Questions. There are always questions. Here are some that have been occupying me of late:
- What is prayer?
- What does it mean to pray?
- Why has the Islamic tradition strctured prayer in the way it has?
- What does it symbolise?
- What does it signify?
Indeed, these questions have occupied me ever since I first became openly, publicly Muslim, some 9 years ago. These questions are still unanswered. That is, my answers are still provisional, still being worked out. I am a work in progress, and so too are any conclusions that I may have come to. Indeed, how could one as passing and limited as I ever truly reach certainty, as though I could ever hope to truly conclude something? At any rate, I’ve been trying to write this post for a long time now. In fact, it has been brewing ever since the Threshold Society Retreat in August.
It also seems that others have been asking similar questions lately, from both within and beyond the Islamic tradition:
- Muslim Recovery: Beyond the Shahadah
- Barnabas Quotidianus: The Sweet Sound of Prayer
- Mystic Saint: Light Prayer of Muhammad
- Dervish: What Do I Do When I Pray
- Darvish: The Sufi Prayer
- Saifuddin: How Do Muslims Pray?
Prayer is many things, it seems. To pray is to ask God for something. It is to plea for aid, for understanding, for grace. To pray is to commune with the Almighty. It is to stand before God and struggle to open one’s self to Him. To pray is to express need, to express desire, to express hope. Prayer is a formal act, it is a spontaneous reaction to life. Prayer is conversation and belonging. Prayer is intention and meaning. Prayer is gratitude and prayer is struggle. Indeed, prayer is a way of life and an orientation to the world.
Subhan Allah! God is indeed subtle beyond all understanding! I didn’t realise I had been pondering these issues quite so intensively until I attended the summer retreat. Shaykh Kabir touched on the symbolism of the ritual prayer (salah, namaz). I’d read such things before, but it wasn’t until he explained and demonstrated it that I felt a door opening within me: ‘Yes! That’s what it means!’ Because I believe in sharing what I learn and experience, I wanted to share Shaykh Kabir’s comments with the wider world.
To understand something is to know its meaning. To learn more about the meaning of prayer is to learn how to commune with God more fully, and that is a beautiful thing.
The opening act of the prayer (known as the takbir, or magnification – that is, to say ‘Allahu Ackbar’) involves raising the hands, palm outwards. There are differences in practice between Muslims, though the Hanafi school of law (which I follow) raises the hands to the ears. At any rate, by doing this you are symbolically sweeping away the outside world, as you remind yourself and others that only God possesses true greatness. It is also a symbol of throwing everything else behind you, putting it to one side, as you face the Almighty.
Next comes the standing posture (during which portions of the Quran are recited). Shaykh Kabir referred to this as the ‘posture of human dignity’, as we stand upright, calmly, with hands folded in front of us. This is the natural position for a human being and as such, this is how we should approach God, in a dignified manner, in full adult awareness of what we are attempting to do.
Once this part has been completed, we then bow (ruku’), whispering ‘Glory to my Sustainer, the Almighty’. This is the ‘posture of service’, which flows naturally from a true orientation to our innate human dignity. It is from this position, willingly entered into, that we are reminded that God requires us to act, to serve. Indeed, the word for worship (`ibadah) is also the same for service. It is to say: ‘here I am God, ready to serve You’ (labbayk Allahumma labbayk).
After rising from this position, the Imam then says ‘God hears the one who praises Him’ (Sami` Allahu liman hamida), and the congregation respond with ‘Our Sustainer, for You is our praise’ (Rabbana wa lakal hamd). That is, on a symbolic level, we are reminded that our service is for God’s praise, and not for our own whims and desires.
From here we move to the most crucial moment of the prayer, the prostration (or sajda), in which the face is placed upon the ground. As we do this, we utter ‘Glory to my Sustainer, the Most High’ (subhana Rabbi al-`Ala). This is the ‘posture of submission’, where all that we are, all that we think, all that we do, is laid before God. It is said that the closest we come to God in this life is in this moment. This is the place and time where our most intimate prayers can be whispered into the Beloved’s all-hearing ear.
We then rise to a sitting position, where God’s forgiveness is traditionally sought through a number of prayers. Then a second prostration follows. This is particularly important. Shaykh Kabir referred to it as the ‘surrendering of our surrendering’. In other words, we surrender all of our misconceptions, all of our misunderstandings, all of our surrenders to God. It is as though it offers us a chance to surrender our human limitations. And it is in this space that I ask Allah to forgive all my dry, agnostic prayers, all my self-wrought delusions, all my weak and faulty service to Him. This moment of intimacy concludes one unit of prayer (or rakat).
I still have questions to explore, for example: why does each prayer have a particular number of rakat? What is the symbolic meaning behind this? I still have much to put into practice, because a description is not a reality.
And may Allah draw us all closer to Him in humble prayer.
Peace, one and all…
I’ve just been sailing on the open seas of blog and have returned to these island shores with some pearls of wisdom, drawn from the depths of the oceans of life.
- Katib: The Human Soul and Its Dimensions
- Irshaad: Turning Away, Turning Towards
- Islam from Inside: Tafsir (Sura 7 Verses 94 to 96)
- Mystic Saint: Meditative Quranic Verse/Divine Reality
Enjoy and may the Beloved draw us all closer to Him.
Image credit: Tehran Daily
Peace, one and all…
‘Purification is cleansing oneself. There are two kinds of cleanliness. One, exterior, is ordained by the precepts of the religion and is carried out by washing one’s body with pure water. The other, inner purification, is obtained through the realisation of the dirt in one’s being, being aware of one’s sins and sincerely repenting for them. This inner purification necessitates taking a spiritual path and is taught by a spiritual teacher.
