Question: What are the lessons to be drawn from the hadith reading, “If a person’s knowledge increases but asceticism does not, the only thing that really increases is his distance from God”?
Answer: The ways that help a person reach God are as myriad as the breaths His creatures take. This is because every person has different talents and abilities. Accordingly, those on the spiritual road with tender characters state that the most important path leading to God is love. Some of these journeyers of love have expressed their longing by saying:
“O God, make me familiar with the trouble of love;
Do not let me be devoid of the trouble of love.”
Another spiritual master said:
“Give your heart to such a Beloved, that will make you happy at heart.
Hang on to such a skirt, that will take you to the target.”
Yet another hero of love depicted the inner world of a lover of God with the following lines:
“What an ascetic desires in his heart is Paradise,
In the heart of a true lover, is but the one he loves.”
On the other hand, some of the journeyers on the path of truth have tried to reach God by means of asceticism, and valued this road above all others. Asceticism (zuhd) means, in a way, forsaking this world and what it contains, and restricting one’s belongings to their essential needs. A person naturally needs to meet bodily needs such as eating, drinking, and sleeping. However, one who wishes to lead an ascetic life does not want to benefit from such blessings of the world to the full degree, thinking that they lead a person to heedlessness. Such people act under the guidance of the principle Bediüzzaman expressed in the Eight Word:
“There is permission for tasting (things of this world); there is no permission to be full.”
As for certain inquisitive souls who possess wisdom and try to know God by means of deliberation, discussion, and reflections, they have always scrutinized phenomena by reading into this universe like a book of Divine wisdom. They have made some connections with this book and the Miraculous Qur’an, and they have always tried to behold these two books through the lens, projector, or observatory they provided for one another.
Those Who Lose Their Way in the Valleys of Imitation
Apart from what we have mentioned, there are people who have not yet freed themselves from leading a superficial life based on formality. They are captives of imitation, and it is rather difficult for them to make progress. In terms of imitating the ways of their ancestors, their situation resembles the unbelievers who said, “Enough for us (are the ways) that we found our forefathers on” (al-Maedah 5:104).
A person in this situation needs to ask himself, “Had I been born in a region where another religion is prevalent, I wonder if I would still become a Muslim, be it in this poor degree of mine?” Though it should be noted that scholars from the mainstream understanding of Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama’ah stated that faith based on imitation is also acceptable – namely, people who go to the mosque because their fathers did, and who observe the Ramadan fast because their grandmothers did. These people will also be saved.
An Inflation of Mahdis
Actually, these points about “imitation” faith can be used to describe our generation. None of us have reached the truths we believe today by racking our brains “to the degree of blowing it through our nose,” as the poet Necip Fazıl put it. None of us left our beds in the middle of the night and went around like mad, saying like Umar ibn al-Khattab’s uncle Zayd ibn Amr did, “My God, I yearn for You!” We have not engaged in a crazy quest for the sake of finding Him, but have always consoled ourselves with imitation.
If some people still applauded this poor Islamic life of ours and we foolishly see ourselves as ideal Muslims, then we have been deceived completely. Some poor people have even given in to populism in the face of applause and flattering remarks, and lots of mahdis have appeared as a consequence. There have been so many of them in our century that it is not an exaggeration if we talk about an inflation of mahdis. While some people wonder in self-criticism whether they can even be considered ordinary Muslims, others see themselves as heroes, who will save humanity with a single move, who will bring down emperors with a single breath. But in reality, all of them have been poor slaves of imitation without a thorough recognition of God or knowledge of the Prophet. They have lived unaware of the Rightly Guided Caliphs and the Blessed Companions. As they are unaware of where they have been, and of their inability to make any progress even in favorable conditions, it has been difficult for them to advance.
A person with sound belief must constantly ruminate and reflect for the sake of setting sail for seas of knowledge and love of God, and move on with an unquenchable enthusiasm. In response to the bowls of knowledge of God offered to him, he should say:
See now, how this poor servant is,
Crazy for a single strand from the Beloved’s locks
The honey of love I take on and on,
Give some water for my heartburn!
Like a person who drinks seawater, a person who takes Divine love should ask for more and more. While setting sail deep into knowledge of God, he should never give up the following considerations:
“If I could truly feel what is supposed to be felt, and experience the truth of ‘…it is in the remembrance of, and whole-hearted devotion to God, that hearts find rest and contentment’ (ar-Rad 13:28), and if I could perceive the glad tidings in, ‘Those (whose hearts have attained rest and contentment) who have believed and do good, righteous deeds—for them is the greatest happiness and the most beautiful of destinations,’ (ar-Rad 13:29) then I would establish a much deeper connection with God Almighty, always voice tunes of love and yearning for God, lower my wings of humility to the ground before believers, and behold the entire creation with an immense compassion. Accordingly, what I am actually doing can be considered as crawling miserably on the ground.”
