Social participation as a requisite of combat with the self

Just as some people would imagine that combat with the self implied self-denial and uprooting of instincts, some others have supposed that the requisites of combat with the self are withdrawing from the society, seclusion, and confinement in a corner. This tenet of running away from the people in order to attain security is indeed against the teachings of our religion and against values, and has gradually assumed an aspect of ‘value’ for itself, being reckoned as a manifestation of ‘perfection’.

One of the most important books on mystics [‘ārifīn] and Sufis ever written is the Tadhkirat’ ul-Awliyā’[185] in which the author has given an account of the lives of more than ninety famous mystics. This book is replete with stories of the Sufis’ isolation and retreat from society. In this book it has been reported that they [the people around him] said to Hasan al-Basrī[186]—one of the notable mystics: “There is a man who for a period of twenty years has not attended a congregational prayer, has no social intercourse with anyone, and has [always] been sitting in a corner.”[187] Hasan approached him and asked him the reason for his conduct. On hearing the reply, he said to him: “Be as you are as you are better than me.”[188]

Again, concerning the description of tasawwuf [Sufism] Sahl at-Tustarī (201-273 AH), a great Sufi, is reported to have said: “Sufism is meager eating, having tranquility with God, the Sublime and Exalted, and keeping aloof from people.”[189] Again, in an account on the life of Dāwūd at*-Tā’ī[190] it is reported: “He was constantly disillusioned with the people,”[191] “keeping aloof from them [people],”[192] and would say: “Run away from the people just as they flee from the fierce lion.”[193]

In his Kīmyā-ye Sa‘ādat [The Alchemy of Happiness] Al-Ghazzālī,[194] likewise, devotes a separate chapter to the etiquette of seclusion and says:

The school of thought [madhhab] of Sufyān Nūrī, Ibrāhīm Idham, Dāwūd Tā’ī, Fadīl ‘Ayyād, Sulaymān Khawwās, Yūsuf Isbāt*, Hadhīfah Mar‘ashī, Bashar Hāfī, and many other God-fearing and great men (r)[195] is that seclusion and solitude is more virtuous than mingling with others.[196]

Then it quotes sayings from them such as follows: Rabī‘ ibn Khuthaym and Ibrāhīm Najafī, may Allah be pleased with them, have said: “pursue knowledge and keep away from people.”[197] Fadīl said: “I would receive a great favour from one who did not mind me or greet me, and when I fell ill, would not visit me.”[198] In short, after discussing such quotations on the virtues of seclusion, Al-Ghazzālī has named six of its benefits, discussing each one of them in detail.

For example, the third benefit of seclusion in his view is this: “No city or town…is free of hostility and sedition and anyone who secluded would be free from sedition. Once he associates with the people, he would fall into sedition, destroy his religion and be in danger.”[199] The fourth benefit of seclusion in the view of Al-Ghazzālī is deliverance from the mischief of the people, while the fifth one is that the people will not pin their hopes on him. The sixth [and last] benefit is “being rid of meeting dear ones, the stupid, and those whom it is naturally abominable to meet.”[200]

In a nutshell, seclusion means turning away from responsibility, non-acceptance of the reality of life, and shirking any form of endeavor to change the status quo in favour of the desired condition. Seclusion from this perspective is nothing but the worthlessness of man in as much as one cannot hope for any good from him. Apparently, this kind of outlook has arisen at some stage in the mystical lives of many. After passing through different stages of mystic knowledge and gnosis, our mystics resorted to nothing other than seclusion. They considered the best way to live was to go into seclusion; that is, somewhat a premeditated kind of suicide and seemingly legitimate.[201]
This approach, regardless of the intention it is based, is squarely in opposition to the teachings of the Infallibles (‘a) and the rudimentary precepts of the Qur’an. We have read a lot that monasticism and seclusion have no place in Islam and those who practice these are considered the most destructive of people. In the parlance of religion, the best of men is he who is beneficial to others and has a stronger and more profound sense of responsibility with respect to those around him and the society at large. Enjoining what is good and forbidding what is wrong, which is one of the fundamental Islamic obligations, is only comprehensible with the acceptance of collectivity and living therein, as well as accountability.[202]

Essentially, from the view of the Messenger of God (s), Muslim is he who is concerned with other Muslims and shares joys and sorrows. Hence, the Holy Prophet (s) said: “He who has passed the night without concern for the affairs of Muslims is not a Muslim.”[203]

Being a Muslim is not only restricted to individual acts of worship and devotion; it transcends these and embraces all levels of social life. From this perspective, being a Muslim means acceptance of responsibility and having an active presence in society:

Well, the Prophet (s) has advised us to be diligent about the affairs of Muslims. Does diligence over the affairs of Muslims lie only in saying how many rak‘ah [cycle] the prayer is; what the doubt between so-and-so is? Is this supposed to be showing concern for the affairs of Muslims? It is an issue that does not speak of the affairs of Muslims. Affairs of Muslims refer to their political affairs, their social affairs, and their predicaments. Whoever does not give concern to these is not a Muslim [falaysa bi-muslim], according to the [above-quoted] hadīth.[204]

The distinction between human beings and animals is this sense of responsibility. Once we ignore it, we tend to promote seclusion and isolation [to prevail in the society]. It is enough to imagine that all the people want to enjoy the benefits of seclusion and to choose isolation and retreat. The endurance of such a society and to live therein is nearly impossible. The social order will soon be in shambles and everyone will retreat to the caves and jungles.

So, the point should be known that in our religious teachings seclusion has never met with approval. When one of the companions of the Messenger of God (s) asked for his approval for seclusion, the Holy Prophet (s) discouraged him from doing so and said: “Once you do not mingle with the people, how you will then perform the enjoinment of what is good and the forbiddance of what is wrong?”[205]

That is, social life and responsibility to others are a duty of all Muslims while seclusion means trampling upon this duty.

Even in our religious sources it has been narrated that the supplications of one who withdraws from social and economic activity and sits in a corner relying on God, will not be granted. One day Imām as-Sādiq (‘a) enquired about one of his companions named ‘Umar ibn Muslim. They said, “He has abandoned trade and has turned to [only] worship.” He (‘a) said: “Woe to him! Does he know not that the prayers of one who abandoned all endeavor will not be granted?” Then he narrates the story of those in the time of the Messenger of God (s) who, under the pretext of trust in and reliance on God [tawakkul], withdrew from active life and went into retreat. He (‘a) says that the Holy Prophet (s) told them: “The supplication of whoever does so will not be granted. So, exert effort.”[206]

Undoubtedly, the tenet of seclusion and asceticism is in contradiction to many of the religious teachings. In his discourses on ethics the Imām has also put great emphasis on man as a social being, and does not at all name seclusion as a value. Rather, he believes that combat with the self is only possible through a responsible presence and activity in the society; not through withdrawal and isolation. He believes that the only gift of sitting secluded in a corner is wretchedness and misery. Preservation and advancement of human values lies in sustained efforts; not seclusion:

If you want to be a human being, you have to strive hard. Preserving your human values requires effort. It is not possible for one’s human values to be preserved while sitting at home. One who sits in seclusion at home will suffer setbacks. However, he does not realize that he is no longer a human being.[207]
From the Imām’s perspective, isolation and withdrawal from responsibility is in no way concordant with Islam and its teachings. It is an alien phenomenon which has brought malaise to the Islamic society, so much so that this anti-value has found an esteemed place among Muslims, and if one lives in isolation—that is futility—he enjoys greater respect, esteem and worth:

Seclusion was not extant in Islam at all; it has never been so. This seclusion, I wonder what—retreat, withdrawal, and basically, aloofness—have all been present in non-Muslim religious groups and have been introduced among the Muslims; reaching the stage of saying that “Mr. so-and-so is a very good person; he does not care at all about what may happen (regarding something)!” Apathy itself became part of eulogy![208]

This inversion of values would, at times, lead to those who were alert and conscious pretending to be indifference and using others as their plaything: “Well, this causes even the one who distinguishes between each and everything would show himself as undiscerning.”[209]

Only presence in society can polish his coarseness of personality and crudity, just as gravel is smoothened by rolling and tossing innumerable times in a river’s course, a human being is moulded and refined only in the midst of society and in the context of the challenges of life, thus causing the essence of his self to manifest itself.

This World and the Hereafter
For many people, this world and the hereafter are cheese and chalk apart, and (to them) worldliness means turning away from the hereafter, while seeking the hereafter denotes hostility to the world.

Whenever the subject of the hereafter and that of keeping it in mind comes up, it seems that one should withdraw from the world, abandon and flee from it. Most of our Sufis and mystics have given currency to this dictum and claimed that the hereafter can be attained by trampling on this world, as this world is a world of matter while the hereafter is a world of meaning, and these two are irreconcilable.

All this vilification of the world, its vainness and the disgrace to which it has been subjected in our literature has its roots in this understanding of the world. Perhaps this world and the hereafter are inimical to one another and will never be reconciled. Someone with this notion of the world had vilified it and whose statement Imām ‘Alī (‘a) heard. Contrary to his expectation, the Imām (‘a) did not confirm his view. Rather, he (‘a) said to him:

O’ you who abuse the world, O’ you who have been deceived by its deceit and cheated by its wrongs. Do you accuse it or it should accuse you? When did it bewilder you or deceive you? … Certainly, this world is a house of truth for him who appreciates it; a place of safety for him who understands it; a house of riches for him who collects provision from it (for the next world); and a house of instructions for him who draws instruction from it. It is a place of worship for the lovers of Allah; the place of praying for the angels of Allah; the place where the revelation of Allah descends; and the marketing place for those devoted to Allah.”[210]

From the viewpoint of Imām ‘Alī (‘a) there is nothing wrong with the world and it is not blameworthy. By the way, what is meant by the ‘world’? If we look upon the world as one of the levels of existence and one of God’s creations, then it cannot be reproached. If by the world we mean that place of origin and nourishment of humankind, then again it cannot be blamed. If by the world we mean that ground and bastion of human development, in this case, too, it cannot be deemed futile.

From whatever perspective we view the world, it seems as though the world is far from being blameworthy, and reproaching it is tantamount to reproaching God. Notwithstanding this, the world has been referred to in a blameful and rebuking manner in many of the Qur’anic verses and narrations (of the Prophet). It cannot be denied that the basis of many among those who have been hostile to the world has been some Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Infallibles (‘a) and our religious leaders.
For instance, concerning the world, God Almighty says: “Know that the life of this world is only play, and idle talk, and pageantry, and boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children.”[211]

This assertion that the world is nothing but a plaything and futility has been repeated in numerous verses.[212]

Imām ‘Alī (‘a), too, who used to express praise for the world, addressed the world thus: “O’ world, O’ world! Get away from me. Do you present yourself to me? Or are you eager for me? You may not get that opportunity to impress [and deceive] me.”[213]

In the former statement the Imām (‘a) was saying that the world is not a deceiver whereas in the latter he (‘a) wants the world to deceive others [i.e., to deceive those who wanted to be deceived and not to deceive him]. Now, how could this ambiguity be resolved? This vagueness will be made clear through an examination of the following three points:


· This world as the place of cultivation for the hereafter
· Which is the blameworthy world?
· This world and the hereafter as complementary to one another
This world as the place of cultivation for the hereafter
From a philosophical and general viewpoint, this world and the hereafter are located in a single continuum—a continuum in whose one end is the world and in the other end is the hereafter. As far as existence is concerned it is not possible to put a gap between the two. The world is the lowest level of the universe and the descending stage of existence.

