By Haidar Hobballah
Translated by Muhammad Jaffer and edited by Sayyid Burair Abbas
In the current materialistic age, one of the major causes of estrangement from organized religion lies in a perceived lack of spirituality and true connection to the Divine. On the one hand, critics claim that religious gatherings have become purely ceremonial, and that Muslims do not engage with the Divine beyond ritualistic considerations. On the other hand, in mounting a defense against the intellectual contentions against their religion, some adherent Muslims find themselves too overwhelmed to engage in a wholesome spiritual curriculum. In this light, we present our humble translation of two questions posed to Shaykh Ḥaydar Ḥubbullāh, one of the eminent seminarians in Qum, derived from his book Al-Iḍā’āt fī al-Fikr wa al-Dīn wa al-Ijtimā’” (Illuminations: On Thought, Religion, and Society). In the first discussion, he presents an analysis of the reasons for spiritual decline in the contemporary era; in the second discussion, he proposes some solutions for how religious adherents may rekindle their spirituality. God-willing, we hope the reader will find the analysis he offers as enlightening as we have.
The Hegemony of Superficiality: An Analysis of Spiritual and Moral Decrement
Q: My mind has recently been preoccupied by the abysmal state of Islāmic cognizance amidst the Muslim society. On the one hand, the religiously conscientious laity have simply attached themselves to the superficial aspects of the religion; meanwhile, the religious scholars are divided into two different camps: one group that simply repeats whatever they have heard from others without engendering any effect on either themselves or their listeners; and another camp that is completely engrossed in jargon and intellectual showdowns that don’t benefit the ummah at all. We hope you may be able to enlighten us with your esteemed opinion about this topic. I should say that I am a student of the religious sciences—specifically those sciences which lead us closer to Allāh (swt) and transform the heart into His sanctuary; those sciences for whose cause the Imāms of the Ahl al-Bayt were martyred. I would like to know your opinion about this situation we find ourselves in because as far as I understand, Allāh has made Islām a religion of love and etiquette: a religion that removes the love of this world from the hearts and actualizes a connection with the Beloved One. Therefore, why is it that I see this group—the religious clergy—living as though they’re on a different planet? I hope you can forgive my audacity here and counsel me in a way that benefits me—may God reward you in advance.
A: It appears to me that there is unanimity in most religious circles about the existence of an ethical and spiritual crisis. Perhaps the reason for this crisis goes back to several interwoven factors which we ought to examine and attempt to reform to the capacity with which we are endowed:
- Among the most important factors has been the indulgence of religious people in the affairs of the material world over the last few decades. God has granted them political, social, and economic predominance in a manner which they never enjoyed in the past. In this context, it is feasible for us to expect a regression in ethics and spirituality, so long as manifold efforts are not expended in connecting back to Allāh (swt). We find God the Most Exalted narrating the words of Mūsā (as) to his people:
قَالَ مُوسَى لِقَوْمِهِ اسْتَعِينُوا بِاللَّهِ وَاصْبِرُوا إِنَّ الْأَرْضَ لِلَّهِ يُورِثُهَا مَنْ يَشَاءُ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ وَالْعَاقِبَةُ لِلْمُتَّقِينَ قَالُوا أُوذِينَا مِنْ قَبْلِ أَنْ تَأْتِيَنَا وَمِنْ بَعْدِ مَا جِئْتَنَا قَالَ عَسَى رَبُّكُمْ أَنْ يُهْلِكَ عَدُوَّكُمْ وَيَسْتَخْلِفَكُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَيَنْظُرَ كَيْفَ تَعْمَلُونَ
Mūsā said to his people: “Seek succor through God and have patience! The Earth belongs to God, and He causes whomever He wills of his servants to inherit it; and the final fruition is for the God-conscious.” They said, “We were tormented before you came to us and even after you have arrived.” He (Mūsā) said, “Perhaps your Lord will destroy your enemies and appoint you on the Earth, then He shall observe what you will do.” (Sūrah Al-An’ām, verse 129)
Let us dwell for a moment upon the last sentence here: it mentions that perhaps you will come to own the reins of authority and then God will scrutinize you: what actions will you carry out? Will you perchance become just like those whom you have cursed? This is the gist of the words of al-Shahīd Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr when he stated that we have not been granted the opulent world of Hārūn al-Rashīd such that we can vaunt over him by our religiosity and pour upon him our critique and wrath. This is indeed a formidable challenge: when the believers and clergy possess a stronger presence in the society, they ought to be in a state of vigilance about moral and spiritual decline. Perhaps we may suffer from an unfortunate degree of shortcoming in this aspect.
