Gnosis/Ma’rifa as the Willful Suspension of Disbelief:

Knowing God through the Willful Suspension of Disbelief:

“Beware of being bound up by a particular creed and rejecting others as unbelief! Try to make yourself a prime matter for all forms of religious belief. God is greater and wider than to be confined to one particular creed to the exclusion of others. For He says, ‘To whichever direction you turn there is the Face of God [2:115] ”
~Ibn Arabi, Fusus al-Hikam

Even within the context of Ibn Arabi’s multi-layered perspective on the supersession and superiority of “Islam” and the Prophet (saw) over other revealed religions and prophets, he reminds us to not allow our received or acquired religious belief to restrict our awareness of God’s Infinite Presence and Pure Being: which is none other than Mercy. For God transcends our own delimited belief systems, whose Presence and Being–in nuanced, subtle, and often mysterious ways–includes other belief systems foreign to our own. He reminds us that we unconsciously as well as consciously “restrict” God in our minds and thereby in our hearts through “binding” Him to our own limited form of belief: whether those beliefs are derived from revealed sources, or are personal.
What Ibn Arabi challenges us with in this formulation is to willfully suspend our theological judgment of the duality of belief/disbelief towards other belief systems–and even our “own”. He inspires us to realize within us an intellectually intuitive and spiritually reflective opening towards a mode of awareness which transcends (without rejecting) the level of religious discourse where the authority of the exclusive theologies of our faith-based traditions reside. It is an epistemological passage from the level of religious discourse which validates creeds through rationality rooted in revelation, to the level of non-dual awareness of pure Unity: where the only “direction” is God!
To be sure, theology has a positive role to play in revealed religious teachings and in preserving faith in the heart through fortifying the mind for the religiously devout. Yet Ibn Arabi reminds us that God is not only found within beliefs which derive from His Self-Revelation, but He is also found above and beyond them. In this light, Ibn Arabi asks the spiritual seeker to move beyond mental conceptions and willingly suspend their “theological disbelief” of the Other’s doctrines and spiritual teachings, so as not to pass negative judgment upon the Other in the context of striving to know God as He is–in the vastness of His Transcendence and Immanence in all forms of religious belief. Such judgment only serves to restrict or “bind” one’s ability to “recognize God” fully in one’s Self, as self and as other. For, “which ever direction you turn [that is, towards your self or towards the other] there is the face of God”. By binding God to our own belief we end up being bound to the more subtle belief that we are limited, separate selves, distinct from the pure divine Self. Through this denial, we implicitly or explicitly deny that existence and truth to others and reject their sacred beliefs and rights to be, “in God” or in an awareness of “the transcendent unity of Being”. It is the difference between trying to know God through “binding” or “pinning” God to a particular belief, and realizing God as He truly is through the “prime matter” of the Spirit upon which all belief resides in pure consciousness and as pure witness. Such is boundless Truth or ineffable Reality. It can only be “found” in the purified Heart that has become “capable of every form”. It is through such divine love inherent in Being, that one has universal compassion for all forms of religion, humanity and created order, as well as discriminating knowledge of the grades, intensities, and levels of Being.
This acceptance of one’s own belief whilst simultaneously suspending a sense of disbelief in the other allows the seeker of God who yearns to know and love Him more fully, to be more receptive to a higher mode of religious and spiritual awareness regarding Divine Truth and Presence. Such awareness validates the Other “in God” without resorting to accepting the faith of the other as ours to follow, and thereby rejecting one’s own particular faith and practice. In this process, one can begin to appreciate how foreign religious teachings (both intra-faith and inter-faith) have elements of religious truth and spiritual presence in them, even if we do not fully understand them, or even if we perceive to find error in them. One can also appreciate how this process of spiritual openness and “theological suppleness” may prevent an immediate “knee-jerk” reaction towards the intra and inter religious Other, or a wholesale rejection of their teachings which they consider Sacred.

In any case, this spiritual advice (nasiha) by Ibn Arabi is given in the context of one’s path towards “knowing God” (ma’rifa) as He is, and as found uniquely in our hearts: not just what we “ascribe to Him” or as we perceive Him in our minds, or only through our extrinsically received religious (naqli) teachings. For it is through “knowing God” as utter Unity or non-dual awareness, that all personal knots of ignorance are untied, and all extrinsic religious contradictions, resolved.
And God Knows Best.


