The Humble "I"

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Archive for the tag “remembrance of God”

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.

Don’t Stop Making Dhikr Because Your Heart Isn’t In It

Islam-Prayer-Beads-Hand‘I’m remembering Allah, but my heart’s not in it; what’s the point’ is a typical anguish for many of us? ‘When I make dhikr, my heart doesn’t have focus, it’s all over the place. Is there any use’ is another one?

So should we stop making dhikr because out heart lacks focus on Allah; because there isn’t any hudur al-qalb – “presence of heart”? There are some who are dead set on the issue. There is no point in making dhikr when the heart is heedless, to do so would be making a mockery of dhikr – or so they’d have us believe.

But that’s not quite right. That’s not what those whom Allah has blessed with a huge share of fiqh and profound insight into the realities of faith (haqa’iq al-iman) teach us. Instead, as Ibn al-Qayyim explains, dhikr ‘is sometimes performed with the heart and tongue, which is the best dhikr; sometimes with only the heart, which ranks second; and sometimes with only the tongue, which ranks third.’1 And whilst dhikr with the tongue alone does not yield the fruits of gnosis (ma‘rifah), divine love (mahabbah) and intimacy (uns) as does dhikr with the tongue and heart combined; nonetheless, it still has its benefits. In fact, for most people it begins with dhikr of just the tongue. Imam al-Ghazali wrote: ‘It starts with dhikr of the tongue; then by the heart being pressed into remembering; then the heart remembering spontaneously.’2

The truth of the matter is that if we were to make dhikr only when our hearts were fully present, absorbed and focused on Allah, most of us would never make any dhikr at all! Masters of the inward life instruct us that if, whilst engaging in dhikr, we drift into the valleys of heedlessness and idle thought, when we realise we simply bring our hearts back into focus and continue in our dhikr. In this, as with all other matters, it is Allah’s fadl and karam that we rely upon; not our own efforts.

Perhaps the finest articulation of this reality (the reality of dhikr with just the tongue, and dhikr with the tongue and heart combined) is presented to us by Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari in his celebrated Hikam or collection of “Spiritual Aphorisms”. In one such aphorism, he states:

‘Do not abandon dhikr because you do not feel the presence of Allah therein. For your heedlessness of the dhikr of Him is worse than your heedlessness in the dhikr of Him. Perhaps He will lift you from dhikr with heedlessness (ghaflah) to dhikr with vigilance (yaqza); and from dhikr with vigilance to dhikr with presence (hudur); and from dhikr with presence to dhikr wherein everything but the One being remembered becomes absent: And that, for Him, is not difficult. [14:20]‘ 3

In his commentary to the Hikam, al-Shurnubi teases out some of the subtleties in the above aphorism. He writes: ‘Do not, O aspirant, forsake dhikr – which is an invitation to sanctity (manshur al-walayah) – because your heart isn’t present with God in it, due to it being preoccupied with worldly distractions. Instead, remember Him in all states and conditions. For your forgetfulness of His dhikr, in that you abandon it entirely, is far worse than your forgetfulness while making dhikr of Him. For at least, in this state, your tongue is moving in His remembrance, even if your heart is heedless of the One remembered. Perhaps you will be taken, by His grace, from dhikr with heedlessness to dhikr with vigilance; in other words, with an attentive, awakened heart; for this is the courtesy (adab) which befits His Presence; and from dhikr with vigilance to dhikr with presence, presence of His closeness; and from dhikr with presence to dhikr where all becomes absent except the One being remembered. So the person is “lost” even to his own dhikr … When dhikr flows from the tongue in this state, it does so spontaneously, without intent. Instead, his tongue only utters what the Manifest Truth [Allah] wants it to, for such a person is at the Station of Divine Love – which the [next] hadith refers to: ‘ … and My servant continues to draw near to Me with optional works (nawafil) so that I love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, and his tongue with which he speaks.’4 None knows the reality of this lofty station except the spiritual wayfarers (salikun). So accept it wholeheartedly, even if you aren’t from its people: and follow not the desires of those who have no knowledge. [45:18] And hold tightly to the means, then the veil shall be lifted for you: And that, for Him, is not difficult. [14:20]’5

1. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 176.

2. Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2006), 87. Also see the related article on this blog: How to Nurture Presence of Heart with God.

3.  Ibn Ata’illah, al-Hikam al-Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.47.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.6137. Even though the meaning is sound and correct, the phrase: ‘his tongue with which he speaks’ is not part of the wording of this particular hadith. This phrase occurs in a hadith related by Ibn Abi Dunya, al-Awliya, no.45; Ahmad, Musnad, 4:256; and others. But the chains all have defects in them and are therefore da‘if. See: Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:331-32.

5. Al-Shurnubi, Sharh al-Hikam (Beirut & Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2008), 111-12.

Amusing Our Hearts to Death

maxresdefaultOne hadith states: ‘Laugh not too much; for too much laughter deadens the heart.’1 This isn’t to say that laughter or humour must be avoided altogether; for laughter and light-heartedness, in moderation, are prophetic Sunnahs that helps lighten burdens, ease anxiety and bring about joy to oneself and to others. Indeed, there is little virtue in always looking grave and solemn: And that He it is that makes to laugh and makes to weep. [53:43] And as the Prophet, peace be upon him, remarked: ‘O Hanzalah! There is a time for this and a time for that.’2 Yet, as the above hadith shows, to overindulge in laughter is a lethal poison that kills the heart spiritually.

The eleventh century hadith master, ‘Abd al-Ra‘uf al-Munawi points out: ‘Making a habit of laughing diverts one from deliberating over matters of importance.’3 When life becomes little more than “a bundle of laughs,” then the heart’s spiritual death has well and truly set in. Al-Munawi again: ‘The laughter that kills the heart comes from being frivolous and careless in the world. The heart has [spiritual] life and death: its life lies in continuous obedience [to God]. Its death, in responding to the call of other than God; be it one’s ego, desires, or the devil.’4 In fact, in the prophetic teachings, a cheerful countenance and an easy-going nature (one hadith says: ‘The believers are amiable and easy-going: al-mu’minun hayyinun layyinun.’5) is to be tempered with the sobering recollection of God, death, the Afterlife and the imminent Judgement and Accountability. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, urged: ‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures [i.e. death].’6 A heart desensitised to such realities, or numbed to their recollection, is a heart that has had the stuff of life sucked out of it.

The Qur’an warns about being diverted or distracted through things of the world: ‘O you who believe! Let neither your wealth nor your children divert you from remembrance of God. Those who do so, they are the losers.’ [63:9] In houses which God has allowed to be raised up, where His name is remembered. In them is He glorified morning and evening. By men whom neither merchandise nor trade distract from the remembrance of God. [24:36-7] Trade, riches, possessions, and the pursuit of thrills and pleasures so preoccupy most people, so as to make them oblivious to all else; unless hearts are tuned to the higher purpose of their existence. Wealth and children and partaking of permissible worldly pleasures are all lawful, and are to be a means to maintain our connection with God; unless and until they distract us from the worship and remembrance of Him. If we lose ourselves to the world, we ultimately lose everything.

Tragically we are now a culturally obese society, continuously feeding on an excessive diet of trivial amusement and entertainment. This over-consumption of laughter and frivolity, as noted before, distracts most of us from more serious considerations: war, famine, disease, environment, disintegration of society and breakdown of the family; as well as existential issues more serious still, that relate to our Creator, the Afterlife and our purpose of being. Our continued addiction to all this joviality and diversion has made us a society wherein we are, in the words of Neil Postman’s deftly entitled book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

O people! Fear your Lord, and fear a Day when the parent will not be able to avail his child in any way, nor the child to avail his parent. God’s promise is the truth. Let not the life of the world deceive you, nor let the deceiver deceive you concerning God. [31:33]

1. Ibn Majah, no.4193.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2014.

3. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 2:157.

4. ibid., 5:52.

5. Al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.139.

6. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2307.

