Contemplative Practices in Islam

“The World Is Too Much with Us,” by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
…For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It seems that as early as 1807, Wordsworth was indicting the world and the fast pace of life as a source of discontentment. I wonder what he would think, if he were alive today. What has changed? As someone who glides from task to task, doing what all high achievers do, I sometimes feel that the world is too much with me; and despite all my cleverness, I too, am beset by a feeling of discontentment.

The topic of discontentment has been kicked around by ancient philosophers and religious leaders since time immemorial. Taoists call it imbalance; Buddhists insist you “let go” of what attracts you in the world; and the Qur’an calls it “a sickness of the heart” (2:10).

But in the following quote, the famous Christian monk, St. Augustine, describes the inverse, “true contentment,” and proposes a remedy:

“… [true contentment is] felt only in the presence of God  … Our whole business then, in life, is to restore the heart to health so that God can be seen or felt.”

Convinced that contentment was an achievable business, I embraced the poetic notion that it might be better to want less from the world, in exchange for more happiness, and I plotted a modest course of spiritual destinations. Unfamiliar with the role of contemplative practices in my quest, I set out to explore Eastern philosophy and the pillars of my own tradition, Islam.

I was inspired by the images of two familiar spiritual leaders. There was Buddha, sitting peacefully under a tree, detached from the world, and wearing an expression that radiates serenity and peace; and there was Christ, suspended above the world on a crucifixion, wearing a similar expression; neither of them betraying their pain or the suffering of the world around them.

In my initial assessment of contemplative practices, such as meditation, I discovered several common features. Having the capacity for self-discipline, of course, was an overall requirement. But other features included the regular practice of taking refuge from the world, and also, inflicting some form of pain or suffering on yourself; for example, sitting for 18 hours in the lotus position.

Wanting to learn more about contemplative practices in Islam, I began by examining the practices I knew best, choosing four of the five pillars, familiar to every practicing Muslim. They had always been described to me as “obligations,” so I didn’t think of them as “contemplative,” in the same category as Zen Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation, before now. So, it was more new territory for me.

The first pillar that believers strive for is the core belief in the Oneness of God− tawhid in Arabic. Tawhid is fundamental to all forms of worship in Islam, whether praying or fasting, because the heightened awareness of God illuminates any endeavor. Much more than that, tawhid demands an exclusiverelationship with Allah that excludes anyone or anything and prohibits any other relationship similar to it. In other words, it precludes what attracts us in the world and recognizes no other authority−not parents, teachers, or friends− besides Allah. Thus, contemplative practice in Islam begins with an exclusive relationship with Allah, which some spiritualists say is a necessary pre-requisite to taqwa, an Arabic word that describes the Divine union with God.

The second pillar is the challenge of praying five times a day. Islamic prayer is similar to meditation in many ways. For instance, it requires you to disengage from your life −five times a day, every day. It’s not as physically challenging as sitting in the lotus position for 18 hours, but like meditation, praying five times a day requires self-discipline.

I wanted to share my personal struggle to become a more self-disciplined person. At first, each time the demands (and pleasures) of life would intersect the times for prayer, I would be paralyzed by the conflict of my interests. My choices, too daunting: Do I watch the rest of my favorite TV program? Do I end my phone conversation? Can I stop my work, or check my email or smart phone, one more time? Do I excuse myself from a fun gathering of friends, just to say my prayers on time? Do I inform my boss that on my break, I will be praying? But then, these choices get to the heart of the spiritual quest: Stay the course, or veer off and choose the possibility of communion with God?

It took me years just to realize that I was failing because I was trying to squeeze my prayers (of unknown value) into the course of my important life; at each intersection, my busy life would not let me cross, nor would it give up any space to make room.

My breakthrough came as a result of reading the oft-repeated command in the Qur’an that says “establish prayer” in your life. I had read this phrase in passages many times; but since we are always changing, it is possible to read the same passage and derive new meaning. When this happened, I realized that if I could get to work by arranging my life around the commuter train schedule, then I could probably pray, if I arranged my life around a prayer schedule.

Emboldened by this approach, I took the initiative to establish a sacred space in my life. I built a virtual sanctuary−not carved out of my life−but in addition to my life, so that I could have a place to pray. At first, the space could only accommodate one prayer a day; but as I added on one wing at a time, the space opened up for five prayers a day. Granted, it has taken me years; but now I have a substantial investment of balance in my life: a virtual refuge from the world where I can go each day to worship and nurture my relationship with Allah. Moreover, I have discovered what practicing Buddhists already know: time out is addictive; and, like any time-honored, life-consuming addiction, doing it is easier than not doing it.

