Question: Although unbelief makes its presence felt in a person’s heart as a deep void and anxiety, many people continue to stick with it. What are the reasons for this?
Answer: Unbelief has nothing attractive and appealing since it makes life appear as a horrible field of chaos and struggle where anything can happen at any time, and death is viewed as eternal destruction. It is a source of constant anxiety with potential threats; it is a horrible cliff and void. There are certain weaknesses that make a person deaf and blind such that those affected by them can resist the most evident truths, be deprived of faith, and drift toward denial. These are discussed below:
A person who sees oneself as great may refuse to bow before God. But greatness exclusively belongs to God as stated in a hadith qudsi, and whoever tries to compete with Him in this respect and attempts to share it, He throws that person in Hell.1
Given that true greatness belongs to Him only, what befalls a human being is to be a servant to Him. The eternal is only One; everything and everybody must acknowledge their being zero before Him. Bediüzzaman explains this point through the concepts of “self-referential meaning” and “other-indicative meaning.” Humans need to be viewed with respect to this latter one, other-indicative meaning (or the meaning manifesting the Divine). Just as a letter that has no meaning on its own takes its place in a word in order to convey a meaning, humans similarly find their true value only through attachment to their Creator. Otherwise, viewing themselves as independent beings who bear any meaning on their own is nothing but deception. When viewed from this perspective, “self-confidence” and similar notions coined in our time do not have any value unless they gain true depth by trusting in God. Indeed, individuals’ free will, inclination, and ability of making that inclination into a willful choice are God’s gifts to us. The Supreme Will granted a place for human will. When a person makes a choice by the relatively existent human will, God Almighty makes it real with His Divine Authority. When humans see themselves thus, many problems find solutions. Otherwise, considerations such as “I am your supreme lord,” (an-Naziat 79:24) as expressed by the Pharaoh are nothing but snorts of arrogance. While this remark of the Pharaoh is an obvious claim of Divinity and thus unbelief, having thoughts such as “I saved them/ I did it/ I struggled/ I saved my people from such and such evils…” resemble indirect claims of Divinity and is a kind of hidden shirk—associating partners with God. There cannot be two “I”s at the same time. As “I-ness” or “self-existence” is a property of the Divine Essence in the true sense of the word, then the “I” is nothing but a relative existence granted to human beings as a measure (of comparison) so that they recognize God’s existence. That is, humans are supposed to understand His Supreme Will through their relative will, His doings by their doings, His infinite Knowledge with their minuscule amount of knowledge, and with their limited sight they will try to understand His all-encompassing Sight. Additionally, the shortcomings, confines, and comprehensibility of the human senses are a means of understanding the incomprehensibility of His infinite Qualities. This fact is expressed in the verse (translated as), “…and they do not comprehend anything of His Knowledge save what He wills” (al-Baqarah 2:255), as it points to this same human limitedness; what encompasses everything cannot be encompassed at the same time. The All-encompassing One is God. That is, He encompasses everything with His Knowledge, Will, Power, and doings; we are encompassed by Him. If a person fails to soundly put oneself in the proper position in relation to Him, he or she will be deprived of faith. This Pharaonic consideration based on arrogance is the underlying reason for most people’s denial of faith.
Not knowing one’s boundaries and acknowledging no limits is another major obstacle for having faith. There is no doubt that this is a kind of zulm, or wrongdoing (which includes a broad range of wrong actions from deviancy in a small matter to the unforgivable matter of denying God). This is what lies behind the denial of faith of all tyrants and wrongdoers. They become losers by attributing whatever takes place to their own strength and power. The prototype Korah is a striking example in this respect as depicted in the Qur’an: “He said: ‘All this has been given to me only by virtue of a certain knowledge that I have.’ Did he not know that God had destroyed among the generations before him men who were greater than him in power, and greater in wealth amassed?” (al-Qasas 28:78). As it is stated in the verse, God Almighty seized many powerful societies, including those people who could move mountains, and buried them to the ground for their not knowing their boundaries.
Another factor leading people to unbelief is having a mistaken viewpoint. As it is known, Bediüzzaman placed great importance on the issue of intention and viewpoint. This was to such an extent that he said that his thirty years of education had taught him four fundamental words and phrases until the age of forty, and that two of those words were intention and viewpoint. Viewpoint is a crucial factor for understanding and interpreting existence and phenomena. If you fail to adopt the proper viewpoint, you either cannot see at all or cannot see correctly what you are supposed to see. Your studies and research may allow you to cover a certain distance, but without the proper viewpoint you will get stuck somewhere never reaching the truth of the Divine Essence. What really matters with viewpoint is being able to see everything in accordance with its true nature. Namely, it is the effort of seeing something as what it is in truth. For this reason, one needs to look at that thing with a correct viewpoint. In addition, the goal of looking must be seeing. For example, you can look at a library with so many books, but if your looking does not have a purpose, you do not see the names and colors of the books before you. Therefore, they say that looking and seeing are separate things that should not be confused.
