Social Distancing: Reviving a Prophetic Practice
Written by Dr. Marwa Assar, PsyD
The Coronavirus pandemic has called for us to socially distance ourselves and physically withdraw from the world, and as a result, many of us are finding ourselves uncomfortable with the increased solitude, the feeling of being cut off from the outside world, and the loss of our usual social interactions.
And while social distancing is something we feel we are being forced to do, it is a practice that was actually done voluntarily and exemplified by the best of men (peace and blessings upon them) who walked this earth, for it is a practice that is necessary for our spiritual growth and for strengthening our relationship with God.
In Islam, there is an emphasis on establishing a consistent habit of solitude, in which one spends time alone with God. In Arabic, it is known as khalwa, which refers to withdrawing and retreating from the world to be alone with God.
This practice was familiar to God’s prophets and messengers (peace and blessings be upon them), who found their strength, clarity, renewal, and elevation through their moments of solitude and from withdrawing from the world to connect with Him.
As human beings, we are wired for connection. It is an essential need within all of us. We have a heart within us that is designed to long to connect to something greater, and its nourishment comes from being connected to all that is good. And while it is essential for us to have a good balance of healthy interactions and connections with others, we cannot forget, that ultimately, this heart within us needs to be connected to the One who made it. Its greatest nourishment and fulfillment comes from satisfying its longing to connect to its Creator.
In the Qur'an, God teaches us: "It is in the remembrance of God, do hearts find peace (or rest)." (13:28)
But when we are so distracted by the world, people, our material wealth, daily tasks, and all the noise that surrounds us, we become more disconnected from this longing within our heart. We forget our need for God, as we attach to all that is outside of us and depend on it for fulfillment and happiness. And as our attachment to the external noise grows, the voice of our heart becomes harder to hear. We no longer become pulled by that longing within us and we become more pulled by the longing of our nafs (our desire-seeking and ego-containing self), which seeks instant gratification, constant comfort, and pleasure. The nafs pulls us to continue chasing the noise of the world, leaving the longing within us unsatisfied and the heart left unfulfilled and malnourished.
It is until we can disconnect from the external noise and settle into the discomfort of the solitude, quietness, and stillness, that God opens the heart to receive what it needs, and what it has been searching, seeking, and longing for all along. And through the examples of God's greatest servants (peace and blessings be upon them), we can see how solitude and distancing ourselves socially, can be the means to receiving what we need to spiritually thrive and grow!
It is in the solitude that God molds us and prepares us for greatness! Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) often retreated to the cave of Hira several times before God revealed the Qur’an to him and called upon Him to deliver the greatest message to mankind. It was during these moments of solitude, away from the chaotic, busy scene, in Makkah, that God was molding Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to be the man He was and to have the strength he needed to fulfill his purpose on this earth, as the messenger of God.
It is in the solitude that God opens the heart to see truth as truth and falsehood as falsehood! We see this in the life of Prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham (peace be upon him). He sought out solitude in the hopes of getting what his heart was longing and searching for. In a time of idolatry and trials, Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) isolated himself at times, in search of the One True God. And it was through these moments of isolation and deep reflection, that God guided him to the truth and disconnected him from the falsehood and illusions that his society believed in.
“Ibrahim was truly an example: devoutly obedient to God and true in faith. He was not an idolater, he was thankful for the blessings of God, which shows him and guided him to a straight path. We gave him blessings in this world and he is among the righteous in the hereafter. Then we reveal to you O Muhammad follow the creed of Ibrahim a man of pure faith was not an idolater“
(Qur’an, Nahl: 120-23)
It is in the solitude that we learn we are never alone and God is always near! We see this in the example of Prophet Yunus, or Jonah, (peace be upon him) who found himself isolated within three layers of darkness: the darkness of the night, the darkness of the ocean, the darkness of the whale’s stomach. And yet, it was in this extreme depth of isolation that God responded to His call, forgave him, and elevated him in this world and the next. Prophet Yunus (as) was isolated, but He was not alone. He was in the farthest and deepest place, but God was so close and near. And what was the darkest period of his life, became the period in which He was elevated by God and brought closer to Him!
“And [remember] the man of the fish, when he went off in anger and thought that We would not decree [anything] upon him. And he called out within the darknesses, "There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the wrongdoers. So We responded to him and saved him from the distress. And thus do We save the believers.”
From these examples, we see the spiritual power and beauty, that God holds for us when we utilize our solitude to connect with Him. Through studying the best of men (peace and blessings be upon them), we can see the strengths He cultivates in those who isolate themselves to be with Him. We see the great blessings that God holds for each soul that disconnects from the noise of the world to connect to the Lord of all the worlds!
And now with the Coronavirus pandemic and required social isolation because of it, God is giving us this opportunity to follow their great example and receive such great blessings as well!
Through the implementation of social distancing, God has filtered out much of the external noise we were accustomed to. He has minimized our interactions with others, giving us more room in our life to interact with Him. He has created a situation in which we have more time and space to create more moments with Him alone. He is giving us the opportunity to remember what our heart truly needs to thrive and experience the freedom, fulfillment, and connection it has always longed for. It is during these times, just like through any other trial, that God is calling us to receive what will truly suffice, nourish, and satisfy our heart!
And with Ramadan around the corner, and social isolation taking place longer than expected, we must reflect on what God is teaching us through it, for the situation we are in is not random. It is not a coincidence. It is not created in vain. Through our current crisis, there are many hidden blessings we can benefit from, depending on how we choose to respond to the situation and spend our time.
If we use this time to continue creating distractions so we do not feel the discomfort of isolation, we will find ourselves in a greater loss and feeling even lonelier. But if we choose to utilize this time to create more moments of solitude with God, we will find ourselves strengthened, fulfilled, and never alone!
Solitude with God is one of the greatest forms of self-care we can implement in our lives.
Through it, God suffices each of our hearts, helps us follow in the footsteps of our righteous predecessors, cultivates strengths within us, brings us closer to Him, connects us to His truths, and replenishes us to give and serve others!
And last but not least, through the practice of solitude with Him, He is preparing us for greatness and for the greatest month of the year!
May God allow us to witness Ramadan!
“Your hope in my heart is the rarest treasure
Your Name on my tongue is the sweetest word
My choicest hours
Are the hours I spend with You
O Allah, I can't live in this world
Without remembering You
How can I endure the next world
Without seeing Your face?
I am a stranger in Your country
And lonely among Your worshippers:
This is the substance of my complaint.”
― Rabia al Basri (rA)
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About the Author:
Dr. Marwa Assar is a psychologist, educator, writer, and founder of The H.O.M.E Institute. She is dedicated to providing psycho-spiritual education and empowerment through an Islamic psychological lens. Click here to learn more about Dr. Marwa and her work!