A Letter on My Birthday: Existential Trials and Becoming Plural

A Letter on My Birthday: Existential Trials and Becoming Plural

Rome – Writing is joy; writing is also suffering; it can be at other times a commitment, a job, a task. In this piece, it is existence summarized in words. Time has its own theology, and since we are timed creatures, it appears, we build our own theology of time. I am now writing this in Copenhagen, on 01 March 2012, at 10:04 at night. I entitle this memoir “Celebrating My 28th Birthday – Celebrating My Individuality.” (This is slightly re-ordered and modified for my 32nd birthday, 02/03/2016).

Whatever title I choose for my 28th birthday record, I would fail to catch the mood perfectly, simply because my river flows and in the stream it carries and pushes aside or ahead many things on its way. It is hard to summarize the world in words. What one should do is always to try. I use the term “TRY” a lot, because human beings are a process, and they can only “try.”

It is not the birthday cake that matters, nor the candles, nor the gifts. What matters for me is the individual and how he (or she) sees the world as he grows, and this growth grows with the people around us; the community and society at large matters very much. I grew up in a tradition that does not celebrate birthdays as is commonly done now. Every day is considered a birthday, and should be lived accordingly. My birthday is recorded in Family Official Book in both “Christian/Gregorian” and “Islamic/Hegir” calendars and they “never” coincide. If I want to stick to my exact date of birth as officially written then I have to celebrate it according to my both calendars, and I henceforth have to celebrate it twice in twelve months. More than that, I have to celebrate it also on two differential times, midnight, and also at dawn to correspond to the religious start of the day, which is dawn or al-fajr. This allows me to celebrate my birthday at least four times a year, which is lovely for getting-together. But for me there is more to this than mere “official”, “administrative,” or “religious” or “secular” timing. These cultural, religious, and administrative differentiations have to be respected, and most importantly have to be studied, be aware of, and considered as part of the identity of the existing individual.

Time, Space, and the Individual

The individual has a lot to think of on his birthday instead of mere consumerist celebration – the latter can itself trigger a lot of relief through festivity and that is one of its major merits, but that may not be enough.

Three elements I like to remember and think of consistently, daily, but on the birthday more importantly. These elements are (1) time, (2) space/ place and (3) the individual. Of course other elements can be considered, and added, but I think any addition can be merged into these synthetical elements. The “universe” for example can be added, but it is part of time and space. Family, community, society, etc., can be added too, but they are part also of time, space, and the individual. God can, and for me should be, invoked, and He, and/or She, can also be seen in all these three elements.

As I record my 28th birthday, I am aware of many who celebrate it better, expensively, but hardly consider these thoughts. I am also aware of many who remember their birthdays every second because death is close to them because of hunger or war, so birthday and “death-day” become simultaneous to them in their thoughts, with no difference. Some have the chance to think of the meanings of birthday, and some not. And those who think on their birthdays have also to think of those who do not think or do not have the time or privilege to take a moment and think.

Questions on the Way: Existential Trials

As I think of my birthday time, space, and individuality, I burden myself with existential thoughts, a necessity for those who want to “truly live” and “truly try to understand.” It is about “trying.”

I previously had superficial familiarity with the existentialist philosophy of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). When I arrived here to Copenhagen, for a one year PhD Research Stay, I visited his stature and thought of many things in front of it. Later, after having read some of him, I realized that he had raised thoughts I have been raising for a decade or so. He uses the concept of “trying to be Christian” which was elusive and torturous to him. I enjoyed reading some of his thoughts, because I found them very close to my tradition, my thoughts, and the Sufi´s ideas of the person, individuality, and existence. I came to meet and befriend a dear colleague who worked on the Medieval renowned Sufi and theosophist Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) and Kierkegaard to find similarities and differences.

