The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “happiness & mental health”

Sacred Tranquility in Our Age of Angst & Anxiety

The main thrust of this piece is a short discussion from Imam Ibn al-Qayyim concerning how his shaykh, Ibn Taymiyyah, would recite the six “Verses of Tranquility” in the Qur’an whenever he would feel under pressure or find himself in straightened circumstances. Ibn al-Qayyim writes that when he tried this spiritual remedy for himself, he too found relief from the agitation or anxiousness he would be experiencing. The post wraps-up by briefly mentioning the two kinds of anxiety that afflict people, and how the Qur’an is a spiritual healing for life’s angsts and anxieties.

In what is possibly his most developed work on Muslim spirituality (tazkiyat al-nafs, ‘ilm al-suluk, tasawwuf), Ibn al-Qayyim commences his discussion on the spiritual quality of tranquility (sakinah) by saying it’s a virtue gifted by God through His unmitigated grace: it cannot be earned or acquired through spiritual works and exertion.1 He then tells us that sakinah is mentioned in six verses of the Holy Qur’an. These verses are:

1. وَقَالَ لَهُمْ نَبِيُّهُمْ إِنَّ آيَةَ مُلْكِهِ أَنْ يَأْتِيَكُمُ التَّابُوتُ فِيهِ سَكِينَةٌ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ – Their Prophet said to them: ‘The sign of his kingship is that there shall come to you the ark wherein is tranquility from your Lord.’ [Q.2:248]

2. ثُمَّ أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُ عَلَى رَسُولِهِ وَعَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ – Then God sent down His tranquility on His Prophet and the believers. [Q.9:26]

3. إِذْ يَقُولُ لِصَاحِبِهِ لَا تَحْزَنْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَنَا فَأَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُ عَلَيْهِ وَأَيَّدَهُ بِجُنُودٍ لَمْ تَرَوْهَا – [W]hen he said to his companion; ‘Do not despair, for God is with us.’ Then God caused His tranquility to descend upon him and supported him with invisible forces. [Q.9:40]

4. هُوَ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ السَّكِينَةَ فِي قُلُوبِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ لِيَزْدَادُوا إِيمَانًا مَعَ إِيمَانِهِمْ وَلِلَّهِ جُنُودُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًاHe it is who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers, so that they would have more faith added to their [present] faith. God’s are the hosts of the heavens and the earth, and God is Knowing, Wise. [Q.48:4]

5. لَقَدْ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ إِذْ يُبَايِعُونَكَ تَحْتَ الشَّجَرَةِ فَعَلِمَ مَا فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ فَأَنْزَلَ السَّكِينَةَ عَلَيْهِمْ وَأَثَابَهُمْ فَتْحًا قَرِيبًا – God was well pleased with the believers when they swore allegiance to you under the tree. And He knew what was in their hearts; thus He sent down tranquility on them and rewarded them with a near victory. [Q.48:18]

6. إِذْ جَعَلَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فِي قُلُوبِهِمُ الْحَمِيَّةَ حَمِيَّةَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ فَأَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُ عَلَى رَسُولِهِ وَعَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ – When the disbelievers had set up in their hearts chauvinism – the chauvinism of the Age of Ignorance. Then God sent down His tranquility on His Messenger and the believers. [Q.48:26]

After listing the verses, Ibn al-Qayyim then goes on to reveal: ‘Whenever matters became intense, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, may God have mercy upon him, would recite the Verses of Tranquility (ayat al-sakinah). I once heard him say concerning a serious incident that afflicted him during an illness of his …”When the matter became acute, I said to my relatives and those around me: “Recite the Verses of Tranquility.” I would then be relieved from this condition and my heart would be freed of its troubles.”

‘I [Ibn al-Qayyim] also experienced this on reading these verses, when my heart became disturbed over something that troubled it. I experienced their tremendous effect, in terms of the calm and peace they brought to it.

