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The Imperatives of Marifa the Pitfalls of Modernism
Jan 1, 1999

My chief aim was to stress how precious the perspective of ma‘rifa is, not only as the dimension of realized wisdom within the Islamic tradition, but also as an antidote to so much of what passes for intellectual progress in the modern world. I offered twelve polar contrasts between the two perspectives, each of which requires substantial comment. Here, I have reserved more space to the last two points which I believe are of particular relevance. 

1) Organic integration (tawhid) vs artificial fragmentation. Whereas ma‘rifa presupposes the total application of the principle of tawhid on all levels-divine, cosmic and human-the modernist outlook is characterized by a tendency to divide and compartmentalize, separating for example, religion from society, ethics from knowledge.

2) Certainty vs doubt. Whereas for ma‘rifa, a preexisting faith, preferably based on verification, must become certitude, for the modernist, faith is itself something which must be proved, and this in a climate dominated by scepticism.

3) Metaphysical profundity vs positivist superficiality. Whereas in ma‘rifa all relative truths are seen as reflections of one Absolute Truth, the modern outlook is characterized by the view of modern science: only that is true which is empirically proven so.

4) Sense of the sacred vs profane materialism. Whereas in ma‘rifa, the surrounding world of nature is suffused with meaning and holiness, being so many ‘signs’ of God, for the modernist, nature is there to be manipulated and dominated for the sake of material goals.

5) Eschatological realism vs worldly naivete. The pursuit of ma‘rifa requires an initial detachment from the life of this world, an awareness of its relative and fleeting nature. The Qur’an stresses this in many places, referring to the life of this world as ‘play’ (la‘ib), for example: (29.64) ‘The life of this world is naught but sport and play; and the abode of the Hereafter, that is true life, if only they knew.’ The ‘they’ could easily apply to those who identify with the underlying dynamic of the modern world: an all-consuming hunger for things of this world, a preoccupation with terrestrial life that in marginalizes concern with God and one’s final ends: and this is truly a form of naivete, a deluded, implicit belief in the permanence of one’s life in this fragile world.

6) Spiritual virtue vs moral relativism. From the viewpoint of ma‘rifa, the virtues are reflections of divine qualities: ‘Acquire the character traits of God’, said the Prophet. The realization of the fundamental virtues is thus an absolute pre-requisite for any spiritual endeavour, any effective movement towards God. Virtue is a spiritual imperative, and it is for this reason that many Sufi treatises describe the virtues as stations on the way to God. On the other hand, the modernist will tend to reduce virtue to a purely ethical rather than a spiritual imperative, viewing it chiefly in respect of its social function. The modern liberal ethos of moral relativism erodes further the spiritual meaning of virtue.

7) Liberating objectivity vs inescapable subjectivism. Ma‘rifa both presupposes and produces a degree of objectivity both towards one’s self: according to the terms used in the Qur’an, one must pass from the state of the nafs al-lawwama, the self-accusing soul, to the nafs al-mutma’inna, the soul at peace in the presence of God. This transition comes about through a relentless war against one’s own vices, faults, and weaknesses, the war referred to by the Prophet as the jihad al-akbar, the greatest of all jihads. Such a war against oneself would be regarded in modern psychology simply as the imbalanced indulgence of a guilt complex. Modern psychology shies away from the notion of sin, preferring a false tranquility in the context of immorality to a true peace based on a wholesome effort of self- improvement. The essential shortcoming of modern psychology was summed by Jung in a moment of frank confession when he wrote: ‘The object of psychology is the psychic; unfortunately, it is also its subject’ (Sword of Gnosis, p.153). There can therefore be no objective view of the psychic except by something that by definition transcends the psychic: and this can only be the spirit, breathed by God into man at the time of his creation, and cultivated by man insofar as he conforms to the higher calling of his nature, or else stifled and suffocated by man insofar as he remains heedless of his true nature.

