In a post-COVID world, there are many things to reflect upon from the three years of a global pandemic we experienced together. Amongst many is the rise of spirituality.
There was a lot of anxiety from the unprecedented uncertainties happening around the world then. Jobs were lost, norms were changing, and depression rates were also increasing. People were trying their best to make sense of their lives. These were some of the challenges that subsequently came with the deadly virus. According to some findings, the pandemic has prompted an increase in spirituality.
But what is exactly spirituality? It has often been interchangeably used with the word “religiosity”. This is due to the fact that a spiritual experience is typically associated with a connection with the Divine. However, for some, these terms don’t necessarily mean the same. A public survey done in the U.S. back in 2017 found that there is an increasing rate of people who view themselves as spiritual but not religious.
This article aims to address the idea of spirituality, how it links to religiosity and what Islam says about it.
In general, spirituality means the state of being spiritual or attached to questions and values with regard to religion, and values broadly conceived. The term “spirituality” is also used in non-religious matters, pertaining to moral, existential, or metaphysical questions, especially regarding the nature of the soul, the meaning of life, the nature of the mind, and the possibility of immortality.
Spirituality and religiosity are thought to be linked but distinct concepts.
Some may argue that spirituality explores matters concerning the soul and the meaning of life beyond the physical world. That it is unique and focuses on internal experiences. In contrast, religiosity is defined as the practice of adhering to a given religion's rituals, practices, and beliefs. It is usually viewed to be regimented and expressed through external practices.
While religious rituals might be spiritual, they are not the only ones. Spirituality allows for the exploration of views, whereas religiosity is more fixed.
The discourse on spirituality today has also included the non-religious community. This can be attributed to many factors, including how a person defines religion itself. For Muslims, our Islamic faith is one that answers all aspects of our lives. Islam is not a religion that can only be found in mosques or in ritual practices, but it is a meaningful way of life that we experience every day, even on trivial matters. Our faith also guides us to answer the three big philosophical questions in life: “Where do we come from?” “Why are we here, and how should we live?” “Is there hope for our future and life after death?”.
In Islam, spirituality is inseparable from our religion, enabling Muslims to develop a strong spiritual foundation while navigating their lives in accordance with the teachings of Islam.
The term “spirituality”, or literally “rūḥāniyyāt or rūḥiyyāt”, particularly in Arabic, may not be commonly used in the Islamic tradition. But it has a very similar connotation with that which refers to the religiosity of a person, anchored by God-consciousness or taqwā.
In relating to its literal meaning, which derives from the word “rūḥ” (literally, a soul or a spirit), spirituality in this sense can be understood as the connection to one’s rūḥ that develops (or even declines) based on his or her belief, deeds and morality.
Dr Khalid Hussain states that “spirituality in Islam is defined as the presence of a relationship with Allah that affects the individual’s self-worth, sense of meaning, and connectedness with others”. That being said, Islamic spirituality is a quality that should be done in earnest and developed progressively.
In conclusion, spirituality is not an independent experience or term from our concept of religion. It is deeply rooted in our faith and is closely connected to our beliefs, practises and moral principles. Every spiritual experience is also a religious significance.
In the Islamic tradition, spirituality is seen as part of iḥsān, meaning excellence or virtue. It comes from the root (Arabic) word h-s-n, which means good or beauty. Hence, the term iḥsān is often understood as inner beauty (virtues) or spiritual excellence.
Every Muslim should aspire to strive for the utmost degree of spirituality. The Prophet s.a.w. explained about iḥsān in the famous hadith of Jibrīl a.s:
قالَ: ما الإحْسَانُ؟ قالَ: أَنْ تَعْبُدَ اللَّهَ كَأَنَّكَ تَرَاهُ، فَإِنْ لَمْ تَكُنْ تَرَاهُ فَإِنَّهُ يَرَاكَ
(Jibrīl) asked, “What is iḥsān?” (The Prophet) replied, “To worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you cannot achieve this state of devotion, then you must consider that He is looking at you.”
This hadith explains that worship or ’ibādah will be at its highest level when the presence of Allah s.w.t. is truly sensed or conceived. ’Ibādah comes in many forms. In fact, our every act—an act of the heart or a bodily act—in life can and should be an ’ibādah, seeking Allah’s pleasure. This builds upon the purpose of life as mentioned in the Quran:
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ ٱلْجِنَّ وَٱلْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ
“I did not create jinn and humans except to worship Me.”
(Surah Adh-Dhariyāt, 51:56)
Whenever an act is intended for ’ibādah, such as consuming food with the purpose of attaining health that enables a person to carry out his or her responsibilities, it then becomes more meaningful and religiously rewarding.
When a Muslim sincerely endeavours to acquire iḥsān in his or her action, he or she aims to do the best. As a result, they are blessed with Allah’s love. This is mentioned in the Quran:
وَٱللَّهُ يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُحْسِنِينَ
“And Allah loves the Muḥsinīn (those who are attributed with iḥsān).”
