Friday, September 5

Islamic Chickens and Eggs

I once heard a brilliant quote in passing. Unfortunately I can't credit it but I recount it here anyway:

There are two times when we're in most need of prayer. Firstly when we feel that we don't need to, and secondly when we feel that we can't.

I find it pretty bizarre how some people don't wish to practice religion (be it Islam or any other) until they're actually practising. Stated in those terms I'm sure the paradox is clear to everyone, yet for some reason not being "ready" is still an oft-used reason for not behaving in a manner the person themselves thinks they should.

Not that I'm concerned with people not practising per se; there are tons of things I'm told to do and think about differently so no one is being critical of us being lazy. It's just the precise excuse - that of not being good or worthy enough - which gets me in a muddle.

I admit that on the surface that this is a noble sentiment. It's very humbling to genuinely consider yourself not good enough for anything including Islam and is of some use provided you use that self-awareness to improve yourself. But dig a bit deeper and it starts to make less sense. Taking this mindset to the extreme, it's arguable whether anyone is or will be ready enough anyway. There's always room for improvement within all of us, so how ready is ready? And what happens if you wait too long and miss your chance altogether?

Let's take Hajj as a commonly used example. This obligatory pilgrimage is oft-delayed by people who think they're not worthy enough to take part - perhaps it's an internal state of mind, or maybe it's a practical thing (they don't pray yet). The thing is that Hajj is a journey in itself and by taking part in it there's a good chance that it will remove the misgivings you have about yourself anyway. In fact just taking out your wallet and buying the ticket shows a sense of readiness. You don't need any other qualifications to do that.

On a technical level Hajj is an obligation or fard too - and so isn't qualified by how religious you already happen to be. It exists in its own uniform space - and since many of us fast without fail even though we don't regularly pray at other times indicates that we actually realise how one thing doesn't have to rely on another. And finally in my opinion you can't fail Hajj due to a lack of prerequisites (and even if you think you can, well, you can always do it again).

The trick with Hajj and any other good practice is to not automatically assume that only the best will do. A poorly performed Hajj (if such a thing exists) is better than none, and praying as much as you can is better than not at all[1]. All arrows of good point is in the same direction anyway.

In the same way you don't need to cleanse your whole way of life in order to get some good out of an action - so you don't have to grow a long and flowing beard, wear a hijab or give up watching Heroes or Lost in order to start a journey in another part of your life. Personally speaking there's a lot in my own behaviour and character which I can change for the better, and hopefully will, but the mere existence of this room for improvement (which will never truly disappear anyway) won't stop me from praying for example. This accessibility for all, although not exclusive to Islam, is a pretty attractive quality.

I'm not condoning picking and choosing which parts of Islam you want to practise - in fact it's quite the opposite. We should each strive to do as much as we possibly can. However we shouldn't and can't use the fact that we're not good enough to stop us from improving. In that sense this isn't just about Hajj or praying though, it's about us improving ourselves as human beings too. Will you stop trying to be a nicer person because you're mean? Or perhaps not have kids until you're a parent?

My advice? Don't wait for a sense of readiness to be given to you - just get up and do things with the intention of getting that sense of readiness yourself. Don't worry about failing or relapsing either - God-willing the efforts you have already made are safe and locked down and will not be deducted if you think you've messed up later on. And if you're still not happy with how you acted, well then do it again and again until you are. Just don't be a barrier to your own self.

Originally drafted 10th September 2007.

[1] I should qualify this by saying how important it actually is to read five time daily prayers - reading them all puts one a few hundred leagues ahead of someone who prays 90% of the time. But the point is that praying 10% of the time puts you leagues ahead of someone who doesn't pray at all. Think of them as exponential increases or something.