On Transience and Continued Existence

A physician once wrote of an encounter he had with a young poet and his quiet friend. They spent one summer afternoon walking through the countryside, looking through the beauty of nature and the passing landscapes and Dolomites. He observed that the poet who, despite admiring the beauty of the surroundings, expressed that he felt no joy in it. He was disturbed by the fact that all this was fated to extinction, and that this landscape and its lush vegetation will vanish when winter came, just like human beauty and life, and ‘all that he would otherwise have loved and admired’ are losing their worth by the inevitable doom which is the fate of all.

The doctor, in an attempt to console the poet, told him that the worth of things or people is not diminished by virtue of its ephemeral nature; rather, it increases its worth. He said, ‘Transience value is scarcity value in time’. That the beauty of nature after it was destroyed by winter comes back each spring; that a flower that blooms only once is not on any account less lovely, that a work of art or an intellectual achievement does not lose worth because of its temporal limitation.

To him, these were convincing arguments, but he noticed that his attempts to console the poet and his sympathetic friend did not make a remarkable impression upon them. He soon realized that there was an emotional factor which was affecting the two, and this is the revolt in their minds against mourning. They were expressing this view to avoid the pain or despair of having to accept the loss of something or someone, like in this case, the beauty of the summer landscape – which eventually through the transition to another season, will change or vanish. This emotion or thought prevents them from expressing joy, despite their admiration of it. The summer landscape in itself is representative to many other realities, goals, or beings which individuals have the capacity to admire, to be attached to, and sometimes, by all means, would secure and protect from being taken away from them.

But what causes the pain that results in mourning that these two individuals are wanting to avoid? According to the doctor (whom I will identify as we go on), at the earliest stages of life, human beings’ capacity for love is directed to their own selves. Later, still at those early stages, that love is directed to other objects or people significant in their lives like parents or immediate family members. If the objects or people with whom that love had been directed to, are destroyed or lost, that love is freed and then either directed towards other objects, pursuits or people, or return once again to the self. He says that ‘why this detachment’ of love from objects or people lost be such a painful process is a mystery. When that love clings to the beloved, and will not accept the loss or parting – that is the painful process of mourning.

But why are the two companions of the doctor refuse to ‘mourn’ by expressing their ‘lack of joy’ despite their admiration of the beautiful landscape? This brings us to another event in the physician’s life which, at some point will shed light to the mystery of why pain in loss and parting is an accompaniment of mourning.

The doctor learned the death of the daughter of a colleague of his. In expression of condolences, he shared his own experience that after losing his daughter and grandson, he ‘became tired of life permanently’. After proposing to his colleague a project which would serve as a ‘distraction’ to alleviate his grief, he told him, ‘one has the choice of dying oneself or acknowledging the death of the loved one, which again comes very close to your expression that one kills the person.’ This statement came after the doctor responded to his friend’s meditation on his own grief, which the latter described as a second killing of his child. Both thus expressed their belief that ‘every act of mourning conceals a betrayal, a kind of killing of the loved person by letting the person go; and that guilt over this murder endows mourning with its nearly bottomless agony, and explains why so many refuse, unconsciously, to mourn’. In mourning, by letting go of the dead, one kills again what one misses most; yet the sense of guilt for this ‘murder’ brings with it a renewal of life, because otherwise, swallowed by grief, the mourner would turn his back on life.

The doctor whom I had been referring to is a Viennese psychiatrist who founded the discipline of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. The events described in the idyllic summer walk with his two companions were written on a brief essay ‘On Transience’ which was intended as a contribution for a publication called ‘Das Land Goethes’. The essay in itself is a metaphorical representation of his encounters with people, including his patients, poets, friends, family members, a princess, and his daughter; it addresses a very important existential question: what value does life hold in the face of extinction?

What is most surprising is that the summer walk described on the essay, did not occurred at all. The conversation he had with his two companions, were likely to have been exchanged under chandeliers and crowded halls, during the fourth international psychoanalytical congress. His two companions were the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and a psychoanalyst and writer, Lou Andreas Salome. What was described on the essay is a metaphor, a kind of literary remembering to make sense of troubling existential questions, to combine the summary of his encounters with people and their views, and the joy he felt in exploring nature and visiting the summer countryside with his family.

