SOMETIMES MANY PARENTS express their mixed feelings about discipline by telling their child: “This is for your own good.” And if they resort to spanking a child, they sometimes say: “This hurts me a lot more than it does you.”
Allah’s discipline, like that of our parents, is for our own good. Our disobedience hurts only us. Allah repeatedly tells us in the Quran that those who reject Allah’s guidance and incur His punishment are hurting only themselves. Allah, for example, said:
And We gave you the shade of clouds and sent to you manna and quails, saying: ‘Eat of good things We have provided for you.’ (But they rebelled); to Us they did no harm, but they harmed their own selves. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:57]
The idea that we are following Allah’s guidance for our own good and not for Allah’s, is part of the revolutionary transformation from paganism to monotheism that was sealed with the Qur’anic revelation. Unlike monotheists, pagans worship idols that demand sacrifices for the sake of the idols themselves. Hungary idols demand sacrifices of meat. Greedy idols demand sacrifices of wealth. Lustful idols demand that beautiful virgins be thrown into volcanoes. These idols are actually projections and deifications of all-too-human desires. And they are unreal. They only exist if we “feed” them with sacrifices and with our own misdirected desires. The moment we stop feeding them, they wither away and cease to exist.
Unlike idols, Allah is real, eternal and transcendent. Allah’s existence is not dependent on us. Everything except Allah is dependent on Allah, the creator of all, while Allah is not dependent on anything:
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Say Allah is one; Allah is eternal; He does not beget nor is He begotten; and there is nothing like unto Him. [Sûrat Al-Ikhlâṣ, 112:1-5]
So it does not hurt Allah if we fail to follow His guidance. Allah does not need to be fed or placated or worshiped. Even the worst oppressors and shayâṭîn are not hurting Allah in the least. They are only hurting themselves.
And this is why the discipline of Allah is so fundamentally different from human and pagan forms of discipline. When humans are disciplined by pagan idols, they fulfill their misguided “duties” in order to provide the idols with what they want and need. And when humans are disciplined by other humans, they likewise fulfill their misguided “duties” by doing what more powerful humans want and need.
Some of this human-level discipline is inevitable in child-rearing. But when the parent say: “This is for your own good” or: “This hurts me a lot more than it hurts you,” they are not telling the whole truth. A certain amount of discipline is necessary and beneficial for children; it is also necessary for the parents themselves so their lives will run more smoothly and pleasantly. And though parents will indeed feel pain when they spank a child, it is not necessarily the case – at least from the child’s point of view – that a parent will suffer from the spanking more than the child.
This all-too-human parental discipline, however, needs to be suffused with, and eventually replaced by, the discipline of Allah. If the child sees that the parents are imposing discipline merely for their own convenience, the child will rebel. If the child hears the parents say: “This is purely for your own good,” the child will see through the half-truth. But if the child sees his parents worshiping and submitting to Allah, following the discipline of Allah, and accepting His guidance, she will sense the divine source behind the discipline and gradually learn to imitate the parents and reap the rewards of righteousness.
Once the child has grown to adulthood, it is time to eliminate the human level of discipline altogether and submit entirely to the discipline of Allah. There is no reason why adult human beings should be disciplined by more powerful human beings for the sake of the power, wealth, comfort and convenience of the rulers. That is ẓulm – manifest oppression. The factory worker who submits to the extreme, repetitious discipline of the factory in order to produce extravagant profits for the factory owner is suffering under the lash of an oppressive ruler and ought to resist that oppression in the name of Allah. The soldier who submits to the extreme, repetitious discipline of the drill sergeant in order to learn how to fight and die to protect the extravagant profits of the banker is suffering under the lash of an oppressive ruler and ought to resist that oppression in the name of Allah.
The Discipline of Allah as a Means to Spiritual Growth
Discipline, of course, does not just consist of rewards and punishments. It also means doing things regularly, on time, and in an orderly manner. It means submitting the self to a kind of harmony whose ordering principle is outside the self, beyond the vain desires of body and ego.
When the pagan/human forms of discipline crumble, as they inevitably will, we must be ready to help the world find the discipline of Allah. And the discipline of Allah is not merely a set of rewards we desire and punishments we fear, but also a set of God-given practices that purify our souls and enable us to live together in the kind of harmony that promotes spiritual growth for all.
Some Aspects of Allah’s Discipline
Salah is one of the most important forms of the discipline of Allah. Performing Salah five times a day, every day, at the key points of the cycle of the sun, is a very powerful form of discipline. The regular practice of Salah ties us spiritually to the natural rhythms of sun and season, and socially to our fellow human beings who pray next to us. Those who make Salah regularly, facing Allah five times each day, are less likely to need the discipline of policemen, soldiers and bosses; they are more likely to do the right thing for the sake of Allah – or, more accurately, for the sake of their own souls, which are utterly dependent on the all-seeing light of Allah.
Ramadan fast is another key part of the discipline of Allah. If an oppressive human ruler told you not to eat or drink or copulate for a specified period so that the ruler could avail himself of your food, drink, and spouse, you would probably not want to submit to such discipline. But Allah tells us that we are really fasting for our own good, “if we only knew.” By submitting to the discipline of Allah, we purify our souls, raise our consciousness, gain self-control over our desiring ego (nafs), and learn to empathize with the poor and hungry and behave charitably toward them.
Charity (ṣadaqa), the purification of wealth, is another aspect of Allah’s discipline that we perform for our own sake, and that of our fellow humans, and not because Allah has any need of our wealth. The regular practice of charity disciplines us to think of others, control the nafs, and submit to the greater good.
Thikr, the remembrance of Allah, is another important form of the discipline of Allah. The Quran instructs us to remember Allah “sitting, standing or lying on our side.” In other words, we do not only think of Allah during the five daily Salahs, when we are performing the motions of standing straight, bending, prostrating, and so on. We should remember Allah throughout the day and night, whatever we are doing, whatever position our bodies may be in. Training ourselves to think of Allah, to see the beauty of Allah’s signs in the world, to feel gratitude for this existence and the good things Allah has provided for us, is an important discipline indeed.
Seeking knowledge is another inescapable aspect of the discipline of Allah. Rather than wallowing blindly and ignorantly in our own little cocoons and being concerned only with the limited aspects of creation that help us satisfy our desires, we should seek knowledge of Allah and knowledge of His creation for its own sake. Knowledge is its own reward, but to attain it we must submit to the discipline of knowledge-seeking. We must establish the habits of Salah, fasting, charity, thikr, and so on. And we must discipline ourselves to seek Islamic knowledge. That does not mean that we should study nothing but Fiqh and ignore literature, philosophy and science. Instead, we should study all of the creation, including human beings and the societies they live in, beginning with the postulate that the things we are studying are signs of Allah, and that divinely revealed guidance can help us in our search for truth. We need a knowledge grounded in the basic principles revealed in the Quran, not a random assortment of “facts” without purpose or meaning. In this sense Islam provides a discipline (in the academic sense of “set of ordering principles” or “methodology”) that could be seen as the meta-discipline that embraces and informs all of the lesser disciplines of knowledge and practice.