A common saying among the mystics, one attributed to the Noble Prophet by way of Imam Ali is the following:
“He who knows himself knows his Lord”.
Throughout history, human beings have striven to know God through devotions, science, astrology, mysticism, philosophy, art, and even sensuality. In one way or another, it is possible to grab glimpses of the divine presence in all things, all forms of creation, and in all levels of consciousness.
All of these, however, pale in comparison to knowing oneself, and pursuit of that knowledge is often the most difficult and frightening. When we look at ourselves, we open a door into our past, our faults, our misgivings, and our deep desires.
The Cycle of Despair
How often have you seen a family that is in complete disarray? In some cases the husband is abusive toward the wife or even the wife toward the husband. In the most horrific cases, the parents are abusive toward the children, filling their lives with despair. In other situations, it is poverty, a bad job, illness, or simply unexplained depression that drives people to despair.
Whether we realize it or not, we pass on that despair to our children, and they pass it on to their children. It is a type of deep-seated self-loathing that no human being should have to experience, and it is not their fault. It is so difficult to break the cycle, that many people feel more comfortable staying within their box of despair even when they are given the opportunity to break out of it. That is why many musicians, actors, and athletes who came from difficult upbringings are often still involved in drugs, violence, incarceration, or even young deaths.
The hold of that cycle is like a popular carnival ride that spins people inside of a cylinder. As it spins faster and faster, the people are stuck to the walls with their feet lifted up from the ground. They are powerless, immobile, and helpless.
Knowing the Self
The first step to recovery, to truly breaking the cycle of despair, is to know yourself. He who knows himself (man ‘arafa nafsahu) knows his Lord (faqad ‘arafa rabbahu). The word ‘arafa speaks of deep understanding, truly knowing something. That is why someone on the spiritual path is often called an ‘arif (gnostic), one who practices ‘irfan.
Much of that path to knowing involves self reflection, looking inwardly at oneself beyond the layers that a person places between himself and others in the world. If you wear a facade long enough, you actually start to believe it is your true self. It is easy to lose contact with your true reality.
In the Qu’ran, Allah explains the true nature of a human being.
Behold, your Lord said to the angels: “I am about to create man from clay: When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit, fall down in obeisance unto him.”
So the angels prostrated themselves, all of them together… (Qur’an 38:71-73)
The spirit (ruh) that Allah breathed into this first human being is the divine spark that all humans possess. It is our divine connection to God that is always alive and always in tune with the Reality. That is why every human being is born pure. There is no concept of “original sin” in Islam. We are all born with clean slates that our parents, our society, and our environment impress upon with their wisdom or lack thereof, as the case may be.
The human self (nafs) is independent and able to make decisions based on intellectual, emotional, and other factors, but to truly be in sync with your true self, you must reconnect with your spirit (ruh), the higher self. When you have layer upon layer of negativity piled on by abuse, deceit, violence, and ignorance, you must begin to understand these ills and peel the layers away to reveal the pearl buried within your soul.
If you turn on the TV and watch long enough, you are bound to come across some advertisements for self-help programs. People spend millions of dollars on self-help CDs, books, ebooks, classes, group sessions, and therapy in their attempts to better themselves. Some of them are scams and should be avoided, but some are legitimate and have a true place in intellectual and emotional development.
For a complete human being, however, intellectual and emotional development is not enough. To deny the spirit is to deny the true self. The only way to achieve true self building is to have a holistic approach to the human experience.
Many religions are based on emotions. They want you to feel good and get emotionally involved in the divine experience. They use songs and flamboyant sermons to get people emotionally involved, but they usually lack the intellectual understanding of human nature. Other religions focus completely on practical matters. The “law” is all that is important.
Islam is the only complete way of life that offers a complete regimen for re-building the self. Even something as simple as salat (daily prayer) in Islam is a holistic approach. Muslims do not simply sit on their knees and pray. There is a physical component to it. You must stand (qiyam), bow (ruku), prostrate (sajdah), and sit (jalsa) in order to properly complete the salat. But it does not end there, as simply moving in these positions would be only going through the motions. To have a holistic salat, you must also recite the word of God. That is why we recite the Qur’an while in qiyam (standing). It connects our intellectual understanding with our spiritual selves. The salat is a physical, mental, and spiritual exercise.
All of Islam is like this. From saying Bismillah (with the name of Allah) before eating, to the Islamic guidelines for buying, borrowing, and selling, Islam does not leave anything to chance. We come into this world as blank slates with the potential to turn into vile, abusive, debased creatures who are lower than beasts, or to flourish in physical, intellectual, and spiritual health until we are worthy of a station higher than angels.
While there is certainly a chance that someone can come out of the womb and naturally reach a state of uprightness (hanifiyyah), there is also the chance for corruption and a cycle of despair learned from a negative upbringing. Therefore, Allah left us with a manual for human excellence, the Qur’an, and a self-improvement plan in Islam that is completely free and more comprehensive and fulfilling than any that came before or after it.