Amongst many, religious culture and cultivation tends to centre on imaan boosters: perceived short term-fixes that leave people on a religious ‘high’ for a few hours (or at least what they perceive the feeling to be), after which it evaporates and promptly returns the person to their initial state. Due to the superficial nature of such cultivation, there is a counter-productivity inherent in this way of doing things. Amongst them is that being interested in religion boils down to the amount of videos that are viewed on YouTube and the number of speakers being followed on social media. A few lessons that offer a basic commentary on al-Nawawi’s forty hadith offers the seeming notion of ‘higher’ religious education, or at least something substantial, and provides the consolation that an effort is being made to obtain some religion, or more egregiously, that it’s acceptable now to form and advocate personal religious opinions. For others, a few tajweed classes suffice, but learning how to make guttural sounds doesn’t exactly offer action-guiding principles. Additionally, given the status and/or capacity of local religious clerics and imams, people often turn to online outlets to look for something more substantial where they find consoling rhetoric that seems to resonate by offering something relevant to their lives. If lay personalities online offer what they propose to be major religious concepts in a tweet or three minute clips on YouTube, why would viewers assume there’s more to it? This all then reduces religious activity either to rituals or watching something, yet does little to identify and remedy the specific religious issues an individual distinctively faces.
Today, a crisis in faith which is often confused with low imaan often occurs due to the absence of a compelling conceptualisation of God and how to approach Him, and not due to the need for reminders.
There is a baseline of God consciousness that makes us believers, and unable to locate or identify that baseline, some often assume that the problem is simply one of religious heedlessness rather than an incorrect perception of religious practice that mainly stems from not knowing how to approach Islam. Today, a crisis in faith which is often confused with low imaan often occurs due to the absence of a compelling conceptualisation of God and how to approach Him, and not due to the need for reminders. Dependency on reminders is a lot like dependency on recreational drugs, a quick and superficial high that confuses the arousal of feelings for what should be a certain level of commitment logically built on that of which you are certain – and it departs just as quickly as it arrives. The adrenaline high is evidenced by the type of speakers many go for: a rousing orator or an emotive and tearful exhibition. Generally, we do not entirely forget we are fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and so on (even if we do not completely live up to satisfactory standards) nor do we expect to be reminded by a ‘speaker’ that we have to get home at a decent hour to people we love – it’s a reality we’re fully aware of and understand. Where we might fall short of acceptable standards of behaviour, we need informing, awareness and (thought) provocation rather than continuous reminders. Associating the notion of increasing and decreasing levels of imaan as being fully contingent on how you are occasionally ‘reminded’ stems from particular oversights. Of some of the more notable ones, conflating a ‘reminder’ with ‘heart softening’. They are not inherently the same nor serve the same objectives. (I acknowledge people use these terms with multiple meanings, often in the same conversation, without acknowledging their specific intentions.)
A reminder brings oversights and disregarded issues back to the fore, whereas ‘heart softening’ is meant to emotively increase a distinct association with God. Another oversight is that there are different perspectives from which to look at faith, one from the perspective of affirmation which requires proofs and dispelling reservations, and another from the perspective of commitment which requires encouragement. Often these two are also conflated. They are obvious, but not always recognised, differences. Unable to make out these differences, the actual problems that arise aren’t adequately addressed, and so, the condition persists.
This then leads to the state of anxiety, despair and constant dissatisfaction, and most importantly, never truly tasting the sweetness of faith, the realisation of which comes with istiqamah (stability).
The sub-culture that has replaced the holistic exploration of our association with God and the nature of our affiliation to religion, and indeed what ‘religion’ is, means that we do not acquire the serenity and tranquillity that pervades all realms of life from a clear and coherent understanding of what God wants from us. We become disoriented and confused about what to make of our place in the world and suffer cognitive-dissonance because of the many internal conflicts that result. This then leads to the state of anxiety, despair and constant dissatisfaction, and most importantly, never truly tasting the sweetness of faith, the realisation of which comes with istiqamah (stability). And with the instability we are unable to prove effective in social and political matters; especially those that require godliness, resolution, pragmatism, maturity, and rational constructive actions.
The problem with ‘imaan boosters’ on their own, or as the main source of ‘religiosity’ or being informed is that they momentarily mask internal conflicts and do not offer actual religion nor resolve the deeper issues that will inevitably crop up again.
