The path to salvation: Insights from ‘The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam’

Iftekhar Ahmed, Ahmadiyya Archive & Research Centre

Three stages of spiritual progression

In 1896, the Promised Messiahas unveiled his seminal work, The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, at a multi-faith conference, expounding a grand vision for the human soul’s attainment of transcendence and union with the Divine.

Central to the Promised Messiah’sas philosophy was the concept of three progressive stages that the soul must traverse to reach its ultimate, highest point. “The third grade of progress is that a person should become wholly devoted to the love of his True Creator and to the winning of His pleasure. The whole of his being should be committed to God.” It is a lofty ideal of complete self-annihilation in the love of God. “To remind Muslims constantly of this grade their religion has been named Islam, which means to devote oneself wholly to God and to keep nothing back.” (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, p. 15f)

Natural state

Before this ultimate stage of enlightenment can be attained, the Promised Messiahas described two preliminary stages the soul must graduate through. The first he termed the physical or natural state, characterised by the Quranic term an-nafs al-ammara – the commanding self that incites towards evil desires and animalistic tendencies.

“This is man’s natural state, so long as he is not guided by reason and understanding but follows his natural bent in eating, drinking, sleeping, waking, anger and provocation, like the animals.” (Ibid., p. 4)

It is a primal state of being enslaved to one’s carnal appetites and baser impulses, devoid of any higher spiritual awareness. For the souls mired in this condition, the Promised Messiahas prescribed a remedy rooted in the Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism – the cleansing of the self.

Moral state

The next phase that emerges is the moral state, arising from the Quranic conception of an-nafs al-lawwama – the reproaching conscience that censures man’s misdeeds. This stage is the product of the reproaching self, and here man’s condition is such that although he cannot altogether suppress his sensual inclinations, yet he does not persist in them but feels repentant after committing them.

It is a state of inner turmoil, where the soul cannot fully free itself from the clutches of temptation, but is endowed with the ability to feel remorse over its transgressions. The Promised Messiahas saw in this phase the development of two key moral capacities – the ability to refrain from evil actions, and the ability to perform virtuous deeds. The to-and-fro between sin and repentance is a crucial step in the soul’s evolution towards ultimate purity.

Spiritual state

Yet it is the third and final stage, termed an-nafs al-mutma’inna or the soul at perfect peace, that represents the pinnacle of spiritual realisation. “This is the stage when the soul of a person being delivered from all weaknesses is filled with spiritual powers and establishes a relationship with God Almighty without Whose support it cannot exist.” (Ibid., p. 7)

For the Promised Messiahas, this is the ultimate goal – a state of complete surrender and submersion into the Divine Essence, where the seeker is utterly annihilated in the love and remembrance of the Beloved. All impurities are burned away, all doubts extinguished in the brilliance of experiential knowledge of Divine Reality. The soul exists in a constant state of ecstatic communion with its Creator, clinging to the Infinite as a moth consumed in the flame.

Achieving transcendence in this life

But what was truly profound about the Promised Messiah’sas vision was his insistence that this paradisiacal state of unity with the Divine was achievable in this very earthly existence, and not just some abstract ideal reserved for the afterlife. The soul can literally experience heaven here and now through the inward transformation of fana’ or annihilation of the self.

“The method of establishing perfect spiritual relationship with God that the Holy Quran teaches us is Islam,” the Promised Messiahas elaborated, “meaning devoting one’s whole life to the cause of God and being occupied with the supplications which we have been taught in Surah al-Fatihah. This is the essence of Islam. Complete surrender to God and the supplication taught in Surah al-Fatihah are the only methods of meeting God and drinking the water of true salvation.” (Ibid., p. 128f)

It was a departure from conventional Islamic orthodoxy, which tended to relegate such mystical experiences to the next world alone. For the Promised Messiahas, the realisation of God-consciousness is the entire purpose and summit of the spiritual journey in this life itself. The assumption of a sanctified existence is the ultimate destiny of the true believer.

Sufi roots and the Prophet’ssa example

In espousing this mystical worldview, the Promised Messiahas was tapping into the venerable Sufi traditions that had long flourished within Islam. Like the Sufis of ages past, he envisioned the spiritual wayfarer as an ardent lover consumed in longing for union with the Beloved – the nafs, or self, battling against the divine spark of ruh, or soul, planted within.

