Question: What is nearness to Allah (awj)? How many different kinds of nearness are there? How can we gain nearness to Allah (awj)?
In lexicographical terms, “qurb” means the nearness of one thing to another. This can be in space or time. Because of this it is said that something from a spatial point of view is near another thing. Or it is said that yesterday is, from a temporal point of view, closer to today than two days before yesterday. In another common usage, “qurb” means being the centre of attention of someone and to hold a special place near them.
In lexicographical terms, “qurb” means the nearness of one thing to another. This can be in space or time. Of course in commonplace usage, “qurb” also applies to being the centre of attention and to holding a special place near someone.
In philosophical terms there are three types of nearness: spatio-temporal, essential (i.e. pertaining to quiddity), and existential. Spatio-temporal nearness however is particular to the different parts of the material world. Since Allah (awj) is not matter, this type of nearness does not apply in regards to Him.
Essential nearness, or nearness in quiddity, is like the nearness person a and person b have as humans, as they possess the same quiddity—being of the same species. Allah (awj), however, is unlimited and therefore without quiddity. Without quiddity, this sense of nearness will not pertain to Allah (awj) either.
Since Allah (awj) bestows existence to all beings and separation between a complete cause and its effect is impossible considering the fact that an effect is a mere link and relation to its cause, we can conclude that the nearness of Allah (awj) to His creation is existential nearness.
There are four groups of verses regarding Allah’s (awj) nearness to us:
a. Verses stating His nearness to us in principle;
b. Verses holding that He is nearer to us than any other being;
c. Verses saying that He is nearer to man than his jugular vein;
d. Verses saying that He is nearer to man than man himself.
In explaining the fourth group of verses, we must say that man, like all other contingent beings, is a hollow being—empty of any and all aspects of independent existence. Thus, Allah’s (awj) existential encompassment and comprehension lies between man and himself.
It is clear that Allah (awj) is not in any particular place, so that there could be a direction to get near Him by moving in that direction. Nearness to Allah (awj) is achieved through man strengthening his existential aspect to the extent that he begins to self-consciously manifest the Divine Attributes. In the movement towards salvation, the more man’s existential perfects increase, the more the levels of nearness to Allah (awj) increase.
Since Allah (awj) is close to everything, man must try to approach Allah (awj) through righteous deeds. These deeds are divided into two categories: compulsory and advisory. Deeds holding a key position in the first category are understanding and sincerity in actions, while the rest, including humility, good morals, and generosity, fall under the category of advisory deeds.
In philosophical terms there are three types of nearness: spatio-temporal, essential (i.e. pertaining to quiddity), and existential. Nearness and distance are things whose existence depends on two things. A and B should both exist in order for us to say that A is near B or is far from it. In the metaphysical realm in which immaterial beings exist that are free from motion and time, spatial and temporal nearness cannot apply. This is especially true in regards to the Reality of all realities and the unlimited existence “He is an absolute to whom we cannot point (spatially or temporally or otherwise) nor can He enter our imagination.”1
Since Allah (awj) is free from quiddity2, He can not share a quiddity with anything else nor be near to anything in this respect. This is because quiddity here means genus and differentia (when quiddity is opposed to existence). But Allah (awj) admits of no delimitation or definition such that another quiddity be near or far from Him. “He who points to Him has limited Him and he who limits Him counts Him.”3
Two things that are partners in or share one quiddity are like one another. Zayd and ‘Amr for instance share the quiddity of Man. Allah (awj) however is above and beyond having a like or an opposite.
In regards to connection in existential terms we can say that: Because Allah (awj) is the source of all existence and because the separation of the cause from the effect is impossible, therefore nearness can be envisioned as nearness in existential terms (although it must be noted that to speak in terms of cause and effects does not adequately convey the relationship here, since all things “other-than-God” are but so many manifestations of His one existence),
“And when my servants ask you concerning me, tell them I am near.”4
Things are, in their essence5, pure relations to Allah (awj). Until the cause is understood, the effect cannot be understood. Therefore the nearness Allah (awj) has to creatures is an existential nearness. There can be no existence except that Allah (awj) is its cause, and any effect stands by means of its cause. Therefore there cannot be a form of nearness nearer than this nearness.