Look Shallow but Be Deep!
In fact, real servanthood lies in combining exceptionally high endeavor and exceptional modesty. On the one hand, a person must ascend so high that when angels look at him, they should say, “What a surprise! A being with a physical body shares the same horizons with us angels!” Or they should say, “(he) is flapping wings, even ahead of us!” But this person must at the same time be able to see himself as the nothing of nothings. When they tell him to put his signature somewhere, he should be able to spontaneously sign “nothing.”
In terms of accomplishing human perfection, there is no greater person than the Pride of Humanity. But in spite of that, he implored God by saying, “Make me insignificant in my own eyes, but great in the eyes of people (with respect to my mission).” A spiritual master altered this prayer a bit, saying, “My God, make me insignificant in my own eyes, but profound in my religion.”
A person should see himself as petty as a fly’s wing, but with respect to religious profundity he should say, “My God let me attain such religious perfection and let me be so well equipped religiously that when my inspirations are distributed to the whole of humanity, let it suffice for all of them to enter Paradise.”
With reference to his Companion Maiz, the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, stated, “He repented in such a way that if it were distributed to 70 people in Medina, it would suffice for them all.” That person had committed a sin (fornication) without the knowledge of others, and as a result of his repentance for this sin, he came to the Messenger of God and stated that he wanted to be purified. Although the blessed Prophet sent him away four times, he came back every time, in spite of knowing that his demand to be duly punished meant his execution, and repeated his wish. And after the punishment was carried out, the noble Prophet stated the words we quoted.
A person should constantly try to deepen their focus on faith, knowledge of God, love of God, spiritual delight, fervor, and enthusiasm. But together with that, the person should see himself shallower than the shallowest ones. Actually, if a person has truly attained a depth of heart, he will see himself as the lowliest of people. And the reverse meaning also holds true: If a person sees himself superior to other people, then he is the meanest and poorest person in actual fact. Be this person a believer, hypocrite, or unbeliever, it doesn’t matter.
“Knowledge” Means Knowing Yourself
A person who imagines exalted ranks for himself and thinks, “So it seems that I am a chosen person sent by Divine Providence as specially equipped to fulfill an important mission and guide humanity to the peak of perfection,” has no true value at all, not even to the degree of a fly’s wing. The true indication of greatness is modesty and self-effacement—and the indication of worthlessness is vanity.
True knowledge is a person being able to crown the knowledge he possesses with such considerations. And this can be achieved by people who have sipped perfection, attained maturity, and turned their theoretical knowledge into practical deeds. Although Muhammed Lütfi Effendi was a blessed person who sat and devoted some six hours a day to engaging in wisdom, knowledge, and contemplative dialogue, he would still say:
“Neither do I have knowledge nor good deeds,
Nor do I have any power for goodness and devotions.
Immersed in rebellion, I have a lot of sins.
I don’t know what will become of me, on the day of reckoning.”
And Yunus Emre said:
“Knowledge means having knowledge
Knowledge means knowing thyself
If then, you fail to know thyself,
What is the point of your studying?”
Without this knowledge, it is not possible for those who depend on the appreciation of others to progress a single step forward. Even if others say things like, “So and so is praiseworthy! See how he helps people, guides them, and takes them out of the quicksand they were stuck in,” this will do them no good at all.
To make an evaluation with respect to the hadith mentioned in the question, if a believer cannot push aside the world and what it contains in spite of his increase in knowledge; if he is still preoccupied with worldly concerns and is running after worldly ambitions; and if he looks for the next worldly title as soon as he gains one and is dying to retain the worldly benefits he has gained, then that person has been distanced from nothing else but God.
 Sunni way of belief.
 mahdi: the Divinely-guided One; expected liberator.
 Sahih al-Bukhari, Manaqib, 24; Nasai, Sunan al-Kubra, 5:54.
 Al-Bazzar, Al-Musnad, 10/315; Daylami, Al-Musnad, 1/473.
 Sahih Muslim, Hudud, 22; Sunan Abu Dawud, Hudud, 24, 25.
 Nursi, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Münazarat (Discussions), Istanbul: Yeni Asya, 2009.
This text is the translation of “İnsanı Allah’tan Uzaklaştıran İlim.”