I have the book I’m reading to thank for this. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant is about a 16th-century Italian convent and as I read about the daily disciplines of the nuns’ lives, I realized that that is what I’ve been missing in my spiritual life. Of course I’ve known that I’ve been shortchanging myself and God by not praying all the prayers every day, but it wasn’t until I started reading how nuns adapt to their “restrictive” lives that it hit me: spiritual discipline is hard at first, but eventually you learn to love it.
This is one of the things that attracted me to Islam in the first place. I liked the idea of the daily ritual of prescribed prayer. And I think one reason why I was attracted to wearing the hijab was that it seems like what a nun wears, that marks her as a “bride of Christ”, or, in other words, as God’s woman. In fact, the way women are enjoined in the Qur’an to live their lives reminds me of the way a nun lives here: in solitude (to some extent) humility and chastity. I’m not about to start dedicating myself solely to a life of house and husband maintenance, but I do see the value of having a focus for your life—and what better focus than one on God?
When you start thinking about nuns and the restrictions they submit to (and the fact that they submit, period), it makes you wonder why feminists (among others) disapprove of the way they’re treated like they do other women who “cover” (i.e., Muslims). It’s the same thing, isn’t it? Oh, I can hear people saying, “But nuns have dedicated their lives to God; it’s a choice; they willingly submit to the strictures of the convent.”
What they don’t realize is that Muslim women do it for the same reason. Oh, some say that not allowing men and non-Muslims to see them uncovered is about being chaste, but the main reason (and maybe the only reason that counts) is that God asks it of us. When we “cling to obedience to God and abandon disobedience,” we practice taqwa, which is “the sum of all good.” Spiritual discipline, which may seem arbitrary, even silly or pointless at times, is designed to prepare us for obedience in all areas of our lives. If we get used to obeying God in one area, it’s easier (sometimes) to obey Him in others. It becomes a habit.
When I say to myself, “Oh, I don’t have to wear the hijab just to run to the store,” but I wear it anyway, I’m practicing obedience. When I get up early in the morning and do my ablutions and pray the way I’ve been taught, the rest of the day goes better, because I’m practicing obedience. And the advantage to being obedient is that it makes life easier. There are too many choices in life as it is. If I make some of those decisions ahead of time, if I discipline myself to do certain things no matter what, I’m forming habits that will take me through the day without my having to think about them.
Spiritual discipline is discussed a lot around Ramadan, because Ramadan was designed to make us concentrate on God. Through fasting, we become more aware of how much He has given us and how He wants us to do the same for other. That’s the essence of Islam, after all: recognizing (and being grateful for) God’s beneficence and submitting to His will.