How to Empty Ourselves

The following speech was presented by Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali at the Focolare Centre for Unity in Welwyn Garden City in the UK (Special Interfaith Edition issue 65 March 2019)

(Originally published on Issue 60, June 2018

This topic might not seem to be a common way for Muslim ethicists and spiritual masters to discuss spirituality. I tried to find something similar like a direct translation but was unable to do so. Nevertheless, we have ideas that resonate with this topic.
When it comes to our relationship with God, most of us find ourselves unable to understand or acknowledge our absolute poverty and emptiness before God. Normally, we talk to God and think of God as a person like us but bigger; for example, a master. We thus try to set the terms of our relationship with God. For example, I think it is better to work for God because He is generous and rich, etc. Nonetheless, I am still thinking of myself as someone who has the right and the position to get into a one-to-one relationship with God in the sense that we are like two equal partners in this relationship. Unfortunately, many religious people hold such views.
The reality is that we are too little before God to think of ourselves and God in such a relationship. On the contrary, we are like a shadow for God; thus, how can a shadow start negotiations with the real Being?
In addition, the problem is that with our limitations we somehow restrict this affiliation; one can only get what he has prepared for. Consequently, if you have restricted expectations and limited understanding of what you can get from this relationship, then you will get less. For example, if I think a shop only sells sweets then I will only buy sweets from there. I will not buy other things. Or if I think my teacher can only teach one subject I will not ask him to teach me other subjects. Therefore, we restrict our relationship with God based on what we think it can do for us and what God can offer us. We even go further and restrict the means of giving. For example, if I am working on strengthening my spirituality, I think that my spirituality comes only from prayer or when I go to the mosque or the shrine.
Many times I think of this scenario, that I am going to the shrine in Qum and I am supposedly late or just in time to catch the salah, the prayer in the shrine. Then, I see a lady on the road carrying a child and asking for a lift. So, I may say if I was not in a rush I would have certainly given a lift to this lady, not knowing that perhaps my shrine is now going to be built by giving a lift to this lady. Hence, I am limiting God’s generosity to what I am going to do, not thinking that maybe God has something bigger for me planned on the other side of the road.
This scenario actually happened to Moses when he was taking his family in the dark, and perhaps cold, night. Moses was very worried about the safety of his family, but he saw a fire on the side of the road. The Qur’an states that he told his family to stay, “I will go and check, maybe I can take some fire or maybe there is guidance.” So, he went to the side of the road and saw the fire, and actually, from there God started speaking to him. Therefore, if Moses limited himself to this road and just looked in front of him, even if he looked 100 km away, he would have missed the opportunity which was on the side. For this reason, I think we should always look for opportunities from 360 degrees around us. Consequently, emptiness in regards to our relationship with God means to first know our poverty, do not limit your relationship with God, do not limit what God has to offer, and do not limit the means, the time, and the people through whom God is going to give to you. Be empty, but here empty means to be open; sometimes emptiness is nothingness, but this emptiness means maximum openness and maximum capacity for receiving.
Another aspect of emptiness is regarding my relationship with people. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to have an association with people which is not shaped by some kind of judgment or prejudice; even if it might be positive prejudice, it is still a kind of prejudice. Perhaps you think I am worse than I am or I am better than I am, but whether you think I am worse or better, it is not me. Let me be myself. Thus, it is very difficult to be able to have encounters with people while we are empty as a mirror.
An expression found in Islamic narrations is that a believer should be like a mirror for another believer. A mirror does not add anything to you, nor does it reduce anything from you. It corresponds 100% to what you are. So, if we can empty ourselves and make ourselves a mirror then people can see themselves in us and we can also see people as they are. Not only that, you can even help them understand themselves as they are.
A famous story in Persian spiritual literature states that a king was building a corridor which he wanted painted and decorated in the best way possible. He called for the best painters artists in the world. He gave each group one side of the corridor and they put curtains all the way from the beginning to the end of the corridor so that either group could not see what the other one was doing. It was truly a competition. The onlookers saw that one group of artists were taking lots of paints and brushes and working day and night. However, the other group just took sandpaper, but no paint. When their work had finished, the curtain was removed. The first group, the one with the paint and brushes, had painted a breathtakingly beautiful picture and the second group had the same exact painting, but they had not used paint. They had polished the corridor with sandpaper, making it like a mirror.
