Group fervor is not piety

I left the mosque a few weeks ago having experienced a fascinating Jumua performance that got me reflecting on the nature and purpose of spiritual experience. I departed thinking, “Just because we get all riled up in a bout of group fervor, that is not piety!”

The khatib was probably the most charismatic and powerful American Muslim preacher I have witnessed. His sermon was an agile combination of a spoken word performance with serious Abdul Basit-style recitation peppered throughout for added effect. Before and throughout the prayer, he took deep protracted breaths very loudly (adding to the aura), and recited Quran almost musically. At one level, I was impressed by and appreciative of such rarely seen charisma and talent. And yet, the almost theatrical manufacturing of emotion, and the energy and fervor which this inspired in the audience, made me uncomfortable. The loud “AAAMEEEENNNNN”s at the top of people’s lungs, and their expressions of wonder and inspiration afterwards even though they couldn’t recall the sermon’s content, struck me as signs of a problematic sense of spirituality.

I’ve often felt that our communal religiosity is too focused on emotional experience. We move from religious function to function, seeking out experiences that evoke in us an emotional high that we equate to a sense of spirituality and piety. But group fervor is not the same as piety.

It is one thing to have a powerful experience due to a concert-like overflowing of group emotion. But that is easy. Group fervor is easily manufactured (thus also making it easy to deconstruct from a naturalistic/materialist/atheist perspective). Real spiritual growth on the other hand is not easy. It is rather an arduous and toilsome journey of self-transcendence (“the upward climb” as the Qur’an puts it – 90:10-18).

Even Sufi shaykhs and mystical teachers – who are masters of evoking spiritual experience in people – often emphasize that hāl (or the spiritual highs we may feel from ritual devotion) is not the aim of worship, it is merely a fruit that we may at times be rewarded with. The point is not that such spiritual charisma, collective ritual, or even the manufacturing of emotion are illegitimate or problematic in and of themselves. They are indeed important (perhaps indispensable) dimensions of religion. The problem is that this often ends up being the primary or even exclusive goal that we end up seeking, substituting for more genuine spiritual growth. The problem is that we end up seeking such religious highs without much attention to whether there is substance in our religious practice and rhetoric.

The reality is, if our goal in religious devotion is to achieve such emotional states, then we are still caught up in our own selves. We are simply trying to feel good. And this is ultimately just a symptom of the broader problem of religious feel-good-ism that plagues our community. A religion that is about feeling good, however, is not a religion I’m interested in.

Related post: Omid Safi, “Religion cannot promise happiness”


Gender and spiritual wholeness: a response

In response to the previous blog post on the concept of spiritual equality in light of Ramadan parenting discussions, we received a thoughtful and intelligent comment on the piece by a very sharp and insightful sister, challenging the assumption that women’s spirituality and spiritual needs/experiences should be evaluated and judged on the basis of a male-centered standard and perspective that prioritizes ritual worship over child-rearing. Women’s spirituality, she argued, is unique and particular to their experiences and roles and should be respected and appreciated as such. While I very much value and appreciate her contribution to the discussion, the following is a clarification and further elaboration of my perspective on the matter:

To begin, I did not in any way intend to suggest that ritual worship is more important than taking care of children. Rather, I said that it has a unique function and role, i.e., that it provides different fruits than other forms of spiritual life and worship, but not that it is better or more beneficial than those. Indeed, I would be the last person to promote ritualism as the ideal of the spiritual path. I firmly believe that spirituality is about holistic living. And a life of ritualistic devotion without engaging in the world and without attention to one’s various social and moral obligations and responsibilities is a shallow and superficial spirituality that means very little. But that doesn’t mean that ritual devotion doesn’t play an important role in that journey, as a connection to the Divine through ritual brings the sacred dimension into the rest of our experiences and engagements in life so that those things can be experienced fully and contribute to our spiritual growth. So I am in no way trying to diminish the importance of child-rearing (and other forms of social/familial responsibilities) in one’s spiritual growth.

As for the very crucial point regarding the need to acknowledge the particular experiences of women and not evaluating them on the basis of a male normative standard, I agree that this is quite important, and in fact my partner-in-crime Saadia is currently in the midst of writing a blog post on that precise topic, on the need to develop a communal discourse that positively recognizes and validates women’s unique and particular experiences in a life of faith and spirituality rather than simply treating them as an exception and afterthought.

That being said, I also do not see such a rigid bifurcation between male and female experience and spirituality that should not at some level be bridged. In fact a good portion of my motivation in taking the positions I do on gender stems from a desire to see more “femininity” inculcated in men. A number of years ago, I began to realize that my own moral and spiritual growth was being hindered and held back precisely because I was lacking in qualities, traits, and values that we normally associate with “femininity”, and I have since very self-consciously tried to inculcate those in myself.