- Another important factor is that the spiritual and ethical mode of discourse is sometimes not able to attract people—whether they be of the laity or seminarians—who have more of an affinity towards rationality. This is because this style of address is often quite charged with superstition and specious thinking, depending upon stories and anecdotes more so than upon authoritative religious sources or a natural healthy conscience. This has in turn caused some—who have no ill intentions per se—to believe that spirituality within our religious syllabus is inseparable from legend and irrationality. Perhaps some teachers of akhlāq have inadvertently made spirituality appear unproductive in the current climate through promoting this type of discourse, which offers nothing but the most superficial level of religious cognizance. In turn, many may have chosen to abandon the spiritual dimension altogether.
- The monumental developments in jurisprudence (al-fiqh) and its principles (al-uṣūl) after the Akhbārī regression in the 13th century AH should also not be understated. The overshadowing of fiqh and uṣūl has left its footprint not only upon the method of instruction at our religious seminaries as some may presume (and this criticism against the ḥawzawī pedagogy is to some extent justified); rather it has also had a profound effect on the average religious awareness such that we now envision everything through a fiqhī lens. In turn, we have completely turned our backs to the spiritual and ethical dimension of the religion—an aspect that has played a profound role in understanding Islām amongst nearly all its pioneering giants. The hegemony of fiqh has alienated entire religious disciplines and has caused us to imagine, even within the ḥawza, that Islām is jurisprudence with simply some marginal sidenotes about theology and ethics. Fiqh has been excessively aggrandized, and this has marginalized our attention to the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of the religion. The Holy Qur’ān according to most scholars contains about five hundred verses about Islāmic law—that is, less than one-twelfth of the book. Meanwhile, our focus today is nearly completely fiqhī, excepting some theological issues like Imamate.
In my opinion, this is an enormous deviation from the Qur’ānic paradigm which emphasizes a conception of tawḥīd that is not simply theoretical. If we were to tread on the path of the Book of God, we would find that even when it discusses theoretical issues, it always connects them back to religious practice; by this, I don’t simply mean the practical dimensions of sociology and politics. Rather, I mean practicality and pragmatism as embodied in connecting everything back to a real relationship with God. The various prophets throughout history did not simply come to raise a war about whether God is one, two, three, or four; rather, the concept of Unity in religion practically entails pure reliance and trust in God and relegation of all affairs to Him. It implies patience and a palpable cognizance of His Unity in action and worship. This belief is intimately tied to our behaviors, perceptions, and psyches; it is not simply a matter of disputation about circumstantial information regarding God. In other words, we must not simply recognize God’s Unity, rather we must live His Unity. The same applies to the question of the afterlife: it is not simply about accepting that the Day of Reckoning is imminent, that the afterlife is the inner manifestation of this world, or that the resurrection is corporeal rather than spiritual. The importance lies more so in living for the Hereafter in both spirit and action, devoting all our internal and external energies towards it.
I believe we are in need for a rallying cry back towards reviving highbred moral values and resurrecting them back into daily life as the objective behind all religious legalistic discussions. Fiqh is meant to organize the life of a human being towards an embodiment of socio-ethical values and to preserve him from moral decadence. Our religion today is in dire need of a rational spiritual culture that relies upon the Qur’ān and reliable aḥādīth. At the same time, the analytical aspect of the religion demands that we continue to respect the external aspects of the religion and to pay attention to the disciplines derived thereof. We must still work to respect the sciences of jurisprudence and its associated terminologies, as the ummah will never cease to require them. This issue is very complicated and has many subdomains, however we will suffice with this exposition; and God is always the Facilitator and Helper.
Striking the Balance Between Religious Intellectualism and Spiritual Conscientiousness
Q: Amidst the various conflicts and intellectual contentions against religion, how can a person live a balanced lifestyle between reading and studying material that engenders proximity towards God and the material which addresses controversial religious issues (such as sectarianism, modernity, or secularism)? We would like to maintain our spiritual relationship with God and society while also addressing these intellectual dilemmas, however it seems to me that paying attention to one aspect diminishes my attention in the other. In my pursuit of sincerity and perfecting pure Islāmic values, I would highly appreciate your esteemed advice.
