Taraweeh: Clearing the common misconception

Taraweeh: Clearing the common misconception By Shaykh Riyadul Haq

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Ramadan and its Hijackers

By Khalid Baig
Posted: 24 Sha’ban 1434, 3 July 2013

Ramadan is a month of tremendous blessings. Today it is also a time of great challenges. The challenges come from a head-on collision between Ramadan and the materialism, consumerism, and hedonism that have unfortunately engulfed Muslim societies. Approached correctly and observed diligently, the former could help us overcome the latter. In our present state of decay, the opposite seems to be happening in many cases.

Ramadan’s month long intensive training program begins to teach self-discipline by rearranging our daily life. It changes the time we go to bed, the time we get up, the times we eat. We learn to do without the permissible joys of this life for the long prescribed hours of the day. After a day of fasting, we break the fast only to rush to the maghrib salat, which cannot be delayed beyond a few minutes. An hour or two later we are ready for the special nightly prayer, a unique prayer which can only be performed during Ramadan and which both highlights and cements our special relationship with the Qur’an. We stand and listen to the entire Qur’an being recited from heart in the taraweeh prayer. This is in addition to our own reading of the Qur’an that aims at finishing at least one cycle of the complete reading during the month on our own. With all the extra acts of worship, there is hardly any time left for anything beyond the essential during the day and night. This is special time, when the rewards for voluntary acts of worship equal the rewards of mandatory acts and the rewards for the latter are multiplied up to 700 times. With the scales of rewards so extraordinarily high during this month, it would be folly to waste our time on things that can be done during ordinary time — throughout the rest of the year. The opportunity cost is just unbelievably high to do otherwise.

Yet that is precisely what we manage to do in so many cases.

Consider iftar, the breaking of the fast at the end of the day. A Jewish acquaintance once told me about his fast of Yum Kippur. Unlike the Islamic fasts, all Jewish fasts are a one day affair but the day is longer. It starts twenty minutes before sundown on the previous night. At the end of the fast, he said, “I went to a restaurant and ate like a pig.” With the maghrib salat and the taraweeh, the Ramadan fast does not permit that. Neither does the spirit of Ramadan permit indulgence. Yet today one can see fancy restaurants in the Muslim world offering high priced iftar dinner specials that invite you to do just that. An ad from a five star hotel in Karachi sums up the spirit of this venture: “This exquisite setting at our extravagant Marquee is the perfect venue for a genuinely fascinating and lavish buffet iftar dinner, featuring restaurant specialties and culinary delights created especially for the Holy month.” One could substitute Dubai or Jeddah or Kuala Lumpur or any other Muslim city for Karachi; the message will remain the same. Instead of turning your attention to Allah, turn it to the exquisite setting and culinary delights. Indulge. Turn the breaking of the fast into a status symbol. Exquisite (i.e. esoteric), extravagant, lavish. This is how the agents of rampant consumerism counter Ramadan’s message of simplicity, sacrifice, and self discipline. All while advertising their special regard for the holy month.

To be sure, the fraction of Muslims going to these fancy restaurants is small, although it is increasing. But their influence on the society goes beyond these numbers. For they set the norms and expectations for the larger society. Lavish iftar parties for which people drive long distances and miss their prayers are an indication of these influences.

In the US, the Muslim population has not reached the levels where such iftar extravaganza would be offered by the Hiltons and Marriotts here. But the underlying malaise is there, although it has different manifestations. Here, of necessity, mosques and Islamic centers also work as community centers so the problems that one sees in the bazaars and other institutions outside the mosque in Muslim countries are witnessed in the mosque here. At the larger Islamic centers, bazaars, games and gossip sessions go on during Ramadan nights — festive social gatherings and other activities that work not to reinforce but counter the purpose and spirit of Ramadan.

This, along with the pressures of the pop culture, is posing unprecedented dangers to the very nature of the forms of worship.