According to the religious rules and precepts, one becomes impure and one’s ablution is broken when certain bodily matter such as faeces, urine, vomit, pus, blood, semen, etc, is expelled. This necessitates the renewal of the ablution. In the case of semen and menstrual bleeding a total washing of the body is necessary. In other cases, the exposed extremities of the body – the hands and forearms, the face and feet – must be washed. Concerning renewing one’s ablution our Master the Prophet (alaihi al-salatui wa al-salam) said: ‘At each renewal of ablution Allah renews the belief of His servant whose light of faith is repolished and shines brighter,’ and ‘Repeated purification by ablution is light upon light’.
Inner purity can also be lost, perhaps more often than outer purity, by bad character, arrogance, lying, gossiping, slandering, envy and anger. Conscious and unconscious acts by one’s sense soil the spirit: the mouth which eats unlawful food, the lips which lie and curse, the ear which listens to gossip and slander, the hand which strikes, the feet which follow the tyrant. Adultery, which is also a sin, is not performed only in bed; as the Prophet (alaihi al-salatui wa al-salam) says, ‘The eyes also commit adultery’.
When inner purity is thus soiled and spiritual ablution is broken, the renewal of ablution is by sincere repentance, which is performed by realising one’s fault, by painful regret accompanied by tears (which are the water washing away the dirt from the spirit), by intending never to repeat this fault, by wishing to leave all faults, by asking the forgiveness of Allah, and by praying that He prevent one from committing such a sin again.
To pray is to present oneself in front of one’s Lord. To have ablution, to be in a purified state, is a prerequisite for prayer. The wise know that the cleanliness of one’s exterior being is not sufficient, for Allah sees deep into one’s heart, which has to be given the ablution of repentance. Only then is prayer accepted. Allah says:
‘This is what was promised for you – for every one who turned (to Allah) in sincere repentance, who kept (His law)’ (Sura Qaf: 32)
The purification of the body and exterior ablution in accordance with religioous precepts is bound by time, for sleep cancels ablution as well. This cleanliness is tied to the day and the night of the life of this world. The cleanliness of the inner world, the ablution of the invisible self, is not limited by time. It is for the whole of life – not only the temporal life of this world, but also for the eternal life of the hereafter’
(Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, The Secret of Secrets, 71-72)
Peace, one and all…
I was recently asked to lead a brief prayer/reflection at a local Christian theological college. I wanted to share the text of this with you. Regular readers will recognise part of it as an earlier post on beauty.
Peace, one and all…
The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said, in a very famous hadith:
‘God (Allah) is beautiful and loves beauty’
The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) was blessed with the ability to convey profound ideas in eloquent and expressive language (this idea is known as jawami al-kalim, ‘comprehensive speech’). When I reflect on this passage for a moment, its vast depth becomes clear.
Although I am not a muhaddith (hadith scholar), here are some of the things I think of when I read this tradition. Firstly, God is beautiful in His essence (dhat). God’s essential nature (which cannot be compared to anything else) is utterly beautiful. That beauty spills forth into and indeed upholds, creation. Our attraction to beautiful things springs from Allah’s beauty and reminds me of His overwhelming Love. Thinking about it for a moment, this speaks of relationship: we love what is beautiful and what is beautiful draws us towards it, like a moth to a flame.
God’s beauty also requires a response on our part. As God is beautiful, so we too must actualise beauty in our own lives. As God loves beauty, so we too must find, appreciate and love the beauty of creation. Indeed, we must bring beauty into being ourselves (although only Allah really creates).
What then is beauty? Although this is a truly vast question, the more I learn the more convinced I become that beauty equals truth. Truth is beautiful and beauty is truth. Thus, when someone is engaged in the true work of their hearts, they are engaged in beauty. Conversely, when someone produces beauty, they are in touch with the truth of their souls. This is why it is important to know ourselves, to explore our own truths (and thereby find our own beauty). In another famous hadith, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said: ‘He who knows himself knows his Lord’. Although I don’t pretend to understand this profound statement, meeting our truth is absolutely fundamental.
Human perceptions of beauty shift and change. Ideas of beauty differ from person to person. They also differ over time: what I now find beautiful is different from what I found beautiful as a teenager. Understandings of beauty are also deeply affected by culture, tradition and history. Notions of feminine beauty, for example, vary widely from culture to culture. These ideas have also changed over time. A comparison of women in renaissance paintings (a good example is Gorgione’s Sleeping Venus) with women in modern celebrity magazines will soon demonstrate this point.
By contrast, God’s beauty (and His perception of it) does not shift. What was beautiful to Allah yesterday, is beautiful to Allah today. This is because Allah (and only Allah) stands outside of time. Indeed, in the Islamic understanding, time is utterly dependent upon God.
God thus sees the beauty within each of us. In other words, this is really about intention. Because of our fallible nature, sometimes our skill does not match our intent. God sees our deeds by the light of our inner motivations, and judges our actions by the beauty of our intentions. Therefore, in order to grow more fully into Allah’s love, our intentions have to be beautiful. Our task in life is thus to polish our hearts with remembrance of God, so that they shine with luminous beauty. Once this happens, everything we do will reflect the beauty of the divine.
