Junk Food for the Soul

It is a central principle of Islam that the heart is owned by its owner and by its Owner. At the heart of Islam is the notion that you own your heart. Meaning, none can control your heart, save for you and your Creator, the One we call the “Turner of Hearts.”

Regardless of how much someone may try to coerce your heart, the most that anyone can do is to coerce your body and your emotions. But, your heart is beyond the reach of anyone but you and your Owner. You can reveal the contents of your heart, or hide them, but the secrets of your heart are yours. Outsiders, however, will seek to seize them and replace them.

In our culture, however, we find four insidious methods for coercing the heart. Rather, these methods seek to reach as close to the heart as any outsider can. The first method involves atrophying the heart itself. The second method involves inhibiting any growth. The third method involves clouding it. The fourth method involves splitting the heart. But, any of these methods only work against us if we allow them to work against us.

We know that the mind-heart-body trichotomy in Islam differs from the contemporary imperial models. In our paradigm, the mind is the rational intellect, the heart is the intuitive intellect, the body is the sensory intellect. The rational, the intuitive, the sensory are each intellects. Contrast this reality with the contemporary imperial model, in which the mind is the rational, while the heart is the emotional, and the body is the reactive sensory. The difference does not end here. In the Islamic paradigm, the animals, plants, and earth also have consciousness, spirituality, and, by extension, precious value. In the imperial model, the plants, animals, and earth are available for our devouring consumption. Effectively, an animal is no different than a pebble, when obstructing our imperial ambitions, often a human is no different than a pebble either.

The key point here, is that in the contemporary imperial model, the heart is not an intellect, but a place of emotion and passion. Further, the emotions themselves are frowned upon as weakness. In the contemporary imperial model, the heart is the source of naive weakness, while in the Islamic model, the heart is the source of your strength. It is your truest intellect. It is your backbone, your courage. It is in the heart that we find your ilah. But, when we embrace this contemporary imperial model, what have we done? We have atrophied the heart. In removing the strength from the heart, we abandon the most important organ of our consciousness. Test yourself. Try to sit still for a minute, not thinking of any words. Then, try to sit still for a minute not thinking. Try to sit still without thinking, while breathing normally. Can you do it?

Our society is thus hyper-rational, in that we have been conditioned to over “think” everything. As we know, even though we are hyper-rational, our rationality is thoroughly crippled by a largely useless educational system at all levels, teaching our future generations knowledge that is irrelevant for their personal and professional lives.

This problematic educational system recalls the second insidious methods for capturing and coercing the heart. Another central concept in our Islamic tradition is the concept of movement. The terminology across our sciences are so frequently terms of movement: Shari’ah, Tariqah, Madhhab, Sirah all speak of paths. Repeatedly, the Qur’an calls on the believers to explore. Reflect on the world. Travel across the world. Look out into space. What is this call, but a call to yearn and feed your yearning. In contemporary language, this call is a call to curiosity. Not only does our contemporary educational system tend to shut down this curiosity, but most systems of religious education obliterate any sense of spiritual curiosity by stamping it down with dogmatic instruction. What is dogma? Dogma is a knowledge of tradition that bears minimal practical value, and is hostile to imagination. If in the first method, we shut down our hearts by convincing ourselves that our hearts are empty vessels of weakness, then in this second method we shut down our hearts by using religion and education to shut down a most central tool of the heart: yearning. Try it. Try to identify your most deep yearning. You know when you are approaching it if you feel vulnerable and tender. How long does it take for you to reach that point? Meaning, how much have you censored yourself from it?

The third method for coercing the heart might be the most obvious: pollution. Ours is an era of multiple types of pollution, and most often, we focus on material corruption. Even then, because our overall outlook reduces plants, animals, and the earth to subjects of our disposal, that conversation is largely muted, looking at our treatment of the earth as something different than sheer abuse. But, two of the central tools for reaching the heart are the eyes and ears. And, two of the most insidious forms of defilement are noise and visual pollution. Consider how much your eyes and ears are bombarded. With the development of personal media devices, your eyes and ears are even more cluttered than perhaps at any time in human history. Because our newly developing systems of communication seem to necessitate that even a young child carries a personal media device, this audio-visual bombardment begins at an early age. So now, not only is the child reared with a sense that the heart is irrelevant and obstructive, not only is the child’s sense of wonder getting stamped out, but the heart is getting buried within a heap of nonsense. Try it. Shut off all electrical devices (including your lights) and try to enjoy the silence. As you develop a taste for silence, you will long for it.

The fourth method is a method that seems to get increasingly refined: alienation. Consider how alienated we have become from others. In the industrialized era, giving rise to the middle class, our material goals have pulled us away from each other: we seek houses on larger and larger plots of land. The result is distance from our neighbors who, in previous generations, were intimately involved in our lives and livelihoods. Now, with those same personal media devices and new methods of social networking we are replacing human interaction with digital messaging. The end result is that our hearts are getting separated from each other, replacing these human connections with artificial conversations. On the positive side, we are connected to so many more people, but on the negative side, our substantial relationships are shrinking at the same rate. The heart needs nourishment by way of interaction with good company. Now, instead, we are fed the equivalent of junk food for the soul. Try it: interact with intimacy with people. Speak about something more substantive than pleasantries and projects. Do you know how, anymore?

Thus, this is the era we live in. We live in an era of a heart that is increasingly atrophied, crushed, cluttered, and split. But, we are not lost. The challenge is to reclaim that heart that is within you and nurture it back to growth, and then, if God wills, you will no longer be the numb zombie that you did not realize you are. You will be a human.

And God knows best.

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