When Islamic civilisation was buoyant, everything touched by the hands of believers turned to gold. The Dome of the Rock is probably the world’s most beautiful building, the subject of countless studies by astounded art historians. Through its octagon, the square outline of the ancient Solomonic temple is resolved to a circle, and thus to the infinity of heaven. It announces the supremacy of the Muhammadan moment, the time out of time when the Station of Two Bows’ Length (qaba qawsayn) was achieved. No earlier religion had preserved the memory of so exalted and so purely spiritual a climax to its story, as a mortal man ventured where even the highest angels could not step.
And yet he returned to earth; and this is the secret of the Sunna’s majesty. He had been redolent in the splendour and power of the Divine presence, but he nonetheless returned to the lower ranks of the created order, to reform his people. Not because he preferred them, but because he loved them. He had seen with his purified heart, as the Qur’an reveals: The heart did not deny that which it saw. He bore a truth which hitherto they had only dimly intuited: the core of the human creature is the heart, and the heart is the locus of a vision so transcendent that even the Revelation speaks of it only allusively: He saw, of the signs of his Lord, the greatest.
When we take on the Sunna, and reject flawed patterns of behaviour which have been shaped and guided by the ego and by fantasies of self-imagining, we declare to our Creator that we accept and revere the profound revelation of human flourishing exampled by the Best of Creation. Every act of the Sunna which we may successfully emulate declares that our role model is the man who had no ego, and to whom Allah had given a definitive victory over the forces of darkness. Modernity holds out lifestyle options centred on the self, and on the lower, agitated possibilities of the human condition. Every word of every magazine now breathes the message of the nafs: explore yourself, free yourself, be yourself. Buy a Porsche to express your identity; dress in a Cacharel suit to make a statement about yourself; be seen in the right places. The result, of course, is a society which pursues happiness with great technical brilliance but which puzzles over spiralling rates of suicide, drug abuse, failed relationships, and ever more aberrant forms of self-mutilation. It is a society in denial, a society in pain.
By taking on the Sunna, a human being accepts a deep and total reorientation. For the Sunna is not one lifestyle option among many, simply an exotic addition to the standard menu. The Sunna tears up the existing menu by defying its assumptions. By living in the Prophetic pattern one pursues a paradigm of excellence that demonstrably brings serenity and fulfillment, and hence silences the babble of the style magazines. Living in credit, knowing one’s neighbours, and holding the event of the Mi‘raj constantly in view, confers membership of Adam’s family of khalifas. Living in debt, chasing mirages, and serving the nafs, renders the human being a definitive failure. We can be higher than the angels, or lower than the animals.
The Sunna, as the uniquely efficient vehicle of human improvement and illumination, hence embraces every aspect of man. Outward serenity is impossible without inward peace; and inward peace, conversely, is impossible when the body is behaving abusively.
The Muslim, who sees with both eyes, and hence sees the modern world for what it is: a naive victim of the oldest of all illusions, which is the belief that human flourishing occurs when the needs of the outward are met, and that inward excellence is nothing but the vague myth of intangible religion, is hence truly Muslim to the extent that he rejects imbalance. Loyal and loving adherence to the details of the fiqh will change to obsessive and neurotic behaviour when the inward meaning of the sunna is absent. Hence the Dajjal is often an exoterist. But he may be an esoterist also, when he falls prey to the fatal myth that religion is about inward perfection alone, and that this can be achieved even when the outward conduct is deeply flawed by a failure to be shaped by a pattern of courteous human life manifested by the supreme figure of a more contemplative and dignified age.
In our times, thanks to a dajjal-type lack of perspective, some Muslims are suspicious of the traditional talk of a zahir and a batin. It seems too esoteric, mysterious and elitist. The word batin itself appears faintly heretical: one thinks of extreme antinomian groups such as the medieval Ismailis, for instance. And yet the concept is purely and entirely Qur’anic, and was never controversial among the classical ulama.
In fact, an important part of the healing that the Qur’an offers can be found in its insistence that religion includes, and unites, an outward and an inward dimension. Let me give you some examples, which no-one in his right mind could describe as controversial. For instance, Allah says: Wa-aqimi’s-Salata li-dhikri: ‘and establish the Prayer for My remembrance’. He tells us that the prayer is not an arbitrary command, a set of physical movements which earn us treats in the hereafter. It has a wise purpose, which is to help us to remember Him. The believer at prayer is not just offering his physical form as a token of submission to the divine presence whose symbol is the Ka‘ba. He, or she, is worshipping with the heart. The body of flesh bows towards the Ka‘ba of stone; while the invisible spirit bows to the invisible divine. Only when both of these take place is worship truly present.
Another example: Allah says: ‘Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those who came before you.’ Why? ‘La‘allakum tattaqun’ - ‘that you might learn taqwa.’ Fasting has a zahir and a batin, an outward and an inward. And neither is of any use without the other. As a hadith says: ‘Many a fasting persons gains nothing from his fast, apart from hunger and thirst.’ In other words, without a batin fast, an inward fast, the fast is only formally, mechanically correct. It is like a body without a spirit, which is nothing more than a corpse. The one who fasts, or prays, or performs any other religious act, without his spirit being in it, is like a zombie, whose mind and spirit has gone away from the body, to another place. And this is not how Allah wants us to be when we worship Him.
Another example. Regarding the sacrifices on the day of Eid al-Adha, Allah says: ‘Their flesh and blood will not reach Allah; but the taqwa that is in you reaches Him.’ Without correct intention, and presence of mind, in other words, without a proper disposition of the batin, the sacrifice is just the killing of an animal. In a sense, it is worse, since a slaughter that did not pretend to be religious would at least be sincere; whereas one that purports to be for God, but in its inner reality is not, is a kind of hypocrisy.(Abdal-Hakim Murad)