Beacons Upon the Path of the Soul’s Purification

5004887deb62fc678e34b4215bb2713d-d5jqeckThe Prophet, peace be upon him, once said: kun fi’l-dunya ka’annaka gharibun aw ‘abiru sabil – ‘Be in this world as if you were a stranger or traveller.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6416] Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali began his commentary to this hadith by stating: ‘This hadith forms the basis for having brief hopes (qisar al-amal) in terms of this worldly life and that the believer ought not to take the world as his permanent abode or residence, or grow too comfortable in it. Instead, he should live in it as though he were ready to depart for a journey, preparing his provisions for it.

The counsels of the prophets and their followers are in absolute agreement about this. God, exalted is He, relates that one of the believers amongst the courtiers of Pharaoh said: ‘O my people! The life of this world is nothing but a passing comfort; and the Hereafter, that is the ever-lasting abode.’ [40:39]’1

Among those deeds that help one to traverse the bridge from this dar al-fana’ – “abode of extinction and impermanence,” to the dar al-baqa’ – “the abode of permanence and eternity,” and which act as milestones and beacons along the path, are:

1. Venerating the Symbols of God: The Qur’an says: Whoever reveres the symbols of God, that is from piety of hearts. [22:32] Symbols (sha‘a’ir) refers to signs, marks and emblems by which something is known to belong to some particular body or group of people. Flags, for instance, are sha‘a’ir; as are religious rites that are emblematic of, or specific to certain religious communities. Here, the symbols of God refer to those well-known, external commands and prohibitions that are emblematic of Islam: the prayer, adhan, fasting, pilgrimage rites, the prohibition of pork or drinking intoxicants, etc. Revering and venerating God’s symbols shows veneration for the One who sent them; and this is from piety of hearts. The signs of revering God’s sha‘a’ir are: fulfilling their demands; keeping to their limits; being attentive to accomplishing them correctly; hastening to them when they are due; and to be sad, disappointed and contrite when having missed any of their benefits. Another sign of veneration is to feel anger when God’s symbols are mocked or reviled, and sadness when they are disobeyed.2

As today’s liberal prescriptions become ever more intolerant; and ever more eager to suppress, stigmatise and demonise any significant dissenting voices, honouring God’s symbols (especially in regards to morality and gender relations) becomes much more difficult. Even so, we mustn’t be bullied into failing to state the correct Islamic rulings in such matters, nor be browbeaten into silence: And whoever reveres the sacraments of God, that is better for him with his Lord. [22:30]

2. Not to Overindulge in Humour & Amusement: One hadith states: ‘Do not laugh too much; for too much laughter deadens the heart.’ [Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.4193] This is not to say that laughter or humour must be avoided altogether; for laughter and light-hearted humour, in moderation, are prophetic Sunnahs that bring about joy and relief to oneself, and to others. There is little virtue in always being grave and solemn: And that He it is that makes to laugh and makes to weep. [53:43] Yet to overindulge in laughter is a lethal poison that kills the heart spiritually and, as al-Munawi points out: ‘Making a habit of laughing diverts one from deliberating over matters of importance.’3 When life becomes little more than “a bundle of laughs,” then the heart’s spiritual death has well and truly set in. Al-Munawi again: ‘The laughter that kills the heart comes from being frivolous and careless in the world. The heart has [spiritual] life and death. Its life lies in continuous obedience [to God]. Its death, in responding to the call of other than God: be it one’s ego, desires, or the devil.’4

Tragically we are now a culturally obese society, continuously feeding on an excessive diet of trivial amusement and entertainment. This over-consumption of laughter and frivolity, as noted before, diverts most of us from more serious considerations: war, famine, disease, environment, economy, disintegration of society and social cohesion and the breakdown of family; as well as those existential issues more serious still that relate to our Maker, the Afterlife and our purpose of being. Our continued addiction to all this joviality and diversion has made us a society wherein we are, in the words of Neil Postman’s deftly entitled book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

3. Cultivating Presence of Heart with God: Without doubt, the greatest trait to nurture in our worship of God and in our journey to Him is hudur al-qalb – “presence of heart” with Him. It states in one hadith: ‘Ask God [in a state where] you are certain of being responded to; and realise that God does not respond to a supplication from a heedless and inattentive heart.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3479] Thus, a mindless heart elicits very little response from Heaven; whereas an attentive heart, present with its Lord, does. What is meant by “presence of heart” (or for the heart to feel the presence of the One being invoked or remembered) is that the heart be liberated from all distractions and that it be constantly attentive to its Lord. Such is the courtesy (adab) sought from the servant in his worship of the Generous Lord.