8) Theocentrism vs humanism. The way of ma‘rifa is centred on God here and now, taking to heart what the Qur’an says (50.16): ‘We are closer to man than his jugular vein.’ The aspirant to ma‘rifa, in other words, seeks fulfillment in God through this mysterious divine presence within his own being. Humanism is a caricature of this aspiration, a desire for fulfillment within the bounds of one’s own humanity, a quest for immortality apart from God -which is exactly what Satan promises man: ‘O Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and a kingdom that does not waste away?’ (20.120) For the modernist, the expulsion of the divine is ‘liberating’; it puts man centre-stage, his own authority in all matters, free to define his own ‘morality’: in its excess, this view claims that ‘gods come and go’, only the humanist enterprise remains!

9) Wise authority vs pedagogical anarchy. Whereas the modernist outlook encourages each student to seek originality and to be irreverent to received opinion, ma‘rifa envisages a teaching process in which the disciple humbly learns from a master. Al-Ghazali (Book of Knowledge, p. 129) advises the student to submit to his teacher with the same degree of trust and humility as a sick patient would submit to a skilled physician.

10) Spiritual realization vs epistemological rationalism. Whereas the modernist sees knowledge as something accessible exclusively by rational means, ma‘rifa regards ultimate knowledge as the fruit of spiritual realization. One of the central precepts of ma‘rifa is intensification of worship for the sake of realizing the ultimate truths in the heart and not just knowing them with the mind. This approach derives from clear Qur’anic commands, for example: ‘And worship your Lord so that (hatta) certainty might come to you’ (15:99). It is conveyed also by many hadiths of the Prophet: ‘For everything there is a means of polishing, and the polish for hearts is the remembrance of God (dhikr)’. Believers are exhorted to perform the dhikr so that the light of truth may dawn in their hearts. As for those modernist Muslims who regard the practice of dhikr as useless, an appropriate reply is the Qur’anic verse: ‘Woe be to those whose hearts have become hardened against the remembrance (dhikr) of God; they are in clear error’ (39:22).

11) Assimilative extinction vs cognitive individualism. Whereas in ma‘rifa ultimate knowledge is assimilated in a mode which is predicated on the effacement of individual identity, in the modernist outlook knowledge is something acquired by the individual and further reinforces the notion of individual identity. The essence of ma‘rifa is of course knowledge of God. But it is said repeatedly in the Sufi tradition that none knows God but God. What this means is that it is only that divine spark of consciousness within man that can know God. Al-Ghazali (Mishkat, p.59) writes that ‘everything has two faces, a face of itself and a face of its Lord; in respect of its own face it is nothingness, but in respect of the face of God it is being. Thus there is nothing in existence save God and His Face.’ This ultimate realization of La ilaha illa-llah, the summit of ma’rifa, presupposes the complete extinction of one’s own particularity, one’s own face, everything in oneself that is other than what Ibn ‘Arabi calls the huwiyya, the ‘He-ness’ of God. Thus one speaks of the ‘arif bi-llah the knower through God, not the knower of God. Ma‘rifa of the highest kind therefore consists in knowing-concretely, and not just theoretically-the true Subject of Knowledge: God Himself, before whom the individual is strictly nothing. All of this is expressed very succinctly in one of Ibn ‘Arabi’s treatises: ‘extinction in contemplation; the deepest meaning of this type of contemplation is conveyed by means of an esoteric interpretation of the Prophet’s description of ihsan: ‘that you worship God as if you saw Him, and if you do not see Him, He sees you’. The Arabic wording is such that, by effecting a stop in the middle of the phrase ‘if you do not see Him’, the meaning is completely transformed into: (in lam takun: tarahu) if you are not, see Him’ (Extinction, 48-9).

