The Meaning and Significance of Witnessing
The Revelation of Islam: Truth is the Means to Witnessing
The Practical Application of the Knowledge of Witnessing
Today I would like to offer a short review of the knowledge of witnessing: its meaning, its significance and its application.
I say review because, although this knowledge is the very heart, depth and soul of Islam, it is not something that we don’t already know, as all that I am about to say is implied in the very words of witnessing that we are encouraged, even commanded, to recite - no less than nine times a day (and many more, one hopes) – twice, with all our hearts, in each salaat except one in the morning. These words – (shahad) - are known as ‘the shahada’ or the kalimatu shahadat, the words of witnessing.
Shahada, or witnessing, is the first of the so-called five pillars or requirements or teachings of Islam.
It is not only the most important requirement of a Muslim, but the point and purpose of all the other requirements of fulfilling obligations.
To know, we must practice. The fulfillment of the obligations of Islam leads one to the means to verify through experience the truth of the words of witnessing. In other words, they lead the practitioner on a certain path toward a predefined certain destiny: that of truly witnessing, being a true witness, a witness to the truth, a knower of reality, a gnostic.
Most if not all root forms of Arabic words are stated in their primary case in the past tense masculine. It is the equivalent of the infinitive in English, but there is no such thing in Arabic, verbs in their primary expression being stated in the past tense masculine. Example: kataba, he wrote; shahada, he witnessed.
It is interesting that the primary expression of verbs in Arabic is in the past tense, as it is a tenet of esoteric Islam that “the book is written and the ink is dry”. In other words, everything is done already and we are only on a pathway of exploration.
So Arabic verbs are referred to in the past tense. Even so, we in English continue, for expedience, to refer to them in the infinite, so to us root forms such as sha ha da or ka ta ba are referred to as ‘to witness’ or ‘to write’ - or sometimes in that other case (is it transitive?) expressed as ‘witnessing’ or ‘writing’.
In any case it denotes an action - comprehensible in one or all of three ways.
• We can hear the word, relying upon our cursory understanding of its definition in language or the fact that it has a meaning with which we are vaguely familiar;
• We can ‘see’ the word, meaning to have a very clear intellectual understanding of the word and it’s various implications and innuendos;
• And/or we can have a total experiential comprehension of the significance of the word to its very depth. It is in this context that I wish to explore the meaning of shahada.
To simplify the process let us note that the essential question is: What is witnessing? What does it mean to ‘witness’? And to this there are two forms of reply. If we refer to the word in English, and overlook the superficial and common definitions, we know that at its very depth it implies a form of spiritual recognition, however ill-defined. So it has, in English, the potential of being one of the ‘deep’ words in certain semi- esoteric contexts. But if we refer to it in Arabic, the fulfillment of its potential becomes quite clear.
Witnessing requires an object: something to be witnessed. In English, the witnessing of God is still somewhat nebulous and undefined, since the ‘object’ of witnessing is so ‘large’ as to be both indefinable and unavailable for total comprehension. Well, please do not think that God does not know this, and in the wisdom of revelation has not provided a method for overcoming this seeming impossibility.
And here we encounter to concept of ‘logos’, or qutub, if you will – a centralized focal point of the Divine - indicating, representing and pointing to the Source of everything as the origin, destination and reality of the inestimable incomprehensible reality. Logos - or the ‘central focal point’- is adefinite theme in most world religions. It is almost always a person: a ‘personification, if you will, of the source. This line of reasoning is hotly disputed among the more fundamentalist groups, claiming that personification is anthropomorphism, or the ascribing of mortal or temporary and perishing attributes to the One Divine. But that’s why there are mystery schools – so we can learn to understand the mysteries.
The mystery here is the problem of resolving the apparent differences between the concept of uniqueness and obvious distinction of The Divine Originator, over, above and apparently separate from the divine creation, and the obvious truth that upon studying the divine yet practical nature of Oneness, there can be nothing whatsoever ‘separate’ or apart from that which by very definition must include everything. So the concept of separation can exist only in the mind of man for the purpose of distinguishing relative existence in a transitory and perishable world, even though it is not at all possible in reality. Comprehending this takes study, learning and no little bit of instruction. So The One sends us the means to this comprehension – the Teacher (Muhammad) and the Teaching (Islam).
And here I would like to point out that in the context of the Islamic revelation, truth is the means to witnessing, and we are lead to it through the study of the knowledge that is delivered by that revelation.
Not all knowledge is truth, but Truth is Knowledge. It can be also said that truth is more than just knowledge, truth is a reality, about which and from which knowledge comes. However and in any case, there is a transmittable, speakable knowledge of truth, knowledge of reality; and it is this vey truth about reality, once realized, that sets one free. The process of this realization begins with seeking it, and the search begins with hearing of it and wanting it. Hearing of the knowledge, of the existence of this knowledge, is the first of the three stages of accomplishment. In Arabic it is referred to as `Ilmul Yaqin – a certain knowledge, about That Which is Certain, coming from That Which is Certain and leading to That Which is Certain. A knowledge of certainty, if you will.
And what does this knowledge tell us about That Which is Certain?
Firstly, it asserts its reality – that it exists – that certainty exists and that its knowledge is certain.
Secondly, that it is attainable, it is not impossible to understand,
and thirdly, that chief among its many gifts and benefits are the practices that will set you free.
All this, simply from hearing about it.
The second stage is the process of attainment –studying, acquiring and utilizing the means provided for accomplishment.