This idea leads me a further point. Allah alone determines what is beautiful. That is, God is the central reference point and human understandings are therefore derivative and imitative. In other words, this is an echo of other aspects of the Islamic tradition’s notion of God and His centrality to all things. For example, many Muslims understand Allah to be the sole reference point for all ethical concepts. Although there is debate on this point (and it is not a debate I want to enter), actions are held to be good because Allah has deemed them to be good.
So, beauty comes from Allah and to develop a full relationship with God we need to manifest the truth of beauty (and the beauty of truth). On a personal note, this is one of the main reasons why I write poetry (and enjoy playing hand drums). This is also why others feel drawn to paint, to sing, or to delve into the mysteries of Islamic sacred law (shariah). Let us all search for the meanings of ourselves, and let us bring forth beauty into the world.
May the Beloved enfold us in the heart-rending beauty of His Love, and the loving kindness of His beauty.
Wa akhiru da’wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen
Peace, one and all…
As someone who became a Muslim in later life, I’ve always believed Islam’s emphasis on personal moral responsibility to be one of its most profound (and liberating) concepts. The Quran is unequivocal in its vision of moral responsibility and accountability.
As such, the Quran says the following:
‘And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And if a heavily laden soul calls [another] to [carry some of] its load, nothing of it will be carried, even if he should be a close relative. You can only warn those who fear their Lord unseen and have established prayer. And whoever purifies himself only purifies himself for [the benefit of] his soul. And to God is the [final] destination’ (Surah Fatir 35:18)
And elsewhere, we read:
‘God does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity. It will have [the consequence of] what [good] it has gained, and it will bear [the consequence of] what [evil] it has earned’ (Surah al-Baqarah 2:286)
I find this teaching profound for several reasons. Firstly, I started this life with a clean slate. That is, the concept of original sin is argued against most firmly within the Islamic tradition. Although I am human and have indeed made mistakes (and God’s forgiveness is to be sought), I began my life on earth in innocence.
Secondly, although custom, culture and tradition are valued in Islam (insofar as they do not contradict essential truths), I am not a mere prisoner of such things. I have the ability to go beyond the limitations of my surroundings. I am more than the clothes I wear. I am more than a mere gendered thing. I am more than the colour of my skin, and the historical entanglements of the culture and race into which I was born.
Thirdly, this beautiful concept reminds me of God’s deep justice. I will be judged purely for my own sins, and not for the sins of others. Of course, this is hard enough (and may God have mercy on each and every one of us). But, and this is important, personal accountability is set as the cornerstone of growth.
Hidden within all this is a secret truth. As a human being, I must let go of all that I have not done. So many of us travel through this world in sorrow because they have not made the distinction between themselves and the actions of their parents. The limitations of our parents have a deep impact on our lives, but the matter does not rest there. The task of life is to come to God with a ‘sound heart’ (qalbun salim) and the process of making our hearts sound involves moving beyond the circumstances we initially find ourselves in.
We cannot bear the burdens of others, but we can help them to shoulder their own burdens. This is the way of the Prophets, the righteous and the Friends of God. Blessed indeed are all who tread this path.
Peace, one and all…
Amidst her wider reflections on Ed Hussein’s book, The Islamist, Sunni Sister asks two really interesting questions. She writes:
‘Do you think that it is more important for Muslim activists, writers, community leaders, scholars, et al to spend their time, resources, and so forth on:
(1) Exposing or debunking political, social, or religious movements within Islam that are erroneous for the Muslim public or general public or (2) Teaching the minhaj of Islam that they believe to be the most correct and the most beneficial for all of humanity to Muslims and / or the general public?’
Sister Aaminah offers some thought-provoking comments of her own, as do Sunni Sister’s commentators. Although, insha Allah, this is something I’d like to write more about later on, in brief, no. 2 is definitely better. This is for several reasons really. Firstly, the Muslim community is often too quick to rush to judgement: ‘erroneous’ is often merely a point of view.
Secondly, ‘exposing’ or ‘debunking’ is often code for mere abuse and insult. One of the few truths I have found, is that insults do not change peoples’ ideas. If anything, they simply reinforce them. Thirdly, if you’ll excuse a strange metaphor, Islam is a broad church and is generally accepting of differences.
I believe that struggling to live Islam and become a fully human being is more important and more effective (generally speaking). Indeed, this is the whole purpose behind this blog (as stated here).
Peace, one and all…
The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:
‘A traveller without knowledge is a bird without wings; a scholar without practice is a tree without fruit, and a devotee without science is a house without a door’
(Courtesy of the Book Foundation)
Peace, one and all…
The Messenger of God (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said that Allah (the Glorified and Exalted) will say on Judgement Day:
‘O son of Adam! I fell ill yet you did not visit Me’. To this the bewildered person will reply: ‘O my Lord! You are the Master of the entire universe. How could I call on You?’ Allah will tell him: ‘One of my servants fell ill but you did not visit him. Had you called on him, you would have found Me beside him’.
(Quoted in Khurram Murad, Inter-Personal Relations: an Islamic Perspective, 38)
Peace, one and all…
The Messenger of God (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:
‘God exalted two kinds of people above others: those who spend in the cause of Truth, and the judicious who impart their wisdom to others’
(Courtesy of the Book Foundation)
Peace, one and all…
‘My Lord, expand for me my breast, and ease for me my task, and untie the knot from my tongue’
(Surah Taha 20:25-27)
Welcome to the second post in my journey through the Quran (the first post can be found here). Insha Allah, as our journey progresses, I will also add new and relevant material as it becomes available. Journeying is about growth, and growth entails responding to new events and challanges. Ya Allah! Rabbi Zidni Ilma.
