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The quest for meaning

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(this piece was featured jointly on the ‘State of Formation‘ website and in the Interfaith Observer, as part of a dialogue between individuals from different religious traditions on what meaning their religion brings to their life)

Philosophy, religious or not, attempts to deal with the inescapable and fundamental question of the meaning of life. Why are we here? What is our purpose, if any? In my teens, I was engrossed by Jean-Paul Sartre, both by the poignancy of his plays and by the existentialist philosophy which underpinned them.
A lapsed Catholic with a residual belief in God and a keen interest in theology, I’d always been fascinated with the choice some humans make to adopt a profoundly disciplined lifestyle, often marked by austerity and asceticism, in a world where the only things which appear to be valued are new, glittery and irreverent.

How in a society which values the here and the now – the bastardized carpe diem of ignoring responsibility in favour of immediate pleasure- could individuals forgo a fluttery existence which assigns value to the ephemeral to the detriment of all that is considered and conscientious, and choose instead a life of stoicism, of conscious abdication from the oppressive drive to conform to our consumerist driven notion of self-worth.

For we all know that to be ‘interesting’ by current society’s standards is to be eternally youthful and beautiful (if you’re female) and powerful and wealthy (if you’re male), combined with a ruthless and relentless struggle to fight one’s way to the top of the human pile, regardless, as the well imbibed Machiavellian philosophy suggests , of concern or regard for those individuals or sacred precepts one may need to trample on route… The sacralisation of ambition is sanctified by the consecration of modern saints, the Steve Jobs of this world, for their relentless commitment to profit disguised as innovation.

“Celebrities”, or the pantheon of demi-Gods, paraded as they are, as the culmination of human existence, have come to fill the inherent human desire to worship, filling the gaping hole left by the gradual effacement of the sacred. The desire to embody the Divine wisdom has been replaced by a commitment to the vacuous and slavish obsession with the material – the ten commandments by Kate Moss’s dictum that “nothing tastes like skinny feels”, a dedication to the beautification of the soul, with a multi-billion dollar industry which exploits our anxieties by advocating the primacy of the beautification of the body… Weight loss now a means of redemption as formerly shunned celebs, the pariahs who’d fallen off the fame treadmill attend retreats dedicated not to re-centering the ego in relation to God, but reducing the sinful waistline as a means of accession to the higher levels of the celebrity cult.

Young girls no longer aspire to actual achievements but rather a quarter, according to cable television network Oxygen Media, would rather win “America’s Next Top Model” than the Nobel Peace Prize, while half would rather get hit by a bus than get fat and 51 percent say that becoming famous is their number one or number two goal in life.
Growing up in a world where the value of being human lay not in what I intuitively recognised as virtue, but on meaningless and aleatory assets bestowed by a gracious genetic code or filial descent, was always dumbfounding to me.

That we as a society could at best confuse beauty and goodness and at worst consciously prefer the former to the latter, seemed reductive and superficial. I was looking for something more. Or at least at first, I was looking to ignore the nagging voice which kept me questioning whether life was really merely about the accumulation of wealth, power and things. Or, whether the traditions I’d forgone, but which still chimed with my inner core in a striking of the Divine chord, closer we are told than our jugular vein, retained some mysteries which, my enlightenment driven French education, had allowed me to prematurely dismiss as outmoded fairy tales and manipulative dogma.

My research into Islam led to the recognition of a central myth of modernity. The idea that all that is modern is good, and all that is traditional is antiquated and irrelevant. Rather, I learnt to recognise the remnants of the Divine message in the core scriptures or philosophies which have marked every great civilization from India, through to China and the Middle East.

Islam is the last in a series of revelatory messages, of Divine milestones which offer a path to peace, the source from which the word Islam itself is derived. Though these messages may differ in shape and manifestation, and some may be barely recognisable, due to human degradation or merely the passage of time, they contain within, the often elliptical signature of Higher consciousness, and prescriptions through which one might discipline the body in order to free the soul.

The free soul is the conscious soul, the soul at one with the Divine. The world is a transient resting place where every soul has the possibility of radiating Divine values by practising love, compassion and mercy in the testing interaction with a world which challenges one’s dedication to these precepts. Ultimately, commitment to Divine guidance ensures a serenity in this life, but moreover accession to God’s bliss in the hereafter, where each soul will taste what his or her actions on earth, have paved for her or him, in the ultimate and quintessential manifestation of Justice, the weighing of the Divine scales.

In Islam, humans are meant to be God’s viceroys on this earth, carriers of a Divine wisdom which through a conscious decision to favour the higher, rather than the lowly nature of Man, renders him the carrier of a transformative ethic, the positive ripples of which should reverberate in her or his surroundings. The meaning I derive from my practise of Islam is of a God centred life in which my ritual prayers interrupt the matrix of delusion of the material world, reminding us that ultimate reality lies not in the material, but in the weightless and yet weighty relationship of the soul to the creator. To quote Gai Eaton, “Spiritual life is primarily an effort to drag our attention away from pandemonium and uproar which rivet it and to turn towards the ‘open’, towards the splendour of the Real. It is also a work of transformation-alchemist’s work-since our leaden nature is to be turned into gold, a metal fit for heaven.” (King of the Castle, p215)

Written by Myriam Francois

January 3, 2012 at 22:37

11 Responses

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  1. interesting view on ethics. However I’d like to ask, since its always been difficult for me to ascertain just how religious people can derive their morals. So how would you respond to the Euthyphro delimma, that being God’s morals are subjective? thx

    papernun

    January 3, 2012 at 23:07

  2. Let me pay you the best compliment possible: This got me thinking and thinking hard

    salman merchant

    January 4, 2012 at 01:55

  3. Aslamualikum Sister,

    Very nice Topic and just want to share some of celebrities who died of loosing weight..wish humans could realize real meaning of there life’s and not run after fame and power.