We can I think understand this matter through the prism of the concept of “acquiring/embodying the traits and attributes of Allah” (al-takhalluq bi khuluq/asma’ Allah) that has been so famously and beautifully discussed by such towering figures as Imam al-Ghazali and Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi, among many others. In order to become more whole and perfect human beings and radiate the Divine light within us, we must inculcate and manifest in ourselves the various “beautiful names of Allah” (as appropriate to our servanthood of course). And in order to reach towards perfection, we must manifest those names and attributes in the most balanced and holistic way possible, giving each attribute its due and appropriate share (e.g. “mercy precedes wrath” as a principle). We also know that among these names and attributes of Allah, there are the “jamālī” and the “jalālī” names, that is, those having to do with beauty and those having to do with power/majesty. These have also often been associated with femininity and masculinity, respectively. God, of course, encompasses the entire spectrum of attributes, both the beautiful/feminine as well as majestic/masculine. And in light of that, the most perfect and whole human being will also manifest a balance of the various attributes, both “feminine” and “masculine”. We see this most beautifully illustrated in the example of our beloved, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), who clearly embodied many beautiful qualities and traits that would normally be deemed feminine, to the extent that it was said that he was “as shy/modest (haya’) as a virgin girl”. (The prophet’s femininity in the context of a machismo culture of masculinity is the topic for a future blog post as well, inshallah.)

The point I am making is that the spiritual well-being and wholesomeness of men is also hindered by being restricted to “male” roles and modes of existing in the world. That is a severe limitation on one’s experience of being human. We should not box ourselves into these idealized categories of femininity and masculinity, they are not rigid empirical categories that map directly onto being women and men in real life. So we men should also be trying to cultivate in ourselves the beautiful feminine qualities of nurturance and self-sacrifice that are so crucial to child-rearing, as a crucial part of our spiritual development.

Ramadan, parenting, and “spiritual equality”

Since Ramadan began, my wife and I have seen quite a few posts and reflections regarding the inability of mothers to spend their time and energy in ritual devotion and spiritual development because of the demands of parenting (erm, I mean, mothering). Can’t make tarawih prayers at the mosque, someone has to stay home with the kids. Can’t read much Qur’an, the kids require too much attention. Can’t devote time to any worship beyond the bare requirements, too many responsibilities in the home.

With this come of course the reassuring statements by religious authorities that their energy and time spent in fulfilling their familial responsibilities as mothers and wives is itself a form of worship and obedience to God, and will be rewarded equal to the ritual devotion that they are missing out on.

Of course, there is no doubt that fulfilling one’s obligations and duties in life is part of our worship of and relationship with God, and is morally and spiritually meaningful. That is an important reminder and message of balance and reassurance. But, at the same time, there is something woefully lacking in such discourse. We have to have more to offer than mere comforting words about the reward of such obedience, some constructive and practical discussion of how to create opportunity for women to also participate in the abundant ritual blessings of Ramadan. So I have a few points in response to such communal rhetoric and discourse.

1) Firstly, just because those social and familial responsibilities are also a form of worship and obedience to God, it doesn’t take away from the unique role of ritual devotion specifically in our spiritual development and relationship with God. The spiritual fruits that we harvest through ritual practices (prayer, dhikr, reading Qur’an, meditation, etc.) are not the same as those that come from other forms of obedience and worship, and should not just be lightly cast aside.

2) Secondly, if it is true that serving your family and fulfilling your responsibilities to them is a form of worship, and we are serious about this, then this message needs to be directed not just towards women but men as well. After all, parenting is a joint endeavor and is the responsibility of both parents (in those families with a two-parent household). So yes, men too will get rewarded for taking care of their families and fulfilling their responsibilities to their children and wives. It is a form of worship and obedience to God for them as well. Otherwise, if we are not willing to emphasize this mutual responsibility, then it is clear that such rhetoric is nothing but an apologetic justification for women not having the opportunity to seek spiritual edification.

3) Thirdly, again, let’s focus on men for a bit, shall we? In all this rhetoric, women are as always valorized for their sacrifice for their families. In this case, even sacrificing their spiritual life. What we fail to recognize is that the flipside of such sacrifice is the spiritual greed of the men in our communities. Is the message we’re sending that it’s okay for men to be spiritually greedy, taking advantage of the ritual blessings of Ramadan without a care to the fact that the women in their lives are yearning for such spiritual opportunities but cannot have them? Is it not part of spiritual excellence and maturity to seek the betterment of others as well and promote a fair and balanced spiritual life for the whole?

4) That brings me to the practical considerations of what I’m talking about. In most situations, there is really no reason why one partner should take all the hits spiritually. So if you are privileged enough to be able to perform tarawih prayers together as a couple at home, do that instead of going to the mosque. If you prefer praying at the mosque or are not able to adequately perform tarawih yourselves, then alternate who goes and who stays with the kids, or figure out babysitting, etc. In general, alternate who gets to spend some extra time alone praying, reading Qur’an, meditating, reading dhikrs, etc., and who takes care of the kids. Share responsibilities and tasks so that both partners have a bit more time to concentrate on their spirituality. Each situation and each couple’s dynamics are unique and particular to them, but the bottom line is: negotiate, compromise, and figure something out that works for both people.

We hear endless apologetics from religious authorities about how in Islam the social roles of men and women may not be the same, but they are nonetheless “spiritually equal”. As a community, however, we need to think long and hard on how to make the concept of “spiritual equality” more than just superficial rhetoric that essentially means “you will not be punished in the afterlife for being a woman”. That is not spiritual equality, that is simply a notion of God that is not terribly unjust and arbitrary in His omnipotence. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. If it is to be a meaningful concept at all, spiritual equality can’t just be about the next life, it has to be about this life too, about the experience of religious and spiritual life. Otherwise our women are privileged to enjoy the same “spiritual equality” as African-American slaves, who were promised that fulfilling their social role and obeying their slave-masters would land them in heaven in the next life. I, for one, don’t think that is a standard of spiritual equality that we should settle for.


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.