Before we begin, I feel it is important to remind ourselves that I am writing my own reactions to and with the Quranic text. I am no Quranic exegete (mufassir) and I am not offering exegesis (tafsir). Although I draw my ideas from a wide range of sources (see below for a brief summary of them), my understanding of the text is my own. This is not a statement of arrogance (Ya Rabbi! Protect me from such things), merely a statement of fact.
Although translation is a significant issue, these verses could be rendered into English in the following manner:
‘Praise be to Allah, Lord of all the Worlds;
The Merciful, The Compassionate;
Master of the Day of Judgement’
(Surah al-Fatihah 1:2-4, each verse is given on a separate line)
Understanding the Basic Building Blocks
As this passage contains a number of very important concepts, I thought it would be useful to first explore some of them briefly.
I have posted some useful material on the meaning of the word Allah elsewhere. However, I would also like to add to this insha Allah. Imam Raghib al-Isfahani in his work al-Mufradat says that five meanings can be derived from the word Allah:
To be bewlidered or perplexed. That is, any who attempt to grasp God’s innermost nature will always fall into perplexity and bewilderment. Elsewhere, the Quran says: ‘There is nothing whatever like unto Him, and He is the One Who hears and sees’ (Surah al-Shura 42:11; cf. 114:4).
To find satisfaction and comfort from someone’s company or protection. This speaks of relationship, which for me is the basis of Love. The Quran has this to say: ‘Those who believe and whose hearts find rest in the remembrance of Allah: for without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest’ (Surah al-Ra’d 13:28)
To have intense attachment to and love for somebody or thing. ‘But those of faith are overflowing in their love for Allah’ (al-Baqarah 2:165)
To be hidden and concealed. No vision can grasp God, though the Quran states: ‘For We are nearer to him than (his) jugular vein’ (Surah Qaf 50:15)
To worship. As Siddiqui states, ‘All these meanings have a logical relationship with each other’ (2001, 4)
The next concept is that of praise. The English word praise calls to mind church hymns and suggests favour. The Arabic word Hamd certainly does mean this, but it also has a wider significance, taking in ideas of gratitude and love. That is, loving, grateful praise is for God alone, Who is the true Source of all Being.
In his tafsir, Imam Ibn Kathir quotes a very full account of the meaning of hamd from the earlier commentary of Imam Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (may God have mercy upon them both):
‘The meaning of ‘al-hamdu lillah‘ is: all thanks are due purely to Allah, alone, not any of the objects that are being worshipped instead of Him, nor any of His creation. These thanks are due to Allah’s innumerable favours and bounties, that only He knows the amount of. Allah’s bounties include creating the tools that help the creation worship Him, the physical bodies with which they are able to implement His commands, the sustenance that He provides them, without anyone or anything compelling Him to do so. Allah has also warned His creation and alerted them about the means and methods with which they can earn eternal dwelling in the residence of everlasting happiness. All thanks and praise are due to Allah for these favours from beginning to end’
There are a number of words connected to hamd. Firstly, one of God’s Names in the Islamic tradition is al-Hamid (‘the Praised One’). This is really to reinforce the idea that God is the only true object of praise. Mahmud comes from the same root and according to Siddiqui means ‘the one who is actually being praised’, whilst Hamid means ‘the one who deserves praise, whether he is being praised or not’ (2001, 11).
The names of the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam), Muhammad and Ahmad, are also derived from the same root. The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said,
‘The best dhikr (remembrance) is la ilaha illa Allah and the best supplication is al hamdu lillah’
(Ibn Majah 2:1249).
Elsewhere, he (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said:
‘No servant is blessed by Allah and says, ‘Al-Hamdu Lillah‘, except that what he was given is better than that which he has himself acquired’ (Ibn Majah 2:125)
‘Praise be to Allah, Lord (Rabb) of all the worlds’ (1:2). The English word ‘Lord’ denotes mastery, power and authority, and brings to mind (perhaps) the modern day House of Lords, or a medieval Baron in his castle. Although the word Rabb does convey this sense of authority, it has a far broader (and subtler) range of meanings. Understanding the semantic range of this term helps bring out its conceptual significance more fully:
Lord and Master. God alone is the Creator and Master of all that exists.
Nourisher and Sustainer. God is the Nurturer and Sustainer of that creation
Ruler and Sovereign.
Central Object of Reliance. As the sole Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, God is the only One on whom we can rely.
Protector and Supervisor. God protects and supervises His creation. That is, He is actively involved in its direction and guidance, and thus cares for its welfare.
These derived meanings hint at a deeper meaning: relationship. The world’s creation and maintenance show forth God’s concern and Love. It also shows God reaching out to us: ‘Are many lords (arbab) differing among themselves better, or Allah, the One Supreme and Irresistible?’ (Surah Yusuf 12:39).
‘Master of the Day of Judgement’ (1:4). There is a very famous variant reading for this passage. Both are considered equally authentic, and are hence equally valid. The first reading has Maaliki Yaum al-Din or ‘Master of the Day of Judgement’. The second has Malik, or King. A subtle difference, to be sure, but important nonetheless. At any rate, both convey the idea that God is in control of the End of Things, just as He was in control at its beginning.
Judgement, etc (Din)
‘Master of the Day of Judgement‘ (1:4). The word din is an interesting and important one. It has a very wide range of meanings, one of which is judgement. It also denotes justice (and the cognate Hebrew term din means exactly that). However, it is more widely used in the Quran (and in Islam more generally) in another sense, that of religion. The Quran refers to Islam itself as a din:
‘This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion (din)’ (5:3)
‘The religion (din) before God is Islam…’ (3:19)
Thus the entire religious system of Islam is called a din. There is, of course, a connection between this meaning and the one employed here. The ‘Day of Din‘ is when the religious practice of din (in this world) is judged.
