Islam and modern age
Every religion prescribes its own prayer system, Islam also does. Every religion has its own unique system and it is this uniqueness which is precious. Islam prescribes its prayer system without challenging prayer systems of other religions as it recognises the uniqueness of prayer systems of other religions.
It puts it succinctly as under: "And everyone has direction to which he turns (himself), so vie with one another in good works." (2:148). Thus it is clear that everyone has ones own way of worshipping and one should not denounce each others way of worship. According to Imam Raghib the word 'wijhat' is more comprehensive. It means not only direction but also entire 'shari`ah'. Thus according to Raghib what Qur'an states in the above verse is that each religion has its own 'shari`ah' which has its own uniqueness.
There are different words used by the Qur'an for worship, the most frequent being 'ibadah'. The word 'ibadah' is also used in senses more than one. It is derived from the word 'ubudiyyah' which means to express ones humility and humbleness. But the word ' ibadah' carries in it even greater sense of humility; it, in fact, carries the utter sense of humility. Thus the first requirement of worship in Islam is to feel utterly humble before the Greatest Being and Most Powerful Allah.
Human beings are created by All Mighty Allah and to worship Him they must develop within themselves the utter sense of humility. Thus the Islamic concept of worship implies humility. Thus by implication it also becomes an essential part of Islamic ethic. Thus arrogance is unethical. No wonder than that Qur'an repeatedly denounces arrogance and calls it 'istikbar'. Its opposite is both ' istid`af' (to be weak) and ' ubudiyyat'.
Pharaoh (Fir`aun) has been described in the Qur'an as 'mustakbir' (having arrogance of power) as also the Satan.
The direct implication is that those who are arrogant are like Pharaoh or Satan. The true servant of Allah has a sense of utter humility and believes that only Allah is the Greatest - 'Allahu Akbar.'
This is very basic formula of Islamic worship. Anyone who is arrogant and has a feeling of powerful cannot be true worshipper of Allah. A true worshipper of Allah is one who has no trace of arrogance, of 'ananiyyah' or egotism. This has another important implication. It negates the very concept of one being ruler over the other and thus creates democratic ethos and human dignity.
Elsewhere also the Qur'an lays emphasis on dignity of entire humanity - children of Adam when it says: " And surely, We have honoured the children of Adam, and We carry them in the land and the sea, and We provide them with good things, and We have made them to excel highly most of those whom We have created." (17:70).
Thus once we accept Allah as the Greatest by implication all human beings are His humble servant without any distinction of caste, colour, creed or race and all are equal before Him and no one is superior to the other. The Qur'an clearly sates that " O mankind, surely We have created you from a male and a female, and made your tribes and families that you may know each other. Surely the noblest of you with Allah is the most pious (God-conscious) of you." (49:13).
It will be seen that it is very important statement of the Qur'an and is quite fundamental to the concept of worship in Islam. All human beings are equal in the sight of Allah and distinction of tribes, families etc. are only to know each other and not to take pride - leading to arrogance in ones belonging to one nation or the other, or one tribe or family or other.
The real distinction could be only of piety, honesty and integrity of character and most honoured in the eyes of Allah is one who is most pious. Any Muslim who feels superior to the other on the basis of tribe or family or nation or colour cannot be true worshipper of Allah as this air of superiority leads to arrogance which is quite contrary to the very concept of ' ibadah' and ' ubudiyyah'. One who worships Allah must intrinsically subscribe to the concept of equality of all human beings. There is no place in Islam of low or high status at all.
This is further symbolised by the congregational prayer in Islam. All have to stand in one line in Islamic congregational prayer. A true worshipper of Allah would show equal respect to all human beings irrespective of their origin, their identity and their status. Any worshiper who apparently stands in one line but carries the feeling of superiority over others in his heart, cannot be construed as true and free worshipper. Such a person is not bondsman of Allah but of his vain desire. He who is bondsman of his own desire cannot be a free person and can never claim to enjoy the pleasure of a free man's worship. Thus a false sense of superiority is the very negation of true worship. A free man's worship is based on passionate belief in freedom and dignity of all human beings as Allah alone is creator of all and He alone is real object of worship.
Thus a passionate belief in one God also assumes great significance in Islamic tradition. Because only such belief in oneness of God leads to the negation of worshipping lesser beings. It can lead to worship of human being by another human being and thus deifying some among us or deifying some other objects. This would also lead to superiority of some over others negating the concept of equal dignity for all children of Adam as stated in the Qur'an.
