Tuesday, November 03, 2009

"The World" vs. Religion

Eboo Patel, a Muslim author and scholar, wrote the preface to a book I picked up at the Governor's Conference on Service and Volunteerism last week, "Hearing the Call Across Traditions: Readings on Faith and Service." He begins by talking about how the Prophet Muhammad would make an annual retreat to a cave on Mount Hira to pray and contemplate. In the Muslim tradition, Muhammad was chosen to be the prophet to his people because (as Patel echoes) he regularly removed himself from the world in order to focus on worship. Patel continues,
"That felt difficult for me. Ever since I can remember, I have wanted nothing more than to know and love the world... To travel, to taste, to experiment, to see, to serve. And while I felt a longing for God throughout my adolescence, if connecting to the Divine meant removing myself from real life, I wasn't quite ready to make that commitment. I chose the world."

Nevertheless, he wasn't quite satisfied, and he eventually returned to a deeper study of Islam. There he found something that is obvious but completely overlooked by most: after his first encounter with the angel Gabriel and the revelation that the angel brought, Muhammad never returned to the cave in the mountain.

"Once he was touched by the Heavens of Faith, Muhammad lived the rest of his years in the Harlem of Life. He married and had children. He preached and counseled... He loved the world, and he lived his life in it, and he did it on the command of God. In fact, in the Holy Qur'an, God makes it clear that this was His intention for all human beings... One of our primary duties is to manifest His mercy here."

Not to chase after experiences of the Divine presence. Not even to worship God (though here I suspect Patel may disagree with my interpretation).

Again: Muhammad never returned to the mountain.

He lived. He engaged with the world, with life, with others.

Separating oneself from "the world" in order to be "more religious" is not only unnecessary, to do so is to forget what faith and religion are supposed to be about. What is important: Living one's life fully and enthusiastically. Involving oneself in the lives of other people. Serving other people. Loving other people.

This has been said by many, in many places, but I wrote it here because of how the passage affected me. And because it connects with my last post, on truth and Truth. While I still long to sense the presence of God, I no longer encounter the Divine in the same way that I used to. I have, in a sense, left that mountain years ago, and I ought to stop trying to climb it again.

Rather, I should take the prophet's example: live, and live, and help others, and live.

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