Beneficial knowledge about Sufism…
When ordinary knowledge becomes personalized and penetrates into the depths of a sound perception, it reaches the level of gnosis or wisdom (irfan). A gnostic (arif) is a person cognizant of the secrets and wisdoms of Divine manifestations embedded as knowledge in his heart. Simpler put, an arif refers is he who possesses irfan. A person knowledgeable in the conventional scholarly disciplines, though not in the spiritual, is rightfully referred to as a scholar, yet not as gnostic. Knowledge possessed by such people is fixed like the written knowledge in books. This situation resembles a seed in a storehouse; it cannot flourish so long as it is kept detached from soil. Since it is kept at a distance from the heart, it is a kind of knowledge that cannot culminate in true contemplation. Knowledge of the kind has therefore rightly been labeled as ‘bookish’ or ‘pedantic knowledge.’
However, all kinds of knowledge are undoubtedly beneficial if they are used in a proper manner and directed towards their opposite end. Yet, insofar as the real happiness and ultimate salvation of humankind in this world and the next is concerned, acquiring only the external aspects of sciences does not provide a sufficient solution. To fill this gap, Islam underlines the spiritual aspects of sciences and demands that they be used in a good and beneficial way for humankind entire, without being exploited for evil purposes. In this context, Islam has coined a term ‘beneficial knowledge’ (al-ilmu’n-nafi) that revamps the entire externalities of human sciences from a transcendental perspective.
The late Mahir Iz calls attention to the insufficiency of a scientific knowledge devoid of deep, spiritual dimension. The only remedy, accordingly, to remove this weakness is to undertake a spiritual training. Iz says, “It is not possible to put trivial aspects of ordinary knowledge together in a harmonious way. Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that even though I should not hold myself back from scientific inquiries, the real kind of knowledge and truth is attainable only under the guidance of spiritually qualified teachers. It was for this reason that having received a spiritual sign, I decided to become a disciple of our respected master Sami Efendi.” (Yillarin Izi, p. 396)
The inner maturity attained at the end of the spiritual road elevates human perception to a horizon higher than that of exoteric sciences, and the term marifah refers to this very horizon: by the exclusive means of certain spiritual practices can one reach this horizon. No matter how eminent a scholar one might be, upon obtaining such a high level of perception, he acknowledges his own weakness, whereby he is effectively cured from the disease of self-conceit. He becomes filled with feelings of awe and weakness in the presence of a horizon that opens up to an exhibition of infinite and intricate realities. Reflecting further with a sound reason, he furthermore realizes that to know is not to simply look on at the outward aspects of a given thing. Much rather, it is to solve its underlying mystery of the great design and coming to an insightful awareness of Divine wisdoms impressed upon creation.
Through a symbolic parable, Rumi offers a splendid explanation of the significance of acquiring the knowledge of the Divine for the eternal happiness of mankind, and of the tragic outcome waiting for those who do not enter the path of its realization. A grammarian boards a boat. He starts talking with the boatman in a smug and conceited manner, which he keeps up throughout the journey. From time to time, he asks the boatman various questions on the intricacies of grammar. Each time the boatman confesses to not know the answer to the question posed, it inflates the grammarian’s pride all the more, who pities him, each time, saying, ‘What a pity! You have wasted half of your life in ignorance!’ Though heartbroken he may be, being the mature and kind man he is, the boatman does not respond to the insulting remarks made by the grammarian and remains silent. With their conversation flowing along these lines, there suddenly erupts a great storm, dragging the boat into a terrifying whirlpool. As the other travelers begin to panic, this time the boatman turns to the grammarian and asks, ‘Do you know how to swim, great man?’ The grammarian’s face grows pale and says with a dim voice, ‘No, I do not.’ To that the boatman replies, ‘I may have laid waste to half of my life by not learning grammar…but you, my friend, have just wasted your entire life by not learning how to swim. If only you knew, grammarian, that what matters in the sea is not the knowledge of grammar but the knowledge of how to swim!’
The knowledge of grammar in this parable symbolizes the worldly and exoteric sciences. Truly beneficial knowledge, however, is the knowledge that meets human needs; and the greatest of all human needs, physically and spiritually, is to attain to the eternal happiness. And this depends on attaining to the pleasure and contentment of the Lord, which, in turn, depends on a perfected faith and deeds.