A: This issue is not specific to our current age; rather it has always and will always persist. Many of the spiritually sincere have been incapable of reconciling this dilemma and have thus adopted social isolation. On the other end of the spectrum, fervent activists have inundated themselves with the controversial issues of their age and entirely neglected the spiritual dimension of the religion. We cannot speak in a great deal of detail here, especially given that there is some relativity in how different individuals address this issue. However, I believe that religion has laid a robust foundation for this problem: namely that of litanies, invocations, and regimented worship whereby a person isolates himself with his Lord. Night prayers, recitation of the Qur’ān, and invoking God with radiant supplications all have a profound effect, especially when done on a regular basis far removed from the view of others. In many cases, people require isolation to be able to derive the maximum benefit from spiritual practices; when performing these in congregation, there is often a loss in the level of spiritual cognizance evoked (although congregational practices are also beneficial in some respects). Therefore, if you regiment yourself towards the night vigil, recitation of the Qur’ān, and sincere supplication to God on a daily basis and away from others; if you accustom yourself to listening to the Qur’ān, invocations, and sincere pleas to God in resounding voices; if you make a habit of listening to sublime types of music in isolation while frequenting practices that allow you to sublimate your negative energies, such as exercise, taking cold showers, and meditative breathing that doctors and psychologists endorse—if you actualize these practices, I believe you will be able to remedy this dilemma to a certain extent.
Furthermore, the following points can help one to construct a personal environment of spiritual safety from social strife:
- Adopting a consistent program for spiritual seclusion.
- Adopting the means that doctors and psychologists have expounded for dispelling negative energy.
- Adapting oneself towards confronting chaos with a composed demeanor; this requires some time and practice before an individual becomes proficient at it.
- Learning to analytically deconstruct and simplify dilemmas; in other words: not catastrophizing. A person who constantly catastrophizes and aggrandizes issues primarily damages himself/herself psychologically.
This issue is not simply one wrought of knowledge; rather it is embodied in practice with a foundational curriculum that demands consistency, even if one suffices with only a simple regimen. Over time, this will exert a far greater impact than an interrupted but intense schedule. Gradation in a slow but steady manner is crucial, especially in the early stages of a routine. One can consider it analogous to how in physical exercise, you cannot immediately begin in an extremely rigorous manner as it will cause damage to the muscles; rather you must slowly accustom the body to the practice. The most important element is consistency and a gradual pace; I believe that implementing such a program will have a significant influence, God-willing. As for those individuals who prefer to have a spiritual mentor or guide, they can certainly pursue such a teacher to imbue within themselves a greater sense of commitment.
There is another important issue at this juncture, which is what some term as “the spirituality of intellect,” meaning you learn to eschew thinking in a malevolent way and endeavor to conceptualize issues in a spiritually conscientious manner. You think as a sincere and unbiased individual, avoiding all forms of partiality, deception, and jealousy. The reason for this is what I have discussed in my humble work “The Question of Methodology in Religious Thought” (Mas’alat al-Manhaj fī al-Fikr al-Dīnī): namely that a true nurturing of spirituality has a profound effect on the manner of thought. When we endeavor to purify our soul, we facilitate discovering the truth for ourselves—not necessarily via mystical intimations, but rather in the more elementary sense of purging our souls from the biases of anger, jealousy, rancor, enmity, slander, suspicion of others, etc. In turn, this allows us to think with a composed spirit and to live with a sense of internal peace; one learns to think with the higher purpose in mind, dispelling some of the key impediments towards proper critical thinking.
As an example, let us consider the personality of al-Shahīd Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr: to the extent that he was a pure rationalist with a formidable theoretical mind, he was just as much an emotive and ordinary man, directly expressing his passions without the least bit of artifice (may God have mercy on him). You find in him a human who consolidated the faculties of emotion and intellect in a manner that they did not infringe on one another: neither did his emotions malign his logic, nor did his intellect chill his heart. This is a milestone for a human being to reach, namely disciplining the soul and purifying the spirit to reach the pinnacle of a refined disposition. At the height of this disposition rests the spirit of self-sacrifice for a higher purpose—that inclination which beckons an individual towards the Ḥusaynī ideal embodied in his famous statement:
هوّن عليّ ما نزل بي أنّه بعين الله تعالى
“The fact that Almighty God sees what has befallen me mitigates my grief.”
I don’t mean to say that achieving such a rank is a simple walk-in-the-park; it is a lofty goal, but certainly achievable. Even if we are not successful in fully actualizing it, we will at least be able to land within its proximity, God-willing.
