All blessings come with obligations. You can’t have one without the other.
This is 1,500 pounds of blessings. Also 1,500 pounds of obligations and responsibilities. “Weighty” indeed!
Would I have the blessings without the obligations? Nope.
Would I have the obligations without the blessings? Nope.
People often “ooh” and “aah” and message me and say “you’re living the dream” because I have a horse. Yes, but keep in mind there are days that you fall off and get hurt, your horse gets hurt and runs up a zillion dollar vet bill, you can’t ride because you had a tack malfunction. And there is also so. much. poop.
If we seek blessings, they only come through the route of responsibility. You want real love, real accomplishment, real happiness, real contentment? Go serve God and serve others. There is no other way. Period.
American culture these days seems to teach us that obligation is inherently oppressive. Popular culture tells us to “free ourselves”. But religious life is a life of obligation. We have obligatory prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, zakat, and lifestyle principles such as diet and dress.
Another popular culture trend tells us that we should never do a thing unless we are 110% in love with it. That we should only do things if and when they are “our choice”.
Many writers have commented on the idea of “choice” as a neoliberal, capitalist concept designed to sell products. That’s an important discussion. Tradition, family obligation, being “born Muslim”, wearing hijab because you “have to” have all been invalidated by popular culture. If that was your path to obligation, well, that’s supposedly an invalid if you didn’t have an “ah ha moment” where you asserted it as your favorite thing to do. This is toxic. It negates the fact that life doesn’t work like that. We all come to our lives, our obligations, our blessings in different ways. We don’t always (or even usually) have a “choice” in most aspects of our lives. How many times have we heard one lauded as a hero say “I’m not a hero, I just did what I had to do”.
There are two big concepts that get lost in these discussions:
First: Allah says “do not attribute purity to yourselves, Allah purifies whoever He wishes”. (53:32) When we claim that we can or will only do things that we “choose” and love fully and are 110% committed to, we are actually attributing spiritual purity to ourselves. We are saying that we never make these decisions our of personal or spiritual weakness or out of the lower drives of our nafs. The nafs is an important spiritual and personal development concept. We are not walking angels. Our motivations and desires need to always be evaluated and challenged. We also will never be 110% committed and perfect even in our best states. We will always have bad days. Life will always be more work than enjoyment. I’m 40 years old now, and this is part of what you realize about life as you get older. It will never get “easy” Or as my grandfather likes to say: “the first 100 years are the hardest”.
Second: We need to stop understanding “obligation” as “oppressive” and “burdensome”. Let’s unpack the idea of obligation in Islam for a moment. Let’s use the example of Salah.
In some belief systems, a human being is “dirty” and “sinful” and not worthy to approach God directly. Even non-religious people today often express a belief that God isn’t really interested in listening to them or they limit God and claim that God is “too busy” or “taking care of more important things”. (God is not a human being with limited time, energy, or attention. This is an `aqeedah problem, or what I call #badtheology.)
The *obligation* of salah means that God is not just interested in hearing from us 5 times a day, He is REQUIRING it of us. There is no space for us to say or claim that God doesn’t want us, like to hear from us, or have time for us.
The *obligation* of salah means that there are blessings to be derived from it, both apparent blessings and hidden ones, regardless of whether we are giving it our full effort or attention. Five times a day, in the middle of our busy lives, we are inevitably going to fall short. It’s going to be a challenge. We may rush or feel distracted. But because it is an obligation we are told to meet to a minimal standard no matter what, just showing up to the prayer rug has a level of blessing and goodness for us, even if we are distracted or rushed and we don’t “feel it” or “see it”.
The *obligation* of salah means that there is ALWAYS more to learn and grow from. No matter how spiritually developed you think you are, no matter how spiritually advanced you become, salah will always be an obligation on you just the same. The possibilities for digging deeper are literally limitless with Allah.
[Side note: When women are relieved from the obligation of salah due to menstruation and post-natal bleeding this is an indication of the significant and weighty *obligation* of the men and the people in our lives to give this woman a break. Perhaps I’ll write more explicitly about that in the future.]
Think: If you have an “obligation” it automatically means you have a blessing of some kind. I have an obligation to my parents, husband, children, home, animals, job, education, and yes, the Deen of Islam and my akhirah. These are all blessings. Only a person who has nothing has no obligations.
If we have a blessing and we complain about the obligations that come with that blessing, then we are actually expressing ingratitude. If I start complaining about cleaning up after my horse or feeding him the supplements he needs to stay healthy, or going to exercise him even when I’m tired then I need to be careful. I am sliding into ingratitude.
And if we have a blessing and we are ungrateful for it, we risk losing it either through the direct consequences of our neglect, and/or because we opened the doors for Allah to turn it into a trial for us to snap us back to attention. Those are the kinds of losses we grieve deeply and only realize our culpability in when it’s too late.
Now I want to talk about the obligation of hijab. (Happy Hijab Week!)
[Side note: I tolerate no discussion of it being other than an obligation. The Qur’an is clear on this point and no, it does not say “modesty”. That word is literally nowhere in the Qur’an. That word got introduced into translations because “guard your private parts” was too risque for Victorian-minded translators so they wrote “guard your modesty” instead. The word in Arabic is literally “openings”, i.e., “private parts” and they translated that as “modesty”. Hence the confusion on that point. And if you want to know about the specific words relevant to head coverings, others have written about that elsewhere.]
What does it mean for women that hijab is an *obligation*?
It means that ALL women are worthy of the sacredness and dignity that is inherent in the concept of hijab. No exceptions. The covering of the head and body, the separation of public and private spheres, the concept of significant/symbolic clothing, are all things that are universally applicable to both men and women and hold additional significance for women. ALL women.
It means that wearing hijab has blessings and benefits even if we don’t understand it, struggle with it, and keep on doing it even being the imperfect humans that we are. We never get to a point where we have “arrived” spiritually or personally such that we “deserve” to wear it.
It means that there are limitless possibilities to the blessings and benefits of staying with hijab through thick and thin. The deeper we dig, the more we learn and reflect, the more gems there are to find. The deeper we dig, the more we learn about ourselves, life, and what Allah wants for us.
There is another level to “obligation” that goes beyond our individual selves. Again, popular culture these days is so focused on “me” and “self”. We think we should have no obligation to the others around us.
When we all pray salah, when we pray in congregation, when we establish salah as a habit that shapes our schedules, our architecture, our lifestyles- these things have an effect on the character of our homes and societies.
When I take care of my horse, clean up after him, feed him properly, treat him humanely, I am establishing a culture at my barn of proper horsemanship. If I didn’t, it would affect the environment at the barn, the other people and even the other horses.
(See also: Anger is Contagious) <link>
Hijab is the same way. It is an individual practice, but we also don’t live in isolation from other people. The things we do have an effect on others. When we embody and command respect, dignity, and sacredness in the way we dress and interact with others, we change the character of society. And that in turn will reflect back to us.
[Side note again: I keep hearing people say that women should be able to wear whatever they want: high-cut skirts, tight clothes, low-cut shirts, etc., and that men should just “not look”. That’s really degrading to the idea of a supportive community. Are we not communities of people that live together? Do we not recognize that the things we do affect other people?]
Obligations are things that we MUST hold on to, for our own health and the health of our surroundings.
And most importantly, obligations are signs of blessings. Signs of cause for gratitude.
Let’s stop treating obligations like they are burdens and start recognizing all that we have to learn and love.