The boy was probably not more than seven or eight years old. His sweaty clothes, tired eyes and ragged hair told the story of his busy afternoon, running from café to café in the sweltering 40-degree heat of Morocco. With determination, he turned to sell me a pack of tissues. I offered to buy a few, and added a generous tip. He accepted the payment for what I had bought, but refused the tip. Seeing the confused expression on my face, he explained that by striving hard to earn an honest living each day, he felt he was in the constant presence of God and living the spiritual dimension of his faith.
I was taken aback. This was not the first time I had been exposed to someone on the streets of Morocco, or in any other developing country, who chose dignity over charity. But, this particular boy's perspective on spirituality made me stop to think for a moment: should expressions of spirituality be restricted to special days, specific spaces or designated times? How can we seek opportunities in our everyday lives to engage in a broader spiritual journey?
Mawlana Hazar Imam’s words at the Tutzing Evangelical Academy immediately sprung to my mind:
“Let me emphasise again, however, that spirituality should not become a way of escaping from the world, but rather a way of more actively engaging in it.”
Until now, I had thought about spirituality as another item on my never‑ending ‘to-do’ list - I'd promise myself to take the time to think about my spirituality. But, while philosophers and writers of the past had ample time to ponder over the mysteries of existence, ultimate significance and social good, our current lives - bombarded by technology and other preoccupations - prevent us from spending quality time on self-questioning and exploration. While technology has its benefits, it can also erode human interaction and encourage people to spend more time sifting through information, and less time absorbing new knowledge or gaining an in-depth understanding of a concept.
Shedding the shackles of the mundane involves finding practical ways to make spirituality part of our everyday existence. We are not trying to add to our ‘to-do’ list. Rather we are seeking opportunities in our daily activities to reawaken, reconnect and reenergise ourselves so that spiritual search becomes part of our everyday existence. It is not only about how we perform our daily activities, but how we perceive those activities. As the thirteenth century poet, Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, beautifully expressed:
“What are you talking about? Having to earn a living doesn’t stop you digging for the Treasure. Don’t abandon your everyday life. That’s where the Treasure is.”
Perhaps it's time to rethink how we understand spirituality. Here are three ways I'm going to start doing so today:
Reawaken the mind
Inspiration comes from activities that harness our creative spirit. Albert Einstein said that "imagination is more important than knowledge." Humans feel fulfilled when they are liberated from the shackles of the mundane and are absorbed in the depths of their creative imaginations. Our imagination provides a voice to our inner spirit, and inspires us to question the world around us. Imagination can manifest itself in diverse ways. When we sing a melodious verse of devotional literature, write a moving short story, compose a heartfelt song on a musical instrument or paint the first brushstrokes of an evolving masterpiece, we give our inner spirit the chance to be free and speak with the world. While others learn about us through our creative expression, we also learn about ourselves, what is important to us, who we are and where we belong.
Can we relive the freedom we felt when we sang, danced, read, played, composed or explored? Do we recall how inquisitive we were as children, when we unleashed our creative spirit?
As Mawlana Hazar Imam articulated at the 2003 Address to the International Colloquium, ‘Word of God, Art of Man’:
"…above all, it has been the Qur'anic notion of the universe as an expression of Allah's will and creation that has inspired in diverse Muslim communities, generations of artists, scientists and philosophers? Scientific pursuits, philosophic inquiry and artistic endeavour are all seen as the response of the faithful to the recurring call of the Qur'an to ponder the creation as a way to understand Allah's benevolent majesty. As Sura al-Baqara proclaims: 'Wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah.'"
Today, thanks to technology, we have ways to reconnect with our old, creative self - to reawaken our mind. From mobile apps to online courses, there are many opportunities to learn new ways to make spirituality part of our everyday existence. You can push this a bit further by taking courses on painting, languages, architecture or writing - all of which can provide avenues to engage with our inner spirit and learn more about the world around us - perhaps even remember to be inspired.
Reconnect with nature
As the world continues to evolve from an agrarian-based society to a knowledge-society, we are increasingly spending more and more time indoors behind our screens seeking, monitoring and analysing information fed to us from a myriad of online platforms. Studies from around the world demonstrate the detrimental health, social and emotional impacts of us spending less time outdoors. For many of us, our childhoods were filled with stories of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents working outside on rough mountain ranges, near flowing streams, in fertile fields, on animal-filled farms or in luscious green gardens. I have often marveled at how the constant engagement with nature, water, mountains and the sky imbued our ancestors with a feeling of harmony and continuity between human activity and creation. As Mawlana Hazar Imam notes, “In Islam, the Divine is reflected in Nature’s creation.”
Throughout history, Muslim rulers from Moorish Spain to Persia sought to reproduce this feeling of calm and equilibrium in the design of their palace gardens, creating elaborate water fountains and natural greens. As Mawlana Hazar Imam noted at the Opening Ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in 2008.
