Friday, April 1, 2016

Balance and the Middle Way

Al- Fathiha - recite

Wa kadhalika ja’alnakum ‘ummatanw-wasatal-litakunu shuhadaa’a alan-nasi wa yakunar-Rasulu alaykum shahida. 
And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you.  2:143

This verse from Surah al-Baqara is familiar to most Muslims, and is often cited to position Islam as a religion of balance, i.e. not overly formalistic as Judaism, nor overly permissive as Christianity.  This interpretation however, does not reflect the meaning of the verse in context.  It is situated within a series of ayat that acknowledge distinctions between followers of the revelations of Prophet Mohammed, pbuh, and followers of the religions that came before.  More specifically, verses 142 – 150 instruct the Prophet to turn his direction of prayer toward the Kabah, and no longer toward Jerusalem. 

That said, this is one of those verses that is taken by many to have a much broader meaning in and of itself.  Mohamed Asad writes:

“Middlemost community” is a community that keeps an equitable balance between extremes and is realistic in its appreciation of man’s nature and possibilities, rejecting both licentiousness and exaggerated asceticism.  In tune with its oft-repeated call to moderation in every aspect of life, the Quran exhorts the believers not to place too great an emphasis on the physical and material aspects of their lives, but postulates, at the same time, that man’s urges and desires relating to this “life of the flesh” are God-willed and, therefore, legitimate.  On further analysis, the expression “a community of the middle way” might be said to summarize, as it were, the Islamic attitude towards the problem of man’s existence as such:  a denial of the view that there is an inherent conflict between the spirit and the flesh, and a bold affirmation of the natural, God-willed unity in this twofold aspect of human life.  This balanced attitude, peculiar to Islam, flows directly from the concept of God’s oneness and, hence, of the unity of purpose underlying all His creation; and thus, the mention of the “community of the middle way” at this place is a fitting introduction to the theme of the Kabah, a symbol of God’s oneness.”

Asad, and others who similarly extract expanded meaning from this verse, may be over-reaching.  But he is not deviating from the general Islamic value of maintaining balance in life, balance which can be extended to any number of dimensions.   I will give more examples of how balance is referenced in the Quran, and in the Prophet’s life, but first let me say something about Asad’s assertion that this balanced attitude “is peculiar to Islam.”

Here are just a few of many possible quotes:
Thomas Merton – “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”

Aristotle – “It is better to rise from life as from a banquet – neither thirsty nor drunken.”

Shakespeare – “They are sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starved with nothing.”

Confucius – “To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.”

Finding the middle way, or balanced attitude, it would seem, is a notion as old as philosophy itself.  And yet, it is an attitude that is so difficult for us humans to maintain that God’s revelations in Quran remind us repeatedly of its importance.

We read in Surah Al-Araf:

Children of Adam!  Beautify yourselves for every act of worship, and eat and drink freely, but do not waste: verily, God does not love the wasteful.  7:31

Say:  “Who is there to forbid the beauty which God has brought forth for His creatures, and the good things from among the means of sustenance?”
Say:  “They are lawful in the life of this world unto all who have attained to faith – to be theirs alone on Resurrection Day.”  Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people of innate knowledge! 7:32

There is a story in the Seerah – the life of the Prophet, pbuh, of three young men who decided to camp in one of the mosques in Medinah, to not leave the mosque but spend as much time as they could praying, fasting, and not getting married.  The Prophet heard about it so he brought them to his mosque and told them, “I fast sometimes, but I don’t fast sometimes.  I pray some nights and I sleep other nights, and I am married to women.  I am the Prophet of Allah and I am the closest of all of you to Allah.”  In other words, he told them, exaggerated piety will not get you closer to God. 

