A Small Reflection on Prostration

I had a small reflection today while praying at the masjid.

I was finishing my sunnah prayers and put my head down close to the feet of the person praying in front of me.

I thought, subhanAllah, how Allah humbles us. When we pray in, it’s true that we place our heads on the ground in submission to Him. We place our place of honor, our head, on the ground to demonstrate how we are nothing in front of Allah. In addition, though, especially when we pray in congregation, we also place our heads at the feet of those before us. If you’ve ever prayed in a cramped place in congregation, you’ve probably bumped your head with the feet of the person in front of you.

If you walked into that prayer room thinking you were better than anyone else, Allah put you in your place. Your place of honor is now at the same level of your fellow congregant’s feet. All man is equal. All man must be humble. You are no better than anyone else’s feet! In prostrating to Him, He forces us to recognize our humility twice over; with respect to Him, our Master, and with respect to all mankind.

How amazing is our religion, and how amazing is prayer. If  we just take the time to give it its due…

Ramadan Recap

Today is the 6th of Shawal and I wanted to do a personal review on how my Ramadan goals went. I had 2 goals: Read a book on prayer, and push my prayer to the level of ‘awe’.

In some sense I would say I was successful in fulfilling my goals. I did complete the book ‘101 Ways to Concentrate in Prayer’. I also prayed more often with consciousness of Allah swt and feelings of being in His presence. That being said, I also had some problems.

For my first goal, I technically didn’t finish the book until a couple days after Eid. Additionally, I read in spurts rather than consistently and taking notes. Alhamdulilah, I still benefited from the text, but it would have been more powerful to read a little at a time regularly and reflect, rather than large portions sporadically.

For my second goal, I had many more difficulties. When I set the goal, I knew I was overreaching. For one, I did not first establish the level of humiliation in prayer to progress to that of awe. Expecting myself to jump from little or no khushu to a prayer of complete awe of Allah was not realistic. Still, I wanted to challenge myself and I thought that if I aimed high and missed, I would still land higher than if I had aimed lower. I found this to be true. The prayers where I did feel more closeness to Allah had much more humiliation and quality than many other prayers I had prayed before. Additionally, the sweetness of that feeling was intense and comforting alhamduliLah. It pushed me to seek it more and apply myself more.

Unfortunately though, this was not consistent throughout the whole month. I hit the mid Ramadan slump with my prayers and didn’t give as much care and attention to fulfilling them with awe of Allah swt during those middle days. I found myself distracted, rushed, and repeating suwar as I often do outside of Ramadan. Taraweeh prayers that I was able to attend were much better, but that’s usually the case. So honestly, my success in reaching my goals is mixed.

Despite all that, I feel that I came out of Ramadan with some new techniques to use in my prayer. Some I learned from the book and I others I came up with or heard in lectures. The ones I practiced regularly, and found most effective, were: responding in duaa to the verses being recited in prayer and imagining myself standing in the court of Allah.

The first technique really gave my a sweetness in my taraweeh prayers. Whenever I would hear a verse I would try to think of what I could ask Allah for from it. If the verse was about hell fire, then I could ask for protection against it. If it was about guidance, I could pray for to be lead by Him; and so on. This helped me feel that my prayer was an active experience and conversation with Allah swt. Additionally, it helped me pay closer attention to what was being recited and reflect on its meanings. It’s a great technique and I hope to be consistent in using it here on out. The only issue I have with it is how to incorporate it into individual prayer (as opposed to group prayer). It’s a bit difficult to mentally juggle both reciting the verses and responding internally to their meaning. I do want to try though, so I will keep at it insha’Allah.

The second technique I used most was to consider myself ‘in the court of Allah’. I would try to imagine that I was being called to account on the Day of Judgement or that I was standing in front of the throne of of Allah. Sometimes I would try to imagine heaven or hell ahead of me. This really helped me feel more presence in my prayer and get closer to that feeling of humiliation and even awe of Allah. To imagine being before Him would make me feel embarrassed for wandering thoughts or feel reverence for His power. I was not always successful though, and didn’t always sustain it mentally. With more practice though, I hope to be able to make it a norm of my prayer.

