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The sacred law of Islam (the shari˓a) distinguishes two kinds of practices: ˓ibadat (practices concerning the relations between God and human beings, or devotional practices) and mu˓amalat (social ethics, i.e., the part of the law that guides the relations between humans). The ˓ibadat include the salat (prayer), zakat (alms giving), sawm Ramadan (fasting during the holy month of Ramadan), and the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca and the holy places near to this holy city, namely ˓Arafat, Muzdalifa, and Mina).

Some aspects of the ˓ibadat can be qualified as ritual and other aspects fit less easily in this category. For example, zakat regulations pertain to goods or wealth that are to be handed over to certain categories of persons who are entitled to it (in particular, the needy). This takes place in a nonritual context on the one hand, and a ritualized context, that of giving zakat (zakat al-fitr) on the Day of the Breaking of the Fast, on the other.

According to the shari˓a, the ˓ibadat are all the individual duties that each mentally competent, mature, and healthy Muslim (male and female) is obligated to perform. The formulation of the niyya, the intention to perform these rituals before performing them, is of crucial importance for their validity, or, as the Prophetic tradition has it: "The works are (only) rendered valid by their intentions."

In the fiqh (jurisprudence), actions are qualified as follows. Fard or wajib indicates that an act is obligatory in such a way that omission will be punished and the performance will be rewarded. The qualification sunna or mustahabb indicates that an act is recommended but that omission will not be punished. Mubah or ja˒iz means that it is indifferent, and makruh, reprehensible, that is, omission will be rewarded. Finally, forbidden (haram) indicates that omission will be rewarded and performance will be punished. These qualifications may vary among the law schools with regard to their precise connotation.

Together with the testimony of faith (shahada), the ˓ibadat constitute the five pillars of Islam (arkan al-Islam) According to Islam, humans have been created to serve God. Both the individual and the community are under the obligation to follow the stipulations of the revealed law. According to the scholars, the religious duties are clearly set out in the two sources of the revelation: the ayat al-shari˓a in the Qur˒an and in the sunna, the Prophetic tradition. There is no difference of opinion among scholars with regard to the obligatory and clear (bayan) nature of these duties. This status explains why someone who denies them their obligatory character places him- or herself outside religion. That person expresses kufr, unbelief.


According to religious views, the ˓ibadat are constant and do not allow for varying interpretations based on spatial and temporal circumstances. In reality, however, some changes in the way the ˓ibadat have been performed and interpreted by the believers have taken place. There can be no doubt that its religious status explains why the ˓ibadat changed far less than the mu˓amalat. They are the "symbolic capital" (the term was coined by Pierre Bourdieu) of the ulema, who have been able to retain their position until the present day. Nowadays that position is being challenged by emerging religious authorities, such as liberal intellectuals like Mohamed Arkoun, and also Islamist leaders who enjoined no traditional religious education, such as the late Sayyid Qutb.

New media and political situations also allow further possibilities to acquire authority. For example, "Cyber muftis," who give fatwas via the Internet, and often have unclear backgrounds, draw new audiences. In 1960 Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba argued in various addresses to his population that under the circumstances in which the nation found itself, namely that of the recently recovered freedom from French colonial rule, it should be permitted not to fast during Ramadan. According to him, Tunisia could be considered to be in an economic jihad, with regard to its struggle for a better economic position. Fasting, he stated, would bring about too considerable a loss of productivity. It soon appeared, however, that the most important Tunisian ulema did not endorse the proposal and that the population did not give up the fast.

The aforesaid high status of ritual obligations does not always correlate with a high rate of performance. Empirical research by Bruno Etienne and Mohamed Tozy showed that only 10 percent of the men in the Moroccan city of Casablanca attended the obligatory Friday prayer and that only one out of every thousand persons performed the daily salats in a mosque.

Although often discussed as if they are isolated phenomena, the ˓ibadat are in practice embedded in and closely interwoven with a complex system of informal and formal religious behaviors. These behaviors are not only guided by the rules of the fiqh, but also by cultural and political traditions, local circumstances, the norms and values of the believer's own community and other religious communities, politics, and society at large. A discussion about whispering or reading aloud particular recitations during the salat among the Gayo (Indonesia) had a background in local debate between traditionalists and reformists about conceptions of community and faithfulness to the normative example of the prophet Muhammad. This shows that the opposition between universal versus local meaning, or great and little traditions, does not hold in the case of the salat. Other researchers made it clear that connected oppositions, namely between orthodox (male) versus heterodox (female), did not hold in the case of gender roles, either.

