[Following are highlights of a CII tazkiya talk delivered on 08-04-2010 by Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed db on, 'The Concept of Asma-ul-Husna - the 99 Names of Allah swt" ]
وَلِلَّهِ الْمَثَلُ الْأَعْلَى وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ
سُبْحَانَ رَبِّكَ رَبِّ الْعِزَّةِ عَمَّا يَصِفُونَ
وَسَلَامٌ عَلَى الْمُرْسَلِينَ
وَالْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
Allah swt in the Quran-ul-Karim has mentioned in different places in teh Qur’an taht there is nothing at all that bears the likeness or resemblance of Allah swt; there is nothing that is His مَثَلُ in anyway. When we talk about this notion about Asma-ul-Husna, many people have this misconception that in someway the attributes that we have are in some waya misl or bear a likeness to the attributes of Allah swt Himself. Infact, to make this clear, Allah swt Mentions in the Qur’an-e-Karim:
لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ
[Surah Shura; 42:11]
that there is nothing at all in the universe; nothing at all in existence – that is the misl or even the likeness of Allah swt
And in another ayah, Allah swt Explained this by Saying that:
وَلِلَّهِ الْمَثَلُ الْأَعْلَى
And to Allah swt belongs Sublimeness; Lutf that He is Al-Lateef – that only and only Allah swt Alone can have anything that has likeness or resemblance to Him.
Misconception About the 99 Names of Allah swt: Asma-ul-Husna
In two three different places, Allah swt Mentions His Asma-ul-Husna that He has these 99 names. And one thing that we must do is we must try to learn about Allah swt – to know Him as He has Revealed Himself to be; to know Him as He Wishes Himself to be known. And the problem that many of us have, especially the Muslims in any part of the world, whether the Muslims who live in the Western world who are educated in “Western Sciences” and specially in Liberal Arts and Social Sciences – is that we start to think about Alllah swt based on our own rationality; based on our own personality instead of first diving deep into the pearls of revelation and thinking about Allah swt as He Wants us to Think about Him; knowing Allah swt as He Wishes to be Known as He has Revealed Himself to be!
And, the best starting point for that is to look at the Asma-ul-Husna. Different Ullema in the history of Islam have written books on this topic. Particularly for tonight’s talk, is this book written by Imam-al-Ghazali rah explaining and explicating these 99 names of Allah swt. This book is available in Arabic, urdu and English. In this book, Imam Al-Ghazali mentions some really incredible things. At some point, he also quotes this person – who is widely believed to be a Shaykh because he quotes this person in several of his writings i.e. Hazrat Khuwaja Abu Ali Farmadi rah; who is a Shaykh from our own spiritual lineage. In this Imam-al-Ghazali talks about this notion that Nabi-e-Karim saw said in a hadith that:
takhallaqu bi ikhlaaqillah
that we should characterize ourselves; adorn ourselves, with the Khulq of Allah swt; with the Characteristics of Allah swt.
And, a lot of commentary has been done on this. That what exactly does this mean? And how, the Mashaikh of Tasawwuf train a person to do this.
- So, the first thing to understand is that: we can never really understand Allah swt as Allah swt Knows Himself to be – To comprehend; to understand; to imagine; to visualize Allah swt as He Himself Knows Himself to be – is not possible for us ever! And it is far from being possible in this world.
The True Reality of Allah swt is known only and only to Allah swt
An example of this is that – there are somethings that you can know by experiencing their reality and there are somethings that you can know just by imagining it or comparing it with something that is like it. And we can never know or experience the reality of Allah swt as only He Himself Knows what His haqeeqat is. So, the absolute true haqeeqat of Allah swt is known only and only to Allah swt. What, at best, we can do is to develop a tasawwur-e-ilaahi swt; a concept of Allah swt in ourselves – our heart and our mind – that is imagining; conceptionalizing; comparing Him.
Example of Jahannum
And, the way we can understand this – is by lets take the example of Jahannum – A person can never really understand the haqeeqat of Jahannum unless they experience it. Now, what Allah swt has Done in the Qur’an-e-Karim is to Describe that Jahannam by using a likeness. so, for exapmle if we were to say that its a place of heat and suffering; Now we will never know the haqeeqat of the heat of Jahannum and may Allah swt save each and every one of us from ever experiencing it even for the fraction of a second.
