- 10 Jan 2021
Importance of Reflection in Islam
Our religion started in a cave. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, used to seclude himself for months at a time to think, reflect, meditate and listen.
Prophet Muhammad PBUH said he who knows his self, knows his Lord. It requires some practice, because we have the inclination to cover our own acts and thoughts and feelings with a subjective veil and then we do not really look at such things. That is also why it is useful to have a spiritual guide who serves as a mirror to us.
Hazrat Bulleh Shah has said:
You read to become all-knowing,
But you never read your self.
Self-knowledge is possible because of the human ability to reflect on our own behaviour and the effect of it. Reflection on the self deals with reflecting on your own thoughts, acts, feelings, and the effect these have on our heart. It helps to increase knowledge about the self and act more effectively in the future, helping to cleanse the heart enabling light to enter it. There are 3 moments to reflect on oneself:
1. In advance of an event
2. During the event
1. Anticipating reflection implies that you think about how you can or will react when a certain situation will take place in the future.
2. Reflection in action is the most challenging type of self-reflection because it asks of you an immediate switch of perspective. You need to be involved because you are part of the situation, and at the same time you are taking some distance to investigate your response to the situation.
3. Evaluating after, i.e. to reflect later on, is the most common type of self-reflection, because then there is the time and the calmness to look back.
Neurological research has shown that our brains are more or less completely developed at an age of about 20 years. Our brains are then able to deal with complex processes. The brain at that time has become an efficient system and enables us to concentrate better. We are more and more able to get a helicopter view, which implies the ability to rise above the specifics of a particular situation and to see it in its overall context and environment. It is the ability not only to see the forest for the trees, but it also the ability to see the big picture without losing sight of the details and their implications. Although it is thus more difficult to practice self-reflection at a young age, parents still can influence their children regarding this ability.
Parents can help by asking questions to their children about their behaviour, feelings and the effects thereof. When you are used to these things at an early age, then it is probable that later on it is easier to practice self-reflection.
It is helpful when you are able to recognise and deal with your own emotions and the ones of others, demonstrating good emotional intelligence. Then you are better able to give a meaning to your own emotions and to see which is the effect of your behaviour on others.
Shaykh Harith al-Muhasibi considers reflection to be one of the most important ‘works of the heart.’ It is a form of inward service by which you are strengthened for outward service. In solitary reflection is found the key to wisdom. The shaykh goes so far as to say that reflection leads to all good. It helps you to know if an act is good or not, to know which of two duties comes first and to choose aright between them. Reflection for a single hour, he says, is better than service by good works for a whole year. Remembrance and meditation are linked up with reflection and self-examination.
The shaykh was given the title of al-Muhasibi because of his practice of frequent self-examination. He used to examine (hasab) himself when in a state of recollection of God. It was said also, in explanation of his name, that he did not pronounce a single word without having reflected thoroughly on it. The shaykh is spoken of as a contemplative (mushahid), given to meditation (muraqib), but always ready to help others, being a good and loyal friend. Someone recited these verses in his presence:
I weep in exile, as the eye of a stranger weeps,
I shall not grieve on the day when I depart from this abode,
For strange it is that I should have deserted
My native land, the home of my Beloved.
When the shaykh heard these lines, he rose and was moved to tears. He himself then recited:
Fear is most fitting for the sinner
And grief when he calls upon God,
But love is seemly for the obedient
And him who is pure from defilement,
While strong yearning belongs to the elect
And the friends of God,
According to those who are wise.
Solitary - portrait of Shaykh Nazim by Shabina
There are 4 mechanisms which block self-reflection:
1. The attitude of stating: “I cannot help it. This is how I am…”
2. The attitude of stating: “I cannot help it. The fault lies with someone else…”
3. The attitude of stating: “I cannot help it. The circumstances have caused this…”
4. The attitude of stating: “I don’t want to think about it anymore…”
We can all recognise these pitfalls, but how do we overcome them?
The first step is to recognize them in order to change your behaviour.
Then look at the first pitfall. i.e. that you state that this is the way you are, and that you thus imply that you cannot change, then try this: Look at yourself in a similar way you look at others. This makes it necessary to look in a critical and honest way at yourself. Reflect on what you do and see what is possible for you by making use of the thought that you can also do it in a different way. This is not easy. You need quite some practice. What you see as reality is an illusion. Life is a dream.
The second pitfall lies in the fact that you don’t attribute a mistake to yourself, but you blame others for it. When you are learning French, and your results are not up to the mark, you claim that it is not your fault, but the fault of your teacher. This is called negative attribution. You’ll of course not learn to speak better French, by pointing out mistakes of your teacher. It is hard or even impossible to change him. It is much easier to try to change your own learning habits. It is difficult to be honest with yourself, because blaming others has become the habit, and because you tend to be too forgiving to yourself. It is also difficult for you to know what you really think in this respect. A defence mechanism is operative, and your own thoughts get mixed with all kinds of other thoughts.
