Is God close to human beings? If so, how close is He? Or is defining Him in terms of His distance from the creation impossible? Perhaps we should question our own remoteness and ask, “Are we close to God?” The spiritual tradition of Islam holds that God is always close to us, but it is we who put up barriers between ourselves and Him. The entire universe is a place where God’s divine names and attributes are manifested. In the smile of a baby and her mother’s love for her, God’s compassion is reflected. In the movements of heavenly bodies, God’s power is reflected. In the feeding of a hungry living being, God displays His name as the Sustainer.
Every part of creation is a mirror displaying various names and attributes of God in unique combinations and degrees. The human being is merely the brightest mirror reflecting God’s divine names and beauty even more gracefully than the whole universe. What separates us from Him is our minds, hearts, and egos that claim to have a separate existence. For those who see pointers to Him in every being, it is not possible to be far from Him. They do not expect Him to “come down to establish a loving relationship with His creation” as He is never away from His creation. We can feel that proximity only through losing our partial existence in the Whole. When the “self” disappears in God’s all-encompassing presence, then all existence besides God quickly loses significance.
The mainstream theological school of Islam distinguishes between two categories of existence. The first is the necessarily existent (wajib al-wujud), which defines the existence of God the Most High. God the Most High exists independently through Himself and His existence is necessary for the existence of all other things. None of His creation shares in His existence. The second category is contingent existence (mumkin-il wujud). This defines the existence of created things that may or may not exist. Created things have no independent being and their existence is not necessary.
God the Most High brought them into being through His will, power and knowledge, and if He willed they would have no existence. Creation only exists through Him giving it being, so in this sense it exists through Him, but doesn't share in His independent, necessary being. The core concept of the spiritual tradition of Islam is ihsan, that is living in the constant consciousness of God’s presence. This concept is described in a famous and authentic prophetic tradition narrated by Abu Dawud where the archangel Gabriel appears in a meeting of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, as a traveler, sits down close to the Prophet and asks him three questions: [The stranger] said, “Tell me about iman (faith).” [The Prophet] said: “It is that you affirm God, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day....” [The stranger] said, “Muhammad, tell me about Islam (submission to God).
”The Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, said, “Islam is that you bear witness, testifying that there is no object of worship aside from God, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God; and you establish the ritual prayer; and you give the prescribed alms; and you fast in the month of Ramadan; and you perform the pilgrimage to the House if you are able to find a way to do so.
”Finally, he said, “Tell me about ihsan.” [The Prophet] said, “It is ... that you worship God as though you see Him, for though you do not see Him, truly He sees You.” The ultimate goal in some Sufi schools is to achieve a state where one is so immersed in the presence of God that he or she regards the creation as nothing but a collection of pointers to Him. Wherever such a seeker looks, (s)he sees nothing but reflections of God’s Names. In a sense, the seeker “annihilates” his self in the presence of God. God’s transcendence If the Whole is likened to the Ocean, and the part to a drop, the Sufi says that witnessing the Ocean with the eye of a drop is impossible. However, when the drop becomes immersed in the Ocean, it sees the Ocean with the eye of the Ocean. It is true that God is transcendent and His Essence is a mystery to us. He exists in His unique way which is impossible to grasp for the human mind. However, God has chosen human beings, the most glorious of creation (ashraf al-mahluq), to get to know Him. He wanted to be known by us and granted us vehicles to understand His names and attributes. This vehicle is the “ego.” This vehicle is given to humankind to understand the Lordship of God and to feel our Oneness with the God. Ironically, human beings use this vehicle to distance themselves from God, and to question God’s closeness to them.
Ego: Both the remedy and the venom
Human beings can only know God with the help of their ego, which constitutes a hypothetical bounding line (wahid- i qiyasi) to understand God’s immenseness. It is the key that can open the secret treasures of God’s names and the enigmatic meaning of the universe. How? The great Islamic scholar Nursi answers this question as follows: “An absolute and all-encompassing entity has no limits or terms, and therefore cannot be shaped or formed, and cannot be determined in such a way that its essential nature can be comprehended. For example, light undetermined by darkness cannot be known or perceived.
However, light can be determined if a real or hypothetical bounding line of darkness is drawn. In the same way, the Divine Attributes and Names (e.g., Knowledge, Power, Wisdom, and Compassion) cannot be determined, for they are all-encompassing and have no limits or like. Thus what they essentially are cannot be known or perceived. A hypothetical boundary is needed for them to become known. In our case, this hypothetical boundary is our ego. Ego imagines within itself a fictitious lordship, power, and knowledge, and so posits a bounding line, hypothesizes a limit to the all-encompassing Attributes, and says: ‘This is mine, and the rest is His.’ Ego thus makes a division. By means of the miniature measure it contains, ego slowly comes to understand the true nature of the Divine Attributes and Names. Through this imagined lordship, ego can understand the Lordship of the Creator of the universe. By means of its own apparent ownership, it can understand the real Ownership of its Creator, saying: ‘As I am the owner of this house, the Creator is the Owner of this creation.
