Attaining Clarity Amidst a Fog of Confusion
Answered by Imam Afroz Ali
Question: Sometimes I find that I get too lost in deep thoughts, this prevents me from having clarity of thought. Please give me some advice in light of Quran and Sunnah so I can gain an open and clear mind.
Answer: Praise Be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, The Compassionate, The Merciful. And, may the peace and blessings of Allah descend upon the Prophet Muhammad, his family, his companions, and their followers.
There are four considerations, in my opinion, that need to be addressed regarding your valuable question. I will attend to them separately, and insha Allah when understood together they offer clarity.
The Concept of Deep Thoughts
From your question it seemed that there is a negative perception about “deep thoughts”, such that it prevents one from having clarity. This assumption is not entirely accurate. The nature of deep thought is that it is in fact extremely clarifying! Firstly, what is deep thought? It is, in simple terms, time spent to deeply consider a situation, problem or thought. In practical sense, it is about considering various pieces of information in order to come to a clear understanding or conclusion in a holistic manner. A study undertaken by researchers (for example a joint research by Princeton and Florida University- Deep Thoughts and Shallow Frames: On the Susceptibility to Framing Effects- Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2003) had a study in regards to deep thought of different people, and the study showed that those who enter into deep thought are those with more set of information and who then assess it based on methodological process and in a holistic sense. So, for example, in studies where people were asked to share their views on the possibility of losing two-thirds of people in a group experiencing some threat, research found that most people who shared their views were impulsive and also experienced a sense of loss and confusion. Further, those who were asked to share their views about the same situation but in a slightly, but crucially importantly, different way, about their views on the possibility of saving the one-third of people in a group experiencing some threat, answered more positively but tended to lack clarity about the remaining two-thirds. However, those who were asked to share their views based on a more informed question, i.e., about the possibility of losing two-thirds of a group and saving one-third of a group experiencing some threat, that these people were far more able to articulate their views more holistically and with clarity about both sides of the same group of people.
The crucial issue that is to be understood from my brief explanation about deep thought is that it is not really possible without proper information, and more importantly knowledge. Information itself can be confusing, and in fact is the basis of the problem of a lack of clarity. With appropriate knowledge, one is able to undertake a thorough and methodical assessment of a diverse range of information that may be needed to come to a clear understanding or clarity of a matter. I will return to this aspect of appropriate knowledge, below.
So, in summary, deep thought is good and much needed. Further, it can really only be attained if one is armed with relevant information as well as knowledge to discern the information appropriately. Without that, deep thought is not necessarily attained and it leads to confusion and lack of clarity. Stated differently, lack of clarity arises from a lack of deep thought.
The Concept of Confusion
Arabic language is the best way to understand much about life, for Allah made it a language that makes you think (refer to verse 12:2, for example). And, the concepts within the Qur’an are always the best source to derive a sound understanding. Allah, The Almighty lets us know about the concept of confusion or lack of clarity, e.g.
“Say- He is All-capable of sending a punishment from above you or from beneath your feet, or to put you in confusion through divisions amongst yourselves, and make some of you taste tribulations through some others. See how We bring forth explaining Signs from different angles, so that they may understand.” [6:65]
There are many other verses in which Allah mentions confusion, but the issue on hand is more about the word He, Ta’ala, uses- variant forms of the word “labisa”. The root word refers to “to dress or cover up”, “to put on something”. Libās, for example, means clothing. Variant forms of the word, e.g., talbīs and iltibās refer to a “lack of clarity”, “confusion” or even “deception”, for an important reason that confusion arises from covering pertinent, useful or relevant information. The word iltibās also refers to a whole amount of entangled thread!
There is another word which is synonymous in this context with talbīs that Allah Ta’ala uses in the Qur’an:
“And thus We have made for every prophet an enemy, the devils amongst mankind and jinn who inspire one another with alluring rhetoric by way of delusion. Had Allah willed, they would have not done it. So, leave them alone with what they invent.” [6:112]
In this verse, Allah Ta’ala uses the term “gharūra”, to refer to “delusion” or “deception”, that the colourful and sometimes convincing words of those who spread lies and wrong, are a deception and captivate people through the confusion it creates. This is the power of unchecked information; literally information overload, of contradictory and confusing pieces of data that does not make sense due to a lack of appropriate knowledge. An obvious case in point regarding this is the large segment of the media and corrupt governments exploiting human frailties to spread lies and confusing information tend to paralyse people from making clear decisions on important matters, in order to control and have power over them.
The cure for confusion is undoubtedly appropriate and holistic knowledge.
