Understanding Islamic Spirituality

There is nothing mysterious about spirituality in Islam. It is rather the direct result of the kind of intellectual development that takes place when a believer ponders over the Creator and His creation: he gains something in the process that may be termed spirituality. The source, therefore, of Islamic spirituality is perusal and reflection rather than any sort of mysterious exercise.

That is why the Qur’an rejects asceticism (monasticism), referring to it as a bida‘a (innovation) in religion, which God did not prescribe for people. (57:27)

From the Qur’an we learn that, in the very creation of the universe, the signs of God lie hidden all around us. A person who is in a state of keen awareness when he reflects upon the things of the world comes to see the Creator in the creatures. The meaning of the creation of the Universe is laid bare before him. Ultimately, the universe becomes a permanent source of spiritual inspiration. He is continuously nourished by it during his worldly experience, and his observation of the universe awakens in him latent divine qualities.

The result of this observation and contemplation of the universe does not result in his shunning normal life. Far from withdrawing from the world, he lives in it, participating in all its activities; yet despite his involvement, he remains aloof. That is to say, although he fulfills all his duties and responsibilities, his heart is not attached to worldly affairs. He appears to live in the world, but he stands apart from it. Thanks to this state of his heart, he acquires tremendous spiritual gains. The Prophet Muhammad (PUBH) says of such individuals:

“God plants wisdom in the heart of one who shows disinclination for the world.”

Only through spirituality can man rise to that higher level to become a ‘real man’.

So, we can say that the concept of spirituality in Islam is based on the principle of God-realization. God is the treasure house of all virtues. And when man’s contact with God is established, in the world of his feelings, at the psychological level, an unseen, inner revolution is brought about which is called spirituality. In this matter the relationship between God and man can be likened to an electric wire and the powerhouse. When the wire is connected to the powerhouse, electricity is produced, and the place is lit up. In this way, light is the result of the wire’s connection to the power house of God.

Human nature is like an inflammable element. When an inflammable element like petrol comes near fire, it is ignited. Similarly, human nature is awakened when it comes in contact with God.

This finds expression in the Quran in these words:

‘God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The metaphor of His light is that of a niche in which there is a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, the glass like a brilliant star, lit by a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would well-nigh glow forth even though fire did not touch it. Light upon light! God guides to His light whom He wills. And God sets forth parables to men, and God has knowledge of all things.” (24:35)

This is a compound simile. ‘Light’ here means the guidance of Almighty, ‘niche’ means the human heart and ‘lamp’ denotes the capability to receive divine inspiration. Glass and oil elaborate upon this receptivity.

‘Glass’ shows that this receptivity has been lodged in the human heart; protected from outside influences, and clear oil indicates that this receptivity is very strong and is eagerly waiting to receive inspiration.

This verse makes it clear that, on the one hand, is God, the source of inspiration, and on the other, is the consciousness of spirituality (God-consciousness) with which man is born. In this way when these two things come together, Islamic spirituality comes into existence. This is indeed another name for the awakening of God-consciousness. When it reaches its highest stage the believer’s realization of God comes to that point where he begins to feel consciously in his worship that he is seeing God and that if he is not seeing God, God is seeing him. If the first type of experience is called direct spiritual experience, the second-type may be termed indirect spiritual experience.

As the Quran tells us, “Prostrate yourself and draw near.” (96:19) For God is always close to us—closer than the life- blood in the jugular vein (50:16). By total surrender to God, the soul can realize nearness to God.

These spiritual experiences cannot be explained in words. Everything in the universe seems to convey to him a divine message. The leaves of the tree become a thrilling experience. A waft of air gives him a message of truth. He can hear divine music in the waves of the river and the chirping of the birds.

Due to his high state of receptivity, he reaches the stage where the wavelength of God and man becomes one. And he is enabled, in the words of the Prophet: “to see with God’s eye, to speak with God’s tongue, to walk with God’s foot, to hear with the ear of God.”

Then all limitations vanish and his day and night are spent in God’s neighbourhood. All this can be felt, not described in words. This can be explained with the example of a child who has limitless love for his mother. He knows it himself in the full sense but he cannot fully describe it in words. The same is true of spirituality.

When a person is linked with the source of spirituality, he undergoes such spiritual experiences as he himself fully understands, but has difficulty in conveying to others. He may describe some external signs but he cannot describe inner reality.

Although it is difficult to describe the inner reality of spirituality, its method of attainment can be described to a certain extent and followed by others:

1. First of all man has to free his mind from confusion. It is difficult for a confused mind to undergo spiritual experiences. The basic reason for confused thinking is that man is not able to differentiate between the real and the superficial, the relevant and the irrelevant, rational thinking and superstition, logical and illogical statements. One who thinks thus will always remain in a state of mental confusion. He will never be able to find the straight path. As a result, his spiritual journey will never be started.

2. On the path of spirituality one cannot be one’s own guide. And one certainly needs a guide. This guide is the Quran. It is an authentic, and carefully preserved book of God. That is why the Quran can be trusted as a guide by the spiritual traveler. After making the Quran one’s guide, one can set one’s spiritual journey on the right track.

3. This spiritual journey demands a change in lifestyle. This lifestyle for a spiritual traveler may be put briefly in these words:

                                      ‘Simple living and high thinking.’

Simple living means limiting one’s worldly requirements to the minimum, assiduously avoiding comfort and luxury. That is why the Sufis used to wear coarse clothes as a symbol of the simple life. It helps the traveler in his spiritual journey. High thinking means that his thoughts are not embroiled in material things. By engaging one’s mind in higher realities, one becomes a recipient of divine inspiration. This inspiration of divine light comes to his mind uninterruptedly, igniting his whole existence.

4. The Quran attaches great importance to contemplation, reflection and serious thought. There are a number of verses in the Quran that indicate that innumerable signs of God are extant in the heavens and the earth. The observance of God’s signs is the greatest source of spirituality.

According to a Hadith, ‘Worship God as if you are seeing him; (Sahih Al-Bukhari) when man engages himself in true devotion; he is linked with God at a sensory or psychological level. He comes close to God. Through an invisible cord he comes in contact with God, God’s light passes through him. His entire existence comes to be pervaded by this indescribable feeling, which is called spiritual experience. This is called Rabbaniat in the Quran (Be people of the Lord 3:79). Rabbani means one whose thinking, and whose actions are God-oriented, who has placed God at the centre of his attention. When an individual attains spirituality, his state becomes like a lamp lit all of a sudden. He undergoes spiritual experiences. His heart becomes an ocean of spiritual waves. He appears to live in this world, but he has found another far superior world for himself