It is just amazing how traditions can be similar, because every human being is faced with the same existential questions, despite the difference of religion, culture, geography, history, etc. The in-depth of human beings and the mysteries of the cosmos around them all enchant world traditions that try to guide human beings for a better life. When I read some of Kierkegaard ideas I read in them the idea of self-exertion towards self-understanding demanded by my own tradition – the ideas al-ijtihad and jihad-annafs. I also read a lot of al-Ghazali’s “skepticism” before his later “rationally mystic immersions” in him; I could also recognize parts of Rumi, Rabia Al-Adawiya, Mulla Sadra, to name these, in him, and found echoes of modern skeptics and modern religious rationalists in him as well – and of course their internal individual aspirations to human understanding comes from the way they understood their religion as something that touches first and foremost the inner side of the individual, the core of the human being, the heart before reaching the soul. I refer to this in my essay “What Is Life? The Process of Becoming “Insan” (Human) in Islam” – a piece which was written on 26/11/2011, and published here.

This short “intellectual/religious/spiritual note” is interesting to me because I just want to refer to it since I am in Copenhagen this year, and want to underline how big existential questions are invoked by human beings despite their socio-cultural and religious differences, and despite the disenchanting machination the world has become for many. Taking a break away from the world by looking at it “from a mountain” remains a fundamental exercise to keep one’s human feel awake, otherwise the Self may become a Thing, dumb and dull.

What do you celebrate if you do not think of your time, space, and personality in connection with your current developments, current time, place and personality? (The person and the individual are used synonymously here). How has the change of time and place affected the evolution of the individual? How have they impacted the individual´s perception of geography, history, society, politics, science, religion, the universe, God, and diversity? Have they been a plus or a barrier to human development? Have they been inanimate or secretly animate factors in the evolution or dissolution of the individual? Has the person been able to make a difference between time and space, and himself and society, and politics and religion, etc.?

Or has he been trapped in thinking that time and space and society as well as religion or society and politics are all one thing? How has the individual been able to make distinction between the elements and factors that shape his identity? Has the individual felt that time and space affect the building of his identity? Has he been able to categorize particular moments in life, moments which may have influenced him fundamentally or affected his perception of society, and life? Has the individual tried to understand himself alone, far from the crowd, far from the influence of peers, family, society, and the State? Has the individual exerted himself for long to know what he wants from life so that he gets meaning from it and answer his existential anxiety? Has the individual emptied himself from all he contains to start a new life? Is that possible? Has the individual thought of how he could be himself, but still be open to family, to society, and the world and its diversity? Why should one seek individuality in the first place? For what purpose?

Just to succeed in life or for some other “profound existential” reason? How far has the metaphysical, the imaginary, the mythical influenced the individual? Is not metaphysics better than the chaotic world we see? Isn’t escaping the world a safe thing to do? Isn´t finding a balance the most interesting and challenging beauty of life? How should individuality develop self-goodness, or piety, and share it with the world? What is one´s duty in this world? What is one supposed to do in life? Is not being a different individual the main reason why every human being should try to find himself and work it out well as much as possible?

Otherwise said: has the individual been able to shape a different world for himself without being out of this world? Has modernity allowed him to find himself or has confused him with its multiple relativities and options? Can the individual reclaim his authority and be a positive agent, a good doer, in the world instead of being guided through the crowd by the nose – as a saying goes?

The Individual: Becoming Plural

The individual is a dynamic idea that seeks liberty and self-realization. I practice night-walking – a lovely and liberating habit I am loosing with life preoccupations gradually, but which I have to reclaim and entertain! Walking alone in nature during the day or at night is so educative and appeasing; solitude, and not loneliness, is a course we have to teach ourselves again because it teaches us about ourselves and about others. Every human being born is an idea that grows to be a book, a mature human being to be shared. Every human being is an idea that needs to work itself out to be well detailed and interesting to share. The individual has to develop himself to become a very interesting book that everyone enjoys reading, enjoys living with. And since good books are good to read and are remembered maybe for life, good individuals, as an idea, are also going to be remembered and their company enjoyed, and their contribution to this world cherished. Every idea, to be understood, has to be explained with reference and contradictory ideas, etc. Details come from life, from experiences, that is how every individual grows up, learns, matures, and becomes, gradually, a more and more interesting idea.

