Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is this Islamic spirituality? - part II

This is the second post in the series questioning the spiritual value of Islam's canons - the Kuran and the Hadith. The first post in this series can be read here.

There are six canonical Hadith in Sunni Islam, known as the Sihah Sittha ("the correct six"). The two "strongest" Hadith collections are the Sahih Bukhari, and the Sahih Muslim. "Strength" here refers to the authenticity in terms of number of independent witnesses and chains of narration (known as Isnad). The other four Hadith collections are ranked in various orders by different schools and scholars.

One of these four is the Jami At-Tirmidhi (also known as Sunan Al-Tirmidhi), compiled by Imam Al-Tirmidhi (also spelled Al-Tirmezi). Some Islamic scholars such as Al-Athir even rated this Hadith the best among all six Hadith, because

"(It) is the best of books, having the most benefit, the best organization, with the least repetition. It contain what others to not contain; like mention of the different Madhahib (views) and angles of argument."

Now, what exactly is contained in the Jami At-Tirmidhi? What profound spiritual sciences does it deal with? Let us take a look at this amazing Hadith collection. It's longest section, and generally regarded as its most significant, is the first section called "Taharah" (purification)." This section has almost 100 chapters. Let us peek into the content of these chapters.

The chapters begin with "What must be said when entering the toilet" and "What must be said when exiting the toilet." In case the reader is curious, this chapter provides the verses one has to speak while entering the toilet, in order to ask for protection from evil Jinns and devils (Shaytaans) who inhabit toilets. It is only when one says the prescribed verses that, magically, a shield manifests between one's private parts and the Jinns (who presumably are hiding in the toilets to ogle at the private parts of the defecators). Now in case the reader is wondering whether any Muslim today takes such things seriously, they are urged to go to this Sunni website on Islamic toilet etiquette. The reader can also google "Islamic toilet" and go to various websites which deal with such issues of great importance to the Ummah (global Muslim community). Here

Chapter 8 deals with the thorny issue of standing while urinating (apparently Muhammad did not like that). Chapters 11 through 15 deal with using stones and water to clean oneself after defecation. Four chapters devoted to this subject, no less. Then you have chapters
16 and 17 which return to the discussion of urination - the first of the two talks about Muhammad's preferences during urination, while the second asks Muslims not to urinate in the washing area. There is an entire chapter (23) on how to go through one's beard while the next one deals with how to wipe the head (one must start from the front, and go to the rear; not the other way round). Chapters 25 through 27 continue with discussion on this profoundly spiritual issue of how to wipe one's head.

In the next few chapters, there are instructions on "going through the ears", "going through the fingers", "saving the heels from the fires of hell" and so on. Soon after, the Hadith revisits the never-ending topic of urination. Chapters 51 talk about not urinating into stagnant water, while 53 and 54 talk about shielding oneself from urine. There is even a chapter on how to greet someone while urinating.

Chapter 56 talks about breaking wind (aka farting). Please tell me - why is a religion even concerned with details such as this. And in case the reader is wondering, the topic of passing wind is covered in other Hadith as well.

Most of the rest of the Hadith deals with similarly spiritual issues. There are chapters on whether one should take a siesta on Friday, apply perfume on Friday, and so on. There are chapters on how Muhammad took one route to the mosque and returned by the other (I suppose there is some deep hidden spiritual message here, but I am yet to understand it).

All I can say is that upon reading the Jami At Tirmidhi - one of the canons of Islam - one is left with a decidedly unspiritual set of rules for doing the most trite and mundane of things (such as urination and defecation). I fail to understand what is the purpose of such books in a religious canon. Why does Islam spend so much time on regulating such aspects of life? And why would "the last Prophet" waste so much of his time talking about such things?

Now call me old fashioned, but I always thought spirituality was a philosophical quest. It attempted to answer philosophical and metaphysical questions centered around the greater purpose of man's life, and his relationship with the divine. Is "How to urinate?" a philosophically profound question? I would just say "Get it over with any which way you like man, and move on."

The Hadith are records of Muhammad's activities, his words and so on. But what is the purpose of telling Muslims how Muhammad moved his fingers through his beard, and asking them to move their's the same way? Or telling them of Muhammad's preferences while urinating, and asking them to copy it. Islam's concern is not the spiritual upliftment of Muslims, for which it has precious little to offer, but ensuring that Muslims are carbon copies of an Arab man who lived 1400 years ago. In their limited view of things, they consider that act of copying this one man, a spiritual act. Is it any wonder that Islam seems to be caught in a time-zone all its own, which resembles 7th century Arabia? Now that would not be so bad if the culture of 7th century Arabia was very evolved, and if people in the harsh desert of Arabia in the 7th century were contemplating the most profound spiritual questions. But they was not - theirs was a primitive culture in one of the cultural backwaters of the world. Islam codified that primitive culture in the form of a religion, and is imposing it upon 1.2 billion people in the 21st century. That is a serious travesty.

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