Interacting with the Text: Exploring Wider Themes
It is important to understand the Quran in a cumulative fashion. That is, concepts are built upon others and the overall meanings complement one another. Having looked at some of the conceptual building blocks of these passages, let us now turn to some broader remarks.
Thus, in this section, a number of points become apparent. Firstly, the Quran is telling us more about God, in whose Name the Quran is begun. God describes Himself and His attributes (mercy and compassion). God also describes Himself as being the Rabb al-`Alameen. I’ve translated this as ‘Lord of all the Worlds’ (though there are many possible ways of understanding this). It is important to keep the breadth of meanings in mind, as Rabb has many different shades to it (as we saw above). God is both Lord of this world and the next, being the Master of the Last Day (and all that lies beyond it).
Secondly, these passages speak of response. As human beings, our natural reaction to the descent of God’s mercy should be gratitude and praise. The further reference to mercy and compassion, shortly before the reference to the Day of Judgement also underlines this point. That is, a day of accounting will come, therefore remember God’s mercy to you and be merciful in your turn. The order of these passages also reminds me of the Hadith Qudsi, in which Allah (blessed and exalted) said, ‘My mercy overcomes My wrath’. When I reflect more thoroughly I find that justice tempered and directed by the overflowing mercy of the Divine is all I could wish for.
Thirdly, I understand the cumulative impact of the surah thus far to be about relationship. That is, before reciting a Muslim takes refuge with Allah from evil and the proceeds to recite in God’s Name. The theme of relationship is further developed in these verses, as we come to know a little more about that God and how we should respond.
A Balancing of Opposites: Mercy and Mastery
One of the most important elements of this part of Surah al-Fatihah is its balancing of opposites. As we have seen, God is referred to by Names of Power, such as Rabb and Malik, which underscore his mastery. These Names serve to remind us (or myself at least) that God is not like anything else, and thus we should pay close and careful attention to Him. Allah has set limits for human conduct and behaviour, which we need to understand and follow. These limits are for our own growth and development, and not because the Beloved needs slavish obedience (Allah does not need anything).
This idea is balanced through reference to Names reflecting mercy and compassion. God is twice referred to as al-Rahman al-Rahim (‘The Merciful, The Compassionate’), as if to underscore His Love. Moreover, the word Rabb, as we saw, combines mastery and power with a strong sense of nurturing and caring. Reflecting on this matter suggests to me when we transgress God’s limits (and being human this is a certainty), we should seek forgiveness. The repetition of these Names is thus a reminder that Allah’s grace and mercy are never far off: indeed, it’s as though they are already seeking us out!
Endnote: Use of the Masculine Pronoun
I wanted to end this reflection with a very brief endnote on the use of the masculine pronoun (‘He’). The Islamic tradition does not conceive of God as a man with a long white beard. Indeed, God is not conceived of in human terms at all (see 42:11 and 114:1-4).
Abdur Rashid Siddiqui (2001), Key to al-Fatihah: Understanding the Basic Concepts, Leicester: Islamic Foundation
Tafsir ibn Kathir
Peace, one and all…
As regular readers will know, I’m currently training to be a Muslim Chaplain. In one of our recent sessions, we were given a number of useful verses from the Quran regarding forgiveness. As these ayat are important, I thought I’d share them with the wider world (with the added ‘bonus’ of my own reflections).
‘The believers are but brothers, so make settlement between your brothers. And fear God that you may receive mercy’ (Surah al-Hujurat 49:10)
One of the most important roles of a Muslim Chaplain is to help mend and strengthen relationships. This verse speaks of relationship in a direct and personal sense. Firstly, as Muslims, we need to strengthen our relationships with each other. Secondly, the key to achieving this is fear of God (or taqwa). By developing our consciousness of God (that is, by strengthening our relationship with Him) we grow more worthy of mercy. Indeed, God-consciousness is that mercy. As a Muslim Chaplain, I must help others achieve this: with themselves, with others and with God. By doing this, insha Allah, I too can draw closer. There cannot be any separation: we are all related.
‘Say, ‘O My servants who have transgressed against themselves, do not despair of the mercy of God. Indeed, God forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful’ (Surah al-Zumar 39:53)
This ayah also speaks about relationships. One of the worst consequences of sin is that feeling of worthlessness, the idea that we have gone too far beyond to be forgiven by God. Of course, this is an entirely natural response (and one I’ve felt many, many times), but when taken to extremes can prevent us from returning to the Source. That is, sin is like a veil, which we draw over our eyes in moments of human weakness. In this verse, God reaches out to us, in the very worst of our spiritual states, with a message of redemption and hope: do not despair, seek forgiveness. The Chaplain’s task here is thus to become a kind of channel of this mercy, an instrument by which the Beloved caresses His lost one.
‘He said, ‘My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, so forgive me,’ and He forgave him. Indeed, He is the Forgiving, the Merciful’ (Surah al-Qasas 28:16)
This verse refers to God’s forgiving Moses (alayhi al-salam) for his murder of the Egyptian slave-driver. This beautiful ayat suggests many things to me. Firstly, it is a message of hope. All those who repent sincerely will have their repentance accepted. Secondly, seeking repentance only requires sincerity and needs no great litany of woe. That is, offering long and intricate prayers means nothing if it is not matched by the inner truth of regret and sorrow. Thirdly, God’s forgiveness was swift: as soon as we repent it truth, we are forgiven. This is a powerful message and it seems to me, really sums up the whole purpose of being a Muslim Chaplain. If you’re not striving to help others (and thus yourself) repair relationships with God, then what purpose do you serve?