The moral of the story is that we need to empty our hearts from any ego, selfish ideas, and prejudice. If we manage to do so, then it will start shining. Muslim spiritual teachers state that the first step is takhliyya, (to evacuate). The next step is tahliyya, (to decorate). Here you perform good deeds; finally, tajliyya, (to shine). Evacuate, bring good deeds, and then shine. Thus, we should try to become like a mirror in our associations with people. Of course, it is easier said than done, especially when it comes to our relatives.
When it comes to our relatives it is really difficult to become a real mirror for those we live and interact with. Indeed, it is still difficult to do so with those who do not live with us and just want some pieces of advice; nevertheless, it is still manageable. A great practice is required in order to become a truly objective mirror of other people.
A very important concept is the concept of fairness. In my opinion, one of the signs of people who are at a very high level of closeness to God is that they are fair. However, what exactly is fairness? Perhaps the following example can clarify it.
Imagine two parties have a dispute and they go to court. However, the judge happens to be the relative of one of the parties. Will the other party then accept that court? Obviously, they will not, because the judge will be biased. Thus, fairness means that I must be so unbiased that I would not take any side. So, it is not the relative who is the judge, but I am the judge. You are bringing someone to the court where you are the judge; you are one party of the dispute as well as the judge.
It is extremely difficult to be fair because every day we become the judge; we have issues with our friends, neighbours, colleagues, in fact, everyone. I bring them to the court where I am the judge and, at the same time, I am one part of the debate and dispute. Consequently, here fairness needs maximum emptiness from the ego to be an unbiased judge over yourself. So, I think those who can be fair are at a very high level of nearness to God. When Imam Sajjad was asked about some of the most important aspects of Islam, one of the things he mentioned was being fair to others.
My last point is regarding an important aspect of emptying ourselves in regards to people, and that is a conversation because I think a great part of our interpersonal affairs are based on our words and conversations. Good conversation is extremely important for human beings. Furthermore, in our conversations, we need to be able to listen to people. If I think that I already know what this person is going to say, then I will not listen; obviously, that is not a good approach. Perhaps I may not say anything and listen politely, but practically when I am listening to this person, as soon as he or she opens his\her mouth I think that I already know what is going to be said. Sometimes we do not listen carefully to the words but already make our judgments. It is similar to a doctor who has already written a few sample prescriptions regardless of what you tell him about yourself. Hence, this prejudgment occurs many times with those with whom we have dealings, as we have already given them a file in our mind. We do not permit them to have a chance to be different from what is already registered in that file; even if we have hours of conversation we just find more evidence to support whatever is previously written. In fact, we are the ones interpreting everything in the same manner.
Consequently, to be empty here means to really allow that person to speak as if it is for the first time. It would be a great exercise in humbleness and controlling emotions if we can make our relationships with people such that we always give them a fresh chance and not view them as criminals who need to defend themselves. If I am not clear, I can ask questions and give that person more of a chance. However, I should be so respectful to that person that I let him write his own description in my memory, not that I write most of it and then ask him to fill in the blanks.
Therefore, it is very important to give people a chance. Unfortunately, many times we behave to the contrary. However, God is not like this. Although He has all the knowledge about us, God always lets us talk to Him. There is even a saying in our hadith that God says He loves the cry of the sinners more than the glorification of the worshippers and the righteous. God sees value in their voice, but we are not like that. We only love the voice that praises us and does not listen to the one who does not.
There are numerous areas in which we need to work on emptying ourselves. When we empty ourselves we actually enlarge our capacity and give God more of a chance to decide what He wants to give without limiting Him.

Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here:

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