KNOWLEDGE of self is the key to the knowledge of God, according to the saying: "He who knows himself knows God,"* and, as it is written in the Koran, "We will show them Our signs in the world and in themselves, that the truth may be manifest to them." Now nothing is nearer to thee than thyself, and if thou knowest not thyself how canst thou know anything else? If thou sayest "I know myself," meaning thy outward shape, body, face, limbs, and so forth, such knowledge can never be a key to the knowledge of God. Nor, if thy knowledge as to that which is within only extends so far, that when thou art hungry thou eatest, and when thou art angry thou attackest someone, wilt thou progress any further in this path, for the beasts are thy partners in this? But real self-knowledge consists in knowing the following things: What art thou in thyself, and from whence hast thou come? Whither art thou going, and for what purpose hast thou come to tarry here awhile, and in what does thy real happiness and misery consist? Some of thy attributes are those of animals, some of devils, and some of angels, and thou hast to find out to which of these attributes are accidental and which essential. Till thou knowest this, thou canst not find out where thy real happiness lies. The occupation of animals is eating, sleeping, and fighting; therefore, if thou art an animal, busy thyself in these things. Devils are busy in stirring up mischief, and in guile and deceit; if thou belongest to them, do their work. Angels contemplate the beauty of God, and are entirely free from animal qualities, if thou art of angelic nature, then strive towards thine origin, that thou mayest know and contemplate the Most High, and be delivered from the thraldom of lust and anger. Thou shouldest also discover why thou hast been created with these two animal instincts: whether that they should subdue and lead thee captive, or whether that thou shouldest subdue them, and, in thy upward progress, make of one thy steed and of the other thy weapon.
The first step to self-knowledge is to know that thou art composed of an outward shape, called the body, and an inward entity called the heart, or soul. By "heart" I do not mean the piece of flesh situated in the left of our bodies, but that which uses all the other faculties as its instruments and servants. In truth it does not belong to the visible world, but to the invisible, and has come into this world as a traveller visits a foreign country for the sake of merchandise, and will presently return to its native land. It is the knowledge of this entity and its attributes which is the key to the knowledge of God.
Some idea of the reality of the heart. or spirit, may be obtained by a man closing his eyes and forgetting everything around except his individuality. He will thus also obtain a glimpse of the unending nature of that individuality. Too close inquiry, however, into the essence of spirit is forbidden by the Law. In the Koran it is written: "They will question thee concerning the spirit. Say: 'The Spirit comes by the command of my Lord'." Thus much is known of it that it is an indivisible essence belonging to the world of decrees, and that it is not from everlasting, but created. An exact philosophical knowledge of the spirit is not a necessary preliminary to walking in the path of religion, but comes rather as the result of self-discipline and perseverance in that path, as it is said in the Koran: "Those who strive in Our way, verily We will guide them to the right paths."
For the carrying on of this spiritual warfare by which the knowledge of oneself and of God is to be obtained, the body may be figured as a kingdom, the soul as its king, and the different senses and faculties as constituting an army. Reason may be called the vizier, or prime minister, passion the revenue-collector, and anger the police-officer. Under the guise of collecting revenue, passion is continually prone to plunder on its own account, while resentment is always inclined to harshness and extreme severity. Both of these the revenue-collector and the police-officer, have to be kept in due subordination to the king, but not killed or excelled, as they have their own proper functions to fulfil. But if passion and resentment master reason, the ruin of the soul infallibly ensues. A soul which allows its lower faculties to dominate the higher is as one who should hand over an angel to the power of a dog or a Mussalman to the tyranny of an unbeliever. The cultivation of demonic, animal or angelic qualities results in the production of corresponding characters, which in the Day of Judgment will be manifested in visible shapes, the sensual appearing as swine, the ferocious as dogs and wolves, and the pure as angels. The aim of moral discipline is to purify the heart from the rust of passion and resentment, till, like a clear mirror, it reflects the light of God.
Someone may here object, "But if man has been created with animal and
demonic qualities as well as angelic, how are we to know that the latter
constitute his real essence, while the former are merely accidental and
transitory?" To this I answer that the essence of each creature is to be
sought in that which is highest in it and peculiar to it. Thus the horse
and the ass are both burden-bearing animals, but the superiority of the
horse to the ass consists in its being adapted for use in battle. If it
fails in this, it becomes degraded to the rank of burden-bearing animals.
