The Dark Side of Spirituality

If we are always looking towards the final destination, the journey and the struggles, joys, and everything else accumulated along the way may be missed.

If we are always looking towards the final destination, the journey and the struggles, joys, and everything else accumulated along the way may be missed.

“And as for man, when his Lord tries him and is generous to him and favors him, he says ‘my Lord has honored me’, but when He tries him and restricts his provision, he says ‘my Lord has humiliated me.” (Quran, 89: 15-16)

It is important to determine which factors or variables may not always be conducive to the wholistic functioning of a person’s health. This isn’t just true in my line of work as a psychologist, but for all the ideals and thoughts and philosophies which prop up our sense of reality.

Often we ask “is Islam (or any other faith tradition) right for me?” which is a fair question in its own regard, but rarely is the focus shifted to our own sense of self. A better question to ask is “am I right for Islam?”

This isn’t to deny the personal struggles we each face in gaining nearness to our primordial states (fitra), nor is it a question of self-indictment to lead us away from the path of righteousness.

Rather it is one of self-awareness and tafakkur (contemplation) to remind us that even the most perfect vehicle for self-transformation and spiritual clarity may be haphazardly wrecked if we are drunk in our blind oblivion of narcissism and virtue. 

We have a litany of research to suggest that religion and spirituality (the two converge but also have important differentiations as outlined in Pt. 3 of my series) are substantively correlated with better health in numerous domains including emotional adjustment, reduced at-risk behaviors such as drug/alcohol usage and better general quality of life.

But one way in which it may lead to reduced health is through ‘bypassing’, a term which denotes that a complete subservience to spiritual ideals and behaviors may detract from other important dimensions of our life.

We have numerous stories of adherents to Islam (khawarij) and Christianity (Pharisees) who recited Qur’an for multiple hours of the day and prayed long hours of the night with little focus on the ends that these means seek to achieve; nearness to Allah so that we may become better siblings, partners, friends, and citizens of the multiple domains we exist within.

Here is a short video to help illustrate some of these examples:

Some domineering narcissists may gravitate towards spiritual leadership and even exploit the advantages of being idealized by ‘disciples’, and other more vulnerable narcissists may be more comfortable in the idealizing position of ‘basking in the glory’ of a particular spiritual leader through dependent merging.

Campbell, The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Part 2 and Part 3 of my videos also cover the term ‘spiritual narcissism’ and its associations with numerous risk factors including superficial relationships, reduced mental health, and lower quality of life.

We also delve into the historic rise of narcissism amongst our current generation (as well as materialism) and what this can be attributed towards. I also touch on Gordon Allport’s model of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Religiosity and how we can abuse faith for primary individual gains or use it as a way to instantiate deeper selflessness in ourselves. 

Finally, Part 4 of our video concludes with ‘spiritual maturity’ which I would equate to nafs al-mutma’inah (soul at peace), the stage in our development where our spiritual capacities reach a state of divine Oneness with our Lord.

We may be asking ourselves, ‘yea but who can really ever reach that level?’ I would reply with a parable, a story in which Al-Ghazali is travelling with certain documents which made up his most treasured possessions.

He comes upon some robbers and Al-Ghazali pleads ‘take anything that you want except for these bundles of notes, these are the fruits of my labor, if you destroy them, I am also destroyed.’ The robber looks skeptically and asks ‘so all that you know is in here?’ to which Al-Ghazali replies ‘yes’, the robber says ‘knowledge confined to a few papers vulnerable to theft is no knowledge at all.’

Al-Ghazali has a divine revelation after this encounter and embarks on a different route to marifat-allah. The point being that if we are always looking towards the final destination, the journey and the struggles, joys, and everything else accumulated along the way may be missed.

It reminds us so intimately in the Holy Qur’an:

And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face of Allah. Indeed, Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing.”

Quran, 2:115

So let us not be blinded by individual consumption of religious merit and spiritual sanctity, but rather become humble and meager viceregents committed to others only for the sake of His Majesty. 

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