Shanti Sadan and Self-Knowledge name
Vol.68 No.3 Summer 2017

Reflections on the Hadith from the Non-Dual Perspective

The Hadith are records of things said or done by the Prophet Muhammad, as witnessed by his close companions. They are central to the Islamic religious and spiritual tradition and several touch on the same themes as the non-dual teachings.

In Islamic teachings and culture, the Hadith are second only in importance to the Quran itself. As law and theology developed in the Islamic lands in the decades and centuries after the life of Muhammad, when questions arose about matters not directly addressed in the Quran, or in completely new circumstances, guidance was sought from the Hadith.

Still, the Quran provides the framework which the Hadith expands where necessary, so to understand the Hadith, we have to understand their relation to the Quran. The Quran appeared at a place and time where the worship of many gods and idols was common-place. Indeed the prosperity of the settlement at Mecca at that time, and the power of the ruling tribes there, rested on control of the sites of pilgrimage where people came to worship idols at the Ka'ba. It was in this situation that Muhammad preached the new religion of Islam, which stated in the strongest possible terms that there is no God except the one true God. The worst of sins in this religion was, and indeed still is, to worship as God anything other than God.

From the non-dual perspective we understand God as one name or word for the Ultimate Reality, the Supreme Being, that which truly is, and which no word or name can fully encompass, lying as it does beyond the capacity of the individualised mind. Evidently, to equate any limited notion with That, is indeed an intellectual and ethical error.

As well as the emphatic statement that there is no God but God, the Quran teaches the immediate ethical implications of this principle, among the most important of which is that the value of our actions depends on the motive behind the action. So the value of an act of devotion depends on how far it is really for the sake of the worshipped, and not mixed with other motives such as a desire to appear pious and respectable. The teaching is that the Supreme Being knows all our thoughts and feelings completely, from the inside, as it were, and that nothing is hidden from That. This implies an extreme nearness of the Highest; that ‘God is closer than the jugular vein’, as it says in the Quran. It follows that one does best to remember the Supreme and ultimately to depend on That as the power that determines the outcome of all actions and efforts.

This extreme nearness of God, his knowledge of our hearts from the inside, and the importance of remembering God and depending on God as the ultimate power in things, are the foundations of the mystical tradition sometimes known as Sufism, through which seekers in the Islamic tradition have sought intimate experience and knowledge of Reality. A direct knowledge of the supreme reality is also the goal of the non-dual teachings, and central in the practical side of the non-duality is to remember the ideal as the goal, and as the ultimate support of all.

These principles appear in the Quran, and guidance on how to understand and apply them in different circumstances has also been taken from the Hadith. According to historians, at first it was considered best for accounts of the words and deeds of the Prophet to be memorized and passed on orally rather than written down. But by the third century after Muhammad the number of hadith in circulation had grown into hundreds of thousands, there was inevitably a tendency for hadith to be collected and used in support of particular schools of thought, and there was concern that they were not all accurate or even authentic. So the process of systematising was undertaken and this resulted in what became the canonical collections. They were compiled by scholars who considered how reliable was the record and the line of transmission in each case. Each Hadith consists of two parts, the event or saying being recorded, and the chain of transmission, together with a judgement concerning the reliability of the Hadith, varying from reliable to weak. After this process, the number of Hadith was much reduced, but remains substantial. In Sunni Islam, six collections of Hadith are generally accepted. The two largest collections between them contain about 16,000 items, although if we take out near duplications, the number is about 7,000.

Although the aim of compiling the Hadith was to sort out what was reliable and what was not, there is not universal agreement on the issue. In particular, it is a historical fact that one of the main differences between the Sunni and the Shia branches of Islam is that they each accept different collections of Hadith, and the Shia give particular significance to Hadith concerning Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet. Further, there is room for differing views on exactly how the Hadith are to be understood. This is simply because the Quran and the Hadith both address subjects which reason and the human mind cannot fully grasp, such as the nature of the supreme reality and eternity. These are subjects which the Quran itself says can only be described allegorically, and which must be approached and discussed with great caution, as it is here that we are more likely to fall into confusion.

