Forgetting and Losing the Self
Ayatullah Shaheed Murtuza Mutahhari
I remember that about eighteen years ago while discussing the exegesis of certain verses of the Holy Qur’an in a private gathering, for the first time the point struck me that the Qur’an very often employs typical expressions about a certain group of human beings, such as those who 'lose', 'forget', or 'sell' their selves. For instance, it says: They have indeed lost their selves, and that which they were forging has gone astray from them. (7:53)
Say: 'Surely the losers are they who lose their selves and their families on the Day of Resurrection' (39:15)
Be not as those who forgot God, and so He caused them to forget their selves; those-they are the ungodly. (59:19)
The question might occur to a mind with a philosophic bent. Is it possible for a man to lose his self? The loss of anything necessitates two things: the loser and the thing lost. Now how is it possible for a human being to lose its self? Is it not self-contradictory?
Likewise, is it possible for a man to forget himself? A living human being is always immersed in itself and perceives everything as something other and additional to its own self; its attention is, before everything else, focussed on itself. Then what is meant by forgetting one's self?
Later I realized that this matter occupies a significant place in Islamic teachings, especially in the prayers and some traditions as well as in the writings of Muslim 'urafa'. It shows that often man mistakes 'non-self' as his self, regards that non-self as his real self. Then imagining the non-self to be his self, he treats the non-self and takes care of it as he would have treated and cared for his true self.
The true self, as a result, falls into neglect and oblivion, and occasionally under goes a metamorphosis. For instance, when man imagines his body to represent his total entity, all his endeavour revolves about his body, it means that he has forgotten his self conceiving the non-self to be his real self.
Such a man, in the words of Rumi, is like the one who owns a piece of land somewhere; he carries building materials and hires masons and workers to build a house for him; after much toil, the house is made ready for living; the doors and windows are painted, the floor is carpeted, curtains are hung and the house is furnished beautifully in every way; however, one day when he prepares to move into the new house, all of a sudden he realizes his mistake; to his dismay, he notes that instead of erecting the house on his own land, he has constructed it on a land that belongs to somebody else, while his own plot lies abandoned elsewhere: Don 't build your house on the land of another, Work for your own self and toil not for the stranger.
Who is the stranger except your own earthen frame?
On whose account are all your sorrows and woes?
So long as you nurse and pamper your body, The soul would not prosper, nor would it become sturdy.
At another place Rumi says: You, who have lost your self in a losing encounter, Distinguishing not the other from your own true self; At every shadow you are quick to exclaim, “Ah! This is me!” By God it is not you!
Isolate yourself for a while from the crowd, And immerse yourself to the neck in thought.
Indeed you shall find that you are one with the One, Beautiful, serene, and blessed is your self.
Amir al-Mu'minin 'Ali (A) has a saying in this regard which is as profound as it is elegant: I wonder at the man who searches for his lost things but doesn't care to recover his lost self. 8
Losing oneself and forgetting oneself is not confined to man's error in recognizing his true identity and essence-such as the ordinary man's self-identification with the body, or the 'arif's occasional identification of himself with his barzakhi body.
We have said in the last chapter that actually every being in the natural course of its development moves from the self to the self; that is, it moves from a lower, weaker self to a self which is powerful and higher. Accordingly, the deviation of every existent from the path of its perfection and development is deviation from the self towards the non-self.
Man, more than any other creature, being endowed with a free will and freedom of choice, is subject to this deviation. By choosing a deviant objective as ultimate for himself, in reality he replaces his true self with the non-self, mistaking the non-self to be the self. It is on this basis that the human being's total immersion in material aspects of life has been regarded as condemnable.
Therefore, the adoption of devious goals and ends is one of the factors of self-alienation that leads man to forget his true self and finally to lose it.
Devious goals and objectives not only result in the disease of self loss; they lead ultimately to the metamorphosis of man's human essence, a metamorphosis that is determined by that particular devious goal.
A significant part of Islamic teachings is devoted to drive home the point that on the Day of Resurrection every human being shall be raised with the object of his love. Our traditions declare unequivocally: Everyone, on the Day of Judgement shall be raised in the company of his object of love, whatever that should be, even if it is a stone. 9
With attention to the indubitable and unequivocal Islamic teaching that on the Day of Judgement man would be raised in the form of what he acquired in this world, it becomes clear that the reason for a person's resurrection together with the objects of his love is that the love and attachment for that object make it the ultimate goal of the path of his becoming. However devious that objective may be, it causes the soul and the inner reality of a person to transform into that object.