The Sufis, the mystics of Islam, base their concept of 'wahdat al-wujud' (unity of Being) on this concept of 'tawhid' (unity of Godhood) and it is this concept of unity of Being which demolishes all distinctions. The concept of Absolute Being is possible only if we believe in the concept of absolute unity of humankind. And sufis made no such distinctions. Distinctions invariably lead to a sense of superiority and hence go against the concept of worship of a True Being.
In Islam an act of worship is a means, not a goal. The goal is a true moral and ethical conduct. The Qur'an says "Surely prayer keeps (one) away from indecency and evil; and certainly the remembrance of Allah is the greatest (act)." (29:45) Many treat prayer 'salah' as a goal, not a means as stated in the above Qur'anic verse. A real worshipper would never indulge in any indecent act ('fahsha)' or would never go near an evil.
The important question is what is evil? The word used for evil here is 'munkar' i.e. anything which is rejected by the society as harmful. Anything which is harmful to human society must be rejected and must be desisted from. There are some evils which are absolute in nature and must be avoided irrespective of time and place. Injustice and falsehood are such evils. The greatest evil thus is being untruthful.
One of the names of Allah is 'Haq' i.e.truth. Thus truthfulness becomes the important element of Allah\rquote s worship. Anyone who deviates from the path of truth cannot claim to be worshipper of Allah. A true worshipper of Allah will never compromise on the question of truth. He will gladly sacrifice his own interests to uphold the cause of truth. Those who sacrifice everything including their own lives deserve to be true worshiper of Allah. A true worshiper would not entertain falsehood in any form. A true worshiper's tongue will speak nothing but truth. He will never utter anything which is not truth. One has to be fearless to be truthful. Only one who fears Allah and no one else can speak truth and avoid falsehood.
Also, Allah is Just and one who worships Allah cannot be but just. Justice is part of worship and one who works tirelessly for establishing justice in the society is real worshiper of Allah. The path of truth and justice is paved with difficulties and sacrifices and a true worshiper does not mind in the least to face these difficulties and make sacrifices for the cause of justice and truth. To court martyrdom for the cause of truth and justice is the highest form of worship one can think of. Thus the Qur'an describes true worshiper as follows: "The patient and the truthful, and the obedient, and those who spend and those who ask Divine protection in the morning times." (3:16). Truth requires inexhaustible degree of patience and hence the above verse refers to the quality of patience along with truthfulness.
Allah has been described as 'Rabb al-`Alamin' in the Qur'an i.e. Sustainer of the universe. 'Rabb', according to Imam Raghib, is one who takes a thing from one stage of perfection to another stage until it reaches the final stage of perfection. Allah is 'Rabb' in this sense and any of His worshiper has to work tirelessly for achieving this objective. He or she will do nothing which will obstruct this path of perfection. This also includes the protection of environment and ecological balance. For the perfection of our world its ecological balance is very vital. The greed for consumption leads to destruction of ecological balance. Thus a worshiper can not be insensitive to the destruction of environment.
The quality of 'rububiyyat' (sustaining) will be incomplete without mercy and compassion. Thus in the very first chapter of the Qur'an Allah is described as 'Rabb, Merciful and Compassionate'. Only one who is merciful and compassionate can take this universe from one stage of perfection to another stage until it reaches the ultimate stage of perfection. And one who engages oneself in this work on human plane has to have qualities of mercy and compassion for all i.e. for entire humanity on one hand, and, for all the creation of Allah, on the other. A person who is compassionate will not wantonly destroy anything and would show feeling of loving care for all creatures. Thus a worshiper has to be compassionate and merciful towards all.
The Qur'an also makes it clear that the act of prayer is not merely a ritual to be performed. It is an act which transforms ones inner being and makes him or her a perfect person. Perfection of inner being is very important aspect of act of worship. Thus Qur'an describes the act of worship as under: " It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and West, but righteous is one who believes in Allah, and the Last Day, and the angels and the Book and the prophets, and gives away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask and to set slaves free and keeps up prayer and pays the poor rate; and the performers of their promise when they make a promi se, and the patient in distress and affliction and in the time of conflict; and these are they who keep their duty.\rdblquote (2:177).
This is very seminal verse which describes the basic features of worship. Thus worship is not a mere physical act of bowing and prostrating; it is much more than that. The Islamic concept of ' ibadah' is as much social as spiritual. Thus among ' ibadat' are included 'fasting, zakat' and 'Hajj'. These have their own significance. Fasting ('saum') again is not mere an act of going hungry from sunrise to sun set. It is to learn to control ones desires and make ones soul pure by removing all impurities. Controlling ones desires (what the Qur'an calls 'nafs ammarah') is very important element of fasting.
