Friday, August 1

Islamic Creativity

How do you know that you're being a good Muslim? Excuse the rhetorical vibe of the question, but I'm serious. How do you know that you're praying in the right way, or fasting correctly? I mean sure the question isn't trivial when we consider differences of opinion between madhabs or schools of thought, but I don't think it's that simple even if we consider it with reference to a single person's opinion either.

What I really want to talk about here is a possibly shallower level of practise than that of madhabs, and consider the actual rituals we put ourselves through.

Since that's not really clear, let me present an example. Take whudu, the ceremonial washing each Muslim who wishes to perform salaat (formal prayer) has to do before starting. Many of us were taught the procedure step-by-step, with meticulous detail put into where fingers should be as you wipe your hands over whichever part of the body you're cleaning.

Some of us are given a further, deeper insight and are taught a specific list of which parts of the washing are optional, and which are obligatory - the point being that the ceremony is good enough even if you just stick to the latter. These people have a better feeling about which bits of the whudu have more importance or meaning over the others.

However what many of us miss is the actual scriptural source used to establish these important bits. Generally, it's the Quran that establishes the minimum obligations (they being direct commandments from God) and the Hadith that establishes the rest. But apart from that distinction it's interesting to read exactly what's being asked of us.

Sticking to whudu (don't worry, there'll be a juicer example later on), the Quran may[1] only say to "wash your hands, face, hair and feet before prayer" and nothing more. From this quote we seem to have established pages and pages of precise instructions on how to do whudu, probably after a lengthy distillation process by those in the know in order to make rulings more accessible to the rest of us.

But what if I manage to get my hands, face, hair and feet washed in heavy rain? Or I take a dip in a lake or other pure water source without any intention of doing whudu before I did so? Practically suppose I'm in a rush and only have a 300ml bottle of mineral water on me - is it possible to do whudu with that?

Some will say no and that for varying reasons. The main ones are that it isn't appropriate, that the intent wasn't solely there or trivially that it wasn't done in the way the good ol' Taaleem-ul-Haq told us to do it. However from the Quranic quote it sounds like these are indeed all valid methods of doing whudu and personally it's the stance I take too.

Now I'm not saying we should trash non-Quranic instruction and reestablish Islam from the holy book - the Hadith and other scholarly advances made since the time of the Prophet are all supremely important and have immense value to those who wish to practise the religion fully. However I do think its worth knowing exactly why we're told to do what we are, and how important each particular bit is.

But why bother? Surely it's easier to just follow a list of pre-prepared instructions in order to fulfill your obligations to the religion? Well yes, in most cases I guess it is. I don't think knowing why necessarily adds depth to the things we do, but I don't think there's harm in doing a bit of background research anyway. But no, the main benefit I find in looking past a ruling is in the creativity and flexibility doing so can arm you with.

So I can do whudu in the rain, or a river, or using a bottle of mineral water. I can pray in places that aren't mosques or Muslim homes. I can consider the situations that existing rulings may not cover in their one-size-fits-all manner of doing things. And in my opinion it's sometimes better to be flexible and creative than miss out on something altogether due to not being able to fulfill narrower criteria, however useful they may be under normal circumstances.

However there are caveats. Confusion and difference can arise if you focus too much on a single verse or source - not that these are bad things in themselves and they're certainly not reasons to remain in ignorance. But the handful of verses talking about the hijab, none actually specifying an actual headcovering, have been the source of many a debate on whether a woman in Islam is obligated to cover her hair.

In any case there are times when this going back to basics approach may not be available, either due to the weight of the situation (I wouldn't run an Islamic state so flippantly) or a lack of knowledge and context (which can be fixed with further research), and I'm definitely not suggesting a free for all stance either. I even think its okay to stick to regular instruction if you're comfortable with doing so since it arrives at the same conclusion really - the only thing I'm really saying is to not be mindless when doing so.

I mean surely there must be more meaning to something if you know the manner in which you've been asked to do it? As always, IANAS.

[1] I'm paraphrasing here to make the point, so please don't take any quotes as verbatim.

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