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Islam: quintessential and universal submission (part 10)

Jun 4, 2010, 11:53 AM | Article By: Alh. Ousman M. Jah

One can understand the truths comprised within the Divine Spirit, which is "breathed" into the soul, in terms of the "names" taught to Adam by God, in virtue of which his knowledge transcends that of all other beings, including the angels. The story of the creation of Adam, the transcendent knowledge proper to the human soul, the fall, and the means of overcoming the consequences of the Fall-all these fundamental principles are given in the following verses in a manner which succinctly presents both the universality and necessity of Divine revelation:

And when thy Lord said unto the angles: verily I am placing a viceroy (khalifah) on earth, they said: Wilt Thou place therein one who will do harm therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and sanctify Thee? He said: Surely I know that which ye know not.

And He taught Adam all the names, and then showed them to the angles, saying: Inform me of the names of these, if ye are truthful.

They said: Be thou glorified! We have no knowledge save that which Thou hast taught us. Truly Thou, only Thou, art the Knower, the Wise.

He said: O Adam, inform them of their names, and when he had informed them of their names, He said: Did I not tell you that I know the secret of the heavens and the earth? And I know that which ye disclose and that which ye hide

And when We said unto you angles: Prostrate yourselves before Adam, they fell prostrate, all save Iblis. He refused and waxed proud, and so become a disbeliever.

And we said: O Adam, dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden, and eat freely thereof where ye will; but come not neat this tree lest ye become wrong-doers.

But Satan caused them to slip there from, and expelled them from the state they were in. And we said: Fall down, one of you a foe unto the other! There shall be for you on earth a habitation and provision for a time.

Then Adam received words from his Lord, and He relented toward him; verily He is ever-Relenting, all-Merciful.

We said: Go down, all of you form hence; but verily there cometh unto you from Me guidance; and whoso followed My guidance, no fear shall come upon them neither shall they grieve.

But they who disbelieve, and deny our revelations, such are rightful owners of the fire. They abide therein (2:30-39).

Adam is therefore not just the first man, but also the first prophet, the first to have received words from his Lord. The guidance promised by God-the means by which the primordial human condition is restored to its plenary state-is, it is not be noted, immediately defined in terms of Our revelations, or Our signs, that is, ayatina. One is given a sense here of a single religion, Divine guidance, which comprises diverse forms of expression, different "signs".

The universality of this guidance through revelation is clearly stressed in the following verses. First, "For every community (umma) there is a Messenger" (10:48). As note above the Quran makes explicit reference to several prophets, but the scope of prophetic guidance extends far beyond those mentioned, for verily, We send Messengers before thee; among them are those about whom We have told thee, and those about whom We have not told thee" (40:78). Moreover, that which was revealed to the Prophet in the Quran does not differ in essence from what was revealed to all the prophets:

And We sent no Messenger before thee but We inspired him (saying): There is no God save Me, so worship Me (21:25).

Naught is said: unto thee (Muhammad) but what was said unto the Messengers before thee (41:43).

This single, unique message of guidance is always revealed to the Messenger in the language of his folk (14:4).

To appreciate more fully the relationship between the substance of the message and its form, one can benefit from a distinction found in Ibn Arabi's writings. This is the distinction, within the Speech of God, between the "necessary Speech" (al-qawl al-wajib), which is not subject to change, and the "accidental Speech" (al-qawl al-ma'rud) which is subject to change. It is the former, the necessary Speech which one can identify with the unchanging substance of the Divine message. This view is articulate more explicitly in the following comment on the oneness of the religious path. It is, he writes, that concerning which Bukhari wrote a chapter entitled, "The chapter on what has come concerning the fact that the religion of the prophets is one." He brought the article which makes the word "religion" definite, because all religion comes from God, even if some of the rulings are diverse. Everyone is commanded to perform the religion and to come together in it... As for the rulings which are diverse, that is because of the Law which God assigned to each one of the messengers. He said, "To every one (of the Prophets) We have appointed a Law and a Way; and if God willed, He would have made you one nation" (5:48). If He had done that, your revealed Laws would not be diverse, just as they are not diverse in the fact that you have been commanded to come together and to perform them.

Thus, on the basis of scriptural and exoteric orthodoxy, Ibn 'Arabi points to the substantial content of religion, which both transcends and legitimizes the various revelations; the key criteria of this substance are centered on two elements: Divine command and human response, In other words, however diverse the particular ruling pertaining to the different religions may be, the substance or principle of these rulings remains the same: to submit to that which has been divinely instituted. The inner reality of religion is thus unfolded for the individual, of whatever religion, in the course of his submission to God and the practice of the worship enjoined upon him.

Returning to the verse "We never sent a Messenger save with the language of his folk," one can apply Ibn 'Arabi's distinction and assert that the essence of the message, the necessary Speech, is one, whereas the "language", the accidental Speech, are many. Needless to say, the distinction in question is not to be understood as relating to a merely linguistic difference with identical semantic content, but rather by "language" should be understood the whole gamut of factors-spiritual, psychological, cultural, and linguistic-that go to make the message of the supra-formal Truth intelligible to a given human collectivity. Herein lies an important aspect of the message conveyed by Ibn 'Arabi's fusus al-hikam: the nature of the jewel (Revelation) is shaped according to the receptivity-conceptual, volitive, affective-of the bezel (fass, singular of fusus), that is the specific mode of prophetic consciousness as determined by the particular human collectivity addressed by the Revelation.

The above considerations lead one to posit the distinction between religions as such, on the one hand, and such a religion, on the other. While such and such a religion is distinct from all others, possessing its own particular rites, laws, and spiritual "economy", religion as such being the exclusive property of none, as it constitutes the inner substance of all. It much be carefully noted here that this view of a religions essence that at once transcends and abides within all religion does not in the least imply a blurring of the boundaries between the different religions on the plane of their formal diversity; rather, the conception of this "essential religion" presupposes formal religions diversity, regarded not so much as a regrettable differentiation but a divinely willed necessary.

To be continued.