We seek knowledge for many reasons. Some pursue it to for utilitarian purposes – a tool to better their quality of life. Others acquire knowledge for the sake of knowledge and devote their lives to academic research, others still crave knowledge to understand themselves and attain self-realisation. These are the three main motives which define our relationship with knowledge. Whilst the aim of the first two groups is clear, the outcome of the third appears vague and abstract. Why do we want to pursue the goal of self-realisation and what drives us along this path? Is the search for abstract concepts synonymous with self-awareness? Are we drawn by the humbleness of the philosophers, when faced with the big questions of life, their habit of questioning and researching everything? In fact, every type of education, intellectual activity, self-reflection and a focus beyond physical existence falls within the concept of self-realisation. Based on this it is clear that humanity has dedicated a vast portion of its intellectual capacity in exploring the nature of being human.
However, who has the authority to define the essence of humanity and of the perfect man? In relation to this has it been possible for anyone to set a benchmark for human perfection without any consideration to the spiritual and divine aspects of human beings? Is it not meaningless to talk of ethics at the same time as accepting that Man is compelled by time and space in his actions and does not have free will? Is the ultimate goal of self-realisation to avoid the pitfalls and mistakes which hinder the path of progress and civilisation? If not, then surely the desire to set yourself apart from ordinary people by adopting eccentric views and behaviour must be the purpose of self-realisation. The simple truth is that until and unless the goal of self-realisation is not clarified, its status as an intellectual concept will remain vague, obscure and lack wider acceptance. Psychopaths and all kinds of weird, wacky and self-delusional people without any inhibitions could claim the mantle of self-realisation if we cannot come to a shared understanding.
In contrast the paths of religion and mysticism regard self-realisation as an integral part of their intellectual tradition, leading to a clearly defined outcome. This is because having acquired the tools of intellectual enquiry, Man tolerates hardship and lives through rich and varied life experiences at the end of which he can boast of many achievements. But despite all this he still feels that his heart is totally empty of peace and tranquillity. Every religion and school of philosophy regards contentment of the heart as a separate value from physical satisfaction. The pleasures of life put together cannot still the restlessness of the heart and replace it with inner joy. It is clear that the disposition, causes and driving forces of this state are distinct from the paths of cold intellectualism and empty expressions of spirituality.
If self-realisation is the pinnacle of human development, then presumably it is a personal and subjective experience which has no connection with religion or wider society. It is for this reason that it is claimed that all inner states are incapable of being transferred from one person to another. These states and experiences are not such that they can be passed on to others through mind control and hypnosis. What benefit, then, can self-realisation provide for society? For the Western intellectuals it has produced a humanistic outlook and an approach which centres on human welfare. The self-proclaimed gurus of self-realisation have not been able to produce a better outcome than this. What pathways to tranquillity have these humanitarian preachers shown to society which entitles them to legislate for our communities and govern our lives? Even if it is accepted that self-realisation is a private matter, it can never usurp the right to dictate for any society whatsoever. There is no necessary correlation between human welfare and self-realisation; one does not depend on the other. It is possible to find many people who have not delved into the depths of philosophy or intricate self-analysis but are still engaged in acts of charity and humanity. However, they are strangers to their inner-selves. Pure self-realisation has never been an ideal that all of Mankind should regard as the ultimate goal of knowledge and life.
In reality, self-realisation is the product of an aspiration arising when intellectual endeavour leads a person to the realisation that wider society is incapable of supporting them in attaining a higher goal in life. What these individuals seek is the direct experience of reality. They have a strong feeling that the ultimate aim of reason and inner experience lies beyond physical matter, and whether they believe in God or not they are determined to find a solution to the fundamental question of human purpose.
