Pleasure and pain are two of the most elemental forces that govern our lives. They determine our patterns of consumption, places of dwelling and choice of partners amongst others, but most importantly they give us the impetus to protect ourselves and to survive in this world for as long as we can and in the best possible state.
In this article we examine the various ways in which Fatimi philosophy appreciates pleasure and pain, their significance in the remembrance of Imam Husain and the implications they have for us, both in this world and the next.
The Rasaʾil’s epistle on the quiddity of pleasures and pains defines pain as the consequence of an imbalance in the natural homeostasis of the body, brought on by the influence of external stimuli such as extreme temperatures, physical exertion and more commonly, both the lack and over consumption of food and drink. Pleasure consequently is nothing but a return to homeostasis following a spell of imbalance. To illustrate the mechanics of this phenomenon, Imam Ahmed al-Mastur employs the metaphor of an oil lamp. The intrinsic natural heat that pervades our bodies is likened to the flame of the lamp. So long as it has adequate fuel to act upon, in the form of the food and drink we consume, the body remains in a state of balance and therefore experiences pleasure. When food begins to diminish, the heat starts to react upon the nerve endings in the stomach lining itself, just as when a lamp runs out of oil, the flame begins to consume the wick, causing the pain we know as hunger and thirst.
Interestingly, contrary to what many philosophers believe, pleasure and pain, according to Fatimi philosophy, are not mutually exclusive and can exist at the same time. For instance, when a person consumes food which they relish but one which also has a foul smell, it causes both pleasure and pain at the same time. Likewise, a person who toils relentlessly in the hope of recompense and is thus faced with the pain of hard labour simultaneously with the pleasure of the reward they anticipate.
The more important question however, as elaborated in the epistle, is understanding why pleasure and pain play such an important role in our terrestrial existence and what implications they have for our hereafter.
The soul cannot exist independently in this realm. It requires the agency of the body in its pursuit of completion and perfection as well as its fulfillment of all the requisites that enable it to ascend to its eternal abode. Therefore, it must of necessity remain with the body until such a time as their parting is ordained. The body however is not sentient in itself and is prone to injury and impairment if not properly cared for, putting the soul at risk of being prematurely left without the means to grow, develop and ascend. Therefore, divine wisdom deemed it necessary to equip the soul with an awareness of pain and pleasure so that it may avoid harm and pursue what prolongs its earthly existence in the best possible manner for the longest possible time, thereby giving the soul ample opportunity to prepare for the hereafter.
As the holy month of Muharram approaches, considerations of pain and pleasure inevitably lead to the remembrance of Imam Husain and the unparalleled atrocities that befell him, his kin and companions on the scorching sands of Karbala.
When we speak of the pain that is caused by hunger, thirst as well as extreme temperatures, and how intrinsic heat when left with nothing to react upon, exerts its influence on the walls of the innards like a fire which consumes everything in its path, we cannot help but feel the pain of Imam Husain and his household, denied a single morsel of food and restricted from even a drop of water for three consecutive days in the sweltering heat of the desert.
When we consider the simultaneous occurrence of pleasure and pain, we are at once reminded of zulfaqar, Imam Husain’s double-edged sword and its concurrent defense of the Islamic faith as well as its offence against the forces of tyranny, injustice and inhumanity, bringing pleasure to the faithful and pain to the foe. We also realise that just as the one who toils in anticipation of recompense and reward, feeling pleasure and pain at the same time, Imam Husain in his relentless endeavour to safeguard the values of truth, justice and humanity, for which he endured not one, but a thousand agonising wounds and sacrificed not just himself but his children and close companions, must have found solace in the certitude that his pain and sacrifice would reap the reward of bringing consolation, inspiration and salvation to innumerable souls.
Finally when we contemplate the reason behind the existence of pain and pleasure and their roles in safeguarding and protecting our bodies we are reminded of Imam Ahmed al-Mastur’s statement in the Rasaʾil: ‘Thus is the view of our esteemed brothers in the assistance of one another both in matters of faith as well as livelihood. When they know that in the ruin of their bodies lies the good of their brethren, both in this world and the next, they generously give their bodies to ruin… because they know that whosoever does this for the aid of his faith and the good of his brethren, his soul shall ascend the kingdom of heaven and enter the troops of angels.’ If the ultimate purpose of pain and pleasure is to best preserve ourselves in preparation and anticipation of the hereafter, then remembering the sacrifice of Imam Husain for the preservation of the faith and the faithful becomes integral to the soul’s betterment in this world and its ascent to the next. The Prophet Mohammes states: ‘He who sheds tears upon (the tragedy of) my son Husain, or causes another to shed tears, or if unable to cry, reveals his grief through his facial expressions, is guaranteed janna (heaven).’
For the Dawoodi Bohra community, the blessed first ten days of Muharram known as Ashara Mubaraka, are dedicated to the remembrance of Imam Husain, the Prophet Mohammed’s beloved grandson. During these days, community members remember the hunger and thirst of Imam Husain and strive to alleviate the pain of all those who go hungry. They attend sermons and gatherings to commemorate the pain and suffering of Karbala and in so doing, simultaneously experience the pleasure of anticipating divine reward and in this manner, preserve their body and better their soul, making preparations for both this world and the next.