Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Dynamic Between Faith and Doubt: A Sufi Perspective

A few days ago a friend who is not Muslim raised, in passing, several indirect questions about the idea of fasting and its possible value. When one asks Muslims about the issue, many of them will provide an array of reasons as to why Muslims fast.

For instance, some Muslims will say that it helps one to empathize with, or -- at least for a month's time -- walk in the shoes/sandals of, those who are poor and who go hungry on a regular basis (and this assumes that the poor actually have shoes/sandals in which to walk). Or, alternatively, some Muslims will point out that fasting is intended to assist individuals to develop the sort of discipline that will deepen one's commitment to Islam by constraining the usual appetites and inclinations of the nafs or ego, while some other Muslims indicate that fasting carries numerous benefits for physical health, and still other Muslims might mention the idea that fasting helps one to disengage from the activities of this world and concentrate more on the spiritual life. When queried about the fasting issue, some Muslims might refer to the five pillars of Islam and indicate that fasting is one of the means through which an individual can work his or her way toward Paradise, as well as a means through which the Muslim world can become strengthened as an ummah or spiritual community. Some Muslims will say that the rationale for fasting is a combination of all of the foregoing reasons.

I feel all of the foregoing ideas might be off the mark to some extent. The Qur'an doesn't list any of the aforementioned possibilities as the reasons why fasting is important. On the other hand, the Qur'an does indicate, in a variety of ways, that fasting, when carried out with a proper niyat or intention, has value ... that it can help cleanse us.

So, the question then becomes: cleanse us from what? Well, one possibility here is that fasting -- as well as the other pillars of Islam -- can help cleanse us in relation to misdeeds.

This leads to the question: What is a misdeed? Oftentimes, the definition of a misdeed will vary with someone's theological orientation and inclination. 

Misdeeds are actions and intentions that obstruct truth. We all have tendencies within us that prevent us from realizing the nature of truth to varying degrees ... we hide the truth and we hide from the truth.

The following account is often attributed to Ra'bia of Basra (may Allah be pleased with her). More specifically, there was a Sufi who came upon the saintly woman on a hill overlooking the city. He is reported to have engaged her in conversation which, among other things, included his passing judgment on the people of the city because, according the man, many of those individuals did not keep the fast, or did not say their prayers, or did not go on Hajj, and so on. Ra'bia (may Allah be pleased with her) is reported to have responded to the man by indicating that: "Thy existence is a sin with which none other can compare."

I can remember my own shaykh once confiding in me that the Muslims in the community used to criticize him for so many different reasons, and, yet, if they were to know his real faults, they would tear him to pieces ... alluding, perhaps, to a saying by a previous Sufi saint that the sins of the saints are the virtues of the common person. My shaykh was someone who observed the rigors of a 40 day seclusion on more than 17 occasions, along with observing quite a few 21 and 19 day periods of seclusion ... he was someone who kept the night vigil quite frequently ... he was someone who was constantly engaged in remembrance of God ... he was someone who served the Muslim community -- often at a cost to himself -- and, yet, he considered himself to have faults.

Fasting is an exercise in the dynamics of doubt and faith. I fast because I have come to trust, according to my own capacity and spiritual station, the words of the One Who has indicated to me, via the Qur'an and my shaykh, that fasting has value, and without necessarily knowing what the precise character of that value might be, I acquiesce, by the Grace of God, to what is being indicated as a valuable thing to do. 

When I fast, I observe phenomena that take place within me. I discover things about myself -- both strengths and weaknesses. I see the dynamics that come into play, and I begin to reflect on those dynamics concerning the character of the forces that are being manifested.

When my body or my emotions or my mind puts up a struggle and are reluctant to go along with the fasting idea because they don't see what the value of such a practice is from their point of view, I see doubt square off against faith and begin to circle about looking for openings through which to attack and, perhaps, vanquish that faith. 

By engaging doubt head on, one begins to understand the nature and contours of faith -- not as an exercise in blind, dogmatic belief in this or that idea or possibility, but as a living, dynamic process of exploration into the unknown using the instruments of mind, heart, spirit and so on. Through experience, and if God permits, one begins to develop a sense of dhawk or taste for distinguishing among a variety of forces ... one begins to understand certain dimensions of oneself and the world with varying degrees of depth, breadth, and clarity.

Where does my faith concerning Islam come from? After all, I didn't grow up in a Muslim community, and, in fact, Islam didn't even register on my phenomenological radar until I was going into my final year of undergraduate life in university, and, quite by accident (?) came across someone who was a Muslim.

