A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take part in a cycle ride from London to Paris, which was one of the greatest physical challenges that I have ever set myself. To describe this as ‘the experience of a lifetime’ may come across as a tired cliché, but there were many personal lessons that I learned over these 4 days that will probably remain with me for the rest of my life.
One of the things the Prophet would do to make sense of the world was retreat to the cave of Hira. This was his opportunity to have some time alone away from his daily affairs and responsibilities: to think about God, to ponder over the finite nature of this world, and contemplate over the ultimate reality when the whole of Mankind will be brought before Allah. The khulwa would also give him a renewed focus and re-energise him to confront the many difficulties he would face in convincing his people to leave polytheism and return back to the theology of Abraham.
For me personally, the cycle ride from London to Paris offered numerous opportunities for alone time. Although we started out as a large group, given that there were varying standards of cyclist on the trip it wasn’t long before we became spread out, and for the most part we were on our own as we navigated the winding country lanes in Kent and the rolling hills of northern France. Aside from the noise of the lightly oiled chain gliding through the derailleurs of my bike, there was nothing else to be heard and nothing else to be seen other than a path cutting through the greenest of fields and vanishing into the horizon. There were no constant updates from social media, no breaking news alerts and no telephone calls from friends or family. On realising that I was truly alone, I got off my bike and decided to savour the moment. As I looked upon the seemingly infinite number of fields around me, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the magnificence of Allah’s creation and how truly insignificant I am – I was merely a tiny speck amidst the vastness of the countryside.
Cycling through the undulating French countryside for hours on end is bound to make your mind wonder, for me it was on things related to my faith. One of the biggest things I appreciated was having studied basic texts of fiqh, in particular the chapters on purification and prayer. I remembered sitting through those classes, at times thinking how futile some of the discussions seemed. But when travelling through swathes of rural land with no toilets or running water in sight, all those seemingly pedantic discussions on the types of purifiers become extremely relevant. Even the discussions on how the Prophet would relieve himself in a dignified manner began to have some practical purpose.
On this point I pondered our attitude as laymen towards our study of Islam. Often, when we enter into the study of fiqh it becomes a mere academic exercise, celebrating jargon that we don’t really understand, and going into excessive depths on the various opinions on a particular matter, which for a laypersons are of little relevance. However, in the context of the ride I thought about what our attitude ought to be – the principle purpose for laymen to study fiqh is so that we are adequately prepared to worship Allah no matter what situation we find ourselves in. Thus, just as our survival instincts take over when we find ourselves in a situations of difficulty in order to protect and feed our bodies, religious knowledge should ensure that we have the capability to give our souls the spiritual nourishment it needs, regardless of whatever situation we may be in.
Although for the most part we were on our own whilst cycling, there were opportunities to meet with fellow cyclists at lunch stops and at dinner. Out of a group of almost 130 people, three of us were Muslims. Invariably this would often result in many cyclists asking questions about our faith, particularly owing to the fact that we were cycling for the National Zakat Foundation. The discussions on zakat quickly veered into other aspects of faith and eventually wandered into the more touchy subjects of religious extremism and media portrayals of Muslims. What was particularly telling was the friendly nature of such discussions; the fact that despite religion and politics generally being taboos in social gatherings, our fellow cyclists felt comfortable raising these topics with us and having open discussions. Not only was it useful as another opportunity to see how non-Muslims view us as a faith community, but we found that a number of individuals had never socialised with a Muslim before – one said he had never met a Muslim before, and that they found our encounter enlightening. This was a timely reminder for me, that despite all our efforts to invite people to Abrahamic monotheism, we still have much work to do.
The greatest point of reflection for me, however, was the hereafter. Prior to the ride, every one of us was earnestly advised to be adequately prepared. We were given a model training schedule to follow, a kit list, and some basic advice on the route we were going to take. Some people studied every aspect of the challenge in intricate detail, treating their training like a science by mapping routes that would simulate the gradients we would encounter, learning every aspect of basic bike maintenance should any problems arise on the trip, even studying the fine art of sports nutrition and hydration. Others adopted a more laissez-faire attitude to the whole thing, lacking an understanding of the magnitude of the challenge they were about to undertake. Suffice it to say, those that were prepared were the ones who completed the ride quickly and with relative ease whilst those who had neglected their preparation found the ride incredibly tough, lagging at the back of the pack. In many respects this mirrors our lives in this world; we are here for a finite period, a time that we must use to prepare ourselves for the arduous journey that awaits us in the hereafter. We would much rather be those in the front of the pack, as opposed to those crawling at the back struggling to make the finish line.
Even for those of us who did meticulously prepare for the ride, there were aspects of the ride that we simply couldn’t be ready for and we had to endure the intense pain associated with those aspects, such as undertaking a long steep hill-climb after cycling for over 80 miles, a timely reminder that in the hereafter, even the best amongst us will find the journey demanding. Although many of us had trained together prior to the ride, when it came to the ride itself we were on our own. Our concern shifted away from others to ourselves to ensure that we smoothly completed the journey to the finish line at the Eiffel tower. Our minds may have drifted, momentarily wondering how our friends were getting on with the challenge, only to refocus back on our individual journey. This made me realise what our sentiments would be like in the hereafter – whilst we may have close friends and family, they will be of little concern to us when we undertake our final journey. And of course, the elation felt at the end, as we circled around the Eiffel tower reminded me that the happiness I was experiencing was nothing compared to entering Paradise.
Overall, the ride was a phenomenal experience not only for the physical challenge but the numerous lessons it contained that are key to refocusing our energies as believers.