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Desire To Retreat
Nov 1, 2009

This transient material world attracts us greatly with the kind of life it imposes upon us, the many opportunities it presents, and its overwhelming daily engagements. As a reaction to these attractions, one may feel inclined to become isolated from society; a desire to retreat may surface. What should a person do in this situation?

Answer: Human nature and certain feelings that are ingrained in it are closely related and are in compliance with the attractions of the world. This is an undeniable reality. Thus, there are truly so many different things which invite one to the world, to its tempting presence that is centered around fancies and desires. If we remember Nursi’s remarks on this same issue as he protested the way in which Muslims were attracted to the world, he writes in the seventh note of the Seventeenth Gleam:

[M]any factors invite people to the world: one’s carnal soul, needs, passions, desires, Satan, the superficial sweetness of the world, bad friends, and the like, while those inviting to the Hereafter and eternal life are few. Patriotic feelings and efforts will increase this number. If you act otherwise and silence them, and help the many, you will be a companion of Satan.

The attractions of this world constantly appeal to human beings, to certain sensory faculties ingrained in their nature, to their inner and external feelings and keep inviting them. In addition, as this aspect of the world and the reward of the Hereafter are opposites, we can also say that those attractions which invite people to the world are also factors that divert us from the eternal beauties of the Hereafter.

Etymology of the word dunya (world)

In fact, when the etymologic structure of the word dunya is studied, it can be seen that there is a serious relation with the structure of the word and its attractions. According to scholars, this word is either derived from the root dunuw, which means “being near,” or danaeh, which means being low, mean, or vile. If we accept that the word comes from the root dunuw, then the word dunya means “the nearest one,” whereas the next life to follow after this near one is called the akhirah (Hereafter). The word ukhra, which means “the other,” is also used for the Hereafter, as opposed to this world. Accordingly, the world is the immediate realm, the one near to us, and the Hereafter is the next one beyond. Therefore, something people find in their immediate surroundings has a greater effect on them and takes them under influence; it bewitches and attracts them. Thus, people are close enough to the world to be enchanted and come under its spell. Therefore, we call this dunya, meaning the nearest realm. When we examine the word dunya as a derivation from danaeh, then akhirah means that which is higher and dunya means lowly, or vile. When both meanings are combined, dunya means “a lowly thing that is near to people.”

Three facets of the world

On the other hand, it would not be correct to solely consider and evaluate the world according to its material aspect that appeals to our physical nature and fancies. At this point, it is useful to remember Said Nursi’s wise perspective. He states that the world has three facets. Accordingly, the first facet is concerned with the Names of Almighty God and demonstrates their inscriptions and functions as mirrors. In this respect, we can view the world as an exhibition for the Divine art, a book of reflection composed by the laws of creation, a huge vehicle, a port that opens on the knowledge and love of God. As a consequence of all these, the world can be viewed as a bay that allows us to contemplate Creator deeply. As far as this facet is concerned, the world serves as a stage that reveals the infinite beauties of God and their manifestations, and is a means for love for Him to flourish. In this respect, the world is not contemptible, but rather is worthy of love.

The second facet is concerned with the Hereafter. As stated by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, the world is an arable field for the Hereafter. It is the ground that is to be prepared for the Hereafter through good deeds; it is the tillage of Paradise through which we can attain eternal happiness.

The world is worthy of love from the perspective of both of these facets. It is with these facets that the world becomes a heavenly stairway by which believers ascend toward the Divine.

As for the third, it is concerned with the passing fancies of people. This facet of the world is material, and it is transient and deceptive. Loving this facet of the world diverts people from God and from the purpose for which they have been created, taking them to perdition. Thus, this third facet of the world is closely interrelated with human nature, their desires and fancies. If people do not use their free will against this facet of the world, if they do not satisfy the feelings in their nature within the limits allowed by their Creator, but rather give in to the heedless atmosphere of their desires, they then face the great danger of failing the test in this world.