Alhamdulilah that Allah granted me this Ramadan and helped me through it. I hope that He accepts any good of it and forgives my shortcomings in it. I pray and pray that I get more Ramadans to get closer to Him and improve my prayers even more. AlhamduliLah

Review: The Prayer Diet

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:

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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)

 

Review: Meaningful Prayer Online Class

The Meaningful Prayer online class is a smart way to offer the weekend Bayyinah Institute class to people everywhere at their convenience. I enrolled and listened to the sessions a little less than a year ago and I found it to be beneficial to a point.

Basically the class is a detailed explanation of the meanings of all the things that are recited in the prayer. Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda goes into the lexical complexity of each supplication we make throughout the prayer. He gives context and detail to what is recited. The title of the course is very indicative of what you will get out of it.

This class is great for gaining a deeper appreciation of what you are saying in your prayers. It helps give meaning to the different parts of the prayer and if you can recall these meanings during your prayer, it adds depth to it. At the end of the course, Shaykh Abdul Nasir emphasizes the importance of reviewing what you’ve learned in the course routinely until you can remember all meanings learned  during the prayer seamlessly. He advises taking 15 minutes each day to look over your notes from the course so that you can carry the meanings of what you learned into your prayers. Without that, what you learned will just wilt away into random information from a course you took long ago …

This is important to keep in mind when approaching this course. This course is amazing for helping you realize what Allah is saying to you and asking you to say, but it’s not a shortcut for working on your own communication with Him. Prayer is a means for developing your relationship with Allah and as such requires sustained and continuous effort. Looking for a ‘quick fix’ to building a connection with Allah will only shortchange you in the end. You have to see your prayers as somethings that you are constantly building to get closer to Allah.

This course won’t hand you amazing concentration or perfect presence, but it will help you begin the journey towards that. By understanding the meaning of what your are saying, it will help you better tune into what you are doing in your prayers. This is a great place to start your conversation with Allah …

I am grateful to have found this class. May Allah swt grant the Shaykh and everyone who worked on it great blessings on behalf of all those who took the course

The Bottom Line: This class is a first step in working towards better prayer.

Recommend: Definitely Yes

You can find a link to the class here: Meaningful Prayer Online Class

More on laziness

Laziness is probably the biggest contributor to an unfulfilling prayer life. It is the number one reason I can say that I am not where I need to be in my prayers. I never before realized how much laziness affects the content of my prayer until I started thinking about why I delay my prayer in the first place. The more i reflected, the more I recognized the patterns of laziness in and around my prayer. Yes it causes me to delay my prayers, but it also has consequences for how I perform the prayer and how much mental effort I exert.  

It’s always easier to do less; to under perform. If i pray later, it’s easier than getting up now and doing it. If I just rush through my supplications, it’s easier than focusing on the meaning of each part. If I recite a regular surah, it’s easier than trying to remember an infrequent one. Over and over, every decision in the prayer can be relegated to doing what’s easy. Consequently, when I answer laziness’ siren call, my prayer becomes more and more empty until it’s just a shell of ritualistic movements.

This is really sad.

It’s sad not just because I end up under performing my prayers but because I’m being lazy in the one relationship that I get more out of than any other. Being lazy is bad for so many innumerable reasons, but with Allah swt, it’s pitiful. He invites me daily to grow my relationship with Him and daily I tell Him, ‘no I would rather ______’. It’s humiliating to think about. And yet, I can’t figure out why I do this … Why am I always choosing the momentary easy way, even though a little more investment will reap so much more!!

Ya Allah give me guidance in finding a way to elevate my prayer …

 

 

 

Delaying – The first step of laziness

One of the most regular offenses I have noticed in myself is putting off praying. Alhamdulila 99% of the time I make the prayer before the window for it has passed. But still, I hardly ever pray within the first 10 minutes of it coming in. Forget about 10 minutes, 20, 30, or even 40 minutes would be good!

There is a lot of information out there on why it’s bad to delay the prayer but none has resonated with me like something I heard from my college chaplain. When the time for prayer comes in, your appointment with Allah swt has come in. She said that when you delay it’s as though you’re telling Allah swt, I have more important things to do than pray to You right now. Eeeeh that is a tough thing to say to Allah … but actions speak loudest and that’s what they are saying every time I delay the prayer

What is the problem here exactly??? I have heard this analogy years ago and yet I can’t seem to make the habit of praying at the earliest moment stick …

Part of the problem is that I try to fit my prayers into my schedule rather than the other way around. So I think, I’ll cook dinner then pray, I’ll finish this page then pray, etc etc

Another part of the problem is using the restroom and wudu. If I already have wudu, it’s much easier to go pray right when the time comes in. If I also have to make wudu though, my prayer is more likely to be delayed.

