The Moral Imperative

The centrality of worship in Islam is demonstrated already by the very structure of sura i, known as the "Opener" (al-Fatiha), which is traditionally understood as the epitome of the Qur'an. After beginning in God's name, the Fitiha praises God in three verses. The final two verses offer the request of the servant. Verse 5, which is structurally the middle, provides the best-known and most often recited reference to worship in Islam: "Thee alone we worship/serve, and from Thee alone we seek help.'' Many commentators refer to the manner in which this specific verse situates human beings between God and the world. Worship, they tell us, is the nexus, the point of contact, between God and man, and it is the heart of the Qur'an.

Many explicit qur'anic commandments tell people to worship God. Both the imperative and its rationale are summed up in the sound hadith, "God's right (haqq) over His servants is that they worship God and associate nothing with Him. The servant's right over God is that He not chastise anyone who associates nothing with Him.''3 This hadith puts the prophetic message in a nutshell: the One God holds human beings accountable. The criterion for judging whether or not the servants have lived up to their accountability revolves around the word haqq, one of the most important terms in the Islamic sciences.

The Qur'an employs the word haqq along with various derivatives about 300 times. In half a dozen cases, the word explicitly designates God, so it is included in the lists of divine names (in the Islamic languages, it is a virtual synonym for Allah). As a noun, the word means truth, reality, rightness, appropriateness, worthiness, right, responsibility; the choice of an equivalent has more to do with English usage than the Arabic meaning. It is difficult to say in any given case that the word does not have all of these senses, especially when the Qur'an applies it to God, or to itself, or to the message of a prophet. The word haqiqa, from the same root, is used in the Islamic sciences in a similar range of meanings. The goal of a science is to find haqiqa - truth, reality, rightness, correctness - within the limits imposed by its tools and methodologies.

To talk of "worship", then, is to talk about the central issue of Islamic learning, which is haqq in the absolute and relative senses of the word. In the absolute sense, the word designates God as reality, right-ness, truth, and appropriateness; in the relative sense, it designates the created repercussions of the Divine Haqq. One can also say that the central issue in Islamic learning is huquq - the plural of haqq. Thus we have huquq Allah and huquq al-insan, often translated (especially in modern political discourse) as ''divine rights'' and ''human rights''.

God has many ''rights'' over human beings, not simply one; but God's unity compresses all these rights into one right, and that right has no more appropriate name than ''worship'' or ''servanthood''. God's haqq, His rightness, reality, truth, and worthiness, demands human ''worship''. God's ''right'' (haqq) is man's ''responsibility'' (haqq). Fulfilling that responsibility is to achieve the truth, reality and worthiness of human nature. It is to reach completion and fulfilment, the posthumous repercussion of which is called ''Paradise''.

If God's right over mankind is that ''they worship God and associate nothing with Him'', and if worship is to abase and humble oneself before God and to submit oneself to Him, then the first issue that needs to be clarified is the object of worship (ma'bud), and the second the proper method of serving that object. Knowledge of the object of worship is provided most succinctly by the first Testimony of Faith (Shahada), ''No god but God'', known as kalimat al-tawhid, ''the word that expresses divine unity''. The right manner of worshipping follows upon the second Shahada, ''Muhammad is God's Messenger.'' The first Shahada states the haqq of God, the second reformulates this haqq as it impinges upon human responsibility. In other words, the second Shahada announces the correct and appropriate response, which is worship and servanthood. The Qur'an universalises these two dimensions of religion (tawhid and worship) by making them pertain to all the prophets: ''We never sent a messenger before thee except that We revealed to him, 'There is no god but I, so worship/serve Me''' (21:25).

