The tribulations of 2020 tested masses of people with loss and grief, turning many toward religion and faith traditions. At the same time, however, the realities of the pandemic have meant that those of us accustomed to celebrating holidays such as Christmas, Eid, Ramadan, Diwali and Hanukkah with our religious communities, families and friends haven’t been able to do so over the past year.
In the United States, a Christian-centric country, there was much talk about the grief of the pandemic Christmas, but other religious traditions and sacrifices have been minimized, and the collective loss invisibilized. In December there was a level of fervor and outrage surrounding Christmas that was not present when other faith groups and congregations faced the brunt of the quarantine.
In the U.S., Religion Is Both Political and Spiritual
In All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks writes, “Love in action is always about service, what we do to enhance spiritual growth.” Doing something for the greater good is an act of service. It is a moral act, while foregoing what we’re accustomed to for the benefit of humanity is an act of faith, love and spiritual growth.
The past year brought changes that no one could have predicted. It read more like an Octavia Butler dystopian novel instead of reality, but this has come to be the lived experience for millions of people. With the police-perpetrated murder of George Floyd, there came a shift in political consciousness as people around the nation hit the streets in protest. The protests against police brutality and white vigilantism were met with extreme violence and repression from the government. The National Guard and police were deployed to every major city to quell the demands to defund the police and find justice for the countless unarmed Black victims of police brutality and violence.
As a Muslim facing the past year of violent policing, mass economic insecurity and pandemic grief, I have found much healing and solace in some of the religious traditions within Islam that contribute most to collective liberation: Dua (Supplication), Salah (Prayer), Dhikr (Remembrance of Allah), Sadaqa (Charity), Khalwa (Spiritual Seclusion), Shura (Consultation) and Waqf (Charitable Endowment). All of these practices and traditions provide individuals, at a micro level, with forms of liberation and relief in the struggle for liberation, as well as collective avenues to seek justice and freedom on a macro level. I offer them here to both Muslims and non-Muslims who may find meaning in these practices.
The concept and practice of Khalwa (seclusion) is a meditative practice that the Prophet (ﷺ) observed, and many Muslims practice today. It provides introspection, and an ability to reset and prevent burnout, which is something that often happens in movement-building. During quarantine, many have been forced into a practice of seclusion that is painful at times, but — when approached in the right way — also has the potential to liberate us from the shackles of unwanted thoughts and rumination. Setting aside time — 20-30 minutes — for daily practice, and being intentional with how seclusion can be introspective and liberatory is key. Often this time is dedicated to Dhikr, which is the remembrance of Allah SWT. (The acronym SWT derives from “Subhanahu wa ta’ala” which is said after mentioning God, and it means “May He be praised and exalted”). This practice can encompass reflections on gratitude and contentment.
Breathwork Through Chant
In the vein of meditative practices, Dhikr, a remembrance of Allah often done in a chant, and sometimes in group settings, is a more commonplace practice among Muslims. Its repetition mirrors that of breathwork in mindfulness practices. It has a host of psychospiritual benefits and a euphoria-like freedom that comes with it. In Imam Fode Drame’s book The 99 Names of Allah: Expansion, he provides an exegesis of the divine attributes of Allah SWT:
“Then celebrate with praises the name of your Lord, the Supreme.” [56:96] “Celebrate with praises the name of your Lord, the Most High.” [Quran 87:1]
Many worshipers call upon Allah SWT in times of difficulty and unease by eliciting the names that closely relate to the challenges they may be facing. Loneliness has become a byproduct of an increasingly separated world, so one may feel comfort by calling upon Allah SWT as Al-Wali, the Supporter and Protector. Other names of Allah SWT that one might call upon in times of grief include Al-Muqsit (the Just One), Al-Kareem (the Abundant) and Al-Fattah (the Opener). And in times of economic hardship, one may call out to Al-Waasi, the Vast, for financial and other means of liberation.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Allah the Almighty said: I am as My servant thinks I am.” — Abu Hurayrah (ra).
