The Review of Religions [English], June, July & August, 1922
وَلَقَدۡ خَلَقۡنَا الۡاِنۡسَانَ وَنَعۡلَمُ مَا تُوَسۡوِسُ بِهٖ نَفۡسُهٗ ۚ وَنَحۡنُ اَقۡرَبُ اِلَيۡهِ مِنۡ حَبۡلِ الۡوَرِيۡدِ
“Verily we created man and we know what incitements his soul whispereth to him, and we are closer to him than his jugular vein.” [Surah Qaf, Ch.50: V.17]
A careful survey of the human mind will disclose to us the fact that human nature is inclined either one way or the other. Some are inclined to be happy and hopeful; while some are moody and despondent. Those who are optimistic and apt to take a happy and cheerful view of things are ever found to be buoyant and glad. While quite young, I used to go to the house of the first Caliph of the Promised Messiahas to read the Holy Quran with him. One day he pointed to a woman who he said would keep on smiling even though she was mentioning sad news. To assure me that it was a fact he enquired of her elder son in my presence. She smiled and as is the modest feminine trait she put her hand on her lips and said that he was dead. Similarly, he inquired of her about her other dead relations and every time she replied, she smiled and said that such and such was dead. He explained to me at that time that it was a sort of a mental ailment which she suffered from. Such [people] form a distinct class by themselves.
Now there is another class who are ever mourning and bewailing their lot. They will grieve, of course, if some mishap befell them, but they will be unhappy at the birth of a son, for now, they would say that being already burdened with big families to support, they have had one more mouth to feed. If they married their son, they complained of the insufficiency of dowry given by the parents of the bride, and if they married their own daughters in some other family, they would ruefully declare the lack of means wherewith to endow their daughters with sufficient dowry and jewellery. If they advanced in life and their income was raised, they were not satisfied, and if their incomes shrank their moans and sighs rent up heavens above. If their wealth increased, they get discontented alleging that their worldly cares had increased, but if, on the other hand, they suffered a material loss, they sent up deep lamentations. This trait is found in various degrees. In certain dispositions, it is more marked than in others.
Most of the people in the world are those who follow the extremes. There are very few who would become altogether God’s, and take their stand on the right path.
Now, what is the result? The first group of people fall easy prey to pride, vanity and conceit. Overconfidence in their personal efforts and powers makes them feel independent of divine intervention. They feel self-sufficient and they forget that every hour they stand in need of divine support and sustenance. In whatever they think and do, they rely solely on themselves or worldly means. Calamities and other troubles do not come to them as eye-openers. They pass over them as drops of water glance off an oily surface. Their hearts become the seat of excessive pride, vanity and conceit and overconfidence in themselves and their worldly possessions makes them oblivious of the divine existence.
The second set of people inclines to the other extreme. They are pessimists whom nothing can make happy. Not only do they think themselves helpless but they even despair of Providence.
Both these groups deserve to be chastised. The one group is too proud and conceited to think of a divine hand that in certain instances is sure to come down heavily and sweep away all human plans. The other group is too despondent to think of any divine intervention in human affairs. The latter cannot even conceive that God is the real support of everyone and that He can save man from all sorts of pain and trouble.
Both these groups are mentioned in the verse quoted above. God says that He has created man and therefore He knows precisely what sort of fancies his mind is subject to. He well knows the affliction that besets the first type of people whose minds are prey to the wandering and empty fancies of personal pride and vanity and therefore He suggests a remedy. His chief shortcoming is that he thinks himself self-sufficient and that he has no need for God. He is therefore reminded of his internal constitution which is that all his mental powers depend upon his brain without which he is no better than a piece of wood or stone. It is this brain then that is the centre of all his mental powers and activities. Yet the same brain is there in the dead man who cannot at all make any use of it. However vile the vituperation he cannot make any reply to it and if a child were to pull the dead man by his legs, he cannot shake him off. He cannot prevent anyone from divesting himself and his house or his property. But he has the brain. What is that whose absence makes all the difference between a live man and a dead man and without which the dead man cannot make use of his brain? It is the cutting off of that connection between the brain and the heart, I mean, the circulation of the blood which puts an end to all his cerebral activities. So dependent is the brain on this blood connection with the heart that a temporary stoppage puts a man out of his senses and renders the brain useless.
Does not man know that there is a closer connection between him and God than there is between the heart and the brain as represented by the jugular vein, for man is a compound of these things in regular order? He who sets this system going and puts a stop to it is that external power. He is the creator of all these things and therefore as establisher of that inner connection between the heart and the brain He is nearer to man than his own self. He, therefore, exerts His influence directly while all other things work through Him and in Him. Then what is man himself and what makes him proud and conceited? If God were to stop all this activity, what is man to interfere with it! See, for instance, even when the jugular vein is working in order, outgoes the divine order and the man turns mad, and his faculties are jangled out of tune. The brain is there, the heart is there, and there is the regular flow of blood through the jugular vein, yet the living person becomes a human wreck. So miserable does his condition become that even the onlookers are moved to sigh for death for him to put an end to his miseries. There is the decent woman of a noble family who though not observing the Islamic purdah, is yet careful to put on the decency of manners and dress to screen off the vulgar gaze, but as soon as she loses her balance of mind, she tears off all her outer habits and runs naked through the streets. The state of mind her relations are in may be better imagined than described. Similarly, there is the scion of the noble family. He is looked upon as the sole mainstay of all. He loses his mental equilibrium, beats and is beaten, abuses and is abused in return, thus making the whole family miserable on his account. It is at times like these that his own kith and kin wish for his speedy death to spare them further indignities.
