By Paola Garcia
New York When I became a Muslim two and a half years ago, my primary reasons for embracing Islam were the light, strength, and guidance I felt this path would give me. The fragments of knowledge I had been acquiring over the years suddenly merged, forming a full picture of Islam that was impossible to reject. Without conscious effort, at some point, everything I had been reading and learning came together the way pieces of a puzzle connect to form a clear and coherent image.
The emphasis Islam places on the intellect, its exhortations to personal development and its lack of division between the physical and the spiritual made it the best ideology I had discovered. In my mind, Islam was the key to unlocking the stores of inner strength I had thus far been unable to access. I was, Alhamdulillah, correct in my perception.
Islam is deeply logical and simple. Over the centuries, Muslims have made it otherwise, but the teachings of Islam remain unchanged and accessible to whoever opens their mind and heart to them. And they are powerful beyond belief.
The profound wisdom in Islam, when embodied, leads a Muslim to fruitful action and a thorough transformation. Islam integrates all aspects of a human being and connects him with the entire creation. It makes a person whole, unfragmented, in harmony with herself and with life itself. This gives an individual tremendous power and confidence.
The light of Islam, however, is not found in mindless rituals or memorization. These last serve only to dull the mind the most valuable asset of a human being- and cause the turmoil and weakness that one can readily observe in many Muslim communities. Rituals, especially prayer, need to be done with mindfulness. Deep thinking, self-evaluation and continuous exertion are also necessary. As with most things in life, sustained effort is greatly rewarded in spirituality.
Physical and Spiritual Unity
Unlike most religions and spiritual traditions, Islam is not based on the premise that human life is troubled with a conflict between the physical and the spiritual. It does not ask us to renounce the worldly life and go into seclusion to pray and meditate all day. On the contrary, in Islam, no aspect of life is too trivial to discuss within the religious realm because Islam is a practical way of life.
Contrastingly, in Christianity, the spirit is divorced from matter. Priests and nuns relinquish the life of the world and dedicate themselves entirely to what they consider is serving God. The body and its needs are viewed as sinful and worldly affairs are disjointed from the worship of God. In this and other traditions, mortification of the self is emphasized in order to free the soul from the shackles of the self as Muhammad Asad writes in Road to Mecca.
Commanded to Thrive
Escaping life and its responsibilities is strongly condemned in Islam. We are required to utilize our lives and human potential to the fullest. We are mandated to thrive, to realize our own value. And realizing our own value, explains Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed, means to set very high standards in every aspect of life and strive to go still higher every day.
To accept inferior circumstances, Dr. Sultan asserts, is lack of faith. Let us be clear: there is nothing in Islam that sanctions weakness. God gifted us with enormous resources. Wasting them or failing to make the most of them is wrong.
Islamic teachings, when internalized, invigorate every aspect of life and result in a fortified spirit, renewed insights and purposeful activity. Therefore, we can be certain that any teaching that causes human stagnation is not of Islam.
Those who are destitute, for instance, are not saintly but are rather weak and forced to stretch their hands and beg from others. We must strive for economic prosperity and use it to uplift others, as we should any kind blessing we were given, whether it be our intellect, our ability to connect with others and our unique talents.
I was re-reading parts of Muhammad Asads amazing book Road to Mecca and was deeply struck by the following paragraphs:
How has it come about that you Muslims have lost your self-confidence that self-confidence which once enabled you to spread your faith, in less than a hundred years, from Arabia westward as far as the Atlantic an eastward deep into Chinaand now surrender yourselves so easily, so weakly, to the thoughts and customs of the West? Why cant you, whose forefathers illumined the world with science and art at a time when Europe lay in deep barbarism and ignorance, summon forth the courage to go back to your own progressive, radiant faith? How is it that Ataturk who denie[d] all value to Islam, has become to you Muslims a symbol of Muslim revival?
Tell me how has it come about that the faith of your Prophet and all its clearness and simplicity has been buried beneath a rubble of sterile speculation and the hair-splitting of your scholastics? How has it happened that your princes and great land-owners revel in wealth and luxury while so many of their Muslim brethren subsist in unspeakable poverty and squalor although your Prophet taught that No one may call himself a Faithful who eats his fill while his neighbor remains hungry?
