Taking the Spirit out of Spirituality

Recently I have been reflecting on a series of internal discussions that I have been part of within a Muslim email group.  A lot of the argument has  centered about the practice of halal certification for products and foods.  Whilst a lot of debate revolved around the actual process of how certification can be carried out, what escaped the discussion was what was the purpose and spirit behind halal certification. People seemed to prefer to spend a lot of time discussing practices and processes as opposed to identifying whether they were  right or not.

This is not an isolated case but it seems to be a growing trend of what I have noticed in terms of how religious practice and adherence to it is taking shape  vis-a-vis the principles that underlie them.   It is like the story of the Imam who stood on a pulpit one Friday and delivered a sermon saying “There are thousands of people going hungry today in our city and no one is giving a damn about it.  The tragedy of the situation is that more of you are worried that I  said damn in the mosque on the pulpit than the thousands going hungry in the city”.

It is not just unique to the Muslim community but afflicts other communities as well.  For instance, given  the run up to Christmas, more emphasis is placed on the commercial aspect around the day rather than what the day is supposed to signify.  Christmas itself has become such a huge commercial entity that the non Christians have embraced the symbolic significance more than perhaps Christians themselves, for example, it is not uncommon in Sri Lanka (a predominantly Buddhist country) for there to be overt signs of Christmas lights, Christmas carols, decorations,  Santa roaming around the shopping centers and invading your TV screens and even artificial snow!!  Christmas it seems in Sri Lanka has evolved past a Christian concept to become a recognized holiday where certain ‘rituals’ exist despite what those said rituals are supposed to signify.

Christmas and to some extent the discussion on halal certification are symptomatic of the challenges faced by faith communities in the wake of globalization and a world where the concept of faith and spirituality seems to be slowly disappearing.  Supporters of globalization have heralded the ‘global village’ whilst opponents are skeptical of its values only seeing it as another form of neo-colonialism and an opportunity for the western colonial powers to exert influence once again.  I like to think of myself as a supporting skeptic.  Globalization has indeed connected the world like never before and there is a greater awareness of other people and cultures.  However left unchecked it has led to a loss of certain core moral values and ethics, leading to a decline of the family structure and to some extent a greater intolerance of the different.  In my opinion, the negative aspects of globalization have come as a result of its opposition to faith and spirituality and by not embracing faith and spirituality as a partner.

Analysts such as P Radakrishnan (from India) talk about the  transmogrification (act of changing into a different form or appearance (especially a fantastic or grotesque one) of traditional religions and belief systems, as a result of globalization.  This change of appearance can lead to a  disintegration of the traditional social fabrics and shared norms by the invasion of consumerism, cyber culture, newfangled religions, social fads, and changing work ethics and work rhythm.  Thus by this disintegration, people  fall back on religion for moral and social support, attributing to religion the creation and acceleration of extremist, fundamentalist, and terrorist tendencies in the third world countries, which are intended to destabilize them, and strike at the root of their civilization, and multicultural and pluralistic nature.  In other words religion, and by default spirituality, either become the play ground of the poor masses (as opposed to the elites) of society or it represents a ‘backward and ignorant’ part of society.

This is perhaps the unknown danger of a globalisation process left unchecked by social values, currently being driven mainly by economic engines and unguided by a moral compass, which can threaten to eliminate religious and cultural practices of “less developed” countries. This ‘cultural erosion’ is already largely taking place in the form of a reinterpretation of traditional practices of one culture in terms of concepts and categories, characteristic of a different (more familiar) religion / culture.  According to John Esposito throughout much of the twentieth century, the symbols and benchmarks of modernising societies were Western in origin such that judgements were made as to whether a society was ‘developed’ by looking at its modern art and architecture, its Western political, legal, educational or social institutions and the dress and language of its people.

The bottom line despite the neo colonial construct that pervades our society is that we become fixated on rituals and practice and lose sense of the principles and spirit.  In short, we take the spirit out of spirituality when we need it the most.

Globalization has us asking the same questions.  Where are we headed to?  What is our purpose?

All of us understand (or should understand) that we are travelers on the same path using different methods of transportation. The ultimate and most difficult lesson to learn on this journey is to understand our destination. In The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, the understanding of the destination is very simple: “Go; travel the world, look for the truth and the secret of life – every road will lead you to this sense of initiation: the secret is hidden in the place from which you set out.” Thus you find the secret of your creation only by rediscovering the very essence of your own nature. The essence of your own nature is a ‘return to oneself’ with a consciousness of the Creator.

This is the apparent paradox of spiritual experience whereby the constant effort that we make to purify, to control and liberate our hearts is in the end, reconciliation with the deepest level of our being.  As Muslims we consider this to be the Fitra, the essence of who we are  that the Creator breathed into our heart.  It is our All Spark.  However this realization carries with it the face of humility, the awareness of fragility, the consciousness of limitation and the shoulder of responsibility.

