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09/17/2010

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Steven Shiffrin

Patrick, thanks for this. I have a question prompted by the references to an afterlife. I once told a priest friend of mine that I thought the doctrine of heaven was a distraction because it encouraged an instrumental approach to life. He said that the right attitude was not to think about an afterlife disneyland, but a desire to be close to God in the here and now and thereafter. I am wondering about the Muslim approach or approaches to the presence of God on earth. Perhaps the answer would require a post in the future.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Steve,

The short answer would be that the notion of Judgment and the corrollary conception of an afterlife are part of traditional Islamic doctrines (indeed, among the 'pillars' of belief or faith [īmān] that exist alongside the well-known five pillars of praxis: shahādah, salāt, zakāt, sawm, and hajj). Belief in same in no way logically or theologically precludes the endeavor to get closer to God here and now, although one can imagine those with a weak motivational structure misdirecting, so to speak, their spiritual attention and energy.

Muslims do not refer to the "presence of God on earth" (which sounds too much like the 'incarnation' idea) but rather how God's Names and Qualities are mirrored in Creation and are thus understood as "signs" of God. As Sufis would say, invoking the mirror metaphor with regard to God's Essence (which, strictly speaking, is beyond all determination and definition, although it is referred to be several divine 'Names:' the 'all-Good,' 'Infinitely Merciful,' 'the One'), creation exists as the myriad reflections or theophanies (tajalliyyāt: divine disclosures or manifestations but not of God as such, hence, perhaps better: hierophanies) of the Divine Names and Qualities in their multifarious combinations. The unity and oneness of God (tawhīd) is unaffected by the "image" that reflects that Reality, thus "no change would occur to it if the mirror were to be broken:"

"Since in Islam the revelation came in the form of a sacred book, many Muslim sages have looked upon nature as a book of God, as did many of their Jewish and Christian counterparts. The cosmos is in fact God's first and primordial revelation. There is an eternal and archetypal Qur’ān, which is the archetype of both the book revealed to the Prophet of Islam as the Qur’ān and the cosmos, which many Sufis in fact call the cosmic Qur’ān. [....] In fact, in the Qur’ān both the phenomena of nature and the verses of the Qur’ān are called ’āyāt, or symbols and signs, each conveying a meaning beyond itself. Every ’āyah, besides its outward meaning, has a symbolic and inward significance." (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, 2007: 46. See too Annemarie Schimmel's Deciphering the Signs of God: A Phenomenological Approach to Islam, 1994, and the Qur’ān (41: 53): 'We shall show them Our signs on all horizons and in their very souls, until it becomes obvious to them that it is the Truth.')

As for precisely what it means to be closer to God for Muslims, yes, that would properly be the subject of a separate post!

Steve Shiffrin

Thanks Patrick, very very helpful.
Steve

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