‘And He is the Forgiving, the Affectionate’ (Surah al-Buruj 85:14)
Not only is God forgiving, He is also Loving and Affectionate. That is, Allah actively seeks us out with His Love and mercy, we have but to respond.
‘And say, ‘My Lord, forgive and have mercy, and You are the best of the merciful’ (Surah al-Mu’minun 23:118)
And with that, let’s draw these reflections to a close.
Wa akhiru da’wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen
Peace, one and all…
‘My Lord, expand for me my breast, and ease for me my task, and untie the knot from my tongue’ (Surah Taha 20:25-27)
In a recent post, I expressed my intention to travel through the Quran. This post marks an attempt to cross over the threshold, so to speak, by looking at the beginning of Surah al-Fatihah, the Basmala.
Before we proceed, let me take a moment to consider motivations. The Prophet (God’s peace and blessings be upon him) is reported to have said:
“Actions are (judged) by motives (niyyah), so each man will have what he intended. Thus, he whose migration (hijrah) was to Allah and His Messenger, his migration is to Allah and His Messenger; but he whose migration was for some worldly thing he might gain, or for a wife he might marry, his migration is to that for which he migrated.”
Ya Allah! Let this journey through Your noble book begin and end with the best of intentions. Let this deed of mine spring from my Love of You and my desire to worship You. Ya Allah! Forgive me for the arrogance of my heart and purify me of any false or unworthy motivations. Ya Allah! Rabbi Zidni Ilma
Surah al-Fatihah: Some General Remarks
Surah al-Fatihah (‘The Chapter of Opening’) is one of the most important chapters in the entire Quran and as such, is known by a number of different names. Imam Ahmad records a hadith from Abu Hurayrah, in which the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:
‘It [Surah al-Fatihah] is Umm al-Quran, the seven repeated (verses) and the Glorious Quran’ (Ahmad 2:448).
Al-Tabari records a very similar hadith, again from Abu Hurayrah, in which the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:
‘It is Umm al-Quran, the Opener of the Quran and the seven repeated (verses)’ (al-Tabari 1:107)
The significance of this opening chapter is such that it forms an integral part of the prayer (salat or namaz). Within the Hanafi School of Law, as I understand things (please note, I am no faqih), failing to recite al-Fatihah does not render the prayer invalid as such, though it is necessary to repeat it (except where someone remembers before the end of the salat and offers two prostrations of forgetfulness).
At any rate, al-Fatihah is an absolutely fundamental part of prayer. Insha Allah, in later posts in this series we will look more closely at why this is so. In other words, we will look more closely at the content of the chapter and its meaning. Before we can do this, however, we need first to explore the beginning of the beginning, or the opening of the opening: the basmala.
What is the Basmala?
Simply put, the basmala is repeating the phrase Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (‘In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful’). Its intent, amongst other things, is to focus the attention on the act being performed; to tranform that act from something mundane to something sacred. That is, saying bismillah with sincerity of heart transforms any act into an act of worship.
As we saw above, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said, ‘Actions are (judged) by motives (niyyah), so each man will have what he intended…’. In this context, when we attempt to engage in an act of worship, we must first strive to make sure that it is actually for God (Glorified and Exalted). That is why, before reciting the Quran, a Muslim must first say ‘I seek refuge with Allah from the accursed Satan’ (a’udhoo billahi min al-shaitan al-rajeem). So, before I go any further let me take a quiet moment to repeat this to myself…
Interacting With The Text
‘In the Name of God…’. Firstly, the Quran is God’s Word, revealed in His Name. It also directs our attention to this salient fact, reminding us of the care required with things holy and sacred. In this sense, I suppose, it acts as a statement of intent: of God’s intent in declaring His Truth to the world, as well as my own in the things I strive to do. The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) had much to say regarding this phrase. Shaykh Ahmad ibn Hanbal (rahmatullahi alaih) records a hadith in which the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said:
‘There is no valid ablution for he who did not mention Allah’s Name in it’ (Ahmad 3:41)
Although this is not to enter debates of fiqh (which I am not qualified to engage in), merely to point to the significance of saying bismillah. The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) also said:
‘Say Bismillah with your right hand and eat from whatever is next to you’ (Muslim 3:1600)
And elsewhere, he is recorded as saying (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam):
‘If anyone of you before having sexual relations with his wife says, ‘In the Name of Allah. O Allah! Protect us form Satan and also protect what you grant us from Satan’ and if it is destined that should have a child then, Satan will never be able to harm that child’ (Muslim 2:1058)
Thus even seemingly mundane actions can be transformed into worship through these means. On a deeper level, then, saying bismillah is thus to connect with the Source, the Centre, and to make that deed holy (or set apart). I’ve posted short articles on the Names of God elsewhere. You can find a short introduction to the Name Allah and one on al-Rahman. You can find more on al-Rahim in the pages of the Threshold Society (as you can on all the Beautiful Names).
Wa akhiru da’wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen
Peace, one and all…
This ninth edition of the Carnival of Islam in the West has just been published (by Fahad of Personal Quran). This month’s edition offers lots of tasty treats and delectable delights, all of which will tempt your reading tastebuds I’m sure. Articles range from issues of religion and worship through to poetry and political engagement. Insha Allah, there’s something for everyone, and it really does underline the point I made when I hosted the carnival a couple of months ago: there’s an amazing (and mostly hidden) wealth of creative talent among the Muslim communities of the west. Ma sha Allah.