As we seek to break out of the prisons of our pleasures and distractions, and allow our lives to be illumined by faith and loving submission, the focus must be to educate our heart. The above hadith tells us that works of faith, presented to God from a heedless heart, count for very little; if anything at all. Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Whoever purposes the shari‘ah, its sources and wellspring, will know how actions of the limbs are tied to works of the heart and how they are of no benefit without them, and how works of the heart are more obligatory than those of the limbs. For acts of devotion (‘ubudiyyah) of the heart are far greater, more numerous and more continuous than devotion of the limbs. For they are obligatory at each and every moment.’5 Elsewhere, he wrote: ‘Acts of the limbs, without works of the heart, either lack any benefit, or else contain very little benefit.’6

Presence of heart with God is not only required in our salat and du‘a, it is something sought during every moment of our life. The way to nurture such presence is through kathrat al-dhikr – “remembering God frequently,” wherever and whenever possible. At first, says al-Ghazali, dhikr is just with the tongue; the heart having very little share in it. Then the heart, with considerable effort, is made to be present in dhikr – although if left to itself, ‘it would drift into the valleys of idle thought.’ It then takes root in the heart and dominates it, such that it now takes effort to not make dhikr. Finally comes “extinction” and being “lost” in the One being remembered.7 Thus, he wrote: ‘It starts with dhikr of the tongue; then by the heart being pressed into remembering; then the heart remembering spontaneously, thereby leading to it being dominated by the One being remembered and to the effacement of the one remembering.’8

1. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:377.

2. Consult: Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 32, 39.

3. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 2:157.

4. ibid., 5:52.

5. Bada’i‘ al-Fawa’id (Cairo: Maktabah al-Qahirah, 1972), 3:230.

6. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 1:206.

7. Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘In other words, when the power of remembrance takes hold of the servant, causing him to lose consciousness of himself and his remembrance, in [the consciousness of] the One he remembers, the servant is bound to drift through the doors of indwelling (hulul) and unionism (ittihad) – unless he has a sound theology (‘aqidah sahihah).’ Al-Wabil al-Sayyib, 134.

8. Al-Ghazali, Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2006), 85-7.

Don’t Let Time Pass You By

as_time_passes_by_____by_d_meImam al-Shafi‘i remarked: ‘Time is like a sword, if you do not cut it, it will cut you.’ He also said: ‘Your soul, if it is not kept busy with the truth, it will busy you in untruths and falsehood.’1

Islam’s “masters of the heart” tell us that filling our lives with works of faith and with service to others is how blessings (barakah) of time is manifested and the journey to God made constant. The jewel in the crown of the journey, and the seeker’s weapon, is remembrance of God (dhikr).

Imam al-Ghazali (d.505H/1111CE) speaks about the need to organise our time and fill it with prayer, charity, dhikr and other award (‘litanies’, ‘regular acts of devotion’) so that our time is blessed and not squandered, and so that we are not cast adrift from the path by dragging our heels and constant procrastination. He writes:

‘You should not waste your time, doing at any moment whatever chances to present itself when it presents itself. Instead, you should take stock of yourself and structure your acts of devotion during each day or night, assigning to each period of time some specific function that is kept to and is not left for something else in that time. In this way the blessing (barakah) of your time will become evident. But if  you leave yourself to drift, aimlessly wandering as cattle do, not knowing what to occupy yourself with at each moment, you will squander most of your time. Your time is your life; your life is your capital through which you spiritually transact [with God] and through which you reach endless bliss in the proximity of God. Every breath you take is a priceless jewel that cannot be replaced. Once it passes, it can never be retrieved.”2

1. Cited in Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Da’ wa’l-Dawa’ (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1998), 239.

2. Bidayat al-Hidayah (Beirut: Dar al-Minhaj, 2004), 120.

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