“Which Religion is Most Beloved To God”? Reflections On An Explicit Prophetic Response

Narrated by the Companion Ibn ‘Abbas:

“The Messenger of God was asked, ‘Which religion is the most beloved to God?’ He replied, ‘Primordial and Generous Faith. (al-hanifiyya al-samha)’”

Quoted by Ahmad b Hanbal. Authenticated hadith. Also found in al-Bukhari

The fact that God’s Beloved Messenger, Muhammad (saw), did not respond by claiming that the “Islam” brought through him was “the most beloved to God” or ‘the most superior religion’ and answered instead with a spiritual quality or innate orientation, rather than a name of a given religion is quite profound in and of itself. There is an inexhaustible teaching contained here in such a succinct Prophetic response, a teaching which is timeless and universal yet timely and particular to our context of religious pluralism. We shall try to distill some of this Prophetic wisdom below with God’s help, and shall begin with what is implicit in the Prophetic narration and then move to what is explicit in the same response.

Implicit in this Hadith is both the awareness of religious multiplicity as well as religious unity. Religious multiplicity: that there is more than one religion revealed by God and that beyond the formal diversity and human vicissitudes of revealed religions there is an inner quality which determines ‘when’ and ‘if’ a given ‘religion’ or ‘religious adherent’ is most beloved to God. Religious unity: that there is in essence only ‘one religion’ (al-Din) which manifests itself in time and space in diverse forms through the Prophetic founders of a given religion; and the more that this very essence or heart is realized or manifested by a given religion or follower of a religion, the more beloved that revealed religion or religious follower is to God. One witnesses such wisdom in many places in the Quran and Hadith, but the following should suffice:

“Every Religion has a special quality and the particular quality of Islam is modesty”–Hadith/Saying of the Prophet Muhammad (saw).

“Say: We believe in God and that which is revealed unto us, and that which is revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and that which was given unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have submitted. (3:84)

“Truly We have revealed unto you as We have revealed to Noah and the prophets after him, as We revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and the tribes, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and as We bestowed upon David the Psalms; and Messengers We have mentioned to you before and Messengers We have not mentioned to you–and God spoke directly to Moses–Messengers giving good tidings and warnings, so that mankind might have no argument against God after the Messengers. God is every Might, Wise .” (4:163-165)

“…For each We have appointed a Law and a Way. And had God willed, He could have made you one community. But in order that He might try you by that which He has given you [He has made you as you are]. So compete with one another in good works. Unto God you will all return. He will disclose to you [the truth] about that in which you all differed.” (5:48)

From this inclusive point of view, “islam” encompasses all revelations and revealed religions. And since “islam” is the principle and essence of all revealed religions, than to the extent that a given religion manifests “islam”, that is “submission to God “and “peace with God”, it is to that extent that it is “most beloved” to God. In other words, since all authentic religions originate with God through Revelation and Prophecy, it is significant to note that what is being considered here as the answer by the Beloved Messenger is recognizing ‘when’ or ‘how’ a given religion or religious follower is ‘most beloved’ to God, and not ‘which’ revealed religion per se is more superior by point of fact. Again, this can be appreciated by looking directly at the Prophet’s response to his companion which does not relate the name of any revealed religion-even his own–yet relates a general quality or orientation which can be seen to be the essence and heart of all true authentic religion and religious following: ‘al-hanafiyya as-samha’, that is ‘primordial and generous faith’.

This truth directs us naturally to recognizing that “islam” is first and foremost a primordial state of being, an inner orientation: an innate disposition (fitra) of creation before one’s Lord who is The Originator (al-Fatir), even before ‘islam’ can be viewed as a revealed form of guidance or religion. We find this kind of “islam”, that is a mode of being in perfect harmony, peace and submission with the Divine Intention and Purpose for creation in the following verses:

“…And there is not a thing [in creation] that does not sing His Praise (17:44)

“Seek they other than the religion of God (Din Allah), when unto Him submits whomsoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly? (3:83)

It is this level or reality of “islam” which is to be identified with “universal submission” or “universal peace” which is found only through the awareness of one’s most intimate connection with one’s creator which even precedes all revealed manifestations of “Islam” through the Prophets and their revealed religions. It is in fact this kind of ‘islam’ which can be seen to be the “religion of the primordial monotheist” (din al hanif) who is purely and sincerely devoted to the Divine Reality through Religion (mukhlisina lahud-din) often affiliated with the Prophet Abraham, as well as “religion of the original/primordial nature” (din al-fitrah) which is the True Origin and True Goal of all revealed religion:

