THE CALL OF THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY IN A VOLATILE WORLDMohamed Jiwa
A Rare Beginning on a Journey towards the UnknownIt may well be argued that life propels the soul along a spiritual journey and that we, members of humankind, are able through our growth in years, to learn nourishing lessons from experience.
My life's journey has certainly been easier than most. This might be partly owing to being born in a privileged (though among the privileged, a comparatively humble) environment. My childhood was a time when my expectations in life were, to a fair extent, fulfilled but, often to my consternation, the outcome of these fulfillments was unexpected and disappointing. There were not a few surprises on the way (events like a spartan English preparatory school and personal losses). Looking back, if I consider myself fortunate, it is because I was blessed with an abiding faith, was carried by my mother's prayers and was given a wide view of religion.
Having been sent to England at a tender age, I expected to join other children in the family already there. That is not quite what happened. One of the things that did happen was that my grandfather, Walli Jiwa, insisted that, though we were Muslims, we would go to church: without religion our lives should not be worth the dust we walked on.
My uncle was about to graduate from an English Public School. He would head on to a fine university in America and, in my view, had experienced all the wonderful things about the West ahead of me, or so it appeared at the time. He came to greet me on my third day in that foreign and cold land in 1963. It was an enormous house where I was to start my adventure in England. We sat by a baby grand piano and he coached me on my first notes ("What comes after 'G'? No, not 'H': 'A comes after 'G'!"). He gave instructions that I was to stay in the vicarage (in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire), with the vicar, his wife and family. We then went for a walk in the spring air by the river and, after introducing me to stinging nettles, he delicately announced that I was to attend church and would recite the Lord's Prayer. However, I would stand up but remain silent when the congregation recited the Creed.
My uncle and grandfather are dead now but this was the greatest present they and my parents ever gave me. They taught me that religion is universal and universality is religion whose binding glues are respect, trust, tenderness and hard work. With Hindu antecedents, a Muslim faith and a Church of England upbringing I suppose I am a lucky loner.
The idea of going to church was very intriguing and mine was a rather solitary existence, but eventually I started enjoying living in England, and never missed church nor my Crusaders meetings on Sundays at Prep School. I enjoyed them and trusted my elders not to deceive or mislead me. (I never understood that Crusaders had a negative connotation for Muslims because it was mostly Bible study and afternoon tea. There certainly were no overtones of fear or ridicule in regard to the study of religion. It was enjoyable .) I learned a tremendous amount from the Christian faith and found that it augmented, enriched and complemented my own. A child does not look for differences and this experience made a lasting impression upon me and still guides my life.
In The Spirit of Islam, Syed Ameer Ali quotes, "'Verily,' says the Koran , 'those who believe (the Moslems) and those who are Jews, Christians, or SabŠans , whoever hath faith in God and the last day (future existence) and worketh that which is right and good,--for them shall be the reward with their Lord; there will come no fear on them; neither shall they be grieved.' "
I find (not as a result of having read the above text but from my personal experience) the conflicts between Christianity, any other religion and Islam simply absurd. My ancestors were Hindus and they entered Islam through very familiar gates: their own myths and legends were voraciously appropriated and explained in their own language as the expression of the one God. Our (Khoja Isma'ili Muslim) culture is still intact in not a few families in spite of the diaspora and it moves along in consonance with the emerging times. It is compatible with other faiths.
Meanwhile, I feel as at home in a church, I believe, as would any thinking Christian whose own faith (and relationship with God) must surely be as privately comforting and personal to him as that of his neighbour in the pew. My view is that we are all believers in the One God and that we will all return to him. A relationship with Christ is personal. Therefore, since I was already on a different and quite satisfactory road to God, the idea of a Christian idealising Jesus as the Son of Man somehow never felt strange to me and the notion did not call me away from this path. This is natural. Bigotry is born of brainwashing or fear. I daresay I have a deep affinity for the figure of Christ of super-angelic purity, goodness and love. So, in England, I lived with my guardian family in peace and joy. The vicar whom I stayed with and his caring and motherly wife were very respectful of our culture and our faith. It was as simple as that. We loved them and they loved us.
I must thank both my own faith and my musically joyful Anglican upbringing for my feelings of dismay when I hear anyone ridicule another faith. As a Muslim, I have learned from my life that it is a journey into learning, and that our years are cycles of learning that lead us to wisdom. This is a cause for celebration, because life, years and learning must lead to a sense of joyful permanence: enlightenment. I hold that deep conviction. Without this belief or (academically speaking) this hypothesis, there would be no value in venturing into a reflection on the spiritual journey. Most of the leading religious and spiritual texts and poetry exhort us toward this quite simple notion of religious maturity. Every soul aims for an ultimate end in his or her journey in life, whether some material, political or social achievement, some existential expansion of the mind or a sense of awe about the fact of the journey itself. Perhaps one common advantage of fulfillment of a spiritual quest is a sense of knowingness or confidence. This empowers the individual to take life's events in stride without capitulating to the temptation to take miserable shortcuts (often at the expense of others) for lack of confidence in the power to negotiate oncoming events. One who knows must surely have tangible proof that taking short-cuts in life eventually leads to even darker and thornier diversions in the end. My experience tells me that, as much as I would like to lead a simple life without too many unexpected happenings, there continue to be surprises of various kinds as I grow older. Without a faith or some sort of commitment to turn to, they could even be nerve-wracking. I am grateful I turned to faith and philosophy, not naked materialism, in my desire to address the problems of life. These sorts of considerations seem to me to override the question of what faith one belongs to.
