Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
TO BE OR NOT TO BE
By Fatima Fleur Nassery Bonnin
"To be or not to be" continues to be a question that requires an answer, one which can only emerge through spiritual insight and realisation. The darkness of our minds needs this spiritual insight, the insight that illuminates the truth of where we are, where we think we are, and where we are meant to be.
We are in need of all the help we can get, particularly since it appears in this so called 'new age' that the word 'being' is so often used, somehow we are pulled further and further away from real 'being'.
Shakespeare's question "to be or not to be", can be viewed as either a mental question or a spiritual question, depending on whether it is addressing the 'zaher' (outer/apparent) or the 'batin' (inner/hidden) dimension. Many commentators have treated the zaher (apparent) aspect of it and have become captured in the trap of the beauty and play of the language, which is also a common phenomena in Sufi poetry. However in spite of that there seems to be confusion and disagreements among the various commentators.
For instance according to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
"The essential purport of the world-famous monologue in Hamlet is, in condensed form, that our state is so wretched that complete non-existence would be decidedly preferable to it."
"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer/the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" represent the 'to be' option, and "to take arms against a sea of troubles/and by opposing end them" the 'not to be' option.
Paradoxically it could mean the opposite.
Another interpretation says:
"The concept of equating taking arms with not being is usually explained by that taking arms against an irresistible sea of troubles is suicidal."
From an esoteric perspective, Shakespeare appears to be revealing the struggle of the inner and outer self, and what the commentator interprets as suicidal, seems to be Shakespeare contemplating the notion of the annihilation (fana) in God, The Real, which is the ultimate spiritual goal of man's journey of life, as opposed to the spiritual death where one has lost touch with their true self. Therefore paradoxically it reflects the battle towards spiritual annihilation which is 'not to be' that in reality is the state of 'to be'.
We really need to ponder why this passage from Shakespeare has struck a chord with generations of people if its message was so explicit, and it was not also encapsulating an inner message, a Divine message.
Let's consider another famous statement. Descartes statement of "je pense donc je suis" (I think therefore, I am). Whilst Descartes has been called the 'Father' of modern philosophy, his contributions also mark the point of separation between man as a totality of intellect, spirit and soul, and man defined solely by his intellectual capacity to think. This distillation of the idea of man into a purely cerebral being was an idea that greatly appealed to and attracted the attention of philosophers and people alike and society has paid the price ever since.
When we look through the spiritual lens at "I think therefore I am" we can see the erroneous perception generated by the philosopher's mind to the exclusion of man's spirit and soul rather than a declaration of the Truth. There have been many debates as to the merits and criticisms of Descartes position. For example Kierkegaard claims “The cogito 1 already pre-supposes the existence of the 'I', and the cogito has already assumed the 'I's' existence as that which thinks."
I think for those who claim that by "I think therefore I am" it is meant "therefore I exist!" I propose that one does not need the 'thinking I' as a proof of existence since there is no mistake in existing and if Descartes needed a proof of his existence he could have said "I breathe therefore I exist". Therefore existence could not be the purpose, rather 'am-ness' or state of being seems to be the point. For Kierkegaard, Descartes is merely "developing the content of a concept namely that the 'I', which already exists, thinks."
Again from the spiritual perspective thinking does not encapsulate the totality of the 'I', in fact being is the opposite of thinking, therefore being and thinking and the philosopher's mind are usually at odds with each other. All the striving in meditation is for the purpose of not thinking in order to reach the state of being.
Therefore, a more meaningful and reality-based statement would be "je pense donc je ne suis pas" (I think therefore I am not). The other side of this would then also be true which is the state of "I don't think therefore I am".
Moulana Rumi has referred to this in his celebrated book of Masnavi (VI, 2356-57).
The philosopher exhausted himself with thinking (figuring out)
Let him run on, (in vain) since his back is turned toward the treasure
Let him run on, for the more he keeps running
the farther away does he become from the object of his desire
According to some verses of the Qur’an and in Moulana Rumi's use of those verses, he says everything in this life is the opposite of the reality. But this is how it is supposed to be. Every brick that the world is built on has the façade of outer deception.
