A Search for ‘Ilm (Knowledge): The Road to Certainty

Read in the name of your Lord who created. Created man from a clinging substance. Read, and your Lord is the most Generous. Who taught by the pen. Taught man that which he knew not. But man transgresses because he sees himself self-sufficient. Indeed, to your Lord is the return.

–96: 1-8

I wrote a letter recently. And I think in writing I experienced a brief moment of enlightenment. I was prompted to write the letter because lately I’ve become a sucker to writing letters with the anticipation of how they may be received. But, in this case, I was also writing in response to a question: “Where do I find myself spiritually?”

I had a teacher in high school who once drew us a spiritual map. It looked something like this:


I’m pretty terrible with graphics and illustration, so the accuracy is not there but you get the point. Theoretically, our journey is always linear in hopes that we have learned and seek to ascend from the previous down. In reality, what we experience is a series of rolling hills with extended moments of plateau. Sometimes the hills are easy to climb and with others we often lose our grip finding ourselves back at the bottom.

So, where was I? It’s a loaded question, especially when you’re answer is seeking to please. With the hopes that your response can grant you some sort of access into an unventured dimension of a person. That somehow this will bring you into a deeper, closer space. Still unclear of the context of the question–relative to other Muslims? My own practice? Socially?–and cluttered with the thoughts an “incorrect” answer could imply…I produced, to me at least, what was nothing more than mumble jumble.

“’Doctrines, however sophisticated they may be, are still veils’…and though kalaam can serve purposeful it does to some extent ‘tend to impede [the] realization of truth.’”

I reflected on it a bit throughout the night and morning and wrote a letter about it. Much of my adult spiritual journey has been consumed by an obsession with knowledge. To some extent I exchanged my blind ritual devoutness for an equally blurred fight against the patriarchy. With each new book, lecture, conversation, I exchanged, I compromised until I erased the space of confident clarity. Interestingly enough, in my greatest moment of uncertainty is when I was/am credited with holding the second highest level of “knowledge” on the matter. Academia is funny in that way. The academy of the West, at least.

A journey into Islam and its social challenges in America that began with pure intentions turned into a convoluted bubble of unknowing, arrogance and a heart that felt as though it had been sealed. I’m not sure if I had intended for my academic study of religion to bring me closer to myself, to God but I do know that while it left me with insightful questions certainly worthy of pursuit I was experiencing a profound space of emptiness.

Since my break from academia (well somewhat…I can never truly break the bonds of institutionalism), I’ve initiated a process of reordering and reflecting upon the inner dimensions of Muslim practice. Most who know me, I’m sure, have grown tired of my obsession with Ghazali and his case of spiritual crisis. Recently, I was reading Sherman Jackson’s On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam, an introduction and translation of al-Ghazali’s Faysal (I encourage you to read my review here).

Ghazali argues, “The only real function of kalaam (theology) was to defend the beliefs of Muslims [and that it] would be declared haraam with the exception of:

    1. A thinker who develops doubts may use kalaam to clear it up
    2. A scholar may learn kalaam to treat those who develop doubts”

Ghazali calls us to remember that “doctrines, however sophisticated they may be, are still veils”…and though kalaam can serve purposeful it does to some extent “tend to impede [the] realization of truth.”

Over the course of these past few months I realized it wasn’t really knowledge that I was seeking but something more like this:

If a person is constant in worship to the point that he attains true God-consciousness (taqwa) and his soul is cleansed of the pollutants of this transient life and he achieves unfailing consistency in the remembrance of God, the light of gnosis (ma’rifa) will reveal itself to him such that matters that had been blindly accepted on faith become as if he sees and witnessed them (for himself). This is true gnosis which obtains only after the fetters of formalized doctrine are undone and the bosom is expanded by the light of God the Exalted.

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