Rabbi, please continue to teach

Rachel does it again. I’ve been sitting on this post for too long.

The Islamic tradition, according to Qur’anic injunction (17:78-79), is for three times prayer, dawn, just before sunset and just after sunset. And of course, many Muslims have seen the little prayer books for the pre-anything prayers, including going to the bathroom. Recently found one for a dua to say before having sex. Who says we’re a repressed people?

Rachel’s post, and the obvious similarities to Muslim traditions, got me thinking about the meaning of ritual.

The idea of using a symbolic language, in this instance ritual, is common to all religious traditions, and it takes on a multiplicity of forms. This argument is true within a tradition as well. Within the four extant schools of Sunni law there are variations in the way prayer is performed, and the Shi’ah have a different system as well. The idea behind ritual is to attempt to communicate with the Divine, to move us beyond this earthly realm, either by shared experience, or by a change in our daily routine – in some cases both – and to sacralize ourselves and our immediate vicinity. Prayer time should therefore not become part of our routine, but should be a reminder that there is something beyond the routine. It is a conscious decision on our part to attempt to commune with Majesty. Who are we to judge someone else’s conversation with God? Either from within or without our own tradition?

Jalaluddin Rumi has a story about Moses (PBUH) and a shepherd.

Moses is walking in the desert when he hears a shepherd saying: “I love you so much. I would do anything for you. I want to wash your feet. I want to bring you milk. I want to pick the lice out of your hair.”

Moses asks the shepherd who he is talking to and the shepherd replies “God.” Moses gets angry and chastises the man: “God has no feet! He has no need for your milk. He has no hair, nor lice. He has no need of anything you can give Him. God is all-powerful.” The shepherd shook in fear and fell silent. Moses went off, pleased with himself.

Soon God spoke to Moses. The gist of the conversation was that Moses had displeased God, by turning away one of His muslims (no capitalization) away from prayer. The shepherd spoke truthfully and lovingly from the heart, conceiving of God in the way he could, and communicating with Him in the way he knew how. By passing judgment, Moses had broken his faith.

Sometimes Rumi does it so well, and there’s no way I can capture the beauty and power of that story. If ritual is the attempt to speak with the Divine, then there is value in common understandings of that ritual, but the relationship is between the believer and God. The differences amongst the Sufi tariqahs (orders) are based on the acknowledgment of this reality. Their communal practices differ, but they accept that each order is working towards the same goal.

The idea that there are five pillars in Islam should be anathema to Muslims; how can the glory of the reality of Islam be bounded by five things? Unfortunately, it’s too readily accepted, and the pillar of prayer has now become the five times prayer. God is pretty explicit in the Qur’an that it’s not prayer alone that makes a good Muslim (2:177, 3:57, 3:92, etc.).

The following prayer is from Khawaja Abdullahi Ansari:

Protect us lest we go astray.
Lead us to the way lest we wander.
We are negligient, but we are not unbelievers.
Lead us to rectitude, for we are destitute.
Gather us together, for we are scattered.

9 thoughts on “Rabbi, please continue to teach

  1. Thanks for the shout-out! 🙂
    As usual, I’m delighted by our traditions’ similarities: thrice-daily prayer (ours are dawn, afternoon, and evening; in Hebrew, the prayer services are called shacharit, mincha, and ma’ariv), and these brief prayers/blessings to sanctify everything we do…
    Who are we to judge someone else’s conversation with God? Either from within or without our own tradition?
    How I wish more people of faith shared that sentiment!

  2. I read the lovely Rumi story to my wife, a learned Jew. She said it reminded her of two midrashim, which I’m retelling crudely. In the first, Abraham, who is the patron saint of welcoming hosts, so to speak, had a stranger in for dinner. Afterwards, the guest prayed to his own idol. Abraham chastised him. But G-d then chastised Abraham, saying: You had this guy in for dinner, so make him welcome.
    In the second, a simple Jew brings a challah to the local shul every Friday as an offering to G-d (possibly doing what was done with the original Temple) and every Friday the shul’s keepers take it and throw it out. They finally catch the guy and tell him that G-d doesn’t need challah. But, heavenly judges hear this and take the side of the simple Jew because he’s acting out of his heart and because the shul officials were unkind. The officials were then instructed to set up schools so all may learn. (All errors in these retellings are mine; I had only a brief phone conversation about this with my wife.)
    So, I really like all these stories, except for one niggling doubt. In all of them, it’s clear that the poor schlubs who get it wrong are simple, uneducated and unenlightened in some regard. If we apply these stories more broadly as we try to figure out how to share a world, do we end up with the same hierarchy of rituals, thinking that it’s adorable that, say, Jews still wear beanies or Moslems still do that funny compass-based praying? Do these stories reinforce the notion that my rituals are better than your rituals (and vice versa)?
    Just asking.

