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Dec 7, 2018

The Listening of the Soul

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Zaid Shakir 1

Zaid Shakir

Zaytuna College

Zaid Shakir specializes in Islamic spirituality, contemporary Muslim thought, Islamic history and politics, and Shafi’i fiqh.

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The Listening of the Soul

Screen Shot 2018 12 19 At 4 49 05 Pm

Maulvi in meditation, Indischer Maler, ca. 1630

Islam holds humans to be a special creation. Ennobled by God, they are His vicegerent on earth and look forward to a sublime destiny. Their ancestor Adam was the exalted creature in whose direction God ordered the angels to prostrate, even while his splendor drew the envy of Satan. They are indeed incomparable wonders in the creation of God. Yet, despite this exalted stature, there exist many humans who view themselves as nothing more than a random assortment of molecules and atoms.

But humans are much more. We are the only creatures capable of writing and reading the essays populating this publication, an ability atheists attribute to a sort of evolutionary miracle. In The Origin of Species: A New Song, published in the British Blackwood’s Magazine in 1861, a poet acknowledges the distinguishing nature of our speech, yet notes our kinship to a “dumb” animal:

An Ape with a pliable thumb and big brain,
When the gift of gab he managed to gain,
As a Lord of Creation established his reign,
Which nobody can deny.

Muslims affirm, of course, that God can give non-human objects the power of a type of speech. We read in the Qur’an, for example, “The Heavens and Earth and all therein glorify God. There is nothing except that it glorifies Him in praise. However, you fail to comprehend their glorification. Verily, He [God] is Clement, Forgiving” (17:44). Likewise, “On that day she [the Earth] will testify about all that had occurred [on her surface]” (99:4). Similarly, “Their ears, eyes, and skin will testify against them concerning what they used to do. People will say to their skins, ‘Why did you testify against us?’ They will respond, ‘We were made to speak by God, the Enabler of all speech’” (41:20–21). As with humans, it is God who makes the speech of these objects, as well as of insects and animals, intelligible.

For believers, however, humankind also possesses an incomparable ability to speak that represents not an evolutionary accident but a revolutionary gift from God. Writing in 1894, Rev. B. G. Johns mentioned, “Speech was God’s gift to man … the gift was to him alone as distinct from all other living creatures.”2 The Qur’an affirms, “The Merciful has taught the Qur’an. He has created the human; taught him articulation” (55:1–4). It is interesting that God, in these verses, does not use the word kalām (speech) but rather bayān (articulation). This linguistic usage bypasses the debate concerning the ability of animals to speak and leads us immediately to the unique distinction possessed by humans—namely, the ability to speak expressively, employing syntax, grammar, and rhetorical devices in the context of a propositional language, all aspects of language that remain undetectable in other creatures.

The distinction of human language has always confounded philosophers and scientists alike. How do we explain such a categorical and revolutionary difference in the human, who exists, in the view of the accepted scientific paradigm, only because of an evolutionary process that links him to all else in the animal kingdom? Surely another creature could be found to approximate our linguistic prowess; still, we continue to be frustrated in our search for that creature.

For Muslims, listening can be even more important than speech, for it is the ability to listen that serves as the beginning of spiritual guidance.

This evolutionary-revolutionary dilemma has occupied our greatest minds. In his The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes, Mortimer Adler posits that the pivotal issues informing this debate revolve around speech and language. Due to our matchless linguistic abilities, Adler believes there is a revolutionary difference of “kind” and of “degree” between humans and other animals. Still, there exists an open question as to whether the difference in kind is “superficial” or “radical.” A superficial difference would attribute the same underlying psychological processes to both human and non-human animals, while a radical difference would maintain “that man has the power of propositional speech because he has the power of conceptual thought, whereas the non-human animals lack the power of propositional speech because they lack the power of conceptual thought.”3

The Listening Animal

While much has been written about human speech and the distinction it bestows upon our species, far less attention has been paid to the human’s ability to listen. For Muslims, listening can be even more important than speech, for it is the ability to listen that serves as the beginning of spiritual guidance, which in turn is a critical means for achieving the raison d’être of human existence—namely, serving God. We read in the Qur’an, “I have only created the jinn and humankind that they serve me” (51:56).

For the conscientious believer, the highest function of our ability to listen is to support the journey to God while still in this world. Success in that journey is predicated on a person’s ability to nurture his soul, or the nafs, which Muslim scholars understand as the essence of a person, as the part of the human constitution that serves as the locus of emotions, appetites, and passions—whether praiseworthy or blameworthy—and that gives the physical human body its personhood. Like the physical body, the nafs can change; it possesses the ability to move beyond its basest form, the lustful or bestial soul (al-nafs al-shahwāniyyah/al-bahīmiyyah) to the realm of human perfection (al-nafs al-kāmilah).

A clear example of the soul’s capacity to listen is found in an incident that occurred in the aftermath of the Battle of Badr, a decisive encounter between the fledgling Muslim community and the idolaters of Mecca. The companions heard the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ addressing the dead Qurayshī idolaters, “O ¢Utbah b. Rabī¢ah, O Shaybah b. Rabī¢ah, O so-and-so, did you find the promise of your Lord to be true? I found the promise of my Lord truthful.” Hearing this, ¢Umar b. al-Khaţţāb said, “O Messenger of God! The people you are addressing are lifeless cadavers.” The Prophet ﷺ, showing the souls of the physically dead could still listen, replied, “I swear by the One who holds my life, you all cannot hear what I am saying any better than them. Rather they are incapable of responding.”4

A qualitative realm within ourselves and the universe serves as a source of joy and wonder for us, enabling us to transcend worldly challenges and live lives that are far more than solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short—a fate Hobbes feared for humans existing in a state of nature, unchecked by an overarching authority of considerable strength. True religion, placing us on a journey to God while dwelling in this physical realm, puts us in touch with the Source of all strength and elevates us above the Hobbesian state of nature.

Here, the listening of the soul comes into play. Al-Ĥārith al-Muĥāsibī, one of the first Muslims to systematically analyze the soul’s journey to its Lord, reminds us that this journey begins with careful listening. He mentions at the very beginning of his seminal work al-Ri¢āyah li ĥuqūq Allāh (Carefully Guarding the Rights Owed to God),

I encourage you to listen carefully in order that you may understand everything God is calling you to. Give priority to what I say in response to your [enquiry]. Perhaps God, Mighty and Majestic, will allow you to benefit from my response in terms of your guarding the rights He has over you and to properly convey [knowledge of ] those rights to others. Verily, God, Blessed and Exalted is He, has informed us in His Book that one who listens in a manner which God loves and is pleased with, will find a reminder, rather, an admonition, in what He listens to. God, Blessed and Exalted is He, says, “Surely in this is a reminder for one who has an attentive heart and listens as a careful witness.”5

An Inner Conversation

Who is this attentive listener? The ears receive sounds as they are well designed to do. The brain processes those sounds, translating them into the patterns of language we are so familiar with, but what part of the human is being spoken to here? Al-Muĥāsibī provides an answer: “Whosoever listens to the Book of God or words of wisdom, or knowledge, or to an admonition and only speaks to his soul what he has heard, he calls his heart to witness what he is listening to.”6 This listener, ultimately, is the soul, for the soul is receptive to those messages that may elevate or debase it. Communication with the soul and its ability to listen are among the keys to both the actualization of our humanity and our salvation.

Wahb b. Munabbih, a Jewish rabbi before his conversion to Islam, delineates the etiquettes that should properly govern the process of communicating with our soul. He says:

Among the etiquettes of attentive listening: stillness of the limbs; lowering one’s gaze; focusing one’s hearing; one’s mind being present; and a conviction to act on what one hears. This is true listening in a way God loves and is pleased with, exalted is He. The servant restrains his hands from any distraction that would preoccupy his heart from careful listening. He lowers his gaze from anything that would distract his heart. He calls his intellect to attentiveness so as to only address his soul with what it is listening to.7

We may even concede here, if only for the sake of argument, that the intellect (¢aql) al-Muĥāsibī refers to is a material byproduct of neurological functions. Still, we cannot deny the continuous conversation between the intellect, the heart, and the soul. As spiritual essences, the heart and the soul are part of an inner conversation, one that allows the human to transcend the strictly physical properties to which modern science reduces him.

That inner conversation, predicated on the soul’s ability to listen and to speak, is a discourse on salvation. Satan speaks to the soul through subtle temptation, and desires to deceive it into believing that carnal lusts and desires represent its highest aspirations; he knows that if he can keep the soul trapped by its physical appetites, it will be ruined and therefore damned. God, however, speaks to the soul through prophecy and revelation, calling it to the fulfillment of its spiritual potential, a potential consistent with its non-corporal nature. He beautifully mentions the role of listening in the human quest for true liberation, which is the liberation of the soul from the shackles of carnal desire.

As spiritual essences, the heart and the soul are part of an inner conversation, one that allows the human to transcend the strictly physical properties to which modern science reduces him.

The struggle between the exalted spiritual reality God calls the soul and the lowly carnal appetites and passions by which Satan wishes to ensnare the human is best exemplified in the struggle of the soul at its second level of development, the rebuking soul (al-nafs al-lawwāmah), one of five manifestations of the soul mentioned in the Qur’an. The other four are the commanding soul (al-nafs al-ammārah), which has previously been referred to as the bestial or lustful soul; the contented soul (al-nafs al-muţma’innah); the pleasing soul (al-nafs al-rāđiyah); and the pleased soul (al-nafs al-marđiyyah).

The commanding soul commands what is evil through its unrestrained passions, which seek to be satisfied without consideration for the limits established by the divine law. Its urgings, therefore, are vile and rejected by the ethical standards made known to us through prophecy and revelation. The rebuking soul begins to question the urgings of the commanding soul and rebukes it for its excesses and contraventions of the divine law. It vacillates between accepting and repulsing the urges of the commanding soul, an interaction that unfolds as a grand conversation between these two manifestations of the soul. Al-Qāshānī describes this struggle in the following manner:

The rebuking soul is one that has been illuminated by the heart in a way that enables it to become aware of its slumber-like heedlessness and to awaken in order to begin the rectification of its state. It vacillates between responsiveness to the requisites of submission to the Lord and the call of its physical nature. Every time it responds to its dark nature and disposition it is checked by the light of Divine awareness and begins rebuking itself.8

The rebuke mentioned by al-Qāshānī is part of the internal dialogue. The rebuking soul might well say to the commanding soul, “You know what you did was wrong and in contravention of the divine law!” The commanding soul, true to its confinement in the prison of appetites and lusts, could respond, “Yes, but it felt really good!” It is here that the role of spiritual training becomes crucial, for if the rebuking soul can be conditioned through spiritual exercise to focus its gaze onto the light shining forth from prophetic guidance, it gains insight that becomes a salvific rope that pulls the soul from the realms of delusion into the domain of truth and reality. In this state of preparedness for ascension to higher realms of reality, the soul is referred to as the inspired soul (al-nafs al-mulhamah).9

The inspired soul is capable of hearing scriptural and other spiritually uplifting messages that are the sources of its inspiration. Prior to attaining this spiritual station, it was incapable of hearing those messages; hence, it was especially vulnerable to the whispers and suggestions of Satan. Shaykh al-Shabrāwī mentions in his treatise Marātib al-nafs (Degrees of the Soul), “It has come to hear, without an intermediary, the whisperings of the angel and those of the devil, whereas in the previous station it heard nothing, being still close to the degree of animals.”10

Taking the Soul into Account

To return to al-Muĥāsibī, his name is a descriptive one, indicating the frequency and intensity with which he took his soul to account by examining its deeds. That process of accounting (al-muĥāsabah) occurs only through one of the most involved conversations with the soul, a conversation that Imam al-Ghazālī extensively discusses in his magnum opus Iĥyā’ ¢ulūm al-dīn (Reviving the Religious Sciences).11 The essence of what Imam al-Ghazālī mentions there has been succinctly summarized by Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbī in his masterful work of Qur’anic exegesis, al-Tashīl li ¢ulūm al-tanzīl (Simplifying the Sciences of Revelation). Commenting on a sentence found at the end of the first verse of the fourth chapter of the Qur’an, “Surely God watches over you,” he writes:

