The Qur’an encourages us to ponder over various signs, to use our intellect, and to take lessons from those who came before us.
إِنَّ فِى خَلۡقِ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٲتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ وَٱخۡتِلَـٰفِ ٱلَّيۡلِ وَٱلنَّہَارِ لَأَيَـٰتٍ۬ لِّأُوْلِى ٱلۡأَلۡبَـٰبِ
ٱلَّذِينَ يَذۡكُرُونَ ٱللَّهَ قِيَـٰمً۬ا وَقُعُودً۬ا وَعَلَىٰ جُنُوبِهِمۡ وَيَتَفَڪَّرُونَ فِى خَلۡقِ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٲتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ رَبَّنَا مَا خَلَقۡتَ هَـٰذَا بَـٰطِلاً۬ سُبۡحَـٰنَكَ فَقِنَا عَذَابَ ٱلنَّارِ
“Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding. Who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire.”
أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ ٱلۡقُرۡءَانَ أَمۡ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبٍ أَقۡفَالُهَآ
“Do they not then think deeply in the Quran, or are their hearts locked up (from understanding it)?” [Quran; 47:24]
ٱقۡرَأۡ بِٱسۡمِ رَبِّكَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَ
The creation of the heavens and the earth makes us think about space, while the alternation of night and day makes us reflect on time. Thus we find encouragement to make our reflection multi-dimensional. So as we take in the elements around us through our perceptions, we also take in meaning and lessons. Subsequently we apply the derived insights into dealing with our life.
وَجَعَلۡنَا ٱلسَّمَآءَ سَقۡفً۬ا مَّحۡفُوظً۬اۖ وَهُمۡ عَنۡ ءَايَـٰتِہَا مُعۡرِضُونَ (٣٢)
“And We made the sky a protected ceiling, but they, from its signs, are turning away.” [Qur’an; 21:32]
وَبَنَيۡنَا فَوۡقَكُمۡ سَبۡعً۬ا شِدَادً۬ا (١٢)
“constructed above you seven strong [heavens]” [Qur’an; 78:12]
“Reflect then on the greatest of roofs, the heaven, and its solidity, strength and cohesiveness, despite its being mere smoke, or water vapour…He did lay down for His creatures various landmarks, and erected for them compelling signs, and made clear for them the most evident of pointers…
Looking has two senses: there is looking with the eye, the external organ, by which one may see for instance the blue of the sky, its stars, its height and vastness. In such vision man is equal to other species, and so it is not the vision that man is exhorted to practice. In the other sense, looking is to go beyond the first external vision to see with the mind’s eye, so that the heaven’s gates are opened to the observer…” 
Questioning does not necessarily indicate a lack of faith. In fact, deep questions can enable us to have deep faith. There is no contradiction between the two. At the heart of the very concept of human being lies a combination of intellectual thinking and spiritual reflection. That is the framework Muslims must use, not the tradition of questioning everything for the sake of questioning or provocation.
The first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was “Read”. One of the interpretations of this instructions is that one ought to “read” the signs that are present around him or her. Every object, person, and incident can have lessons and signs for the one who contemplates.
Just as we reflect on the outer signs, we also reflect on our inward state. Such inward contemplation is a catalyst for reformation, self-improvement, self-accountability, and the manifestation of good thereafter. Accepting feedback and then performing introspection with critical thinking is an ongoing monitoring mechanism to ensure that we are staying on the track of doing what we were sent to do.
Eat, Drink, Shop, Sleep, Swag, Entertain (Educate/Exercise) and Repeat (EDSER)
It is a healthy practice to set aside time regularly to reflect on where we are going and what we are trying to achieve in this life as well as the next life rather than endlessly “running in the hamster wheel” with neither progress nor vision. Some of the points to think about are:
- Who we are, i.e. knowing ourselves
- What we are doing, i.e. worshipping Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He)
- Where we are headed, i.e. making Paradise the ultimate goal
- Why we do what we do, i.e. seeking excellence and the pleasure of Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He).
- How we intend to live, i.e. keeping intentions in check and working on our character
Muslims are blessed in that we are forced to set aside worldly matters five times a day and connect with the Creator, put our heads on the ground and submit, and afterwards to try to make amends through seeking forgiveness and help. Prayer becomes a milestone at every juncture of the day, to rest, reset, and resume with better clarity each time–if we use it well.
Apart from such big-picture contemplation, Islam encourages us to be deliberate and intentional in everything we do.