The world is that place in which all talents are not yet set in motion and in which every phenomenon can endlessly manifest its potentialities. The world is that abode in which thousands and thousands of unfulfilled possibilities could materialize. The world is that learning sanctuary wherein one can still pursue knowledge and improve oneself. It is this world that is considered as “the lowest level of existence and the abode of change, transition, and annihilation.”[214]

In this sense, this world means there is still opportunity for everyone to polish the essence of his existence and to give it the appropriate form he likes. As such, the world has no blemish. Although it appears imperfect comparison to the hereafter, in term of its function and duty, which is providing the grounds for the advancement of everybody, it is absolutely without any defect:

Although worldly existence is a lower and defective realm of being, since it is a nursery for the training of lofty souls and a school for acquiring higher spiritual stations, it is a field for cultivating the Hereafter. In this sense it is the most sublime of the realms of being and the most profitable of worlds for the lovers of God and the wayfarers of the path of the Hereafter.[215]

Therefore, if there were no such realm for the manifestation of human ability and ingenuities, no one could have been able to tread the path of perfection and be freed from his own faults and deficiencies, and this itself is the greatest defect:
And were it not for this terrestrial realm of matter, the domain of physical and spiritual substantial transformation and change, … not a single imperfect soul would have attained its promised state of perfection nor would it have been able to reach the realm of permanence and stability, nor the embodiments of imperfection would have been able to enter the Kingdom of God.[216]

The statements uttered by Imām ‘Alī (‘a) to the blamer of the world is a testimony to this truth. Whenever referring to this aspect of the world the Glorious Qur’an also describes the world as the overture of the hereafter and its prelude, and avers it is in this world that man builds his own hereafter. Deliverance in this world leads to deliverance in that world while blindness in this abode is equivalent to blindness in that one: “Whoso blind here will be blind in the Hereafter, and yet further from the road.”[217]

The statement, “The world is the farm of the hereafter,” which the Holy Prophet (s) is reported to have said, expresses this point. So, the world is not only irreproachable but also praiseworthy. The world provides the best opportunity for us to construct whatever we like from our existence and to achieve our perfection. The world not only has no place for complaint and grievance, but is also worthy of appreciation and laudation.

Besides this, not only is the world good, but also loving it is even ethical and acceptable. The essence of man takes form in this very water and soil, and the world is not only deemed as the cradle and bedrock of his advancement but also plays the role of his mother. Thus, anyone who expresses love to his mother is not reproachable. On the contrary, unkindness to one’s mother is unethical. It is for this reason that Imām ‘Alī (‘a) says: “People are the progeny of the world and no one can be blamed for loving the mother.”[218]

Yes, blameworthy is the one who does not love his mother—that too, the mother who endows his child with all the means of comfort and growth, and provides him with all the potentialities for perfection. So, loving this world is rooted in man’s innate constitution. “Let it be known that man is the child of this physical world, nature being his mother, and he the offspring of water and dust. The love for this world is implanted in his heart since the early time of his development and growth.”[219]Therefore, the world is not reproachable, and loving it is natural and even ethical.

Which is the blameworthy world?
The world is commendable and praiseworthy so long as it paves the way for the advancement of man and leads to his perfection. However, if it is supposed to prevent his advancement and obstruct his way to perfection, then it is no longer praiseworthy. In the same manner, love of the mother is acceptable so long as it causes the growth of the child. Yet, if this love is to arrest the independence of man and to make him always dependent on her, it can then no longer be considered a positive emotion. Instead, it is a malady.

If our outlook on the world is that of one who wants to go a long way and reach his destination, we can then take all the things we need from this house (world) and commence our journey fully equipped. But once we take this world as our goal, we will then forget the journey, destination and movement, and will not be able to advance and attain perfection. Therefore, what makes the world valuable is the ‘utilitarian outlook’ on it, and what makes it worthy of rebuke is the ‘destinational outlook’.

The difference between the one who seeks the world and that who seeks the hereafter is not that the worldly one acquires benefits from this world while the other avoids it. The fundamental distinction lies in the type of outlook of these two. The wise and clear-sighted one is he who sees the world as a good instrument to reach the hereafter while the stupid one is he who thinks of the world as his objective:

Certainly this world is the end of the sight of the (mentally) blind who see nothing beyond it. The sight of a looker (who looks with the eye of his mind) pierces through and realizes that the (real) house is beyond this world. The looker therefore wants to get out of it while the blind wants to get into it. The looker collects provision from it (for the next world) while the blind collects provision for this very world.[220]

Therefore, what is meant by the blameworthy world is not this physical planet with all its beauties and endowments, because, reproaching them is tantamount to reproaching the beautiful creations of God. Rather, what is meant by the blameworthy world is forgetting one’s own goal, having absolute attachment to it, and evading one’s own human and divine responsibilities:
Therefore, this world, being as it is the manifestation of and witness to His Beauty and Majesty, is not at all condemnable in this sense. That which is condemnable is the world of man himself in the sense of his absorption in the world of carnal nature and his attachment and love for it. That world is the source of all vices and all inward and outward sins.[221]

From this perspective, the cause of all these sins and offences is love of this world. Imām as-Sādiq is reported to have said: “Love of the world is the root of all sins.”[222]

In as much as the love of this world causes total attachment to it and makes one forget his or her objective, it gradually immerses the person in various sins and offences. The first sin and offence arising from the love of the world is that man thinks of this ephemeral and temporal world as everlasting, but whenever the veil of his notion is torn, one becomes fearful and dreadful of death. As a result, it would even make him furious of God. The other sin that spawns from love of this world is the weakening of man’s will. What makes man a man is his willpower and if, due to love of the world, this will is to weaken, then nothing would be left of his humanity. The third sin issuing from love of this world is that man is never satiated by it and in order to get more enjoyment from it he is prone to defile himself with any sort of sin and gradually drowns in all these sins.

Imām Khomeinī describes some of the evils of loving this world in this manner:

Among the evil effects of the love of the world and attachment to it is that it makes man afraid of death… Another great evil caused by the love of the world is that… it weakens his power of resolution and debilitates the will… Since he mistakenly believes the world and worldly fascinations to be the desired ultimate goal his greed grows day by day and his desire for them multiplies. His need for the world increases and poverty and deprivation becomes his fate.[223]

Consequently, he is like a thirsty person who drinks water from the sea and becomes thirstier.

This world and the hereafter as complementary to one another
Man has to go on a great journey—from the earth to the heavens. Initially, he emerges from a particle that cannot be seen with the naked eye; however, at the end of the voyage he steps into a world, annihilating the worlds within his being.

This odyssey, from creation [khalq] to Truth [haqq] is a spiritual one, the provisions of which are the aspiration and faith of man. If man knows the starting point of his journey and appreciates it to just that extent, he has then taken this world to be the preliminary step to the hereafter and the place of its cultivation. In such an event, if this preliminary step is lost sight of, the hereafter and the purpose of the journey would be meaningless. In the absence of this world, the hereafter will no longer be so. It is only with the admission of this contrariety that journey and movement acquire meaning. Nevertheless, the journey from this world to the hereafter is not a spatial journey. Rather, it is an inner, behavioural and spiritual one.

From the viewpoint of the Qur’an, the world is the external manifestation and outer layer of the hereafter while the hereafter is the esoteric form and inner layer of this world. Yet, most of the people do not realize this truth and “they know only some appearance of the life of the world, and are heedless of the Hereafter.”[224]

The reason for this negligence and complacency is that they have not yet realized the fact that the heaven and the earth and all the things therein have been created in truth and that every phenomenon has its own specific function. If only this corporeal man thinks deeply about the essence of the world and realizes its true condition, he will then benefit from it without taking it as his goal and being captivated by and attached to, it. Constructing the hereafter is bound to that in constructing this world. Anyone who did not invest in this world would be a loser in that world. Exertion of effort and endeavor in this world is valuable since it is the hereafter that guarantees [the well-being of] man. It is with this outlook that this maxim can be understood: “Whoever does not have sustenance has no hereafter, too.”[225]
This view is a broad perspective on the world and the hereafter, which gives meaning to any type of economic venture and social participation without which he would be confined to the whirlpool of daily routine. That which has been reported that the Messenger of God (s) viewed the Christian and Jewish beliefs as having one eye (one dimensional) while describing Islam as having two eyes (two dimensional) is a testimony to this truth. The Jewish creed drowns man to such an extent in the activities of this world as to keep him from thinking about the hereafter.

Christianity, too, instils such apprehension in its adherents with regard to the other world that they forget this one. But it is only the religion of Islam which reckons the provision of sustenance for the wife and child as a form of spiritual undertaking and struggle [jihād] in the way of God, and considers work as a form of worship.

From this perspective, not only is economic activity praiseworthy and laudable while, on the other hand, abandoning economic pursuits and withdrawal from, and non participation in, the different spheres of life is viewed as casting out of the ambit of religion. ‘Worldliness’ is only objectionable when it makes man forgetful of God and his destination, and not when it would be his companion and aid in this journey and for reaching the destination:

چيست دنيا؟ از خدا غافل بُدن نه قماش و نقده و ميزان و زن
مال را كز بهر دين باشى حمول نعم مالٌ صالحٌ خواندش رسول
آب در كشتى، هلاک كشتى است آب اندر زير كشتى پشتى است
What is this world? To be forgetful of God;
It is not merchandise and silver and weighing-scales and women.
As regards the wealth that you carry for religion’s sake, as the Prophet recited,
“How good is righteous wealth (for the righteous man)!”[226]
Water in the boat is the ruin of the boat,
(But) water underneath the boat is a support.[227]

The Philosophy behind Suffering

One of the issues engaging the mind of man since the distant past is the existence of suffering, which is apparently pointless and futile. The presence of evil and suffering in our world is undeniable. Everyone has encountered and experienced them in their various forms in his life. Life without anguish or pain, and happiness without grief exist only in the imagination. But the reality is a mixture of the two (happiness and loneliness).

Concerning suffering there are mainly two fundamental questions. The first is, what is the origin of suffering and from where does it emerge? The other is whether agony and pain are concordant with the justice and mercy of God.

All the religious people of the world should answer these two questions. If God is the Lone Creator of the world and the Manifestation of goodness, then where have all these miseries come from? Can the God of Goodness be the agent of misery and just as He creates, can also destroy? Acknowledgment of the fact that the One God is the sole origin of all creations—even those events that are seemingly evil—was enigmatic for many. Thus, most of them would follow the path of polytheism and, like the Manuians,[228] believed in at least two deities. As narrated by Paulo Cuello, the great soothsayer who believed in various gods, when he heard the claim of Prophet Ilyās (‘a) that God is One, he asked in mockery: “Do you want to say that according to your belief, the same God that sends the storm also makes the wheat grow even though these two things are poles apart?”[229]

The other point is that in the teachings of all religions, God has been described as the Absolute Power, Absolute Authority, Most Gracious, and Most Merciful. These attributes are apparently discordant with the existence of miseries.
Various philosophical and ethical answers to these queries have already been given. After much experience and meditation, [Siddhartha Gautama] Buddha arrived at the Four Noble Truths, the first of which is the existence of suffering in the world and its inevitability.[230] Then he, who did not believe in monotheism [tawhīd] in its Abrahamic sense, presented a most detailed analysis of the phenomenon of suffering and recommended certain ways on how to be completely released from it.[231]

But, though the first question seems more philosophical, it is the second question that has occupied the minds to a greater extent; and that is the ethical aspect of suffering. Are all these miseries in the world acceptable? Could not the existing world have been better than this? Are all these sufferings compatible with the justice, omniscience, and omnipotence of God? If there is a being other than God who could create another world, could he (the being other than God) have been able to cause a world better than this one to appear? Is the poet’s following assertion valid?

گر بر فلكم دست بُدى چون يزدان برداشتمى من اين فلک را ز ميان
وز نو فلكى ديگر چنان ساختمى كآزاده به كام دل رسيدى آسان

If like the Creator I had only dominion over the heaven,
I would have taken away this heaven.
And then a new heaven would I make;
As you can easily have whatever your heart dictates.

One of the most ancient and famous writings about suffering is the Book of Job in the Old Testament. We have all heard about the story of Prophet Job [Ayyūb] (‘a). The Glorious Qur’an briefly points to the story of his life and states that Job (‘a) fell ill but chose patience, and tasted the pain of suffering until he attained a pleasant end. According to the Qur’an, Job (‘a) experienced such suffering that he raised his hands in supplication and sought God’s assistance. His prayer was granted and regained whatever he had lost. God mentions Job (‘a) as a patient servant.[232]

The story of Job (‘a) is narrated more elaborately in the Judeo-Christian sources. In the Book of Job in which the different dimensions have been discussed and explained, it is narrated that Job (‘a) was an affluent and influential man, and the fame of his wealth and power was known everywhere:

Job (‘a) had seven sons, three daughters, and possessing seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred cows, five hundred she-donkeys, and innumerable servants. He was being acknowledged as the richest man of the entire district.[233]

Job (‘a) was an upright person and a philanthropist. He used to help the needy and cater to their needs. One day God extolled Job (‘a) before an assembly of angels and said, “Nobody like him can be found on earth. He is an honest and God-fearing man and keeps away from sin.”[234]

Satan who was present in that assembly said in protest, if fearing God was not of benefit to him, he would not have done so. Thou hast kept Job (‘a), his family and possession safe from every predator. Thou hast multiplied his earnings and bestowed abundant wealth on him. Take away his possession from him; then Thou wilt behold that he openly blasphemes Thee.[235]

In this manner, the great trial for Job (‘a) commenced and Satan was granted the permission to do whatever he liked to him except exercising domination over his body and mind. As a consequence, tribulations occurred one after another. All the possessions of Job (‘a) were lost. His children died. He, himself, became afflicted with an ailment and suffered intense physical agony. He was expelled from his community. His friends forgot him and even his wife assailed him. Yet, he patiently endured all these adversities.
In spite of this, three of his friends approached him and rubbed salt into his wounds. They believed that these tribulations served as punishment for the sins of Job (‘a) and he was now paying for his sinful past. They urged Job (‘a) to repent for his sins so that God would forgive him. However, Job (‘a) insisted that he had committed no sin and that these happenings and tribulations had no relation whatsoever to his alleged commission of sins.

