People must make sure that no superstitions, or any forms of unbelief and nonsensical behavior, are instigated, bred and promoted inside their houses. If allowed, that is bound to create some serious repercussions for the status of the house as the family education and development center, and for those who live in it and for their spiritual and rational wellbeing. This is so because Islam as a religion that champions reason and common sense declared a war against anything that could get in the way of their proper and effective functioning.
It has been reported that during the Prophet’s time and according to some people’s culture, if one set out on a journey and if at an early stage of it one changed his mind, he would return. However, due to some unfounded beliefs and superstitions, the person would enter his house only from the back and never through the front door, supposing, albeit baselessly, that such a conduct is of virtue. So, the Qur’an denounced this practice because it was founded on false beliefs, and because it run contrary to the Islamic moral principles with reference to the functions of the house and its remarkable roles in developing a righteous and vibrant society with individuals who possessed an upright, unprejudiced, balanced, sensible and dynamic outlook on life. People must pay most attention to the most important things in life. Logically, they must pay least attention to the least important things. Baseless, meaningless and deceptive issues and things must be shunned at all times as they disturb one’s focus and attention and mercilessly consume his time, energy and willpower. There is no greater good than the divine truth and everything associated with it, directly or indirectly. At the same time, however, there is no greater evil than the falsehood and everything associated with it, directly or indirectly. Surely, the ways houses are planned, designed, built and used must put into effect these tenets.
Allah says on the cited Arab custom: “They ask you concerning the new moon. Say: They are times appointed for (the benefit of) men, and (for) the pilgrimage; and it is not righteousness that you should enter the houses at their backs, but righteousness is this that one should guard (against evil); and go into the houses by their doors and be careful (of your duty) to Allah, that you may be successful.” (al-Baqarah, 189)
Mentioning this superstition together with the notion of the new moon by whose appearance the period for the pilgrimage (hajj) to Makkah is fixed, some assume that the superstition is related in particular to traveling during the pilgrimage season. Abdullah Yusuf Ali says: “There were many superstitions connected with the new moon…The Arabs, among other superstitions, had one which made them enter their houses by the back door during or after the pilgrimage. This is disapproved, for there is no virtue in any such artificial restrictions. All virtue proceeds from the love and fear of Allah.”
Certainly, this superstitious belief had more than a few implications for the ways some houses in the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the Prophet’s mission have been designed and built, because there must have existed at least an opening at the back of houses big enough for a person to go through for performing the said function. Some houses did not have any rear opening, however, so the people had to use the stairs and climb over the back wall to the roof of the house and then from there to descend into the house proper.
Then, curing a set of other superstitions relating to the roles of the house, Allah says: “There is no blame on the blind man, nor is there blame on the lame, nor is there blame on the sick, nor on yourselves that you eat from your houses, or your fathers' houses or your mothers' houses, or your brothers' houses, or your sisters' houses, or your paternal uncles' houses, or your paternal aunts' houses, or your maternal uncles' houses, or your maternal aunts' houses, or what you possess the keys of, or your friends' (houses). It is no sin in you that you eat together or separately. So when you enter houses, greet your people with a salutation from Allah, blessed (and) goodly; thus does Allah make clear to you the communications that you may understand.” (al-Nur, 61)
This verse obliterates a number of powerful superstitions which were able to stifle both people’s right and accountable thinking and the status and function of the house, which, in turn, could hold back the right, fair and dynamic development of the whole community. If those superstitions were upheld, or simply ignored, advancing the idea of the house as a family development center, the fundamental societal unit and a microcosm of culture and civilization, would have been considerably jeopardized.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s comment about this verse is as follows: “There were various Arab superstitions and fancies which are combated and rejected here. (1) The blind, or the halt, or those afflicted with serious disease were supposed to be objects of divine displeasure, and as such not fit to be associated with us in meals in our houses: we are not to entertain such a thought, as we are not judges of the causes of people’s misfortunes, which deserve our sympathy and kindness. (2) It was considered unbecoming to take meals in the houses of near relatives: this taboo is not approved. (3) A similar superstition about houses in our possession but not in our actual occupation is disapproved. (4) If people think they should not fall under obligation to casual friends, that does not apply to a sincere friend, in whose company a meal is not to be rejected, but welcomed. (5) If people make a superstition either that they should always eat separately, or that they must always eat in company, as some people weary of their own company think, either of them is wrong. Man is free and should regulate his life according to needs and circumstances.”
