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ILLNESS, SHAME & SPIRITUALITY - NEW !

 

by

 

Abdullah Muzaffer (Laurence Galian)

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We often hear people speaking today about the connection between physical health and spiritual health. Pseudo-spiritual people are going around propagating the notion that disease is a sign of lack of spirituality, or spirituality gone wrong. Sickness according to some of these people is caused by sin: some act of faithlessness or the breaching of a divine ordinance. Others claim that the sick actually choose to be sick. These pseudo-spiritual individuals equate spiritual development with looking and feeling young, a slim figure, and radiant health. There is no shame in being sick. Being sick is not a sign that Allah has forsaken you. In fact, sickness may well be a sign that Allah has singled you out for His special favor.

 

Hafiz wrote in his poem, “His Winter Crop” translated by Daniel Ladinsky:

 

I have
Seen You heal
A hundred deep wounds with one glance
From Your spectacular eyes,

 

While your hands, beneath the table,
Pour large bags of salt into the heart-gashes
Of Your most loyal servants.

 

Dear world, I can offer
An intelligent explanation
For our suffering,
But I hope it really makes sense
To no one here,
And come morning,
You are again at God’s door
With ax and pickets,
Eloquent petitions and complaints.

 

Think of suffering as being washed.

That is to say,

Hafiz, you are often completely soaked

And dripping.

 

The only advantage I can see in this

In the Friend’s long-range plan

I that when the Beloved bursts

Into ecstatic flames

 

This whole world will not turn into

A bright oil wick all at once

Then divine ash,

And ruin His

 

Winter

Crop.

 

A’isha reported, “I did not see anyone else being afflicted with more severe illness than Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him).” This hadith has been transmitted by many companions. If Allah intended for us to believe that spiritual advancement produces good health then He most certainly would have kept His beloved mercy to the worlds, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), in the peak of health at all times. Who can possibly claim a higher spiritual rank or station than Muhammad Mustafa (pbuh)?

 

Yet, in the Christian Science Church, illness is a direct result of “wrong thinking” and a lack of faith. In “New Age” thinking, you might hear it said that you are sick because you “choose” it. Arthur W. Frank, author of “At the Will of the Body” writes, “But it is a sad mistake to believe that cancer is caused by something you have or have not done. To believe my own inadequacies were so spectacular that they gave me cancer is just vanity." Yet cancer patients routinely hear such comments as, "So, Larry, why did you need to create this illness?" "What purpose is your tumor serving you?" And, "What feelings or unfinished business do you have that caused your cancer?" This is the pernicious thinking of today that leads many to believe that those who are ill have brought it upon themselves because they are not developed spiritually.

 

A Senior Vatican official, Archbishop Paul Cordes, recently asserted that illness is the result of sin and that people have a natural desire to be "healthy and good-looking.” Archbishop Cordes, who happened to be the German head of the Vatican's agency for humanitarian aid, maintained that there was scriptural authority for the idea that those who contract illnesses do so because they have sinned.

 

‘Abdullah reported that Allah’s Messenger said, “When a Muslim falls ill, his compensation is that his minor sins are obliterated just as leaves fall in autumn.” Therefore, we can see that negativity is removed from the soul through illness. Allah is the Most Merciful of the Merciful. A’isha reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) expanded this notion further when he said, “A believer does not receive the trouble of running a thorn or more than that but Allah elevates him in rank or effaces his sins because of that.”

 

Therefore, for the Sufi, pain and illness are not the downside or unwanted aspects of human existence, but some of the many ways that Allah works to perfect us as human beings.

 

Sociologist Arthur W. Frank writes, "Today the healthy want to believe that disease does not 'just happen.' They want to believe that they control their health and that they have earned it. Those who have cancer must have done something wrong, which the healthy can then avoid. The sick person must have participated in sickness by choosing to have a cancer personality. Otherwise illness is an intolerable reminder of how risky life is."