Consider taraweeh, the special long nightly prayer that is a hallmark of Ramadan. Throughout the Muslim world Muslims stand up in these prayers to listen to the recitation of the Qur’an, leading to khatam or completion of a complete cycle of reading during the month. Everyone, young and old alike, cherishes the opportunity to take part in this very special act of worship. There is a small difference between juristic schools regarding the details of taraweeh.  A majority offers twenty rakats to finish the day’s portion of Qur’anic reading. A smaller group finishes the task in eight rakats. But both groups perform the khatam.

But not in the US. To be sure, here most mosques still perform the twenty rakats and perform the khatam. But there is a big difference. Here one can see the congregation shrinking considerably after the eight rakats. That is when a large number, including most of the youth, leave. As a result, for all practical purposes we can discern an emerging generational gap in the forms of taraweeh. The twenty rakats with the complete khatam are for the ‘uncles’. For the youth, regardless of the fiqhi school they belong to, it is just eight rakats.

The situation is so bad that at many places officially the “youth taraweeh” (if there is any such thing in the Shariah) ends after eight rakats and the mosque administration plans other youth activities like lectures and even games at that time, even though the taraweeh continues. Having another official activity going on in the mosque at the time of congregational prayer should be unthinkable for it belittles the congregational prayer. You drop all business to attend the congregational prayer, especially when you are inside the mosque. Yet this slighting of the important act of worship of Ramadan goes on without much concern during Ramadan nights.

The act is justified on the grounds of the fiqhi difference in the number of rakats of taraweeh. But there is a big difference between offering eight rakats because one is convinced that the proper number of rakats is eight and doing so because this makes for a shorter prayer time and is less tiring. For the former is actually more tiring as you stand up for longer periods for the same portion of the Qur’anic recitation as would be divided into twenty rakats. Choosing eight at a place where they offer twenty means you will be listening to about forty percent of the Qur’anic recitation. And if we are happy— even adamant— about this choice, what does that say about our love for and relationship with the Qur’an?

The practice could be excused if a person were too old, too weak, or too tired after a long day’s work. But we are talking about young healthy people who would spend the rest of the time gossiping or other youthful activities even as the prayer goes on. Should this disregard be allowed to hide behind a technical legal cover?

There are other variations of this distortion in taraweeh that cut across age groups. At some places people sit and listen to the Qur’anic recitation before the taraweeh so as to reduce the amount that would be recited in taraweeh. At other places some people just sit back and listen to the recitation without joining the prayer. With these trends, one wonders whether, if unchecked, this very important part of Ramadan will be distorted beyond recognition in a generation or so.

The same observations can be made about Qiyam-ul-Lail. Ramadan nights, especially during the last third of the month, are meant to be spent in personal acts of worship, in salat, dhikr, duas, reading the Qur’an and seeking forgiveness. Instead these are spent in talks, socialization, and bazaars set up on the mosque compounds.

The most solemn and demanding act of worship for Ramadan is the I’tikaaf, when a person secludes himself from the world around in a corner of the mosque to devote himself totally to remembering Allah and strengthening his personal relationship with Him. The act could provide spiritual rebirth and carries tremendous rewards. Yet today one can see laptops, cell phones, iPads, and other modern widgets routinely forming a part of the equipment of itikaf. It is an open question how can anyone realize the goals of itikaf with activities like watching videos, Internet surfing, texting, and chatting.

While telling us about the great blessings of Ramadan, the Messenger, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, also warned about the possibility that it could cement our loss and wretchedness if we are not serious about taking advantage from its blessings. In one famous hadith he said that there are those who get nothing from their fasts but hunger and thirst and nothing from their qiyam-ul-lail but sleep deprivation. In another hadith he said ameen as angel Jibrael cursed the person who finds Ramadan in a state of health and yet does not use it to win freedom from the Fire through acts of devotion and worship. There can be no sterner warnings than these. We have been forewarned to be forearmed. If we pay attention to them and become serious about Ramadan, then it would be a month of tremendous blessings.