This dialogue is one of the most elegant and profound conversations pertaining to human suffering. It presents the diverse views on evil and its origin. In short, those three could not convince Job (‘a) that he was a sinner. God cured him; restored to him his lost properties, endowed him with other children in the place of his deceased ones, and inspired the three to apologize to Job (‘a). In this way, Job (‘a) recovered his lost social standing. Everybody realized that the ordeals are not the result of his sinfulness. Rather, these had been only a trial to prove the unflinching faith of Job (‘a).

This notwithstanding, the question of the need for good men to suffer is still open to debate. This question and many other similar ones have been discussed for hundreds of years. Through an analysis of the nature and essence of mischief and evil [sharr] (as what Plato did) and its benefits (as what St. Augustine did), everyone has tried to address these questions that are just as debatable and can be pondered upon.[236]

The question at this juncture with which we have to deal is this: Is the existence of all these sufferings and evils in the world ethical and compatible with the sublime attributes of God or not? This question can be answered from two perspectives. One is from the perspective of faith and through the acceptance of the principles of religion [usūl ad-dīn] and submission to them. It is from this perspective that the believer says that the entire universe and all its components are creations of God, one of Whose Attributes is Wisdom. All the actions of the Wise are full of wisdom.

Thus, there is wisdom in suffering and evil in it as well. Although we are not able to comprehend the secret behind so many evils, this ignorance of ours does not mean that they lack wisdom. It only shows how ignorant we are, and that our knowledge is not so considerable in relation to the things unknown to us and that we have taken only a cup from the ocean of knowledge.[237]

But this answer does not convince all minds and, accordingly, for some it is a challenging one. Through reflection on the essence of the world, and the phenomenon of suffering and its function, they try to give a more elaborate answer to the question. In reality, they admit the wisdom behind the act of God but seek the hidden wisdom in suffering and its function. As a consequence, it is owing to this kind of view and reflection that the subject of divine justice has been one of the most sensational subjects of scholasticism and philosophy. It is the field for testing the capability of the human mind.

By relying on a tradition which tries to elucidate the issue of evil [sharr], Imām Khomeinī, in acknowledging the philosophical principles that consider the existence of evils as inevitable, attempts to show the ethical aspect of evil. His viewpoint will be made clear through a survey of the following points:

· Evil as relative;

· Evil as constructive;

· The hereafter as the place for reward; and
· Suffering as commensurate to one’s own understanding

Evil as relative

We human beings view the world from the standpoint of our own interests, evaluating and classifying every thing on the basis of its benefit and detriment to us. We never view the world as bare, exactly as it is and separate from us. This point will be more vivid especially with regard to the phenomena that are interwoven with our fate. To cite an example, we identify some of the plants as ‘weed’.

This classification does not convey anything about its nature; it only shows our judgment regarding it. Now, if one would ask us, what is weed, our answer would be that weed is a plant which has no benefit, or grows spontaneously in our garden and orchard. But these answers indicate only one thing and that is the fact that we have named this plant on the basis of its benefits and harm to us. Thus, if assuming that a virtue is discovered in some of these weeds, our classification is immediately changed.

That is why Emerson,[238] an American thinker and poet, asks: “What is ‘weed’?” He himself answers: “It is a plant whose benefits have not yet been discovered.” In this example we clearly see that the remarks are not about identity, and that it is not obvious what weed is. ‘Weed’ is a value-laden concept and belongs to the domain of the human mind. Professor Izutsu cites the same example and analyzes it in this manner:

To cite an example, consider the term, ‘weed’. Dictionaries have usually defined this term in this way: ‘It is a wild plant that grows everywhere.’ In other words, it is unwanted and undesirable. However, in the exact real world, that is, in the natural world, nothing exists that is unwanted or undesirable; it only exists in the viewpoint of man who views the endless things of the complex nature, classify them, categorize them, and give them different values on the basis of their purposes.[239]

Thus, our view on the universe is not a neutral one; in most cases we identify and categorize things on the basis of our own interests. Of course, the point here is not individual interests but the interests of mankind as such. That is to say, man considers everything beneficial to him as good and detrimental as bad. Well, with this analysis in mind, let us proceed to the subject of evil [sharr] and examine, basically, what evil [sharr] is. Whatever description of evil and suffering is presented pertains to man.

That is, it is only in relation to man that evil finds meaning. What we mean by evil—be it natural or ethical—is a phenomenon which, in both cases, bring suffering into our lives in one way or another, or endangers and frighten us. We regard destructive floods as evil since they can cut off our means of communications, ruin our harvests, destroy our houses, and finally, endanger our lives. But aside from the danger the flood brings to us and our interests, it can no longer be deemed ‘evil’. Rather it will only be viewed merely as a natural phenomenon. This is also true with respect to dangerous animals.

We think about poisonous reptiles such as venomous snake as dangerous and evil since it is possible that they can kill us with their fangs; however, this same poisonous fang is the most important factor in the protection of the snake’s life and the continuity of its species. So, this ‘evil’ is ‘good’ for the snake. Of course, it can be asked, “Basically, what is the benefit of this ‘evil’ to us?” “Its non-existence is better than its existence!”

Although an elaborate reply to this inquiry could be given and proved that they constitute a part of this very same order of nature, and that their presence is necessary, we can, here, give a brief and adequate answer which is that the question itself is rooted in man’s self-centeredness. Man views all the creatures within the framework of his interests and then asks what good or necessity does the existence of venomous snakes have. It is enough that the universe be viewed from the perspective of the venomous snakes. Then, this question for the snakes arises: “What is the necessity or benefit for nature of the existence of this two-footed creature (man) who is always in the pursuit of killing snakes and whose existence is entirely evil?” Then, we would observe that our viewpoint in relation to nature is a one-sided and value-laden one.
Once we understand this point well, we will realize that in many cases the things we think ‘evil’ is only ‘evil’ as far as we are concerned, and once the outlook is changed we will discern it to be good. In addition to the fact that the outlook of mankind on nature is such, the outlook of each and every individual also has this peculiarity. We have heard the old story of two neighbours. One was a farmer while the other was a potter. The farmer exerted all his efforts for one whole year and cultivated much of the land. The potter also made a lot of earthenware.

Thereafter, the farmer would always pray and ask God for rain to pour down from the sky so that his produce would be abundant. On the other hand, afraid of the rain, the potter, raising his hands up to the sky, asked God for clear skies and bright sunlight. The sun for the former neighbour is ‘evil’, whereas for the latter, rain is always so. As a result these two have associated good and evil with their own interests and evaluated them with respect to themselves; duly naming them as ‘good’ or ‘evil’.

This is what is meant by subjectiveness or relativeness of evil. If there is no human judgment, no phenomenon can be termed ‘evil’. But as soon as human judgment intervenes—the judgment being based as it is on the benefits and interests of man—the issue of evil appears. Thus, nothing is absolutely evil, that is, per se and in relation to itself. Instead, it is only when it is evaluated that it is called ‘evil’ by us. So, evil is that which is discordant with our interests. In this sense, evil will be subjective and relative. On the other hand, since our interests change with a change in circumstances it is possible that what was evil yesterday is good today and vice-versa.

As a result, in this sense evil would also be relative. Let us assume that you have an appointment with one of your bosom friends. However, before you leave your house to visit him, an unexpected guest arrives and hinders this supposed visit. This guest is reckoned as something bad [sharr]. But, after making the appointment if something happened that discouraged you from meeting him and you were looking for an excuse to cancel the appointment the guest’s arrival, in such a case, would be good for you.

We have heard about the story of an ugly husband whose wife was not showing pleasant gesture to him. One midnight the wife heard the sound of a thief’s steps, and fear-stricken, clung to her husband. After realizing that the reason for this extraordinary and unusual love of his wife was nothing but the presence of the thief, he welcomed him saying, “You are welcome to take whatever you want.”

Thus, evil is relative in both senses. That is, it is evaluated and labeled from the human point of view, and also because of our interests’ being variable, it may happen that yesterday’s evil is today’s good, and yesterday’s good, today’s evil:

پس بد مطلق نباشد در جهان بد به نسبت باشد، اين را هم بدان
در زمانه هيچ زهر و قند نيست كه يكى را پا، دگر را بند نيست
مر يكى را پا، دگر را پايبند مر يكى را زهر و بر ديگر چو قند
زهرِ مار، آن مار را باشد حيات نسبتش با آدمى باشد ممات
خلق آبى را بود دريا چو باغ خلق خاكى را بود آن، مرگ و داغ
همچنين برمىشمراى مرد كار! نسبت اين، از يكى كسى تا هزار
زيد اندر حقِ آن شيطان بود در حقِ شخص دگر سلطان بود
آن بگويد: زيد صدّيق سنى است وين بگويد: زيد گبرِ كُشتنى است
گر تو خواهى كو تو را باشد شكر پس ورا از چشمِ عُشّاقش نگر

Hence there is no absolute evil in the world:
Evil is relative. Know this (truth) also.
In (the realm of) Time there is no poison or sugar
That is not a foot (support) to one and a fetter (injury) to another—
To one a foot, to another a fetter;
To one a poison and to another (sweet and wholesome) like sugar.
Snake-poison is life to the snake,
(But) it is death in relation to man.
The sea is as a garden to the water-creatures;
To the creatures of earth it is death and a (painful) brand.
Reckon up likewise, O man of experience,
(Instances of) this relativity from a single individual to a thousand.
Zayd, in regard to that (particular) one, may be a devil,
(But) in regard to another person he may be a (beneficent) sultan.
That one will say that Zayd is an exalted siddīq (saint),
And this one will say that Zayd is an infidel who ought to be killed.
If you wish that to you he should be (as) sugar,
Then look on him with the eye of lovers.[240]

Nonetheless, relativeness of evil has a more profound philosophical meaning. We have read a lot that this planet earth is the locus of movement and change, which the Imām termed as “the abode of change, transition, and annihilation.”[241]

In this world, nothing is fixed and static; all things are in the process of transformation. Every phenomenon in this world moves toward its own perfection. God created every phenomenon in such a way that it moves on the basis of its own creational [takwīnī] and essential [sirishtī] guidance.
Yesterday’s seed is today’s tree; yesterday’s embryo is today’s fetus and today’s fetus is tomorrow’s newborn baby—this cycle continues unabatedly. Yet, this process naturally engenders contradiction and duality. A fetus which wants to become a newborn baby should abandon its fetal state whereupon its metamorphosis would become perfect. In order to become a tree the seed should break out of its peel. So as to have permanent and complete teeth, the child should lose his baby teeth. A youngster, who likes to be independent in his life, should reduce his dependence on his family and accept the responsibility that freedom entails. All these transformations are bound to suffering.

