Spiritual Crisis and the Breaking of Dawn

We are told that, in the period before receiving revelation, when he would spend extended periods of time in spiritual seclusion in the famous cave of hira’ on the Mountain of Light, the Prophet (may the salutations of the One be upon him) was overtaken by powerful experiences of spiritual illumination, which he likened to the breaking of light at dawn. We can only imagine what these experiences were and what they were like, but the description is powerful: suddenly and intensely, the sun rises and God’s light shines forth, illuminating and eliminating all the darkness, meaninglessness, and confusion that surrounds and suffocates the soul.

Soon thereafter, as is well known, the Prophet received the first Qur’anic revelation from the angel Jibreel and was thus initiated in his role as the Prophet and Messenger of God, the blessed recipient of Divine guidance to humanity.

After first receiving revelation, in the earliest phase of his prophetic mission, we know that there was an extended period of Divine silence, in which the Prophet did not receive any revelation. It is said that during this time, the habib (our beloved) became extremely grieved, distressed, and anxious. Perhaps he had incurred Divine displeasure and been abandoned by God? Or had he been mistaken, perhaps possessed by some spirit all along? What had happened, why had Divine communication ended? One can only imagine the pain, doubt, confusion, and distress that he experienced at this time, but some reports do give us an indication of just how intensely this experience affected our beloved Prophet: one hadith, for instance, relates that he intended to throw himself off the mountain multiple times, but was intercepted by Jibreel who reassured him. (Keep in mind that there is no consensus or certainty about the details of any of these matters, as there are always multiple conflicting reports about them – even the famous story of the cave of hira’ is not the only report we have on the first Qur’anic revelation.)

It was at the end of this period of silence, we are told, that surat al-Duha was revealed to the Prophet, recalling the earlier description of his spiritual illuminations, contrasting them to the darkness he now felt himself to be in:

“By the breaking light of dawn! And by the night when it is darkest and most still! Your rabb (Nurturer and Lord) has not forsaken you, nor is He displeased.” {93:1-3}

These verses not only comforted and reassured the Prophet in his lowest moment (the darkest hours of the night), but they set forth a most beautiful and inspiring description of the spiritual state of humanity. Juxtaposing the suffocating darkness of the night with the sudden and magnificent break of dawn, these verses highlight for us the cycle inherent in our spiritual lives. For we all experience our own spiritual nights and days, the darkness and light of the soul. We have all been through moments and periods of guidance and misguidance; being lost and finding our way, only to lose it again; having clarity and then confusion, doubt and then certainty again.

These verses remind us of the natural cycle of the day, in which the darkest moment of the day comes right before the light of dawn. They seem to be speaking directly to me: In those moments, when the darkness enshrouds you and envelops you like a cloak, covering you, suffocating you, blinding your vision, making every step more and more difficult, as you walk in confusion, anxiety, and fear; in those moments, remember that darkness is nothing but the absence of Light, remember that the sun rises after the darkest hour of the night. Remember that, and do not despair, do not lose focus or perspective. Even the Prophet of God, I am reminded, found himself in a low-point, a moment of darkness, a period of confusion and doubt.

Such is the cycle of the day. But it seems I must also accept that the day too passes and the night arrives. The cycle repeats itself of course, and darkness too inevitably comes after the light. I cannot become proud, self-assured, or complacent in times of spiritual clarity and solidity, for I am not guaranteed to remain in the light without the cycle repeating itself again.

These verses and the example of the habib comfort and reassure me that my struggles with faith, my confusions and doubts, my unanswered questions and discomforts, they are all a part of the journey of faith. Faith, it seems, is not a stable constant, not something you have, but rather a lifelong journey that you traverse. The cognitive certainty and experiential connection to the Divine go and come, ebb and flow, like the cycle of night and day. Faithfulness, however, is to keep on seeking the Truth that is God (al-Haqq) with sincerity, honesty, commitment, and struggle.

The Prophet’s example is instructive here: in this lowest of moments, his doubts and confusions centered on his own self – have I done something? was I mistaken or misguided? was I wrong in my understanding or belief? It was never his faith in and commitment to God that wavered. This teaches and reminds me: I may be confused or in doubt about particular beliefs, I may struggle to understand how to make sense of certain things. But this will make me question myself, what people have told me, what tradition has determined, what inherited understandings and doctrine have been passed on to me; it cannot, however, make me lose sight of the only Reality in existence, the only Truth worth striving and living for, the only existence more Real than all the world around me and the thoughts in my feeble mind.

Finally, after having reminded us of the cycles and struggles in our journey of faith, the surah ends with a powerful call for spiritual humility and ethical responsibility:

“Did He not find you an orphan and then give you shelter? And did He not find you misguided and then guide you? And did He not find you in need, and then enrich you? Therefore, be not harsh with the orphan. Nor repel the one who asks of you. And as for the blessings of your Lord, proclaim and announce.”{93:6-11}

This reminds us that, no matter the inner turmoil and confusion that we may be facing, this cannot make us forget the moral imperative upon us in living a life of faith. We may doubt, we may not understand, but we must not allow that to become an excuse to mindlessly give in to self-deification and hedonism. For the fact that there is something that transcends us and the empirical reality around us, and the fact of our moral responsibility and accountability as human beings, are truths so deeply engrained in our God-given nature (fitra) that – even though we can of course rationally doubt and deconstruct them – we can never in reality escape their hold on us.