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The Soul of Islamic Symbols

Most, if not all religions, function in the world of symbolism and communicate their universal messages to their followers through these religious symbols. Rituals, sacraments, prayers, worship services, religious ceremonies and more are nothing but to invite believers to engage with very deep ethical, moral and spiritual teachings through set of symbols and symbolic acts and behaviors. These religious symbols are never meant to be goals as themselves but vehicles and agents to much higher ultimate goals. If one does not get lost in the actual practice of these religious symbolic acts but constantly strives to get connected and feed him or herself with the deep teachings beneath these acts, he or she could develop a healthy spirituality, strong ethical and moral values, righteousness and more. However, it is one of the most common human weaknesses to easily get disconnected from what those religious symbols have been trying to teach us and keep practicing them as a form of habit or regular task that we feel obliged to do. 

Islam, through its foundational texts (Holy Quran and Sunnah), and daily, monthly and annual rituals and practices, offers one of the richest such worlds of pedagogy of symbols to Muslims. Every Islamic ritual and practice is an invitation for the believers to commit themselves to a process of increasing purity, tranquility and peace in their internal and external world. This khutba is an invitation for me and to all to strive to live Islam meaningfully and purposefully by paying attention to the language of those religious symbols. 

Let me discuss several such central Islamic symbols in this regard. What is religiously more central, for believing and practicing Muslims, than five daily prayers in their lives? We stop and pause five times a day, every day through out our adult lives to pray. Wherever we may be, Muslim men and women rush to the water tabs, take our ritual ablution (Wudu), spread our prayer rugs toward the proper direction, and then stand, bow and prostrate before God Almighty five times a day, every day of the year. Every single step of these five daily prayers are nothing but a series of Islamic symbols and in high volumes talks to us about the ethical moral teachings of our beautiful religion. We should not fail to pay attention to their voices as we practice these Islamic rituals. Otherwise they will turn into voiceless, repetitive acts of useless traditionalism. 

Let's start reflecting on our ritual ablution practices that we do before we pray. We wash our hands, wash our mouths, our arms unto our elbows, clean the dust on our heads and wash our ears and feet. The purpose of this symbolic cleansing is not only for our physical hygiene and health but more importantly to engage in a conversation and prayers of thanksgiving and forgiveness with God Almighty and with ourselves. If we pay attention to the meaning of the prayers we say during this ritual bath, the believer in effect says, as she or he washes each and every body part in that process, "Thank you merciful God for this healthy hand, mouth, tongue, eyes, nose, ears and feet. Their health is from you as you are the source of all blessings. Empower and guide me to do good things with them and I ask forgiveness for the wrong things that I have done or might have done with them." These ritualistic symbols are there to make the believers slow down and remember if he/she might have said something hurtful or have done anything ethically, morally questionable with his/her hands, eyes, ears, feet and so on since the last prayer. These Islamic symbols are there to clean and purify and improve us internally, spiritually, ethically and morally if we can constantly engage and pay attention to their symbolic language and voice. 

Our prayer rug is another Islamic symbol. I call our prayer rugs "Portable Muslim Airports." We set up this portable symbolic airport to spiritually take off to the higher realities and meanings, to our five daily appointments with the Beloved, and after our brief reunion with our Maker, we land back to earth to our regular lives. As we pray, we practice symbols such as standing in awe of God, bow and prostrate before God. All these symbols teaches us and reminds us our main identity: Being Human, completely dependent on God. These symbols attacks our arrogance, the idea of self-glory and inflated egos. They humble us before God and fellow human beings. However, these symbolic practices will only have their real affect on us by not just doing them but by allowing their deep meanings to tame our internal demons and shape our souls. 

These Islamic symbols are not exclusively limited to our worship and prayer lives only but could be found in every distinct Islamic ritual related to our personal, professional, family and communal lives. Take Islamic marriage contracts (Nikah) for example. If one pays attention to how these religious contracts are crafted, they will see that every symbolic ritual is there for a purpose of teaching and inspiration. The fact that Islam requires for couples to draft a written contract and sign it in the presence of reliable witnesses, symbolically tells these souls who are committing themselves to this serious business of marriage: "Love, mutual respect and mutual consent is essential for the success of such holy union but simply not enough to sustain happy marriage. Marriage requires a lot of work and investment from all sides to work. All contributing factors need to be discussed and agreed upon with a firm commitment prior to marriage." The symbolic practices of such Nikah contracts invites couples to take this very seriously and built their marriage upon sound foundations. 

These Nikah contracts, the way they have been uniquely done according to Islamic regulations, simultaneously encourage and warn the future husbands and wives to the potential challenges and opportunities, gender dynamics and more. For example, one of the main requirements of Islamic marriage contract is Mahr, where the groom promises to pay a substantial amount of money to bride which functions as a financial insurance and guarantee to women in case if marriage goes wrong. This genius Islamic practice is a lot more than potential problem solving. For a man to agree Mahr before even marriage starts, this Islamic practice symbolically tell this about to be husband guy in high volumes: "There is something in men's soul and psyche, if it is not tamed and disciplined, which can bring so much harm to marriage, cause abuse and destruction." The practice of Mahr is a clear warning for potential male domination and domestic violence. By agreeing to the institution of Mahr, Muslim men symbolically acknowledge this potential danger and promise to constantly work against it. I wish more Muslims would take Nikah contracts and its very many beautiful symbolic teachings more seriously these days. 

Fellow believers, extend the microphone to every single Islamic ritual and symbolic act (as you practice, study and or learn about them) and listen to what they have to say very closely. Those symbols are not just symbols but powerful way of our beautiful religion communicates her moral ideals with her adherents. Let us resist becoming lost and losing sight in the external Dos and Do Nots of these symbolic Islamic rituals and practices. Let us strive to mindfully engage and shape our lives with beautiful messages that they give us. May Almighty guide us and be our source of strength in this process, inshallah. Amin.

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