Still, taking time out can be a mental challenge, as well as a physical one; i.e., how to keep the worries and demands of the world at bay during prayer or meditation. When I studied Transcendental Meditation in the early 1970s, the Yogi taught me to use my mantra (which cost $450 at the time) to protect my meditation time from worldly intrusions. He warned that they would intrude as “thought bubbles” and if I let them, fill my mind with the preoccupations of ordinary life. To train my mind, I was told to release the intruding thoughts promptly.

Islamic prayer is no less challenging for my mind. Its approach to train the mind and protect it from worldly intrusions is to keep it busy, by quietly reciting prayers from memory. The prayers are in Arabic, the language of the Qur’an; and ultimately, every Muslim strives to memorize and recite them. Combined with the precise choreography of the performance of prayer, I can stay focused, more often than not.

As I surveyed the other pillars of Islam, I recalled some isolated moments when I have felt surprisingly close to Allah. This is a sensation I experience during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast for a month in the hours between dawn and dusk. Christians, Muslims and Jews who have fasted know how dramatically it changes your life, at the most fundamental level, i.e., by abstaining from food, water, and oftentimes, sex and sleep.

It happens on rare occasions, when the suffering gets to be too much, and I question the meaning of what I’m doing. I know this is a test of my relationship with Allah. But at every crossroad, when I choose submission, I experience a triumphant moment in which I am conscious of being intimately close to Allah. As I once heard a Methodist minister explain, it’s not the suffering that gives an act meaning; it’s that the relationship with God holds up under the suffering. In fact, it’s what I miss most, when the month of Ramadan is over.

Prior to my departure for the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj),I received a lot of advice. I was warned that it would be a test of my faith. Many experienced pilgrims told me, “You will feel ‘reborn.’” I was skeptical. During an orientation program, the imam said, “You will be out of your comfort zone.” That was an understatement. Looking back, it was like giving birth for the first time, when nothing could prepare me for the incomparable journey I was about to make.

Hajj is another pillar of Islam. Unlike Ramadan, when your life returns to normal each night, comforted by food and drink, there is no return to normal, and no comfort to be found in the relentless demands of the pilgrimage to Mecca. I compare it to a long-term illness that you have to endure with incalculable patience; taking it one day at a time. You need friends there to support you, as you slowly follow an unfamiliar path that might bring you back to wellness. Though once you get there, you’re never the same.

The Hajj was a prolonged test of days and weeks, living in another world. Not to trivialize my experience, but I felt like Alice sliding down the rabbit hole and leaving my life behind. It was an adventure where I awoke each day in a distant and foreign land (was it me?) that I couldn’t possibly relate to; and the demands of its rituals were far beyond my mental and physical capacity.

Every religion asks us to abandon comfort and familiar ways, or give up something. We get up early to pray, we fast, hone our virtues, and purify our inner self, with the hope of achieving Divine union (taqwa). For the faithful, faith is diligence, without assurance; and such was the pilgrimage to Mecca. Like Abraham, we were asked to perform relatively unparalleled tests of faith, without assurance.

Strangely, every day, everything and everyone familiar to me, receded further and further into the past, into obscurity and insignificance. All I could remember was that a few years ago, I had made a conscious choice to complete this once-in-a-lifetime obligation. Inexplicably, the further removed I was from my life, the closer I came to Allah. In the heart of this pilgrim, there was only one desire inducing me to put one foot in front of the other: keeping my promise to Allah.

There is no easy explanation, but in many ways: the suffering, the discipline, the separation from my world … the journey to Mecca was the quintessential contemplative experience. For all that, I gained a new insight into what makes me different from everyone else. It was as if I had never understood or acknowledged it before; and when I arrived home, I just wanted to celebrate my difference. That was the gift−as others had predicted−being reborn in Mecca.

Under scrutiny, suffering and discomfort, my relationship with God had held up; but not because of the suffering. Rather, because I had chosen to be in relationship with my Beloved Creator above all else, from the day I bought my ticket to Mecca; and then, again and again, with each new trial. When I recall my pilgrimage to Mecca, it’s the magnitude of this relationship that sustains my happiness.

Finally, no discussion of contemplation is complete without the mention of Sufism. Steeped in the Islamic tradition, Sufism is a spiritual science that sits at the far end of the contemplative-practice continuum. By means of ‘turning,’ ‘whirling,’ praying, chanting, and fasting, the Sufis reach that state of profound union with God that we all desire. Undaunted by suffering or sacrifice, they accept that the path will be a difficult one. The following is part of a Sufi saying written by America’s most beloved 13th century Persian poet and Islamic mystic, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi:

“Do not imagine that the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow the unusual road, for it is very long…. One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping…”

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