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My Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Death of Religion

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There is a pretty obvious disparity between being religious and being spiritual. Religion is about following rules; establishing order to an individual and a society. Spirituality is about an experience; about feeling spiritual. Religion says you need to donate to the poor; spirituality causes you to want to do it, and to feel good from it.

Religion has been necessary as a safeguard for society, since spirituality can be difficult to define, learn, experience, and thus near-impossible to ensure with the society otherwise. The difficulty is illustrated in the common ethical/legal idea that while the ideal ethical society wouldn’t need laws like “don’t murder” (because no one would anyways), in the real world we need the law in place because not everyone abides by the same behavioral and social patterns. But spirituality is the paramount purpose of religion, and it has been largely supplanted and suppressed by many religious institutions today.

I don’t see much spirituality in religion anymore, and i think this is fueling the rise in the number of the world’s non-religious. Recently i went to Mecca, the Islamic holy land, and i’ve been amidst the ultra-religious, ultra-Islamic Saudi society, and it has been this experience which brought this subject to mind.

While in Mecca i saw no spirituality.

I will repeat this again, because it bears repetition. I was in the holy center of the world for as many as 1.5 billion human beings, was surrounded by tens of thousands of Muslims on pilgrimage in their most holy place, and i saw no spirituality–I saw only religion. I may not exactly be Muslim by most conservative standards (whether i am or not is up for debate, but through study of the Qur’an i believe that my Omnism and general morality implies that i am), but i am a lover of spiritual experiences and i seek them in all places and times, and i am extremely reverent towards all things sacred.

While circumambulating the Ka’aba there was little sacredness left, highlighted by the absence of love or recognition of others. Everyone cared only of their own pilgrimage, pushing and shoving each other as they walked, many not looking where they were going, many going against the flow of traffic to get up to the Ka’aba or to leave, and always doing so in the rudest of ways. It took every ounce of mental effort to keep track of my aunt, cousin, and grandmother and to not blow up in rage at these people around me. I wasn’t given a chance to sink into a spiritual calm, or to admire the wonder and beauty of the place, or to contemplate the importance and the meaning of the core ideals that Islam embodies. In the bathroom, while washing my feet (only because they were dirty), i was given a stink eye by a guy because i wasn’t doing a full wuDu’, the process of ritual cleansing done by all Muslims before prayer. While i’m very happy to have been given the chance to have gone, i’m very sad not to have seen the loving-kindness that i’ve come to expect from devout Muslims.

Through my time here practicing Islam and studying the Qur’an and learning Arabic and living within this culture, i see such a gaping disparity between the vision of the Qur’an and the common Islam of today. For one example, the Islam of the Qur’an sought peace and brotherhood between it and neighboring religions, and asserts that they will go to heaven too so long as they love God and act righteously (e.g. 2:62). So many Muslims i’ve met here in the Middle East believe that other religions result in hell. For another example, at the end of the group prayer you’re supposed to turn to your right and then to your left, saying As-salaamu-‘alaykum (peace be upon you) each time. While there is a person on either side of you, nobody actually says it to the person sitting next to them; instead they say it quietly while looking at the ground. This practice obviously had the original meaning of establishing brotherhood between Muslims! And at the very least it would have the potential to. But instead it’s treated like a mere rule to follow; in other words: It is religion without spirituality.

The Islam in Saudi and of much of the modern world is the following of rules. I’m sure that many Muslims have profound spiritual experiences today as they used to through the following of these rules, but the spiritual core is lost to the general public. The one branch devoted to spiritual experiences—Sufism—is considered by many Muslims to be a misinterpretation of Islam, if not downright heretical. But the Sufi’s aim is the core lifeblood of the religion as a whole: Constant remembrance and reverence for God in every word, thought, and action you carry out. When you remove the spirituality from the religion, you’re left with a shell of rules and fundamentalist fairy tales. Islam has not lost all of its spirituality, but it’s in a dire state. The peace and calm of prayer has to come out of your head for it to mean anything, and this is what’s most important. Not the number of prostrations i do, the times i pray, the avoidance of pork, or the manner of cleansing myself before i pray.

By now if you’re a Muslim, you’re probably not very happy with what i have to say. If you’re not Muslim you may be saying “I knew it! I knew Islam was false!” Well first of all: No it’s not a false or bad religion. And second, for you Muslims who feel angry at this: I love the Qur’an. I profess that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is a prophet of God.[1] Third, and most importantly:

My experiences with other religions have shown me the same chasm.

Like Gandhi seemed to notice nearly a century ago, i see little of Christ in most Christians today or Christian communities. Chances are, you already are aware of this, reader. Even amongst Christians this is no secret — there are so many sects, factions, and new churches divided over almost every single superficial matter you can imagine — and of course with many sects, the others are considered wrong and un-Christian-like.