But, unless somebody experiences its reality, just by description although they will be able to imagine it and have some concept of it, they will not be able to know the reality of it. Heat; Suffering; sadness; sorrow – none of these words can capture the haqeeqat of Jahannum. They can just capture an approximation of that.
Nonetheless, Allah swt has Used those descriptions because Allah swt Wants us by analogy/comparison/inference to have a concept of Jahannum.
Example of Jannat
We can use another example and that is the more optimistic – i.e of Jannat. Allah swt Says in the Qur’an that it has wonders that no one can imagine; the like of which no eye has ever seen and no mind has ever imagined but nonetheless Allah swt Describes Jannat to us in different ways. Now, if I were to use such words to describe Jannat that it would be bliss; there would be pleasure; there would be contentment – all of these words are descriptions but they can’t capture the haqeeqat of Jannat, only the ahl-e-Jannat when they enter into Jannat; when they will exist in Jannat; when they will experience that Falah; Suroor; that bliss; that happiness; that itminaan; that sukoon; that contentment; that serenity – its only when they experience it that they will really understand what it is. But for the time being these are descriptions; placeholders; markers.
So, just like that are the Asma-ul-Husna and thats why Allah swt even Calls them Asma – as every ism is a name and a name is actually a pointer; marker; indicator; representative of an attribute of Allah swt. Now, because we cannot completely understand His Sifaat; just like we can’t completely understand His Zaat or His Essence – so Allah swt has Used an ism a name as a notation to Guide us to some approximation; some way of imagining and understanding it.
So, this is why we also sometimes say that we understand Allah swt through negation and affirmation – through Nafi and Isbaat; through tashbih and tanzeeh – that He is the Likeness of something but at the same time He is free of any imagination – He is free from all flaws, all defects.
Now, this way of imagining Allah swt is obviously naqis – it is inadequate. The Kaamil way of understanding Allah swt is closed to us, because we cannot understand Him as He Understands Himself to be. So, the only way that is open to us is some type of naqis; inadequate; or partial understanding of Allah swt.
And, the mistake that people make, sometimes, is that they try to understand Allah swt attributes as a likeness of our attributes. And they think that we can only Allah swt by way of knowing ourselves.
For example: People say that when we hear that He is Al-Aleem; All-Knowing, so we look at ourselves and we think that well what is human knowledge and what would it mean for us to be All-knowing. so, instead of trying to understand that in the way Allah swt Revealed in different ayaat in Qur’an and teh way Prophet saw has described that in different Ahadith – instead what we do is that we look at ourselves first. And, we try to understand Allah swt by way of Analogy of our ownselves and we think that we know Him by way of knowing ourselves. E.g. we think that if we were to know everything then we would know the past, present and future and if Allah swt Knows everything it means that Allah swt Knows the past, present and future. And that ends up in people having all types of misconceptions which make them think that there is no such thing as freewill.
But, the reality is that Allah swt’s attributes are too exalted to be likened to ours in anyway and all these imaginings and resemblances always remain inadequate – so what we need to do – And this is where tasawwuf comes in and adds to the ‘ilm- that what we need to do is we have to complement and add and supplement to whatever our knowledge is about Allah swt – this knowledge that Allah swt Denies any likeness; He Denies any resemblance -we reject any grounds of analogy between us and Allah swt. And this is what Imam-al-Ghazali has mentioned in another one of his works” bayan-e-maarifat-illah that it is impossible for anyone other than Allah swt to truly know Allah swt. And infact it is impossible for anyone other than a nabi to know truly what nabuwwat is
and we can describe that revelation comes, wahy comes etc, But just like only a nabi, only a nabi really knows what it means to be a nabi. Just like that only Allah (S.W.T) can really know and understand His own Divinity, His own Zaat, His own Attributes, His own Sifaat, etc.
What is ma’arifat then?