Can you make me understand why you have brushed woman into the background of your lives although the women around the Prophet and his Companions took part in so grand a manner in the life of their men? How has it come that so many of you Muslims are ignorant although your Prophet declared that Striving after knowledge is a most sacred duty for every Muslim man and woman and that The superiority of the learned men over the mere pious is like the superiority of the moon when it is full over all other stars?
When Asad, who came from a European Jewish background, spoke these words to an Afghan hakim, he was not yet a Muslim. Asad explained to the hakim that he had come to see so much beauty in Islam and it made him angry to see Muslims waste it. Since Asad wrote these strong words, the conditions of Muslims worldwide have worsened. This paralysis and stagnation are the direct result of our failure to apply the empowering and healing teachings of Islam to our lives. But these teachings are very much alive and we can choose to act upon them. Let us not waste them. Let us not waste Islam.
Strengthening the Self
Muhammad Iqbal, who every Muslim should read, asserts that the moral and religious ideal of a human is not self-negation but self-affirmation. And a person attains this ideal by becoming more and more individual, more and more unique the greater a persons distance from God, the less his individuality.
This appears convoluted but it is not. Iqbal explains that in order to fortify the self, we must take actions that integrate into our selves the Divine attributes. The more we assimilate these attributes, the more unique we become. The less we assimilate them, the more like sheep we become. And being like sheep, failing to think and act for ourselves, is a huge form of weakness.
Taking positive action is key. Remaining passive, lazy, and indifferent is evil.
Iqbal explains that asking weakens the self tremendously. Asking means living in a state of weakness, without continuously creating purpose, desire and ideals. To Iqbal, all that is achieved without personal effort comes under asking. The son on a rich man who inherits his fathers wealth is an asker or a beggar; so is every one who thinks the thoughts of others.
For instance, those who constantly look for handouts from others or for help from the government are in a state of asking and therefore of spiritual weakness. Somebody who is unemployed but takes the step to go looking for work every day and focuses on what he can contribute, rather than what he can take, is gaining strength and in time, he will be successful.
The best way to strengthen ourselves is to avoid asking and to take actions that assimilate Divine attributes into our deep selves, that is: constructive and moral actions that will benefit us in the long term while avoiding those that bring us instant gratification but harm us in the long haul. Diligently looking for work instead of cashing unemployment checks for as long as possible is a good example. Giving our best at work instead of doing the bare minimum just to avoid getting fired is another example.
The idea of strengthening the self is extremely useful because it gives us a clear criterion for differentiating what is good from what is evil especially on things that are not clear cut or seem minor on the surface: that which fortifies self is good, that which weakens it is bad. Therefore, all things, including art, philosophies, religious interpretations, hobbies and ethics can be judged in this manner.
For instance, although watching reality TV is not blatantly evil, if watching these shows makes me feel lazy, overeat, feel greedy and ungrateful for what I have, then these programs are undoubtedly bad and I must avoid them like poison. Instead, if watching a documentary about a part of the world I am unfamiliar with makes me feel more connected with other human beings and care about their struggles, this sort of program is clearly good for me.
These ideas originate from the Quran, which states God gives an example someone enslaved, owned by another, has no power over anything, and someone else whom We have given good resources from ourselves and who spends from it at will, both privately and publicly. Are these two equal? Praise and thanks be to God: but most do not understand it. And God gives the example of two men one dumb, powerless, and a burden to his master: to whichever task is he directed he brings no good. Can such a one be considered the equal of someone who commands justice and is on a firm path? (16:75-76)
In The Quran and the Life of Excellence, Dr. Sultan explains that These ayas give us a criterion. Any belief, any tradition, any interpretation that does not make you more resourceful, more powerful, and freer to act is false. Stated in the opposite way, the right interpretation is the one that if you act upon it, it will increase your personal power to make a difference in your life and that of others.
If religious teachings contribute to personal growth, resourcefulness, freedom, and happiness of people who follow them, then these represent the true purpose of religion. If, on the other hand, religion is taught in ways that contribute to constriction of human potential, to unhappiness and lack of productivity, they are false, regardless of how famous the scholar who conveys these ideas.
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