This article is about man and how his life is torn between remembrance and forgetfulness. The article shows that man’s primordial origins were in Heaven and were pure. His task on earth is merely to remember who he is, and to live accordingly, while constantly fending off the forces of evil - and of forgetfulness.
There is nothing more captivating and more mystifying than human destiny. There is likewise nothing more exhilarating and promising than human abilities and talents.
However - above all - there is nothing more disappointing and more anticlimactic than the ways most people’s lives are lived and concluded. Most people live their lives – waste their only opportunity – perplexed and deluded. They are full of illusions, wishful thinking, buts, and what-ifs.
Life has been turned into a tragedy. Happy endings are getting ever scarce. The only thing that keeps people somehow going is the eternally-enduring false zest of Renaissance humanism, which is now quickly turning into various forms of post-humanism. Consequently, people live their lives according to their own constructs and paradigms, eventually falling out with the truth and life’s actual reality.
Such lives, in essence, signify the acceleration, as well as perpetration, of own deaths through hubris (in Greek tragedy: excessive and even foolish pride, or dangerous self-confidence, often in defiance of gods and Heaven).
People are thoughtless, hasty, and conceited. They live suicidal lifestyles, glorifying their inadequacies and flaws. They do not know – nor do they care - who or what exactly they are. Life is taken for granted, regarding it as neither known nor knowable.
In the end, one starts wondering if life is a tragedy or a comedy.
The case of Islam
In Islam, however, things are not only poles apart, but also simple, straightforward, and sensible, for there should be nothing simpler, nor clearer, than the truth.
Life is neither a mystery, nor an accident, nor a bane. It is a gift and a miracle. It is a perfect example of Almighty Allah’s creative will, infinite power, and boundless love as well as compassion.
At the center of the creation, phenomenon stands man as Allah’s vicegerent, to whom everything in the heavens and on the earth has been subjected. Man has been greatly honored and cherished and has been preferred “over much of what We have created, with (definite) preference” (al-Isra’, 70). In his capacity as the crown of creation, everything about man has been spectacular, yet dramatic.
The covenant between Allah and mankind
Allah informs us that before the actual creation of mankind, He brought into existence at one and the same time every person that is to be born up to the Day of Judgment. He did so from the loins of their father and the first man, Adam.
He then imbued mankind with a suitable provisional amount of life and intelligence, and having brought them all forth in His presence, Allah asked them to bear witness of themselves that He is their Lord. “They said: ‘Yes, we have testified.’ (This) - lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection: ‘Indeed, we were of this unaware’” (al-A’raf, 172).
Some people think that this verse of the Qur’an is a figurative account. However, there is nothing in it that suggests so.
Instead, every word and expression therein, plus several authentic traditions of the Prophet (PBUH), clearly demonstrate that the recounted event of the covenant between Allah and mankind had actually taken place. If some things appear far-fetched to us, they do not to Allah. Allah is Omnipotent and “verily, when He intends a thing, His command is, ‘be’, and it is!” (Ya Sin, 82).
The meaning of fitrah
Moreover, every individual is born in a state of fitrah (sound human nature and natural inclination towards the Creator) which is implanted in every human being’s soul and heart.
It pushes us to know Allah, to believe in and worship Him. It likewise makes us long for Him and crave for a reunion with Him. The Prophet (PBUH) said: “Every child is born in a state of fitrah, then his parents make him into a Jew or a Christian or a Zoroastrian, just as animals bring forth animals with their limbs intact; do you see any deformed one among them?” (Sahih al-Bukhari).
To most scholars, being born in a state of fitrah is the result of the covenant that Allah had taken from mankind before their actual earthly lives. Fitrah also means the sound natural state of a person and his intrinsic spiritual and rational urge to believe in his Creator and Master.
Hence the Prophet (PBUH) added in the said hadith: “just as animals bring forth animals with their limbs intact,” which means: just as people are born physically complete, they, in the same way, are born spiritually sound and disposed to the truth, i.e., complete.
Both the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah also refer to this condition as being hanif (plural: hunafa’), which connotes “innately believing in monotheism and snubbing false creeds.”
The Prophet (PBUH) related that Allah had said: “I created all of My servants as hunafa’, but the devils diverted them from their belief” (Sahih Muslim).
Progressing versus returning
Adam’s and his wife’s temporary stay in Jannah (Paradise), prior to their descent to earth, among other things, underlines this fundamental character of mankind. While in a state of their original and impeccable blamelessness and virtue, they were fit to reside in Jannah. Nonetheless, as soon as their condition was affected, they were removed from there. Their own and their progeny’s lives were thus about instituting and maintaining the highest standards of consciousness, goodness, and virtue, in order to succeed in this world and so, return to Jannah in the hereafter.
A believer’s life, it stands to reason, is as much about progressing towards Jannah as about returning to it. Similarly, it is as much about advancing towards a spiritual perfection as about returning to the primordial self.
All this means that a person is born innocent, pure, and on the right path. His existential task is just to stay the course and to maintain his innocence, purity, and righteousness. A person needs to stay true to himself and his inborn disposition. He needs to remember who he is and to always act accordingly. He cannot forget. Forgetting who he is rendering a person isolated from his heavenly association, disoriented and vulnerable. He becomes easy prey for Satan as man’s arch-enemy. For the same reason when a non-Muslim embraces Islam (the truth), even though technically he converts to it, yet ideally he reverts to it and to his original self.
