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Modern Islam: The phenomenon of “designer religion”

Modern Islam: The phenomenon of “designer religion” June 17, 2007
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&tRecently, I got an email from a friend who told me about an author who wrote that, for many Muslims, there is no more joy in Islam. I believe that is valid. For many people, there is no “sweetness” of faith, like the Prophet (pbuh) spoke about in a famous hadith. Many people will conclude that this is a fault of religion itself, most especially Islam. Yet that is a faulty conclusion.

Religion is supposed to serve the believer. It is supposed to support the believer on his or her journey on this earth back towards their Lord and Creator, where they truly belong. In fact, religion polishes the roughness out of the human heart so that the light of God both shines through and penetrates in. There should be so much joy in this process.

Yet, for many people, the reverse is true. The believer is supposed to serve religion. Religion is master, and the believer is servant. This is flawed, and the Qur’an tells me so:

Today have I perfected your religious law for you, and have bestowed upon you the full measure of My blessings, and willed that self-surrender unto Me shall be your religion. (5:3)

The fact that God gave us the perfect law is described as “the full measure of [God’s] blessings.” Yet, why? Why is religion an enormous blessing for us? Because it helps guide us back to our Lord. That is the ultimate service for us.

When our father Adam (pbuh) slipped in the Garden, he estranged himself from God. Thus, Adam (pbuh) was bidden to live on earth and journey back to Him. This is a tough journey, and God knows this. Yet, He did not leave Adam (pbuh) – and by analogy all of us – completely alone to fend for himself (and ourselves). He sent guidance:

Yet if guidance does come to you from Me, then whoever follows My guidance will have nothing to fear and will not sorrow. (2:38)

And when we follow this guidance we are comforted, and we find happiness and joy. In fact, God calls the believers to enter into peace, which is what we will find when we follow His way:;blockquote>O believers, enter wholly into peace, and do not follow the footsteps of Satan, for he is an open enemy to you. (2:208)

Many translators have used the word “Islam” as the translation for the Arabic silm, which is the word used in the verse. But, silm means “peace,” and the use of the word seems to be much more broad and encompassing. This means to me that, if we follow God’s way, we will have total peace in our hearts, and we will experience joy.

This process, in fact, is one of love. Following God’s way is a process of falling in love with God. We get to know Him through knowing and experiencing His signs:

We will show them Our signs throughout the regions of the earth and in themselves, until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. Is it not enough that your Lord is witness to all things? (41:53)

And once we know Him, we cannot but love Him, most especially because we come to learn that He loved us first. And once we fall in love with the Precious, there is no turning back. We “enter into peace,” and we experience joy. That is the essence of religion: the process of falling in love with God and entering into peace by following His guidance.

And, yes, that does include performing the acts of ritual prayer and ablution; abstaining from that which God commands; giving out of our wealth; fasting when God commands us to fast; journeying on the earth back to the Lord Himself. All these things we do because we love Him (because He loved us first).

The fact that someone does not derive joy from these things is not the fault of the religion, it is the fault of the person himself. Nevertheless, there are many Muslims who have begun to question the ‘illah, or effective cause or reason behind, of some of Islam’s most important religous practices. For instance, what is the ‘illah of the five daily prayers? What is the ‘illah of the fast of Ramadan? Of the zakah? Of the Hajj?

I do not think there is anything wrong with this type of questioning, so long as the intent behind the questioning is sincere. Truth does not fear investigation. Yet, God has already answered many of these questions already. The beauty of our Creator is that, when He sends forth a command, He usually explains why. In fact, we see that He gives the ‘illah behind our ritual practices:

Five daily prayers: I am the God; there is no deity but Me; so serve Me, and practice prayer to remember Me. (20:14) Also read: Recite what has been revealed to you from the Book, and pray regularly; for prayer restrains from that which is abominable and disavowed. And remembrance of God is even greater. And God knows what you do. (29:45)

Fast of Ramadan: O believers, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may be conscientious. (2:183) Also read: The month of Ramadan is the one in which the Qur’an was revealed, as guidance for humanity, and demonstrations in the way of guidance and discrimination. So whoever among you is present in that month should fast… (2:185)

Zakah: Take contributions from their wealth, to purify them and justify them thereby; and pray for them. Indeed, your prayer is an asylum for them. For God is all-hearing, all-knowing. (9:103)