Honestly though, just from taking a few minutes here to think about what I’ve written, it seems that the underlying problem for delaying my prayer is laziness. Yes, I could do better of scheduling things or being prepared, but those require effort, the same effort it would take to in the moment get up and go pray!! There’s no getting around it … Prayer requires me to combat my laziness.

Laziness is the biggest challenge I am facing in my quest to a more fulfilling prayer life. It’s preventing me from even going to meet Allah on time in the first place! How deep can my prayer be if I can’t even seem to get up quickly enough to go speak to Allah. It’s embarrassing and frustrating that I am not motivated enough in my relationship with Allah …

This has given me a lot to reflect on but for now I will end seeking refuge in Allah from laziness in my prayers and in all my actions …

 

 

Still Not There

The most difficult thing to come to terms with during this prayer observation period has been that, sometimes even if I’ve done everything ‘right’, my prayer still feels like it’s missing something. It’s missing that deep spiritual connection with Allah swt. It often feels as though there is a wall between myself and Allah swt and I keep hitting it.

I find solace in the fact that there have been certain prayers where it hasn’t been this way. Actually, they are a handful and I can call them all distinctly to memory. In some ways this may seem sad, but in other ways it is comforting to me. I know that it is possible to reach a higher more fulfilling level of prayer; a true communion with Allah.

But what it means for the present is that I’m not trying hard enough. Maybe this may seem harsh, but I believe it to be true. While I cannot say that I can exactly draw an exact causal relationship between my overall religious effort and the depth of my prayer experience, I can say that there is at least some correlation. My prayers seem to be more meaningful when there is more serious commitment on my part. Maybe, it’s that Allah swt was responding to a genuine sense of yearning in me. Maybe it’s that I really truly wanted to have a better prayer, and I was bringing that into my consciousness more. I cannot tell you the magic ingredient because I don’t know what it is.

Part of why I am doing this blog, is to help my figure that out. I’m not sure that there even is one magic ingredient. Maybe it’s a series of conditions or maybe it’s something I’m entirely missing. Regardless, I set out on this journey to improve my prayers and to show Allah swt my commitment to developing my relationship with Him.

I ask Allah that He grants me a soul solace in my prayer.

Repeat Suras

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Because I have a hurried attitude toward my prayer, I usually recite verses that come easily to my mind; ones I have been repeating often and are quick to complete. This is a truly sad reality for me because growing up my parents encouraged me to memorize the Quran and I had committed to memory so much of Allah’s book. Now though, the Quran that I do recite in prayer has been limited to a very small rotation.

Prayer is meant to be an intimate conversation between us and the Divine …

It’s hard to feel like prayer is conversation with Allah swt if you don’t give a chance for Allah swt to speak to you. If you keep repeating the same verses over and over, honestly you’re not giving Allah the space to engage you. The Quran is Allah’s personal message to each and every one of us. When you keep repeating the same verses, it’s like ignoring most of what Allah swt is saying to you!! How can we expect to experience a continuous relationship with Allah swt if we don’t even want to hear His message to us! It’s like begging a trusted friend for advice and then closing your ears after they say “You should …”.

While rushing through fulfilling the duty of my prayer, I don’t even consider how little space I have given for Allah swt to speak to me and help me. I don’t give pause to the fact that Allah swt is engaging in this prayer with me. I therefore just recite whatever small sura of the Quran comes to mind most easily. Often I’m repeating something I recited earlier in the day or maybe even a rakah before. What’s worse is when I don’t even realize it until I have finished the whole sura! I then choose another sura because I’m so embarrassed I repeated the same verses I had read in my first rakah …

I lose a lot of the rejuvenating and uplifting aspects of this spiritual ritual by continuously repeating the same small surahs I’m used to saying. Prayer doesn’t feel like a conversation, but rather like a offering that has to be submitted out of fear of disobeying Allah swt. But I’m looking for Soul Solace and Prayer should be sweeter than that …

Mindlessness

I often find myself in the last prostration of my prayer wondering where it all went. Which verses did I read this time? Did I pray 3 or 4 rakas?  What’s worse is when I continue a train of thought right through the tasleem. I’m thinking about what to make for dinner while doing the tashahud, saying Assalamu Alaikum to the angels, and while I put my prayer clothes away. It’s as if there is no transition between the task of praying and the routine planning I have to do for my day.

