What is Tawassum?

We learn from the Quran that the universe has been fashioned by God in a way that it may become a source of spiritual inspiration for man. According to the Qur’an, it is the quality of Tawassum (15:75) that enables one to find inspiration in the universe. Tawassum is the ability to understand the signs of nature. That is, to observe the phenomena of the universe in order to draw lessons from them and receive spiritual nourishment – rabbaniyat – from the physical events.

That is to say, a truly religious person is able to convert physical events into spiritual lessons through the process of contemplation and reflection – tafakkur and tadabbur. The Quran has described how godly people continuously derive such sustenance from their environment, thus maintaining their intellectual and spiritual well being. This is elaborated upon in the Quran as follows:

“In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the succession of night and day, there are signs for men of understanding; those that remember God when standing, sitting, and lying down, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth (saying): ‘Lord, You have not created these in vain. Glory be to You! Save us from the torment of the fire, Lord.” (3:191)

Contemplation is essential for developing our spirituality. Contemplation in Islam is a high kind of thinking. It is not a state of silence, but a deep kind of thinking process. It takes us from the seen world to the unseen, from darkness to light, from chaos to conviction, from limitation to limitlessness, from word to meaning. It is like a door through which one enters another world. In short, from the human world we reach the divine world.

The Quran further tells us that this intellectual process has two different directions—al-anfus and al-afaq. Al-anfus literally means soul, that is, inner world; al-afaq literally means universe, that is, external world.

We learn from the Quran that in the very creation of the universe, the signs of God lie hidden all around us. One, who has developed keen awareness, when he reflects upon the things of the world, is able to see the Creator in His creatures. The meaning of the creation of the Universe is laid bare before him. Ultimately, the universe becomes a permanent source of spiritual inspiration. He is continuously nourished by it during his worldly experience.

So when a believer sees the universe functioning in a perfect manner and he finds that all the events in this vast universe always proceed towards a meaningful result, he realizes that man’s life too must have a meaningful end. This makes him exclaim:

“O our Lord! You have not created all this without purpose. Glory be to you! Give us salvation in the life to come.” (3:191)

Thus the universe is a manifestation of God’s attributes. Hence, it is a source of spiritual nourishment for those who want to lead a divine life on earth. For them, the whole universe becomes an important means of reaching spiritual perfection. This spiritual development continues throughout their earthly life till a time comes when they attain that degree of spirituality, which the Quran calls the ‘Rabbani soul.’

Therefore, a believer is not supposed to shun his normal life in order to lead a life of observation and contemplation. Islam does not advocate withdrawing from the world. He has to live in this world and participate in its activities. What is desired from him is that while fulfilling all his duties, his heart should not be attached to worldly affairs. In this way he continues to gain spiritually.