Our daily routine defines what we are, what we think and what we will do in the future. Often we grow up with a societal narrative as to what we are supposed to accomplish in our lives. For most of us, it is what our parents, media, friends, community, school, university, workplace and country has ingrained in our thinking. As we progress in life the stereotypical societal expectations are enhanced and reinforced, without us ever taking time out to think why we are doing what we are doing in our lives.
Some consider this a modern phenomenon, but the truth of the matter is that it has been going on throughout history. Many great men came to a point in their lives where they questioned the prevalent mores, values, beliefs and customs of their societies. The Prophet (SWAS) took time out to meditate in the wilderness before divine revelation descended upon him. Even those who have been trained into the religious sciences and have accomplished great stature, come to a point where they seek to understand basic assumptions in life.
This happened to Imam Al Ghazzali as well. As the Principal of the top center of learning of his time – the Nizamiyya of Baghdad -- he had reached the pinnacle of his professional career. He had mastered, at least externally, what was known of the religious sciences. He was an eloquent orator and an articulate debater of religious doctrine. Nevertheless, he experienced a time when he was dumbfounded at the essential meaning and purpose of his life. He did not understand why he was doing what he was doing. After extended periods of confusion and internal turmoil he took the bold decision to give up all he had – his career, position, wealth, reputation, family, city, etc. He set out to live a life of a wandering ascetic. He spent years in ignominy undergoing deep contemplation, dhikr, spiritual exercises, etc. This experience transformed him. He used the spiritual experiences he underwent to document the inner insights from the meaning of the external Sharia that he was trained in his youth. After years of solitude, he emerged into society to teach the kernels of truths he had discovered -- some of which he documented in his Magnum Opum, Ihyaa Uloom Uddeen (The Revival of the Religious Sciences). His explanation of Islam transformed it from rituals of external fossilized customs to a meaningful transformative internal agent for positive change.
Modern professors take a sabbatical from their daily research and teaching. This has shown to add essential depth and meaning in their vision. Modern day Muslims are eager to excel in their education and career. Have they considered taking a sabbatical from their daily routine to enhance their perspective of Reality? As witnesses onto humanity, Muslims have higher goals than to just earn a living. To play their part out sincerely, they need a deeper understanding of the world and this life than the common people of other faiths.
Ideal periods to achieve this is at key crossroads in life: after graduating from high school or university, after establishing yourself in your career, after marriage, etc. It is important that one tries to broaden one’s understanding at a stage in life which would allow him/her to contribute in life later on. Most people undergo such changes after retirement only to prepare for death.
Freeing oneself of the luxuries of life makes one independent of many needs which chains many people into inaction and a compromised life. Try living without your cell phone, the internet, a soft bed, rich food, television, support from family and friends. Someone who undergoes such experiences does not fear deprivation. Their eyes are always fixed on more meaningful goals and they are able to sustain almost all circumstances in life. The only thing that should not be compromised in the ability to practice the deen, a simple but clean environment and access to quality Islamic education.
As parents, we should expose our children to tough circumstances as well and arrange such spiritual retreats for them from an earlier age; whether they be in the form of Muslim scout camps, long weekend Muslim youth retreats, hiking trips, voluntary fasts, etc. Once they are old enough we should encourage our children to enroll in study abroad programs to third world countries, volunteer programs like Muslim Peace Corps and study Islam formally with traditional scholars in the Muslim world.