Sillah

Connection through Prayer

Praying Behind an Imam


I have always been taught the value and importance of jama (collective) prayer. Praying in congregation not only offers more rewards in your personal scale, but also it helps to bind communities by providing an anchoring ritual for all to partake in. As such, I’ve always considered praying in a group more beneficial than praying by myself. This reflection period however, has brought to light some deep issues I have when I pray in jama behind an Imam.

From delaying the prayer to daydreaming more, overall, I can say that if I’m praying behind an Imam, my prayer is of less quality. I was thinking about why this is and I realized that mostly, this has to do with my attitude towards the prayer when behind someone. It’s the attitude of passivity. It’s as if, because I am removed from the responsibility of organizing the physical elements of the prayer, I feel I can wash my hands of engaging in the prayer at all. I rest the entire prayer, both it’s external motions and the spiritual effects it’s meant to produce, on the shoulders of the one leading the prayer. Subhan Allah! This is crazy!! What’s more is that I have been doing this for years!!

Let me draw a parallel here to further bare how convoluted this way of thinking is …

Singing My Love Loudly

Recently, at my children’s school, a fellow parent asked me about where I pray when I’m on campus. He was genuinely interested and it even felt like he wanted to talk more about prayer and how beautiful he found the Muslim practice to be. I was so grateful. But at the same time, I found myself trying to shut down the conversation as quickly as possible. Instead of talking more and just asking all the questions I had about how he discovered prayer and what made it interesting to him, I felt like I needed to just smile and change the subject. I walked away so confused.

Why is it so hard for me to talk about prayer? Or to pray in front of people who don’t pray? When I pray in public I find myself so distracted and just wishing to finish quickly. I worry about people walking up to me and talking to me while I’m praying. I worry about looking weird or crazy. The entire experience is anything but spiritually satisfying.

At first it seems like it’s just an embarrassment having to ask for the time or the space. I need to take time away from my commitments so that I can go do this thing. I need to ask for a quiet space. I need to communicate needs that others aren’t asking for. Even more, and especially when I’m out in public, praying with my child next to me makes me feel negligent. I need people to be patient or just understand that for a few moments I need to turn my attention away from my kid.  On the surface it seems that I’m worrying about inconveniencing others, but I know that’s not the full answer. 

I found the courage to eventually talk to that same parent again. He seemed incredulous that I should feel that I have to hide this practice. “It’s obvious [you’re] not bothering anyone” he said so surely. I knew he was right. It doesn’t make sense – especially if I’m literally praying outside in a field by the school building – that I should think I’m bothering anyone by doing that. Further, it wouldn’t make sense that I don’t even want to talk about prayer. Yet, prayers always feel like something I need to hide from people who don’t pray. 

As a friend of mine put it: 
If you’re not ashamed of it, why are you hiding it?

a holy place: meandering thoughts on the earthly meanings of prayer

At my kids’ school, they sing a soulful song which repeats:

This pretty planet spinning through space,
You’re a garden, you’re a harbor,
You’re a holy place …

When I first heard my kids singing these lyrics, I had a knee jerk reaction: A holy place?!! 

Isn’t that blasphemous? … Why are they saying the earth is holy?? … How could that be? … Isn’t the earth a place of temporal desires and unlimited distraction? … Isn’t its beauty just a means of forgetting that heavenly place of holiness?? 

But then after my fears settled, my mind started to turn in so many directions … 

Why Not? 

1.

There are many origin stories the world over that try to get at how it is that we humans ended up here on this earth. How did this place become our home? For us as believers in the message of the Quran, the story of Adam is (re)told. The earth was the place Adam was meant for and sent to. Before even creating Adam, Allah told the angels that He was going to create a successor for the earth1see the story of Adam in the second chapter of the Quran titled ‘The Cow’, verses 30-38. Yes, man was a creature created outside of the earth, but simultaneously made from earth stuff, for residence and growth on earth. Initially man resided in the peaceful heavens, but was not meant for it (at least not yet). There is something important about our being on earth specifically, that Allah chose it for us. 

2.

I remembered a saying of the Prophet ﷺ where he likens the earth to a masjid. He says: ‘The earth has been made for me a place of prostration and a means of purification, so wherever a man of my Ummah is when the time for prayer comes, let him pray”2Sunnan Annasai 736. If one were to claim a place as holy on this earth, surely it would be a masjid – a place dedicated to remembrance of and longing for Allah. Yet, the Prophet ﷺ seems to reeducate us. The earth in its entirety is a place to bask in the remembrance of Allah and reach out to Him. It is the place that Allah has chosen for us to know Him, to prove our devotion to Him, and to rise in ranks closer and closer to Him.

