Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over compensations for misery.—Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Alhamdu lillah, we just capped off the 18th consecutive year of the ALIM Summer Program and I must say; I think we did it again! I’d like to express my heartfelt appreciation for the countless sacrifices of the volunteers, ALIM administrative staff, students, families, communities, and teachers, which made this effort possible.
Literacy and empowerment—our core institutional goals—are compelling rhetorical devices. In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to oppose them in principle. Educating in a manner consistent with them, however, is challenging and involves the convergence of many subtleties: Respect for the “old masters” without consecrating the past, deference to instructors without stifling honest conversation, holding analysis and critique in dynamic tension with submission and resignation, etc. At this point, after initially participating as a student in 05’ and then subsequently as an instructor for the last 5 years, I’m intimately familiar with the summer program: the impassioned classroom exchanges, the deep bonds of friendship that develop during the program, and—my personal favorite—the looks of unmistakable unease on the faces of students as some of their pre-conceived notions about Islam are challenged. This year; however, as I sat watching this unlikely crew of brothers and sisters perform at a self-organized talent-show on the program’s last day, I was made aware of the deeply spiritual nature of the ALIM Summer Program that I hadn’t noticed before.
But what is spirituality? The Qur’ān and traditions of the Prophet (upon him be peace) are silent on this question. In fact, I’ve yet to come across a classical Arabic term in the scripture or prophetic record that shares denotation with the English “spiritual.” Rūḥīyah and rūḥānīyah, both glossed as “spirituality,” are simply modern cognates of the Arabic “rūḥ” or spirit. Perhaps the prophetic teaching doesn’t mention a distinctly spiritual mode of being because a purely materialistic alternative was nearly unimaginable within the prophetic context. However, unless Doc and Marty were actually on to something with the flux capacitor, we can only live in the present and in our context, both exaggerated claims of technological mastery over nature and a suffocating cycle of careerism for the sake of over-consumption—that leaves little time for religious contemplation or anything else besides the “rat race”—have given us a Weberian disenchantment with our world. Consequently, for us, the spiritual is that which forces a break with this uninspiring norm: hiking contemplatively through the mountains, gazing at the stars and pondering their remoteness, sitting in the company of people who exude an awareness of unseen and metaphysical realities, etc.
We equate spiritual with momentary, spectacular escapes from a depressing daily grind we’ve relinquished to the secular. It’s understandable that this attitude is adopted as a response to an environment over which we exert little influence. In fact, in its refusal to completely lose touch with the immaterial, non-acquisitive aspects of life, it might even be called commendable. Nonetheless, the liability of this outlook is that the vast range of daily experiences that might properly be seen as bringing us into contact with something bigger and more profound than ourselves are overlooked in pursuit of the next great “spiritual high.”
I consider myself fortunate. For three weeks this summer I was able to engage an exciting collective of young Muslims. They came from different backgrounds and were presumably at different places within their religious journeys; yet, I had the feeling they were united by a sense of purpose: an insistence upon meeting the challenges of being American Muslims with substantive responses. From the outset, many were open about the ways in which the spiritual malaise—that is seemingly engulfing our community at all levels—had impacted them personally. When I provocatively posed the question, “why would you attend a program with a reputation for being cerebral and intellectual if your problem is “spiritual”? I was deeply heartened and impressed by their responses. As opposed to a moving experience that would deliver them to peaks and summits only to be followed by troughs and valleys, they expressed a desire to gain a perspective of the plains and rolling foothills of spiritual life that might engender a deeper appreciation for it.
Indeed, at times it can be as unremarkable as a group of young folks, from different walks of life, concluding a rigorous study-intensive by eating ice cream, cracking jokes, sharing their talents and praying for one another—but I can’t think of anything more spiritual.