The Ontological Imperative

The Qur'an is by no means simply a set of moral injunctions and practical guidelines. It goes to great lengths to encourage people to meditate on the signs (ayat) of God in both the natural world and the soul so as to gain insight into God's reality and rights. The Qur'an pays special attention to the divine names and attributes that become manifest in creation - life, power, consciousness, speech, wrath, justice -and the fact that these provide general categories of understanding and the means to communicate with God.

For centuries the major schools of thought (kalam, falsafa, jurisprudence and Sufism) had remained relatively distinct disciplines, though any given scholar, like Ghazali, might be expert in two or more fields. Gradually, cross-fertilisation among the disciplines increased, and Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240) brought them all together in one grand synthesis. His voluminous writings cannot be classified according to the old categories, but his enormous Meccan Openings (al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya) can be considered the great summa of the ontological imperative.

Near the centre of Ibn 'Arabi's approach lies the discussion of wujud: existence or being. Before him, the word had been employed primarily in philosophy and kalam. Ibn 'Arabi confirmed that wujud was another name for al-Haqq in itself: God as Reality, Truth, Rightness and Appropriateness. Investigation of the implications of al-wujud al-haqq - the Real Being - meant paying a great deal of attention to ontology, metaphysics, epistemology, cosmology and spiritual psychology. To be sure, philosophers and kalam experts before him had investigated these fields, but none of them had put anywhere near the same amount of effort into integrating these topics into the moral and spiritual imperatives of the Qur'an.

Nothing is closer to the heart of Ibn 'Arabi's project than clarifying the path of servanthood. His basic question is, ''What does it mean to be human?'' And his basic answer is, ''To be God's servant.'' The goal of human existence is to achieve what is right, proper and true, and this can be done only by fulfilling the rights of God. The person who achieves such a state, such as Muhammad specifically and the other prophets generally, is called al-insan al-kamil, ''the perfect human being''.

But equally and more basically, such a person is called al-'abd al-kamil, the ''perfect servant'', or al-'abd al-mahd, ''the sheer servant'', or al-'abd al-mutlaq, ''the unqualified servant''. It had never been lost on those who explained the nature of servanthood, least of all Ibn 'Arabi, that Muhammad's chief epithets are 'abduhu wa-rasuluhu, ''His servant and His Messenger'', in that order. Only by achieving servanthood is it possible for human beings to live in harmony with God and to act on his behalf. This activity on his behalf is precisely the purpose of human existence, announced already in God's words concerning the creation of Adam: ''I am setting in the earth a vicegerent (khalifa)'' (Qur'an 2:30).

Worship, it was said, is the appropriate human response to God. It is for man to acquiesce, yield and humble himself before the Real, the Right, the True and the Worthy. On one level, this is a moral injunction. On a deeper level, it is a statement of fact: by nature human beings and all creatures acquiesce in the Real and the Appropriate, and they can do nothing else. Ibn 'Arabi points out that if we look at all of reality, we see that it can be divided into two basic categories: worshipper and Object of worship.31 He bolsters this sort of statement with philological evidence, philosophical and theological arguments, and reference to many qur'anic verses and hadiths. Thus, for example, the Qur'an tells us repeatedly that all things in heaven and earth glorify God, which is to say that they announce his greatness and their own insignificance. All things are ''Muslim'': ''To Him is submitted (aslama) everything in the heavens and the earth'' (3:83). All things are servants: ''None is there in the heavens and the earth that does not comes to the All-Merciful as a servant'' (19:93).

In other words, ''worship'' and ''servanthood'' designate the actual situation of every created thing. Things serve and worship their Creator simply by being what they are. All things are, quite literally, slaves of God. God is the Real, and the Real is designated by all positive qualities that become manifest in existence: life, power, knowledge, mercy, love. These are precisely God's names and attributes. They designate the nature of reality itself, al-haqq, which gives rise to the universe and all existence. Everything is a sign of God, because all things announce, by being what they are, qualities of al-haqq. Thus, says Ibn 'Arabi, all things walk on ''a straight path'' (sirat mustaqim), and that path leads them back to God, their creator (though whether to the Merciful or to the Wrathful remains to be seen). ''The straightness demanded by God's wisdom permeates every engendered thing. God said, in confirmation of Moses, 'He gave each thing its creation' [20:50]. Hence each thing has an actual straightness.''32

