Reclaiming an Authentic Life

Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Posted Jan 25, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Reclaiming an Authentic Life

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

It has been a while since my last essay, for we have been busy moving back to England after four years living in France. It may be of interest to write about why we have returned, but I will reserve that for a later piece on the topical theme of ‘identity’ and ‘roots’, for there are now some more pressing matters to discuss following the dramatic events of the last few months.

  Dramatic events? Well, you may be relieved to know that I do not refer to the Ross-Brand scandal, which sparked off such incandescent outrage, and (to continue the incendiary metaphor) appears to have culminated recently in a twin effigy of the pair being set on fire as part of Edenbridge Bonfire Society’s Guy Fawkes celebrations on 5 November. To dwell on such things only drags us down.

  Neither do I wish to dwell unduly on the bizarre ruling by the Malysian national fatwa council which has just issued an edict prohibiting Muslims from practicing yoga because, in the words of the council’s chairman, it “destroys a Muslim’s faith”.  This followed their earlier perplexing ruling that Christians are not allowed to use the word Allah and was widely reported (The Guardian, 24 November, for example). At the time the ban on yoga was just the latest in what I described in one of my previous essays as a whole series of “lamentable and risible pseudo-controversies” serving to heap public derision on Muslims (“Embracing optimism: becoming a creative minority in the media”, emel June 2008) and which included such wincingly embarrassing distractions as the Sudanese teddy bear incident and the ban by Muslim cabbies on blind passengers with guide dogs.

  One can only ask: what kind of faith is so brittle and insecure that it is “destroyed” by practising a discipline designed to promote physical health, inner harmony and spiritual enlightenment? I personally studied and practised yoga for many years as a young man and it set me on the road of a spiritual journey which ultimately brought me to Islam. By “yoga”, I do not mean only hatha yoga, the yoga of physical postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama) which define this discipline for many people and to which it is often reduced in the West.  I mean rather the yoga of progressive development of mental and spiritual faculties from concentration (dharana) through meditation (dhyana) to contemplation (samadhi) undertaken for the attainment of knowledge (jnana) of God. Deep inward reflection is continually enjoined upon us by the Qur’an and the Prophet and it our duty as Muslims to develop that capacity for spiritual reflection and higher consciousness.

  Instead of unthinking and mechanical knee-jerk reactions against practices and terminology associated with other faiths, we would do better to try to comprehend how they converge at the deepest and most universal level with what is surely at the core of our own faith – that is, the unwrapping of those higher faculties with which all human beings are innately endowed for the purpose of remembering God. 

  And if we are put off by the Sanskrit terms I deliberately used here, then we surely need to liberate ourselves from the conditioning which shackles us to the surface form of words in a single language.  We need to go beyond these names and forms to discover the universal concepts beneath them, for do they not all point to the attainment of that state of being to which we Muslims ideally aspire, the state of taqwa? Muhammad Asad pointedly translates this term not as “fear of God” but as “consciousness of God” so as to emphasise its positive connotation, and he further defines it as the “awareness of the all-presence of God and the desire to mould one’s existence in the light of this awareness”.  And is not that state of awareness nourished by the activation of those higher faculties such as conscious insight (albab, basirah), deep reflection, meditation and contemplation (tafakkur), pondering (tadabbur), and taking to heart (tadhakkur) to which the Qur’an itself repeatedly alludes? When we use Arabic words from the Qur’an instead of Sanskrit ones, are we still going to maintain that the exercise of truth-seeking faculties is going to destroy our faith?  I am not saying that these terms in different languages are all strictly equivalent, for does not the Qur’an tell us that there are “signs for people of insight” in the differences and particularities which we can observe in the rich diversity of nations, tribes, races and languages. But our openness to other perspectives allows us to vie with another in continually advancing towards an inclusive and all-encompassing vision of the Truth.

