When Sara met Ahmed, she immediately knew. He was everything she had always dreamed of. Meeting him was like watching the sun rise in the middle of a snowstorm. His warmth melted the cold. But soon admiration turned to worship. Before she could understand what had happened, Sara had become a prisoner. She became a prisoner of her own desire and craving for that which she adored. Everywhere she looked, Sara saw nothing but him. Her greatest fear in life was displeasing him. He was all she could feel, and without him happiness had no meaning. Leaving him made her feel as though her soul was being peeled from her very being. Her heart was consumed with only his face, and nothing felt closer to her than him. He became to her like the blood in her veins. The pain of existing without him was unbearable because there was no happiness outside of being with him.
But Sara thought she was in love.
Sara had been through a lot in her life. Her father walked out on her when she was a teenager, she ran away from home when she was 16, she battled drug and alcohol addictions. She even spent time in jail. But all that pain combined could not compare to the pain she would come to know inside this new prison of her own making. Sara became a captive inside her own desires. It was this captivity that Ibn Taymiyyah spoke of when he said, “The one who is (truly) imprisoned is the one whose heart is imprisoned from Allah and the captivated one is the one whose desires have enslaved him.”
The agony of Sara’s worship of Ahmed was more intense than the agony of all her previous hardships. It consumed her but never filled her. Like a parched man in the middle of a desert, Sara was desperately pursuing a mirage. But what was worse was the torturous result of putting something in a place only God should be.
Sara’s story is so deep because it demonstrates a profound truth of existence. As human beings, we are created with a particular nature (fitrah). That fitrah is to recognize the oneness of God and to actualize this truth in our lives. Therefore, there is no calamity, no loss, no thing that will cause more pain than putting something equal to God in our lives or our hearts. Shirk on any level breaks the human spirit like no worldly tragedy could. By making the soul love, revere, or submit to something as it should only God, you are contorting the soul into a position that it, by its very nature, was never meant to be in. To see the reality of this truth, one only has to look at what happens to a person when they lose their object of worship.
On July 22, the Times of India reported that a 40-year-old woman committed suicide in her home by pouring kerosene over her body and setting herself on fire. The police said it appeared that the suicide was an “extreme step because she was unable to conceive a child over 19 years of marriage.”
Only days earlier on July 16, police reported that a 22-year-old Indian man “committed suicide after his girlfriend left him.”
Most people could sympathize with the pain of these people, and most would be heartbroken in the same position. But if having a child or a particular person in our life is our reason for being, something is terribly wrong. If something finite, temporary and fading becomes the center of our life, the raison d’etre (reason for existing), we will surely break. The imperfect object that we place at our center will—by definition—fade, let us down, or pass away. And our break will occur as soon as it does.
What happens if, while climbing a mountain, you hang on to a twig to hold all your weight? Laws of physics tell us that the twig, which was never created to carry such weight, will break. Laws of gravity tell us that it is then that you will most certainly fall. This is not a theory. It is a certainty of the physical world. This reality is also a certainty of the spiritual world, and we are told of this truth in the Qur’an. Allah says:
“People, here is an illustration, so listen carefully: those you call on beside God could not, even if they combined all their forces, create a fly, and if a fly took something away from them, they would not be able to retrieve it. How feeble are the petitioners and how feeble are those they petition!” (22:73)
The message of this ayah (verse) is deeply profound. Every time you run after, seek, or petition something weak or feeble (which, by definition, is everything other than Allah), you too become weak or feeble. Even if you do reach that which you seek, it will never be enough. You will soon need to seek something else. You will never reach true contentment or satisfaction. That is why we live in a world of trade-ins and upgrades. Your phone, your car, your computer, your woman, your man, can always be traded in for a newer, better model.
But there is a freedom from that slavery. When the object upon which you place all your weight is unshaking, unbreakable, and unending, you cannot fall. You cannot break. Allah explains this truth to us in the Qur’an when He says:
“There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false gods and believes in God has grasped the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break. God is all hearing and all knowing.” (2:256)
When what you hold on to is strong, you too become strong, and with that strength comes the truest freedom. It is of that freedom that Ibn Taymiyyah said: “What can my enemies do to me? I have in my breast both my heaven and my garden. If I travel they are with me, never leaving me. Imprisonment for me is a chance to be alone with my Lord. To be killed is martyrdom and to be exiled from my land is a spiritual journey.”
By making the one without flaw, end, or weakness the only object of his worship, Ibn Taymiyyah described an escape from the prison of this life. He described a believer whose heart is free. It is a heart free of the shackles of servitude to this life and everything in it. It is a heart that understands that the only true tragedy is the compromise of tawheed (the doctrine of the Oneness of God), that the only insurmountable affliction is the worship of anyone or anything other than the One worthy of worship. It is a heart that understands that the only true prison is the prison of replacing something with God. Whether that object is one’s own desires, nafs (ego), wealth, job, spouse, children, or the love of one’s life, that false deity will entrap and enslave you if you make it ultimate. The pain of that bondage will be greater, deeper, and longer lasting than any other pain which could be inflicted by all the tragedies of this life.
The experience of Prophet Yunus `alayhi sallatu wa sallam (may Allah send his peace and blessings upon him) is so crucial to internalize. When he was trapped in the belly of the whale, he had only one way out: turning completely to Allah, realizing Allah’s oneness and his own human frailty. His du`a’ encapsulates this truth in such a profound way: “There is no God but You, glory be to You, I was wrong.” (Qur’an, 21:87)
Many of us are also trapped inside the belly of the whale of our own desires and objects of worship. It is our own selves which we become enslaved to. And that imprisonment is the result of putting anything where only God should be in our hearts. In so doing we create the worst and most painful of prisons; because while a worldly prison can only take away what is temporary and inherently imperfect, this spiritual prison takes away what is ultimate, unending and perfect: Allah and our relationship to Him.