Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem
I was just listening to a Friday sermon a couple of weeks back, all about our five times daily prayer. It seems like such a simple thing to talk about in times where there is so much that could be covered, but I found the deeper message so beautiful that I just had to share some of my reflections with you guys (plus it is super relevant to our last lovely guest post). In shaa Allah they will be of benefit!
The imam began by talking about the time in the Prophet’s (saws) life that we refer to today as the “year of sorrow.” During the span of a year, he experienced many personal tragedies, including the loss of his beloved wife and constant supporter Khadija (ra) as well as the loss of his protector and father figure, his uncle Abu Talib. On top of his uncle’s death, he (saws) was also dealing with the fact that his uncle never did utter the shahada before passing away, dying as a non-Muslim. The Muslims were still facing persecution in Mecca, and could not yet find anywhere to turn for help.
The imam then noted that it was also during this year, towards the end, that Allah swt gave the Prophet (saws) the amazing gift of the journey to Jerusalem and the ascension to the heavens. It was during this miraculous journey that what we now know as the five times daily prayer was made obligatory on the Muslims.
While this all seems like basic information for anyone who has studied a little bit of the Prophet’s (saws) life, the imam made a much deeper connection: the five times daily prayer was given to the Prophet (saws) only after one of the most difficult and tragic years of his life. Allah swt was giving him the means to cure his sorrow, to connect his heart to Allah swt, something to give him strength and energy to get through the difficult parts of life.
And that is what prayer is supposed be to us as well. How often when we are feeling down do we turn to prayer? How often when we need help do we go and ask anyone and everyone we can find, and then when nothing works out, we result to prayer as a last resort? Most of us, myself included, when we feel depressed or stressed out about the difficult bits of life can barely find the energy to pray five times a day, let alone turning to the prayer as the thing that should be giving us energy and strength.
As the imam astutely noted, we often do not think of prayer as energizing, comforting, and strengthening because we only perform prayer, recite prayer, but we do not experience prayer.
As someone who doesn’t speak fluent Arabic, I can relate to all of this 100%. I had never actually thought about it that way, but how much of a difference would it make if we began to think of our prayer as something to experience, instead of something to perform? A back and forth dialogue with Allah swt instead of a ritual we are obliged to do.
In order to set ourselves on the way to truly experiencing the beauty of prayer and re-discovering it as a means to find peace in our hearts, I wanted to share some tips I have been gathering recently on improving concentration within the prayer itself.
The first tip, that I actually heard just before I took my shahada at a seminar on prayer (coincidentally called “Prayer Beyond the Motions”), though it was mentioned in this recent sermon as well, was really contemplating over the words Allahu akbar when you say them.
We often translate this as “God is greatest,” which is technically a true statement, but not actually what this phrase refers to. Akbar is a comparative, it means greater. Which leaves us with the open-ended statement God is greater…than what?
God is greater than whatever keeps popping into my mind. God is greater than my phone ringing. God is greater than the soup burning on the stove because I can’t cook. God is greater than the typo I didn’t change in that blog post…
Reflecting on this statement every time I make it during prayer really helps to me to stay calm, and not begin rushing because of other “important” things I have to do. How good can whatever else we are doing be anyhow, if we are neglecting our connection with God for it?
In the same vein, we, myself included, really need to start taking some more time to understand what we are saying in prayer, from the Qur’an we recite down to the smallest “subhanAllah.”
I know, it is difficult. I don’t speak Arabic, and my husband’s Algerian dialect is about as far from Qur’anic Arabic as Romanian is from Spanish, so that isn’t much help either. But if we do not take the time to learn and understand the words we are reciting, we will never, ever, be able to fully experience the prayer.
I found that memorizing the English along with the Arabic when I memorised Qur’an was quite helpful in the beginning, and now that I am beginning to build an Arabic vocabulary I find that I can know more instinctively know what is going on in a particular recitation more than before. But it still takes some work, and I still definitely find myself reciting without even thinking of/knowing what I am saying, especially in longer passages.
But beyond that, do we know what we are saying when we bow, when we prostrate? What about that whole long thing that you say when you sit in the second and final units of prayer? I myself just recently learned the meaning of that and I can tell you, it improved my prayer fivefold—just understanding that one element of it.
So do whatever you can within your means and ability to begin to gain some understanding of what it is you are saying when you are conversing with Allah swt.
The last tip I actually heard from another sister, but I loved it so much and I think it could be so helpful (if I can ever remember to implement it!) What she said she does is to take a pen and paper before you are going to pray, and just sit down for a couple of minutes and write down all of the thoughts, to-do’s, ideas, and worries that are running through your head.
In a larger context, getting properly prepared for prayer in general (making your wudu, setting up your space, making dua, reciting the iqamah) is something we rarely take the time to do, but something that could put us in a much better mindset for concentration.
I know when I pray I tend to get 10 ideas for new blog posts, remember I was supposed to call my sister, stress about what I’m going to have for dinner, and on and on. Obviously with all of this running through my head, I am hardly connected to the prayer and what I am saying. But, if you can sit down and empty all that our of your head before-hand, your mind will be freer to really concentrate, and it will be easier to shut down any little thoughts that may happen to come up.
As I finish these lasts sentences, the noon-time athaan is just beginning. In shaa Allah I will try to implement some of these ideas right now as I begin my wudu and zuhr prayer, and in shaa Allah it will be a good reminder and a step forward in making prayer an energizing, peace-giving time instead of a ritual five times a day.
As usual, I want to hear from you! Please do share any tips or overcome struggles when in comes to connection and concentration in prayer in the comments, and in shaa Allah we can all benefit from them!