By Ismail Royer
This article, written while I was in prison, originally appeared in AlJumuah magazine in 2007. The unnamed interlocutor referred to in the article was Zvonko Busic, with whom the author was incarcerated in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was paroled in 2007 after 31 years in prison; unfortunately, he took his own life soon after. When he was paroled, I gave him as a gift my copy of Al Farabi’s Madinat al-Fadilah.
A student of philosophy laments that I am a religious person. He tells me that my “wings are clipped,” that my belief prevents me from soaring in the heights of thought and wisdom. Rather, the right example is that of a tree. It requires for its health that its dead and stray branches be trimmed. The more skillfully this is done, the more fruitful the tree will be.
“Have you not considered how God presents as a parable a good word as a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed, and its branches stretch forth to the sky. It produces its fruit all the time, by the permission of its Lord…And the example of a bad word is like a bad tree, uprooted from the surface of the earth, not having any stability.”
The wisest and most insightful man, relying only on himself or other men, will find the truth sometimes, and at other times he will wander in error. He would have profited by guidance as to which ideas were worth pursuing, and the most perfect of such guidance is the guidance of the Author of truth.
Many of those gifted with great intellects do not see that they are burdened with a test: their abilities tempt them to pride and amazement with their faculties. They see that the ordinary people are satisfied with religion; as they are not ordinary people, they must be somehow above it. But the religion of God, to borrow a metaphor, is shallow enough for children to paddle in, and deep enough for the wise to swim in. As ibn Qudaamah al-Maqdasi said of religious knowledge: one can never plumb its depths, but can only hover about its shores.
Faith, it has been said, is the resting of the soul in truths that are worthy of belief. When ideas are presented to us, we judge their truth by what we already know and intuit to be true, independent of our experience. Whether our judgment is sound depends on the quality of our insight and our honesty with ourselves. Thus, in a sense, when it comes to the eternal truths, we are not taught anything, but are only reminded of what we already know. “And none will be reminded except those of understanding.”
When I was a Catholic, I loved going to mass. As I knelt before God, I felt — I knew, and I still know — that He was looking upon His servant, that He heard his prayer, that He was pleased by his submission. And I loved Jesus, peace be upon him: to me, his teachings were life itself. But the idea of God as three, that Jesus himself was God, never truly settled within my heart; it troubled me, so that when I prayed, I prayed only to God himself.
Later in life, when for a short period I was seduced by modern political theories, I abandoned belief in God altogether. But a person of insight, a person sensitive to his own heart, cannot maintain such absurdity, despite his best efforts. He cannot be untrue to himself. And so, after a period of searching, I discovered the Qur’an, a book whose every letter resonated within me, a book in harmony with what I already knew to be true, a book the truth of which the universe within me and without testified to, a book that — like the teachings of Jesus, of all prophets — is Truth and Life itself.
I am amazed at the man who will not consent to hear a word of revelation, even when the same word is found in the books he admires. Yet I deign to read his books; I judge their ideas by what I know to be true, I trim their dead and stray branches and benefit from their fruit, from wisdom that amounts to a commentary on and restatement of eternal truths. My faith gives me health and life; his pride clips his wings, and dooms him to wander, to never find his way home.