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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 …
Which begs another question … What would it take to experience Allah beyond exacting and vengeful and as gentle and affirming?
Maybe the real answer lies in my response to life itself? How do I experience this life? My friends? My inner self even?
Again, reluctantly, I have to admit, much of life has become reduced to formalities and trusting myself to the universe around me seems impossible. All along the path I turn my heart away; I pull my heart out. I silence myself. I look longingly into the faces of my peers searching for acceptance. I am stuck in a series of choreographed motions, trading one mask for another, burying deeper and deeper the true reality of who I am. Maybe if I hold back enough of who I am, I can be good enough. Maybe I can be a good enough person if I can fake being a good enough person.
And with God I do the same
I hold up my formalities. I insist on reciting mindlessly rather than feeling openly. It’s almost as if I’m too scared to open my heart to feeling the prayer, because I don’t want to know what I will find there. The fear of Allah I am using to orchestrate my prayers is just a reflection of the fear I have of myself. It is so silly seeing it written in black and white but it is also so much more obvious. The fact is, Allah already knows what’s in my heart. He can see beyond my formality. He hears my wandering thoughts and knows what’s behind them. He knows that I am hiding.
We do not respond to Allah within a vacuum: Who I am outside prayer, is who I will be in it. If I always spend my time fighting against myself, then of course I won’t know how to be when I want to be myself.
And maybe that’s the answer. If I can take the step to surrender to my fear even so slightly, and open my heart to myself, I can have a chance to feel His guiding, gentle affirmation through it. So often I feel I must respond to Allah like a soldier, but maybe in His infinite Grace and Wisdom He offers us this life on our own terms so that we may respond to Him as we need; like a child. Maybe He knows that to find Him, we must find ourselves. And if so, He accepts our resistance alongside our return.
وَفِى ٱلْأَرْضِ ءَايَـٰتٌۭ لِّلْمُوقِنِينَ ٢٠ وَفِىٓ أَنفُسِكُمْ ۚ أَفَلَا تُبْصِرُونَ ٢١
And on earth are signs for those who believe with certitude, and within yourselves; do you not see?Quran Athariyat (51):20-21
Some have spoken of surrender. I always thought that to mean surrender to the practice. Accept that it must be done. Strive to be disciplined and to respond. Surrender to the monotony. But maybe it’s surrender to yourself. It’s saying to Allah, this is me. Muddied as I am. Resisting You as I have, here I am responding to you and asking for Your Grace. It is a surrender that yields openness rather than tightness. If you find yourself surrendering and there is no feeling of lightness then it can’t truly be a surrender. Surrender means to allow all resistance to fall; even resistance to your own self. To be wholly and openly as you are. And what is amazing is that, that is exactly what Allah wants. He doesn’t need me to be good enough to be good enough, He just asks me to be me.