In his commentary of the Qur’an, Ibn Kathir dwelled on a number of reports which contain the reasons for revealing the above-quoted verse. According to some such reports, many Arabs, at first, used to feel too embarrassed to eat with the blind, because they could not see the food or where the best morsels were, so others might take the best pieces before they could. They felt too embarrassed to eat with the lame, because they could not sit comfortably, and their companions might take advantage of them. They also felt too embarrassed to eat with the sick, because they might not eat as much as others, so they were afraid to eat with them lest they were unfair to them in some way. Then Allah granted the people a dispensation in this matter.
As per some other accounts, however, before Islam and the mission of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the people used to feel too embarrassed and too proud to eat with the blind, the lame and the sick, lest they might have to help them and thus put themselves in an awkward situation. So Allah revealed the verse in question in order to rescind this negative thinking.
It has been further reported that “a man would take a blind, lame or sick person to the house of his brother or sister or aunt, and those disabled people would feel ashamed of that and say: “They are taking us to other people’s houses.” So the same verse was revealed granting permission for that.”
As yet another reason for revealing this verse, “a man would enter the house of his father or brother or son, and the lady of the house would bring him some food, but he would refrain from eating because the master of the house was not there,” so Allah revealed the said verse allowing the opposite, i.e., a person can eat in the house of his father or brother or son, even though the master of the house is not there.
Furthermore, the Muslims used to go out on military campaigns with the Prophet (pbuh) and they would give the keys of their houses to people they trusted and say: “We permit you to eat whatever you need.” But they would say: “It is not permissible for us to eat, they have given us permission reluctantly and we are only trustees.” The same verse abrogated this custom as well.
Some people also used to say, as a result of a wrong reasoning: “Allah has forbidden us to eat up our property among ourselves unjustly, and food is the best of property, so it is not permissible for anyone among us to eat at the house of anyone else.” So after the revelation of this verse, the people stopped practicing this unfounded custom.
Finally, there were even those who would feel embarrassed and would refrain from eating alone until someone else came along, but Allah made the matter easier for the people telling them that they can eat either together or separately. Some people went so far as to believe that it was a source of shame for them to eat alone, to such an extent that a man might keep on driving his laden camel even though he was hungry, until he could find someone to eat and drink with him.
Furthermore, people are warned against vainly harboring a fallacious belief that the endless privacy, security and comfort of their houses – and other worldly fortresses — though able to ward off a great many hazards of the outside, could do anything about thwarting or deferring the greatest of man’s anxieties: death. Indeed, defeating, or at least postponing, death, when its time arrives, is the greatest craving of people, especially unbelievers. Allah says: “Wherever you are, death will overtake you, though you are in lofty towers, and if a benefit comes to them, they say: This is from Allah; and if a misfortune befalls them, they say: This is from you. Say: All is from Allah, but what is the matter with these people that they do not make approach to understanding what is told (them)?” (al-Nisa’, 78) The phrase “lofty towers” can also signify palaces, sophisticated houses, and any other worldly fortress of man, as they all serve similar purposes.
Allah also says that a person whose appointed time of death has come will surely be taken away from his house, his safest and most inviolable earthly sanctuary, to the place where he is destined to die. Nothing can avert this inevitability. Man is thus better off if he acknowledges, comes to terms with and starts looking forward to experiencing this astonishing truth, rather than to vainly try to ignore or distort it, and then start developing and living under some illusions with regard to the contrary. Allah says: “They say: Had we any hand in the affair, we would not have been slain here. Say: Had you remained in your houses, those for whom slaughter was ordained would certainly have gone forth to the places where they would be slain, and that Allah might test what was in your breasts and that He might purge what was in your hearts; and Allah knows what is in the breasts.” (Alu ‘Imran, 154)
Islam as a religion of reason, faith, deeds and concrete life strategies
Finally, as a small digression, Islam’s prohibition of concocting, nurturing and harboring superstitions, not only at home but also in all the tiers of existence, led to the conspicuous absence of literal or deadening symbolism and formalism in the genuine manifestations of Islamic culture and civilization, including the built environment. Indeed, demoralizing and de-spiritualizing superstitions, literal symbolism and throttling formalism are all interlaced. Irrespective of which one exactly is the cause and which one is the effect, they give rise to, cultivate and sustain each other. They draw strength from each other. They form a dominant triangle of ignorance, confusion, deceit and agnosticism which contaminates, hinders and is capable of totally stifling the spiritual enlightenment and growth of people, their institutions and society as a whole.