In Judaism, the lack of Jewish spirituality is very obvious, and many Jews will be the first to admit that they aren’t religious, or if they are it’s because they want to preserve their ancient culture; and the spiritual ones i’ve met all drew their spirituality from Eastern religions!

And while i choose the label of Buddhist and am most fond of Eastern religion, they too are often in a similar position. So many of the Buddhists i’ve known are more concerned with doing everything in the exact order and exact manner of how it’s written, rather than focusing on the core of the meaning in facilitating spiritual experiences and spiritual-psychological growth and transformation. Many of these fundamentalists will speak highly of dialogue with other religions, but will chastise you as a Buddhist for not adhering to some core Buddhist belief like reincarnation or reliance on the guru—and i say this from personal experience.[2]

So is it really any wonder that people of the modern world are leaving religion in droves?

Atheism, agnosticism, and apathy towards religion is on the up and up across all cultures. Even those who still consider themselves a member of their birth religion very often don’t participate or adhere to it in any significant way. It seems we may not need religion anymore. Do we? To know this we need to examine the role it plays for humans. I’m most fond of Joseph Campbell‘s four functions of mythology as the answer to this: The social (for the organization of society and community and the integration of the individual into it), the cosmic (for explaining the nature and origin of the cosmos and the individual’s place in it), the psychological (helping the individual to grow and overcome obstacles in their psyche), and the transcendent (facilitating spiritual experiences).

The first two are fulfilled by modern global politics, science, and technology, but the last two are lacking. They are what is most needed in the globalizing world, and the chief reason religion is still around at all. But i don’t think we need religion so much anymore, or at least we won’t need it before long. It’s about the spiritual experience now, and that should be approached the way we approach the first two, which is to say, scientifically. We need to compare experiences and practices around those experiences. We need to experiment with spiritual experiences and share them with each other.

I was reading my favorite sacred text recently (which i believe to be the most profound sacred text of any religion or spirituality) called Self-Liberation Through Seeing With Naked Awareness.[3] The point of the text, as i understand it, is to highlight and underscore what the experience of the ultimate Transcendent ideal is at the level of one’s consciousness, and it explains how to go about bringing forth such an experience. It doesn’t make metaphysical claims, and none of its main points are really things that would be considered sacrilege by any religion. The very first thing explained by the text is how there are so many different practices to reach enlightenment, and that each practice holds potential danger to lead one into judging others and falling back into dualism (the transcendence of dualism being the realization of the experience of this Transcendent ideal). The next thing it does is list all the different words that exist naming the Transcendent ideal that we experience, even including that the theists (Tirthikas) call it the “soul” or “Self,” (no small deal for a religion built originally around the denial of the existence of an immortal “Self.”[4]) and then clarifies that they are all pointing to the very same phenomenon.

Why do i bring this up? In my opinion this represents the future of religion and spirituality: The end of the religious institutions involving mere rules and the division between them and the “others” and the flourishing of a subjective, individual-centered recognition of spirituality as one of the human necessities. Spiritual experience is something that is ubiquitous throughout the world. It is experienced in nature as often as it is in temples, and probably in isolation far more often than around others. It comes as an overwhelming peacefulness, clarity, wakefulness, presence, and bliss. It is inarguably positive in-and-of itself, but it is largely ignored by a rapidly globalizing society which doesn’t know how to bring out these experiences in the mind.

The extent of the need for religions is the diversity of needs by humans to raise their consciousness to some kind of a spiritual experience. Some need a congregation, some need a very specific order of actions to do in repetition, many need ritual. The variety of sources for these transcendence “triggers” and “catalysts” will of course be drawn from the diverse, ancient religious traditions that exist today. We already see this happening to some extent with all the completely new sects and religions that keep popping up. But i don’t believe this will save the institutions as they exist in their present form; it will merely preserve the link to the cultural history.

So while institutionalized religion evolved out of spirituality, it is in spirituality that i believe it will meet its death. Modern society has done away with the need for religion, because its needs regarding religions’ functions have changed. We need guidance on the path to spiritual experiences and overcoming our problems as they arrive in life. The latter is aided by the discipline of psychology, but the former has no significant scientific basis as of yet.[5] When the day comes that the spiritual experience at the level of one’s consciousness is approached scientifically and appreciated for what it is, religions as we understand them today will be relegated to mere cultural history.

Jacob Ibrahim Abuhamada

4/24/14

Please share and please comment with your thoughts on the matter!

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  1. These words may mean different things to me than they do to you, but then we’re getting into a discussion of human opinions, and we’ve departed from a discussion of the Word of God.

  2. Granted they are the least, as far as percentages of adherents go, and the fundamentalists are never the monastics or religious leaders, which is very relieving–and of course i’m only speaking in terms of my own personal experience.

