Muslim teen sitting wearing hat, jeans and lowered sunglasses, looking reflective and sad

We Need Spiritual Honesty and Compassion, Not Saviors

There are endless waves of darkness, but only one noor (spiritual light of faith)…

When I found myself drowning in one of those waves of darkness and feared I couldn’t be Muslim anymore, I had no idea how I would find my way back to Allah. But I turned to Al-Haadee (The Guide) for help. Meanwhile I despaired of getting any support or compassion from humans, even those who professed Islam, amongst both worshippers and scholars.

At the time, it was such a lonely, emotionally isolating existence. I felt abandoned and alone, and there were moments when I felt angry that I could turn to no one for help. And those whom I tried to turn to scorned me for my questions, remained completely oblivious to my spiritual pain, or they berated me for the boundaries I’d put up in hopes of protecting what was left of the dying glimmer of emaan in my heart.

Till today, I struggle to find the words to convey what I was going through during that time, except that it was like being swept away under a wave of darkness, while the world looked on continuing their lives as if nothing was amiss.

Searching for Internal Peace, Not Clear Answers

My journey back to Allah was by far the most painful journey I’ve ever taken—and it was also the most rewarding.

Today, when I look back on all the questions that weighed me down during my spiritual confusion, I realize it wasn’t so much that I was looking for solid, clear answers to every single question I had, as I was looking for some internal spiritual peace that could put my heart at ease.

I was searching for sincerity and authenticity. I was searching for spiritual honesty. I was searching for empathy and compassion.

I was searching for humanity.

I know that not everyone’s spiritual turmoil will mirror mine—as there are endless waves of darkness, but only one noor—so I do not strive to speak for anyone else. At the same time, I’ve come to understand that no matter what wave of darkness is overtaking a soul, this pain is essentially a heart issue more than a “head” issue, no matter how much intellectual confusion is involved.

As for myself, I certainly had many pressing questions weighing on my heart, and I wanted answers so badly that it hurt. I have no idea if anyone could’ve actually said anything to help me, but at the time I felt that they should have.

But even if someone had answered my questions, I know for certain that I wasn’t seeking a scholar’s intellectual pontifications about “what if” possibilities in interpreting the Unseen realities of the Book of Allah and the prophetic Sunnah. As far as I was concerned, I could explore “what if” possibilities on my own.

But what was it that Allah, my Lord, wanted me to know? And what was I to understand from this? And what was I not to understand from this? And why?

So yes, while my mind was certainly overwhelmed with question after question, in the end, it was really my heart that was searching for peace.

You’re No One’s Savior

“You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved,” we say. And it’s true. But when it comes to Muslims struggling in their faith and questioning Islam, it’s much deeper than that.

Here’s what I learned from my own spiritual turmoil, as well as assisting others on their path back to Allah: You can’t save someone who isn’t willing to do the painful internal work that it takes to even have a chance at being saved.

This means if we’re struggling in our faith, then we have to truly want to want the spiritual good (even if in our current space of darkness, there’s a part of us that really doesn’t care). We can’t just desire immediate answers to our burning questions, while putting the path of spiritual good to the side until we get them.

In this, we have to accept on some level that there will always be unanswered questions and spaces of pain and confusion in life. This is true for dealing with the unseen realities of our worldly lives, and it’s true for dealing with the unseen realities of our spiritual lives.

Accepting the Unseen Is the Only Path to Success

In our worldly pursuits, we accept the unseen and submit to it wholeheartedly, and it doesn’t distract us from pursuing the path toward worldly good. We enroll in colleges and universities and invest thousands and thousands of dollars in a “dream.” Meanwhile we have absolutely no idea if we’ll even graduate, if we’ll get a job after it’s all over, or if that career or business we’ve invested so much in will ultimate fail—or if we’ll just drop dead and never live to see the results of any of our worldly pursuits.

But you’ll rarely find any mature adult just sitting around wasting life away based on the “what if” failure possibilities in their worldly path. In colleges and universities, even students who are “undecided” in their majors remain in school and ultimately choose something to pursue, even if they’re still questioning parts of the path they’re taking. And even those who end up dropping out tend to leave school in order to pursue a specific path, not to just sit around endlessly pondering the zillions of “what if” failure possibilities in life.

Every mature adult knows you must do something with your life. As a result, they choose some worldly path, even if it’s not as glamorous as the one they envisioned when they were children and telling the world their “When I grow up…” stories.

If we are going to have any success in our spiritual paths, then we have to take a similar approach.

The Journey Is More Important Than Answers

When we understand that accepting the unseen is the only path to success, this doesn’t mean we don’t actively seek answers to the spiritual questions burning in our hearts. It just means that we have to understand that the answers are less important than the journey we are taking to pursue them. Thus, we have to decide where we want to be at the end of that journey, and then start walking that path while we are seeking answers to our questions.

