Saturday, January 16, 2010

why there is no monasticism in Islam?

In the Name of the All Knowing Creator, the All Loving Fashioner Who Created everything in the Cosmos with Truth and Real Purpose

1.
Monasticism and its ideals

Monasticism (from Ancient Greek monachos > monos, alone, solitary) is the religious practice in which someone renounces worldly pursuits to fully devote their life to a monastery environment and its way of living. Among Abrahamic faith lineage, Monasticism was institutionalized by Christians. It began to develop early in the history of Christian Church, modeled upon Old and New Testament examples and ideals, but important to note that monasticism is NOT mandated as an institution in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

In Jewish tradition there has been example of living hermit life and in community of brotherhood away from the worldly life under certain vows, but this didn’t include celibate lifestyle and complete disassociation with earthly responsibility. Judaism originally does not support the monastic ideal of celibacy, but two thousand years ago taking Nazarite vow was a common feature of the religion. Nazirite Jews abstained from grape based intoxicant drinks, haircuts, and contact with the dead. However, they did not withdraw from general society, and they were permitted to marry and own property; moreover, in most cases a Nazirite vow was for a specified time period and not permanent. Even though we find traces of Monastic tradition in Judaism through the Nazarite way, but it wasn’t a life long monasticism.

As a sign of special dedication Christian monasticism took its practical root in the early fourth century, though there were individuals and communities living austere, solitary and ascetic lives long before this time. Mostly inspired by certain ascetic teachings of Christ, early Christians were inspired towards monastic ideals of solitary living, silent meditation and forsaking the worldly engagement for the sake of divine focus. The early desert fathers embraced a life of contemplation and devotion to God in their hermit cell of retreat and thus the formation of monastic way came into being.

2.
Islam and Monastic Practices

When the Seal of Prophets was asked about Monasticism, God reveals in the Quran the following verses:

“..Then We caused Our messengers to follow in their footsteps; and We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow, and gave him the Gospel, and placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him. But monasticism they invented - only seeking God's pleasure, We ordained it not for them, and they observed it not with right observance. We therefore gave the believers among them their reward; and many of them are sinners.” - The Quran , 57:27

It categorically clears a number of points. First it was a divine gift from God that those who followed Christ and his teachings of Gospel, God placed compassion and mercy in their hearts. Secondly Monasticism was a later invention, it was neither ordained in Old Testament as an organized religious practice nor a direct teaching of Christ. Thirdly Quran acknowledge the good intention behind Monasticism which was to seek divine favor. Fourthly, even though the intention was right, yet those who observed monasticism, they didn’t observe it with the right observance. Fifth, monastics who were sincere believers, their rewards are with God, but at the same time its also acknowledged that many of them have gone astray.

There is a famous saying attributed to Prophet that says, “There is no monasticism in Islam.” The saying comes from a practical advice the prophet gave in response to some extreme form of asceticism that some of his companions wished to take upon themselves, and often the case is that certain practices are better left as private rather than mass and public because if common people begin to follow in an organized fashion they will fail to observe it properly.

In Islam sacred tradition it is narrated, "Some of the Companions of the Prophet decided to relinquish the world, forsake their wives, and become like monks. The Prophet told them with asperity: People before you perished because of their asceticism; they made excessive demands on themselves until God brought hardships on them: you can still see a few of them remaining in monasteries and temples. So worship God and do not associate anything with Him, perform the pilgrimage, be righteous, and all affairs will be set right for you."

In another narration it is recorded, "Three people came to the Prophet's wives and asked how the Prophet conducted his worship. When they were told about it, they seemed to consider it but little, saying, "What a difference there is between us and the Messenger of God, whose past and future sins have been forgiven him by God!" One of them said, "As for me, I will always pray during the night." The other said, "I will have nothing to do with women and will never marry." When the Prophet heard about this, he explained to them their error and deviation from the Straight Path, saying, I am the one who is conscious of God the most among you, yet I fast and I break my fast, I pray and I sleep, and I marry. He who turns away from my holy way (sunnah) has nothing to do with me.”

