Moving Beyond Ritual This Ramadan: The Importance of Righteous Actions

Editor's Note: Huffington Post Religion has launched a scripture commentary/reflection series, which will bring together leading voices from different religious traditions to offer their wisdom on selected religious texts. We are pleased to announce a series of reflections for the Holy Month of Ramadan featuring posts by HM Queen Noor, Dalia Mogahed, Eboo Patel, Kabir Helminski, and Rami Nashashibi. They will all be reflecting on a passage from the Qur'an, Sura 2:177, which appears below. Last month we featured Christian reflections on the Gospel by Rev. Jim Wallis, Dr. Serene Jones, Dr. Emilie Townes, Sister Joan Chittister, and Rev. James Martin, S.J. Coming in September we will feature Jewish commentaries for the High Holidays and in October Hindu commentary for Diwali. We hope all readers, Muslim and non-Muslim, will gain wisdom from the insights of our writers on the Holy Qur'an:

True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west -- but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance -- however much he himself may cherish -- it -- upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God. (2:177 [Asad])

Through this verse we encounter an engagement with the deeper meanings of ritual, belief and righteous works. As important as ritual and doctrine is in Islam, this passage is a reminder that Muslims, like any spiritual community, can get completely absorbed and even distracted by the comforting but sometimes perfunctory expressions of religious devotion. The verse reinforces the higher spiritual standards of true piety, which get delineated as belief in a set of foundational articles of faith and good works. Yet, it is ultimately righteous action that directly improves the lives of others and that animates belief with meaning. The articulations of faith mentioned in the verse are, of course, sacred and tremendously important to Muslims around the world, but the ultimate outward manifestations of such doctrine are limited, while feeding and attending to the poor and marginalized are clearly measurable instances of righteous actions, elevated in this verse to the most important acts of sacred worship.

As the Muslim community begins this month of intensified devotion, Ramadan is also a profound moment for us to take deeper stock of where we are in relationship to the standards reinforced through this verse. In the US and Europe, way too many headlines seem to be obsessed with one aspect or the other of Muslim devotional practice. Whether it's the Niqab in France, minarets in Switzerland or mosques across the US, the deeper pathologies underlying these obsessions in turn generate an unhealthy and disproportionate amount of reactive posturing on part of the Muslim community and those coming to its defense. The end result is a lot of public discourse about Muslim rituals and places of ritual as opposed to the general effort of Muslims in this country to be forces for good and transformation. Every day in America there are Muslims struggling to live up to the sacred injunctions of this verse, matching professions of faith with righteous actions. These are people who demonstrate their love and commitment to this land and the people who live here by struggling to improve the general quality of life for all and by nudging us to live up to the lofty but still fully unrealized ideals of America.

The verse in question was preceded by one that carried the injunction to shift the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca. This, among other things, challenged this burgeoning Muslim community in seventh-century Arabia with the lesson of shifting direction without losing focus. In thinking about the current challenges confronting Muslim communities across certain sections of the US, including that famous piece of real estate in southern Manhattan, perhaps it's time we collectively consider new strategies that will allow us and others to shift the discourse. Yes, maybe it's time to accept a new paradigm shift that says that more of our investment, time, effort and precious energy should start moving towards building centers in places where our collective work and action to improve quality of life can be fully engaged and appreciated by us and others.

While our community certainly needs places of prayer, we more urgently need facilities and headlines that foreground the phenomenal efforts that Muslims are involved in across this country to speak to the needs of and issues affecting marginalized and vulnerable communities. These efforts, and I have had the honor of engaging many of them, truly speak to the universal spirit of a powerful piety not bounded by geography or irrational fear and obsession with religious ritual.