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Have Our Du’aas Turned into Sheer Civil Expressions?

The Anglo-Irish Nobel laureate in literature, WB Yeats uses the infelicitous phrase “polite meaningless words” two times in his powerful work “Easter 1916”.

It occurs at the beginning of the poem where the poet describes his formal, facetious relationship with the anti-colonial rebels of pre-revolutionary Ireland. Previously, even though he didn’t like the Irish republican leaders and rebels, he exchanged social niceties and uttered “polite meaningless words” when he met them in the street.

By “polite meaningless words”, Yeats refers to the various formulaic social expressions of greeting and parting that people use but do not necessarily mean what those words signify.

The phrase “polite meaningless words” also indicates the boredom of average life in early twentieth-century Europe and beyond. It has now become a byword for the ritualistic pattern of social exchange and interaction.  

Today’s Polite Meaningless Words

“Polite meaningless words” are common in both in-person or virtual social contexts. They are used a lot in Facebook, WhatsApp and other forms of social interactions. Among the usual civil utterances are ‘see you later!’, ‘have a nice day/weekend!’, ‘have a great week ahead!’, ‘enjoy the rest of the week!’ or ‘enjoy your meal!’. ‘Assalamu alaikum’ (peace be upon you) is also used in both religious and social contexts. While many people mean what they say and use such expressions sincerely, there are apathetic others who do so superficially.

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Let me offer an anecdote to illustrate this point.

Once a member of a professional group was away for some time. During his absence, some remaining members said unflattering things about him. One day when it was announced that he would be re-joining the group soon, some rolled their eyes to express disquiet about the impending return of their colleague.

Finally, that member safely returned. A couple of months on, it was his birthday. Laudatory birthday wishes were heaped on him and more so by those who were unable to be enthusiastic about his return. There was an outpouring of good wishes and borrowed expressions of compliments.  A logical question to consider is: Were they genuine?

Artificial Greetings

We are sometimes prisoners of our ritualistic behaviour and cultural practices. Our predecessors developed various forms of verbal felicities in complete sincerity and spontaneity. However, because of their automated and robotic use, many of those expressions now seem to have lost much of their meaning.

Taken-for-granted greetings and partings have become outward marks of decorum and good behaviour. In certain circumstances, not using them would be deemed discourteous. However, in cases, the putative artificiality of such social niceties and verbal felicities is palpable.

It becomes more unacceptable if such affectation and artificiality spills over into religious statements.

I have noticed that Muslims often make du’aa (supplication) expressions in a routine, predictable manner. They appear to be glib about an aspect that involves the divine.

In Islam, the concept of du’aa is sublime and has great merit. It is an important way for many people to turn to God. It helps the believers restore or strengthen their bond with Him. They make du’aa to God for their own selves, for their parents and for each other – for all. It is an important religious experience as well as a virtuous duty to God and to the community.

However, du’aas must emanate from the heart and be saturated with sincerity. Supplication to God should be a profound spiritual experience and not merely a matter of social etiquette or civil expression.

Words of supplication on social media platforms are quite widespread. There are people who make beautiful electronic du’a calligraphies, stickers or GIFs to use in a reproducible manner. Beautiful on the screen, indeed! However, are these translated into real acts of supplication to God? Or, have they been reduced to mere linguistic proprieties.

Words vs. Acts of Supplication

In social interactions, people often use supplicatory expressions like ‘may God bless you!’ or ‘may God make things easy for you!’. They often say these words to family members, friends or relatives, as well as to those who are in difficulties. The recipients may find support and solace in such simple words of good wishes and prayers. However, it is important that they are not reduced to social norms and niceties. Well-wishers should turn these words of supplication into acts of supplication.

That is to say, if expressions of du’aa do not come from the heart and if people only say them as civil utterances or type them on the screen as niceties, they may not be efficacious from a religious point of view.

Therefore, supplications for oneself and for others should be profound acts of submission and obedience to God, and only then it can be hoped that they will be answered. Turning them into “polite meaningless words” may not be sanctioned by a religion like Islam.

About Dr. Md. Mahmudul Hasan
Dr. Md. Mahmudul Hasan is with the Department of English Language and Literature at International Islamic University Malaysia. You can reach him at [email protected]