January 8, 2017
“For, to speak out once for all, man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.” (J. C. Friedrich von Schiller, Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter XV, 9)
As a follow-up to the the entry entitled Self-Discipline in Islam, I was asked “what is the place of joy, laughter, and relaxation in Islam, in comparison to self-restraint, discipline and control?”
A few preliminary remarks, before providing an answer:
To answer this question, one would ideally have to have a good grasp of the general personality traits that are expected of the believer. Books have been written about each of these traits, so here is not the place to give a more detailed account. So simply to keep in mind the most important ones:
Strong sense of community (direct neighbors, neighborhood, community, society and country; world)
Importance of family ties
Moderation in everything (belief and action, including eating, sleeping, speaking, playing)
High moral character:
Patience; resilience, perseverance
These general traits have to be the background against which this article is to be understood. In other words, nothing I will be saying here should be interpreted in a way that contradicts those traits, only complement them.
2. This is not a topic that has been addressed a lot directly, but indirectly, there is a lot of literature. Anyone who wants to address it directly in a serious manner therefore needs to spend time canvassing, extracting, compiling, interpreting, etc.
With these two points in mind, we can delve into the topic at hand…
One of the core tenets of Islam is its insistence on its compatibility with human nature. God created the universe, including human beings, and instilled various, even divergent faculties, traits, abilities, desires, instincts, etc. in them. Left to themselves, human beings allow some of these aspects of their nature to dominate others aspects, and this explains much of the oppression and corruption (committed against oneself as well as others) that takes place in the world. While certain philosophies, religions or ways of life have opted for repression of some of these natural desires and inclinations as a means to control them (for instance, celibacy in various religions, most notably Catholicism based on Matthew 19: 11-12), Islam teaches that these instincts, desires and faculties have all been placed in the human being by the divine hand for important purposes, in order to live a rich and fulfilled life, and as instruments to be used for a better afterlife. The condition however, is that these various aspects, faculties, and forces must be in complete harmony with each other, and that each is used as it should, in conformity with the circumstances and context, without transgressing any others. So using them appropriately (to maximize their benefits) is equated to using them in the manner in which God intended, and in the manner that pleases Him. The claim of Islam is that this is only possible by strictly following the teachings of Islam, which come from the creator of the human nature, and who alone, knows absolutely and perfectly the true needs and secrets of this human nature.
The need to play, to laugh, and to relax are instinctive, natural needs that are found in every human being. Given what we just said, it becomes valid to wonder, how are we to satisfy this need in a harmonious, balanced manner without falling into either end of the spectrum (too much or too little)?
The normal and expected state in life is one of hard work, perseverance, and seriousness. Rest and relaxation are a complement to the hard work by providing the required state to refresh the psyche and re-energize the mind, in order to return to the daily routine of life with renewed vigor and energy.
Despite the importance of relaxation and its function, if someone spends the majority of their time relaxing and resting, they will surely have wasted their life. The Holy Qur’an says:
“or do you suppose that we have created you without purpose, and that you will not be brought back to Us?” (23:115)
“Does the human being suppose that he would be left to futility?” (75:36)
“O human being! You will certainly labor toward your Lord laboriously, and (then) you will encounter Him.” (84:6)
There is no question that hard work and consistent effort are required to meet the necessities of this life, as well as to ensure happiness in the afterlife. But if you push yourself too much without rest or relaxation, you may end up causing harm to yourself, and damaging the ultimate results you are looking for. That is why we find that the Islamic tradition has not neglected playfulness, laughter and relaxation.
Various narrations from Prophet Muhammad and the Imams address the topic directly:
The Prophet said:
“Rest yourselves from time to time; because, if the hearts get tired they become blind.”
Imam Sadiq said:
“This religion is deep, so enter it with moderation, and do not make yourself dislike worship (by doing more than you can handle), then you will become like the one whose ride (i.e. horse, camel…) dies in the middle of the desert; he will not have completed his journey, and he will have killed his animal as a result of exhaustion.”
He also said:
“My father saw me exhausted from worship while I was young, so he told me ‘my son, when God likes his servant, He is satisfied with little worship from him.’ ”
There are those who wish to make rest and playfulness the objective of their lives. They spend every moment looking for the next recreational activity to occupy themselves and relax. Such people will most likely leave this world with a heavy heart, because they were never able to find the absolute rest and play that they were longing for, because such an absolute state of relaxation and rest does not exist in this world. As for those those who view life as serious business, but who also know that there is a place for rest and recreation in their life, their outlook is much more balanced and compatible with their own nature. So long as the general map of your journey in life is one of hard work and perseverance, and the portion you allocate to relaxation and play does not interfere with it in manner that delays or prevents you from reaching you worldly and otherworldly objectives, then there is no harm in enjoying life, be it in recreational activities, hobbies, sports, travel, socializing, playing games, or even sleeping.