I daresay, however, that I tend to be surprised by the strange events of life less now than, say, ten years ago. They only sadden me because I believe that the structures enforced upon us by the big powers are largely unnecessary. On the personal level, I have a measure of predictability, about people, events, expectations and how high I dare to aim in this short life. I am more confident about what humankind deserves (the fulfillment of a promise) and I believe that the world can be a wonderful place where people can live together. I have faith that, with the blessings of the Lord, all will be well as long as I keep chipping away at the sculpture of my life's work, however humble it may be or however high I aim. I have managed to temper my liberalism and community values without becoming coldly political (what some individuals call 'realist'). I have confidence in the future, in spite of all the savagery I see around me for I believe that there is a higher power at work that is supportive of a deeper purpose. I attribute this state of mind to my experience and my search for an interpretation of that experience through my faith as a Muslim, living in East Africa as a member of a multi-religious society, However, by any standards, I still feel far from enlightened for I am not always satisfied with my lot.
Finding Meaning in an Era of Apparent HopelessnessHaving said a little about myself, about my approach to life and about differences in faith, I might reiterate that, in my experience, life's journey ushers us towards what is best, though we are not always aware of the mechanism that causes this. Sometimes we are even less aware of the possibility that every force that has contributed to the status quo has some good purpose behind it, though it may appear otherwise. I will qualify my convictions by adding that I believe that everyone has been given a station in life and the higher one's station, the greater the obligation to dedicate one's life to the improvement of the less fortunate. We must not despair and must continue to seek without giving up. We must look to the less fortunate for information and must do our utmost to make ethical choices at any cost. Failure to do so amounts to a an act of injury to oneself and of oppression to those who are less fortunate. Being conscious of one's responsibilities is a reciprocal obligation for which the more fortunate have the greater responsibility. A belief in this gives me the strength to fight and search for sustainable solutions within my orbit, against those trends and activities that are unjust and to work toward some sense of restoration in my surroundings.
Life to me, then, is like water from a spring which must run downhill. It is for us to realise this during our journey, to search for that spring and to drink from its pure water, to follow its journey of splendour as it flows through and quenches the thirst of an expectant earth. The journey to fulfillment is a balanced program that is interactive, like the bather, washerwoman, fisherman, bridge-builder or ferryman and the river that holds them together. An exploration and discovery of this river engages us at every step of our journey through life, whether we are aware of it or not. It involves others around us very much, and culminates in the awareness of one's power to give of oneself. Certainly, religion offers guidelines on how to give without getting one's own personality in the way of the giving exercise. I believe that this way leads to enlightenment, as might many other ways. Religion is, at bottom, a means to enlightenment and satisfaction in life; the overflowing of the cup, the fulfillment of faith (a divine mercy) is the end thereof. Let me further speculate on what enlightenment must be like: enlightenment is a normal state of mind. A normal mind is fecund, creative and lively. It seeks deep satisfaction and realises that goodness brings about the greatest amount of satisfaction. The abnormal mind is an aberration, for it accepts pain and discomfort. Pain, in this sense, is an existential communication that indicates that something is wrong: something from experience and learning has been misunderstood and one's intentions and information need to be re-evaluated.
One of the constituents of enlightenment must be the power to read, interpret, analyse and act intelligently on experience (the 1st precondition), for real, permanent and practical benefit (the 2nd precondition) with the resultant power to discern the difference between what is good and bad in order to achieve the greater good (the response). Further, individual enlightenment (synonymous with individual wholeness or health) is more easily obtained in a society that strives as a whole toward that goal, a sort of a cruise loaded with passengers of different antecedents. That may be why we see so many 'revivals' in Christianity, today. It is easier to move toward individual healing as a part of a group. The pilgrimage to Makkah by millions of believing Muslims of all sects must be a primal, archetypal expression of such a journey for it symbolises a search for resolution to life's questions.
Mass enlightenment is the greater form of enlightenment. I imagine that it must be the power of a community to restore its world to its pristine state. It utilises and derives immense satisfaction from the power to nourish and heal its members as they move forward in life through experience. The opposite of this is what we have created for ourselves today: evil and hell.
The question arises, then, why and how did we get here and what are we to do about it? The answers, I feel sure, lie in the notion of the spiritual journey which is an opportunity given to every soul that lives on this earth. This spiritual journey is lived today by millions of people in the bush and in remote areas where they still live as communities and in harmony with nature. Is it not strange that the so-called civilised world today has almost completely surrendered her power to derive satisfaction from life? It has entrusted the overall health of its collective existence and that of its environment to powers that have no control over their senses, who have no time or inclination to reflect on the abomination we have accepted as our way of life today. I ask, how can the biggest newsmakers of today direct us toward the greater good without the basic psychological strengths required for discerning, for example, the relationships between anti-terrorism and bullying, or suspiciousness and ambition? This has been true of the West since the days of the first explorer and we in Africa follow the example with the obedient shuffle of the blind. Will we let them do to us what they did to the native Americans?