This requires fasting with our whole body and soul. Our eyes, ears, tongues, and hearts should be totally committed to the fast by not seeing, hearing, or speaking haram things or thinking haram ideas. Honesty, truthfulness and Allah consciousness or taqwa should be our guiding values. We should avoid all frivolities, including the ones that are committed in the name of religion. Only then we will realize the sweetness in the acts of worship like prayers and recitation and utter foolishness of exchanging them for entertainment. This will turn Ramadan into a month of spiritual renewal that would recharge our batteries of iman and taqwa and prepare us to face the world and its temptations with moral uprightness for another year.

Otherwise the blessings would have been hijacked from us.

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Our Obligations to the Quran

By Dr. Israr Ahmed
Posted: 23 Sha’ban 1434, 2 July 2013

The pathetic and disastrous condition of the Muslim Ummah throughout the world is due to its abandoning of the Holy Qur’an. The constant attitude of indifference, along with our hypocritical lip-service, is tantamount to ridiculing the last of Allah’s (SWT) revelations. Instead, we must clearly understand our responsibilities towards the Holy Qur’an and try our very best to fulfill them. We can neither expect any improvement in our worldly state of affairs, nor hope for salvation in the Hereafter, unless we carry out all the obligations that we owe to the Qur’an.

The five demands that the Qur’an makes on every Muslim are as follows:

1. A Muslim is required to believe in the Qur’an.
2. He is required to read it.
3. He is required to understand it.
4. He is required to act upon its teachings.
5. He is required to convey its teachings to others.

Our First Obligation

The first obligation is to have faith (Iman) in the Divine origin of the Qur’an. Iman has two phases: verbal profession (Iqrar bil-lisan), and heart-felt conviction (tasdeeq bil-qalb). To have faith in the Qur’an means that we should verbally profess that the Qur’an is the Word of Almighty Allah (SWT) that was revealed by Him through His angel Jibrael (AS) to the last of His messengers, Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. This is a legal requirement for the acceptance of a person as a member of the Muslim society.

Having done that, however, we also need to develop a deeply felt certitude in the Qur’an. It is only when we have real conviction in this verbal declaration, that our hearts and minds would come under its spell, leading us towards genuine devotion and veneration of the Holy Book. Its absence is the reason why we neither find any reverence for the Qur’an in our hearts, nor feel inclined to study it, nor evince any interest in pondering over its meanings, nor ever think of seeking its guidance in conducting our lives.

It might be asked as to how we can acquire true faith. The answer is that the source of Iman is the Holy Qur’an itself. If the Book is studied and its meanings are pondered upon in an authentic quest for truth, all the veils of darkness shall be lifted from our heart, and the inner self – the soul – will get illuminated by the light of true faith. Note that faith is not something that can be planted in us from the outside. It is an embodiment of fundamental truths that already exist inside us; the practice of pondering over the ayahs of the Qur’an serves to bring them to the surface of our consciousness.

Our Second Obligation

The second obligation is slow and thoughtful reading of the Holy Qur’an with correct pronunciation, generally described as tilawat, tarteel, and tajweed. Note that tilawat is not only an important form of worship, but it is also an effective method of continually refreshing our faith. The Qur’an is not a book to be read once; it is a book that needs to be read again and again. We must read it carefully, reflecting on its messages, constantly seeking guidance for our lives. Just as our material body is in constant need of food for its sustenance, our spiritual soul (or rooh) is also in perpetual need for its nourishment. And while the food for our bodies is derived from the earth, the nutrition for our souls is obtained from the Word of Allah, the Holy Qur’an itself.

Moreover, a regular and constant program of reciting the Holy Qur’an is also needed because it is a means of refreshing and reviving our faith, and a weapon for surmounting the obstacles in the path of Almighty Allah (SWT). The ideal way in which the Holy Book should be recited is that one should stand in the post-midnight prayer before his Lord (SWT) and recite its Ayahs in a slow and patient manner, pausing at proper places so as to enable one’s heart to imbibe its influence.

Our Third Obligation

The third obligation is to understand and comprehend the Holy Qur’an. The Qur’an has been revealed so that it may be understood and pondered upon. Of course, there are numerous levels and grades of comprehension, accessible to different persons according to their respective planes of intellect and consciousness.