No fetus is born without suffering, and no seed transformed into a fruitful tree. A youth who wants to have a muscular and well-proportioned body should get used to the pain of doing workouts with cold iron bars, and bear the pain of lactic acid accumulation in his muscles. He should also endure extreme muscle fatigue for some time. A butterfly should live inside its cocoon for a period of time to let its beautiful wings grow and prepare it for a new plane. In this sense, no movement and contact is possible without suffering and release from the existing condition. This famous saying of Mullā Sadrā testifies to this truth: “If there were no contradiction, the grace of the Merciful Fountainhead would not be obtained.”[242]

No one can deny this reality. A pupil of yesterday who wants to be a university student of today should accept the pain of being far away and separated from high school friends so as to establish contact with new friends and a new environment. Therefore, not only is every phenomenon involved with its own past in its path to perfection, but also it sometimes encounters other phenomena that hinder its perfection. It is here that an all-out conflict ensues—an inevitable and blessed battle in which neither adversary is totally defeated. The Imām examines evil from this perspective and says:

[All] the evils, catastrophes, death, disease and destructive events and troublesome creatures and other such things which are in this world of nature and this narrow pit of darkness arise from the interferences and conflicts between existents, not from the aspects pertaining to Being but on account of the deficiency of their ambiance and the narrowness of their abode.[243]

As such, evil in this sense is also relative (subjective). That is, every happening that takes place is evil for some while good for others. A person falling down and breaking his leg is an ‘evil’ event for him. Yet, this same unpleasant happening is good for the bonesetters and orthopedists since their occupations are connected to these kinds of ‘evil’. However, the Imām goes beyond this point and believes that evil is not only relative but also a non-existing issue. That is, in a more technical description,

All the evils [basically] arise from the interferences and conflicts between existents, not from the aspects pertaining to Being but on account of the deficiency of their ambiance and the narrowness of their abode. And these derive from limitations and deficiencies which are totally outside the ambit of the light of creation and are in reality below making [ja‘l]. The true reality is the Light which is quit of all evil, defect and deficiency. However, these defects and evils and harmful and troublesome things, in respect of their defectiveness and harmfulness, are not essential objects of creation, but they are accidental objects of creation.[244]

The idea that evil is a non-existing affair is among the ancient ideas of philosophy, the exact comprehension of which necessitates an extensive technical preliminary preparation propounding which is not possible in this concise volume. But the core of the issue is that evil is not an exact, existing and specified reality which can be identified. Evil is a relative issue; it means that in relation to us it is considered evil. Evil is dependent on our judgment and since our judgment is interwoven with our variable interests, evil is variable as well and not fixed. Take a look at this earthly world. Perfection requires abandonment of the present condition and acceptance of some failures and frustrations which themselves bring about suffering and evil. As a result, evil is inevitable in the corporeal world. Yet, this evil is relative, not absolute and a requisite for perfection:

اين جهان جنگ است چون كل بنگرى ذره با ذره، چو دين با كافرى
آن يكى ذره همى پرّد به چپ و آن دگر سو يمين اندر طلب
ذره اى بالا Ùˆ آن ديگر نگون جنگِ فعلىشان ببين اندر رُكون…
جنگِ طبعى، جنگ فعلى، جنگِ قول در ميان جزوها، حربى است هول
اين جهان زين جنگ قايم مى بُوَد در عناصر در نگر تا حل شود

When you consider, this world is all at strife,
Mote with mote, as religion (is in conflict) with infidelity.
One mote is flying to the left,
And another to the right in search.
One mote (flies) up and another down:
In their inclination (movement) behold actual strife.
The actual strife is the result of the hidden strife:
Know that that discord springs from this discord.
This world is maintained by means of this war:
Consider the elements, in order that it (the difficulty) may be solved.[245]

Evil as constructive

The foregoing discussion was more a philosophical outlook on the place of evil in the system of the universe where we tried to illuminate the point that basically evil is relative and subjective, not a reality independent from man’s perception. But here the discussion is on its function.

The question is: What is the benefit of evil—be it relative or exact and absolute reality—for man? The thrust of the famous Book of Job is this one. Why a pious and upright man such as Job (‘a) should be afflicted with all these adversities and undergo diverse miseries and agonies?

Many have attempted to answer this question. Yet, most of these answers embody one point and that is the constructive role of evil for man. Many of the mystics [‘ārifīn] and teachers of ethics emphasize this principle that the presence of some of the evils is needed for the nourishment of man’s soul and formation of his personality. Man grows and attains perfection only in a conducive environment and with the provision of necessary conditions.

But this favourable environment does not only mean comfort, convenience and unconsciousness; it also means the existence of some unpleasantness and tribulations. A driver who drives along a highway having no acclivity or declivity will easily feel sleepy and it is even possible for him to be exposed to the danger at an accident. However, the one who is driving along an extremely winding highway, and every moment, considers the probability of an unexpected occurence, is always careful and does not allow himself to fall sleep.

Thus, the philosophy behind some evils is to keep man always alert and ready to overcome all odds. One of the contemporary Christian preachers names this theory as

The divine justice theory of soul nourishment since this theory is indicative of the great scheme of God of assisting human beings in attaining moral and spiritual maturity. According to this theory, to live in a particular environment is necessary for nourishment of the soul. An environment can cause the moral and spiritual maturity of man in which real challenges are real opportunities for the emergence of moral virtues, and real facilities for the appearance of faith in God should be present.[246]

For instance, in the training courses for soldiers, training programs are designed to be rigid and severe so as to put the maximum physical and emotional pressure on them. The aim of such programs is not to annoy or torment others. Rather, it is meant to prepare individuals to confront actual situations and serious challenges. Well, if we encounter such cases which are termed evils, our outlook on them in general will be changed. The goal of a coach who encourages the athletes under his supervision to undergo difficult and rigid practice is the enhancement of their physical ability. The purpose of a professor who gives complicated assignments to his students is to increase their knowledge. The problem that nature poses for us is with the same aim of augmenting our ability.

The same is the view of the Imām on the issue of evil. He devotes one of the hadīths in his forty selected hadīths on this matter. After narrating a hadīth with this purport, he embarks on its exposition: Imām as-Sādiq (‘a) narrates from the Book of Imām ‘Alī (‘a) in which he says:

Of all mankind the prophets undergo the severest of trials, and after them the awsiyā’ [executors of will], and after them the elect to the extent of their nobility. Indeed, the believer undergoes trial in proportion to his good deeds. So, one whose faith is sound and whose deeds are good, his trials are also more severe. That is indeed because God Almighty did not make this world a place for rewarding the believer and punishing the unbeliever. And one, whose faith is feeble and whose (good) deeds are few, faces fewer tribulations. Verily, tribulations hasten toward the believer with greater speed than rainwater toward the earth’s depths.[247]

We should not forget that in Islamic belief, this world is the place for trial. Trial takes place not only through difficulties and tribulations but also through happiness and joys. In the Glorious Qur’an the word, bālā [calamity and affliction] and its derivatives are used in the sense of testing through happiness as well as testing through suffering and tribulation.
Sometimes, in a bid to distinguish the two forms of bālā, terms such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are used. For example, in this noble āyah we read: “And We try you with evil and with good, for ordeal.”[248] Likewise, the terms hasanāt [good things] and sayyi’āt [bad things] are used. For instance, in this āyah it is stated: “And We have tried them with good things and evil things that haply they might return.”[249] Hence, the description of bālā in the language of the Qur’an is far more general and broader than its prevalent meaning in the Persian language.[250] As a result, some of the trials take place in the form of evil and prepare to face real situations. In this sense, evil is not only not bad, but also prepares the ground for the growth and cognition of man. Thus, they have said:

اندر بلاى سخت پديد آيد فضل و بزرگى و سالارى

From severe affliction will come out
Virtue, greatness and merit.

Such evils are broad in scope—extending from a simple fever to the death of spouse or child. A simple ailment such as fever not only activates the entire immune system of the body but also warns us to prepare ourselves to face it, and to make ourselves prepared for the eradication of the purulence from our body.

Hence, this evil is needed for our existence and survival. If we carefully analyze all afflictions and tribulations, we will realize this feature of them. Even the severest bodily pains also have this function, and if one day the alarm system of the body is removed for whatever reason, then calamity, tragedy and mishap will commence. In this context Dr. Paul Brandt embarked on a detailed study and shed light on the vital role of pain.

The outcome of the research has been published in the book entitled, Pain: The Gift that Nobody Accepts. After studying patients afflicted with leprosy, who have gradually gave up their body members, he arrived at the conclusion that the disease itself does not cause the death of the body tissues. Rather, it is the effect of malfunctioning of the sense [of touch] that the leper ceases to protect his senses and [unconsciously] commits acts harmful to himself. According to Dr. Brandt such patients “are lacking a system that gives alert to the damages done to the tissue.”[251]

The consequence of the lack of system (sense) of pain is that sometimes, such patients run and walk with their skins full of wounds—even open ones—to the extent that the bones are also visible, thus causing constantly increasing deterioration of the tissues … In some cases, those afflicted with leprosy put their hands on fire, for example to pick something there but do not feel any pain.[252]

Thus, apart from being not bad, pain is rather considered an agent protecting our body and it is the same unpleasant sense that guarantees our life, and in general, compels the human organism to react. This view is also true for other ‘evils’. For example, suppose we fail in the university entrance examination; in this case this ‘evil’ is, in fact, a warning to us that shows us as not being intelligent enough and urges us to strive more. It is the same analysis that explains why all the prophets (‘a) have suffered.

One who wants to lead a nation or community [ummah] should have such an extraordinary capacity, that no amount of difficulty could shake his will. God makes His chosen prophets (‘a) suffer, He tests and trains them, causes them to develop, and so prepares them to shoulder the responsibilities of prophethood. As such, suffering cannot be a useless and worthless affair. Instead, the blessings therein should be seen with clear vision and it should be comprehended that in this world “each of its pains and hardships carries within itself some goodness and bounty.”[253]

Apart from this fundamental function of suffering and evil, there are many other functions and utilities some of which have been pointed out by Imām Khomeinī. One of the functions of suffering is that it makes man attentive to, and concerned with, the hereafter and makes him understand that this world is not his everlasting abode:
Thus, if a man faces adversities, pain and torments in this world and is overtaken therein by waves of calamities and tribulations, he will inevitably come to resent it. His attachment to it will diminish and he will come to distrust it. If he believed in another world, a vast world free of every kind of pain and grief, he will inevitably want to migrate to it, and if he were unable to make the journey physically, he will send his heart out to it.[254]

Hence, most of the tribulations and afflictions are a sign for the believers and a notice about their unpleasant condition and also a reminder of the goal that they should have. Apart from this, some of the tribulations and afflictions make man remember the Fountainhead of the universe and make him harmonious with the remembrance of the Sole Creator:

And another point relating to the severity of the tribulations of the elect among God’s servants is that they are made to remember God on account of these adversities and tribulations and to pray and lament in front of His Sacred Essence. This makes them accustomed to remember Him and keep their thoughts busy with Him.[255]

Moreover, some of spiritual excellences and stations for man will be attained only through patiently tasting and experiencing tribulations and afflictions. Hence, the Imām indicates this point in this manner:

Another point related to the severity of the believer’s tribulations that has been mentioned in traditions is that there are certain stations for the believers which they cannot attain without undergoing suffering, pain and affliction.[256]

Therefore, keeping in view the diverse functions and utilities of tribulation and suffering, it can be deduced that the more the blessings God bestows on His servant, the more is he afflicted with them and it is this conclusion that the Imām describes in this way:

Whenever God Almighty has a greater consideration and love for someone, and when someone is the object of the mercy of His Sacred Essence to a greater extent, He restrains him from this world and its charms with the waves of calamity and tribulation… And if there weren’t any other reason except this one for endurance of severe calamities it would have been sufficient.[257]

At this juncture, two points must be stated. One is the issue of natural sufferings and the other, self-made ones.

Whatever has been stated about suffering and its station is related to natural sufferings and tribulations, which man experiences naturally. God Almighty views these tribulations as a kind of test, attributes them to Himself and points to Himself as the cause. That is why He says, “We test them.”

Nevertheless, some of the tribulations and sufferings exist as a result of the unscrupulous actions of we human beings and arise from our moral vices. If our social system is designed in such a way as to cause rivalry, and if such rivalry entails suffering, one cannot consider the social system to be constructive. If in the society wealth accumulation and the desire for more is such that it deprives all of tranquility, it can no longer be considered an opportunity for rectification of the soul and attachment of spiritual perfections. All of these are a result of love of this world, which in turn, is the source of all sins. Most of the sufferings and tribulations are a product of the wrong actions of man and arise from vices such as jealousy, selfishness, and pride.
These tribulations can never be ascribed to God; basically attributing them to God arises from man’s irresponsibility. In relation to such tribulations, God Almighty disavows responsibility and holds them to be the result of man’s action: “Whatever of good befalleth thee (O man) it is from Allah, and whatever of ill befalleth thee it is from thyself.”[258] In essence, God is the Absolute Source of goodness and His Essence is all-blessing and all-good and from this Essence there is nothing but goodness. Hence, every evil is the consequence of man’s erroneous actions and selfishness. Therefore, God considers the occurrence of corruption, tribulations and mischief as the product of human beings’ conduct, and says: “Corruption doth appear on land and sea because of (the evil) which men’s hands have done.”[259] So, the most important point is that we should distinguish natural sufferings from self-made ones.