  Now, I promised not to be sidetracked by the Malaysian fatwa, and I still have not revealed the pressing matter which I had intended to write about. So here goes. Hold your breath. Yes, it is the inescapable GLOBAL FINANCIAL MELTDOWN. Oh no, you may well say; haven’t we all got CREDIT CRUNCH FATIGUE, the fatigue to end all fatigues? We may (or may not) have heard of Compassion Fatigue, the dulled public sensitivity towards catastrophe promoted by formulaic and sensational news coverage (see Susan Moeller’s 1999 book Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death); we (or our children) may already suffer from Facebook Fatique and more and more of us are succumbing to Batty-Stories-about-Islam-and-Muslims-in-the-News-Media Fatique; some, like me, hope against hope that the British populace will soon suffer from Celebrity Chef Fatigue (and actually start cooking instead of gawping in wonder at others doing it), or other variants of Reality TV Fatique and begin asking questions about what is real and what is not. I have even seen a website devoted to the ultra-modern syndrome of Green Fatigue for all those poor souls constantly lectured to about recycling, light bulbs, and the like. But all this pales into insignificance before the crushing fatigue and the glazed eyes which come over us when we see another article on Global Financial Meltdown (I type it here in a smaller font size lest it leaps out at you again and puts you off reading any further).

  However, be assured, dear reader, that I have an alternative perspective on this. I am not an expert in economics, finance or banking, and I would like to draw out a message which explores the profoundly positive opportunities the crisis gives us at the level of the soul, and not that of the pocket. Others far more qualified than me have written about it from the perspective of Islamic finance. We have been told about the relatively strong position of British Islamic banks, which have not invested in toxic assets and derivatives (for Islamic banking transactions must, so I understand, be backed by real assets) and the growing demand for financial products that avoid paying interest (for example, John Weguelin, Chief Executive of the European Islamic Investment Bank in the Financial Times on 10 November).

Some might see this as a welcome occasion for Muslim triumphalism, but it should not be so. As Hamza Mian writes in last month’s issue of this magazine (“Finding solutions”, emel, December 2008), “the Islamic finance community should not be complacent or unduly proud”. Islamic finance, he says, has the potential to contribute to a more stable economy and make a real difference but it is only halfway to the goal, and “as it stands in its current form has little to offer in terms of long-lasting solutions”. The solution ultimately has to be a moral, not a material one and, as Iqbal Khan explains in the same article, Islamic finance needs to graduate beyond Shariah compliant products to a truly alternative vision based on the ethical and moral safeguards within authentic Islamic concepts.

  Well, here’s my cue. It is the word “authentic” and it is why I give this article the title “Reclaiming an Authentic Life”.

  Going beyond a conventional response based on the potential of Islamic finance, I might have chosen to explore in this essay the powerful moral significance of the verses in Surah At-Takathur in the Qur’an which admonish us for rampant materialism:

You are obsessed by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves. (102:1-2).

  And moments after I wrote these words on 28 November, I heard this on the radio: 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour, a Wal-Mart worker had just been trampled to death after an out-of-control mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the Long Island store’s front doors in pursuit of Black Friday sale bargains.  Such are the deadly consequences of a greed which knows no bounds, a greed which can not only harm and even destroy others, but also kills our own souls.

  Commenting on the global financial system, (“A last chance”, New Statesman, 10 November), Paul Mason, economics editor of BBC Newsnight, suggests that the best of three alternatives to the system of neoliberal, free-market capitalism is “the abandonment of a high-growth economy”. He points out that even a mainstream corporate economist, such as Morgan Stanley’s Roach, has called for “a greater awareness of the consequences of striving for open-ended economic growth.” Mason’s aptly named book Meltdown: the End of the Age of Greed is due to be published by Verso in April 2009.
  With our insight sharpened by the financial crisis, let me come back again to the characteristic contemporary relevance of Muhammad Asad’s comment on those Qur’anic verses, which I quoted in a previous essay (“Choosing an Abundant Life”, emel, January 2007):

  “The term takathur denotes man’s obsessive striving for more and more comforts, more material goods, greater power over his fellow-men or over nature, and unceasing technological progress. A passionate pursuit of such endeavours, to the exclusion of everything else, bars man from all spiritual insight and, hence, from the acceptance of any restrictions and inhibitions based on purely moral values – with the result that not only individuals but whole societies gradually lose all inner stability and, thus, all chance of happiness.”