"[I]n Islamic thought, as in this building, beauty and mystery are not separated from intellect -- in fact, the reverse is true. As we use our intellect to gain new knowledge about Creation, we come to see even more profoundly the depth and breadth of its mysteries.... And the more we discover, the more we know, the more we penetrate just below the surface of our normal lives -- the more our imagination staggers. Just think for example what might lie below the surfaces of celestial bodies all across the far flung reaches of our universe. What we feel, even as we learn, is an ever-renewed sense of wonder, indeed, a powerful sense of awe -- and of Divine inspiration."
The significance of natural beauty goes beyond our feelings of serenity and tranquility. For centuries, poets and philosophers have used metaphors in nature to illustrate their deeper reflections on life. The repetitive cycle of the sun rising after each night reminds us that our problems are transient, and that life goes on. The tiny stream overcoming rocks in its way to carve out a new path to the ocean inspires us to be flexible when faced with seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Thus, nature presents us the impetus to ponder on the puzzling mysteries of existence, human behaviour and social good.
Inspired by our ancestors, let's take the time during lunch or after work to reconnect with nature - take a walk to a nearby lake, park or garden. Being in the presence of nature and experiencing a sense of oneness, equilibrium and harmony, might help us engage deeply with the spiritual lessons that nature beckons us to learn.
Reenergise your bodies
We often do not link taking care of our bodies to spirituality. However, the Muslim poet Farid al-Din Attar said: “The soul is hidden in the body and Thou art hidden in the soul." The human body is home to some of the most inspiring and advanced systems of design and engineering. For example, how often do we ponder the mind’s ability to conceive new ideas? Have we ever considered how the intricate interconnected systems of the human body function harmoniously like a large symphony? The Quran says:
“But He fashioned him in due proportion, and breathed into him something of His spirit. And He gave you (the faculties of) hearing and sight and feeling (and understanding): little thanks do ye give.” (32:9).
The marvels of the human body stand in stark contrast to its treatment in today’s world. Unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, tobacco, alcohol or drug use often have a deleterious effect on the human body. According to the World Health Organization, more people die annually from cardiovascular diseases* than from any other cause.
A healthy human body holds the key to our physical existence. Without the continuing seamless functionality of our bodies, our hopes, dreams and ambitions can become severely restricted, or even unattainable. The human body is also the physical vessel that provides us a means to engage in a deeper spiritual search. Thus, the condition of our physical bodies can have implications for our individual spiritual search. Indeed, the physical body is the only house that we ever truly own. As such, we should care for the house as we do other things in our life. As Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah said:
“The healthy human body is the temple in which the flame of the Holy Spirit burns, and thus it deserves the respect of scrupulous cleanliness and personal hygiene."
Let 2018 be the year where we take better care of our physical bodies, which in turn, nurture our spirit. When we discover a new healthy recipe, train for a physical activity, learn about the marvels of the human body or avoid that unhealthy social habit, we are laying the foundation to build a stronger house for our inner spirit.
Perhaps these small steps can help us all achieve a more balanced physical and spiritual life.
*Cardiovascular diseases are a group of disorders of the heart and blood vessels and often result in heart attacks and strokes caused by a blockage that prevents blood from flowing to the heart or brain.
Hussain Rajwani currently works for the Australian Treasury. He is a graduate of the Institute of Ismaili Studies’ Graduate Program in Islamic Studies and Humanities (GPISH) and completed a Masters degree in Public Management and Governance (Public Policy) from the London School of Economics and Political Science. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Australian Treasury or any other organisation.
- AKDN,Speech delivered upon receiving the ‘Tolerance’ award at the Tutzing Evangelical Academy, His Highness the Aga Khan, 2006.
- Institute of Ismaili Studies, Speech delivered at the 88th Stephen Ogden Lecture at Brown University, His Highness the Aga Khan, 2014.
- Timothy Freke, The Heart of Islam, Alresford, Godsfield, p. 44, 2002.
- Albert Einstein and Bernard Shaw, Einstein on cosmic religion: and other opinions and aphorisms. Mineola, N.Y., Dover Publications, p. 97, 2009. The original text, Cosmic Religion with other Opinions and Aphorisms was published in 1931 by Covici-Friede Inc., New York.
- Institute of Ismaili Studies, Speech delivered at the International Colloquium, ‘Word of God, Art of Man: The Quran and its Creative Expressions’ , His Highness the Aga Khan, 2003.
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation, G. Bratman et al,112, pp. 8567-8572, 2015. See also: World Health Organisation (2017), Physical activity fact sheet.
- AKDN, Speech delivered at the Foundation ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat', His Highness the Aga Khan, 2005.
- AKDN, Inaugural ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, Ottawa, Canada, 6 December 2008.
- Islamic Art and Spirituality, Mantiq al Tayr in Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Farid al-Din Attar, Albany, State University of New York Press. p. 100, 1987.
- World Health Organisation, Cardiovascular disease fact sheet, 2017.
- The Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough and Time, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954.