Considering Islam

Westerners traveling to Muslim countries have been known to notice the absence of alcohol. Also absent is entertainment to stimulate the libido. Some Westerners find it surprising that a good number of Muslims like it like that.

In the West, we have all sorts of ways to alter our inner states. If we are under-stimulated we have stimulating drinks, drugs, foods and entertainment. If we are over-stimulated we have drinks, drugs, foods and entertainment that will mellow us out. Many of us get in the habit of taking a stimulant, like caffeine, in the morning and depressants, like alcohol in the evening. In between, we clumsily tweak our alertness by changing our blood sugar levels by eating sugary food, and we tweak our neurotransmitters by watching soap operas, sitcoms or sports.

Much of this activity is habitual, that is to say it is unmindful and compulsive. It involves adjusting inner states by external means which sort of works. It works to the extent that we are rewarded for the behavior by the change it induces and so it becomes habitual, but it is ineffective in that it gives us only momentary satisfaction and does not increase our mastery of our inner states.

Perhaps practicing Muslims can tolerate the absence of alcohol and other mood changing features of Western culture because they have something that actually helps them feel well. One significant feature of Islam is prayer 5 times a day. The practitioner washes beforehand, even symbolically when water is not available, an act that is obviously cleansing, but also stimulating to the hands and face in a self-nurturing way. The person praying orients toward Mecca, so he or she knows where on earth he or she is. Then prayer includes an affirmation, not of one’s self, but of God’s greatness and centrality. The praying is done in community, which gives one a sense of belonging and connection.  The words of prayer are performed in a sequence of standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting on one’s heals that is physically stimulating and grounding.

Five times a day, one stops every piece of business or distraction and re-orients oneself to place, relationship to God, relationship to the community, to the earth and to ones own body and mind.

We are in a time of increased focus on the Muslim world. We who are not Muslims would be wise to learn to understand the nature of that culture, and if we are very wise, we will use this time to consider what gifts Islamic culture might hold for us.

Some questions one might start with are:


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© 2003 Tom Barrett