One of the questions posed to those who were complete and actualized in their knowledge of Allah, and by this I mean the righteous Sufis who understand the deep inner realities of this religion, was the reasoning behind our being sent down to this world from the “world of the souls” (`alam al arwah). Since the latter realm was closer in proximity to Allah Most High – and by proximity I do not mean “distance” since Allah Most High is far above being confined within time and space – how is our being sent down to this lowly and earthly realm understood, especially in light of reattaining this proximity (qurb), and can such proximity ever be achieved in this world at all?
It is established in the Qur’an that before the creation of bodies (ajsam) all of creation existed in the form of spirits. This is where the first covenant took place between Allah and creation. Allah Most High states in the Qur’an:
“And when your Lord brought forth from the children of Adam, from their backs, their descendants, and made them bear witness against their own souls: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes! we bear witness.” (7:172)
Ibn `Ajiba states in his Tafsir al Bahr:
“This points to the fact that Allah Most High’s covenant with the spirits regarding the knowledge of His oneness occurred twice. The first was before the manifestation of the universe. The second was after it.
The first was regarding the knowledge of His Lordship. The second was a reminder of this coupled with the proprieties of slavehood.”
[s: Ibn `Ajiba actually goes on to establish three occurrences of such a covenant, the details of which can be found in his commentary and others. The commentaries on this verse are highly interesting and anyone who has a chance to read them should.]
This shows that:
 That in the realm of the spirits creation was not in bodily form and the universe was still in a non-manifest state,
 The covenant made with the spirits was regarding Allah’s Lordship and Oneness,
 The covenant of slavehood – which relates to practice and deeds – was a covenant made after the manifestation of the universe and the creation of bodily forms. It can be said that this covenant is what comes with the prophets.
From the above it can be seen that the level of proximity we had attained within the realm of the spirits was akin to an initial stage. Although at first sight one may perceive that our presence in such a realm was closer in proximity to Allah, this is not the case at all. Understanding this subtle reality clarifies the immense blessing and wisdom behind our being sent down to the earthly plain.
Such an understanding is only achievable by the muhaqiq – the verifier – and not necessarily by the overwhelmed lover. The overwhelmed lover will, of course, wish that he had remained in the realm of the spirits due to the calmness and proximity experienced therein. This is why he says:
“What calmness I was in without any care,
The rumbling of manifestation has woken me up and trapped me in affliction!”
Yet, he does not understand that the proximity he had achieved was only the first level of the endless levels of qurb that awaits him. It is an established fact that the levels of proximity are endless, with no boundaries. This is why even the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), whose proximity to Allah is unimaginable and unattainable by creation, was commanded to supplicate with “Oh Allah, increase my knowledge”. The connection between knowledge and proximity to the one being known is clear in that the former increases the latter. Yet, since knowledge is infinite, so is proximity and thus reaching a “finish line” is impossible.
Thus, it s not denied that the realm of the spirits consisted of a level of proximity and closeness. However, it as undeniable reality that this level was stagnant – neither increasing nor decreasing. The underlying reason behind this relates to the issue of “relationship” – between creation and creator. It is mentioned in an authentic hadith al qudsi that Allah Most High said:
إذا تقرب إلي العبد شبرا تقربت إليه ذراعا وإذا تقرب إلي ذراعا تقربت منه باعا وإذا أتى إلي مشيا أتيته هرولة
“When the servant drawns close to Me a hand’s span, I will draw close to him an arm’s length. And when he draws near to Me an arm’s length, I will draw near to him a fathom’s length. And when he comes to Me walking, I will go to him running.”
(Bukhari from Abu Hurayra and Anas. Also narrated by Muslim, Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah)
This shows that the basis of attaining closeness and proximity to Allah is through seeking (talab) Him, and this seeking is manifested in the form of practice and actions that allows one’s level of closeness and nisba to increase, which was something absent in the realm of the spirits. By sending us down to this worldly realm and making us in our bodily forms, Allah placed within us a capacity to perform actions through which the doors of the levels of proximity were fully opened.
To detail this further, actions can be divided into two types:
 Those related to the heart, and
 Those related to the limbs.
The former can be further divided into (a) those that are earned and (b) those that arise without any effort. The latter is merely figuratively considered as “action” and relates to our natural emotive feelings and intrinsic being. The former relates to the actions linked to the sciences of the heart, which help to increase and build on these emotive feelings, such as dhikr, muraqaba, and so forth.
Actions related to type  were completely absent from the the realm of the spirits mainly because the instruments for carrying them out i.e the bodily organs, were not available to us. As for type , then those acts related to the heart that are earned were also absent. Only those granted without effort were present and actualized within creation.
Rather, the highest level of knowledge attained in the realm of the spirits regarding Allah’s Lordship and Oneness is the simplest and most basic level of knowledge that all human being are born with, namely the fitra or the natural disposition. This is the “unearned” action that is being spoken about and is common to all.
So, the wisdom behind humans being sent down to this earthly realm is clear, and the level of proximity attainable here is infinite and much higher – if one strives to achieve it. This realm is not devoid of Allah, of His manifestation and Being. It is the loci of manifestation of His attributes and the intermediary realm designated to allow us to reach the highest of stations imaginable by normal man. This is why Ibn Ata’illah said in his Hikam:
الكون كله ظلمة وإنما أناره ظهور الحق فيه
“The universe, all of it, was darkness and it was lit up only due to the manifestation of the Truth [s: Allah] in it.”
And this is how our master Maulana Ashraf `Ali Thanawi (Allah be well pleased with him) answered the question posed… and all of it can return to the point made by Ibn `Ajiba that the realm of the spirits only granted us knowledge of Lordship, whereas the earthly realm granted us both knowledge of Allah and knowledge of how to serve Him properly. Both coupled together formulate the lit path leading to Allah. Walk on it while you still can, and remember that death is ever ready to snatch you.