There is another story, this one about Abu Bakr.  He used to pray aloud in his backyard in Makkah.  In fact he was so loud that it disturbed his non-Muslim neighbor, whose complaints came back to the Prophet.  This ayah came in response:

Surah Al-Israa
Say:  “Invoke God, or invoke the Most Gracious: by whichever name you invoke Him, He is always the One – for His are all the attributes of perfection.”
And pray unto Him; yet be not too loud in thy prayer nor speak it in too low a voice, but follow a way in-between;  17:110

Of course we can find other examples of the benefits of balance and moderation in Quran.  But let’s come back to the present.  The challenge of finding balance in life has not diminished over time.   We all struggle with it – finding balance between work and family life, between material concerns and spirituality, between indulgence and restraint.  If you do a search on the Internet for “life balance,” you immediately see just how widespread this notion is now in our culture of pop psychology.  The focus is on “mindfulness,” “awareness,” “work-life balance,” “internal vs. external balance,” and there are myriad lists of techniques to practice to help you achieve it.  Consider the image of a gymnast on a balance beam.  Staying on that beam takes work – practice, and the tenacity to get back on the beam every time you fall, because falling off is part of the training process. 

Achieving balance in life is not just an Islamic ideal, of course.  It is a human ideal.  However, as Muslims, we have both special challenges to maintaining our sense of balance and equilibrium in this world, and special resources to help us do so.

I do not need to elaborate too much on the challenges we face as Muslims in 2016.  On the one hand, we suffer from the weight of a history that has given rise to very unbalanced interpretations of our faith – extremism that has led to demonization and violence against the civilization that nourishes and sustains us.  On the other hand, the unbalanced reaction to this extremism is the demonization of our faith and those of us who practice it, especially by those who seek to gain political advantage in doing so.  It is not easy to be Muslim these days.  Muslims are falling off the balance beam in both directions – young people who get recruited into extremism, and many more who leave faith altogether. 

Maintaining balance takes work, and courage.  Please indulge me to share the story of someone who is, in his own creative way, trying to maintain balance in a country unbalanced to extremes.  We have the special joy today of having one of our nephews with us from Egypt, Amr.  Amr could have continued his successful career as a financial advisor in Egypt, focusing solely on material gain in a society that has become dangerously oppressive and intolerant to anyone who hopes for freedom of expression.   But Amr has intuitively, and intelligently reacted to that oppression by launching a new career for himself as a travel writer for Egyptians – he will be sharing with them a hopeful vision of a free life on the road.  At first glance this might seem frivolous, since most Egyptians will never be able to leave their country.  But by sharing a window to other worlds, he will give them a sense of the possibility of other ways of being, and hopefully, a sense of balance. 

Amr is not using Islam per se to guide his new adventure.  But he is using his faith, faith that has given him the personal strength to take the risks he is taking to achieve his goals.  Faith is key, but I find that Islam also gives us specific tools to help maintain balance in this crazy world; at least it has for me.  In fact, one of those tools helped bring me into this faith.  Please indulge me again, with a more personal story.  As most of you know, I was raised as a Unitarian.  Unitarianism is a very intellectually oriented faith tradition.  The focus is on thinking, exploration, and “finding one’s own path.”  As I became an adult, I took the exploration seriously, and investigated all kinds of other faith traditions, looking for more reassurance, more comfort than constant questioning could offer.  I became fascinated for a time with the realm of spiritualism, and read everything I could find about psychics and supernatural phenomenon.  I even went to visit a psychic, someone who was followed by dear family friends who were Christian ministers.  Elwood Babbit of New Hampshire went into a trance in front of me, “left his body,” and “channeled” the spirit of Dr. Fisher, an 18th century physician who explained to me that the struggles I had been having with my father were left over from a previous lifetime, in which he and I were brothers, Seminole Indians in what is now Florida, and we had fought with each other during those lives.  The reading gave me a sense of peace at the time.  It allowed me to view our relationship from a different perspective – from a “therapeutic” distance.  But after awhile, I grew to feel uneasy about it.  Even if this experience was “real,” how could I trust it?  I had no tools with which to discern what was real and what could be fabricated in this world of psychic spiritualism.  And that was potentially dangerous.  It was at this point that I began to read about Islam.  And in Quran I found Surah al Falaq:
Qul a’udhu beRabbil-falaq.
Min sharri ma khalaq.
Wa min sharri ghasiqin idha waqab.
Wa min sharrin naffathati fil uqad,
Wa min-sharri hasidin idha hasad.