Brother Fahad has also very helpfully appended a list of the previous editions, which I’ve cut-and-pasted here:
Eighth Edition: Apr 13, 2007 Truth & Beauty
Seventh Edition: Mar 10, 2007 Abdur Rahman’s Corner
Sixth Edition: Feb 19, 2007 Hakim Abdullah
Fifth Edition: Jan 12, 2007 Hakim Abdullah
Fourth Edition: Dec 09, 2006 Islam And The West
Third Edition: Nov 10, 2006 Travellers on the Path of Knowledge
Second Edition: Oct 14, 2006 Unwilling Self-Negation
First Edition: Sep 08, 2006 under|progress
You’ll also find a couple of my own articles there. Enjoy and may Allah bless all who took part, all who helped organise it and all who pass by.
Peace, one and all…
Following up on the previous post, I’ve also found some interesting passages attempting to define the human spirit.
‘The word [spirit] is etymologically related, in Hebrew, (ruach) and Greek (pneuma) to the concept and picture of the stirring of air, breeze, breath and wind. In Hebrew anthropology, ruach was the enlivening force of a person – the breath of God which turned the prepared clay into a living soul. In the second creation story in the book of Genesis, Yahweh breathes into the prepared earth and the clay becomes a living nephesh. Thus the very being of a person is permeated by the ruach [spirit/spiritus] of God’ (Larney, 1997, 114, quoted in Swinton, 2001, 14).
‘It is the spirit of human beings which enables and motivates us to search for meaning and purpose in life, to seek the supernatural or some meaning which transcends us, to wonder about our origins and our identities, to require morality and equity. It is the spirit which synthesizes the total personality and provides some sense of energizing direction and order. The spiritual dimension does not exist in isolation from the psyche and the soma, but provides an integrative force. It affects and is affected by our physical state, feelings, thoughts and relationships. If we are spiritually healthy we will feel generally alive, purposeful and fulfilled, but only to the extent that we psychologically healthy as well. The relationship is bi-directional because of the intricate intertwining of these two parts of the person’ (Ellison 1983, 331-2, in Swinton 2001, 16).
There is some very useful food for thought here, and also much that is common to the Islamic tradition. I, for one, can relate to much of what is said here. Well, more on this topic later insha Allah.
I’ve been reading around the subject of spirituality of late, and so I wanted to post some of the more interesting quotes I’ve stumbled across. This is for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to share them with the wider world. Insha Allah, we might start a useful discussion. Secondly, I wanted to collect these together in a few places, so that I might use them later on.
Quote No. 1:
‘For is ‘spirituality’ that sense of ‘the other’ we heard so many people describe at the time of the death of Princess Diana? Is it somewhat mawkish and sentimental, ill thought through – but ‘a good thing’ all the same? Does it fit with groups of young women sitting on the grass in Kesington Gardens, meditating around a candle, with masses of flowers? Or is it more to do with the angry coming to terms with impending death of the terminally ill person who recognises she has not got long to go? Or is it the mood of calm engendered by communion brought to the bedside, or the lighting of the Sabbath candles? Or is it all of these things?’ (Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Spirituality in Health Care Contexts, 2001, p7)
Quote No. 2:
‘So what are chaplains, products, representatives, even icons, of a specific tradition supposed to do with their religious roots and perceptions? Are they to leave their origins, rituals, teachings and traditions behind? Should they regard them as an optional resource for those who can make use of ‘that kind of thing’ while trying to act as spiritual guides and mentors for all, religious or not? Or do they need to find a new, lively accommodation with the religious traditions that have shaped them and which have provided pathways to God?’ (Stephen Pattison, Spirituality in Health Care Contexts, 2001, 33)
Quote No. 3:
‘Spirituality has therefore become a slippery concept within Western culture … it very soon becomes clear that whilst there are a number of common themes such as God, meaning, purpose, value and hope, there does not appeart to be a common definition that can fully encapsulate what spirituality is’ (John Swinton, Spirituality and Mental Health Care, 2001, 12)
Peace, one and all…
My mother came to visit us this weekend, to see the children and to take me to Hay-on-Wye. For those unfamiliar, Hay is a small town on the Welsh-English border (about 30 miles or so north of Merthyr). It’s famous for one thing: books! It has approximately 40 odd bookshops and each year, in late May, it has a book festival. In other words, for a bibliophile like myself, Hay is a little slice on heaven right here on earth!
I picked up quite a few books during this raid. Now all I have to do is find the time to read them!
- MG Carter, Sibawayhi (on the father of Arabic grammar)
- W Owen Cole, Understanding Sikhism
- Ali S Asani, Ecstasy and Enlightenment: the Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia
- Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i, Kernel of the Kernel
- S R Fischer, A History of Reading
- Nasir al-Din Tusi, Contemplation and Action (a translation of his autobiography, Sayr wa Suluk)
- Henri Stierlin, Turkey from the Selcuks to the Ottomans
Al hamdu lillah for the ability to read. Al hamdu lillah for the ability to walk through bookshops. In short, al hamdu lillahi ala kulli hal.
As we were walking through Hay, as is often the case, our conversation turned to spirituality. Although my mother is not a Muslim, as such, we share a belief in God and the sacredness of all things. We talked about life, children, purpose and what it means to be ‘spiritual’. We talked about how some people conduct their search for spiritual truth like they’re going to the local supermarket: busily trying to accumulate more experiences. May God save us from such things and may He lead us forward for His sake alone. Ya Rabbi!