In order to indicate the deviated viewpoint of the Pharaoh, the Qur’an relates the following statement that he made: “O Haman! Build me a lofty tower so that I may attain the ways, the ways of (peering into) the skies, and that I may have a look at the God of Moses…” (al-Mumin 40:36–37). A contemporary cosmonaut with the same twisted viewpoint said that he made a tour around the earth but did not see any deities. On hearing this remark, the famous poet Necip Fazıl responded with the following reply, “You fool, who told you that God Almighty were a balloon in space!” Thus, looking for the Exalted Creator—who cannot be contained by time, place, or matter—as if He were a material object, is an extreme deviation of viewpoint. Some fail to find faith due to the fact that they are stuck in such a swamp.
Blind Imitation of Forefathers
Following one’s forefathers is another reason for unbelief. In many verses in the Qur’an, this mistaken attitude of unbelievers is highlighted. For example, it is stated in a verse (translated as), “When it is said to them, ‘Follow what God has sent down,’ they respond: ‘No, but we follow that (the traditions, customs, beliefs, and practices) which we found our forefathers in’” (al-Baqarah 2:170). Throughout history, those who do not believe and do not wish to believe find a misguided antecedent for themselves and follow him by blind imitation. According to these imitators, even if their predecessors worshipped stones, trees, or even idols made from desserts (as in the pre-Islamic Meccan society), they were “unquestionable.” No mistake could be sought in what they said or did. And this is one of the very important points that cause people to lose and leave them deprived of faith.
While Escaping the Bite of a Gnat…
When all of these impediments listed above are viewed, it is not possible to find anything reasonable, logical, or acceptable to serve as a sound reference. These factors listed as causes of unbelief cannot be referred to as points of support. Thus, people who do not believe continue in their unbelief by relying on things they misconceive as points of support, and this does not promise a person any good whatsoever. People in this situation prefer only to comfort themselves with some temporary consolations. In their own mind, they see a way of escaping responsibility and being comfortable by not stepping into the sphere of faith, because when faith or religion is accepted, then responsibilities of religious practices will ensue, for faith is not solely a theoretical issue. One needs to fulfill certain responsibilities and refrain from certain things forbidden. In other words, solely saying “I believe” does not suffice. After this acceptance, certain commandments known as good, righteous deeds need to be carried out and many indecent, wicked, and vile conducts forbidden by religion need to be forsaken. As some misperceive these as an obstacle against enjoying life, they insist on not stepping into the circle of faith. Thus, in the words of Bediüzzaman, “…even if the duty of servanthood may cause slight discomfort or bother, by denying God’s existence, they make themselves the target of spiritual troubles that are millions of times more distressing. While agonizing over the bite of a gnat, they welcome the bite of a snake.”2 Furthermore, everything seen as consolation in this world provides no benefit or support whatsoever in the next world.
Let me state one final point; even though believers have entered into the sphere of faith by overcoming all of these obstacles that give way to unbelief, they must be conscious of the fact that each of these impediments and weaknesses still poses a danger to them. As all of the factors listed above serve as obstacles against stepping into the sphere of faith—God forbid—they might also be a reason for a person to step out of the sphere of faith. When these illnesses and weaknesses gain a certain degree of dominance over a person’s feelings and thoughts, and when they pressurize the conscience and manage to inflict some holes and cracks in it, one can be swung out of the sphere of faith unaware.
God’s Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him, drew our attention, for instance, to one of these deadly viruses by stating that a person with an atom’s weight of arrogance in the heart will not enter Paradise.3 In this respect, a person must constantly face oneself, constantly see God’s blessings in oneself, constantly praise Him and offer thanks for those blessings, and must never forget that these blessings might possibly lead one astray toward perdition.
1. Sahih Muslim, Birr, 136; Sunan Abu Dawud, Libas, 26
2. Nursi, Bediüzzaman Said, The Gleams, New Jersey: Tughra Books, 2008, p. 13
3. Sahih Muslim, Iman, 147
This text is the translation of “İnançsızlıktaki Israrın Sebepleri.”