If the idea of giving importance to the greater good is sound, it also seems strange that we appear to have abandoned the greater power over our personal destinies and handed them over to those who control armies. We have allowed ourselves to believe that venturing out into the political world, casting votes, is the most superior form of control over the direction of our planet's destiny. Yet, for the most part, our leaders twist the arms of their peaceable constituents beyond the threshold of human capacity to restrain their passions. We are now abandoning human values that we once held dear. And the ugly pain has became so unbearable that it has spilled out into the streets and can be read on the faces of rich and poor alike. This has been the trend since the oil crisis, for the last three decades at least.
Yet we are powerless to address this abomination "as one" because we cannot trust one another. This mistrust is due to our reluctance to take honest stock of ourselves and recognize that we have a higher purpose in life than that which we presently define for ourselves . It is as if we are wearing our socks inside out because we are so pleased to own socks: We have degenerated and become too complacent to question our present state of governance. Our fearful and misguided imaginations make us leery of paying the price of returning to the inevitable search for higher understanding; we no longer dare to believe that life has an exalted purpose. We turn away from the probability of our impending extinction; our terrified senses, gradually deadening as we slide into a night of despair, have deadened our imagination for alternatives that are available in the religious scriptures and elsewhere. And meanwhile we seem too afraid to utter the question that, if those in power, the wily politicians , are really within their senses, then why do so many of them appear to behave as if they are wearing clodhoppers in the mud?
Unfreezing the Ability to Take Charge of a Common Destiny: Discovering MeaningFor lack of space I must conclude prematurely, by reiterating that life must be perceived as a journey, a great and exciting pilgrimage. In my experience, I find that in order to make the best of this journey one needs a religion and the blessed in the world are those who can afford the moment required to go back and seek the starting point of that journey which began, for all of us, somewhere in the mind of the questioning child within us. Confidence and love made that child; fear and oppression broke him and turned him into a beast. The Theosophists assert that there is no religion higher than Truth. This is not said to belittle anyone's religion but to highlight the relationship between religion and truth and to recognize the power of religion to lead us to truth. Society today is confused and has lost the truth. Fear of the worst moves us to seek solutions to our problems in life through politics, yet politics does not promise to take us closer to a way to live in peace with one another, if ever it did. There is strong doubt about the usefulness of power that applies force instead of inspiring confidence. We live in the world for a purpose. To discover our true position, to learn whether we are really supporting the good or the bad, we need to pause for a moment and to clear our minds. We need to turn back to our scriptures in order to read them anew and to better absorb the news of the perfection of creation whose custodianship the Lord has entrusted to humankind.
It is the responsibility of the thinking person to turn to those texts and allow himself the time to reflect on how they guide us to ways in which to serve our societies so that the lives of the less privileged are improved. This we must do, for the sake of everyone. To those who fulfill his trust God will surely restore their rights.
A last word: I suggest that if we expect politics to lead us to peace, then we may well be pretending to ourselves as human beings. The responsibility of creating a peaceful society requires giving up our fears and reaching out into the darkness. Fear of doing so causes us to palm over this responsibility to politicians. It is a bit like employing a security guard to protect you from an armed robbery. If we insist on getting things done by proxy (by voting for someone to do the job for us) then let us admit that it is because we are hopelessly materialists. We are materialists because we fear the alternative, not having given a proper chance to the information that is available in the scriptures and other beautiful writings.
Entering into politics may be ideal for those who want personal gain of some sort above all else. Service as a political function is too often used as an excuse to push for purely material and social advantages: politics can turn one into a selfish and a pretty sick person. It can never quench the thirst of seekers of peace and tranquillity. It will never restore the land to those who can nourish it.
Materialists are those who are content to ignore the presence of the dumps not so distant from their backyards. They are reconciled to live with only mediocrity. Perhaps a good starting point to figuring out the way ahead for the world, to take a step forward with confidence, towards what we deserve, would be to identify the difference between the pure materialists and those who are not. Let us reject mediocrity and ask for the best, for everybody and for every created being.
We might begin by coming together as people of different faiths to find new terms of distinction between people, between 'we' and 'they'. We need to define these terms and to act upon them, using non-threatening terms. This we must do in order to open the way for putting the finger on a more active and lively, more tangible, more articulate concept of who we are so that we will be able to address the issues more logically and enjoyably and with greater confidence. This, ultimately, may well enable us to identify our common strengths, forgive one another's weaknesses and engender in us the motivation to come closer to and identify with one another through a more universal language. Let us work together across those obsolete boundaries of religion with a sense of reassurance for the sake of a brighter future for our children.
Nairobi, Dhu'l-Hijja 13, 1422, February 25th, 2002 (Idd ul-Hajj took place on February 22nd, 2002)
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