I recently came across an interesting article describing neuro-theology, the purpose of which is to study the neurobiology of religion, to identify the brain’s spirituality circuits, and to explain how it is that some religious rituals have the power to move believers and non-believers alike. Islam has recently come into the purview of this new science.
Whenever we feel carried away and transported to another dimension by intense prayer or an uplifting experience, for example during remembrance – zikr and solat, there is a change in the frequency and amplitude of frontal-lobe brain waves as seen in the EEG (electro-encephalogram). Newer, non-intrusive brain imaging techniques such as fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) are presently being used to locate and map the different areas of the brain during prayer and meditation in various religions, including Buddhism and Islam.
Morocco, for example, owes its image as a modern Muslim nation to Sufism, a spiritual and tolerant Islamic tradition that goes back to the first generations of Muslims and has sustained the religious, social and cultural cohesion of Moroccan society for centuries. Moroccans, more than most Muslim national groups, have taken seriously Imam Malik’s teaching that Syariah without Tariqah can lead to fanaticism and cruelty, whereas Tariqah without Syariah can lead to innovation and mental imbalance.
Most Moroccans, young or old, practice one form of Sufism or another. As a deep component of the Moroccan identity, Sufism absorbs all members of society, regardless of age, gender, social status or political orientation. Therefore, the “generation gap”, which so tragically affects modern Malay families, is overcome. For Moroccans, like the Javanese converted by the Wali Songo (Nine Saints of Java) 500 years ago, Sufism can provide answers to some of the most complex issues in the Muslim world, especially where youth comprise the majority of the population.
Moroccan youth are increasingly drawn to Sufism because of its tolerance, its fluid interpretation of the Quran, its rejection of fanaticism and its embrace of modernity. Young men and women find in the Sufi principles of ‘beauty’ and ‘humanity’ a balanced lifestyle that allows them to enjoy the arts, music, and love, without guilt and without having to abandon their spiritual and religious obligations.
Modern science is beginning to explain why this is coming to pass. Experimentally, bursts of electrical activity can be triggered in the temporal lobes through mini-electrodes, which produce sensations described by experimental subjects as supernatural, or a sense of the divine. Temporal lobe storms can also appear in times of personal crisis, suggesting a reason why some people “find God” in such moments.
The habit of praying, such as was instilled in us after Rasulullah (s.a.w.) ascended to the Throne of Allah on his Isra’ Mir’aj, may also be more affirmative than the occasional sensation that God is close by and listening to us. This latter sensation, known as “Ihsan” in Islam, is fleeting and unpredictable, although we are urged to cultivate it however we may. Like the Istikharah prayer, everyone knows it’s available to us, yet very few know how to actually reap its benefits.
Muslims are only beginning to accept that higher sources may also lead to biological changes. When prayers and meditation are repetitive, the various neurotransmitters may well stimulate the growth of neurons in the brain that will help us to develop a higher level on the evolutionary ladder of the present day cerebral cortex. In fact, this seems the only possible outcome for Muslims that are referred to in Al Qur’an as khaira ummah -“the best of peoples”.
Dr Ebrahim Kazim, a medical doctor and the founder/director of the Islamic Academy in Trinidad, West Indies, is pioneering the scientific measurement of spiritual states. His articles have appeared in magazines throughout the world. He is a member and patron of the Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc. (E-mails may be addressed to Dr Ebrahim at: firstname.lastname@example.org).
What can we in Malaysia learn from this work? For one thing, young people prefer their religious lessons to be grounded in actual fact, scientific if possible. When we teach them how human brain function accords with and is in fact improved by religious practices, they take notice, whereas the endless preaching or lecturing of falsely educated and self-proclaimed Imams, religious teachers, or even parents, have long since benumbed their brains and perceptions into oblivion.
Psychologists refer to the brain’s reduced response to repeated stimuli as “habituation”. When we have heard certain religious thoughts too many times before (excepting zkir), we become “habituated” to such clichés of theological thinking. Sometimes we observe that after the end of the Friday sermon at mosques, many of the students rush to renew their ablutions –- because of falling asleep!
Furthermore, if one were to approach such a situation with the best intention of pointing out the deadly boredom of the sermon, or of asking if anyone had noticed that most of the students were falling asleep, it may well happen, egos of the under-educated being what they are, that one is firmly disinvited from visiting that surau ever again.
Now, had that we had informed ourselves of the realities of human brain function, even as now being explored with the newest forms of brain scanning technologies as mentioned above, perhaps the young people would have shown some interest.
In any case, NOTHING can stop the forward march of science and technology, and until Muslims are willing to spend TIME and MONEY on collating their religious wisdom with the most updated of laboratory experiments, they will remain in the background of human progress, in spite of their having been given Revealed Knowledge.
Indeed, seeking knowledge has a special position in Islam. Allah swt said what means “Is one who worships devoutly during the hours of the night, prostrating himself or standing (in adoration), who takes heed of the hereafter, and who places his hope in the Mercy of his Lord (line one who does not)? Say: “Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know?” It is those who are endued with understanding that receive admonition.” (Az-Zumar: 9). Instead of focusing on knowledge seeking, we seem to be building ever bigger and more expensive housing projects surrounding the Masjidil Haram, and so on. And we are forfeiting the most effective form of da’wah, that which is confirmed by scientific evidence.
Meanwhile, those pesky Americans, in spite of their mega-buck corruption and military adventures, are going right ahead with successful space visits (captained by a lady astronaut on one occasion), looking for “Higg’s boson” (the secret of how Big Bang turned into the material universe in the first place), and so on.
After our Malaysian astronaut visited space with Russian training in a Russian space ship, the Malaysian “space program” seems to have an uncertain future. What a pity. How can young people have any respect or patience with such policies? The payoff from any “space program” is in the spin-offs. We owe the entire computer revolution to the American Apollo Moon Program.
As for the Tariqah movement in Morocco, it humanizes Islam and unifies its people, without fascist paranoia from the government. Zikr can heal wounds, as many of us can testify from personal experience.
Under present Malaysian government policies, Tariqah devotees sneak along the back alleys of Kuala Lumpur and the Islamic University Campus, being very careful not to “rock the boat” or draw attention to themselves with such items as faith healing, or the barakah they pick up from the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) himself. They must avoid frightening the governmental powers who imagine they are in charge of the country.
What we need is zikir-based tuition study. Let the young (and old!) explore ways of “remembering Allah” to the point of group mindfulness, empathy, and other social consciousness, stimulating right brain rather than left. If they do, many blessings can occur. The young may even drop their Mat Rempit needs in favor of something else, such as re-dedication to their obligatory prayers and other religious duties.
A certain Muslim convert wanted to explore a zikir group, but he said that before he entered that room, he wanted to know WHAT REALLY WENT ON there (a typical left-brain demand). He was told that whatever it was, it was not likely to go on anywhere else, so he would never know unless he entered of his own free will, in a state of FAITH AND TRUST. Lo and behold, it may be something new in life. Malaysian youth always love something new. Indeed, Allah’s blessings are so often a big surprise!