Ukhhhhhh … I can’t believe it, how could I have prayed my whole prayer and still not recall a thing from it?!?! Clearly my prayer is not fulfilling its deeply meaningful purpose if I can’t even remember performing most of its tenants! Sometimes when my mind drifts back into the task of prayer itself, I think ‘Aren’t you embarrassed to stand in front of Allah like this and think about other things?!’. The Prophet of Allah swt taught us to face Allah during our prayers. He told us that Allah swt faces us so long as we are facing Him. When a slave of Allah turns away from Him though, Allah also turns away. The scary thing is that this might not just mean physically turning. What about spiritually turning away? What if your body is here in the prayer and your heart is off somewhere else. What are you saying to Allah swt, the Master of all creation, when you choose to think about the mundane of this trivial world while He is facing you? Is dinner really so important?!!?!!

Usually that helps me get back on track. But surely, soon my mind wanders again. It’s as though I am completely unable to focus.

Outside of prayer, I find that I’m usually trying to fit as many tasks and thoughts into a single moment. Concentration seems almost antithetical to what I spend most of my time trying to do: more tasks in less time. I’m not really sure what I’m planning on doing with all that extra time I seem to be trying to squeeze out of every task. I’m surely not using it to pray more or improve my spirituality. This prayer flaw is not simply a matter of time, it’s a matter of attention. Even short on time, one can focus in. Regardless of how much I expand the length of my prayer though, it won’t gain meaning unless I invest my attention wholly.

I am left with the task of training my mind and heart to focus. My stamina is low. I don’t have much practice in devoting my full and undivided attention to any one thing. But for the sake of my soul, I know I need to start practicing.

I want to bring my mind back into my prayer.

Haste

I don’t know why, but I am always in a rush. I always feel like I’m behind in getting to one thing or another. It’s always about getting to the next thing, even when there isn’t really any reason to race the clock. Maybe it has something to do with our American culture of getting things done, maybe its a personality trait, regardless, I’m always in a hurry.

Unfortunately, my prayer has not been spared. I rush to make wudu (better yet if I have it already from some ambiguous ‘before’). I rush to start, up down up down up down, tashahud. All done. I read shorter suwar or duaa. I rush to be done with the whole thing. I get up quickly, stash my prayer clothes away and run off to the next errand. I rush even if there really is no rush; even if after prayer all I do is sit there and surf the internet on my cell. It’s like rushing has become part of the ritual. How fast can you get it done?!

I’m not talking about the I-have-to-leave-in-the-middle-of-class-to-catch-prayer scenario. I mean when you have it easy; when there really isn’t much going on or the thing you’re going to do next isn’t so time sensitive. There’s this feeling that this prayer thing that I do is a mandatory chore that must be done in order to be done. . It’s not associated with deep feelings of spirituality and conversation.

The whole point of prayer is slowing dowwwwwwnn. It’s a time to pull yourself out of the routine and into a spiritual experience that energizes you. Rushing in prayer not only compromises its purpose but it can even lead to its invalidation. What’s the point of praying if you’re just hurrying to do the next thing after it. How spiritually uplifting can the experience be if all you want to do is get it done and cross it off the to do list?!!

The Prophet (s) alluded to this when he mentioned that a person who ‘pecks’ in his prayer is like a hungry man who only eats a few dates, what good will that do his hunger? Our souls get hungry. They need their own sustenance just as our bodies and minds do. When I rush through my prayer I’m barely giving myself enough to hold over until the next prayer. If I was physically hungry and had plenty of food in front of me, would I take just a few bites? Why do I feel like I can do that to my soul? If there is no physical urgency waiting for me, why rush through my prayers? If I’m really looking for soul solace in my prayer then, it should be the thing I’m rushing to, not from.

My goal then is to simply give more time to my prayer. Nothing too lofty really, but instead of thinking that I need to finish my prayer asap, I want to think ‘I have all time I need to prayyy’.