So what type of engagement might offer a clear and coherent understanding of what God wants from us? This topic is a long one, perhaps a field in its own right pertaining to learning about religious learning. But to begin with, and one type of valuable engagement that is incontestable is an exploration of the Qur’an. There has been, especially for those who do not understand Arabic, a concerted focus on ritual reading which has led the divine message to be taken as mere ‘ooo’ and ‘aaah’-ing, that is, very little beyond the sounds we make. Seldom do I meet those who have taken some time to peruse a good translation and make sense of what they read. Beyond explicit commands and prohibitions, the Qur’an has a good deal to say on how to behave, how to think, and how to engage others – both Muslims and non-Muslims. The stories in the divine address demand contemplation and reflection, aayat (verses) are layered with meaning, and with each section there is a distinctive goal meant to effectuate a particular outcome. ‘This is a blessed scripture which We sent down to you, for people to think about its messages, and for those with understanding to take heed.’ (Q 38:29) Our minds must be consistently engaged as God says, ‘There are lessons in the story of Joseph and his brothers for all who seek them.’ (Q 12:7) What are these lessons, and what kind of questions should we be asking that will lead to them? We are told of the advice of Luqman to his son; beyond the obvious message, why did God see it as important to relate it from Luqman, and what might it tell us about father-child relationships? What about the two who broke into King David’s quarters seeking arbitration, how does the story caution against confidence in initial perceptions? Why inform us of Dhu’l-Qarnain, the king with ‘two horns’ who held back Gog and Magog – who are they and why are they relevant? What can the ‘companions of the cave’ tells us about cultivating young people? God tells us the overarching reasons behind those things that have been prohibited, ‘Say: my Lord only forbids disgraceful deeds…sin, and unjustified aggression…’ (Q 7:33) tempering it with the liberty to enjoy life, ‘Who has forbidden the adornment and nourishment God has provided for His servants? Say: they are for those who believe during the life of this world…’ (Q 7:32) How does this inform our outlook towards halal and haram beyond mere requirements, and internalising sacred law as a civilising and productive force rather than an archaic construct? If there is anything that produces true knowledge, then this engagement is certainly it; put decisively, ‘it is a revelation in the chests of those given knowledge.’ (Q 29:49)
They compel ‘speakers’ to play up to audiences since the speaker seeks to ‘boost’ emotions or arouse the audience. Consequently, a ‘talk’, ‘bayan’ or ‘dars’ becomes an activity to enamour and interest people rather than one of substance that informs and enlightens believers and facilitates religious endurance.
The problem with ‘imaan boosters’ on their own, or as the main source of ‘religiosity’ or being informed is that they momentarily mask internal conflicts and do not offer actual religion nor resolve the deeper issues that will inevitably crop up again. They give a sketchy or partial representation of the religion and its theology that then allows for a misunderstanding of other facets of the faith. They fail to reflect the sophisticated and interconnected nature of various facets of life, as well as serve to undermine a robust approach to them. They compel ‘speakers’ to play up to audiences since the speaker seeks to ‘boost’ emotions or arouse the audience. Consequently, a ‘talk’, ‘bayan’ or ‘dars’ becomes an activity to enamour and interest people rather than one of substance that informs and enlightens believers and facilitates religious endurance. Furthermore, those invited to speak, literally called ‘speakers’, are consequently chosen for their ability to effectively employ rhetoric rather than offer relevant and holistic understandings of the faith – with this being what event organisers continue to look for. The audience is left assuming that this is religion and consequently fail to seek out proper instruction and guidance – a long term commitment and intimate relationship with people of learning and insight.
Of course, another notable problem with this is the ease with which misguidance occurs, and we see it particularly with religious extremism. Feeding into a culture where some come to assume that a matter of law or theology boils down to one verse or one hadith, extremists rely on the practice of adopting an oversimplified or under thought idea, or the assumption that rudimentary ideas must be valid. Due to this attitude, anything other than an oversimplification comes to seem suspicious, where a full (or at least adequate) exploration of a topic is viewed as unwarranted embellishment for the mere purpose of complicating the matter to bamboozle the masses. The Prophet Shu’aib was subjected to such an inane criticism when holistically calling his people to God with the pagans taunting, ‘we do not understand much of what you say!’ (Q 11:91) Furthermore, the habit of decorating an inane and rudimentary idea is something the final Prophet told us to look out for, saying, ‘there shall emerge from my ummah, those who are religiously immature, with silly ambitions; they will say the best of things, reciting the Quran but it will not pass beyond their throats.’ (Muslim)
But all of this is not to say that raqa’iq have no place within religious undertakings, they certainly do. Nevertheless, they must be situated in the proper place and in the right context, as an occasional and supplementary endeavour. They do not stand on their own but are added to substantive understandings of the faith, the type of understanding that relates revelation to our everyday modern lives, resonates with our intuitions and common sense, and motivates a positive outlook, progress and civility; all built on a cogent understanding of God, where its expressions apply to the world we live in.