Now the ultimate point of knowledge, then, what we call the ma’arifat of Allah (S.W.T) actually lies in their ijz, in other words the ultimate knowability of Allah (S.W.T) lies in knowing that Allah (S.W.T) is ultimately unknowable and this is the most important thing that the masha’ikh of tasawwuf mentioned and taught, which was this eternal doctrine of farq that there is a distinction and a separation between us and Allah (S.W.T), there is an unbridgeable gap. Qurb and Wasl do not bridge that gap. Allah is Allah and makhluq is mukhluq. And there is no wahdat in their wajood. They cannot be one in terms of their existence. but rather then it’s just a perception i.e. shahood, that people have and true ma’arifat again, true intimate knowledge of Allah (S.W.T) , height of ma’arifat lies in our knowing that Allah is Unknowable. So that person truly knows Allah when they know that Allah (S.W.T) is ultimately Unknowable, not entirely Unknowable too much. Allah has revealed Himself and we can know Allah (S.W.T) sufficiently, adequately, indeed amazingly based on how he has revealed Himself to be.
But the ultimate knowledge of Allah (S.W.T) is ultimately unknowable and this is what Imam Ghazalli explains that ma’arifat equals ijz. Ijz means our incapability and our inability to know and that was what was supposed to humble us. Sometime people in Urdu call humility – ajizi. Actually ajizi didn’t mean humility. Ajizi literally means inability, an inability to completely know Allah (S.W.T) and that was what was supposed to humble a human being, which leads to humility. The effect of true ijz is to have humility and to be humbled before the Might and Majesty of Allah (S.W.T). As I mentioned that first ayah says that incredible mithal belongs to Allah and He is Aziz and Hakeem. He is beyond anything that we can imagine and this is why Prophet (PBUH) used to say that Allah Ta’alah! I cannot praise You as You have praised Yourself because You alone know your haqeeqat and therefore you alone know what type of hamd would be fit Your Haqeeqat. So even Nabi-e-kareem (PBUH) said this. It means that Allah (S.W.T) is a Transcendental Being. In Arabic we say “He is above and beyond, above and beyond, above and beyond’.
The boundary to ma’arifat
On the other side we will find that there is something called ma’arifat and beings have darajaat in this ma’arifat. So the angels, the Anbiya, the Auliya, the awam-un-nas differ in their respect of ma’arifat and knowledge of Allah (S.W.T). But this ma’arifat has a border, a cap, which is that ijz. For there are some people who may not even know the names, the words of the Asma ul Husna. There maybe some people who know the words, some people who know words and their meanings.
The meaning lies in understanding each of the Asma ul Husna in what sense that attribute, the height of that attribute, actually only and only belongs to Allah (S.W.T) and in what sense can we understand the meaning of let’s say Al Malik? Firstly, Allah alone can have that meaning. Secondly when we understand that meaning then we will understand how we are supposed to be Abdul Malik, how we should understand our servitude and slave hood, how we should submit to this attribute of Allah (S.W.T). That Him being Al Malik, what type of subservient and submission should we do in respect of that attribute.
Thirdly comes what Nabi (PBUH) said in a hadith that in what sense can we be Al Malik.. For example Imam Ghazali gives advice for this in third part. He says Al Malik means a Being Who is free from all wants and needs and that everything is needy and dependent on Him and no human being can ever be Al Malik in that sense. We are completely needy on Allah (S.W.T). Allah (S.W.T), in the Quran, says: ‘Oh humanity you are entirely needy and dependent and muhtaaj of Allah (S.W.T). What we can do is negate needs of ghair-Allah. What a person can do is become a share of or have a likeness, a completely naqis, fractional shadow reflection of this attribute of Allah (S.W.T) in the sense that we are beyond the needs of this world. So Allah Ta’alah is beyond the needs of everything. And we can make ourselves beyond the needs of all ghair-Allah. Another way is to have sovereignty over their nafs, sovereignty over their limbs, organs and senses and to use that sovereignty to make their whole being, their qalab, their nafs, their senses submit entirely to Allah (S.W.T). And in that sense they can be kings; kings over their nafs, their eyes, bodies, emotions, their thoughts and it is in that sense that Prophet (PBUH) meant that we should adorn ourselves with the attributes of Allah (S.W.T).