Sometimes the desire for self-discovery arises from fear. The agony of such mental anguish has an impact on one's life and education, and ultimately prevents us from attaining our goals. The search to understand ourselves is borne out of the need for survival and normality. Self-realisation is the ability to tame the forces of your reptilian instincts by using reason and consciousness. It is about gaining control over the destructive and anarchic forces within you so that they do not block you from your quest to attain higher consciousness. The emotional tremors which shake the core of our being at birth begin the succession of emotions which continue until we die. We are engaged in a constant struggle to protect ourselves from these painful feelings which induce uncertainty. To help us we fall back on the survival instinct and cultural norms.
Whether this has any impact on weakening our reptilian instincts I am not sure. However, most people manage to create a fragile equilibrium of the reptilian forces and achieve some degree of mental stability. This uneasy balance is seen as normal human behaviour and part of our biological make-up. As a result, most people regard psychotic and extreme behaviour as an independent but integral part of the ‘normal’ psychological balance and try to get on with their lives. The inevitable consequence of all this is that they unwittingly strengthen the reptilian forces of the Nafs. However, there are a few people who are not content with living in this state because they realise that this is not the real balance of power. They struggle continuously to arrive at the real state of balance which has been defined by God. The difference between the balance of power which God has set up for Man and the reptilian balance of power is like that of the Earth and sky. The entire aim of the reptilian scale is centred on human efficiency and productivity. It is a visible scale which does not allow an individual to break free from the psychotic and depressive tendencies of wider society, ensuring that there is no hindrance in the dominating routines of life. Psychological balance is defined as conformity to the lifestyles and views of society. Everybody acts the same, thinks the same and wants the same things.
In contrast the definition of ‘balance’ given by God is built on the harmonisation of the inner and outer dimensions of humanity, providing liberation from living lives of chaos and crisis. It offers a lifestyle which at first may seem a little strange to many people. God’s definition of the ‘balanced’ human is simple: tranquillity of the heart and freedom from fear and worry. This phrase seems easy enough to understand, but attaining to its true meaning is not possible without self-realisation. However, there has to be an ultimate goal behind self-realisation and the attainment of ‘balance’. These are just the stepping-stones that lead to something greater. But what is this ideal? It is probably difficult for Western and secular intellectuals to accept that there is an Absolute Reality greater than Man. It may be the case that the desire to seek refinement of the body and soul for the sake of God is purely an assumption and figment of the imagination, but it is undeniable that the process of self-realisation cannot start without first sorting out what your priorities are in life.
One could probably ask the question whether to believe in God or not. Yet to question the purpose behind self-realisation is seen as an utter waste of time. The first step towards self-awareness is to develop certainty of knowledge. When the human mind attains to unshakeable certainty of its ultimate purpose it is faced with two choices. It can become entrenched in vainglory and arrogance even in the presence of the ultimate reality in the manner of Satan, which leads it to use deception and spurious arguments to reject the commands of God; or it can choose to develop awe, reverence and love for its real master and build its life around devotion and service to Him. This can only happen if we incline towards the reformation of the reptilian Self and seek the proximity of God. This stream of thought is known as Tasawwuf (Mysticism). It is an outcome of this way of thinking that Man develops an intense desire to perfect the thoughts and behaviours which divert him from the love of God. His entire being is driven by this desire for the divine. He develops a state of awareness which enables him to self-evaluate his thoughts, actions and feelings in relation to the divine balance.
The task of rooting out the dark forces that lurk within us is not easy, since the reptilian Self attempts to thrust us back again and again to its deep-rooted habits. Repentance contains the idea of regret and remorse, but according to Imaam Ja’far Sadiq (d. 765 CE) ‘repentance is easy, abandoning sinful acts is much harder.' The realisation that you do not have the right ‘balance’ is the primary motive leading to the path of self-realisation. A state of mind comes into being which is always self-reflective and careful to avoid any thought, action or behaviour which could distance it from God. This is the alchemy of self-realisation. Purifying the body and training the mind are both essential parts of this struggle. Without the appropriate consciousness of mind, the body regards every physically demanding action as a hardship. In the same way spiritual contemplation and retreats alone can become part of the deceptions of the Nafs as it can take you away from action.