(Surah Ali ‘Imrān, 3:134)
As such, a Muḥsin is a person who pursues spiritual development, making aspects of his or her life increasingly better through the perfect footsteps of the Prophet s.a.w, and ultimately for the pleasure of the Creator. Hence, the person’s deeds are regarded as exemplary and should be emulated.
Our Islamic tradition offers systematic and methodological approaches to spiritual cultivation. A common yet essential subject closely related to spirituality is Tazkiyat al-Nafs— literally meaning, purification of the self. Another term used for the same subject of knowledge is called Tasawwuf.
In Islam, spiritual development will not realise to its full potential without purifying one’s heart. This means eliminating or at least curtailing spiritual diseases of the heart (amrāḍ al-qulūb).
Below are some examples of the spiritual diseases of the heart:
Kibr (Viewing oneself to be better than others in worldly matters)
Riyā’ (Discharging or offering ‘ibādah with the intention of making others see to gain their praise or admiration)
Hasad (Jealousy, envy)
Sū’ al-Ẓānn (Having bad preconceptions towards God or others)
Hubb al-Jāh (Love for power, money, position and fame)
These diseases remain hidden in the heart, and a Muslim will not sin for any of them until they materialise in the form of verbal or written words, actions or both. Eliminating these diseases is incredibly difficult. In fact, it is a lifetime struggle against our own nafs (the self that is tempted to do bad), as Allah s.w.t. mentions in the Quran,
وَمَآ أُبَرِّئُ نَفْسِىٓ ۚ إِنَّ ٱلنَّفْسَ لَأَمَّارَةٌۢ بِٱلسُّوٓءِ إِلَّا مَا رَحِمَ رَبِّىٓ ۚ إِنَّ رَبِّى غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“For indeed the soul is ever inclined to evil, except those shown mercy by my Lord.”
(Surah Yūsuf, 12:53)
Spiritual diseases could hinder one’s spiritual development quite remarkably. We may be able to perform religious rituals abundantly, but it does not guarantee overcoming the illnesses of our hearts in its entirety. And if there is no effort to get rid of them, the consequences can be very concerning.
In al-Adab al-Mufrad by Imam Al-Bukhārī, it is narrated that Abu Hurairah r.a. reported:
قِيلَ لِلنَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم: يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ، إِنَّ فُلاَنَةً تَقُومُ اللَّيْلَ وَتَصُومُ النَّهَارَ، وَتَفْعَلُ، وَتَصَّدَّقُ، وَتُؤْذِي جِيرَانَهَا بِلِسَانِهَا؟ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم: لاَ خَيْرَ فِيهَا، هِيَ مِنْ أَهْلِ النَّارِ، قَالُوا: وَفُلاَنَةٌ تُصَلِّي الْمَكْتُوبَةَ، وَتَصَّدَّقُ بِأَثْوَارٍ، وَلاَ تُؤْذِي أَحَدًا؟ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم: هِيَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ.
“The Prophet s.a.w. was asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah! A certain woman prays in the night, fasts in the day, acts and gives ṣadaqah (donations), but hurts her neighbours with her tongue (words).’ The Messenger of Allah s.a.w. said, ‘There is no good in her. She is one of the people of the Fire.’ They said, ‘Another woman prays the prescribed prayers and gives bits of curd as ṣadaqah and does not hurt anyone.’ The Messenger of Allah s.a.w. said, ‘She is one of the people of the Garden.’”
This hadith should trigger our concern over the possible danger of negative traits nullifying or reducing our rewards (ajr) for the ’ibādah and good deeds we did. In his magnum opus Ihyā’ al-‘Ulūm al-Dīn (The Revival of Religious Sciences), al-Imām al-Ghazālī, Allah’s mercy upon him, provides both theoretical and practical solutions to resolve the diseases of the heart.