‘The root of this sakinah is the heart’s peace (tuma’ninah), composure (waqar) and repose (sukun) that God causes to descend upon the heart of His servant, in times of disquieting troubles.’2

Of course, such verses should be recited with an overall awareness of what one is reciting, in order for them to yield their true benefits. Ibn al-Qayyim makes this point in another of his works. While teasing out the theological benefits and spiritual fruits of the verse: And remember Job, when he cried unto his Lord: “Affliction has seized me. But You are the Most Merciful of the merciful” [Q.21:83], he notes:

‘This supplication (du‘a) combines in itself the essence of tawhid, manifesting indigence before the Lord, the taste of divine love in the praise and the flattery of Him, affirming His attribute of mercy and that He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy, seeking the means to approach Him through [mention] of His attributes, and one’s dire need of Him. Whenever the afflicted one feels this, his affliction will be removed. Experience confirms that whoever repeats this [verse] seven times, especially with this awareness, God shall lift from him his affliction.’3

Ours is an age filled with two kinds of angst or anxiety. The first is what is referred to as “existential angst”: an anxiety and despair born from falsely believing that life is devoid of meaning; everything is here by some cosmic “chance”; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end: therefore life is pointless. The believer is shielded from such an anxiety because of knowing that life has a God-centred purpose; that death is not the end; and that the good we do, seeking God’s good pleasure – even if unappreciated by others – is known by God and is accepted and rewarded by Him, through His unmitigated grace. In this way, the believer is known to God and loved by Him.

The other kind of angst can afflict anyone – believer or unbeliever, saint or sinner – and is an intrinsic part of human life. This kind of anxiety is, for a want of a better term, more of a “clinical angst” and is usually experienced in the context of a physical threat, a trauma, or a situational problem or crisis. By clinical, I mean that it may be (and usually is) treated with conventional medicine, or professional therapy, or meditative practices and spiritual healing – or even a combination of two, or of all three. And whilst certain anxieties, such as trauma brought on in childhood, isn’t the individual’s fault, it is their responsibility to try and remedy or cope with it.

For a Muslim, the Qur’an is a powerful shifa’, or healing: And We reveal of the Qur’an that which is a healing and a mercy to the believers. [Q.17:82] And whilst the primary healing of the Qur’an is in curing the intellectual doubts, falsehoods or half truths concerning God, humanity’s true purpose, life’s essential meaning, and our ultimate end; and in providing humanity with a practical and liveable morality suitable for all times or places, it offers psycho-spiritual relief to mind and soul as well. Reciting the words (alfaz) of the Qur’an, and pondering over their meanings (ma‘na), are both a healing – the former is a means to the latter, with the latter being the greater goal and purpose of the Holy Qur’an: Will they not ponder over the Qur’an, or are there locks upon their hearts? [Q.47:24] For some, the six Verses of Tranquility – when recited with an overall awareness of their meanings, coupled with feeling needy and indigent before God – has proven an effective remedy in bringing about relief from the heart’s troubles and the mind’s anxieties. With the correct adab, and mustering enough sincerity and neediness, it could very well do the same for us too?

We ask Allah for His kindness and grace.

1. Madarij al-Salikin (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2005), 2:404.

2. ibid., 2:404-5.

3. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 292. As for the shari‘ah justification of repeating dhikr formulas a specific number of times, when such a number has not been specifically mentioned in a text from the Qur’an or the Sunnah, consult: Dhikr Repetition: Is It Allowed?

Anxiety, Liquid Modernity & the Assault on Our Primordiality

THE MODERN WORLD IS RADICALLY different to anything and everything that has gone before it. Defining what modernity actually is tends to be elusive, even to philosophers and to those in the social sciences. But it does have certain traits.

Modernity – this ‘brilliant series of distractions,’ as it’s been called – is the great leveller: Where once there was meaning, there is now anomie and meaninglessness. Where once there was optimism, there is now discontent and despair. Where there was religion and spiritual ambition, there is now a yawning gulf. And where there was direction, there is now a maelstrom of confusion and a lack of inner purpose.

To mask this bleak reality; to anaesthetise us, modernity offers us a plethora of gadgets and technology so as to distract us like kids with their new toys. A basic religious insight Islam offers us is that sa‘adah – human ‘happiness’ is to do with the soul. It’s to do with hope, optimism, security, and of having a sense of direction, purpose and meaning. And this is something modernity simply cannot supply.