  3. It’s actually more considered a chapter or section of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but it stands alone as a separate entity in both style as well as message in my opinion.

  4. The word used is atman, and the emphasis is obviously leaning towards the Upanishadic tradition. But to me this holds massive import, as the Upanishads are another of my most favorite holy texts, and they are devoted to explaining the union of the atman with Brahman or God. So this one casual line in this text goes on to assert the validity of a theist’s recognition of the Transcendent, or God as another name for the Transcendent as it’s expressed in Buddhism: Emptiness. And of course the core definition of both is that they are transcendent of all possible descriptors. Buddhism does a phenomenal job at analyzing and extrapolating the meaning of this and how it forms the basis for reality itself. For the strongest insight into this, you should read the Mulamadhyamakakarika. But do so with commentary. It’s almost impenetrably complex otherwise.

  5. I’m with B. Alan Wallace when it comes to this. For more on his work on trying to establish a scientific discipline around the exploration of spiritual states of consciousness, click here.

 

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a painting does not convey the poetry

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I stare at the wall
I stare beyond the wall
Beyond everything
My mind is the focal point
She sits, poking at her phone
Its bluish light illuminating her face with a faint glow
We say nothing
The room lies perfectly still
We are frozen like sculptures
Our minds explode with emotion
Anguish, fear, rage, despair
This is a scene of poetry.
These words are only a painting.
A painting does not convey the poetry.

 

The inspiration for this poem came from a friend of mine who told me that his philosophy in life was to see everything as poetry. Even an intense argument with your girlfriend is poetry. So last year, after or in the midst of a heated argument with my then girlfriend, i kept this in mind. And all i could think to do was to write a poem about it. So i did.

What’s My Real Motivation?

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I feel like i’m a pretty damned good writer, researcher, and thinker, for the most part. All of the impact i hope to make in the world will be through these mediums, other than music and language learning, which i’m pretty good with as well.

So why do i feel so stagnated? I’m traveling the world, i’ve got a decent formal education and a more than decent informal one, i have a pretty solid resume, and philosophically i haven’t felt lost in ages. So right now i should be embracing everything i hope to do in life: Writing essays, music, and studying languages (right now, Arabic) like nobody’s business. Instead, i’m just sitting here, wasting my time. Yes, i’m just getting over a bad illness. And yes, i’m in a rather restrictive country void of vegetation and any readily observable culture beyond the Qur’an (there’s plenty of culture if you go digging in the right places, but it’s harder to find when you’re here than say, China). But these aren’t viable excuses. Where’s my motivation?

Up to this point in my life i have little to show the world of my personal success. If i died, there would be some anecdotal stories of my impacting a few lives, but in terms of creative work, not much. Again, mere anecdotes. But impacting even a single life and having solid proof of it is a beautiful thing, and creating positively and with integrity should be cherished. I should be happy with this? Why am i not content with it?

What do i want? And Why?

I want knowledge and experience so that i can create art, ideas, concepts, books, and so on in order to make a huge difference in the world, because this has always been my obsession. At first it was almost pure ego when i was very young. At the age of 6 as one of our first assignments in 1st grade we had to write what we wanted to do when we grew up. Firefighter? Policeman? Doctor? Scientist? Nope. I wanted to be the ruler of the world. Then as i aged i convinced myself and others that it was about humanity. The desire for world domination became one of benevolence and then faded by the end of middle school. Taking its place was the very modest goal of “rockstar.” Until the age of 15, when i decided i also wanted to be a monk and become enlightened. The desire for monasticism remained in the back of my mind until around 20 or so, and may well come back one day. Obviously enlightenment grew to my chief aim. I realized that conquering the world was nothing compared to conquering the self. Even omnipotence with an untamed mind would be nothing.

But clearly this idea of grandeur and this goal of “greatness” has been ever-present throughout my life. I ask myself: Why? I have convinced myself and others that the motivation is one of compassion for humanity, but i don’t know how much is in fact my ego. A man with an ego that fears death and realizes that true immortality lies only in effective action which is memorable to the world. So the question shouldn’t be “where’s my motivation,” but rather: “what is my motivation?”.

At literally every stage of my life this has been a core motivation along with finding romantic love — which may, no doubt, stem from the very same fear given that procreation is the other assumed route to immortality. I have finally reached a freedom from the desire for love for now — i know i’m not yet the man i want to be for the woman i hope to have. So i think i must approach the world just the same. I’m not ready to create great things or leave indelible marks upon the world. I’m not ready to impact thousands or millions of lives for the better. I’m not yet such a man. So i can only focus on improving myself until such time as i am such a man. Death with integrity is indeed more valuable than an “immortal death” where one’s legacy outlives him.

