The quest for meaning which is always begun again by every human intellect, is to human consciousness what a fingerprint is to the body; shared by all, and unique to every individual. A universal singularity.
What better month is there to reflect, than the month of Ramadan? I began a spiritual journey this month. It’s not a spiritual journey per se. And I can’t say I just began the journey. I am always thinking, in fact I am a thought in progress. I keep asking questions as always, and this time I am trying to reconnect with myself and perhaps my faith. Three of the prevalent questions we should ask ourselves, as postulated by Immanuel Kant, include; what should I do? What can I know? And what may I hope for? After all, ibn Qayyum refers to human beings as “the seekers” because of their constant quest for meaning. So many questions and so few answers linger. And the mind never tires trying to answer questions.
It has not always been that way, everyone was once a child. And the child is a mysterious being, perhaps perfect. The child is shorn of criticism, liability or responsibility. That is why it is said that the ideal of childhood is the end of philosophy.
But the mind of the child develops by environmental and parental influence. According to Erik Erikson, the environment in which a child lived was crucial in providing growth, adjustment, a source of self-awareness and identity. So I grew up conforming. But also, the mind of the child in the wrong hands is like an accident. If at adolescence the parents continue to dictate its pace, the child is likely to have only the identity his parents have shaped for him, but if they allow the child to explore, he will conclude his own identity. As Erik Erikson puts it in his fifth stage of development, identity v. role confusion; if the parents continually push the child to conform to their views, the teen will face identity confusion.
It therefore pins upon us to find the balance, between doing what other people do (conformism), doing what other people wish (totalitarianism) and doing what is right for us (individualism)
Of course my parents didn’t allow me to explore, like many parents wouldn’t. We are simply required to follow a particular trajectory of tradition. But somewhere somehow, I found a way to. So this article is about my scout generally. It is a tranche of the things that have shaped my world view, in, at least the last five years.
S.A.M (Salihu Abdurrahim Maiwada): Sam has been an epitome and an intellectual beacon in my life. I often ask myself, what would have become of me today, if five years ago, this gentleman had not walked up to me and asked, “Do you read books?” he was holding a book on capitalism,- “what is a state”- if my memory serves me right, on that day. So obviously he meant intellectual books in the real sense. I told him I didn’t. I used to read only romance novels. Especially because it got me female friends back at high school.
Since that day, my life has not been the same. He recommended tons of books to me and is one of the few people I sit and converse with and feel intellectually inferior. I learnt new words from him, one of the words I learnt from him was “paradigm”; he loves using the word. Also, I learnt a lot of ideas from him. I was pushed to read ancient Greek philosophy by him.
When we came in our first year, Sam already knew satisfactorily about classic and modern philosophy. I just started learning about modern philosophy last year. I knew Rene Descartes through him, I knew Immanuel Kant through him, Bertrand Russell, and many others. This is a formal piece, so I can only talk about the intellectual support he has given me. But if I were to talk about the moral, financial and fraternal supports inclusively, Sam is the only individual in the whole world that has propped me and impacted on me the most in shaping my metamorphosis as an adult. More than my parent, teachers or anyone else, so thank you really. I respect you a lot. After all it was Seneca who said, “A person able to revere another thus will soon deserve to be revered himself.”
The Stoics Made Me Stoic
There is a sort of bliss when we find ourselves in the books we are reading. In fact, I found myself in the Hellenistic period at a point. I was a stoic. I fell in love with all their traditions. All these I got from reading the ideas of Epictetus, their actualization by Marcus Aurelius, and their analyses by Seneca.
The stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers. For the stoics, the ultimate goal in life “virtue” is a combination of four qualities: wisdom (moral insight), courage, self-control and justice. Even though stoicism had god in its philosophy, it wasn’t the same as in theology. The stoics talk of a supreme providence which could be spoken of almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions. According to the stoics, it is mans duty to live according to the divine will and this means living in line with nature’s laws and resigning oneself to whatever fate may send him.
Stoicism is a philosophy of ethics, it has a lot of admonitions on tolerance, respect, self-control etc. it teaches that, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting that which we have been given in life, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear for pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our path in natures plan, by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.
For example, in one of his letters, Seneca said, “our motto, as everyone knows, is to live in conformity with nature, it is quite contrary to nature to torture one’s own body, to reject simple standards of cleanliness and make a point of being dirty, to adapt a diet that is not just plain, but hideous and revolting.”