In one narration, Islam teaches us to organize our time in this manner:
“Divide your time into four parts: one part to speak with your Lord; and one part for work and livelihood; and one part for socializing with family and friends; and one part to satisfy your desires without committing sins.”
Rest And Play Beyond Permissibility
In Islam, any thought or action can fall into one of five categories: obligatory, recommended, permissible, discouraged, and forbidden. While most people will expect the discussion on playfulness, laughter and the like under the heading of permissible acts, the truth of the matter is that they should be discussed in the recommended actions, and some may be surprised to learn that they can even be considered as lighter forms of worship.
Acts of worship are simply actions whose main purpose is to strengthen the ties with God. And while there are ritual prescribed acts of worship that are obligatory (the five daily prayers, fasting the month of Ramadan, etc.) or recommended (fasting outside of Ramadan, performing additional prayers, keeping the streets of your neighborhood clean, volunteering at the homeless shelter, etc.) some actions can be performed with the intention of worship even though they have not been explicitly mentioned as acts of worship.
An example to illustrate this notion: drinking a glass of water is simply a permissible act. But if I am about to die from thirst and I know that drinking the water saves my life, then drinking the same glass of water becomes obligatory. If I know that an animal or a person around me is more thirsty than I am, then drinking the water instead of giving it to them becomes discouraged (or prohibited, if their life is in danger). If the glass or the water belong to someone else and there is a possibility that they do not want anyone else to have it, then drinking it without their permission becomes forbidden because it is someone else’s property. The desirability or undesirability of the same action will therefore change depending on the intention and circumstances around the action.
So if I am simply drinking the glass of water because I feel thirsty, it would be deemed a permissible action. But if I drink the water with the intention of feeling better and stronger, so that I can undertake other good actions, such as praying, or helping others, this definitely becomes a recommended action for which I will be rewarded by God, because of the ultimate intention behind it.
Rest, relaxation, laughter, play, etc. are all permissible in Islam. However, when we keep in mind that they prevent depression, get rid of boredom, and inject energy and vigor back into our lives and the lives of those around us, and as a result we can take better care of ourselves physically, psychologically and spiritually, and better perform our duties towards ourselves, others, and God as a result, of course they become recommended and encouraged.
The Place Of Humor
Many have criticized Jesus, the Bible, and religions in general as lacking humour and laughter, and used this as at least a partial reason for rejecting religious belief [see for instance Adam Lee’s article]. This is the same line of thinking that has made some thinkers say those a nation that doesn’t know how to enjoy playing can’t be trusted, or that a man who doesn’t smile and is serious all the time is a dangerous man (Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2). Regardless of the many problems and weaknesses with the argument being made against the Bible and religion [too many reference to name here, but you can read The Humor of Christ, and Between Heaven and Mirth for now] the objection itself does highlight the importance of humor and lightheartedness as a natural human need. In other words, there is something disconcerting and unhealthy about lack of humor and too much seriousness, because it is incompatible with the human nature that everyone finds in themselves directly.
The Holy Qur’an tells us in many verses that one of the main objections of the disbelievers is that they do not want to follow a mere human being, and would rather follow an angel for instance. The Qur’an rejects their argument because the point of sending human beings as divine prophets and messengers is so that people have concrete examples to follow in their daily lives. Prophets and messengers are people who eat, and sleep and fall sick, and die. Their greatness lies in their ability to become what they become in spite of their human limits. Angels with no desires, no instincts or needs, could never become models for humans… and humor is part of human nature. In that sense, their objection is valid that if it is true that there is no place for humor, laughter, playfulness in religion, then it is incompatible with human nature, and they are not interested in it.
In Umberto Eco’s famous novel The Name of the Rose, murders take place at the hands of monks who kill people who get too close to Aristotle’s book On Comedy, in which the latter talks about humor and laughter and its philosophy. Comedy and laughter are of course portrayed as evil, and therefore dangerous by the Church, so they eliminate those interested in such corruption. Although mostly fictitious, this book is pointing, in a genius manner, to a serious issue with many religious people (and this is not limited to Christianity by any means) who actually do have such tendencies of viewing humor and laughter as corrupting, and damaging to piety and religiousness, and that it is therefore inappropriate.
Søren Kierkegaard, the father of Christian existentialism, thought that the reason sexuality had become a problem in Christianity (he called it “institutional Christianity”) was because Christianity had fixated on it, and made it into a problem and an evil. He also explained that for a human being to find true fulfillment, they must go through various stages, namely: the aesthetic stage, the ethical stage, and the religious stage. And it is only once we reach the last stage, according to Kierkegaard, that we become authentic, and truly appreciate that all the pleasures of life and the goodness of creation are gifts from God to be enjoyed in the right way. There is something to be learned from these insights, as we must all know religious people who think that being religious means being serious at all times, even short tempered, grumpy…