This story tells us that come the time when our spirit is about to leave our body as we lay on our deathbeds, the only kind of knowledge of benefit to us will not be the spiritless and dry knowledge that only serves to aggravate our egos, but the knowledge that transforms our ordinary learning into irfan and thereby meets our eternal needs and desire for happiness.
Before death reaches us, we therefore need to transform all kinds of information that lie dormant in our mental storehouse into beneficial knowledge that would please the Almighty. For at the time when our flesh is about to return its origin, the earth, from whence it came, scattered pieces of learning that have merely provided a comfortable life to our flesh will not help us anymore. At that moment, we need a sound, purified heart. Before death reaches the heart, the heart needs to get rid of the obstacle of the ego and acquire a sound quality. Inability to reach this level is to drown in the vast sea of the Hereafter. But those who save themselves from negative characteristics to the extent of virtually killing their egos, are graciously welcomed by that new realm of existence, immune from all the harm that otherwise comes from it. The Sufi maxim to ‘Die before death’ is quite illuminative in this regard. Death, in this sense, is to minimize the desires of the ego. Accomplishing this demands a constant self-examination. ‘Call yourselves to account before you are called to account’ is another spiritual principle of Sufism urging one to review and contemplate on the nature of the never-ending desires of the ego and practice towards rectifying his soul, before it inevitably happens in the impending world to come.
A scholar reports that he once “…saw Abu Hamid Ghazzali among a group of evidently enlightened people, wearing clothes full of patches and carrying a ewer in his hand. I asked him, ‘Was not the position of head-professorship in the Nizamiya Madrasa of Baghdad better than this?’ He looked deeply into my eyes for a while and said, ‘I am here because when the full moon of happiness rose on the sky of will, the sun of reason showed the way of meeting.’” (Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Hani, Adab, p. 9)
For this reason, the most influential type of knowledge that will lead mankind to happiness and salvation, in this world and the next, is the knowledge of heart that makes one acquainted with the Lord. It is this kind of knowledge that gives birth to a sense of mental and spiritual responsibility with which man fulfills good deeds in the best way possible. Without this profound feeling of sensitivity, science will only serve to destroy mankind, even though they emerged to serve mankind to begin with. Beneficial knowledge, therefore, is a matter of broader horizons and mentality. Without beneficial knowledge, the many potentially useful aspects of human sciences cannot be actualized. On the contrary, they become instruments serving malicious ends. The only way to avoid this hazard is through attaining to that inner maturity and noble characteristics imparted by what we call ‘beneficial knowledge.’
There are many cases of systematic exploitation and misrepresentation by persons who despite being knowledgeable, lack the maturity of beneficial knowledge. A person with a law degree, for instance, might act like a ruthless executioner, when in fact he was trained to deliver human rights and justice. Similarly, a person with a medical degree might turn into a human butcher, when it is a cure that people expect from him to deliver. In spite of his knowledge, a ruler might likewise act in an unmerciful and loveless manner towards people under his command. Though they do possess fragments of scientific knowledge, these so-called people of learning commit crimes even beyond the wildest imagination of the illiterate. Yunus Emre hence says:
A person’s real purpose for learning,
It is to know the Truth
If you have learned, but still do not know,
Such is a useless effort.
Consequently, every person needs first and foremost the enlightenment and inner depth of beneficial knowledge, while he keeps himself busy in learning various sciences so that he could succeed in matters worldly and other-worldly, material and immaterial. In reality, though it might have some temporary and outward benefits, knowledge that leads a person to pride, self-conceit and ultimately to self-destruction, is a great burden to carry. For this reason, the Messenger of the Almighty -upon him blessings and peace- always sought to acquire beneficial knowledge and prayed the Almighty to bestow such knowledge upon him. In this context, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- would utter the following prayer, “O Lord! I ask for beneficial knowledge from You and seek refuge in You from useless knowledge!” (Muslim, Dhikr, 73) Being also the essence of mystical knowledge in Sufism, beneficial knowledge means an effort to equip a servant with abstinence, piety and the internalization of faith. When a believer’s knowledge acquires this level of epistemological perfection, it then attains the level of marifah or gnosis.
