Over the past years, I realized that much of the spiritual problems I faced were largely due to my inability to bridge the disconnect between my intellectual knowledge and application of important principals. The knowledge I gained was not transformative, so where was the misunderstanding? Ali ibn Abi Talib said:
O you who carry knowledge around with you; are you only carrying it around with you ? For surely knowledge belongs to who ever knows and then acts accordingly, so that his action corresponds to his knowledge. There will be a people who will carry knowledge around with them, but it will not pass beyond their shoulders. Their inner most thoughts will contradict what they display in public, and their actions will contradict what they know.
Knowledge has not entered your heart until your legs, arms, and entire body act accordingly. There is a difference between knowledge and Muslim habits. The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said: “I was only sent to perfect good character” [Muwatta’ and Musnad of Ahmad]. The primary purpose of knowledge in Islam is so that it can influence the individual to the correct course of action. And the correct course of actions should be guided by an intention to do that which is pleasing to God. This contrasts with doing that which is pleasing to oneself or others and guided by one’s own inclinations.
How does knowledge of the traditions of Muhammad become part of the character of the average Muslim? It is through understanding, or as we educators tend to emphasize, application and practice of that knowledge. One of the most powerful ways of understanding this came to me while I was in graduate school and looking at Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “habitus.” The simplest and most digestible definition of Habitus can be found on wikipedia:
Habitus is the set of socially learnt dispositions, skills and ways of acting, that are often taken for granted, and which are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life.
Habitus is a complex concept, but in its simplest usage could be understood as a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste.
We are all creatures of habit (good and bad), but how do we develop them? How do we develop our tastes, dispositions, and inclinations? These are important questions that we need to ask ourselves, especially if we are concerned with personal and moral development. Many of our habits are learned, while other arise out of our own inner inclinations. We can learn through mimicking others or through experience. At the same time, we can supress our inclinations and habits in order to yield different results.
But breaking bad habits or developing healthy habits can be a difficult thing, especially when we come to accept certain behaviors as part of our personality. For those of us who are self-reflective and want to change for the better, we have to make some conscious efforts to change many things that are often not really thought about.
The way we think shapes our actions, but our knowledge does not really penetrate our hearts until we set about a course of actions to embody those principles. I believe this is the problem with the over intellectualization of Islam. It is also the problem with the tendency of many Muslims to focus on political or social identity issues. There is a lack of embodiment of some important concepts. So, the way we should think about things is not changing our actions. At the same time, the ways we are doing things are not changing the ways our mind works. Somehow, our thoughts and actions become hollow. That embodiment only happens through rigor and training, which can take spiritual, mental, and physical components. While we accept anyone who declares shahadah as Muslim, we recognize that there are different gradations of faith. In Surah 49 The Private Apartments, verse 14 God says:
The bedouins say, “We have believed.” Say, “You have not [yet] believed; but say [instead], ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered your hearts. And if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not deprive you from your deeds of anything. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”
This verse is very profound, because it highlights the key for that spiritual development. Faith is developed through obedience. And even if we are struggling, by taking those steps, we will be rewarded by the Most Forgiving and Merciful. Sometimes the steps can be small, the most prominent example is salat. In actuality the combined time for the salat is about 17 minutes. Even then, I see people struggle with the idea of submission and it becomes apparent in their forms of resistance to the requirements of ritual prayer. How have you developed Muslim habitus, if you as a man would never come to a job interview in sagging shorts that expose your butt crack, but you will come to the King of all worlds dressed inappropriately? The perfection of the Muslim habitus is worshipping your Lord as if you see Him, but you cannot, knowing that He always sees you. This is Ihsan, or the perfection of faith. And many, myself included, have a lot of work in that area.
Moving away from outer garments in order to wrap up this discussion, I want to talk about a simple way to develop our Muslim habitus. The first friday sermon I heard my husband give shed light habit-practice-application. He brought up Michael Jordan and asked rhetorically what does he think when he was about to make a play. Marc answered that MJ doesn’t think. His body knew exactly what to do from all those hours of practice. This is the true meaning of understanding, a real embodiment of that knowledge in a way that it becomes a part of you. Without thinking, MJ knew exactly what to do at a given moment. It reminds me of the final moments of a former principal of Philadelphia’s Clara Muhammad School. She was in a car accident in Egypt and her family reported that while she awaited medical attention she remained in constant remembrance of God. Although she was in pain, her thoughts were on her Lord. In that moment during her final true test, she faced death with courage and grace. And I wondered how I would react. I thought about some words, which I won’t repeat here, that I’ve said when I had a close brush with death or something traumatic. I think back to the times I experienced severe pain. I wondered would my last act be recorded as having yelled vulgar language, crying about why me, or would I remember my Lord instead. I realized that only through constant practice of remembrance and prayer that I out of habit, I would just do the right thing without thinking about it.
We practice and practice so that during a real moment when we are tested, our habitus goes into auto-pilot and we know just what to do without thinking. So as part of that development, I’m not going to ask God to damn the thing I stubbed my toe on. Instead I’ll say something glorying Him (in English or Arabic). Whenever I get frustrated with something or someone, I’m going to avoid cursing at it. I will ask God to help me deal with the situation with dignity and grace. And importantly, I will learn the appropriate prayers for the appropriate times so that constant remembrance become a habit, therefore my Muslim habitus. By bringing God into center focus throughout the day, I can make steps towards embodying all that I have learned over the years. This is the cognitive shift that happens with real transformation. My hope is that more of us move from just being members of the I verbally proclaim to submit (I’m just a Muslim)club , to become those who truly believe and try to ultimately perfect our faith.
Quran Sahih international http://quran.com/49/2-14