Thus, Islam proscribes superstitions, plain symbolism and formalism in religion, denouncing them in various contexts and in some very powerful terms. Due to this, mainly, the form in the Islamic built environment is always required to follow and serve the requirements and interests of the function and its many dimensions: corporeal, cerebral and spiritual. The form divorced from the function is insignificant. The importance of the form, by and large, is a supportive one, supplementing and enhancing the function. The function always comes first, the form is second. The former is the objective, the latter a means. It follows that the legitimacy of the form lies in the legitimacy of the function, and how strongly and in what an association they are bonded.
Islam is a religion not only of a faith and abstract philosophy but also of deeds, action and concrete life strategies. The term “islam” means “submission”, which in itself implies a continuous and comprehensive action. Islam is not essentially a religion of symbols, slogans and rhetoric. It strikes a fine balance between the exigencies of the material and spiritual aspects of existence, between the requirements of well-being in this world and the Hereafter, and between the needs of personal, family as well as societal development. Islam means having a strong and complete faith in Allah and the other required realities from the spiritual and corporeal worlds plus performing good deeds under all circumstances. Appropriation of simply one aspect of Islam without the others is insufficient for attaining success in here and hereafter. The two must be integrated in a whole that we call “Islam”, which, in turn, must be interwoven with the life-force of the notion of comprehensive excellence or ihsan. In Islam faith and good deeds go hand-in-hand. Neither faith suffices without good deeds, nor good deeds are of value without faith. A strong relationship between faith and good deeds is the way towards comprehensive excellence.
This philosophy must be embodied and strikingly palpable in the field of the Islamic built environment too, in that the latter exists because of the existence of Muslims and their distinctive life philosophy. Moreover, the Islamic built environment exists in order to serve as a means, the facilities and a physical locus of the actualization of the Islamic message on earth. It represents the identity of Islamic culture and civilization in every time and space. However, this scenario will become viable only when Muslim built environment professionals, as well as people in their capacity as the users of built environment, become very comfortable and familiar with the teachings and principles of Islam, subscribing to and exemplifying them in their thoughts, words and actions.
About this nature of the Islamic message, whereby superstitions, deadening formalism and symbolism, as well as all the attitudes, deeds and conditions that may breed them, are strongly reproached, Allah says: “It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, but righteousness is this that one should believe in Allah and the last day and the angels and the Book and the prophets, and give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and the beggars and for (the emancipation of) the captives, and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate; and the performers of their promise when they make a promise, and the patient in distress and affliction and in time of conflicts — these are they who are true (to themselves) and these are they who guard (against evil).” (al-Baqarah, 177)
“It is not their meat, nor their blood that reaches Allah; it is your piety that reaches Him. He has thus made them subject to you, that ye may glorify Allah for His Guidance to you and proclaim the good news to all who do right.” (al-Hajj, 37)
“When they are told to follow the (Revelation) that Allah has sent down, they say: “Nay, we shall follow the ways that we found our fathers (following).” What! even if it is Satan beckoning them to the Penalty of the (blazing) Fire?” (Luqman, 21)
“When it is said to them: “Follow what Allah has revealed”, they say: “Nay, we shall follow the ways of our fathers.” What! even though their fathers were void of wisdom and guidance?” (al-Baqarah, 170)
Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur’an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 1 p. 16
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and the Commentary, see the commentary of the verse no. 189 from the al-Baqarah chapter (surah).
Fakhruddin al-Razi, al-Tafsir al-Kabir, http://www.altafsir.com.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and the Commentary, see the commentary of the verse no. 61 from the al-Nur chapter (surah).
Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Karim, (English translation) http://www.tafsir.com.