Similarly with man: the highest faculty in him is reason, which fits him
for the contemplation of God. If this predominates in him, when he dies,
he leaves behind him all tendencies to passion and resentment, and becomes
capable of association with angels. As regards his mere animal qualities,
man is inferior to many animals, but reason makes him superior to them,
as it is written in the Koran: "To man We have subjected all things in
the earth." But if his lower tendencies have triumphed, after death be
will ever be looking towards the earth and longing for earthly delights.
This opening of a window in the heart towards the unseen also takes place in conditions approaching those of prophetic inspiration, when intuitions spring up in the mind unconveyed through any sense-channel. The more a man purifies himself from fleshly lusts and concentrates his mind on God, the more conscious will he be of such intuitions. Those who are not conscious of them have no right to deny their reality.
Nor are such intuitions confined only to those of prophetic rank. Just
as iron, by sufficient polishing can be made into a mirror, so any mind
by due discipline can be rendered receptive of such impressions. It was
at this truth the Prophet hinted when he said, "Every child is born with
a predisposition towards Islam; then his parents make a Jew, or a Christian,
or a star-worshipper of him." Every human being has in the depths of his
consciousness heard the question "Am I not your Lord?" and answered "Yes"
to it. But some hearts are like mirrors so befouled with rust and dirt
that they give no clear reflections, while those of the prophets and saints,
though they are men "of like passions with us" are extremely sensitive
to all divine impressions.
These three, of course, are not the only marks which differentiate them
from common people, but the only ones that come within our cognisance.
Just as no one knows the real nature of God but God Himself, so no one
knows the real nature of a prophet but a prophet. Nor is this to be wondered
at, as in everyday matters we see that it is impossible to explain the
charm of poetry to one whose ear is insusceptible of cadence and rhythm,
or the glories of colour to one who is stone-blind. Besides mere
incapacity, there are other hindrances to the attainment of spiritual truth.
One of these is externally acquired knowledge. To use a figure, the heart
may be represented as a well, and the five senses as five streams which
are continually conveying water to it. In order to find out the real contents
of the heart these streams must be stopped for a time, at any
rate, and the refuse they have brought with them must be cleared out
of the well. In other words, if we are to arrive at pure spiritual truth,
we must put away, for the time knowledge which has been acquired by external
processes and which too often hardens into dogmatic prejudice.
A person in whom the desire for this knowledge has disappeared is like
one who has lost his appetite for healthy food, or who prefers feeding
on clay to eating bread. All bodily appetites perish at death with the
organs they use, but the soul dies not, and retains whatever knowledge
of God it possesses; nay increases it.
Man has been truly termed a "microcosm," or little world in himself and the structure of his body should be studied not only by those who wish to become doctors, but by those who wish to attain to a more intimate knowledge of God, just as close study of the niceties and shades of language in a great poem reveals to us more and more of the genius of its author.
But, when all is said, the knowledge of the soul plays a more important part in leading to the knowledge of God than the knowledge of our body and the functions. The body may be compared to a steed and the soul to its rider; the body was created for the soul, the soul for the body. If a man knows not his own soul, which is the nearest thing to him, what is the use of his claiming to know others? It is as if a beggar who has not the wherewithal for a meal should claim to be able to feed a town.
In this chapter we have attempted, in some degree, to expound the greatness of man's soul. He who neglects it and suffers its capacities to rust or to degenerate must necessarily be the loser in this world and the next. The true greatness of man lies in his capacity for eternal progress, otherwise in this temporal sphere he is the weakest of all things, being subject to hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and sorrow. Those things he takes most delight in are often the most injurious to him, and those things which benefit him are not to be obtained without toil and trouble. As to his intellect, a slight disarrangement of matter in his brain is sufficient to destroy or madden him; as to his power, the sting of a wasp is sufficient to rob him of ease and sleep; as to his temper, he is upset by the loss of a sixpence; as to his beauty, he is little more than nauseous matter covered with a fair skin. Without frequent washing he becomes utterly repulsive and disgraceful.
In truth, man in this world is extremely weak and contemptible; it is
only in the next that he will be of value, if by means of the "alchemy
of happiness" he rises from the rank of beasts to that of angels. Otherwise
his condition will be worse than the brutes, which perish and turn to dust.
It is necessary for him, at the same time that he is conscious of his superiority
as the climax of created things, to learn to know also his helplessness,
as that too is one of the keys to the knowledge of God.
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