To Understand the Significance of Prayer One Must Understand One’s Insignificance

I have often had young (and not so young) Muslims come and ask me about the significance of prayer. Often this inquiry is triggered by doubt and skepticism in their lives as the result of sins they’ve committed. But what is most curious about this line of questioning is the trajectory its taken to get here: it’s backwards. To understand the “why” of prayer, one must first understand one’s insignificance. What do I mean?

We are all sinners. While not born that way, we get to committing them with an uncanny natural talent. However, not only do we  routinely and severely underestimate God’s power of clemency but we often have no inkling of its scope. Hence, from this perspective, we can come to see a glint of God’s wisdom in prescribing five mandatory prayers on His creation. Take for example this encounter as related by Anas bin Malik:

A man came to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and said, “O Messenger of God!, I have committed a sin worthy of Divinely-ordained punishment! So execute the punishment on me”. The Messenger of God did not ask him about it  and then came time for prayer (salah). So [the man] performed the prayer with the Messenger of God صلى الله عليه وسلم. When the prayer was finished, the man stood up and said again: “O Messenger of God! I have committed a sin worthy of Divinely-ordained punishment, so execute the punishment on me”. He صلى الله عليه وسلم asked, “Did you pray (perform salah) with us?” To which the man replied, “yes”. The Messenger of God صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Assuredly God has forgiven you” (al-Bukhari and Muslim).

جاء رجل إلى النبي، صلى الله عليه وسلم فقال‏:‏ يا رسول الله أصبت حداً، فأقمه علي، وحضرت الصلاة، فصلى مع رسول الله، صلى الله عليه وسلم، فلما قضى الصلاة قال ‏:‏ يارسول الله إنى أصبت حداً، فأقم في كتاب الله‏.‏ قال “هل حضرت معنا الصلاة‏؟‏‏”‏ قال‏:‏ نعم ‏.‏ قال‏:‏ قد غفر لك‏”‏ ‏(‏‏(‏متفق عليه‏)‏‏)‏‏

We often attribute to ourselves what ought to only be attributed to God. If we took a step in the direction of trying to grasp God’s magnanimity and all-encompassing mercy, we might equally be capable of understanding our own insignificance, for who are we to adjudicate in His Place? After all, God says Himself: “And God forgives all sins” (Qur’an, 39: 53). If we could begin that process that we just might begin to get out of our prayer what we ought to be getting out of it: expiation. So pray, and let prayer do its thing.

Khutbah at Drexel University: Knowing the Story of Islam – The Du’ah

Du’ah is the narration of our story called Islam:

يَا ابْنَ آدَمَ! إِنَّكَ مَا دَعَوْتنِي وَرَجَوْتنِي غَفَرْتُ لَك عَلَى مَا كَانَ مِنْك وَلَا أُبَالِي

‘O son of Adam, I forgive you as long as you pray to Me and hope for My forgiveness, whatever sins you have committed.

Ramadan Preparation Part Too: A Khutbah

From the previous khutbah, we continue the topic of religious responsibility, deeds, and taqwa, all as a part of increasing our religious literacy. To sum things up again, we noted that taqwa can be thought of as a set of reflexes – a self-defense system if you will – for the believer. Again, to quote al-Tabrizi’s from the collection, al-Hamasah:

الإتقاء أن تجعل بينك و بين ما تخافه حاجزا يحفظك

“Taqwa is the idea that you [A] place something [C] between yourself and that which you fear could destroy you [B].”

So with this in mind, we will look at how avoiding disobedience can server as our “barrier” to put in between ourselves and what may lie in wait for us on the Day of Judgment. Let’s triage some of the acts of disobedience.

Avoiding Disobedience

This can prove to be one of the most difficult things a believer can do: put their desires in check so as to avoid the displeasure and disobedience of God. We forget that God has promised us that on the Day We Stand, our limbs themselves will bear testimony of what we did:

يوم تشهد عليهم ألسنتهم وأيديهم وأرجلهم بما كانوا يعملون

“On that day their tongues, hands, and feet will testify against them about what they used to do.” [Qur’an: al-Nur, 24].

