Message 89, “Finding Spiritual Truths from World Religions: Islamic Devotion”, 3-18-12
To listen to Doug’s message, click here. To read the message, please see below.
There is a story often recited by Muslims of a man who chooses to locate his farm along the seacoast even though such lands are unpopular for farming. Winds and regular storms can destroy crops and all of a farmer’s hard work. But this particular farmer was determined to live and work by the sea. As he then tried to hire helpers to assist him, he faced strong doubt and skepticism. Person after person refused to be hired to work on his farm – the ocean storms are too unpredictable and too harsh they told him.
One day a man who was small in stature applied for the job as a farm hand. The land owner doubted this man’s ability because he was so short. “Are you a good farm hand?” the farmer asked. “Well, I can sleep when the wind blows,” answered the little man. This reply puzzled the farmer but he hired the man anyway since he had no other willing applicants.
As time went on, the short man proved to be an excellent assistant. He was busy from dawn to dusk and he committed himself to the regular details of wise farming. The land owner was very pleased.
Then one night a strong storm blew in from the sea. The wind howled and threatened to tear down the farm house. The owner rushed to the sleeping quarters of the farm hand and yelled, “Get up! A storm is here. You must tie things down before they all blow away.”
“No sir,” replied the farm hand. “I told you, I can sleep when the wind blows.”
The farmer was enraged by this response and nearly fired the short man on the spot. Instead, he hurried outside to do the work himself. As he went around his fields and into his barn, he was amazed to find that all was well. The haystacks had all been securely tied and covered with large sheets. The sheep were all safely in their pens, the chickens in their coop, the doors and shutters all securely barred. Nothing could blow away.
And then the farmer understood the words of his hired help – that he could sleep when the wind blows. The farmer went back to bed himself, secure in the knowledge that his farm was safe.
The implied message of this story, for most Muslims, is that the hard work of their daily spiritual disciplines prepares a person for the storms of life. It is not enough to seek the Divine when difficulties arise. A life of devotion insures that one is spiritually, mentally and physically ready for inevitable life challenges. When one secures himself or herself by finding spiritual peace in one’s soul, one can then meet – or sleep through – any storm. As the prophet Muhammad once said, “Good conduct is a habit. The most beloved of good deeds with Allah are those which are practiced with constancy over a long period of time…”
And indeed, that is a hallmark of the Muslim faith. When I think of one Islamic spiritual quality which would most benefit me (and there are many), I think of the constancy, the love and the devotion of Muslims. Unlike many world religions, theirs is a faith not just of belief or orthodoxy, but of daily practice, or orthopraxy. The very word Islam means “to submit”, and it is toward that goal that many Muslims dedicate their lives – to express devotion to Allah and to teachings of the Q’uran through daily practices of their faith. Few other religions demand as much and few people of faith are so committed on an almost hourly basis. Muslims finds meaning and purpose, therefore, not just by believing, but by doing.
What I advocate in this series on finding spiritual truths from world religions is not that we copy Buddhism or Islam or any other faith we will consider. Instead, each offers us their own unique insights toward how we can improve our lives. How can we enlarge our spiritual minds? How can we practice particular ethics and ideals that help us improve ourselves and the world? How can we learn from others – from all cultures, faiths and traditions?
Much like Buddhist contentment that we examined last Sunday, Islamic devotion is a spiritual ethic that is less about the mind than it is about the soul and the heart. One incorporates a sense of devotion into one’s very being. Muslims seek over their lifetimes to find rest and peace in love for Allah. To attain such a spiritual place, Muslims rigorously devote themselves to the five foundational disciplines of their faith. Those include five times a day prayer, annual giving to charity, annual fasting for Ramadan and at least a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca.
For those of us who are not Muslim and perhaps not religious, how do we practice a meaningful form of devotion so that we might also reach a place of spiritual peace? One way is to regularly connect with the Divine. Muslims practice regular prayer or Salah, as they call it, as a way to reach outside of themselves. Such prayer is performed five times a day, at set hours, always facing Mecca, and with meticulously prescribed procedures and words. It is obligatory for the faithful Muslim no matter where they are or what they are doing. Prayer, for Muslims, is not something done occasionally. It is a daily habit which reminds them of their connection to and dependence on the Divine. Indeed, the word “salah” means connection.
Prayer reminds anyone, in subtle ways, that there is something beyond oneself, something greater and mysterious which connects one to all creation. One need not believe that prayers beseech a supernatural being. Prayer is simply a way to add thought and voice to the great mysteries of the universe – to the forces of love, healing, gratitude, and confession. Giving voice to words of hope, love or forgiveness – whether we call that prayer or not – is a way to create peace in our minds. Muslims use prayer to concentrate their minds on Allah. Prayer is not for public consumption but solely for the individual to speak directly to the Divine. It removes them, for a time, from the petty concerns of daily life. As they say, prayer for a noble cause brings happiness in ways that allow them to forget their challenges or sufferings. Prayer connects them to the beauty, wonder and awe in the universe.
Beyond prayer, Islam demands devotion in others ways as well. Ramadan, the month long time of fasting and prayer, is another celebration of discipline. Indeed, it is a culmination of a Muslim’s regular devotions – an extended time of forced practice which reminds one of sacrifice and humility before Allah. By foregoing pleasure through fasting from food and pleasure, a Muslim engages in the higher goal of finding happiness in things outside of the body and mind – letting go of the ego and seeking insight, peace and joy in areas beyond the physical.