In other words the world as we know it relies heavily on unreality and deception, and reality threatens to collapse the structure holding it together. This apparent disjunction seems necessary so that two of Allah's Names and attributes; Al Zaher (the apparent) and Al Batin (the hidden) would permeate and flow to the world and human beings.
For highly spiritual people who have gone beyond certain levels of veils that shroud the truth, it becomes visible through the eye of the heart that 'to be' is 'not to be' and 'not to be' in reality is 'to be', through the connection that exists with the Being only in a state of not being of the ego self/lower nafs.
Spiritual realisation often reveals a contrary picture to the apparent understanding of what reality is. The question is why do very few people gain access to this insight. What is leading us in the wrong direction?
The writings of Sufi Masters and Sufi poetry are full of allusions to this insight, but they are hidden from the senses and the eyes of the majority of people. What is most visible instead, are the deceptive aspects of the veils that are covering the Truth.
For thousands of years the attraction to distraction from the reality and the distortion of reality that makes the unreal seem real has existed. While the majority follow the distorted way of thinking and living, there have always been a select few with spiritual power that are placed in the world and in the position to shine the light of Reality so that the path of acquiring the knowledge of Reality stays open. This knowledge which gets passed on in varying degrees makes possible the guidance of some middle of the way people as well.
There is a purpose and wisdom behind everything in life, and sometimes the very instrument that causes misguidance in the inner dimension could seem to provide guidance in the outer, and sometimes it is the opposite, that is, guidance in the inner dimension is seemingly misguidance in the outer. Since God has allowed such a possibility or even the statement such as Descartes’ to exist, we can use the inner guiding aspects of it and in so doing, suddenly we realise how helpful this can be for our spiritual unfoldment.
We need to do this in two ways:
First confirming the truth of spiritual teachings that thoughts and thinking, at the personality level, take one out of state of being.
Second, as soon as a thought comes, to be conscious of the sentence "I think therefore I am not".
From a spiritual perspective, it seems like Descartes’ famous line, whilst on one level misguiding a large number of people in society, paradoxically on another level, has always had within it the possibility of guidance.
I am reminded of certain verses in the Qur’an where Allah (swt) is alluding that the misguidance of many was in the making of the world and mankind, using the parable of the conversation with the Shaytan (Iblis)
"(Whereupon Iblis ) said: 'Now that Thou hast thwarted me, I shall most certainly lie in ambush for them all along Thy straight way, and shall most certainly fall upon them openly as well as in a manner beyond their ken, and from their right and from their left: and most of them Thou wilt find ungrateful.'"
"(Whereupon Iblis) said ‘O my Sustainer! Since Thou hast thwarted me, I shall indeed make (all that is evil) on earth seem goodly to them and shall most certainly beguile them into grievous error. All save such of them as are truly thy servants'"
"Said He: 'This is, with Me, a straight way: Verily thou shalt have no power over My creatures – unless it be such as are (already) lost in grievous error and follow thee (of their own will)'"
of Qur'an 15:41 is as follows:
"this is what I have willed" – namely that Iblis should tempt man but should have no power to seduce those who are truly conscious of God. Thus the Qur'an makes it clear that despite his ostensible 'rebellion' against his Creator, Iblis fulfils a definite function in God's plan: he is the eternal tempter who enables man to exercise his God-given freedom of choice between good and evil and, thus, to become a being endowed with moral free will.
The right and wrong, the good and evil are what leads man and his free will to the inward meaning and true reality if one has been sincere in the spiritual pursuit. That is when the delusion of the exoteric of the world shows its true face, of course in varying degree according to esoteric receptivity of the person. Al Ghazzali in his book of Mishkat Al Anwar (The Niche of Lights) says : "The outward word wakens one to the inward signification. While the outwards symbol is a real thing, its application to the inward meaning is a real truth. Every real thing has its corresponding real truth. Those who have realised this are the souls who have attained the degree of the 'Transparent Glass'." 3
Descartes famous statement "I think, therefore I am" is also known by the Latin "Cogito ergo sum"
The Qur’anic verses and commentary quoted are from "The Message of the Qur’an", translation and commentary by Muhammad Asad.
Referring to Al Ghazzali's interpretation of Qur'an Surah 24, verse 35