Saturday, May 2, 2009

Islam as Engaged Surrender

As Muslims we know the word "Islam" is the most important part of how we understand who we are. A Muslim or Muslima is one who surrenders him/herself to Allah. We often translate this word as "one who submits"; however, the concept is pro-active, spiritually ripe and dynamic and might be better translated as "engaged surrender".

Engaged surrender involves an active, consciousness participation in our social lives, family lives, economic lives, community lives, political lives, by the heart which is always open to the will of Allah and which always gives precedence to Allah’s will. The concept we have been inclined towards – submission – sometimes gives the idea that there is no will; but the one who wilfully submits to the will of Allah is engaged in surrender.

I will talk about this from a woman’s perspective, starting with an important part of a woman’s life – giving birth.

A woman carries her child under her heart for nine months. What she eats the child eats; as she cares for her health she cares for her child’s health; as she breaths fresh air, she breaths in for the nourishment of her child; as she takes care of her spiritual and emotional state of mind she cares for her child’s well being. She takes care of all the child’s needs. She carries that child for nine months and this is an act of submission. She is following the will of Allah.

This is a marvellous surrender. The mother cannot take a day’s rest; she cannot lay down the child beside her on the bed and say, "Just today, I will not be pregnant."

But most importantly, she may not hold onto that child when the nine-month period is over. She must surrender the child and give in to Allah’s will. Just as Allah commanded her to hold onto that child for nine long months so must she engage in the act of surrender when it is time to bring the child forward.

She can no longer hold it; if she continues to, it will mean death for her and the child. So she will engage in surrendering the child and that will be the completion of the relationship she has had.

When she goes into labour, the experience is one of engaged surrender. Each contraction has a duty. As the stomach pulls tight, the cervix opens so the child may be brought into the world. If she resists the contraction, not only will it be uncomfortable for her, it will also curtail the natural motion of the child’s gift of life. So she must surrender in the act of labour. She must focus and not be distracted; she must consciously think of Allah, of the task that she is in, of dhikr (remembrance of God) in some form; but she must surrender her body into the natural act of the contraction in such a way that the child might be brought into the world without discomfort. This image of a mother carrying a child under her heart then bringing that child forward, her conscious state when she participates in the labour being also a reflection of engaged surrender is not unlike Allah Himself, Who defines Himself before every (but one) surah as "Rahman al-Rahim" (The Gracious or Compassionate, and The Dispenser of Grace or The Merciful).

He is Rahman. He is Mercy. He is the Ultimate Mercy. Both rahmah and rahim come from the root word meaning "womb". So Allah engages us continually to understand the nature of our surrender, just as He draws us forth from His spirit, so will He push us out into the world.

There is also a time that Allah’s rabubiyya, His nurturance and Love, bring us close. The image we have of this is best articulated by the experience of a woman as she carries her child under her heart for nine months, then must let that child go.

In Surah Inshirah (94) Allah says: "Have We not opened your heart and lifted/removed from you the burden which weighed so heavily on your back. And have We not raised you high in dignity. And behold, with every hardship comes ease. Indeed every difficulty is followed by ease. Hence when you are free from distress, remain steadfast and unto your Sustaining Lord turn with love."

Allah gives us a picture of the same idea. We know Allah never repeats something for mere redundancy but to make a point. "Indeed every difficulty is followed by ease" is part of the engaged act of surrender that is everyday life. Sometimes there is difficulty and sometimes there is ease. As long as we are on earth we will experience the necessity to engage in surrender. Allah guaranteed that our lives would be engaged in difficulty and ease at all times. The nature of one who is truly Muslim is that he/she is constantly engaged in surrender, no matter if it is difficult or easy.

The surah also reminds us not to become complacent when things are easy. We should always be conscious, engaged and always with open hearts to the surrender of Allah, so that the act of engaged surrender becomes a part of our everyday lives and we never take for granted that the ease will go on and on. If we are successful in our businesses, in our struggle against apartheid, that does not mean the battle is over; the battle forever wages on.

Marriage is an important part of a Muslim’s life. The Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wasalam) said: "Marriage is half of faith." Sometimes we misunderstand. We think that if we get married we don’t have to do anything else. But if marriage is half of faith, it is half of what we need to struggle with to engage ourselves in surrender before Allah. When the difficulty is over we should still strive. We still strive because our Lord is our goal, as surah Inshirah says. As long as we are human beings we are always in struggle to attain some level of understanding of the Divine. Because it is an ongoing process and because Allah is our goal, we are never finished.

The engaged surrender goes on at all times, at all places and for all circumstances; so we should think of our family lives and marriages as part of engaged surrender. We should not approach the situation as if when the nikah (wedding) is over, that part of our lives is finished and we should put more energy into our jobs, our business affairs, and our politics. Instead, we should look at our family lives as half of our engaged surrender for the sake of completing our deen on earth.

Your spouse – wife or husband – is everyday a new person. That is part of engaged surrender. If she or he changes everyday you must be engaged in knowing him or her everyday. It takes a kind of consciousness to treat him or her with respect. Sometimes we think we always know what (s)he is going to say so we do not listen. Consequently, we do not hear.

Part of the engaged surrender of marriage is that we must come to our spouses everyday as if they are who they truly are – new persons everyday. They have not attained their full Islam, they are also engaged in surrender and we must respond to them as if they are. We must not assume they are today the same as they will be tomorrow, because Allah has also challenged and tested them in the name of Islam to engage in surrender. Perhaps they have been more successful with some aspects of it today than they will be tomorrow.

So part of the engaged surrender in marriage, part of fulfilling half of the deen in Islam, is that we come to that relationship everyday with engaged surrender, with our minds intact and our hearts open. Our minds will engage in accepting that person anew, in respecting that person and honouring that change and our hearts will open up to loving that person and will surrender and give that person the love and care that is due.

Allah says in the Qur’an: "And among His signs is that He has created from yourselves mates; and He has made between the two of you Love and Mercy."

There’s that rahmah again. Rahmah is supposed to be one of the characteristics of how we engage in surrender in our marital lives. We should not take the other person for granted. We should always extend loving care. And remember the image of the mother – the love is also holding and letting go. I must not tell the other person how to co-ordinate his/her life. I, being just another human being, must allow that person to experience life. I must let that person go so that sometimes (s)he may fall. This is the same I have to do with my children; I cannot live their lives for them. I must teach them, but I must let them go so they can also experience engaged surrender.

We must never assume marriage gives us the right to dictate the life of another person; it is half of deen; marriage is half of what we must engage in consciously as Muslims to surrender to the will of Allah. It requires more than a few quick commands at the beginning or end of each day. It requires listening and hearing, respecting and honouring, loving and caring; it requires engaged surrender, it requires us to be Muslim.

The idea that we must accept another person unconditionally does not mean we will not make mistakes. Surely we make mistakes each day and we ask Allah for forgiveness. And He has guaranteed it. He has the capacity to do so. Likewise with others in the path of their own engaged surrender; as part of our Islam, we will have the capacity to respect and acknowledge that perhaps they have erred and tomorrow they may be able to correct that.

So the perspective we have on marriage should be one of engaged surrender, and we should come forward with the consciousness and surrender in our hearts. At the end of the day there is a possibility that this task will be a successful completion of what we know of our Islam.

I come before you to remind you and myself that the task of a Muslim is to continually engage in surrender and that sometimes we forget this task.

Should we forget – ever – that we should be consciously engaged in surrender, remember that Allah never forgets. He is always available for us, always accepts our du’as (supplications) and always accepts our efforts to engage ourselves in surrender to Him.

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