It is a well-observed fact that in our lives we have no input or choice in choosing the place and time of our birth, the parents we have, the name we are given, our race or color, or even the time and place of our death. Most of the time, we do not even have control over whom we meet. Most importantly, it was not us who made the decision to be ourselves; our father produced millions of sperm, only one was permitted to fertilize of our mother’s egg. Moreover, we could have not been human at all, but some other animal or plant. Therefore, one can say that we, ourselves per se, have no power in choosing the most important determinants in our lives.
Let us think about our bodily functions. Which biological processes can we control on our own? In reality, none. We cannot control the complex functions of our cells or our organs, our breathing, our digestion, or our hormonal cycles. In fact, these processes occur without us realizing that they are taking place in our body. What about the world in which we live? We do not and cannot control the perfect process of photosynthesis (i.e., the chemical processes that lead to the production of oxygen on this planet) in leaves and other green organisms, the natural occurrence of animals and plants upon which we depend, the water cycle, the movement of clouds, or even the formation of rain. Maybe it would be good to imagine a world without photosynthesis: we would not have enough oxygen; we would suffocate within a couple of hours. It is humbling to know that we cannot even make the oxygen upon which we depend for each and every breath.
What about the process of eating? Many times, without thinking deeply enough we say, “I ate.” However, if we analyze the situation carefully with insight and deep thought, we will come to a conclusion that we do not “eat,” we are fed. How is this possible? First of all, we cannot control the movement of muscles in our arm. Studying the mechanisms of muscle contraction in biology makes this evident. Muscle contraction is a very complex process that no human can interfere with, as countless chemical processes take place in our muscles to enable our hand to move, pick up our food, and place it in our mouth. The biochemistry of muscle contraction involves the interaction of calcium ions and calcium-binding proteins and the energy currency of living cells, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Without the necessary co-ordinate interactions between these biochemical entities, muscle fibers cannot contract. Yet these countless enzymes and proteins that we depend on for life are built in our bodies without our power or knowledge.
The chewing process is equally complex. What if our jaw muscles locked-would it be possible to move our jaw to chew the food? In fact, the complexity of all these processes is so great that the possibility of error is very high. Yet 99.9999…% of the time, they are perfectly effective. However, in contradiction to this basic fact, we seem oblivious and unaware that it is not us who is directly involved in bringing about our actions, as we say, “I did it,” or “I achieved it.”
It is interesting that classical Sufism sees the human body as a transient palace, as a home kept in order by the great host; by a Creator; who built the body to serve the human soul placed inside it. We can also come to this conclusion by reflecting profoundly on the realities of our beings. More often than not, however, we take for granted the complexity of ‘simple’ movement (or service), such as that of our fingers, hands, and arms, occurrences that happen everyday, at every moment of our lives. This does not mean, however, that we are not responsible for our actions. Our responsibility lies in the innermost intentions, thoughts, and motives behind these actions, which will finally determine the true consequences or fruits of our behavior.
There is a very thought-provoking verse in the Holy Qur’an: Truly, mankind is very unjust and very ignorant (Ahzab 33:72). This verse is a poignant summary of the true human condition, because the human consciousness is so weak that it forgets its own ignorance and dependence, and thus becomes arrogant. In reality, however, our needs are endless and we are inherently unable to meet them ourselves. There are endless things we want to do, yet we are so dependent on the help of a force far beyond us that we cannot achieve them ourselves. And all the while, our enemies−arrogance, revenge, hatred, racism, prejudice, envy, vanity, miserliness−are countless. The central duty of a human being boils down to appreciating these processes so as to recognize the inherent inability, weakness, and powerlessness of the self, and to submit to the sole power that is able to control them: the Creator.
Understanding the true identity of the self in the guest-house of the body is the key to solving “the mystery of our existence.”1 The self provides us with a ‘mirror,’ a reflector that directs us to our Creator and His attributes and that serves to assess our relationship with the Lord and the rest of existence. The “I” is the mysterious entity that sees and understands the Creator as the one with endless knowledge, mercy, power, wisdom, sight, and hearing. The “I” can understand that just as it can “own,” or take care of a house or a child, the Creator owns and takes care of the entire universe. Likewise, the “I” can come to similar conclusions with respect to “its” sight, hearing, compassion, caring, love, and so on. In this manner, the “I” acts like a pointer to a greater truth and reality above itself. Similarly, when the “I” observes the universe, the knowledge it gains enlightens and widens the mind, while it makes the heart softer and more caring. Having achieved this state of unity of mind and heart, “I” becomes a servant of the One who sent it to this world and who sustains it. Moreover, the same unity of mind and heart necessitates being in the service of life and mankind.
However, when the “I” becomes oblivious to its purpose for existence, it becomes a despotic tyrant, destroying and abusing not only itself but also everything else around it (think about some of the world leaders in the first half of the 20th century). Such an “I” grants itself ownership and sovereignty. Likewise, it grants independent ownership of everyone else to themselves, so that the whole world comes to think that they independently, “own” their “self.” The Qur’an calls this action “a tremendous wrong” (Luqman 31:13).
History is filled with scenarios that confirm these two sides or branches of “I.” The Prophets represent the “I” that submitted to the Creator, while the other branch represents the “I” that turned away from the Creator. One is the way of true guidance, while the other is the basis of materialism and atheism, where all existence is described as being composed of matter that is thought to be “absolute.” By giving the attributes of the Creator to matter, mankind commits the greatest crime possible and opens the doors of oppression against his self. Prophethood, on the other hand, teaches mankind to see nature as a collection of divine laws laid by the Creator and illustrating His power; “cause and effect” is a veil covering the reality of His Will. In an active and endless lesson to mankind, the Prophets also teach that the purpose and duty of man is to achieve virtuous character by knowing his own weaknesses and by seeking help from the power of his Creator. He does this by knowing his needs and trusting in the mercy of the Creator and by knowing his faults and seeking His pardon and forgiveness while always praising the perfection of His attributes and actions.
Based on a hadith,2 classical Muslim scholars described the root cause of a diseased soul to have excessive love and attachment to this world and self-satisfaction. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi referred to such love as “poisoned honey.” Love for the sake of the worldly pleasures, and the love of power and authority are part of love for this world. The desire to dominate others is as destructive to a human soul as water is to iron. While the diseased soul sees itself as adequate and self-satisfied, perhaps even believing itself to be better than other souls, the soul that knows itself to be inadequate and needy is dissatisfied with itself and ceaselessly seeks to achieve a more virtuous character.
We conclude this matter with the words of a classical Turkish “dervish” or scholar, Yunus Emre, who lived many centuries ago in Central Anatolia:
Knowledge is for knowing the Truth
Knowledge is for knowing the self
If you do not know yourself, then
What a worthless act you commit.
1. Nursi, Said. The Words, Thirtieth Word, The Risale-i Nur Collection.
2. Love of the world is the source of all errors and sins (Bayhaqi, 7,338).