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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:


Religious ritual

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.

Conclusion

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.

Notes & References
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[i] Those who study humankind in all places and throughout time

[ii] Oxford Dictionary

[iii] Priests and Shamans

[iv] Quran 9:34

[v] Quran 6:90, 10:72, 11:51

[vi] Please also refer to article “Values: our foundation”

[vii] Quran 2:177

[viii] Quran 9:19

[ix] Quran 8:35

[x] Quran 2:45, 2:153

[xi]

God loves, supports and offers rewards for those who:
References

- are patient
3:146, 2:153, 2:155, 2:249, 8:46, 8:66, 11:115, 16:96, 16:126

- do good
2:195, 3:134, 3:148, 5:13, 5:93, 12:90

- are dutiful
3:76, 9:4, 9:7

- are just
5:42, 49:9, 60:8,

- trust God
3:159,

- are pure
2:222, 9:108
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