The mistaken paths
Now here there have been some masha’ikh in tasawwuf. I want to explain some of these statements because many times people say that they have heard these concepts about Mansur al Halaj when he said “ana Al Haq”. What about so and so who said such and such.
So when we look at mashaikh there are basically three types of statements have been made.
- The Literal (By The Wise) Taken Metaphorically By The (Immature).
One type of statement is of the wise but is sometimes understood metaphorically by those who are immature. A shaykh may say something and a person may interpret that symbolically, metaphorically, figuratively and they may misunderstand that when they interpret figuratively.
An example of that which Imam Ghazalli give is saying by Hazrat Shaykh Abu Ali Al farmidi (R.A.) that he said that his own Shaykh said that the Asma ul Husna , the 99 names become attributes of the servant (abd) following the tareeqa while he is still on the way and has not yet arrived. Now what this means on its face value, taken literally is exactly what Prophet (PBUH) has said to do i.e.
a person should try to adorn himself with some resemblance and some likeness of these attributes
A person can also figuratively misunderstand this expression. They may take certain latitude when interpreting this expression and they may try to think that a person becomes like Allah, so that is a mistake. That’s not possible. So some things that we have is that there are statements of the wise that the unwise took latitude in interpreting them and they took all type of figurative interpretations of it. And that is something that is definitely wrong because Allah (S.W.T) is such a Being that nobody can get the very attributes of Allah and nobody can even get a perfect likeness of Allah’s attributes. All we can get is an inadequate, partial reflection of those attributes.
Another mistake some people made was that they had this concept of ittehad. They thought by adorning themselves with the attributes of Allah (S.W.T) a person becomes a Wahid with Allah, becomes One with Allah, have some type of Wahdat with Allah – that is absolutely impossible. No human being can become one with Divine Being in any way whatsoever.
- The Metaphoric (By The Wise) TAKEN Literally (By The Immature)
Secondly, sometimes the wise do use statements themselves figuratively and the reason for that is simply to enhance the understanding that a person has who listens to those words. To make those words have a more powerful impact on heart of people. We see that Allah Himself uses allegory, metaphors, and similes in Quran-e-Kareem and human beings too have done that from amongst the wise. So for example Imam Ghazali mentions another Shaykh Abu Yazid al bastami (R.A).
He said, “I have worked on myself and cast off all the desires of my nafs just like a snake cast casts off its skin. And I looked and I beheld myself in, I am he or I am desires of Allah. I am who my desires and the One I desire is I”.
Now this was a figurative statement and what this meant was not to be taken literally. It is meant to be taken figuratively. What Shaykh meant by that is that when he eliminated all of his own desires and wishes and he emptied himself of all of his own personal desires and wishes. What he was left with was the wishes and desires of Allah (S.W.T). So he meant that what was my irada is nothing other than what is Allah’s irada now. I only wish to do what Allah has wished and willed. I have no desire, inclination, yearning, longing for anything that is impermissible. And therefore, he meant that if you look at my desires, you will find only the desires that are Allah’s desires. If you look at my irada, you will find what Allah’s irada is. In that sense, he meant that I am what I desire. So that was the statement that he thought figuratively but others took it literally.
Now the first mistake was sometime wise say something literally and people take it figuratively. Second was that wise say something figuratively and people take it literally, the other way round. And this led to certain misconceptions.
- Taking From The Mistaken
Third thing is that somebody who is not of the wise said something and that is the mistake that they make. This is what in Arabic they call shathaat or sometimes call shatuhaat; utterances that a person may make when they are in state of spiritual ecstasy. And this is but a handful of the people. We are talking; two to three people in entire history of this ummah. This ummah has had billions of billions, Tens of billions of Muslims have lived in 1400 years and two or three have made this error. And therefore, they should not be excused to toss tasawwuf out or to say that I don’t know tasawwuf is the path fought with difficulty and danger. Don’t you see what halaj said. When two or three out of billions of Muslims make a mistake this is not any type of statistic to leave something. And this is famous statement of Halaj when he said ‘Ana-ul-Haq’
Iman rabbani, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (R.A.) explains in his maktubaat. He says that these people were naqis in their walayat. They didn’t have kamil walayat. They were not complete in their journey and they reached a state in which their perception and it was a naïve perception. It was an incorrect perception. But their perception was that they were same as Allah (S.W.T). And they would call that wahdat-ul-Wajood.
