If you scratch the surface of any person’s life, you will find a story worth telling. This story will most definitely include chapters on the hardship and adversity this person has faced, and describe the lessons they drew from these events. Periods of dilemma will generally be followed by moments of joy, relief and comfort, with each story tailored specifically to the individual.
For many of us, the trials of our lives will lead us to build, break and restore our relationship with God, sometimes earlier in life, sometimes later and sometimes much later. Neither of these scenarios is necessarily superior to the others. The pace at which each person shapes this relationship is different and so are the ways s/he expresses it.
I have spent much of my life until recently in a superficial relationship with God. It wasn’t until I reflected on the feeble condition of that bond that I understood the value in restoring it. Observation turned into resolve and I found myself seeking to revive a sincere bond with God through Islamic methodology: dedicated prayer, fasting, patience, charity and acts remembrance. My expressions of faith went from acts that mirrored faithfulness to a way of life that embodied it.
I believe God sets each of us on a distinctive spiritual journey, fraught with its own challenges, setbacks and chances to seek forgiveness and find redemption. He informs us in the Quran that on no soul does He place a burden greater than it can bear.
By virtue of this, it is impossible to judge the depth of any person’s intimate connection with God at any given time. We especially cannot judge someone’s faith by its ‘cover’ so to speak, although this happens all of the time. We often cast judgement on people, or are ourselves judged, based on external appearance: the words we speak, our clothing choices, the rituals we perform, the frequency of our attendance at communal acts of worship. All of our external dealings, words, behaviours and choices should not be a basis of judgement of something that is by nature quiet and private.
I recently came across the story of Moses (عليه السلام) and the Shepherd, described in the work of 13th-century Muslim poet and Sufi mystic Rumi. It portrays the risks of endeavouring to cast judgement on another’s faith.
A version of this story is superbly woven into the book, The Forty Rules of Love, by Turkish author Elif Shafak, which I read this summer. Shafak’s book draws parallels between two stories, one ancient and one modern: that of Rumi’s encounter with his spiritual mentor, Shams of Tabriz, a whirling dervish; and that of a middle-aged American housewife whose life is transformed when she begins corresponding with a sufi, Aziz Zahara, whose novel she is reading for a literary agent.
“One day Moses was walking in the mountains on his own when he saw a shepherd in the distance. The man was on his knees with his hands spread out to the sky, praying. Moses was delighted. But when he got closer, he was equally stunned to hear the shepherd’s prayer.
“Oh, my beloved God, I love Thee more than Thou can know. I will do anything for Thee, just say the word. Even if Thou asked me to slaughter the fattest sheep in my flock in Thy name, I would do so without hesitation. Thou would roast it and put its tail fat in Thy rice to make it more tasty”.
Moses inched toward the Shepherd listening attentively.
“Afterward I would wash Thy feet and clean Thine ears and pick Thy lice for Thee. That is how much I love Thee.”
Having heard enough, Moses interrupted the shepherd, yelling “Stop, you ignorant man! What do you think you are doing? Do you think God eats rice? Do you think God has feet for you to wash? This is not prayer. It is sheer blasphemy.”
Dazed and ashamed, the shepherd apologised repeatedly and promised to pray as decent people did. Moses taught him several prayers that afternoon. Then he went on his way, utterly pleased with himself.
But that night Moses heard a voice. It was God’s.
“Oh Moses, what have you done? You scolded that poor shepherd and failed to realise how dear he was to Me. He might not be saying the right things in the right way, but he was sincere. His heart was pure and his intentions good. I was pleased with him. His words might have been blasphemy to your ears, but to Me they were sweet blasphemy.”
Moses immediately understood his mistake. The next day, early in the morning, he went back to the mountains to see the shepherd. He found him praying again, except this time he was praying in the way he had been instructed. In his determination to get the prayer right, he was stammering, bereft of the excitement and passion of his earlier prayer. Regretting what he had done to him, Moses patted the shepherd’s back and said, “My friend, I was wrong. Please forgive me. Keep praying in your own way. That is more precious to God’s eyes”.
The shepherd was astonished to hear this, but even deeper was his relief. Nevertheless, he did not want to go back to his old prayers. Neither did he abide by the formal prayers that Moses had taught him. He had now found a new way of communicating with God. Though satisfied and blessed in his naive devotion, he was now past that stage–beyond his sweet blasphemy.
“So you see, don’t judge the way other people connect to God,” concluded Shams.”To each his own way and his own prayer. God does not take us at our word. He looks deep into our hearts. It is not the ceremonies or rituals that make a difference, but whether our hearts are sufficiently pure or not.”
(The Forty Rules of Love, Pg. 51-52)
Casting judgement on another’s faith, intention or sincerity is exceptionally dangerous and places us in a potentially precarious position before God. One supremely sincere prayer or supplication offered by an individual who has endured tremendous struggle patiently could very well be more cherished by God than a 1,000 offered by another person who has been granted greater ease in life. We simply cannot know—and any attempt to judge another’s faith is therefore futile.
We should thus always strive to encourage each other to discover our distinct spiritual connection with God in a way that brings us comfort because this will foster sincerity in gestures of faith. This encouragement and tolerance is an extension of faith, and it is important to ardently avoid placing judgements that would risk damaging our own good intentions.
Prophet Muhammad ﷺ once conveyed the story of a person who presumed to judge another’s faith by saying: ‘By God, God will not forgive So-and-so”. “At this God the Almighty said: ‘Who is he who swears by Me that I will not forgive So-and-so? Verily, I have forgiven So-and-so and have nullified your (own good) deeds,” the prophet continued.
It is important to remember when we find ourselves casting judgement on another that sincerity is infinitely more important than any ritual or external display of faith we can put on. Since each person has very specific circumstances that shape the plot of their personal journey, it is impossible for any individual to have enough perspective and understanding to judge another’s faith fairly and accurately. The depth of our genuineness cannot be fully manifested in words, clothes or acts that may sound and look different from person to person. It can be judged by God alone.