“So set thy purpose for Religion with unswerving devotion (din al hanifi)–in accordance with the original nature which God fashioned (fitra-t-Allah); for there is no altering God’s creation (la tabdillah khalqilla): and that truly is the right religion (dalika din al-qayyima), but most men know not.” (30:30)

To return to our Prophetic statement in light of the above, that which the Prophet of Islam (saw) identifies as “the most beloved religion to God” is that which the Qu’ran refers to as “the right religion”. It is this very religion, or spiritual orientation innately within us and within our revealed traditions, that in its essence is immutable, incorruptible, un-abrogated and unalterable (la tabdila khalqillah, according to the above verse). To spiritually strive with the utmost sincerity of sacred direction (qibla) towards the Divine Reality in order to realize the very substance, heart and essence of one’s very inner nature and connection before God, is to realize that which is ever-present at the heart and origin of all true revealed religion, and vice versa. For that which the Qu’ran refers to as the “right religion” (din al qayyima) is inextricably linked to the heart of one’s being and the heart of one’s revealed religion. It is truly ‘that religion’ (or ‘that which binds’–the root meaning of religare in Latin–in our case, to God), that original, primordially generous and unswerving faith (al-hanafiya as-samha), which is the “most Beloved” to God. And ‘that right religion’ should not be seen as privy or exclusively bound to one form of religion in space and time, but rather as the true heart and transcendent essence of all revealed religion beyond any historical and spatial accretion. A truth, which our Beloved Messenger (saw) so succinctly transmitted to us in a single sentence response. A truth which is so direly needed now more than ever before in a secular yet multi-religious world seeking to better understand and fully live with religious diversity in a new existential light.

And God Knows Best.


Suggestions for further reading:

1. “The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam”, by Reza Shah-Kazemi. The most succinct and comprehensive evaluation of the Quranic, Prophetic and Historical roots and manifestations of the spirit of tolerance in Islam to date (published 2012). The book opens with this very hadith treated here.

2. “Generous Tolerance in Islam”, by Hamza Yusuf, in “Seasons: Semiannual Journal of Zaytuna Institute, 2 (2005), which provides a profound and much needed traditional perspective on the term “al-hanafiyya as-samha”. The etymological references to these Arabic words are discussed as well.

3. “Ideals and Realities of Islam”, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, especially his chapter: ‘Islam, the Last Religion and the Primordial Religion’. The whole book is a landmark book which is a pure classic and synthesis of Sufi and Philosophical teachings on the universal dimensions of Islam, and is catered to a Western audience.

On the Term “Wisdom Traditions”: Reflections on Its Significance for Muslims in the Modern Context

“Wisdom is the lost treasure of the believer, he may retrieve it wherever he finds it.”–Prophet Muhammad (saw)

Huston Smith, the great American Philosopher of Religion and Western Academic who  in many ways singlehandedly opened the doors for Western seekers to the wisdom traditions of both East and West was perhaps the first to coin the term “wisdom traditions”. This term is very apt for an Islamic appreciation of the religious traditions of the Other for multiple reasons. To focus on one reason, such an appreciation of the religous teachings of the Other uses the term “wisdom” which in Islam is considered a universally revealed quality which can not be delimited or confined to any one person or religion, but is defined by Prophecy or Prophetic Tradition as such. We find these revealed teachings in the following Quranic verses:

“For this We sent a Messenger to you from among you to recite our Verses to you and purify you and teach you the Book and Wisdom حكمة (Hikma) and teach you things you did not know before.” (Qur’an 2:151)

“Remember God’s blessings upon you, and what He sent down to you of the Book and the Wisdom (al kitab wal hikma) in order to enlighten you with it.”(2:231)

“He Gives Wisdom to whomsoever He Wills; and whoso is Given Wisdom  has been given abundant good; yet none remember save those with intellects” (2:269)

The first Quranic verse cited binds Wisdom to the agency of Prophecy and thereby roots any expression of authentic wisdom by any historical follower of a given Prophet–be that in the form of spiritual teachings, writings or commentaries on revealed scripture, or even medicinal therapies–in the Tradition of Prophecy. The second verse along with the first in which ‘Scripture and Wisdom’ are paired demonstrates the complimentary functions of Scripture and Wisdom: ie, one can be seen to explain, preserve and apply the other for generations of religious practitioners. The third verse universalizes the transmission of revealed wisdom to all of humanity and mentions that any human being who realizes such modes of wisdom has been given “abundant good” by God Himself , among whose many revealed Names in Islam is “Al-Hakim” (The Wise)!

