By Sheikha Fatima Fleur Nassery Bonnin
Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
One of the common reactions that people have against religious teachings is in relation to the subject of the fear of God. Fear of what could happen to them in the hereafter and how they will be punished. Consequently, some people react by denial and some want to jump on the band wagon of love, not knowing that love does not enter a heart which has not been in awe of God.
So let us spend a little time looking at the role of fear, its uses, misuses and who is afraid.
It would be helpful to start with the supposition and acceptance that God is God and you and I are not. That intrinsically means that it is God Almighty who is always right, even if we disagree. If we start from here, then we can examine and trace how disagreement comes about. On the surface when one is faced with this, the immediate response usually is: “Of course! How could I disagree with God. God (Allah) who is the Truth and the Real ‘Al- Haqq’ cannot be wrong and I be right.” But in the reality of our day to day life and in practice we act as if we are right and we know better. This shows the manipulation of the mind and the ego (nafs) and how blinding that could be. So let us continue looking at the reaction to the fear of God and if in the end you can’t make sense of it or still disagree, then it is important to remember and accept that this is due to the limitation of our intellect as human beings, since we are not God, The Unlimited and The All-Knowing ‘Al Alim’. I realise the ego finds it hard to swallow such a pill, especially when it is faced with submitting to not knowing and to not being right. However that is exactly when we need to know that we are being manipulated by the nafs (ego) with its logic and reason, which can take various forms including disagreement and the claim to being right – in other words claiming to be God.
Having established the above, let us now look at the issue of fear. The question we need to ponder on is why is it that all the major religions have the fear of God as part of their teachings? The fear I am referring to is according to the Scriptures and the Holy Qur’an and what the Prophets and Awliyah have said, which the Masters and the Saints have interpreted, not the additions or perverted interpretations that various religious people have created in order to control people.
In the Qur’an, Allah (swt) repeatedly instructs and warns “fear only Allah”, or “those who fear Allah are the fortunate ones”. I would like to look at this issue, initially from a psychological perspective. We human beings, having developed personality and ego in our make up, are in the grip of seeing and sensing things in life and grasping meanings according to this apparatus of personality – not according to reality. We get closer to the reality as the thick veil of ego gets thinner.
The results of the experiences of the childhood environment and interactions, and the interpretation of these experiences colours our perception, affecting the way we feel about ourselves and our surroundings. By the time we reach adulthood we tend to have a lot of fear inside us whether we are conscious of it or not. We tend to be constantly measuring ourselves against people and situations, we say and do things in a certain way to please others, especially if we perceive our well being depends on them. We often look at ourselves through the eyes of others and try to be who they want us to be. The list of dysfunctions resulting from this kind of belief system and behaviour is very long and psychology has been trying to raise our awareness to them, since every one of these conditions brings about disconnection with who we really are, which results in unhappiness and potentially depression. Generally, people choose even their profession or partner according to these kinds of hidden fears and there is little wonder why dissatisfaction ensues. The unconsciousness avoidance of this fear shapes and forms one’s reality and belief system, but if the belief is investigated and systematically confronted, the true face of fear will show up. For instance, a lot of times when people go to the opposite and develop aggressive behaviour and become bullies, still underneath all that is the fear.
From a mystical perspective, the lack of awareness of one’s deeper self and the tendency to create an identity that is not rooted in the deeper self creates fear as the predominant underlying emotion. Because of the lack of knowledge of Self and lack of God-Consciousness, within and without, people identify exclusively with their physical and psychological form, unconscious of their essence, and since every form is inherently unstable and dependent, they live in fear.
In being instructed to fear only God, a few things take place. First, by fearing God rather than others we let go of our being in bondage to other people and situations which in itself is such a freedom – taking the weight off our back.
“Have we not opened up thy heart
And lifted from thee the burden
That had weighed so heavily on thy back?” – Qur’an 94:1-3
Who is the one reacting to the fear of God? The answer is the ego. If you do a series of self observations, you will realise that the ego is sulking at the idea of fearing God since its centrality in your existence becomes threatened. As it has been pointed out, man is fearful any way and man is taking orders any way. The question is should he take orders from God who has created him and wants him to know his real Self, or from his ego and his mind which represents the false reality. In the case of the latter, there is neither freedom from the weight of the problems of life and self, nor any possibility of transformation to the real self.
So what would be the outcome of choosing to fear God instead of the host of others with various demands and expectations on us which usually serves them not us? And what does fear of God require us to do and be? It requires us to do the right thing by ourselves and by others to please God. Doing the right thing is explained in the Shariah (religious law), which in the West is often misunderstood and misrepresented, but in reality it is the first step on the path of fighting against our ego (nafs) in order to become who we really are and what we were created for according to our quiddity ‘fitrat’. Whereas pleasing others and fear of the world and life situations makes us walk in the opposite direction, and if not totally the opposite, at least in a wrong direction, since it is serving the personality and the ego of both self and others.
Secondly, since our attention is directed to God, by remembrance of God, we become God-Conscious, which is the goal of the journey of this life and the goal of the spiritual work.
