10/26/2006

in defense of zeal

Aisha Eteraz writes, of zeal:

zeal, or excessive fervor, is easy to understand. Children who have only just learned to speak often can’t be convinced to stay quiet; when a person enters mindfully into a religion, it’s understandable that he might want to totally immerse himself in it, abandoning all aspects of his life that require him to compromise its rituals. (Note I said rituals, not beliefs. I’m getting to that.) Religion is the way he talks to God, and once you find you can talk to God, why do anything else? Hence, zeal. I am awakened promptly at 4:30 in the morning by it every day, when the dawn call to prayer blasts out from the nearest mosque at a very 21st century volume.

Many believers pass through this phase; Ali and some of the readers have been talking about it in the comments thread of the previous post. Most people who have experienced zeal will agree that it has a lifecycle; if one is thoughtful and introspective, it typically passes, interrupted by a period of bitterness and disillusionment, ultimately replaced by a quieter and deeper faith.


I think that zeal gets unfairly maligned here. In fact, I do believe that zeal is good, even neccessary, for faith. Why should zeal be defined as "excessive" fervour? Why should any amount of genuine fervour for Allah be excessive?

My zeal drives me forward in faith. Faith is not and should not be a purely intellectual excercise. Zeal is why I can awake for salaat al-fajr daily; zeal is how I can fast during Ramadan; zeal is how I pray salaat al-maghrib in parking lots or office corridors or whereever I happen to be. Zeal is how I avoid doubt about the societal and career consequences of wearing my traditional attire or sporting a beard. Were faith purely introspective or intellectual, bereft of zeal, then the practice of faith does indeed become mere ritual, nothing more.

In a nutshell, it is zeal that gives me the power to maintainn my introspection, to have a deeper and more solid faith. And heaven forbid my faith ever be "quieter" ! Or that my zeal ever have a "natural lifecycle". I have never experienced bitterness or disillusionment in faith because I have not succumbed to the Dawkinsesque conceit that reason is greater than faith. Part of why Islam is submission is in the submission to the truth that lies beyond the grasp of your own reason.

We are not vulcans. Faith can not and should not be tamed to the spartan constraints of reason. Faith - like a child - must be set free. The analogy to children speaks powerfully and positively to me; in my daughter I see a zeal that inspires me.

5 comments:

Aisha Eteraz said...

Cross-posted from Eteraz:

Salaams Aziz,

I liked your response, but I have 2 comments: 1) You left out a rather important part of the sentence you quote: I said “*Taken in this context*, zeal, or excessive fervor, is easy to understand.” In other words, I was stating a hypothesis, not a blanket generalization.

2) Zeal is defined as *excessive* fervor, at least according to the American Heritage dictionary. So I wasn’t simply making up the definition to satisfy my own evil ends. ;) I think what you’re defending is fervor, not excessive fervor or zeal. I like fervor too. I don’t like excessive fervor.

Aziz Poonawalla said...

Hi Aisha,

I was under the impression that the context for zeal was the following:

when a person enters mindfully into a religion, it’s understandable that he might want to totally immerse himself in it, abandoning all aspects of his life that require him to compromise its rituals.

which I did quote in my response. I am in fact arguing that in the specific case of a person entering mindfully into a religion, I disagree that zeal is a transient or negative thing.

regarding your pooint 2, your definition of zeal hinges on the definition of fervour:

Meaning #1: the state of being emotionally aroused and worked up

Meaning #2: feelings of great warmth and intensity


I simply dont see how these feelings can excessive in any context related to faith. I understand you aren't evil :) but fervour must be maximized. I read your essay as a call to leave fervour behind for a more intellectual approach and understanding of religion which is the root of our disagreement here.

If I am still not characterizing your argument correctly, it would be helpful if you gave an example of fervour that you would characterize as excessive.

Aisha Eteraz said...

Regarding *faith*, certainly there is no such thing as too much fervor. (I shall use the lowly American spelling because it is shorter.) I agree with you wholeheartedly on that point. Regarding the practice of the rituals of religion, on the other hand, I think there is certainly such a thing as too much fervor, which is why I made the disction between the two in my post. I have run into very conservative Muslims who refuse to brush their teeth with anything other than miswak. When there is no miswak to be had, they do not brush their teeth. Surely this is excessive by anyone's standards?

Aziz Poonawalla said...

Regarding the practice of the rituals of religion, on the other hand, I think there is certainly such a thing as too much fervor.

I still disagree (not that I'd want to sit next to the guy who doesn't brush his teeth). In fact I find that kind of dedication admirable. (not that I would brush my teeth less.)

For one thing, what you label as "ritual" has meaning. Where do you draw the line between brushing your teeth with miswak, and praying five times a day or fasting? There are many muslims who find my fasting 30 days each ramadan to be "excessive" fervor with respect to ritual. Or my beard length, or praying in parking lots. But all of these things, from as lowly as how you brush your teeth to the pillars of Islam themselves, represent an outward manifestation of one's willingness for submission. Our basic faith requires us to submit to ritual, not for its own sake, but for a reason that we accept exists regardless of whether we personally are or are not cognizant of it.

adherence to ritual is an indicator of piety. It is not a substitute or guarantor for akhlaaq on its own, but it is a neccessary part. It requires discipline and that discipline is emulation-worthy.

anyway, the prophet SAW did say that the breath of s/he who fasts is like perfume :)

Harry Eagar said...

Mufti Hilaly is full of both zeal and fervor. Zeal to spread his faith, fervor for the rape of infidel women.

And it's spreading. 5,000 screaming Muslims applaud.

Do you ever wonder why other religions don't produce such devotees?