The sources of confusion are many, and we have mentioned the importance of relevant information assessing them with knowledge. Furthermore, and more importantly, the source of confusion is spiritual weakness where desire and conjecture predominates one’s state of being. Allah says:
“He (satan) promises them and awakens desire in them, but Satan does not promise them anything but delusion.” [4:120]
“And some among them are illiterate people who have no knowledge of the Book, except fanciful opinion and do nothing but make conjecture.” [2:78]
“But their hearts are in confused ignorance about this (Qur’an), and they have other such actions, besides, which they continuously do.” [23:63]
The implicit message of these, and many other verses is that a person who ends up being confused and deluded does not have a proper orientation towards The All-Knowing, All-Wise, such that they prefer or succumb to confusion and delusion through their own desire and fanciful thinking.
The Concept of Clarity
The presence of clarity is through numerous noble ways- appropriate knowledge, reflection and contemplation (deep thinking) and above all, surrendering to the Knowledge of Allah rather than our own whims and desires.
Clarity is, in essence, the ability to distinguish something properly and without doubt or confusion. In Arabic, the word for clarity is “wuđūħ” which is derived from wađaħa. A critical element in the meaning of this word is its primary use to refer to, for example, a horse or camel, which has a distinctive mark that distinguishes it from others, e.g., a white blaze on the head of a horse despite the predominant red colour of its entire body such that it is easily distinguished from the rest in the herd. Another important use of the word is to refer to the whiteness of dawn break that allows one to distinguish from night. All of these uses of the word and its variants refer to one thing- the ability to distinguish something without doubt or confusion.
Similarly, Allah Ta’ala uses another term and its variants in the Qur’an, bayyana, to refer to clarity and to distinguish between what is true and what is not, for example:
“…And eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread; then complete your fast…” [2:187]
“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clearly distinct from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.” [2:256]
In the context of this discussion, this verse is highly relevant for the critically important reason that true clarity is conditional upon a sincere submission to Allah, The All-Knowing, particularly by avoiding all unrighteous actions. Habituating righteous action with the right intention opens hearts towards the clarity of the Truth.
The famous Jibreel Hadīth is itself an articulation of certitude with clarity. It literally is about firstly attaining the right knowledge in order to attain certainty of action for Allah (Islām), secondly about questing through all Signs in order to attain certainty of trust of Allah (Imān) and thirdly to behave in such an excellent manner that reflect divine qualities in order to attain certainty of heart about Allah (Ihsān).
Thus, the three pillars of the path to true clarity are:
As the famous Hadīth informs us- actions are by our intention. Intentions can legitimately be layered in a hierarchy (please search on SeekersGuidance for an exposition about this by the esteemed Scholar Shaykh Faraz Rabbani). In brief, know that your clear and ultimate objective must be to seek nearness and approval of Allah. Seeking clarity for argumentation, material gain and position will ultimately bring varying levels of confusion, grief and ultimate loss.
2. Reflection on the Signs of Allah
There are plenty of verses in the Qur’an about the importance and benefit of reflection and contemplation about the Signs of Allah. Every Muslim should have allocated time in their daily or weekly life to enter into a meditative discourse to seek Allah.
3. To admit to and live by La-adri (I do not know)
Know that we only know because Allah Wills us to know. It will be a tragedy if one expanded their energy in seeking knowledge presuming they have the ultimate power to know by themselves. Allah says in the Qur’an (and which is a powerful supplication to learn and repeat often):
They said, “Exalted are You! We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is All-Knowing, Al-Wise.” [2:32]
And the Companion of the Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace and blessings of Allah, ‘Ali said, “Do not fear anything except your sins. Do not long for anything other than your Lord. Let no one of you lacking knowledge be too shy to ask until he learns. Do not let that one who is asked something he lacks knowledge of refrain from saying, ‘I do not know’.”
Advice from our Erudite Scholars based on the Qur’an and Sunnah
The key to clarity is in silence- physically (silence of the mind) and spiritually (firmness of the heart). Silence, “sukūt”, in Arabic refers to a deliberate silencing of one’s speech by reasoned thought. Silence of the mind and firmness of the heart encounter two obstacles that every Muslim should strive to eliminate from their daily lives:
Clutter of information, particularly frivolous and superficial, is a significant barrier. The sound-bite culture of the modern world is a definite path to attention-deficits. The amount of (useless) data and interruptions we have in our daily lives are all cognitive barriers to reasoned thought. Mobile phones, television, internet, texting, tweeting, driving, music, social chatter, dishonourable imagery and so many other elements crowd our physical brain into a lack of proper and deep thought about anything. Following from the explanations above, if our cognitive faculties are overloaded with pointless, frivolous or contradictory data, deep thought, hence clarity, is next to impossible.
