Monday, February 15, 2010

ISLAM, IMAN & IHSAN: The Pillar of Jihad & the Imprint of Divine Beauty

Seyyed Hossein Nasr

…the holy war or jihad is not simply the defense or extension of the Islamic borders which has taken place only during certain episodes of Islamic history, but the constant inner war against all that veils man from the Truth and destroys his inner equilibrium. The greater holy war (al-jihad al-akbar) as this inner battle has been called, by the Holy Prophet, is, like the "unseen warfare" of Orthodox spirituality, the very means of opening the royal path to the center of the heart. It is the battle which must of necessity be carried out to open the door to the way of inwardness. Without this greater jihad man's externalizing and centrifugal tendencies cannot be reversed and the precious jewels contained in the treasury of the heart cannot be attained. The jihad, like the prayers, fasting, pilgrimage and religious tax, while a pillar of Islam and a foundation of Islamic society, is also a means toward the attainment of the inner chamber and an indispensable means for the pursuit of the inner life in its Islamic form. 

An understanding of the interior life in Islam would be incomplete without reference to the imprint of the Divine Beauty upon both art and nature. Islamic art, although dealing with world of forms, is, like all genuine sacred art, a gate towards the inner life.

Islam is based primarily on intelligence and considers beauty as the necessary complement of any authentic manifestation of the Truth. In fact beauty is the inward dimension of goodness and leads to that Reality which is the origin of both beauty and goodness.

It is not accidental that in Arabic moral goodness or virtue and beauty are both called husn.
Islamic art, far from being an accidental aspect of Islam and its spiritual life, is essential to all authentic expressions of Islamic spirituality and the gate towards the inner world. From the chanting of the Holy Quran, which is the most central expression of the Islamic revelation and sacred art par excellence, to calligraphy and architecture which are the "embodiments" in the worlds of form and space of the Divine Word, the sacred art of Islam has always played and continues to play a fundamental role in the interiorization of man's life. The same could of course be said of traditional music (sama`) and poetry which have issued from Sufism and which are like nets cast into the world of multiplicity to bring men back to the inner courtyard of the Beloved. 

Likewise, nature and its grand phenomena such as the shining of the Sun and the Moon, the seasonal cycles, the mountains and the streams, are, in the Islamic perspective, means for the contemplation of the spiritual realities. They are signs (ayat) of God and although themselves forms in the external world, mirrors of a reality which is at once inward and transcendent. Nature is not separated from grace but is a participant in the Quranic revelation.

In fact in Islamic sources, it is called the "macrocosmic revelation". Virgin nature is the testament of God and gives the lie to all forms of pretentious naturalism, rationalism, skepticism and agnosticism, these maladies from which the modern world suffers so grievously. It is only in the artificial ugliness of the modern urban setting, created by modern man to forget God, that such ailments of the mind and the soul appear as real and the Divine Truth as unreal.

Modern skeptical philosophies are the products of those living in urban centers and not of men who have been born and who have lived in the bosom of nature and in awareness of His macrocosmic revelation.

In Islamic spirituality, nature acts as an important and in some cases indispensable means for recollection and as an aid towards the attainment of inwardness. Many Muslim saints have echoed over the ages the words of the Egyptian Sufi Dhu'l-nun who said: 

"O God, I never hearken to the voices of the beasts or the rustle of the trees, the splashing of waters or the song of birds, the whistling of the wind or the rumble of thunder, but I sense in them a testimony to Thy Unity and a proof of Thy Incomparableness that Thou art the All-prevailing, the All-knowing , the All-wise, the All-just, the All-true, and that in Thee is neither overthrow nor ignorance nor folly nor injustice nor lying. O God, I acknowledge Thee in the proof of Thy handiwork and the evidence of Thy acts: grant me, O God, to seek Thy Satisfaction with my satisfaction and the Delight of a Father in His child, remembering Thee in my love for Thee, with serene tranquility and firm resolve."

St. Francis of Assisi would surely have joined this chorus in the praise of the Lord through the reflection of His Beauty and Wisdom in His Creation. 

The goal of the inward life in Islam is to reach the Divine as both the Transcendent and the Imminent. It is to gain a vision of God as the Reality beyond all determination and at the same time of the world as "plunged in God". It is to see God everywhere.  The inward dimension is the key for the understanding of metaphysics and traditional cosmology as well as for the penetration into the essential meaning of religion and of all religions, for at the heart of every authentic religion lies the one Truth which resides also at the heart of all things and most of all of man. 

There are of course differences of perspective and of form. In Christianity, it is the person of Christ who saves and who washes away the dross of separation and externalization. In Islam, such a function is performed by the supreme expression of the Truth Itself, by the Shahadah, La ilaha ill'llah. To take refuge in it is to be saved from the debilitating effect of externalization and "objectivization" and to be brought back to the Center, through the inward dimension. 

It is not for all men to follow the interior life. As already mentioned, it is sufficient for a Muslim to live according to the Shari'ah to enter paradise after death and to follow the interior path after the end of his terrestrial journey. But for those who seek the Divine Center while still walking on earth and who have already died and become resurrected; in this life the interior path opens before them at a point which is here and a time which is now. 

 "It is related that one night Shaykh Bayazid went outside the city and found everything wrapped in deep silence, free from the clamour of men. The moon was shedding her radiance upon the world and by her light made night as brilliant as the day. Stars innumerable shone like jewels in the heavens above, each pursuing its appointed task. For a long time the Shaykh made his way across the open country and found no movement therein, nor saw a single soul. Deeply moved by this he cried: "O Lord, my heart is stirred within me by this Thy Court displayed in all its splendour and sublimity , yet none are found here to give Thee the adoring worship which is thy due. Why should this be, O Lord? Then the hidden voice of God spoke to him: "O thou who art bewildered in the Way, know that the King does not grant admission to every passer-by. So exalted is the Majesty of His Court that not every beggar can be admitted thereto. When the Splendour of My Glory sheds abroad its radiance from this My sanctuary, the heedless and those who are wrapped in the sleep of indolence are repelled thereby. Those who are worthy of admittance to this Court wait for long years, until one in a thousand of them wins entrance thereto." 

No religion would be complete without providing the path for the "one in a thousand". Islam as an integral tradition and the last plenary message of Heaven to the present humanity has preserved to this day the possibility of following the interior life, a life which, although actualized fully only by the few, has cast its light and spread its perfume over all authentic manifestations of the Islamic tradition. 

Brief biography of Seyyed Hossein Nasr:

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