So by keeping this in mind, we may be able to encourage ourselves, through hope and fear, of avoiding disobedience, by reminding ourselves that our eyes, our hands, and our tongues will testify against us. But the glass is not all half empty. As we shall see, as Ibn al-Qayyim relates a saying of one of the Salaf, that sins are also opportunities to return to obedience to God. He quotes in his work, al-Wabil al-Sayyib:

إن العبد ليعمل الذنب يدخل به الجنة و يعمل الحسنة يدخل بها النار

“A servant may commit a sin by which he goes to Paradise and he may do a good deed by which he enters the Fire.” [Hilyah al-Awliya’ wa Tabaqat al-Asfiya’, 242.]

Be careful here not to misconstrue Ibn al-Qayyim’s words: it’s not that sins in and of themselves are something “good”, but rather, when one commits a sin, there is the opportunity to feel shame, remorse, and to be regretful in committing the act. We all commit sins so we should never feel secure that because we’re doing other good deeds that we do not need to seek Allah’s forgiveness. On the other hand, if good deeds become something prideful, then we lose the benefit of those actions. In fact, if the servant heads down this path, he or she runs the risk of Allah abandoning them to their pride. But with so many things, God has given us a head start to obedience by not “leaving us to ourselves”. Again, Ibn al-Qayyim says:

العارفون كلهم مجمعون على أن التوفيق أن لا يكلك الله تعالى إلى نفسك والخذلان أن يكلك الله تعالى إلى نفسك

“Those who are Aware are in agreement that tawfiq [Divine Success] is that Allah does not entrust you to yourself and that Allah’s displeasure is that Allah leaves you to your pride, vanity or heedlessness”

God the Exalted has given us God to rely on. It is only when we are heedless, prideful, or both, that we are “left to ourselves” as we read in the Qur’an:

فنذر الذين لا يرجون لقاءنا في طغينهم يعمهون

“And so We left those who have no hope in meeting Us in wandering blindly in transgression.” [Qur’an: Yunus, 11]

From time to time, we allow Shaytan the Accursed to trick us into thinking that [aside from associating partners with God] the sins we have committed are beyond even God’s clemency to forgive and redeem. This quandary further illustrates the importance of understand God by the Attributes that Allah chose: al-Ghafur, al-Rahman, al-Tawwab, etc. These Names and Attributes, in the Divine Reality, are capable of forgiving the sons and daughters of Adam, even if their sins Were to be “like the foam on the ocean.” But despair leads to heedlessness which deceives us in giving up hope in meeting our Creator and being forgiven for our transgressions.

Mercy Over Wrath

In the modern discourse surrounding Islam, there is far little mentioned concerning the mercy and love that God has towards the Creation. This is especially absent in how Islam is presented towards non-Muslims, which has taken on a dry, textual, and ritualistically-empty practice. And yet, as we see in this hadith Qudsi [Divine Narration], God set a fundamental approach as to how the Creation would be treated:

قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم لما قضى الله الخلق كتب في كتابه على نفسه فهو موضوع عنده إن رحمتي تغلب على غضبي

“The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, stated: When God decreed the Creation, God wrote in [His] Book in regards to His Self-which is laid down with God-that ‘My mercy precedes My wrath.'” [Abu Hurairah reports this in Muslim]

So as we prepare to greet the month of Ramadan, seek the Creators mercy and clemency. Strive to avoid disobedience through the limbs and the heart and keep this du’ah in mind:

يا حي يا قيوم برحمتك نستغيث لا تكلنا إلى أنفسنا ولا إلى أحد من خلقك طرفة عين وأصلح لنا شؤوننا كلها

“O Ever-Living, O Self-Subsistent, by Your mercy we beseech Your help. Leave us not to ourselves nor to any of Your creation for even the blink of an eye. Set right for us all our affairs.”
Listen to and download the khutbah below:

Additional Resources

For the reference to a “fiqh of the cubicle” [from the audio], see Imam Suhaib Webb’s khutbah.