When you imaging something, an image from the studio of your mind and is brought to life on the stage of your inner vision.
I once read Socrates was quoted as saying: “Imagination is the true sign of intelligence.” At the time, I was doubtful he really said that. My upbringing and education did not cultivate imagination. The people around me regarded imagination as a childhood phase that a child must outgrow. Our kindergartens and schools disregarded imagination. The emphasis was on memorization, passive absorption, repetition and obedience. Imagination remained hidden in its dreamy childhood shell.
Later, I realized that when you imagine someone greedily sucking on a sour lemon, his face all puckered up, your salivary glands become active. This is a physical reaction to a stimulus coming directly from your mind. Likewise, if you imagine beautiful and provocative sights, they will produce effects on your body as if you were looking at those things. When you talk to someone on the phone you never met, your mind automatically constructs an image of that person based in the timbre of their voice. When you imagine a loved one you miss very much, your mind might wander to that far-off locale where they are, so you will fancy yourself sitting and talking with the one you love, oblivious to everything that is around you.
Think about what Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Have you considered if there was a river at the door of your house that you bathed in five times a day, would any dirt remain on you?” His Companions concurred that no dirt would remain. Then he said: “The five daily prayers are the same. Allah wipes away our sins with them. [Sahīh al-Bukhārī and Sahīh Muslim]
Can you read this without imagining yourself going out your front door and finding a river crossing your path? If this never happened to you before, then let it happen now. The time that you have for yourself is precious. You do not have to spend it all sitting in the cage of your circumstances, as if your mind was a prisoner behind the iron bars of the moment at hand.
Read Allah’s words:
Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the army of the elephant? Did He not make their treacherous plan go astray and send against them swarms of flying creatures pelting them with stones of baked clay? Then did He make them like an empty field of stalks and straw. [Sūrah al-Fīl]
When you read this, can you block your mind from seeing the spectacle of that mighty army bearing down on Mecca, intent on its destruction, being laid to waste by a vicious swarm?
By the (steeds) that run with panting (breath), striking sparks of fire, and push home the charge at dawn stirring therewith a trail (of dust), pushing forward right into the midst of the assembly… [Sūrah al-`Ādiyāt: 1-5]
Can you read this without seeing those fearsome horses, hearing the clamor and tumult? Does the drama of it escape you?
When you read in the Qur’an about the delights of Paradise and the punishment of Hell, does no image come to mind? What then moves us, when we read these verses, to turn to Allah in remembrance and devotion, when nothing in the Hereafter resembles the things of this world except in name?
I came upon a bookseller on the side of the road selling Imaginings by al-Hārith b. Asad al-Muhāsibī. I read from it and found myself on a journey of life, death, tribulations and bliss. The book succeeded in provoking the reader’s imagination to be in the midst of events that cannot be seen in real life.
Prophet Muhammad advised us: “Whoever wants to look upon the Day of Judgment as if he is seeing it with his own eyes, he should read ‘When the sun is overthrown…’ and ‘When the sky is cleft asunder…’ and ‘When the sky is rent…’.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī]
Allah’s names and attributes cannot be imagined Allah says: “Knowledge cannot compass Him.” [Sūrah TāHā: 110] and: “Vision cannot perceive Him, but He perceives all vision.” [Sūrah al-An`ām: 103]
All the same, it is impossible to prevent the mind form formulating mental constructs. This is the reason why our prominent scholars have said: “Whatever your mind might conceive, Allah is nothing like it.”
Also, this is why Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “You will see your Lord just like you see the moon; you will not have to vie with one another to see Him.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī and Sahīh Muslim]
When Prophet Muhammad described excellence in faith, he said: “It means to worship Allah as though you see Him, but though you do not see Him, you know he sees you.” This is a description of the degree of focus and awareness in prayer, where it becomes a deeply meaningful and fulfilling experience. This is why the Prophet would say to his prayer caller: “O Bilāl, give us our relaxation in prayer.”
Every change in life requires imagining it first. Imagination is the secret means that transports us to our goals. It enables the mind to absorb the stresses of life and conceive of a better future, empowering us to surmount our obstacles and solve our problems.
You must first imagine the circumstances that you want for yourself and society. Then you must take an appropriate course of action. Your goals are essentially what you imagine your future to be. Our dreams and aspirations have their origins in our imaginings. The imagination works upon the heart and the mind.
If you come to the point when you cannot imagine a world any different than the one that surrounds you, then your life will become tiresome indeed. All progress starts with the imagination. It is the only way to reach beyond the closed doors of the future.