Embracing Abstract Forms of Worship


Originally published in Septermber 2015

There is an unmistakable consistency between the various pillars of Islam. Not only are they acts of worship, but they are connected to one another on multiple levels: as preludes, as symbiotes and as complements, to name a few of these connections. A relevant connection for our purposes here is that the lessons from one pillar are often important and incorporated into the performance of another.

It is interesting that the verses of fasting (Surah al-Baqarah, verses 183-187) are followed by a discussion about Hajj (verses 193-202). 1 The intelligent reader should ask why are the verses of Hajj intertwined with the verses of fasting?

A starting answer is that both are abstract forms of worship. The pillars of ritual prayer and charity are regimented forms of worship, as there are many rules and regulations associated with these specific actions. Moreover, there is a prescription of how these must be performed even during the action itself: for example, every step of the prayer is described and the believer is told what to recite in each of the cardinal positions. Similarly, zakat has a well-defined system of calculation and distribution that makes its performance much more reproducible among the general population. But when one looks at fasting and the pilgrimage, other than a few rules, there aren’t any prescribed supplications, actions or rituals that one must do, minute by minute, during any of these performances. The books of Sacred Law are filled with rulings concerning what a Muslim must NOT do during these two acts of worship, but there is no insistence that a certain du’a or a certain dhikr or something specific has to be done. It’s left unrestricted for a reason.

When the pilgrims go to Mina on the 8th of Dhu’l-Hijjah (may we be among them in our lives!), it signifies the start of Islam’s greatest communal act of worship. Yet, the interesting reality is that there is absolutely nothing that is required for the pilgrim to do once he gets there. Certainly, one is encouraged to busy one’s self in individual worship, but this is not a legal requirement. If one wishes, one can simply eat and sleep the whole time; you get credit for simply showing up. This obviously doesn’t work in prayer: one has to recite certain tasbīḥs for the prayer to be valid, one can’t just show up and do whatever one wishes. The same holds true for `Arafat and Muzdalifah: these are totally empty valleys with no script given to the pilgrim for what he must do once he arrives there. He is told to simply show up at a certain time and place before going to another. He gets rewarded for sitting around or even for sleeping. Obviously, the merits of supplication and individual worship at these places is well-known but the pilgrim has fulfilled his legal obligation by simply showing up.

The same holds true for fasting: the believer is given a general set of principles that are in place from sunrise to sunset and he is then left to his own devices. He is told not to do certain things, but other than performing the ritual prayer, the believer has no obligation to do anything else during the fast itself. He too gets rewarded even for sleeping. And he too has fulfilled his legal obligation by simply showing up.

In this light, one marvels at the wisdom of this naẓam between the fourth and fifth pillars of Islam, as well as the locations of the verses concerning each, not just in the Qur’an, but within Surah al-Baqarah itself. This is no mere coincidence and should be reflected upon: that Allah can string together not just verses and pillars, but also the overarching themes within each. We should marvel at this theme of abstractness that permeates ṣawm and ḥajj.

As Muslims in the modern world, this abstractness is a difficult concept for us to grasp and appreciate. In our busy lives, we wish to have planning, structure, and of course, distraction and entertainment. We are creatures of habit and we love being told what to do, we being the generation of turn-by-turn navigation and subliminal advertising. We cling to structure and regimentedness, and there is nothing wrong with this when it comes to organizing many aspects of our lives such as work, school, family, etc. And clearly, structure is part of certain forms of worship such as prayer and alms-giving. But the fourth and fifth pillars are examples of times and events (Ramadan and Hajj) when God wishes to break us of our cycles, embrace the abstract and become totally dependent upon Him. Whereas the modern mind needs to be occupied with something (usually 140 characters or less since we have lost the ability to read with focus for long periods of time), the Muslim mind will not become uncomfortable with the abstract. Even when there is nothing to do or nothing to think about, the Muslim mind is at rest, content that abstractness allows for introspection, silence, reflection and individual worship. The beautiful irony of `Arafat and Ramadan is that both are the grandest displays of communal acts of worship, but ultimately at their core, both encourage the believer to disconnect from everyone and everything around him in order to connect with Him: we are told to come together so that we can go off and be alone with Him.

