Alexander Broekhuijse: Acting for God: The Relationship Between Ritual and Devotion in Islam and Christianity

Intro to the Quran Final Paper

A religion is simultaneously an organization and presentation of a faith. In order for a relationship with a faith to be established, developed, and grown within a person there must be factors within the religion that posit that faith as a revolving point in an individual’s life. Repetition and custom are two primary factors that disposition people towards faith, as habits like going to church, going to temple, praying, and celebrating religious holidays all help mold religious faith as a role in a person’s life. The most important producer of devotion are rituals, as these repetitive moments remind the follower of the role of God in their lives. Rituals are defined as “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of series of actions performed according to a prescribed order”. It is important to highlight the word actions here, as it recognizes the role of rituals as transitioning religious faith from something one believes to something that one takes out of their day to act for. We naturally appreciate the things that we work for, and it is this combination of effort and faith that produces the impact that rituals possess. Instillation of rituals into the daily routines of both muslim and christian people results in drastically increased devotion to their respective faiths as it presents God as a part of each believer’s daily lives, and characterizes each religion as religions of action fueled by belief.

The construction of the Five Pillars of Islam make the religion a constant presence in the daily life of the believer, enhancing the role that the faith has in the follower’s life. The Five Pillars of Islam are the five religious duties expected of every Muslim. They consist of Shahada, confession of faith, Salat, daily prayer, Zakat, alms giving, Sawm, fasting during Ramadan, Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca. The five pillars are mentioned individually throughout the Quran; however, they are mentioned all together by Muhammad in the Hadith when Muhammad is asked to define Islam. “ Islam has been built on five [pillars]: testifying that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, performing the prayers, paying the Zakah, making the pilgrimage to the House, and fasting in Ramadan.”1 It is important to highlight the word built in this passage. The five pillars of Islam are the basis of Islamic faith, as they construct the daily religious routine for the average muslim. Beyond this however, they maintain the presence of God in the natural world, by positioning him as someone who adds structure to one’s every day. It is not just Islam that is built on the Five Pillars, but also the daily lives of most Muslims are structured around the routines that these pillars offer.

Shahada, the first of the five pillars, reflects a moment in each Muslim’s life where they dedicate themselves to God, a moment which is pivotal in connecting the life of the individual to the divine. Shahada, the muslim word for to testify or bear witness, is the moment where each muslim professes two simple, fundamental beliefs, which after they are recited, make one a muslim. La ilaha illa Allah wa-Muhammad rasul Allah, which translates to “there is no God but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God”, is all one has to say in order to become a Muslim. There is a unique relationship between the statement that there is no God but God and the transition into becoming a Muslim. The recitation that there is no God but God symbolizes the moment where God enters the life of the individual. This ritual represents an acceptance of God, and the fact that it is done through testimony, reflects the idea that Islam is a religion of action beyond belief. It is not enough to say that one believes in God, one must proclaim this belief, and it is through this proclamation that the standard for Muslim rituals is established.

The third of the five pillars is Salat, the daily prayer, is a ritual that reflects the influence and presence of the divine in the ordinary lives of the muslim people. This ritual prayer is performed five times a day, at dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and evening. Salat is God’s manifestation in the every day lives of the muslim people. The fact that it occurs five times a day produces a consistent reminder of the individual’s connection to and communication with God. It is also important to recognize the role of intent in prayer, and the connection  between intent in prayer and devotion in the faith. In the Muslim culture, in order for prayer to be valid, there must be intent behind it. One cannot pray just to pray and get it over with, instead there must be a drive and desire to pray. This drive is described by the muslim word ‘niyya’, or intent. In the text  Interiors, Intentions, and the “Spirituality” of Islamic Ritual Practice, Paul R. Powers describes the role of Niyya in prayer as “Rather, niyya is specifically the intention “that I pray,” “that these actions constitute salat” and, implicitly, “that my action be an Hbada” A valid prayer, then, must be accompanied by niyya with the goal “that this action be done to accord with the will of god.”2 This quote reveals the distinction between ritual and chore. While Salat is something that a muslim person has to perform five times a day, it is not seen as a chore. Instead it carries the weight of an interaction with God, as you are acting out his will. Starting with one’s proclamation that there is no God but God in Shahada, Salat represents acting out that proclamation in the day to day. If there is no God but God, then one must act in his will at all times. Thus prayer is not presented as a set of chores, but instead as several moments every day where man transcends beyond human life and acts in accordance with the divine.