To explain this distinctiveness of spiritual knowledge, Rumi says, “Scholars knowledgeable only of exoteric sciences are aware of the subtleties of geometry, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy, depending on their fields. But these are all pieces of knowledge that belong to the perishable world, which lasts only for a short period of time. Such knowledge cannot have man ascend (miraj) to the realms above the seventh heaven. The ignorant, who are slaves to their egos, cannot obtain any knowledge of the way to the Almighty and the spiritual stations in between. Only can the wise Gnostics attain the knowledge of this; and only through their hearts, not through their reason.”
Those who are lacking of the inner maturity of beneficial knowledge cannot reach the ‘ultimate reality’, however well-versed they might be in their scholarly fields. Knowledge truly enlightens its possessor, but only after when its possessor can transfer it from his reason to his heart to mature it therein and to actualize it in the form of moral character traits and righteous deeds. The Almighty says in the Quran, “[O Muhammad] say, ‘O my Lord, increase me in knowledge!’” (Taha, 114) This increase in knowledge refers to servant’s improvement of his level of religious perfection, of his level of piety and fear before the Divine. The Quran also says, “Only those of His servants who have knowledge fear The Almighty [rightfully].” (al-Fatir, 28) The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- states, in relation,
اِنَّمَا يَخْشَى اللّٰهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الْعُلَمٰؤُا
“Among you I am the one who feels the highest level of piety and knows Him best.” (Bukhari, Adab, 72)
Thus, a person whose knowledge is not implanted in his heart and which has not taken him to fear and love Allah, glory unto Him, is not really a scholar in the truest sense of the term, however much those around might regard him to be.
The great Imam Ghazzali addresses those who are preoccupied only with the exoteric sciences of the world and waste their lives on their trivial aspects, when he says, “I will feel pity for you, son, should you fail to transform your knowledge of theology, logic, rhetoric, poetry and grammar into wisdom and gnosis (irfan). You will have otherwise not received any benefit, but merely wasted the life given to you by the Almighty to worship Him.”
Indeed, what is the use of acquiring knowledge if it will ultimately prove worthless in ushering one through Paradise to meet the Lord? Such knowledge would only incur disappointment in the presence of the Almighty. Could knowledge that leads a person to devilish conceit, arrogance and rebellion as were the cases of Balaam the son of Beor and Qarun, really be called knowledge? Certainly not! For this reason, authoritative Muslim figures describe the Islamic conception of knowledge as follows: “Knowledge means comprehension, without which knowledge cannot be actualized. The final destination of comprehension is the knowledge of the Divine (marifatullah), the essence of all learning. The closer a science is to this essence, the more laudable it is.”
Likewise the eminent Rumi says, “A skillful and knowledgeable person deserves merit…but there is a lesson to be reaped in the case of Satan, whose knowledge did not suffice for him to appreciate the reality of Adam, as he based his verdict exclusively on his outer aspect instead. Many a knowledge and perception acts as a bandit thwarting the seeker of truth from the main path. It is for this reason that the majority of the dwellers of Paradise are those with a pure and sound heart, who were able to protect themselves from the evil of philosophers. So save yourself from pride and self-conceit and get rid of all things useless, so that you receive Divine mercies from above.”
No human being can reach reality by the mere activity of reason, as it cannot disentangle itself out of the many enigmas it sees upon observing the universe. Reason does serve an important function in attending to the sensory things of the world; yet without the help of Divine revelation, it is an insufficient means to reach higher reality. Attaining reality is a matter of faith and love, in addition to reason. A sound human rational faculty trained by revelation can take a servant to a certain point in his search for truth. To comprehend greater secrets and wisdoms beyond this point, the servant may take flight only with the wings of his heart.
Reason is like a small gate that leads one to the realm of realities and secrets. Without it, one cannot reach marifah; a fool may never lay hold of wisdom. But reason alone does not suffice to lay hold of that wisdom, for it needs to take a further step that requires the intervention of love. The method of travelling beyond conventional, rational learning is outlined by the words of Rumi that urges one to “Sacrifice reason at the feet of Mustafa (the Blessed Prophet).” On the path towards the Real, a further spiritual medium beyond human rational faculty is needed.
All Muslim saints confirm that it was love that enabled them to traverse this ocean of existence. We therefore find melodies of love in their statements, again and again. In their eyes, this perishable world is worthless and all but devoid of any significance; and hence their attentions are unswervingly directed to the real aim. Muslim saints are pious servants of the Almighty who undertake, in their times and societies, the prophetic mission of training and purifying souls and presenting living examples of religious instructions.
