De-Centering the ego (nafs): Responding to the trials of life

It is well known – indeed common sense – that in the Qur’anic paradigm, all things are from God. All good and bad, calamities and blessings, all come from God alone. The message is of course implicit throughout the Qur’an in the fundamental principle of God’s omnipotence and power over all things. It is also made explicit in many different passages, such as {2:155}, {10:107}, {57:22} and {64:11}, among many others.

Yet the Qur’an also says in many verses throughout its sacred pages (see {3:165}, {4:62}, {30:36}, {42:30}, and {42:48} for examples) that whatever befalls you of good is from God, and whatever befalls you of evil is from yourself and your own actions. That seems a bit contradictory.

In fact, in one passage, this tension is made all too apparent. In speaking of the weak of faith, it is said: “And when a good thing happens to them, some say, ‘This is from God,’ whereas when evil befalls them, they say, ‘This is from you [O fellow­man]!’ Say: ‘All is from God’” {4:78}. Then immediately in the following verse, the divine voice proclaims, “Whatever good happens to you is from God; and whatever evil befalls you is from yourself” {4:79}.

This juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory messages strikes one as not the most philosophically cogent and coherent message that can be offered. Are calamities that befall us because of something that we did, or because God has willed this for whatever reason? It can of course be philosophically explained and made sense of, but the fact remains that as presented in the Qur’an, it is simply two straightforward statements in tension with one another yet placed side by side.

I would suggest that this is precisely because the Qur’an is not interested in providing us with philosophically cogent, abstract metaphysical truths about the nature of Reality, just for philosophy’s sake. For one, the Qur’an’s consistent use of such paradoxes is a reminder that our finite intellect and the limitations of language cannot capture the true nature of Reality, which is far beyond our frail human capacities. Thus what we have are glimpses, approximations. Truth enshrouded in veils.

More importantly, however, the message of the Qur’an is interested above all in our moral formation and development, not in having us accept and understand abstract propositions about the nature of reality. The goal of the Qur’an is our own tarbiyya, fashioning and molding our spiritual dispositions, our character, and our ethical outlook on life. To train us in how to live with ourselves, with others, and with God. To push us forward in our journey from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness (and by this I mean the Divine Other as well the rest of creation). The Qur’an is thus a pedagogical process and training, rather than a book of information. It achieves this goal by providing glimpses and windows into Reality and using rhetoric, thus stirring our hearts and souls and moving us to action, introspection, and thus the path of self-purification (tazkiyya). This is what my father has called “maqasid al-`aqa’id” (the objectives of creedal beliefs) in an article he wrote long ago, in which he insightfully reflects that the Qur’an says “And if all the trees on earth were pens, and the sea ink, with seven more seas added to it, the words of God would not be exhausted: for, verily, God is almighty, wise” {31:27}. If with God’s absolute infinity of knowledge and wisdom, and with the virtual infinitude of all that exists, only these limited bits and pieces were offered to us, then surely that is for a reason, surely they are meant to point us toward something. It is up to us therefore to search for those meanings and struggle to make our hearts pliable and amenable so as to be molded by those meanings.

That brings me back to the verses we began with, the topic of trials (both “blessings” and “calamities”) we face in life. Each of the verses in the Qur’an that touch on this issue pushes us to inculcate in ourselves a particular spiritual disposition. Among the abundant spiritual fruits of such verses are a humble recognition of one’s utter fragility and dependence on God, contentment in the face of life’s ups and downs, and self-introspection and repentance for one’s shortcomings and moral failings. I think it is worth mentioning that all of these verses in the Qur’an leave out one possibility: that what good befalls you is from yourself. Clearly the self-importance and self-satisfaction sown by such an idea is not meant to be a part of our inner dispositions.

In particular, though, I wanted to point to one passage in particular that seems to provide a slightly different message than all of those mentioned above, one that I have rarely heard touched upon.

In surat al-Fajr, it is said: “And as for the human, whenever her Lord tests her by His generosity and by letting her enjoy a life of ease, she says, ‘My Lord has been generous towards me.’ Whereas, whenever He tries her by limiting her sustenance and livelihood, she says, ‘My Lord has disgraced me!’” {89:15-16). Immediately following this description of the common human response to blessings and calamities in life, the divine voice powerfully proclaims: “But nay, nay! You are not generous towards the orphan, and you do not urge one another to feed the needy, and you devour the inheritance with devouring greed, and you love wealth with boundless love!” {89:17-20}. It then goes on to speak of the next life, the torment of divine punishment, and the utter tranquility, peace, and love of reunion with the Divine.

