Earth’s atmosphere seen from space
There is a somewhat weak hadith (hadiths are teachings of the Prophet Muhammad that were written down after his death — not from the Qur’an) that states, “Seek knowledge even as far as China,” but a similar tradition narrated from Imam Jafar-al-Sadiq (stated by the sixth Imam of Shia) stresses the importance of knowledge in a different way, “Seek knowledge even as far as going to the depths of seas” (277/71). Hence, these two hadith explain knowledge by two various paths. The first, if taken literally, refers to seeking knowledge even in the farthest, most exotic places, while the second hadith is referring to seeking hidden or esoteric knowledge. The Arabic word for “knowledge” is ‘ilm which has a much broader meaning than a Westerner’s concept of the meaning of “knowledge.” In Islam, knowledge entails gnosis (ma’rifah), and is derived from two sources; ‘aql — wisdom that utilizes thinking and logic to determine “unknown realities from the known ones,” and ‘ilmhuduri, which is “unmediated and direct knowledge acquired through mystic experience.” (1)
Also, the Qur’an has various verses that stress the importance of knowledge that are not just for the purpose of understanding the world and increasing intellect, but more importantly for gaining wisdom and the spiritual understanding of Allah’s will. Those who refuse to seek knowledge are harshly described: “Surely the worst of beasts in God’s sight are those that are deaf and dumb and do not reason” (8:22).
“The example of guidance and knowledge with which Allah has sent me is like abundant rain falling on the earth, some of which was fertile soil that absorbed rain-water and brought forth vegetation and grass in abundance. (And) another portion of it was hard and held the rain-water and Allah benefited the people with it and they utilized it for drinking, (making their animals drink from it) and to irrigate the land for cultivation. (And) a portion of it was barren, which could neither hold the water nor bring forth vegetation (then the land was of no benefit). The first is the example of the person who comprehends Allah’s religion and gets benefit from the knowledge, which Allah has revealed through me and learns and then teaches it to others. The (last example is that of a) person who does not care for it and does not take Allah’s Guidance revealed through me (He is like the barren land.)” [Imām Bukhāri̇̄, Ṣaḥi̇̄ḥ Bukhāri̇̄, vol.1, tr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh: Dar-us-Salam, 1997), 103].
Additionally, there are many other hadith which also to state to seek knowledge, but what does it really mean to “seek” knowledge? Why must we go to faraway places to seek knowledge — does it really matter where we find knowledge? Can’t we just obtain knowledge in college or on the internet? I just read an Islamic scholar’s essay on knowledge where he referred to the seeking knowledge as just the obtaining of scientific information. This is a shallow, external interpretation of ‘ilm which doesn’t necessarily address the application of knowledge to our spiritual life. The mentions in hadith of obtaining knowledge in far places refers to moving outside of the soul’s comfort zones to gain wisdom and understanding. Unfortunately, much like animals, humans seek those who are the most like themselves. You’ve heard the adage, “birds of a feather flock together,” and anthropologically speaking, humans stayed within their own tribes for protection from predators and enemy tribes who would kill to gain more resources and increase territory. However, primal, instinctual behavior adversely affects modern day humans. In our present age of globalization we need to be doing the opposite — gaining knowledge of the “other” to increase understanding for the purpose of eradicating ignorance.
We are created as a microcosm of the macrocosm of the earth. In other words, we are made of “clay” (flesh), soul, and spirit (according to the Qur’an). The earth is surrounded by the atmosphere which enables survivable life, but in the spiritual realm, the bubble we artificially place around ourselves is detrimental and has the risk of destroying us spiritually. This is the representation of the ego’s attempt to protect the self. In Sufi mysticism, Allah is symbolized as the Sun — pure light and consciousness. It is the creative mystery of the Divine Spirit which is expansive in its love, compassion and mercy. As believers, we are to be the light in the world, just as the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is described as a “light-giving lamp” in the Qur’an: “Prophet, We have sent you as a witness, as a bearer of good news and warning, as one who calls people to God by His leave, as a light-giving lamp” (33:45–46). It was Allah’s Spirit within the Prophet (SAW) which became expansive and not self-protective. Also, in 5:15, “People of the Book, Our Messenger has come to make clear to you much of what you have kept hidden of the Scripture, and to overlook much [you have done]. A light has now come to you from God, and a Scripture making things clear, with which God guides to the ways of peace those who follow what pleases Him, bringing them from darkness out into light, by His will, and guiding them to a straight path.” (People of the Book are the Jews, Christians and Muslims) The light that comes from God is the light of truth provided by the Prophet. Inspired or revealed Scripture was intended by Allah with various levels of understanding which can easily become distorted or hidden by a true lack of understanding and the negative influence of the ego. The metaphor of light is that which reveals what is hidden to make known as a guidance for humankind.
