From Gift of Seekers by Imam Abdullah Ibn Alawi al-Haddad
Meaning of La hawla wa-la quwwata illa bi'Llah
THE THIRD RESPONSE
Some further explications
You have also enquired about what praise means, and what it means to attribute transcendence to God. You also ask how one should express one's denial of one's own power and ability [hawl wa-quwwa], about the meaning of remorse, and asking for forgiveness, and whether these are exclusive to sinners, or general enough to include the ascent from one noble spiritual station to a higher one.
(a) Tasbih and Hamd
You should know that to attribute Transcendence is to attribute holiness as well as exaltation. Its meaning is for the heart to be convinced that in His Essence, Attributes and Acts, the Real (Majestic and High is He!) transcends all resemblance to created beings. He is Holy, Transcendent, and High above partners, likenesses, contingencies which begin and end, aims and causes, and limits of time and location. He transcends any form that may arise in one's mind or imagination, and is beyond being apprehended by thought; for what He is lies beyond the scope of intelligence and the reach of knowledge.
Exaltation [ tasbih ] is often mentioned in the Qur'an when the Real affirms His freedom from everything that deviators [mulhidun ] attribute to Him that is unworthy of His impregnable perfection. Examples of this include His saying:
O people of the Book! Go not beyond the bounds in your religion, and say not anything but the truth concerning God, up to God is but one God; Transcendent is He, above having a son. [4:171] They have taken their rabbis and monks as lords up to Transcendent is God above what they empartner. [9:31] Is it not of their own calumny that they say: God has begotten? They are truly liars up to Transcendent is God above what they describe. [37: 15 1-9 ]
As for 'praise' [ thana'], this is to laud and extol, in other words, to make mention of the qualities of perfection that befit the Praised One, His attributes of loftiness, nobility and majesty, and the gifts and attainments that flow from Him to those who praise Him as well as to others, and His protection of them against various kinds of hardships and opposition. All of these things are to be accompanied by reverence and awe.
One of the acts of worship that most completely contains the various aspects of praise is to utter the phrase al-Hamdu li'Llah ['praise is for God!']. Know that God the Exalted is the [only ] one who is absolutely transcendent and worthy of praise, in every way and in all senses. This is uniquely and exclusively His, since He is free from all imperfections, and to Him belongs the whole of perfection, because He is the Source of all good; and every attainment, transcendence and praise is real only in His case, and [merely] figurative for others.
In effect, neither transcendence nor praise can ever be truly attributed to another, literally or metaphorically; for any creature who either achieves a kind of transcendence or does something which is deserving of praise, never does so by his own power and ability, but only by God's power, will, grace, and mercy; which come from God and belong to Him. The attributing by some people of transcendence by praising or extolling a created being who is indeed free of that which they say he is free of, is but the [ manifestation of the] imperfection that belongs to this being's kind.
And when they praise him for a quality of perfection that is actually his, they are but attributing transcendence and praise to God. This is known to some people, and quite unknown to others. Know, also, that God the Exalted stands in no need of anyone's attribution of transcendence or praise to Him. Those who do so neither free Him from imperfections-for He has none, and it is inconceivable that he have any-nor establish His perfection by their praise--for perfection was ever His, and eternally remains so. The man who attributes transcendence to his Lord, and praises Him, is only attracting benefits and good to himself; and God, in His grace, has promised this to him.
The Prophet has said, may blessings and peace be upon him: ' AI-Hamdu li'Llah fills the Scales, and Subhan Allah wa'I-hamdu li'Llah fills the distance which is between heaven and earth. '
And he said: 'God is pleased with a servant who, when he eats a morsel of food, praises and thanks Him for it, and when he drinks a drink, praises and thanks Him for it. '
The material bequeathed to us concerning Subhan Allah and al-hamdu li'Llah is both too voluminous and too well-known to be repeated here.
Those who strive, do so for themselves; for God is surely Independent of the worlds. [29:6]
(b) Ascribing power and ability
You should know that the most comprehensive and inclusive formula for expressing the repudiation of one's own claim to power and ability is La hawla wa-la quwwata illa bi'Llah ('there is neither power nor ability save by God').
