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Clarity 2 November 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Philosophy, Psychology, Spirituality.

Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This piece was originally posted by ABD on 2 Nov 2006, and has been revised.

Clarity doesn’t precede decisions, it proceeds from them. Someone heard or read this somewhere, and thought it insightful enough to pass on. I am reminded of it now as I stand at an impasse of my own.

Philosophy begins in wonder, Socrates said. The Greek term for this is aporia—a difficulty, perplexity or impossibility. The inability to move forward, to progress smoothly, compels one to investigate the matter at hand. I wonder, though, as I try to put my finger on the insight that began this post: how does the impasse bring clarity? It’s the lack of clarity that brings us to the impasse in the first place: had we understood how to go or where to go, why would we have stopped?

To quote Socrates again: “Let us make a new beginning.” Perhaps the impasse, the arrest, the stopping and wondering, brings clarity in some other way. The crisis is productive. We cannot continue as we were: the mule lurches to a stop at the fork in the road.

Fair enough. But having stopped, how are we to continue? What will prod the mule in the haunches to resume its gait? Standing at the fork, how do we choose a path? Do we wait for the light to flood the night so that we can see the way before us? Or must we suffer the crossing in darkness, only then to apprehend the way that we ended up taking? To say, so that’s what I was doing!

On a seemingly unrelated note, I have heard two explanations of the salat al-istikharah, or prayer of guidance. The Prophet (on him be peace) is recorded to have said:

If any of you considers doing something, let him perform two units of prayer other than the obligatory prayer, and (then) say:

“O Allah! I ask guidance from Your knowledge, and Power from Your Might and I ask for Your great blessings. You are capable and I am not. You know and I do not and You know the unseen. O Allah! If You know that this thing is good for my religion and my subsistence and the end of my affairs, then ordain it for me and make it easy for me, and bless me in it. And if You know that this thing is harmful to me in my religion and subsistence and in the end of my affairs, then remove it from me and remove me from it. And ordain for me (instead) whatever is good for me, wherever it may be, and make me satisfied with it.”‘

On one understanding, the point of the prayer is to seek guidance before the act of decision. Faced with a difficult decision, we seek an answer from God. Unable to decide, we ask God to decide for us. But then the difficulty is: how do we know what God decided? What form does the answer take? Is it a response? An intuition? A feeling?

On a different understanding, the point of the prayer is to seek divine assistance after the act of decision. We simply pick a path (after the confidantes have been confided in and the hand wringing has been wrought) on our own and only then make this prayer in order to submit the wisdom of our choice to God’s judgment. Bring the matter to pass, Lord (if it is indeed in my interest), or abort it (if it is not). The divine is at hand, but in our moment of decision we remain alone.

Which takes us back to the beginning and returns us to the original question: does clarity precede a decision or proceed from it?

Any takers?

This piece has been revised since its original posting.



1. R - 2 November 2006

great post.

as for your question.. if i were to look back at my own experience… i want to say it proceeds from it. though afterwards one may realize that one’s choice was the wrong one! (or should that be “wrong”)

also, not sure i fully understand the second understanding of istikhara vs the first one.. in submitting one’s decision to Allah’s judgment, and seeing if He makes things easy or not, is that not like the first understanding in the sense that divine assistance/intervention is the answer? unless we say that the answer in the first understanding is strictly a feeling or intuition (or something along those lines), because doesnt divine assistance imply that one has already moved forward in a particular direction? since i feel it’s impossible to know with certainty what Allah has decided, it seems to me in both cases that one is, in fact, standing alone at the moment of decision, though surely Allah is there. the difference may only be in our perception of what is happening.. ie, according to the first understanding, one moves forward believing that it is Allah’s decision; in the second understanding, one moves forward believing it is one’s own decision but still anticipates a response from Allah.

forgive my confusion here.. perhaps i should have had my morning tea first.

2. Abu Sahajj - 2 November 2006

OK so what then in a secular society where might makes right and the pronounced resolution to a stalemate is more force be it bigger guns, more troops, more bombs or more political yes men?