So there may be differing interpretations of the Hadith, like other spiritual writings. One thing which is clear is that we cannot expect reason and words to be able to contain the complete and final truth. The Quran and other great scriptures tell us that Supreme Reality is one, that is, not divided in any way, and also that the Supreme Reality is not like anything else, and nothing else is like the supreme. These are essentially negative statements guiding as to what the highest Truth is not. The most reason can do is tell us that the supreme is unlike anything we can think of in time and space. This also is an essential point which is central to both Islamic mysticism and the non-dual teachings.

Let us turn to specific Hadiths. One of the most referred-to collections was compiled by a scholar known as Imam Bukhari. Here is an illustrative Hadith from that collection:

Narrated by Abu Huraira. A man came to Allah’s Apostle and said, ‘O Allah's Apostle! Who is more entitled to be treated with the best companionship by me?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man said, ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man further said, ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man asked for the fourth time, ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your father.’

Here we see the structure of a hadith; it begins with the source, in this case the narrator Abu Huraira, a companion of the prophet, who travelled with him, so in this case the transmission is just one link. Then there is the statement of the Prophet. As we see, filial piety was a quality which he valued highly.

The following Hadith is the first recorded in the canon of Bukhari:

Narrated by 'Umar bin Al-Khattab: I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, ‘The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions and every person will get the reward according to what he has intended. So whoever emigrated for worldly benefits or for a woman to marry, his emigration was for what he emigrated for.’

This is one of the many Hadith and Quranic expressions of the principle that the value of our actions depends on our true intention. On one level this is simply a warning against hypocrisy. More deeply, it implies that for God, or whatever we call the supreme Reality in all, nothing is hidden or inconsequential.

As we said, in both the non-dual teachings and Islamic mysticism it is recognised that God or the Supreme Being cannot be known through the mind, in the way that we know facts about the world. However, both schools hold that the nearness and the omni-presence of the supreme Being becomes more apparent and meaningful to us, the more our hearts and minds are made clear and in harmony with the general good, and the more we give first place in our lives the quest for higher knowledge.

The value of our actions then is not so much external correctness, but their motive. If two people both give money in charity and one does so in part because of a desire for reputation and another does so because she understands that it is the right thing to do and lets go any fear of personal loss or desire for praise, then clearly what is externally the same act has a different value in each case. The sincere aspirant will understand that an inviolable law is in operation here; precisely in so far as our actions have any other motives, to that degree we are held back from full communion with higher Reality.

In the Hadith above, the act in question, the emigration, refers to the famous episode when Muhammad and his followers were offered sanctuary away from his opponents at Mecca in the place now known as Medina. This was a momentous development and those who made this journey were held in high esteem as early and close companions of the Prophet. So it is a powerful illustration of the principle to point out that if this journey was made in hope of material benefits, then its true value for the individual was no more than that. We can also understand migration as an inner journey of transferring our priorities from worldly concerns for their own sake to the quest for purity and illumination. If we are seeking inner change but our underlying motive is for something specific, like prestige or a new relationship, then inwardly we have merely migrated to that.

Another Hadith, like many, conveys a feeling of seriousness and urgency, even of fear, which may influence our reaction to them. This is also from the collection of al-Bukhari.

Narrated by Anas: The Prophet said, ‘Whoever possesses the following three qualities will have the sweetness (delight) of faith: 1. The one to whom Allah and His Apostle becomes dearer than anything else. 2. Who loves a person and he loves him only for Allah’s sake. 3. Who hates to revert to Atheism (disbelief) as he hates to be thrown into the fire.’

