Rational arguments are tools to help us think about God, certainty (yaqīn) about God’s existence comes through the experience of the heart.
By Nabi Raza Abidi
Whether you browse the internet or peruse through books at a bookstore, you’ll be amazed at the amount of literature that exists on the existence of God, both for and against. The plethora of arguments and counter-arguments may be confusing for some even though atheistic arguments don’t stand a chance in the front of a sophisticated theologian.
Yet despite the vast number of good philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of God, many people are still left with a lack of certainty (yaqīn) about His existence or presence. There is a simple explanation to this: philosophical or scientific arguments are there as aids to help us think rationally and correctly about God. They do not necessarily and in themselves give us certainty about the being of God for the reality of His existence is not just an epistemological matter, but an ontological one. Simply put, the issue of yaqīn is a matter of the heart.
Imam Khumayni (ra) provided us with a very good example outlining this dilemma. Imagine that you were put in a room with a dead corpse. From a strictly rational sense, you know that the dead corpse would not get up in the middle of the night and attack you. Yet if you were asked to sleep through the night with that corpse in the room, chances are that you would be too scared to do so! Why? The reason, as Imam Khumayni explains, is because although your knowledge tells you that the corpse will not get up, your heart on the other hand has not been convinced yet.
The same applies to our relationship with God. Although we may be intellectually convinced of God’s existence, our heart may say something else. In order to achieve true certainty of God, the heart (qalb) must experience God. It is not that God’s essence is experienced, but it is His Uncreated or Living Light as the Eastern Orthodox tradition teaches. The Catholics call this the Beatific Vision of God and the Muslims call this shuhūd (lit. witnessing).
Many books have been written on how to attain this state of shuhūd. Briefly put, it requires a symbiosis of practices. On the one hand there is prayer (praying on time!), fasting and following the rules of God’s law. On the other hand, there is the practice of cultivating inner virtue (akhlāq). The virtuous spiritual life is not just an outward display of good character towards others and God (that may just be pretentiousness), but it is an internal reality in which the self is emptied of spiritual diseases such as anger, hatred, jealously, pride, envy and so on and so forth. These disease act like veils that block God’s light. Interestingly enough, this means that God’s Light is always shining on the hearts, but our inner veils keep them it from reaching our hearts.
There are many steps that one must undertake in order to acquire God’s grace (raḥmah) and purify the inner self and thus acquire God’s Living Light; a good and necessary place to start in is the practice of unceasing remembrance of God (dhikr). This is not just simply the recitation of God’s name throughout the day, but it is also actively remembering God in places and all times. Although dhikr may not have its apparent affects in day, month or even a year, but over a number of years it will slowly but surely transform the state of the heart.
Think of it the following way: a drop of water on a rock will do no damage. A 100 drops in a day will not do anything either. But over a number of years it will eventually crack the rock. The practice of dhikr is similar. The hardened heart will take a long time to crack open with the droplets of dhikr. So it is a good idea to start while one is still young!
Nabi Raza Abidi
Resident Imam of the SABA Islamic Center
San Jose, California