Understand the Plan: A Commentary from the Hikam of Ibn Ata'illah

By Tarek Elgawhary

Aphorism 2: Desiring a life without means while God has placed you in a world of means is a result of hidden desire. Desiring a world of means while God has placed you in a life without the need for means is a result of having low aspirations.

This aphorism, as well as all the aphorisms of Ibn ‘Atta’Allah, are different ways of explaining the statement, “there is no power and ability except that of God” (la hawla wala quwwata ila bi’llah). The Prophet of Islam (God bless him and give him peace), describing the origin of this statement, said that it is a treasure coming from beneath the throne of God (‘arsh al-Rahman). In the cosmology of Islam, the seven levels of heaven ascend from earth to the throne of God. Each level of heaven is but a “ring cast in a desert” in size compared to the one above it. Such is the escalation in size all the way until the levels reach the throne of God, the seventh level being but “a ring cast in a desert” compared to the throne of God, which is one of the mightiest creations of God. A statement originating from beneath such a creation indicates the importance of not only the statement itself, but also its high moral and spiritual weight in the life of a Muslim. It is a manifestation that everything that happens to us, everything that we experience throughout our lives is from the will and creative act of God, not a result of our own ability and actions. While such a notion might at first glance seem fatalistic, these aphorisms point to the exact opposite. Such a belief and notion is a form of liberation from anxiety, stress, and depression, ailments that afflict so many of us in society. The truth is, we are all in good hands, and we should trust that God acts for our best interests, not against them. However, as mighty as the throne is and all the levels of the heavens that ascend to it, no created object is greater than the Prophet of Islam (God bless him and give him peace). For this reason, many the ‘ulama’ have referred to him as, “the one whose heart is a throne of God’s manifestation”. Meaning that a pure heart can become a throne of God where He manifests His beauty and Mercy for others to benefit from. So this statement, “there is no power and ability except that of God”, is backed by a living example articulating how such a statement is to be lived and acted out in various real life situations.

In this particular aphorism, Ibn ‘Atta’Allah speaks of two modes of the human condition: a life without the need for means, and a life bound by means. A life without the need for means is a life in which one’s financial and worldly obligations are taken care of. Such could be the life of a full-time student, for example, or someone who has a source of funding that has granted this individual the ability to focus on other aspects of life. This could be a temporary situation (in most cases) or a permanent condition. A life bound by means is a life where one is required to earn a living, provide for dependents, and maintain other financial and worldly obligations. This is, perhaps, the life of most of us living in the modern world. Many of us are part of the work force earning a living for our families, or if without families, at least earning a living to support ourselves. Others of us might have extended families and children in our care, or even elderly parents and/or relatives that need our attention. We, therefore, become a means for their subsistence and represent a necessary relationship in their lives.

This aphorism does not criticize any of these two modes of living. Rather, it acknowledges that they are two modes of the human condition, nothing more and nothing less. The aphorism, however, does addresses how we perceive the “other side of the fence” and reminds us, as the saying goes, that the grass is not always greener on the other side. When we find ourselves in one of these modes, we must understand that this is part of the Divine plan. We have been placed in this mode or that. God has facilitated our lives in one-way or another. To desire the other side, or to see the other side as “better” than what one has is to miss the point entirely that what we are required to do is to be firm and excel in that which God has given us. This sentiment is reinforced by the life of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. He was born an orphan, lived poor, but became successful at business, married and had children. All his children, except one, died during his lifetime. He was a father, a husband, a judge, a commander-in-chief, as well as a spiritual guide. In his life we find how he took each of these conditions and made the best out of them. Never once did he desire to be rich or poor, single or married, a recluse or a statesman. Rather, wherever God placed him, whatever situation he was given, he excelled in the most beautiful of ways and in so doing, left us a roadmap to follow.

In our lives, we interact with different people and it is easy to conclude that what they have is “better” than what we have. Some people want money, others fame, and others seek endless power. Yet, these things that we seek are all from the dominion of God. He alone is the One who gives, not us. We all have different trajectories in our lives and have been given different opportunities. Despite these various opportunities, we all have the same chance to be excellent and to be ever mindful that God is merciful, kind, and gentle. He has praised beauty and excellence, and He has commanded us to seek these out in whatever mode He has placed us.


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