x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Knowing: the heart of the matter

Last week we spoke about faith and thankfulness being the first of a four-point programme that comprises Islam's positive agenda for society. The second we said was gnosis, or better, "knowing"; which is something different than knowledge. Knowing is different than swimming in an ocean of data.

Consciousness /n/ 1: The quality or state of being aware; 2: a state of perceiving, apprehending, or noticing with a degree of controlled thought or observation; 3: the upper level of mental life of which a person is aware. Last week we spoke about faith and thankfulness being the first of a four-point programme that comprises Islam's positive agenda for society. The second we said was gnosis, or better, "knowing"; which is something different than knowledge. Knowing is different than swimming in an ocean of data. To internalise meaning and be attentive to one's place in the whole scheme of reality is called maarifah.

As Muslims we recognise a cosmology that includes dimensions of reality beyond that of the material world inhabited by inanimate objects as well as our own physical bodies. To be conscious of these multiple dimensions of existence is to have maarifah. There are four worlds that constitute the levels of knowing. The first is the personal world, demands knowledge of self. An aphorism of early Muslim sages goes: "Whoever knows himself knows his Lord." Whoever knows his self as contingent, dependent on another for his existence, knows his Lord as being eternal and without limit or limitation. Whoever knows his own weaknesses realises the strength and ability of his Lord. Whoever acknowledges his own poverty and destitution knows his need of a self-sufficient, independent, and generous sovereign.

Knowledge of self is about realising that within you is a mirror of the universe. In your circulatory system is a reflection of the rivers, streams, and waterways. Your respiratory system reflects the wind and atmospheric pressure. The changing of moods and emotions is like the changing of the weather. Your progression in age is like the seasons. Your thoughts and ideas are like the orbit of the heavenly bodies and brightness of stars. The Muslim poet said: "You assume that you are merely a small body, while within you is enfolded the greater world in its entirety."

The second level of knowing is the world of dominion, the malakut. Of the five perspectives of knowing it, the first is that it is under the perpetual supervision and control of Allah. In verse 36:40 we're informed: "It is not for the sun to overtake the moon or the night to outstrip the day, each swims along in its own orbit."The second is that it has its own consciousness: "There is nothing in existence except that it sings the praises of Allah, only you do not comprehend their singing," (Q. 17:44). The third is from the angle that it signifies the presence of its own creator. World in Arabic is alam, which comes for the word for sign because it points toward the existence of its own creator. "We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in their very selves until it becomes clear to them that it is truth," (Q. 41:53). The fourth angle is that it is ephemeral, "Everything on earth is perishing, yet only the countenance of your Lord will remain," (Q. 55:26). The fifth angle is that it is programmed to disappoint by design, al-Sakandari said, "don't be surprised by the occurrence of disappointments so long as you remain in this house; for it has only shown its essential nature and its requisite qualities."

We'll travel the final two levels next week; this is more than enough to keep you busy until then. Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi