CRUCIBLE: “Hilot” and Wellbeing (2)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/04 December) – When we frame the notion of shifah (healing) and the sophistication of health and medical related development in our time, it is to bring our orientation into a conception of what life really is. While resorting to medicine and other therapeutic techniques is important, undeniably, natural healing tradition remains popular in many communities.

Essentially, shifah is based on certain philosophy or understanding regarding the holistic nature of man and how the concept of balance and equilibrium has been embedded in him so that sickness or diseases may be viewed as imbalances; hence, when there are ways into which equilibrium is done, then invasive medical intervention can be minimized. It thus helps the individual to suffer from physical encumbrances, financial difficulty, and so on.

Moreover, when we allude to understanding of diseases and healing in the context of a comprehensive vision of, and cycle in, life, we feel, there is a trend where people is conditioned to become too obsessed with their health and lifestyle so much so that sickness or ailment is totally viewed as anathema to, than part of, life process. Such a view reflects a segmented understanding of life as opposed to something that is more holistic, more pervading and more reflective of nature’s elan vital. It is an understanding of life that is well reconciled with other “life” including the one that comes after death.

When we speak of comprehensive understanding of life, which the Qur’an so specifies is that our bodily fluctuation including our changing state from strength to weakness and vice-versa means life is just a process in series of stages. Fact is this process has its own beginning and end. If it has its beginning, say, in the start of human conception, certainly, it has also its end when a person dies. If we experience ailments and strive to cure them, at least, we say, we recourse to medical intervention to do all means or ways to save or prolong life.

But if it becomes an obsession with the end to efface an anathema such that we could not appreciate or connect “life” that comes after this life of ours, then we’ll develop fear – a fear of the unknown, the alamu l-ghayb (the world unseen) that may be expressed in fear of sickness, fear of old age, and, fear of death; hence, we are already trapped by a perspective of life that is too segmented, that is too transient and fleeting, as we fail to see what is referred to in the Qur’an as five stages of life, when it says:

“How can ye reject the faith in God? – seeing that ye were without life, and He gave you life; then He will cause you to die, and will again bring you to life; and again to Him will ye return (Baqarah: 28).”

These are the five stages of life that Islam or what the Qur’an refers to that we come from nothing, the first stage; then we are given life, which is the second stage; then we will all die, the third stage; then we will all be given back life, the fourth stage; and we will all go back to our Final Return, the last stage.

The life that we are so engrossed to secure or to sustain is the second stage of life in light of Qur’anic worldview. This view is, I think, important because inevitably our vision of life must be comprehensive and should be able to transcend the physical domain we refer to as “life.” This view creates a perspective or a kind of psychology that there is more than what we have now. It develops in us hope not morbid fear of the unknown, of sickness, of aging, and of death.

In some sense, in fact, this is not to make a social comment or critique, but the obsession has already become a global enterprise where dominant impression has long been advanced that even in the time of conception, say, when a woman is pregnant, there has to be some “intervention” to fetus such that a mother has to drink maternity milk until a baby is born, despite that Malunggay (Moringa oleifera), for instance, is a time-tested source of milk for breastfeeding mothers among Filipinos.

The “intervention” continues obviously until the baby grows up and reaches maturity and so on. In other words, there is parallel medical intervention done in the whole range of our life. Mind you, even until death, a psychology is developed such that, one has to be placed inside a beautiful coffin embroiled with glittering ornaments and whatever.

This psychology is being exploited by many enterprising sectors while impressing on ordinary mortals like us that, we have to prepare with our medical insurance, our death insurance, and so on. So that even in our notion of the grave we are being bombarded with a view that we all have to secure this life. This is not to argue that said insurances do not have their practical benefits especially to families of ailing persons or bereaved families left by their loved ones.

The big question contemporary intervention is unable to do is obviously to guarantee us the kind of “life” that comes after this life. If it cannot guarantee harmonious transition from life to “life,” then what’s the use of those health and wellbeing techniques and other medical and postmortem paraphernalia that are supposedly geared to secure life?

The beauty of Islamic worldview is that, while we are made to appreciate our mundane life, we, too, are informed about the nature of man as capable of undergoing cycle of strength and weakness that comes in the form of sickness and ailments with attendant cure or healing or shifah tradition, as we are given the way where we are not necessarily subjected to a view of life undergirded by obsession that is anchored on an ephemeral psychology, where it allows us to carry comprehensive vision of life – a life that is perpetual and eternal. Obviously, this view on life is the “life insurance” we prefer.

