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Sep 12, 2023

What Walking Can Do for Our Souls

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Hina Khalid

Hina Khalid

Hina Khalid is a PhD student at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge.

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What Walking Can Do for Our Souls

Satchari National Park Habiganj Sylhet

Walking in Satchari National Park, Bangladesh; Photo: Abdul Momin

It is always possible to walk in new ways. —Richard Long

Sacred scriptures, and the literary works spawned by them, are replete with imageries of paths and passages, of wandering and wayfaring. In the Gospel of John, Christ declares that the one who follows him “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12); the psalmist entreats God, “Show me Your ways, O Lord; teach me Your paths” (Psalm 25:4); the Qur’an repeatedly invokes the “straight path” that leads unswervingly to the divine (Qur’an 1:6; 4:175); in Buddhist milieus, the journey to wisdom proceeds through an eightfold path of virtue; and in a Hindu philosophical text, we encounter the exhortation, “Arise! Awake! Pay attention, when you’ve obtained your wishes! A razor’s sharp edge is hard to cross—that, poets say, is the difficulty of the path” (Kaţha Upaniśad). Whether it is to extol the luminosity of the straight and narrow, to lament the intractable roadblocks of pride and prejudice, or to articulate the plight of the solitary traveler searching for spiritual kinship, religious writers and poets have woven rich ambulatory allegories into their theological tapestries.

Walking, however, can be thought of not only in its metaphorical sense—to stand for the trails and travails of the pursuit of spiritual truth—but also in all of its material literality and embodied totality as an act that represents what is distinctive about the human being in Islamic anthropology—the co-inherence of servanthood and lordship, of humble origins and heavenly orientation. The significance of walking in the Islamic tradition, both as a prelude to and as a part of prayer, provides the ground on which to explore the riches of rootedness as a divinely endowed gift unto human beings. Walking, then, is infused with a dynamic sacrality, reorienting us in love to God’s creation and facilitating a prayerful dialogue between (humble) sole and (celestial) soul.

Centering the Self

For human beings, to tread on two feet constitutes a mundane and instinctual orientation—indeed, children exert great effort in trying to stand upright, and one of the crucial milestones in children’s lives is the day that they take their first independent, though wobbly, steps. Bipedality remains a hallmark of our species—while some other animals can stand or walk on two legs in various forms, humans alone adopt the erect bipedal stance, our trunk and knees almost straight, as the primary posture for locomotion. Our bodies are, in other words, exquisitely designed for walking, and the deleterious physical and mental effects of office-bound sedentariness foreground this salutary pillar of human flourishing—the sustaining act of simply putting one foot in front of the other. The somatic symmetry induced by the act of walking echoes, and indeed partakes in, the rhythmic patterns of being that steadily form and inform our lives—the way our mother rocked us to sleep or the way our hand swayed in our father’s hand as we crossed the road. In such instances, the heartbeat of the loving encounter is a soft rhythm, and this delicate attunement of one human being to another sustains a relational climate of joyous synchrony.

To get a sense of how securely the imperative of movement is threaded into our existential fabrics, we need only reflect on those moments when, weighed down by our worldly exigencies, we feel the jolting need to go for a walk or to “walk it off.” Why should walking replenish us in this way? To step out into the quietude of nature, to be momentarily untethered from the transactional webs of work and productivity, is to experience the joy of feeling your body in its most “primitively natural activity.”1 Walking, in other words, leads to presence and to particularity; it is an act of opening to the simple delight of conveying oneself from this place here and now to that place there and then. Witness the radiance on a child’s face upon successfully taking one step, and then another, and then yet another. The restorative potency of walking comes from knowing, with all the fibers of our being, that the body is utterly at home when it is in motion, that it finds in each step the quiet vitality for the next. No form of motion is as earthbound, and as indicative of our creaturely connection to the earth, as walking. With every step, the foot kisses the earth, and the earth holds good as our weight is supported, sustained, and stabilized underfoot.

