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Spirituality at Odds with Society? (+Video)

Editor’s note: The following text is not strictly verbatim transcript of the video. Some editorial modification were made to make the text publishable as an article.


In the Qur’an, Allah Almighty swears that whoever purifies his soul is successful and those who corrupt it are losers (Ash-Shams 91:9-10). These verses are often misunderstood. Spirituality, in fact, is not about spending isolated times with God in order to experience  transcendence. This is, indeed, a lower maqam (level) in the life of a committed believer. No doubt these moments with Allah are important. Allah Almighty told His Prophet:

{Stand (to prayer) by night, but not all night,-

Half of it,- or a little less,} (Al-Muzzamil 73:2 -3)

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But true spirituality is to be able to move from those moments of solitude with Allah to begin to find spiritual  peace and tranquility within the creation and when dealing with others. Allah Almighty says about the prophets that they used to walk in the markets; that they used to deal with people.

Often we fail to understand this; we think that spirituality is to work on the heart only. Sheikh Osama Sayed Al-Azhari, My Sheikh in Hadith, said something beautiful about Surat Ash-Shams. He said that the word Nafs [translated as soul] in its origin means the entire life of a person. It is not restricted to the internal, spiritual development. [The plural form of the word nafs] is mentioned in the verse {And do not kill yourselves (anfusakum)…} (Al-Baqarah 4:29) That does not mean killing the internal reality of people but the entire body; the entire existence.

So Sheik Osama said that [the purification of the] soul here (Ash-Shams 91:9) is made up of the following:

1. The internal purification of the heart.

2. Having good akhlaq, that is, good external character with Allah and with His creation. When the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was asked about what takes people to Jannah, he said, “Being mindful of Allah (taqwa) and having good character” (At-Tirmidhi and ranked Hasan by Al-Albani)

Allah brings both aspects together when he says:

{Indeed, Allah loves those who are constantly repentant and loves those who purify themselves.} (Al-Baqarah 2:222)

The scholars said that external purity is achieved through wudu` (ablution) and ghusul (ritual bath) while repentance maintains the internal purity, so the above verse combines both: the external and internal purifications.

3. Purification of the mind, cognition, understanding and the worldview.

Allah says:

{And [by] the soul and Him who proportioned it

And inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness,

He has succeeded who purifies it,

And he has failed who corrupts it [with corruption].} (Ash-shams 91:7-10)

In Surat Ibrahim Allah shows us this understanding of spirituality:

{Have you not considered how Allah presents an example, [making] a good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed and its branches [high] in the sky?

It produces its fruit all the time, by permission of its Lord. And Allah presents examples for the people that perhaps they will be reminded.} (Ibrahim 14:24-25)

The verses indicate that the highest level of spirituality is to transcend those solitary moments with Allah to experience the life of the soul among the creation: serving others and being active. Ibn `Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) said that the good word mentioned in the above verses is the Shahadah, that is, to testify that there is no God but Allah. The metaphor of the believer is the tree whose root is pure; the branches –his /her branches are pure; believers’ actions are pure, and the fruit that come from them are pure.

So, this exclusive solitary experience is part of the spirituality. Many scholars said that someone who relates spirituality to those isolated incidents of solitude is a selfish person. You will know that this person is selfish because when a hardship or test comes his way he will lose his strength and stability. True spirituality, as mentioned above, should transcend from the heart of the believer to everyone and everything around them.

That is why the Prophet said, as related by Imam Al-Bukhari, that the example of the believer is like the date tree. Imam ibn Hajar explained that the date tree is the most beneficial tree known to the Arabs: its fruit, leaf, and bark are good; you can make a drink from it; and Arabs used to make carpets and home roofs from it.

So the believer is not someone who exclusively defines spirituality as those individual moments with Allah; but he uses those individual moments to spread the fruits to other people. That is why the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said that the best people are those who are most beneficial to others. (The hadith is ranked Hasan by al-Albani)

And that is why traditionally, the Muslim community has always been able to galvanize the individual heart into communal good  and collective work. The greatest examples of that are the institutions of waqf (endowments) that we have through the Muslim history. Once I was in Egypt with a Sheikh and we found in Cairo waqf Al-kilab (dogs’ endowment) that one time used to provide water for dogs.

So once again, spirituality is about transcending individual isolated moments and sharing the delight of God with those around us through our individual effort, institution building and collective work. Allah Almighty said:

{You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah.}  (Aal-`Imran 3:110)

The job of the Muslim is to be beneficial to people.

Now, quickly I want to touch on a few points:

1. The methodology of building ourselves to be [beneficial] pillars [in the community] is to observe the fara’id (obligatory deeds), starting with the individual obligations (fard `ain). That is why most of the Maliki scholars start their books with a chapter on the obligations.

These obligations include the acts of worship as Salah. One of my teachers said If you want to know the greatness of Salah in the life of the believer, then look at the number of rak`ahs(units of prayers) that we pray in Salah, namely, two (Fajr), three (Maghrib), and four (the rest of prayers.) Now consider the verse in Surat Fatir in which Allah Almighty describing Angels as having two, three, and four wings.  Just as the angels have two wings, three wings and four wings, the believers have two rak`ahs, three rak` ahs and four rak`ahs to get close to Allah

2. After establishing the fara’id, you may think that you have to go hard. Actually, spirituality should be doing something at a comfortable pace that pushes you just enough to feel you are getting something out of it. `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon her) said that the most beloved deeds to Allah are those practiced regularly, even if they are small deeds (Muslim)

Many people may want to rush into spirituality; you may want to rush into this process when in fact you need to create, for example, a chart of few things here and there that you start doing and then you build on.

