Tapping into Our Spiritual Heritage
Magid, Imam Mohamed, Ross, Sam, Islamic Horizons
Future columns will feature modem commentaries by a wide range of scholars from North America and Europe on individual aphorisms from this treasure trove of wisdom.
THE LATE FRANZ ROSENTHAL, A professor at Yale University and giant in the academic study of Islam, once made an observation about Islamic civilization that is both inspiring and challenging. In Knowledge Triumphant , his meditation upon Islamic thought, he argued that when compared to Greece, Rome, Christian Europe, and even China and India, Muslims were without peer in the esteem they held for knowledge. This esteem, he argued, originated in the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad and was carried forth by the extraordinary and tireless efforts of the innumerable students, teachers, benefactors, and rulers before us.
His observation is a challenge, however, because while describing our forebears, the question remains: how aptly does it describe us? There are certainly many promising developments within our own community. Over the past 60 years, we have built mosques, schools and other institutions that now share knowledge of the Quran, hadith, the Prophet's biography, law and theology with our communities and beyond.
But unfortunately, one field has yet to receive its due: spirituality.
That our resources for growing spiritually remain largely untapped is apparent when we consider how we often approach studying it compared with other disciplines. Very often when we study spirituality, we do not progress much further than reviewing the beautiful spiritual statements of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad such as, "Verily in remembrance of God do hearts find rest," ( 1 3:28) and "None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself/' (Bukhari). While the Quran and Sunnah are the radiant Sun and Moon of our tradition, illuminating our path to God, and while there is immense blessing in seeking to connect with them, there are also the stars of our tradition - the Companions, tabi'in (the companions of the Companions), and countless later scholars like Imam al-Ghazali and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya whose reflections on the Quran and Sunna are gems in their own right.
By comparison, when seeking to learn Arabic, we do not simply read the source texts from which the rules of Arabic grammar were derived: pre-Islamic poetry, the Quran, and the speech of the early Bedouin. Rather, we draw upon the brilliant scholarship of the grammarians before us, who carefully observed the language, reflected upon its inner workings, and then synthesized a curriculum for its mastery.
When seeking to learn the proper performance of prayer, we do not simply search for all of the hadiths and Quranic verses that we can find. Rather, we benefit from the collective hard work and insights of our forebears who gathered together all of the relevant material, evaluated its reliability, analyzed it, synthesized it and summarized it in guidelines for others to follow.
It is imperative that we tap into our entire heritage, because as the Quran and the hadith both make clear, the ultimate goal of all our rituals and creeds, indeed of all our study, is to affect a change in our hearts; to be a different and better person on Tuesday than we were on Monday; to be more content, more kind, more patient, and more in love with Allah and His Messenger. As the Prophet himself taught, "I was only sent to perfect noble character" (al-Bayhaqi). Of course, this is not to deny the importance of the law or ritual worship. They are precious blessings from God and constitute the very path itself to change. But it is to suggest that until our hearts are transformed, our Islam is incomplete.
As a community, we can benefit from connecting more with our immense spiritual heritage that is every bit the equal of law and theology in its complexity and depth. For it was Islamic spirituality that, when vibrant and engaged, produced innumerable men and women of the highest spiritual caliber -people whose station has been recognized even outside our own community. …