11 May 2016
a damp crescent of sand next to a lake at the outskirt of the forest
surrounding the Mount Tremblant, I found myself contemplating the setting sun
while blinking at the rhythm of wave’s caressing the wooden trunk peacefully
resting on the shore.
farewell of the sun to the earth I was experiencing was a beautiful sight and I
could not resist taking out my phone in order to immortalize this scenery.
Right after I tried taking the best possible shot I could with my Smartphone in
order to share it with my friends, I realized the sun had almost entirely set
and I had missed a significant part of its setting. I turned off my phone and
sat there smiling at myself when realizing the bitter truth of the tendencies
of the society I had started to reflect through my behaviour.
society where we are used to sharing every thought and moment of our lives,
where we are expected to react on social media almost instantly after anything
happens in the world, these moments spent in solitude are a good reminder of
the very nature of our creation: the fact that one’s existence on earth does
not depend on others and that ultimately the purpose of our creation is to know
the Almighty and to experience his light, a purpose that is a personal one, and
one that will always prevail over ties that bind us to our social identity for
it will exist even if we were the only remaining souls living on earth.
I would find myself in a secluded place in the middle of nature, I would think
of a life spent in solitude in a wooden house “à la Henry Thoreau”, a life in
which simplicity would prevail over any other state and for some reason, the
thought of such a life always brought about a sense of spirituality in me which
in turn made me question the link between simplicity, solitude and
that solitude ultimately leads towards a simpler life is perhaps tied to
materialism. Often, philosophers that have written about solitude and seclusion
such as Thoreau or Emerson, have almost immediately experienced a newly
acquired taste of simplicity through the negation of the never-ending pursuit
of a material life, the only pursuit through which many of us identify
ourselves and remain alive.
Solitude and Simplicity
words, it seemed as though seeking simplicity was a reaction to an
overstimulation of the senses expressed through materialism in societies whose
foundations were built upon consumption and the fulfilment of human desires.
The negation of such a life pushes one to search for another balance, one in
which spiritual needs are placed above physical ones. Therefore, the link
between spirituality, solitude, and simplicity is one that is tied to our own
nature. The quest for spirituality leads one to negate materialism, which
brings about simplicity and in turn, seeking simplicity often leads one to live
away from centres of materialistic societies, in relative solitude.
explanation for the spiritual high one experiences when alone in nature, is
perhaps tied to the realization of oneself in the scale of the universe. When
you end up staring at oceans and mountains, or experiencing the depth of a
forest, you often understand better how insignificant your physical reality is
in the entire scheme of God’s creation. At this point, your ego flattens and
you end up experiencing a shift in your perception of your own reality. It is
when you stare at the countless stars that witness your existence from above
that you end up identifying yourself with the infinity of your soul more than
through the nothingness of your physical being.
in the perception of who we are is a critical one in one’s quest for meaning
for it is through this shift that one gains a greater sense of responsibility.
It is only when we identify ourselves through our spiritual existence that we
can pretend to understand better, words of the great Arif that Imam Ali (pbuh)
was when he mentions that:
beings should not see themselves as insignificant beings, for within them, is
buried an entire universe’.
wrote these thoughts down on a paper in order to make some sense from all of
which I had experienced in that little time away from home, I reached out to my
copy of Walden and started re-reading Thoreau’s essays on solitude. I found it
fascinating that I could connect with some of his words after only half a day
spent in nature, a realization that made me think about the universal truth
that unites every human being that has ever set foot on earth in the true
nature of their creation. This universality in creation not only meant that we
shared a common purpose, it also meant that there had to be common realities
which regulated every living being’s spiritual quests no matter how different
each and every wayfarer lost in the path of God could be. And if this
universality was indeed a fundamental truth, one could expect these principles
found in western philosophy to be expressed, validated or completed by other
schools of thought, especially one as rich and exhaustive as Islamic
that solitude impacts one’s spirituality is not a thought that is uncommon
within Islamic tradition. On the contrary, it is actually a subject that
features in almost every treatise of spiritual wayfaring. Amongst the greatest
mystics and modern philosophers that Islam has been blessed to have under its
banner and who have written about this topic, Allameh Tabatabaei often stands
out as the perfect example of a man who had understood and manifested
principles of the Quran in his personality and life.