As we were walking and talking (and looking at books), I had a brief realisation: in order for something to be truly ‘spiritual’ it needs to lead a person from self to Self, and then into compassionate action for others. Al hamdu lillah, I write poetry (as visitors will undoubtedly soon realise). A large part of my poetry is about praising Allah for the blessings of life. However, my favourite poems are those which prompt us to help others, in some small way. After all, how can you write poems of Love, when your neighbour is hungry, or oppressed, or abused, or on drugs?
In order for it to be authentic, valid and meaningful, spirituality has to focus on others, on compassion. Every single human being is worthy of the Beloved’s Love (otherwise they wouldn’t be here). This means that we have a duty towards each other. And may Allah help us to fulfill it properly.
Peace, one and all…
The London Sufi Group (part of the Threshold Society, which is a part of Mevlevi tariqa) is holding a retreat in August (18th and 19th). The retreat will include Sufi meditation and dhikr (zikr), as well as an exploration of how we can deepen our spiritual lives.
The retreat will be led by Shaykh Kabir Helminski and Shaykha Camille Helminski, of the Threshold Society. Both Shaykh Kabir and Shaykha Camille have published numerous books on the Sufi path, as well as many editions of Mevlana Rumi’s poetry.
The retreat will take place at the Domus Mariae, an annexe of Chigwell Convent in Woodford Bridge, Essex (20 mins from Liverpool St. station by the Central Line).
Accommodation is available at the retreat but is limited and therefore it is very important to book early! However, there is accommodation near-by but it may be a little more in cost. Overnight stay (Sat/Sun) £105 (all inc) Sat: lunch and evening meal with coffee/tea & biscuits and accommodation. Sun: breakfast & lunch with coffee/tea & biscuits. Day visitor (Sat/Sun) only £82 (all inc) Sat: lunch and evening meal with coffee/tea & biscuits. Sun: lunch with coffee/tea & biscuits.
I hope to attend myself, insha al-Rahman. So, if you’re in London during the summer, please come along.
Peace, one and all…
I came across a very interesting and beneficial post at Sidi Yursil’s blog today, on the Day of Promises (Yaum al-Alastu). The passage I’m quoting comes to us from Shaykh Maulana Nazim al-Hakkani, Grandshaykh of the Naqshbandi Hakkani tariqa (may Allah preserve him):
‘What we are listening to now of Grandsheikh’s words is not knowledge of the sort that we may be accustomed to hearing – it may seem new and strange to our ears, but nonetheless it is the truth from the secrets which are opened up day by day to the Saints (Awliya). Allah Almighty granted faith to the Sons of Adam on the Day of Promises, the day when the souls of all the descendants of Adam were brought forth from his backbone and asked by their Lord: “Am I not your Lord?” We were all present on that day – looking to our Lord, talking to Him, knowing Him – and we replied: “Yea, verily. We testify that You are our lord.” (Surat-ul-Araf : 172).
That faith was granted to everyone, but Divine Wisdom decreed that in this life some people’s faith would remain covered while that of others would appear. The Holy Prophet said in regards to this: “The hearts of the Sons of Adam contain treasures, and the keys to the hearts are in the Hand of our Lord.” Therefore, if He is not going to open the hearts, no one can- not even His Beloved Muhammad, for whose sake the whole creation was created.
If you understand that faith is present in all of mankind, you must be very respectful towards each one of them and you must understand that only with Allah Almighty’s permission are you believing and showing your faith, while someone else is not showing faith only because his Lord has not opened it up for him. You must understand the matter like this, and never say about anyone, “He is an unbeliever’, – who can know what will be the state of any person at the end of his life? The key to the hearts is in the Hand of the Almighty, and what will become of each person in the end is a secret known in its entirety only to Allah Himself; even the Prophet can only know something about this matter within defined limits. On the Day of Promises, Allah Almighty granted faith to His servants, and He is not going to take it away from them – perhaps they will declare their faith upon breathing their last breath – such is Allah ’s mercy. Allah Almighty is keeping and hiding so many mercy oceans which are destined for His servants.”
Peace, one and all…
’29. Nafs is a comedian. So enjoy your Sufism!’
From Sidi Masud’s site.
Peace, one and all…
For quite some time now, I’ve wanted to deepen and broaden my engagement with the Quran. I’ve wanted to expand this engagement in a number of ways: as religious text, as Divine guidance and as fuel for spiritual reflection. Given the importance of spiritual conversation, I also wanted to share these explorations with the wider world.
As such, my plan is to look at one ayah (verse) at a time. Although I don’t know how this will exactly pan out, I hope to do three main things with each verse:
- Where appropriate, look at the historical and theological context of a given verse. My hope here is to be able to set my exploration in its proper context.
- Where possible, to share classical (and contemporary) Quranic exegesis of each verse. In other words, to offer a little more background and insight into each ayah.
- To present my own personal interactions with the Kitab Allah. I don’t mean to suggest that I’ll be offering tafsir myself (something I’m not qualified to do). Rather, I want to document my personal and spiritual interaction with the text. The basic question I’m trying to answer here, I suppose, would be: what does this verse mean to me and how does it speak to me?
Given that the Quran contains some 6,000 odd verses, this is obviously going to be a long-term project. If I take one ayah a day, this will take me many years! Ya Rabb! I suppose, then, I’ll be approaching this in a flexible manner.
May Allah help me with this intention and may He accept it from me in sincerity.