Finding Our Way (Part 3)

Part 1 – Part 2

“I want you to represent your life with a single curve,” I instructed as I passed blank sheets of paper around the room of high school students. I had been working for these students for several weeks, and this activity was meant to spearhead today’s discussion.

“Peaks in the curve signify times when you have felt happy, when you perceived that things were going well.” I looked up after handing the sheets around and continued, “Dips in the curve represent times when you felt down, sad, stressed, or anxious.” I asked the students to put specific labels on their curves and think deeply about what was going on in their lives at these various times.

I knew high school was a dynamic time. I remember days in my own experience when I felt competent, confident, and in control. On other days, however, it can feel like nothing was going my way. My goal was to empower the students with tools to get through those times.

Most students drew curves that looked like roller coaster tracks. There were sharp upswings and peaks, followed by drastic declines and troughs. I drew my own curve on the board.

curveLooking around, the students realized that no one’s curve was flat. Everyone’s life was filled with ups and downs.

“What were you feeling at the high and low points on your curve?” I asked, turning to the board and tracing my own curve with my finger. “Where did you turn for help during your lows? On whom did you rely?”

What followed was a beautiful discussion about the nature of life, hope and faith.

The Ups and Downs of Life:

The teachings of Islam draw our attention to the fleeting and ever changing nature of life. The human experience is a testament to this, as exemplified in the verse:

{It is Allah Who created you in a state of weakness; then after weakness He gave you strength, then after strength He made you weak and old. He creates what He pleases. He is All-Knowing, All-Powerful.} (Quran 30:54)

The universe is also an example of this, and the Quran makes reference to the movement of celestial bodies in orbit (36:37-40), to the alternation of night and day (3:190), and to numerous other changes we experience in our physical world.

Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that our own personal lives experience flux between times of ease and times of adversity. Many of us go through life, with all its ups and downs, and seldom stop to think what role faith plays, if any, in all of this.

How do we understand faith? What function does faith serve in our lives, and is there any hope of recovering our faith if we’ve lost it?

The Role of Faith in Our Lives:

The Islamic term for faith is imaan, an Arabic word that comes from a root meaning security and safety. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was called Al-Ameen by the people of Makkah because he was so trustworthy—even his enemies felt safe leaving their valuables in his trust.

Similarly, when we have faith, we find a feeling of safety and security in our hearts. We feel calmness in our soul and freedom from fear. This feeling stems from knowing that regardless of what we may face in life, our affairs are ultimately in the hands of the Ever-Living, All-Knowing, and Most Merciful One.

Imaan can be understood from a lot of different places in our tradition. Many youth are familiar with the hadith, or prophet narration, called the hadith of Jibreel.[1] This hadith details the six articles of faith: the belief in Allah, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, the Last Day, and in Al-Qadaa and Al-Qadar. Imaan can also be understood by how it is described in the Quran and in the work of Islamic scholars.

But what if we were to relate imaan metaphorically to something we are all familiar with? What would most appropriately help understand the role imaan plays in our lives?

I find it helpful to think about imaan like a rope that connects our hearts to Allah. When we strengthen our imaan, we strengthen that rope. It becomes so strong that no matter what happens in our lives, our connection to Allah is never severed.

Think again about the curves I asked my students to draw. During our discussion, I told them to imagine their hearts were tethered to Allah by this rope of imaan. The more they invested in their faith, the stronger and more resilient this rope became. Then, I asked them to imagine what might happen when the curve of their life suddenly took a dip. What happened to their hearts? Did they find themselves in a free-fall, without anything to hold them up? Or were they carried over that dip by the rope of imaan?

We all agreed that falling is a scary feeling, especially if it’s from a great height. When we jump off the high dive our stomachs flip. For a moment we may even feel frightened. We find relief in knowing that the water below us will break our fall. But what if we didn’t have a pool of water below us? How terrifying would it be to fall from so high up?

Finding the WayFacing adversity without the rope of faith feels similar to jumping off a high dive into a dry, cement pool. The Quran actually relates our lack of faith to the experience of free-falling (Quran 22:31). It becomes easy to despair when our hearts are not attached to Allah.

Strengthening Our Rope:

I imagined that in that classroom full of students, some of them understood exactly what I was talking about. They could probably describe how their faith had helped them get through hard times. They could talk about finding solace in their connection with Allah, and comfort in knowing they could always turn to Him.

I realized, however, that other students might not be so sure. They might question why they didn’t feel connected to Allah. They might even wonder if there was any hope for their faith. Could they regain what they felt they had lost?

To those students, I would offer a reassuring word. I would tell them that my own story was one of reconnecting with my faith and rediscovering the beautiful calmness of the soul that comes with it.

Yes, we can recover from a decrease in faith. In fact, scholars tell us that sometimes, a decrease in our faith may be a blessing. How? It is a blessing if it forces us to strive at reconnecting with Allah, for in such striving there is great reward.

Understanding that we should strive to reconnect with Allah is important, but knowing how we do this—how we increase our imaan—is maybe even more so. There is much advice in our tradition about this—from seeking beneficial knowledge, to nourishing our hearts through the remembrance of Allah.

God-willing, our next article will look at this advice and lay out some practical tips to help us increase our imaan.

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[1] The full hadith and explanation can be found at: http://40hadithnawawi.com/index.php/the-hadiths/hadith-2

About Marwa Abdalla
Marwa Abdalla received her B.A. in political science from Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Texas, and is currently working toward a degree in Islamic Studies with the American Open University. She is interested in writing about Islam, marriage and family. Her writing has been published in a book entitled Toward the Well Being of Humanity as well as on numerous websites. She lives with her husband and three daughters in San Diego, CA.