One such way is the clarification of intentions before, during and after any undertaking, for the merit of a task depends on its intention.
“The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions and every person will get the reward according to what he has intended.” [Bukhari]
Similarly, the prayer of seeking counsel (salat-ul-istikhara), for instance, is a believer’s way of seeking consultation with Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) before implementing a decision; and this could be any decision, major or minor.
We tend to get disconnected from reality and absorbed by specific challenges or situations. We might even be disconnected from our own selves. Therefore it is important to make time to ask ourselves what percentage our spiritual batteries are and take steps to recharge that spiritual battery regularly.
We need to step back from whatever has us preoccupied and look around. Nature contains simple, yet powerful signs that point towards The Creator. Not only must we look to the world, but we must look through the world to see its Creator and Designer. We need to look with our eyes and think with our hearts.
قُلۡ إِنَّمَآ أَعِظُكُم بِوَٲحِدَةٍۖ أَن تَقُومُواْ لِلَّهِ مَثۡنَىٰ وَفُرَٲدَىٰ ثُمَّ تَتَفَڪَّرُواْۚ
“Say, “I only advise you of one [thing] – that you stand for Allah, [seeking truth] in pairs and individually, and then give thought…” [Quran; 34:46]
Perhaps a moment’s reflection would have a greater impact on one’s spirituality and behaviour than praying mindlessly and without pondering throughout the night.
Everything that Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) created has it’s own time, place, and role. We need to reflect on the time we have left and what purpose we are going to serve with that time. Therefore reflection is a starting place that culminates in action.
The rituals that we are prescribed to follow as Muslims give us a sense of structure, constancy, stability and are a source for us to draw strength from even when the world around is changing and presenting chaos. Just as we need to balance our physical diet with carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, we need to balance our rituals. Prayer is physical. Charity is financial. Some rituals are a combination of physical and financial–such as the Hajj pilgrimage. Each ritual develops a different part of our body, heart, and faith and gives us a balanced spiritual diet.
Rituals like prayer should be taken as a built-in reminder to think and meditate at regular intervals. When the time for the next prayer approaches, we need to activate the pause button and clear our minds of worldly matters step by step so that by the time we are standing in prayer, we are fully present and not scattered. When we enter into prayer we are essentially entering into intimate conversation with the Lord of the worlds.
It is reported that Imam Zain al-Abideen Ali Ibn Hussein (may Allah be pleased with him) would become pale when the time of prayer entered because he would realize it was the time to discharge the trust which was presented to the heavens and the earth and the mountains and they refused to carry it and they were afraid of it. The human being, however, is carrying the responsibility of praying five times a day.
Some people have reflected on the postures within the Islamic prayer and observed that perhaps they do signify higher meanings. Raising the hands and proclaiming that Allah is Greater perhaps physically symbolizes that sense of surrender and pushing the world behind our shoulders as we step into prayer. Standing perfectly upright is also part of the dignity bestowed on the human being and was not given to other animals. It is also a reminder of how we will have to stand before Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) on the Day of Judgment.
Likewise the bowing and prostrating positions may symbolize humility. Some of Allah’s creations have no choice but to be bent over, but human beings have been given a choice and we choose to humble ourselves. We perform a prostration, then raise our heads and sit for a while and then prostrate and raise our heads again. The first time we rise up from prostration might signify the first time we are given life and enter into this world. We remain here for a while and death might catch us sooner than we expect. The second rising may signify the resurrection in the Afterlife.
Another aspect of structure in our lives is connection with the community. Rituals and community are not separate. Rituals have a community dimension–connecting with something bigger. Yet we connect with community without losing individuality because, for example, even while we pray in congregation with the community, we still have to maintain our own intention and focus. We reap many psychological benefits from being with other people and this has been embedded into our rituals.
Just as rebooting our devices often results in better performance, we need to disconnect and pause regularly so that when we reconnect with the world we can do so in a better way. When we pause, we need to reflect on our connection with Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) and our level of spiritual charge.
Surah Al-Kahf: Four Angles of Reflection
We are recommended to recite Surah Al-Kahf [Quran; 18] every Friday. In doing so, it is an opportunity to evaluate ourselves on the basis of four stories in this surah that highlight four trials:
- The companions of the cave: Trials of faith and how we stand up to them
- The owners of the two gardens: Trials of materialistic possessions and how we continue to remember Allah without becoming arrogant or distracted
- Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) travelling with a teacher: Trial of carrying knowledge with humility and accepting that there are others who know more
- Dhul Qarnain: The trial of using power in the right way