Earlier I stated that the fulfillment of the obligations of Islam lead one to the means to verify through experience the truth of the words of witnessing, and the greatest of these means is the worship form, salaat. Salaat consist of a preliminary purification worthy of one about to enter into the presence of a noble and gracious king. Then it comprises some words and postures of gratitude, obeisance and servitude, the culmination of which is bearing witness to one’s bearing witness (you, in the presence of the witnessed, are bearing witness to the fact that you bear witness).
And now this bearing of witness falls under one’s own personal scrutiny.
Yes we bear witness. One, in that we were created bearing witness, two that we were chosen to learn about our innate witnessing, and three that we actually became consciously proactive in our bearing of witness. So yes, we bear witness. But where in the state of progress are we, and where do we go from here?
I maintain that this form of self-investigation is crucial to us in that it is instrumental in helping us to progress. The more we learn about ‘that to which we are bearing witness’, the clearer it becomes to us and the easier to imagine and therefore approach. For example, the more we learn about mercy and clemency, the less afraid we are of punishment and the more willing to approach. The more we learn about the truly divine and established nature of forgiveness, the more willing we are to step forward to receive it.
And now about a practical application of the knowledge of witnessing.
As we have stated, the knowledge of witnessing has three parts, stages or phases. The first is to know that this knowledge exists, the second is to seek out and find the source of this knowledge, and the third is to apply oneself to the learning of it until its absorption and the feeling of complete satisfaction.
So now that we know all that, and believe me you do, let us get to the meat of the matter and address the practical application of this knowledge.
Through study, we get a feel for the direction toward the source of the knowledge we are pursuing. We begin to understand what it is that we are witnessing. We find that it becomes more and more imaginable. In other word, we find ourselves increasingly interested, absorbed and fascinated by the picture that forms in our own mind from the information given it through our study. Now Shaykh al Akbar Muhyiuddin ibn al-Arabi, referred to as the seal of sainthood, once wrote a whole book entitled “The Use of Imagination as a Means to Approach Reality”. Let’s consider that title for a moment. “The Use of Imagination as a Means of Approach to Reality”.
Interesting concept. It implies that it is only the imagination that needs the guidance. Normal consciousness can focus us on to the necessary information, i.e. the faith and teachings of Islam, as taught and transmitted by one who has truly reached the goal. But in the end the ‘normal’ consciousness is not the faculty of realization, being itself but a figment of its own imagination, and, as we have all experienced, needing to get out of the way so as to no longer be a distraction from the very realization we seek. But if we can leave the ‘normal’ consciousness, allowing our imagination a free but guided liberty, and if the imagination can be stimulated in the right direction, i.e. given a vision on which to focus in the hopes that it will lead one to a desired although hitherto unreached destination, the difference between the ‘real’ and the imagined shortens exponentially so as to become indistinguishable. Such is the gist of the great master’s treatise on the subject.
In other words, our belief works for us. Is it not said: “As ye believe, so shall it be”? And our faith is that in which we place our belief. If we believe in truth, and we know for an absolute certainty - having proven, through our own personal investigation and experience, that it is true, then surely the combined power of our belief –already a formidable force - added to the inexorable power of the reality of the truth itself, shall be sufficient to move any and all mountains of opposition from our way.
And the means to this attainment is given to us as a free gift from the Author and Sustainer of our perfection in the imperfect. It is our faith, in the form of a knowledge leading to a practice or lifestyle which leads to a realization of reality, which is the key to all good things in this life and in all foreseeable and unforeseeable futures.
If we embrace anything, it will surely guide us to the truth and reality from which it originates. That is certainly no less true for the faith of Islam. And the journey need not be long. A sheikh I knew once said, “We do not ask years of you.”
Let us ponder for a moment…..
1. Recitation of the kalimatu shahada is required of us once upon entering Islam and from that point at least nine times daily for the rest of our lives. This is a minimum and a beginning since the spoken word is the point at which understanding begins. But we are guaranteed to be reciting it til the day we die. This requirement from the god in Whom we believe should certainly be sufficient to cause us to ponder the magnitude of importance and significance these words carry.
2. We are hope and pray by God’s grace to have not only these words be on our tongues, but their truth be in our hearts and their reality in our lives at our moment of transition, since we know that these divine and holy words and practices are sent to us as a message to be followed - one of the points of which is not only to guide us through life but to make our very transitions joyful and even pleasant experiences. And after all, we do pray for the granting of paradise (defined as heavenly bliss in both this world and the hereafter) and for the avoidance of any proximity to its opposite.
3. These words convey to the believer a truth unfathomable by any other means, and are worthy of lifelong contemplative repetition. Indeed, they are the indications of that which is to be remembered above all else. It is the Reality of these words, and not just the words themselves, that is to be discovered, understood and remembered.
4. These are the words that indicate the actions that draw us near to the epicenter of the created worlds, both in the spirit and in the flesh. This epicenter is represented by our envisioning of the form and understanding the reality of Muhammad as the qutub of existence, the first of the lights of the manifestation of the essence; as stated by himself in hadith.
5. Drawing close by means of these words is their express purpose, as they represent the truth of our very realities.
6. When we complete our salaat, we do not only recite these words, but rehearse their reality. That means that we are truly sitting in the presence of our prophet, and actually wishing him salaams and praying for Allah’s continued blessing upon him and all of his followers.
7. If we are introduced to his presence in salaat, then it behooves us to remember his presence at all times, which increases the likelihood of our good, courteous and benevolent behavior to all people in all circumstances, which set a wonderful and attractive example to all people and is certainly the finest way to spread peace and love on the face of the earth.
We ask Allah’s blessings of Prophet Muhammad and his family. We ask Allah’s blessings on all the shuyukh and turuq muhammadiyya, and on the Dayemi Tariqat and the founders and living shuyukh of the Dayemi Tariqat and upon its community, may we all be granted success in this and all future lives.