At the time (and this was back in the mid-1960s) , I was an orderly in a private mental health facility. The individual in question was a client.

I never really interacted with the gentleman and actually didn't come to know anything about the beliefs, values, or practices of Islam through him. However, I do recall how, from time to time, he would engage in what I later came to know to be 'wudu' -- that is, ritual ablution ... although Western diagnosticians might have seen it as some sort of indication of compulsive-obsessive behavior.
We have labels for almost everything, but understanding of almost nothing. I am reminded of the saying attributed to Hazrat Abu Bakr Sidiq which indicated that realization of our inability to comprehend God was itself a kind of knowledge.

I do not know anything about that Muslim in the aforementioned mental health clinic. But, I feel fairly confidant that in his own way he was exploring the strange country of the soul that combines elements of both faith and doubt ... something that whether we are considered to be sane or mentally ill tends to haunt us throughout our lives. 

I was introduced to the methodologies that explore the realms of faith and doubt through a Sufi shaykh. I came to Islam through the Sufi path. 

The five pillars of Islam form a key part of the aforementioned methodologies. Consequently, fasting, being one of the five pillars, is one of the tools that forms the set of methods through which life experience is engaged. 

Faith is rooted first and foremost in a certain understanding concerning the nature of experience. Remember the Qur'an's reference to the Bedouins who said that they believed and were informed that they should say that they submitted because faith had not yet entered their heart ... faith is form of seeing and understanding.

We engage experience and, God willing, we begin to develop an appreciation for the nature and character of such experience. We come to rely on the understanding that arises through that sort of appreciation concerning the nature of experience.

Faith comes through experience. Doubt is the instrument which helps refine the character of what we understand or what we think we understand in relation to faith ... if we cannot countenance the presence of reasonable doubt concerning the alleged veracity of what we understand -- or believe we understand -- then what does this say about the quality of one's faith?

Like the Muslim individual whom I saw -- but did not study -- in the aforementioned mental health clinic, my whole life has been an exploration of the boundary conditions of the non-linear dynamics involving faith and doubt ... of trying to distinguish between the real and the false. What do I actually know and not just believe? Who and what can I trust? How should I best spend my time? How do I guard myself against premature closure on all of the important spiritual, political, economic, social, moral, and conceptual issues with which I  and the rest of the world  are confronted? When is doubt warranted?  

Faith is a species of understanding that contains elements of both what is known and unknown. Faith is an ordering of the dynamic antagonism between what is known and unknown that points in a particular direction ... it is the sextant of the soul by which I plot my way through the unchartered waters of life and navigate through the many doubts that populate those waters.

Doubt is my able assistant who constantly asks me concerning whether, or not, I am using the sextant correctly or whether, or not, my calculations are accurate or whether there might be some other better way to chart the course through unchartered waters. Doubt is my friend ... he helps keep me honest. 

But, my doubt is always about me ... about what I do, and do not, understand concerning the nature of my experience ... about what can be relied on, and what cannot be relied upon, with respect to such understanding ... about what stands in need of clarification and refinement and further experiential data.

When doubt comes to me and asks me why I am fasting, it tends to make me stop and reflect on the matter. I can't give a precise answer to doubt's queries, but I do have a deep, abiding sense -- honed through many years of experience witnessing first-hand the on-going struggle between faith and doubt -- that fasting helps orient the compass of my heart to point in a direction that gives -- as a function both of the known and the unknown -- what I believe is the best opportunity for me to discover that for which I am searching ... namely, the truth concerning my existence.

The following 13-minute talk by Lesley Hazleton is a very good one. I might quibble with a few of the things she says toward the beginning of her talk when she describes what Muslims allegedly believe about the first Quranic revelation -- for instance, she contends that Muslims believe that the first revelation constituted a direct contact with the Divine, when, Muslims generally believe that the contact was via the Archangel Jibriel ... although, on the other hand, if one takes the first part of the Shahadah to its mystical conclusion -- namely, that there is no reality but God -- then, Archangel Jibriel is but an existential loci of manifestation that cloaks the presence of God, and, therefore, the point made by Lesley might be, in an indirect fashion, correct even though many Muslims do not necessarily believe things in the way she describes.

I especially tend to agree with many of the things which Ms. Hazelton says toward the end of her talk when she indicates that if the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) were to reappear today, he would be deeply saddened and upset with the manner in which so many of the original teachings of Islam have become distorted and corrupted in order to serve the theological, political, cultural, and economic interests of those Muslims who do not seem to have taken the struggle between doubt and faith all that seriously.

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