Therefore, the importance of seeking knowledge for our spiritual benefit pertains to moving beyond the self-imposed boundaries of our egos (soulcircles) to increase understanding. This is a representation of the earth versus the sun duality and the physical versus the spirit. Our egos act as a mirror reflecting back to our “selves” instead of the consciousness of love which is expansive and psychologically healthy. We create our own limitations to spiritual growth, allowing our egos to veil the truth from our own understanding of Allah’s Will.
A couple of years ago as a Christian before converting to Islam, I was in a church congregation listening to a female missionary discuss her most recent mission in a Middle Eastern country. According to her account, her itinerary was planned with the needed travel documents and tickets. She arrived at the bus station on the outer edge of a city, but after her arrival at the station she discovered there weren’t any bus seats available, and no additional buses traveling to her destination village for a couple of days. She was confused, because according to the believer’s mindset when someone is submitted to God to do His Will and Purpose the way is made smooth, and everything falls into place for our benefit to achieve His Purpose. So, she walked into the city to determine if there was any other way to arrive at her destination. She stopped by a Muslim man selling newspapers, and he greeted her with “peace be upon you,” and “Praise God!” She replied with a smile on her face, “yes, praise God indeed!” Can you see it? At that very moment a connection was made, and they both stepped out of their comfort circles. It was an instantaneous acknowledgement of the Spirit of Allah within the “other.” She explained her dilemma and he immediately responded that he would take her to his house because his cousin was traveling to her destination that very day. So she followed him to his house where she was warmly greeted, fed, and even provided additional food for the journey. Therefore, she arrived at her destination not entirely in the way she planned, but in the way Allah (God) intended. Like many Christians, she most likely believed Islam is a false religion, and perhaps even had some animosity towards Muslims. The Muslim man may have even had some resistance towards Christians as well. Praise God! They truly saw each other in meeting, and felt the Spirit of God moving between them increasing their understanding and love.
I would like to report her talk given at the large church I was a member of sparked interest in understanding Islam better, but unfortunately it didn’t. The missionary didn’t describe how she felt, or the impact of her impression of Muslims, but simply presented the story to the congregation; for those who have ears to hear will hear. Presently, the church presents an annual webinar to promote their own bias against Islam for the congregation and the community, thereby increasing ignorance and discrimination against Muslims. The leaders of the church are residing in their soulcircles, and are not willing to seek God’s will for the moving of His Spirit to grow the spiritual level of the church.
The next example shows a Pastor and the leader of an Islamic Center who sought God’s will and stepped out of their ego’s soulcircle to expand love to their neighbor:
Initially, the Pastor stated when he heard the Islamic Center was being built across the street from his church he was filled with ignorance and fear, so prayed to determine God’s will. Additionally, the congregant who expressed to the Pastor he didn’t agree with the Pastor’s response of welcoming the Muslims, stated after studying the gospel to seek God’s will, and after getting to know the Muslims, “…it’s kind of like my world got bigger.” Yes, his world got much bigger because he allowed God’s Spirit to expand outwards. Because he sought knowledge by getting to know his neighbor, his ignorance and hatred towards the “other” was eradicated.
