بسم الله و الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله
I want you to take a moment and think back to all of the Islamic events/conferences/lectures/halaqahs or any related gatherings you have ever attended. Try to remember the impact that the speaker had on you, or moments of inspiration that had you promising to yourself that today was the day you’d change.
My question is: have you?
When I was younger, I remember feeling a strong excitement whenever the next Islamic event was around the corner. Like so many Muslim youth, I was part of a clique, so to speak, that would not only attended these events, but feverously advertise them through networking and social media. Truthfully speaking, it sometimes became less about the event itself, and more about being part of a group that got to listen to popular speaker X on popular topic Y.
It felt inclusive…at the time.
Yes, I was also learning about the basics of my deen which helped to create a foundation on which I could build my religious identity. However, at some point, I couldn’t help but realize that I’d been met with a wall.
Somewhere along the way, the topics at such Islamic events started to meld together; certain stories, hadiths and Qur’anic verses were so often quoted that the impact they had on me were gradually dulled. I couldn’t help but find myself yearning for something more deeper and meaningful. As well, I had become keenly attuned (and later, excruciatingly bored) with the jokes and attention-grabbing tactics that many, if not most, of the speakers employed in order to gage the audience.
I soon realized that I had stumbled upon a spiritual plateau. This realization was marked by the reality that despite the numerous Islamic gatherings that I had attended, I had barely changed. Sure, my mental bank of basic Islamic knowledge had grown, but when I was honest with myself, I had to admit that very little of that knowledge had actually translated into practical action on my part.
Upon realizing this, I felt consumed by guilt. Was I a hypocrite? After attending so many Islamic gatherings – to the point where things sounded the same – why was I still battling with the same demons? Why did I commit the same sins? Why did my books and notes end up lost or collecting dust somewhere?
And then it hit me: I had come across a spiritual blockage which, at some point, led to a pause in practical learning and instead, a sophisticated and glamorized means of information collecting. That is, a library of profound ahadith, ayat, or stories that made me feel good but would eventually be stored in the back of my mind, rarely to be accessed again.
I began to realize that where at one point these events served as beneficial reminders for me, they now began to fill a spiritual void; one where I was falsely – and temporarily – left feeling good about attending the event for the sake of doing so, and not necessarily for the sake of leaving a better person.
For so long, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the anxiety I began to feel once I noticed how bored and uninspired many of the events I attended left me feeling. It was only through intense research at the time, and my current training as a psychotherapist that I have even came across a way of defining my experience as such: spiritual bypassing.
In a fantastic piece on Psychology Today, Dr. Ingrid Mathieu says about the issue:
“We’ve gotten progressively more skillful in our methods: turning away from drugs or alcohol to alter our consciousness and turning towards things like self-help books, meditation, yoga, prayer, and special diets. In some ways, we are now spiritually distracting ourselves from our feelings, thinking that we are walking a healthy spiritual path.
This experience is called spiritual bypass. Spiritual bypass is a defense mechanism. Although the defense looks a lot prettier than other defenses, it serves the same purpose. Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in—and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.”
How many of us have yet to recognize the ways in which we have been using spiritual bypassing as a defence against our deeper emotions and issues?
Once I became aware of this concept, I intentionally increased in awareness; I made sure that I attended events and circles that were relative to my spiritual journey and that genuinely interested me. As well, I began to shed the position of the passive event-goer and instead, assumed a role of critical thinking and engagement (something that, unfortunately, sometimes got me in a little trouble). What I found shocked me and helped me lift some of the self-blame and shame that I felt towards my spiritual plateau.
Firstly, I came to question (out of curious truth-seeking and not hostility) the actual organizations or groups that were hosting such events: What was their mission? What was their history of active community engagement and service? What were their underlying Islamic values and concepts? What progressive strides have they made in my community – or have they at all?
