Religious emotion and self-knowledge

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi

People often confuse the intensity of an experience or feeling with the reality and authenticity of that experience or feeling. This applies very much to religious and devotional exercises. Both these can induce states of minds like trance or even unconsciousness. Because of the emotional intensity, people who get into such states can become convinced that they reached a high, spiritual station. In reality, they did not; what they did was to escape and absent themselves from normal life and its normal responsibilities. Because the normal life, by comparison, lacks colour and intensity, people can begin to resent its ordinariness and live instead for those special moments of intense feeling. Addiction and infatuation have a similar effect — the addict or lover is desperate to be reunited to his drug or his beloved, and profoundly miserable when separated from them. When it comes to religious emotion, its weight and quality is only truly ascertained by the measure in which that emotion, that intense feeling of being near to God and dedicated to God, is carried into normal life, and raises the level of taqwa, of wariness of God, in the believers’ everyday actions and transactions, in how they speak and behave, how they do business, in the quality of their normal work.

Whatever we think we know about ourselves in moments of elevated mood or emotion is not real knowledge about ourselves and our quality of devotion until it has been tested and perfected in our everyday lives.

It is unsurprising that these occasions of strong emotion often happen in the context, and with the help, of crowd events, when lots of people are gathered together all sharing the same commitment. There is no harm in this; indeed, there may be great good in it. Consider how full our masajid are at the time of ‘isha’ prayers in the month of Ramadan. People don’t want to miss out on what’s happening, and surely there is a blessing in their effort to join others and not miss out. But, how much greater would the blessing be if, once the month has passed, what was possible for so many believers in Ramadan, was still possible for even half that number the day after ‘Id!