Yet the Promised Messiahas also took care to root his metaphysics firmly within the teachings of the Quran and the exemplary life of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa. The Arab world into which the Holy Prophetsa was born in the 7th century CE was, according to Promised Messiahas, a cesspool of moral depravity and ignorance desperately in need of renewal:

“At such time and for the reform of such people, our lord and master, the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, appeared in Mecca. This was the time that called for the three types of reform that we have just mentioned,” the Promised Messiahas proclaimed. “That is why the Holy Quran claims to be more complete and more perfect than all other books of guidance […]. The purpose of the Holy Quran was to elevate savages into men, and then to equip them with moral qualities, and finally raise them to the level of godly persons.” (Ibid., p. 23)

Morality and creation intertwined

At the heart of the Promised Messiah’sas teachings was a profound metaphysics that intrinsically linked the inward domain of morality (khulq) to the outward plane of physical creation (khalq). He argued that just as each soul’s birth into this terrestrial realm was but a prelude to an inner, spiritual rebirth, every external action performed by a human being had an innate, corresponding quality embedded within their spiritual essence.

“For instance, a person sheds tears through the eyes and corresponding to that action there is an inner quality which is called tenderness,” he illustrated. “In the same way, a person defends himself against the attack of an enemy with his hands, and corresponding to this action there is an inner quality which is called bravery. When this quality is exercised at its proper place and on its proper occasion, it is called a moral quality.” (Ibid., p. 28f)

It is only through the light of reason and self-discipline that these latent virtues can be actualised and integrated into one’s character. The very goal of the moral and spiritual struggle is to fully manifest and harmonise these interpenetrating realities of spirit and form, body and soul, zahir and batin.

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Alexander Psiuk | Unsplash

Attributes and Oneness of God

Yet critically, while proclaiming mystical teachings, the Promised Messiahas was unwavering in his adherence to the foundational principles of Islamic monotheism. He rejected in the strongest terms any notions of divine pluralism or a triune conception of God – beliefs he regarded as insidious deviations from the uncompromising Oneness (Tawhid) which is at the core of the faith.

God’s attributes are indeed innumerable and each exhibits itself in its full glory at the appropriate occasion. But He has no associate or companion, as is blasphemously attributed to Him by those who adhere to the doctrine of Trinity.

For the Holy Quran, and thus for Islam, ascribing partners to the Supreme Being is the gravest of sins (shirk) – an unforgivable breach of the Quranic injunction to pure, strict monotheism. Even as the scripture refers to God by the multiple attributes of ar-Rahman (The Gracious), ar-Rahim (The Merciful) and more, these are but diverse expressions of His singular Essence.

The Promised Messiahas was careful to distinguish the distinct metaphysical implications of God being referred to by these specific names. When the Quran terms God as ar-Rahman, it signifies His all-encompassing grace and unconditional bestowal of myriad blessings upon creation, prior to any deeds meriting such favour.

When the Promised Messiahas says, “before the coming into being of animates and before any action proceeding from them, out of His pure grace and not for any other purpose, nor as a reward for any action, He makes due provision for everyone,” this is not about the relationship between grace and redemption, but about the relationship between grace and creation. “He brought into being the sun and the earth and all other things for our benefit before we came into being and before any action had proceeded from us,” the Promised Messiahas went on to expound. “This Divine bounty is designated rahmaniyyah in the Book of God, and on account of it God Almighty is called ar-Rahman.” (Ibid., p. 95)

In contrast, when God is called ar-Rahim, it denotes His attribute of divinely recompensing and abundantly rewarding human beings for their virtuous actions and endeavours – a pointed reaffirmation of the Islamic ethos of individual moral responsibility.

“He rewards righteous action richly and does not let go waste anyone’s effort,” the Promised Messiahas elaborated. “[O]n account of this attribute He is called ar-Rahim, and the attribute is designated as rahimiyyah.” (Ibid.)