Imam Ghazali explains this and he uses an example that the Christians have the same problem. And because of their nativity and because of their love for Syedna Hazrat Isa, and because of their perception of certain lordly attributes by how Allah (S.W.T) says in the Quran ‘That you should become Rab Wala’, that you should become people of Rab. So when they saw these sublime attributes of Hazrat Isa, they thought that was some share of divinity. Then they began to think that he is god. And that was the mistake that they made.
So just like the Christians made this mistake, Al hajaj made this mistake momentarily. And it wasn’t a statement of aqeeda of his, it was not statement of theology but it was an utterance he made as an expression of a certain feeling he had at that moment. And as we all know he retracted from that himself but nonetheless he was sentenced to death due to apostasy by his own Shaykh Imam Junaid Baghdadi (R.A.).
Now this notion of ittehad and hadood and all of that, Allah (S.W.T) transcends that because He is Al-Qudoos. He is sacred. He is Transendent. He is beyond any resemblance, complete likeness, let alone anything that is ghair to Him, becoming one with Him, becoming united with Him. All of that is finished.
Now the last part of that segment by Hazrat Khawaja Abu al farmidi (R.A.) happens to the person on the way and not when they arrived. What it means that being on the way, being on tareeqa was viewed as when that stage when a person is focused, is occupied on their own self with islah of their nafs, with reaffirmation of their being, their character, with islah of their qalb, with reaffirmation and purifictation of their heart, with aa’mal, with action, with making themselves a person of action. So, in that initial stage of tasawwuf, which, to most of us, is a lifetime. It is the stage of islah and tazkiyya that a person is concerned with reaffirmation and is completely aware of themselves. And is always trying to occupy themselves in ibadat, external and interior ibadat and trying to refine their character. All of this is to get purity and purification. Once a person is successful in their islah and tazkiyya, then naturally they continue with all of those ibadats. But now their focus, instead of themselves, becomes Allah (S.W.T). And the transition they make that is called fana of tasawwuf. And that fana lies in them stripping themselves of their own self awareness. And devoting all of their awareness to Allah (S.W.T). And that is what is meant by qurb and wasl.
So wasl doesn’t mean that they become and this notion of arriving or attainment doesn’t mean that they become one with Allah but it means that they arrive at the stage where all of their focus is on Allah (S.W.T). So this is a way a person can understand the term of walayat. And wali is that person who has done their islah, done their tazkiyya, has purified themselves of all attachments and love of ghair Allah. Purified themselves of everything that is unlawful – unlawful actions, unlawful emotions, unlawful speech, and unlawful thoughts and after that islah and tazkiyya.
Now it is almost like to imagine, for example, a person has a dirty glass, they keep cleaning the glass, so when they are doing that, all of their focus is on the glass. Once the glass is completely clean now all of their focus is on what is to be put in the glass. That love for Allah (S.W.T), that mai’yyat for Allah (S.W.T), that qurb for Allah (S.W.T). So their focus is no longer on glass at all. Their focus is entirely on Allah (S.W.T). That is what a wali is. That person who has submitted himself to the Quran, Sunnah and Shariah. And has worked on themselves and has focused on themselves to bring about their submission. And through that submission, they get that liberation.
The Prophet (PBUH) said that when a person who lowers themselves to Allah, Allah (S.W.T) Raises them
And raises them means that now Allah (S.W.T) makes them focused on Him, makes them directed on Him. So after we are focused on purifying ourselves, but our focus becomes on attaining the love for Allah. And everything we do is based on… out of that love. And this is more correct and more proper way to understand what it means to try to adorn ourselves with inadequate likeness and resemblance of attributes of Allah (S.W.T).
May Allah enable us to have some fraction of the walayat of the Auliya. May He enable us to adorn ourselves with the nobility of His attributes. May he place in us a mercy, compassion, a generosity, a forbearance, etc, all of those things. May He make us as He wished us to be. May He enable us to know Him as He has revealed Himself to be known.