Fajr Prayer as an Act of Faith

I struggle with fajr prayer. I really struggle. I’ve been at an around 20% success rate. I even tried writing an ‘Around the Web’ article just to help motivate me, but I can’t seem to conquer the struggle. Summer times are usually the worst because fajr is so early and I sleep late, but there have been years where I’ve been a lot more successful than I am these days. Winters are better because I can just get up and start my day and get my prayer in on time – but that mostly just feels like cheating. It doesn’t really feel like I’m offering a sacrifice for the sake of meeting someone I love, or at the very least fulfilling His expectations. I hate to say it, but it feels like I’m at an all-time low and I’m starting to doubt I can ever climb back up. 

Why is this the case? Why am I struggling so much?? 

I’m not a heavy sleeper. I toss and turn through the night. I even sometimes get up to pray a night prayer and then miss fajr. It makes no sense and I feel very ashamed about it. Especially as someone who is dedicating their time to thinking and writing about how to connect to God more through my prayer, it doesn’t seem appropriate that I would be missing the time window for the first prayer of the day. This is a basic component of having a successful prayer life and I can’t even get it down. What’s even more is that I don’t even feel guilty about it like I used to. When I was younger, if I missed fajr I would wake up in such a fright and I would rush to fulfill the prayer right away. I would just feel so disappointed. Now it’s become so much more commonplace that that sadness has dulled and even when I miss the prayer, I get up slowly and go about my regular morning routine and then pray. Actually, even when I get up with enough time to pray within the window, I sort of drag my feet, daring myself to miss the prayer. 

What is going on?!

A lot of the advice that I’ve found on the internet or from people in my life argues that missing fajr is just a symptom. When your relationship is good with Allah, then your prayer falls into place. If you’re struggling in your devotion to God though, you will see the effects of it in your prayer. That may very well be the case. I definitely feel less connected to some of the external practices that I grew up with. I watch more Youtube videos then I would care to admit. I can really see that in some sense my practice has changed from what it was when I was the young woman so despondent that she missed her fajr prayer.

Around the Web: Fajr Edition

If you asked any Muslim what prayer they struggle with the most, a majority would say fajr – the dawn prayer. Fajr times can vary drastically between summer and winter. Sometimes getting up for fajr is no thing. Actually sometimes you can get up, get ready for work, drive to your job and start your day, and then have to find a decent corner to pray in. Other times though, fajr is at 3 am. It can feel like an impossible challenge to maintain your prayer (never mind emotionally communicating with the Divine) through such transitory shifts. Don’t fret though, that’s why we’re at it again with another Around the Web edition dedicated just to the first prayer of the day. 

Get Inspired

Fajr has a special place in the prayer repertoire of the Muslim. Beginning at dawn and extending until the sun begins to rise, it’s the closest prayer to the night prayer and can often elicit the same feelings of intimacy and wonder. Additionally, being so early in the morning, it can set a mood for the day and allow each person to clarify their daily intentions. Starting your day with the freshness of a renewed connection with God is such a blessing

Often though, many of us who make fajr prayer on time do so bleary eyed and at the very last moment of the window. It may feel like a simple thing to put off prayer and even feel good that we at least made it on time, but putting off the prayer creates long term issues for the rest of our day. Just from an etiquette perspective, constantly running late to a recurring meeting would indicate a lack of interest and commitment to who and why you are meeting. How can we say that to Allah? How can we be so flimsy in our devotion? Fajr prayer needs to mean more to us. 

Prayer Beyond Formalities

Iqbal Nasim asks a question which unnerves me: Would you pray, if Allah didn’t require you to pray? 

The gut wrenching but immediately obvious answer for me is “No”. Probably the biggest indicator of this is how relieved I feel when I get my period: “thank God I get a break from praying now”. Any which way I sort it, I have to admit that I pray because I have to pray. I search for feeling and meaning to make sense of the experience of praying instead of reaching out to prayer in order to receive feeling and meaning. If anything, I have to work really hard to unearth any sense of connection from salah. 

I often pray, even though I don’t really want to pray 

But that begs the question of why … Why do I keep hacking at this practice if I’m progressing so reluctantly through it? The answer comes immediately again: I’m praying out of fear of punishment from Allah. But that seems to be a very surface level answer. Yes, my faith in the realities of the afterlife guide my decisions enough, but the temptation to drop this practice is so great, it should be easy for me to succumb. Allah is merciful isn’t He? He could forgive this weakness couldn’t He?