12) Primordial immutability vs evolutionary progressivism. Whereas ma‘rifa envisages human perfectibility as an inward spiritual quality that is primordially ingrained in human nature, the modernist strives after a material progress to be attained in the future on the outward plane of society. Ma‘rifa does envisage progress, but one that is spiritual and not sheerly material; and it regards man not as having evolved from a primitive ape to an intelligent human, but on the contrary, sees man as having been made in the finest stature, and then having been reduced to the lowest of the low, as the Qur’an says (95.4-5). The inevitable decline of mankind as a whole is also stated in the sura al-Wa qi‘a (56), where the foremost are described as being many in the early times and few in later times. There are several hadiths to this effect, one a prophecy that has truly come to pass in our own times: ‘You will follow the ways of those that were before you (that is, the Christians and Jews) span for span and cubit for cubit until if they went down into the hole of a poisonous reptile, you would follow them.’ It would be appropriate here to address one particularly striking way in which some modernist Muslims are following the West down into this hole: namely, the lamentable attack mounted by would-be re-formers of Islam on their own spiritual tradition, Sufism. This anti-Sufi attitude, in the name of ‘progress’ and reform, is a desacralization of religion or a form of unconscious secularism. For it must be remembered that secularism is not the direct antithesis of religion, as is atheism; rather, it is a force which first marginalizes religion, and then enters into religion itself. One has only to look at the Christian Church in our times to see how, instead of religion determining social norms, it is social fashions that determine religion.

In terms of the new progressive paradigm the eschatological realism referred to earlier becomes ‘pessimism’; to be detached from the world is deemed ‘irresponsible’; devotion to the jihad al-akbar is ‘selfish’; giving priority to contemplation over action is ‘decadent’; engaging in dhikr is ‘vain’, while entering a forty-day spiritual retreat, sheer ‘escapism’…

In contrast to this capitulation to modernism, let us cite the attitude of the great Sufi and mujahid, the Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir. In a remarkable document entitled Letter to the French, he explained how he was not at all impressed by their scientific and technological achievements. They arose out of a spirit of practical application, he wrote, which could lead to ‘damnable activities’. Whilst Islam, on the other hand, despite its decadence and material weakness, remained faithful to a spirit of metaphysics that opened onto knowledge of God. He thus urged the French, for their own good, to make an effort to understand Islam and its living spiritual tradition. Whereas the Emir was dismissive of the material advantages of the West, he was at the same time respectful towards its Christian tradition; many of today’s Muslim modernists, on the contrary, are contemptuous of the spiritual tradition of the West while emulating its material success. There is here a stark contrast between an inferiority complex that derives from implicitly material standards, and an unshakable conviction, derived from explicitly spiritual values. It might be said that today’s Muslims suffer from this inferiority complex in the measure that their criterion of value is determined by material, ‘horizontal’ norms; while only those in the spiritual tradition, those who benefit concretely from the baraka, or grace, of that tradition, are able to share with the Emir the knowledge both of the intrinsic and immutable value of the Islamic civilization, and of the ways in which this civilization, despite its aspects of decadence, is superior to modern civilization, despite the latter’s practical benefits. In fact, if one looks at the number of Europeans who have converted to Islam through Sufism, one sees that it is the very element that was most evidently lacking in mainstream Western society-the sacred-that proves most compelling; and, conversely, it is the ramifications of this same element that most embarrasses would-be Muslim reformers. It is above all else the perspective of ma‘rifa at the heart of Sufism that takes into account the ever-present possibility of regenerating the sacred, whatever the outward circumstances of life, since the original nature of man, his fitra, remains intact even if clouded by forgetfulness: the Qur’an says: ‘so set thy purpose for religion as one by nature upright, the fitra of God, that upon which he fashioned man. There is no change in the creation of God.’ Rather than striving to attain some imaginary future progress, the aspirant to ma‘rifa searches simply to be true to his human nature, made in the image of God.

In conclusion, this point must be stressed: the realization of one’s highest gift, the knowledge of God, is at the same time the fulfillment of the very purpose of creation. ‘I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known; so I created the world’. To marginalize ma‘rifa is to be unfaithful to the reason for our very existence as beings capable of knowing the hidden treasure.