Wrote this piece with a friend for Eleven Magazine’s 7th issue last year. Just some thoughts we gathered after reading The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer.
Slow living in a fast-paced life – Humairah and Sumaiyah share with us how and why the art of seeking stillness in Islam transcends all ways and time.
In a world of constant noise and interruption, gaining quietude has grown to become a necessary art to master. But how do we find this pocket of serenity within our lives, regain focus, and rejuvenate ourselves in an increasingly connected and fast-paced life? Iyer believes that doing nothing, being ensconced in silence, and moving away from the chaos and crowd, is the ultimate retreat that every individual seeks. It seems that disengaging from activities in life and retreating in a space of idleness, is an ideal way of finding quiet.
The Art of Stillness had us question and make continuous referrals and connections with Islam, and how much it teaches us about attaining peace and inculcating this practice on a daily basis. There are several differences between the Islamic ways and views on seeking peace and quiet, and those as addressed in the book. But one thing that we can all agree on is this: we need a break. We consciously seek to find some time to de-tech, de-stress, and detach. And we are all constantly searching for various ways to attain peace in this life.
“The idea of going nowhere is, as mentioned, as universal as the law of gravity; that’s why wise souls from every tradition have spoken of it… It’s easy to feel as if we’re standing two inches away from a huge canvas that’s so noisy and crowded and changing with every microsecond. It’s only by stepping farther back and standing still that we can begin to see what that canvas (which is our life) really means, and to take in the larger picture.” Iyer mentioned that this idea of ‘doing nothing’ and ‘going nowhere’ is a common, long-standing tradition. This constant need to retreat is a fundamental desire, something innately embedded within our soul. By taking a productive pause from our hectic schedules, we are able to relax our mind and soul, and refresh our perspectives, purpose, and goals in life.
In doing so, Iyer describes disconnecting, to the point of even completely separating himself from the world (through physical separation and meditation) in order to seek his purpose and his direction in life.
In the commonly used sense of the word, the highly popular practise of meditation involves withdrawing yourself from society, closing your eyes and thinking, quite literally, of nothing. It seems no great surprise that monasteries or “meditational facilities”, such as the ones Iyer travels to in the book, are often located up a mountain, or in a forest, or in some other suitably secluded location. Living the life of the ordained or ‘holy’ also often requires separating oneself from things perceived to be parts of normal life, such as marriage or owning property. Spirituality and worldliness are seen as two mutually exclusive entities – to attain the one requires giving up the other.
By direct contrast however, Islam is designed to be practised side by side with our daily lives. Every Muslim practices prayer five times a day at the minimum. Whether we are in school, the office, or at home, we take short 5 to 10-minute breaks at designated prayer times to reconnect with our purpose; reconnect with Allah (swt).
We pray with our eyes open – with complete awareness that we live in this world with all its distractions, while maintaining complete humbleness (khushu’) and submission to Allah S.W.T. Rasulullah ﷺ himself was said to have carried his granddaughter while in prayer as narrated by Muslim (Book 4 hadith 1107-1110). We are allowed to shorten and combine prayers while travelling, and we can even pray while riding on vehicles, if the situation calls for it. Prayer does require all of our attention while performing it. However, in praying, we are not purging ourselves from the world around us; we are, by contrast, forming a conscious connection with Allah S.W.T. Achieving true khushu’ in prayer, is, in fact, the awareness that you are in fact before Allah S.W.T – or at the very least the awareness that Allah S.W.T can see both you and your thoughts.
One of the key conclusions of Iyer’s book is that finding your purpose will lead to inner peace. As Muslims, our true reason for existence has already been stated clearly in the Quran [51:56], where Allah ﷻ says: And I did not create the jinn and humankind except to worship Me.
It is thus no great surprise that people are able to find peace through prayer. Prayer provides inner peace, emotional and spiritual stability, and a sense of calmness and composure. We have to constantly remind ourselves of our purpose on this earth, and continuously seek peace in Him through prayer. By praying we are fulfilling our one true purpose in life, the reason for our creation. We are reaffirming ourselves that we are indeed Muslims – as narrated by Abdullah bin Buraidah who narrated from his father: that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “The difference between us and them is the Solah, so whoever abandons it has committed disbelief.” [Narrated by Tirmidzhi].
In Islam, spirituality and the far more prosaic living of daily life are not mutually exclusive. Monks, nuns, and priests are conspicuous in their absence – every Muslim is capable of attaining spirituality with effort. Far from being in remote locations, Mosques are often in the heart of an Islamic community. Islam reminds us that the fleeting time of our lives is but a test – not of how well we can run away from all the distractions of the world, but how we can survive it without compromising our faith in Him. We pray to Allah for the best of both this world and the hereafter. We do not sever our ties to the world to achieve much needed peace as prescribed by Iyer. Rather, we achieve it through living our lives, knowing that we only live once, and we live our lives for no one else, but Allah S.W.T.