If one views Allah as Al-Fattah, the Opener, then He is that to the seeker. You affirm and manifest through the lens in which you view yourself, God and the world. Are you expansive with your dreams and affirmations, or are you limiting the scope of God’s bounty?
Dhikr can play a role in community building as well. In Somalia, there is a practice called Sitaad, where women gather together weekly to supplicate, and be in the remembrance of God. They eat, worship together and help each other heal from problems they are facing. This tradition, although less common today, provides a form of liberation from materialism, ego, isolation and rigidity of the present moment. The remembrance brings an escape — a freeing from the worldly constraints, a spiritual ascension not bound by the systems and structures of oppression.
Using these traditions on the personal level opens healing and transformation for the collective. The Nested Theory of Conflict model by Máire Dugan outlines the levels of conflict transformation from the individual to the global.
Traditions of Consultation and Giving
On the political and organizing side, Islamic traditions like Shura (consultation) allow for movements and governments to embody fair decision making, consensus building, and real checks and balances. If practiced correctly, Shura counters monopoly on social, political and economic power.
Allah SWT states in relation to Shura: “… conduct their affairs by mutual consultations …” (Surah Al-Shura 42: 38)
Conflicts are often rooted in economic disparity and lack of access to resources. Some of the Islamic traditions utilized to offset economic hurdles that fuel these conflicts include public Waqf, a practice of giving lasting property and resources for beneficiaries to have access to, and Zakat, which is a prescribed and obligatory giving of 2.5 percent of one’s wealth annually to provide an alternative means of sustenance to others. According to research done by the Department of Economics at the University of Malaya, Waqf is “unlike conventional motivation of tax exemption” because “the Islamic concept of philanthropy has a spiritual and social justice motivation.” When nurtured, these motivations “can assist a country to become a welfare economy.” Zakat also has proven to be successful when applied, and according to the UN Development Program, the size of the annual Zakat pool is estimated to add up to between $200 billion and $1 trillion.
The practice of Waqf is less common today but has been utilized to create lasting institutions and endowments for community development. These practices provide public trust, public benefits and economic relief to the most marginalized in society. As millions of Americans are left out of relief packages and left without a viable solution against economic hardship, concepts like Zaqat and Waqf can provide immense benefit to society.
Abu Huraira reported Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) as saying: “Verily the vision of a believer is one of the forty-sixth part of Prophecy.” (Sahih Muslim 43 Hadith: 6048)
In the bleakest of times, oppressed people are left with dreams and aspirations as a way to envision new futures. Muslims believe that the Prophets of the Abrahamic faith traditions were given revelation to envision and build new worlds and societies better than they were in. Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) received divine Wahi (revelations) to guide an unequal society, and Muslims believe that he is the final prophet and messenger. However, the dreams of the righteous can be conduits of continued Wahi and connection to the Prophet (ﷺ). The oppressed can imagine new worlds, and have revelations that resist the structures of domination as they exist today. The dua (supplication) of the oppressed is answered by the Creator.
“Beware of the supplication of the oppressed, for there is no barrier between it and Allah.” Source: Sahih al-Bukhari 4090
We have the agency to imagine and reimagine ways forward without limitation. No request or prayer is too vast.
Practitioners can imagine, pray, supplicate and dream the uncharted and inconceivable, for nothing is beyond the design of the Creator. This doesn’t mean that in the pursuits for liberation, that the necessary work to dismantle systems of oppression and domination is overlooked.
A popular saying among Muslims is, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.” It comes from a story narrated about the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), in which a man said, “O Messenger of Allah, should I tie my camel and trust in Allah, or should I leave her untied and trust in Allah?” The Prophet (ﷺ), peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Tie her and trust in Allah.”
As Muslims in the movement space seek relief, imagination and freedom in religious traditions of Islam, they sow the seeds of transformation through a collective work toward liberation.