In his book
Kernel of the Kernel, Allameh beautifully explains how his journey towards
light passed through several stages and how relative seclusion (Khilwat)
was an integral part of his spiritual ascension. Allameh identifies spiritual
wayfarers to be unlike ‘the group of people [who] have no will power of their
own, [a group which is] totally submissive to the will of society and follows
[it]. On the contrary, according to Allameh, wayfarers seeking spirituality have
a tendency to distance themselves from certain people; they busy themselves in
‘Dhikr’ and often avoid crowds, attention and noisy places.
indeed similarities in both western and Islamic schools of thought when it
comes to the role solitude plays in spirituality. But are the two really equal?
Can one live a life like Thoreau; a spiritual life spent in the woods, in
solitude and silence and still follows Islam in its entirety?
While I got
more and more interested in those topics, and tried to grasp and absorb essays
on solitude from western and Islamic philosophers I realized how their writing
were starting to profoundly impact my personality. I had always been a lively
person, the kind of person that would crack a joke in order to make other feel
comfortable and lighten up a conversation. But the more I read Thoreau and
others, the more I became quiet. The more I spent time in nature, the more I
appreciated silence. Interestingly, others often perceived this newly acquired
sense of tranquility, which expressed itself through silence, as a state of
worry, stress or anxiety. It always brought a smile on my face when people
thought I was lost exactly when I started to find where my existence laid in
God’s entire scheme of creation.
keeping these thoughts in my mind, and forever seeking the balance required
between solitude and society, between simplicity and materialism, this
spiritual journey brought me to Qum in Iran where I spent few weeks amongst
scholars from the hawza (seminary) and students from the west. I remember
having travelled from Qum to Mashhad in a night train accompanied by Agha
Amini, a teacher of Akhlaq that Ayatollah Tahriri, himself a student of Allameh
had advised to consult for spiritual growth.
middle of the night, I asked my question to Agha Amini and tried to understand
where the middle ground laid. On the one hand, it is often narrated that
Allameh Tabatabaei had reached a certain level of spirituality after
successfully detaching himself from materialism while distancing himself from
elements of society which were detrimental to his spiritual growth. Other
mystics such as Ayatollah Mutahari had also emphasized on the detrimental
impact of a materialistically driven society on one’s spirituality. But on the
other hand, there were also countless advantages and benefits that could solely
be acquired in the presence of other individuals, be it learning from scholars,
helping others, teaching and the refinement of one’s morality all of which one
could not benefit from if one was to live a life in the woods like Thoreau. And
because Islam emphasized so much on social and family ties and
responsibilities, one could easily find himself lost, eternally looking for the
right balance required to grow spiritually without neglecting its Islamic
listened and understood the matter. He gave me an advice, which I engraved in
my mind ever since. He acknowledged the fact that temporary seclusion and
solitude were indeed practices that were common amongst mystics and that they
did bear a spiritual significance. However, despite the relevance of these
practices, Agha Amini stressed on another aspect of Akhlaq that was by far the
most critical to one’s spiritual growth and that followed a much simpler
formula: perform your wajibat (obligatory acts) and avoid your muharammat
(forbidden acts). From this perspective, one can only distance himself from
certain social elements only as long as it does not lead one to infringe on
his/her social duties.
sentence made a lot of sense to me and I find it interesting that this advice
was actually the first one that Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini, may Allah give him a
high rank in Jannah, mentioned in his book on self building and spiritual
growth when he wrote that ‘monasticism, renunciation of worldly affairs, and
unacceptance of social responsibilities are not pre requisite for undertaking a
self-purification program, on the contrary, as will be shown in the book later
on that seclusion and relinquishment of individual and social responsibilities
are inconsistence with the spiritual self-building and self-purification
Tabatabaei himself draws a sharp contrast between true seekers of spirituality
and people who have made solitude, seclusion and the negation of all social
customs, norms and responsibilities to be the principles around which their
lives are built. Allameh mentions in his book that the true spiritual seeker
must always observe moderation and adopt a middle position.
think about this quest for meaning and spirituality, this journey seeking the
middle ground and how it had impacted my perception of life, I realized how
these writings had made me rely on my sole company more than I ever had before.
And since I had learnt how to appreciate life through my own existence, I was
now able to find a greater sense of satisfaction from my life experiences, for
they did not rely on anyone else’s approval or acceptance.
this realization made me distance myself from social media. I am not against
the use of Facebook or Twitter and I do realize that there are countless
advantages of being able to connect and share content with likeminded people
within seconds no matter where they live. As a matter of fact, I am not even
sure you would be reading this essay if it wasn’t shared on social media.
several reasons why one distances himself from these platform, especially while
seeking greater realms of self awareness. The first one is a very simple one.
When one learns how to appreciate moments of his life for the truth they
inherently bear instead of how great they would look once immortalized, one
does not feel the need to experience them through the appreciation of others.
reason is perhaps a more subtle, and is the fruit of a deeper realization, one
that makes one question the miserable value we tend to assign to our thoughts
ponders over the matter a little more, one soon realizes that most of us have a
tendency to judge the validity of our thoughts and experiences through the
popularity they generate on social media. The more likes a post gets, the more
one feels he has written something worthy of being read. This reliance on
others not only feeds one’s ego, it also makes one to exist solely through
foreign eyes. This behaviour not only forces our existence to express itself
through likes and comments, it pushes our souls to surrender their most
valuable God-given right, the right to be free and to exist through our sole
dependence on Allah’s mercy and justice.
And to be fair with all other injustices committed by past and previous
societies, I found this caging of our identity to be the greatest form of
enslavement of modern times for I don’t think we have ever knowingly,
consciously and wilfully belittled our existences any lower.
greatest challenge in this quest of spirituality is to find a balance between
the sweetness of solitude, and the tenderness of friends and family, the
balance between the soothing tranquillity of silence and the thrill of
exchanging with likeminded people. With time I have realized how far greater
Islamic mysticism and philosophy are to ideas of Thoreau, no matter how
brilliant they are, for Islamic mysticism allows one to attain its true
potential without hindering the spiritual growth of others. It allows the likes
of Allameh Tabatabaei to enlighten societies they live in, to share their
knowledge and train future generations of thinkers, all of which are
responsibilities without which they themselves couldn’t have attained the level
of understanding and wisdom they have attained. Islamic mysticism lets you enter
greater realms of spirituality using a balance that suits the entirety of one’s
reality, which is not only a spiritual one, but a social and physical one also.
And it is at the junction of these three realities that one can truly fulfill
the purpose of its own creation.
how to call this balance. This place where one is just alone enough to be free
yet, present enough to serve others. I guess I’ll just call it the way I
picture it in my mind: a place stuck between Muir’s mountain and Thoreau’s
house in the woods; a place that offers a tiny bit of flexibility in order to
experience silence the way Allamah did. Often, when I think about this place, I
think of Frost and the road diverging in a yellow wood. While he chose to take
the one less travelled by, I chose to create my own. Somewhere between a path
leading to total seclusion and one leading to a complete immersion in society,
I decided to walk on my own unpathed trail. And when I stopped after a while in
order to observe where I stood in comparison with the two other paths, I found
myself exactly where I had intended to be, in the space that lied in between
Tabatabaei, Kernel of the Kernel
Amini, Self Building
David Thoreau, Walden
Muir, Mountains of California
Misbah Yazdi, Provisions of the Journey
Frost, The road not taken