This subject has been given great attention by Muslim sages and philosophers, who have made great many interesting observations in this regard. For brevity's sake, we shall quote only one ruba'i on this topic: The seeker of a mine of diamonds is himself a mine; The seeker of the spirit is himself the spirit; I will divulge the secret of this matter: You are whatever you seek, you are the object of your quest.
The Discovery of the Self and of God
The rediscovery of the self, in addition to the above two, requires to fulfil one more condition, and that is the realization and knowledge of the Cause of one's creation and existence. That is, it is impossible for man to recognize himself and know himself by viewing himself in separation from the Cause of his creation. The real Cause of every existent is prior to it and nearer to it than it is to itself: And We are nearer to him than his jugular vein. (50:16) And know that God stands between a man and his heart. (8:24)
The Muslim mystics have laid great emphasis on the point that the knowledge of the self (ma'rifat al-nafs) and the knowledge of God (ma'rifat Allah) are not separate from one another. To experience the spirit, which according to the Qur’an is God's 'breath', is, to experience the Divine Essence. The Muslim mystics have raised severe objections against the statements of Muslim philosophers regarding the problem of self-knowledge and consider them to be inadequate.
Shaykh Mahmud al-Shabistari was sent a series of versified questions by someone from Khurasan. His poem Gulshan-e raz is the reply he gave to the questions. In one of the questions, the enquirer asks: Who am I?
Inform me about my self.
What is meant by “Journey within thy self”?
The Shaykh's reply is elaborate. There he says: Forms and spirits, from the same light are derived, Reflected of mirror or beaming from the lamp.
I' the word is everywhere in all your speech.
It refers to the soul, the spirit. 'I' and 'You ', are greater than the body and the spirit, Which are together parts of the self.
Go then, my good man, first know well your self, And remember: edema is different from robustness. 10
Leave one of them to soar over the undulations of space and time, Abandon the world to become a world in yourself.
A further elaboration of this theme will take us outside the scope of our present discussion. To be brief, it should be said that the gnosis of the self is inseparable from that of God. This is exactly the meaning of the famous saying of the Prophet (S), and the same theme recurs in the recorded statements of Imam 'Ali (A): He who knows his self knows his Lord.
In the Nahj al-balaghah it is reported that Imam 'Ali (A) was asked by somebody: 'Have you seen your God?' Ali (A) replied: 'Would I worship what I have not seen?' Then he elaborated his answer thus: He is not visible to the eyes but the hearts perceive Him through (the factual experience of) faith (iman). 11
An interesting point that is implicit in the statements of the Qur’an is that man is in possession of himself as long as he 'possesses' God. Only through the remembrance of God does he remember his self and become fully aware of it, and to forget God is to neglect one's own self. Forgetting God is accompanied by self-forgetfulness: Be not as those who forgot God, and so He caused them to forget their selves. (59:19)
Rumi, following his verses quoted above, says: Even if the body should lie amidst fragrance and musk, On death it will petrify and give out its stink.
So scent not the body, but perfume the soul with musk, What is that musk except the Name of the Glorious Lord?
Hafiz says: Hafiz, if you desire presence, do not be absent from Him.
If you desire His rendezuous, abandon the world and forget it.
This shows why the remembrance of God is essential for the life of the heart; it awakens and illumines the heart and gives peace to the soul; it revives, purifies, refines, and humbles the human conscience and fills it with delight. How profound and beautiful are 'Ali's words in the Nahj al-balaghah where he says: Certainly God Almighty has made His remembrance a means for cleaning and polishing the hearts. It makes them hear after deafness, see after blindness, and makes them submissive to guidance after being stubborn and resisting.
In all periods and times when there were no prophets, there were individuals to whom He whispered through their thoughts and spoke to them through their intellects. As a result they were enlightened with a light awakening their hearts, their vision and their hearing. 12
Worship and the Rediscovery of the Self
There is so much that can be said about worship that if we were to be elaborate we would have to devote scores of chapters to this subject. Here we shall make a brief reference to the value of worship in the rediscovery of the self.