Now, to appreciate the nature of wisdom and its diverse manifestations in space and time through the various revealed traditions in this Quranic sense, combined with the insights of the above hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) regarding the “lost treasure” of wisdom, allows a Muslim to firmly root all diverse, alien, and even ‘non-Islamic’* modes and expressions of spiritual wisdom as found in sages and revealed scriptures across religious frontiers in the reality of Revelation and Prophecy: or Tradition as understood in a universal and global sense. By way of example, to be able to recognize (or “retrieve”) the sayings of pure Non-Dualist Metaphysics of a Shankara as modes of a wisdom (hikma) elucidating pure tawhid (note that Pure Oneness/tawhid is non-Duality/advaita vedanta precisely) which at first sight may be unintelligible (aka “a lost treasure”) for a Muslim believer, can be very spiritually empowering. Such a process of “retrieval”  of a “lost treasure” for the believer can be a means of confirming a mode of Quranic and Prophetic discourse which can deepen one’s attachment to Islam through its universal openings and connection to other revealed or inspired “wisdom traditions”, which one is more capable of accessing in the modern and global context.

Moreover, to recognize the wise teachings of this same Hindu Sage for example as sacred when compared to certain modern or post-modern speculative philosophies is also to appreciate the difference between intellectual teachings which are rooted in the Sacred Tradition of Prophecy and those intellectual teachings divorced from the Sacred: ie, non-traditional. This distinction is equally empowering as it allows one to appreciate the difference between manifestations of sacred ‘wisdom’ and  profane ‘knowledge’ or ‘information’. In the Islamic worldview, any knowledge which was rooted in ‘tawhid’ (the awareness of the Reality of Divine Unity) was considered ‘Islamic’ and was easily integrated in the Islamic worldview regardless of where it was found. The saying of the Prophet whose extrinsic authenticity of ‘transmission’ is uncertain but whose intrinsic ‘meaning’ is sound comes to mind in this context: “Seek knowledge even unto China”. One need not look further than the many Muslim Philosophers and Sufis who were able to benefit from and integrate many of the teachings and sayings of Sages from religious traditions preceding Islam to make this point from an empirical or historical perspective.

What a profound change of attitude, approach, and understanding towards the “wisdom traditions’ of the Other (including traditional commentary and poetry traditions, and even traditional medicinal traditions) would such an appreciation entail, if Muslims were able to apply such universal principles as found in the Wisdom of their Revealed Sources and as found through various historical Muslim precedents in the Tradition, to the current context of religious dialogue and co-existence in the Modern West. Ofcourse, I am not advocating for syncretistic approaches to worship masquerading as ‘healing sessions’ for example. But what I am implying is that gaining an insight into the nature of Divine Reality from the teachings of a Sage (Hakim) of another ‘wisdom tradition’ can only reinforce, expand, and preserve a Muslim’s sense of the Sacred, whose Sacred Sources as well as existential context beckon him as a believer to assert his Prophetic right to finding the lost treasure of Sacred Wisdom in the Other.

All in all, such a ‘retrieval’ of a ‘lost wisdom’ can allow Muslims to be more inclusive of the Wisdom traditions of the Religious Other and view them as ‘extensions’ of a Prophetic or Traditional Wisdom that should not be confined  to one religious group (even one’s own religious group). Such a process of ‘retrieval’ which is both Prophetic and Quranic, allows the Muslim to be aware of the reality that not only where there is Islam there is Wisdom, but also and more profoundly, wherever there is Wisdom, there is ‘Islam’.



[*Please note that the phrase “non-Islamic” is to be distinguished from “un-Islamic”. A truth  or form of wisdom can be ‘non-Islamic’ and not organically related to the formal teachings of the Islam of Muhammad (saw) and still be a mode or expression of Prophetic wisdom as found in the teachings of a Prophet preceding Muhammad (saw). As such, we would deem such truth or wisdom “Prophetic”, “Traditional” and/or even “Islamic” in a universal sense as witnessed in the last line of the above reflection. In contrast, an undertstanding which is “anti-Islamic” is always error or ‘misguidance’ from the point of view of Islam.]


Suggestions for further reading:

1. “The World’s Religions”, by Huston Smith. By far, still the best work on comparative religion in English. A pure classic and a pleasure to read.

2. “The Forgotten Truth”, also by Huston Smith.

3. “Islamic Life and Thought” and “Ideals and Realities of Islam”,  both by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. These landmark books respectively open such awareness of the Islamic view on the universality of Wisdom and Revelation.