The second point is that although suffering has a constructive role in the life of human beings, one cannot ‘create’ suffering by using this as an excuse, and use it for one’s growth. It is true that tribulation is an element in man’s growth. Yet, the ground for the occurrence of tribulation should not be prepared in advance. For instance, taking an examination and failing in it can be the ground for our growth. But it does not mean that we refrain from any form of preparation and only take the examination.

The outcome of taking various examinations without preparing for them is failure after failure. These failures cannot be considered as a prelude to success; they also pave the ground for further failures. That is why psychologists point to the destructive effects of such failures in this manner: “If a person repetitively experiences failure, he will reach a stage where he can no longer endure experiencing more failures and thus, behavioural derangements appear in him.”[260]

The point is that in case some adversity occurs, we welcome it warmly and consider it as an opportunity for our growth; not that we chase after misery before it strikes us. As such, our various hadīths have discouraged us from hoping for tribulations and from laying the grounds for it. We have been taught to always pray to God for health and well-being, and to refrain from looking for trouble and tribulation. For example, it has been narrated from Imām ar-Ridā[261] (‘a) that Prophet Joseph [Yūsuf] (‘a) complained to God:

‘Why did I deserve to be imprisoned?’ God revealed to him: ‘It is you who chose it when you said: ‘O my Lord, the prison is dearer to me than that unto which they invite me.’[262] Why did you not say, ‘Prosperity is dearer to me than that unto which they invite me’?[263]

Therefore, the fundamental teaching of the Infallibles (‘a) in this context is that we should be always seeking welfare and prosperity. However, when we face tribulations, we should not be afraid, take it as a good omen and utilize it as an opportunity for our perfection.

The hereafter as the place for reward

If the prophets (‘a) and saints [awliyā’] faced abundant tribulations as was stated, the tribulations cannot be reckoned as compensation for one’s sins in this world. As was indicated in the aforecited hadīth, God has assigned the world neither as the reward of the believer nor compensation for the disbeliever.

Hence, there is no connection between the sins of man and worldly tribulations. It is narrated in the Book of Job that [his] sympathizers persistently attempted to prove to Job (‘a) that his tribulations and sufferings were the result of his past sins. But he would strongly reject this notion, viewing no connection between the two, and deeming himself sinless. “Job (‘a) knew that the world is more complex than the simplified theory that [his] sympathizers portray.”[264]

This theory that misery is the consequence of man’s sins and punishment for his deeds, though very prevalent, has numerous shortcomings and is not compatible with the indisputable principles of religious belief. Though it is often said, “If you vex the people, circumstances will also vex you; circumstances makes no mistake in punishing the people,” this sort of understanding elicits abundant unanswerable questions, which is the subject of books on divine justice.
If we accept that the world is the testing place and that as long as man is alive he has the chance to look back on his past deeds, and at any moment, is able to turn away from the path he has taken, the issue of this world as the place for retribution for sins can no longer be put forward. Let us assume that a teacher wants to give an examination to his pupils and he gives 90 minutes for them to write their answers. Now, every student has the right to make use of the total 90 minutes.

It is even possible for one to give wrong answers to all the questions; but in the last minutes, once he realizes his mistakes, he could change them. If the teacher also found out that somebody has given wrong answers to all the questions, so long as his test paper has not been submitted, the teacher cannot deprive him of the chance of changing his answers and give him a grade then and there. It is the definite right of the students to make use of this chance in whatever way they like, and interference on the part of the teacher is counted as a violation of this right. Likewise, the world is exactly the place of examination of man.

The lifespan of everyone is the period in which one should come out of life’s examination with dignity and pride. Hence, throughout life everyone has this opportunity and right to give his answers to the questions of life. In the description of Imām Khomeinī, “This world, due to its defective, feeble and weak nature, is neither the abode of the reward of God Almighty nor the place of chastisement and punishment.”[265]

It is such since this world is the world of duty and not of reward. “This world is the abode of duty and the farm of the Hereafter. It is a place of trade and earning whereas the Hereafter is the abode of reward and punishment, of bounty and damnation.”[266]

In the language of the Master of the Pious [Imām ‘Alī] (‘a), “Today is the day of preparation (training the horses) while tomorrow is the day of race.”[267]

Divine justice necessitates that one can make use of all his opportunities and it is only after that is his account examined. Hence, neither can those that have met with misfortunes be regarded as sinful, nor the prosperous as sinless. In essence, the cause and effect relationship between these two is not in this world. In the same manner, it is not so that anyone who commits a sin will immediately suffer for it. Such an expectation is contrary to reality and repugnant to divine justice. Thus, those who expect that God Almighty would immediately get hold of one who commits some sin or indecency in this world or perpetrates some injustice or aggression against someone, and cut his hand off and expunge him from the realm of existence, are unaware that their expectation is contrary to this world’s order and opposed to God’s wont and sunnah.

Here is the place of trial and the zone of the separation of the wretched from the felicitous and the sinful from the obedient. Here is the realm of the manifestation of deeds, not the abode of the emergence of the results of personal deeds and qualities.[268]

Therefore, tribulation in this world is not retribution for the deeds of human beings, and no connection should be established between the two. Nonetheless, at times Divine Grace warrants that by motivating the sinner, he can be prevented from indulging in sins; and God does so. However, this matter has no link to retribution for sins. Let us assume that in the previous example, after the teacher found out that one of the students had given wrong answers to most of the questions, she passes snide remarks or looks at the student sternly, making him immediately realize and correct all his mistakes. In this case, the teacher has not punished him but actually done him a great favour.

Some of the punishments of God are like this and anyone subjected to them should be grateful to God for being kind to him. So, “If occasionally God Almighty troubles an oppressor, it may be said that it is because of the Almighty’s mercy for that oppressor (for it stops him from sinning further).”[269]

As such, from the viewpoint of Imām Khomeinī evil is a relative and non-existing phenomenon, not a real and exact affair. In addition to this, it is necessary for man’s perfection and an indication of God’s grace to His servant, and there is no connection between sinfulness and tribulation in this world. So, evil is also a disguised grace of God for His servants and is among the necessary grounds for man’s spiritual perfection. In his poetical lines Mawlānā likens the soul of believer to an animal named ushghur, a kind of porcupine, which becomes stronger and its resolve firmer with increasing tribulation and suffering:
هست حيوانى كه نامش اُشغُراست او به زخم چوب زفت و لَمتُر است
تا كه چوبش مىزنى، به مىشود او ز زخم چوب، فربه مىشود
نفس ﻣﺆمن اشغرى آمد يقين كو به زخم رنج زفت است و سمين
زين سبب بر انبيا رنج و شكست از همه خلق جهان افزون تر است
تا ز جانها جانشان شد زفت تر كه نديدند آن بلا قوم دگر

There is an animal whose name is ushghur (porcupine):
It is (made) stout and big by blows of the stick.[270]
The more you cudgel it, the more it thrives:
It grows fat on blows of the stick.
Assuredly the true believer’s soul is porcupine,
For it is (made) stout and fat by the blows of tribulation.

For this reason the tribulation and abasement (laid) upon the prophets

Is greater than (that laid upon) all the (other) creatures in the world,
So that their souls became stouter than (all other) souls;
For no other class of people suffered that affliction.[271]

Thereafter, he likens man to an untanned hide that the tanners treat and make useful by the use of bitter and acrid agents. Then, he urges us to accept such sufferings which are meant for our own perfection:

پوست از دارو بلاكش مىشود چون اديم طايفى خوش مىشود
ورنه تلخ و تيز ماليدى در او گنده گشتى، ناخوش و ناپاک بو
آدمى را پوستِ نامدبوغ دان از رطوبتها شده زشت و گران
تلخ و تيز و مالِشِ بسيار ده تا شود پاك و لطيف و با فِرِه
ور نمى تانى، رضا دە اى عيار گر خدا رنجت دهد بىاختيار
كه بلاى دوست تطهير شماست علم او بالاى تدبير شماست

The hide is afflicted by the medicine (tan-liquor),
(But) it becomes sweet like Tā’if leather;
And if he (the tanner) did not rub the bitter and acrid (liquor) into it,

It would become fetid, unpleasant, and foul-smelling.

Know that Man is an untanned hide,
Made noisome and gross by humors.
Give (him)[272] bitter and acrid (discipline) and much rubbing (tribulation),
That he may become pure and lovely and exceedingly strong;
But if you cannot (mortify yourself), be content, O cunning one,
If God give you tribulation without choice (on your part).
For affliction (sent) by the Friend is (the means of) your being purified:
His knowledge is above your contrivance. [273]

Suffering as commensurate to one’s own understanding
The fact cannot be denied that the more our awareness of ourselves and the things around us increases, the more we discern the gloomy aspects of life. This matter pains us. In a research study on prosperity, which a number of American and European universities had conducted, the conclusion was reached that there is a direct relationship between suffering and awareness, and if man’s awareness exceeds a specific level, it can even prevent his happiness in life. Mawlānā describes this truth in this fashion:

هر كه او بيدارتر، پردردتر هر كه او آگاهتر، رخ زردتر

The more wakeful anyone is, the more full of suffering he is;
The more aware (of God) he is, the paler he is in countenance.[274]

But, this suffering does not belong to the daily suffering and that which, at times, ensues from foolishness making man’s soul dejected and sad. This suffering neither arises from moral vices nor selfishness and pride. Some of the sufferings are files of the soul and obstruct man’s soul from soaring to greater heights—like the pain of having no material luxuries and means of comfort; like the pain experienced when our neighbor or friend is financially well-off while we are not. Such sufferings and the illusion arising there from trample on the soul of man:

جان همه روز از لگدكوب خيال وز زيان و سود و از خوف زوال
نى صفا مى ماندش نى لطف و فر نى به سوى آسمان راه سفر

All day long, from the buffets of phantasy
And from (thoughts of) loss and gain and from fear of decline,

There remains to it (the soul)

Neither joy nor grace and glory nor way of journeying to Heaven.[275]

No, such pains have no relation to man’s intellect and discernment; in fact, it is a sign of a lack of intelligence. However, there are sufferings born of sagacity and an indication of man’s wisdom. If we search through the whole of history we will realize this truth and see that the sages and people’s leaders always used to suffer. Their suffering was expressive of their extraordinary innate capacity.

They possessed such a greatness of soul that they held the suffering of all as their own and were concerned not only with their own affairs. In a speech, Imām ‘Alī (‘a) refers to the attack of Mu‘āwiyah’s army,[276] and says: “They used to attack the women of the Ahl adh-Dhimmah[277] and confiscate their ornaments, and these women had nothing to do but to plead for mercy.” Then he (‘a) reckoned this tragedy to be so serious that if a person dies on hearing this news, it is not only regarded by him (‘a) as natural but even praiseworthy. “If any Muslim dies of grief after all this he is not to be blamed but rather there is justification for him before me.”[278] Yes, such suffering is an indication of man’s lofty soul. Thus, John Stuart Mill,[279] a philosopher who was a proponent of the ethical school of utilitarianism[280] and, at times, whose ideas were poorly interpreted, unambiguously posits that human sufferings are superior to animal joys, and says: “To be an unhappy human being is better than to be a cheerful pig. It is better for me to be a despondent Socrates than a joyful stupid.”[281]
Sometimes, the Most Noble Messenger (s) would also suffer because of the condition of his ummah [community] and would strive for its welfare so much so that he would be on the verge of danger. His noble soul could not accept that those people live in ignorance and corruption. Owing to this, he was acting beyond his duty. So, God Almighty discouraged him from exerting excessive pressure on himself, and said: “We have not revealed unto thee (Muhammad) this Qur’an that thou shouldst be distressed.”[282]

Likewise, He dissuaded him from arduous effort for the salvation of disbelievers, and said: “So let not thy soul expire in sighings for them.”[283]

Then, God also thus describes His Most Noble Messenger (s) and while addressing the people He says: “There hath come unto you a messenger, (one) of yourselves, unto whom aught that ye are overburdened is grievous.”[284]

In spite of all these, he (s) had suffered so much that he said: “No prophet was persecuted as I was.”[285] This suffering is rooted in man’s altruism and endeavor for the deliverance of others, and it is only in name that it has commonality with self-made and superficial sufferings. Hence, it has been emphasized in the noble hadīth that whoever is narrow-minded and of poor intellect, his hardship and suffering then will also be less. It is due to the fact that such a person only suffers with regard to water, bread and shelter and if these three are provided, it will make no difference for him what the fate of others may be and will view himself as an isolated and solitary island.

