The quest for meaning
(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 The desire to embody the Divine wisdom has been replaced by a commitment to the vacuous and slavish obsession with the material – the ten commandments by Kate Moss’s dictum that “nothing tastes like skinny feels”, a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)