“On a seemingly unrelated note, I have heard two explanations of the salat al-istikharah, or prayer of guidance.”

Not unrelated at all… this is a nice article.

3. Ahmed Sultan - 3 November 2006

As a prescription, procedural clarity should precede a decision. Depending on the case, the certitude associated with a decision varies. Generally speaking, *the* correct asnwer is unknowable. But, for pragmatic considerations, one must pick something (hopefully following sound and reasonable methodologies) and move on. (Hope I am justified in transforming clarity to certainty.) There are few cases where certainty is possible. For instance, if there are two options. If one can be demonstrated to be impossible, the other is the truth, however improbable.

4. Irving - 3 November 2006

Socrates was famous for sitting under a tree for days at a time, not moving or eating or drinking, working out a problem. In the end, it usually came down to checking his premises, and going on from a new understanding of his starting point.

Hujwiri, in his Unveiling of the Veiled says to ask God’s blessing before any new endeavor, and then to renounce all motives related to self-interest, for surely no blessings come from any selfish motives.

That, I think, is the right course in most everything.

Ya Haqq!

5. The Turk - 4 November 2006

To Irving:

“Hujwiri, in his Unveiling of the Veiled says to ask God’s blessing before any new endeavor, and then to renounce all motives related to self-interest, for surely no blessings come from any selfish motives.”

All endeavors begin with self interest. So how can you remove it?
It intergal to the request or enveador. How prayers go for winning the lotto as compared to solving Parkinsons’ or find the cure for Aids etc?

We are inhernetly selfish people. If I could i would take all the resouces for myself, family & friends. Thats we want jannat – unlimited resources without a care in the world. Innshallah one day we all shall be deemed worthy by Allah for it.

6. ABD - 14 November 2006

thank you for the generous discussion. that’s what these posts are for. so it seems that we have at least one vote for before (i.e., clarity preceding decisions) and at least one for after (clarity proceeding from decisions). let me try to make a couple of additional points by leaning on these particular responses.

R, you support the second possibility but ask for some clarification on the istikhara discussion (if you read it without your morning tea, i certainly wrote it without mine). as i tried to clarify in a subsequent revision of the post, i think one understanding of istikhara treats the prayer as a request for guidance and the other treats it as asking God to make sure things turn out for the best. you’re certainly right that ultimately we stand alone at the moment of decision in both cases. but i think there’s still a difference in attitude between the two.

to make the connection to clarity explicit: when you ask God for guidance, aren’t you asking for the clarity, certainty or at least confidence to make the right decision? and when you simply make the decision and then submit it to God, are you not asking for clarity, certainty or confidence after the fact? (some people might say it’s too late by that point, but we are talking about God here, not Santa Claus.)

our more sober brother, Ahmed Sultan, makes the fair point that you should really have done your homework before the decision. but even he doesn’t say that clarity necessarily precedes a decision, only that it should. i have to agree with him here, but my fear is that for difficult decisions—the ones we end up taking to the istikhara mat—such practical wisdom isn’t enough. for all our consultation and deliberation, we’re still stuck. we either don’t have enough information to make an informed decision or enough resolve to choose one option and just let the other one go.

pausing on that thought for a moment: ironically, perhaps we should not look at these options as ours. as soon as we stand at a cross-roads, we imagine ourselves in Situation A vs. Situation B. that’s only natural, but it’s not like either situation actually belongs to us. as possibilities and not actualities, these situations can only belong to God (if that makes sense). so we shouldn’t worry about the choice we didn’t make. it was never ours. we just grasped onto images of what might be. and one was, the other wasn’t. i’m not being precise here, but i’m led back to the Prophetic statement:

No slave of God will truly believe until he believes in qadar (predetermination), its good and bad from God, until he knows that what has befallen him was not going to miss him and that what has missed him was not going to befall him.
– Prophet Muhammad (on him be peace), as recorded in Tirmidhi

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