Sawm, the process of fasting during Ramadan, is a ritual that similarly enhances devotion to the divine, but not through working in the name of God, but instead by struggling for God. Fasting during Ramadan commemorates the revelation of the Quran to humanity during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year. Sawm carries the same necessity for niyya, or intention, that salat does; however, this necessity manifests itself in different ways. Again Powers describes the relationship between niyya and ritual as “Muslim jurists require niyya in the “heart” during such ritual duties as prayer, fasting, and pilgrim”3 Though fasting presents considerable struggle, the performance of it naturally enhances devotion. Struggling for God and in thanks to God will make the individual feel the presence of God in their daily lives. As one struggles to fast, one finds motivation to continue in their faith, and it is this dichotomy of suffering and determination as both being drawn from one’s faith that structures Islam as the backbone of the believer. While one struggles in the name of God, at the same time one finds reinforcement from the presence of God, and thus the month of Ramadan becomes a month contextualized by one’s faith. For the entire month, Islam is present in the believer’s life, and it is this presence that produces true devotion.

The fifth pillar of Islam, Hajj, represents a religious pilgrimage that is mandatory for each Muslim to undergo, and it is the pilgrimage that acts as a catalyst for transforming the believer into the devotee. The pilgrimage begins with the arrival at the Kaaba, the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca. After circling the Ka’aba seven times, the pilgrims travel to Mina to pray and read the Quran, and then travel to Mount Arafat to pray from noon to dusk in the Arafat valley. The Arafat valley is significant as it was the site of the prophet Muhammad’s final sermon. Following prayer at Mount Arafat the pilgrims travel to Muzdalifah, and collect the 49 rocks needed the following day in Mina. The pilgrims then return to Mina and begin the Eid-ah-Adha festival, which consists of three days of ritual sacrifice. The pilgrimage ends with a return to the Ka’aba  to circle the mosque seven more times. The hajj, like each of the five pillars, reflects the role of God in the individual believers life, however the weight it carries is considerably more significant. The journey places the individual in the shoes of the original muslims, and transcends the believer outside of time. The journey unites all muslim people, and for the entire trip every action they make is in the name of God. It takes the stories and message of the Quran and manifests them in reality. The journey of Muhammad is no long something one simply reads about, it is instead something that one lives. This returns to the definition of Islam as a religion of action, as the individual is not only acting for God, but he is recreating the life of his final prophet. In her text The Hajj and the Study of Islamic Ritual, Marion Katz reinforces this characterization of the hajj, describing it as “While Islam nourishes personal piety largely through ritual, its ritualism thus has “a unique character that eludes most comparisons with other ritualisms.” Graham’s interpretation of the hajj, on which much of his argument is based, characterizes it as an exercise in pure obedience to God…”4 Just as Katz describes, the hajj represents an obedience to God that presents itself as a conclusion to the exercise that begins with the Shahada. The recitation that there is only one God and that Muhammad is the one true prophet is elaborated through the devotion of daily prayer, and concluded through the hajj.

While Islam rests on the five pillars as a routine method of connecting the believer to God, Christianity has a similar construction, the sacraments. The sacraments, consisting of baptism and the eucharist, are sacred rites meant to convey God’s power and role in each christian’s life. The sacraments are described in the bible as the connection Christ has to the world after death, described in John 17:18 as “As the Father has sent me, even so I send to you”5 This passage indicates the role of the sacraments as representing the link between man, Christ, and God. In The Sacraments I: Baptism, Lawerence Bright describes the sacrament as The sacraments… are the means by which Christ unites us to the Church which is his body.”6 This further infers the sacraments as a link between man and God. Just as the five pillars relate man and God through acting in accordance with God’s will, the actions of the sacraments unite christians and Christ through action. Michael Purcell further elaborates on the link that the sacraments produce in his text The Ethical Significance of the Sacraments by stating that “The sacraments, and all religious ritual, bond the individual with the faith. It represents taking step beyond just believing, and choosing to act. It similarly bonds the individual with a community of other believers, other individuals who have chosen to act in the name of God.”7 The sacraments, like the five pillars, produce a physical relationship between the individual and the faith. They present taking a step beyond just believing, and choosing to make actions that link one with God. Similarly they bond the individual with a community of other believers, other individuals who have chosen to take actions in the name of God. This reflects the muslim concept of Niyya, or intention, as the sacraments are not just actions, they are actions taken with the intention to connect with Christ.

