Essay No. 10 in a series of essays on Community For more info contact: [email protected]
Rituals: our social bonds Oct 2005
Quran presents rituals as means of enhancing the level of social integration in community, not as a virtue which mobilizes supernatural
THE HISTORY of rituals is as old as mankind. From earliest hunter gatherers to modern city dwellers, anthropologists[i] have found ample evidence of rituals, both religious and secular, in all cultures throughout time. However, religious rituals generally have more significance and a central role in the religion in which it is practiced and judging by the prevalence of rituals it can be argued that like religion, rituals are a part of human nature.
In this essay we will examine three things. First, what are rituals, their functions and types? Secondly we will examine the significance of rituals in religions and the role of religious specialist? Finally, we explore the concept of rituals in Quran.
What are rituals?
Rituals are a prescribed order of performing religious or other devotional service[ii]. Rituals can be religious or non-religious, which are also called secular. Example of a non-religious ritual is the graduation ceremonies in academic institutions or passing out parades in armed forces.
Here it is important to understand the difference between social obligations and rituals e.g. the requirement for marriage is to seek the consent, appoint witnesses and register the marriage. But different cultures have evolved rituals around the same set of requirements which are completely different from each other. Since our focus in this articles is rituals, we will not discuss social obligations described in Quran e.g. For marriage, menstruation and divorce.
Rituals have some important functions in human society. They reinforce a group’s social bonds. They are meant to relieve anxiety and tensions. They are a way to celebrate important events or deal with crises. Anthropologists divide rituals into several types. Included among them are:
Rites of passage, which pertain to stages in a person’s life cycle e.g. Rituals related to birth, marriage and death.
Rites of intensification, which occurs during crises in the life of a group e.g. Rituals during severe drought or appearance of an enemy or some other events that disturbs the social group, and
Rites of solidarity, any ceremony performed for the sake of enhancing the level of social integration among a group of people e.g. Congregational prayers and pilgrimage.
Rites of communication, acts of a person or group to develop a communication with supernatural.
A religious ritual is the means through which persons relate to the sacred. It is religion in action. The types of rituals the followers of a religion perform display the significance of rituals in that religion. They consist of prayers, songs, dances, offerings and sacrifices. There purpose is to manipulate or mobilize the supernatural forces to their advantage. These supernatural forces can be gods, goddesses, ancestors, spirits or a combination of them.
An important aspect of religious rituals is the concept of religious specialist. In all societies there exist classes of individuals, either full-time or part-time [iii], who claim to be the specialist in religious rituals and usually rationalize them by a body of myths. They claim to be qualified based on some special training they have received. They usually display certain personality traits and almost in all the cases earn their livelihood from performing religious rituals. Since performing religious rituals are their source of income, religion to them is only a set of rituals and they being the experts in it.
Rituals in Quran and their purpose
In this section we will attempt to answer the following:
i) What is the role of religious specialist? ii) What rituals prescribed by Quran and what is their purpose? iii) Are they considered virtues by Quran?
Quran strictly disapproves the concept of religious specialists who earn their livelihood from performing rituals[iv]. The rituals prescribed by Quran do not need the services of a religious specialist. At least in nine[v] different passages in Quran it is advised that nobody should expect or ask for any reward in the name of religion.
Four of the five generally accepted pillars[vi] of the religion in Quran are rituals. First is to profess the faith. Second is Salat, which is congregational prayer. There is no prescribed order of performing the prayers mentioned in Quran. Therefore, different people perform it in slightly different ways, according to the traditions they follow. However, the basic ritual is to recite passages of Quran bowing down to touch the forehead to the ground. Third is Hajj, which is a pilgrimage to house of Kabba and fourth, Siam is fasting from dawn to dusk in the ninth month of Hijra calendar.
These are rites of solidarity and communication to God. There purpose is to enhance the level of social integration in the community. They bring the members of community together in their expression of gratitude and submission towards their Creator and promote social harmony and identity. They help in reducing tensions and anxiety, handling crises and celebrating occasions among the members of the community.
However, Quran clearly warns that performing rituals alone is not a virtue[vii] nor cleaning and maintaining the places of worship[viii]. Quran even criticized those who performed rituals of whistling and hand clapping in house of Kabba [ix]. Instead, God suggests that if you want to seek help do it through patience and prayers[x].
It is interesting to note that not a single passage in Quran, mentions that God supports and loves the people who perform any of the rituals prescribed by God e.g. nowhere it is mentioned that God supports and loves the people who worship or perform pilgrimage or fast. On the other hand, in numerous passages [xi] God expressed love, support and rewards for those who are patient, do good deeds, act justly, are dutiful, trust God and are pure. Thus, there is a clear message is in the Quran that virtues are linked to moral excellence and goodness of act and not simply performing rituals.
The rituals in Quran are rites of solidarity and communication to enhance the level of social integration among the members of the community by creating social bonds and reducing tensions. Therefore, performing rituals alone are neither a virtue nor a reason for nearness to God. Instead, God commands the followers of the community to be upright and strive for moral excellence and practice virtues of patience, good deeds for fellow human beings, act justly, be dutiful and trust God.