“Behold! it is in the remembrance of Allah alone that the hearts really find peace.” – Qur’an 13:28
Thirdly, since we are now walking on the path to God, pleasing God, He then fills our heart with joy ‘sakina’, and rewards us with happiness in this life and in the hereafter.
“But as for those who strive hard in Our cause – We shall most certainly guide them onto paths that lead unto Us.” – Qur’an 29:69
From a philosophical and psychological perspective, it is also understood that life is only meaningful when it is lived according to the purpose of life. Who would know the purpose of the life of man better than the Creator of man? All this is just a drop of the reality that if we understand and act according to what God has instructed us to do, even though we start as humans who are lost and misguided, we can reach ‘sa’adat’, happiness, peace and joy.
“Verily man is lost (is pursuing a losing bargain)
Different, however, is the case of those who believe and do deeds of righteousness and exhort one another to the truth and exhort one another to patience and perseverance.” – Qur’an 103:2-3
In a spiritual path in general, and in the Sufi path in particular, the journey is about transformation of the lower ego (nafs) from being misguided and being in the grip of various desires which are against man’s purpose of creation. Progressing through the stages of purification of the nafs propels the seeker to reach the point of transformation and become the nafs that is pleased with his Creator and the Creator (Allah) is pleased with him.
“O you soul at peace!
Come back to your Lord well-pleased with Him and He well-pleased with you.
Enter the fold of My chosen servants,
And enter My Paradise.” – Qur’an 89:27-30
One needs to find out about the purpose of this journey of life and decide which path would take him there. If man realises that the purpose of creation is for man to know his Creator and to worship and love Him then he needs to do as instructed, since the purpose of instruction and man’s reason to live are one and the same. This is unlike the serving of the ego and people, whose purpose is the opposite, creating unhappiness and anxiety in this world and misery and hell in the hereafter. In other words, man cannot serve God and his ego at the same time. As Jesus (pbuh) said:
“A man cannot mount two horses or bend two bows.
And a servant cannot serve two masters, otherwise that servant will honour the one and offend the other.” – Gospel of Thomas, Verse 47
Since we are unconscious and unaware of the manipulations and demands of the ego, the Creator with full knowledge of that, has made it possible for us to bypass that by following His orders and instructions. This is not unlike what we do in school, listening attentively to the teacher and doing what we are asked to do for the purpose of learning and graduating.
All of this points to the transformative power of the fear of God and why Allah (swt) says “Fear Only Allah” with emphasis on the word ‘only’. Because if one fears God and everyone else, then he is in a different equation. If one listens to the orders of Allah (swt) and everyone else, especially the orders of his ego, one will be in a difficult situation, at best very confused, unhappy and miserable, at worst feeling lost, depressed and even becoming psychotic.
This is not unlike the relationship of a child with a good parent. The child listens only to the advice and instructions from the parent who has his well being at heart and is preparing him for happiness and good conduct. If the child listens to others who at times might contradict the parent, he gets very confused and it shows in his behaviour. From the child’s side, his relationship with the good and nurturing parent is a combination of the love and awe. The awe makes him do the right things because he fears making the parent displeased, while, at the same time, trusting in the love and care of the parent makes him believe that only the parent can take care of him. Disharmony comes about only when this system is challenged from either side; if the parent is not a good parent by putting his/her selfish needs before the well being of the child, or if the child becomes egotistical and demanding and thinks he can do whatever he wants independently.
“Verily man becomes grossly overweening
Whenever he believes himself to be independent (of God).” – Qur’an 96:6-7
But God is not a person and has no need of anything or anyone. He is the source of all and He is ‘Ghani’ (self-sufficient) in Himself.
“O’ men! it is you who stand in need of God, whereas He alone is self-sufficient, the One to whom all praise is due.” – Qur’an 35:15
Once the man’s belief system is untangled from the confusion of the egoic thought and logic, the path becomes clearer and less confusing. There is a straight and simple way to go about life, which is to remember God, and in every thing that you want to do and are in doubt, ask yourself a simple question, “is that pleasing God?” If there are two possibilities, then ask which one pleases God. Of course the purification of the ego is an absolute necessity since one is not even capable of distinguishing what is pleasing or not pleasing God if the voice of the ego is loud in his head, using rationale, justification, logic, being right, being a modern person and looking down on religion.
We need to realise that the order of things between man and God has not and will not change from the beginning to the end of time, regardless of modernity. What would change is the periphery and man-made rules.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that it is fundamentally important and a sign of wisdom – not cleverness which relates to the mind – to reflect and contemplate on Allah’s ‘Ahkam’ (orders and instructions) and take them to heart, with the belief that they are much deeper than just mere do’s and don’ts of the Shariah. Under the exterior of the Shariah, there is an interior path which transforms the ego driven man to become God-Conscious. Sufism is a path that paves the way to take man, step by step on the journey of love and awe to the Beloved, Allah. (Source: Australian Centre for Sufism and Irfanic Studies (ACSIS)