God’s connection with man is closer – aye much closer – than the one subsisting between the heart and the brain through the neck-vein. He, therefore, warns man of the consequences of entertaining ideas of self-sufficiency and indispensability. Man is frail and weak; he is nothing without divine aid and help and support. Therefore, this warning is the knife that should sever the threads and roots that bind man to these ideas.
As to the other desponding fancy that makes man pessimistic, God says that man was made by Him out of nothing. As the Creator He is well acquainted with the downward tendencies of his mind. Such a nature is apt to magnify his difficulties when he starts doing something. He creates his own difficulties. What can he do, he thinks, seeing that he is beset with this difficulty or that. He is here reminded of his short-sightedness.
Can a child despond in the presence of his mother? When at night the child wakes up frightened in his dream the mother gently passes her hand over him and with an affectionate and loving caress and patting reminds him of her presence which soothes him at once and he falls into a calm sleep again. A little while before he was crying out of extreme fear and a little while after he is sound asleep as if quite oblivious of all fear. Why? Because the mother said that she was near. But what are mother and her powers? The child knows her sympathy and love and is cognisant of the fact that she has some power, therefore the child thinks himself safe. But God reminds man of His closer proximity to himself than that of a mother’s for her child. Why should man feel despondent?
Even a child sleeps soundly when he finds his mother close at hand and it is only the idea of her being distant that makes him cry out in his sleep. Why should then the servant of God despair in the presence of his Lord Who is nearer to him than all the things that go to form his shield and screen? Why should he admit that this or that difficulty is insurmountable if His God be nearer to him than his own self? What are these difficulties and obstacles?
Ahmadi brethren should be on their guard against both these tendencies. Maybe, some of them think that they can do this or that eliminating all ideas of Providence, or those who on account of the opposite tendencies may be too diffident of success, thinking their own capabilities and powers too far deficient to be of any use. It is to both of them that I address my words of advice. The verse explained above prescribes for them both. It cuts at the root of both these heretical tendencies. It serves as a double sword. It should be used to sever the ties that bind man to these extreme views, for these evil tendencies are due to the whisperings of the devil who is busy gnawing at the root of their faith and belief and undermining their very souls. They who are prey to the first sort of temptation might set it off by realising in their souls that it is through the power and grace of God that they are enabled to perform this thing or that and those who suffer from the opposite kind of malady may rest assured that God can do everything for them.
Let them not feel diffident because they seem small and deficient in comparison to their enemy. Their powers may seem small and deficient but they are powers to be and there is no knowing how far and to what extent they can be developed. Let not a spirit of pessimism weigh them down. The propinquity of God is a sufficient guarantee of success. Why despair they? Let them use the same sword that divine presence has placed at hand. Let them cut up the fibres of despair, root and branch, for it is a dangerous canker that eats into the frame of hope and success and consumes it utterly. Unaided you may think you can do nothing but at the same time, you may feel yourself a strong weapon wielded by a strong and veteran hand. Of itself, the sword may be capable of nothing, even a child may break it and render it useless but in the hands of a trusted veteran it may perform wonders. It may cut the foes in heaps and flash east and west like the Excalibur of old, blinding the foe. Never assert that you can do this or that; say God alone will do it and it is His aid and assistance that does everything; but all the same, the strength and number of the enemy should not frighten you out of your wits and fill you with gloom and despair.
I think even pessimism savours pride and conceit, for a pessimist, thinks that such and such a thing he alone was capable of doing, but as he could not do it hence it was impossible to do, and therefore it is his inability to do that fills him with despondence. As a matter of fact, he could have reversed his train of thought. If he could not do it at one time, he could, with greater effort and perseverance, do it the next time. Or in case of failure, he could rest content that he had done his best under the circumstances. Someone else would succeed where he had failed and therefore God’s purpose would be fulfilled. All he had to do was to exert his utmost. Why should he feel despondent?
The thing is that one who has complete trust in God, thinks that though he himself is weak, frail, even half dead, yet he is the divine instrument. In himself, he may be nothing but divine aid and support has made him very strong. Man cannot cross the seas unaided and unassisted, but by means of ships, he has traversed all the seas and negotiated the inaccessible regions. Can he not traverse the oceans of troubles, misfortunes and calamities with the aid of a divine ark? Certainly, he can. Stand forth, then, getting a fast hold of these two fundamental principles of action. Firstly, of ourselves, we are capable of nothing; God alone can do everything. Secondly, with divine aid and assistance, there is no obstacle that we cannot surmount, for we are the divine instruments.
(Transcribed by Al Hakam from the original published in The Review of Religions, June, July & August 1922)