Acceptance or taslim takes place outside the realm of moral judgments, prior to the categorization of reality according to our desires and wants.
First, a thing or event simply is. Later, we judge it to be good or bad, lucky or unlucky, desirable or undesirable. Such judgments are often necessary due to their practical importance, but they have nothing to do with the state of taslim. To accept a thing or event is to acknowledge that it is, nothing more. Acceptance in this context is not synonymous with the approval or condoning of what happens; it indicates, rather, a recognition of whatever happens to be the case, without any judgment as to its desirability or value. Put differently, to accept is to say “yes” to reality, but the “yes” is an ontological affirmation of what is, rather than a moral affirmation of what ought to be.
Perhaps a well known episode from Islamic history will elucidate this point. When Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, died in Medina in the year 632 CE, one of his close companions, Umar bin Al-Khattab, refused to accept the news. He stood in the market place with a sword in his hand, announcing that he would kill anyone who dared to say that his Beloved Prophet had passed away. The person who brought Umar out of his state of denial was Abu Bakr, another close companion of the Prophet, who had the presence of mind to simply recite a verse from the Qur’an in order to remind Umar of the mortality of the Prophet.
Muhammad is only a messenger; many messengers have passed before him. If he died or was killed,would you revert to your old ways? If anyone did so, he would not harm God in the least. God will reward the grateful. (Surah Al-Imran 3:144)
Hearing the Qur’anic words, Umar snapped out of his trance-like state. It was as if he heard this particular verse for the first time.
How does this episode help us understand the meaning of taslim? What Umar experienced was a temporary state of resistance in relation to the shape that reality had taken for him. But such a resistance, even though it revealed Umar’s love for the Prophet, was ultimately futile and self-defeating. The Prophet’s death was real, and the only rational response to that event would have been complete acceptance, that is to say, acknowledgment of its reality. Umar, however, found the news to be so shocking that he reacted by denying, rejecting, and resisting its reality.
It is important to emphasize that the issue was not whether the Prophet should have died, but only whether he had, in fact, died. Umar’s challenge in that moment was to face the facts, to embrace reality as it was and not as he wished it to be; in that moment, his job was to surrender himself to what was already, undeniably true. Put differently, Umar had to say “yes” to the Prophet’s death, not in the sense of approving it as a good or desirable event, but only in the sense of acknowledging its reality–its isness. Unable to accomplish this on his own, Umar needed to be shaken out of his impasse. Abu Bakr helped him take that crucial step at a time when Umar was stuck in a state of futile resistance and opposition to reality. Upon hearing the Qur’anic verse that mentions the Prophet’s mortality, Umar’s resistance to reality melted away, giving way to acceptance; he entered the state of taslim.
The above reading of Umar’s experience of resistance and subsequent nonresistance is meant to differentiate between an event’s reality and the judgments that we make about its desirability or value. In its pristine originality an event is what it is . . . it is not this or that, but simply is. It is only from our limited and particular perspectives that we, subsequent to the event’s birth, put judgmental labels on the event in order to make it relevant to us and our immediate needs and desires. Such labels, by definition, are relative to our own thinking, needs, and desires . . . and do not constitute absolute truths. The events themselves do represent some aspect of absolute truth; it’s our judgments about the events that are necessarily limited and partial, usually transient, and often outright wrong. We may label an event as either good or bad in its immediate aftermath, and may decide, perhaps years later, that the truth was the other way around.
In addition to vigilance, then, the second prerequisite for practicing taslim is the ability to distinguish facts from opinions, events from judgments, reality as it is from reality as we wish it to be. If I enter a room full of people and say, “it is raining,” then I am merely reporting a fact without any judgment. After I have reported this fact, some of my audience may interpret it as “good news” (for example, those who had neglected to water their gardens) while others will interpret it as “bad news” (such as those who didn’t bring their umbrellas). They may, of course, reverse their opinions in a few minutes, as other aspects of the situation come to their attention. The attitude of acceptance has nothing to do with these judgments, but has everything to do with the full, unconditional, and wholehearted acknowledgment of the actual reality in its pristine purity, i.e., the mere fact that it is raining.
Practicing taslim, then, is prior to and independent of any of our judgments, moral or otherwise. It is somewhat similar to the scientific ideal of objectivity. When scientists observe the workings of nature or the results of their experiments, they are supposed to do so with an attitude of detached curiosity. This means open-minded observation of what is actually happening as well as the acknowledgment of the reality of whatever is being observed in a particular instance. As a matter of principle and procedure, all scientists are required to keep their observations free of any judgment of good or bad, lucky or unlucky, desirable or undesirable. They may, as human beings, make such judgments after recording and interpreting their observations. Working as scientists, however, any failure to keep facts and judgments clearly distinct from each other would introduce an extraneous element of subjective bias into the scientific method, thereby distorting and contaminating the pure truth of observation.
In this sense, the religious attitude of acceptance is not all that different from the scientific ideal of detached, unbiased observation. In both cases, the aim is to know and embrace the truth as it actually is, irrespective of how unpleasant, shocking, or challenging it may turn out to be for our cherished theories, wishes, or expectations.