Baptism, the first of the sacraments, represents a ritual cleansing in water at birth, which, just like the Shahada, reflects a moment in a individuals life where they connect momentously with God and devote themselves to a religion. A baptism is a ritual cleansing in water that can occur at any point in an individual’s life when they desire to convert to Christianity. The baptism was converted from an ancient jewish practice of ritual bathing. The process represents moral purification in the eyes of God, a literal washing away of sin. The baptism represents a moment of connection between the tangible and the intangible, the human and the divine, as one is purified in the name of God. Bright describes this moment as “But each individual Christian has to make that sacrifice his own, has to be joined to Christ through the Church. This is first the result of faith, by which in a real sense we put on the mind of Christ”8 A major theme in the Christian faith is the concept of sacrificing for the better good and in the name of God. The baptism represents the first of these sacrifices, and ritualistically it reveals the choice of freeing oneself from sin just as Christ sacrificed himself to free the world of sin. This ritual is so integral to the devotion of most Christians because it is a moment where the believer steps into the role of Christ, and makes a similar action. 

Beyond any of the rituals previously mentioned, the Eucharist presents, symbolically, the most direct connection with God, as it represents a physical consumption of his essence. The eucharist, the process of eating a wafer and a drink of wine which represent the body of Christ, was implemented by Jesus Christ directly before the crucifixion. “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me”9 The eucharist is a weekly meeting of the believer and the deity, reflecting a physical encounter with the God one believes in. In The Ethical Significance of the Sacraments the eucharist is described as “For example, Marion makes the point that our consumption of the eucharist, rather than assimilating Christ to ourselves assimilates us “par le corps sacramentel du Christ à son corps ecclesial” which translates roughly to “By the sacramental body of Christ to his ecclesial body”10 The barrier between God and man is broken through the sacrament. God is given a physical body and blood, and is then present within the church. This undoubtedly is a cause of strong Christian devotion because it makes God more than an idea, instead God is made into something that one can touch and sense. This manifestation of Christ and God through ritual makes going to church more than just routine, it is instead characterized as a physical encounter with the divine.

Both Christianity and Islam are religions of ritual, and it is these rituals that expand the religions beyond the theoretical, and produce physical manifestations of the practitioners beliefs in the everyday. Looking at Shahada and Baptism, both represent a recognition of the relationship between man and God. Where the first is a testimony to the role of God in the universe, the other is cleansing of sin in the name of God. Both recognize God’s pivotal role in the believers lives, through proclamation in the case of Islam, and through liberation from sin in Christianity. The eucharist and salat both represent a moment where one makes communion with God. Where salat has the believer acting with the will of God, the eucharist involves man acting as Christ did in his last days. Acting the way God would want one to positions God a guiding force, an external presence that connects the believer to what he is believing. The eucharist also connects to the hajj, as while during the eucharist man makes a physical connection to God, the hajj involves man making a physical pilgrimage in the name of God, and walking in the footsteps of God. Islamic and Christian rituals present the opportunity for confirmation in one’s beliefs, to feel the presence of God in reality.

1.Hadith 3

2.Powers, P. R. “Interiors, Intentions, and the “Spirituality” of Islamic Ritual Practice.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 72.2 (2004): 425-59. Web, 450

3. Ibid, 425.

4. Katz, Marion. “The Ḥajj and the Study of Islamic Ritual.” Studia Islamica, no. 98/99, 2004, pp. 95–129., www.jstor.org/stable/20059212, 98

5. The Bible, John 17:18

6 Bright, Laurence. “THE SACRAMENTS: I—BAPTISM.” Life of the Spirit (1946-1964), vol. 11, no. 124, 1956, pp. 158–163., www.jstor.org/stable/43704929,

7 Purcell, Michael. “The Ethical Signification of the Sacraments.” Gregorianum, vol. 79, no. 2, 1998, pp. 323–343., www.jstor.org/stable/23580120, 324

8 Bright, Laurence. “THE SACRAMENTS: I—BAPTISM.” Life of the Spirit (1946-1964), vol. 11, no. 124, 1956, pp. 158–163., www.jstor.org/stable/43704929, 158.

The Bible, Corinthians 11:23-26

10 Purcell, Michael. “The Ethical Signification of the Sacraments.” Gregorianum, vol. 79, no. 2, 1998, pp. 323–343., www.jstor.org/stable/23580120, 327