Every human being has to try to understand what idea he is, what idea he wants to become, and what idea he avoids becoming. This makes it an idea in progress. I again go back to my idea of “the process of becoming human.” In trying to understand my own idea I have to understand other ideas, other human beings. With this process I at the end can have an idea about life, society, creation, and the universe, and/or God. Some may say they do not believe in God. Fair enough! Then I ask them to consider God as an idea, and if they manage to go through the process of asking good questions about time, space, and the individual, then they will develop an idea about the universal idea, which is God, be it the same God I might have in mind or a mere idea does not matter here.

The “First Intellect” in classical philosophical terms can be intellectually provocative and mind-opening. Every individual should try to be that beautiful idea, that “First Intellect” that creates and puts things in good order (the individual, society, the State, history, religions, politics, conflicts, animals, the mountains, the stars, the sea, the wind, the sun, the rain, etc.). All these are details that help in developing a comprehension of existence, of the individual, and the universe. Albert Einstein spoke of “cosmic religious feeling”, which he could not deny; it made sense to him, and made sense to the physical world he studied. It is a highly rational-spiritual conception of the world. This “cosmic religious feeling” goes beyond the stage of “religion of fear” and the “social or moral conception of God” which diverse traditions conceive differently, and thus possibly conflict each other on the ground.

The individual has to strive to excellence (al-ithar wal-ihsan) through sympathy and social ties. The individual alone cannot understand himself nor the world around him; liberty alone may not be enough, though very necessary in especially early years of learning and growth; liberty if narrowed down to individualism can be existentially and socially dangerous since it is impoverishing. It is liberation through liberty that is enriching and empowering of the self, the individual and the whole human community. The world needs solidary-liberals, not nationalistic-liberals who cannot escape “othering” difference. Liberty is first and foremost an ethical responsibility towards the Self and the Other. There is no liberty, and no human rights or values, in negating the Other or dehumanizing him.

My attempt, or existential trial, is to understand the world and myself in it. I am in the process of becoming myself. I am in a constant move. The idea that stops moving dies soon. I want to keep moving. It is tiring to keep walking, but it is the only way towards an understanding of existence and the Self.

I am an idea that walks on two feet, with a body, a heart, a mind, and a soul. Human beings are unique in their creation. This makes me more curious about reasons behind such difference. The individual has to exert himself to understand this enigmatic idea of creation. The future hinds a lot about humanity and the universe. That is why easily deciding that the world is either an arbitrary creation or that there is no “infinite” power around us does not satisfy me. Science, which means the future, keeps surprising us, so the doors of “infinity” are kept inspiringly open.

I thank people around me who have contributed to my idea. I am grateful to everyone and to the universe, to time and space, for having conceived me to develop into an idea. Gratitude is a great value – even in the philosophy of atheism. There is so much that is shared by human beings, despite their different takes on existential issues. I am trying to be a good idea. I have a world tradition behind me which backs me in this quest, and I have opened my book to diverse ideas for more details, for plural maturity, and for “epistemological pluralism.” One tradition is never enough for a wandering mind and soul. We all need to be relatively skeptics, relatively critical, and relatively anything else we want to be, if we want to live in relative tranquility – relative tranquility is already an achievement at an age when maximum tranquility appears impossible.

“On this land what deserves to be lived for” borrowing the words of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (d. 2008).


Morocco World News Copenhagen, 01/03/ 2012

This is an excerpt from an unpublished literary collection of the author “Letters to My Beloved Ones” (2005 )

Scholar of Islam, contemporary Arab and Islamic philosophy and theology, Islam in Europe, European Islamic thought, Moroccan thought, and religion and politics in the Arab World.

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