The Beatific Vision – Sickness, Suffering and the Divine Names
Over the last years, as I’ve dealt with furiously fluctuating (ill)health and occasional moments of despair, not least the other week when I was laying on that hospital trolley. Whilst I was there, and in the moments of lucidity I had, I started to read (via Kindle (c) ) and article by a modern-day mystic, Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, On Suffering and Divine Wisdom.
Here are some passages I found particularly interesting, and occasionally profound, from sections 4 and 6 of his text. I can’t say I always agree with his particular (and occasionally austere) Sufi vision, but in the broad scheme of individual suffering in Light of the Divine, it certainly offers food for thought). The first passage is somewhat complex, just because of the Arabic terminology particularly in reference to the Names with which the Divine Addresses Himself, but can be summed up in these three excerpts that I have taken. These names seem to interplay in the world, and the world seems to be a kind of theophanic revelation of God’s Self-Disclosure in these Names, and so it takes someone with discernment, gnosis, ma’rifa to be able to see which Names are in play at any time, and what they could mean.
There is, also, a kind of serenity with which he accepts ‘Fate’ in so far as it applies to God’s Will/Command and His Names. Perhaps, like with mindfulness-type projects, it is this non-resistance to the world that can benefit the chronically troubled or sick. All is in His Hands, and all that we have to offer is the best that we can do. The best, that is, in terms of heightening what dignity we have, and to efface our egos in the Face of His Majesty, which strikes so blindingly, especially for the chronically ill.
- “The particular significance here for theodicy is that the perfection of this world and the next lies in the totality of the myriad interpenetrative and interconnected modes, factors, and implications of these names. For each particular existent’s “perfection” is only over others, which to that extent must be subject to some privation, whether experienced as pain, evil, or suffering.”
- “The believer, the saint, the ‘arif or knower of Allah directly and experientially–all know Allah in His manifestations and determinations, each according to his own illumination and consciousness of the Divine. They are patent in the wondrous balance in the natural world between species, whose interests are inextricably intertwined by feeding, parasitism, symbiosis, and most dramatically perhaps, predation…
- “A “good job” for example, only exists in contradistinction to the less rewarding ways in which other people have to earn a living. Moreover, a certain complementarity imbues the very terms in which the perfection of particulars is construed. Thus triumph has no meaning without the possibility of ruin, or friendship without the possibility of enmity, peace without war, health without disease, safety without peril, might without abasement, or life without death. So privation and evil exist in order to elucidate their opposite, human felicity and perfection; not as any “absolute standard” to measure the Divine, which rather in its entirety measures them. Servanthood means that one accepts that they pertain to man, not to God…
4. THE CONEXT OF THE DIVINE NAMES
Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman taught that the divine names vie over existent things to manifest their implications in them. Consider the example of a young man from a good family, who falls in with bad company and drifts into their way of seeing and doing things, under the influence of the name al-Khafid, the Lowerer, and finally al-Mudhill, the Abaser, until the day comes when he can sink no lower and disgusts even himself. The name al-Tawwab or ‘Relenter’ deploys, he remembers how he was, sees what he has become, and finds himself ashamed before his Maker, to whom he repents. The days and weeks see him improve, under the implications of al-Rafi‘, He Who Raises. He seeks better company, unplugs from bad old ways, and passes into the sphere of al-Wadud, the Solicitous and Tender, to al-Karim, the All-generous, and so forth. The interactions of the names and their determinations are complex and interpenetrative. The name al-Musawwir, for example, the Bestower of Forms, the Fashioner, the Ingrainer, the Organizer, manifests its implications in all existents; while al-Warith, the Inheritor, remains after the implications of the former have been lifted from any particular existent and it has been annihilated, effaced, and dispersed. The name al-Muqaddim, the Advancer, makes one existent precede another, in works, in rank, or in time of appearance; while al-Mu’akhkhir, the Delayer, the Demoter, postpones existents and events until after others, or keeps them back, or lowers them. The name al-Wahhab, the Liberal, the Bountiful, the Giver, dispenses His bounties perpetually, freely, universally, and for nothing in return; while al-Mani‘, the Preventer, stops, denies, checks, and prevents attacks. The name al-Nafi‘, the Benefiter, promotes, helps, and does good to whomsoever He wills; while al-Darr, the Afflicter, damages, harms, and mars whomever He wills. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “Verily, Allah has ninety-nine names. Whoever comprehends all of them shall enter paradise” (Tirmidhi (19), 5.532: 3508. S)….
“The believer, the saint, the ‘arif or knower of Allah directly and experientially–all know Allah in His manifestations and determinations, each according to his own illumination and consciousness of the Divine. They are patent in the wondrous balance in the natural world between species, whose interests are inextricably intertwined by feeding, parasitism, symbiosis, and most dramatically perhaps, predation…
Here, the good Shaykh provides an example of how the Divine Names seem to interplay with one another; that in this realm of finite possibilities, of life and death, perhaps it takes time to achieve a balance. However, the passage of time appears to allow us to apprehend the beauty of the way things are, a manifestation of infinite Wisdom and Perfection.