    Karen Carpenter (musician): Went on a water diet to lose weight and, as she put it, to appear more attractive. Continued to diet even after losing 20 lbs, until her death at the age of 32. She died of cardiac arrest due to anorexia.

    Isabella Caro: French Model who did shocking anti-anorexia billboards in Italy.

    Ana Carolina Reston: Brazilian model, starved herself to death in 2006.

    Theresa Marie “Terri” Schiavo (December 3, 1963 – March 31, 2005): Her physician failed to recognize and diagnose bulimia

    Margaux Hemmingway: actress, model, suffered with bulimia

    Christy Henrich (gymnast): In 1988, Christy was told by a U.S. judge that she had to lose weight in order to make the Olympic team. She died of multiple organ failure, as a result of anorexia, at the age of 22.

    Heidi Guenther (ballet dancer): After being told by a theatre company that at 5’5″ in height and 96 lbs in weight she was too chunky, she developed an eating disorder. She collapsed and died at the age of 22 due to complications from her eating disorder.

    Leila Pahlavi: The youngest daughter of the late Shah of Iran stole prescriptions from the desk of her doctor in order to feed her fatal addiction to barbiturates, an inquest heard yesterday. Princess Leila Pahlavi, 31, died alone in her suite at a London hotel after taking prescription drugs and cocaine. She was found in bed, her body emaciated by years of anorexia and bulimia.

    Anne Sexton: American poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974), who was sexually abused in childhood and committed suicide at the age of 46, suffered from anorexia and depression.

    faisal abdul ghaffar

    January 4, 2012 at 12:05

  4. “The meaning I derive from my practise of Islam is of a God centred life in which my ritual prayers interrupt the matrix of delusion of the material world, reminding us that ultimate reality lies not in the material, but in the weightless and yet weighty relationship of the soul to the creator.” Mashallah this is brilliant and so eloquently written!!

    Ahmad

    January 5, 2012 at 05:48

  5. Wow. What amazing article. Really deep insight. May Allah (swt) bless you in your deen and knowledge and help you guide others see the right path. Ameen

    Namis

    January 5, 2012 at 07:32

  6. Assalamu Alaikum.
    I have no words to express.
    May Allah always be with you sister.

    Qamar

    January 6, 2012 at 20:47

  7. Subhan Allah ! Your words resonate a fulfillment of my wishes, your writing is close to my heart. I will certainly follow your work. I was Directed here by hearing about you in a lecture by Sayed Ammar, the link to it is below.

    kazim

    January 17, 2012 at 05:15

  8. MashALLAH another brilliant article sista, the ummah needs more interlectual sistas like you on the mainstream so u cn b a role model for otha sistas! ever thought about doing that??

    kadafi

    January 17, 2012 at 09:42

  9. “The free soul is the conscious soul, the soul at one with the Divine. The world is a transient resting place where every soul has the possibility of radiating Divine values by practising love, compassion and mercy in the testing interaction with a world which challenges one’s dedication to these precepts. Ultimately, commitment to Divine guidance ensures a serenity in this life, but moreover accession to God’s bliss in the hereafter, where each soul will taste what his or her actions on earth, have paved for her or him, in the ultimate and quintessential manifestation of Justice, the weighing of the Divine scales.”

    This really puts things into perspective.

    Mohammad

    January 24, 2012 at 15:54

  10. Your confidence, wisdom, and eloquence in explaining such deep and relevant topics is profound. You are an inspiration to many and a beacon in a world where conformity is slowly chipping at what little spirituality we have left. One’s acceptance of what society has deemed “modern” or “progressive” is unfortunately the proxy of judging how “open-minded” or “intelligent” someone is. And too many people are caving into this social and political bullying. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, and please, never stop.

    Sarah

    March 9, 2012 at 03:14

  11. “Though these messages may differ in shape and manifestation, and some may be barely recognisable, due to human degradation or merely the passage of time, they contain within, the often elliptical signature of Higher consciousness, and prescriptions through which one might discipline the body in order to free the soul. ” … Humans and everything circumstantial WILL face degradation (a fact) but the message (The Quran) remains timeless. It is the last. The Quran is described as ‘This is the book, whereof there is no doubt’ (2,2). NO DOUBT. There is no doubting its longevity or its relevance to any new circumstantial situations araising. If we were to endulge in the esoteric knowledge of finding the ‘elliptical signature of Higher consciousness’ within its chapters, then we will find it in every single letter to their dots. We will find it in the count of those letters and in its places. That is why it is a miracle.

    Imam Ali bin Abi Talib once said, ‘”You should know that all the secrets and mysteries of the divine books are contained in the Holy Qur’an. Whatever is in the Holy Qur’an is contained in the sura al-Fatiha. Whatever is in the sura of al-Fatiha is contained in the verse ‘Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim.’ (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful). Whatever is in the verse, ‘Bismillah ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim,’ is in the Ba (B) of ‘Bismillah.’ Whatever is in the Ba of ‘Bismillah,’ is contained in the dot below the letter Ba of ‘Bismillah.’ Ali said: ‘I am that dot which is below the letter Ba of Bismillah.'”

    If he indeed said such a thing, it comes as no surprise as the Holy Prophet (pbuh) himself once said, “I am the city of knowledge, and Ali is its gate.”

    Top Cat

    September 20, 2012 at 16:09


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