Ritualism in Religion – Some Thoughts

By Nurul Fadiah Johari

It is the time of the year again when Muslims are promised with the reward of a thousand nights, when Satan is locked up, thus putting Muslims on a rewards spree. For some, Ramadan is the time to stock up on religious rewards; it becomes an obsession to perform rituals due to the promise of rewards rather than a time of contemplation and service. This is especially seen in the way some behave during Ramadan – the wastage of food, hogging of parking spaces at mosques, and in countries like Malaysia, promoting holier-than-thou attitudes through moral and religious policing. Some Muslims even demand non-Muslims to respect them and the holy month, as though implying religious superiority.

Rituals, to me, have become dry and somewhat meaningless because their deeper meanings are often not emphasized upon. I struggle to find meaning in the performance of rituals, which are often done out of habit, compulsion or the desire to fit in. This is especially when rituals are coupled with financial or material gains – rituals thus become devoid of meaning and are done for the sake of personal and selfish motivations. We see now the burgeoning halal industry, where the act of consuming halal products becomes a definitive marker of one’s religiosity and the many hotels that serve luxurious meals for fast-breaking, defeating the purpose of abstinence and self-control during Ramadan.It seems like we only fast to overcompensate by feasting luxuriously later. Rituals, to many, are thus merely a performance, to prove how Islamic one is. We barely speak of the excesses and wastage that such ritualistic attitudes have brought about. Rather than abstaining from over-consumption, we end up wasting even more food by acting on our consumerist impulses.

And this is a problem with our dominant mode of religiosity today – our religion is defined primarily in terms of its rituals. It is the kind of religiosity that we have been brought up with – being forced to perform rituals since young without much explanation and being exposed to countless ceremonies and occasions where people recite verses from the Quran without explaining what it means. Many of us in our community, too, end up parroting the Quran without understanding it, what more having deep contemplation on its messages. As such, we nurture within our community a highly ritualistic attitude towards religion, by emphasizing on the minute details such as which foot to use when entering the toilet and when to lift our index finger during prayers. During weekend classes, I remember occasions when thereligious teachers would check on female studentsfor their menstruation to prove that they were exempted from the ritual prayers. Such an intrusive behaviour on one’s physical state does not bode well in nurturing a sincere attitude towards performing prayers.

So what does this say about the way we conceive of religion? A ritualistic brand of religiosity does not require much independent and critical thinking on the part of the believers; rather, it demands an unquestioning obedience as believers perform the rituals out of fear, habit or desire for reward. A ritualistic sense of religiosity also focuses more on the external performance of rituals, rather than an inward and contemplative experience. This may create a judgmental attitude among believers as they seek to correct each other’s performance of a ritual. This is why we hear of people getting shamed by others in a mosque for their appearance or in the way they perform their prayers, for instance. This certainly is caused by the predominance of ritualism in our religious outlook.

There are several implications to a ritualistic mode of religiosity. The preoccupation with rituals negates the universalism of religion. It breeds a parochial and narrow view of religion – and also with a tendency towards exclusivism due to the over-emphasis on outward practices that are particular to the religion. A religion that is defined predominantly in terms of its ritual practices does not make itself accessible and alive. As such, religion becomes a chore; tedious and burdensome because rituals are stripped of meaning due to the obsession with minutiae. Furthermore, when these rituals are performed in arigid, mechanical and repetitive manner, it creates a sense of disconnect from their intended meanings. Prayer, for instance, instils a disciplined and contemplative outlook on life. It is not simply about getting the right movements or recitations. The point is, the notion of worship or ibadah is so much broader than the physical acts or rituals. Every good act in life, committed out of good intentions, can and should be seen as a form of worship. God’s horizon is vast and it is not as narrow as our minds might perceive. This is not to deny the value of rituals, but to extend the scope and meaning of worship beyond the formal ones.

New and fresh meanings need to be breathed into rituals so that they do not stagnate or become meaningless. Rituals do not define religion – they are expressions of one’s spiritual life, but religion goes beyond its rituals. When the deeper messages of a religion are marginalized for the sake of its outer forms, we have a religious life that is not only stagnant, but often corrupted by the pitfalls of human behaviour.

Photo credit: Firqin

Read the other posts here: Rituals blog series