There are hadith that discuss the Prophet’s (SAW) (2) response of kindness to disbelievers who were mocking and cruel, and the subsequent increase of converts because of his adab (kindness and courtesy). This is because the love of Allah is expansive, and draws people to the Light. The Prophet Isa (Jesus)(SAW) tells the parable of The Good Samaritan to an expert in the Law which beautifully illustrates this point in Luke 10:25–37:
An expert of the Law decided to test Jesus by asking Him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus then asks him what the Law states, and the man correctly answers that it tells believers to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms that he provided the correct answer, but the man, wanting to further prove his knowledge of the Law, asks Jesus “who is the ‘neighbor?” And, as usual, Jesus provides the man with deeper understanding of his sin of pride and arrogance by the telling of a parable: Jesus’ story relates how a man was attacked by robbers, stripped of his clothes and beaten leaving the man almost dead. A priest walks down the road, and after seeing the man, moves to the other side of the road to avoid going near the injured man. Then, a Levite (priestly class of Jews), passing by on the road did the same thing, but a Samaritan when he saw the man, took care of his wounds, put the man on his own donkey and brought him to an inn to take care of him. He then provided money for the innkeeper to take care of him promising that when he returned he would reimburse him for any extra expense. Jesus then asks the expert of the Law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The man correctly replies, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus: “Go and do likewise.” The reason Jesus attributed the Samaritan the character of the neighbor in the story is because the Samaritans were despised by the Jews. They were considered unclean and unlearned. Alternatively, the Samaritans considered themselves Jewish, but because they weren’t welcome into the Jewish temple, they built their own temple in Samaria. The Jews, disliking any contact with the Samaritans would take a long detour when traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem and vice-versa to avoid going anywhere near the city of Samaria and were forbidden to have any contact with Samaritans. But Jesus in this story raises the spiritual level of the Samaritan above that of the priestly class of the Jews by the demonstration of “loving your neighbor” in action. It was the Samaritan who moved beyond his soulcircle in expansiveness to display God’s Spirit of love. In fact, it was Jesus (Prophet Isa (SAW) who deliberately traveled to Samaria and met the woman at the well who brought him into Samaria so that he could teach and thereby gain many true followers from the Samaritans. Jesus stepped way out of his comfort zone and Jewish Law by going to Samaria and speaking to a single woman. Later after the Prophet Isa (SAW) was resurrected, the disciples traveled to Samaria, performed miracles, and taught the Samarians by a movement away from their prejudiced soulcircles by reaching out in love and acceptance which created many conversions. Additionally, when leaving Samaria, the disciple Philip was commanded by an angel to go to a specific desert road leading south from Jerusalem to Gaza where he met a eunuch traveling in a chariot from a royal dynasty in Ethiopia who was returning from the Temple in Jerusalem to learn more about the One True God. While traveling, the eunuch was attempting to understand an account in the Book of Isaiah, and whose heart was prepared for spiritual learning. Philip intercepts his chariot and subsequently explains the prophetic passage in Isaiah (prophecy regarding the Messiah), and later when passing by a body of water the eunuch requests to convert by baptism. Philip is then taken supernaturally by the “Spirit” to the philistine city of Ashdod which is south of Gaza. An Ethiopian eunuch would have most likely been the most exotic human Philip had ever meant, but it is not Allah’s intent that we ever remain in our comfort zone, because the unity of believers rises above any differences of caste, race, religion, or nation. (Acts 8:26–40)
Muhammad Iqbal, writing in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam states that vision without power becomes “destructive and inhuman,” but when both are combined allows for the “spiritual expansion of humanity.”Furthermore, he adds, “From the unity of the all-inclusive Ego who creates and sustains all egos follows the essential unity of all [humankind]. The division of [humankind] into races, nations, and tribes, according to the Qur’an is for purposes of identification only.” (3) Hence, Allah created a multiplicity of humans and egos from His Oneness of Unity, so that each of us would be unique, but in order to understand the concept of spiritual love we must move out of our soulcircles and seek knowledge of the “other.” The Qur’an states the best of the People of the Book are those that are the most pious. So, it is not just one religion which will be saved, but by a believer’s righteousness gained by the transforming power of wisdom that allows the heart to expand outwards. However, we must seek knowledge in order to understand the “other” which is the esoteric meaning of the first mentioned hadith above. Seek the exotic, and the ones most unlike you so that you may truly understand Allah’s Will and Purpose for humanity. Our self-prescribed boundaries to keep our “self” safe, is really no safety at all, any more than the walls we build to keep others out of our communities and countries. Safety occurs only with bridges of understanding built with Allah’s Spirit that create peace and acceptance.
(2) The Arabic phrase ʿalayhi s-salām (عليه السلام-SAW), which translates as “peace be upon him” is a conventionally complimentary phrase attached to the names of the prophets in Islam. The English phrase is also given the abbreviation PBUH in English-language writing.
(3) Iqbal, Muhammad, The Recontruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 73