A believer, whose inner eyes are open, sees the Divine manifestations of the Lord everywhere he looks. This should not be looked upon as something miraculous; it is rather knowledge transformed into gnosis (marifah). It is the product of real love entrenched in the heart. By means of the spiritual insight that comes from Divine love, saints the universe entire as a manifestation of Divine power. They peer into and behold the underlying wisdoms and realities of all beings. Such spiritual insight is an unparalleled Divine gift. How else could there be any meaning in life, if a person were not able to understand the silent language of winds, rivers and mountains? How can there be any enjoyment in life for one who is unable to take any lessons from nature? They are all reverberating testimonies of the uniqueness of Divine art. Failure to feel anything at the face of this matchless artwork only exposes an inner rawness and spiritual deficiency.
Sadi Shirazi points to wisdom and invites people to heed to true knowledge, as he says:
In the eyes of awakened, even green leaves are divan (of poetry);
Does not every particle reveal the art of the Divine?
The universe is a splendid exhibition that springs from the Divine. A splendid manifestation of it is the mystery called man, for carrying a heart resplendent with the spiritual gems that offers him the opportunity to mature his soul in this life. Even as he was being stoned by his people, Hallaj was still looking to mature his soul by repenting on behalf of those hurling the stones.
Each tiny particle in the universe incessantly brings us fresh news and greetings from the Divine. From the smile of a little baby to a fluttering butterfly, from the chirping nightingales to the exquisite colors and fragrances of spring, everything is virtually a countless manifestation of Divine joy. The sign of the embodiment of beneficial appears when one begins to read the book of universe through the inner eye and realize that the entire universe is a book of wisdom to draw lessons of Divine manifestations. In the Quran, the Almighty says, “And We did not create the heavens and earth and that between them in play,” (ad-Dukhan, 38). “Did you then think that We created you in jest and that you would not be brought back to Us [for account]?” (Muminun, 115)
Compliant with these principles, each scholarly field ought to lead man to a grasp of his reason of existence; and observing the universe and recognizing the Divine majesty therein ought to lead him to the Supreme Creator. A person who does not have access to this insightful horizon cannot be complete, however great his rank or expertise may be in the specific field he is engaged with. The merit of any given science lies in its role in providing inner maturity and moral perfection; only these will benefit man in this world and the next.
All these points show that a servant can acquire beneficial knowledge only after establishing certain inner and spiritual qualities in his heart. This operation is two dimensional. While purifying the ego from all negative character traits like ostentation, self-conceit, covetousness, pride and love of fame, one must at the same time replace them in the heart with the praiseworthy, Muhammad-like moral traits, such as, piety, sincerity, mercy, patience, thankfulness, modesty, contentment, asceticism, moral scrupulousness and trust in the Almighty, among others.
Imam Rabbani offers a short description of the mindset in which beneficial knowledge can grow. He says, “Our first and foremost duty, my brothers, is to correct our faiths in accordance with the Quran and Sunnah. The innovators and the stray assume that their convictions are in agreement with the Quran and Sunnah, when in reality, it could not be more distant.”
When a believer has established this mindset, he is then required to learn the precepts of the religion, permissible and impermissible activities, and duties prescribed by the Quran and Sunnah. He is also required to put his theoretical knowledge into practice. In order to be able to actualize all these in a complete manner, the believer needs to embark upon a ceaseless process of purifying his heart and soul. Knowledge of religious precepts is useless unless the faith is correct. Offering good deeds is useless without the knowledge of religious precepts. Purifying the heart and soul is unviable without offering good deeds. And faith, practice and knowledge all are useless without the purification of the heart and soul. It is in this mindset that beneficial knowledge flourishes en route for marifa.
O our Lord! We pray that You feed us with beneficial knowledge and protect us from all knowledge that is useless! Include us among those who put their theoretical knowledge into practice! Put us among those blessed and fortunate servants of Yours who transform their knowledge into gnosis (marifa) and attain to the knowledge of You; and thereby complete their spiritual ascension (miraj)! Amin!
Source: Osman Nuri Topbaş, Sufism, Erkam Publications
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