The word islam, we are told, denotes submission, surrender, acceptance, and giving up resistance. This naturally raises the question: who or what is the object of our submission and surrender? The usual answer is that we are required to submit and surrender to God. This, to be very blunt, hardly qualifies as an answer. For the word “God” is similar to any other arbitrarily chosen symbol, such as X. While we know that X means something important, there is nothing in the symbol itself that specifies its referent. Since such a symbol is arbitrary, it has no way of forcing us to reach one, and only one, conclusion. The word “God” can mean virtually anything, or absolutely nothing, depending on the context of the discourse in which this word is employed. Just as the symbol X adds little or nothing to our understanding, the word “God” also fails to enlighten us in any non-trivial sense.
We cannot realize the state of submission and surrender unless we know something about God, i.e., unless we understand what or who is supposed to be the object of our islam.
How do we know God? Simply stated, we know God exactly as we know any other person, such as a friend, a colleague, or a spouse. The totality of my knowledge of another person comes from a synthesis of two sources: (1) what I perceive to be this person’s habits, dispositions, and character, and (2) what I know about my own self based on my inner experience. The same two sources have to be synthesized if I wish to know God. In order to perceive God’s habits, dispositions, and character, I have to perceive patterns and regularities in how God reasons and acts; this I can only encounter in the way things actually are. At the same time, there is a similarity and continuity between my own inner self and that of the divine reality; as I know my own self with greater intimacy, I come increasingly closer to knowing God. The reverse is also true.
Surrendering to God requires knowing what God is like; it also requires knowing what God wants.
God’s will may be understood in terms of two kinds of imperatives; that is to say, any given divine imperative will be either a “creative command” or a “prescriptive command.” In the Qur’an, God’s creative command often takes the form of “Be!” while many of the prescriptive commands begin with “Say!” Generally speaking, God’s creative commands cannot be violated, a fact that does not hold true for God’s prescriptive commands.
This understanding of God’s will has important implications for how we approach the concept of submission or surrender. Corresponding to the two kinds of divine commands, we may posit two kinds of human submission–each of which involves a different way of achieving a state of alignment with God’s will.
There are, then, two complementary ways of practicing islam. Let’s call them conformity and acceptance. Our surrender to God’s prescriptive commands denotes our conformity with the way God wants us to act. Our surrender to God’s creative commands, on the other hand, denotes our acceptance of the way in which God creates and orders reality. The entire realm of Shari’ah deals with the former, i.e., with the details of how we are to conform ourselves with God’s prescriptive commands. Equally important, but somewhat less emphasized, is the matter of our acceptance of God’s creative commands.
Given that God’s creative commands cannot be violated, what is the meaning of “acceptance”?
Since God is all-powerful and always in control of the creation, the most ubiquitous channel through which God’s will is revealed to us is the shape of reality at any given moment. In other words, a sure and certain way of knowing God’s will (in the sense of God’s creative commands) is to look at any given configuration of reality, moment by moment, without adding any evaluation or judgment of our own. Once we have eliminated the distorting effect of our evaluations and judgments, whatever remains in our experience of reality would be God’s will as manifested in that moment.
Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, used to offer the following supplication: “O Lord! Show me the nature of things as they really are.” This is a profound prayer that the Prophet taught his followers. When we utter these words mindfully, we acknowledge that (1) our normal or default state is characterized by ignorance and illusion, (2) we usually do not see things as they really are but see them in some other way, and (3) with divine grace, it is possible to catch more than a passing glimpse of the actual nature of reality.
When we add our own evaluations or judgments to what we observe and experience, we fail to see the nature of things as they really are, and, instead, we end up seeing them through the distorting filters of our all-too-imperfect wants and desires. When we suspend or bracket our evaluations and judgments, we open ourselves to observing and experiencing the actual shape of reality . . . free from illusions, presuppositions, and expectations. In doing so, we catch more than a passing glimpse of the will of God as it is being revealed to us in that moment.
By doing nothing more than withholding our evaluations and judgments, we can find ourselves face to face with God. Since we have put aside, at least for that moment, our desires and expectations for reality to be this way or that way, we are able not only to know God’s will but also to accept it wholeheartedly. To accept God’s will at the level of God’s creative commands is to embrace the way things actually are in any given moment. This means submitting to reality, surrendering to what is, giving up mental or emotional resistance to what God has already decreed. This means no complaining and no wishing for things to be different from how we find them.
This way of practicing islam is no less important than our active conformity with God’s prescriptive commands.