The first stage in the comprehension of the Holy Qur’an is called tazakkur, a term which alludes to the fact that the teachings of the Qur’an are not at all foreign or alien to the human fitrah. Instead, they represent the eternal truths dormant in the human soul itself, and the reading or listening of the Holy Qur’an only facilitates the recalling of these forgotten verities. The Holy Qur’an has been rendered very easy by Almighty Allah (SWT) for the purpose of gaining this level of guidance. It does not matter if a person’s intelligence is limited, or his knowledge of logic and philosophy is poor, or if he has no fine sense of language and literature. In spite of these drawbacks, he can still understand the basic message and practical guidance of the Holy Qur’an, provided he has an untainted nature not perverted by any crookedness.

The knowledge of Arabic language is, however, indispensable for this purpose.

Muslims, who are not only educated but who have obtained advanced degrees in arts and sciences, would have no excuse before Almighty Allah (SWT) on the Day of Judgment, if they failed to learn so much Arabic as would have enabled them to understand His Book. Learning basic Arabic is a duty that every educated Muslim owes to the Holy Qur’an. The second stage in the comprehension of the Holy Qur’an is far from easy. Tadabbur is described as a penetrating study, an intense reflection, as thorough deliberation of the Holy Qur’an as possible. It involves diving deep into the bottomless ocean of its wisdom. This kind of understanding is impossible, unless one is to devote his entire life, all his talents, and all his energies for the sole purpose of comprehending the Qur’an. Obviously, not everyone is capable of such a high level of devotion and effort to acquire such insight and comprehension. But there must be a number of persons, at all times, who are engaged in this enterprise.

Such scholars cannot be produced unless we have a network of universities throughout the Muslim world, which concentrate on Qur’anic research by making it the focus of all their intellectual activity.

Such scholars would need to have a thorough knowledge of the Arabic language and its grammar and a refined literary taste to appreciate the beauty and force of its expression. They must acquire a good grounding in the language in which the Qur’an was revealed by a critical study of the works of the pre-Islamic poets and orators. They must be able to appreciate the terms and modes of expression evolved by the Qur’an itself, along with an understanding of the coherence in the Qur’an. A good knowledge of tradition and old scriptures is also necessary for the comprehension of the Qur’an. Along with this classical knowledge, the scholars must also have an understanding of the fundamentals of modern physical and social sciences. This would widen their intellectual horizon and enable them to present the eternal Qur’anic truths in the contemporary idiom.

Our Fourth Obligation

The fourth obligation is to act upon the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. The Qur’an is the ‘guidance for mankind’. The purpose for which this Book has been revealed will be fully realized only when people act upon its teachings and make it the guide for them in every sphere of their lives. If we disregard the injunctions of the Qur’an, then the reading and understanding of the Holy Book, instead of doing us any good, will only make us guiltier before Almighty Allah (SWT).

At an individual level, it is imperative for every Muslim to mould his or her life according to the teachings of the Qur’an. The best way to benefit from the study of the Holy Qur’an is to go on changing our lifestyles and mending our ways in accordance with its teachings.

At the collective level of the community, it is equally imperative for us to try and establish the system of social justice as given by the Holy Qur’an. The Muslims are, as a whole, responsible for establishing the Sovereignty of Almighty Allah (SWT) in the public as well as the private sphere, and each of us is obligated to try his utmost in this path. The struggle for the establishment of such a just and equitable order in accordance with the teachings of the Qur’an is the duty of its followers.

Our Fifth Obligation

The fifth obligation is to propagate the message of the Holy Qur’an to every nook and corner of the world. This was originally the responsibility of Prophet Muhammad Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, who fulfilled his own obligation by conveying the Divine message to the Ummah; since Prophethood has been concluded with the advent of Prophet Muhammad Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, who is the last of the Divine Messengers, it is now the duty of the Muslims to deliver that message to all humanity. Unfortunately, the proclamation of the Divine message to the whole world appears like a far-fetched and fantastic idea, because, at the moment, the Muslims themselves are ignorant of the teachings of the Holy Qur’an.

Therefore, a powerful intellectual and academic movement is needed in order to propagate and disseminate the knowledge and wisdom of the Holy Qur’an, both on a general scale for the benefit of our masses and on the highest level of scholarship in order to convert the educated and intelligent elite of the Muslim society.

