Solitude and I go back a long way. When I was 3 my parents moved to a lonely house in the countryside surrounded by woodland. It was an idyllic background to my childhood, with hills, trees, rivers and flowers on my doorstep, but left me very much in my own company. While my parents made sure to facilitate opportunities for socialising, the majority of the time I was alone – reading books, climbing trees, and daydreaming.
I’d lived in cities for most of my adult life until I got married, where I had another brush with solitude. My husband at that time worked in a remote mountainous area of Spain, and we spent several months as the only people living in our area, without television, internet or even radio. At that time, we didn’t speak the same language, so were even unable to speak much to each other. It was a time of quiet, of walks in the snow covered countryside, and evenings reading by a log fire.
I’ve learned to be happy in solitude, but being married and having a family of my own, solitude is experienced differently. With small children it can be possible to feel isolated and lonely, while never truly alone. At the same time spending peaceful time with your family can feel like a kind of solitude.
In fact, our primary concern should be how we appear to Allah, and when we take away other human beings, it is easier to focus upon this…
The human condition appears to be one where, when we are with others, we see ourselves as reflected by them. It is difficult to be in the company of others without somewhat thinking about how we appear to them. In fact, our primary concern should be how we appear to Allah, and when we take away other human beings, it is easier to focus upon this. Age, social class and wealth fade away when we are alone, as they are only relevant in comparison to others.
“By remaining isolated at times, one distances oneself from trials, from flattering the person who deserves no praise, and from the eyes of the jealous and envious person” (Dr. A’id al-Qarni, ‘Don’t Be Sad’).
It is no surprise then, that the Prophets, including our beloved Prophet Muhammad (salallahu alayhi wasallam) sought out and experienced solitude. In fact, they have in common that they were all shepherds at some point, a lonely profession. Rather than seeking the company of others among whom he had high status, Muhammad (SAW) would wander into the mountains and spend his days and nights in solitude, and indeed it was on one of these occasions that the Angel Jibreel approached him with the first revelation:
“The first (form) with which was started the revelation to the Messenger of Allah was the true vision in sleep. And he did not see any vision but it came like the bright gleam of dawn. Thenceforth solitude became dear to him and he used to seclude himself in the cave of Hira’, where he would engage in [worship for a number of nights] before returning to his family and getting provisions again for this purpose. He would then return to Khadija and take provisions for a like period, till Truth came upon him while he was in the cave of Hira’.” (Sahih Muslim Hadith).
How difficult is it to imagine that same miracle happening in a gathering of people? It is clear from this hadith that the clarity of mind to receive the revelation required solitude.
I fear for younger people today and the generations to come, that they might never know how to be truly alone. The internet can be both a blessing and a curse. During the UK’s lockdown, I have really been counting the blessings it gives. The children can continue with schoolwork from their school’s website and my husband and I can both do our work from home. We can buy what we need over the internet and we can have video calls with our families despite them being far away, setting our minds at rest. I can keep in touch with friends and family daily through chat groups, sharing support, and the humour which is so important for staying mentally healthy.
However, with social media, it is possible to never feel truly alone. As a child who was bullied at school, home was a respite, but these days young people get bullied on social media. How awful to have no escape. Even the more positive aspects of social media can ultimately be destructive. For many people their ‘online image’ becomes a more important thing to maintain than their true sense of self. A walk in nature, which is an opportunity to reflect on life and it’s creator, may instead become a photo opportunity for a status update.
How different life would be if we were so keen to update our status with Allah.
Right now, we have been plunged into a forced solitude with very little time to prepare, either practically or mentally. Our individual circumstances will determine the exact nature of solitude we face. We may be well and truly alone if we live alone, or we may be forced into isolation with difficult family members. For some new Muslims this may bring challenges in practising Islam. Even for those of us living in more comfortable situations, being together 24 hours a day is never easy. We are in solitude from society, but working out how to navigate life in close quarters with our loved ones.
One way of carving out a little time is to awake for the last 3rd of the night, before Fajr. The Prophet (saw) told us of the benefits of this time:
“Our Lord, may He be blessed and exalted, comes down to the lowest heaven every night when the last third of the night is left, and He says: ‘Who will call upon Me, that I may answer him? Who will ask of Me, that I may give him? Who will ask Me for forgiveness, that I may forgive him?’” (Bukhari and Muslim hadith).
I find that if I am able to wake at this time, the natural solitude available really helps me to detach from dunya and become more aware of the nearness of Allah. This is the one time of the day when nothing else is expected of me – no children wanting snacks, no emails or messaging awaiting responses – and I can focus on asking Allah for the strength and tawfiq I need for the following day’s challenges.
So in the following few weeks, how can we reap the most benefit from this liminal space we find ourselves in? Before we know it, the machine of modern life will start turning its cogs again, pulling us along with it. Difficult as it may be, it is a truly unique opportunity. The noise of cities across the world has receded and the sound of birdsong can be heard. For many of us, the noise of our own lives has similarly receded. Rather than trying to fill the space left with social media, can we allow Allah to fill this space? Ramadan is now upon us, and will be a quieter and more reflective month for most, with no social gatherings and tarawih prayer to attend. Let us see this as an opportunity, as well as a test, and a reason for Allah to reward us.
About the author:
Fatima-Minna is a mother to two little boys and works full time in a job she loves. In the little spare time she has, she loves writing, reading and sewing.