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Our spiritual rat race

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

One of the most complaints I hear when discussing religion with some of my friends and acquaintances is a sense of spiritual dryness. More than often I hear that the rituals they perform are without effect. I have always wondered why they use the word ‘dry’. It is as if they were expecting that their rituals would quench some inner thirst. When I ask them what they mean by ‘dry’ they say that those rituals do not reach their inner depth. They barely scratch the surface. They feel that they are the same people before and after a ritual. It does not change them.

For most Muslims spiritual enrichment is attainable by doing more: more praying, more fasting and more pilgrimage. But that seems to be failing miserably. Despite the increase of all those performances, there is a decrease in charity, empathy, kindness, corruption, morality and spirituality. When this point is raised the discussion then almost always shifts to the legalistic religious thinking; that which focuses on preserving religious appearance while ignoring inner transformations. And once the discussion turns to this the first culprit are rituals that are habitually performed without thinking into their meaning. Prayers are done as movements. Fasting is going hungry. Pilgrimage is an exhausting trip. And in the final analysis we consider that the effects of those rituals are minimal or absent. They are mere actions with little or no meaning beyond them.

Alternative Spiritualties

The solution for some had been to turn towards mystical forms of religion. A quick preview of religious programming on satellite TV shows us how much of it is dedicated to ‘gurus’ young and old; offering a spiritual path to their listeners. Others decided to console themselves by re-mystifying the world in which we live in. The ideas of the book ‘The Secret’ are still widely circulated many years after its publication and are adopted by various types of Muslims: conservatives, moderates, and reformers alike.

It seems to me that the idea that our intentions influence the course of our life events is quite appealing and for some can make up for the dryness of rituals. The more conservative Muslims have focused on teaching the meanings of ritual and training themselves on being aware of those meanings while performing them. While others have given up hope that traditional Muslim rituals are alone enough and have thus decided to turn towards other religious traditions, in particular Hindu and Buddhist meditative techniques. Some try to Islamize those techniques while others turn towards them as they are. The list can go on as the variations of choices people are making to re-spiritualize their lives are endless.

Consuming Spirituality

As we talk about finding our way back to spirituality I noticed that we want to be spiritual while at the same time preserve our lifestyles. We want to continue consuming as we do, entertaining ourselves as we do, competing as we do; and gain spiritual fulfillment all the while. Sometimes it is as if we want a ‘feel good spirituality’. Something enough to fill the vacuum we feel within us but not too demanding so as to impose on our lifestyle: a spiritual paracetamol. We want to stay in our modern rat race while becoming more spiritual. We want spirituality to be another consumer product that we pick up from the shelf whenever we feel we need it. And this simply cannot work. A “spiritual rat race” is an oxymoron. The best example of this mode of thinking is Ramadan. The way we talk about Ramadan makes one think that it is the quintessential spiritual experience that lasts for thirty days enabling the Muslim to gain an inner transformation and to step up in the spiritual ladder. But the way we practice it makes Ramadan the quintessential distraction from who we are and the prime detractor from our spiritual life. Ramadan as we practice it is the ideal consumerist month. We drive into Ramadan in high speed. But instead of slowing down we only accelerate.

Whatever moments we had available before Ramadan are now filled up with every form of activity. It is as if we enter a parallel rat race dedicated to this holy month. In this month of fasting we consume food more than we do in any other month of the year. In this month of contemplation we watch more TV than any time of the year. In this month of meditation we socialize more than any time of the year. And then when it ends we complain from lack of spirituality and look forward to the coming year in the hope that it can be better. In fact what we do in Ramadan is what we are doing all year long. Ramadan merely amplifies it allowing us to hear ourselves loud and clear.

“Rest our heads upon the grass, and listen to it grow”

Spirituality is not a quick fix. It has no road map. No manual. No clear ends. It is a process and a slow one for that. It needs one to revert back to him/herself. To contemplate. To meditate. To think. To be critical. It needs one to be alone sometimes. And sometimes with other likeminded souls. It needs thoughtfulness. Mindfulness. It needs one to be present with him/herself. It needs one to connect with ideas. To actually feel them. All of this goes against everything our modern consumerist culture is about. Our culture today is about instant gratification, fleeting pleasure, quick fixes, shortcuts. It succeeds by situating our awareness outside of ourselves, by keeping our attention away from us; by detracting us from who we are within to who we ‘want’ to be outside.

Pink Martini’s “Splendor in The Grass” is a very spiritual song. In one part it goes: “ Life is moving oh so fast, I think we should take it slow, rest our heads upon the grass, and listen to it grow.” We can only gain spirituality when we are ready to rest as such. To sit. To watch. To listen. To think. To feel.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.