Well maybe knowing Allah beyond fear is where the answer lies. What’s interesting is that during the podcast, Brother Iqbal said something along the lines of: if you have decided to believe in Allah, and you really are committed to working on your relationship with Allah, your motivation will just fall into place. So that got me thinking, if I’m motivated enough to perform the outward aspects of prayer, but not much beyond that, it must mean that I have the first part, but maybe not the second. I have decided to believe in Allah, and have decided to submit to Him, on the basis of His Power and punishment, but do I really believe in Allah as the Merciful and overwhelmingly Loving? Do I believe in Him as someone I would want to reach out to in weakness and in need? Someone to build a loving relationship with?? 

My prayers would say no

Your Prayer as a Healing

The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.”

Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6011

This ummah is in pain. It’s hard to keep track of all the different places that are in pain. So many parts of this body ache. From whole countries going through famine and cultural decimation, to individual families and children lost in the simple struggle to survive. We are in pain as a body, as limbs, and even as small cells within the whole. 

This begs the question though, what kind of cells are we in this body? Are you a white blood cell fighting off foes? A cancerous cell sucking up resources to grow yourself gargantuanly? A brain cell interpreting all the different experiences into a clear vision? Whenever we hear the quote from our Prophet ﷺ above, we respond to it with a sort of expectation of someone, somewhere doing something about all these bodily aches. But what if we are the cells that are costing others their lives? 

I am as my servant expects Me to be …

What feelings do you feel when the time for prayer comes in? 

How about what you feel when you knock on the door as you’re about to enter your best friend’s house? 

What about other people? When you’re going to see:

your kind mother 

your funny best friend 

your angry boss

your distant cousin 

your unresponsive teacher 

your generous neighbor 

your loving husband 

your cold uncle 

Each of these conjures up a different feeling but essentially: a rejoice at or recoil from the actual meeting. You naturally have a different relationship with each person and so you will feel differently about meeting them. The question though is, does that feeling have more to do with them or with you …       

You are you. Your personality traits are the same: your faults and strengths within you. It’s true that what you show or hide can change depending on who you’re with, but that’s simply a choice. It’s not that you have changed or that you are necessarily a different person each time you see one of them, it is that your perceptions of how they view you and will respond to you is different. It’s your beliefs about who they are and how they will treat you that causes you to anticipate and respond to them differently. 

Which brings us back to the first question … How do we feel when we are about to meet with Allah?

A Single Minute to Better Prayer

Have you been trying to better your prayer and struggling?! Do you feel hopeless that your prayer will ever get better? Do you feel like your relationship with Allah is strained and desperate?

What if I told you there was a solution … Something that will literally take 1 minute and will completely change your whole experience of salah and maybe even your whole relationship with Allah …

This sounds like a gimmick, but it’s not!!

As part of his course, Transform My Prayer, Iqbal Nasim recommends that before you pray any prayer you take time out for what he terms ‘The Golden Minute’. Basically you take 1 full minute before you start praying to set yourself up mentally as to what it is you are about to do: meet with Allah. It’s very simple and obviously takes very little time.

You may think 1 minute is nothing but I bet if you try it you’ll find yourself sweating just 10 seconds in.

[Book Excerpt] Why Does God not guide some of us when we want to be guided so badly?

The following is an excerpt from Jeffrey Lang’s book: Losing My Religion: A Call for Help. In it he answers the question put to him on why it is that despite our sincerest efforts, sometimes we still don’t feel anything in our prayers. So pertinent to the quest here on Sillah to find more connection in prayer, the excerpt felt fundamental to the conversation and we are so fortunate that the publishers allowed us to share it. May Allah bless this author for sharing his perspective and grant us all steadfastness in seeking Him throughout all the experiences of life. The excerpt begins with the author noting the question put him by a young Muslim. You can also find a PDF of the excerpt for easier reading below. Happy Reading!

Question 3 (part of a lengthy conversation I had with a young immigrant Muslim [woman] who struggles to find peace of mind and spirit in her inherited faith; this struggle is a frequently mentioned frustration of many young Muslim Americans): 

I think that in my last e-mail I mentioned to you that the more I study Islam and the more I learn about it, the less I feel connected to God. I am sure that this sounds strange to you since you have come to know God through Islam. But the fact is that the more I go through the do’s and don’t’s of our faith, the further away I feel from God. For example, for about four months or so, I was extremely religious about my prayers: five times a day, on time and all of that stuff. Well, not even once in my prayers did I feel God’s presence or any sense of peace. I would pray that He would guide me to the truth and show me His way. 

After a while, my prayers started feeling like a burden. I felt like I was doing them because “that is the way it is,” or “God commanded us to do them.” I wanted to get them over with. This just does not feel right to me. Isn’t prayer supposed to be our quiet time with God, where we feel a connection rather than resentment and burden and consequently a disconnection and moving away from God? I do not feel that I should be feeling all these negative emotions in my worship to Him. In other words, I felt like a total hypocrite just going through the motions of prayer while resenting the fact that I had to do it. 

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