Another religious insight concerns the fitrah, this primordial nature of man, in that it views some things as immutable. For modernity, though, all is up for grabs. Nothing is constant or unchanging. ‘Forms of modern life may,’ Zygmunt Bauman writes, ‘differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change.’ He explains that to be modern means to obsessively modernise; not ‘just to be’, but forever ‘becoming.’ He goes on to contend that what was not too long ago dubbed post-modernity, which he terms ‘liquid modernity,’ is the growing belief that ‘change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty.’1

All this stands in contrast to what Islam teaches about the fitrah. The Qur’an states: So set your face to the upright religion, the primordial nature which God has instilled in man. [Q.30:30] So as the assault on the fitrah – the Adamic norm that God created us upon – intensifies; and as we see war waged against traditional Abrahamic ethics grow ever more robust, where inversion of values seems to be the name of the game, the believers must ask God for the grace to remain firm on the upright religion. To not see that the monoculture is set on course to further corrupt the fitrah, is to be blind to the nature of the age, or to the way of living God purposes for us. As the Qur’an puts it: It is not the eyes that grow blind, but the hearts in the chests that become blind. [Q.22:46]

1. Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), viii-ix.

Spirit of Hope: God Knows Us and Understands Us

lonely-man-bridge-by-Stefano-Corso-711x460Three core ingredients go into making up the religion of Islam. And they are expressed in three simple words: iman – the “faith” or “belief” one must have in God, His Prophets, as well as in the Afterlife; islam – outward “submission” to God in terms of such things like prayer, pilgrimage or moral uprightness; and ihsan – usually translated as “excellence”, which refers to internalising faith and outward submission, and bringing them to their peak and perfection. The Prophet, peace be upon him, described ihsan in these words: ‘It is to worship God as though seeing Him; and though you see Him not, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.2]

Time and again, the Qur’an speaks of God, of Allah, as being al-Basir – “All-Seeing” and al-Khabir – “All-Aware”. We read in the Qur’an: Nothing in the earth or in the heavens is hidden from God. [Q.3:5] We are also told: He knows what is secret and what is even more hidden. [Q.20:7] And as Edwin Arnold versified in Pearls of Faith:

‘Al-Khabir! Thou Who art ‘aware’ of all,
By this name also for Thy grace we call.
Yes! pardon, Lord, since Thou dost know
Tomorrow, now, and long ago.’

So God sees us at every moment; and is aware of all things, at all times. But we need to tread very carefully here. For allowing hearts to nurture a healthy sense of fear of God, through awareness of Him being All-Seeing, All-Aware, is undeniably part of sound faith. But the notion that God is some sort of “Super-Spy”, eagerly waiting to catch us out and to gleefully punish us when we may slip, stumble, or harbour fleeting, shameful secret thoughts that we dare not acknowledge even to our ownselves, is not what such Quranic verses are about. That God is lying in ambush to see us hopefully slip or sin, so as to then pounce on us with divine punishment – well that sort of idea of God as being some sort of mean-spirited, cosmic Tyrant is utterly alien to Islam!

The Holy Qur’an wishes us to understand that God’s all-seeing presence isn’t suffocating. Rather the believer finds God’s all-knowing presence reassuring and comforting. In their deepest need to be known, the believer is aware that God fully knows them: and that is surely reassuring. And in their deepest need to be understood, the believer realises that God truly understands them: and that is comforting. The sense of loneliness which haunts so many people in our age, cries out for love; for friendship; for companionship. It cries out to be known and to be understood. What a relief, then, to discover that – in the only way it truly matters – we are fully understood, because we are truly known. For He who created us and fashioned us is in the best position to truly know us, meaningfully heal us, and ultimately forgive us. 

But while the divine Mercy cannot wait to forgive us our sins and stupidities, it’s a two-way street. Whilst the Holy Qur’an insists that God’s mercy embraces all things [Q.7:156], it also states: Your Lord has prescribed mercy for Himself, that whoever of you does evil and afterwards repents, and does right, [for them] God is assuredly Forgiving, Compassionate. [Q.6:54] Repentance, or tawbah, doesn’t mean self-pitying guilt. It means turning back to God when we had turned away from Him, admitting the simple truth of our predicament: that we have fallen short of what could reasonably be expected of us.

But if our theology doesn’t help stoke the fire of intimacy with, or yearning for, God, then we are likely going about religion in the wrong way. Does our theology reassure us that we have a God who we can bring our sadness, our sorrows, our loneliness, our fear, our hurt, our shame and sins to, or is it just a case of knowing what Islam has to say about those moments and for us to then mechanically carry out the external processes? When it’s the latter, we’ll always tend to stop there and not voice such feelings to God, thereby denying ourselves the whole point of God’s essential nature: When My servants ask you about Me, I am near, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [Q.2:186]

That God is All-Seeing, All-Aware is, therefore to be known and, even more importantly, to be understood. And behind His awareness is the beautiful and comforting religious reality of a God who says: ‘O My servants who have wronged their own souls. Despair not of God’s mercy! For God forgives all sins; He is indeed Forgiving, Compassionate.’ [Q.39:53]

May knowledge of this truth lead to knowing Him more, and being known by Him. May it lead to deepening our awareness of Him, and being understood and healed by Him.