Ritual in Pre-Islamic Arabia

The rituals that became the ˓ibadat as we know them today were not unknown in sixth-century Arabia. Rituals such as fasting were known (see Q. 19: 26–27). Certain fasting practices and purity regulations were also observed by Meccan monotheists. Hence, the religious scholars make a distinction between the meaning of a term such as sawm (fasting) in daily use and its meaning in the shari˓a. In daily use, sawm means abstention, for example, from food or drink. In the terminology of the shari˓a it has received the (revealed) meaning of refraining from food and drink from dawn to sunset.

The hajj was also practiced in the pre-Islamic period ("time of ignorance"), but in a form different from the Islamic hajj. Unlike today, pilgrims performed different hajj rituals. For example, the tribal alliance called the Hums, to which the Prophet belonged, refrained from performing the standing at Arafat and the running between the hills al-Safa and al-Marwa for religiopolitical reasons. Instead, the importance of the Ka˓ba as a central sanctuary was enhanced. It is also known that tribes had different talbiyas, and ihram practices.

In pre-Islamic times, the rituals were embedded in a cycle that was determined both by the solar and lunar calendars. The ˓umra was a spring ritual in the month of Rajab in which animals were sacrificed, the hajj fell in the autumn, celebrating the harvest. The eleven days separating the lunar from the solar year were compensated for by the so-called intercalation, the nasi˒. The nasi˒ was abolished by the Prophet after the conquest of Mecca, as is attested in the Qur˒an (9:37). From that moment onward calendrical feasts and rituals were no longer tied to the seasons.

Other ritual changes introduced by the Prophet aimed at dissociating rituals from sunset and sundown, for example, the running of the pilgrims between ˓Arafat and Muzdalifa and prayer during sunrise. Ritual restrictions observed by the Hums were also abolished in order to symbolize the unity of mankind in Islam. Hence the Qur˒an states that there is no sin (2:158) in performing the sa˓y (pacing back and forth seven times) between Safa and Marwa, something that the Hums had refrained from doing. Through the example of the Prophet during the farewell-pilgrimage, the ˓umra was joined to the hajj and so both rituals became united. They can still be performed separately, however. Moreover, the rituals of running around the Ka˓ba and running between the Safa and Marwa were united with the rituals in ˓Arafat, particularly one of the hajj's central rituals of "standing." This ritual takes long hours where, ideally, the pilgrims stand in prayer. A preferred place for this ritual is near or on the Hill of Mercy.

Thus, prayer, giving zakat (2:215, 9:6), fasting (2:179), and the hajj (3:91) became individual Islamic duties. Friday afternoon became the day of communal prayer, accompanied by a sermon (khutba). This day and time were chosen since a market was held in Medina in the morning and many people gathered there. After the death of the Prophet in 632 C.E. the rituals further developed both with regard to actual practice and the norms and values held by the community. In this process the religious identity of Islam as a separate religion played a great part.

Religious Identity

Traditions recommended that believers distinguish themselves from the followers of other religions and not assimilate with regard to dress and prayer rituals (for example, whether or not to pray while wearing shoes). These traditions were an expression of the desire to establish an Islamic religious identity, and they have continued to influence Muslim attitudes and behavior until today and are the cause of numerous discussions. For example, the present-day custom among Dutch Muslims of Surinamese origin to make a ball of flour out of the child's hair and throw it in the river should be shunned, for it was said to have been taken over from the Hindus. Another example is the question of whether Muslims are allowed to attend Christmas celebrations, a matter that is hotly debated in many places.

But not only did such behavior serve to mark off Islam from other religions, it also functioned inside the Islamic community. For example, in medieval times there was a great ritual divide between Sunni and Shi˓ite Islam about the acceptability of the purification ritual of passing the hand over the boots, which even found its way to medieval creeds. The issue here was whether it was permissible to wipe the boots instead of the feet themselves when travelling. Shi ites did not allow this, while Sunni Muslims did.

Emerging Rituals

New customs were not always looked upon favorably by the ulema. In many cases they were qualified as innovations (bid˓as). The celebrations of the birthday of the Prophet (the mawlid al-nabi) and of the middle night of Sha˓ban are two famous cases in point. Complete inventories of such bid˓as came into existence in the Middle Ages. Many ulema applied the same sort of rules to these bid˓as as to other actions, hence they might vary from laudable to forbidden. Rispler Chaim argues that the purpose of such inventories was not to prohibit such new ritual forms, but rather to bring them under control and steer them in such a way that their performance would not infringe on morality and good manners (for example, by mixing men and women).

Muslim are exhorted not to devote themselves to rituals to the detriment of the body. Hence, women may abstain from fasting, and the ill and sick do not have to perform the salat or fast. Islam advises believers to take care of the body and soul in a harmonious way. Islam incorporated and transformed existing rules of purity in its religious system. The overall term for these rules is tahara, which means purity. A well-known tradition says "Purity is half the faith." All ˓ibadat are in one way or the other related to notions of purity. For example, giving alms is associated with purifying goods as well as oneself (see 9:103, "Take alms from their wealth, wherewith thou mayst purify them and mayst make them grow, and pray for them"). The salat should also be performed in a ritually clean state (5:6.).

For this reason books on fiqh usually begin with a discussion of purity rules. A key term in this respect is that of the fitra, a concept that can be rendered as the natural disposition of humankind created by God. The state of fitra includes circumcision (khitan), the clipping of the nails, trimming the mustache, removing the hair from armpits and pubis. All these acts refer to bodily practices with a connotation of purity. According to many Muslim scholars, the salat performed by an uncircumcised man is void, nor can he serve as an imam during prayer. However, that purity is not of a medical-material nature, but has a religious symbolic side, it appears, from the possibility of using sand or dust instead of water for the ablution when the latter cannot be found (tayammum, mentioned in 5:6). The ground on which the salat is performed (hence the use of prayer rugs) should also be pure. Dress should be modest. Private parts should be covered. In addition to the body, Islamic devotional life structures time (rites of passage, feasts, festivals, pilgrimages) and place and space (the home, mosque, masjid). These aspects will be discussed below.

The Ritual Calendar

The ritual cycle is connected to the lunar year, which opens with the feast of ˓Ashura on 10 Muharram. For Shi˓ite Muslims this marks the day on which the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet, al-Husayn, at Karbala in 680 C.E., is commemorated by emotional and at times violent mourning rituals. According to Sunni fiqh ˓Ashura had been a fasting day before the prescription of the Ramadan fast, and it has remained a voluntary fasting day until the present. In Morocco it is a festival on which the dead are honored, and during which the participants give alms, eat dried fruit, and buy toys for their children. It is accompanied by reverie and carnival-like rituals such as masquerades, processions, and theater.

On 12 Rabi˓ I, the third month, the birthday of the Prophet is celebrated. This festival grew out of the Fatimid Shi ite ritual practice (eleventh century C.E.), commemorating the birthdays of the members of the the Prophet's immediate family, the Prophet, and the reigning Fatimid imam. It was gradually introduced in Sunni circles in successive parts of the Middle East and the Muslim West. Nowadays, celebrated nearly everywhere (although exceptions, such as Saudi Arabia, exist), its status as a feast has nevertheless remained controversial. It is considered to be a bid˓a (see above) and is rejected by movements that consider it to be veneration of a human being, something that should be reserved exclusively for God and hence as shirk (the act of associating with God).

The first Friday night in Rajab, which is especially celebrated in Turkish Islam, is a holy night, called laylat salat alragha˒ib. On 27 Rajab, the Laylat al-Mi˓raj, or night of ascension, is celebrated. The ascension of the Prophet via Jerusalem (al-isra˒wal-mi˓raj) is one of the great symbols of Islam in which the believer ascends toward God. It is at this occasion that the number of daily salats was fixed at five. Elements of the ritual celebration may include recitation of surat al-isra˒ (17), followed by commentaries, singing, and the recitation of religious poems of sorts.

The celebration of the fifteenth middle night of Sha˒ban, also called laylat al-bara˒a, is another bid˓a. Its popularity can be explained by its age-old associations with the divine decision of who will die the next year, which is believed to be made on that night .

The month of Ramadan is marked by the fast, and on the 21, 23, 25, 27, and 29 of that month Laylat al-qadr (97) is celebrated. Ramadan is the holy month par excellence. Even those who otherwise hardly practice Islam participate in the Ramadan fasting. According to popular beliefs, the devils (shayatin) and jinn are powerless, while in contrast God is nearer than during other months. This increased religious awareness culminates in laylat al-qadr, when, as some people believe, the gates of heaven are opened. On 1 Shawwal, the Day of the Breaking of the Fast (˓id al-fitr) is celebrated. After the salat al-˓id, people pay visits to relatives, which often includes visits to the graves (ziyarat al-qubur).

On 10 Dhu-l-Hijja, the twelfth month of the Islamic year, ˓id al-adha is celebrated. This ritual marks the end of the year, but in fact it does not represent the end of the ritual cycle, since there is a clear connection between the ˓id and the ˓Ashura rituals.