Far from the Judeo-Christian conception of salvation through God’s unearned grace alone, the Promised Messiah’sas perspective placed the onus squarely on the human spiritual wayfarer to actively perfect their own soul through righteousness and tireless effort.

Afterlife unveiled

This same ethical accent coloured the Promised Messiah’sas refreshing and rational exposition of the Quranic teachings on the afterlife and the soul’s ultimate journey beyond this mortal realm. He discerned three distinct phases outlined in the Islamic revelation:

First, the earthly realm, which he termed “the first creation and […] the state of effort,” where “man works good or evil.” (Ibid., p. 142) This worldly realm serves as the starting point – the fundamental arena where each person’s actions, both virtuous and sinful, are first manifested and accumulated. It acts as the crucial testing ground that sets the stage for the consequential unfolding of the human spiritual journey that is yet to come.

Upon death and separation from the physical body, the soul then enters the barzakh – an interim or transitional state between this earthly life and the final resurrection, where it assumes a transitory, subtle form reflecting the hue of its earthly record. “That body is not like this physical body, but is prepared from light or from darkness, according to the quality of the person’s actions in this life”. (Ibid., p. 145)

Here, the separation into two realms first occurs. The righteous are described by the Holy Quran as the living, the sinners and those who have gone astray as the dead. “[T]he functions of the lives of those who die in a state of neglect of God, for instance, eating and drinking and indulgence of their passions are cut off,” the Promised Messiahas solemnly affirmed. Thus, having “no share of spiritual sustenance. They are truly dead and will be revived only for punishment.” (Ibid., p. 147)

Yet this is merely the prelude to the grandest, final universal revelation awaiting – the Day of Resurrection, when every soul will be “bestowed a visible body” to experience the fullness of recompense and God’s infinite glory. “That day has been appointed for the perfect manifestations of God, when every person will get to know the Being of his Lord fully,” the Promised Messiahas divined, “and everyone will arrive at the climax of his recompense.” (Ibid., p. 148)

Rather than a culmination, however, this Day ushers in a new beginning – the next sublime stage in the endless evolutionary unfoldment of the human soul seeking ever-greater transcendence and perfection through successive revelations and unveilings to higher planes of celestial realities.

Universalist imperative

Through his profound synthesis of Islamic spirituality, Sufi mysticism, and rationalist theology, the Promised Messiahas emerged as Islam’s most visionary thinker of our time. His teachings compellingly underscored the universalist imperative at the heart of the Quranic revelation – the idea that Islam’s spiritual message was intended as a cosmic blueprint for the entire human race, not just the Arabs or Asians among whom it was first revealed.

“That is why the Holy Quran claims to be more complete and more perfect than all other books of guidance,” (Ibid., p. 23) the Promised Messiahas asserted. It was a powerful, forthright pronouncement – that the sacred scripture represented not just another parochial religious tradition, but a cosmic clarity designed to raise the “savages” (Ibid.) from their state of moral decadence and elevate them to the loftiest pinnacles of ethical and spiritual realisation.

In the Promised Messiah’sas vision, the Quran’s universalist essence flowed directly from its being the final capstone of all divinely-revealed teachings, infusing them with a renewed vitality and relevance for the modern age. Just as the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa had been sent as a mercy for all the worlds, so too did the Promised Messiahas stand as his latter-day echo, revivifying the faith’s spiritually liberating message for a world increasingly mired in soulless materialism.

His teachings were a divinely-guided revitalisation of the pristine Islamic spiritual tradition. Harmonising the ecstatic outpourings of Sufism with rationality and metaphysical insight, his core tenet was that complete annihilation of the self and union with the Divine is attainable in this very life.

This was no abstract afterlife concept, but the very purpose of our existence – to taste the ineffable bliss of fana’ and experience heaven on earth by shattering the veil between the temporal and eternal realms. Rooted in the mystic’s passionate love for the Beloved, his vision nonetheless embraced this physical world as the arena for that love’s blossoming through righteous deeds. Crucially, the Promised Messiahas upheld the Quranic message as a universal guidance for all humanity to attain the loftiest stations of spiritual realisation, following the example of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa. In this era of globalisation, his revitalising call for recognition of the soul’s timeless potential rings out resoundingly.

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