In two of the three conditions it is more likely that we may go astray. One can find the truth, walk toward it and then embrace it. In other words, if a person does not use their free will correctly, does not meet the requirements of guidance, but act heedlessly, it is certain that they will go astray.

Secondly, idling one’s life away can also lead to misguidance. The third possibility is that one good use of the free will entrusted to us, exerting oneself in this direction and being rewarded with divine guidance. As can be seen, there is only one way for deliverance. However, if one does not use this opportunity well, there are two different ways by which they can fall into misguidance. Thus, a person’s finding the truth and maintaining the straight path require serious efforts. This difficult task can be compared to rising through the layers of the atmosphere and reaching outer space by freeing oneself from the gravitational pull of the earth. Without a doubt, this requires a certain amount of energy. On the other hand, one does not need to make any effort to stay on the ground; even the dead are able to do that. Instead of hurling bodies away as it revolves, the earth attracts them toward itself. And in the long run, as the laws of creation operate, the earth makes these bodies resemble itself by having them decompose and becoming earth. In a similar way, we need to be equipped with the necessary spirituality to help us overcome the pull of the world so that we can complete our spiritual journey in the realm of the heart and spirit. A person should acknowledge, from the very beginning, the interrelation between this third facet of the world and human desires and fancies, thus becoming aware that this is the dominant aspect Only then can an individual carry out what is required of human free will, only then can they see the beautiful facets of the world that declare God and the Hereafter, and only then can they exert a continuous effort. Otherwise, it is all too easy to be overcome by the pull of the world and to plummet to earth.

Seclusion and living for others

In order to be saved from the danger we mentioned above, many people choose to seclude themselves from others; such a choice can be a means for salvation for one’s personal life. However, it should be realized that this is not an absolute and it may not always be a means to salvation. For example, Said Nursi once retreated to a cave to worship on Mount Erek; but they did not leave him alone, not even there. Now try to imagine: had this blessed personage not oriented his life with a pure and upright perspective and disciplined himself to live according to modest standards, as if he is living his life in a cave, how could he have maintained his supreme spirituality when exiled and forced to live a non-secluded life? However, the life he led outside was purer and nobler than one that was led in a cave. As an expression of Nursi’s gratitude, he remarked that divine Mercy had made the exile town Barla a means to attain the spirituality he had sought in the cave, without making his feeble body bear the difficult conditions of the cave. In spite of going through an ordeal that included prison, surveillance, and endless trials, Nursi led a saintly life, together with his students, publishing his works of Qur’anic exegesis and on the truths of faith in inner peace.

It should also be realized that those who choose seclusion and seek spiritual comfort in retreat eliminate the conditions for spiritual struggle and thereby destroy a dynamic that could be a basis for their spiritual progress. Just as our immune system cannot develop unless it meets certain viruses, leaving it so undefended as to be able to be destroyed by the slightest germs, a person who is not engaged in a spiritual struggle is just as vulnerable to the virus of sin.

The following parable demonstrates this point very well: once upon a time there were two devout brothers. One of them lived as a hermit on the side of a mountain, and the other lived among people and tried to convey them the truths of faith. The hermitic brother had a bag made of cloth which he used to hang his food and drink near the entrance of his cave. One day he realized that God Almighty had granted him an extraordinary blessing; the cloth bag held liquids like a glass, with no seepage. He visited his brother in the city and witnessed the same blessing there. As the hermit spent some time near his brother the worldly life of the city had an effect on his spirituality and the water in his bag in the cave began to seep out. However, there was no change to his brother’s bag. Then it dawned on the hermit that while his brother was trying to save others he had gained a strong defense mechanism against sins; he used his willpower to maintain his spirituality in the life of the city.

