x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Stand and deliver, your religion or your life

One of my Shaykhs once told me that the value of the path to God is indicated by the number of highwaymen along its road.

One of my Shaykhs once told me that the value of the path to God is indicated by the number of highwaymen along its road. 

Perhaps, at the time I thought I knew exactly what he was talking about. Perhaps, at each moment in our lives we perceive at the depth for which we're prepared. It's this constant potential for growth that provides the eternal possibility of renewal and infinite "becoming" that makes life a terribly wonderful experience.The "terribly" side is represented by the many down sides to life, chief among them disappointment. The naive optimist would dismiss it entirely, but success lies in how you negotiate that disappointment. 

Our experience with the path to God is not different from the world in this way. It, too, will suffer its share of disappointments. This brings us back to our highwaymen. They know the power and attraction of religion. Religion communicates with the soul and awakens the mind that feels suffocated by tactile material experience, prevented from reaching its holistic potential. It inspires and infuses existence with meaning.

The highwayman knows that these capacities may all be mounted and ridden to personal gain. He or she himself is captivated by the possibilities that lie therein: to take hearts and minds hostage and hold them for ransom. An encounter with a highwayman can leave a person feeling violated and betrayed. But despite this, the journey must go on. The Quran speaks of the earth becoming constricted around a person, despite its vastness, to the point of his or her own self becoming constricted until he or she realises there is no running from Allah except to Allah.

The journey is greater than its pitfalls. We cannot allow disappointment, betrayal, or manipulation to make us disillusioned or divested of resolve. The end, or objective, of the journey is greater than the perceived enjoyments or exhilarations that obtain during the process. One English philosopher has said that "religions have a grossly inflated place in the public domain out of all proportion to the numbers of their adherents or their intrinsic merits". But regardless of those who may or may not decry this fact, religion does enjoy a profoundly influential place in the history of human society. This is because of what it comprises of intense spiritual meaning and connection to metaphysical reality, not to mention the transformative power on individual lives that is exponentially greater than any paucity in numbers of adherents.

Religion must be about much more than anything that could be derailed by hangers-on. But it is well known that the Latin religionem is not deemed a fitting translation for the word deen, which in Arabic means "transaction". Al-Sayyid al-Jurjani defines deen as "a divine convention that motivates rationally minded people - by way of their own praiseworthy choice - toward what is good in and of itself, being beneficial to them in this life and the next". Religion, in this conception, provides shape, coherence, and integrity to people's engagement and interaction with their vertical relationships with the Divine, as well as their horizontal relationships with one another.

But just as important, it is a source of spiritual fulfillment, enlightenment, and the nourishment of healthy and balanced souls. The value of religion - or deen - in your life depends ultimately on what you are getting out of it. When you sell it short, you are selling yourself short. And when you sell it, or allow another to hijack it, you are the one in control of your own suffering. 

Jihad Hashim Brown is an advisor on academic affairs. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi.