We have probably all been there at some point: a big celebration where everyone is hugging, and you feel slightly left out because you cannot hug the opposite gender. Or maybe you are awkwardly praying in a corner, and someone walks in on you, asks you what you are doing, and you cannot even answer because you are praying!
Why does it have to be so complicated?
For some of us, the feelings described above may be fleeting because we understand the bigger picture and the meaning behind our actions. But for others, these feelings grow into resentment. Why all these rules?
One of Allah’s beautiful Names is al-Khabīr. The root of this word is kh-b-r (خ-ب-ر), which means ‘to know’, or ‘to be aware of the real inner nature of something’, or ‘to be an expert in something because you know both the inner and the outer’. In Arabic if I say someone is khabīr, I mean that he is an expert; he knows all there is to know about his field.
Al-Ghazali states that when knowledge (`ilm) is related to hidden secrets, it is called awareness (khibra). Thus Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted it He) is al-Khabīr, whose knowledge encompasses both the inner and outer nature of things. He not only knows our actions, but He knows the state of our heart. He knows the outward actions that He has ordained and their hidden benefits, which only those who are aware will truly appreciate.
This Name has been mentioned 45 times in the Qur’an, sometimes alone and sometimes with another Name:
Allah (swt) also says:
“But does he not know that when the contents of the graves are scattered, And that within the breasts is obtained, Indeed, their Lord with them, that Day, is [fully] Acquainted (khabīr).” (100:9-11)
So what does this mean for us?
When it comes to Allah’s (swt) rules, He is the expert because He knows us and the nature of this world.
Allah (swt) created us. We mentioned elsewhere in this series that He is close to us, and He hears us whether we speak or not. And Allah’s Name al-Khabīr lets us know something else: what Allah (swt) has ordained for us benefits us, and what He has prohibited is harmful.
When we use terms like ‘ḥarām’ (forbidden) and ‘farḍ’ (obligatory), divorced from any context and, more importantly, divorced from the One who has decreed, we only see the actions in a superficial way: ‘This is prohibited; this is forced upon me.’ When something happens that we cannot understand – ‘Why did Allah (swt) not respond to my du`ā’ (supplication)?’ – we cannot see from where we are standing that while something may have looked good to us, He knew its internal reality, which would not have been good for us. Allah is al-Khabīr.
Moreover, what we fail to see is that what is prohibited is necessarily bad, and what has been made obligatory is necessarily good – even if we do not understand the reasoning at that particular point in time. We treat Allah (swt) like He is an old-fashioned parent who needs to ‘get with the times’, but in truth, we do not realize that when we took the time out of a hectic schedule to pray, we were enveloped by the angels. We do not comprehend that those supplications and tears in the night averted harm from befalling us, and opened a door to a greater good. We are oblivious to the fact that those restrictions we complain about, which mean we cannot go to certain places or do certain things, have actually protected us. Allah tells us that “…man supplicates for evil as he supplicates for good, and man is ever hasty,” (Qur’an, 17:11). And it is our haste that sometimes prevents us from seeing the realities.
Allah (swt) is aware and is the expert of the hidden things.
We can put up a front to people. Even your best friend may not know your intention behind an action, whether good or bad. She may assume you hurt her because of some malicious intent, or she may assume a gift was out of kindness – but only Allah (swt) truly knows. People may see that our prayer is perfect in its form, but the reality could be that our mind was elsewhere.
When the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) informed the Companions radi Allahu `anhum (may God be pleased with them) that they were going to see a man from the people of Paradise, they all wanted to know what he did to earn him such a station. One companion even slept over in his house to find out, but he did not see anything that was out of the ordinary. He later found out that it was because that man did not sleep at night except that he let go of any grudge he held against people and forgave them for any wrongs. Similarly, we are told that Abu Bakr (ra) was elevated not due to a formidable number of extra prayers and fasts, but because of something that settled in his heart. Allah (swt) sees your heart and He wants to see it beautiful. Whether you beautify it is your choice.
A note here is that those Companions did not ignore what was obligatory upon them with the excuse that their heart was sound; that statement is actually a sign of an ill heart. Those Companions prayed, sacrificed their worldly possessions and always strived to be better, but the state of their heart gave life and true meaning to their external actions.
Connecting to al-Khabīr
1- Know yourself and work on your heart
Al-Ghazali says: “Man’s share in this name lies in his being aware of what goes on in his world. His world is his heart, his body, and the hidden things by which his heart is characterized: deception and treachery, preoccupation with earthly things, harboring evil intent while putting on a good front, or adopting a decorous show of sincerity while being devoid of it. Only one who is extremely experienced knows these characteristics.”
2- Trust in His Knowledge of the hidden things
One of the authors on self-development whose work I love reading is Shawn Achor. He has spent years researching happiness, and focuses on small, actionable things we can do that will improve our overall happiness, which in turn has a positive effect on the other aspects of our lives. He backs up his assertions with many studies. I have read enough of his work that, if I were to hear a two-minute podcast in which he gives five tips for increasing productivity without citing studies, I would take what he says at face value and assume that his suggestions are beneficial. We may all have people like that, in whose expertise we trust.
Allah (swt) is far above any analogy, but He is the expert and the only One who has knowledge of the things that are not apparent to us. Hajar, the wife of the Prophet Ibrahim `alayhi as-salaam(peace be upon him), knew she could trust in Allah (swt) because He knows the hidden realities. When Ibrahim left her, she asked him whether this was from Allah. When he responded in the affirmative, she knew that Allah would only decree something for a benefit. Although being left in a desert with your infant child is possibly one of the worst things a person can be faced with, she did not despair – and Allah (swt) showed her how trusting in His knowledge benefited her in the long run.
3- Understand the inner meanings of outer actions
One of the reasons why we do not comprehend the inner realities is that we focus on the form to the exclusion of the spirit. Prayer is tiring to us because we do not turn fully nor do we connect to Allah (swt). Fasting is burdensome because it becomes restricted to fasting from food and drink. Zakat is annoying because we are losing materially. But what happens when we emphasize both equally? Let us use the prayer as an example: When we say, “Allahu akbar” (God is greater) in prayer, our heart is at rest because we remember that He is greater than all our worries and other priorities; when we are in prostration and we remember that we are at the closest we can be to Him; and when we realize that we have been given a living link to the Prophet ﷺ in the salaam(greeting of peace). So make it your aim to understand the internal dimensions of the actions of worship. Imam al-Ghazali has a very beneficial book that explains these internal dimensions.