  3. ASalaam Alaikum. Nice blog. It was long, but I thought the first pragraph was really interesting. lol… what a compliment to the other paragraphs… i read briefly. anyway want to bea muslim affiliates? i ahvea blog too. well holla back if you can.

  4. I’ve heard a version of the challah story in which an immigrant mishears a sermon and decides that God wants bread; extremely grateful for having escaped whatever he just escaped, he has his wife, an expert baker, bake a large number of loaves. He then sticks them in the synagogue’s ark. Meanwhile, a very poor congregant comes to pray for basic sustenance for his family, sees the door of the ark slightly ajar, opens it, finds the bread, sees it as the answer to his prayers and takes it home with him. So on and so forth for weeks, until they both show up at the same time and each gets furious with the other for claiming to interfere with his personal relationship with God. At this point the rabbi walks in, hears their stories, points out that it certainly looks like the hand of God has been at work here albeit indirectly, and tells the immigrant to keep giving the poor man bread directly from now on, which he does. And everyone lives flabbergastedly ever after…

  5. David, perhaps I’m reading too much into your question, but I actually see two points. One is the economic/class reading of who gets to define what correct ritual is. The Prophets or established religion represent economic surety. In an intra-religious context, with respect to Islam, one can argue that the Wahhabi religion is attempting to set up itself up as Islam because of its economic power. Your more direct question on inter-religious dialogue is more interesting. I’m not sure from a faith perspective that these stories work to build up differences. Perhaps it’s my own biases, but I see these stories encouraging more dialogue amongst people with different understandings of the Divine, because God recognizes each of them as valid. I think where you can get difficulties is from someone approaching this material from a non-faith perspective. The value of these stories rests in the assumption of the ineffability of God. I’m not sure if that gets to the point you wanted, but those were the thoughts that came to mind.

  6. fleurdelis, thanks for the story. there’s a hadith that says trust in God but hobble your camel. That is, God is present, but is not always an actor.

  7. “The Islamic tradition, according to Qur’anic injunction (17:78-79), is for three times prayer…”
    Not strictly true because “the Islamic tradtion” comprises of more than the Qur’an (despite its importance). Most Muslims perform ritual prayer five times a day, though supplications and various other prayers are meant to be offered all the time, in everything we do (as you say).
    Outer ritual is meant to have the effect of reinforcing the inner. The two are meant to be organically connected. The separation which Islamic history still haunts us today.
    Being a Semitic religion in origin, Islam, like Judaism, stresses the importance of rituals “done properly”. For a Muslim, there is the thorny issue of innovation in religious ritual; something which is generally regarded as a severe sin.

  8. thebit, You are correct that the Islamic tradition is more than the Qur’an. I should have been more clear there, in that the Qur’an sets as a minimum three times prayer. In addition, all communities of interpretation will treat the Qur’an as the source text of the faith.
    There has been a split between outer and inner meaning of faith. Ghazzali is lauded in the Sunni world for expressing the complementary relationship between the two, but it also seems historically that it’s shortly after Ghazzali where the division becomes sharpest. Perhaps it is the act of concretizing this relationship that makes it most fragile? Outward expression gains priority as definitely reflecting some inner state? I’m reminded of the opening part of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” when the grandfather bangs his nose praying and gives up his faith. The outer didn’t match the inner.
    I’m not sure you can qualify Semitic religions in the way you have. Christianity has its birth in the same part of the world, amongst similar cultures, but is almost predicated on the overturning of laws.
    I’m curious what you see as innovation in ritual? Ritual prayer is not defined in the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions have been interpreted that have resulted in variations in ritual worship.

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