Food for the Soul
Posted by Yacoob on November 26, 2010
“Tasawwuf” is a segment of Islam that’s concerned with the growing – or maturation – of the soul. One of the teachings it extracts from the Islamic sources is that things – all of which were created by the Almighty Allah – are created in one of two ways:
- Instantly, by Allah’s command (“Be…and it is”); and
- Gradually, over time
Those things created instantly include Jannah (Heaven) and the angels; while those created gradually over time include things of this world – such as the Earth itself, plants, animals.
Things in the latter category start out in a stage of infancy or immaturity, then grow over time. For example, a plant starts out as a seed, which then grows roots, and then a stem, leaves, etc – until eventually it becomes a full grown plant.
But things in the former category are fully developed from the moment of their creation.
These two distinctions are important because humankind is unique in that we are a combination of both: we have bodies – which are formed and develop gradually over time; but we also have souls – our core and essence – which come into our bodies ‘ready-made.’
It’s important to recognise these two categories, because understanding what we’re made of will, insha-Allah, help us to understand how we can progress in our lives and attain happiness.
Nourishing each category
Another principle, which follows on from the first section, is that created things are nourished and grow only by interaction with / consumption of things that belong in their own realm.
So, in short, things that are created instantly are nourished by things in that spiritual realm; while things that were created over time are nourished by other things that were created over time.
For example: the plant, which was mentioned above, is nourished by water, sunlight, and the nutrients in the soil it grows in. The plant, as well as its nourishing elements, are all created over time.
Another example is the human body (i.e. the body alone – without the soul): the body is created over time, and it’s nourished by things that were created over time: food – which is either derived from plants, animals, or other things of the Earth.
The soul – which was created instantly – is from the spiritual realm. As such, it is nourished from things in that realm. In Islam, the belief is that the purpose of humankind’s creation – the reason we’re here – is to worship our Lord and Creator: Almighty Allah. (And the term ‘worship’ has a very broad definition in Islam – it’s not restricted to ritualistic acts such as prayers or fasting).
So, acts of worship nourish the soul. These include the ritual acts of worship (especially if done with the proper understanding and a deep connection to Allah); as well as the more informal / ad-hoc acts – such as remembrance of Allah (thikr), reflection on the wonders of this creation, and spending in charity.
We all want to be happy. It’s a natural human desire – one which we gravitate towards and seek out in many different forms.
But the ways we seek that happiness often show our lack of understanding of, and inability to learn from, the two categories discussed so far.
In our understanding, which is highly influenced by the world we live in, we tend towards materialism. It’s no secret that, over the last 50 or so years, materialism and greed for more has really taken hold of many of our societies. Much of the world is trapped in consumerism – always wanting more, or wanting the next ‘new’ thing; often thinking that those items we lust after will make us happy.
And companies and advertisers use this to make tremendous amounts of money. For example, take Coca Cola’s recent slogan: “Open Happiness.”
The implication is that Coca Cola makes you happy. And for a short period – while you’re drinking it and enjoying it – you certainly do feel some kind of ‘happiness’; because the drink tastes good, and satisfies a desire within you to have that which you enjoy.
But in reality, Coca Cola does not make you happy. Actually, if you aren’t responsible and moderate about the amounts you drink, it can make you unhappy – in that it can be detrimental to your health.
Or what about people who feel depressed and think that going on a shopping spree will make them happy? Those items they purchase may make them feel good for a short period, but in the end, the attraction of those items fade – and if they’ve spent money they know they couldn’t afford to spend, then regret (and debt) quickly overtake them.
Or what about the super-rich people of the world, who have mansions and cars and everything money can buy. How many of them, in reality, live unhappy lives? How many of them try to fill the void – try to find happiness – by turning to drugs, promiscuous sexual behaviour, lavish spending on unneccessary things, etc? And what are the results of these forms of pursuing happiness?
If you read the tabloids, or follow celebrity news stories – or you just hear the headlines – you’ll know that the results are nothing to be proud of. Sometimes, those pursuits end in death – either through suicide or an overdose.
The important thing to understand here is that “happiness” is something which is linked to the soul – not the body. When the soul is happy – the whole human being is happy. And when the soul is depressed or sad, the entire human being is depressed or sad.
And because happiness is of that spiritual realm, only things of the spiritual realm – like those acts of ‘worship’ mentioned above – will truly advance a person towards achieving it.
In Islam, the act of fasting – in Ramadaan especially – aims to elevate the soul by denying the body of its pleasures. And for many, many Muslims, Ramadaan is the best time of year – because they feel most spiritually alive in that month; most connected to their Lord; and as a result – most happy, compared to other times of the year.
People of other faiths or spiritual beliefs have also used this concept to elevate the soul. Ascetics deny themselves worldly pleasures – even to the point of denying their human need for sexual gratification by remaining unmarried and keeping away from the opposite sex completely.
But such extreme asceticism is unnatural, and can have disastrous results. How about the sexual abuse scandals that have been rocking the Catholic Church?
Some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also took to the idea of self-denial – in an extreme way. One pledged to fast every day, while another wanted to deny himself the sexual satisfaction of being with his wife. The Prophet (pbuh) taught them very simply – by mentioning his own lifestyle – that such extremity is not the way to go. His reply to them encapsulated the concept of moderation, which is so central to Islam’s teachings.
Islam takes a balanced view with regard to self-denial. It recognises that the body does indeed have needs, and those needs must be fulfilled in order for the human being to live a healthy life. But it also requires that the person deny these bodily needs for a set amount of time.
So, for example, fasting in Islam denies food, drink, and sexual activity – all things which the body needs – for a set period of time each day. During this period, the body is denied its pleasures and needs, so that the soul can be elevated.
And then, at night, fasting ends, and the Muslim is then free to satisfy these bodily needs (in a lawful manner).
A Balanced Diet
As mentioned, things of the spiritual realm –acts of ‘worship’ – are the keys to happiness. Yet these acts need to be balanced – both in quantity and in variety. Among the acts are fasting, reading Quran, prayer, dua, repentance, giving charity, and making thikr.
To achieve happiness of the soul, a person needs to find the right balance – the right ‘spiritual diet’ – that works for them; thereby helping their soul grow, find happiness, and attain closeness to its Lord.
In the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the teachings of Islam, we have all the sources necessary to find that balance. For many of us, perhaps, the only missing ingredient is a learned scholar – a practitioner of the soul – who would be able to assess our unique situations, and ‘prescribe’ the ‘diet’ that would be best for us.
This piece is primarily based on a talk on the subject of Tasawwuf, given by Chicago-based Islamic scholar Shaykh Hussain Abdul Sattar – whose works can be found at www.sacredlearning.org. This particular talk, is called “Fundamentals of Tasawwuf (Part 1)” (Download) – and the main content (discussed in this article) starts at about 27 minutes. Shorter talks, which encapsulate the main ideas, are “Sustaining the soul” (Download) and “Essentials for the soul” (Download).