This is one of those beautiful and priceless moments in the Qur’an that calls on us ever so powerfully to transcend ourselves and the ensnarements of the ego. It jolts us out of our common human responses to the ups and downs of life – how has this affected me? ME ME ME!! – calling on us to move beyond our constant preoccupations with ourselves, our own pleasures and desires, and instead to concern ourself with the other. To move from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness, the core of all true spiritual teaching.


Meditations on Khushu’

Praying with focused attention and concentration has always been a persistent and demoralizing struggle.  We all understand the importance of concentration in prayer.  To pray with a focused consciousness on what we recite and the awesomeness of standing before Allah is the ultimate goal.  How to achieve that state, however, has always eluded me.  The many khutbahs that counsel us to pray with khushu‘ and not a single one talks about how to get there!  You start prayer and think, “I need to pray with khushu‘.”  Then “but how do I get there…get there? How would I even know that I’m there?!”  “Oh yeah, khushu‘…ok, again, concentrate!”  The more I tried, the more it escaped my grasp.  Eventually, I find myself “thinking” a lot about khushu‘ but never quite feeling/experiencing it.  Then, a couple of years ago, I attended a Buddhist meditation circle and it all started making a lot more sense.  Not quite what I expected attending that circle, but Allah has a beautiful way of leading us down unexpected paths.

Our first session, my (not-then) husband and I walked into a small room.  We pulled some floor cushions and joined others in the circle.  Before we began the light was dimmed and I immediately noticed the silence and calm descend in the room.  Our lives are so inundated with bright lights and constant noise that we do not notice the light – and sound – pollution that crowds our minds.  It is not until we are ready to sleep that we switch everything off; a slowing down of the mind and body that is associated with sleep.  It had never quite struck me before that slowing down the processes of the brain is greatly facilitated by silence and dimmed lights; such a small measure and such calming effects.

Before we began, the meditation leader gave brief instructions for those of us attending for the first time: “find a spot on your body, the tip of your fingers or the tip of your nose and focus on it…if you find your mind wandering, return to this spot to focus yourself.”  That’s helpful…but what to do with the thoughts??  “Just notice them, observe them and let them pass…don’t focus on them, don’t get engrossed in them.”  Perfect!  Now to begin meditation…find the spot, tip of my nose seems good enough…focus!  The next fifteen minutes were spent in an agonizing effort to focus and re-focus. I would get lost in my thoughts without even realizing it and only catch myself after the stress induced by my thoughts would kick in: “oh my God, so much work to do…I need to go to the library right after this…no food in the house…final papers due in 2 months!!!”  I finally heard the dong and the meditation session ended.  Phew! This meditation business is hard.  Why is everything that is good for you so hard??

I left frustrated that first week.  Damned brain! There’s no end to the thoughts!  Over the course of the week I contemplated often on my “meditation.”  I felt less defeated knowing that there was a method to controlling my thoughts and all I had to do was practice.  We started by sitting in meditations for brief moments and I practiced holding my concentration for a minute at a time.  Pretty quickly I was able to focus for a minute or two at a time; now I just had to increase my stamina!

Returning to meditation the next week, the circle leader repeated the same instructions.  This time I found myself able to focus longer.  I felt myself, for brief moments, sinking into a deeper state.  In and out of focus…watch the thoughts, let them pass, like a powerpoint slide of the thoughts in my head!  As I sat in meditation, having lost focus, consumed by my thoughts, it struck me suddenly: this is how to achieve khushu‘!  I need to practice focusing and train myself to disengage from my thoughts.  We are so in the habit of always listening to the chirpings of our minds that we don’t know how to switch it off.  I also learnt that my years of obsessively focusing on focusing was a distraction of its own!

