The origin of the use of the word ‘spirit’ is found in the discussions that took place between people who believe in the existence of God, frequently using words such as ‘spirit’ and ‘spirituality’ to articulate the effect of a creator.
One of the most misunderstood areas of Islam amongst the Ummah is this very topic of spirituality with the Muslim Ummah today holding a wide range of varying views on what spirituality is and how it is to be interpreted.
It must however be asked as to whether the issue of spirituality in Islam is something that has always existed. Is the discussion of spirituality part of Islam or a separate universal topic?
Spirituality: Past and present
The first time spirituality was discussed amongst the Muslims was when they encountered Hindu philosophy. Hindu philosophy advocates ascetism and renunciation of the world. Comparisons were made with zuhd (pious austerity), a well-known status which has been reported in several ahadeeth. It is from this comparison that the ‘Sufis’ emerged.
Throughout the medieval ages, spirituality came to be defined, due to the history of Christianity, in Europe. The Christian Church maintained that man embodies both spiritual ascension and physical yearning and that life includes both the materialistic and the spiritual aspects. They advocated that the tangible reality contradicts the unseen, and that spiritual ascension cannot be together with physical yearning, and that matter is separate from the spirit. They contended that these two sides are separated from one another due to their fundamental contradiction in nature.
This understanding led to an historic conflict in Europe which eventually saw the removal of the Church as an authority and its replacement by man-made system and laws. This in turn led to the industrial revolution where vast leaps were made in technology, allowing mass consumption on a scale never seen before. It is no surprise, therefore, that this has created a world were material gratification is seen as the ultimate ideal. The materialisation of society has led many to accumulate vast amounts of wealth and still unable to fulfil their spiritual void, famous examples being Madonna turning to Jewish asceticism and Tom Cruise turning to Scientology. Both these personalities are considered to have achieved the ultimate level of sensual pleasure.
Islam and Spirituality
Scholars in Islamic history did not write at length about spirituality as it was never a discussion. Some discussion did take place when Islam came into contact with Hindu philosophy due to elements of the new thinking i.e. Hindu asceticism being espoused by some.
The issue of spirituality can only refer to two matters, either the reality of the created i.e. who created all the creation and the relationship between the creator and the created, or it can be the ruh, translated often as ‘soul’.
The ruh definitely exists and is proven in the definite Qur’anic texts, and hence Muslims are obliged to believe in it. The word spirit or ‘ruh’ is a common term like the word ‘ein’ in Arabic, a word that has multiples meaning; such as ‘water source’, ‘eye’, ‘spy’, ‘gold’, ‘silver’ amongst others. The word ruh appeared in the Qur’an with numerous meanings, such as the secret of life;
وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الرُّوحِ قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي وَمَا أُوتِيتُم مِّن الْعِلْمِ إِلاَّ قَلِيلاً
“And they ask you about the ruh. Say: The ruh is one of the commands of my Lord, and you are not given aught of knowledge but a little.” [Al-Israa, 17:85]
In Islam, spirituality is defined as the linking of actions to the purpose of life. So for instance, a Muslim’s purpose of life is to worship Allah, hence spirituality in this sense is linking the actions of an individual to the purpose of their life. Actions on their own, without using this framework, are just that – actions. They are material constructs of time, space and objects.
So somebody could pray their salah without ever thinking about the words they are reciting and with these words having no impact upon them. This prayer cannot then be described as spiritual because it has become robot-like. It is just the same as eating a certain meal, or going on a train, as there is no link to the purpose of life. A Muslim is he who does actions to seek the pleasure of Allah and to draw nearer to Him. By this definition, all actions undertaken for the pleasure of Allah are spiritual because they link the material action with the purpose of life.
This why sexual relations within marriage, the most material of actions, becomes a spiritual action when linked to Allah سبحانه وتعالى commands. Spirituality has often been seen as an intangible sensation, based on the Christian precept of the Holy Spirit inspiring morality and hence, actions. This understanding is wholly inconsistent and at complete contrast with the way Islam views spirituality because this view is subjective, whereas the Islamic view is objective because it is from Allah.
There are two extremes of practising spirituality. Firstly, there are those who are highly influenced by and inclined to emotional spirituality and to ignoring the aspects of life perceived to be ‘materialistic’, preferring the spiritual value over the materialistic one. So they accordingly turn to prayer (individual ibaadah) and renounce the material world and its aspects; they neglect life because it is material and under such a common definition and understanding, it becomes obvious that religion is bound to be a personal matter in every sense of the word. When this becomes common in people’s thoughts, the standard of living in the society they live in declines as they seek only to perfect their character and morals. On the other extreme are those who are highly influenced by the material world and are taken over by their whims and neglect the spiritual value, preferring the materialistic value and making their purpose in life to achieve it.
When Islam speaks of zuhd (living an austere life) in this world, this means that one should not take the world as one’s goal in life, for example setting the procurement of wealth as the highest goal. It does not mean that Muslims should not enjoy the good and halaal aspects of life. This is contrary to ascetism and renunciation of the world, both of which require the abandoning of pleasures and delights in life despite having the ability to attain them. This contradicts Islam.
It is also wrong for Muslims to evaluate actions from a deen-and-dunya perspective (matter and spirit). Instead they must be evaluated by their Creator who is Allah سبحانه وتعالى. The Shari’ah or laws of Allah has demonstrated the solutions to life’s problems through obedience to Allah’s commands and prohibitions. Allah has also shown Muslims the action that achieves the spiritual value which is the Fard (obligatory) and Mandub (recommended) worships.
The best example we have of this is that of the Sahabahs or Companions of the Prophet. They took part in wars, governed the lands of the Muslims, engaged in business and trade and all these actions came under the banner of spirituality. If we begin to separate matters into ‘deeni’ and ‘dunya’ matters, we run the risk of compartmentalising Islam and at the very least losing out on the reward of everyday actions. At its worst, this mentality will lead to secularism where we completely separate our actions from our purpose of life, leading to a compromise of our religion.
Inevitably we must realise our relationship with Allah سبحانه وتعالى when undertaking any action, whether it is spiritual or material, thus making sure that our actions are in accordance to the commands and prohibitions of Allah سبحانه وتعالى and ultimately attaining his pleasure.