Empathy

Stuck in the moment of his own despair, he carelessly says to another no longer stuck in their own moment of despair, “You have absolutely no idea what we’re going through”, absolutely oblivious to the fact that they know exactly what they are going through. The one who complains that others judge unfairly judges unfairly and refuses to acknowledge that he is not alone in the world, nor is his situation unique, and that his own words and assumptions hurt just as much as those he complains about. Empathy is a two-way street.

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Tests

Others are tested by their circumstances. I am consistently tested by myself. And consistently fail. The battle with the nafs is unending. Success always illusory. Disappointed by myself but evidently not disappointed enough to change.

Cutting through the noise

So I have withdrawn once again – or at least I have closed the door to Facebook. So I am heading for the hills once more – metaphorically speaking. It used to be that in times of crisis we would pull together and seek refuge in like-minded company. But on the internet this time, all we encounter is extreme polarisation. I don’t want to be a part of it. The perpetual cascade of news, opinions and stupidity is too much. The flood of excuses, conspiracy theories and discovered double-standards helps nobody – it just makes us reactionaries.

It was a tough decision. There are those I benefit from immensely, who I will miss. They have become true friends, although thousands of miles may separate us. But sometimes it is necessary to pull the plug – to go Cold Turkey, if you will – when the harm seems to outweigh the benefit. For me, the internal agitation to constantly check for updates, feedback, responses and the latest news. The new micro-rituals of reaching for a phone, or tablet, or switching tabs on the web browser to just quickly check, fifty times a day. A habit first thing in the morning and last thing at night. A growing dependence – an egocentric urge to be always connected to others elsewhere. No time for a break, for quiet reflection, for pause for thought, for silence. It is said, “A wise person once said nothing.” Social media makes no space for nothing.

For me, it was becoming like an addiction, preventing me from venturing out for the evening prayer. Or from making time for supplication and reflection. I could spend hours every evening doing very little, except follow a steady stream of articles, videos and unfounded, spurious claims. There would be no time to read a book. No time to study or learn something. In short, perhaps I have wasted two years of my life.

Yes, I make it sound so bad. What an incredible exaggeration! In truth I have benefited from the experience. I have made new friends. I have benefitted from others. But there is a balance, and sometimes it is hard to get that balance right. Years ago I took the same approach to another addiction. Some people viewed my response as an extreme reaction, but for me it was one of the best decisions I ever made. If you lack the self-restraint which allows you to act with moderation, sometimes the only course of action is to shut down the avenues to return to it completely.

Even now I am feeling the cravings for the news feed, but I am determined to turn back the clock a little, to that era before permanent connectivity. Who remembers the 1990s, or a time before that when we could exist without this perpetual narcissism? Yes, we should live in the age we find ourselves in, not in an imaginary past. But so too must we discover a way of living that provides equilibrium. For me, right now, the way ahead is to make time away from the glowing panels of glass. To make space for paper, driving rain and nothingness. An interlude away from the noise which populates too much of our lives.

Youthful despair

There’s nothing new about these insecurities. Perhaps what’s different is that the folklore of this generation – the standard narrative in novels, films, TV shows and magazines – provides a hopeless caricature of relationships, reducing them to animalistic mating rituals: man and woman meet in a bar/restaurant/post-nuclear holocaust/alien invasion, and an hour later jump into bed together.

In my time, at university, nearly 20 years ago, those same insecurities were bubbling away in every dorm. As they leafed through their copies of FHM magazine, 3 out of 5 students in every flat were in despair, wondering what was wrong with them. Mostly they’re all now happily married or in long-term relationships. They probably look back on their naive, impatient youth with a mixture of self-loathing and tragic embarrassment.

But here, in the Muslim community, we have our own set of insecurities, or uncertainties, in the simplest of human relationships, such as a greeting on the street or a conversation on a public forum. When does a lowered gaze become I’m ignoring your existence? When does a greeting of salam become a huge faux pas? I admit that after 18 years navigating the Muslim Community, I’m largely none the wiser.

To be alive again

No new resolutions for me, but a reminder for my daily living… What does it mean to believe?

“And vie one with another for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a paradise as wide as are the heavens and the earth, prepared for those who ward off evil;

Those who spend of that which God has given them in ease and in adversity, those who control their wrath and are forgiving toward mankind; God loves the good;

And those who, when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves, remember God and implore forgiveness for their sins — Who forgives sins except God alone? — and will not knowingly repeat the wrong they did.

