Tarawih and “Carnal desires”

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Are those who offer 8 rak’ats for tarawih and then return home following their “lustful carnal desires“? (Even the question sounds silly!)

Recently, it was brought to my attention that there are clergymen who hold a prominent position in their ethno-religious communities as ‘scholars’, espousing aberrant views on the tarawih prayer by misusing verses of the Qur’an. One of them in particular applies the verse: “but there came after them generations who neglected prayer and were driven by their own desires. These will come face to face with their evil, except those who repent, believe, and work actions of righteousness…” (Q 19:59) to those who offer 8 units of prayer in congregational tarawih and then quietly return home whilst others remain to offer 20.

This man misuses the words of God the Most High where He clearly did not intend what they claim, and what is quite ironic is that he claims to champion ‘traditionalism’, railing against progressives (who admittedly often deserve a rebuke), yet mischaracterises what God has revealed in the same way as those he rabidly criticises. Whilst I do not personally know of, nor engage this small cohort, nor the teacher who espouses this strange application of the verse, blatant misuse of God’s words for banal sectarian purposes is morally wrong and despised by God. “As for those who have divided their religion and broken up into factions, have nothing to do with them. Their case rests with God: in time He will tell them about their deeds.” (Q 6:159)

I hold nothing personal against anyone and seek good will towards all, but very simply, we emphatically know Allah was not speaking about tarawih, and advocating such a thing, or applying it to tarawih, is deeply wrong. Thus I write this as a clarification and without any desire to engage in futile argumentation, and it is particularly for those who have asked me about the (mis)use of the verse.

So to some brief points:

1. I really believed we were past the whole 8 vs 20 rak’at wars. The inanity of the battles that raged in the past decade, particularly between some Salafi and Deobandi groups, had little intelligence to it, absolutely no benefit ever came from it – not by way of godliness nor worship, and anybody who engages in such binary polemics simply exposes their deep ignorance of fiqh. To attempt to reignite such pointless argumentation, and especially over optional prayers, evidences a questionable level of maturity (both psychological and religious).

2. “There came after them generations who neglected prayer” refers to disbelieving generations that came after Noah, Abraham and Israel (Jacob), when godlessness prevailed where people disbelieved, abandoning the prescribed prayer and subservience to God, and instead took to evil desires. Verses 41-60 clearly contextualise all of this, and even with all of the polemics of the near-past, I have never heard anyone distastefully resort to applying this verse for such sectarian purposes. It is essentially to apply a verse on disbelievers to worshipful believers!!

3. For those who only see validity in what was said by scholars of the medieval period: I have yet to come across a past scholar using this verse in such an overreaching way and applying it to those who offer less or more than 20 rak’at. So unless I’ve missed something substantial from the tradition (which I’m open to), is this a ‘new’ interpretation?

4. As a scholarly point, I fully affirm the use of epistemic analogies (qiyas ma’nawi) as a variable (qarina) in determining divine intent, but the gentleman’s incoherent method has taken an ontological point on mandated prayer and applied it to matters related to legal reasoning around optional prayers. It’s a fallacious analogy which has resulted in a profoundly erroneous deduction/inference.

5. The message is clearly hyperbolic: people do not ‘run off’ after 8 as if committing a crime nor do they ‘abandon the masjid’ as if it was obligatory to be there in the first place, they simply leave to return home. And to ridiculously assert that doing so is to give in to ‘lustful carnal desires’ is to daftly portray active and sincere worshippers of God, who’ve just stood before God, as leaving the mosque for the whorehouse! (Perhaps he doesn’t know what ‘lustful carnal desires’ means?) Evidently, all of this hyperbolic language is misapplied from the verse which is speaking of something else. Regardless of the fiqh disagreement, the absence of reason and rationality in the vitriol and the unashamed sectarianism should speak volumes to those who might take such approaches to understanding what God wants as legitimate.

6. There is very little fiqh (understanding) in such vitriol. Nights are very short which leaves little space to moderately consume the sustenance the body requires, the rest required to get through 18+ hours of fasting which for many is spent at work, not to mention very human sexual needs. And to offer optional prayers despite all of these needs is highly admirable, no matter how many the units.

There are other pertinent points, but for brevity I’ll leave it there.

As a side note: what might be of real benefit to worshippers is to address the way in which 20 rak’at is often performed: unintelligible Qur’anic recitation and hasty movements that resemble little more than bodily jerks. In the quest for numbers (which God didn’t stipulate), excellence and heartfelt subservience (which God did stipulate) are greatly ignored.

May God guide us to what He finds most pleasing and worthy, overlook our shortcomings and weaknesses, and graciously accept the imperfect little acts that we offer.

Note: Please do not waste your day/night posting narrations and arguments about any number of rak’ats for tarawih, God is more impressed if you instead spend that actual time in prayer itself.

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