Does this mean that human beings are forced to worship God? Yes and no. As creatures, they are slaves and can do nothing but live out their created nature. They can only obey their Lord's ''engendering command'' (al-amr al-takwini), which is the divine imperative ''Be!'' (kun). ''His only command, when He desires a thing, is to say to it 'Be!,' and it comes to be'' (36:82). This sort of worship Ibn 'Arabi calls ''essential'' or ''primary'' worship, because it pertains to the very essence of what it means to be a creature. It is nonetheless true that human beings were made in the image of God, taught all the names (2:31), and given the power to choose between right and wrong. They freely accepted responsibility to carry the Trust (33:72). The worship that results from these considerations Ibn 'Arabi calls ''accidental'' or ''secondary''. It is addressed by the ''prescriptive command'' (al-amr al-taklifi), which imposes the burden of worship on God's servants: ''He has commanded that you worship none but Him'' (12:40). Such worship is ''accidental'' because it does not pertain to the very definition of what it means to be human; it becomes obligatory at a certain point in human development (e.g. at puberty) under certain circumstances (e.g. rationality, or knowledge of prophecy); it can be accepted or rejected; and it comes to an end at death.

Those who discuss the ontological imperative begin by acknowledging the way things are: human beings are always and forever servants of their Lord, creatures of their creator. In this respect they are always and essentially servants. As an early Sufi put it, ''Just as lordship is a description of the Real that never leaves Him, so servanthood is an attribute of the servant that will not depart from him so long as he remains.''33

Death is waking up to the nature of things. It is to become aware (if one was not already aware) that worship and servanthood of God are woven into the stuff of reality. After death, people no longer have the choice not to worship, whether they end up in Paradise or in hell. Like the angels, they will not be able to disobey their Lord and they will be fully aware that everything they do is done in His service, and His service alone.

If, as Ja'far al-Sidiq said, intellect is ''that by which the All-Merciful is worshipped'', this is because true and right knowledge situates things in their proper places. Through it man comes to know who is Lord and who is servant, and what exactly lordship and servanthood entail. The first truth of lordship is that it rules over all reality, all existence, and all attributes and qualities that define the servant. And the first truth of servanthood is that the creature has no right to its own created nature, no claim upon the Real. The servant is essentially nonexistent and accidentally existent through the Real. In philosophical language, this situation was often expressed by speaking of the ''Necessary Being'' (that which is and cannot not be) and the ''possible thing'' (that which has no inherent claim on existence). For Ibn 'Arabi, to say that God is Necessary and humans possible is to say, ''O people, you are the poor toward God, and God - He is the Rich, the Praiseworthy'' (Qur'an 35:15).

Knowledge lies at the root of human responsibility. Islam begins with the two Shahaadas, which give witness to the truth the believer knows in his heart. But truly to know God is a never-ending task, because his infinite reality cannot be exhausted. By knowing the signs and marks, one can come to know God's names and attributes. This knowledge cannot be disengaged from practice. Knowing the Lord is not separate from knowing and actualising servanthood. This is the weight of haqq: the word does not simply mean ''truth'' and ''reality'', it also means right, appropriate, worthy and due. Knowledge of Reality makes practical demands on the knowing soul: when servants know their actual, ontological status vis-a-vis their Lord, they find themselves called upon to put themselves right, to ''worship God sincerely'', to strip themselves of any claim to the rights of lordship. The goal of worship and servanthood is to give everything that has a haqq its haqq; this is precisely ''the realisation of tawhid''.

In order to recognise the haqqs of things, all of which are servants, one must recognise the haqq of the ''Lord'' of things. This divine name designates God inasmuch as He has ''vassals'' (sing. marbub) or servants. As Ibn 'Arabai points out, the Qur'an mentions the name rabb about 900 times, but never without ascription to a servant or servants (e.g. ''your Lord'', ''Lord of Moses'', ''Lord of the Worlds''). If we pay attention to the meaning of the word in Arabic, we see that to say that God is Lord is to say that He brings about the well-being (muslih) of His servants;he is their nourisher (mughadhdhi), nurturer (murabbi), master (sayyid) and owner (malik).34

God is in fact ''Lord'' in respect of each of His names, which is to say that the divine names designate the various respects and modalities in which the creator deals with creation, in which Real Being gives rise to cosmic existence. Whatever name we have in view, Merciful, Pardoner, or Severe in Punishment, God is Lord of His servants in respect of that name and he exercises the various functions of lordship in its terms.

The question of human nature is central to the ontological imperative. It is no accident that the purported hadith, ''He who knows himself knows his Lord'', is increasingly cited from Ibn 'Arabai onward.

