My only question is, “since when did we become so dependent on the events of the outside world to dictate who we are and how we live our lives?” All of these problems I present here have been faced by our predecessors and, yet, we act as if they are novel only to our generation. For example, political propaganda and superficial discourse are evident in Cicero’s accounts of Julius Caesar’s life as ancient Rome’s leader. A Laissez-Faire economy has been prone to “Great Depressions” (yes, there were two; 1920-1921 and 1929-1939) and “The Law of Diminishing Returns” since Adam Smith wrote “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” Perhaps we should listen to the world renowned Columbia University Economist Jeffrey Sachs and adopt a “Gross National Happiness” scale used in Bhutan. The media is no different than it was during Shakespeare’s era of “Othello,” although with the advent of the Gutenberg Press, television, and the internet, our Iago’s can spread their malice much easier. In essence, the only thing that changed is our approach to understanding the situation and creating solutions to our problems. It is easy to feel upset and fall into despair because that requires no effort. The optimism, hope, and faith our elders seemed so averse to discard have been purged due to the difficulty in maintaining this outlook on life. Forget about trying to solve your problems, “A Streetcar Named Desire” is always open. So what did previous generations have that we lack? Is there a Yellow Brick Road to follow whereby a veiled figure can give us what we search for?
In his work titled “The Alchemy of Happiness,” the famous Muslim scholar Al-Ghazzali refers to one’s heart as a mirror. He states that with every misdeed one commits, darkness is deposited on the mirror of the heart. Likewise, with every act of devotion one performs, a light attaches itself to the heart, removes the veil of darkness concealing it, and returns it to clarity and purity. Whether experiencing a struggle or being in a state of happiness, our predecessors would often reflect on their situation, remain patient and consistent in their faith, and be rewarded for the humility they gained. For example, self-reflection has been used to lift one’s spirit during times of trials and tribulations. In the time of the Prophet (PBUH), Abu Jahl was notorious for persecuting those who practised Islam. Yassir and his wife Sumayyah were the unfortunate recipients of his torment and, due to the complex nature of clan alliances at the time, were left to fend for themselves. One day, however, the Prophet (PBUH) yelled out to them, “Be strong, Yassir’s family, our meeting point is in Paradise.” Despite being beaten and left tied under the sun’s heat, they both refused to renounce their faith. By reflecting on the importance of their belief, Yassir and Sumayyah understood that the hardships of this life are momentary while the pleasures of the hereafter are eternal. They were eventually killed by Abu Jahl and became Islam’s first martyrs, but the legacy of their devotion to God (SWT), His Oneness, and the last Revelation remain with us until today. Similarly, in Surah 12, aya 87 Jacob tells his sons:
never give up hope of Allah’s Soothing Mercy: truly no one
despairs of Allah’s Soothing Mercy except those who have no faith.
Again, the notion of remaining hopeful and trusting in God (SWT) during times of difficulty is reinforced.
Self-reflection can also be used as a tool to keep one humble during times of joy. For instance, when the Prophet (PBUH) informed Rabiah ibn Kab that he had served him faithfully and wanted to grant him anything he asked for, this poor young man felt overwhelmed with happiness. Although, before he could respond, he asked the Prophet (PBUH) if he could have some time to reflect on his wish, upon which the Prophet (PBUH) agreed. On the one hand, Rabiah ibn Kab thought about his peers and how far they had progressed in life. He knew that with one dua from the Prophet (PBUH), he could become like them: people of wealth, status, and with children. However, at that moment, another thought seized his mind. He realized that it would be foolish to waste a dua from the Prophet (PBUH) on the material world and so he began to think more wisely. The next day, Rabiah asked the Messenger (PBUH) to pray to God (SWT) for him to be a companion of the Prophet (PBUH) in paradise. The Prophet (PBUH) asked if this was all he wished for and Rabiah approved. The Messenger (PBUH) made the dua and advised Rabiah to remain consistent in his prayer. Through self-reflection Rabiah ibn Kab was able to comprehend the gravity of his situation and instead of allowing the external economic and social pressures influence him, he connected with his heart and asked for the one true reward: to be alongside the Prophet (PBUH) in the hereafter.
The Moroccan Muslim known as ibn Battuta is another famous scholar who is considered by many historians as one of the greatest travellers of all time. At the age of twenty-one, he embarked on a quest to perform Hajj. Knowing that anything could happen along his journey by foot, he painfully parted with his friends and parents. It took him roughly sixteen months to reach Mecca, but before returning home he spent another twenty-four years traveling and documenting his adventures through Northern Africa, the Levant, Turkey, the Middle East, Persia, Central Asia, India, Bangladesh, the Maldives Islands, China, Somalia, Tanzania, and numerous other countries and regions. His travels have been recorded in the book titled “A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling”, also known as “The Rihla” or “The Journey”.
More recently, in 2012, a Bosnian Muslim man by the name of Senad Hadzic walked from his town near the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to perform Hajj. The 47 year old traveled across seven countries, two deserts, and roughly 5650 kilometres without money before arriving in Mecca. The only belongings he carried were a copy of the Quran and Bible in his backpack. While crossing through war ravaged Syria he described how no one shot at him and when he was inspected for his passport, he told the rebels and army of President Assad that “I was on the road to God”. His explanation sufficed for both armed groups with some of them even kissing the Quran he carried. Upon reflecting of his journey, he said, “If I didn’t believe that God was with me, that he was protecting me and guiding me, I wouldn’t have even reached Bulgaria, let alone Mecca.”
In the Quran, Allah (SWT) says in Surah 51, aya 20-21:
As also in your own selves: Will ye not then see?
In Surah 13, aya 11, He (SWT) also says:
they change it themselves (with their own souls)…
However, without self-reflection, how will one see these signs or be aware of their condition? Our predecessors whether poor, rich, scholars, students, men, woman, or children maintained their trust and hope in God (SWT), and used their experiences as tools of character refinement by reflecting and obtaining lessons from them. By doing so, the mirrors of their hearts still resonate with light and purity today.
Whether you have the spirit of Ibrahim ibn Adham and give up your riches to embark on a spiritual quest to find the true kingdom of Islam in your heart or someone who spends a few minutes each day reflecting in your room, life experiences no longer feel like an empty void. Rather, they become a means to humble oneself and brings one closer in devotion to God (SWT). I cannot swim or dance, nor do I know karate. I think Noam Chomsky and Ron Paul are the equivalent of Batman and Robin (aka “The Dynamic Duo”) of the academic world. I am not Salafi or Sufi, but was born and am Muslim. I know that not everyone who travels arrives and those who sow do not always reap, but I will continue on my path down the Yellow Brick Road to self-betterment with self-reflection in hand.