Considering Islam

Westerners traveling to Muslim countries have been known to notice the absence of alcohol therein. 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 altar our inner states of mind. 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 then depressants like alcohol in the evening. In between, we clumsily tweak our alertness by changing our blood sugar levels with sugary foods, and we tweak our neurotransmitters by watching soap operas, sitcoms or sports contests.

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. Yet it is ineffective in that it gives us only momentary satisfaction and does not increase our mastery of our inner states of mind.

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 five 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 people praying face towards Mecca, so they obviously know where on earth they are. Their prayer includes a powerful acclamation not of themselves but of God's greatness and centrality. The praying is done in community, which generates a sense of connection and belonging. The words of prayer are performed in a sequence of standing, bowing, prostrating and sitting on ones heals : a series of positions that is physically stimulating and grounding. Five times a day, these people stop every piece of business, every distraction, and reorient themselves to place, to relationship with God and with the community, to the earth itself and to their own bodies and minds.

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

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