Therefore, suffering is a symbol of altruism and a profound sense of humaneness, having direct relationship with the intellect and wisdom. Imām Khomeinī analyzes this kind of suffering in this manner:

The persons of weak intellects and feeble sensibility are secure from spiritual tribulations and intellectual suffering in proportion to their intellectual weakness and the feebleness of their sensibility. On the contrary, those with more complete intellects and acuter sensibility have to undergo spiritual tribulations more intensely in proportion to the perfectness and acuteness of their intellect and sensibility…

for whoever perceives the greatness and glory of the Lord to a greater extent and knows the sacred station of God Almighty more than others, he suffers more and is tormented to a greater extent by the sins of the creatures and their offences against the Lord’s sanctity. Also, one who has a greater love and compassion for the creatures of God is tormented to a greater extent by their crooked and wretched condition and ways.[286]

It should not remain unsaid that this type of suffering does not mean grief and sorrow. Man is aware of the truths of the universe to such an extent that he views God as Beautiful and His creations as manifestations of beauty and splendor.

He regards this system as excellent and believes, “Every thing is good in its own place.” As such, everything is joy, happiness and rejoicing. On the other hand, since other human beings have not recognized their reality, take no step in the matter, and search for the way from the misled ones on the verge of ‘drowning’, they suffer and become sorrow-stricken. Hence, on the one hand there is joy and happiness, and grief and sorrow on the other. These two levels should not be erroneously interchanged. Owing to this, it is stated in the hadīths that the believer always has a smile on his face, and hides his sorrow beneath his bosom.[287]

Therefore, what is meant by sagacious suffering is profound discernment of the tragic condition of some people, and not personal despondence and daily sorrows.[288]
Is Knowledge a Mental Aid, or Burden?

In Book Two of the noble Mathnawī, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Mawlawī [Balkhī ar-Rūmī] has a short and elegant story. An ignorant desert Arab has a sack full of grain and he wants it to load on top of his camel. But instead of dividing it into two, he takes another sack full of sand so as to balance the weight of the sack full of grain and load the two on both sides of the camel. Along the way, a sage man becomes his co-traveler and talks with him. As he finds out that one half of the load is sand and it only causes trouble, he suggests to the Arab to empty the sack full of sand and to fill in its stead half of the grain so that the purpose [of having a balanced load over the camel] is also met and at the same time the camel’s load would become lighter.

Being glad of the wise solution and after executing the suggestion, the Arab asked the sage about his wealth and riches as he assumes that having this cogent mind he is supposed to possess everything. However, the sage sorrowfully answers that he possesses nothing in this world:

گفت: “واﷲ نيست يا وجهالعرب در همه مُلكم وجوه Ùˆ قوت شب
پا برهنه تن برهنه مىدوم هر كه نانى مىدهد، آنجا روم
مر مرا زين حكمت Ùˆ فضل Ùˆ هنر نيست حاصل جز خيال Ùˆ دردسر”

“By God,” he replied, “O chief of the Arabs, in my whole property
There is not the means of (buying) food for the night.
I run about with bare feet and naked body.
If any one will give me a loaf of bread—thither I go.
From this wisdom and learning and excellence (of mind)
I have nothing but phantasy and headache.”[289]

Astonished and disappointed by the futility of such knowledge, the Arab prefers his form of ignorance to such ominous wisdom and he asks the sage to part ways with him so that his misfortune would not descend upon him:

دور بَر آن حكمت شومت ز من نطق تو شوم است بر اهل زَمَن
يا تو آن سو رو، من اين سو مىدوم ور تو راه پيش، من واپس روم
يک جوالم گندم و ديگر ز ريگ به بود زين حيله هاى مرده ريگ
احمقيم بس مبارک احمقىاست كه دلم با برگ و جانم متقى است

Take far away from me that unlucky wisdom of yours:

Your speech is unlucky for (all) the people of the time.

Either you go in that direction, or I will run in this direction;
Or if your way be forwards, I will go back.
One sack of wheat and the other of sand
Is better for me than these vain contrivings.
My foolishness is a very blessed foolishness, for my heart is well-furnished
(With spiritual graces) and my soul is devout.[290]
Then out of this story Mawlānā arrives at this conclusion:

فكر، آن باشد كه بگشايد رهى راه، آن باشد كه پيش آيد شَهى

The right thought is that which opens a way:
The (right) way is that on which a (spiritual) king advances.[291]

From the viewpoint of Mawlānā, it is not the discussion on the root of knowledge and the necessity of knowing; neither does he mean bestowing superiority to ignorance over wisdom. Instead, his point is that man should benefit from his knowledge and this knowledge should transform his life.

Such knowledge stands on top in self-cognition; not knowledge of the horizontal and outer phenomena. Anyone who, without paying attention to this truth, is in pursuit of profusely acquiring knowledge and lets diverse and secondary information fill his memory to the brim is, in fact, overburdening himself and placing insurmountable hurdles in his way. Those who are like him know so many things about everything. But, this knowledge has no influence on their fate and if all this learning can be taken away from them, they will still pursue their past life. Concerning such type of people, Mawlānā says:

ïº»ïº©ï»«ïº°ïºïº­ïºï»¥ï»“ïº¼ï»žïº©ïºï»¨ïºªïºïº¯ï»‹ï» ï»®ï»¡ ﺟﺎﻥ ﺧﻮﺩ ﺭﺍﻣﻰﻧﺪﺍﻧﺩ ïºï»¥ï»‡ï» ï»®ï»¡
ﺩﺍﻨﺩﺍﻮﺧﺎﺼﻴﺖﻫﺭﺟﻮﻫﺭﻯ ﺪﺭ ﺑﻴﺎﻥ ﺟﻮﻫﺭﺧﻮﺪ ﭽﻮﻥ ﺧﺭﻯ

He knows a hundred thousand superfluous matters[292] connected with
The (various) sciences, (but) that unjust man does not know his own soul.
He knows the special properties of every substance, (but) in elucidating
His own substance (essence) he is (as ignorant) as an ass.[293]

The approach to the issue of knowledge of one of the two prominent branches of Western contemporary philosophy, i.e. existentialism, is the same. Kierkegaard, the precursor of existentialism, divides truth into exoteric and esoteric, or exact and imaginary. Exoteric truths are those accomplishments of science while esoteric truths are rooted in the soul of man. These esoteric truths, that he has named as ‘existential truths,’ are interwoven with the destiny of man and determine the trend of his life.

Every kind of knowledge should be exploited and utilized while keeping in view its role in determining and nurturing man’s existential truths. As such, according to Kierkegaard, all kinds of knowledge are not equal in rank and worth. Rather, they are classified according to their functions with respect to man. The kinds of knowledge are considered more valuable that give answers to the ‘whys’ questions instead of the ‘whats’.[294]

In conclusion, knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not that important. Rather, it is due to its guiding role that it is praiseworthy. Now, we will deal with Imām Khomeinī’s views on issues concerning knowledge by examining them under the following headings:
· The place of knowledge;

· The instrumental role of knowledge;

· The branches of knowledge and realms of human existence; and

· Ignorance as a pretext in neglecting knowledge.

The place of knowledge

Having roots in our religious tradition in which seeking knowledge is deemed equal to military campaign and the ink of the scholars is even viewed as holier than the blood of the martyrs, Imām Khomeinī (r) thinks within this framework. According to him,

· Knowledge makes a man;

· The universe itself is a large university;

· Knowledge is a requisite for prosperity;

· Knowledge and expertise is a criterion of superiority;
· Knowledge means continuous learning.

1. Knowledge makes a man

Concerning the caliphate (his appointment as God’s vicegerent on earth) of Adam (‘a) we read that God taught him the names of things. Then He tested the angels with respect to these names (in which they failed to give answer). Thus, He proved to them that the reason behind Adam’s (‘a) superiority is these very names.[295]

When man was also separated from other animals and brought them under his dominance, he utilized the weapon of knowledge and established an enduring civilization. If we efface knowledge from the life of man we will confront our peer creatures as well as other levels (species) of creatures, and not more than that. “It is the pen, knowledge and speech that can build man, and not machine guns and other destructive powers. Machine guns as well as other implements of war came into existence under the aegis of knowledge.”[296]

2. The universe itself is a large university

If we accept that the tradition of tests and trials are prevalent everywhere, and that man has no respite for even a moment from not being tested, and if we accept that every test entails lessons and teaching, we will then accept the conclusion that the whole world is, for us, essentially the place of learning and accumulation of knowledge. As such, madrasahs [schools] and maktabs [old-fashioned primary schools] are not the only specific places with particular lessons. Rather, all places are schools and everything is a lesson.

The teacher and student are not surrounded by teachers of the universities and high schools or the rest of places, and the student too is not surrounded by those who go to the university. The universe is a university while the prophets, awliyā’ and those trained by them are the teachers and the rest of mankind are students, and they ought to be students.[297]

3. Knowledge as a requisite for prosperity

Knowing the way from the well depends on vision (being able to see) and seeing, in turn, is the result of knowledge. So, knowledge is regarded as the light of man in guaranteeing his prosperity and the ground for his advancement and excellence. “It is through knowledge that man can secure his prosperity in this world and the next. It is through teaching that man can train and educate the youth in such a way that they are able to safeguard their own interests in this world and the hereafter.”[298]

4. Knowledge and expertise as a criterion of superiority
By raising an amazing question which, at the same time, contains its own answer, the Glorious Qur’an, shows us the criterion of superiority and prominence: “Are those who know equal with those who know not?”[299]

Hence, apart from considering knowledge as particularly valuable, Islam also regards it as the standard of superiority. “Islam strives to that extent for the experts and specialists. In both common laws and religious laws it has given preference to the (one who is) more expert; it has given preference to the more expert opinion.”[300]

5. Knowledge as continuous learning

Knowledge will acquire its fundamental function when it is pursued throughout one’s life; not like medicine which is used only in times of sickness. Knowledge is like food that is always needed by the living organism. Therefore it should be planned in such a way as to be present throughout man’s existence.

Up to the last moment of his life man is in need of knowledge, learning and training. No man could be independent from (not in need of) knowledge or be independent from learning and training. What some individuals imagine that our time for learning lessons has already passed is not correct. Learning a lesson has no specific time. As what has been stated in the hadīth that [seeking] knowledge is from cradle up to the grave, if a man in the agony of death can learn a single word, it is better for him than to die as ignorant of it.[301]

The instrumental role of knowledge

Notwithstanding all these emphases of ours on knowledge and seeking knowledge, the principle that knowledge itself is not the aim should not be forgotten. Rather, it has [merely] an instrumental role and it is valuable and desirable to the extent that it performs its role. If one day this role is forgotten and knowledge itself became the goal, then the fall of man will commence. Knowledge is valuable to the extent that, just like a vehicle or animal for riding, it can transport us to our destination. Now, if this mount or means of transportation malfunctions— however ostensibly ornamented it may be —it cannot be of use to us.

The Imām’s approach in this context is an existential one. It is from this aspect that knowledge ought to be an instrument for man’s dominance and prosperity, and not that it becomes a goal itself and a hindrance for the realization of other goals. This existential approach to knowledge is regarded as an integral part of his moral thought. From his perspective, all sciences should lead to a certain destination and deliver man from this narrow pass of the world.

Otherwise, learning them is not only worthless but they themselves also veil the way and are a hindrance to perfection. If ignorance is a dark veil, knowledge can also be a luminous one the removal of which is more difficult, because like a wall seen through its glass cladding which hardly anybody can detect as being a covering and so it misguides [the people] constantly. Hence, he describes this point in this manner:

If the doctrinal sciences and doctrinal truths are studied for their own sake and if all the related concepts, terms, high-sounding expressions, and embellished juxtapositions of terms be learned for the sake of showing off to feeble minds and for the sake of obtaining worldly status, then they cannot be called āyāt al-muhkamāt;rather they must be named obscuring veils and hollow fantasies. That is because if one’s purpose in learning the sciences should not be to reach God, the Exalted, and to realize the Names and Attributes and to mould one’s self in accordance with the Divine character [takhalluq beh akhlāq Allah], each of such acquisitions of his is a dungeon of hell and a black veil that darkens his heart and blinds his insight.[302]
This issue is not particular to this-worldly or that-worldly sciences. Rather, every knowledge that does not lead to the True Beloved is a [mere] mental burden. Sometimes, even gnosticism [‘irfān] and knowledge of monotheism [tawhīd], instead of being a guide and leader, can also be the impediment in the way to perfection and bring about eternal destruction and perdition. So, it causes pride and superiority complex in a gnostic [‘ārif] as a result of which, he remains a captive of terminologies, explanations and descriptions.

