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”