At the heart of a consumer society, where materialism and individualism drive our daily lives, we as people of faith are supposed to reinforce our personal effort and commitment towards the deep horizons of introspection and meaning; we are supposed to remind ourselves of silence, restraint and remembrance;  and we incorporate the importance of detail, precision, rigor and discipline of practice to meeting that objective.

So practice is a means and not the end to our spiritual journey, a fact often missed out in today’s religious arguments.

The personal development guru, the late Stephen Covey, once wrote that, “Between every stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.  In those choices lie our growth and happiness.”  This statement has profound meanings of spirituality for me.  Within this space everyone is asked to take up a dialogue of intimacy, of sincerity, of love with The Most-High and The Most-Close. Within this space is the horizon of all spirituality requiring man to become a force of being and doing, rather than to undergo despotic relentlessness of a life reduced to mere instinct.  Within this space, we marry the purpose of our existence with the purpose of our subsistence.   In particular as a Muslim, it reinforces the Qur’an’s inspirational message: You are indeed what you do with yourself. You are responsible for the actions you take.

Hence we  have a sense of purpose, which is to serve humanity, those in need and those without! We have to awaken our conscience in the proximity of the wounds and the injustices people face! We move away from selfishness / greed and waste and  distance ourselves from the darkest dimensions of our being, our violence, our jealousies, our superficial natures.

Collectively and individually we commit ourselves to fulfill the covenant that was made with the One: to stand by justice and equity; to show humility and compassion towards the downtrodden and distressed regardless of who they are; to be witnesses against the injustices that afflict them, because humanity has the right to have witnesses living among them, willing to defend the truth; willing to serve them, no matter how unpopular it is.  This takes determination and courage to move despite ones fear.  For Muslims in particular, this follows the Prophet Mohammed’s(Peace Be Upon Him) saying of  “You shall not enter Paradise until you have faith, and you cannot have faith until you love one another. Have compassion on those you can see, and He Whom you cannot see will have compassion on you”

Thus responsibility is placed upon the shoulder of the individual to take the lead in becoming a true citizen of the country and of the world, where he / she rise above their narrow confines of individualistic concerns to face the broader concerns of all humanity and to redress the contradiction of society enabling people and their communities to live in dignity, peace and independence with social justice.

However in this spiritual journey, we realise that peace, compassion, justice are not the sole property of  any one faith or spiritual teachings and we  as people of a certain faith can not claim to hold the monopoly.  These are the universal values that bind us in the brotherhood of humanity – Muslim, Jewish Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, people of faith and also none.  These is what the Almighty has inculcated us with as our natural spirit, our all spark.

Our life is thus about ‘a journey back to the beginning’; a journey that is, completely inward, into intimacy, solitude between ourselves and God.   In that journey we connect with other people beyond our immediate communities and experience working together towards that one single goal of fulfillment and well-being in an atmosphere of peace, compassion and justice.

In this journey we are reminded that  God’s favor lies with acts of kindness and humility to everyone around you, as narrated by the Prophet (Peace be upon him) of the story about the ‘thirsty dog which was on the brink of death, and of the passing lady  who witnessed this, removed her shoe and used it to draw water from a well to give to the animal.  For this small act, the woman was granted forgiveness for her lifetime’.

This ultimately is the true spirit of spirituality and one that we need to rediscover.

(Photo, “Knowing the difference between religion and spirituality,” by Gerardo Almaraz ; attribution via Flickr Commons.)

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One thought on “Taking the Spirit out of Spirituality

  1. I view it as a cycle, Amjad.

    Coming from a polytheist background, which tends not to have strict rules or doctrines, I see the same problem you describe even in the roots of major world religions.

    For example, religious dietary codes do not seem spiritual to me. With respect, my reaction to halal or kosher rules is that they’re a holdover from a time when there were pragmatic reasons not to eat certain foods. Those historical conditions are gone now, and (for example) pork is perfectly safe to eat; but the rules have become codified and continue to be followed.

    And yet, those rules provide meaning, narrative, and unity — in short, spirituality — to millions and millions of people.

    When I look at the “consumerist” aspect of Christmas, I see something that brings meaning to a lot of people. I know a lot of nonreligious young people who have equal disinterest in Jesus on the one hand and shopping mall mega-sales on the other, but who find the tree, the holiday and the exchange of meaningful gifts to be a cornerstone of their “tribe.” As they struggle to form identity and “family” outside the traditional structure, and often far from home, these seemingly un-spiritual aspects of Christmas become the anchor for their sense of meaning and unity. Again, spirituality forms

    I agree with your points about global dominance and neocolonialism, but I’m not sure we’re facing a decline of spirituality. What’s sure is we’re witnessing its transformation. Spiritual urges are universal, they are wired into us. I believe people will seek spiritual meaning with or without the support of our traditional religions, and the trappings that seem un-spiritual to the old generation may well become the new sacred ground.

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