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.