And how do you know where to walk? Wherever you’re standing.

If the only foundation beneath your feet is that you know there’s a God but have no idea which path to Him is correct, then you continuously pray to Him, begging His guidance and assistance as you seek to have your questions answered.

If the only foundation beneath your feet is that you believe in the general principles of Islam but have unsettling questions about certain prophetic teachings or historical incidents, about specific verses in the Qur’an, or about aspects of the unseen that you just can’t reconcile with your modern intellect or emotions; then you continue to pray your five prayers, read Qur’an, and make consistent, sincere du’aa begging Allah for answers.

The point is that it’s never necessary to stop walking your path just because you have questions about what you’ll encounter (or be required to encounter) on that path. This is true for our worldly paths, and it’s true for our spiritual paths as well.

Overcome ‘Instant Gratification’ Addictions

When I struggling in my emaan, I often found myself in restless impatience and confusion because I felt so empty and lost, even when I was praying, so I wrote this personal reminder in my journal: Instant gratification can be an addiction. Beware of it affecting your faith and worship. Everything good and beneficial doesn’t always feel good right away. Sometimes it never feels good right away. But we don’t do what is right and necessary because it feels good. We do what is right and necessary because it is right and necessary.

And sometimes what is “right and necessary” is being patient for the answer to our deepest spiritual questions, instead of insisting that it comes when we feel we should get it.

As we are walking our personal paths in life, it’s also important to understand that finding meaningful answers to our questions sometimes means being willing to simply sit still in a space of pain and confusion, and allow that pain and confusion to just “be.” This emotional and spiritual stillness is necessary, even as you do everything in your power to cleanse your heart from the pain and confusion that is tormenting you—specifically through supplicating to your Creator for help.

The mistake we so often make when we are drowning in emotional and spiritual confusion is that we succumb to our addiction to instant gratification, more than we submit to the needs of our souls. Consequently, if our heart and mind have the question “Why?” or “How?” then we prioritize getting satisfactory answers to very specific questions before we do even the minimal work that is required for a lifestyle of faithful submission.

In other words, we want our emotions and intellects soothed before we agree to nourish our souls. This is a big mistake.

If we used this same approach on our path to achieving worldly success, no one would graduate from college or university; no one would even apply for a job, let alone get one; and no one would start—or sustain—a successful business.

That’s why it’s important to continue to walk the path toward the goal you want, even as you are weighed down by questions and confusion on that path.

If you insist on having clear answers to every question that weighs on you before you move forward in faith—whether in pursuit of your worldly or spiritual goals—you’ll be at consistent “stand stills” that could ultimately mean the death of your worldly success, and the death of your spiritual soul.

Be a Compassionate Support

If we are tested with being someone whom others come to for advice during their periods of spiritual confusion, it’s important that we tap into faith-mode more than savior-mode when we are assisting them. If you are a trusted imam, scholar, or spiritual teacher, this faith-mode instead of savior-mode is even more crucial for you.

Remember this: It is more important for you to walk in empathy and compassion with someone during their struggle than to seek to have the answer to every question they have during their struggle.

If someone is struggling to hold on to their faith, you need to understand that you can be a compassionate, empathetic supporter in their journey back to Allah and spiritual health. But you cannot be their savior, nor should you attempt to be.

Your job is to strive your level best, from the depths of your heart, to point them to that single noor, that single spiritual light of faith: the Siraatul-Mustaqeem, the Straight Path, which is the only path to Allah’s Pleasure and Paradise.

While pointing them in this direction, you have to allow people to navigate the dark waters of spiritual confusion in their own way, not in the way you imagine they need. This means pointing them continuously to Allah more than you point them to the intellectual pontifications of your own mind.

Be Patient with Our Scholars, They’re Struggling Too

If you’ve been tested with receiving (or witnessing) poor or harmful advice from someone you consider a scholar, particularly in addressing questions from struggling and confused believers, remember this: Scholars are imperfect, fallible humans just like you. It’s just that Allah has tested them with carrying the heavy mantle of spiritual teaching due to the knowledge they’ve been entrusted with.

This knowledge in no way takes away their own personal struggles in life. Thus, scholars and spiritual teachers go through emotional pain and confusion. They suffer from the wounds of childhood (or adult) trauma, and they even battle spiritual turmoil and deep dips in their faith. Thus, they go through time periods without opening the Qur’an, they get distracted in their prayers, and they even oversleep for Fajr at times. And yes, just like any other human being, when they are stressed, they get cranky and irritable with those around them.

This isn’t because they’re not real scholars. It’s because no amount of religious scholarship can take away their humanity. So they have to do the daily work for their souls just like the rest of us, and sometimes they fall short.

And each and every one of them will stand on the Day of Judgment and answer for their time on earth just like the rest of us.

