Fetishisation of prayer is ruining Islam

One of several factors that has brought the Islamic World to its current sorry state is the fetishisation of Muslims’ daily prayers, or namaz.

Today’s understanding of Islam has turned it almost into a religion of namaz, to such an extent that prayers take priority over the religion.

Firstly, we must interrogate the irrational and illogical approach to the religious duties that are known as the five pillars of Islam. Today’s understanding of the religion says that these five – bearing witness that Allah is the one true god, praying, fasting, giving alms and undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca – are the basic and mandatory requirements for Muslims.

Bearing witness is only required when one becomes a Muslim. Fasting for most Muslims is a tradition that comes once a year during the month of Ramadan. The haj pilgrimage only takes place for a short time. Zakat, the Islamic tax that is passed on to the needy, is collected annually. Prayer is the only one of the five pillars that is undertaken daily. In other words, of the five pillars of Islam, in daily practice there is only one – prayer.

Can it be right to reduce a universal religion to what is, in the end, a series of ritual movements, rather than values like justice, freedom, equality, labour and love?

Let alone a religion, no human ideology can have a ritual as its essential norm. It is neither rational, nor Islamic to claim that prayer is more important than norms such as freedom and justice.

Prayer’s importance does not compare to these norms. A just person who does not pray is always superior to one who prays, but is unjust.

In fact, the five pillars of Islam are an apolitical innovation created for the religion long after its inception. Clearly, the centuries of investment in this innovation were made with a view to instilling today’s view of piety – a piety that does not give priority to morals, justice and freedom.

Let no one respond with the banal argument that focusing on prayer does not detract from other values. If you instil in a person the idea that gold is the most valuable thing in the world, but that apples are also important and then ask them to choose between the two, they will always take the gold.

We must understand that there is no causal link – or even correlation – between Muslim ritual worship and values like justice and freedom.

A striking example of this comes from the instances where people have been stampeded to death by their fellow Muslims during the practice of casting stones at the devil during the haj pilgrimage. Or, the reality that the Saudi Arabian government is neither just nor emancipatory despite its status as the guardian of Islam’s holy places.

A person’s relationship with prayer is a subjective one. There is no universal correlation between prayer and any moral or political value.

A related topic is the characterisation of prayer as the sole marker of religion. People cannot imagine a religiosity that does not include prayer. Yet there are millions of people who never miss one of Islam’s five daily prayers, but still live their entire lives without reading a single book.

If we make prayer the focus of religion, then those who do not pray cannot be religious. But the Koran itself commands people to read, and if we focus on this, then it is the person who prays, but does not read who is irreligious.

We should take seriously the idea that it is those people who do not read or care for the environment and the world they live in who are not religious.

An understanding of piety centred solely on prayer is one that can achieve nothing beyond meaningless reassurances. The first volume of İlmihal, the two-volume reference book on religion distributed to the public by Turkey’s state Directorate of Religious Affairs is 584 pages long. Of these, 162 pages are on prayer. In the same volume, there are 24 pages devoted to faith in God, and 26 pages on cleanliness.

The second volume of İlmihal is 558 pages long, and just two of these are on the environment. Another two pages are on ritual sacrifice. A single page refers to the correct way for Muslims to groom themselves, and an entire section related to work and labour rights takes just five pages. The section on the labour contract is roughly as long as the section on removing body hair.

Naturally, workers being shown the door by their bosses does not arouse as much interest in Muslim societies as the removal of body hair. Islam has been lowered to a collection of rituals and meaningless verses.

We all know that the point of this ritual-centred version of Islam is to manufacture a type of apolitical, anti-intellectual people who count obedience to the state or religious leaders as piety.

In this ritual-focused version of piety, prayer takes centre stage. With 162 pages devoted to it in a mundane religious manual, there are in fact many more literary tomes out there that delve further into the act of praying – so much so that if the Sunni theologian Abu Hanifa himself were to rise from the grave, even he would be unable to carry out a prayer deemed proper according to all of the details.

What is even more tragic is that, with all those centuries and thousands of pages of scholarship devoted to the subject, it is said that nobody is able to properly perform prayers.

The idea that all our problems could be solved if we could only learn to pray in the right way has become commonplace. Apparently, Turkey, a country with 100,000 imams and just as many mosques, cannot solve its problems because it lacks the ability to pray correctly.

No one can criticise the view of prayer as a divine command, or its practice as a form of worship. This, in the end, is something that is up to Muslims themselves. But the fetishisation of prayer to the point where it defines Islam is causing great harm to the religion.

Muslims need to urgently decide whether their religion’s fundamental norms will be values such as freedom, justice and rationalism, or rituals like the act of praying and casting stones at the devil.


© Ahval English


The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.