As much as the bondage to material matters and immersion in them severs man from his true self and induces self-alienation, worship helps him in recovering his own self. Worship awakens and arouses man from his spiritual slumber.
It rescues him from drowning in the sea of self-neglect and forgetfulness and saves his identity from being lapsed in the world of material things. It is in the mirror of worship and God's remembrance that man can observe himself as he really is and become aware of his failings and faults. It is in worship that he acquires the true perspective of being, life, space and time, like watching a city from a high mountain, and perceives the insignificance, pettiness and abjectness of his materialistic hopes, desires, and ambitions. It is in worship that a yearning is awakened in his heart to attain to the very core of being.
I have always marvelled at the following words of the famous scientist of our age, Albert Einstein. What adds to my amazement is that he was a physicist and a mathematician, not a psychologist, theologian or philosopher. After dividing religion into three stages, he calls the third stage of religious experience as the one arising from 'cosmic religious feeling.' He describes this religious experience in these words: The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims, and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.13
William James, writing about prayer, says: The impulse to pray is a necessary consequence of the fact that whilst the innermost of the empirical selves of a man is a self of the social sort it yet can find its only adequate socius (its “great companion”) in an ideal world. Most men, either continually or occasionally, carry a reference to it in their breasts. The humblest outcast on this earth can feel himself to be real and valid by means of this higher recognition. 14
Iqbal also has something profound to say about worship and prayer and their value for the rediscovery of the self. He writes: Prayer as a means of spiritual illumination is a normal vital act by which the island of our personality suddenly discovers its situation in a larger whole of life. 15
We conclude our discussion of this extensive subject right here.
Some Relevant Issues
Now that our discussion about the concept of the world in the Nahj al-balaghah is nearing its conclusion, I want to clarify some issues with attention to the principles discussed above.
The World Versus the Hereafter
Some Islamic traditions seem to imply that there exists a kind of conflict between the world and the Hereafter. For instance, it is stated that they are like 'two rival wives' who can never be reconciled, or it is said that they are like the East and the West: one cannot approach any one of them without moving farther from the other. How should one interpret these statements in order to reconcile them with what has been said above?
The answer is that, firstly, as has been expressly stated in most Islamic traditions, a reconciliation between winning the world and the Hereafter is not only possible but is a necessity of the Islamic creed. That which is impossible is their reconciliation as ultimate ends and goals.
The enjoyment of the good things of the world does not necessarily require deprivation from the blessings of the next world. That which deprives one of the rewards of the next life is a series of mortal sins, not the enjoyment of a wholesome, comfortable life and the availing of pure and lawful bounties provided by God.
Similarly, that which leads to deprivation in the world is not taqwa or righteous deeds or the endeavour for the Hereafter; a number of other factors are responsible for it.
Many prophets, Imams, and pious believers, whose virtuousness and piety are indubitable, have been among those who benefited greatly from the legitimate bounties of the world. Accordingly, even if it be assumed that the religious texts do imply irreconcilability between the enjoyment of the world and that of the Hereafter, they would not be acceptable because of the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.
Secondly, if we scrutinize such traditions closely, an interesting point comes to the surface in whose light we observe no contradiction between them and the incontrovertible principles of Islam. But before that this point may be explained, we should examine three possible relationships between the world and the Hereafter:
1. The relation between enjoyment of the good things of the world and enjoyment of the rewards of the Hereafter.
2. The relation between the world as the ultimate goal and the Hereafter as such.
3. The relation between adoption of one of these as the ultimate goal with the enjoyment of the other.
There is no conflict whatsoever involved in the first case. Accordingly a reconciliation between the two is quite possible. The second case, however, involves a contradiction; for there is no possibility of reconciling these two opposite goals.
As to the third, it involves in turn two cases: first, the adoption of the world as the ultimate end and the enjoyment of the Hereafter; second, the adoption of the Hereafter as the ultimate goal and the enjoyment of the world. The first case involves a contradiction, whereas the second doesn't.
The Primary and the Secondary
The conflict between the adoption of either the world or the Hereafter as ultimate ends and the enjoyment of the other is the kind that exists between a perfect and an imperfect end. If the imperfect is made the ultimate goal, the perfect is necessarily missed; whereas if the perfect were one's end and goal, it would not necessarily preclude the imperfect.