The Proof of Islam, may God be pleased with him, said: "'Power" [hawl] is motion, and "ability" [quwwa] is aptitude"'.
No creature possesses either ability or power over anything save through God, Who is Able and Capable. It is incumbent upon believers to have faith that in whatever God permits them to do or abstain from-as, for instance, in conforming to an injunction, whether by acting or abstaining, or in seeking their provision by resorting to action in the form of crafts and professions, and so on-it is God the Exalted Who creates and originates their intentions, abilities and movements; and that the acts they choose to perform will be attributed to them in the manner known as 'acquisition' [kasb] and 'working', and shall be, in consequence, liable to reward and punishment; but that they exercise volition only when God Himself does so, and can neither do nor abstain from anything unless He renders them able to. They possess not a single atom's weight of the heaven or the earth, nor do they attain to any partnership in its governance, or become supports to Him.
It is on the ability and power to make choices, which God has granted to His servants, that commands and prohibitions are based. Things which are done intentionally and by choice are attributed to them, and they are rewarded or punished accordingly.
Hence the meaning of la Qawla wa-la quwwata ilIa bi'Llah is the denial of one's possession of autonomous power and ability, and the simultaneous confession of the existence of that [relative] power and ability to make choices that He has given His servants to be their own.
He who claims that man has no choice or ability, that the acts he selects are identical with the acts he is compelled to do, and that he is in all circumstances coerced is a deterministic [jabri] innovator whose false claim would deny that there was any purpose in sending Messengers and revealing Scriptures. By contrast, he who claims that man possesses the will and power to do whatever he does by choice is a Mu'tazili innovator. But he who believes that a responsible [ mukallaf] man possesses power and choice to allow him to comply with God's commands and prohibitions, but is neither in dependant thereby nor the creator of his own acts, has found the Sunna, joined the majoritarian community, and become safe from reprehensible innovation.
There is a lengthy explanation to this, which follows a rugged road where many have slipped and gone astray; and beyond it is the secret of Destiny, which has always perplexed intelligent minds, and into which the Master of Messengers has commanded us not to delve. So let the intelligent be content with hints, and let it suffice them to believe that everything was created by God, and nothing exists without His will and power. Then let them require their selves to conform to the commandments and prohibitions, and take their Lord's side against their selves in every circumstance.
A hadith says that, La hawla wa-la quwwata illa bi'Llah is one of the treasures of the Garden'.
Understand the indication contained in terming it a 'treasure' and you will know that its meaning is among the mysteries; for reward is of the same species as the act. The Prophet has also said, may blessings and peace be upon him:
Two rakas in the depths of the night are one of the treasures of goodness.'
Their reward comprises a hidden treasure because the time of their occurrence, namely the night, implies this.
It is also reported that' La hawla wa-la quwwata illa bi'Llah is a remedy for ninety-nine ailments, the least of which is sorrow.'
It is a remedy for sorrow because grief mostly occurs when one misses something one loves, or when a distressful thing occurs; and whenever either of these things occurs people perceive their helplessness and inability to achieve their desired aims; hence they feel sorrow. If at such times they repeat in their heart and with their tongues words which mean that they disavow the possession of any ability or power of their own, then this gives them certitude in their knowledge that they are helpless and weak except where God gives them power and ability, with the result that their sorrow is banished, and their knowledge of their Lord is increased.
This can be clearly understood from the Prophet's saying, may blessings and peace be upon him:
'When one believes in destiny, one's sorrow departs.'
And in attributing ability and power to His Name, Allah, which is the axis of the Names and the most supreme of them, and in following it on most occasions with the two noble Names which indicate two of the attributes of the Holy Essence, namely, those of Exaltation and Magnitude, lies a sign that He totally transcends and is absolutely holier than the illusions of those who have strayed from the path, are blind to the evidence, and have delved without insight into the secret of destiny and the acts of God's creatures. So take heed!