“On Isle Royale, for example, a forty-five-mile-long wilderness sanctuary separated by fourteen miles of open water of Lake Superior from the coast of Ontario, there were no moose until 1908, when a number of them swam across the channel to escape wolves on the mainland. By 1915, their numbers had increased to two hundred. The population, unhindered by natural enemies, kept steadily increasing until 1930, when they had eaten up so much of the vegetation on the island that they were starving in droves, emaciated and diseased. The eight hundred or so moose continued, miserably famished and ill, until the winter of 1948—49, when a pack of some twenty timber wolves came across the ice and began to prey on the herd. They were soon reduced to some six hundred, or thirty moose to each wolf, which is the natural balance between the two species in the wild. The outward ferocity of the wolves bringing down the individual moose and eating them, the inevitable fear and blood and suffering of the prey at the fangs of the predator, proved to be a divine mercy resulting in the recovery of the species as a whole on the isle. Within a few years, the herd was better fed and healthier than any time in the previous half century it had lived there (The Seven Mysteries of Life (13), 474—75)…
“The particular significance here for theodicy is that the perfection of this world and the next lies in the totality of the myriad interpenetrative and interconnected modes, factors, and implications of these names. For each particular existent’s “perfection” is only over others, which to that extent must be subject to some privation, whether experienced as pain, evil, or suffering.
“A “good job” for example, only exists in contradistinction to the less rewarding ways in which other people have to earn a living. Moreover, a certain complementarity imbues the very terms in which the perfection of particulars is construed. Thus triumph has no meaning without the possibility of ruin, or friendship without the possibility of enmity, peace without war, health without disease, safety without peril, might without abasement, or life without death. So privation and evil exist in order to elucidate their opposite, human felicity and perfection; not as any “absolute standard” to measure the Divine, which rather in its entirety measures them. Servanthood means that one accepts that they pertain to man, not to God…
“Imam Juwayni, Ghazali’s sheikh in tenets of faith, expressed this by saying, “There is neither good nor evil in the actions of Allah Most Blessed and Exalted in respect to His divinity, for all actions are equal in respect to Him; while their levels but differ in respect to created servants (al-‘Aqida al-Nizamiyya (11), 35—36)” [Emphasis mine].
“This supreme sovereignty of Allah is ultimately the reason why theodicy, if earnestly discussed by divines of other faiths, has far less relevance for Muslims. The ethos of Islam or ‘submission to Allah’ does not reduce the order of created being, with all its complexity, to pleasure or pain, joy or suffering, good or evil, for these refer to created individuals. It instead acknowledges that the universe is a larger context, a theater, an examination room, for human actions to mirror the degrees, shades, and nuances of the Creator’s love or wrath. The theophany of Allah’s love is in human tawfiq or ‘divinely given success’ in obeying Him. The theophany of His wrath is in human khidhlan or the ‘divine abandonment’ of a servant to his own pride and folly. There is no mystery as to which is which, because Allah has sent us messengers to make it plain, given us eyes and ears with which to apprehend their message, an intellect with which to understand it, and a life and death in which to realize it. Acting upon what one thus knows brings about an illuminatory hal or state in which the wisdom of suffering and privation is taken for granted, because the resultant qurb or nearness has transmuted the experience of them into tawfiq rather than khidhlan.
If you cannot, then, reduce God, to the kind of anthropomorphic vision of the Divine through which to examine Him, then perhaps the only recourse we have is His Names, and to see how they Manifest.
6. THE DIVINE WISDOM IN SUFFERING AND EVIL
“Someone just and good would not allow suffering and evil if he could prevent them,” is contradicted by many examples of Allah’s wisdom, justice, and goodness, in creation that entail suffering and evil, of which the following are only the most plain after a little reflection.
The Next World
“The value of one over infinity approaches zero. So too, the time one spends in this world pales to insignificance before eternity, where in the next world, each of us will realise that in this one, “you bode but little” (Qur’an 23:113). Allah [and really, this is just the Arabic term for ‘God’ if taken more generically] has placed the story of each particular human being, the creative theophany of the Rahman or Most Merciful, in the larger context of forever, the special theophany of the Rahim or All-[C]ompassionate to those who were His true servants in this world. The eternity of the afterlife furnishes the true measure and context of the transitory sufferings of this life, which are ephemeral in comparison.
“Rumi alludes to this ‘global answer’ to suffering in his parable of the sapling in the midst of the leafless winter, shivering and muttering to itself about the misery of the biting wind and cold, unable to think why God should do such a thing to it. The answer finally comes in the form of the warm and verdant springtime. IN the trajectory of a believer’s life and afterlife, when springtime comes it lasts forever.”
Of course, this isn’t a suggestion for complacency or a fideistic vision, for who knows whom the Almighty will take to be their true believer?
Joys and Suffering as Signs
“Abu ‘Ali al-Radhabari used to say, “What He has made manifest of His blessings indicates what He yet conceals of his generosity.” The experience of those with ma’rifa [I guess, for want of a better term for it, gnosis] in this world is but a foretaste of the incommensurability of beatific vision of God in the next…. [emphasis mine]
“For its part, disease is a harrowing ordeal, especially psychologically, since most of us tend to identify closely with our bodies. Yet through its pain and travail we come to understand how little we could bear endless suffering, teaching us to implore Allah to spare us from the hellfire, thus serving as a means of our deliverance. As Ibn ‘Ata Illah [a famous and important mystic, d. 709 AH] has said, “Whenever He loosens your tongue with a petition, know that He wants to give to you.” (Hiram (8), 37: 102).
“Central to worship is supplicating the Worshipped. “Say, ‘My Lord would not even concern Himself with you were it not for your supplication” (Qur’an 25:77). Unlike friends, relatives and virtually everyone else, Allah loves to be asked and dislikes not to be. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Truly, supplication is what worship is, “then he recited, “And your Lord says, ‘Call on Me and I will answer you: Verily those too haughty to worship Me shall inevitably enter hell, utterly humiliated” [40:60]
“…if not for the problems, fears, inadequacies, and pain man faces, he would remain turned away from the door of the Divine generosity, and miss an enormous share of worship that benefits him in this world and the next.”