truths that lie behind the familiar or mundane things of the world, such as the signs of God in nature, the practical value of virtue, and the cross-cultural validity of fundamental moral principles. What is good for Muslims is meant to be good for all human beings, regardless of gender, color, or origin. The Quran thus appeals to both reason and experience in determining the criteria for differentiating between truth and falsehood.

The most important theological point made by the Quran is that there is one God—Allah (The God)—universal and beyond comparison, who creates and sustains both the material universe and the world of human experience: “[Allah] has created the heavens and the earth in Truth; exalted is He above the partners they ascribe to Him!” (Quran 16:3). All other forms of so-called truth are either false in their initial premises or contingently true only in limited situations. The recognition of this fact produces an alchemical effect on the human soul that forever transforms the outlook of the believer. This is eloquently described in the following passage from Fi Zilal al-Quran (In the shade of the Quran), a commentary by Sayyid Qutb (1906–66), the Egyptian activist and chief ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood:

When a conception that sees nothing in the world but the reality of Allah establishes itself in the human mind and heart, it is accompanied by the vision of this genuine, permanent reality in every other being that has sprung from it. This is the stage at which the heart feels the hand of Allah in everything and beyond which it feels nothing but Allah in the whole universe. There would be no other reality to be felt. It is also accompanied by the attribution of every event and every movement in this life and in this universe to the first and only cause, that is, Allah, that brings other causes about and influences their effectiveness. The Quran takes great care to establish this truth in the Muslims’ concept of faith. It has always put aside apparent causes and associated events directly with the will of Allah. It says, “When you threw (a handful of dust) it was not your act, but Allah’s” [Quran 8:17]. “There is no triumph except that given by Allah” [Quran 8:10 and Quran 3:126]. “You have no will except as Allah wills” [Quran 76:30].

A faith such as Islam, based on certain knowledge, is both a liberation and a limitation. It is a liberation in the sense that certainty of the divine reality allows the human spirit to expand both outward and upward, so that the consciousness becomes three dimensional. But it is also a limitation, because with the knowledge of God comes a concomitant awareness of the limits and responsibilities imposed on the person as a created being. Unlike the secular humanist, the true Muslim who submits to God cannot delude herself by claiming that she is the sole author of her destiny. She knows that such a statement is absurd, for a person's fate is routinely influenced by factors beyond her control. This truth has even been recognized by some thinkers in the Western secular tradition. The German political philosopher Karl Marx, for example, acknowledged that a person's destiny is to a large extent dependent on external factors. For the Muslim, however, the “hidden hand” that guides a person's fate is not some idealized construct such as political economy, class, or ideology; rather, it is the divine will that governs both the social and the material universes. In Islam it is not religion that is the “opium of the masses” but the heedless arrogance of the human ego, which deludes itself by claiming that it can be all things to all people: “[Allah] created the human being from a tiny drop [of sperm]; yet see how he has become a brazen disputer!” (Quran 16:4).

A middle position between the limits and possibilities of human agency can be found in the doctrine of choice (ikhtiyar), which has become an important part of Shiite theology. According to this doctrine, the overall fate of the human being, like that of all creatures, is governed by the fore-knowledge (qada) of an all-powerful and all-just God. This does not mean that the believer must throw up his hands in resignation and do nothing on his own behalf, however. Quite the opposite. According to this perspective, God's determination of affairs is immutable only on the universal level, the level of the whole. On the level of the part, the necessity of a meaningful choice between good and evil demands that absolute predestination be replaced by the possibility of human agency, which allows the human being to choose between ethical alternatives. On the personal level, an individual's fate (qadar) is to a large extent dependent on the choices that he makes during his life. These may be moral choices such as seeking virtue rather than vice, political choices such as whom to regard (the family of the Prophet or subsequent dynasties of caliphs) as Muhammad's successors, or eschatological choices such as whether to believe that the Shiite “Hidden Imam” will return at the end of time. In other words, each person's fate is the result of an ongoing and continuous interaction, on many levels and over many years, between the human will and the will of God. Each individual makes his or her choices freely, but the options from which to choose are divinely determined, and thus beyond the individual's ability to control.

For the Muslim, belief in God's determination of affairs is not fatalism but common sense. A believer feels liberated in knowing his or her limits, because the acceptance of what can never be changed removes the worry and frustration of striving in vain and opens the door to constructive engagement with the possible. Just as knowledge of the truth compels a person to accept God as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe on the level of the macrocosm, the same knowledge requires him or her to accept the givens of material life on the level of the microcosm. Either a person puts her mind at ease by practicing what some Christians refer to as “letting go and letting God,” or he suffers the endless frustration of the “secular fideist” or doctrinaire secularist, who vainly believes that humankind can overcome all obstacles, only to find that no strategy can save him from death. The Quran admonishes such people in the following verse: “Do not be like those who forgot God so that [God] made them forget their own souls” (Quran 59:19).

Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge

The doctrine of choice (ikhtiyar) plays an important role in the ethical philosophy of Shiite Islam. Shiism is prevalent in modern Iran, where clerics often meet to discuss religious affairs in local shrines, as at the Imamzada Sayyid Ali in Nain.

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In this sense Frithjof Schuon, the noted writer on comparative religion, defines Islam in his work Comprendre l’Islam (Under-standing Islam) (1976) as “the juncture between God as such and man as such.” Schuon adds that when the Muslim conceives of God, it is not “in the sense that [God] can manifest Him-self in a certain way and in a certain time, but independently from history in that [God] is what He is, and also that He creates and is revealed by His nature.” Conversely, when the Muslim is conceived as a rational agent, it is not “in the sense that he is lost and is in need of a saving miracle, but in the sense that he is created after the image of God (déiforme), is given an intelligence capable of conceiving of the Absolute, and a will capable of choosing that which will guide it.” If humankind is to be saved through faith, and the essence of faith is knowledge, then it is incumbent upon God as the source of all knowledge to provide humanity with the knowledge that will enable it to apprehend the truth and thus save itself. In this sense the message of Islam echoes that of the Gospel: “Ye shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free.”

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