Question: People of the modern age who feel suffocated in the hectic flow of daily life feel a need for a quiet corner, a haven of peace they can take refuge in. The believing souls like to organize occasional retreats in serene corners for the sake of a refreshment of their heart and spirituality. What are your suggestions to benefit from these retreats most efficiently?
Answer: Everybody has certain responsibilities to fulfill in the society. If believers wish to be beneficial for the society, guide the people they address to a certain lofty horizon, and let others feel their values profoundly, then they have to live among other people. A person with sound belief in God and the Day of Judgment must live among other members of the society and become a compass of truth and righteousness. The Pride of Humanity, peace and blessings be upon him, stated that a Muslim who lives in the society and endures the troubles from others is better than one who does not.1 Accordingly, a permanent retreat will mean escaping from one’s responsibilities to be carried out in the society. For this reason, even though it is done for the sake of personal spiritual progress, a person who escapes from these responsibilities will commit a sin, because what matters in Islam is maintaining one’s connection with the Almighty while living among others and striving to serve humanity.
However, it is a reality that while we are among others for the sake of lofty ideals, sometimes we face certain undesired situations—to such a degree that we might walk on mud unawares and get our skirts spattered with mud. Without even realizing it, our eyes and ears may have been polluted in the societal life; improper situations may have violated the purity of our inner world.
So, those who forbear many negative effects for the sake of their high ideals need purification from pollutant exposures in the societal life; they need to (allocate a period of time to spend in a quiet place for the sake of a refreshment of their heart and spirituality,) retreat to a clean atmosphere, fill their lungs with fresh air, and thus recharge themselves. In my opinion, all of the discussions and reading sessions oriented toward this goal can be regarded as a kind of worship.
However, there is one point to be careful about: people who retreat to those serene havens, which entail certain troubles and incur certain expenses, should make the most of the retreat without wasting a second. They must organize a program with disciplined reading sessions and bring life to it with remembrance and glorifications of God. Through the spirit of collective consciousness, heartfelt remembrance and glorifications of God must make up such choruses, such symphonies to make the heavens and the earth vibrant that even the inhabitants of heavens should wish to join them.
An Atmosphere Open to Spirituality
During the summer programs that we held many years ago, the recitations of the Qur’an, prayers and litanies recited by our friends, each of whom withdrew to a corner for nocturnal devotions, moved me so much. At the same time, they would read an average of 200-300 pages on truths of faith during the day and discuss different issues. In addition, conditions were so simple. For example, people would sleep on mats made of straw. This humble servant cooked the meal and served it. Once, an important guest witnessed that atmosphere and remarked, “This must be the best place in the world to feel true spirituality.” He attended the program the following year as well.
At the same time, in those pure environments we had better face ourselves and look critically at what we have thus far done with the intent of serving for the sake of God. We need to see our mistakes and make a self-criticism about where we stand and where we should stand. We need to make a resolution for journeying in the orbit of the heart and spirit by turning our backs on physicality and the animal side, and try to steer toward spiritual courses. For the sake of clarification, let me relate a consideration at this point: during those summer retreats, I thought of telling our friends to observe a hundred units of supererogatory Prayer every night. But I hesitated, wondering whether it would be too difficult of a task for them. When we view the lives of great spiritual masters, however, it is seen that they observed a hundred units of Prayers each and every night, even at very young ages. In this respect, those who are able to do so should observe a hundred units of Prayer every night, if possible. They should benefit from the mysterious and somber silent hours of the night in the best way with devotions by entreating and asking forgiveness from God, along with certain remembrances and recitations.
The Great Works Victimized by Indifference and Benefits of Comparative Reading
For the sake of making good use of those temporary retreats, one should try to read 300 pages of religious books a day, if possible. If this target can be realized, a person who joins a 15-day retreat program will be able to read 4500 pages in total. If such programs can be held twice a year, it will allow a great deal of reading in terms of being nourished by Islamic sources.
In addition, it will be very beneficial to read the essential books of religion and spirituality by comparing them with other works, which will greatly help breaking the monotony. Realization of this depends on collective acceptance. Therefore, those who try to initiate such activities of comparative reading should know that they will find it a bit difficult at the beginning until they rid themselves from old styles and habits. But there is another thing to keep in mind—people should adjust themselves according to the ones supposed to guide them. If those who walk in front consider this a matter of serious concern and persevere in practicing it, others will follow them in doing the same. Unfortunately, our friends have fallen into the clutches of a narrow minded consideration of reading through those precious works in a shallow fashion—without making an effort of gaining insight into their true depth. Since no method of reflective, pensive and comparative reading had been established, reading that treasure of jewels is being taken for granted and is now seen as an ordinary task. I think that the authors of those works feel heartbroken toward us.
Let me state one final point: maintaining such purity in a quiet place, be it only temporary, will serve as a protective shield with respect to the participants’ later societal life. It is a reality that Muslim society has never been this polluted in history. The streets are dirty; downtown is dirty; courtyards of the mosque are dirty, and educational institutions are dirty… So in terms of leading the rest of one’s life in a pure and virtuous line, I believe it is very important to be purified from all of the dirt and become oriented toward purity, feel purity, and invigorate with it once more.
In addition, seeking refuge in the Divine Will through prayers and remembrance is a mysterious source of power that brings one under His protection. God Almighty commands: “… always remember and make mention of Me (when service to Me is due) so that I may remember and make mention of you (when judgment and recompense are due)” (al-Baqarah 2:152). Accordingly, if we remember God Almighty with glorifications and praise and proclaim His greatness, He will remember us and see us through hard times. It is also possible to understand this verse thus: “You turn toward Me by acknowledging your impotence and poverty, so that I support you with My Power.” This agreement is actually a mode of manifestation of Divine blessings. That is, God Almighty addresses us as if we are one of the parties of an agreement and says, “You do this, and I will do that.”
In conclusion, we all need temporary isolations in order to clean our eyes, ears, and tongue from sins, purify our hearts, and recharge our spirituality. However, minds should focus on reading and hearts should be immersed in the remembrance of God at such gatherings; things related to worldly fancies should not be spoken in lieu of sublime issues.
1. Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Qiyamah, 55
This text is the translation of “Asude Mekânlar ve Okuma Programları“