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.
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.
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.