Being stuck in a rut is one of many expressions used by Muslims these days. Besides a generally negative outlook it ingrains an unproductive attitude that makes becoming unstuck increasingly difficult. Many put it down to the current political climate, and while the lens of securitisation has certainly generated unease around religious expression, to pile our woes at the feet of politicians might be offering them a bit too much.
In reality, there is a simple reason and remarkably one many fail to pinpoint (itself a symptom of the problem) and that is figuring out where exactly God fits into the equation. These days, nearly every discussion on Muslims or Islam has God missing from it. That’s not to say that our discussions do not insinuate something about God, but our inferences treat the divine as a presumed variable rather than the primary motive. Even where we articulate something being for God, actual engagement with such sentiment fails to extend beyond routine expressions. How often do we ask: “Well if this is for God, how do I know it’s what He wants, and in the way that He wants it?”
A closer inspection suggests that our association with God seems to be cosmetic, and when we get around to addressing that association it tends to be superficially in a communal setting. Collective religiosity is fine but it has to be complemented with an intimate and personal association,
Those who remember God standing, sitting, and lying down, who reflect on the creation of the heavens and earth: ‘Our Lord! You have not created all this without purpose – You are far above that! So protect us from the torment of the Fire.
Dealing with God intimately is a scary thought for some; it stands as a true test of faith and compels them to face reservations, so instead they rely on others to dilute the concentration. But in doing so God is relegated and belief manifests as a marker of belonging and identity rather than a state of being. We also fail to meaningfully discuss God simply because we don’t know how to. It’s difficult to do God when religious cultivation tends to boil down either to rabbinic stipulations or making religiosity in both public and private more about political and legal rights than godliness. Unfortunately, many Muslims have come to do everything but God Himself, and on the off chance God comes up we take a reductive approach: we fall into simple theism, reduce God to a legislative order, or some abstract and distant concept that we intellectualise rather than treat as an active participant in everyday life. Remaining inattentive to revelation which intimates modes by which we may know God many settle for unsupported guesswork about what He might desire and subsequently propagate it through hollow rhetoric. It is as though we decide what sort of God we require in a given situation and consequently form our own representations to serve that agenda.
Emulating shifting societal attitudes towards knowledge and expertise (the Brexit debate a case in point), the approach of many has been to treat Islamic knowledge as a commodity with little practical use beyond garnering social status or securing an imam post. The hadith sciences are pursued to show how many names we can remember. The study of fiqh is not an enterprise to glean how God wants us to behave in the now, but a history lesson on the law as practiced somewhere in the Middle East during the Middle Ages. Our theology is a historical lesson on ancient schisms rather than the inculcation of Islamic beliefs that have practical relevance for contemporary western Muslims. An example of how much of this has come to shape our attitude is in how some will have assumed the title of this article refers to the schism on divine physicality and transcendence – is He literally situated above His throne or beyond time and space? The present culture motivates an attitude that veers towards the theoretical and abstract rather than taking things in a way that makes them most relevant.
But has this all had an impact on wider issues? Well ethics and virtue in social affairs is often determined by inanely contrasting ethno-cultural norms to western ones rather than referring back to God for the diligent and contextual application of the divine will. On political affairs we simply use religion as a form of ethnic protest rather than to promote Abrahamic ideals and the overarching intent of God, where we should be exploring ingenious ways to brush aside the diverting rhetoric of antagonists in order to re-align the conversation. The frustrations are evident: when those in the political realm suddenly find themselves in the deep-end they opt for a belligerent façade that very rarely manages nuance or offers rational suggestions.
Turn to your Lord. Submit to Him before the punishment overtakes you and you can no longer be helped. Follow the best teaching sent down to you from your Lord…
Abrahamic monotheism, that is the understanding of monotheism we are ordained with – Hanifiyyah, is to perpetually lean towards God and away from ego-serving interests and inclinations. Does ‘leaning’ denote ‘spirituality’, and am I simply stating that we need more of it? Well to begin with, though the term ‘spirituality’ provides helpful perspectives to various issues, it can be too broad a concept to deliver precise and detailed guidance for a specific situation. To say that we need to incorporate the ‘spiritual’ opens up a host of questions as to what that actually means and how it is to be manifested. The indifference of some towards anything veering towards ‘spirituality’ can be understandable; the cliché ‘be spiritual and all shall be fine’ often deflects from dealing with the real world. So for the context it might be more fruitful to identify how to empower the average Muslim to begin an engagement with God that is easy to conceptualise, and this process might be initiated by thinking about how we use a God-centered approach to inform everything we do.
Now God-centeredness isn’t fanciful new-talk or the latest fad – it is coded into the DNA of every act of ubudiyyah (servitude to God) and the underlying philosophy of the fundamentals of faith. Abdullah b. Umar relates from the Prophet that Islam is built on five things, and they all principally uphold God-centeredness. Given that Islam is built on them, what they stand for inherently becomes the basis of all things associated with the faith.
The testification of faith is a commitment to God-centeredness; the salah is a physical manifestation of it, that is to worship Allah as if you only see him; the zakat is an endeavour to resource the continuation and advancement of God centeredness; the fasting is a reminder of it and a purification for it; the pilgrimage is an expedition towards it, culminating as a journey to Makkah, standing in the wilderness of ‘Arafah looking for God, and the tawaf – circumambulation with God at the center.
God-centeredness is to evaluate every claim and procedure in light of “the best teaching sent down to you from your Lord” (39:55) and the prophetic example, without exception. It is much more practice than theory so a comprehensive exploration cannot simply manifest as jotting down a few points in an article. God-centeredness requires a deep understanding of the fundamentals of faith and acute guidance on how it manifests as responses to specific situations in everyday life. God-centeredness is not achieved by the mere pursuit of acquiring information, it is ultimately an extensive and prolonged cultivating process.
We are told that Moses and Aaron moved forward with God: “Do not fear, I am with you both” (Q 20:46) and as we know it resulted in their wellbeing. But what is ma’iyyah (being ‘with’ God)? We are told about the Prophet and his Companions, “They returned with grace and bounty from God; no harm befell them. They pursued God’s good pleasure. God’s favour is great indeed.” (Q 3:174) But how does one pursue God’s good pleasure? To answer these we first need to evaluate how we relate to God as “God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves.” (Q 13:11)
We shall test you to see which of you strive your hardest and are steadfast; We shall test the sincerity of your assertions.
These are a snippet of the many fundamental questions that form the basis of a constructive and holistic way forward. It falls on believers to take the time and effort to search them out. If Muslims prove unwilling, then getting out of the rut will prove nigh impossible – nearly everything in revelation suggests so. And like being stuck in a gloomy hole a helping hand is what we need. Fortunately, “God is the ally of those who believe: He brings them out of the depths of darkness and into the light.” (Q 2:257)