As part of my ‘relearning’ experience I have been looking for resources on prayer. My goal is to read and learn as much as possible about prayer in the hopes that I can implement what I learn into my practice. I decided to keep myself open to all potential sources of knowledge. This means that even if I find a resource that doesn’t ground itself in the Islamic tradition, I will still explore it. This is for both practical and spiritual reasons.
First, looking primarily for English resources has made it a little more challenging to find a huge amount of Islamic resources. While the Muslim community here in the United States has definitely made strides in growing its English knowledge resources, what’s available in Arabic vastly overshadows. The quality and quantity of Arabic Islamic resources is just much more. Unfortunately, my abilities in Arabic are just not where my English abilities are. I do hope to explore what I can find in Arabic, but I know that I won’t get through the material nearly as quickly or deeply as I could English resources. This means that for the most part I will be relying on English resources, at least for the time being. Christian, Jewish, and even Buddhist resource bases have years more of development and are much more readily available.
Secondly, I don’t want to shut the door to Allah’s guidance. It is my personal belief that Allah guides through many different ways. While I am committed to Islam as the perfect guidance to a peaceful life, I don’t think this means that I should close my mind to anything outside of it. Islam breathes life into everything I experience. It is through it that I interpret my world. This includes resources and ideas from outside of it. When I come across anything, I always think about what Allah swt has taught us about it through the message of Islam. As such, guidance can come from any source at any time. Truly, Allah has laid signs of Himself in all His creation.
All of this brings me to the resource I am discussing here:
The Prayer Diet: The Unique Physical Mental and Spiritual Approach to Healthy Weight Loss by Matthew Anderson D.Min
At first glance this may seem like an odd choice, but I took a gamble. It payed off. While the book is marketed to be a weight loss book, it’s really more about prayer. That’s not to say that what it conveys about weight loss isn’t important, just that it’s scope is actually beyond that. The book talks about the ability of prayer to change your life. Anderson invites you to try praying to lose weight and then open yourself up to the possibility of seeing your weight and your life transformed. He asks you to look at prayer as a constant tool to turn to for whatever you need and shares his own experiences with the power of prayer. The tone of the book is very disarming and he even asks non believers to join in the experiment. As he says, prayer is for all people and for all things, big and small.
From an Islamic perspective, this book is about the practice of duaa – supplication or asking God for what you want. In Islam, while duaa is an encouraged form of worship, it’s different from the ritual practice of prayer or salah. Salah is more defined than the open ended experience of duaa. Regardless, I still tried to keep the concept of salah in mind while reading the book in the hopes that I would be able to extract some compatible applications. While the ideas in the book are great reflections points for my faith in general, there were specific concepts I felt could directly apply to my salah.
1.God hears the heart message of the one praying to Him.
While this book is not written from an Islamic perspective, the author does rely heavily on the works of the Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi. Theological issues with Sufi practice aside, he did self identify as a Muslim and I’m not in a position to reject his Islam. I found it interesting how, even though The Prayer Diet is not an Islamic book, it still had a lot of influence from Muslim traditions. Anderson quotes Rumi’s poems throughout the book. Early on, he quotes one in which Rumi communicates that Allah hears beyond the words of the one praying into his heart. It’s really his heart that is praying.
This opened my eyes in many ways. It showed me how it is that non-Arabic speakers can pray with deep tranquility and presence. It showed me how even if I perform all the correct functions of salah, that doesn’t mean that I will have a great spiritual experience. I have to bring my heart to attention every time I enter into the prayer. Allah knows where my heart is and that is what I need in order to speak to Him everyday.
I see this as somewhat distinct from bringing my ‘attention’ back to prayer. I do think that one must have their mind in the prayer, but this is a step beyond that. Salah is a way to unload your burdens and Allah is the only one who can carry them away from you. I need to bring my worries, fears, desperations, really all the emotions that I carry around with me to my prayer. I imagine turning my heart towards Allah and opening up all the things it carries. When I’ve been able to do this, I felt a sweetness beyond that of mental attention.
2.Look for answers to your prayers in your everyday
Anderson talks about how, when he prays, he looks for answers to his prayers. He says that most of the time we think that our prayers are not being answered because we’re not looking hard enough. God sends us answers all the time but we are blind to them. Once you start paying attention you’ll see that the answers are everywhere.
Connecting this to salah, I took it to mean keep your connection to Allah going even if you are not in the act of prayer. Allah swt wants us to connect with Him, and that is why He ordained prayer at five fixed points in our day. This way, even if we become distracted from Him, there will be a forced means of rerouting us back to Him. Prayer will gain more depth and meaning though, if you try not to get distracted in your daily activities from thinking about Allah. See things as ‘conversation points’ to bring to your prayer. If you had a fight with a friend, see it as something to bring to your meeting with Allah. If you did well on an exam share that with Allah. All the parts of life are really just messages from Allah calling us back to Him.
This is probably the biggest struggle for me, but it’s a good reminder and I hope to be able to live it.
3.Prayer is for everyone and everything; Pray even if you’re not ‘feeling it’
Building off of the last point, don’t think that you are too sinful or your concerns too negligible to pray. Anderson talks about how prayer is not just for the righteous but rather, prayer is for everyone. Prayer belongs even more to those who need it; those going through tough times or who feel that they are lost. If you feel like you shouldn’t pray that’s probably a sign that you should. Prayer is for you!
Sometimes, especially if I’ve had a bought of truly poor prayers, I don’t really feel like I want to pray. I feel ashamed, distracted, and hopeless. I feel like none of my prayers are being accepted by Allah. This creates a kind of wall of resentment between me and salah. Even though I may not feel like it, I know that I need to push through and pray. It’s my way of showing Allah that I’m committed and that I won’t give up. Yes my prayers aren’t as good as I would like them to be, but I have hope that they can be better and I will work on them.
6. Talk about Prayer
Though he only mentions this point briefly at the end of the book, it really resonated with me. Anderson states that talking about and encouraging others to pray will help your own prayer. I have definitely found this to be true. It’s part of the reason I’m writing these posts publicly. Though I am wary that my intentions can become muddied or that I sometimes can become distracted in my prayer thinking about my prayer (subhanAllah!), I have found that the benefits have outweighed the risks. The more I talk about prayer the more I think about it.
The Bottom Line: This book helped improve my prayers but required some extrapolation and reflection on my part (due to it not being about salah directly).
Recommend: Yes (but not if you’re looking for something readily applicable to salah)