Through its partial knowledge, ego comes to understand His Absolute Knowledge. Through its defective, acquired art, it can intuit the Exalted Fashioner’s primary, originative art.
“Our Creator knows that we need a God that is close to us. He knows that when we feel that He is not close to us we won’t be satisfied. That is why he has chosen us and furnished us with the necessary tools to know Him. He granted us a magical key to unlock the mysteries of His Essence and His Creation. Yet, while the key is meant to be the remedy, it also has a potential to turn into a poison that blurs our consciousness and detaches us from the Essence. An illusory individuation, a deceptive wisdom and knowledge covers our sight and conceals the truth; the truth that “There is no existent but He.”
Counterargument to: “Islam is about man trying to please God by obeying His will”
“And I have not created the Jinn and the men except that they should serve Me.” (Dhariyat 51:56) “And that you should serve Me; this is the right way.” (Ya Sin 36:61) According to the Islamic view, serving God, obeying His will and worshipping are the human being’s fundamental obligations. However, the purpose of worshipping is to grow in faith, knowledge and love of God and to feel His proximity. Seeking God’s pleasure in one’s worship, conduct and life in general is seen as a necessary outcome of one’s growing love of God. Worshipping God to attract God’s reward or to avoid punishment is seen as an inferior level of faith. If we accept that the main purpose of worshipping God is to get close to Him, or more accurately to “be aware of our closeness to Him,” then the main purpose of human beings in this world emerges as removing obstacles that we put up between ourselves and God who is always close, and attaining His consent by doing that. Anything that brings about this proximity or guides in that direction is praiseworthy and it is considered as worship. One of the means to help man in his journey towards God is knowledge; accordingly, a prophetic saying (hadith) reveals that gaining knowledge is considered as worship: “God can be worshipped and served by means of knowledge; bliss in this world and hereafter comes through knowledge; and adversity of this world and hereafter lies in ignorance.
”The purpose of God’s commandments and all the obligatory worship is to seek proximity to God. And it is only God’s mercy that He shows us the way that will lead us to Him. Through prayer, contemplation, fasting, and purification of the soul by begging His forgiveness, the “ego” abandons his vice and arrogance. The ego realizes the Truth and becomes aware of his proximity to God which was concealed from him by claiming a separate existence.
The basis of attaining closeness and proximity to God is through seeking (talab) Him, and this seeking is manifested in the form of practice and actions that allows one’s level of closeness to increase. By sending us down to this worldly realm and making us in our bodily forms, God placed within us a capacity to perform actions through which the doors of the levels of proximity were fully opened.
It is us who should attain a proximity to God, because He already is close to us. Such an awareness and appreciation are what makes people “friends to God” (wali). One way of attaining this awareness is through being an “abd” to God which means acknowledging your position as a servant. However, attaining proximity to God is an endless journey. There are levels of proximity (qurb) that awaits us, without boundaries. This is why even the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, whose proximity to God is unimaginable and unattainable by the rest of the creation, was commanded to supplicate with “Oh God, increase my knowledge.” The connection between knowledge and proximity is clear in that the former increases the latter.
Yet, since knowledge is infinite, so is proximity, thus reaching a “finish line” is impossible. It is mentioned in an authentic prophetic tradition that God Most High said: “When the servant draws close to Me a hand’s span, I will draw close to him an arm’s length. And when he draws near to Me an arm’s length, I will draw near to him a fathom’s length. And when he comes to Me walking, I will go to him running.”2 God the Most Merciful tells us that our intention to seek Him is what He is expecting from us and the levels of closeness will be ascended quickly if we are eager to feel the proximity. Since He is already close to us, it is our choices and intentions that will either allow us feel the “oneness of being” or keep us away from Him as a result of our unwillingness to get rid of the illusory wisdom and arrogance. The spiritual life in Islam begins with the inner struggle with the ego. It is the fist stage in the journey that will make us aware of our position in front of God, to know God, love God and be a drop in the Ocean of oneness. Distracted and polluted by worldliness, the lower self has a tendency to drag the human creature down into arrogance and vice. Only by a genuine effort of will can the sincere seeker of Truth achieve the purity of soul which enables him to reach total “awareness” of God’s closeness.
Sophia Gallant is a sociologist in Houston, Texas. Yuksel A. Aslandogan is the Vice President of Institute of Interfaith Dialog, Houston, Texas.
- Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, The Words, Thirtieth Word, The Light, Inc., NJ:2005, pp.552-3.
- Bukhari from Abu Hurayra and Anas. Also narrated by Muslim, Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah.