Imam Ali and Philosophy of Religions

 A man enters a garden laid out into beautiful flower-beds, artistically and aesthetically arranged. Flowers in each beds have been grown by persons who know the art and science of it. The beauty of their colours and the delicacy of their forms and shades are pleasing to the eyes and their fragrance enchants the minds. He knows that he has not the knowledge and capability and to produce flowers like that and the public have no time to go through the garden and enjoy the sights and fragrance of these beds at leisures. He picks up a few flowers from each of these beds and arranges them in a bouquet as a humble homage to the gardener and beauty of the garden. With this view I took up to write these chapters. It is the best that I can do and I hope it will provoke minds superior to mine for better efforts. Here I have dealt with the teachings of Imam Ali in the field of philosophy of religions.

With Imam Ali and the Imams of his descent, religion was a vital and positive force of life. Their philosophy never sinks to that war of words without life and without earnestness which is the main feature of the schools under ptolemies or the vicious circles create by philsophers of the West and the East. Their ardent love of knowledge, their devotion to the cause of humanity, their intense desire to improve the masses, their belief in evolution of human minds, their sincere faith in Allah, and in His Mercy, Love and Kindness, and their looking upwards beyond the literal interpretation of the law, show the spirituality and depth of their philosophy of religion. Imam Jafar Sadiq defines Knowledge, "Enlightment of heart is its essence. Truth is its principal object. Inspiration is its guide. Reason is its accepter. Allah is its Inspirer and the words of man are its utterers."

To them, evolution of mind was the essence of life and religion was the essence of the evolution of mind.

Imam Ali (a) taught us that a man without mind is not a man, and a mind without religion is worst than the instinct of a beast, more harmful, more dangerous, and more carnivorous. Devotion without understanding will not bring Blessings of Allah, it is useless.

He attaches so much value to mind and its correct ways of grasping the truth that he says your first leader and guide is your mind. At another place he says that nothing is more useful to man than his intelligence, or there is nothing wealthier than wisdom, or there is no greater bounty of Allah than the intellect granted to you, or you can dispense with everything but your mind and intelligence, or there is no better guide towards truth than wisdom, or one hour of deep and sober meditation is better than a lifetime of prayers without understanding, or a wise man thinks first and speaks or acts afterwards.

Next to intelligence and wisdom, he taught us to attach importance, is sincerity of purpose in life. Once explaining a certain Quranic verses to Abdullah ibn Abbas, he said: "Ibn Abbas if you sincerely and intelligently go in search of truth or religion and if you wander out of the right path even then there is a reward for you."

There is a sermon in Nahjul Balagha in which he says do not kill Kharijiites after me because to go in search of truth and to lose the true path is better than to spend the entire span of one's life in pursuit of vicious pleasures and wickedness."

The natural and logical sequence of the above two attributes is to take account of yourself, your knowledge, your thoughts, your intentions, your desires and your deeds. He therefore advises us, "To judge your own sould before the time of judging your actions arrives. Make an assessment of yourself before you are called upon to account for your conduct in this existence."

To obtain favourable results of such judging and making an assessment of oneself, one must have done good deeds. And so far as actions and reactions are concerned, Imam Ali (a) wants us to understand that human conduct is not fortuitous, one act is the result of another, life, destiny and character are a connected series of incidents, events and actions which are related to each other, as a cause and effect of an Ordained Life. Therefore, apply yourself to good and pure actions, adhere to truth, follow the true path to salvation before you leave this world. If you do not warn yourself none else can direct you. The Lord has shown to you the path of salvation and has warned you of the temptations of this world. Abstain from foul thing though it may appear to you as good. Avoid the evil however pleasant it might e, for you know not how far it takes you away from Him.

Imam Ali's discourses in Nahjul Balagha about noble deeds are superb reading. His warnings against sinful life are very persuasive teachings. He says, "O you servants of the Lord! Fulfil the duties that are imposed on you, for their neglect is abasement, your good work alone will render you an easy way to Paradise. Remember each sin increases the debt and makes the chain heavier. The message of mercy has come, the path of truth is clear; obey the command that has been laid for you; live in piety and work with a noble purpose and ask Allah to help you in your endeavours and to forgive your past transgressions. Cultivate humility and forbearance, comfort yourself with sincere truth."

Next to sincere faith in the Oneness of Allah and the Prophethood of the Holy Prophet (s), Imam Ali (a) lays great stress on piety. He wants us to realize that piety is not a delicious morsel to be swallowed easily not it is a dip in the river to clean dirts and filth from the body. Piety means actions and those actions in the beginning may be sour, harsh and painful to perform. Piety means to free oneself from vicious desires and wicked deeds. This freedom cannot be obtained but by constant efforts and endeavours. Such efforts are a continuous struggle and long-drawn combat against vicious cravings of mind. Nobody can be free from vices and sins unless he develops the capacity to abhor them. When once this capacity develops, adopting a pious and sober life becomes a habit and second nature. Few things are forbidden to you and so many things are allowed, that no one is deprived of normal relaxations, ease and comfort and of sober and harmless pleasures and pursuits.

