Cultivating an Inner Life for Ourselves, Our Children and Our World
By Abdul-Lateef Abdullah
“The individual who is not anchored in God can offer no resistance on his own resources to the physical and moral blandishments of the world.” (C.G. Jung)
In a recent job interview I was asked by one of the panelists what I thought was wrong with the youth of Malaysia. I responded flatly that I thought we (i.e. the adults) were actually the problem with youth. The five interviewers stared back at me in disbelief. I added that I thought our young people, through their behavior, were merely responding to the world we had ‘created’ for them. If we look at the society we have built as adults, our values, how we conduct ourselves and the example we set (collectively), is it any wonder that youth are acting (and reacting) the way they are to what is happening around them? Simply put, children and youth are our mirrors; they reflect our hypocrisy and show it to us through their words and actions. Therefore, if we want to change young people, we need to change ourselves first.
“...Allah does not change a people’s lot unless they change what is in their hearts…” (Qur’an, 13:11).
The growing popularity of self-help, do-it-yourself spirituality and religious conversion are evidence that many people around the globe are seeking personal transformation. Transformation is not mere change, but rather a shift in assumptions, beliefs and perspective, the end result being a revolution in how we arrive at meaning in our lives. The result of transformative learning, the process that facilitates transformation, is perspective transformation. “Perspective transformation is the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world; changing these structures of habitual expectation to make possible a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrating perspective; and, finally, making choices or otherwise acting upon these new understandings” (Imel, 1998). Accordingly, to undergo personal transformation, we must become critically aware of our own assumptions and understand how and why these assumptions constrain the way we live and act upon the world, including our daily interactions and relationships with our loved ones.
Any sincere revert to Islam who reads the above quote about perspective transformation will probably identify with it right away. Religious conversion is often accompanied by perspective transformation, whereby our previous assumptions about ‘ultimate concerns’, i.e. God, life, existence, ‘why am I here?’ and the like are challenged by a new paradigm, a new way of understanding the world and our place in it. Even everyday events that were once relegated to the mundane are given new meaning. Those who undergo this deep process of transformation do so as if they were reborn and are seeing the world with a new pair of eyes.
The inner peace that often results from this transformational process is the product of a complete uncovering of the self. It is as if the individual is turned inside out and all of his or her fundamental assumptions, beliefs, judgments and ideas were brought into the Light and examined, discarded, refined or embraced with a greater level of understanding. It is often a deep, painstaking and difficult experience, but one that represents nothing less than the arrival of the Self at Truth and the answering of its call to live a life in it. This process also entails the ‘inner work’ of going inside one’s heart and mind by way of solitude, remembrance, deep contemplation and heartfelt prayer.
It is from this process that realization can occur; in those moments when we realize the limitations of everything, including ourselves. Many reverts to Islam speak of a point where they attain such a state of ‘poverty’, of having absolutely no answers and feeling complete helplessness, that they can do nothing else but fall on their faces in prostration. It is not a state of desperation or hopelessness, however, but the result of an overwhelming conviction that only Allah can be relied upon and turned to for assistance:
“The confusion about my supposed identity as a Muslim and coming from a multi-cultural background (Punjabi, Bidayuh (native Sarawakian), Chinese & Japanese), trying to fit in among my friends made me feel restless. Because I did not know who I was, I was not sure about my purpose in life. Conversations with friends were futile; everyone was just too busy having fun – music, shopping, drinking, parties, etc. Though I was surrounded with many friends and I was active in high school activities, I have never felt more alone and restless. I had seen pictures of ‘sujud’ in the ‘How to Pray’ book that my Islamic teacher got for us and one night, in a state of despair, I simply crouched to the floor, the way I had seen it done in the prayer book. The feeling brought me much peace and I felt comforted. I would often perform this late at night, falling to my knees and prostrating in the privacy of my room, asking Allah to “please help me.” I believe that moments like these, moments when I had listened to adhaan as a child were ways of Allah telling me that He was there for me.” (Excerpt taken from a conversion story of a young woman from Malaysia named ‘Nina’ [pseudonym]).
This beautiful example of a young woman’s transformation illustrates how realization occurs through poverty and the inner journey. Poverty is often referred to in a spiritual sense as that state where the individual arrives at complete realization that he or she is nothing, has nothing and can do nothing but by the grace of Allah. “Last night my teacher taught me the lesson of poverty: Having nothing and wanting nothing” (Jalal al-Din Rumi [May Allah Bless him]).
The scholars say that the very essence of ‘la ilaha illallah’ (‘There is no god but Allah’) begins with a negation, as the first word, ‘la’ means no, nothing, negating of what follows, which implies the illusory nature of the seeming existence of whatever it is referring to (which, paradoxically, must first “exist” (in the mind) in order to be negated, denied, refused, diminished to zero relative significance) (Ansari, 1998). So the very foundation of Islam itself, la ilaha illallah, is a sort of process of elimination, implying a cleansing of anything that we would – knowingly or unknowingly – set up as idols (in our minds and hearts) alongside the Absolute Reality. This process of purification, therefore, is the essence of Islam and requires a deep examination of ourselves to identify our assumptions and beliefs. For anything that has power over us, whether consciously or subconsciously, must be identified and dealt with to fully realize la ilaha illallah.
