Does every day in life start to feel like a replay? If ten years from now I’m still the exact same person doing the exact same things, what have I gotten out of life? Should our lives have a direction that we are progressing towards?
What is religion? For many people, having a religion means membership to a particular religious group. A person’s religion is one of a long list of labels by which one self-identifies, along with ethnicity, nationality, culture, language, occupation, gender, age and so on. In other words, it is static. It doesn’t inform one’s daily behaviour, goals, aspirations or pursuits.
Islam defines itself very differently. The very opening chapter of the Qur’an comprises a prayer for guidance “along the straight path” (Qur’an 1:6-7). This entails that Islam is not about a mere label that one applies to oneself, but about a journey towards God along the straight path. All of the experiences of life are part of a process of coming closer to God. The very first chapter of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), was Surah al-‘Alaq (the 96th chapter), which concludes with the Divine instruction, “Fall prostrate and draw near to Allah!“
The language of direction differs significantly from the language of stasis. Routine and repetition govern much of our lives, until every day feels like a replay. Wake up, shower, get dressed, go to work, etc. We continue to have the same conversations every day, and eventually our minds start to have the same thoughts every day, becoming incapable of imagining new aspirations and ideas. This repetition can be somewhat disconcerting. Many people suffering from depression or anxiety mention that “every day feels exactly the same.” In a desperate attempt to break the routine, people need frequent vacations, eventually just focusing on retirement as one big vacation.
Routines are not always bad. In fact, humans actually do need routine to help organize life, but the routine needs to be attached to a goal and sense of direction. A prevalent misconception amongst Muslims is that being a Muslim simply means performing certain routines, without any goal in mind. A person needs to ask himself or herself critical questions like, “How am I a different person today then I was yesterday? Where am I today in my relationship with God? Where do I want to be in ten years or five years from now? What do I need to do in order to get there?”
Islam teaches that every day in life is a unique opportunity to take a step further along that path, aiming to come closer to the destination. “If two consecutive days in a person’s life are the same, that person has cheated himself,” an Islamic tradition counsels (al-Daylami). All the difficulties, hardships and tragedies of life are also part of that arduous journey. As God says in the Qur’an, “O human being, indeed you are striving towards your Lord, with tremendous effort, and you will surely meet Him.” (Qur’an 84:6).
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) painted a vivid picture of this spiritual journey towards God along with its obstacles in the following statement:
“God has set forth the following as a parable: there is a road that leads straight to the destination. On either side of the road there is a wall in which there are open doors with curtains hanging on them. From the remote end of the road, a voice calls, ‘Proceed straight and do not turn aside.’ Whenever someone intends to lift a curtain from the door another voice calls from above, ‘Beware! Do not lift the curtain; otherwise you will be lured inside!’
The Prophet then explained the parable by saying that the straight path is Islam, the walls are the limits imposed by Allah, the open doors are the things that He has prohibited, the voice which calls from the end of the road is the Qur’an, and the voice which calls from above is God’s monitor in the heart of every believer (i.e. the fitrah).” (Sunan at-Tirmidhi)
Every effort counts
What is the psychological motivation to do small acts of good on a regular basis? For many people, there may be no motivation whatsoever to go out of one’s way to help another person in need. Why bother changing a bad habit, when change itself can be so cumbersome?
Islam is about continually striving to come closer to God by improving oneself on a regular basis. The Prophet Muhammad explained that in this spiritual journey, even a small effort that is made on our part to draw closer to God is magnified by God. The Prophet Muhammad said that God Almighty says, “Son of Adam, stand before me and I will walk to you. Walk towards Me and I will run towards to you.“(Musnad Ahmad). A similar hadith mentions “He who draws close to Me a hand’s span, I will draw close to him an arm’s length. And whoever draws near Me an arm’s length, I will draw near him a fathom’s length. And whoever comes to Me walking, I will go to him running. And whoever faces Me with sins nearly as great as the earth, I will meet him with a similar magnitude of forgiveness, provided he does not worship something alongside Me.“
On the Islamic worldview, life makes sense. Our lives are not empty and meaningless, but rather there is a clearly defined purpose for which we were brought into existence. Life is an opportunity to build our relationship with God through our knowledge and contemplation, moral choices, devout prayers, and life experiences – all of which constitute worship and remembrance of God. Worship of God is not a ritual chore in Islam, but an opportunity to strengthen one’s spiritual tie with God and nourish one’s soul with the remembrance of God.
How to draw closer to God
Without a doubt, one of the most explicit Hadith on the nature of life as a journey towards God, is the famous Hadith on friendship with God. In this tradition, God Almighty says, “There is no way of drawing close to Me which is more beloved than what I have already made obligatory for the servant. And My servant continues to draw close to Me with voluntary deeds such that I love him.“
In this Hadith we are informed that there is no better way of coming close to God other than what He has already asked humans to do. In other words, the teachings and obligations of Islam are not empty rituals but rather they comprise the optimal system for spiritual growth which has been Divinely selected by the Creator. The wisdom in the Islamic practices is that, when performed with sincerity, they are the most powerful tools for man to attain spiritual nourishment and progress in his spiritual relationship with the Lord of the Universe.
Secondly, while the obligatory deeds are the most important ones in coming closer to God, to truly excel in one’s journey, one must move beyond the obligatory deeds and race towards God with voluntary charitable deeds. Once a person appreciates this, it is no longer a matter of simply performing routine practices. Rather, every day represents a fresh and exciting opportunity to do as much good as one can to build one’s relationship with God. A Muslim does not become complacent with their current status, but rather continuously seeks to improve himself or herself with greater spiritual focus and sincerity in the obligatory deeds, and more numerous and diverse voluntary deeds.
Thirdly, the diversity of voluntary deeds available in Islam is another point for fascinating reflection. As discussed above, worship is as broad as life itself. Any good deed done seeking the pleasure of God is automatically transformed into worship and enhances one’s spiritual relationship with God. We find that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) mentioned several different kinds of good deeds:
“To judge between two people is charity; to help a person with his riding animal by assisting him in mounting it or lifting his luggage is charity; upright speech is charity; every step taken in walking to pray in congregation in the Masjid is charity; and to remove a harmful thing from the road is charity.” (Sahih Bukhari)
In other words, every conceivable way of benefiting and caring for others, or improving oneself, if done for the sake of God, constitutes spiritual growth and progress in one’s relationship with God. This makes a person’s spiritual journey as multifaceted as their own creativity allows for, and caters to the unique talents, skills and experiences of each individual. Some people are best at applying themselves intellectually, to discover new motivational speeches, some are more suited for caring for the ill, some for teaching the public, others for increasing awareness of societal ills, others for brainstorming solutions to community challenges, and yet others for family counseling. There is inherent creativity in the means by which Islam opens the door for human beings to grow spiritually. Thus, as Jamaal al-Din Zarabozo writes, “There are so many areas of voluntary deeds that it seems inconceivable that a person could not find some voluntary deed or deeds that he would like to perform in order to get closer to Allah. Allah’s path to paradise is wide enough to accommodate all of those different leanings.” (Zarabozo, Jamal. A commentary on the forty Hadith of Imam Nawawi. Vol. 3, p. 1409.)
When a person appreciates that his or her life should have a goal, vision and direction, adequate planning can be made. One can focus on using one’s unique individual talents, skills and experiences in order to positively impact the world and come closer to the Divine.