The root of physical noise stems from our spiritual state, and the former accentuates the spiritual noise; it can be a vicious cycle. One would only engross themselves with various kinds of physical noise because of two fundamental shortcomings that every human must overcome if they truly seek success- heedlessness (ghafla) and desirous greed (ŧama’). These two shortcomings are the foundations of the spiritual diseases of the heart.
In this regard, I highly recommend the superb book translated by our esteemed Teacher, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Purification of the Heart by Imam Mawlūd. Furthermore, it is essential to have a sound and competent Teacher, because reading books alone are not the best of ways to secure knowledge. If one does not have such competent Teachers, I highly recommend that the reader at least enrol in the online courses offered by SeekersGuidance who are amongst the best online providers of Sacred Knowledge in a most qualified and competent way. One of the most inspiring Teachers of our time, Shaykh Yahya Rhodus teaches an essential course, Marvels of the Heart (from the masterpiece Ihya of the most erudite Scholar and Proof of Islam, Imam al-Ghazzali) on SeekersGuidance and is not to be missed. Numerous other courses are offered regularly to cover this most essential subject matter. What you read and learn must improve the state of your heart, otherwise it is wasted reading in the scheme of things.
Maintain a daily habit of Dhikr, for in the remembrance of Allah surely hearts find rest.
Seek knowledge, but know that simply attaining it is actually information. And remember, as outlined earlier, information alone is confusing and required proper knowledge to deeply think through the information. Most importantly, convert your knowledge into action- positive, righteous and lawful action- and avoid unlawful and doubtful matters. Action is the means by which we reinforce our Imān in Allah Ta’ala. The Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace and blessings of Allah, said, “That which is lawful is clear and that which is unlawful is clear. Between the two are doubtful matters that few people have knowledge about. Whoever avoids these doubtful matters absolves himself of blame with respect to his religion and his honour. Whoever falls into doubtful things will fall into what is unlawful, just like the shepherd who grazes his flock too close to a private pasture is liable to have some of his flock stray into it. Every king has a private pasture, and Allah’s private pasture is what he has prohibited. Verily, in the body is a small piece of flesh that if it is healthy, the whole body is healthy and if it is sick, the whole body is sick. This small piece of flesh is the heart.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
Imam al-Ghazzali, in his Letter to a Disciple (an invaluable resource for depth thought and clarity) states:
“Even if you studied for a hundred years and collected (or wrote) a thousand books, you would not be eligible for the mercy of Allah Ta’ala except through action. As Allah says: ‘And that a man shall not deserve but (the reward of) his own effort…[53:39]‘ And Allah also says: ‘But Yes- whoever submits his purpose to Allah and is a doer of good will have his reward with his Lord. And no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve. [2:112]‘”
Deep thought and clarity is not about being a genius at all nor is it an academic exercise, but really and truly about sincerely acting in accordance with Allah’s Commands (this is a tried and tested method with proof) with whatever knowledge one possesses. We have been asked to do exactly that (to act), and Allah thus provides varying levels of understanding. The Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace and blessings of Allah, sums this matter up with excellence when he says, “Whosoever acts in accordance with what he knows, Allah will bestow upon him the knowledge of what he does not act upon.” [Hadīth quoted from Jarrahi’s Kashf al-Khafa in al-Ghazzali’s Ayyuhal Walad]
Clarity is through obedience of Allah by utilising the many tools, means and advice explained above.
I pray to Allah that this explanation is of some benefit, and that He, the All-Knowing, grant us all the clarity of Truth in our hearts; and there is no success other than from Allah alone.
Afroz Ali is the Founder and President of Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences & Human Development, based in Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Imam in the Islamic Tradition, having studied under Traditional Islam and received licence to teach in various Islamic Sciences. His studies have taken him from university-based Islamic University- Madina, Saudi Arabia then moving towards Traditional Scholarship in Yemen, United States and Mauritania, where he has spent considerable time to learn from the most esteemed Rightly Guided Islamic Scholars of our time. He has also travelled to Cairo, Egypt for further studies in Islamic Jurisprudence with Scholars at al-Azhar University and is on the Board of Advisors at Markaz Aleem in Cairo, Egypt.
Imam Afroz also currently teaches Seeking Allah: Imam Muhasibi’s Treatise of the Seekers of Guidance Explained. To find out details about this course or to see what other courses are being offered in the Fall 2010 semester, visit SeekersGuidance.