Islamic theology - God-talk in all its forms - is concerned with clarifying the reality of the Object of Worship, the Absolute Haqq, so that people can relate to it in the right and appropriate manner. The importance of knowledge cannot be overstressed. The Qur'an and the tradition established on its basis represent, in Franz Rosenthal's memorable phrase, ''knowledge triumphant''.4 A worshipper without knowledge of the object of his worship and the right and proper ways of acting toward the object is, as the Prophet is reported to have said, ''like a donkey in a mill''.5 'Ala put it this way: ''There is no good in a worship in which there is no knowledge, and there is no good in a knowledge in which there is no understanding.''6 Ja'far al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam of the Sha'ites and an authority for Sunni scholars as well, defines intellect ('aql) - the faculty of knowing specific to human beings - as ''that by which the All-Merciful is worshipped and the Gardens attained''.7 Ghazaalai represents mainstream thinking when he explains the meaning of the verse, ''I created jinn and mankind only to worship Me'' (51:56), as follows: ''That is, to be My servants. No servant will be a servant until he knows his Lord in His Lordship and himself in his servanthood. He must come to know himself and his Lord, and this is the final goal of God's sending the prophets.''8

More than a statement about God, the first Shahada is a methodology for coming to know God. The Qur'an, God's Speech, is His self-revelation. It is summed up in the epithets that God gives to Himself (the ''ninety-nine most beautiful names''). Explaining the meanings of these names was one of the most important genres of theology from early times. The point of the exercise was first to understand exactly what the names designated and second to open up the way to an appropriate human assimilation of the qualities and characteristics designated by the names. Thus Ghazall, in his commentary on the divine names, provides a long discussion of al-takhalluq bi-akhlaq Allah, ''assuming the character traits of God as one's own character traits'',9 an expression that was already well known in the literature and was sometimes attributed to the Prophet.

The formula of tawhid is divided into two parts: the negation (''no god'') and the affirmation (''but God''). The general methodology was to negate divine qualities from all that cannot rightly (bi'l-haqq) lay claim to them, and to affirm that these qualities belong rightly to God. God calls Himself ''the Just, the Merciful, the Knowing''. In what sense does our understanding of justice, mercy and knowledge apply? What needs to be negated from the imperfect applications of justice, mercy and knowledge that we find in the world and in ourselves, and what needs to be affirmed for God so that we can say, with correct and proper understanding, ''There is none just but God, there is none merciful but God, there is none truly knowing but God''?

The process of assimilating tawhid into the human soul is called ikhlas, which means to make pure or to be sincere (notice that sura 112 is called both al-Tawhid and al-Ikhlas). The Qur'an repeatedly uses derivatives of this word to describe true believers and worthy worshippers. ''We have sent down upon you the Book with al-haqq, so worship God, making the religion pure for Him [or ''being sincere to Him in the religion'']. Does not pure/sincere religion belong to God?'' (39:2-3). The process of achieving purity of worship demands that servants rid themselves of impure worship, which is wrongly directed worship; hence the imperative of knowledge.

When impure worship is contrasted with sincerity, it is typically called ''hypocrisy'' (nifaq). The basic sense of the Arabic word is to sell oneself, that is, to act for people's sake rather than for God's sake. A second qur'anic expression that is commonly used in the same meaning is riya', ''eye-service'', acting with the intention of being seen by others. In contrast, ''sincerity'' is to worship and serve God alone. It is to negate from Him everything inappropriate and to affirm for Him everything appropriate. The inappropriate - the not haqq, the batil (false, vain, wrong) - is summed up in one word: sharik, partner or associate. According to one early commentator, the command ''O people, worship/serve your Lord'' (2:21) means ''Declare His unity'' (wahhiduhu, that is, acknowledge tawhid). Another says that it means, ''Purify/make sincere the worship of your Lord by not taking any partner with Him.''10

The word shirk, which designates the act of ascribing a partner to God or associating something with him, is taken as the opposite of tawhid. Just as ''sincerity'' is tawhid put into practice, so ''hypocrisy'' is shirk put into practice. And just as tawhid is the salvific content of the religious message, so shirk is a sure road to hell. According to Qur'an 4:48 and 4:116, shirk is the one sin that cannot be forgiven if taken into the grave. Qur'an 4:145 tells us that the hypocrites will be placed in the deepest pit of hell.

