The world we live in is characterised by limitations. In this article we look at the implications of living in a realm where limitations are ubiquitous, how those limitations are understood in Fatimi philosophy and the manner in which they influence our actions.
In the epistle on animals of the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Safāʾ, which predominantly takes the form of a fable wherein the animals seek recourse against mankind’s oppression in the court of the Jinni (spirit) king, the rabbit lambasts horses for betraying their own kind in the service of mankind. Humans intervene on behalf of the horses, enumerating their many admirable qualities; strength, valour, wit and beauty among others. The rabbit concedes but points out that despite all these admirable traits, horses as a general species are not without shortcomings. ‘A horse will as soon flee with his master’s enemy, whom he has never seen before, as with the master at whose home he was born and bred.’ The rabbit argues that this lack of insight comes as a consequence of the horse’s proximity to man, stating: ‘A man will often turn on his parents, brothers, or kin, plot against them and treat them as meanly as his worst enemy.’
The ass interjects at this point and cautions the rabbit against being too reproachful saying, ‘No creature is granted so many gifts and virtues as not to lack something greater, and none is deprived of at least some special gift. Allah’s bounties are many. No one individual can encompass them all and no species or kind exhausts all His goodness. Allah’s bounty, rather, is shared by all creatures in greater or lesser proportion.’
What is understood from this excerpt is that the physical realm in its entirety and every being in the chain of Creation that it encompasses, be it mineral, plant, animal, human or celestial, is subject to limitations in greater or lesser degrees. This understanding contradicts those who believe that the celestial realm is without limitation and that the universe is exponential in nature despite its physicality. The Epistles make it clear that even lofty celestial bodies endowed with luminescent grace and the ‘fifth nature’ which makes them impervious to a great extent, are still subject to eclipses, flickering, retrograde motion and even falling. The fact that the celestial realm is an element of Creation and is defined by physicality, albeit of a superior nature to the physicality of the sublunar realm, means that it is still governed by the inescapable limiting definitions of length, breadth and depth like all other physical entities.
The reason for these limitations as stated in the epistle on animals, is so that we may understand that absolute perfection is the preserve of Allah alone and no other can lay claim to it. ‘The two celestial luminaries, the sun and the moon, received from Allah so bounteous a share of light, brilliance, splendour and majesty that people often fell under the delusion that they were gods… That is why they were subjected to eclipses to show the discerning that if they were gods they would not go dark.’
The implications of such an outlook and understanding regarding limitations are then set out by the ox who states, ‘Whosoever is richly endowed by Allah should show thanks by sharing the excess with the less fortunate beings who lack those gifts. See how the sun pours light unstintingly on all creatures from its generous portion. The moon and stars too shed their influences, each according to its powers.’
The way we perceive our limitations and come to terms with them can either be of great benefit or immense detriment. The Prophet Mohammed SAW states: ‘Look at those who are beneath you (less fortunate) and not at those who are above, for it is befitting that you do not belittle Allah’s blessings upon you.’ All Creation is subject to limitations, some more than others, but when we do not understand the purpose of those limitations and look at those who have more than us with covetous eyes, or those who have less with contempt, we allow those limitations to hinder and impede us.
Our limitations are not meant to inhibit us but rather have the paradoxical effect of giving us the impetus to keep trying to overcome them in search of a realm that is without limit. Syedna al-Muayyad al-Shirazi RA repeatedly draws contrast between the limitations of physicality and the boundless nature of spirituality, urging us to forsake the limited for the limitless and use the bounded in the service of the boundless.
Syedna al-Qadi al-Nuʿman RA narrates that he once saw al-Imam al-Muʿizz AS seated with a water fountain in front of him, shooting jets of water up to considerable heights. He asked Syedna al-Nuʿman RA, ‘Do you know that this water comes from a lofty source of origin? Is water not a dense substance prone to settling and sedimentation? But when it flows through a constrained and limited outlet as you see, it is elevated and uplifted towards its source of origin even though its nature is to fall.’
In all its philanthropic undertakings, this philosophy guides the Bohra community’s approach. Despite whatever personal limitations each individual may face, community members look at those among their brethren who are less fortunate and strive to give unreservedly. In doing so, much like the water which finds thrust in being constrained, the community’s initiatives, great or small, find momentum and chart a trajectory to the realm that is boundless and without limit.