In order to know ourselves, we must know how we differ from other created things. This basic answer is that ''God created Adam in His image''. Ibn 'Arabi points out that it is the name Allah that is employed in this hadith, not any of the other divine names. This name designates God inasmuch as He is named by all the names and synthesises their diverse meanings in His One Reality. It designates God as ''Lord of the lords'', the lords being the divine names designating the qualities and attributes of Real Being. All creatures other than human beings display only some of God's signs and manifest only a few of His names and attributes. Man alone was ''taught all the names'' (2:3i).

The ''knowledge'' that God imparted to Adam is not information. Rather, it is the ability to recognise the haqq of things, to see things rightly (i.e., in terms of the Real) and to act appropriately. By their very nature human beings have the capacity to recognise the designations of all of reality and to acknowledge the haqq of everything that exists. They can actualise this, however, only by living up to their nature, and to do so they need God's help.

Human beings, then, are essentially servants of God. Accidentally, however, they may be the servants of any of the individual divine names, or of any cosmic or human reality that can be an ''object of worship'' (ma'bud), including the ideas and notions that establish goals and aspirations. This unlimited human capacity to serve anything at all helps explain the tremendous emphasis that the texts place upon ''sincerity'': purifying one's worship of everything but God. The magnitude of the task does not become obvious until one grasps the transcendence of God, the omnipresence of His signs and marks, the diversity and even contradictory nature of His names and attributes (the Exalter and the Abaser, the Forgiver and the Avenger), and the ease of falling into the worship and service of what is less than God.

From the Qur'an onwards, the exalted situation of those who achieve proper servanthood is emphasised. Muhammad, the supreme human model, was not only ''His servant'', but also ''His Messenger''. Human beings were created not only to worship God, but also to achieve God's vicegerency through worthy service. Here the texts remind us that, although servanthood demands an utter and absolute differentiation between servant and Lord, it also attracts God's love. ''Say [O Muhammad!]: 'If you love God, follow me, and God will love you''' (3:31). The goal of worship is not to remain distant from the Lord, but to be brought into His proximity. It is characteristic of love to bridge the gap between lover and beloved and to bring about nearness, especially when God is the lover. Those who fail the test of living up to servanthood remain distant (hell), but those who pass the test are given nearness (Paradise).

If worship and servanthood represent sincere engagement with observing the rights of God and the rights of man, then ''vicegerency'' represents being brought into God's proximity by living up to servant-hood. No one represents God who has not completely submitted himself to His authority. God's ''authority'' is not merely moral and legal; it is above all ontological and cosmic. It is the fact that He is the Real and the Right, and the fact that servants are submitted to the Lord by virtue of their essential lack of haqq. It is the fact that God is the Necessary Being, and they are merely possible things, with no claim on existence.

Worship, then, does not mean simply abasing oneself before the Lord by observing His commands and prohibitions. It also means recognising one's own non-lordship. It means knowing that one is not one's own owner, sustainer, nourisher, nurturer and source of well-being. It means following in the footsteps of those who know how to observe the rights of the Lord. Only after having negated any claim to lordship and having fully embraced servanthood can one be brought into God's nearness. This is not a movement from place to place, but from a weak mode of being to a strong mode of being. It is the realisation of the divine form upon which human beings were created. It is the gradual actualisation of praiseworthy character traits, which are modalities of being and light harmonious with the Real. It is these traits that denote the servant who has been given ''well-being'' by his Lord.

Here some of the practical implications of knowing one's Lord become more evident. The theological dedication to enumerating and explaining the names of God was not simply theoretical. Conscious and aware servants know that they were given intelligence and awareness to worship the All-Merciful. Knowledge is the door to actualisation and realisation. True vicegerents have eminent and exalted characters, because they have assimilated the character traits of their Lord. When the Qur'an says to the Prophet, ''Surely thou art upon a magnificent character (khuluq 'azim)'' (68:4), no one needs to be told that this character was a divine gift. The Qur'an itself is, according to 'A'isha, the ''character of Muhammad''. If this is so, one sees a deeper meaning to the verse, ''I am a mortal like you; to me it is revealed that your God is one God'' (18:110). The telling difference between this mortal and that mortal is the divine grace, the bestowal of the eternal Word, the gift of knowledge and character that comes about when servants live up to their part of the covenant - to worship God alone, making their religion sincerely His. Only God's character is essentially and irrevocably

"magnificent". If Muhammad has a magnificent character, if he is ''a light-giving lamp'' (33:46), it is because he is a servant who asked help from no one but God, and realised tawhid.

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