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June 5, 2018

Seeking an evidence-based faith practice

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Evidence-Based Behavioral Practice (EBBP) entails "making decisions about how to promote health or provide care by integrating the best available evidence with practitioner expertise and other resources, and with the characteristics, state, needs, values and preferences of those who will be affected."

Evidence, as a single-word term, entails “research findings derived from the systematic collection of data through observation and experiment and the formulation of questions and testing of hypotheses.

Both terms cover a daunting but fascinating spectrum of contextual applications that prompted me to wonder whether an evidence-based approach to faith practices can enrich our spiritual lives. It’s something that could fill an urgent need in today’s society.

Through personal experience and reflection, I now believe that religion does offer us Evidence-Based Behavioral Practice, but we often do not recognize it as such because it meets us in very non-clinical terminology and actions.

Islam is no exception to the deeper principles of evidence-based practice. For example, in the Sufi tradition it is highly recommended that one join a group of regular practitioners and actually live with them for 40 days in a Kholwa – a form of spiritual learning camp. If this is not practical due to work, family or other commitments, the individual is encouraged to spend one day a week for 40 weeks immersed in Sufism.

The Kholwa immersion experience includes the traditional Sufi practices of prayer, fasting, study, contemplation and, above all, asking questions – including questions arising from doubts about the very existence of God.

One of the most revered personalities to write about the Sufi approach to faith was Imam Al-Ghazali (c.1058-1111 CE).

Drawing from his own experiences, Al-Ghazali wrote about his life journey, beginning as a devout Muslim who achieved great success and recognition as an Islamic academic, writer, philosopher, legalist and Qur’anic scholar. But in 1095 he underwent a profound spiritual crisis that resulted in more than a decade of search and seclusion, during which he encountered and adopted Sufism as his path back to faith and health.

Al-Ghazali is credited with the authorship of more than 60 major works on philosophy and religion, but the book which most compellingly introduces his struggle with doubt is Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (or Deliverance from Error). It is, in fact, his intellectual autobiography of the journey to attain his own evidence-based behavioral practice, as applied to spirituality and the search for truth.

In it he discusses various doctrines present among 11th and 12th-century Islamic philosophers, al-Mutakallimun (scholastics), al-Batiniyya (those who applied inner and external meanings to scripture) and traditional Sufism.

Al-Ghazali was radical for his era in proposing that doubt is an integral part of being human. There are only a very fortunate few who are able to resolve it in their lifetimes, even if imperfectly. St. Augustine (whose writings influenced Al-Ghazali) affirmed, “I doubt, therefore I am.”

Today’s rise of religious fundamentalism (not only in Islam, but in virtually every faith tradition) has driven many people away from seeking evidence-based spiritual practices.

Within Islam, the unfortunate rise of smear campaigns against Sufism has resulted in the teachings of this historic tradition being viewed as suspect; several generations of mainstream Muslims have never read a single book by a Sufi scholar. Some countries have even banned Sufi gatherings and labelled its adherents as “enemies of the state.”

Some 30 years ago I met a Sufi teacher in Cairo. Although I had read and studied about Sufism extensively long before he invited me to one of their gatherings, I still hesitated. He did not insist or pressure me; he simply continued to remind me a few days before their weekly meetings when and where they’d be gathering.

It took a month before I finally decided to go; to this day I have never regretted it. The meeting was held one evening after sunset in a beautiful old villa near central Cairo. There were two large rooms, one each for men and women. The group was truly intergenerational, ranging from high school students to retired professionals.

We began with the sunset prayers, followed by a Qur’anic recitation by someone with a most beautiful voice. Next came a short talk and then chants of praise to the Almighty. The evening concluded with night prayers and socializing over tea and sweets. Throughout the entire experience, I felt great sincerity and passion.

I can’t say that evening among the Sufis transformed my life, but I enjoyed it so much that I attended every time I visited Cairo.

Among the sayings of The Prophet is one that describes Islam as a verb; that is, if you want to feel how sweet it is, you have to “do” Islam as well as be it.

I feel that this sense of “doing” in Sufi practice helps a great deal in understanding and adopting one’s own evidence-based faith practice. I am only one person, but I am sure there are many out there who can share a similar testimony.

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