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City of God IV 1 February 2007

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

In previous posts (City of God I,II and III), I shifted from Prophetic advice to classical political philosophy in order to tease out what it means for a person of faith to be a citizen of this or that political community. In my final post, I would like to return to the words of the Prophet, on him be peace. Ibn ‘Umar, may God be pleased with him, was just a youth when the Prophet took him by the shoulder and said:

Be in this world as though you were a stranger or a traveler.

A stranger is from somewhere else—a foreigner, estranged from his own home. A traveler is someone who enjoys her surroundings, but travels light and keeps an eye on her destination. Consider what Muslims say when someone dies. Innalillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un: “Indeed, we belong to God and to Him is our return.” This life is a pitstop for the believer.

None of this means, however, that we can actually leave the world altogether. Complete transcendence is neither possible nor desirable. I return to the advice of the Prophet, on him be peace, to make this point:

A group of three men came to the houses of the wives of the Prophet asking how the Prophet worshipped, and when they were informed about that, they considered their worship insufficient and said, “Where are we from the Prophet as his past and future sins have been forgiven.” Then one of them said, “I will offer the prayer throughout the night forever.” The other said, “I will fast throughout the year and will not break my fast.” The third said, “I will keep away from women and never marry.” The Messenger of God came to them and said, “Are you the same people who said such-and-such? By God, I am more submissive to God and more afraid of Him than you; yet I fast and break my fast, I sleep and I marry. Whoever turns away from my example is not from me.”

Human beings cannot and should not deny their commitment to this world. We aren’t animals, but we aren’t angels either. We are embodied spirits. To be human is to be suspended between two domains. This actually goes back to an old idea, which has been expressed differently by different thinkers. We might say that we are caught between the devil and God. Or that we lie somewhere between beasts and angels.

This is how Nietzsche puts it:

Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.

To return to the title of the series (and a conclusion that Nietzsche wouldn’t share): as believers, we stand at the intersection of two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. We can’t truly leave the abode of man. And we can’t join the abode of God just yet. We are at once and the same time actual citizens of existing political communities and aspiring citizens of an ideal, spiritual ideal community.

Call it ummat Muhammad, call it the City of God.



1. Anonymous - 7 February 2007

I agree with everything you’ve written here except
“None of this means, however, that we can actually leave the world altogether. Complete transcendence is neither possible nor desirable.”

May not be possible but not desirable? Very desirable. If I could escape this world for heaven; why wouldn’t I? It my top prayer. Its the ultimate win. I can get no bigger reward.

2. ABD - 7 February 2007

i take it your point. i should have said that in this world and in this life, complete transcendence is not desirable.

the words of the prophet, on him be peace, suggest to me that while piety is at the core of our prescribed way of life, asceticism in the way of cloistered monks is not. we are given this life as a test, and we have to pass through it—commitments intact—in order to get to the next.

3. VARANGALI - 10 March 2007

ABD, your argument reminds me of a few lines from Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”:

“I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree~
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

4. ABD - 13 March 2007

(smiling) i definitely had that passage in mind

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