Submitting to Infinite Divinity
One way of approaching this issue is to re-consider the idea of submission to God. It is well known that the word Islam means submission, and the basic Islamic demand is that human beings submit themselves to God, and to no one else and nothing else. Human beings should struggle to defeat their weaknesses, control their urges, and gain mastery over themselves. Only by gaining mastery over the self can that self be meaningfully submitted to God. If the self is controlled or mastered by the ego, urges, fears, anxieties, desires, and whim, then attempting to submit this highly compromised self is not very meaningful—one cannot submit what he does not control in the first place.
Furthermore, according to the Qur’an, human beings are God’s viceroys and agents on this earth. They possess a divinely delegated power to civilize the earth (ta’mir al-ard), and they are commanded not to corrupt it. Human beings are individually accountable and no human being can carry the sins of another or be held responsible in the Hereafter for the actions of the other. Since human beings are directly accountable to God, their submission to God necessarily means that they submit to no other. Surrendering one’s will or autonomy to another human being is like reneging on the relationship of agency with God. Every person, as a direct agent of God, must exercise his or her conscience and mind, and be fully responsible for his or her thoughts and actions. If a person surrenders his autonomy to another, in effect, such a person is violating the terms of his agency. Such a person would be assigning his agency responsibilities to another person and defaulting on his fiduciary duties towards God.
Thus, the first obligation of a Muslim is to gain control and mastery over himself; the second obligation is insure that he does not unlawfully surrender his will and autonomy as an agent to another; and the third obligation is to surrender fully and completely to God. However, this act of surrender cannot be grudging or based on desperation and cannot arise out of a sense that there is no alternative but to surrender. To surrender out of anxiety or fear of punishment is better than defying God, but it is a meaningless and empty submission. Submission must be anchored in feelings of longing and love. Submission is not a merely a physical act of resignation and acceptance. Rather, genuine submission must be guided by a longing and love for union with the Divine. Therefore, those who submit do not find fulfillment simply in obedience but in love—a love for the very Divinity from which they came.
Needless to say, the Puritanical-Salafi orientation in the process of militarizing Islam portrayed the act of submission as if it is an act of obedience by lowly soldiers to the orders of a superior officer. Furthermore, because Puritanical-Salafism imagined that submission is a process of order and obedience, they were compelled to reduce God’s discourse to a set of commands. The Qur’an, in the Puritanical-Salafi imagination, became as if a military manual setting out the marching orders of the high command. The violence done to the Qur’an and Islam from this militarized orientation has been nothing short of devastating. But considering the Puritanical-Salafi preoccupation with power, it is not surprising that the sublime text of the Qur’an was transformed into a text that is primarily concerned with the dynamics of power, not beauty, and that submission to God, also became an exercise in power, not love.
The Puritanical-Salafi approach to the Qur’an and to the theology of submission necessarily meant the projection onto God of egotistical human needs. Instead of our relationship with Divinity becoming a path towards expanding the human consciousness into the realm of the sublime, Divinity was made subservient to the mundane—instead of the temporal guiding the mundane, the mundane dominated the Divine, and instead of endowing humanity with Divinity, Divinity became humanized. Insecure, threatened, and anxious about indeterminacy, Puritanical-Salafism projected the limitations of the physical world upon God and thus, it limited the potentialities offered by Divinity. The tendency towards anthropomorphism in puritan beliefs is a symptom of this problem.
To love God and be loved by God is the highest form of submission—the surrender of love is the real and true surrender. However, in order to love, as numerous classical scholars pointed out, it is important for the lover to love the truth of the beloved. Meaning, the lover ought to guard against projecting onto the other a construct and then falling in love with the construct instead of the truth of the beloved. Take for example a married couple—it is a common problem that, instead of genuinely knowing one another and loving the real character and traits of the other, each spouse would construct an artificial image of the other, and then fall in love with the constructed image. The least one can say about this common problem is that each person does not necessarily love the other, but loves the construct invented of the other. In the case of God, as a matter of faith, Muslims assume that God has perfect and immutable knowledge, and therefore, God knows the truth about the beloved. As to the human being, the challenge is to know the truth about God without projecting himself onto God. By critical self-reflection, the worshipper can come to know himself, and by knowing himself, struggle not to project his own subjectivities, limitations, and anxieties upon God. In seeking to love God, the challenge and real struggle is not to use God as a stepping stone towards self-idolatry. As importantly, one’s submission to God cannot be transformed into a relationship in which one uses the Divine as a crutch to assert power over others. As explained earlier, the highest form of jihad is the struggle to know and cleanse oneself. This self-knowledge and critical engagement with the self is necessary for loving the truth of God, but aspiring to control others or seeking the power to dominate others is a failure of submission to God.
