A few weeks ago I read Gai Eaton’s book “Islam and the Destiny of Man”, and since then, I’ve been unsure how to summarize the experience of reading it. It’s a book that simply needs to be experienced for itself.
The aim of the book is to introduce the reader to an Islamic worldview, and the book is separated into three sections to complete this task. The first section “An Approach to the Faith” addresses the historical relationship between Muslim lands and Europe, and core principles (such as Truth and Mercy) that animate Islam. The second section “The Making of the Faith” addresses the world of the Qur’an, the life of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him), the history of the successors who followed him, and history of the people who followed the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs. For me, this section was an education in the depth of the Islamic tradition, and a reminder that there is so much to learn! As I read the historical sections of the book for instance, I realised that I really didn’t know anything about the lives of the successors of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. To rectify this, I’m going to insha’Allah start with a lecture series by Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad, available through the Quilliam Press website here.
The third section is titled “Fruits of the Faith”, and describes the example of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, Islamic law, Islamic art and mysticism, and the worldview of the hereafter that should structure how Muslims understand their experience in the world. Being reminded of where we are headed and the purpose of our lives was on a personal level, very very needed, and a reminder that one needs to constantly reflect on the beliefs/ideas that determine your response to events in your life. So often we act unthinkingly, and don’t realise that there are faulty beliefs/ideas fuelling our reactions.
Despite the gendered language, the book is a powerful and beautiful read, and a book that reminds you that you need to study. On every page, Gai Eaton demonstrates the richness and beauty of the Islamic tradition, and teaches the reader that one needs to have a coherent study plan in place of Qur’an memorisation, Arabic study, tafsir, fiqh, learning more about the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and personal character refinement. The book is a proof for the need for sustainable sequential learning.
The book was also a reminder that to strive for what is good in this world, but not to put the world in one’s heart. There is no time for envy, or feeling sad about not having something. Paradise is the goal to work towards.
Below: here are some of my notes.
On the Qur’an
- “The Qur’an, set on a shelf with other books, has a function entirely different to theirs and exists in a different dimension. It moves an illiterate shepherd to tears when recited to him, and it has shaped the lives of millions of simple people over the course of almost fourteen centuries; it has nourished some of the most powerful intellects known to the human record; it has stopped sophisticates in their tracks and made saints of them, and it has been the source of the most subtle philosophy and of an art which expresses its deepest meaning in visual terms; it has brought the wandering tribes of mankind together in communities and civilizations upon which its imprint is apparent even to the most casual observer. ” (p.91)
- It (revelation) gives back to the intelligence its lost capacity to perceive and to comprehend supernatural truths, it gives back to the will its lost capacity to command the warring factions in the soul, and it gives back to sentiment its lost capacity to love God and to love everything that reminds us of Him. (p.92)
- “Even at the simplest everyday level there is constant avoidance of the thought of death; there is evasion of our inward solitariness, which no amount of conviviality can entirely overcome, and there is a refusal to acknowledge our limitations and our sins […]Hence the sense or urgency which informs the whole Qur’an, making the very thought of ‘passtimes’ an outrage against common sense; for to waste the little time we have seems to the Muslim like insane profligacy.” ( p.107)
On recognising one’s servanthood.
