Ramadan 2023 contemplative
Foto: Mehmet Subasi

Ramadan 2023 or The Contemplative Middle Way

Ramadan is a month of contemplation and a good opportunity to reflect on our spiritual state and our options for action. The triad of Islam, Iman and Ihsan points to a middle way that combines spiritual and active elements.

The practice of Islam addresses us as individuals and as members of a collective. The Din is behaviour or let us say it in other words: action.

In Surah Luqman (31, 4), the establishment of prayer and zakat in particular is emphasised as a shared responsibility of Muslims: „those who establish prayer and pay the tribute, and they who are convinced of the Hereafter. Those proceed according to a guidance from their Lord, and they are those who prosper.“

Ramadan as an example

The issue raised here recalls one of the great questions of human history. In Greek philosophy, the term vita activa („active life“) refers to a way of life that emphasises practical work and social activity. The contrast to this is the vita contemplativa („contemplative life“), which is dedicated to knowledge.

Immediately after his famous allegory of the cave, Plato states: „Whoever wishes to act rationally, whether in his own or in public affairs, must first behold the truth.“ The thinker thus taught: Vita activa without Vita contemplativa is blind!

Foto: Zeno.org

Since the Greeks, especially since Aristotle, the founder of European sciences, modes of contemplation and practice have been subject to constant change. New narratives, for example the Roman and the Christian, the consequences of the Enlightenment, up to the nihilistic understanding of being, fundamentally changed the understanding of these concepts. Two examples illustrate this history of development.

Previously unthinkable form

It is the year 1765 in which a completely new, up to this point unthinkable form of „contemplation“ enters human history. Let us imagine the following scene: In the middle of Lake Biel in Switzerland, a rowing boat is adrift. A man lies motionless on his back, gazing up at the blue sky.

Behind the idyllic scene lies an astonishing philosophical event. The lonely rower is world-famous: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1768). He is a multi-talented philosopher, writer and composer. He tells of his experience in his diaries: „When the water was still, I jumped into the boat and rowed to the middle. There I stretched out on the boat, my eyes fixed on the sky, and let myself drift with the current, not infrequently for hours, sinking into a thousand, confused, but delightful reveries, which really had no object, and yet were a hundred times sweeter to me than anything commonly called the pleasures of life.“

Rousseau names the provocative consequence of his experience – for the Christian narrative still dominant in his time: „As long as this state lasts, we, like God, are enough for ourselves.“ The phenomenon opens completely new dimensions of existence that we would describe today with the word „chilling“ and in idleness, of being idle, opens up new spaces of experience.

We suspect how fatal the situation of the „happy“ person in his little boat was. Especially the idea of being able to find one’s independence and small happiness independently of the vita activa of others would soon fall into a deep crisis in the time after Rousseau.

Foto: imago images

Faust as figure and type

Let us change perspective here, towards the vita activa, and remember probably the most famous man of action in German intellectual history: Goethe’s „Faust“. He is a character who wants to recognise „what holds the world together at its innermost core“ and restlessly strives for knowledge, power and expansion.

The core scene of the great narrative, which Goethe completed shortly before his death, is the pact between Faust and Mephistopheles. The arrangement is complicated: The devil is to win the wager if, favoured by his magical powers, he leads and redeems Faust from his activities and intentions in a moment of contemplative fulfilment. Faust: „Will I say to the moment: Stay! You are so beautiful! Then you may beat me in fetters, Then I will gladly perish!“

Michael Jaeger („Global Player Faust“) notes that in this pact Faust dictates the modern law of permanent revolution, which likewise must never rest for a moment, never reach its goal, which is always on the „run forward“.

Faust’s utopia, which emerges from the pact, is reality today: no region of consciousness, no area of the world, no matter how remote, that is not seized by the modern negation of dwelling. The whole world is caught up in the ever faster, frantic movements of images, data, finance, consumption and traffic. It is no coincidence, if we recall Plato’s insights („Vita activa without Vita contemplativa is blind!“), that Faust, amid the intoxication of his actions, finally goes blind.

Weimar Classicism, and in particular the friendship between Goethe and Schiller and their works, became an integral part of the German educated middle class. However, despite their admiration for Goethe and Schiller, this stratum was unable to prevent the catastrophes that were to come in the 20th century, triggered by Mephisto’s doers, which brought with them the descent into the lowest level of culture, nationalism (Goethe).

