The largest Islamic organization in the United States, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), publishes a bi-monthly magazine called "Islamic Horizons." In the most recent issue (May/June 2013), they began publishing Imam Zaid Shakir's contemporary commentary on the famous "Ḥikam (Wisdoms)" of Ibn ‘Aṭā’illah (d. 1309). I am reproducing it here so that it can reach a wider audience, ’in shā’ Allāh. May Allah bless ISNA, Imam Zaid Shakir, and Ibn ‘Aṭā’illah, and grant us benefit through them, yā Nāfi‘ (The Source of All Benefit), āmīn!
Wisdom #1: "Among the signs one is relying upon actions is a lessening of hope when a slip or setback occurs."
The principal lesson Ibn ‘Ata Allah conveys in this aphorism is a warning against relying on our actions, in the sense of believing they can ultimately bring about outcomes. God is the Ultimate, however, although our actions do have an important part to play in terms of both our spiritual progress and our salvation. When we believe that our actions affect outcomes, which are solely controlled by God, we might tend to lose hope in God when we perform certain acts and the outcomes we consider to be associated with those acts do not ensue.
This aphorism is orienting us away from reliance on actions and directing us toward reliance on God. Reliance on other than God, including on the acts we undertake ostensibly for God, can become a factor that erodes the purity of tawhid, or Divine unity, and, hence, sour our relationship with God. This is the great danger that Ibn ‘Ata Allah warns us against.
One of the signs that we are relying on actions is a lessening of hope when a slip or setback occurs. For example, we can find ourselves in a situation where we are undertaking all of our prayers on time, we fast Mondays and Thursdays, we read a regular portion from the Qur'an, yet we do not feel we are making any "spiritual progress." Therefore, our hope that God will elevate us is lessened; because we are doing what we believe is sufficient to obtain the outcome we desire, however, we do not witness the outcome. Something must be wrong. Something is wrong. Namely, while we are acknowledging it is God who elevates us, we may come to feel He must elevate us because of our deeds. Hence, it is our deeds that we view as the critical factor for our elevation, and not the grace and mercy of God.
In a somewhat related manner, when we are unable to perform our normal portion of devotional actions, owing to illness or lawful preoccupation, we may feel that we are not doing enough to invite God's mercy into our lives, and this becomes a source of lessening our hope in God. We should understand, again, that God knows our state and that it is He who has tested us with the situation that resulted in a lessening of our actions. If we persevere, and maintain a good opinion of God, we will find that our patience brings us greater spiritual benefits than our actions ever could.
Reflect on the saying of the Prophet, "When the child of Adam falls ill or travels the reward of the devotional actions he used to perform while in residence or in good health is recorded for him" (Bukhari). In other words, God, from the profundity of His grace bestows upon him the reward of those devotional acts, even though he has done nothing, other than entertaining a good opinion of God, and patiently enduring the trial that prevented him from acting. This narration clearly emphasizes the primacy of God's grace over our actions.
Overreliance on our actions can also prevail in our mundane affairs. We can work hard preparing for a critical examination. When we learn that we have failed the examination, we might feel that God has let us down because we did everything necessary to succeed. Again, we are subtly blaming God, because "we" did everything necessary to succeed. We studied hard, we reviewed with our peers, we took practice examinations, etc. Hence, we feel that we should have succeeded. In the face of our failure, our hope in God is lessened.
Ibn ‘Ata Allah is alerting us to just how important it is for us to rely solely on God. By so doing we actualize one of the critical meanings of tawhid in our lives. Namely, there is no source of harm or benefit except God. When we understand this we understand that our responsibility is to work. As far as the consequences or outcomes of our work that is something we depute to God.
This orientation, that it is grace and mercy of God that determines our success, is also relevant in salvation. In this context, one can point to the Qur'anic verse that mentions our entering Paradise based on our actions, "Enter Paradise because of the devotional acts you were undertaking" (16.32). This verse apparently contradicts the prophetic hadith, "No one's actions will enter them into Paradise." They said, "Not even you, O Messenger of God?" He replied, "Not even me. Only if God covers me in His Mercy" (Muslim).
The apparent contradiction between the verse and the Hadith is reconciled in the following way. Actions are only considered if they are acceptable and their acceptability depends on the grace and mercy of God; as does the propensity to undertake them in the first place. Hence, while actions are necessary for our entrance into Paradise, they are not sufficient. Sufficiency comes through the grace and mercy of God. As recipients of that grace we should be forever joyous. God reminds us in the Qur'an, "Say, in the Grace of God and in His Mercy, in this let them rejoice. It is better than anything they gather [from the world]" (12.58).
This orientation requires a very high state of spiritual maturity. Such a station is one that lies at the end of the spiritual path. Ibn ‘Ata Allah mentions it first to alert the traveler as to his or her destination. However, while journeying towards that goal actions are very important and should never be minimized or neglected. They are the foundation of subsequent spiritual stations. Ibn ‘Ata Allah alludes to this in a subsequent aphorism, "Whoever has an enlightened beginning will have an enlightened end" (Al-Hikam, no. 27). The enlightened beginning lies in consistency and vigorous enthusiasm in devotional actions. The enlightenment at the end lies in refined spiritual stations.
In fact, at the beginning of the spiritual path, the fear of disappointing God by falling short or displaying insincerity in our devotional acts pushes us along the way like nothing else. This fear is captured in the Qur'anic verse, "Those who offer what they offer [of charity and worship] while their hearts are trembling with awe, knowing that they are returning to their Lord" (23.60).
Hence, actions play a critical, necessary part in this life and in salvation. Sufficiency, however, lies with God. God reminds us in the Qur'an, "O Prophet! God suffices you and those who follow you of the believers" (8.34).
If we can look beyond our actions, we will never be disappointed or lose hope when we do not experience the outcomes we anticipate to ensue after the performance of those actions. We work as assiduously as we can in undertaking the worldly means normally associated with a particular outcome. However, we leave the outcome to God. This is not only a key to actualizing the reality of tawhid and maintaining good manners with God, it is also a great source of internal peace and tranquility.