The story of the scholar which the Glorious Qur’an indicates points to this truth. That scholar—who has been mentioned in the Islamic sources as Bal‘am al-Bā‘ūr—instead of benefiting from the divine sciences at his disposal and converting them into a springboard to heaven, made use of them as a rope in going down the bottomless pit of adversity. Consequently, he was cursed by God and became like a dog.[303]

The Imām points to the destiny of those who were corrupted by knowledge—even divine knowledge—in this manner:

With this short life and limited knowledge, I have seen certain people among these so-called mystics and other scholars who, I swear by ‘irfan and knowledge that these terms have not made any mark on their hearts; nay, they have rather left on them an opposite effect…

O amateurish student of concepts who has gone astray of the realities! Deliberate over the matter for a while, and think as to what knowledge you possess of God. What impact has the knowledge of God and His Attributes made on your self? Perhaps the study of music and musical rhythms may be more exact and precise than your knowledge. Astronomy, mechanics, other physical sciences, and mathematics can match your learning as to the precision of their terminology. Yet, in the same way as they are not concerned with the knowledge of God, your knowledge also is a thick curtain consisting of the veils of words, terms, and concepts. They can neither make one ecstatic nor send anyone into a trance.

Rather, in the eyes of the Sharī‘ah, the physical sciences and mathematics are better than your knowledge, since they produce some result, whereas your knowledge not only gives no good results, but gives opposite ones. An engineer draws results from his calculations, and a goldsmith is benefited from his craftsmanship; but your knowledge, apart from not gaining any material benefits, has failed to fulfill any transcendental ends as well… A knowledge, which darkens the heart and increases it in its blindness, is not knowledge.[304]

In short, knowledge with all the values that it possesses is desirable and ideal so long as it can pave the way for man and lead him toward his True Object of Worship, or at least, His Proximity.

The branches of knowledge and realms of human existence

With his practical and existential approach to sciences the Imām attempts to evaluate and categorize these on the basis of their functions. According to him the practical merit of knowledge determines its own station.

Thus, he makes this criterion the basis of categorization and assessment of sciences, on the basis of which he endeavors to explain the hadīth that views sciences as having three branches. It is narrated in the said hadīth that the Messenger of God (s) once entered the mosque where there was a group of people surrounding a man. Instead of “Who is that?” “What is that?” inquired the Prophet (s) as a sign of contempt of the person and his deeds. He was told, “He is an ‘allāmah, (i.e. a very learned man) and is the most learned of men regarding Arab genealogies, past episodes, the days of the jāhiliyyah [Ignorance] and Arabic poetry.” The Prophet (s) said, “That is a knowledge whose ignorance does not harm one nor is its possession of any benefit to one.” Then the Prophet (s) declared, “Verily, knowledge consists of these three: the firm sign [āyah muhkamah], the just duty [farīdah ‘ādilah] and the established sunnah [sunnah qā’imah]. Allelse is superfluous.”[305]
The Imām makes this hadīth the basis of his categorization of sciences and in the first degree he divides all sciences into three branches: those that are beneficial, those that are detrimental, and those that are worthless.

Thus, all the sciences are divisible into three kinds: first, those sciences, which are beneficial to man in view of the other stages of existence, success wherein is the ultimate purpose of creation… The second kind consists of those which are harmful for man and lead him to neglect his essential duties. This kind consists of the blameworthy sciences and one must refrain from their pursuit… Thirdly, there are those which are neither harmful nor beneficial.[306]

Thence, the Imām again divides into three those sciences that are beneficial: One is the rational and doctrinal sciences, the other is the science of ethics, and the third, the religious sciences.

You should know that the expression ‘firm sign’ [āyah muhkamah]implies the rational sciences and the true doctrines and divine teachings. ‘Just duty’ [farīdah ‘ādilah]implies the science of ethics and self-purification. ‘Established sunnah’ [sunnah qā’imah]refers to the science of the exoteric aspect and the bodily conduct (i.e. involving some kind of physical activity).[307]

Here the Imām is actually doing an exegesis. Then, in order to prove it he deals with a gnostical point. It is narrated from the hadīth of the Messenger of God (s) that knowledge consists of the ‘firm sign’ [āyah muhkamah], the ‘just duty’ [farīdah ‘ādilah] and the ‘established sunnah’ [sunnah qā’imah].

The Imam propounds that what is meant by ‘firm sign’ [āyah muhkamah] are the rational sciences and divine teachings by which issues on the origin, resurrection and prophethood are clarified. What is referred to as ‘just duty’ [farīdah ‘ādilah]is the knowledge that causes the moderation of temperament and disposition. ‘Established sunnah’ [sunnah qā’imah]is a body of sciences that organizes the individual and social relations of man, the highest form of which is illustriously manifested in devotional precepts.

In a bid to elucidate this exegesis and comparison, the Imām points out existential realms [sāhat-hā-ye wujūdī] of man. According to him man has three existential realms, and in his words, three worlds [nash’ah]: One is the external and sensory world or realm, and in the mystical sense, the domain of mulk [corporeality] and hudūr [presence]. The other is the barzakhi [limbo] and middle world which is known as the domain of khiyāl [imagination] and mithāl [allegory]. The third is the world of reason and the spiritual, celestial and unseen domain.

You should know that… man, to put it briefly, is confronted with three worlds, stations and phases of life: first, the world of the Hereafter, which is the hidden world [‘ālam-e ghayb]of spirituality and the intellect; second, the phase of barzakh, which is the world of khiyāl lying between the other two worlds; third, the phase of this world, the domain of mulk [corporeality] and the world of appearance [‘ālam-e shahādat].[308]

Each of these existential realms is in need of training, nourishment and exaltation. Training of every realm is also in need of knowledge of its own kind. Then, for the training of the realm of reason we are in need of sciences of reasoning and knowledge of certainty. For the training of the realm of allegory of man we are in need of moral and spiritual training. For the training of corporeal and external realm we are in need of social training, which in turn, is attainable through religious sciences.

In this manner, in order for each of this set of knowledge to become significant and desirable, it should be supplemented and complemented by one of these realms. If in the midst of this we come across knowledge that does not train any of our realms of existence and does not fill any of our existential ‘gaps’, we should abandon the same knowledge and go in pursuit of other knowledge. All this emphasis on the beneficial knowledge in the hadīths is indicative of this truth. The Messenger of God (s) would seek refuge in God from futile knowledge. Describing the attributes of the pious, the Commander of the Faithful (‘a) says that they have lent their ears only to beneficial sciences.[309] All of these emphasize a single truth, and that is, knowledge should set light up the ultra-light of man’s way.
The additional point is that although the Imām lays stress on the useful sciences, he does not view them as confined to particular ones. He believes that attempts should be made as much as possible to categorize each kind of knowledge under any one of the three headings. Therefore, everybody with the understanding that he has about himself and his ‘vacuums’, should know which knowledge is more useful to him, take utmost advantage of the opportunities, and avoid wasting his time.

That is because when a sensible person knows that he cannot acquire all the sciences and achieve all the excellences due to shortness of life, scarcity of time and abundance of obstacles and accidents, he would reflect about the sciences and devote himself to the acquisition of those which are more beneficial for him.[310]

Therefore, the wayfarer [sālik] in the pursuit of morality should always yearn for knowledge for his perfection and, on no account long for it for himself. He should always be conscious that this knowledge—though the knowledge of monotheism—does not tie his hands and feet and makes him a captive of terminologies; disentanglement from this kind of knowledge is in itself a virtue and perfection, as:

it often happens that intense attention to terms and preoccupation with words and that which relates to them make one totally oblivious of the heart and its reform. [As a result] one may acquire complete mastery in expounding the meaning and essence of the heart and the terminology of the metaphysicians [hukamā’] and the mystics [‘urafā] while one’s heart, we seek refuge in God from it [na‘ūdhubillāh], is one that is either inverted or sealed, like someone who knows well the beneficial and harmful properties of medicines and is able to describe them with expertise without himself refraining from poisonous medicines or making use of the beneficial ones. Such a person perishes despite all his knowledge of pharmacology, which is unable to rescue him.[311]

Ignorance as a pretext in neglecting knowledge

Although knowledge can sometimes induce man to boast, prevent him from continuing his way to perfection, and become his mental burden, this exceptional condition should never be taken as a pretext that ignorance, therefore, is better than knowledge. In fact, in the parlance of philosophy knowledge is from the category and kind of existence, and existence, from whatever class and rank it may be, is from the lack of what is better and superior.

Abandonment of knowledge under the pretext that it often becomes a veil of man is like avoidance of food with the justification that gluttony or malnutrition is a factor in the ailments of man. In the same manner that treating malnutrition or gluttony is not abstention from food or absolute fasting, but lies in proper eating, similarly, in order to avoid the dangers of knowledge, one should not turn one’s back on knowledge. Instead, its blemishes should be identified and be avoided. Hence, those who assert that knowledge is the greatest of veils and, on this pretext, trample on the legacy of the prophets (‘a) (that is, knowledge)[312] have adopted a false way.

In this corporeal world which is an arena of conflict of phenomena and every thing is in danger and challenged by other things, knowledge also has its curses that often become man’s greatest veil. However, just as we deal with the blemishes of other phenomena, those of knowledge should be dealt with as well and the side effects trimmed off. Therefore, knowledge, to whatever extent it may be, is valuable and, to that same extent, facilitates man’s way to perfection, and

The sciences—whatever their level, whether they pertain to the ma‘ārif or something else—are a path for reaching the Garden appropriate to each of them, and the wayfarer of each of the paths of knowledge is a traveler on one of the paths of Paradise.[313]

As such, albeit the Imām strongly emphasizes knowledge that is profitable and discourages loading the memory with unnecessary terminologies, he still stresses the instrumental role of knowledge in this manner:
I, too, do not put much of a store by mere knowledge, and a learning that does not bring faith with it is the greatest of veils. However, one has to approach a veil in order to tear it into shreds. The sciences are seeds of (spiritual) experience.[314]

Therefore, anyone who has essentially entered the greatest veil can go out of it. One cannot bypass this channel. Instead, one should enter through one door and exit through another. Not entering and also stopping inside are both incorrect. As a result, through a practical approach to knowledge and insistence on the fact that all “the sciences are absolutely practical and even the transcendental sciences have, in a way, a practical aspect in them,”[315] the Imām urges us initially to deal with the profitable and ennobling kinds of knowledge consciously, selectively and with consideration to the limited opportunity and facilities that we have.

Then, after benefiting from this profitable instrument and reaching the highest heaven by means of this ladder, we should abandon it and continue on our way. We should not become the captives of the luminous and hidden veils that are born of an attachment to knowledge. We ought not to imagine this instrument as the goal, because pursuing knowledge as the objective itself gives one a blackened heart and makes one remain on the way. Thus, the wayfarer on the path to perfection ought not to desire for anything except God, and not preoccupy himself with any attainment and be deceived by it. He should always bear in mind this ultimate objective, and should not quench his thirst except through meeting the Friend.

ﻫمچو مستسقى كز آبش سير نست بر هر آنچه يافتى، باﷲ مايست

By God, do not tarry in anything (any spiritual position) that thou hast gained,
(But crave more) like one suffering from dropsy who is never sated with water.[316]

Behaviour as Emanating from the Principles of Ethics
The aforementioned principles which were elaborately discussed are deemed existential truths in the language of the existentialists. That is, they are not merely facts about the external affairs. Rather, they are profoundly concerned with, and transform, the life and fate of man. In the view of Imām Khomeinī, in essence all “the sciences are absolutely practical”[317] and their epistemological aspect, or in the parlance of Islamic philosophy, their ‘disclosure’ [kāshifīyyah] is the prelude to action and no knowledge is absolutely irrelevant to action.

But the principles of ethics go beyond this stage. It is because the essence of ethics is nothing but the process of its continuous creation and recreation. If we remove this aspect, nothing will remain in its stead. Here the objective of the scholar of ethics is not dissemination and presentation of facts and information. Instead he is in pursuit of nurturing individuals and acquainting them with the path to felicity. Hence, in his emphasis on this knowledge, the Imām said:

The science of the states of the heart and that which relates to their health and sickness, reform and corruption, is something which is purely a preliminary step to action and the way of its reform and remedy. Its mere knowledge and understanding is not considered a human perfection. Hence one’s main attention and goal should be the reform and refinement of the heart so that one may attain to ultimate spiritual felicity and to the higher transcendent stations.[318]

Consequently, the difference between ethics and mathematics in this respect is very great. Knowing the mathematical formulas is itself valuable and an indication of perfection. But in the realm of ethics it is not so. Merely knowing the aforesaid principles has no value in itself. These principles become valuable only when they flow in the veins of man as does the blood and penetrate deep into the depths of his existence.

