Easing religious hardship, but how?

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Across all spectrums of the religious scale, it is held by most that the religious principle of making things easy requires curbing aspects of the shari’ah. Of course, in many instances it does, but it is not a necessary given. The understanding that ease requires some sort of cutback has become axiomatic, even those who doggedly refuse any notion of moderation – usually of the literalist kind – take the hadith to be a reference to legal concessions (rukhas). This tends to be due to the widespread religious culture of viewing most things, including religious ease and hardship, only through a legalistic (fiqhi) lens.

Islam is not simply legal dogma, and in a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, we tend to assume that our attitudes and ideals simply derive from our understanding of the law. However, if such a linear argument were to be made then it would actually be the other way around, that’s to say, that the law is largely shaped by Islamic ethical ideals informed by revelation. But more accurately, it’s an interplay of various factors and constant negotiations between the spirit of the law and its letter.

Make things easy and do not makes things difficult, cultivate cheerfulness and do not drive people away with a negative outlook. (In another variant: nurture calmness).

al-Bukhari and Muslim

When we adopt a holistic approach that extends beyond legalism, there are major circumstances where making things easy requires doing more and not less. On deeper analysis, one finds that this occurs more so in conceptual matters – those related to our intellect or the state of our souls. (Some might refer to them as ‘spiritual’ matters although I have avoided this term out of my own scepticism towards an approach that deals with the ‘spiritual’ as an independent shar’i reference.)

In this context, doing less can actually prolong anxieties because the cause of the difficulty has yet to be addressed. For example, many find religious commitment difficult because they lack the underlying understanding that makes such commitment relevant both to the ultimate divine plan, and their daily lives. However, what helps in resolving such a difficulty is actually doing more, such as a deeper contemplation of God’s words, fully grasping the Sunnah, and adding to our practice. The first two are pretty straightforward, but how does adding to religious practice make things easier?

A good example is one of giving charity. Although handing over hard earned cash is quite demanding, struggling through the antipathy and persisting with charity eventually breaks the ego’s fixation on worldly possessions – “who amasses riches, counting them over, thinking they will make him live for ever,” (104:2-3) and also undermines fears of poverty from giving charity – “Satan threatens you with the prospect of poverty and commands you to do foul deeds.” (2:268) It also institutes muscle memory (as an act of giving) and entrenches ethical norms, all of which serve to normalise charity and overcome the feeling of difficulty.

Adding to religiosity takes many forms, and not only as physical actions. For instance, some find it challenging to relate to God out of a difficulty to feel God – to intuitively act in a way that recognises the divine as an active force in everyday life. They will speak about religious issues, deliberate with others on matters of law or theology, yet struggle to explicitly place the divine at the centre. This difficulty isn’t overcome by simply telling people to believe, putting it down to secular inclinations, or arguing that we’re overplaying a problem with unjustified pedantry or self-righteousness. Many of these difficulties predominantly stem from misunderstandings about God. So to take God as a living entity, real and deserving of humble subservience, requires undertaking a journey that considers a number of things such as exploring what He has revealed about Himself, or pondering the cosmos.

In this way We showed Abraham (God’s) mighty dominion over the heavens and the earth, so that he might be a firm believer.

Qur’an 6:75

The purpose is to relate to God in an appropriate way where He becomes the prime factor in any given thought process. One cannot relate to something one does not know, the lack of conceptualisation inevitably means that a person seeks to believe in nothing more than an ambiguous entity beyond the clouds. To then take this unknown entity as being the motive for everything is understandably difficult.

Similarly, some find it difficult to pray or keep up the prayer. One cohort will respond that such people need to pray simply…because they must! And in this context, apparently any difficulty they experience is due to a ‘sick’ heart. we cannot put the reason down to sin or a corrupted outlook without providing an explanation that convincingly explains why the difficulty has arisen and how undoing the perceived cause will ultimately resolve the difficulty. For example, if it is argued that the difficulty for a person to keep up prayer is down to his iniquitous act of stealing, how will avoiding thievery automatically make prayer easier? A small cohort argue that the difficulty of prayer is born out of its demandingness, so taking the concession on prayer for one who faces difficulty, they posit that one might join the prayers indefinitely and offer three prayers a day instead of five; or perhaps offer shorter units (replace four with two) since the hadith of A’ishah informs us that the legislated prayer began with two units and later increased to four. However, moving away from these binary prescriptions – from doing for the sake of doing to taking an uneducated reductive approach – making prayer easier on people actually requires people to do more in order for it to eventually feel easy.

How so? Well firstly a person should know why he is praying, whom he is praying to, and what prayer actually is; what are we engaging with and what does it mean? If the prayer is a conversation between man and God, yet man has no understanding of what he is saying or what God is saying to him, why would such an undertaking be considered easy? In fact, it is reasonable to assert that many might view the mere uttering of sounds both futile and monotonous. Others may weather these elements by choosing to arbitrarily focus on something that can maintain their attention, but did God really intend for the believer to recite one thing in prayer – say verses on eternal punishments, but instead think about something else, like the fruits of heaven?

So to create the situation where prayer becomes an enjoyable activity and thus easier, people should be encouraged to learn Arabic or at least learn the meaning of the words and verses they utter, along with the significance of actions within the prayer and the purpose of the prayer itself. Here then it isn’t about a ‘tough-luck’ attitude, nor reducing units – all of which attempt to deal with symptoms but ignore the underlying cause, but about investing some more time and effort particularly in seeking meaning to ensure ease and enthusiasm for prayer in the long-term.

Ease and hardship are largely perceptions and they manifest according to how we see ourselves, our Lord, and the world around us. Much of our difficulties are born out of a lack of understanding, and as Khidr said to Moses, “How can you be patient in matters beyond your knowledge?” (18:68) The verse intimates that it is in human nature to be impatient with, and thus find difficult, that which we do not know. Logically then the path to ease, and by extension an easy life, is finding out what we need to know and infusing our practices at all levels with meaning.

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