Hadith: “Hasten to perform good deeds before seven events: Are you waiting for poverty that makes you forgetful? Or wealth that burdens you? Or a debilitating disease or senility? Or an unexpected death or the False Messiah? Or is it evil in the unseen you are waiting for? Or the Hour itself? The Hour will be bitter and terrible.”
Islam encompasses all of human experience. We believe in the good and bad from divine decree. The ‘problem of evil’ is not a Muslim dilemma because the abode of this world is a test, and the next life is the abode of recompense. Those who do evil in this world may enjoy comfortable and pleasurable lives. Pious Muslims on the other hand may live in immense suffering and oppression.
One’s state with Allah is not known through worldly position.
The Quran has lots of mention of suffering in this world and the reward for the pious is constantly in the hereafter. Distance from the Quran distances us from what our Creator told us about living in His world.
Habituation to feel-good religious programs and motivational talks has left us unable to know how to be serious. The Coronavirus pandemic should be all the motivation we need for serious learning and hasten to good deeds.
New-age religion and the prosperity gospel
Modern Islamic discourse intertwines notions of sulook (spiritual wayfaring) with new-age spiritual ideas which make spiritual progression a self-centering endeavor of ‘personal development.’ Missing from this discourse is submission to Allah , which entails doing what one is obliged to do- even if there is no apparent personal win. A self-centering religious perspective is antithetical to true religion, and ironically a spiritual pursuit becomes a selfish pursuit.
Within this approach, we see our practice of Islam not in terms of fulfilling obligations or understanding we must develop virtues we lack; rather we approach Islam as consumers and form identities around how we choose to be Muslim. This is visible on marriage apps where Muslims will brand themselves around how often they pray, whether or not they eat halal, and how practicing they are. Once this identity is formed, such Muslims are less likely to experience contrition and ultimately improve. The self is then a commodity on the marriage market.
When it comes to worship, for example, giving charity becomes an ‘act of kindness’ to fill the quota of selfless acts to becoming a better person. In other instances, acts of worship are articulated in worldly language, such as fasting in Ramadan being a weight-loss opportunity. One can make multiple intentions, but health benefits of fasting should not be used to articulate the primary benefit of fasting. In other instances, some opt to not pray, simply because they don’t feel spiritual enough to pray. This prioritizes feelings over servitude, but follows from a ‘self’ focused religious mentality.
Much like the prosperity Gospel, Muslims have fallen into the trap of teaching religion as a means of worldly success. While it is true that the discipline, commitment, and work ethic of religious progression can be used for material success, it is utterly false that religious status is on any parallel with material status.
Too many Sunday schools and conferences have taught generations that being a good Muslim means being the best student, having the best jobs, and then displaying the power of Islam to non-Muslims via worldly success and a character that is most compliant to rules. Not only does this type of religion cater to the prosperous and ignore those suffering, it leaves everyone ill prepared for the realities of life. It comes as a shock to many Muslims then that bad things can happen even when you work hard to live a good life. The prosperity gospel has tainted our religious teachings, and the pandemic of COVID19 is coming as a shock difficult for many to process in religious terms. There will be a crisis when bad things happen to good people if we are not in touch with our scripture and favor a teaching focused on worldly gains.
Why it leads to misunderstanding religion
Tribulations, persecution, and events that are outside of our control do not fit the popular self-help form of religion that is pervasive today. Islam means submission, and while we must avoid fatalism, we cannot delude ourselves into idolatry of the self. An Islam that focuses on our individual life journey and finding ourselves has no room for the ‘bad stuff.’ This type of religion favors well-to-do Muslims who are used to the illusion of control and the luxuries of self-improvement. Those who believe that if you are good then God will give you good things in this world will have a false belief shattered and understand the world is not the abode of recompense for the believer.
Tribulations may then effect faith because it questions the often subconscious teachings of prosperity gospel versions of Islam that we are in control of our own destiny, if we are good enough we will succeed. If this is the basis of a person’s faith, it can be proven “wrong” by any level of tribulation. Having one’s ‘faith’ disproven is terrifying but it should make us ask the question: “Does this mean that Islam is not true, or does this mean that my understanding and my way of living Islam are not true?”