You should know that awareness of God’s surveillance will not be firmly established until it is preceded by two things: conditionality and pledging, and then followed by accounting and censure. As for conditionality it is the servant making it conditional for his soul to be constantly obedient to God and to leave all sin. Pledging involves a covenant he convenes with his Lord to be obedient. After this he maintains a continuous awareness of the surveillance of God over him.
Thereafter the servant takes his soul to account over the condition he has imposed on it and the covenant he has convened with it. If he finds his soul has been faithful in fulfilling the covenant he has convened with God, he praises God. If he finds he has broken the binding condition and breeched the requisites of God’s surveillance, he rebukes his soul in a way that restrains it from involving itself in a similar breach. He then returns to conditionality and contracting and subsequently tests his faithfulness through self-accounting. [If necessary] he repeats this cycle until he meets his Lord.12

Calligraphy: There is no god but God

All of the stages Ibn Juzayy mentions involve a sincere conversation with the soul. The aspirant instructs his soul that he is placing a condition on it to obey its Lord and that he has entered into a contract with God to uphold that condition. He then engages in regular self-examination of his soul to evaluate whether he has been faithful or treacherous to the covenant. If he has fallen short, he strongly rebukes his soul. In this internal conversation, the individual addresses his soul, and the soul listens.

Imam al-Ghazālī illustrates the rebuke of the soul, saying:

O soul! How great is your ignorance! You claim wisdom, intelligence and sagacity while you are the most imbecilic and stupid of all beings. Do you not know what lies ahead of you of the Garden and Hell and that your fate is to become a denizen of one of them soon enough? So why are you making merry, filled with laughter and preoccupied with amusement while you are being summoned to that overwhelming affair?...
Woe unto you O soul! If your boldness in rebelling against God arises from your belief that God does not see you then how very great is your disbelief! If it occurs despite your knowledge that God watches over you then how very great is your imprudence and your brashness!...
Woe unto you O soul! How amazing is your hypocrisy and your false claims! You profess faith with your tongue while the traces of hypocrisy are clearly visible upon you….
Woe unto you O soul! It is not fitting that the worldly life deceives you, or that you are deceived by the great deceiver (Satan). Consider yourself, for your affair is no one else’s business. Do not waste your time for your breaths are limited. With every breath that issues forth from you a part of yourself has expired. Take advantage of your health before you are afflicted with disease; your free time before you become preoccupied; your wealth before you are tested with poverty; your youth before old age; and your life before your death. Prepare for the Hereafter in proportion to the time you will spend in it….
Woe unto you O soul! I only see you becoming comfortable and affable with the world. Therefore, it will be difficult for you to leave it. You are, however, rapidly approaching the point of departure. You are intensifying your love for the world. Consider yourself heedless of the punishment of God and His reward, likewise of the horrors of Doomsday and its states. Do you not believe in the death which will come between you and your loved ones?...
Woe unto you O soul! Will you have no shyness? You adorn your exterior for the people, yet in private you are openly lewd before God! You are shy before the creation yet you display no shyness before the Creator. Woe unto you! Is He the most contemptible of those who gaze upon you? Do you enjoin good upon the people yet you are defiled by vulgarities? Do you call to righteousness but flee from it yourself ? Do you remind others of God yet forget Him yourself ? O soul! An unrepentant sinner is more odorous than filth and filth cannot cleanse something else. So do not long to cleanse others while you yourself are filthy.13

If the spiritual traveler is able to convince his or her soul that it has a lofty destination and the rigors of the journey are well worth the struggle, it ascends to the level of the contented soul (al-nafs al-muţma’innah). At this level, the soul is adorned with attributes that reflect its contentment with God. Shaykh al-Shabrāwī mentions these as “liberality, reliance, forbearance, activity in worship, gratitude, contentment with destiny, and fortitude during hardship.”14

Having attained this station, the soul is now ready to listen to the most joyful words imaginable, addressed to it from a merciful God. Those words have been revealed and preserved in the Qur’an, where they serve as an impetus to every true spiritual seeker until the world as we know it is no more. God calls to that soul, “O you contented soul! Return to your Lord, pleasing to Him and He pleased with you. Enter amongst my servants. Enter into my Garden” (89:27–30).


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