“I’m not a religious person. But I’m spiritual.”
For 35 years, I could relate. I grew up in a very conservative Muslim home, with a heavy South Asian influence. Cultural traditions often blended into Islamic practices, and it was never clear to me where one began and the other ended. Prayer, a key pillar of Islamic worship, was an expected practice but the benefits were never explained well to me. For me, there was no understanding of why Muslims prayed, just that I had to. I believed in a single Creator, but didn’t feel a personal connection to the acts of worship I had been taught, such as praying, reciting the Quran, or fasting.
But the concept of spirituality did keep me grounded in my faith. Like others that haven’t found their guiding light but knew it existed, I did believe that we were created for a purpose, the sense that there is something bigger than ourselves. Spirituality focuses on this belief and uses practices like mindfulness and meditation to connect the person’s mind and spirit to central themes of harmony with creation and attaining inner peace. And so, I researched and embraced guided meditation, learning to clear my mind, focusing on my breath, and letting everything go in an attempt to connect to the universe. But while I found calm in the stillness, the act in itself felt empty and left me without purpose. How could I find meaning through an exercise I found meaningless?
Untethered, practicing spirituality becomes subject to the fallacies of human logic and emotion. As we ponder on the purpose of life and try to connect with creation in a meaningful way, we come across questions we can’t answer. I’ve observed others offer gratitude to “mother nature” or the universe. But I struggled with this as well. How could I be grateful to creation instead of being grateful for it? Further, how could I be in awe of creation itself without contemplating the existence of its Creator? If we can accept that we are inherently constrained by the limits of our knowledge and feelings, then it is easier to accept that the answers to such cosmic questions cannot come from our intellect. To harness the power of spirituality, it needs a medium, a vessel to be channeled through. That vessel is a defined system of faith and worship: religion. Religion can serve as an anchor for the spiritual being, as long as the belief system harmonizes with creation and the human spirit.
Islam is this very anchor. It expects Muslims to mindfully remember the Creator even as we marvel at His creation:
“Those who remember God while standing, and sitting, and on their sides; and they reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth: ‘Our Lord, You did not create this in vain…” (Quran 3:191)
Islam addresses the path of self-discovery that occurs through deep contemplation and reflection. In fact, it is expected of Muslims to use their intellect and reason vs. believing blindly without rationale. God speaks to this in many places in the Quran where He describes a natural phenomenon and then challenges us to ponder on its existence:
“And have you seen that seed which you sow? Is it you who makes it grow, or are We the grower?” (Quran 56:63-64)
“Do they not see the birds controlled in the atmosphere of the sky? None holds them up except God. Indeed, in that are signs for a people who believe.” (Quran 16:79)
“On earth are signs for those who faith is certain. And also in yourselves. Will you not then see?” (Quran 51:20-21)
Even before becoming a Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him) spent a great deal of time meditating and thinking deeply about the meaning of life. He was disturbed by the polytheistic practices surrounding him, and would retreat to Mount Hira, seeking peace in solitude. It was one of these nights in a cave on the mountain where Muslims believe he received his first revelation from God, bought to him by the angel Gabriel. For the next 23 years, he bought Islam to life not just through his words and actions, but also through constant and intentional reflection.
What does spirituality in practice look like as a Muslim? In its simplest form, it’s our attempt to connect to our Creator. For some Muslims, it’s the sweetness tasted while offering late night prayers, which is a voluntary prayer that can be offered after the final night prayer (isha). During these moments of solitude, we express our awe of creation by praising His perfection, acknowledge our blessings by offering gratitude to Our Creator, and facing our flaws by seeking His forgiveness.
There are days where I didn’t perform all five obligatory prayers or I raced through them. Later, I would find myself awake at 3 a.m. Something called out deep inside me, beckoning me to listen. It’s that restlessness, that eagerness you feel when you can’t wait to see your loved one after having spent time apart. I would turn over, pull the blanket over tighter and try to fall back asleep. Just like I had when I was younger. But my heart, my spirit, and my mind were all awake. Waiting for that moment of connection. Waiting to taste the sweetness that comes from pouring my heart out to Him, in the darkest hours of the night, when only He can hear me and understand me. That is spirituality personified.
“I am a spiritual person who has found my guiding light in Islam.”
If attaining a sense of inner peace and the connection to a bigger purpose is how we define spirituality, then Islam is its nucleus. Without it, its membranes are left to float aimlessly, unattached. Spirituality finds its purpose in Islam. Want to learn more? Call 877-WhyIslam.
Saima Mehboob is a Muslim woman, born in Pakistan and raised in the US. She currently resides in NJ, is a full-time corporate professional and a WhyIslam volunteer.