***

The existential question, love and loss, and the pain or denials of mourning are universal concerns throughout the collective history and experience of human beings. When confronted with the idea of permanent extinction, this would provoke a sense of despair, confusion, or even denial. After death, is that it? But what lies after ones death? Can one say with a firm certainty that one knows where one is headed after his demise? To term death as the end of everything would necessitate having to face a multitude of other questions: What is the telos of life? Why is death necessary? Why do we feel pain and grief on the loss of people, or even of our own life? What is the worth of life: is it more or less and on what standards will we judge it upon? One does not only live in the present. The present leads to a future that one is working or waiting for. And throughout life, one is always moving forward in anticipation of something that will occur in the future. If death is the absolute end of life, then the means of what one is doing now in the present only leads to it. Even if in between, a person may anticipate something positive or work to achieve an immediate or long-term goal, on the other hand, looking at the larger picture, aren’t these actions only tiny steps leading towards the end, an end of which there is no certainty of when and how it will come, and where it will lead to?

It is not surprising that human beings do not accept death as the ultimate end. If it is, then it will render useless and meaningless all endeavors, morality, beliefs and principles. It is, at the very least recognized as the end of life in a physical sense, but the mind recognizes that life has another dimension, that the human component is not at all entirely composed of a physical structure. The problem with materialist mentality is that it reduces everything in this world to the physical, ignoring the metaphysical even if is not capable of being disproven. If we are to look into civilizations, beliefs, and collective traditions throughout history and even in the present, the concept of an afterlife is universal. Where did this came from, except from Divine revelation and the innate nature of humanity, Fitrah to acknowledge it?

There is an aspect and a quality within a person that enables him to recognize that there is an intangible spirit within his being that will continue living in another dimension even if his physical body disintegrates. That spirit will continue to live, albeit in another dimension. Thus, even if he is conscious of the inevitability of physical death, there is an awareness that a part of him will still continue to live and exist. Going back on the concept of transience, we can affirm that in consideration of the physical aspect of a human being – death is the end, and therefore its physical life is transient. But as the doctor has said, death does not in any way make life less worthy because of its transience. Existence will still continue, not only in the physical sense as generations come one after the other, but on the individual level, that the spirit of the departed exists on another realm which we no longer have access to or capable of perceiving. On the 56th to 057th verses of Surah Al Rahman, it is written,

All that is on earth will perish: but will abide (for ever) the Face of thy Lord,- full of Majesty, Bounty and Honor.

No doubt, the question of loss of life baffles many. One seeks answers to find more questions. In the case of the story of the two people refusing to face the inevitability of mourning, the doctor responding from his own pragmatic point of view – not unless one is acquainted with the Divine revelation, they were all forced to face these questions through speculation and wandering. Yes, by the soundness of an argument we may be convinced by answers offered to us by those who have deeper insight on the nature of life, but how would it be if we were not given the chance of encountering them, where will we get the answers? What is the sense of it all, where will it lead to? Where is the retribution for justice against the unfairness of life? Why this beauty of nature must end, and why life is doomed to the grave?

What an agony is the state of a person who does not acknowledge the existence of the Divine. He is left on his own, using his limited mind and judgment to reason out his own purpose. One is born into this world, passing through the stages of life reflecting (or refusing to reflect) as to why he is alive. If these questions are too hard to answer, he blocks everything out by means of distractions or refusal to accept and acknowledge that there is a reason.

What is noticeable with the observations of the doctor and his companions is that they were focused only on the immediate people around them and the ‘outward appearance of their surroundings’ and then equated what they see as the end within themselves. They did not acknowledge the presence of a Creator who brought what they are seeing into existence. And this is what blurs their minds – their refusal to believe in the Divine. The result is their existential anxiety, caused by their denial and refusal to accept and appreciate the wisdom of why all of that they see in nature at one point in time must appear, and then eventually must come to pass. Their minds were confused and so do their view of life, death, love, loss, and resurrection.

And they say: “What is there but our life in this world? We shall die and we live, and nothing but time can destroy us.” But of that they have no knowledge: they merely conjecture.

