“And He is with you, wherever you may be; and God sees all that you do.” (Qur’an 57:4)
The idea that Allah is All-Watching is something most of us have grown up with. Even other faiths that believe in a god share the belief of an Omniscient and Omnipresent Being. Yet when we try to understand ‘where’ He is, it becomes confusing.
There are a number of traditions which try to clarify the ‘where-ness’ of God. Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) asks God, “Are You far away that I should call You, or are You near me that I should whisper to You?” And God replies, “I am (very) close to the one who remembers Me.” Imam Ali (peace be upon him) says in the first sermon of Nahjul Balagha, “He is with everything but not in physical nearness. He is different from everything but not in physical separation.”
As God Himself says, that He is with us wherever we are, we may find it a bit clearer if we begin by looking at where we are ourselves first. Where we are can be divided into three distinct categories.
The first is the physical location we occupy. This may be the most obvious, but this is often selectively neglected. Take, for example, an ‘average’ Muslim youth. One who offers his prayers, but sometimes is late in offering them. Or who sometimes listens to the words of God, yet at times doesn’t mind the background tracks while watching a movie. Or who is at times in the mosque in the company of the righteous, and at other times in those places that he doesn’t mention in front of his parents.
If we do not have these characteristics, we can certainly see it around us. Why such a variety of actions from one person? If we examine only a little, we can find a relation between where a person is and the type of actions that he commits. A person’s actions in the mosque would be different to their behavior on a football pitch and would be poles apart to his behavior at a party. The same person, the same beliefs…yet a change in location brings out different personalities.
This is where God reminds us that wherever we are, He is. When at the mosque, God was present to see the youth reflect over himself and his actions. When on the pitch, God was close enough to feel his passion and share his emotion. And at the party, flashing lights and loud sounds did not disturb His Vision and Hearing, and He witnessed the ‘new’ person that was coming out in secret.
There is perhaps no Muslim today who would act the same way at a mosque as he would in a less reputable place. And yet, from one point of view, the greatest difference between the two may be the intention of the person. When one comes to the mosque, the intention is – or should be – closeness to God. And when one goes to other places, the intention is different. Yet the same God is equally present in both places. Does anyone doubt that He is everywhere, even in the least Islamic gatherings? That He does not see what happens behind closed doors? It is said that when Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him) was trapped in the room, Zuleikha noticed his unease, so she covered the idol that was in the room with a cloth and said there was nobody left to see him. He replied beautifully, telling her that her god may not be able to see anymore, but that his God is All-Seeing. (Qur’an 12:24) This is further explained in the words of Imam Ali (peace be upon him), who says: “Fear more the sin when you are out of sight, it is where your witness is also your judge.” Thus, one who truly comes to the mosque to gain closeness to God should feel the same presence of God wherever he may be.
The second way to interpret this is our position in terms of which phase of existence we are in. We know from the Qur’an that there are three transitions that we make, and each one is a difficult and frightening one. Sura Maryam mentions them as the day a person in born, the day he dies, and the day he will be brought back to life. The period between the first two will set the tone for the rest of existence, so “whoever does an atom’s worth of good will see it, and whoever does an atom’s worth of evil will see it.” (99:7-8) However, it is not just our actions that we carry all the way through; it is also our faith that comes with us. Therefore, a person who has lived his life conscious of the presence of God will not feel the solitude of the grave, nor will he feel alone in the rush on the Day of Judgment.
The third way that we can understand this is with respect to our spiritual position. There are those times that we may feel very spiritual and have the desire to engage in prayer and supplication. At other times, we feel less eager to spend time in worship and must push ourselves to get to prayers on time. Some people have built a ‘bond’ with God, so that they feel connected to Him at all times, while others have – by their own actions – created veils between Him and themselves. God reminds us in the Qur’an that no matter which of the states of which kind of people we are, He is never far away; rather, He is “closer than your jugular vein”. In His words: “And when My servants ask you concerning Me – indeed, I am close.”
Similarly, we go through emotional states in which we feel closer or further away from God. When we get something we have been hoping for, or achieve something significant, we thank Him. However, when we lose something important or experience loss or difficulty, we don’t feel the presence of God – or indeed, one may experience the complete opposite, which is remembering God only in difficult times, and patting himself on the back when things work out as planned. The Qur’an reminds us that, no matter how close or otherwise we feel to Him, He is always near us. There can be perhaps no example of closeness to God in times of difficulty than that of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him). At the time that the Chief of Martyrs was surrounded by tribulation, he was still reciting:
I have abandoned the creation in Your Love,
I have orphaned my children so that I may see You,
If the swords were to cut me into pieces in Your Love,
Even then my heart would not long for other than You.