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When I was asked to say some words about Imam Ali (a.s.) for this occassion, I found it very difficult to find the appropriate words or topic to present. Not because there is little to say about our Imam, but because I do not know how to say it – I do not feel adequate to the task – I do not feel that I truly know our Imam, but rather that I know only a few surface details, some scattered facts, some historical events, some sayings of his – dispersed bits of knowledge. And I do not feel satisfied that merely enumerating and relating a few facts is to know the Imam – it is to know about the Imam, but this is not more than a surface knowing. And this is a real difficulty faced by all who wish to truly know him.
But the imam knows this difficulty and he says, in a hadith, that to know him, to know his nature, his soul, his spirit, we must discern and travel the sirat al-mustaqeen (the straight path). And the sixth imam, Imam Jaffar al-Sadiq (a.s.), makes an extraordinary statement concerning the Imams. He says, about Imam Ali (a.s.) and all the Imams, in no uncertain terms, that the Imams “...are the straight path” – He says: “We are the sirat-ul-mustaqeen.”
Now we can respond to such a declaration in several ways – we can decry it saying it is too much - it goes too far – it is gross exaggeration.
Or we can accept it on (blind) faith saying it is from the Imams and so we must simply take it and believe it, and then not give it much more thought but simply file it away as interesting information.
But our Prophet (s.a.) cautions against such an attitude. He said that a time will come when hearing the name of the man who speaks with knowledge (in other words, praising the man) will be considered better than actually hearing the knowledge he speaks, and hearing the knowledge will be considered better than doing the thing oneself and thereby experiencing and verifying and imbibing its truth for oneself.
So what are we left with? If we praise a man, we admit to his high level of knowledge and that recognition indicates some iota of awareness in us – but it does not allow us to know that man.
If we listen to him and study what he teaches us, and remember it, then we begin to approach knowledge of him, but we still do not truly know him. If we imbibe and comprehend that knowledge which he gives us and make it part of ourselves, and act upon it, and walk the path he walks, not in blind imitation but with understanding, then we can say that we truly know something of the substance of that man.
Now the Imam has identified himself with the straight path. So to know him we have to first recognize that path, then we have to gain knowledge of that path, and finally we have to comprehend that knowledge and walk that path – not in imitation, but with understanding.
The explanation and guide to this path is the Qur’an. It unveils the necessity, the details, the difficulty, the beauty, the grace of this path. It describes the fruits of following this path. It says, “And those who follow the straight path, He (Allah) increases them in guidance and brings them to taqwa (awareness of God).” (47:17) The Qur’an describes how Allah raises in stages those who follow this path. They rise in degree from ilm al-yaqin (102:5) (certainty in knowledge) to ayn al-yaqin (102:7) (certainty through vision, through experience) to haqq al-yaqin (absolute certainty of the Truth, the Reality which underlies existence). At that point the person contemplates with direct perception the realities that were previously understood through words, symbols, and reflection. This is the stage Imam Ali (a.s.) alluded to when he said: “If the veil were lifted I would not be more certain.”
There is an amazing verse in the Qur’an that says: “I put my trust in God, My Lord and your Lord! There is not a moving creature, but He has grasp of its forelock. Verily, it is my Lord that is on a straight Path.” (Qur'an 11:56)
There is a group of people that has reached a stage where all personal movement is renounced. Their selves (their nafs or souls) are free of the distractions, cravings and desires of one who is bound and attached to this world and its attractions. They put their trust entirely in God and movements of their ego vanish. The image is of a stone which never stirs of its own accord. This person is a pebble in the hand of God. They are therefore carried and their perpetual invocation is "La hawla wa la quwwata illa bi'Llah". "There is no strength and no power save through God." They give their total being over to God who takes them totally in charge. (pg.111-112, "Seal of the Saints" - Michel Chodkiewicz)
They are not those who wander distracted and aimless through their lives, or who are driven by compulsions of the ego, or are driven by myriad fears, or by the compulsions of society, or by the compulsion of their appetites and desires, or by the compulsion for power and control, moving blindly step by step under the illusion of progress, under the illusion that they are walking of their own volition. Rather, they are those who give their selves entirely over to God. And God pulls them towards Him. He draws them along His straight path. And it is said that a single attraction from God outbalances all the efforts of Jinn and men.