The texts are not much interested in ''polytheism'' in the literal sense of the English word, that is, the worship of several gods at once, because the unity of God was far too self-evident to need a great deal of defence. Polytheistic beliefs were ascribed to other religious communities and to unbelievers. Such beliefs were labelled shirk jali, manifest or obvious association. Much more insidious and dangerous for Muslims was shirk khafi, ''hidden association''. When the Prophet heard some Companions discussing the Antichrist, he told them that there was something he feared much more than that: ''Hidden shirk: in other words, that a man should perform the salaat and do it beautifully for the sake of someone who is watching''.11 This is precisely ''hypocrisy'' and ''eye-service''. Most of the literature focuses on this sort of shirk. Ibn 'Ata's remark is typical: ''Shirk is that you behold other than Him or that you see loss or gain from other than Him.''12

The question of shirk brings us back to the issue of the object of worship. Whom in fact are we serving? The Qur'an stigmatises the false gods that people worship, but it comes down especially hard on hawa, caprice or whim. As Ghazali puts it, ''Whoever follows caprice is the servant of caprice, not the servant of God.''13 Junayd tells us that when something unexpected happens, ''the first thought from which you seek help is your object of worship''.14 Abu 'Ali al-Daqqaq provides the key to discernment here: ''You are the servant of him in whose bondage and prison you are. If you are in prison to yourself, then you are the servant of yourself, and if you are in prison to this world of yours, then you are a servant of this world of yours.''15

In short, ''to worship none but God'' (Qur'an 3:64) is what Ibn 'Ati' calls ''the realisation of tawhid''.16 ''Realisation'' translates tahqiq, the second form gerund from haqq. It means to put haqq into practice, to establish the truth, right, reality and appropriateness of something, to actualise the haqq of things in oneself. Its sense in the early texts can perhaps best be understood in terms of the well-authenticated hadith, ''Your soul has a haqq against you, your Lord has a haqq against you, your guest has a haqq against you, and your spouse has a haqq against you; so give to each that has a haqq its haqq.''17 ''Realisation'' is to give oneself, one's Lord and all things their haqq. So, if worship is ''the realisation of tawhid'', this means that it is to give God his due and to give his creatures their due in accord with the divine Haqq. It is to be at once a sincere worshipper and a perfect servant.

To realise tawhid is to practise ikhlas: to purify the mind, heart and intention from everything but the divine Haqq and, on that basis, to attend to the rights of the creatures. The most important obstacle to giving God and things their haqq is a false sense of reality and self-sufficiency. The general stand is that hypocrisy is caused by failing to recognise the absolute reality of God and ignoring the evanescence, instability and unreliability of the human situation. Creation is nothing in face of God; God alone is truth, reality, rightness and appropriateness in the real senses of these words. Seeing oneself as possessing reality and rights is shirk, associating a haqq with al-Haqq. As Junayd would have it, the taghut (idol) mentioned frequently in the Qur'an is one's own self; or, it is everything other than God.18 As long as one keeps both God and self in view and worships God on that basis, one is associating one's own supposed haqq with the absolute Haqq. As Nasrabadhi tells us, ''Ser-vanthood is to overthrow the seeing of one's own worship by contemplating the Object of Worship.''19

That human beings are called upon to worship God implies an affirmation of human strength and a power to carry out the worship. No one denies that individual choice and initiative play an important role, but the texts are extremely concerned that the individual self be given only its haqq, nothing more. There is a constant tension between God's absolute reality and human insignificance. It often comes up in commentaries on the fifth verse of the Fatiha: ''Thee alone we worship, and from Thee alone we seek help.'' Ja'far al-Sadiq explains that the second half of the verse means that we ask help from God's strength and sufficiency to worship Him properly.20 It is impossible for us to fulfil God's haqq without His guidance and grace.

In a similar way, Junayd says, ''Servanthood is to abandon two things: leaning on other than God and reliance on [one's own power of] movement. When you have thrown these two things from yourself, you have fulfilled the haqq of servanthood.''21 Reliance on oneself and one's own strength leads to the idea that one can earn one's way into Paradise. But this cannot stand up to analysis. Tawhid tells us that guidance to right activity, the power to act and the actual activity are all given by God. In other words, no servant can fulfil God's right except by relying totally upon Him, by ''purifying his religion'' of everything but attention to Him alone. As al-Hasan al-Basri put it, ''No one worships Him with the haqq of servanthood at the beginning or the end such that one must receive a reward.''22 Why then worship? al-Sulami explains: ''By Your command we worship You. Otherwise, what use would worship be to realise Your haqq?''23 The true servant is he who sees his own situation clearly: ''He owns nothing and claims nothing for himself'' (Abu 'Uthman al-Maghribi).24