Gratifying spiritual experiences can be attained when a Muslim does well in fulfilling his obligations, but also in carrying out the supererogatory acts. The Prophet s.a.w. said in a hadith qudsi:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ قَالَ مَنْ عَادَى لِي وَلِيًّا فَقَدْ آذَنْتُهُ بِالْحَرْبِ، وَمَا تَقَرَّبَ إِلَىَّ عَبْدِي بِشَىْءٍ أَحَبَّ إِلَىَّ مِمَّا افْتَرَضْتُ عَلَيْهِ، وَمَا يَزَالُ عَبْدِي يَتَقَرَّبُ إِلَىَّ بِالنَّوَافِلِ حَتَّى أُحِبَّهُ، فَإِذَا أَحْبَبْتُهُ كُنْتُ سَمْعَهُ الَّذِي يَسْمَعُ بِهِ، وَبَصَرَهُ الَّذِي يُبْصِرُ بِهِ، وَيَدَهُ الَّتِي يَبْطُشُ بِهَا وَرِجْلَهُ الَّتِي يَمْشِي بِهَا، وَإِنْ سَأَلَنِي لأُعْطِيَنَّهُ، وَلَئِنِ اسْتَعَاذَنِي لأُعِيذَنَّهُ، وَمَا تَرَدَّدْتُ عَنْ شَىْءٍ أَنَا فَاعِلُهُ تَرَدُّدِي عَنْ نَفْسِ الْمُؤْمِنِ، يَكْرَهُ الْمَوْتَ وَأَنَا أَكْرَهُ مَسَاءَتَهُ
“Allah said, ‘I will declare war against those who show hostility to a pious worshipper (wali) of Mine. My servant does not grow closer to Me with anything more beloved to me than the duties I have imposed upon him. My servant continues to grow closer to Me with extra good works until I love him. When I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask something from Me, I would surely give it to him. Were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant it to him. I do not hesitate to do anything as I hesitate to take the soul of the believer, for he hates death and I hate to displease him.’”
Based on this hadith, we understand that when a person constantly does a great deal of good deeds, he or she will attain the benefits of having his or her limbs do the right things as God pleases. This is a sign of Allah’s love towards His servants.
In addition to the benefits of spiritual development is experiencing the sweetness of faith that is deeply rooted in the love for Allah s.w.t.
ثَلاَثٌ مَنْ كُنَّ فِيهِ وَجَدَ بِهِنَّ حَلاَوَةَ الإِيمَانِ وَطَعْمَهُ أَنْ يَكُونَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ وَرَسُولُهُ أَحَبَّ إِلَيْهِ مِمَّا سِوَاهُمَا وَأَنْ يُحِبَّ فِي اللَّهِ وَأَنْ يُبْغِضَ فِي اللَّهِ وَأَنْ تُوقَدَ نَارٌ عَظِيمَةٌ فَيَقَعُ فِيهَا أَحَبَّ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ أَنْ يُشْرِكَ بِاللَّهِ شَيْئًا
“There are three things, whoever attains them will find therein the sweetness of faith: When Allah s.w.t., the Mighty and Sublime, and His Messenger s.a.w. are dearer to him than all else; when he loves for the sake of Allah s.w.t. and hates for the sake of Allah s.w.t.; and when a huge fire be lit and he prefers falling into it than to associate anything with Allah s.w.t. (shirk)”
Another example of a spiritual experience that can be felt by a Muslim is when zikr (remembrance) of Allah s.w.t. is established in one’s life. Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:
ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا وَتَطْمَئِنُّ قُلُوبُهُم بِذِكْرِ ٱللَّهِ ۗ أَلَا بِذِكْرِ ٱللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ ٱلْقُلُوبُ
“Those who believe and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of Allah. Surely in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find comfort.”
(Surah Ar-Ra’d, 13:28)
Zikr is a spiritual exercise that can be done in any part of our daily routines. For instance, seeking forgiveness (istighfār) from Allah s.w.t. while doing our household chores. It is a very doable practice by anyone but is forgotten most of the time. Therefore, everyone has to constantly remind themselves of it despite many distractions nowadays.
It is imperative that we comprehend the right meaning of Islamic spirituality. Otherwise, we might wrongly define it with elements that deviate from Shariah principles. Some may claim certain activities as part of spiritual experiences permitted in the religion when they are, in fact, deviant ones.
For example, the reception of divine revelation (wahy) through ‘spiritual possession’ (called menurun in Malay), and conducting spiritual healing (ruqyah) that is against the Shariah principles.
This is the reason why every Muslim should at least possess sound knowledge of Islam to seek guidance in practising it the right way. Being able to distinguish between the right and the wrong is highly crucial. And if things get complicated or confusing, one should refer to the recognised Asatizah to verify whether a certain so-called ‘spiritual practice or experience’ is permissible.
With the quest for spirituality continuing to increase, it warms the heart to know that people are seeking meaning, purpose and happiness beyond the material pleasure that is being commodified and overly exposed through the internet and social media today.
However, we should seek our answers in the right place. Spirituality from the Islamic perspective is not independent of faith. It is not just about having a momentary out-of-this-world experience or feeling. It involves commitment and discipline too. Acknowledging the complexities of the soul requires us to know where it comes from and how to develop it.
Ultimately, it is they who have prospered their soul who are truly successful in life. As Allah Himself emphasises in the Quran:
قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَن زَكَّىٰهَا. وَقَدْ خَابَ مَن دَسَّىٰهَا
"Successful indeed is the one who purifies their soul, and doomed is the one who corrupts it!"
(Surah Ash-Shams, 91:9-10)
3. non-religious term
5. Hussain, Khalid (2020). “Spirituality In Islam,” Essentials of Islamic Sciences, Adam Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi, 469-490.