The reference to hating the idea of falling back into disbelief as much as being burned by fire might suggests an atmosphere of fear or fervency which we may find more off-putting than helpful. Let us remember the circumstances in which these sayings were made. In our own day, spirituality and inner enquiry are sometimes approached almost as luxuries. Having fulfilled our material needs we may think that our quality of life might be improved by some spiritual content, and that we can choose, from a wide selection, the kind of spirituality which appeals most to us. Clearly, that was not the outlook of the Prophet or his followers. For them, the question of their faith was an urgent one. They were witnessing a struggle between acceptance of the idea of one God, and the old worship of many gods—a struggle going on around and within them. This was not a question one could choose to think about or not; whatever one did, or did not do, there would be major consequences immediately. Hence the sense of urgency and a ‘hatred’ of the idea that one might find oneself thinking that perhaps there are many gods after all and that maybe it would be better to go back to worshipping and propitiating them.

In our very different circumstances, the implications of what we choose to believe and commit ourselves to are not so obviously dramatic. It is a very good thing that we are not harassed by immediate dangers and are able to think freely about spiritual questions. In fact, we may need reminding that in this we are most fortunate and that we have an opportunity to be grasped while it lasts. We might remember also that we are free to choose; however, we are not free to avoid the consequences of those choices. We can choose to make inner enquiries or not, and to give them priority, or not, but either way, the consequences will certainly follow. We may decide that meditation and related practices are important, but then other concerns may assail our mind, almost against our will. Then we may recognise that these opposing tendencies within us are a serious challenge and need to be addressed.

From this perspective we can appreciate the wisdom of this saying of the Prophet. He says three qualities lead to the sweetness of faith. Faith, we understand, does not mean blind adherence to a dogma, but the steadiness of mind that prevents our conscious choices being overtaken by mental disturbances. These three qualities are to love truth and teachers of truth above all; the ability to love human beings not for what they do for us but for the light and reality in them; and to see the old habits of mind as problems which will spoil the quality of our lives if we do not reform them. This advice is closely in harmony with the non-dual teachings on how to attain what is called here the sweetness of faith, which we recognise as the inherent bliss of our own deeper nature that shines through the mind when it is purified and stilled.

Let us look at one of the most recurring themes of the Hadith, and all Islamic teaching. It comes in this one:

Narrated by Abdullah: I asked Allah’s Apostle, ‘What is the biggest sin in the sight of Allah?’ He said, ‘To set up rivals unto Allah though He alone created you.’ I said, ‘In fact, that is a tremendous sin,’ and added, ‘What next?’ He said, ‘To kill your son being afraid that he may share your food with you.’ I further asked, ‘What next?’ He said, ‘To have illicit relations with the spouse of your neighbour.’

The teaching on illicit relations is obviously similar to those we find in Jewish, Christian and other texts. We can imagine that such matters could cause severe upset and disorder in these societies and therefore strict rules had to be applied. Then this Hadith gives us a rather shocking insight into how hard life must sometimes have been at this epoch: we can hardly imagine being hungry enough to think of harming our children out of fear that there would not be enough food to go around; but apparently at this time circumstances were such that there was good reason to expressly speak against it.

So then it is striking to be told that even worse than this is the sin of setting up rivals to God. By this is meant thinking of anything as being as great and powerful and worthy of worship as God, the supreme Being. In the Quran and Hadith this is repeatedly described as the first and greatest error, the root of all the rest.

It might seem as if we are being told that this mistake is so serious and dangerous that even the slightest sign of beginning to err in this way, in ourselves or in others, must be stopped immediately, if necessary by force, thus creating an atmosphere of fear and intolerance. But it does not have to be understood this way, and to do so would go against the flow of the teachings as a whole.

To say that nothing is worthy of worship as God, means that the supreme being, the ultimate truth, is completely unlike anything with finite characteristics. If anything finite attracts us we have to see its true worth, see the good in it, but not confuse it with the highest Being. This understanding depends on the process of inner refinement, and, as we saw, in this it is our sincerity that counts. In practice, we are likely to make the mistake of accepting incomplete ideas of Truth, but there is always the possibility of learning and moving on. In one Hadith, this is expressed forcibly like this:

Narrated by Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, ‘When Allah had finished His creation, He wrote over his Throne: “My Mercy preceded My Anger.”’

