The Cambridge Dictionary defines experience as “(the process of getting) knowledge or skill which is obtained from doing, seeing or feeling things”. All of our experience in life comes from our five senses and as such this definition follows. However, the experience of God is very much dissimilar to our every day experience, especially as God (at least the one understood in classical theism) cannot be experienced through any of our senses but one. That sense, of course, is the sense of feeling. What makes this even more complex is that what one person feels cannot even be explained, at times, to another; let alone felt by someone else.
If we look through the history of Islam, we find many examples of Prophet Muhammad and his holy family explained not only the existence of God but the experience of God as well. One of the most famous Islamic leaders and the son in law of Prophet Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib was once asked as to how he believed in a God he could not see. He replied saying that he did indeed see his creator, but not by the limited eyes on his face but the illuminating eyes of his heart. In this way, he explained that the experience of God is not a physical, limited one; it is a transcendent existence which requires an experience befitting that.
The Islamic theology (Ilm-ul-Kalaam) dictates that a God which can be understood by the human mind cannot be the God that has power over all things. It does not befit the creator to be limited by the understanding of his creation. This does not however mean that there can be no experience of God, for in Hadith Qudsi (the conversation of Allah with Prophet Muhammad on his journey to the heavens – Mi’raj), the creator himself calls out, “I was a hidden treasure and wished to be recognised”. Perhaps as an explanation for this apparently mystical statement, Ali ibn Abi Talib exhorts people coming towards God by saying “He who has recognised his soul, has recognised the one who sustains him [and the billions of others, regardless of their beliefs].” By recognising one’s soul, by perfecting the meaning of being a good human being and acting with compassion towards others solely for the pleasure of God is the way that one comes closer to the recognition and experience of God.
Returning to the discussion of how God is experienced, once a man was arguing that anything that exists must be seen, and seeing as God exists, it must be possible to see him. At that moment, a man by the name of Bahlool, who was a companion of Imam Ja’far as Sadiq (702-765), the sixth successor to Prophet Muhammad, but used to act as if he was insane, threw a brick at the man. The man started screaming in pain, to which Bahlool asked him to show the pain. The man cried out to Bahlool calling him a madman who did not even know that pain could not be seen. Bahlool retorted that it was he who was claiming that anything that exists must be seen. Through knowledge and understanding, as well as being of sharp mind, Bahlool was able to explain in very simple terms what appears to be a complex theological issue.
Now when one comes to a very personal experience of God, one relies on the various ups and downs throughout life, and once the belief that whatever God does is for a reason and that may well have some long term benefit for us, is strong, then regardless of what happens in life, one remains contented with his situation. Similarly, just a cursory look at the world around us, and one can only marvel at the creation and sustaining of God who, quite literally, makes the world go around. The creator who made sure that every single thing needed by human beings – air, food, water – everything, was already provided by God before even the creation of the first human being, and that he continually provides and sustains both believers and disbelievers, those who thank him and those who reject his existence, yet he provides to them all, and that to me, is the biggest experience of the mercy of God.
You may well be wondering that the discussion so far has been very much a philosophical one, with no discussion at all about the ritual aspects of religion, such as prayer and fasting, through which most people would claim to experience God. I had intentionally left them out because the experience of God comes from an increase in knowledge and understanding, which is reflected in the ritual worship, but more importantly, reflected, in the day to day life with one’s behaviour towards fellow human beings.
18th July 2007