Amongst the many profound sayings from the holy Prophet, perhaps one of the most intriguing of them states;
“One who knows himself, knows his Lord”.
Such a saying establishes an enormous responsibility on knowing and reflecting on one’s self, in order to deepen the connection with God the Almighty. However, what does ‘self’ even mean? The self could mean the various stages of the soul as mentioned in the Quran (the desirous, the self-eschewing or the tranquil soul), or the elements that construct the metaphysical nature of every human (anger, desire, intellect and imagination) or perhaps the fitra (the innate Godly inclined nature of man). Whichever definition of the self you take, clearly it is a notion that requires true introspection in order to begin to satisfy the Prophet’s advice.
So how can you know the self? Well, the first step has to be self-analysis and reflection – for the Prophet has compared reflection (taddhabur and taffakur) to being greater than years of prayer. The idea perhaps being that prayer without true presence of the heart and soul is of little benefit compared to one who has taken time to analyse life and God outside of prayer.
Secondly, knowing oneself is not easy, as God has made us such complex and amazing beings – the best of His creations – and just knowing what type of human characteristics you possess can have such a huge impact. To do so a personality test would be a very interesting way to know more about yourself. Although an extensive Myers-Briggs (MBTI) test would be the best way to go about this, it can be costly and requires a trained professional. However, a colleague, and friend, who is a child psychotherapist suggested the following alternative free online test: https://www.16personalities.com
By doing such tests, you can delve deeper into what type of person you are, and can begin to channel this towards improving the way you perform prayer, treat others, conduct yourself, as well as determining the vices you need to overcome, in order to get closer to God. Of course, this idea of knowing the self is not exhaustive, as we can always deepen our knowledge of the metaphysical, but it is a start nonetheless in seeking to know God. A beautiful supplication which magnifies this idea of knowing the self and knowing God, is the intimate whispered prayer by Ali ibn Abi Talib. In this prayer he focusses on some of the attributes of God whilst comparing them to the needy and lowly nature of the human.
“My Lord, O my Lord, You are the Powerful and I am the weak, and who else can be merciful to the weak except the Powerful?
My Lord, O my Lord, You are the Eternal and I am the transient, and who else can be merciful to the transient except the Eternal?”
Such an exquisite supplication really puts into perspective how low, feeble, needy and dependent mankind is, and at the same time glorifies God so well that we may appreciate His grandeur, compassion and completeness.
Furthermore, pondering over such supplications really draws out the weaknesses in character we possess and the many vices we harbour within ourselves. For example, when we think about the great reward of charity in the holy month of Ramadhan, we should take time to also think about how giving, generous and kind God is towards us every single day; despite the fact that we can be so miserly so often throughout the rest of the year. Making these parallels and recognising our flaws compared to God’s perfection is crucial in strengthening our submission to Him, and reforming ourselves to reflect the morals the holy Prophet established.
The next question worth asking is, how does knowing oneself allow you to know God? Aside from the growth in connection with God via the reformation of character (as well as ‘fine-tuning’ your acts of worship), there is arguably a more mystical reasoning too. When you start to reflect on who you are, what life is about, your purpose on this Earth and in this life (duniya), and then bounce this off the attributes and majesty of God, you will begin to join dots between you and God. Whether this is at a surface level and you increase taqwa (God consciousness) or take it to grand depths like the great mystics and gnostics did, the road to knowing God will have at least be embarked upon.
Ultimately, the path to knowing God is an eternal one, but you only have the seventy odd years in this life to begin this journey and taste the sweetness of knowing God, so why not start sincerely in these holy nights of power (Qadr). A pivotal role in doing so has to be knowing who you are first, and then trying to strip away the negative and un-Godly characteristics you possess, whilst nurturing and realising the Godly-like traits, so that you can fulfil the potential God bestowed within you.
And surely God knows best.