Walking, then, is grounding—in the literal sense but also in the metaphorical sense that we remain tethered to the solid ground of God’s open world. Regarding the literal import of groundedness and the relation between walking and gravity, Frédéric Gros points out that in many sports, the telos is the overcoming of gravity: the accomplished gymnast has a panoply of aerial feats in her repertoire; the high-flying basketball player can deftly leap his team to victory. To walk, on the other hand, is to “experience gravity at every step,” to yield to the “inexorable attraction of the earth’s mass.”2 In this way, walking serves as a constant reminder of our finitude, and our submission. Walking is a contented resignation to the cosmic forces that join us to the earth, a reconciliation with the concurrent density and delicacy of our bodies. As we thus “walk into” our elemental materiality, there arises the rudimentary joy of presence, of being in harmony with the world. What attends this plenitude of presence is a suspension of our worldly roles, our social varnishes, as we inhabit our deeper, more fundamental, identity as one node within the intricate lattice of creation. Here, then, we encounter the dialectic of emptiness and fullness. When we walk, we are temporarily emptied of our quotidian concerns and filled with a gentle attentiveness to the natural world.

Indeed, the great gift of walking amidst nature is feeling the lightness of being: we can shed our carefully crafted identities and our beguiling masks, for we are no one to the majestic trees or the enormous ocean beside us. Our status or our accomplishments are of no concern to the birds in the sky above or the saplings in the soil below. In walking, we emancipate ourselves from the burdens of role-play and the clamor of the madding crowd, and a fertile silence descends into our consciousness. Empty of egoic trappings, the senses and the soul are filled with the intensity of the natural world and its luminous actuality. This decentering of the self thus marks a deeper, even cosmic, recentering of the self as we walk, each slow step distancing us from any pretensions to permanence.

Walking Photo Shutterstock 04 10 23

Walking as Worship

In the Islamic idiom, this grounding recognition of our finitude characterizes the Sufi virtue of ¢ubūdiyyah (servitude), which denotes the state of humble reliance on, and devoted submission to, the Lord of all the worlds. ¢Ubūdiyyah is thus interwoven with the trait of faqr, or “poverty,” which refers to the universal condition of ontological dependence on the eternally rich God (Qur’an 35:15). All beings are created and sustained by God, and on the Sufi path, the intentional realization of how utterly we belong to the divine culminates in the existential state of complete submission to God. Crucially, however, ¢ubūdiyyah does not denote a self-abnegating passivity, for the state of servanthood exists in conjunction with the Qur’anic imperative of khilāfah (vicegerency). Adam, entrusted with the rank of caliph, or representative in God’s creation, was granted an intimate knowledge of the world he was sent to steward. Adam is also the primordial ¢abd (servant) of God; ontologically, he is, of course, dependent on God, and existentially, following his transgression, he realizes his sheer need of divine mercy (Qur’an 7:23). Through the Adamic exemplar, we thus come to know that the virtues of khilāfah and ¢ubūdiyyah are only truly themselves when they abide in a delicate equipoise; indeed both are housed and harmonized within our primordial nature (fiţrah). In concrete terms, the duty of khilāfah prevents us from seeking refuge in indolent apathy, while the reality of servanthood prevents us from arrogating ultimate authority and agency to our finite selves. Put differently, as vicegerents colored in the Adamic hue, we are called upon to assume our God-gifted crown (the aspect of khilāfah), but this crown remains secure only when our heads fall in loving prostration (the aspect of ¢ubūdiyyah) to the true king.

How, then, are servanthood and lordship embodied in the act of walking? In the locomotion of walking, we can grasp the ephemerality we share with all other creatures (all beings, at every moment of their existence, are the ontologically “poor” servants of God). In the Islamic universe, nowhere is this cosmic creatureliness enacted more powerfully than in the obligatory hajj pilgrimage, when devotees don the same austere attire in active recognition of their ultimate equality before God—not as this entrepreneur or that laborer but as an unadorned, indigent servant of the divine. Crucially, many of the hajj rituals involve walking, most centrally the circumambulation of the Kaaba, an earthly reflection of the supernal garlands of divine praise woven by the angels. There is also the ritual walking between the mounts of Śafā and Marwah (sa¢y) in emulation of Hājar, the wife of Ibrāhīm, who once traversed this distance in search of water. Walking, as such, constitutes an indispensable part of Muslim worship—in these two cases, ritual walking reconnects us to a transcendental mode of being, to a cosmic story that eclipses the fixations of our egoic selves. To circle the Kaaba is to terrestrially recreate the joy of the primordial covenant, where all souls collectively witness to divine unity (Qur’an 7:172); to walk between Śafā and Marwah is to consciously interleave our own existential threads with the textures of sacred prophetic narratives. Thus, by treading on holy ground, our worldly sense of fullness is gradually emptied, and that denudation is the site of our ongoing replenishment.