Transformation, in this context, implies an uncovering of all that blocks us from realization of la ilaha illallah. This is where the healing occurs, especially for those who experience religious reversion. The stripping away of all the idols and barriers within the self brings a profound peace. “Peace (of mind) is the sole most significant healer in any time. Surrender (to the will of the Divine) brings the Real Peace to the body and mind and allows for the immediate disappearance of tension and anxiety, which is the root cause of all other physical and mental imbalances. Continuation (of it) brings joy” (Ansari, 1998). The transformation through learning, knowing and remembering, therefore, results in profound personal healing resulting from complete surrender to Allah. Complete surrender means the clearing of all that stands between us and God, including the erroneous belief (i.e. the veil) that there is any separation between us and the Divine. Accordingly, the path is not ‘to God’ per se [for there is nowhere to go - God is not of or in any place], but, rather to the conscious recognition and realization that, in fact, nearness to God is the station of us all… “It was We Who created man, and We know what dark suggestions his soul makes to him: for We are nearer to him than (his) jugular vein” (Qur’an, 50:16). This is the Truth, to deny it is to simply deny reality itself. Embracing, entering and living Islam only requires realizing and accepting what already is, and living in harmony with it. The path, therefore, is the path through the veils, the illusions, the misperceptions that God is somewhere ‘out there’ to go to. Islam is the path of realization, the path of Self-discovery; for it is through this process of uncovering our True Selves and negating all that stands in our way of achieving our highest potential that we achieve God-realization and become complete human beings.
This Surrender, however, must be total and willful that leaves no stone unturned. Truth is the goal, by affirming the outer truth of the teachings with the inner truth of identifying what blocks us from total embodiment and internalization of those teachings. Along these lines, it is said among the learned that the true ‘alim or sheikh is one not only of high spiritual learning and development, but one that has also undergone the necessary psychological work as well, to ensure that he or she does not project any psychological baggage onto his or her students and followers. Many so-called ‘ulema, unfortunately, though they may be highly accomplished in terms of formal learning, sub-consciously project their hidden agendas on their students and the world around them in highly destructive ways.
If this is so, then what are the ramifications of not doing our inner work of purification and uncovering the Truth within us; of shining the Light on those ‘inner demons’ that hold power over us, blocking us from fully devoting ourselves to the Divine Unity? Does it not mean, furthermore, that we must have the courage to examine ourselves, our culture and our society and what has been passed down to us? Clearly, the result of not doing this inner work is what we see when we look in the mirror and at the troubled faces of our brothers and sisters, culminating in what is happening with our societies, families and children. Despite the masks and costumes we wear to display our outward piety, inside we are a mess. We have not realized our inner Truth because we refuse to ‘go there’ and face ourselves. We have not heeded the first part of the kalima shahadda which is to negate the notion that Allah has partners in any form. By not doing so, we refuse to shine Allah’s light on what haunts us on the inside, the cause(s) of our fears, insecurities, anxieties, anger, resentment, hopelessness, and the like. It is easy for so many of us to take notice of others’ apparent hypocrisies and flaws, but when it comes to our own selves it is a much different story.
This inner truth of ours, however, or lack thereof, is what dictates how we interact with the world and what we project, i.e. our ‘image’. And it is this lack of inner truth manifested through our relationships that our children, in particular, pick up on. Their purity, the sword of truth that is their Divine gift, is capable of seeing through all of our outward nonsense. Thus, their behavior that we often find detestable is arguably nothing more than a reflection and reaction to our own lack of inner Truth.
Whether or not we ‘put on a happy face’ or act like ‘good Muslims’ everyday for our children and others does not matter. Much of what our kids will become is influenced by our own inner state. Our refusal to admit that we need ongoing self-transformation and a dedicated inner life is done at our own peril and that of our future generations. For when humanity refuses to go inside itself (individually as well as collectively), hell on earth is unleashed. For too many people, a large number of whom are Muslims, this hell is an everyday reality. At least in the author’s mind, there is an obvious relationship between the worsening state of human relations and overall health of our global society and the virtual abandonment of the ‘inner’ teachings of Islam and other major world religions. For as much as it tries to do so, the outward persona cannot hide the true inner state.
Ansari, A. (1998). Esoterics of the sufi way: An investigation into the meanings of words.
Surrenderworks.com. Retrieved January 18, 2006 from:
Imel, S. (1998). Transformative learning in adulthood. Eric Digest No. 200. ERIC
Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education: Columbus, OH.
Jung, C.G. The Undiscovered Self. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1958
Originally published at http://www.islamonline.net and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author