Starting Over

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Part 1 | Part 2 - Beauty, Love, and Happiness

“I used to feel so close to God. I was doing so much. My worship was good, I was memorizing Quran everyday, I was so active in the community, I attended classes, read books, and listened to lectures by the different religious leaders. I don’t feel like doing any of that now. I’m just over it. I feel nothing. I barely feel Muslim.”

In the last few years, this is a sentiment I have heard repeatedly from different people, in different words, at different stages in life. From young activists to veteran religious leaders and even scholars, emotional burn out is less uncommon than we might assume. In all honesty, I have experienced it at different stages myself. The more I heard others express it, the more I became intrigued with the phenomena and started to notice patterns, as well as  ways of alleviating and even growing from this test. Usually, but not always there was some form of disillusionment that the person had experienced. It could have been after disappointment with religious leaders, an institution or organization they were devoted to, worldly rewards they were promised on the path of religiosity that never materialized, personal trials they could not make sense of or find purpose in, or personal failings they had yet to forgive themselves for. There are any number of different causes that can pose a crisis to one’s engagement with faith. In this series, I hope to look at the crises of faith in more detail, either by unpacking a possible cause, or offering a practical step toward healing, recovery, and hopefully an even stronger return.

This week I want to talk about starting over. Regardless of how respected we are, what abbreviations exist before or after our names, the core of the problem is not in the branch issues distracting us. The branch issues may be valid issues, but our inability to cope means the crisis is much deeper. “The word sincerity means nothing to me,” a youth volunteer once told me when seeking counsel on this issue. My advice was and is simple, go back to the beginning. Remember when you were first learning about wudu in weekend school, and everything was new? The genuine excitement you felt when you heard stories about the Prophet’s life (saw)? It doesn’t matter how old you are, going back to the basics helps you re-appreciate your faith and fall in love with it all over again. But this time, you will ascend with more ease because even though you are starting over, you are no beginner. You’re entering the path with experience, tools, and wisdom that are laying dormant right now in your apathy.  In starting over, you slowly remember how to use your many gifts, and you use them even more effectively than before. In due time, faith becomes even more meaningful and vibrant in your life.

The first pillar of Islam identifies worshipping Allah (swt) as our ultimate goal in life. If we are feeling numb towards Allah, we must ask why? What do we think about Allah? Why are we avoiding Him? In a Hadith Qudsi, Allah (swt) says, “I am as my servant thinks I am, so let my servant think of Me as they will.” An upcoming post will insha Allah deal with the subject of having the best assumption of God in more detail. For now, simply realize that “There is no god but God” in such a context means “there is no one who can save me from me, from my apathy, numbness, or disillusionment but God.” To actualize this, allow yourself to move from numbness to hope by repeating this positive affirmation anytime you feel distant from Allah: “if I choose to draw near to You, You will certainly and undoubtedly draw even nearer to me.” Then make dua.

When we talk about starting over in our faith, let’s turn now to the pillar that separates us from disbelief. For the remainder of this piece, let’s pretend that we’re learning about the beauty of prayer for the first time. Allah(swt) says, “Verily prayer prevents evil and prohibited deeds.” (29:45) This means something about prayer helps us to choose God over whimsical desires and the forbidden. A quality prayer elevates us from being controlled by things outside of ourselves, to affirming the control we have always had over our immediate decisions. As the soul is connected to its Maker, it remembers that the body is under its command and not the opposite. In this way, prayer liberates us from being the pawns of the shaytan or our own egos.

When people feel lazy with prayer, it’s often a result of seeing prayer itself as a burden. There could not be a greater lie whispered to us so repeatedly. Prayer is no burden. Prayer is a break from this world and is a connection to Allah (swt) as its Arabic root, sila, implies. Just as it was legislated upon our ummah during the spiritual journey of the Prophet (saw), Israa’ and Miraaj it is similarly for us like taking five spiritual vacations a day. The Prophet (saw) compared prayer on a spiritual level to the cleanliness and purity of one who takes a bath five times a day. It’s leaving behind all the problems, worries, and true burdens of this life only to be nourished with a very pure light, and come out transformed in the remembrance of Allah.

The whole world can send you messages of failure and lack of worth, but in prayer you are the recipient of divine love. Every act of worship we are able to do, we do so by God’s permission and decision. The Prophet (saw) said, “Allah directs His Face towards the face of His servant who is praying as long as s/he does not turn away.” Our prayers are an evidence of His love for us, of His turning His Face towards us, and as such our true worth is not only found, but continuously reaffirmed in prayer. The Prophet (saw) said, “When performing the prayer one is conversing intimately with one’s Lord.” The Quran further guides us to thank Allah when we find good in our lives. So when we pray, let us thank the One who honored us with worshipping Him. Why rush through such an incredible blessing? Why turn our faces or hearts away? Why not enjoy the intimate conversation with One who loves us so much, He brought us near?

Khushu’ is more than just focus in prayer. It’s enjoying the sweetness of the prayer itself. Some people rush through fine deserts and miss all the details of what makes the desert so enjoyable. They need to slow it down, be present, and allow their senses the freedom and time to experience. Prayer is similar. Imam Nawawi mentions four steps to acquiring khushu’:

  1. Allow your heart to be present. While the world can only see shapes and forms, Allah (swt) is the only One who fully knows the condition of your heart and sees it with utmost clarity. Allow your heart to recognize that it is in the worship of its Maker. Let the words emanate from your heart onto your lips.
  2. Allow your intellect to be a witness. Understand the meaning of what you are saying in prayer as you say it. So now your heart means it, as your mind understands and acknowledges it.
  3. Allow your body to be still. In every position, rest in it and practice full stillness. No fidgeting, no rushing. Every position has a purpose, a right over you. Give your body the permission to experience the right of each station of prayer, through stillness.
  4. Allow your limbs to express humility before God. Every limb, muscle, bone, joint and even knuckle is in a state of worshipping the Most High when we pray. If you truly feel like you are standing before Allah (swt) your posture will reflect that in every part of the prayer. You will stand, bow, prostrate and sit with utmost humility and awe as your being testifies to the greatness of the One you are praying to.

Whenever I find myself in prayer without focus or enjoyment, I go through each of these steps and for me it has always been 100% of the time transformational. Even in the middle of a prayer itself we can choose to draw near to Him, and see how Allah (swt) draws even nearer. May Allah bless Imam Nawawi for every prayer that was transformed after using his advice. A short way I remember it is: heart, mind, stillness, humility.

Sometimes I hear people say when it comes to khushu’, “I can’t. I don’t feel anything.” Take the steps, have the best assumption of Allah, hoping in Him, and see what happens. If you were going to meet close friends or relatives you would feel excitement because you have good assumptions of them, and hope in a pleasant experience when you spend time with them. There is no one we have the potential of loving more than Allah (swt) Himself, not even ourselves. He is the only One worthy of being totally vulnerable with. For some people hope is a vulnerability. When it comes to Allah (swt) embrace it, because He is as we think of Him. The Prophet (saw) used to supplicate, “There is no refuge or asylum from You except with You.” We must pray with hope in Allah (swt) because everything in the world can be flawed and disappointing but Him. Pray with hope because there are no sins greater than His forgiveness, no problems greater than His power, no answers beyond His knowledge. He is the One and Only, and there is no one else like Him.

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