It seems that in life we are bound to have incomplete ideas of truth and be attracted by lesser ideals. These will separate us from truth and as such will be the cause of sorrows. And yet apparently the possibility of overcoming them is present from the beginning. In fact there is another version of this Hadith which goes:

Narrated by Abu Huraira: I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, ‘Before Allah created the creations, He wrote a Book wherein He has written: ‘My Mercy has preceded my Anger’ and that Book is written with Him over the Throne.’

We can conceive of the Supreme Reality in broadly two ways. One is as the Ultimate Being who knows everything about us and constantly helps and cares for us. However sincere our devotion, often this God does not give us what we would wish for, because what we wish for is often something limited which will not serve our highest good. Yet the teachings of all traditions indicate that when we seek nothing except nearness to the Supreme, our wish is granted instantaneously, indeed it has been granted before the inner impulse has been put into words.

The other way of conceiving the highest Truth is as the eternal, perfect Absolute, in which our sense of being separated is actually an incomplete view and ultimately illusory. There is, from the highest perspective, no need for help or for any action, actually nothing at all really needs to happen or can happen, because there is no real problem, the whole problem is an illusion. According to logic, and the higher philosophical teachings of all the great spiritual traditions, the supreme truth is indeed eternally the supreme truth and never was or could be anything else, which strongly implies that our apparent difficulties are indeed just apparent and in the end illusory. In practice, overcoming this illusion is a big challenge, and we need help; we need help from Truth itself, and from the teachers of truth. The theme of many Hadith is to assure us that this help is available:

Narrated by Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “Allah says: ‘I am just as My servant thinks I am, that is, I am able to do for him what he thinks I can do for him, and I am with him if he remembers Me. If he remembers Me in himself, I too, remember him in Myself; and if he comes one span nearer to Me, I go one cubit nearer to him; and if he comes one cubit nearer to Me, I go a distance of two outstretched arms nearer to him; and if he comes to Me walking, I go to him running.’”

The more we ponder this Hadith, the more light and solace and help we will find in it.

In another teaching we are assured that we need not be distressed by what might seem unfavourable at first.

Narrated by Al-Hasan: ‘Amr bin Taghlib said, “Some property was given to the Prophet and he gave it to some people and withheld it from some others. Then he came to know that the latter were dissatisfied. Then the Prophet said, ‘I give to one and do not give to another, and the one to whom I do not give is dearer to me than the one to whom I give. I give to some people because of the impatience and discontent present in their hearts, and leave other people because of the content and goodness Allah has bestowed on them, and one of them is ‘Amr bin Taghlib.” ‘Amr bin Taghlib said, “This sentence which Allah's Apostle said in my favor is dearer to me than the possession of nice red camels.”’

Among the Sufis, the supreme being is often referred to as ‘The Friend’. We find the basis of this warm, friendly relationship coming through many Hadith. In one it is recorded that:

Narrated by Abu Musa: We were with the Prophet on a journey, and whenever we ascended a high place, we used to say, ‘Allahu Akbar’. The Prophet said, ‘Don't trouble yourselves too much! You are not calling a deaf or an absent person, but you are calling One Who hears and sees, and is very near.’

The practice of remembering the Supreme and feeling that one is in that presence all the time, is central in the practice of Sufism and all the true mystic traditions. In another Hadith is recorded:

“What is Ihsan (perfection)?” Allah's Apostle replied, “To worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you cannot achieve this state of devotion then you should feel that He is looking at you.”

Apparently simple advice such as this will prove deeply helpful and comforting as we strive to bring order and direction to our minds and awaken a sense of the extreme nearness of Truth. Then, we shall increasingly realize that the observer is within, and indeed is none other than our own true Self. In this way, such teachings from the Hadith can guide and help us at every stage of the path and point onwards towards the direct knowledge that nothing is real but the ultimate reality itself, and That is the reality of our own being.

P. H.