My advice is do not avoid struggle or pain by ignoring it or practicing “patience” just thinking that you are a strong Muslim because you can conquer this without complaint. Running from pain and not feeling pain will catch up to us later. Learn from it. Sometimes when we are challenged we falter. We ask why, we question, we complain, and we struggle. We don’t understand because it doesn’t fit our understanding of Islam. We need a new understanding and that understanding will only come by living through the pain and not being afraid of the questions or the emptiness. Our faith needs to be able to encompass reality in its good and bad, not shelter us from reality because, ultimately, God is Real.
Unlearn false teachings
Prosperity religion makes it much easier to blame the person who is suffering and for the one suffering to blame himself. As believers we take the means for a good life in this world and the next, but recognize that acceptance of good actions is only something Allah knows, and that life is unpredictable.
Favor from God is not reflected through prosperity. It is a form of idolatry to believe that you can control God or get what you want from God, and this belief cannot even stand up to a distanced tragedy
Responding appropriately requires good habits.
Tribulations are supposed to push us towards God and remind us to take life very seriously. Even with widespread calamity and suffering, many of us still have a very self-centered way of understanding events and do not hasten to good actions.
For example, reaching old age is supposed to be an opportunity to repent, spend more time in prayer, and to expatiate for shortcomings. Old age itself is a reminder that one will soon return to his Lord.
However, we see many of today’s elders not knowing how to grow old and prepare for death. Most continue in habits such as watching television or even pick up new habits and stay glued to smart phones. This is unfortunate but natural progression to a life void of an Islamic education and edification.
Similarly we are seeing that Muslims do not know what to do in the midst of a global crisis. Even the elderly are spending hours reading and forwarding articles related to Covid-19 on different WhatsApp groups. This raises the question of what more is needed to wake us up. This problem is natural progression of a shallow Islamic culture that caters to affluence, prosperity, and feel-good messaging. Previous generations had practices such as doing readings of the Quran, As-Shifa of Qadi Iyad, Sahih al-Bukhari, or the Burda when afflicted with tribulations.
If we are playing video games, watching movies, or engaging in idle activities there is something very wrong with our state. We need to build good habits and be persistent regardless of how spiritual those habits feel, because as we are seeing, sudden tribulations will not just bestow upon us the ability to repent and worship. The point of being regimented in prayer and invocations is that these practices themselves draw one closer to God, and persisting when one does not feel spiritual as well as when one does is itself a milestone in religious progression.
While its scale is something we haven’t seen in our lifetime, it’s important to recognize the coronavirus pandemic as a tribulation. The response to tribulation should be worship and repentance, and a reminder that ‘self-improvement’ should not be a path to becoming more likable or confident only, but to adorn our hearts with praiseworthy qualities and rid them of blameworthy qualities. Death can take any of us at any moment without notice, and we will be resurrected on a day where only a sound heart benefits.
Our religious education and practice should be a preparation for our afterlife first and foremost. Modeling our religious teachings in a worldly lens has left many of us unable to deal with tribulations to the point where we just feel anxiety from the possibility of suffering. This anxiety is causing people to seek therapy. It is praiseworthy for those who need to seek therapy, and noble of therapists to give the service, but my point is the need itself serves as a poignant gauge for how much our discourse has failed generations.
Benefit from Solitude
We should use solitude to our benefit, reflect more, and ponder the meanings of the Quran. Completing courses on Seerah, Shamail, Arabic, or Fiqh would also be good uses of time. What should be left out however are motivational talks or short lectures that were given in communal events. In such gatherings, meeting in a wholesome environment is often the goal, and talks are compliments to the overall atmosphere. When that atmosphere is removed, it would be wise to use that normally allotted time for more beneficial actions. Instead of listening to webinars, which are not generally building an actual knowledge base that the previously mentioned courses would, nor is it a major act of worship like reading and reflecting upon the Quran. In other words, our inspirational talks should lead us to action, and studying is one of the highest devotional acts.
The pandemic should serve as sufficient inspiration and we need to learn how to be serious. I urge Muslims to ignore motivational and feel-good lectures that are now feel-good webinars, and focus on studying and worshipping. We should really ask if we just lack the capacity to move beyond motivational lectures if we still need motivation in the midst of a global pandemic. The fact that after years of programming the destination is not the Quran for ‘processing events’ or studying texts for learning is symptomatic of a consciously personality oriented structure.
Muslims struggling to process a pandemic (opposed to coping with associated tragedies, such as loved ones dying or suffering) show the lack of edification feel good talks can produce.