Man and forgetfulness
According to the Qur’anic message, there are two types of forgetfulness: normal and anomalous. The former is in small and mundane matters. It is inescapable and, therefore, inconsequential. It is harmless. No human being, including the prophets, is exempted from this type of forgetfulness. Prophet Musa, for example, at one point said to Khidr: “Rebuke me not for forgetting” (al-Kahf, 73).
The Prophet (PBUH) has been commanded thus: “And if Satan should cause you to forget, then do not remain after the reminder with the wrongdoing people” (al-An’am, 68). Satan as well was given a license to freely operate in the domains of this type. Four times in the Qur’an is forgetfulness related to Satan as its source and also cause.
In addition, the Prophet (PBUH) said that Allah pardons what people from his community (ummah) do as a result of sheer mistakes and forgetfulness, and under force or duress (Sunan Ibn Majah).
While believers have been instructed to supplicate thus: “Our Lord, do not impose blame upon us if we have forgotten or erred” (al-Baqarah, 286). It is human, so to speak, and unavoidable to be from time to time afflicted by such forgetfulness. That is why the word “man, or human being” in Arabic is insan. It is derived from the word nisyan, which means “forgetfulness.”
The anomalous type of forgetfulness
However, the second, or anomalous, type of forgetfulness is very serious and affects the most significant facets of life. It is acquired and imposed. It is perilous and hence, blameworthy.
This forgetfulness can be either independent or an extension of the former.
Man is not inherently deficient in this respect. Nevertheless, due to the first type, and due to his other general weaknesses, man must be constantly on guard. If not, forgetfulness can easily morph into carelessness, and carelessness into heedlessness and folly as the main causes of spiritual laxity and even non-belief.
It is right there that Satan schemes to assault man and divest him of all of his meaningful capacities. Satan wants to undermine and impoverish man, and to make him forget who he is. As a poisoned chalice, he instead wishes to present man with a new paradigm with reference to understanding his past and charting his future.
Once consented, man becomes detached both from Heaven and his pure self. His point of reference, inevitably, then comes to be his disordered and confused self (ego) and, of course, Satan. As a proverb goes: “Know who you are before you are told who you should be.”
Needless to say that the conflicts between forgetfulness and remembrance, and between heedlessness and mindfulness, are the conflicts between good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, and between the truth and falsehood.
Man by no means should put out of his mind, even briefly, who he is, who created him and why, what his existential mission is, and what and where his ultimate destination is. The truths about these questions are close to him. Yet, they are inside him. They are him.
All the confrontations between good and evil in life center on man. They all want him: the former for his uplifting, the latter for his lowering and annihilation.
The spiritual wars are won or lost depending on whether and how much man remembers and stays faithful to himself, and vice versa.
The prophets as remembrancers and the revelations as reminders
Thus, it is no wonder why Allah’s revelations are called dhikr (remembrance and reminders), and why the prophets were instructed to perform tadhkir (to remind, call to mind and awaken).
The Qur’an says: “So remind, (O Muhammad); you are only a reminder (a remembrancer); you are not over them a controller (a watcher)” (al-Ghashiyah, 21-22).
Allah moreover commands those who believe to remember Him with much remembrance (al-Ahzab, 41).
He also says: “Therefore remember Me; I will remember you. And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me” (al-Baqarah, 152).
Indeed, the best way for people not to forget themselves is to remember Allah: who He is and what their relationship with Him ought to be.
Allah tends to chastise those who forget Him by making them forget themselves (al-Hashr, 19). Such is the pain of forgetfulness, being forgetful, and being forgotten. Observing the commandments of Allah and spurning His prohibitions signify the opening of portals to remembrance and the shutting of those that lead to forgetfulness.
A person is bound to find himself only in worshiping his Creator and in serving His truth. By the same token, he is bound to forget and lose himself by focusing exclusively on himself and his vain desires.
Goodness works like a boomerang. It must be let go before it recoils upon its originator. This is why the dreadful destinies of people on the Day of Judgment will be tied to their detrimental forgetfulness while in this world. They will be told to the effect that because they forgot, they will be forgotten. They will never have the pleasure of experiencing the beauty of knowing and remembering.
One of the most excruciating aspects of Hell (Jahannam) is that people will be dumped into it in a state of oblivion and naught. They will be totally forgotten, abandoned, and out of sight.
When Maryam (Mary), the mother of Prophet ‘Isa (Jesus), was tried like no other woman before and after her, she initially wished for herself the most extreme scenario. She said: “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten” (Maryam, 23).
Allah will say to the Hell-bound multitudes: “Thus did Our signs come to you, and you forgot them; and thus will you this Day be forgotten” (Ta Ha, 126).
It is obvious that in Arabic, the verb “to forget” (nasiya) assumed some wider and rather impactful connotations. It furthermore means “to renounce” and “to abandon”.
The existential benchmark
It follows that all the initiatives and signs (ayat) of Allah, both created and revealed, aim but to awaken and enlighten mankind. As if each and every dimension resonates with a single message for man: “Remember who you are.”
Man should respond by accepting and following the message, and by translating that same spirit into the realm of his cultural and civilizational undertakings. They all should as much reverberate as facilitate man’s remembrance and should aid him in battling the scourges of forgetfulness and heedlessness.
Hence, a cultural and civilizational accomplishment of man is worthy only if it is dhikr (remembrance and reminding) oriented, and vice versa.
The same applies to good – or bad – systems of life, sociocultural norms, art, architecture, literature, fashion, amusement, friends, etc. The sole benchmark is how dedicated and sincere all of them are in exuding the life-force of the mantra: “Remember who you are.”