I also began to actually question the speakers from whom I was learning – something that we are usually conditioned not to do, especially as young Muslims. I began to become attuned to not only what the speaker was saying, but how they said it and how it made me feel. I also began to consider the context from which they came; shortly, I realized that much of the reason why I couldn’t connect to some speakers or why their words would often leave me feeling uneasy was due to our complexly different world views and experiences. I began to see why I, as a young, coloured, educated Somali-Canadian female was having trouble connecting with what the speaker – who might’ve been an older, Pakistani or Arab male with orthodox Islamic knowledge – was telling me about Islam.
Yet, it wasn’t about race or politics, but about relatedness. That is, my difficulty with establishing congruence between the Islam I was learning in these controlled environments and the Islam that I faced on a day-to-day basis may have stemmed not from an inherent deficiency in my sensibilities – or that of the speaker – but deeper issues rooted in race, privilege, authority, socio-economic status, gender, upbringing, education, perspective and heirachy – just to name a few.
In time, I began to see how my true struggles were not being addressed at these events. Yes, it was nice to learn about our wonderful and enriched Islamic history, but what did that mean for me right now? After I left this event? I’m sure the onus of responsibility in creating meaning and connection lies mostly with the individual, however, what about the roles of our speakers and Islamic organizations and workers? This is a thought that I’ll return to in a moment, inshaAllah.
Through discussion and community work, I’ve come to realize that I am not alone in these realizations. So many Muslims, especially females, have long felt underrepresented at these mainstream Islamic gatherings. Sure, if one came to these events solely for an “iman-boost” or something to add to their already healthy spiritual states, then great! However, what about those sisters struggling to gain footing in the job market and sitting quietly in the audience while listening to the speaker’s biased views on females in the workplace? Or the silencing of those brothers in the audience suffering from depression or low-self esteem by constantly being compared to the manliness of the sahabah they are encouraged to emulate? Some might question whether or not it is the responsibility of these events to delve deeper and strive to form connections with the audience through recognizing their struggles – many of which are race, gender, and context dependant. Considering that Islamic events (somewhat) serve to the fill the gap between the mosque and the home and, for many Muslims, serve as their only means to direct Islamic learning – I’d answer with a resounding yes.
I now know that I was certainly not the only one often leaving these gatherings feeling worse than I felt upon entering them; for me, it was about feeling never Muslim enough, feminine enough, good enough – not enough. Reading the work of shame-expert Brené Brown has led me to the sad conclusion that the spiritual bypass so many of us may be experiencing as a result of attending these events may in part be due to the fact that our Islamic teachings are often delivered in a package of shame. This has less to do with the teachings themselves – which are glorious and uplifting – and more to do with the scare-tactics employed by those doing the teaching.
Perhaps we feel miserable and inadequate at these events because we are shamed for the burdens we carry.
Shame on you for having done drugs and alcohol.
Shame on you for having a boyfriend or toying with the idea.
Shame on you for having a poor relationship with your parents.
Shame on you for occasionally missing your prayers.
Shame on you for ever considering to remove the hijab.
Shame on you for being sexually assaulted.
These things may not be said outwardly, but they are certainly implied. As well, even if you are reminded to find solace with God’s forgiveness and mercy, this usually is preceded by dollops of shame, shame, and more shame. How do you recognize this shame? Sit with your feelings, and question whether or not what you’ve heard has actually had a deep impact on your life – or has left you feeling terrible about yourself. Remember, the true teachings of Islam liberate the human mind and soul. So, if you’ve found yourself experiencing the opposite of this, which is undoubtedly some form of oppression, it’s high time that you question whether or not it is actually Islam you are learning – or the subjective views of another individual/group.
Further, if what you have learned has had any true impact on you, know that your behaviour would change. You would become the better person you wish to be. You would go from being inspired to becoming a source of inspiration.
But for many – and might I argue, most of us – this just isn’t happening.
