Defining The Ascetic From The Dictionary of Imam Ali
Much before the union of breath with body, I fathom I existed as “characteristics” and not a “character”. This is how I paint the moment of my creation and if it differs from your art, it certainly is a testament to its truth.
In this piece, I deal with how I dealt ( and am still dealing with ) the question of creation. I reveal my answer and then write on how the words of Imam Ali took me to see what this answer did conceal.
An important caveat needs to be cemented here : writing about creation requires the reader to read beyond right and wrong. The glory of Allah ( SWT ) is infinite and never can we estimate its weight. Mian Mohammad Baksh’s Saif ul Mulook urges an appreciation for this infinity, “ You may wash your tongue with the attar of roses, still will it not be worthy to say His ( Allah ) name : what then is to be said of the pen that writes the Kalima?”
Admittedly, my analysis of my origins will not please the scientific eye : but, in the spirit of Rumi, the story of how Allah ( SWT ) stitched the individual body with vein and skin must be celebrated as a story of infinite love, a story wherein each spirit is a separate verse of Allah.
Like all of you, my heart’s eyes wear a deep look, a deep look aimed at uncovering my beginnings.
Wondering over the wonder that we exist as is not a uniquely Muslim phenomenon. It is a human one, one which intricately places Islam within the fabric of human existence. This question of origin, as Brother Syed Asad Jafri discusses in his Friday night dialogues on Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi’s works, is intrinsic to us all and, thus, essential to our existence : after all, if we are to figure out how to travel through the turbulence of this world, if we are to know our way of life, we need to know how we got here, how we got to life.
Each of us opens our eyes at different times for this assessment. But one thing common amongst us is that we tend to experience a spiritual snafu, a moment of displacement when we seek guidance and turn to our surroundings for answers on our origins. And this moment, one that I pray all of us experience, is the decisive moment in our lives.
My moment was met with guidance from individuals who subscribed to the Sufi explanation of existence.
To begin with, I had already established a moral stage to my existence, a stage with which I commenced this piece.
By characteristics, I refer to my existence as a potential to perform one or more of many things and, by character, I refer to the state within which I fulfill this potential : I existed in the innumerable thoughts of Allah and I now am proof of that thought having existed.
This conclusion on my beginnings is my peek into what might have been the logic that governed my creation and I draw this as a just system by repeating to myself the conversation between Iblees and Allah ( SWT ) upon the creation of Prophet Adam ( PBUH ) : the arrogance and pride were characteristics taken on by a character, this character had choice and I best make the best choice.
As a performer on this stage, I questioned what characteristics would render me successful in the eyes of my creator. Certainly, following the script of the Holy Household would be wise, I knew. But given my disconnect from the Imam of our time, I needed a role model and within my radar fell the roving mendicants, the followers of various Sufi orders.
Without rummaging through their entire stack of thoughts, I was acutely advised to subscribe to a particular script of asceticism, a script immaculately performed by the benign Sindhi Sufi poet and musician Shah Abdul Latif.
My life, I was told, was not my own. Hence, to learn this reality, I must disconnect from ownership entirely, I must become the equivalent of the Derwaish, one who is not attached to the pleasures and wealth of the material world : mobility towards Allah ( SWT ) would come once material belongings were “stabbed by smiles of disapproval”.
The ascetic lifestyle was recommended as the way of life and I befriended Latif’s definition of the ascetic as one who is not consumed by the ego.
In my own context, I adopted the ascetic way : I am, after all, what my company is. And it was not as though I invited the wrath of my fellow brothers and sisters: many of them acknowledged the venom hidden within the veins of material life. And with Allah as the mehver ( centre ) of everything, I would be a character of the highest characteristics.
However, my advancement into asceticism was injured when I noticed individuals who owned healthy wealth and yet exhibited characteristics of great repute.
I then wondered if my performance was right. It is in this wonder that I heard Imam Ali :
“Asceticism does not mean that you own nothing : it means that nothing owns you”.
Imam Ali’s definition certainly addressed my wonder. By no means did it render Latif false, instead, it asked that I count my blessings by looking at those around me : denying my blessings, would deny, not my existence, but my creator.
This definition is expanded upon in Karbala.
What characteristic made the character of Shimr? That he snatched the earrings of a little child suggests that material wealth had consumed him.
What characteristic made the character of Yazid? That he poured alcohol on the Imam’s severed head suggests that somatic pleasure had consumed him.
Sin, perhaps, is to deny Allah His ownership over you.
Forgiveness, perhaps, is to return to the owner and confess.
Mercy, perhaps, is that characteristic of asking forgiveness for sin that makes one the character of Hur ( AS)
I encourage you now to consider your origins and way of life. And if it leads you to recognize Allah as your source of arrival and departure, it is indeed a living reinforcement of an ayat we only read upon death.