The ideas above should not be taken to mean that worship in retreat is of no use. The point being made is that seclusion is not an objective method that can help everybody to salvation in any absolute sense. Nevertheless, it is an undeniable fact that throughout history there have been men of God who advanced toward perfection on the horizons of knowledge and love of God by withdrawing into seclusion and ceasing to busy their ears, tongues, and lips with anything not related to Him. Later on, those making such journeys gradually came into contact with the world and they learned to maintain their spirituality in these conditions as well.

Try to save others so that you can be saved

However, it is a truth that one who constantly leads a hermitic life cannot usually tell others about the truth. Even though they can find personal salvation, they cannot save another. A true believer is one who strives for the guidance of others as well; this is an obligation for those who have sincere faith. It is possible to say that in our philosophy the way to salvation is related to our intention and efforts to save others. And this can only be realized by being with God while socializing with people; to express this in Sufi terminology, this perspective can be realized by preferring the Jalwati way over the Halwati one.

Another important matter to be considered at this point is that an inclination for seclusion may generate from a wish to escape responsibility and seek personal comfort. When I was working in Edirne I saw a few lines on the wall inscribed inside the mosque by a follower of the Halwati order. These lines exemplify this point well and read as follows:

“O my brothers, my comfort is in my retreat. Whoever I made friends with found my shortcomings and revealed my faults. Indeed, I have met no one who is truly faithful. Therefore I, found comfort and inner and mental peace in solitude.”

I think this approach is an escape, since a believer cannot be a person who only thinks about and lives for themselves, only seeking personal comfort. Instead, they consider both their own progress and the salvation of the faith and spirituality of others. Therefore, we can say that being among others with the intention of expressing the truth is the way of the prophets, particularly that of the Messenger of God. Had seclusion been more pleasing to God Almighty, the noble Prophet would have spent his life in the cave on Mount Hira and have led his life in retreat. Nobody would have disturbed him; but then who would have carried out the duty of conveying the message to others? At the very beginning of his mission, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, received the following command: “O you cloaked one (who has preferred solitude)! Arise and warn! And declare your Lord’s greatness!” (Muddathir 74:1–3). With these verses, God Almighty declared that he should go and be with people and give them a hand to guide them to the truth; this was the mission of Prophethood. There is a similar statement in another verse (Maeda 5:67) reading: “O Messenger! Convey and make known in the clearest way all that has been sent down to you from your Lord. For, if you do not, you have not conveyed His Message and fulfilled the task of His Messengership.” Actually, this verse implies: “you will be dismissed from your position if you do not fulfill your mission.” In this respect, if one retreats into a corner, God Almighty might renege on the favors that He blessed that person with. This is why we are underlining the point that what should be sent to a cave is our wish for solitude, nothing else. Instead, we should arise with the motive of mingling with people for the sake of God, exerting ourselves in the way of faith and serving humanity, hand in hand with our friends. At this point, one cannot help but remember what the poet Mehmed Akif said: “One should rely on God, keep striving, and obey what wisdom requires. If there is a way, it should be this one; we do not know any other way out!”

Nevertheless, God Almighty protects those who serve on His path when they mix with people. Is this not what He has done so far? Many of us have had such experiences. As has been previously mentioned, the temptations of the world have a very powerful appeal for human nature. This tendency for ungodliness, the rebellious urge of our carnal self, is so overwhelming. A fair evaluation of this picture might lead to the conclusion that “because a person’s fancies, desires, and the rebellious urges of the carnal self constantly call him to the world, one can give into the temptations of the world any moment.” In my opinion, the surprising thing at this point is that although some may expect that the people who are trying to serve in the way of God will fall headfirst into the swamp of sins, thanks be to God this is not actually the situation. Because there are so many pitfalls awaiting us, one can just lose control and go astray. However, Providence does not let us deviate from our path. Those who serve the righteous cause are devoted and seem to come under divine protection. What befalls us is to be aware of this blessing and keep praying: “O God, we pray for Your protection and care; we implore You for deliverance under Your Providence.”