. Instead of a one day celebration like Easter or Yom Kippur, Ramadan is purposefully extended in time and requires of Muslims a strong devotion to the entire celebration – no eating or other indulgences from dawn to dusk. Such habits of fasting and prayer are a part of a Muslim’s identity. These habits order their lives in ways that bring cohesion and organization around something beyond themselves. Once again, we need not emulate these specific and rigorous religious practices. Instead, any spiritual practice done on a regular and devoted basis brings order to our lives and helps us escape from self-focused thinking.
Indeed, Islamic devotional practices are performed not as robotic and mindless rituals. Muslims use devotional practices like prayer to escape the physical and reach the transcendent. Much like Buddhists seek contentment, Muslims pray, fast, give and worship to attain a more spiritual mindset. Muslims claim that everything they do in life is done as an expression of love for the Divine One – for Allah. One eats to acquire nourishment and energy so that one can serve the Divine. One breathes to live and thus serve Allah. One works to earn enough to give to the work of the Divine. One sleeps, marries, plays and laughs all for the love of Allah.
For our sakes, we must learn to balance our rational thinking with spiritual introspection. We do that through devotions like meditation and fasting. Rationalism and logic too often prevent us from reflecting about mysterious and eternal truths. Devotional practices – like what Muslims practice – force us to get out of the self – to stop the egotistical thinking that life revolves around the “me.” As I often say in here, life is not about us. We are to serve and love the larger world.
In that regard, the Muslim spiritual practice of zakat, or annual giving of charity to the poor, is a spiritual discipline that also reminds them of their connection to Allah. It is a devoted way to again renounce the self. Giving to organizations that serve the needs of the poor, hungry or homeless is a required practice. Muslims devotedly give 2 . 5% of their annual gain from all sources – work, investments, property, gifts from others, whatever – to charities and Mosques that serve the poor. For us, the regular discipline of giving – no matter the amount – is an additional way to find meaning and union with the spiritual ethic of love for others.
Islam also demands of its followers that they spiritually retreat to the Holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime. Travelling to a spiritual center of great beauty, peace and reflection is a way to remove one from the confined lives we often lead. Determining to get away for a spiritual retreat – whether to the woods, a quiet lake, our own backyard or a spiritual place hundreds of miles away is a good devotional practice. We go away to reflect. We go and seek closeness with the mysteries of the universe. We enlarge our souls by literally broadening our spiritual horizons.
To practice a daily spiritual discipline, we might choose meditation as a way to find peace. We might pray each morning or evening in gratitude. We might daily write in a prayer or dream journal about our hopes, fears and thoughts about life. That is a practice which I regularly practiced for several years. I look back at my journals and see past patterns of thinking and ways I have grown. I am reminded of past struggles and how I emerged from them; how I have been blessed in ways that I should not take for granted. I also see ways others emerged from difficult times I earlier prayed for in my journal. Such journaling made me more aware of others, how I am weak and flawed, how I have grown over time and how blessed I really am. They were a form of regular devotion that worked for me and which I plan to begin anew.
You might commit yourself to daily work for a charity and tangibly help other people. You might daily take a walk by yourself and use the time to ponder not your agenda, but the deeper stuff of meaning, purpose, gentleness and forgiveness. Instead of quiet meditation at home, so-called walking prayer is a form of active reflection that works well for many people – if it is focused on spiritual matters. Some people I know daily pray the news. They read the newspaper and then take time to meditate on the many local and world concerns. Such a practice awakens feelings of compassion, empathy and unity with others. Some people practice yoga or Tai Chi and, once again, mindfully focus their thoughts not on the material world but on freeing the mind to be in love and at peace. Others take annual retreats to reinvigorate their spiritual lives. Whatever practice one chooses, a spiritually centered form of devotion – done regularly – is something to add to our lives.
I recently had a good conversation with a friend who confided that he was now determined to live and act according to his heart and not his brain. What I understood him to mean is something we all want in life – to reach a place of perfect love for others, to feel that perfect love ourselves and thereby find real contentment. In reaching for that goal, we too often try and satisfy selfish desires instead of finding the goal by letting go of the self. I struggle so often to get out of my head and into my heart, thus finding the empathy and genuine compassion of my better angel. It is easy to intellectually accept the premise of this message – that daily disciplined spiritual practice will help. But that knowledge alone is ultimately unsatisfying for me and likely for you.
I have found, though, that when I actually do find a quiet place and deeply focus on mystery, on life, on death, on my failures, on my dreams of perfect peace, I am literally reduced to tears. I experience an overwhelming sense of love and gratitude for the important things in life – dear and close friends, meaningful connection with others, my daughters, the empathy and pain I feel when others hurt, the mystery of why I was born and what my life will mean. I need those deeply spiritual times and I see, from Muslim practice, that I can experience them regularly, much like they do. I must discipline myself and my routine and make space in my life for such moments.
Islam is the second largest faith in the world. It is the fastest growing. Its success is partly explained by the devotion it requires. For us, we can choose to be devoted to empty things in life – to money, work, play, and material things. Or, we can devote ourselves to an enriching journey – to love others, to serve them, to connect with eternal mysteries – and thus discover the peace, love and joy we all so desperately desire. If we practice just one spiritual devotion regularly, we will get what we want. We will find union with all that is good, true and loving in the wider cosmos.