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The Project for a New American-Islamic Cultural Order

By: Sohaib Baig
Posted: 23 Sha’ban 1434, 2 JULy 2013

Globalization has opened the door to a myriad of foundational questions over the issue of identity. How can we identify ourselves in an era where we may build homes in several nation-states, intermarry amongst different ethnicities, and settle in different countries than our land of birth? Are we identified by our passports or our ancestral genealogies? Is there a particular “culture” to which we belong and pattern our lives on? Can one culture be more Islamic than another?

Destabilizing questions such as these are bound to generate different reactions. Some begin to neglect culture in the name of abstract religious ideals (e.g. some Salafists); some tend to neglect religion in the name of an imagined cultural identity (e.g. some secularists); some identify a particular culture with religion and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of other cultural religious expressions; and stranger still, some turn inward to the nation-state for identity, superseding all other cultural affiliations, and developing religious practices within the context of the imagined national culture.

The campaign to form an American Islam perhaps aligns most closely with the last model. Here, religious practices ensconced in a foreign cultural context are criticized as being alienating and irrelevant to the American scene. Culture is deemed as purely relative, and hence, non-binding from an Islamic legalistic view; Arab or Indian culture is no more Islamic than American.  Thus, these voices call for a retreat back into the safety and familiarity of the American nation. Doing so, it is posited, will help facilitate the organic expression of Islam in America, thus making Islam part of the national fabric. In fact, it is argued that there is nothing exclusively American about the call for an American Islam; Islam is said to have always adapted to the local cultural climate during its long history. Thus, American Islam will be consistent with both American and Islamic models of identity, and help pave the way for a smoother, long-term flourishing of Islam in America.

As Muslims across America increasingly commit to this vision, it is essential to examine and re-examine it closely. To begin, it is interesting to note how the call for an American Islam springs from an antagonistic view of other imported Islams 1 (as seen in the popular refrain, “we must get rid of our cultural baggage”). Otherwise, the call would be obviously quite unnecessary and redundant – American Islam would presumably develop as a concomitant condition of settled life in America. Now, however, it will be structured on a rupture, a conscious split from the non-American. The non-American is “otherized,” and is thereby liable to go, regardless of the relevance (or lack thereof) it might have for some Muslims. In a way, it risks becoming the cultural predator that it criticizes other Islams as being.

It is important to note the special ramifications this has on the immigrant experience. It is one thing for indigenous Americans to weld together an American Islam; but for immigrants, both first and second generation, it is a completely different thing to discard their cultural baggage in such a process. The issue is not primarily about their cultural baggage; it is about their identity. What happens to their former cultures and identities? Are they to be suppressed and repressed? Are immigrants to go through a deculturalizing and dehistoricizing process before they can help create an American Islam?

Deculturalizing and dehistoricizing, to be sure, are far from harmonious processes. In fact, they can result in profound violence. Much of the schizophrenia in the sacred city of Makkah, for example, is predicated upon the reliance on select abstract religious ideals that are divorced from culture. Ancient sites rich with culture and history are decimated; but foreign consumerist culture is allowed to flourish with reckless abandon, with all its architectural and capitalist wonder. This ironic “open-mindedness,” or modernist streak of the Salafists is not an accident – it is precisely a neglected child left broken and confused by the divorce of culture and religion in a globalized world.

To deculturalize, thus, is to leave oneself vulnerable. As calls grow to shed foreign cultural baggage, it is important to ask what new baggage will replace it. Abstract Islamic principles, by definition, will not – as also demonstrated by the Salafi case. Only another strand of cultures can and will. Yet all cultures come with their own “baggage” and politics of identity. How, then, will acculturation into an imagined “American culture” transform Muslim practices and identities?