So in Islam the excessive austere practice is shun because in most cases many can not sustain it and perish in the process. Also if we look current evolution of human life style, in one generation or two, monasticism as a vocation will become even more impractical. Already the monasteries in many places of the world are getting emptied. I remember in Singapore they had to import buddhist monks from China for religious occasions. Also in the western world the crisis is maturing at a very rapid rate.

Same applies to other monastic tradition. There is a very sharp decline of new nuns in Europe for example and if we project the trend we will know that as our life-style changes rapidly, this vocation will lose its appeal and slowly die down.

3.
Shared Ideals

Islam is probably the most divine centered path (deen) in a sense that it brings almost all of the devotional ideals found in monastic life, that of saintly beings at the heart of day to day living, giving freedom of practices equally for all without division of lay people and special monastic class. If you can imagine the piety that run through a monastics life and if you can imagine common people to practice that in their life without abandoning their duties, that is what the practices of Islam are.

Infact Islam offers piety in such a way that common people in their ordinary living can practice the devotion equivalent or even greater than a monk or nun in a monastery. For Islamic ideal the statement that “there is no monasticism in Islam” means that contemplatives (dhakirun/ dhakirat) must not withdraw from the world, but that the world must be withdrawn from them, the intrinsic idea of asceticism (zuhd) and meditative contemplation (muraqaba) upon divine signs is in no way affected. Infact in Islam to practice detachment (zuhd) from everything other than God is a way station of spirituality.

What inspire the monastics to leave worldliness still runs through the spiritual ideals of Islam, which reminds that family, wealth or children are not the things to measure success in spiritual kingdom.

It is not your wealth nor your sons, that will bring you nearer to Us in degree: but only those who believe and work righteousness - these are the ones for whom there is a multiplied Reward for their deeds, while secure they (reside) in the dwellings on high! - The Quran, Chapter of Saba, 34:37

If monasticism is defined as ‘withdrawal for God’, then indeed the ideal and holy intention do find its place very central in the Islamic tradition.

For the traditional monastic orders are based upon:

Firstly, contemplation of the Divine, for the monk aspires to preserve a solitude wherein the divine is not forgotten but constantly remembered. The Quran enjoins upon the believers constant reflection and contemplation of the Divine by His statement:

Those who remember Allah standing, sitting, and reclining upon their sides; and reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth (saying),’Our Lord, You have not created this in vain, exalted are You, guard us from the fire’! [3:191]

When the Messenger of God was asked about a deed one could do when it seemed that the demands of the Sacred Law were overwhelming, he said:

Let your tongue be constantly moistened by the remembrance of God.

Secondly, most orders have an embodiment of an ideal by which they base their outward practices: their daily prayers, litanies, vigils, etc. For the believers it is the Messenger of God who is the model par excellence. There is no need to cite relevant Quranic verses which substantiate this. The Messenger of God has said:

God is pure and only accepts that which is pure, indeed God the Exalted has commanded the believers that to which He has commanded the Messengers.

The Last Testament says, "And We have not sent before you any messengers but they most surely ate food and went about in the markets; and We have made some of you a trial for others; will you bear patiently? And your Lord is ever Seeing." - The Quran 25:20

Taking food symbolizes fulfilling the need of the human body (not only literal food) and also their going around markets and shopping places symbolizes living in the world. Thus we see every messenger sent by God lived among society, had family, did marry and had children. This is necessary because through our participation in the world fully can one become a complete human being.

Muslims abstain from intoxicants (alcoholic drinks) which is part of vow of monastic way of life both in Christian and Buddhist way, yet while honoring this commandment of the Last Testament Muslims dont need to run away from the society. Prophet Muhammad exemplified holy poverty and living simplicity which is one of the central teaching of Islam. Also honoring chastity is part of muslim creed and guarding one’s chastity is something which every Muslim see as an essential piety. Thus to have relations sanctified in a bond of marriage is not only accepted but strongly recommended because of the dangers of perversion and going astray when it comes to trying to deny our biological impulses of human life.

