Part I | Part II
I want you to take a moment and think back to all of the Islamic events, conferences, lectures. halaqahs (circles) or any related gatherings you have ever attended. Try to remember the impact that the speaker had on you, the moments of inspiration that had you promising yourself that today would be the day you would change.
My question is: have you?
When I was younger, I remember feeling a strong excitement whenever the next Islamic event was around the corner. Like so many Muslim youth, I was part of a clique, so to speak, that would not only attend these events, but feverishly advertise them through networking and social media. Truthfully speaking, it sometimes became less about the event itself, and more about being part of a group that got to listen to popular speaker X on popular topic Y.
It felt inclusive…at the time.
Yes, I was learning about the basics of my deen (religion) which helped to create a foundation on which I could build my religious identity. However, at some point, I couldn’t help but realize that I had been met with a wall.
Somewhere along the way, the topics at such Islamic events started to meld together; certain stories, ahadith (sayings and traditions of the Prophet ﷺ) and Qur’anic verses were so often quoted that the impact they had on me were gradually dulled. I couldn’t help but find myself yearning for something deeper and more meaningful. I had also become keenly attuned to (and, later, excruciatingly bored with) the jokes and attention-grabbing tactics that many, if not most, of the speakers employed in order to engage the audience.
I soon realized that I had stumbled upon a spiritual plateau. This realization was marked by the reality that despite the numerous Islamic gatherings I had attended, I had barely changed. Sure, my mental bank of basic Islamic knowledge had grown, but when I was honest with myself, I had to admit that very little of that knowledge had actually translated into practical action on my part.
Upon realizing this, I felt consumed by guilt. Was I a hypocrite? After attending so many Islamic gatherings – to the point where everything sounded the same – why was I still battling with the same demons? Why did I commit the same sins? Why did my books and notes end up lost or collecting dust somewhere?
And then it hit me: I had come across a spiritual blockage which, at some point, had led me to a pause in practical learning and replaced it with a sophisticated and glamorized means of information collecting. I had collected a library of profound ahadith, ayat (verses from the Qur’an) and stories that made me feel good, but would eventually be stored in the back of my mind, rarely to be accessed again.
While at one point these events served as beneficial reminders for me, they now began to fill a spiritual void; one where I was falsely – and temporarily – left feeling good about attending the event for the sake of doing so, and not necessarily for having left it a better person.
For so long, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the anxiety I felt once I noticed how bored and uninspired many of the events left me feeling. It was only through intense research at the time, and my current training as a psychotherapist, that I came across a way of defining my experience: spiritual bypassing.
In a fantastic piece in Psychology Today, Dr. Ingrid Mathieu says about the issue:
“We’ve gotten progressively more skillful in our methods: turning away from drugs or alcohol to alter our consciousness and turning towards things like self-help books, meditation, yoga, prayer, and special diets. In some ways, we are now spiritually distracting ourselves from our feelings, thinking that we are walking a healthy spiritual path.
“This experience is called spiritual bypass. Spiritual bypass is a defense mechanism. Although the defense looks a lot prettier than other defenses, it serves the same purpose. Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in—and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.”
How many of us have yet to recognize the ways in which we have used spiritual bypassing as a defense against our deeper emotions and issues?
Once I became aware of this concept, I intentionally increased my self-awareness. I made sure that I attended events and circles that were relevant to my spiritual journey and that genuinely interested me. I also began to shed the position of the passive event attendee and instead assumed a role of critical thinking and engagement (something which unfortunately got me into a little trouble sometimes). What I discovered shocked me and helped me lift some of the self-blame and shame that I felt towards my spiritual plateau.
Firstly, I came to question (out of curious truth-seeking, not hostility) the actual organizations or groups hosting such events: What was their mission? What was their history of active community engagement and service? What were their underlying Islamic values and concepts? What progressive strides have they made in my community – or have they at all?
I also began to actually question the speakers from whom I was learning – something that we are usually conditioned not to do, especially as young Muslims. I began to attune myself not only to what the speaker was saying, but to how they said it and how it made me feel. I also began to consider the context from which they came. Shortly, I realized that much of why I couldn’t connect to particular speakers, or why their words would often leave me feeling uneasy, was due to our completely different worldviews and experiences. I began to see why I, as a young, coloured, educated Somali-Canadian female was having trouble connecting with what the speaker (who was often an older South Asian or Arab* male with orthodox Islamic knowledge) was telling me about Islam.
It wasn’t about race or politics; it was about relatedness. My difficulty with establishing congruence between the Islam I was learning in these controlled environments and the Islam that I faced on a day-to-day basis stemmed not from an inherent deficiency in my sensibilities – or that of the speaker – but deeper issues rooted in race, privilege, authority, socio-economic status, gender, upbringing, education, perspective and hierarchy, to name just a few.
In time, I began to see how my true struggles were not being addressed at these events. Yes, it was nice to learn about our wonderful and enriched Islamic history, but what did that mean for me right now? What did it mean after I left the event? I am sure the onus of responsibility to create meaning and connection lies mostly with the individual; however, what about the roles of our speakers, Islamic organizations and workers?
*please note that these ethnic groups were used as an example for the purpose of highlighting cultural differences. Such differences, however, are not limited to individuals from these groups.