This is a huge question, and I will not attempt to provide a complete answer. What I would like to note are three points. First, that acculturation will not necessarily lead to indigenization. America indeed has a history of gradually, reluctantly incorporating minorities within its national fabric, but it also has in a sense never moved significantly beyond its original, founding conception of what constitutes Americanness. In fact, the very idea of an ethnic or religious minority itself represents a paradox; in theory, the citizens in the liberal democratic system are only identified by their citizenship, not religion or race. The complexity of minority politics in American history is a testament to the very real inability to live up to such an ideal of the abstract and equal citizen.  Indeed, “double consciousness,” the famous term used to describe the struggles faced by African Americans on the divide between Americanness and blackness, still poses a powerful challenge for African-Americans, and in a way parallels the dead end Muslims will inevitably face in the struggle to become authentically American.

Second, that acculturation along the lines of the American melting pot model is not reflective of Muslim history and tradition. A melting pot by definition is built on a fear of difference – it has to melt away all traces of the Other so it can be reconfigured to coagulate into the authentic Self. The melting pot of today is a gift of the modern nation-state; in its bid to acquire complete power and hegemony, the state has to homogenize its subjects.  Herein lay the seeds for so much tension and stress in the modern nation-state, and for our purposes, in America: on the one hand, there is a limited, non-universalist, conception of what constitutes Americanness; on the other hand, its melting pot works to pressurize everything to become American, even if they can inherently never become so. There is thus perpetual tension, whether latent or visible.

Pre-modern empires and states historically did not always develop melting pots; there were other more open and egalitarian institutions. The salad bowl model, for example, thrived on diversity and difference. As Ashis Nandy, a famous Indian critic, writes, “In a salad the ingredients retain their distinctiveness, but each ingredient transcends its individuality through the presence of others. In a melting pot, primordial identities are supposed to melt. Those that do not are expected to survive as coagulates and are called nationalities or minorities; they are expected to dissolve in the long run.” Thus, there was not always the burden of sacrificing culture and genealogy to the homogenizing machinery of the passport; and nor did culture have to bear the burden of being artificially universal in its outlook.

Third, that culture is indeed much more than the relativistic, areligious, life structure that some assert it is. As Clifford Geetz, a noted anthropologist, explains, culture is to be seen as a ‘web of meaning’ within which people live. The reigning cultural ideology of the West, liberalism, only produces an illusion of multiculturalism – it too, has spun its own web of meaning, with its own sets of values and beliefs. While it may allow superficial differences of language, food, and clothing, it will not make room for morally significant and public issues, such as marriage, family values, (often) the hijab and niqab, and so on. Thus, leaning too much on liberalism will put significant pressure on Muslims to mutate their religion into something personal that can fit the liberalist paradigm, to restrict it to the non-morally significant issues of prayer and personal worship.

Indeed, since Islam has had a much longer history in many parts of the non-American world, it is completely justifiable to suggest that some cultures may embody Islamic principles to a greater extent than other cultures. It may be wrong to suggest that a particular culture should now establish a hegemony–but it certainly can be argued that cultural elements that mesh well with Islamic ideals should continue to be preserved and re-created as an essential means of illustrating alternative Islamic possibilities for cultures that are bereft of Islam.

Culture as it is practiced can never be boxed into exclusive, air-tight packages. There is always something fluid and dynamic about culture, where we engage in processes of exchange and borrowing. However, as identities are attributed to certain cultural entities, it becomes crucial to determine where we stand. On this end, we must realize that there is no future for an approach which suggests homogenizing or melting, even if done so in a different style; that given our dynamic world, the future lies not in cultivating one particular “web of meaning,” but in engaging fully with all the webs that encompass our histories and current life interactions, and in letting the waters of Islam flow through and reach them all in a harmonious, unifying moment. There is no use in vivisecting them prematurely in obeisance to a random passport or the requirement of societal relevance; only when we can stand strongly and holistically on our own individual foundations, can we help others stand on theirs. We need not weave the same webs, given the reality of human diversity; but we must make sure to color them all with the colors of Islam.

The term imported Islam is being used here, the way the term American Islam is being used by its proponents, to refer to the manifestation of Islam in a person’s life. Otherwise Islam is the revealed deen of Allah as defined in the Qur’an and Sunnah, meant for all people, places, and times and which therefore cannot allow the use of such qualifiers.

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