Nurulain Wolhuter writes an insightful overview of Shaykh Asim Yusuf’s Canada lecture, where he discussed the concept of tawheed, or Divine unity, and how to connect our needs to living a God-conscious life.
Shaykh Asim Yusuf commenced this insightful and moving lecture on the importance of a life conscious of the divine by exhorting the servants of Allah to become people of mercy. His lecture explained process of actualising such a way of living consciously and authentically. This starts when one understands the interplay between the concepts of unity and multiplicity. He stressed mercy being at the core of the call to the student of knowledge. Those who are merciful to others will receive the mercy of Allah, the All-Compassionate.
While mercy is the foundation of the call to Allah, the servants of Allah must strive to become people of God-consciousness and piety (taqwa). The servant must have a pious heart, in order to reflect goodness and light to those around her or him.
The righteous servant must be imbued with God-consciousness. Shaykh Asim says that living a God-conscious life has three aspects, namely taqwa, active remembrance of Allah (dhikr), and worship (ibadah). Different people achieve this in different ways.
Understanding God-consciousness requires understanding the human condition, its wider relationship to the universe, and, most importantly, its relationship to the Creator. Humans are distinguished from animals by the capacity for abstraction. They are able to perceive the past through memory and the future through imagination. They can also conceive of abstract concepts out of time, like good or bad, joy or sorrow.
However, a more insightful way of understanding the nature of humanity is to be found by understanding the Arabic word for human, or insan. Insan is derived two meanings, namely uns and nisyan. While uns refers to the need to be loved, nisyan refers to forgetfulness. Shaykh Asim says humanity is driven by the desire to be loved but has forgotten where to find it. So the human journey is one from forgetfulness to love.
God-consciousness is the ability to recognise the this need, and to seek its fulfilment. Allah made this known primordially when He asked the souls: أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ “Am I not your Lord?” and they answered: قَالُوا بَلَىٰ ۛ شَهِدْنَا “Yes, indeed, we witness.” (Sura Al-Araf, 7:172) While most people have forgotten this, a glimmer of it remains in the primordial memory, generating an existential fear, and a yearning for the presence of Allah.
Consciousness begins from the time the soul is placed into the fetus. The womb, or rahm, is a place of mercy (rahmah) and all the needs of the fetus are met. However, once it is born, it experiences the trauma of separation from its mother and its first need, namely the need for oxygen. When this is met by the taking of the first breath, it experiences the first fulfilment of a need. After that, it experiences many needs that are met from a multiplicity of sources, such as its mother. The baby, at this time, ascribes the fulfilment of need to its mother. It does not yet have the understanding to ascribe it to Allah.
Allah’s Divine Unity
Shaykh Asim said that Allah is unity, but His acts are manifested in multiplicity, namely in His 99 names or attributes. The universe can also be described as multiplicity arising out of unity. The relationship between man and Allah works against the backdrop of this concept of unity in multiplicity. This relationship can be described as the connection between the unity of Allah and the multiplicity of His acts. These lead to a multiplicity of effects, which are perceived as a multiplicity of experiences by man. It relates back to the self as a unity, because man experiences himself as a unity although, in reality, he is a multiplicity. This relationship is encapsulated in Allah’s exhortation: يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اعْبُدُوا رَبَّكُمُ “O mankind, worship your Lord.” (Sura Baqarah 2:21)
Shaykh Asim’s description of God-consciousness as the expression and growth of the soul’s yearning for the forgotten need to be loved by Allah is an insightful tool that facilitates the reflection and introspection that is necessary for the servant’s journey to His Lord. However, students may benefit from engaging with his concept of unity in multiplicity to ensure that it is kept clearly distinct from the vehicle for the infusion of non-Islamic concepts such as the Trinity, or polytheistic notions of multiple deities.