Friday, March 19, 2010

Imam Ali (A.S.): Levels of True Religious Understanding in Islam

James W. Morris

The contents of [Imam] Ali’s lesson to[ his closest companion and disciple] Kumayl [ibn Ziyad al-Nakha’i] are all presented as a clarification of his opening statement that:

There are three sorts of people (with regard to Religion, al-Din).

  • A divinely inspired Knower (‘alim rabbani);
  • the person who is seeking (that true spiritual) Knowing (muta‘allim) along the path of salvation;
  • and the riffraff and rabble, the followers of every screaming voice, those who bend with every wind, who have not sought to be illuminated by the Light of (divine) Knowing and who have not had recourse to a solid support.

In the remainder of his lesson, Ali goes on to explain some of the basic conditions for these three radically different levels of (and potentials for) true religious understanding. Each of his points here—as throughout the Nahj al-Balagha—is of course profoundly rooted in the central teachings of the Qur’an. However here we can only summarize his most essential observations in the simplest possible terms.

First, and most importantly, it is human Hearts (the Qur’anic qalb al-insan) that are the
locus of true spiritual ‘Knowing’ (‘ilm) and of our awareness of God and Truth: that is, it is not simply our mind or intellect or passion. Hence the decisive practical importance, throughout the Nahj al-Balagha, of Ali’s constant stress on the purification of our hearts, through inner surrender to the divine Will (taslim), as the underlying spiritual purpose of the many divine commandments.

Divine, inspired ‘Knowing,’ however it is outwardly acquired, can only be
perceived as such by the Heart that has been ‘polished,’ emptied of this world’s distractions and attachments, and thereby opened up to the full significance and reality of the divine Word—and to the further rights and obligations (another dimension of the Arabic al-Haqq) flowing from that opening.

Second, the practically indispensable key to this human potential for religious Knowing
is the real existence and efforts of a limited number of divinely guided individuals—again, not of particular books, rituals, doctrines or worldly institutions, none of which are even mentioned in this intimate, highly personal lesson. Ali refers here to those very special human doorways to true religious understanding by several profoundly significant Qur’anic expressions: the ‘divine Knowers’; the ‘Friends of God’ (awliya’ Allah); God’s ‘Proofs’ or ‘Clear Signs’ on Earth (hujja, bayyina); God’s ‘True Servants’ (‘ibad Allah); and finally as God’s true earthly ‘stand-ins’ or 'Stewards’ (khalifat Allah).

The Imam tells us several other very important things in his description of these true
‘Friends of God:’
They are always present on earth, ‘whether openly or in secret.’
They are directly inspired by the divine ‘Spirit of Certainty’ (ruh alyaqin

Therefore they pre-eminently possess true spiritual Insight (haqiqat albasara) into the deeper spiritual realities underlying earthly events and experiences, into the actual meanings of the infinite divine ‘Signs’ constituting our existence

Their spiritual task and mission on earth is to pass on this divine
Knowing to those properly qualified souls who are truly ready for and
receptive to their divinely inspired teachings.

Third, Ali describes the divine ‘Knowing’ that can be conveyed uniquely by these
specially missioned individuals as having the following qualities:

It is the ‘Din (true Religion/true Justice) by which God is truly
worshipped and served.’

It is the indispensable key to realising what the Qur’an constantly
describes as our ultimate human purpose: i.e., to transforming the mortal
biped or ‘human-animal’ (bashar) into the theomorphic, truly human
being (insan), who alone can freely follow and truly obey God (the inner
state of ita‘a), eventually becoming a pure manifestation of the divine

Their divinely inspired Knowing is the true ‘Judge’ or Criterion for
rightly perceiving and employing all the illusory possessions (mal) of this world .

Fourth, the ‘true Seekers’ (muta‘allimun) of that divine Knowing have at least the
following basic pre-requisites, each of which distinguishes them from the large majority of ordinary souls (al-nas). One might therefore say that each of these following five points mentioned by Ali here is in itself an essential pre-condition for acquiring true religious understanding:

Those true religious Seekers have a rare natural spiritual capacity to
recognize, absorb, and actualize the inspired teachings of the Friends of

They know that they need the indispensable guidance of God’s Friends
(the awliya’), and therefore actively seek it out. That is to say, they
actually realize that they are spiritually ‘ignorant’ and needy.

They are willing and able to submit to the guidance of those divine
Knowers and Bearers of Truth, especially with regard to acknowledging
the true, ultimate aims of this inspired spiritual Knowing. In other
words, they have the indispensable humility to recognize their inner
ignorance and to overcome the central spiritual obstacle of pride.

They have the practical insight and active spiritual perspicacity (basara)
to ‘see though’ the ongoing divine ‘private lessons’, the most essential
divine ‘Signs’ (ayat) of each soul’s life. (This particular point is one that
Ali especially stresses throughout all the sermons and teachings of the
Nahj al-Balagha.)   

They are not secretly governed by their desires for power and
domination, qualities which Ali stresses (along with pride) as the
particular psychic passions most likely to trip up the otherwise apt
potential spiritual seekers of this group.

Finally, the rest of humanity are clearly—indeed even vehemently—said to lack, for the
time being, the above-mentioned prerequisites for realized spiritual learning and illumination, because of the current domination of their hearts by their psychic passions of the nafs: for power, pleasure, possessions, and the attractions ‘this lower world’ (al-dunya) in general. In this particular context, Ali does not openly clarify whether or not ‘purification’ of our hearts from such worldly passions is in itself the only obstacle to deeper spiritual and religious realization, or whether some individuals are simply born with dramatically greater, relatively unique spiritual capacities and potential. However, his recurrent and insistent practical stress on the ethically purifying dimensions of Islamic ritual and devotional practice throughout much of the rest of the Nahj al-Balagha is a strong indication that revealed prescriptions for religious teaching and practice can and should be understood as well as an indispensable preparatory discipline that can be used to move at least some individuals toward the receptive inner state of these true ‘seekers.’

Read full paper: 

Prof. James W. Morris teaches at the Theology Department at Boston College, MA, USA. He took his doctorate from Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, 1980.

Prior to joining Boston College, Professor Morris held the Sharjah Chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, and he has taught previously at Princeton University, Oberlin College, Temple University, and the Institute of Ismaili Studies in Paris and London.

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