In regards to the nearness of Allah (awj) to things, the verses of the Qur`an can be divided into four categories.
a. One group state His nearness per se: that Allah (awj) is near us:
“Verily I am near, I answer the caller.”6
b. A second group of verses state that He is relatively nearer to man than others:
“We are nearer to him than you but you do not see.”7
c. Another type of verse indicates that He is closer to man than his jugular vein:
“Verily we created man and we know what his soul whispers. And We are closer to him than his jugular vein.”8
d. A fourth group state that Allah (awj) is closer to man than man himself, like the following verse:
“O you who believe, answer Allah and the Prophet when they call you to what will give you life. Know that Allah stands between man and his heart.”9
Discussions about the first three groups are not very difficult but the fourth group cannot be solved so easily. How can Allah (awj) be closer to man than himself? Because of this, some commentaries, in line with some traditions have explained this as the intermediation of Allah’s (awj) power. They say that the meaning of the verse is that sometimes man decides to do something, then Allah (awj) makes him regret it and does not allow him to continue with his plan.10
This is an intermediate meaning, one step removed from the apparent meaning, but if we have a rational proof that supports the apparent meaning of the verse, then we have no reason for foregoing the apparent meaning of the verse (that God comes between man and himself). Man is not whole (samad), rather he is like other possible beings “empty”; as Kulayni has related in a tradition, “Verily Allah created man empty.”11
Now that man is empty, the comprehensiveness of the existence of Allah (awj) comes between man and himself. Therefore, Allah (awj) is near everything. If Allah (awj) is near, He is near with all of His attributes. This is because the essential attributes12 of Allah (awj) are one with His essence. Now, if His essential attributes are present, then His attributes of action will also be active following His essential attributes.
One of the fundamental questions that can be asked in this regard is, “How can we become closer to Allah (awj)?”—that Being, the light of whose existence has illuminated the Heavens and the Earth, an illumination that is the same as creation and the eternal creative act. From what direction should we approach Him and in what direction should we seek to become near to Him? It is clear that Allah (awj) does not have a direction, hence the journey along the path to Allah (awj) actually takes place within the very being of the wayfarer.
In the process of perfecting his essence, when the wayfarer travels from creation to the Real and travels from the material intellect13 to the active intellect, he communes with the Names and attributes of Allah (awj). In other words he attains his felicity. The depth and faculties of his existence are strengthened and he becomes one of Allah’s (awj) great signs or manifestations. He thus attains the state of sanctity and Divine vicegerency. This spiritual state can be called “nearness to Allah (awj).”
Because Allah (awj) encompasses all things14, it does not make sense that He be distant from something. Therefore, the nearness of Allah (awj) to His servant is true in all cases and situations. Conversely, it is not always the case that man is always close to Allah and it is a state that man must strive to obtain. Therefore if man wants to become closer to Allah (awj) and to strengthen this relationship, he should obtain the nearness to Allah (awj) by means of good actions and obedience to Allah (awj) as Imam Muhammad b. ‘Ali al-Baqir (ع) has said, “Nearness to Allah can only be found through obedience to Him.”15 In doing this, he enters the beginning of spiritual vicegerency or the succour of Allah (awj).
It has been related that “Prayer is the nearness of every pious person”16 and concerning the religious tax it has been related that “the zakat (has been made) with the prayers a means of nearness.”17 These are things that bring one close to Allah (awj).
When this nearness is achieved, man becomes the friend of Allah (awj) and Allah (awj) becomes the friend of man. Verses such as the following clearly point to this two-way friendship:
“If you love Allah, follow me. It will make Allah love you...”18
Performing all those actions that in principle bring you close to Allah (awj) is the means to Allah’s (awj) nearness provided that man performs them for Allah (awj). In other words, these actions must not only be good in themselves, but they must be carried out in the best way and with the proper intentions (i.e. goodness of both act and agent is required).
As to the acts, they are of two kinds: obligatory and recommended. Just as reaching heaven has obligations and recommended acts, so too reaching the highest degrees of humanity (that in itself is a type of heaven) has its obligations and recommended actions. Understanding and sincerity both have great bearing in this regard and can be considered mutually necessary to the extent that when understanding increases sincerity also increases.
On the other hand, the Qur`an considers actions to be a means of reaching understanding19. Of course, the understanding and certain knowledge thus obtained is not the certainty with respect to Allah (awj), since the former certainty is the cause of worship and not, as in the case of the latter certainty, the highest effect and product of worship. The latter certainty is the certainty of Allah (awj) and the knowledge of Him in all His unlimited attributes.
The remainder of the moral methods that lead to nearness can be considered as recommended. As Imam Ja’far b. Muhammad as-Sadiq (ع) has said, “Amongst the things that Allah revealed to prophet Dawud was this, ‘O Dawud, just as humble people are the nearest people to Allah, the proud ones are the farthest people from Allah.”20
It is clear, however, that humility and good morals or kindness are recommended or secondary acts in obtaining nearness to Allah (awj) whereas the primary principle remains understanding and the worship of Allah (awj). In the words of the Noble Prophet (ص) “O Abu Dharr, worship Allah as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He sees you.”21 In other words, your knowledge and understanding should be “presential” or intuitive and direct knowledge.