None of the Biblical Prophet had monastic living. Even the woman who symbolizes the most surrendered and devoted human soul, who embodied a life of utter purity – Mother Mary after her immaculate conception did embrace a family life. This is because true spirituality doesn’t negate essential human experiences and doesn’t create a separation between doing what is necessary as human being and becoming spiritually evolved souls.

Absorbed in this world
you've made it your burden.
Rise above this world.
There is another vision.
- Rumi

4.
Ten Noble Precepts of Islam

In Quran the essential and noble qualities of lovers of God are outlined which when a human being embodies, regardless of their vocation in the world, they progress towards divine favor. These 10 noble precepts of Islam are outlined in the Quran as follows:

Surely surrendered men and surrendered women,
and faithful men and faithful women,
and devoted men and devoted women,
and truthful men and truthful women,
and patient men and patient women,
and humble men and humble women,
and charitable men and charitable women,
and fasting men and fasting women,
and chaste men and chaste women,
and men who remember God abundantly and women who remember God abundantly - for them God has prepared gracious forgiveness and vast reward.
- The Quran 33:35

Thus the Ten Noble precepts are: Surrender, Faithfulness, Devotion, Truthfulness, Patience, Humility, Charity, Fasting, Chastity and Frequent Divine Remembrance.

If one to carefully contemplate on this verse of the Quran one will find all the ideals of a devoted monastic life, yet these ideals are infused in a life living naturally in the world. The final cycle of divine guidance through Islam provides pathway so that every single human being can live a life of surrender, devotion, remembrance while perfectly being in a family life, rising children, yet in their heart of heart they can align and re-align themselves with the divine center in ever moment of their life. The practice of daily prayers, nightly meditative prayer (tahajjud) fasting (sawm) and retreat (ittikaf) are such that they can beautifully be practiced while one can respond to their duties and responsibilities as a contributing member of the society.

5.
Embracing organic rhythm of spirituality

The position of Islam embraces organic rhythm of spirituality in full participation in life. Unlike Monasticism which creates a different lifestyle all together, separating the monastics from ordinary people, in Islam this is united. It's not that if you give away your vocation and become a monk or hermit and retire in forest or cave you can attain the blessed nearness and if you do not do that, you will miss everything – Islam doesnt advocate such attitude. Through the Quran and the imitation of the Seal of Prophet, Prophet Muhammad, Islam trace out religious / spiritual practices which can elevate the spiritual station of any being, regardless of their role.

The ideals upon which monasticism revolves around, such as surrendering to divine way, devotion, sense of intimate community of fellow seekers, simplicity of living, embracing holy poverty, solitude, remembrance – all are very naturally established within the framework and daily practices of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad himself remains as the living example through whose life God exemplified how to participate in life in its full spectrum and still live a life centered around God. Spirituality is organic in Islam which dissolved the dualistic boundary of family life and monastic life. Hence Monasticism becomes a matter of the old from a Muslims perspective and world is also agreeing.

Service is seen an essential goal of what makes us truly human being. And to live in a monastic boundary means to limit that opportunity to server the others. A contemporary sufi master said, “Service should be from the moment you are born until the moment you give your last breath, but you have to find out in what way. That's what's most important. We have to find out in what manner we are supposed to serve.”

6.
Made with no artificial flavors

The universal path of divine surrender or Islam doesn’t offer artificiality. There is no unnaturalness and synthetic in Islam but only the organic and primordial. What is natural in the creation is honored in the path. Love, specially personal love and affection is something very natural in human life and monastic life doesnt allow a human being to participate in that love in personal way. In Islam such attitude to take the vow of celibacy is not encouraged. But chastity yes.

And let those who do not find the means to marry keep chaste until God makes them independent out of His grace. - The Quran 24:33

Too much materialism or worldiness (dunya) and too much negation of the world (monasticism), both are not seen as ideal in Islamic faith tradition. The universal way of surrender is a path which anybody can walk upon and at the same time can reach their goal by God’s grace.