Thus, the principle that “man is indescribable” should not be seen as a philosophical principle and be placed alongside other philosophical principles. Instead, one should elevate it from the stage of ‘knowledge’ to the level of ‘belief’ and live with it. It is then that this principle would transform the life of man. In a bid to state the difference between knowledge and belief, what is usually cited is an old example whose veracity has not yet been invalidated by time. All of us know that a dead person has no power to move and the corpse that has fallen in a corner can do no harm.
Yet, few people are ready to spend the night alone beside a lifeless body or pay a visit to the cemetery at midnight. Similarly, we have heard a lot of adventurers who would bet on going to the cemetery at night but, in doing so, what emotional disturbances did they not experience?! Well, the difference regarding this issue is between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’. We know that the dead can do no harm but we do not believe in it. Since we do not truly and firmly believe in the lifelessness of the dead, we do have doubts about it and suggest to ourselves, “Don’t say he’s going to get up!”

Now if we really believe that the dead has no power to move, we will no longer fear to be with it. Gravediggers and those who wash the dead are among those who really believe that the dead are lifeless; thus, they do not fear whether they are beside the dead or spend the night in the cemetery. Imām Khomeinī, in a whole chapter, endeavors to clarify this difference and shows that “knowledge is different from faith.”[319]

While emphasizing that faith is an affair of the heart, he distinguishes it from knowledge and cites the same example of the dead corpse and concludes thus:

You know through your reason that a dead person cannot do any harm and that all the dead in the world do not possess any power of action, even as much power as is possessed by a fly… but since your heart has not accepted it and has not approved of the judgment of the mind, you cannot spend a dark night with a dead body. But if your heart yields to your mind and approves of its judgment, this job will no more be difficult for you. After some effort the heart resigns to the dictates of reason, then no dread of the dead remains in the heart.[320]

The outcome of this distinction is that acceptance of the ethical principles is a form of challenge. Here we are not dealing with the complex principles of philosophy. On the contrary, these principles [of faith] are very simple and straightforward. The difficulty lies in having faith in them, and in the words of the Imām, passing these principles from the stage of reason to the stage of the heart.

It is here that the issue of commitment is raised. It is possible that a mathematician has no faith in any of his mathematical achievements while at the same time he knows and teaches them well. It is possible that a person is a professor of Greek philosophy but he does not believe in any of its schools, and after teaching them, behaves as if he is not acquainted with this philosophy at all. However, this point is not true about ethics. Ethics is a way of living and a way of viewing oneself and others. A scholar of ethics cannot, as with a pair of spectacles, remove or change it anytime he likes.

In the words of Max Weber,[321] “Moralities are not chariots that can be stopped any time we want for getting in or getting off.”[322] Ethics makes man committed to himself and urges him to assess and construct himself according to these principles. It is here that the issues of reminding [tadhakkur], purification [tazkiyyah], and watchfulness [murāqibah] come up. Moral maladies, the form of moral reasoning and expression are peculiar to themselves, and cannot be gauged by the theoretical sciences.

It is due to this that the Imām does not express these principles ‘systematically’ and ‘orderly’. Instead he mainly regards them as assumed and expresses their outcomes. The goal in teaching ethics does not lie in learning some principles and appending them to an individual’s body of knowledge. The goal is to let man take a look at himself again, reconstruct his existential palace, and evaluate it.

If our outlook on ethics is of this type, we will no longer be in pursuit of increasing the volume of our information on ethics. Instead, we will strive to increase the volume of challenge and action, and in the parlance of ethics, self-purification. Treading the path of ethics does not require extensive and vast information. It needs high ambition, firm resolution and formidable will:

Dear friend! Try to be a man of strong will power and resolution, so that you may not go from this world as a person without resolution, and hence rise on the Day of Resurrection as a brainless-being, not in the form of human being.[323]
Hence, the topic is not about teaching; it pertains to training, the manner of upbringing and living.

Now let us see what type of person is the one who has come to believe in the principles of ethics and lets them flow in his veins. If we want to present the image of a moral man while taking into account these principles, perhaps we can portray his as follows:

1) Moral man is he who profoundly believes that man is indescribable and so long as he lives in this corporeal world cannot be absolutely regarded as misguided or guided. Consequently, he does not stop even for a moment in ‘creation’ and ‘recreation’ of himself. He is always in pursuit of nurturing and training himself and in transcending himself. He meticulously assesses himself but refrains from judging others. He believes that he should not forget himself and be the judge with respect to the conduct and behaviour of others. Instead, he believes that he is responsible for himself and every individual is responsible. So, he has taken this statement as the epigraph of his life: “Take account of yourself for your own sake because the account of others will be taken by one other than you.”[324]

He knows that he has only a brief opportunity at his disposal to offer whatever he has in the bag. Hence, he neither wastes his time anymore nor spends it in vain in judging other’s conduct and behaviour. He is totally concerned with himself.

2) To be totally concerned with oneself, in his view, does not mean irresponsibility with respect to others. On the contrary, he knows that the diamond of his existence is cut in social activity and in living with others. So, he views being with others as an opportunity for building himself, and acquires benefit from it. Although he is amidst the people, spiritually he is not with them and moves in a higher plane.

He shows others the way (guidance) and the well (misguidance) but never forgets himself. He deems as his prime concern his own salvation for which he is responsible. He is with the people, yet his soul travels. As such, he is often silent. But once he talks, his speech is of another kind and a cure for the pain of his listeners. He sees the faults of others but covers them. It is because he is aware of the nature of mankind and also knows his duty in this context. It does not mean that he does not see the evil in his eyes, but he sees the good in the eyes of others. He closes his eyes to the shortcomings of others and is concerned with his own defects.

3) This kind of person knows that man is a blend of the spirit of God and the putrid clay, and he takes it as a good augury. He never entertains the idea of denying his physical dimension and of overlooking his instincts. Rather, he has a realistic view of the human dimensions of himself and others. He neither talks about uprooting his instincts nor intends to retreat into solitude and seclusion. Instead, he believes that the same instincts are powerful instruments for his advancement and growth, and considers presence in society as a means for the emergence of his creativity.

Thus, his life in this respect is similar to that of the people. He eats, drinks, mingles with others, and he sees the world not as a calamity and plague but as a vast ground of God, and benefits by it with his needs. He equally knows that satisfaction of instincts, material possessions and benefiting from the world are not his ultimate goal; rather, they are prologue to his perfection and meeting with God [liqā Allāh]. So, he enjoys everything moderately and to a sufficient extent. He does not deprive himself of any blessing, but does not also suffocate himself with any of the favours.

4) This kind of person sees evenly the possibility of progress and growth in all, and recognizes all men as creatures of the One God. Therefore, he regards no one as essentially superior to others. Even if he deems himself blessed and favoured by God for having endowed him with the power of discernment and self-building, he never allows this grace to cause him to become proud and boastful, and reckon himself as superior to others.

Arrogance and pride are absent in him and he knows well the satanic temptation in this regard. Such a person does not keep aloof from others on the excuse of knowledge and strength, and never regards himself as being special. He does not cast his attributes in others’ teeth through his clothes, language or some of his silent gestures, and knows how strong the temptations of Satan are and in what manner he attempts to make man proud and arrogant but “be certain that all these are guiles of the Devil and wiles of the self.”[325]
For, the Messenger of God (s), with all his spiritual loftiness, was never enticed by such pretences and was always the confidante and companion of the most indigent strata of the society. The great men of religion have been so, too. For instance, Shaykh ‘Abdul-Karīm Hā’irī, the founder of the Islamic theological center in Qum, in spite of his being of high social standing, and an undisputed Shī‘ah Religious Reference Authority, “ used to sit on the floor and tell strange jokes to the most junior of students.[326] Such a person never humiliates others because of his being a man of morality; neither does he consider himself as being superior. Instead, he mingles with all and clamors in the midst of social life. Moral attributes only make him humble; not arrogant.

5) Such a person is fond of knowledge and seeking knowledge, and believes that his knowledge in relation to the things unknown to him is as a cup to the ocean. So, he ceases not even for a moment in learning, and he knows that the time he spends in learning is actually an investment that he has made and that he will reap much benefit from it.

He believes that the angels of heaven have stretched their wings above the seekers of knowledge and knows that knowledge is the legacy of the prophets (‘a). As such, he is always a seeker of the way of knowledge and a wayfarer in the path of learning. Yet, he equally knows well that knowledge is not the goal and that the goal of man should not be the accumulation of terminologies and filling up of his mind with facts. The purpose of knowledge is psychological and spiritual nurture and training. Hence, knowledge that possesses these attributes is valuable and worth searching for. It should abduct man from himself and in his stead construct another creature.

So, he is not in pursuit of virtueless knowledge; rather, he is in quest of existential truths—truths that outline his fate and raise him from being a creature equal to the animals to the status of the angels and from there to a loftier plane, to being a godly man. Yes, in his opinion such knowledge is becoming of him, and he considers the fact that “they lend their ears to that knowledge which is beneficial to them”[327] to be the mark of the upright people. For this reason, he is fascinated by profitable knowledge and between the different kinds of knowledge; he distinguishes the seeds from the straws and selects the beneficial ones.

6) He keeps a long[328] distance away from vices such as greed and jealousy. He knows that once he gives free rein to his instincts, in no way will they be satiated and ‘the cup of greedy eyes’ [kūzeh-ye cheshmeh harīsān] filled. He, likewise, believes that jealousy toward others is an indication of lack of faith in God, and can only be to his detriment; not to his good. So, these two traits that poison man’s life and pour venom into the cup of his life, are absent in him.

He perceives his beginning and end as good, and as such, he does not entertain greed. He knows that the sustenance of everyone is that which he eats, drinks, wears, and in which he sits. Moreover, it is no longer the sustenance of the individual; rather, it is the sustenance of those who remain. So, why should he trouble himself for the others and provide them with the comforts of life that will cause him hardship and misery?

He has also removed the root of jealousy from himself; he knows that his jealousy will not lead to the disappearance of others’ fortunes. Furthermore, as he believes in the wisdom and justice of God, he sees no reason to be jealous. Rather, he is of the opinion that the possessions of others are the result of being wise, and his lack of fortune is not the grounds of his abjectness.

7) His view on the world is both optimistic and realistic. If we take the world away from man, with what investment and provisions will he proceed to the hereafter? Thus, he never says anything bad about the world; he regards it as the arena for self-building, prosperity and providing for himself. Even if he sees that some Qur’anic āyahs and hadīths have reproached the world, he knows that it refers to worldliness and negligence of the final goal and destination; not negation of the reality of the world and its essence.

8) He believes in the rule of action and reaction. He knows that every input has its corresponding output; nothing in the world is futile and vain. So, his actions are measured and he is the observer of his own conduct. But he also knows that one’s wrong conduct should not necessarily lead to penalization in this world and that the wrongdoer should definitely be duly punished. From his viewpoint the world is not the place for recompense and retribution; rather, it is a ‘test bed’. The other world is the place for reward. Even if a person is punished in this world it is actually a favour God has done on him which has prevented him from persisting in his deviations.

9) Since he thinks of God as just and wise, and has an optimistic outlook on the world, he reckons tribulations and adversities as constructive and derives benefit from them for his growth. So, he never complains against the universe and firmaments of tribulations [falaq-e kajmadār]. Rather, he believes that behind all these sufferings is a great disguised wisdom in favour of his growth.

10) Finally, such a person is always in the process of self-assessment and, like a strict accountant, takes stock of himself. He systematically opens his record and impartially evaluates himself. He gives positive grades for his good deeds and negative grades for his bad ones. He promises to himself never to repeat such unscrupulous acts. He not only meticulously controls his behaviour, but also supervises his thinking and imagination. He does not permit the butterfly of his imagination to fly wherever it likes and around every flower. Instead, his entire existence is under his command and at the end of the year he rebuilds himself, goes beyond himself, and enters a loftier plane:

عارفان هر دمى دو عيد كنند عنكبوتان مگس قديد كنند
Every moment the mystics make two celebrations;
But the spider-like men let dry the fly to prey on it.

































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