Thomas Mann wrote in his 1939 essay Culture and Politics about the moral consequences of this failure: „It has been a mistake of German bourgeoisie (…) to believe that one could be an apolitical cultural man.“

In Plato’s words: Man should not be surprised that if he does not engage himself politically, he will one day be ruled by devils. We know that this statement about the connection between culture and politics still holds true today. The finest education, religious tradition and cultural greatness do not reliably protect against the establishment of dictatorships; just think of the conditions in Russia or China.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin, who, forced to flee the Nazis’ racial mania, underlines Thomas Mann’s insights with a sombre undertone. The quotation shows all the pessimism that arose towards the Faustian age of action: „Human history is a continuing apocalypse. It is an apocalypse without event. Catastrophic is the uneventful continuation of the now: The concept of progress is to be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That it continues IS the catastrophe.“

The threat of catastrophe and crisis, in your grip, enforce a powerful imperative today: you must change your lives! Faced with the challenges of our time, our governments, on the side of vita activa, respond with programmes that offer more money, more science and more technology as the solution. On the side of vita contemplativa, the population is being attuned to the ancient spiritual exercise – well known to us Muslims – of „renunciation“.

Foto: Freepik.com

Will inaction help us out of the crisis?

It is this spiritual and political crisis that philosopher Byung Chul Han addresses in a new book, „Vita contemplativa or of Inaction“. The Korean-born thinker – a simple factory worker in Asia, he later did his doctorate on Heidegger in Germany – tries a therapeutic measure in the face of the state of the stress community. He reminds us that while action is constitutive of history, it is not a culture-forming force.

The philosopher pleads for a renaissance of the contemplative, for a harmonisation of the Western drive for action with wisdom inspired by the Far East: „We have forgotten that it is precisely inactivity, which produces nothing, that is an intensive and brilliant form of life. The compulsion to work and perform will have to be countered by a politics of inactivity capable of producing real free time.“

Han calls for nothing other than the transition from acting to being, from the delusion that everything is doable, to the enabling of real events. These events are not prepared by action, but in the existential experience of a comprehensive emptiness. He elaborates on the paradox: „Boredom is the threshold to great deeds. Boredom forms the unconscious event. Without it, nothing happens.“

The philosopher does not understand boredom here in the sense of senselessly killing time, but rather in the experience of a long while, an intense experience of time, a mood that becomes aware of the emptiness of the world.

Han expands the conceptualisation around the active and reflective life: „The mass is losing its significance today. It is no coincidence that there is talk of the society of singularities. Creativity and authenticity are invoked. Everyone considers themselves unique. Everyone has their own story to tell. Everyone performs themselves. The vita activa now expresses itself as vita performativa.“

Performing, practising, becoming fit poses the question about what for: for oneself? For the work process? For the others? What is the purpose of the performer’s active self-centredness and new inwardness? Despite his dedicated commitment to the „vita contemplativa“, Byun Chul Han does not end up in a dialectic at the end of his analysis.

He describes much more what we must be concerned with: „Human existence is realised solely in the vita composita, namely in the interaction of vita activa and vita contemplativa.“

Foto: Paman Ahari, Shutterstock

Correspondences in Islamic life practice

This mediating idea of the vita composita corresponds to Islamic life practice. Take, for example, the pilgrimage: Here an interesting connection between action and character clarifies itself. Travelling is called ‘safar’ in Arabic because it indeed reveals a person’s real self.

When a man came to the Khalif ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab to vouch for the character of another, the Khalif asked him, „Have you accompanied him on a journey so that you can know that he has a good character?“ When the man replied in the negative, ‘Umar retorted, „I do not think you know him at all.“

We hold that there can be no knowledge of another’s character without an active life. Anyone who builds a community, trades or leads a journey will readily attest to this. Prayer and its process is another indication that there is a deep connection between movement and contemplation, action and rest. Without doubt, prayer is the most important contemplative aspect of our lives.

It is from the experience of the truth of revelation that behaviour and action are determined. In the Diwan of Shaikh Muhammad ibn Al-Habib, in the Qasida entitled „The Unity of Action and Existence“ we read: „For the great ones, there is neither action nor existence, triggered by other than their Lord.“

The situation of Muslims today is not so much one of spiritual or moral crisis. The problem lies in the lack of collective action. Plato’s formulation „Vita activa without vita contemplativa is blind“ is to be complemented by the converse: „Vita contemplativa without vita activa is ignorant.“

The elementary thing to understand here is that it is not (solely) about an individual inwardness, but about collective, divinely inspired action. The dialectic of inside and outside, the opposition of contemplation and action, this contradiction is resolved in Islam.

You’ll find the German version of this essay here: https://islamische-zeitung.de/ramadan-2023-kontemplativer-mittelweg/

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