The straight path leads to many degrees, many levels, many marvels, it is a path that is ihsan – full of beauty and grace - a path described with power and eloquence in the qur'an.
Now each human being, each human soul is on a journey to a destination - the hereafter. So every soul is, in some respect, on a path to the other world and may also be said, to itself be a path to the other world. So men's souls are paths to the hereafter. Some go haltingly, some slowly, some speedily. Some are direct, some wandering, some straight. (Mulla Sadra, "Wisdom of the Throne" - tr. by James Morris) The most perfect of these "straight paths" is the soul of the Prophet and of Ali. If we take them as an example, the straight path will be clarified for us, we will find a tafsir (an explanation) of the qur'an in their lives. And as we walk the sirat-ul-mustaqeen and become acquainted with its beauties and marvels, we will begin to truly know our Imam rather than simply knowing about him.
- Irshaad Hussain
According to Tafsir Al-Mizan, Piety (taqwa) is a comprehensive virtue that runs through all the ranks of true faith. It exists in some form or the other, to some extent or the other in all believers although the degree or rank or intensity of this piety, this taqwa varies according to the sincerity, knowledge, and station of each believer.
Allah guides them to this taqwa, and once they have taqwa, then the qur'an becomes a guidance for them. There are two guidances, one before they became muttaqi (acquired taqwa), the other after it. The first guidance made them muttaqi; and thereupon Allah raised their status (the level of their taqwa) by the guidance of His Book.
The Arabic term mutaqqi refers to those who have the quality of taqwa. Taqwa in turn indicates the act of shielding oneself, of being on guard. As such it indicates a wakeful vigilance, a guarded consciousness, an alertness, awareness, a careful state of observation and readiness, a sensitivity, a fear of not taking the best path. It is frequently translated only as fear but the stress is more on vigilance (or perhaps on a cautionary fear, a fear of letting down ones guard). So the sense is of a consciousness, a wakeful alertness towards God along with an alertness to avoid that which would deaden this alertness. So egoism, injustice, and the myriad passions which overtake us and make us forgetful towards God must be guarded against.
The consciousness which the term taqwa encompasses is, in a way, like the consciousness of a student towards an admired teacher, or your consciousness towards a person whose word carries an extraordinary weight and importance for you, or one's consciousness towards someone with whom they are deeply in love. When you are in the presence of such a person you are very conscious of every word you say, of every action you take, of every aspect of your behaviour and conduct. If this person even hints that they want you do something, you rush to do it, and you strive to do it in the best, most complete, and most pleasing manner. And you suppress those qualities, those tendencies and behaviours within yourself that may be displeasing towards that person. You are fearful of not behaving in the correct manner. Taqwa implies a similar vigilance, awareness, and consciousness. But Allah is not visible before us as a person would be. So a further level of consciousness is necessary - we have to awaken an aspect within ourselves which will result in consciousness of that which is unseen.
As such taqwa is a loaded term and the person who has taqwa (who is mutaqqi) must be striving to overcome many internal weaknesses as these act as noise which distract from what is important and which cover over or drown out our awareness and consciousness of God. It is said that God manifests himself in the silences of the soul - so one who is always distracted and busy with the internal noise of desires, passions, distractions, egotism etc. will never be truly conscious of God. In order to listen, in order to hear, one has to be silent. If a person never stops talking, they will never be able to properly listen to another - they will be distracted with their own outpourings, their own opinions, their own ego. They will never reach a point of internal quietude (of peace) and thus that which is subtle will never be experienced. And the qur'an describes God as "The Subtle, the Aware." One has to cease talking, and then cultivate an alert but calm attentiveness in order to see deeper than the surface. Just as the depths of a pond become invisible when the surface water is in constant rough motion, our own depths become invisible when we are in constant agitation and movement.
Now the Qur'an tells us "He (Allah) is with you wherever you are." (Qur'an 57:4) So He is not absent, He is not missing, rather our consciousness, our awareness, our taqwa of Him is absent, missing. He is with us but we are unconscious of this fact, of this incredible mercy (of Him being with us) which is waiting for us to awaken to it since we are told that He manifests His signs in the horizons and within our own souls (Qur'an 41:53).