The Quran is the only book in the world which reflects ultimate knowledge and reality. The responsibility of carrying this perfect knowledge was given not to an unstable person, but to the human being who manifested the most perfect personality. It was therefore, revealed to Muhammad the Messenger of God. Through this, God has indicated a fundamental principle relating to knowledge. He who has the greatest knowledge will also be the one who is the most perfectly balanced. Knowledge in this context does not mean the various branches and departments of learning. The fact that some people may become distinguished in a particular specialism or field does not confer on them any real greatness, unless they are able to identify the purpose of self-realisation in accordance with the ultimate priority of knowledge. Human perfection and balance can only occur when a person endeavours to discover who they are within the broader context of God’s knowledge. This must be coupled with efforts to curb the excesses of the reptilian ego so that this does not act as a barrier between you and the recognition of God at any moment in time. Knowledge is consciousness of God (Taqwa), which in turn is the perfectly balanced character. It is possible that you may attain temporary balance of character, but unless you constantly remain watchful over the Nafs, there is no guarantee that it may not revive its negative character traits and plunge you back into the abyss of chaos and catastrophe.
Self-realisation can easily become self-deception if you yourself are its only yardstick. The measure of self-realisation can never be based on subjective standards. Just as the human race has produced many specialists in the various branches of science, it has also produced experts in the field of self-realisation. The objective manner in which the great prophets have explored and clarified all aspects of this area cannot be ignored. Their findings have been verified by the friends of God (Saints) whose lives are a testament to the research of the Prophets. Ignorance led to the separation of Tasawwuf from ordinary life. The fact is that not all human beings are of the same skill and calibre in every field of learning. It is only a few who succeed in mastering a particular area and are regarded as an authority in that field. Why is it that Tasawwuf was regarded as an exception to this?
The number of prophets and saints produced by human societies is far greater than the number of philosophers and scientists to whom human intellectual development is attributed. The difference however, is that the latter were never the source of compassion and generosity for society in the way that a prophet or saint became. It is because of these experts of the Self and due to God that society has arrived at this point in its civilisation. The deceit of the reptilian ego has in every age held the majority of men captive to extremism, anarchy and destruction, and in every period the masters of self-understanding have ensured the survival of humanity through moderation. The day of judgement will occur only when the realisers of God are no more. It is possible that many experts of different fields may exist for a long time, but none of them are essential for the continuation of the human species.
Scientists have given Mankind a small number of materialistic benefits, but at the same time they have created the technology which could destroy the entire human race. They do not possess balance and moderation. The means of survival and destruction are poles apart. Ten thousand years of human history can be wiped out in a matter of ten minutes. Even the philosophers have not advanced to a level which would entitle them to lead society. In reality, many of them cannot satisfy the conditions of balance. In relation to self-realisation it is impossible to find a single piece of work written on this subject by a philosopher or scientist. Who amongst them can teach us how to attain ‘balance’ in our thoughts and actions? Is there anyone who can lead us to the station of peace and tranquillity?
The prevalence of anxiety, agitation and restlessness indicates that science cannot find a solution to the emptiness of the human heart. The absence of experts on self-realisation is acutely being felt. It seems that humanity is crying out for the masters of self-awareness to come and ease their pain. The tragedy is that knowledge of the self has become the victim of many false and self-proclaimed ‘masters’ who have exploited ordinary people and sucked them dry like some wild bulls on the rampage. Every street, town and city is littered with mounds of pseudo-Sufis who are completely ignorant of the knowledge of self-realisation and can just about pronounce its name. These quacks fear neither God nor His creatures. A new type of colonisation based on deceit and deception is under construction. Unfortunately this time it is religion that is under attack and especially Islam, and it does not matter whether it is Bush, Blair or the local fabricator of magical amulets. In fact the danger is greater when this wave of colonisation is led by the Mosque Mullah, hereditary Shaikh, or the well-groomed scholar of the Madrasah.
(Translated from Muqaddama-tul-Quran (pp.103-109)
An English Edition of Muqaddama-tul-Quran by Prof.Ahmad Rafique Akhtar