The same is true of anything primary in relation to its secondaries. If something secondary were made the aim, it would result in deprivation from the primary. But if the primary is made the aim and goal, the secondary, being a corollary of the primary, is automatically included. This is most eloquently explained in Hikmah 269 of the Nahj al-balaghah: There are two types of workers among the people of the world: (One type is represented by) the man who works in this world for this world and his involvement in the world makes him forget the Hereafter.
He is worried about those whom he shall leave behind (on death) lest poverty should strike them as if he were himself secure of it (in the Hereafter). So he spends his life for the (worldly) benefit of others. The other type of man works in the world for the sake of the Hereafter and secures his share of the world effortlessly. Thus he derives benefit from the both and comes to possess both the worlds. As a result he acquires honour before God, Who grants him whatever he asks of Him.
Rumi offers an interesting allegory. He compares the Hereafter and the world to a train of camels and the trail of dung that it leaves behind. If one's aim were to own the train of camels he would also have the camels' dung and wool. But if one wants only the dung and the wool, he will never come to acquire the train of camels and will always be collecting dung and wool of camels which belong to others.
Hanker you after faith for its pursuit yields Beauty, wealth, honour, and good fortune.
Consider the Hereafter as a camel train; The world is a trail of wool and dung in its rear.
If you want only the wool, you will never the camels own; Yet if you own a camel train, isn 't its wool your own?
That the relation of the world to the Hereafter is like that of a secondary thing to its primary; that worldliness, being a pursuit of the secondary, leads to deprivation from the benefits of the Hereafter; and that other worldliness by itself ensures the benefits of the world, is a teaching that originates in the Qur’an. Verses 145-148 of the Surat Al 'Imran expressly, and verses 18 and 19 of the Surat al-'Isra' together with verse 20 of the Surat al-Shura implicitly present this view.
There is a well-known tradition found in the texts of hadith as well as other books and is also mentioned in the last will of al-'Imam al-Hasan al-Mujtaba (A). This is the text of the tradition: In regard to the world be as if you were going to live for ever. With respect to the Hereafter be as if you were going to die tomorrow. 16
This tradition has been highly controversial in that it has led to contradictory interpretations. Some interpret it as implying that one should deal with worldly matters with relaxed inattention and without hurry.
Whenever one is faced with an affair of worldly life, one should say to himself “There is still a lot of time, why hurry?” But when performing good deeds for the Hereafter, one should imagine as if he were not going to be alive after tomorrow and say to himself: “There isn't much time left; it is already too late.”
Others with the conviction that Islam would never recommend negligence and carelessness, which certainly has not been the practice of the leaders of the faith, have said that what is implied is that one should always approach the worldly affairs as if he were immortal, attend to them with attention and care, and not perform them in a perfunctory manner with the pretext that life is fleeting. Rather, they say, the works of the world should be done with firmness and great foresight and attention, as if one were going to live till the end of the world.
The rationale for this is that if one were to die, others will derive benefit from one's works. The affairs of the Hereafter, however, are in God's hand; so think of them as if you were going to die tomorrow and there is not much time left for anything.
As can be noticed, the first one of these two interpretations recommends negligence and lack of commitment towards the affairs of the world, whereas the second one advises a similar attitude towards the Hereafter. Obviously, none of these two interpretations can be regarded as acceptable.
In our opinion, this, one of the most subtle of traditions, consists of an invitation to action, care, and attention and avoidance of negligence and indifference, whether with respect to the worldly activities or those which relate to the Hereafter.
Suppose a person living in a house knows that sooner or later he will have to move to another house where he will stay permanently. However, he does not know the day, the month or the year when he shall have to make the shift. Such a man is in a state of dilemma with regard to matters relating to his present home and his plans about his future house.
If he knows that he will move tomorrow, he would not pay any attention to the repairs and upkeep of his present house, and attend only to matters concerning the planned Shift. But if he knows that he would not be shifting his residence for several years, he will act in an opposite manner; presently he will devote all his attention to the present house, knowing that there is much time left to deal with those relating to his future residence.
Now this person, in a state of doubt about the exact date of the shift, not knowing whether he will have to shift in near future or remain in his present house for years, meets a friend who wisely advises him to attend to the affairs of his present house as if he were to continue living there for a long time and not to neglect its upkeep.