Instead, like a drug fiend looking for a high, we attend event after event searching for that iman-rush. Yet, once the high of the hit has faded, we are back to our terrible habits and troubling states of mind – subconsciously seeking the next event or gathering to fill our spiritual voids.
I am not blaming the events, the event-organizers, or the speakers. Nor am I blaming you and I. I just think it’s high time for all of us to start asking questions like: Do I truly have the intention to change after attending X event or seminar? From whom and where am I learning my Islam? What perspective or worldview is informing this speaker’s understanding of Islam – and is it truly Islamic? Am I using this Islamic event to genuinely grow or make myself feel better without any practical intention of changing? Is the knowledge I’m learning spiritually fulfilling, or is it time that I seek something greater?
These are all very personal questions and the answers will be even more subjective. However, if we are looking to overcome the spiritual impasse we have found ourselves in, it is critical that we begin to take a closer look at ourselves and our surroundings. To answer the above questions will take intentional self-awareness, honesty, courage, increased emotional intelligence, and a striving towards critical thinking. It will also require for one to strive to learn Islam on their own; to engage in a healthy amount of self-study in order to equip oneself with the truth, as opposed to solely relying on external resources to fulfill one’s personal responsibility for seeking knowledge.
With some soul-searching and healthy questioning, you may find that in actuality, Islamic events have been taking the place of what you truly really need: a personal teacher, a therapist, a friend, a loving family member, community, acceptance, an Islamic identity and so forth.
I believe that one’s Islamic self-concept should extend outside of Islamically conducive environments such as events, lectures, halaqahs, retreats or the mosque, and into other realms of one’s life. Only then can one truly examine the practical impact that their learning is having on their lives. That is, anyone can be a great Muslim when surrounded by other great Muslims at various events and gatherings, but the truth is in who you are when you are with your family, at work, at school and especially, when you are alone.
Further, beyond calling my brothers and sisters in faith to self-examine, I call for a reform on our delivery and approach to any of our Islamic events.
- Know your audience (e.g. have less conferences on marital relations and more on drug abuse if you have found a spiked number of deaths due to drugs in your community).
- Focus less on surface issues such as how to segregate the genders, and more on the spiritual condition of your community members.
- Be intentional on choosing speakers who understand your community’s needs, and are equipped with not only sound Islamic knowledge, but an inherent – and practical – wisdom and spirituality.
- Quality >>>>> Quantity. Seek to draw spirituality, and not just high attendance numbers.
- Invite speakers from diverse backgrounds, whether that be ethnically, gender-wise, or career wise. As well, focus on capitalizing on the talents of intellectuals who already exist in your community as opposed to consistently bringing in speakers from outside.
- Have an understanding of the community you are presenting in, and seek to relate personally with the audience.
- Gain self-awareness and recognize when your personal bias is leaking into your Islamic teachings. Learn to separate and critically examine the two.
- Encourage questioning and healthy debate in your circles.
- Refrain from shaming and instead, be compassionate.
- Identify spiritual and religious weaknesses without putting people down – you never know who’s listening and what they may be going through.
For the individual:
- Be aware of what you are learning and who you are learning from.
- Always question in order to learn, not to debate.
- Be intentional in engaging with any Islamic event. Ask yourself, “what do I hope to gain from this?”
- Engage in constant and personal self-learning from reliable Islamic resources/individuals.
- Recognize that the solutions to your issues may not be found at an Islamic event and instead, that you may need to consider other resources.
- Pay attention to how you feel at any given Islamic event. If there is a mismatch between how you truly feel and how you should feel, explore that. Your body, mind and spirit are telling you something.
- Attempt to practically apply any lessons that you learn, and explore where any difficulties in doing so may come from.
I pray that this piece encourages us all to increase in self-awareness, personal spirituality, and intentional engagement in the community through Islamic events/gatherings. The solutions above are mere suggestions; only you can identify the blockages that have led to a personal or communal spiritual bypass, and only you can strive to remove them.
And Allah knows best,