(c) Remorse, and seeking forgiveness
Remorse [ nadam ] is the turning of the heart, in sorrow and regret, away from something which the servant has committed, and which angers God the Exalted, such as sins or the neglect of obligatory acts. It may also occur following an excessive involvement in permissible pleasures or the neglect of supererogatory devotions. A sincere remorse is one which leads to persevering in earnest, and avoiding neglectfulness. When sound, it includes nearly all the conditions of repentance [ tawba ], which is why the Prophet has said, may blessings and peace be upon him: 'Remorse is repentance'.
Those who are remorseful about their misbehaviour, but still persist in it, are only jesting, and their remorse will not avail them.
Seeking forgiveness [istighfar] means asking God to forgive, which in turn means His concealing the misdeed [from the eyes of others] .When God, by His grace, forgives a sin, he neither exposes its doer to shame, nor punishes him for it, whether in this world or in the next. The highest kind of forgiveness is for God to place a veil, a barrier, between the servant and sins, until it is as though he were free of them. In the context of Prophethood this veil is termed 'inerrancy' [isma]; and in that of sainthood, 'protection' [hifz]. This is the meaning of God's saying, addressed to the Master of the Inerrant, may the best of blessings and peace be upon him:
Ask forgiveness of your sin, and for believing men and women. [47:19] And: That God may forgive you your former and subsequent sin. [48:2]
It is well known that the Prophet was not liable to sin. But He here reminds him of His favouring him with His protection from everything that would distance him from Him, and commands him to pray to Him in that manner; prayer in this context being the consequence of thankfulness, and thankfulness being the cause of further increase.
If you are thankful, I shall give you more. [ 14:7] And God knows best.
(d) A distinction between subtle gradations of sins
Know that although obedience is the path to God and the means of approach to His Holy Presence, it may induce in those who are liable to distraction many things which are reckoned among the major sins, such as ostentation, self-admiration, arrogance, the feeling that one has obliged God, forgetfulness of His grace in granting [ acts of obedience], and so forth. These may result in the deprivation of the obedient man's reward, and may even lead to painful punishment.
The believer who is intent on following the path of seriousness and is concerned to attain salvation should always accuse his own soul [nafs], and refuse to give it the benefit of the doubt; he will ask forgiveness even for his acts of obedience, even if no contravention has outwardly occurred, fearful that his soul may have led him into one of these hazardous faults. You now know why one should seek forgiveness even for acts of obedience.
Something even more subtle than this may befall the people of gnosis under some circumstances: they may notice that they have come to find comfort in their virtuous acts [rather than in God], or to rely on them [rather than on God]; and they then turn back to Him in repentance, asking for forgiveness. The same things may again befall them while they pass through the noble stations and states with which they are invested; and they have then to repent and ask forgiveness for them.
For the people of God who divest themselves of all attachment to the worlds, sin is to attend to other than God, whatever this 'other' may be. We see them fleeing fearfully to God and seeking refuge in Him from states which, if experienced by others, would have been considered great acts of devotion, such as, for instance, setting one's hopes in one's acts of obedience and having thoughts of fear [of God] or of renunciation. It is in this context that you should understand the saying:
'The good deeds of the righteous are the evil deeds of those who are brought nigh to God.'
Were it not that the Path is fading away and the lights of realisation are setting, we would have said some astonishing things on this subject. So take heed, O people of intelligence
!Shaykh Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, may God have mercy upon him, has said:
There are certain factors which impair spiritual stations, for these latter may be infiltrated by extraneous elements, and the gnostic may fail to perceive this while still in them, and only become aware of this upon rising from one station to a higher one, at which, experiencing an imperfection, he looks back at the former with better insight, and returns to it in order to repair the defect and render it sound. This can only be done through repentance and asking for forgiveness.
This is a summary of what the gnostics have taught, with some explanations and clarifications. Some have interpreted the saying of the Prophet, may blessings and peace be upon him:
'My heart becomes covered, so that I ask God for forgiveness seventy times a day',
along the lines suggested by Suhrawardi, but in fact it is far from bearing any relation whatever to the Muhammadan rank which embraces all perfection of form and character. I have another interpretation for it, which I can only divulge verbally to those worthy to receive it. And God knows best.