Journey Towards Perfection
Ayatullah Dr Sayyid Fazel Milani
The world in which we are living is witness to eternal motion and it is consistently and persistently moving towards a goal. Contrary to what the ancient thinkers and philosophers have maintained, motion and change from one state to another is evident in every thing. However, in the material world motion necessitates annihilation. The objects that are confined in the prison of measures and limits, 1 are in continuous motion, and this motion is all the time creating new forms. It is this factor that has led the Muslim philosophers to define motion in the following terms: "Motion is a gradual exit of potential to action." 2
Material existence is in motion; it is mutable; but it is not self-aware and self-conscious. If there were no perception everything would have remained in the unconscious realm of existence. If there had not existed the tool of vision, the eyes, there would not have existed any difference between a wounded opening and the blooming of flowers. There would have been no difference between an ugly, hateful face and a beautiful, loving continence.
The smell of a flower is delightful, it creates joyous reaction. The freshness of a bud gives rise to happiness. The song of a nightingale makes one's spirit cheerful. But, neither the flower is aware of delightfulness, nor is the bud of happiness and freshness. They all are moving in the realm of unconsciousness and incomprehension. However, when one considers human being, then, one enters the tumultuous uproar in fixing the standard of evaluating humanity which is actually to be located in the region of sensation and perception (intelligence). All the beauty in nature reflects itself in the mirror of human vision, and it is he who perceives it. His light of intelligence and will is manifest in all the particles and motions in the Universe.
Humanity, which represents a part of the total universe, is moving toward perfection. In order for humanity to attain perfection it needs to move, and this movement ought to be in the direction of continuous accretion and not decoration. This accretion has to be essential and internalized, and this movement toward development and in order to attain that development is possible through one particular growth. This growth is known as self-cognition. 3
The Qur'an has fixed a definite goal for this movement towards perfection in the following verse:
O human being! You are in continuous search towards your Lord, so that you meet Him. (Quran 84:6)
Thus, the collective purpose of humanity is to move on the path of development and perfection so as to reach the Lord. And, every step that a human being takes and every breath that he inhales is a step towards death. Death, here, ought to be understood as a prelude to the ultimate meeting with the Lord.
In this connection Imam 'Ali b. Abi Talib has said :
A hidden breath is step towards his death. 4
It is important to bear in mind that death in the lexicon of religion is not destruction or annihilation; rather, it is very accurately described as a passage from this material world to the eternal world. Imam 'Ali has explained the difference between the two worlds in a sermon delivered to the Muslims in seventh century. He says:
Everything in the world is more audible than visible; whereas, everything in the next world is more visible than audible. Thus, it is sufficient for you to hear about that which is visible and to be informed about that which is invisible. 5
In other words, what appears to be invisible will become visible and what was only in the state of audibility will become actualized in the next world. Thus, it is important to maintain faith in what one 'hears'.
Since, the movement towards perfection does not end with this life on earth, man's spiritual journey must continue in the world, more spacious than this world as Imam 'Ali reminds people in another sermon:
You will be tested [in this world], but you have been created for other than that [purpose of being tested]. 6
It is evident that the purpose of creation is not being afflicted with the hardship of being tested; on the contrary, it is taking works as a purifying agent for the higher purpose for which humanity has been created. This journey towards the higher goal, which is a spiritual journey, needs provision. This provision in nothing else but the righteous deeds of a person that accompany the traveler of this journey faithfully until it reaches the destination. The Qur'an says:
Whosoever does right, whether male or female, and is a believer, him verily We shall quicken with good life, and We shall pay them recompense in proportion to the best of what they used to do. (Quran 16:97)
The religious leaders of the world attach tremendous significance to the matter of religious act. Imam Hasan, the second Imam of the Shi'ite Muslims, has related that whenever he remembered death (the spiritual journey) he cried out:
Alas! How very little provision for such a long journey! 8
However, there are among people those who do not care to remind themselves of this long journey and who are in the state of heedlessness. Imam 'Ali in reference to this latter group says thus:
If you have the same knowledge of things about life after death, things which are hidden from you and revealed to me, the information would have made you leave your hearth and home to disperse in the world weeping over your sins, putting yourselves to torture for the evil deeds committed by you and, leaving your wealth and property in such a way that there will be no one to look after it, and none to inherit. The apprehension about the future and the remorse over the past would have so affected every one of you that no body would have had time to think of anything besides his own future. But you have forgotten what has been taught to you and [wrongly] believe yourselves to be well protected from the things of which you were warned. The result is that your plans are upset and your affairs are confused.9
From what has been said above it becomes evident that a man like Imam 'Ali had reached the highest peak in his spiritual journey, and had made it clear to everyone the level that humanity is capable of attaining in the realm of spirituality by continuously striving. He informed others of the potential in each individual to attain the level of development in its entirety.
