BY MUNEEB NASIR
(Excerpt from Friday Khutba delivered at University of Toronto and Masjid Toronto in February 2009)
Distractions are devastating for believers in God who are seeking spiritual growth.
Distraction here being that inability to identify and attend to what is most valuable in one’s earthly life for success in the eternal realm.
In God’s final revelation, the Qur’an, such distractions are identified as a cause for loss in a believer’s spiritual development.
‘Believers! Do not let your wealth and children distract you from remembering God. Those who do so will be the ones who lose’ (Qur’an, 63:9).
Distraction can nurture procrastination which leads to that devastating condition – regret.
“Give out of what We have provided for you, before death comes to one of you and he says, ‘My Lord, if You would only reprieve me for a little while, I would give in charity and become one of the righteous.’ God does not reprieve a soul when its turn comes: God is fully aware of what you do.” (Qur’an, 63:10-11).
Distraction gives way to procrastination in doing good deeds which leads to regret.
One arena of distractions that has become ubiquitous in all of our lives is related to technology, most especially digital communications.
I recently read a report that says the typical office worker is interrupted every three minutes by a phone call, e-mail, instant message or other distraction, while it takes about eight uninterrupted minutes for our brains to get back into a really creative state.
These digital communication tools that were supposed to make our lives run more smoothly are preventing people from getting critical tasks accomplished.
As technology becomes both more sophisticated and prolific, it changes us.
One thing it changes is our attention span – it shortens it.
In an article in the Atlantic magazine (July/Aug 2008) titled, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr describes an all too familiar experience for many of us:
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
Carr concludes that “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”
When our attention span is impacted, it affects our spiritual growth which requires concentration and contemplation over an extended period of time.
The question of how to grow spiritually in a world where our lives are replete with weapons of mass distraction is an important one for a believer.
Islam teaches its followers that to grow spiritually they must be engaged in the remembrance of God.
They must overcome distraction and heedlessness in favor of remembrance.
Keeping the remembrance of God is among the features of faith in Him and the key to spiritual nourishment that provides us with peace and security.
“Those who have faith and whose hearts find peace in the Remembrance of God – truly it is in the Remembrance of God that hearts find peace” (Qur’an, 13:28).
The remembrance of God must be sustained and become a habit for a believer.
“So, remember Me; I will remember you.” (Qur’an 2:152).
“Believers, Remember God often and glorify Him morning and evening” (Qur’an, 33:41).
The Muslim theologian, Imam Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya in his book, The Invocation of God (Al-Wabil al-Sayyib min al-Kalim al-Tayyib) makes a compelling case for an enduring remembrance of God as the antidote to distraction and forgetfulness: ‘Constancy in remembrance of the Lord brings about security from forgetfulness of Him.’
Such remembrance will be rewarded with God’s favor and mercy.
“For men and women who remember God often – God has prepared forgiveness and a rich reward” (Qur’an, 33:35).
In the Qur’an, God gives a warning to the believer about dire consequences that results from the forgetfulness of Him …. it will lead to forgetfulness of one’s own soul.
“Do not be like those who forget God, so God causes them to forget their own souls.” (Qur’an, 59:19).
On the other hand, remembrance endows the heart with life.
Imam Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya said he heard his teacher and mentor, Shaykh of Islam, Ibn Taymiyya, say, ‘Remembrance is to the heart what water is to the fish. And what is the state of a fish that leaves water?’
We are constantly being distracted by the technological weapons of mass distraction which can eventually tarnish and shrivel the heart.
Imam ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya calls this condition the worst fate of all for a believer:
‘If heedlessness dominates most of someone’s time, the tarnish on his heart grows in proportion. And if the heart is tarnished, it ceases to reflect things as they are. Therefore, it sees false as true and the true as false. As the tarnish grows thicker, the heart grows dimmer, until it no longer reflects reality at all.’
This is, indeed, spiritual death.
All the acts of worship in Islam prescribe the remembrance of God, and to achieve this remembrance is its goal.
God says in the Qur’an: “And establish regular prayer for My remembrance” (Qur’an, 20:14).
As such, if a believer in God wishes to know her level of attentiveness and the state of herself, then she should look at her regular prayer (Salat).
Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali in the book, Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship, describes how the ritual prayer achieves attentiveness and conscious awareness: “By conscious awareness we mean that state in which one’s mind and feelings are in no way distracted from what one is doing and saying. Perception is united with action and speech. Thoughts do not wander. When the mind remains attentive to what one is doing, when one is wholeheartedly involved, and when nothing makes one heedless, that is when one has achieved conscious awareness.”
For believers seeking to be closer to God, the technological weapons of mass distraction that are so intrusive in our lives are truly weapons of mass destruction.