What Counts as Worship in Ramadan?

by Dr. Shabir Ally




There are many ways to draw close to God. It isn’t only through pious devotion.


In many Muslim societies, there is a distinction made between people who are said to be religious and everyone else. Those who are recognizably religious are those who adopt some outward manifestations, like growing a beard or wearing traditional attire. And I say ‘recognizably’ because religiosity is in the heart of the person, which we cannot discern.


For those who are considered devoted to the religion, their concern in the month of Ramadan is largely with finishing the recitation of the Quran. They might read a chapter or a portion per day each day to finish the whole book in a month. And they keep tabs and compete with each other. For men, there’s a lot of emphasis on attending the taraweeh prayers in the mosque. Some people treat it as though it's almost an obligation.


These are good things. Reading the Quran on your own, completing it once, completing it twice -- this is great. Going to the mosque for the night prayers of Ramadan where it is safe for people to do so is commendable. But if that becomes the entire focus of the people who are known to be religious, then what about other aspects of religion, like looking after the poor and needy, visiting people in hospitals and prisons, taking care of widows and orphans in society -- all things which traditionally Islam was known for? Other Muslims are doing these things, but their actions are not so closely tied with the goals and aspirations that the visibly religious people associate with the month of Ramadan.


So there has to be a balance. People are attracted to different things. Some people are attracted to praying in the mosque. We shouldn’t stop them from praying in the mosque and say, okay, instead of praying today, just go out and help the poor. They might even see this as being sacrilegious. But there are other people who are attracted to the idea of going out and feeding the poor. All of this has to be incorporated into the ambit of what it means to be righteous and pious. Piety should not be counted only against how many cycles of prayer you did in the mosque, but it should also be measured up against how many people you visited in a hospital or prison and how many widows or orphans or homeless people you helped. We have to incorporate all of this into what we consider to be religious and what it means to be righteous in Ramadan.


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