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Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim

islam from inside ☰

Prisoners of thought (Sura 33:67)

As Within So Without

Added May 19, 2004

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“And they shall say: O our Lord! surely we obeyed our leaders and our great men, so they led us astray from the path.” (Qur'an 33:67)

Society is a reflection or projection of the human mind - in other words, the world as it is and as it has been, is to a great extent shaped by people's minds and their interactions with one another and with their environment. The choices that result from this interaction and the courses of action decided upon, followed and executed, and the philosophy or worldview that shapes these decisions, all these affect the society that we construct around ourselves. So this world is, in a way, a projected image of the human mind. If some characteristics are more prevalent in the world, perhaps it is because those minds, those societies with such characteristics exert greater effort, leverage more resources, and therefore exert greater influence.

To the extent that our minds are full of ambitions, conflict, fragmentation, aggression, ego, thoughtlessness, self-interest, desire for gain, fear, paranoia, so also the world is full of such things. To the extent that they are full of compassion, concern, intelligence, wisdom, equity, justice, thoughtfulness, inclusiveness, the world has such qualities.

However, outwardly directed qualities such as ambition and aggression, by their very nature, seek to impact, change, control, shape, lead, and direct the outside world. Their force is generally more immediately palpable and more evident than the more subtle effect of internally directed characteristics. As well, they are not, by nature, tempered by an internal compassion and wisdom, but shaped by lower, more base internal directives, arising as they do out of the lower self. This problem is compounded by the fact that, with the advent of modern technology, our reach and impact, our ability to influence and control and wreak damage has increased exponentially. As a result, the necessity of a corresponding improvement in character and motivation becomes essential, otherwise the dangers of modern technology placed in the service of ambitious, agressive impulses will wreak extensive and lasting damage.

“O God, You have made my creation (khalq) beautiful, so also make my character (khuluq) beautiful.”

So the internal character of man becomes an essential concern, and understanding how to alter our character and thus the character of our society and our environment becomes crucial. Legalistic religion or even legalistic secularism sets limits on outward behaviour (which is useful as it can prevent catastrophic actions), but an internal change in character can only begin through one's own desire and understanding - through mindfulness, attentiveness, awareness, consciousness and the thoughtful communication of what results from this process.

“Surely there is a Reminder in that for whoever has a heart, or listens attentively, while he is witnessing....” (Qur'an 50:37)

This is not a speedy process, bringing immediate tangible rewards. It is rather the slow and patient creation of new structures and new processes which allow the latitiude necessary for deeper, more comprehensive and flexible solutions, resulting from a deeper understanding of the problems faced and from qualitatively better thought processes.

Within societies, individuals and groups representative of various strands of thought compete to gain influence over the society and to direct that society in the direction they desire - shaping it to match the form and thrust of their own minds, their own thoughts. So in a sense competing ideas, competing thoughts come into play and over time some forms come to dominate over others - some ways of thought over others. The individuals (and organizations) that are representative of these thoughts gain an authority and are actively followed or are acquiesced to. They become a real force in the world - holding large segments of society in the grip of the legal, economic, and societal structure that arises from their thoughts.

During the decades leading to 2003, Iraqis were held prisoner to the thoughts of one man - Saddam. He in turn derived his authority and was able to give free reign to his brutality because of the system of thought that existed in the nations which armed him and supported him for their own purposes. Vast numbers of innocent people died as prisoners of these co-operating systems of thought. This unfortunate cooperating interaction between powerful (mostly Western) countries and oppressive regimes and oppressive leaders continues in our time as it has in past times - convenient but patently destructive alliances that callously ruin and destroy so many innocent lives. It becomes apparent then that thoughts are the originating point and have an impelling power capable of creating forces that have powerful effects in the world - mean, low, uncompassionate, self-interested thoughts can enslave many and result in much harm. When internal character and real knowledge is non-existent or given a low priority, the result on the world stage can be devastating. If ambition and power and base character is on display and we acquiesce to the movements and motions and trends manifesting in our time it is as if we have submitted to the mean and low thoughts of those who are attempting to shape the world according to their ambitions and desires, according to their corrupt and contemptible thoughts, their deformed character or their selfish ends.