 

Life is not exactly “risky” as Mr. Frank says, but our health is in the hands of the Ultimate Reality. In that sense we are completely out of control and Allah is completely in control of our health. Sheikh Nur al-Jerrahi writes, “Allah is the sole source of action in the universe.” We must not deify health and make it into an idol. Our television screens are filled with exercise machines, ads for weight loss supplements, and workout shows. We are in awe of a 50-year-old woman who can wear a bikini, as if this were the greatest achievement a woman in her fifties can attain. Our magazine racks are filled with magazines devoted to beautiful celebrities. If Allah loves us, and He wishes to take away our health for some reason, then we must continue to love Allah and be obedient to Him, for He may have something even better to give to us in its place. Furthermore, those who are deeply in love with their Beloved, as Majnun was with Layla, will often wander through “deserts” in which they lose all awareness of the physical form for love of the Divine.  

 

Who are we to judge when someone falls ill? Even mental worry (which today we would call: anxiety disorder, depression, or panic attacks) were mentioned by the Prophet . . . “Never a believer is stricken with discomfort, hardship or illness, grief or even with mental worry that his sins are not expiated for him.” This was reported by Abu Sa’id and Abu Hurraira. Do you secretly believe that a person with a mental illness cannot be “spiritual”? Do you secretly believe that mental illness is a sign that a person has not advanced spiritually, and “must do more work on him or herself”? According to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the above quote, the mentally ill person (provided he or she is a believer) is purified from his or her sins! As Hafiz says, they are “washed”.

 

In fact, Rumi informs us: “The spiritual path ruins the body, but subsequently restores it to health. It ruins the house to reveal the treasure, and with that treasure it builds better than before.” As Sufis, we need to change our way of looking at what we imagine to be “reality”. Perhaps it is the completely healthy person that needs to be scared as to why he or she is so healthy?

 

The Sufi Masters teach us that one can only progress along the Sufi path if one has been humiliated time after time. In this time of health obsession, being overweight, admitting to having anxiety or depression, or to suffer from chronic illness, is often very humiliating to admit especially in a “spiritual setting”. Everyone wants to “heal” you! Baha ad-din Naqshabandi tells us: “To deny, humiliate, and annihilate oneself is of prime importance in this Way.” There are many kinds of humiliation. There is public humiliation, like when the director of some charity is caught siphoning off funds from the donations. There is private humiliation, when in spite of one’s deepest resolutions to change one’s behavior, one still drinks, abuses one’s spouse, or hits one’s child. We have no power on our own to do (or not to do) anything. All power comes from the One. This is not a license to practice evil, but a way to view with humility that in spite of our most concerted efforts to act in a certain way, it is Allah, and Allah alone, who decides the outcome. Edmund Kabir Helminski writes, “. . . to be receptive to the transformative power of love requires a profound humiliation of the self. In the words of Jesus: ‘He that exalteth himself shall be abased and he that abaseth himself shall be exalted.’”

 

Baha ad-din Naqshabandi tells us this story about his own life: “One day, a state of ecstasy came over me. I cast off all my clothes and covered myself with a sheepskin. With feet and head bare, I began to wander in the desert. As I walked and walked, my feet were pierced with innumerable thorns. Suddenly it came to me that I must go at once to the house of Amir Kulal. As I came in, the Amir asked:

‘Who is it?’ Those standing by said:

‘Bahad ad-din, my lord.’

‘Throw him out.’

“They took me by the arms and thrust me out, shutting the door in my face. My gorge rose and my soul wanted to rebel. But divine grace came to my aid. I said, ‘This humiliation is a means with which to serve and satisfy the All-Powerful. That’s that; there is nothing else to do.’”

 

We must change our ways of looking at the world and at other people. We are too quick to judge the people who egregiously violate public law, flout the unwritten rules of common courtesy, and most especially, go against the wishes of Allah as He expresses them to humanity in the Qur’an. We think there is nothing worse than the hypocrite is, and we heap abuse upon him or her. Yet, some of these humiliated individuals may be exactly those people that Allah has especially selected to advance along the spiritual path. Therefore, we need to be very careful, and stop ourselves before we judge. Some of these people may truly be evil-doers and hypocrites, but Allah knows best.

 

In Sura Al-Baqara, verses 155-157, Allah subhanallahu ta'ala reminds us: "Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger; some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil) but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere. Who say when afflicted with calamity:  'Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhir raji-oon' (To Allah we belong and to Him is our return). They are those on whom (descend) blessings from Allah and Mercy and they are the ones that receive guidance."

 

2005 by Laurence Galian.