To emphasize the validity of healing tradition of the Holy Qur’an including the two dimensions of its methods is to reflect on the tradition of natural healing that comes up with the same perspective making it appear that the Islamic concept of healing pervades in general practices of natural healing tradition. Dr. Henry Lindlahr in his book, “Philosophy of Natural Therapeutics,” writes:

“In our study of the cause and character of disease we must endeavor to begin at the beginning; and that is life itself; for the processes of health, disease and cure are manifestations of that which we call life, vitality, life elements…” 

“There are two prevalent by widely differing conceptions of the nature of life or vital force – the material and the vital. The former looks upon life or vital force with all its physical, mental, mental and physical phenomena as manifestations of the electric, magnetic and physiochemical activities of the physical material elements comprising the human organism. From this viewpoint, life is a sort of “spontaneous combustion” or, as one scientist expresses it, a “succession of fermentations” or chemical changes. The vitalistic conception of life, on the other hand, regards vital force as the primary force of all forces, coming from the great central source of all life. This forces, which permeates, heats and animates the entire created universe, is an expression of divine intelligence and will, the “logos” the “word” of the great Creative Intelligence. It is the divine energy which sets in motion the whirls in the ether, the electric corpuscles that make up the atoms and elements of the matter (p.23).” 

This perspective of Dr. Lindlahr, while it sounds too scientific and too technical is, in our view, very close to universal concept of life and healing. Dr. Lindlahr’s categorization of life into material and vital elements reflects, too, the two dimensions of life and healing tradition in the Qur’an.

My experience of resorting to contemporary medicine and medical assistance is enriching as it proves some of our hypotheses regarding the universality of healing or shifah tradition. In fact, as we read the ways into which we could address some of our physical imbalances or illnesses, the advice of the Prophet is instructive with rather simple reminders on how we should eat, how much amount of food we should take, how much of our stomach should contain food, how much water, and how much air. These are so basic where most of our physical ailments we suffer today are our heedlessness to what the Prophet had advised us long ago. So that, when we go to doctors we are told to do the same, to have diet, to do some exercises, and so on. Imam Ibn Qayyim al-Jauziya in the work we previously mentioned writes:

“Physical ailments attack and harm the body and alter its normal function because of an excess amount of a substance. This type constitute the majority of diseases and occurs because of overeating or consuming more than what the body needs that which brings little benefit or is not digested easily or due to complex meals. When the son of Adam habitually fills his stomach, which these types of foods, he will end up with various types of illnesses some of which take a long time to remedy. On the other hand, when one consumes moderate amount of foods and eat sensibly the body will get the maximum benefit from this diet as opposed to when one overeats. “

This point is basic information provided by Ibn Qayyim. The disease or illness we develop – a reason why we go to doctors for medical intervention – entails lots of check-ups and examination even when what is needed is for us to simply regulate our food intake, do some physical activities like exercise.

Ibn Qayyim continues:

“The foods we eat are either for necessity, sufficiency, and excessiveness. The Prophet (SAW) told us that one only needs a few bites to sustain him so that his strength does not fail him. When one wishes to exceed what is barely enough, he should reserve a third of his stomach for his food, another third for the water or drink and the last third for breathing. This is the best method of eating, both for the body and heart. When the stomach is full of food, there will not be enough space for drinking. When one consumes something to drink on a full stomach, one’s breathing will be difficult thus bringing about laziness and fatigue. One will feel lazy as if carrying a load on his stomach. Consequently, one will be lazy fulfilling his obligations and will seek other desire now that his stomach is full (p. 30)!”

This simple thought of Ibn Qayyim on food intake and how they affect us reflects the rich terms now abuzz in medical-health parlance like wellbeing, wellness, yoga, diet, therapy, and the like that many people are availing due mainly to our failure to distinguish basic need from what is usually enough to that which is already an excess.

Thus, when we do not change our understanding of life and our view of sickness and healing to that frame of comprehensive conception of life and the nature of man himself and the dimensions of shifah tradition, then we are more prone to be captive by that obsession.

This is a thought we felt worth contemplating; for all we know, most of our physical and health problems are actually just bodily imbalances resulting from our violation of basic tenets of the natural order of life and our propensity to rebel against our supposedly holistic health system including simple ethics even in the way we eat.

In this way, with this conception, we are able to safeguard ourselves from being too dependent on external physical intervention, as we have to realize that our strength in facing today’s crucible is in our consciousness with what “life” really is.

[MindaViews is opinion section of Mindanews. A khutbah (with revisions) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 22 November 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].