I write this during Ramadan, the Islamic month of spiritual fasting, a practice I have followed since my early teenage years. For many of my friends, it’s a practice outside of their understanding and a source of confusion for those who know me more casually through my work. “I didn’t know you were religious”, they tell me, often with a tone of skepticism and perhaps caution. I get it, there is a lot of baggage with the idea of religiosity. To be religious is to potentially believe in dozens of totally irrational things; to adhere to beliefs handed down through generations with blind faith, to maybe even trust without questioning the veracity of these beliefs regardless of contemporary knowledge and insight. In the media, we typically see religious individuals are capable of incomprehensible acts of irrationality from bombing abortion clinics, to sacrificing animals, and flying airplanes into buildings — all in the name of their faith.
Such is the power and prevalence of religious exposure that even those who know me as a rational and skeptical person might suddenly question how well they might really know me. It’s as if me being in touch with religion’s potentially deep irrationality opens up the possibility that I might believe the earth is only 6,000 years old, or or that God listens to our thoughts and prayers and will directly intervene to protect us from violence, vindictiveness, or viruses. (In case you are wondering, you can be rest assured that I trust our scientific endeavors to understand evolution and that our public safety is a responsibility of the people and government.)
Socially, it has become common to separate these didactic and prescriptive beliefs from more general intuitive beliefs by declaring oneself spiritual, but without the heavy burden of a specific religious ideology. This tension between belief and unbelief, or perhaps between belief in the rational and belief in the irrational, creates a real struggle. Interestingly, many religious traditions understand and embrace this struggle. In Islam, for example, that internal struggle between belief and unbelief is referred to as Jihad.
While generally interpreted as ‘holy war’, the concept of Jihad has two parts: The lesser, but more widely known, Jihad is the external struggle between belief and unbelief. At its most extreme, it can be interpreted as ‘slaying infidels’ or some such nonsense, or to a lesser degree as a kind of evangelism, fighting to win converts. I personally think of it as in line with the rabbinical tradition of debating and questioning with others our interpretations of religious writings and teachings to achieve greater mutual understanding of what it means to be on a spiritual path.
The greater Jihad, by contrast, is an individual’s personal, internal struggle to reconcile our rational and irrational understanding of the world; to confront and question what we are taught and find the balance between what we believe, what we don’t believe, and what we might believe regardless of whether or not it makes sense. Irrational beliefs are not unique to those who maintain a particular religious affiliation, we all have beliefs in the intangible and nonsensical.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari argues that sharing these abstract beliefs allows us to band together as a larger society and are integral in the creation of civilization as a whole. Such beliefs go far beyond an adherence to astrology, essential oils, homeopathic medicine, or a fear that the flu shot can make you sick (or any vaccine for that matter). They are not confined to one political camp or another. These irrational beliefs also include concepts like the inherent goodness of humanity, money, and corporations. Such large, communal beliefs are resilient and don’t disappear if one of us stops believing in them. They are born and live in a larger paradigm than our individual beliefs, but if enough of us decide they aren’t real, then they will fall apart. For instance, some long held truths, like our beliefs in race and gender, are slowly crumbling and creating a whole new paradigm for how we interact with each other.
I hope that, by acknowledging belief in the irrational is an integral part of how we define our reality and our society, we can understand that it isn’t our belief in the irrational that makes us wary of religion. It is the strict, judgmental, and tribalist dogmas that cause us to distance ourselves from these religious institutions. By creating that distance, however, I think something quintessential about our spiritual journey is being thrown out with the religious bath water. We use the moniker of ‘spiritual, but not religious’ to keep space open for belief, irrational though it may be. It is at risk of lacking an essential aspect of what organized religion has to offer: a disciplined practice that moves us forward on our spiritual journey.
Talking about the spiritual in contrast to the religious reminds me of the Christian debate about ‘grace’ vs. ‘works’. In mainline Protestantism, the concept of grace has become a central tenant of the faith. It is enough to acknowledge and accept Jesus as the ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior’. Through that belief alone the soul is saved. By contrast, traditional Catholicism believe that one must do certain things to acquire salvation. These works are beyond a statement of belief, they require that you put that faith into the world and let it guide your actions. Such works are doing good deeds, giving to charity/tithing, attending church, confession, baptism, etc.
The concept of ‘works’ seems logical to me. I suspect most religions formed not only from a set of beliefs but also a prescribed way of life in line with those beliefs. If we believe there is something more to the fundamental natural of reality than we can immediately witness, some ultimate good, some eternal truth, then it follows that we might live our lives in such a way to come closer to understanding and living within that truth.
Be courageous and discipline yourself.
work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
Is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside
Will eventually open a window
And look out to see who’s there.
Spiritual practice, not belief alone, is the core of religion, and without such a practice I fear any desire we have to close the distance between ourselves and that greater mystery will go unfulfilled. For this reason, rather than identifying as ‘spiritual, but not religious’ I have instead embraced the distinction of being ‘religious, but not dogmatic’. As a musician, it is this notion of devotion and disciplined practice that enticed me into a conservatory atmosphere. My musical practice and spiritual practice are deeply intertwined and, at its best, flow easily from one to the other. I suspect I am not the only musician who feels this way.
This distinction has sometimes made it difficult for me to create a satisfying label for myself as a Muslim. I love the principles of Islam’s 5 pillars, but struggle to follow them as they are traditionally done. And yet, here I am fasting during the month of Ramadan as I have for more than half my life. It is a part of the spiritual practice I submit myself to, and I have created my own disciplined practice around it. Each morning I wake before the sun rises, I eat, and write, and read Sufi poetry. I have practiced Ramadan in this way for many years, and each year feel a great spiritual calmness, a greater understanding of realities hidden nature, and one step closer to some greater truth.
I can’t say what to believe or how to follow one’s belief towards a deeper understanding of the truth. Maybe it’s Jesus, salvation, and the catholic sacraments, maybe it’s harmony, intonation, scales, and arpeggios, or Mohammad, the Qur’an, and praying five times a day. Rumi says,
There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
My experience has shown me, however, that if we want to grow spirituality, we must find a way to kneel. Without intentional action, without discipline and practice, and without some internal sense of religion, we will risk not coming any closer to understanding the truths many of us so ardently seek.