According to Imam Ali's viewpoint, asceticism was a sin against self. History cites many instances where he admonished the persons who had given up their homes and families, had severed every connection with society, had taken to a masjid, and had been praying, fasting and reciting the Holy Book morning, noon and night. He sent them back to their homes, and told them that their duties lie among their fellow beings, and what they had taken to is not piety but fanatic asceticism which is not allowed in Islam. He strongly disapproved the observance of asceticism and condemned the abandonment of the affairs of this life in fanatic pursuits of rituals.

Imam Ali says that he who acts with piety gives rest to his soul; he who takes warning, understands the truth and he who understands it, attains the perfect knowledge.

His teachings do not convey any impression of pre-destination; on the contrary, they portray a soul animated with living faith in Allah and yet full of trust in human development founded on individual exertion springing from human volition. Somebody one day asked him the meaning of Qaza and Qadar. He replied Qaza means obedience to commandments of Allah and avoidance of sin and Qadar means the ability to live a pious and holy life, and doing that brings one nearer to Allah and makes him shun that which throws him away from His Perfection. Say not that man is compelled, for that attribution is tyranny to Allah, nor say that man has absolute discretion to decide what is wrong and what is right, we are furthered by His Help and Grace in our endeavours, to act righteously and we transgress because of our neglect of His commands.

Explaining the meaning of the verse, "There is no power nor help but from Allah", he said, "It means that I am not afraid of Allah's wrath but I am afraid of His Purity; nor have I power to observe His commandments, but my strength lies in His Help. Allah has placed us on earth to test each according to his endowments."

Explaining the verse, "We will test you to see who are strivers (after truth and purity) and who are forbearing and patient and We will test your actions as well as help you by degrees to attain what you know not!" Imam Ali says, that these verses prove the liberty of human volition.

Explaining the verse, "Allah directs him whom He chooses, and leads him astray whom He chooses", he says that, "This does not mean that He compels men to evil or good deeds, or that He either gives direction or refuses it according to His caprice, for this would do away all responsibility for human action, on the contrary it means that Allah shows the path to truth, and lets men choose as they will."

In a sermon in Nahjul Balagha, he says, "The theory of compulsion, pre-destination or pre-determination of fate is a satanic insinuation and doctrine of faith amongst enemies of Allah. On the contrary, Allah has ordained men to obey His commands and has given him freedom of will and action, he is at full liberty to obey His commands or to disobey. There is no compulsion in accepting the religions preached by His prophets, and no compulsion to obey His commands. Even his commands (like daily prayers, fasting, zakat, etc.) are not hard, harsh and unbearable and every leniency and ease on account of age, and health is granted to man."

The freedom of human will, based on the doctrine that man should be judged by the use he had made of his reason, was inculcated in the teachings of the Holy Prophet (s), along with an earnest belief in the Supreme Power ruling the Universe. Imam Ail (a) gave this idea a more definite form and it grew into a philosophy. In reply to a question, he says, "Perhaps you consider predestination to be necessary and the particular decree to be irreversible; if it were so then reward and punishment would be in vain, and the promise and the threat would be of no account; and surely blame would not have come from Allah for the sinner nor praise for the righteous, nor would the righteous be more worthy of the reward of his good deeds, nor the wicked be more deserving of the punishment of his sin than the righteous. Allah has ordained free will to men and putting them to test and trial He has neither laid down duties upon them by force, nor sent his prophets as a farce".

When Imam Ali (a) was asked, "What is pre-destination and particular decree which drove us?", He replied, "The command of Allah, and therein His Purpose". Then he repeated the verse, "The Lord has ordained (pre-destined) that you worship none but Him and show kindness to your parents."

Mortality of life is another point which Imam Ali (a) wanted men to realize fully, sincerely and rationally. He wants us to understand that death is a biological incident of all forms of life and it is unavoidable, inevitable, and sudden. Nobody knows when and how he is going to cross his barrier. Therefore it is foolish to imagine that it can be avoided, sinful self-deception can forget it, and idiotically timid can be afraid of it. He says, "I am as fond of death as a baby is fond of his mother's breast". The natural sequence of the mortality of life is that everything connected with it and with this world is mundane, has no lasting value. Therefore, why concentrate on pleasure and take to vicious ways to acquire them, why not try to improve your lot for the Hereafter.

Imam Ali's teachings are gospel for work. He wants man to work, and to work honestly, sincerely and diligently and to work for the rewards reserved in Paradise. He says, work work and do good work, while you still have life, health and opportunities. Allah ordains you to work while there is still time to work. Be thankful for the time and opportunities allotted to you and work for the good of mankind and for your own good. A life without work is a life without worth. A mind without sober thoughts and a life without a program of honest work is the most fertile soil for seeds of wickedness and vice. Work with nobility of purpose is one of the forms of worship. His advice to his son was: "Exert yourself to earn an honest living. The worst form of folly is waste of opportunities. Opportunities do not repeat themselves, make use of each one of them when it presents itself, and let piety guide you in all of your actions."

Thus guiding us to the problems of man in respect of self, he leads us towards the solution of problems pertaining to man and his social life. In a letter to Imam Husain (a), he says, "My dear son, so far as your behaviour with other human beings is concerned, let your 'self' act as scales to help you judge its goodness or wickedness. Do to others as you wish others to do to you. Whatever you dislike to happen to you, spare others from such happening."

At another place he advises, "Do not make yourself slave of anybody. Allah has created you a free man. Do not sell away this freedom in return for anything. There is no real value of benefit that you derive by selling your honour, conscience and self-respect. Do not run after him who tries to avoid you. Remember that to oppress a weak or helpless person is the worst form of tyranny. Do good to your brother when he is bent upon doing harm to you. Befriend him when he ignores you. Be generous to him if he is miserly to you. Be kind to him if he is harsh and cruel to you. But be very careful that you do not behave thus with undeserving, mean and wicked persons."

Imam Ali (a) had a very soft corner in his noble heart for the poor, disabled, aged and orphans. To Malik Ashtar, he says, "I want to caution you about the poor. Fear Allah about your attitude towards them. Let it be remembered that their welfare is the first charge on a State and on well-to-do people."

So far as the question of man and Allah is concerned, Imam Ali (a) teaches us to believe in Allah Who has created us, Who loves us, nourishes us, helps us and is our well-wisher. He should be loved, adored and venerated.

Through many of his supplications, Imam Ali (a) has implanted in the minds of those who have faith in Allah, the highest devotional spirit. He teaches us to love and adore him and to think of Him as "The Lord, the Adorable, the Eternal, the Ever-Existing, the Cherisher, the True Sovereign, Whose Mercy and Grace overshadows the Universe. Who is the Master, the Loving and Forgiving. Who bestows power and might on whom He pleases. None can lower him whom He exalted. Whose beneficence is all persuading. Whose Forgiveness and Mercy is all embracing. Who is the Helper of the afflicted, the Reliever of all distressed, the Consoler of the broken hearts. Who is present everywhere to help His Creatures. Who fulfils all needs, bestows all blessings. Who is friend of the poor and the bereaved."

At another place, he beseeches the Lord thus, "You are my Fortress -- A Castle for all who seek Your Protection and Help; the Helper of pious and true; the Refuge of the weak; the Helper of those who seek Your Help. Glory to You O Lord! Whose Mercy extends to every sinner and Who provides for even those who deny You".

This is how Imam Ali (a) wants us to have faith in Allah, a Creator, a Nourisher, a Helper, a Refuge, a Protection. One who loves you and One to be loved, adored, venerated, and worshipped.

The other aspect of his teachings is that he has clearly and emphatically condemned all anthropomorphists (who attribute human forms, qualities or personality to Allah) and anthropopathic (ascription of human passions and affections to Allah), conceptions of deity, Imam Ali say, "Allah is not any object that the human mind can conceive. No attribute can be ascribed to Him which bears resemblance to any quality of which human being have perception from their knowledge of material objects. The perfection of piety consists in knowing Allah; the perfection of knowledge is the affirmation of His Verity; and the perfection of verity is the acknowledgement of His Oneness in all sincerity; and the perfection of sincerity is to deny all attributes to the Deity. He, who refers an attribute to Allah believe the attributes to be Allah, and he who so believes (an attribute to be Allah), regards Allah as two or part of one. He who asks where Allah is, assimilates him with some object. Allah is the Creator, not because He Himself is created. Allah is Existent, not because he was non-existent. He is with everything, not from resemblance or nearness. He is outside everything not from separation or indifference towards His creatures. He works and creates not in the meaning of motions or actions. He sees and hears but not with the help of bodily organs or outside agencies. He was seeing when there was nothing created to see. He has no relation to matter, time and space, Allah is Omniscient because knowledge is His Essence, Loving because Love is His Essence, Might because Power is His Essence, Forgiving because Forgiveness is His Essence, and not because these are attributes apart from His Essence."

At another place, Imam Ali (a) says, "O my Lord! You are the Creator, I am the created; You are the Sovereign, I am only Your servant; I am the beseecher, You, my Lord are the Refuge. You are the Forgiver, I am the sinner; You, my Lord, are the Merciful, Omniscient and Kind; I am groping in the dark, I seek Your Knowledge and Love. Bestow my Lord, all Your Knowledge, Love and Mercy and let me approach You, my Lord! You live in every heart and every soul. Your Knowledge is ingrained in every mind."