And speaking of death, recently more urgently pressing on me has been the fear for my own well-being in the soon-to-be future. When i return to the States i will have no money, no guaranteed job anywhere, a bunch of uncertain plans for what to do next, a car that’s out of commission, no credit, and thus no particular means to do anything. But with about all of these things there is little i can do right now, and it’s impacting my vacation and my studies.

So first things first: I need to lose all my fear. All of it. Fear for my well-being in any sense. I will be just fine and i have to know it.

Second, i need to work on developing myself in all the areas that i care about: Body, Mind, Soul (or spiritual mind, rather, since like all Buddhists i don’t believe in the existence of a metaphysical soul outside of consciousness), Languages, Music, and Writing.
Body — i need to work out; my body is very weak, as its been complaining all year.
Mind (Task Positive Network) — study of all the subject areas which interest me as well as particular focus on these three areas of life goals:
Languages — Arabic for now, and beginning next month also Tagalog
Music — Writing and recording songs, but only as i feel i need to
Writing — every day if i can, but for my own development only
Spiritual mind (Default Mode Network) — Meditation, reading religious texts, and improvisation on guitar for mere enjoyment

Third, i need to just travel around, talk to people without fear, enjoy myself, and not concern myself too heavily with “failure” as if i could somehow “fail” at traveling. Without fear that i will die as soon as i return home, this will be much easier.

All in all, if i carry these out long enough i should purify my motivation, until it is transformed into pure bodhicitta.

-J. Ibrahim Abuhamada

Illness in the Center of the World

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Okay, with confidence i can say this is the highest temperature i’ve ever had. And no, i’m not talking about the Saudi Arabian climate. My overall shittiness is on par with the thing i had at the beginning of the year where i was projectile vomiting, but at least that didn’t last so long.

A bit over a week before i came to Saudi i had just gotten over strep. Then i stupidly took a week-long live Typhoid vaccine. Then i didn’t sleep on an overnight flight. A flight, by the way, to a place where the weather and bacteria are foreign, harsh, and unforgiving. So i guess i was asking for this. Anyways, it resulted in my first overseas hospital experience. It didn’t seem much like a hospital. Sort of halfway between a doctor’s office and a walk-in clinic. The doctor spoke English but he didn’t want to hear English besides my saying yes or no to his questions. Then i’m given my first ever experience with taking a suppository. And what is it? Paracetamol. Paracetamol is another term for Tylenol. I might as well have just gone to the pharmacy next door and bought myself some more ibuprofen. I’m also given an IV for Paracetamol and a saline drip. And finally, the antibiotic prescription (which was all i’d wanted in the first place). All in all i’d rate the experience at the “medical center” a 3.5 from 1 to 10. At least it was clean and not overflowing with people. And the doctor did speak English… sort of… But not somewhere i’d recommend visiting on a trip through Saudi Arabia.

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“Sure i can give you antibiotics, but first would you kindly please shove this up your ass? kthnx”

So about a day goes by, i take my two daily doses of antibiotics, drink tons of water, and am subjected to a large amount of Arab folk medicine foods and treatments, and i wake up at 7 something after 3 hours of sleep to take my temperature aaaaand… 104. Can’t that give adults brain damage or something? Yes. Yes it can. I will admit this has me a little scared. So i’m given cold rags to put on my forehead and body, i take a dose of antibiotic for the day and 600mg of ibuprofen and… 102.4. Fuck. Well at least my trip should only improve from here…

As the title states i’m right by the center of the world for the 1.2-1.5 billion muslims in the world: Mecca. Which i should be going to visit soon. In addition, i should be going to the other major holy center in Saudi, Medina, where the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad is, and so is he, so i might as well go say hi (if only the dead could speak… not that my Arabic’s good enough for interesting philosophical conversations yet anyways). I should be going to Ta’if high in the Hijaz mountains, where supposedly there are wild baboons everywhere, and even more rare and interesting here in Saudi: Trees! Live, actual, wild, untamed trees! The joy! But most importantly to me, while i’m in Mecca i will be going to see the Jabal An-Nur — the mountain of light — where Muhammad (SAAWS) first received his revelation from the angel Gabriel. This being the start of my lifelong dream of visiting key spiritual centers around the world.

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It’s worth noting that for me it’s important that when visiting a new culture i adopt more than just the culture and language, but their very manner of thought, right down to religion. I certainly am beyond the capacity for dogmatism, but to temporarily suspend doubt and see the world through new “psychic eyes”, new thought patterns, is one of the most eye-opening, life-changing of experiences. At heart, my core philosophical conviction will always lie with Buddhism, but as a Buddhist, as a person with the unshakable conviction that compassion is the greatest power in the world for happiness and change, i know of nothing which better builds empathy (wisdom, too) than putting aside one’s own beliefs temporarily in order to understand others. So for this month at least, i am muslim, and will always have it lying dormant within me to draw upon when i need to.

La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasulu Allah.

April 8th, 2014; 11am-ish