Whenever I speak against superstitious beliefs that have crept into the Muslim imagination I’ve found that many are unable to distinguish between theism and superstition, assuming that believing in God and what He has revealed is similar to being superstitious. This is usually predicated on a number of things:
- The inability to critically engage with beliefs and doctrines, so believing in superstitions and erroneously conflating it with theism.
- The blind or fanatical acceptance of arbitrary beliefs and practices.
- Deep ignorance of what God and His messenger have actually said, and accepting assumptions or far-fetched interpretations.
- A complete disengagement from understanding the shariah holistically, or thinking about its purpose.
So what is the difference between superstition and belief in God Almighty, and everything else He has informed us about? Superstitions are irrational or unreasonable views and beliefs, usually synonymous with folk religion and paganistic constructions, and in the context of Muslims, tend to come from eastern folk cultures. From a shar’i perspective, they have little basis in revelation but gain currency amongst large bodies of Muslims by becoming inherited as the status quo. We have the unfortunate and highly reactionary situation where systematically addressing these beliefs and practices is often seen as a ‘western’ attack on Islam (who’s Islam only God knows!) rather than as should rightly be understood: a godly battle against the scheming of the devil to undermine proper monotheism and subvert righteous productivity.
The argument is that superstition and a superstitious outlook has infected what it means to be ‘religious’ today. There are many aspects of ‘religiosity’ this applies to, from worship and keeping to God’s laws, to matters of belief/creed. Some might address this problem and draw far-fetched conclusions, but this doesn’t mean that the exercise itself is illegitimate. My contention to the adoption of superstitions is not only that it is unfaithful to what was intended by the message from God, but that its effect is crippling believers, both in the optimisation of ubudiyyah (servitude) to Allah and the material outcomes that He intended.
An interesting observation in the context of the UK: Those who live in highly segregated ethno-cultural communities, or strongly subscribe to sects, tend to hold to superstitions far more than those who live in more integrated and autonomous settings. It’s usually the case that the latter pay lip-service to arbitrary beliefs and I’ve frequently observed many Muslims raise their eyebrows when these things are mentioned, but out of fear of castigation remain tight-lipped about their reticence.
My contention isn’t that we’re in the 21st century and still superstitious, this argument is meaningless and I hold little value in revering modernity. What concerns me is that this is an issue of imaan: we claim to be Abrahamic monotheists but erroneously think it’s compatible with superstition. It is here that the verse resonates:
“Whoever rejects taghut and believes in God has grasped the firmest hand-hold…God is the ally of those who believe: He brings them out of the depths of darkness and into the light…”Qur’an 2:256-257
One way of looking at it is that superstition stems from paganism, and that Abrahamic monotheism is theism without such baggage. To accept God but with a superstitious outlook is not true subservience to God (islam). For anyone who understands the faith of Abraham and his descendants, it is palpably clear that the fundamental objective of his mission was to undermine the superstitious beliefs that humanity was drowning in, and centre faith on the reasonable proposition of the creator, a supreme entity. His entire story is one of cleansing the human psyche of myths, fables, ignorance, a misunderstanding of science, a belief in human supernatural powers (like shamans), or unreasonable fear of the unknown.
Abraham said to his people, “Why should I fear what you associate with Him? Why do you not fear to associate with him things for which He has sent you no authority?”Qur’an 6:81
The fundamental problem is that superstitions leads to the cardinal problem God speaks of: “Yet instead of God they serve things that can neither benefit nor harm them: the disbeliever has always turned his back on his Lord.” (25:55) Superstition deviates our focus from God through irrational practices and thoughts. Yet the faith of Abraham was built on reason, it began with a reasonable proposition and ended with reasonable practices and an enlightened way to live. If it’s argued that our practices and beliefs can be irrational, absolutely anything can be justified (as it often is) and religion becomes an arbitrary set of doctrines determined by men. Yet those who argue this have offered little to the world by way of progress – people are no more committed to God nor have the believers positioned themselves to be in better worldly stead. In fact, a brief analysis of history shows us that believers did exceptionally well when they understood the nature of the prophetic message and left superstition to the pagans.
On the topic of superstition, I’m usually asked about things like angels, the Buraq, and so on, for which I have an explanation that I believe will resonate with most believers. I won’t go into these here although I’ll certainly explain them on another occasion. The first step is ultimately to understand our faith in conformity to what God has revealed and to understand the nature of human existence as the prophets advocated. Once we’re in the right place we can productively proceed (rather than with a reactionary attitude that provokes even more irrationality) to inspiringly understand all aspects of our beliefs.
Please note: One should not infer any position I may have from the above, I’m simply coming at it to undermine superstition which I think all believers agree to be problematic – I don’t take a binary approach to metaphysical matters nor a simplistic position. I would humbly caution that trying to assume my detailed position on matters will almost certainly lead to an erroneous assumption!