Our Need to Connect, Anxious When We Don’t!

20160828_140005‘The more we’re connected, the more we seem to be disconnected’ pretty much sums up our growing modern dilemma.

Our globalised social media age is one in which selling ourselves, sharing ourselves, expressing ourselves and defending ourselves are now part and parcel of everyday life for millions of people across the world. In such an age, writes Os Guinness, it’s a case of: ‘I post, therefore I am.’

Not to deny the positive aspects of social media, an ever-increasing volume of mental health studies have, nonetheless, begun to show a more damaging and dangerous side to this culture. Cyber-bullying, sleep deprivation, or distraction from more important matters are undoubtedly some of the more apparent downsides. But there are darker, more tragic dimensions to our engagement with social media. There’s what many call the ‘compare & despair’ syndrome. As people compare their own mundane lives to the endless Instagram, Facebook or Twitter pictures of friends on a perfect vacation, with a perfect partner, or part of a perfect family; or as they devour doctored images of the day-to-day glamorised lives of celebrities; or as they notice how many more hits, likes or shares others are getting than they are, instead of inspiring people, is causing them to despair or be unhappy. The timely wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, echoed by more recent findings in neuroscience, of comparing downwards (with those less well to do than ourselves), instead of upwards (with those better off), continues to be ignored by our destructive consume-and-be-consumed culture.

There is also the FOMO (fear of missing-out) phenomenon. More common with the under-30s, it’s the anxiety caused by not being in-the-know about, or missing out on, experiences (parties, gigs, concerts, or other social events and interactions) that others might be having. Once afflicted, one cannot be at ease for the thought that something important might happen whilst one isn’t connected. The result: angst, addiction and an obsessive need to keep checking one’s phone or social media device.

As with compare and despair, the FOMO affliction has also been around long before social media ever made its mark. But there can be little doubt that social media – with its endless status updates and photos of friends sharing their (seemingly) happier and more exciting lives, and that everybody else is (supposedly) having fun and somehow you’re being left out – has made such paranoia, depression and trauma far more acute and widespread in society.

So as can be seen, and unbeknown to many who are part of a more ‘older’ crowd, the problems with our social media culture isn’t just about selfie-taking narcissists. If we are to retain our sanity; our emotional stability, we need to urgently (re)learn the lost art of JOMO (joy of missing-out): learning to take pleasure in being disconnected for a time, by not feeling one has to be everywhere, or with everyone, at once. So let’s just switch off, be calm and have a cuppa.

A final thought. As a Muslim, and as someone part of that ‘older’ crowd, it’s painful to see how so many people, especially young people, are now in the grip of social media anxiety and addiction. Social media addiction is real, and it’s a far larger problem than most of us care to realise. Its harms are real, too. It degrades life, damages careers and even harms relationships. Most major social network sites, as well as content creators, work hard everyday to make their networks as addictive as possible, using algorithmic filters to tweak their content and target our personal desires, needs and tantrums. In the meantime, our social ability to resist this addiction hasn’t quite evolved.

Islam teaches that Man, being a social creature, has a deep need for connectivity. But more than the need for friendship, intimacy or socialising with others, Islam insists that the greatest need for human hearts – their ultimate yearning – is to be connected to God; and in the absence of that connection there is only an unfulfilled restlessness within us. In the Qur’an, one of God’s Beautiful Names is al-Kafi – ‘The Sufficer’ or ‘He who satisfies all needs’. It follows, then, that if we turn our hearts away from the Sufficer, we shall continue to remain unsatisfied, anxious and unfulfilled. For human hearts can only find true peace, fulfilment and meaning in their Creator: Indeed in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Qur’an, 13:28]

As social media sites are tweaked to get more and more addictive, and as social media companies are in a war for survival where only the most addictive sites will survive, most people will be … well, little more than lab rats in a massive, global experiment. If we don’t learn to cultivate inner restraint or a sense of balance, most will continue to be manipulated by social media sites and content creators to waste far too much time in a way that benefits them, not us – unless we remember that we were created for a higher, more exalted Connectivity and a profounder friendship with the Content Creator of all creation. The choice, therefore, is ours; and where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: