Most people, including many Muslims, view Islam in an exoteric sense. That is, they see Islam as simply a set of beliefs and ritual observances by which Muslims hope to gain salvation after death.But they know very little about Islam as an esoteric or spiritual path.
Although modern western societies might be more alienated from religion than most, they tend to regard with greater reverence the mystical paths of religion. Buddhism for example, came to be known to the West through the oriental martial arts, Zen poetry, and even through fiction. Hinduism is also sympathetically looked at because of Ayurveda, Yoga, and meditation. Outwardly, these two religions are far more alien to the Western psyche in terms of spiritual traditions, and the socio/cultural environment that supports their beliefs; nevertheless they are seen in a more sympathetic manner than Islam.
Because of Western man’s practical predisposition he is more favourably disposed to religion through its esoteric teachings and practice. No longer rooted in a cosmos where heaven and hell are realities woven into his worldview, he becomes focussed on the here and now. He is no longer interested in religion for eschatological salvation. He becomes interested in religion if it could open his eyes and get him to see the higher realities while he is in this life. The practical aspects of esoterism attract him, with its process and exercises, spiritual-master guides, the clearly defined goals it sets out to achieve and the experiential knowledge that comes from it.
The Prophet Muhammad (s) said, “Die before you die”; for dying to the lower tendencies of worldly life opens our inner eyes for us to see. Without spiritual sight, religion becomes only dogma and ritual. What modern man craves is spiritual insight, not arguments for the existence of God.
God tells the Prophet in the Holy Qur’an, “Say, ‘If you love God, then follow me. God will love you and forgive you your sins, and God is all-forgiving, all-merciful’” [Qur’an 3:31]
In Islamic spirituality, this following is not passive where one says ‘I follow X’ meaning ‘I agree with the policies or position of X,’ – it is a complete following. It is in essence following his way of life and implementing it in one’s own life right down to the smallest detail.
This is so because he is the most complete model for mankind. As the Qur’an says, “In the Messenger of God there is certainly for you a good exemplar (uswatun hasanatun) for those who look forward to God and the Last Day and remember God much” [Qur’an 33:21]
As seen from the point of view of Islamic metaphysics the universe is the self disclosure of God, for it is the sum total of His signs and works. Thus each aspect of creation is the expression of one or more of the Divine Names of God, or the asmaa al-husnaa, the Beautiful Names. Since creation exists as a hierarchy, the higher levels of being are expressions of more of the Beautiful Names at higher levels of intensity. In this hierarchy, the Perfect Man is at the apex and thus he is the reflection of God in creation. It is for this reason that the angels and the jinn were required to make obeisance to Adam after God taught him “all the Names” [Qur’an 2:31]
The Prophet, as the epitome of human perfection and the Perfect Man par excellence, is therefore nothing less than the incarnation of the Beautiful Names of God in creation. In this respect the Qur’an describes him as possessing “a tremendous character” [Qur’an 68:4]
From this perspective, the first attestation in the two attestations of the declaration of faith which is to bear witness that there is no god but God, is the declaration of God’s oneness.Whereas the second attestation, which is to bear witness that Muhammad (s) is the Messenger of God, is, in essence, the proof of God, not that the Prophet is God, but that he is evidence that points to God by virtue of his tremendous character. Therefore the Prophet is Messenger not only by virtue of bringing a message from God but also because of the fact that he himself is the message of God. When asked about the character of the Prophet, his youngest wife Aisha replied, “His character was the Qur’an.”
As the manifestation of the Beautiful Names of God, the Prophet Muhammad(s) becomes the beautiful model for Muslim conduct. He said “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” so emulating his beautiful conduct is the means of attracting God’s love which is the goal of all spiritual paths. There are many levels to this prophetic beauty. The first level is on the level of following the exoteric law or shari’ah. The next and deeper level is on the level of cultivating decorum (adab) or the beauty of outward behaviour; thus it is said that whenever the Prophet spoke to someone, he always faced them directly and he would so give that person his complete attention that the latter would think that he was the only object of his attention and nothing else mattered. The third and yet deeper level is the beautification of the character by the elimination of negative traits and the establishment of positive ones with the teachings and actions of the Prophet as a model. He is reported to have said “I was only sent to perfect the ethical personality.” The fourth level is spiritual rigour in following the spiritual practices that he taught in taming the unruly soul so that once it is at rest it is capable of reflecting the Presence of God.
Ignorance of Islam feeds stereotypes of the religion as legalistic and literalist without any spiritual subtlety and makes the common man susceptible to negative propaganda against it. This negative attitude extends to the Prophet Muhammad (s) as well who is now increasingly perceived in the most damning ways imaginable. These attitudes could be neutralized by presenting Islam as a spiritual or esoteric path. In knowing about this path the observer would realize the central role of the Prophetic lifestyle and teachings in the inward struggle toward spiritual progress thus leading to a greater perception of his beautiful character.
Written by Shaykh Ahmed Haneef
This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.