Surah Al-Jathiyah: 24

For those who believe and observe nature around them with minds not corrupted with distracting philosophical views (or distorted Fitrah), they will recognize the truth and find the answers to these questions. This world and this life of ours exist because of a purpose. There is an intelligent and purposeful Creator who brought everything into existence. The passing seasons, when plants wilt and then die, and grow and bloom once again, are signs for us to our mortality and a time when we shall be brought to life once again. For flowers to bloom again in spring is, at the face of transience, there is a continuation of life. We cannot appreciate the beauty of life by not acknowledging death: the transition to another realm or stage of life which is no longer within the reach of our perception. These things that occur in nature are not simply metaphors to be contemplated upon, but are in fact pointing to the stage of human life beyond physical death.

They say: “What! when we are reduced to bones and dust, should we really be raised up (to be) a new creation?”

Surah Al-‘Isra’: 49

This realization of a resurrection and an afterlife is indeed universal throughout the history of humankind, which if I may, is an integral part of the Fitrah (primordial nature to know the truth) of every human being. Proofs of this are the countless motifs found in individual narratives, traditions, literature, religious beliefs, and even in philosophical meanderings. The reason why many people experience existential anxiety and formulate unclear answers to questions relating to loss, purpose, and justice is the blurring out of the concept of life beyond death, taking account of one’s actions, and retribution against injustices in afterlife.

Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, who say, when afflicted with calamity: To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return. Surah Al-Baqarah: 155-156

Yes, everything shall perish, but nothing shall ever be lost forever because everything which is brought to existence serves a lasting purpose. We may mourn for the loss of what is dear to us, but in the realization that all things are subject to change and passing away, that they are meant for something which we may have the ability to discern or not – the pain and scars thus shall also heal in due time.

(to be continued…)

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Slavery (Al Ubudiyyah)

One of the books that made a significant mark on the way I understand Islam, and which greatly changed the way I see the concepts of worship, slavery, submission, and love – was the brief and concise book of a 13th century Muslim scholar, Imam Ahmad Ibn ‘Abdul-Halim Ibn ‘Abdus-Salam Ibn Taymiyyah Al-Harrani (d. 728), titled Slavery. It was originally titled in Arabic as Al Ubudiyyah.

As a young child, I rummaged through my father’s books and the thin white book at that time, didn’t made such an impression on me because I thought that it was about the literal phenomenon of slavery – and even then, I might not even made a sense out of it due to my young age. The name of the author, whom at many times I heard from my father, as being a scholar of Islam – despite his immense encyclopedic knowledge and piety, he was subjected to persecution, imprisoned, and wrote books using charcoal while being alone at the bottom of a well – remained at the back of my mind. And thus, I conceived a deep respect for Ibn Taymiyyah, and I thought that one day I will be able to understand his writings, particularly the thin white book which intrigued me for a time I could hardly remember anymore.

When I was at one of the lowest points of finding meaning on to life while going through very tough trials, I tried to read the book, hoping to find enlightenment to the heavy burdens I was carrying in my mind and soul. I was told by my parents that the book is a must-read and it carries with it a very concise message about the concept of slavery. As it turned out, it was not exactly how I thought it would be. It was not about people working as slaves in the literal sense of the word. It was about slavery to God.

Al Ubudiyyah is written in a very straightforward manner as was characteristic of Ibn Taymiyyah’s writings. The verses of the Qur’an and the Hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) are elegantly integrated on the deductions of his insights. Reading the work, one can easily understand and connect with the message. It was from this book that my subsequent study and viewpoints are heavily influenced and drawn from.

It can be said that Ibn Taymiyyah is a polemicist and a very controversial figure during his time and until the present. He had many contributions in the field of Islamic scholarship, but due to his influence, and works on refutation, he earned many critics as well. But by becoming familiar with the background which he came from and the political and religious climate that had developed during his time, one can understand the reason why his work took on a polemical style.