The reward of such will be forgiveness from their Lord, and Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever — a bountiful reward for workers!”

Qur’an 3:133-136

In summary, those who believe should be:

  • Charitable (generous in giving money or other help to the needy / mild or tolerant in judging others; lenient)
  • Composed (serenely self-possessed; calm)
  • Clement (inclined to be lenient or merciful)
  • Contrite (feeling regret and sorrow for one’s sins or offenses; penitent)

If we can try to act on these daily, then perhaps we too can be counted among those being referred to. The best of resolutions, inshallah.

Gateways to the soul

Our senses, notably our eyes and ears, are gateways to our hearts.

In an interview, recorded just hours before his execution in 1989, serial killer Ted Bundy, spokes of the pervasive influence exposure to extreme, violent pornography had on him. While not abdicating responsibility for his actions, he nevertheless acknowledged the power of an addictive force. It is an incredibly important observation for our times, for what is being said here applies not just to this type of extreme media, but to numerous other influences from the benign to the dangerous.

On the benign end we have shiny gadget syndrome, Technolust and obsessive devotion to a football team. Each become all-consuming because we choose to expose ourselves to images, words and sounds which reach into us.

But as to the dangerous: I have absolutely no doubt about the internal processes that occur in those who expose themselves to the gratuitous violence of warfare. The shock of a solitary photo on Facebook depicting horrific destruction in Gaza, followed by the stream of ever more extreme imagery, gradually, stage by stage, transform the viewer’s heart.

Responses are not uniform. The natural reaction of some will be to avenge for the wronged, to send aid to the oppressed or even to fight on their behalf.

But others, who expose themselves to the actions of other avengers, may be to perpetuate such horrors themselves. If you expose yourself to the actions of the supposed liberators, as they execute their prisoners and meet out punishment on those who oppose them, will a time not come in some, when a line is crossed, somewhere deep within?

This is an extreme example, but we are living in extreme times. We have witnessed once sensible, polite, kind individuals suddenly thrust upon us in the newspapers as terrible supporters of barbarity.

It is crucial that we recall the wisdom of Lower Your Gaze in a time of all-pervasive imagery.

Nobody in 1989, could have imagined the world as it is today, with such extreme imagery on tap. The days of debates about the effect of the video tape, satellite TV and the arcade game are long gone. All of that seems tame now — although it wasn’t of course. We have just lost touch with reality.

Poison chalice

The poor young visionary — once champion of social justice, investing heavily in health, social welfare and the minimum wage — drank from the poison chalice. From a brave new dawn, when things could only get better, to babbling fool, driven to madness by his own deceit. Never thirst for power, for it will consume you.

Keyboard warriors

The keyboard warriors are doing battle, clashing on all frontiers. With rage they tap ever faster on keyboards of glass and plastic, outdoing their opponents with snippets of sentiment, oblivious to the weight of their words. All is fair in love and war, they believe, unconscious of the cautious wisdom of old that sought to restrain the tongue from its visceral temper.

With unrestrained brutality, their opponents will be vanquished, indignation seething through their veins. It is a battle that must be won, right now, right there on a tiny screen, for all to see and witness. It is a battle that must be won at all costs, no expenses spared — work may suffer, a prayer might be missed, real life companions might sit neglected — all must wait, for in the heat of war, everybody must know of the rightness of the warrior, and every other view, opinion or passing thought must be defeated.

He who forsakes argument, even when he is right: a sunnah unheard. Speak good or remain silent: another sunnah ignored. Be just even against your own selves: a command unpracticed. He does not utter a sentence except that an angel is near him ready to record it: an observation unobserved. The most excellent are those from whose tongue and hands other Muslims are safe: the best of advice unheeded.

Isn’t it strange that war is so easy and peace so difficult, because peace just requires everyone to do nothing, while war requires them to do so much? Peace costs nothing, while war costs all.

On physical battlefields great armaments are fired, lives squandered, money dissolved, emotions crushed, innocents obliterated, passions heightened, humanity aborted.

On virtual battlefields words are weapons, emotions are bullets, anger bombs, but in the rage of the battle it is the soul of the attacking combatant that dies; it is his heart which shrivels up, his ego inflated. Incline to peace remains unrecalled. On this battlefield his words must reign victorious, and all others must be vanquished.

And so the battle rages on. Into the night and the following day. These words can never be exhausted. There is still so much more to say.