- ..” there are a million different ways in which – whether in thought or in action – we can ascribe partners to the One who has no partners. Were it not for the intervention of the divine mercy and the overflowing of the divine forgiveness, none would escape the trial by fire. Moreover, the ultimate ‘false god’, the shadowy presence behind all others, is the human ego with its pretensions to self-sufficiency. “(p.71)
- To surrender to the light given from beyond ourselves – to which the inner light responds – is to develop a passionate appetite for greater light. ‘O Allah, appoint for me light in my heart and light before me and light behind me, light on my right side and light on my left, light above me and light below me, light in my sight and light in my perception, light in my countenance and light in my flesh, light in my blood and light in my bones; increase for me light and give me light.” (p.76)
- “A servant works for his wages, he may depart if the conditions of his service do not please him, and he may, if he chooses, set his will against that of his employer. But God is not an employer, nor are His messengers employees. The ‘slave of God’ surrenders his will to that of his Master, exemplifying the quality of spiritual poverty (faqr) which lies at the very root of Islam.” (p.79)
- God gave to Adam and to his descendants the gift of intelligence, asking in return, not for blind praise, but for a lucid and joyful understanding of the nature of things and their source. It is therefore incumbent upon us to recognise the facts of our sitaution, which is one of total dependence, total indebtedness. (p.205)
- The point, clearly is that the our natural feelings must never be taken out of their proper sphere and elevated to the rank of philosophical principles. The fact that I am sad does not mean that the world is out of kilter, the fact that I have been hurt does not mean that God is unjust, and the fact that my personal life may have been darkened by tragedy does not mean that no sun shines upon creation. It is when emotion is transposed to a diferent dimension that we have a “problem of suffering “ and this, precisely, it what has happened in our time.“( 207)
- For those who see themselves as isolated fragments, the experience of suffering is an experience of alienation and therefore an intolerable invasion. For the Muslim his personal identity and his destiny are one; nothing that enters his experience can be considered a ‘foreign body’ (…). The word maktub ‘ it is written’ or ‘fated’, means that whatever happens to us was inscribed upon our individual essence from the beginning of time. To wish that something else had happened to us is to wish ourselves other than ourselves, which is a perverse self-denial and indirectly, a denial of our Creator who gave us what He gave us. Abu Huraira reported the Prophet as saying : “ Go far as good things are concerned, be eager for what benefits you, seek help from Allah and do not be too weak to do so. [But] if some affliction comes to you do not say, “Had I done such and such this would never have happened.” but say, “Allah decrees, and He does what He wishes”, for “Had I done…” provides an opening for the devil’s action. (p.209)
On the importance of beauty:
- “The human norm is one of beauty of spirit, beauty of soul, beauty of comportment and finally, the beauty of those things with which we choose to surround ourselves- home, dress, utensils and so on. Anger, condemned in Quran and hadith on moral grounds, is condemned also because it disfigures the human countenance. An ugly building is in-Islamic, however functional it may be, as is everything cheap and tawdry. The true and the beautiful, therefore belong to this final faith in a very special way. Stupidity and ugliness have no place in it.”
On the importance of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)
- It is clear that if we are to fulfil our true function, we must first identify and then become our true selves; the man alienated from his own centre is alienated from all things, not only a stranger to himself but also a stranger in the universe. Yet he cannot find the centre nor become himself without help. For the Muslim, the Prophet not only shows the way to the centre but in a certain sense, is himself the way, since by taking him as our model, or by entering into the mould of his personality, that we are best able to travel to our destination. (p.204)
On the hereafter
- “With the entry into Paradise time is redeemed and everything falls into place. Were it possible for the blessed to retain a single unhappy memory this would not be the perfection promised them, yet it cannot be said that they forget anything, since Paradise is the place where everything is clearly seen; what they see then, is the total perfection of creation, in which all disharmonies are resolved. Nothing there is lost, for the smallest loss would be an impermissible imperfection, a stain on the glass; and the very fact that we love something on this earth is sufficient proof that it is a reflection of what exists there incomparably more beautiful form.” (252)
- It is axiomatic in religious terms that God never gives less than He promises. He never disappoints expectations which He has Himself aroused. But He does – we are assured -give more than He promises, and it is this ‘more’ that is indecipherable or that exceeds the reach of the human imagination; and this it is that, in the last resort, overwhelms the simple images people have of a happy afterlife, just as a great light overwhelms a lesser one.” (p.246)
- “People are not always what they say they are – or even what they think they are. There is but One who sees us objectively, and we have reason to be thankful that He is called the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Forgiving.” (p.73)
- ” No one was ever damned for thinking too well of people.”
- This world is the place of mercy, where we need only ask in order to receive; on the Day, pure objectivity rules and we are what we are or what we have made of ourselves. “