Rites of Passage

Other elements of the ˓ibadat fit in the life-cycle rituals or rites of passage. This holds true for birth rituals, circumcision, and death rituals. Birth rituals include the custom of whispering the adhan and iqama in the newborn's ear. This includes the recitation of the shahada or Confession of Faith, as discussed below. This ritual is recommended according to the Shafi ite madhhab. The ˓aqiqa, the sacrifice of a sheep or goat, takes place on the seventh day, through which joy and thanks for the child are expressed. It is usually accompanied by a naming ceremony (tasmiya) during which the child receives its name, and shaving the hair of the child as a sacrifice. The meat of the sacrifice and the weight of the hair in silver are sometimes given away as alms. Circumcision (Ar. khitan, tahara) is a fixed sunna (strongly recommended) according to most schools. The Shafi˓ites are of the opinion that it is obligatory. In actual life, virtually all male Muslims are circumcised.

The deceased is purified by a ritual bath (ghusl), and the corpse is dressed in a kafan, which resembles in many ways the clothing of the pilgrim, the hajji. The salat al-janaza is performed. The deceased is buried with the face in the direction of the qibla. Marriage, another life cycle ritual, is not reckoned among the ˓ibadat, but among the mu˓amalat, and will therefore not be considered here.

Daily Rituals

The days of the believers are marked by the rhythm of five obligatory salats: the morning salat (salat al-subh or fajr) consisting of two rak˓as, to be performed between first dawn to sunrise; the noon prayer (zuhr) to be performed after the sun has reached its highest point until the mid-afternoon, consisting of four rak˓as; the ˓asr (from mid-afternoon to sunset) consisting of four rak˓as; the prayer after sunset (maghrib) consisting of three rak˓as; and the ˓isha˒ (after complete darkness). It is sunna to perform the call to prayer (adhan). In places where Muslims live as minorities (about 30%) the public performance of the call to prayer has always been a very important symbol call to prayer has always been a very important symbol for the public presence of Islam. In Western Europe, the adhan is especially publicly performed before the salat al-jum˓a (see above). The formula of the adhan is the following: "God is great [4 times, only the Malikites pronounce it twice], I testify that there is no god but God [2 times], I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God [2 times]. Come to Prayer, Come to salvation, God is most Great, there is no God besides God." This formula is the same for all schools of law; although they differ with regard to repetition of some lines. In the adhan before the salat al-subh the phrase "prayer is better than sleep" is inserted. Shi˓ites insert between the fifth and the sixth line the words: "Come to the best work."

Many believers at times perform voluntary (nafila) salats, for example, during Ramadan, when the salat al-tarawih is performed in the mosques. In addition to the salat, there exist numerous invocations (du˓as), to be said at different times of the day, and for different reasons. There are also many motives why Muslims may fast outside Ramadan. The fiqh books detail these different types of fasting.

Place and Space

Prayers and other rituals can and may be performed at any place, in agreement with the injunction that it is laudable to pray together with others. The Friday prayers (salat al-jum˓a) are obligatory for men and must be performed in the mosque. Moreover, a hierarchy of sacred places exists. Such places may be buildings such as mosques, graves (the visiting of the graves or ziyarat al-qubur), zawiyas—but also geographical areas; mountains, rivers, wells, and cities. Often the relative merits of these places, for example, in the works on the fada˒il, or merits, express political notions as well.

The hajj has Mecca (the Ka˓ba and the Safa and Marwa, nowadays all part of the complex of the Masjid al-Haram) and the holy places near to it (Muzdalifa, Mina, ˓Arafat) as its direct objects. Mecca, whose haram was founded, according to Muslim tradition, by the prophet Ibrahim, and Medina, the haram of which was founded by the Prophet himself, became the most holy cities in Islam. On the haram where the Masjid al-Aqsa was built, Caliph ˓Abd al-Malik erected the Dome of the Rock at the end of the seventh century.

Rituals, among which a is a tawaf, performed in the opposite direction as the tawaf in Mecca, were instituted in order to divert the pilgrims from Mecca, which at the time was in the hands of an opponent, ˓Abdallah b. al-Zubayr (624–692 C.E.). It was in this period that Jerusalem became an established object of pilgrimage. Many other places throughout would follow. Nowadays, ziyaras, visits to the tombs of the male and female saints (Ar. wali, pl. awliya; 10:63), and to sacred places, are quite common in many parts of the world both in Sunni and Shi˓ite Islam.

Also very important is the birthday festival (˓urs or mawsim) of the saint, when huge celebrations may take place. The veneration of saints serves the psychological needs of many believers to be close to their objects of veneration, from which they hope to receive baraka (blessing), cure from illnesses, help in misfortune, intercession with God, and so on. The connection with notions of kinship and descent from the Prophet is symbolized in the notion of nobility (sharaf). Because of large-scale globalization and diasporic processes, one nowadays witnesses the creation of many new "Muslim spaces."

See alsoDevotional Life ; Law ; Shari˓a .


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