It amounts in fact to developing a spirit of renunciation in the midst of having and developing sensitivity towards others suffering. To be sensitive is very important element of ' ibadah'. And fasting is meant to sensitize the people. Only a sensitive soul can stand up and fight against untruth and injustice. Thus the real significance of fasting is to develop sensitivity towards misery and suffering and devote oneself to eradication of all forms of suffering and misery.
Thus in the above verse (2:177) describing the act of true worship emphasis is laid on spending ones wealth out of love for Him for the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask and to set slaves free. In those days of slavery Islam talked of dignity of all human beings and repeatedly laid emphasis on setting the slaves free. Here in the above verse setting slaves free has been described as an act of worship.
Slaves suffer intensely and slavery deprives human beings of their human dignity and hence setting slaves free is an important ingredient of act of worship. A believer or a worshiper would not tolerate any act of indignity to any human being. Thus he has to be passionately committed to human freedom and dignity and has to work to abolish all forms of human unfreedom, slavery being the most abominable for of human indignity.
The above verse also emphasises the need for spending for the poor, the orphans, the widows and the wayfarers. This is precisely what the payment of zakat (poor rate) is meant for. Thus the Qur'an says: " Zakat (charity) is only for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer it, and those whose hearts are made to incline (to truth ), and (to free) the captives, and those in debt, and in the way of Allah and for the wayfarer - an ordinance from Allah." (9:60).
Thus it will be seen that zakat is basically meant for the weaker sections of society so that their sufferings could be minimised. Zakat is also required to be spent on paying off the debts of indebted. It is poor who are indebted. The poor are generally indebted and they must be freed of it if their sufferings are to be eliminated. Again, it is for this reason that the Qur'an prohibits interest. It is the poor who have to pay high rates of interest for fulfilling their basic needs. Those who charge high rates of interest on consumption loans are real blood suckers and they can never qualify for worship. On the other hand, Qur'an warns them to be prepared for war with Allah if they do not waive off interest on such loans. In fact war against interest is war against poverty and suffering.
Thus it will be seen that establishing social justice is as important part of act of worship as an act of praying. It also has a macro dimension. Entire third world is poor and indebted today. It is the rich countries of the West who exploit the people of the third world and put burden of indebtedness on them. There is need for setting up funds on the line of zakat to waive off debts of third world countries and interest thereon. This would greatly relieve the third world of its suffering and for the West it will be an act of worship. But all of us know that Western countries are not going to oblige the third world. This socio-economic dimension should not be lost sight of.
The Qur'an is so sensitive to various dimensions of suffering that it specially mentions the problem of wayfarers also. In those days the wayfarers had to face number of difficult problems while traveling. No basic facilities were available on the long and arduous course of journey. The Qur'an thus required a part of the zakat fund be spent on alleviating the sufferings of these wayfarers. It indicates the degree of sensitivity Qur'an desires to create in us. It is, therefore, highly necessary that a worshiper be hyper sensitive to others sufferings in every form. He should work tirelessly for the welfare of an entire humanity.
Hajj is also included in the act of Islamic worship. It is desirable that Muslims should go, if he has means, for 'Hajj' once in life time. What is its significance as an act of worship? What is its social dimension? As pointed out earlier Islam teaches equality of all human beings irrespective of tribe, nation or family. When one meets other human being one should meet him/her on plane of equality. Hajj provides this opportunity to a Muslim. Muslims from all over the world congregate for Hajj in Mecca. They belong to different nations, different tribes, different races and colours. Also they are made to wear a simple 'un-sewn' white cloth to further emphasise their equality before God. This huge congregation of human beings from all over globe without any distinction of nation or tribe, caste or colour is recognition of equality of all human beings and it is a practical lesson in ordering a world free of ethnic, national or racial distinctions.
This is a great act of worship and the greatest service of humanity, provided it is taken in that spirit. Ka`ba is a house of Allah and all those who come there are equal before Him in every respect. If the hajj is taken in its real spirit it can lead to creating of a world free of all ethnic and racial tensions.
Thus it will be seen that an act of worship is not merely a ritual as it has come to be widely practiced. A real act of worship is much more than mere physical act of bowing and prostrating, or fasting mechanically as a ritual or performing hajj by merely going to Mecca. These acts of worship have other dimensions, which are very important in reordering and refashioning our world, a world without suffering, a world without discrimination, a wo rld without inequalities and without bondage. Such a world can be created only with a passionate commitment to dignity and freedom of humanity. It is this passionate commitment with humility before Allah which can constitute a real act of a free man's worship which has spiritual as well as social dimension.