As to the other house, the wise friend advises him to get it ready as if he were going to move tomorrow and have it furnished as soon as possible. This advice will have the consequence that it will make him adopt a serious and active attitude towards both his houses.
Suppose someone wants to start a work, like writing a book or founding an institution or taking up a project which requires years of pursuit. If such a person thinks that he will not live long enough to finish his work, he might desist from starting it.
That is why it is said that one must think that he will live for long. But the same person, from the point of view of repenting for his sins and compensating for the past excesses with regard to religious duties or the rights of the people he has transgressed-all of which require little time for their accomplishment given the will to do so-may keep on postponing them every day so that the promised tomorrow may never come.
In such cases, contrary to the first kind of attitude, to assume that one has still enough time and there is no reason to hasten, would result in negligence and delay in fulfilment of one's duties. Therefore, here one should assume that there isn't much time left.
Therefore, we see that in one case to assume that one has enough time encourages action and endeavour and the assumption that there is no time left would lead one to abstain from action and endeavour. In the other case, the result is quite the opposite.
Here, the assumption that one has still a lot of time leads to negligence and procastination, and the assumption that there isn't much time left leads to quick accomplishment of duties.
In the light of this, the hadith means to say that in regard to one kind of duties one should assume that he is going to live on and with respect to another kind suppose that not much remains of his life.
This interpretation is not baseless. There are several traditions which confirm the above interpretation. The reason that this tradition gave rise to controversy is that attention was not paid to such traditions.
Safinat al-bihar, under rifq, relates a tradition of the Holy Prophet (S) addressed to Jabir: Indeed this (i.e. Islam) is a firm religion. So (do not make it hard on yourself but) act in it with mildness ... Cultivate like him who thinks he will never die and work (for the hereafter) like him who is afraid he will die tomorrow.
In volume XV of Bihar al-'anwar (the section on akhlaq, Bab 29), it is related from al-Kafi that the Holy Prophet (S) addressed 'Ali (A), saying: This (Islam) is a firm religion ... So work like him who hopes to live for long and be cautious like him who is afraid that he would die tomorrow. 17
That is, when commencing a useful project that requires a long time for its completion, assume that you will live long enough to complete it. However, in regard to matters which you might postpone thinking that you have enough time to handle them, assume that you shall die tomorrow, so that time is not wasted and delay is avoided.
In Nahj al-balaghah, it is related from the Holy Prophet (S) that he said: Attend to the affairs of the world; but with respect to the Hereafter be such as if you were going to die tomorrow.
In the same book, the Prophet (S) is related as saying: Work like the man who imagines that he will never die; and be cautious like him who knows he is going to die tomorrow.
In another tradition the Prophet (S) is reported to have said: The mu'min is the most vexed of men, for he must attend to the affairs of the world as well as those of the Hereafter.
In Safinat al-bihar, under nafs, a hadith of al-'Imam Musa al-Kazim (A) is related from Tuhaf al-'uqul to the effect that: He who abandons the world for his Hereafter or abandons his Hereafter for his world is not from us.
The above discussion on the whole confirms our interpretation of the hadith and also shows that this approach finds recurring echo in the teachings of the leaders of the Islamic faith.
1. This is a tradition of the Prophet (S).
2. This is in reference to a sentence from Nahj al-balaghah, Khutab, No. 28
3. This is in reference to a sentence from Nahj al-balaghah, Hikam, No. 131
4. This is in reference to a sentence from Nahj al-balaghah, Hikam, No. 131
5. Nahj al-balaghah, Hikam, No. 131
6. Ibid., Khutab, No. 223
7. Ibid, Khutab, No. 203
8. al Amudi, al Shurar wa al durar, vol. 4 p. 340
9. Safinat ul Bihar, under hubb
10. This reference to the famous words of Ibn al Arabi about one who imagines to have known the mysteries of the self through the statement of the philosophers.
11. Nahj al-balaghah, Khutab, No. 179
12. Ibid, Khutab, No. 222
13. A. Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (London 1973) based on Mein Weltbild; ed by Carl Seeling, p. 38
14. Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Lahore 1971, p. 89
15. bid., p. 90
16. Wasail al Shiah, vol. 2 p. 535 (Bab No. 82, hadith No. 2)
17. Bihar al-'anwar volume XV, section on akhlaq, Bab 29