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A Parable of Weed and Trowel (An Islamic Take on Sin & Repentance)

Shrine of Abdul Qadir Jilani in Baghdad, Iraq

Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani Mosque in Baghdad

The founder of the first of the great Sufi orders, Abdul-Qadir Gilani (1077-1166), wrote an extraordinary book almost a thousand years ago called The Secret of Secrets.

In this book he has a very interesting passage on the nature of repentance and sin. I wrote about this topic from a Christian perspective in my Easter blog post earlier this year where I talked about sin actually meaning "missing the mark" and this notion of repentance NOT meaning what I thought (i.e. feeling badly or getting punished for not following some rule of the church). Instead, when we looked at the original greek word for penance or repent, metanoia, we learned that it really means going into the greater mind or experiencing "a transformative change of heart." Or when we looked at the Hebrew word from the Old Testament, we see that repentance really refers to "turning away from" sin and towards god and faith.

Gilani has some things to say about repentance as well and they are in keeping with this more true understanding of this important term. Gilani writes that there are two kinds of penance. The ordinary kind refers to those who

"merely pronounce the words of regret... It is as if such people are trying to get rid of [weeds] by cutting it off at the ground rather than digging out its roots. In doing this, they only help it to grow better. The one who repents knowing his fault and the cause of his fault and wishing to rid himself of this fault, digs out the roots of this pernicious plant. When it is dug out, it dries, and it does not come back again. The trowel used in digging the roots, the causes of one's sins, is the spiritual teaching one receives from a true teacher. One must clear the ground before one can plant one's orchard."

-- Abdul-Qadir Gilani, The Secret of Secrets, Chapter 5.

Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani Mosque in Baghdad 1925

Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani Mosque in Baghdad 1925

So repentance isn't about feeling remorseful or confessing your sins to your priest so he can absolve you of sin. It has little to do with expressing or carrying around regret or performing acts of penance or praying harder or more. This is simply "cutting the grass" where it comes from the soil. The root is as strong as ever and we've just brought more sunlight and less competition from the neighboring plants into the weeds of "sin" and fooled ourselves into thinking that we're good now. So, thinking we've cleared out our "sin," our guard is down for the next time it sneaks in to our actions. True "repentance" according to Gilani, is actually a project which each one of us can engage in to remove the very things within us that caused us to "sin" in the first place.

This is an extraordinary statement. Here we have one of the most spiritually advanced humans to have lived telling us that if we really "repent" properly, we can be free of anger, greed, negativity, want, envy, sadness, and all the other worst parts of life and human behavior. But we can't follow the typical prescriptions. We have to find a "true teacher." Sadly, these teachers are few and far between in the modern incarnations of religious institutions. But fortunately, many have left us books we can read and use. And we don't have to join a religion, believe in a supernatural being or pay someone for their help. It is all there for us.

Gilani writes that once we have truly repented, "divine attributes" such as peace, joy and purity follow. And here he goes all Zen on us. If you filter through the 12th Century heavy religious style some timeless truths glare out at you. He writes about "the annihilation of the self, the state of nothingness" that emerges in this second stage. He continues:

"The false self melts and evaporates when divine attributes enter one's being, and when the multiplicity of worldly attributes and personalities leave, their place is taken by the single attribute of unity. In reality, the truth is always present. It neither disappears nor declines. ... the temporal being finds its true existence by realizing the eternal secret."

-- Abdul-Qadir Gilani, The Secret of Secrets, Chapter 6

The open secret of Buddhism, as encapsulated in the Four Noble Truths, is saying the same thing. But to the Western, secular ear, talking about "Noble Truths" and an end to suffering sounds a lot more appealing than "sin and repentance." Which is perhaps why secular Buddhist psychology and the mindfulness it preaches is gaining such traction among the so-called "global elite." But it is the same truth about our true nature that Gilani speaks of, just from a different teacher.

Abdul-Qadir Gilani's name in Arabic calligraphy

I'll let Gilani have the final word on where we are headed with this project of weeding our garden or repenting our sins:

"When the attributes of darkness lift, light takes its place, and the one with the eye of the soul sees... Then he himself is flooded by light and becomes light...The goal that you wish to attain is the realization of your emptiness of all else except the Essence of Allah [his expression for the ultimate truth or highest level of consciousness]. This attainment is a becoming. There is no distance, nor closeness, nor fairness, nor reaching, nor measure, nor direction, nor dimension."

-- Abdul-Qadir Gilani, The Secret of Secrets, Chapter 10

(Photos are of the Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani Mosque in Baghdad)

#religion #sin #islam #sufi #repentance

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