There is, however, an even more fundamental issue implicated here, and this is: What does it mean to submit to the Divine Who is infinite? If a human being submits to another, we know what that means—the will of one is made subservient to the will of another, and submission is achieved when one person obeys the other. But when a human being submits to the Omnipotent, Immutable, and Infinite, how is the relationship defined? It seems to me that to say the human being is to obey God is insufficient and unsatisfactory. To even say that the human being loves God by itself, tells us little. In submission, the human being does not obey or love a quantifiable sum or a limited reality that can be reduced to a set of injunctions or emotions. To love God is like asserting that one loves nature, or the universe or some unquantifiable reality like love itself. In many ways, when a human being loves God, a human being is in love with love—in love with infinite virtue and illimitable beauty. If one submits to God solely by obeying commands, unwittingly one has quantified God and rendered the Divine reducible. This is so because it is as if one has made the act of submission to God fully represented by the reductionist act of obedience. Instead of being in love with God, one is in love with a distilled and limited construct called the commands of God.
Submitting to God is submitting to limitless and unbounded potentialities. Obedience to what one believes is God’s will is necessary, but the Will that one believes is God’s cannot be made to fully represent the Divine. Obedience to what a believer sincerely believes is God’s Will is an essential but elementary step. God is not represented by a set of commands or by a particular set of identifiable intents or determinations. God is limitless and thus, submission to God is like submitting to the unlimited. This makes submission a commitment to unlimited potentialities of ever-greater realizations of Divinity. Take, for instance, if one is in love with beauty. Submitting oneself to beauty necessarily means submitting to the various possibilities of beauty—not submitting to a single and definite expression of beauty. To bring the concept closer to mind, imagine if one is in love with classical music, and this love reaches a point that a particular person wishes to submit himself to this music. Such a submission might very well mean accepting, learning, and obeying certain forms of expression of music. The lover might understand and follow music in the form of a symphony, concerto, sonata, and so on. However, music is a larger reality than the forms that express it, and it is certainly possible to discover new forms that allow for a better and more perfect understanding of music. However, to be in love with classical music means to be in love with the potentialities and possibilities offered by this music, which far transcend any particular set of forms.
This understanding regarding the nature of submission in Islam is of core significance to the reclamation of the Islamic message to humanity. As explained earlier, Muslims have a covenantal relationship with God pursuant to which they are to bear witness to moral virtues such as justice, mercy, and compassion. These virtues, according to the Qur’an, are part of the goodness and beauty of God. Submission to God, in my view, necessarily means discharging the obligations of the covenant by seeking after a loving relationship with God. But God’s beauty is not expressed simply in abstract terms or undirected theoretical constructs. It is crucial to appreciate that God’s beauty is expressed, among other things, in terms of kindness and goodness towards human beings. The object of justice, compassion, and mercy, for instance, is not an unidentifiable abstraction—the object of these virtues is humanity. Therefore, the Prophet for example is reported to have said: “A true Muslim is one who refrains from offending people with his tongue or hands.” One’s relationship with God means the pursuit of greater levels of perfection of beauty. The beauty of submission is not in empowering oneself over people—it is in putting oneself in the service of people.
The approach explicated here presumes a process of moral growth. In my view, to be in love and submit to God necessarily means a constant, never-ending pursuit of beauty. In my view, a relationship with the Divine must offer endless possibilities of moral growth, and such a relationship cannot mean stagnation in a set of determinable laws. If God is beauty, how can a relationship with God be but an exploration of beauty? I describe it as an exploration because the mundane can never perfectly realize the supernal—the mundane can only seek after the supernal and seek to become in the process more sublime.