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On Religion and Habit
Ali Salman

(The author can be contacted at


Most of the religious practices are repetitive and periodic in nature. Muslims offer prayers five times a day, fast for about a month every year, and similarly Christians visit the Church every Sunday and also fast for forty days each year. The basic purpose of this repetition is to provide a permanent mechanism for remembrance. That is why we often hear Imams (prayer leader in mosques) and ministers/ fathers (those who lead in service in the churches) emphasizing on the followers to carry out prescribed religious practices regularly and make them a habit. Adapting a religious practice as a habit is apparently a pious behaviour but this piousness has a problem.

I shall now briefly elaborate this problem in the realm of behavioural science, and suggest that some times, even a pious habit can create difficulties. My focus will be the Salāh, the prayer that Muslims offer five times a day.

Habit is ‘an acquired act that is practiced regularly and with a minimum of voluntary control.’ (Dictionary of Behavioural Science: p. 153, 1989; emphasis added). The Salāh is acquired as Muslims learn it in their homes and in the mosques. It is practiced regularly as prescribed by Islam. However, and here is the problem part, attributing the third component of habit i.e. a minimum of voluntary control with the Salāh may create conflicts with its basic purpose. Despite the fact that the Qur’ān commands Muslims to offer the Salāh at about 700 places in the scripture, it remains a voluntary act as no one can be punished for non-compliance as opposed to cases like adultery and gambling, as provided for by Islamic law. In this sense of the word, the adoption of the Salāh as a practice should not be considered merely as a habit. Habit pertains to a specific and spontaneous response to a given stimulus, and in this sense also, the Salāh is not closer to a habit. Muslims do not offer their prayers merely as a response to some stimulus like, so to say, a call from conscience. They do it strictly according to a prescribed format and schedule, and internal and external stimuli are not likely to affect these dispositions, though quality of the prayer might be affected. Hence our temporary, and strange conclusion is that a pious act like the Salāh should not become a habit, at least in the ordinary sense of the word.

Fortunately, Behavioural Science suggests more than one conception of habit. We can solve the above-mentioned paradox in the light of the work by J. Dewey, who has distinguished between ‘routine’ and ‘intelligent’ habits. Former ‘offer adjustment to a more-or-less static environment’ and latter ‘guide the individual to a better adjustment to a changing situation.’ (Ibid) In the light of this categorization, one can notice that the Salāh in its original form, was not introduced as a routine habit, but as an intelligent habit. That is why, at least its form, its timings, and even Qiblah -- the direction to which Muslims face during prayers-did not remain static in the early period but reflected to better adjustments to changing (socio-political) situations. This flexibility is still preserved in many ways. The Qur’ān allows Muslims to reduce their Salāh to half during travels and wars. Similarly, Sunnah- the practice of Prophet Muhammad (sws) -- sets different durations of the Salāh according to the timings of a day, (in the day time and wee hours, it is smaller and in the night, it is longer). It also allows merging the prayers during Hajj -- the annual pilgrimage, and prescribes additions in the Salāh on Eid (the annual religious festivals following the fasting month and during Hajj). More importantly, and that is the most relevant point for normal daily prayers today, the Sunnah has set the precedence of reciting different verses from the Qur’ān and numerous supplications during the Salāh and does not become monotonous in its choice. This last practice, however, is not popularly followed owing to the difficulty in remembering and recalling different verses and supplications in the Arabic language and Muslims, throughout the world, tend to recite more or less similar contents. (People having Arabic as their native language might be excepted).

The Salāh thus, originally an intelligent habit, is now generally practiced as a routine habit and perhaps, that is why it has practically reduced to merely a ritual, making little impact on the character of those who offer it regularly. Revival of original form of the Salāh, without undermining the importance of essence and spirit, in terms of the heterogeneity of its contents, as originally prescribed by the Prophet (sws) himself, could offer a solution.  Religious scholars can play an important role by educating the masses both about the enormous diversity of prescribed content and its meanings.  The preconditions to this reformation remain research, flexibility and tolerance -- practices, which are not found in abundance in Muslim societies for centuries.


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