Perhaps, there is nothing extraordinarily new in stoicism; it reaffirms a lot of the basic tenets I thought were solely Islamic. I came to see the multi-dimensions of the world. Overtime, I saw stoicism as a system of truth in itself akin to a religion. Ultimately, I realized that Islam, for example, doesn’t have a monopoly of virtue. Stoicism also tells us to contemplate the broader picture. This is called “the view from above”
I had a sort of crises situation, between what I had idealized from childhood i.e. my one perception of reality i.e. Islamic exclusivity, and some emerging traditions I came across such as stoicism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, far back in time- the codes of Hammurabi etc. I came to the realization of the, albeit unique, but striking similarity of moral codes and templates. I read Socrates, Aristotle, Plato among many others and I realized that figureheads were not exclusive to Islam.
One solace I got during this time was from Abdolkarim Soroush, who wrote; “I believe that truth everywhere are compatible, no truth clashes with any other truth. They are all the inhabitants of the same mansion and stars of the same constellation. One truth in one corner of the world has to be harmonious and compatible with all truths elsewhere, or else it is not a truth. That is why I have never tired of my search for truth in other arenas of intellect and opinion.”
Understanding Soroush was helpful to me, in his theory of the contraction and expansion of religious interpretation to the Islamic reform and revival, he sought to reconcile the sacred and the profane, the constant and the variant, form and substance, he sought reviving innovative adjudication in religion, finding courageous jurisconsult, reinvigorating religious jurisprudence, changing the appearance while preserving the spirit of religion, acquainting Islam with the contemporary age etc.
For Soroush, there is a difference between religion and religious knowledge, what remains constant is religion (din); that which undergoes change is religious knowledge and insight (ma’refat-e-din). So there is hope, I thought, for discarding religious dogmas. There is hope for an interpretation of religion that is embracing and inclusive. There is hope for women rights, human rights, peaceful coexistence between societies, multiculturalism, universality etc. within the Islamic tradition.
And through reform i.e. reinterpretations, the Muslim society can put behind it, all the challenges it face in integrating into the modern world, and make courageous rulings on controversial standpoints such as slavery, female genital mutilation (FGM), halala, killing of apostates etc.
It was easy for me to relate, when Viktor E. Frankl said, “love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.” As at that time, I was submerged into Sufi tradition.
I was introduced to Sufism by Reynolds A. Nicholson, I found his book, “the mystics of Islam” very foundational as a curious mind. Through this book, I became aware of profound Sufi scholars such as ibn Arab, Niffari, Rumi, Hujwiri etc. he summarizes the essence of Sufism thus, “the whole of Sufism rests on the belief that when the individual self is lost, the universal self is found.” In one of his quotations, ibn Arab summarizes his Sufi state, “my heart has become capable of every form; it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks- I follow the religion of love, whichever way his camel takes, my religion and my faith is the true religion”.
Sufism is to discern between the real and the unreal, to concentrate the soul upon the real and to bring the soul to conform to the real. In this love-seeking orgiastic state, Jalaluddin Rumi takes us through a journey of love, spiritual and mundane in his works, Masnavi and Divan e shams. In the latter he portrays fully his love for his teacher, mentor and lover, shams Tabriz.
In Sufism I appreciated the essence of love, and became an unrepentant lover, now I love all as I love myself. I have a very strange idea of love; I fall in love without expecting to be loved back. And when I tell people this, they are like; you are mad right? And I am like I know right. I will go ahead and include that, this unconditional love is what we need to actualize our shared humanity.
I will conclude this with one of my best Rumi’s poem, it goes thus;
I need a lover and a friend
All friendships you transcend
And impotent I remain
You are Noah and the ark
You are the light and the dark
Behind the veil I remain
You are passion and are rage
You are the bird and the cage
Lost in flight I remain
You are the wine and the cup
You are the ocean and the drop
While afloat I remain
I said, “O soul of the world
My desperation has taken hold!”
“I am thy essence,” without scold,
“Value me much more than gold”
You are the bait and the trap
You are the path and the map
While in search I remain
You are the wood and the saw
You are cooked, and are raw
While in a pot I remain
You are the sunshine and the fog
You are water and the jug
While thirsty I remain
Sweet fragrance of shams is
The joy and pride of Tabriz
Perfume trader I remain.