“Our Lord! We obeyed our leaders and powerful men and so they misled us as to the path.” (Qur'an 33:67)

The Prophet (s.a.) explained that the greater jihad was the internal struggle with our own nature, our own thoughts, our own character. The external combat is nothing, and may not even be necessary if the internal combat is conducted successfully. If that which is low and base within us and within our societies is conquered - replaced by compassion and beauty, then the external struggle eventually becomes unnecessary. As Rumi puts it: “...external enemies are nothing. What could they be? Don't you see how many thousands of unbelievers are prisoner of an unbeliever, who is their leader? That one unbeliever is a prisoner of thought. We realize thus that thoughts are to be reckoned with, since by means of one feeble, mean thought so many thousands of people are held captive.....When I see distinctly that a hundred thousand forms without bound and hosts without end, multitude upon multitude, are held captive by a person who is held captive in turn by a miserable thought, then all these are prisoners of that one thought. How would it be if the thoughts were great, endless, holy, and sublime? We realize then therefore that thoughts matter; forms are secondary, mere instruments.” (Signs of the Unseen - discourse 12, translated by W.M Thackston Jr.)

The forms cause pain and grief in the external world as outward manifestations of inward arrogance, ambition, cruelty, of a degraded and selfish nature. The way to battle them is on the level of thought, of ideas, of reshaping structures and processes within societies - the external physical battle, though sometimes necessary, should not be the primary solution as it cannot alone result in lasting change. The important thing are thoughts and what feeds them - this comprises the input, and the output is dependant on the input. The nature of one's thoughts, one's interior landscape creates a corresponding outer landscape. The inner landscape determines the outer landscape and the country of the mind and the heart can manifest powerfully in the external world around us. The inner and the outer are inextricably linked such that the future of the world and of humanity will be shaped and determined by the outer manifestation of humankind's inner world.

“As within, so without. (Idris/Enoch/Hermes)”



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  • 1 – On Ignorance and Real Trust

    “Ignorance is a form whose composition is of this world. When it advances, there is darkness; when it retreats, there is light. The bondsman vacillates with it as shadows vacillate with the sun. Have you not looked at man? Sometimes you find that he is ignorant of his own qualities and praises them, while he recognizes their faults in others and criticizes them. At other times you find that a person knows his own nature and criticizes it, while praising the same in others. He vacillates between protection and disappointment. If he encounters integrity and protection, he is correct. If he encounters lack of assistance and desertion, he errs. The key to ignorance is being satisfied with the knowledge one possesses, and placing all one's trust in it. The key to knowledge is the desire to exchange one level of knowledge for a higher level, together with divine grace and guidance.” - (Imam Jafar al-Sadiq)

    “It is related that one of the men of trust came to one of the Imams (a.s.) and said to him, 'Show me compassion by answering a question about trust.' The Imam knew the man to be of excellent trust and rare scrupulousness, and he saw his sincerity in what he was asking before the man actually put the question. 'Stay where you are and wait with me for awhile,' he told him. While he was formulating his answer a poor man passed by. The Imam put his hand into his pocket and, taking something out, gave it to the poor man. Then he turned to the man who had asked the question and said, 'Come and ask about what you have seen.'

    'O Imam,' the man said, 'I know that you could have given me the answer to my question before making me wait. Why then did you delay?' And the Imam replied, 'Belief means reflecting on the meaning before I speak. For how could I be negligent of my innermost being when my Lord perceives it? How could I discuss the science of trust while there is a coin in my pocket? It is not permitted for me to discuss that until after I had given it to him who needs it, so understand!'” (from Lantern of the Path)

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