One of the constant themes running through discussion of worship is that the goal is to transform the soul and bring oneself into harmony with God. In other words, worship cannot be divorced from akhlaq, a word that is often translated as ''ethics'' but which means more literally ''character traits''. Moral transformation demands ridding oneself of vices and acquiring virtues. Thus al-Wasiti tells us that worship is rooted in six moral attitudes: reverence, which leads to sincerity; shame, which helps servants guard over their thoughts; fear, which holds them back from sin; hope, which encourages them in acts of worship; love, which allows them to devote their acts fully to God; and awe, which helps them put aside the sense of self-sufficiency.25

The virtues were often seen as part of the help that God gives to His servants so that they can worship Him. We have already noted that acquiring virtue was often called ''assuming as one's own character the character traits of God''. Sulami waxes especially eloquent in describing the virtues assumed by the true servant in his commentary on Qur'an 25:64, ''The servants of the Merciful are those who walk in the earth modestly.''

In the relevant chapter of his famous Treatise (Risala), Qushayri offers a succinct definition of the early notion of worship and servant-hood: ''Servanthood is to undertake the haqq of the acts of obedience, on condition of full exertion; to gaze upon what comes from yourself with the eye that sees shortcomings; and to witness your good traits as coming from the divine determination.''26

One of the earliest books to offer a systematic analysis of the moral imperative was Observing the Rights of God (al-Ri'aya li-huquq Allah) by al-Harith al-Muhasibl (d. 857). The basic question he addressed was how people can live up to their human responsibility ''to worship God and associate nothing with Him''. Although the book says relatively little about ''worship'' and ''servanthood'' per se, it provides a thorough analysis of the worshipping soul.

Observing the Rights of God is divided into nine parts. The first describes the key moral and spiritual dimensions of worship, and the somewhat longer second part explains the nature of hypocrisy and the ways to overcome it. The next two parts deal with the importance of proper companions and knowing one's own defects. The next four chapters provide long analyses of the major obstacles to proper worship: self-satisfaction ('ujb), pride (kibr), delusion (ghurur), and envy (hasad). In a short final section, the author describes how the aspirant should keep his mind vigilantly upon God.

Muhasibi's text begins not with a discussion of worship itself, but with an analysis of taqwa, a qur'anic term that translators have rendered into English with words such as piety, dutifulness, godfearing, and righteousness. Its fundamental importance is made clear in verses like 49:13: ''Surely the noblest of you in God's sight is the one with the most taqwa.'' The word combines the senses of fear, caution and self-protection, and it comes up constantly in discussions of worship. In his commentary on 2:21, ''O people, worship your Lord'', Sulami can say, ''Make the worship of your Lord sincere by not taking any partner with Him. Then unity and sincerity will take you to taqwa.''27

Muhasibi defines taqwa as ''being wary of shirk, of every lesser sin prohibited by God, and of neglecting anything necessary made incumbent by God''.28 Having reminded his readers of the many qur'anic verses that command believers to have taqwa, he tells them, ''Taqwa is the first waystation of the worshippers, and through it they will reach the highest waystation.''29 He then turns to a question posed by the person for whom he wrote the book: ''What is it that you command me to begin with?'' He answers:

That you know that you are a servant and a vassal and that you have no deliverance except through taqwa before your Master and Patron. Only then will you not perish.

So remember and reflect: For what were you created? Why were you put into this fleeting abode? You will come to know that you were not created uselessly, nor were you left aimless. You were created and put within this abode for testing and trial, so that you may obey God or disobey Him, and then you will move on from this abode to endless chastisement or endless bliss ... The first thing necessary for the well-being [salah] of your soul and without which it has no well-being - and this is the first observance [ri'aya] - is that you know that your soul is a vassal [marbub] and a worshipper [muta'abbid]. When you know that, then you will know that a vassal and worshipper has no salvation save in obeying his Lord and Patron. He has no guide to obeying his Lord and Master other than knowledge, and then putting His commands and prohibitions into practice according to their situations, causes and occasions. The worshipper will not find that save in the Book of his Lord and the sunna of His Prophet, for obedience is the path of salvation, and knowledge is the guide on the path.30