This dialectic of emptiness and fullness is perhaps most beautifully conveyed in the Qur’anic description of those who “tread lightly on the earth” (Qur’an 25:63). These gentle wayfarers, the righteous servants (¢ibād) of the All-Merciful, consciously indwell their creaturely lightness of being (their ontological poverty), and their every step bears witness to a truth beyond themselves.3 In a contemporary idiom, those who tread lightly on the earth may be those who move through life with a small carbon footprint and are thus empty of the materialistic excesses to which our consumerist cultures are in thrall. In this way, their humble paths testify to the Islamic vision of creation: since all things are a luminous sign (āyah) of God, nature is not an inert stockpile of resources for humans to heedlessly exploit or regiment but is a living realm with a divinely bestowed integrity and sacrality. In an instantiation of ¢ubūdiyyah, their walk attests to our cosmic kinship with all of God’s creatures. Echoing the Qur’anic injunction to tread lightly, Louisa Thomsen Brits limns this recognition of creaturely abundance in her meditative ode to the path, wherein the path declares: “Tread lightly / through shared stories shaped by seasons, / the song of the landscape / that belongs to all… / Together we reach outwards and onwards, / each gleaming life intertwined, / in the endless and eternal ceremony of being.”4

In its ability to emplace us in a brimming world beyond ourselves, walking, we might say, participates in the spiritual reality of prayer. Indeed, Sufi writers have often highlighted the inner meanings of the motions of prayer, wherein each movement and position progressively integrate the worshipper into the cyclical patterns of nature: the upright position in which one begins the prayer conveys the dignity of the human person; the horizontal rukū¢ (bowing) represents the horizontal plane of motion that animals occupy; the act of sitting (julūs) indicates the solidity of the mineral world; and prostration evokes the earthbound existence of plants, whose roots rest firmly in the soil (much as human feet repeatedly stroke the earth when walking).5 In this way, the rhythms of prayer body forth the status of the human person as a microcosm, with all the layers of the macrocosm enfolded within.6

If walking is akin to worship, then it’s more than a mode of transport. But in our frenetic urban spaces, we walk merely to get from point A to point B. When we go outside, we mostly move from one inside to another, from our home to the workplace, from our office to the shopping mall. And so, in our hurried hops from one appointment or commitment to another, we manage the monotony of the walk by plugging in our headphones or returning our missed calls, oblivious to not only the urbanity around us but also the sun and the breeze. The Islamic perspective on walking stands in stark contradistinction to this instrumentalization of the outdoors: treading on two feet can be a sacred act in and of itself, as enshrined in hadith literature on the virtues of walking to the mosque. Here, walking is a prelude to the formal prayer, and more deeply a part of it, for it carries its own promise of spiritual abundance. Indeed, the Prophet ﷺ affirmed that as one walks to the mosque, “each time the right foot steps down, a good deed is written down, and each time the left foot steps down, a sinful deed is removed.” The Prophet ﷺ urged his followers not to rush to the mosque but to proceed with dignity and serenity, to tread lightly on the route to worship too.

That our terrestrial trails can thus bear traces of the transcendent also pertains to the act of walking to visit the sick. The Prophet ﷺ asserted that one who walks to visit the sick “walks under a shade from heaven.”7 So, whether we are meeting God in the refuge of the mosque or in the dwelling of the one in need,8 our steps are themselves sanctified.

We are thus enjoined to walk in a modest, measured, and meditative way, so that each step might become an act of divine remembrance (dhikr).9 Indeed, the Qur’an extols those who remember God “while standing, sitting and [even] reclining” (Qur’an 3:191), suggesting that the modality of dhikr, in which our hearts find peace, is not confined to prescribed ritual settings but is a dynamically embodied orientation, a mode of being that glimpses in all happenings an occasion for divine glorification. Indeed, as he walked to the mosque, the Prophet ﷺ would recite what is now known as the Prayer of Light (Du¢ā’ al-Nūr), wherein he calls on God to imbue his entire being with light, including his heart, blood, bones, and his outer faculties of sight and speech. He even prays to become light. A special supplication also passed the Prophet’s lips whenever he left his home and walked into the world: he would look heavenward and pray that he should neither stray nor be led astray, neither trip nor be tripped, neither wrong nor be wronged, and neither become enraged nor be the object of another’s rage. Every step was thus an opportunity to deepen his relationship with the all-loving Lord, in whose gaze the Prophet ﷺ was constantly held (Qur’an 52:48–49).