3. There are signs that you are a [beneficial] pillar of the community:

The first is that you make ta’lif (uniting effort), not tafriq(spreading disagreement). The sign of a good heart is that it has a sincere love for the Muslims; that you are not someone who looks to divide the community.

In one verse Allah mentions that He brought the hearts of the Companions together (Al-Anfal 8:63). He mentions in another chapter that after bringing the hearts of the Muslims together, they became by the blessing of Allah brothers and sisters (Aal `Imran 3:103). So we can say that the state of brotherhood and sisterhood is directly correlated to the states of our hearts. If our hearts are pure and our spirituality is where it needs to be, then our brotherhood is robust and dynamic. But if our relation with Allah, internally, externally and cognitively is weak then our brotherhood and sisterhood will be weak

Second, from the signs of being a community pillar is receiving the tawfiq from Allah which means to do the right thing in the right time at the right place; and understanding that I don’t always have to lead. There are times when I can be a follower.

Third, an important sign of having such a profound spiritual experience is to have a healthy family life. There should be no dichotomy between the masjid, street and house. That is why when the Companions asked `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) about the Prophet after he passed away, they did not ask her, “should I move my finger like this; should my pants be here or should I eat at McDonalds?” No, the thing they asked her about was how the Prophet acted at home.

Now back to the point of the follower and the leader. One of our great figures, Sh  Ahmad Alrifa`i, said, “I looked at the paths of Islam that brought about fame and attract people attention, they were crowded. But I looked to other paths such as serving others, working on the soul, being humble, volunteering, looking after the poor and the needy and I found these paths that require humility and discipline to be completely vacant”

The outcome of all of this should be an easy, simple person: someone who is easy to deal with; someone who does not fight and argue all the time. Imam Malik said: “If Allah intends good for a servant, he opens for him the door of action and closes the door of argument.”

You should be a person of action; a person of `ibadah, and`ibadah is not about identity: you don’t pray because you are Palestinian, Syrian, or American—you pray because you have an intimate relationship with Allah Subhanahu wa ta`ala. This is crucial. You run into young Muslims all the time who think that `ibadah is part of identity. `Ibadah is part of intimacy. My Sheikh `Ali Salih who was blind said:

Ar-rida (that is, being pleased with Allah, wanting to worship Him and having love for Him) is part of paradise for the believer in this life.”

The last point that I would to make is that a sign of spirituality is to understand the transcendent mercy of Islam; to understand that our Job as Muslims is to be routers of mercy. Allah said about the Prophet:

{And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.} (Al-Anbiyaa’ 21:107)

And the Prophet described himself as “the Prophet of mercy” (authenticated by Al-Albani)

He also said:

Those who show mercy will be shown mercy by the Merciful [Lord.]” (At-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud)

Those who are not merciful will not receive mercy” (authenticated by Al-Albani)

Our Ummah understood that it is not only about experiencing the mercy of God because that is very selfish. About this attitude Allah said:

{Those who conceal the clear (Signs) We have sent down, and the Guidance, after We have made it clear for the people in the Book,-on them shall be Allah’s curse, and the curse of those entitled to curse…} (Al-Baqarah 2:159)

So it is not only about receiving the mercy of Islam but it is also about sharing it with others.

This mercy should empower our community. It is demonstrated incredibly in our heritage. Take any subject and you will find how this mercy was played out in our history institutionally or individually. Do you like cats? Go to the Egyptian Book House, Darulkutub Al-masriyah, and in the manuscripts section do a search on cats. You will find cool books written about cats. I found a book by Ibn Taulun Al-Hanafi called Izhar As-sir fi ma warad fil hir (Unveiling the Secrets About what is Revealed to the Prophet about the Blessing of Cats). Similarly, you can find our scholars writing about any subject like trees, rains and lakes and how all of these things are a sign of Allah’s mercy.

What does that mean for us?

Now, you have multiple opportunities in the community and ways to take part in the society. Your spirituality will be indicative of how much mercy you bring to others. Prominent poet Iqbal, the great poet from India said if a believer has a sound heart and actualizes this mercy of Allah and employs it in  their lives, when people see them, their fitrah (innate disposition) will say to them:

{So which of the favors of your Lord would you deny?} (Ar-Rahman 55:23)

So, just to wrap up what I talked up about;

  1. Setting at home and making dhikr is part of spirituality; it is the springboard of social spirituality and engaging the society as `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) said: “Those who engage and mix with people are those who Allah has tested for Taqwa
  2. The way to work on spirituality is to establish the obligations first then to move on to the Sunnah.

And among the signs of spirituality are:

  1. The sense of Ukhwah and brotherhood.
  2. Knowing how to be humble, how to pull back, to be service-oriented.
  3. To be easy in your heart and to be loving to people.
  4. To have good family life as it is indicative of the heart state.
  5. To actualize and institutionalize mercy.