Muslims the world over are at this time observing one of the most important months on the Islamic calendar. This month, called Ramadan in Arabic, is a month of fasting and increased spiritual awareness. The fast is a complete fast from dawn to sunset each day of the month. Complete, meaning no food or drink for the daylight hours.
Of course, persons who are ill, or whose health will be affected by fasting, are exempted. The fast is described in the Holy Quran as an activity aimed at increasing the spiritual well-being of the individual and piety. While several scientists, nutritionists and health experts have extolled the physical benefits of fasting on human beings, fasting in Islam is regarded primarily as an exercise in spiritual upliftment.
In the present world which is consumed with material progress, spirituality is often neglected or considered outdated. The trend, it seems, in many developed nations is to remove anything spiritual from the discussion and instead focus solely on the material world. Even religions themselves have been affected by the dissection of spirituality from the practices and rules of the religious teachings.
Followers of religions tend to focus on the dictates of the religious teachings and make every effort to perfect those teachings but ignore the spiritual aspects and purpose embodied in those teachings. A compelling account of this phenomena is contained in an article entitled Islamic Spirituality and Mental Well-Being by Zohair Abdul-Rahman.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, he has a B.Sc in Life Sciences with a minor in Psychology and a M.Sc in the Scientific Method. While the article focuses on Islam, I believe his findings essentially are universally applicable. I would like for my column today to quote from this article as I see its importance even in our Barbadian society which is grappling with a surge in societal issues and many differing points of view obtain as to the solution. Looking after our spiritual well-being is important and necessary in helping our mental and emotional needs.
“Modern science has recently taken a keen interest in the wisdoms found in the ancient eastern traditions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Hinduism. In the new field of positive psychology, many of these eastern traditions are utilized to enhance general well-being…However, the tradition of spirituality within Islām is arguably the least examined of all the world’s major spiritual philosophies in terms of its potential effects on well-being. In the modern era, the Islāmic tradition tends to be spoken of solely in terms of dogma, emphasizing its political, ritual and legal doctrines, while neglecting its profound spiritual and moral dimensions.
Historically however, many Muslim scholars dedicated their lives to exploring spiritual and psychological questions of human well-being and flourishing. Ibn Ḥazm, the famous Andalusian scholar of Islām said, “I searched for a common goal amongst humankind, to which all would agree to strive for excellence. I have not found anything other than the vanquishing of anxiety.”
The pursuit of emotional balance and the dissipation of anxiety is indeed universal and continues until today. Despite the immense scientific progress and medical advancements that have been achieved in the last few centuries, there seems to be a decline in mental health. Rates of depression have dramatically increased between 1988 and 2008 in the United States. It has been found that the use of antidepressants in the population rose 400 per cent within this time frame. The rate of suicide tripled in the young (ages 15-24) between 1950 and 2000. For the middle-aged population, rates of suicide have increased 40 per cent from 1999 to 2016.
Perhaps surprisingly, suicide rates are much higher in wealthier nations than in poorer countries. A cross-cultural study involving 132 countries and close to 140,000 people found that, although there were higher rates of reported happiness in wealthier regions, there were much lower rates of perceived meaning in life compared to poorer countries.
Abstracting meaning from the world is one of the core features of spirituality. Thus, these studies point to the tremendous value spirituality brings to regulating emotional imbalance. Developing one’s spirituality is more important than financial achievements. People often believe that transient states of happiness obtained through entertainment, wealth and possessions will enable them to escape their anxiety.
Ibn Ḥazm comments, “When you think very deeply about all the affairs [of this world], you will be at a loss. Your contemplation will inevitably lead to the understanding that everything in this worldly life is temporary.” Ibn Ḥazm points out that the temporal nature of this world will inevitably lead a person into an existential crisis. Seeking meaning is our way out of the abyss. It is a spiritual endeavour that centres around discovering what makes our life worth living.
Some people tend to think about mental illness and emotional states in purely biological terms. While it is true that there are biological components to our emotions and our mind, they are not the only components. Modern psychology has recognized that a core aspect of the human mind involves spirituality. In fact, Dr. Robert Emmons, a leading researcher in the psychology of spirituality, proposed that spirituality should be thought of as a separate type of human intelligence.
Spiritual intelligence is essentially the ability of a person to process the world around them and discover meaning and significance. In the Islāmic tradition, this process involves contemplating the ayaat (signs) of God that exist in the world and extracting knowledge to inform us on how to act, think and feel. For example, when a person witnesses the change in trees during the season of fall, he sees it as a sign from God.
Perhaps it reminds them of the temporal nature of this world, inspiring them to strive for loftier aims in life. Or perhaps the different colours inspire them to recognize the beauty of the diversity of humankind. When a person with high spiritual intelligence goes through life, his mind is constantly abstracting positive meaning and significance from the events that unfold around him.
This fuels positive spiritual states such as inspiration, optimism, gratitude and perseverance. People with lower levels of spiritual intelligence will either abstract false meanings from the world around them or fail to recognize the signs of God altogether. This will fuel states such as anger, jealousy, arrogance and conceit.”
In the fields of clinical psychology and psychiatry, many practitioners are also starting to recognize the role of spirituality as an essential part of both prevention and treatment for mental illness. In a paper in the Medical Journal of Family Practice, the author concludes, “…When appropriate, spiritual issues should be addressed in patient care since they may have a positive impact on health and behaviour, and recommend that the medical model be expanded to a biopsychosocial-spiritual one.”
I have chosen to quote extensively from this article as I believe it has much value in considering the spiritual realm and its importance in developing not only ourselves as individuals but also as a society.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)