And so, that day, I decided to try my newly acquired Buddhist meditation skills in prayer.  I realized that that my stamina had not yet reached the stage where I could concentrate for a 5-10minute period, so I decided to set a small, achievable goal: one rakat.  As I stood on the jai namaz (prayer mat) I decided on the spot to which I could return to re-focus and reminded myself to let the thoughts roll.  Allahu Akbar.  I took a brief moment to empty my mind and focus before beginning.  I felt my body calm down as the name of Allah came upon my tongue.  As I came up from sajda I was overwhelmed by the intensity of a prayer that was not plagued by the thoughts in my mind.  For a short period of time I felt like my prayer had taken me away from this world.  Losing focus felt more like a “return” than a “loss.”

Khushu‘ in prayer, I learnt, is not about some miraculous “getting there.”  The meditation skills taught me what no khutbah or book was ever able to convey before: focusing in prayer is about habit-formation.  It’s about our minds learning a new skill of being able stop, being able to leave behind the preoccupations of this world (our never-ending thoughts).  If we can learn this skill, then for brief moments the life of this world ceases to consume us and we are able to let go of our thoughts.  Zoning out in this way allows us to enter into another state of connection and intimacy with Allah…a state in which you pray as though you are in Allah’s presence.  It all begins, however, with mundane and basic skill formation: focus on the spot…let your thoughts pass you by, notice them, acknowledge them, but don’t engage them.

Most importantly focusing in prayer is a process.  Once I had learnt how to focus, I needed time to build my stamina to be able to concentrate for sustained periods.  My brain was learning a new skill and it needed time to get a hang of it.  Initially I only attempted focusing a rakat at a time, however, as I continued practicing the skills of focusing and zoning out, I found myself being able to do so for the entire prayer.

Of course, I still struggle to pray with focus and concentration.  Falling into a state of meditation is not easy.  It still requires effort on my part, mostly because I do not practice the skills as often as I should.  But it has made a big difference.  I no longer feel defeated by my thoughts and sometimes I find myself able to get into that state, though it doesn’t last too long.  Those few moments, however, are pure ecstasy.  Prayer becomes not just worship or obligation but intimate conversation.  I feel lifted from the mundaneness of existence, embraced in Divine presence.  They are fleeting moments, blessings from Allah.  But, like all things of this world, they are ephemeral, and go as quickly as they come.


A Woman’s heart is stronger than a man’s

The maximum period of gestation, according to the Shafi’is, is four years. The Maliki’s argue for a five year period, I believe. The issue, it seems, is not self-evident and subject to disagreement. My teacher, MAR, and I laugh at the absurdity of the proposition. “The child will simply walk off to school right after delivery,” he jokes. I find it curious that he is poking fun at the apparent illogic of the stated gestation period. This discussion on pregnancy lends itself easily to musings on the miracle of child bearing and birthing. A woman’s heart is stronger than a man’s, he tells me. Finally, I think, at least something about a woman is not inferior to a man. He begins by detailing the process of menstruation and it’s relation to pregnancy. I can’t help but be amused by the irony of a man delineating female anatomy to a woman, patronizing me as though I have no knowledge of such things. Perhaps because I‘m single? Either way, I apparently have no understanding of how my own body works. Lost in my thoughts, I return to the story just in time to catch his elucidation of the fetus, enclosed in a “bag” in the womb, protected from harm. All the menstrual blood , you see, then gathers under this bag to form a cushion for the baby who sleeps peacefully, encased in the bag, resting its head on a progressive build up of menstrual blood. So what happens when this latent fetus awakens from it’s peaceful slumber? It begins to hit its head against the mouth of the uterus in order to make its exit. Here we return to the anecdote on the strength of women’s hearts. I struggle to keep my concentration, tempted to loose myself in thoughts of future plans. There was a woman, the story continues, who was in need of a heart transplant. The doctors were finally able to procure the heart of a young man who had recently passed away. The transplant was completed and the woman survived the procedure. Eventually, she became pregnant and when her sleeping child no longer desired his pillow of menstrual blood (at the end of a four or five year gestation period, I’m not sure), he began to knock his head against this closed door that must be opened for him to make his appearance. At this moment, this possessor of a man’s heart, no longer able to endure the agony of birthing, meets the fate of her donor. A woman’s heart is undoubtedly stronger than a man’s. I look at the clock. Fifteen minutes of lost time on an entertaining biology lesson. I’m uncertain what to think or where to begin my objections; do I even have any objections? I’m simply satisfied that, after months of taking classes with MAR, at long last, women are comparable to men in something, however fantastical that something might be.


An older piece from 2009