Say:  I seek refuge with the Sustainer of the rising dawn.
From the evil of aught that He has created,
And from the evil of the black darkness whenever it descends,
And from the evil of all human beings bent on occult endeavors. 
And from the evil of the envious when he envies.  113:1-5

As I read more about Islam, I realized that this is a religion that does not deny or minimize the power of the spiritual world, in which I had come to absolutely believe.  But Islam also provides a perspective on the nature and limitations of human beings in our relationship to the world of spirit, which I had also come to recognize with absolute certainty. 

Over the years, I have found that the tools of practicing faith in Islam have helped me, both personally and even as an adherent to a widely misrepresented and mistrusted faith.  Here are just a few examples:

From Quran, for those who would misuse our faith for violent ends:
Surah Al-Maa’idah
You who have attained to faith!  Be ever steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice.  Be just:  this is closest to being God-conscious.  And remain conscious of God:  verily, God is aware of all that you do.  5:8

From Quran, regarding those who play on fear and hatred for their own political gain, to boast about their own power and prowess:
Surah Luqman
God granted wisdom to the sage Luqman, who shared it with his son.  Among the advice he gave is the following, as documented in Quran:
And turn not thy cheek away from people in false pride, and walk not haughtily on earth:  for behold, God does not love anyone who, out of self-conceit, acts in a boastful manner.  31:18
“Hence, be modest in thy bearing, and lower thy voice:  for, behold, the ugliest of all voices is the loud voice of asses…”  31:19

I find comfort in these words, and many other verses I find in Quran, even if I am reading them out of context.  In fact, whenever I look in Quran for words of comfort, I can invariably find something that applies, even if the words were revealed for a different circumstance.  I believe that Quran can be useful in this way, as long as we use the verses to good purpose, even while  I understand that it is important to know the historical context of Quranic revelation, to the degree that it is possible.

But the other aspect of Islam that has helped to keep me balanced is a different, a very practical tool – the one we are using here today – the tool of prayer.   Here is another quote from a non-Muslim, Francis J. Braceland – “We can be sure that the greatest hope for maintaining equilibrium in the face of any situation rests within ourselves.”  This is true, but when we are suffering, it is hard to find the strength within to get ourselves back on track.  This is where I have found prayer so helpful.  Many times I face prayer reluctantly, as a chore, an encumbrance – especially when I am in a hurry, or feeling disillusioned about my faith.   Another, anonymous quote says “The key to keeping your balance is knowing when you’ve lost it.”  When I find myself feeling prayer as a burden, I know I’ve lost my balance.  It is only my commitment to God that I would pray the Muslim prayers, that keeps me doing it at those times.  I take that commitment as sacred, and so I make myself pray.  I get back on the beam, and I invariably find that, even if I begin with impatience, or my mind wanders around my practical cares and worries, by the end of the prayer, I have once again made a connection to God, the beam feels more like a pathway, and I am brought back to center. 

And so, I end as I began, with the opening verse of Quran, Surah al-Fatihah:
Bismil lahir Rahmanir Rahim
Alhamdu lillahi Rabbil alamin.
Arrahmani Rahim
Maliki Yawminid Din.
Iyyaka na budu wa Iyyaka nasta in.
Ihdinas siratal mustaqim.
Siratal-ladhina an amta alayhim ghayril maghdubi alayhim wa lad daaliin.
All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of the worlds,
The Most Gracious, the most Merciful,
Lord of the Day of Judgment.
Thee alone do we worship; and unto Thee alone do we turn for aid.
Guide us on the straight path,
The path of those on whom You have bestowed Your blessings,
Not of those who are condemned, nor of those who go astray.  1:1-7

Oh God, help us to keep balance in all the aspects of our lives.  Guide us on your path – the straight path, the middle path, the path of balance in all things.

Saddaq Allahu al Azeem.  Ameen.

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