A Spiritual Treasure Trove: 91 year-old Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is a truly remarkable man. He is one of the world’s best known contemporary Islamic scholars and is deeply engaged in promoting interfaith harmony, dialogue and peace. He is a well-known spiritual guide and heads the New Delhi-based Centre for Peace and Spirituality. Even at his age he remains a prolific writer. Issues related to Islam have been the main focus of his writings, and in recent years he has written extensively on issues related to Islam, conflict-resolution and peace-building as well as on various dimensions of Islamic spirituality. A noted feature of his writings is a concern to address issues of contemporary as well as existential import and to explain eternal spiritual truths in a manner intelligible to the modern mind.
Most of the Maulana’s earlier books have been specifically about Islam and/or Muslims, but this latest book of his is different. A compilation of several of his essays that have appeared over the years in The Speaking Tree of The Times of India, it lays out a universal vision of spiritual living that can easily appeal to people of all faiths (or of none in particular) and that is not restricted by the dogmas and rituals, names and forms that have come to be associated with different religions as they have been historically interpreted.
The Maulana makes an immensely valuable contribution in refining our understanding of spirituality. Positive thinking is at the very root of the spirituality that he talks about. It is based on realizing and acknowledging the existence of the Creator through reflection on the amazing universe. This connection with the Creator is to be expressed in relating positively with the creation in one’s daily life. To live in this way on an everyday basis is to lead a spiritual life.
With the help of instances from his own life and that of others, including ‘ordinary’ folk and ‘noted’ people from different parts of the world and references from the Christian, Hindu and Islamic traditions as well as everyday events as reported in newspapers, the Maulana brilliantly explains how spirituality is all about avoiding negativity and living our ordinary lives in a positive and truly meaningful manner, leading to inner as well as outer transformation. Spirituality, we learn from the Maulana, is not something enormously difficult which is meant only for a select few. Nor is it something esoteric or mysterious. Nor, too, is it about simply clinging on to some dogmas or ritual practices. Spirituality is not renouncing the world or self-absorbed meditation that is indifferent to the outside world. Nor does it consist of simply performing some physical or other such exercises. Nor, too, is it trying to achieve some ecstatic or emotional condition. Rather, authentic spirituality is about leading our everyday lives in an authentic—that is, positive—way, based on intellectual development. It is about refining our minds and, accordingly, our behaviour, through imbibing spiritual lessons drawn from reflecting on everything that we see, feel, hear or otherwise experience in our lives. The spirituality that the Maulana articulates is a mind-based, rather than a heart-based, one, being based on reflection on and contemplation of the world around us.
This book consists of 150 short essays, each of which focuses on a particular spiritual value or lesson that the Maulana draws from everyday things and events as well as from nature and history. Even something as ‘mundane’ as a tree can help us grow spiritually, he tells us. In the opening page of the book the Maulana writes:
In front of my residence there is a tree […] It is a source of spiritual nourishment for me. For me, it is like a spiritual partner […] The greatest lesson I have learned from this tree is: try to live on your own. Be positive in every situation. Adopt the culture of giving rather than taking […] According to my experience, a tree is an illustration of spiritual life. It is a model for spiritual living.
Or, consider this beautiful spiritual lesson that the Maulana derives from a bee:
It is the honeybee’s culture to fly out from its hive every day and reach places where flowers are available for it. The bee extracts nectar from the flower and returns to its abode. It pays no heed to anything else.
Where there are flowers, there are also other things like thorns; but the honeybee simply ignores the presence of those thorns and does not waste time in complaining about them. It simply extracts the nectar from the flowers and returns to the hive.
This behaviour of the honeybee provides a symbolic lesson for man—‘Live like the honeybee’. That is, extract what is good for you and leave what is unwanted. Do not waste your time in complaints and protests.
Every single experience that we go through, even the seemingly most negative or difficult, the Maulana explains, is of great potential spiritual value, because we can draw a spiritual lesson from it and thereby develop our minds.
The Maulana has brilliant advice for us to tackle difficulties that inevitably come our way almost every day. The key to remaining positive in such conditions, he says, is to change our way of viewing them. Instead of taking them to be problems and fret about them, we can view them as challenges that can help us become stronger and more resilient, confident and wise. As the Maulana explains:
Life is full of unwanted experiences. There is no one who is not destined to travel through a jungle of problems. It is the destiny of every man and woman. The question is: what is the formula to deal with this?
The only successful formula is: Don’t take things as an evil. Take them as a challenge. If you take things as evil, you will simply develop a negative attitude, and a negative attitude will only increase your problems. But if you take untoward situations as a challenge, this attitude will unfold the hidden capacity of your mind. You will be able to face all challenges bravely and intelligently, and sooner or later, reach your destination.
Everyone wants to be happy, and people have different views about how to achieve happiness. The Maulana, in line with what other spiritual guides have said, tells us that authentic and lasting happiness has to come from within and is not dependent on external circumstances. It is a question of our thinking, he says, which means that one can be happy in even the most challenging situations if one simply chooses to be so. With the help of real-life examples, the Maulana explains that the key to this is to learn to adjust to situations, to accept reality as it is, to discover and focus on the positive even in seemingly very negative circumstances, to never lose hope, and to discern the opportunities that always exist, even in what may appear the most difficult situation. This applies as much to individuals as to communities and entire countries, the Maulana says.
This book is a masterpiece and is definitely among the best-written books on spirituality that I’ve read so far. It expresses deep truths in an immensely appealing conversational mode. Providing invaluable guidance for leading a truly meaningful life, it deserves to be very widely read and to be translated into various languages.
(For more information about Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, his writings and the Centre for Peace and Spirituality that he heads, see www.cpsglobal.org)