  Those powerful verses and Asad’s commentary could well be seen as the definitive statement on the crisis. They exhort us, however, to go much further than the easy option of crowing about the collapse of a defective financial system or exposing “moral hazard” in others; they urge us to discover how each and every one of us can reclaim for ourselves an authentic life based on spiritual insight and moral values. The starting point is ourselves, not others, for the Qur’an is above all an urgent call to each of us to live a spiritual life, and to begin now to live it.  Not tomorrow, but now, in this moment. And that brings me back to that word “authentic” and what it says to us in these turbulent and disorientating times. 

  In an article in The Daily Telegraph of 1 November (“Why the crunch could be a walk in the parklands”), Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director-General of the National Trust, is reported as saying that the “looming threat of austerity” was giving a boost to a “growing shift towards authentic experiences” which was part of a wider reaction against “more material experiences”. She continued: “I think this is more than a nostalgic reaction to the economic crisis…There has been a preoccupation in society with affluence, status and materialism for some years, but the looming threat of austerity appears to be giving new impetus to the search for the ‘real thing’. Simple pleasures, she believes, like a walk in the woods and spending time as a family will make a comeback thanks to the economic crisis. 

  A welcome comeback, indeed, but it is surely not simply the “threat of austerity”, or the prospect of hard times, or the disenchanted reaction to “affluenza” which should provoke in us the search for what is real and authentic.  That hunger to be authentic and to live an authentic life is ingrained in us as part of our very nature.  When we say that something is authentic we assert that it is genuine, of undisputed origin. A painting verified by experts as an authentic work by Leonardo da Vinci will fetch millions at auction, and the detection of forgeries has become a complex science.  The word authentic comes from Greek authentikos and its essential meaning is “having the authority of the original creator”. Its original meaning in English was “authoritative”. For people of faith, the authentic person is authoritative only in so far as he or she is stamped with the attributes of the ultimate authority, the Creator of all the worlds, Rabbil-‘alamin.  This accords completely with the Islamic concept of the human being as khalifa, ‘vicegerent’ or ‘representative’ of God. To be authentic is to be true to our essential nature (fitra) and to the divine pattern on which we were created. It is to embody the original character with which we were imprinted. Not to be true to that is to have a false identity, to be a fake, a forgery, a fabrication.

  The Arabic DJL root gives us ad-Dajjal, a False Prophet, the last of whom according to various Hadith will be al-Masih ad-Dajjal, the Antichrist, and one of the very concrete and evocative meanings of this root is to “spread tar on a mangy camel”, to artfully cover over what is defective so as to present it as something attractive.  Ad-Dajjal is the deceiver or impostor, intent on deforming and inverting the truth. As Hamza Mian says, were not the repackaged sub-prime loans “nothing more than artful works of deception that fed the speculative excesses and hubris in the financial markets”?  We have all heard of false eyelashes, faux (false, simulated) fur, and ‘fool’s gold’ (iron pyrites) but few of us were aware that the financial system depends on conjuring tricks with faux money, the work of illusionists.

  To be authentic is to use our God-given faculties to distinguish what is true from what is false, to sniff out deception, to see through the glitter to what is rotten beneath. “Beware the farasa (discernment) of the mu’min (person of faith),” said the Prophet, “for he sees with the light of Allah.”

  So how should I sum up what it means to reclaim an authentic life? Certainly, a walk in the woods (or, indeed, a more demanding hike up a mountain) and spending more time with one’s family may be important elements in the rediscovery of what is real. But as people of faith our commitment to authenticity takes us to another level. It is to realise that when we walk in the woods, we are not doing so only to avoid spending money in times of austerity as a temporary belt-tightening measure, or to live a healthier lifestyle, or even to feel elated by beautiful scenery. It is to become more aware of the expansive presence of God, and that walk in the woods may be the best way for us to reconnect with the touchstone deep in ourselves. That touchstone or criterion is the key Qur’anic concept of the furqan, translated by Muhammad Asad as “a standard by which to discern the true from the false.”

  Ultimately, to live an authentic life is to strive to become aware of the all-presence of God in every moment, and to live one’s life in every circumstance and setting in the light of that awareness. That is taqwa. Rooted in that awareness, the ups and downs of the financial markets and the fabrications, illusions and “artful works of deception” we see all around us in the world recede in importance, and we take heart from what is real, permanent and indestructible, and give heart to others.


First published in emel Magazine, January 2009