In this light, it makes sense why many of the prohibitions (such as no marital relations) are similar between these two acts; it makes sense why communal worship during both is really meant to stimulate more individual worship; and, fittingly enough, why those who are not fortunate to be on the Pilgrimage in a given year are encouraged to “be one” with the pilgrims with a simple formula: to fast on the 8th and 9th so that both groups are engaged in abstract worship. We should appreciate that abstract worship (compared to regimented worship) is something that pleases God the most and harms the Devil the most.2 For Iblis, he who is the master of distraction, this is a day that he is the most afflicted with pain, simply by the unstructured-yet-structured standing of a sea of humanity in the desolate plains of `Arafat.

The Companions understood the logic of letting go of your logic. The vast majority of times it is easy for one to understand, but there are times when you don’t understand, and that is OK– but there are also times when you are supposed to not understand. Removing this self-imposed responsibility to understand is the last wound a believer has to inflict on the demon that is his ego and sense of self-importance. Fasting and the Pilgrimage are the epitome of not trying to understand everything about the situation: their abstractedness implies there is a lack of logic present, and when the believer shows up, embraces this and makes the most of these events, this is what pleases God and harms His enemy the most.

Ultimately, the purpose of abstractness is to foster within the believer a sense of total dependency on Allah. The fasting person realizes how much he is in debt to Allah for his food, drink and other comforts that he often takes for granted. The pilgrim realizes how totally dependent he is on Allah before and during the pilgrimage.3 Both the pilgrim and the one who fasts realize that his sense of control is but an illusion, and instead of despairing about this, he embraces it, enjoys it and ultimately comes out of it a better person. Hence both of these actions have an unimaginable reward. The fast is rewarded according to whatever Allah wishes4, whereas the pilgrim returns like the day his mother gave birth to him.5 The popular explanation is that he returns sinless like a newborn child, and this is certainly true, but the scholars of the inward sciences offer a supplementary interpretation as well: just as the newborn is dependent on his parents (he is not concerned about when he will eat, who will change him, who will comfort him), the pilgrim returns realizing that he is completely dependent on Allah. And just as the baby sleeps comfortably, he too will sleep comfortably — he did so in the midst of abstractness in `Arafat and can do so now back in his life of structure.

The system matches macroscopically and microscopically. These are abstract forms of worship, so don’t strain yourself trying to make sense of it all. Any extra good deeds are wonderful, but we should be consoled that Ramadan and Hajj both offer the ultimate participation prize. All we have to do is show up.

1. It is also fascinating that the interluding verses that mention the Companions’ asking about the crescent-moons come after the verses concerning fasting, as if to say that if this whole moon business was so important so as to be scientific, why don’t these verses come before the verses of fasting? There is more on this for another time, but should serve as reflection fodder for the introspective.

2. ما رؤيالشيطان في يوم أصغر ولا أدحر ولا أحقر ولا أغيظ منه يوم عرفة
“Satan has never been seen as to be more mean, or humiliated, or miserable or vexed that on the day of ‘Arafat.” (a Mursal Hadith, cited by Imam al-Ghazali in the Ihya, Kitab Asrar ‘l-Hajj)

3. I think this is why everyone has the (affectionately) “crazy Hajj stories”, wherein sheer acts of randomness happen to make the journey more challenging, yet ultimately more interesting: people/luggage getting lost, getting kicked out of your tents, losing passports/documents, etc. I mean, doesn’t everyone have these personally or know of someone with similar stories? I remember one family that was scheduled to leave for Hajj and as they are sitting in the plane, on the runway, and the plane gets hit by lightning. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but there was irreparable damage to the plane’s machinery and they had to have everyone get off the flight — and this was the last flight that was to be allowed in for the Hajj season that year. Simply incredible. It makes no sense — but then again, I think that’s the point. God doesn’t want us to make sense of it when it comes to visiting His House.

4. كل حسنة بعشر أمثالها إلى سبعمائة ضعف إلا الصيام ، فإنه لي وأنا أجزي به
“Every righteous action will be rewarded ten to seven hundred fold except fasting, for it is (endured) for My Sake and which I will reward (however I wish)”

5. من حج البيت فلم يرفث ولم يفسق خرج من ذنوبه كيوم ولدته أمه
“Whoever performs Pilgrimage to the House without foul talk or iniquity is free from sin [literally: departs from his sins] as [he was] on the day his mother bore him.”