Hajj: Indeed, the first temple set up for humankind was the one at Mecca, as blessing and guidance for all beings, in which are evident signs; it is the place where Abraham stood, and whoever enters it is secure. And it is a duty of humanity to God that whoever is able to make a pilgrimage to the temple. And if any refuse, well, God in independent of all worlds . (3:96-97)

The Lord God has also explained why He forbade fornication and games of chance even though He has no reason to do so:

And do not approach adultery, for it is an obscenity and an evil way. (17:32)

Believers – wine and gambling and idolatry and divination are nothing by abomination from the work of Satan, so avoid them that you may thrive. Satan only wants to sow hostility and hatred among you with wine and gambling, and to hinder you from remembrance of God, and from prayer. So will you refrain? (5:90-91)

Even when it comes to believing in His oneness, He never says, “I am One because I say so.” No. He takes the time to explain why, even though He has every right to say “because I said so.” Take this passage as a prime example:

Say, Praise be to God, and peace upon the servants God has chosen. Is God better, or what they associate with God? Or, who created the heavens and the earth, and rains water from the sky for you? With it We produce orchards full of beauty, whose trees you could not produce. Is there a deity besides God? No, but they are a deviant people.

Or, who made the earth steady, and put rivers in its clefts, and set mountains on it, and placed a partition between the two seas? Is there a deity besides God? No, but most of them do not know. Or, who answers the cry of the one hard pressed, and removes adversity, and makes you heirs of the earth? Is there a deity besides God? You hardly pay attention.

Or, who guides you in the darkness of the land and the sea, and who sends the winds as heralds of divine mercy? Is there a deity besides God? God transcends any association that they attribute. Or, who initiates creation and then repeats it; and who provides you sustenance from the sky and the earth? Is there a deity besides God? Say, “Bring your proof, if you are being truthful.” (27:59-65)

See how God goes through a detailed exposition about why He is one God, even though, once again, He needs no reason to explain Himself to us. What an awesome God we have!

Despite these explanations, however, many Muslims seek to discern even further the ‘illah behind the various practices of Islam. On one level, this is good, because upon reflection, one may find infinite reasons and benefits of the ritual practices of Islam. This will serve to strengthen the resolve of the believer to keep up the ritual practices out of love for God.

There are some, however, who reflect upon the possible ‘illah of the ritual practice in order to invent “designer Islam,” to justify their abandonment of the ritual practices. This is quite dangerous.

Thus, a person may say: “The ritual prayer is really a conversation between the believer and his or her Lord.” This is true. Consequently, the person concludes, since he or she “talks” to God each day, there is no need to pray five times a day. “That’s so seventh century,” he or she may say. This same person may say: “Since the reason behind fasting is God consciousness, I do not need to fast because I am so conscious of God.” Or, he may say: “My wealth is already pure, thus I do not need to pay the 2.5% Zakah.”

This is “designer Islam,” and unlike Coca-Cola, it is not the real thing. That sort of reasoning simply does not make any sense. If someone either does not, or can not, keep up the ritual practice, he or she should not justify their actions by coming up with an “Islam Vista.” Islam does not need to be “updated,” although the thinking and practices of a great many Muslims do.

I know this to be the case because of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He did, in fact, directly talk to God in the highest of heavens, where even the powerful Archangel Gabriel could not venture. In addition, God directly communicated to the Prophet (pbuh) through Gabriel over a period of 23 years. Yet, despite this, he (pbuh) never missed a ritual daily prayer. If anyone were to justify not having to pray because he “talks to God every day,” it would be the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Yet, the Prophet prayed five times a day like the rest of us.

There was no human being that walked this earth who was not more conscious of God than the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Yet, he still fasted the month of Ramadan. There was no one who was as generous as the Prophet (pbuh), yet he still paid Zakah when it was due upon him. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) even performed the pilgrimage just before he died.

If the Prophet (pbuh), who was the most God-conscious, generous, pure, and pious man ever to walk the earth, never failed to perform the ritual practices of Islam, how can we even think of trying to justify doing the same by inventing a modern-day “designer Islam”? Yet, admittedly, those who continue to practice Islam as the Prophet (pbuh) practiced the religion are a tiny minority today.

This is immaterial. In fact, to be in this minority is laudable, because, God said that this minority will be among the “forefront” on Judgment Day:

And those in the forefront will precede: they will be the favorites in gardens of happiness, a number of the ancients, and a few of those of later times. (56:10-14)

I don’t know about you, but I want to be among that “few.”

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.

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