The third pitfall is that you blame your personal failings on the circumstances or to others. You thus avoid looking into the mirror or your self. This mechanism is called the ‘self-serving bias.’ People with an external locus of control use this mechanism often. In case you are someone with an external locus of control, then you are more likely to believe that your fate is determined by chance or outside forces that are beyond their own personal control. This strategy can be healthy sometimes, like when dealing with failure or disaster, but can also be harmful in that it can lead to feelings of helplessness and loss of personal control. When you are like this, instead of feeling more independent, then your inclination for self-reflection will be minimal.
Pitfall number four is the attitude that you don’t want to think about ‘it’ anymore. In order to overcome this pitfall, you should organize your own feedback. Ask someone else to reflect together with you about what just has taken place. Ask this person to mention what was positive in what you did and what was less positive. When you may hear that you should have shown more understanding for the point of view of a third person, then continue asking questions. You may ask what is exactly meant by that and – after receiving a reply – ask how to do it
Other people can thus help you and serve as a useful mirror to you. They may assist you in overcoming your personal blind spots. It is said in the ahadith that the believer (mu’min) is the mirror for the believer. You may also reflect on the fact that one of the divine names is al-Mu’min. Meister Eckhart writes:
“The soul contemplates itself in the mirror of divinity. God Himself is the mirror, which He conceals from whom He will, and uncovers to whom He will. The more the soul is able to transcend all words, the more it approaches the mirror. In this mirror union occurs as pure undivided like-ness.”
The subject is self-reflection. A mirror is a useful tool in this respect. A mirror is – according to Sidi Titus Burckhardt – also “the most immediate symbol of spiritual contemplation, and indeed of knowledge (gnosis) in general, for it portrays the union of subject and object.” Reflection and self-reflection become more difficult when passions obscure the mirror. It becomes covered over, as if with dust. When false thoughts, under the direction of your spiritual guide, are overcome, they cease to proclaim themselves. It is like the polishing of a mirror. The best tool to do this polishing is the practice of the remembrance of God.
You need discipline for self-reflection. You need to act and you need inward peace. Some dissatisfaction about your own behaviour may also be helpful. Some people make use of a diary to note down their experiences. Look back at the end of the day or at the end of the week. What do you notice? What do you want to do with this insight? And in case this is too difficult for you, ask someone else to help you.
Make up your account, before your account is made up!
Allah has given human beings the capability of thinking and reasoning. It is this ability which makes humans different from animals and enables them with free will, compared to all other creatures.
Thinking, reasoning and reflecting is the essential key that leads us to Allah- and He repeatedly instructs us in the Qur’an to reflect upon and ponder the universe. In surah Aal-Imran it says:
Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of the night and day are signs for people of understanding, those who remember Allah while standing, sitting or reclining, and reflect in the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying): “Our Lord! You have not created this in vain. Glory to you! Save us, then, from the chastisement of the Fire!” (Aal-Imran 3:190-191)
From this verse we can see that for people of understanding, reflection upon the universe will specifically lead to discovering the reality of Allah’s existence. When they see the perfect order and balance in the creation, it leads to the conclusion that there must be a creator- who must have created all things, and hence, there must be an accounting.
When these verses were revealed, the Prophet Muhammad (saw) said: “Doom to the person who reads them and does not reflect on them”- meaning, these verses must be read and thoroughly understood. It is on this basis that Hasan al-Basri stated that one hour’s reflection is better than observing qiyam ul-layl through the whole night.
So what can we reflect on?
1. Allah's Names
These are found at the end of many verses of the Qur’an. They lead us to a proper understanding of our relationship with our creator, and also serve as a focus for modelling our own behaviour.
2. Allah's Creation
Different verses in the Quran remind us again and again to use our eyes, ears and hearts to ponder the entire universe that surrounds us, to understand the purpose of our creation and to recognise our creator. In surah al-Furqan it describes Allah’s servants as being those who:
“When they are reminded of the signs of their Lord, do not turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to them” (Al-Furqan 25:73)
In surah Ta-Ha we are told of a man who will be raised blind on the Day of Judgement, even though he was not blind during his life. He will be raised in this way as Allah’s signs came to him but he ignored them and was blind to them. So he will have no sight in the hereafter.
3. Human History
Mighty empires ruled for centuries – but then collapsed and left behind them nothing but ruin. Their Kings and Queens would declare themselves as gods – but that did not help them and they perished.
“Have they not travelled in the land that they may observe the end of those who were before them? Certainly the abode of the Hereafter is much better for the God-fearing. Do you not then reflect?” (Surah 12:109)
4. Reflect upon our selves and our Society
In surah Rum, the disbelievers are questioned “Do they not reflect upon themselves?” There are many lessons we can draw from the history, cultures, and politics of society – which tell us about the direction of people’s morals and who they set up as modern day gods. There are many lessons we can learn from the way we treat one another, and what motivates people today.
5. Remember death
This is not to be morbid and sad, but to enable us to prepare for our eternal life to come. The Prophet (saw) said that the one who is the most intelligent is the one who remembers death often. (Ibn Majah).
May Allah help us to be among those who use our intellect to reflect on His signs, and remember Allah. Ameen.