Like Flowers to the Sunshine

Foot Steps at Beach

Foot Steps at Beach; photo: Augustus Binu /

On a fundamental level, then, as the prophetic model so abundantly affirms, to go out is to offer oneself to the world and its inhabitants. Gros expresses this point in a pithy formulation: “By walking, you are not going to meet yourself.”10 To walk is always to go somewhere, to someone other than oneself. This ethos of leaving one’s abode to reach out to another is poignantly exemplified in the life of the Prophet’s closest companion, Abu Bakr. During his time as caliph, Abu Bakr would habitually trek deep into the desert after he had led the morning prayer, and he would stop for a time at a derelict house before heading home. One day, the companion ¢Umar, impelled by curiosity, followed Abu Bakr and, after his friend had left the derelict house, inquired within, only to learn that an old, frail blind woman lived there and had taken some orphans under her wing. Abu Bakr, it turns out, would stop by and clean their home, wash their clothes, bake bread, grind wheat, and cook their breakfast. Abu Bakr was, of course, metaphorically following in the Prophet’s footsteps; the Prophet ﷺ not only walked to those in need but also walked with them. Most touchingly, a mentally ill woman once came to the Prophet ﷺ and declared, “I need you!” The Prophet ﷺ responded with gentle love, asserting, “Whichever path you need me to be on, I will go there with you.” The Prophet ﷺ remained true to his word and accompanied her wherever she wanted to go. This tale affirms the prophetic principle that we do not abandon people when they are no longer “productive” or “useful,” for, on the sacred ground of our shared humanity, there are always paths we can walk with them.

To step out into the world, then, is to be confronted with the world’s sheer reality. Whether in the face of the human other or in the face of nature’s splendors, we encounter God’s creation, which calls out for the gift of tender love, of reverent witness. Indeed, to be immersed in nature is to be beckoned by a world of dazzling abundance, where everything demands our attention—the stunning petals, the sonorous birds, the sighing wind, the sleepy woods, the serene skies.

This motif of nature as uttering a call recurs throughout the metaphysical vision of Bengali poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. Reworking certain Hindu scriptural templates of the universe as suffused with sacred sound, Tagore speaks of God as the cosmic “singer” or “musician” who lovingly breathes the universe into being through no compulsion or constraint but simply for the joy of creating. The world-song metaphor highlights a living God ever-present in His creation: unlike other modes of art in which the artwork exists independently of its creator (once a painting is completed, the canvas no longer requires the painter’s touch), this song is inseparable from its singer. In this way, the world is God’s mellifluous gift of Himself, and it reverberates with the bounteous tunes of divine love.

On this theme of God as the creator of the world-song and as our unwavering companion through the world, Tagore writes:

To move is to meet you every moment,
It is to sing to the falling of your feet.
… He who throws his doors open and
steps onward receives your greeting.
He does not stay to count his gain or
to mourn his loss; his heart beats the 
drum for his march, for that is to march
with you every step,

To inhabit the world in truth is to suspend the transactional or instrumentalist lenses through which we habitually perceive our environment and let all things luminesce in their God-gifted plenitude. It is, in other words, to see the world not as a thing to be mined and manipulated for our acquisitive ends but as the non-necessitated, utterly sacred disclosure of God’s own being. Indeed, there is nowhere that we may tread where we do not already rest in God’s all-encompassing embrace: if God is the One whom we seek, He is also the One who makes that seeking possible, who sustains our weary steps, who stabilizes our faltering gait.

Echoing the Qur’anic vision of a vocal creation, wherein all things praise God in their distinctive ways, Tagore imagines the finite world as shimmering with the hue of infinity. The world gives itself to us with each exhalation of the divine breath, and we are called on simply to live with our eyes open—to marvel at the beauty of dawn, the blue of the sky, the majesty of the trees. To return to our point of departure, walking reorients us to, and emplaces us within, these elemental wonders that are given to us in profusion. In reestablishing us in our essential, creaturely truth, walking opens us up like flowers to the sunshine of divine light.


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