He came from a family of religious scholars and was educated and mastered many of the Islamic sciences at a very early age. Eventually, he was qualified to issue religious verdicts (Fatawa) at the age of nineteen. He sought to establish certainty on the matters of religious creed (Aqeedah) at a time when various schools of thought, groups, and sects emerged wherein alien influences and innovations in religious teachings and practices appeared threatening the stability and unity of the Islamic world. He became famous for his knowledge of Hadith, and his knowledge of the Qur’an and its related sciences. He also attained expertise on Usul al-Fiqh and Fiqh, knowledge of the differences of opinions present among scholars, writing, mathematics, history, astronomy and medicine. One of his students, Ibn al Qayyim said,

Allah knows, I have never seen anyone who had a better life than his. Despite the difficulties and all that expunges comfort and luxury, nay, things completely opposite to them; despite imprisonment, intimidation and oppression, Ibn Taymiyyah had a purer life than anyone could. He was the most generous, the strongest of heart and the most joyful of souls, with the radiance of bliss in his face. When we were seized with fear and our thoughts turned negative, and the earth grew narrow for us, we would go to him. No sooner did we look at him and hear his words, all these feelings would leave us to be replaced by relief, strength, certainty and tranquility. 1

Al Ubudiyyah draws its main theme on the first and foremost pillar of Islam: that there is no god but Allah (La ilaha illallah) – Tawheed, and in perfecting ones purpose of creation, which is worship (Ibadah). That the whole of life is meant for worship of Allah with submission and love, sincerity (Ikhlas), and everything intended solely for His sake.

The following are some of the passages from the book that struck me the most, and which changed the way I understand Islam, worship, slavery, submission and love:

For knowing the right and being too arrogant to accept it is a great torture to man…

So anyone who recognizes this truth and professes it but does not fulfill the religious reality which is the worship of God and obedience to Him and His messenger, – would be of the same kind as Iblis (Satan) and Hell dwellers…

If anyone thought that he is among the elite and among the people of religious knowledge and realization who think that God’s orders are cancelled concerning themselves he would therefore be among the worst rejecters and atheists…

If this is comprehended, then the perfection of a creature is in achieving his slavery to God. The better he achieves this slavery, the most perfect he will be. Those who think that a creature can get rid of this slavery in any respect or think that getting out of it is more perfect, are the most ignorant creatures, nay the most misled ones…

The more a servant is hopeful of the bounty of God to fulfill his necessities, the stronger will his freedom from the others will be…

Whoever interests his heart in the creatures for giving him aid and guidance will get his heart submitted to them even if seemingly, he is the chief who manages matters for them; but a wise man sees the truths not the appearances… Nay! The imprisonment of the heart is much more serious than that of the body; for he whose body is enslaved and imprisoned, would not care if his heart is at rest. But if the heart, which is the king of the body, is enslaved by, and fond of other things than God, this would be absolute enslavement, humiliation, imprisonment, and submitting slavery to what enthralled the heart…

We also see that anyone who craves for chief positions has a heart which may bow to any people who help him reach the position, though he might seem to be their boss, where in fact he is looking for their benefits, and being aware of their evils, he spends on them, grants them authorities, and forgives their mistakes so that they might obey and help him. Apparently, therefore, he is their indisputable master, whereas he is really an obedient slave to them…

God must be loved most by a slave and He must be the greatest of all in his sight. Nothing deserves love and complete submission except God. One who loves for the sake of anything other than God, his love is false

If your love for someone is not for God, that love is wrong, and if your reverence for someone is without order from Him, that reverence is wrong…2

God is the Lord of the Worlds, their Creator and Provident, the Giver of their life and death, the Controller of their hearts and the Dispenser of their affairs; there is no lord, no master, no creator other than He, whether they accept it and acknowledge it or not. Only the Believers among them know this truth and acknowledge it, whereas those who do not know or do not acknowledge this truth deny these realities with arrogance and refuse to submit to Him, even though they may know that He is their Lord and Creator…3

 

Bibliography:
1. Diseases of the Hearts and Their Cures. Shaykh ul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah trans. Abu Rumaysah. Birmingham. Dar us-Sunnah Publishers.

2. Slavery. Ibn Taimieh. Beirut, Lebanon. Al Maktab Al-Islam.

3.Ibn Taymiyyah Expounds on Islam: Selected Writings of Shaykh al-Islam Taqi ad-Din Ibn Taymiyyah on Islamic Faith, Life, and Society. (2000). Compiled and translated by Muhammad ‘Abdul-Haqq Ansari. Al Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University Imadat Al-Bahth Al-‘Ilmi, Riyadh, KSA. Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America.