Quran states: “O you who have attained faith, do not make unlawful the good things that God has mad lawful to you and do not overstep the limits. Truly God does not love those who exceed the limits (that He has ordained)”. - The Quran 5:87

This verse contains the gist of the balanced way of Islamic spirituality. Family life, participating in human love, relationship and all other human experiences that make life on earth beautiful and pleasant are made for all human beings and made lawful by divine command. Quran, the Final Testament prohibits to make unlawful that which God made lawful (such as marriage, having family etc.) and also to exceed the limits are not something which is loved by God.

7.
Climbing the Mystic Ladder

One of the prime reasons why monasticism is rejected in Islam is because it denies the essential experience of human love. There is no doubt that no other principal is more important than love itself; and yes even though divine love is the highest and in reality the only love that exist in the entire cosmos, yet to taste that love, human love is the seed-bed. At least that is true for the majority of humanity.



There is a sufi anecdote that goes like this:

A seeker went to ask a sage for guidance in the path of Truth. The sage counseled:

“If you have never trodden the path of love,
go away and fall in love first;
then come back and see us.”

There is much wisdom in the participation of the human experience of love, even when it means simply to fall in love with another human being. This is because the heart is made open in that human experience. Thus for the Sufis, the experience of human love is so essential that in the story, the master wouldn’t even accept the newcomer as his disciple until he fall in love first.

For the sages of Islam, love is the path to God. Rumi tells us that only the person whose garment is "rent by the violence of love" can be wholly pure from covetousness and sin. Love makes the heart sincere.

When one wishes to actualize Jesus' teaching, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" - one has to climb a mystic ladder and the first step to that love is experiencing what it means to love like that by unconditionally loving another human being. Apostle John says, "love is perfected in us" and the beginning of that perfection starts here on earth, in a very human way by our falling in love hopelessly with another human being.

In Islam the love for other human being is made obligatory to such an extent that it is said that to become a muslim, a person has to develop the love (ashk) for the beloved Prophet more than any other human being. This is a quintessential experience that a true muslim who is accepted to God do experience and the imitation of the beloved prophet is a Sign of that love. To fully love another human being means to negate one’s self, to love another human being means to put the very ‘self’ secondary for the sake of the lover. This is a potent spirituality in practice. And to experience human love in one’s spouse, in one’s beloved is an extension of that practice.

Thus through the ideals of embracing all human experiences, Islam elevates the whole of physical world and participation in it into spiritual entity and opportunity for spiritual practice.

8.
Being in the world, but not of it

One of the hallmark of Islamic spirituality is its ideal of "Being in the world, but not of it." This summarize the attitude of a Muslim, that is to partake in all human experiences which is bestowed upon humanity as natural, yet they must not be bound by it, rather be free from worldly concerns. Thus to be in the world can, infact also be the place where righteous deeds are performed, other human beings are helped and mercy and compassion is shared. To be in the world also enables one "to love their neighbor" which is the second major commandment of Christ. And to become a hermit or monastic means you live away from society with no neighbor to love.

"Not to be of the world" means not to forget that the time in the world is but for a very tiny amount of time. The existential reality of man in the world is but a ephemeral reality that passes away very quickly. The world is a place of harvesting, the fruits of which are to be found in the eternal hereafter. And for that the world is created so that humanity can strive towards recognizing their self, their creator and the reality that surrounds them.

The great mission before us as believers is to show to the world that contentment does not lie somewhere far away in a treasure to be sought or in a world to be built, but here where we belong to God. The believer represents, in the face of a dehumanized world, what our true standards are; the true believers mission is to remind the world what it means to be human.


# Previous:
. Why there is no priesthood in Islam?

# Related:
. al Faqr | Holy Poverty, Spirit of Poverty in Islam
. What Does It Mean to Renounce the World? via EnlightenNext Magazine
. "In the World But Not of It" - Traditional Sufi Saying
. No Monasticism in Islam

# Resources:
. Christian Monasticism via Wikipedia
. Monasticism via New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
. Monasticism in Medieval Christianity
. New Monasticism: What it Has to Say to Today's Church
. History of Monasticism across different faith tradition
. Monasticism via Monachos.net
. The Holy Rule of St. Benedict
. Monastic Vows via youtube
. Monastic Vows
. On Monasticism, Secularism and Christian Culture: Part I, Part II, Part III Pin It Now!

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