Yet another important waystation is the advanced stage of spiritual enlightenment alluded to in the religious texts, whereby we penetrate through the terrain of life while maintaining a constant state of spiritual rigor. Therefore, one can refute a certain intellectual contention while enjoying the highest level of spiritual peace and serenity; he recognizes that he is rendering a form of service for the sake of God and his creed. When these high aspirations fuse with an analytical mind inclined towards answering the epistemological controversies of today, the result is nothing short of extraordinary. Even while addressing contentions, the individual is imbued with a sense of spiritual morale that is unshakeable: he writes, reads, rebuts, and thinks about a contemporary issue while calling God to witness the sincerity of his intention. He pleads to his Lord, “I am only doing this for you; I only think, write, speak, argue, and converse for your sake.” Even when thinking about issues for the sake of argument from a non-religious standpoint, he does so only for God’s sake. I emphasize here that it’s not just the belief, but rather the perception and constant reflection over the significance of our actions that counts. This is what transforms the intellectual activities the questioner had deemed devoid of spirituality into the very means of its proximity. Of course, this is another exalted station that requires a great deal of diligence and practice.
It is in this light that the meaning of truly seeking refuge and recourse to God becomes clear: for even when your own people may ostracize you, humiliate you, and oppress you; even when they violate your honor, family, and heritage and treat you with ill-will, you turn back to God. You turn back like a young child who takes shelter with his mother when other children mistreat him. You cry to God and complain to Him to grant you your serenity, and this is exactly how the Prophets of God behaved. If we refer to the Holy Qur’ān, we find that the Prophets used to turn to God for asylum in times of great hardship and would address him to seek His succor. They apprised Him of their anxiety and implored Him regarding that which straitened their chests. Such was the way in which they derived their tranquility and serenity; and how imminent is the need for these traits amidst the tension of today in which we find ourselves! Let us thus consider the words of God the Exalted where He states:
ولقد نعلم أنّك يضيق صدرك بما يقولون فسبّح بحمد ربك وكن من الساجدين واعبد ربّك حتّى يأتيك اليقين
“We indeed know that your chest is straitened by what they say; therefore, exalt the praise of your Lord and be amongst the prostraters (to Him)! And worship your Lord until you reach the certitude (of death).” (Sūrah al-Ḥijr, verses 97-99)
As we can see, the straitened chest of the Prophet is relieved by exalting God, worshipping Him, and prostrating towards Him alone. It is also said regarding this point that some of the philosophers and great ‘urafā would resort to God when they faced a philosophical quagmire. To be able to think with serenity with that perception that they were being guided by an unseen power towards a solution, they would worship Allāh, prostrating to Him and begging Him for His assistance. Of course, when this perception accompanies you while you contemplate a stoic academic issue, it mixes with its aridness just as fertile rain enlivens a shriveled terrain.
One cannot excel in this domain through simply procuring more knowledge; rather, spiritual progress is deeply rooted in practice, exercise, and careful deliberation over time. Every person may come to enjoy a different level of personal success in accordance with God’s Decree, The Granter of All Successes. I will suffice with this exposition, even though I speak about issues while I myself hold no prominent position to speak of in this domain. May God grant us the tranquility of His remembrance, the sweetness of His companionship, the beauty of His honor, and the taste of His supplication. Indeed, he is the All-Powerful Protector!
 TN: Music is part & parcel of our regular world today. The issue isn’t black-and-white such that one can declare it absolutely harām nor wholly permissible; rather it’s a gray issue with a variety of forms, some of which are deemed harām per many jurists. In general, jurists have ruled that any music which spreads immorality and debauchery, utilizes vulgar/frivolous lyrics, or employs a melody that is intoxicating or suitable for entertainment and amusement gatherings is harām (e.g. music concerts or nightclubs). Of course, this would include English songs, Bollywood songs, obscene rap, or music which incites promiscuous, licentious, and perverted behaviors. The music which Shaykh Ḥubbullāh is alluding to consists of nashīds, qasidahs, naats [all of which are played or sung in musical ways], or natural music with meaningful lyrics and a serene melody. All of these fall under the heading of sublime types of music. As such, depending on their conditions, some forms of music are certainly deemed permissible by most contemporary jurists. For more information see here: https://www.iqraonline.net/advanced-jurisprudential-discussions-on-ghina-singing/
 A’yān al-Shī’ah, page 609