So the best gift you can give a scholar whom you see speaking in a way that is harmful to others is to pray for them, make excuses for them, and then clarify to the people the truth, without fixating so much on, “What’s his problem?” As a general rule, what is wrong is more crucial to address than who is wrong (though there are times that “who” should also be mentioned even as our emphasis is on “what”).

As for scholars carrying the heavy responsibility of being a support to others, no matter what they’re going through, this is true and it is no small matter. At the same time, no one is superhuman. In this, here’s a personal reminder I wrote to myself in my journal: The one you are looking to for help and guidance needs patience and good treatment too. No Muslim is perfect, whether revert or born into a Muslim family, student or Islamic teacher, layperson or scholar.

As for facing the heartbreak and disappointment of witnessing someone you’ve benefited from and trust deeply, fail you or other believers in a very significant way, I share these reflections from my journal, some of which I share in my books Pain, Faith, and Broken yet Faithful:

I think disappointment in people is a mercy from God. It’s a reminder that we’ve lost focus and raised creation above the status that God has written for them. And in the process, we forgot where real greatness comes from—God alone.

  • • •

No matter how much you love, admire, or benefit from someone, they will inevitably say or do something that reminds you that they are merely human and all praise and greatness belong to God.

Yet even then, some of us miss the lesson entirely, as we try to interpret even their mistakes and wrongdoing as right and good. Or we feel betrayed and thus abandon them, saying, “They’re not who I thought they were.”

Who did you think they were?

From the children of Adam, God created only human beings.

  • • •

When we admire or benefit greatly from someone, they often hold a special place in our hearts and a lofty place in our minds. In this, we unwittingly ascribe to them high standards that they, naturally, know nothing about. And when they err or sin, like all children of Adam do, we become upset and disappointed, and we sometimes feel betrayed.

If they were a loved one like a spouse, parent, or favored child, our relationship is often broken or tense as a result. If they were an admired religious teacher or scholar, we often abandon them for their “hypocrisy” in standards they never claimed.

Shukr—gratefulness. This is what we lack when we fall into this. All good comes from Allah.

So be grateful for the good He has placed in those who are blessings in your life. But do not raise them to a level that Allah has not written for any of His slaves.

The most any of us can hope for is Allah’s mercy, so when someone you admire or benefit greatly from falls into error or sin, do not feel disappointed or betrayed. Rather feel grateful that you now can give back to them—by raising your hands in supplication and asking Allah to have mercy on them.

Don’t Overcomplicate Your Faith

Some things are not as complicated as they seem, no matter how distressing the questions are to your heart.

When it comes to matters of the Unseen, for example, such as the Signs of the Last Day and what will happen on the Day of Judgment—particularly when we witness our brothers and sisters in faith delving deep into what Allah has not made clear to us as of yet—we say only, as Allah describes in Qur’an: “We believe in it, the whole of it [the clear and unclear] is from Allah” (Ali ‘Imraan, 3:7).

If anyone wishes to go beyond what is clear, using human logic and science to refute certain unseen possibilities, you do not have to join the conversation. For the sincere believer knows that if Allah wishes to decree something, He says only “Be” and it is. End of discussion.

As for those who are struggling deeply in their spirituality such that their souls are troubled and they genuinely wish for more detailed answers than what Allah has made clear in the Qur’an and prophetic teachings, understand this: You cannot clarify for any soul what Allah Himself has not clarified to you or any of His creation.

Here is what I genuinely believe is best and most beneficial to any struggling soul looking for answers beyond what Allah Himself has offered (and I learned this from navigating my own spiritual trials): compassion, empathy, and spiritual honesty. Nothing more, nothing less.

And the highest level of spiritual honesty is to affirm what Allah has affirmed and remain silent on what He has not, and then compassionately invite your struggling brother or sister to make sincere du’aa for true spiritual understanding, particularly in the matters that are troubling them most.

Then trust and believe that anyone who is sincerely searching for spiritual guidance will be granted it, even if it’s not through you.

And dear soul, understand that there is no level of knowledge or wisdom beyond that—irrespective of whether you are seeking to help others as a scholar, spiritual teacher, or just a sincere worshipper.

If the struggling person you wish to help is unwilling to make peace with turning to Allah for guidance, while also accepting that some things will remain unclear to us in this life, then there is nothing—and I mean, absolutely nothing—you can do to help them.

For in the Qur’an Allah describes those who are “firmly grounded in knowledge” as affirming belief in both the clear and unclear, without seeking to search for hidden meanings in the unclear aspects of His revelation. And this, for the sincere, believing heart—even if it is a pained, struggling heart—is enough as an admonition. Allah tells us: “And none receive admonition except men of understanding” (Ali ‘Imraan, 3:7).

So the most any of us can do is strive and pray to be amongst these people of true understanding, and invite others to do the same.

There really is nothing more you can do for any hurting soul—even if that hurting soul is your own.

Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.

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