The great summa of the moral imperative is Ghazali's Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya' 'ulum al-din). The first of its four parts is dedicated to 'ibidit, ''acts of worship''; but this should not lead us to conclude that the rest does not concern our topic. In fact, all four parts (a total of forty books) explain what it means to be a servant of God. Ghazali is simply setting down explicitly the moral and spiritual implications of the qur'anic command to worship. The book is nothing if not a statement of God's right over human beings. His explanations, however, remain largely in the moral, ethical and psycho-spiritual spheres. He avoids both juridical discussions, which were amply dealt with by other authors (and by himself in some of his other works), and the ontological issues that were soon to become commonplace (and to which he paid some attention in other writings).

In explaining why he wrote the Revival, Ghazali first condemns the scholars of his time for busying themselves with worldly affairs and using religion for their own ends. In other words, he begins by criticising hypocrisy. Then he explains that true and useful knowledge is knowledge that impinges on ultimate human destiny. It is ''afterworldly'' knowledge, which is to say that it paves the way for people to fulfil the rights of God and the rights of man and to achieve their goal in life, which is for God to deliver them from hell.

The book is divided into four parts because afterworldly knowledge has two basic sorts: that which concerns outward things, such as the body and the limbs, and that which concerns inner things, such as character traits and ''the states of the heart''. Acts pertaining to outward things can then be divided into acts of worship ('ibadat) and customary practices ('adat). Acts pertaining to inner things can be divided into blameworthy and praiseworthy traits.

The headings of Ghazaalai's chapters provide a rough survey of what is entailed by any thorough discussion of ''worship''. Notice that Part 1, on ''acts of worship'', begins with the book of knowledge, which analyses the creed. In other words, the first chapter unpacks the implications of the two halves of the Shahaada, the recitation of which is the first of the five pillars of Islamic practice. The remaining nine books deal with ritual purity, salat (second pillar), zakat (third pillar), fasting (fourth pillar), Hajj (fifth pillar), recitation of the Qur'an, remembrance (dhikr) and supplication (du'a'), and the recitation of litanies (awrad).

Part 2 of the Revival outlines the proper attitudes and comportment of true servants in daily activities. If these are not labelled ''acts of worship'', it is because that word is reserved for rites and rituals. But the broad path of guidance set down by the Qur'an and the sunna is by no means limited to ritual and cultic activities, and everything that Ghazaalai discusses in this section is rooted in the guidance of these two sources and of the pious forebears. The topics of the books are eating, marriage, earning a living, the forbidden and the permitted, companionship and social relationships, seclusion ('uzla), travel, listening to music, commanding the good and forbidding the evil, and right conduct of living along with the character traits of prophecy.

Part 3 of the Revival is reminiscent of Muhasibi's Observing the Rights of God in that it focuses on blameworthy character traits. It begins with an especially important chapter called ''Explaining the wonders of the heart'', which is an analysis of the human soul and an explanation of the necessity of self-knowledge. In his Alchemy of Happiness (Kimiya-yi sa'adat), which is a popularising Persian summary of the Revival, Ghazaalai puts this section at the very beginning of the book. In the next nine chapters of Part 3, Ghazaalai addresses the training of the soul; the regulation of the two appetites (the stomach and the pudendum); the blights of the tongue; the dangers of anger, rancour and envy; the attractions of this world; possessions and stinginess; social rank and hypocrisy; pride and self-satisfaction; and delusion.

The last part of the Revival delineates the character traits that need to be acquired to establish taqwa and sincerity. This part is reminiscent of many books written by the Sufis on the ''stations'' (maqamat) of the path to God. The ten chapters cover repentance; patience and gratitude;

fear and hope;poverty and renunciation;tawhid and trust in God;love, yearning, intimacy and contentment; intention, truthfulness and sincerity; introspection and self-accounting; meditation; and the remembrance of death.

Transcend the Power of Words

Transcend the Power of Words

Finally, The Secrets Of Affirmations Unrevealed... Who Else Wants The Ultimate Guide To Affirmations And Witness Its Magic To Change Your Life Forever? Discover How Ordinary People Can Live Extraordinary Lives Through Affirmations!

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment