Just recently, I realized how mechanical and meaningless some aspects of my spirituality have become.
Whenever I meet someone Muslim, I say “assalam alaikum.” That person responds to me “walaikum salaam.” Sometimes the other person says salaam first, and I respond to them. Everything is good, until I realize that I don’t even know what I just said. The words simply roll of my tongue. I mean I don’t even think about the fact that I am asking God to bless the other person with His peace, and that the other person is asking God to bless me with peace! I never actually feel much in my heart at hearing or saying salaam. It has turned into an ordinary “hello.” But there is nothing ordinary about saying the salaam. It is meant to be a heartfelt prayer. It is meant to have meaning. It is supposed to make ripples in our existence every time we utter or hear it. It’s purpose is to bring God’s peace on ourselves and others. Think about that for a moment. What is every human being searching for? Why do we put ourselves through so much in life? What is our ultimate goal? The end goal is always inner peace. We are all in constant need of God’s peace.
What I love about our species is that we are really excellent at messing things up, and even better at not taking any responsibility for our messes. So how is it that something as simple yet deep as SINCERELY wishing God’s inner peace on each other has turned into just a series of sounds put together to just say “hi.” I have a theory about religion/faith. The theory is the following: religion/faith is practiced and understood according to the dictates of popular culture. So what does popular culture tell us?
It tells us that what matters is what is on the outside. If you look hot and sexy, if you have the best wardrobe, if you make the most money, if you have the most number of fans, you have made it in life. Not only should you have a big ego, but you should also flaunt it. You are a role model for others because you are successful, and successful is basically everything that people can see, touch, feel, hear, and of course, purchase.
Just look at the problems facing faith communities of today. You can immediately see how so many practicing faithfuls are trapped by the image driven, ego based version of faith/religion. You are a good ____ (fill in with religious affilication) if you can successfully portray yourself as one to others. If you can appear to be a good ___, and other faithfuls keep telling you how amazing you are then that automatically means that you are one of the “chosen ones,” and so much holier than the rest of the herd. This just seems crazy to me. Of all things, why should spirituality and our personal connection to God contain egoistic elements?
Another part of our present day pop culture norm, is to rob people of the ability to make their own meaning in life. Meaning is imposed on others. Everything sacred and personal is processed and “packaged” for the ordinary person. Similarly, only images that reinforce the pop culture version of religion are advertised, publicized, and approved.
How do you feel when you keep seeing ultra rich people with their multi million dollar mansions, and photoshopped, waxed men with chiseled abs, and super skinny women with flawless skin and big breasts on every commercial piece of property on the planet? You feel like a failure, right? You feel terrible and you have implicit if not explicit body image and social class sensitivity issues. This is pretty much what has happened to mainstream religion these days (in my view).
I hear so many Muslims making jokes about the Friday prayer sermons. But I know that behind those jokes is pain and feelings of worthlessness. People have said things like, “yeah I know I’m a bad person and I’m going to hell, so let’s talk about something new in the sermons.” This just makes me feel sick. What in the world are our religious leaders doing? Why are imams (not all of them) putting people down in their sermons (not necessarily explicitly)? Why is meaning and judgement imposed on us? Why aren’t we allowed and encouraged to feel joy and happiness about our relationship with God, despite all our faults? Why are we being told that “you do such and such, and this means xyz, and therefore, you are damned in the eyes of God?” Why are we constantly robbed of our right to make meaning?
I realize now why all scriptures and faiths warn against speculating on others’ prospect for salvation. The reason is simple: meaning is personal. Every word, every act has an intention(s), a meaning(s), that is instantly and constantly communicated to God, and God alone! The same action or behavior means different to each individual. Whatever a person says or does, only they (and God) understand the myriad of meanings their words/act holds for them.
Even as you read this, you will not understand my words with a 100% of the same meaning that I intend to project. You will assign your own meaning to this which is perfectly natural. God gave you a mind of your own for a very good reason, and that is to make your own meaning. It is through your own meaning that you have your own special spiritual relationship with God. So let’s make meaning, not war.