Now we should ask the following question:
Where should we begin our spiritual journey from?
The answer to the question is two-fold:
First part deals with the subject of "self-cognition"; and the second part deals with "self-reckoning" or "self-accounting".
As for the first part, I will cite several authentic statements that have been preserved in Islamic sources on the authority of the Prophet Muhammad and his successors. These citations will give us an idea of the cruciality of "self-cognition" in our spiritual journey. The Prophet Muhammad has declared:
The one who knows himself knows his Lord. 9
Imam 'Ali has declared that knowing oneself is the most beneficial of sciences. 10
In another context he says:
A person who has succeeded in self-cognition has attained the highest form of success. 11
And, that the one who knows himself has reached the end of all knowledge and all sciences. 12
As for the second part which deals with "self-reckoning", Imam 'Ali reports a communication on the subject on the authority of the Prophet Muhammad, who said:
The cleverest person is the one who takes account of himself and who strives and struggles for the life after death.
A person asked Imam ‘Ali as to how does a person takes an account of himself. The Imam replied:
From the time he is up until he retires at night he asks: "O my soul this day has passed on you and will never return, and Cod will ask you to account for the day as to how you passed it. What did you do on that day? Did you remember your Lord and praise Him? Did you attend to the needs of other believers? Did you help them out? Did you take care to treat their family well in their absence? Did you take care of their loved ones after any one of them died? Did you engage is backbiting a brother in faith, or did you stop someone from doing so? Did you help fellow human being? What did you do on this day?"
At that time he recalls what he has done on that day. If he has done good he praises Cod and asks Him to help him further in this direction. If he has disobeyed Him or has acted wrongly he asks God to forgive him and make a decision not to repeat that again. 13
The Prophet has also said that a person will not become a believer in God until he begins to reckon his own deeds just as a partner in a business seeks accounts from another partner. 14
Islam gives the message that in order to attain perfection it is necessary for all human beings to strive in the following direction:
To prepare oneself for the spiritual journey for the perfection.
To visualize death as a passage to that perfection.
To gather the provision for this long journey. This provision is righteous deeds which alone can sustain the hardship of the journey towards the Lord.
To begin the spiritual quest first, by self-cognition which is most beneficial of all human endeavors in order to acquire knowledge; and, second, by engaging in self-accounting which is the important tool for furthering spiritual development.
To recognize the need for a leader at all levels in the movement toward the ultimate goal, namely, the Lord.
In my own personal quest I have come to acknowledge a guide and a leader who, I believe, has contributed tremendously toward my spiritual development.
This leader is Imam 'Ali b. Abi Talib, who, through his personal example has shown the posterity the way in which one can reach the path of perfection.
In the Holy Qur'an it has been noted: "Lo, We have created everything by measure." (54:49)
Sadr, Muhammad Baqir al-, Falsafatuna (Our Philosophy) (Beirut, 1980), p.231.
Nubashshiri, Asad Allah, Muqaddima Ta'rikh Falsafa-i Islami, by Henri Corbin (Tehran, 1356 Sh.), p. 11.
Nahj al-balagha, sermons, letters and maxims of Imam 'Ali b. Abi Talib (Tehran, n.d.), p. 673.
Ibid., Muhammad 'Abduh's commentary (Beirut, n.d.), Vol. 1, p. 225.
Ibid., p. 471
The Qur'an, Chapter 16, verse # 97.
Majlisi, Muhammad Baqir al-, Bihar al-Anwar (Beirut, 1981) Vol. 43, p.228.
Nahj al-balagha, Vol.1, p. 329.
Majlisi, Bihar, Vol. 2, p. 23.
Amidi, al-, Ghurar al-hikam we durar al-kalim (Najaf, 1965), p. 319.
Ibid., p. 322.
Ibid., p. 293.
Hurr al-'Amili, Muhammad b. al-Hasan, al-, Wasa1il al-shi'a (Beirut, 1382 AH) Vol. 11, 379-380.
Ibid., Vol. 11, p. 380.