The Craft of Effective Prayer – A Talk At UCR’s MSA

The following audio is from a talk delivered for the MSA at the University of California Riverside on March 31st, 2015. The topic was about improving prayer to make one a more effective believer.

[Direct download]


Extra Resources

The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr.

The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal.

Surah al-Fatihah — Points to Ponder, by Nouman Ali Khan.


Perceptions are so important and yet, are also so fallible. Are we seeing “what is”, or can our perceptions be fooled? This question arose recently in the bi-weekly class I teach, Understanding Islam, at ICIE.

One young man asked what should he think of when it comes to “dark thoughts”: The kind you have when you are alone and feel that “the walls are closing in”; or that “God is punishing me.” Such are good and common questions.

If we turn our attention back to the initial premise (perceptions), we might glean some insights to help us understand what is going on.

Take these few “facts” of “reality”: We are currently rotating at a speed of approximately 1,000 mph (the speed at which the circumference of the earth spins). Can you feel it?

Even more astounding, as was pointed out in a previous post, whilst spinning like a mad top, we are actually hurtling through the cosmos at a staggering 490,000 mph! The thought of such blinding speed makes me reach for my seat belt.

While all of the above “facts” are verifiable through certain means, nonetheless, our perceptions are often what govern what we take as reality. Even at the moment of writing this article I feel none of the truly awesome forces at work everyday upon myself. Yet, perceptions or not, reality remains “fixed”: we are hurtling at speeds beyond comprehension.

If we examine the first question: “the walls are closing in”, we will find, upon calm examination, that indeed (earthquakes aside) no walls are falling in upon us. It is quite the opposite: the walls have not moved at all; only our perceptions of them changed.

As to the second question, feeling that “God is punishing me”, let us look to some examples that discuss God’s punishment.

God says in the Qur’an:

“We will give them a taste of lesser punishment before the greater punishment, so that hopefully they will turn back.” [al-Sajdah: 21]

وَلَنُذيقَنَّهُم مِنَ العَذابِ الأَدنىٰ دونَ العَذابِ الأَكبَرِ لَعَلَّهُم يَرجِعونَ

“Those are the people who trade the Next World for this world. The punishment will not be lightened for them. They will not be helped.” [al-Baqarah: 86]

أُولٰئِكَ الَّذينَ اشتَرَوُا الحَياةَ الدُّنيا بِالآخِرَةِ ۖ فَلا يُخَفَّفُ عَنهُمُ العَذابُ وَلا هُم يُنصَرونَ

Now, let us look to the hadith literature:

Related by Abu Hurayrah, “I heard Messenger of God (ﷺ) saying, ‘When Allah created the creatures, He wrote in the Book, which is with Him over His Throne: ‘Verily, My Mercy prevailed over My Wrath’. [Agreed Upon, narrated from Riyadh al-Salihin, hadith #: 419]

لما خلق الله الخلق، كتب في كتاب، فهو عنده فوق العرش‏:‏ إن رحمتي تغلب غضبي

Related by Abu Musa, “The Prophet (ﷺ) said: “This people of mine (Ummah) is one to which mercy is shown. It will have no punishment in the Next Life, but its punishment in this world will be trials, earthquakes and being killed.” [Sahih, narrated from Sunan Abi Dawud, hadith #: 4278]

أُمَّتِي هَذِهِ أُمَّةٌ مَرْحُومَةٌ لَيْسَ عَلَيْهَا عَذَابٌ فِي الآخِرَةِ عَذَابُهَا فِي الدُّنْيَا الْفِتَنُ وَالزَّلاَزِلُ وَالْقَتْلُ

Related by Bahr bin Marrar, vis-a-vie his grandfather Abu Bakrah, “The Messenger of God passed by two graves (ﷺ) and said: “They are being punished but they are not being punished for anything major. One of them is being punished because of urine, and the other is being punished because of backbiting.” [Sahih, narrated from Sunan Ibn Majah, Book 1, Hadith 349]

إِنَّهُمَا لَيُعَذَّبَانِ وَمَا يُعَذَّبَانِ فِي كَبِيرٍ أَمَّا أَحَدُهُمَا فَيُعَذَّبُ فِي الْبَوْلِ وَأَمَّا الآخَرُ فَيُعَذَّبُ فِي الْغِيبَةِ

As we begin to analyze the above statements from the Qur’an and Sunnah, we can see that punishment is real. However, punishment seems to have a number of caveats:

Punishment, by God, is severe, thus, those who are punished know it. It is not a matter of “feeling”. Punishment, as it relates to this life, can also be a mercy, as it allows us to taste what would potentially be our ultimate fate, encouraging us to rethink our lives and “turn back”, as in the verse from surah al-Sajdah.

Clearly God is Merciful, as is stated in the Hadith Qudsi as well as numerous verses from the Qur’an, in that “God’s mercy proceeding His wrath”. So what is left for us to think? Are our perceptions merely twisted? Are we not being punished? One aspect that can help us ascertain our plight is to examine our deeds and actions.

If we are indeed harboring feelings of remoteness, this may be as result of (a) acts we’ve committed that have pushed us away from God and God’s pleasure and/or (b) our perception (mentioned above), influenced by the whispering of Shaytan as well as our souls.

If we read the story of Cain and Abel, we see that it was Cain’s nafs (his soul) that coerced him into slaying his brother:

“So his lower self persuaded him to kill his brother, and he killed him and became one of the lost.” [al-Ma’idah: 30]

فَطَوَّعَت لَهُ نَفسُهُ قَتلَ أَخيهِ فَقَتَلَهُ فَأَصبَحَ مِنَ الخاسِرينَ

طَوَّعَ (the verb at the beginning of the verse above) means “to subjugate” (s.o., or into obedience. It is not true obedience. In a sense we can act for our true selves or against. This is confirmed in modern studies on neurology and behavior, what Kelly McGonigal says in her book The Willpower Instinct:

“the promise of reward is so powerful that we continue to pursue things that don’t make us happy”.

Our nafs can, if not disciplined, override our senses and alter our perception of reality, even our actions. This can lead us to a skewed perception of reality. Ironically, we make think ourselves distant when in fact we are close to God:

“We created man and We know what his own self whispers to him. We are nearer to him than his jugular vein.” [Qaf: 16]

وَلَقَد خَلَقنَا الإِنسانَ وَنَعلَمُ ما تُوَسوِسُ بِهِ نَفسُهُ ۖ وَنَحنُ أَقرَبُ إِلَيهِ مِن حَبلِ الوَريدِ

In the end, we must strive to be honest with ourselves and ultimately, with God. Are the walls closing in? Is God punishing us? The answer to these questions may lie in straddling a line between hoping for God’s mercy – in that it is always near – and being honest enough to access our actions and correct them in accordance with His laws. And we seek protection from the accursed Shaytan.

Spiritual Remedies with the Drexel MSA Week 3

Photo © Muhammad Sattaur

A note on texts and “tradition”:

“When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.” — John Dewey, from Art As Experience.

A note on “spirituality”:

“(Modern spiritual practices have prompted) a slow, yet irreversible move away from a spirituality that (is) theocentric towards one that is increasingly homocentric.” — Dr. Muneer Fareed.

“Aesthetic spirituality differs from religious spirituality in two significant ways: it emphasizes beauty rather than truth, and more importantly, replaces traditional forms of devotion with a philosophy that plays out in the public forum not as worship, but as art.” — Dr. Muneer Fareed. You can read the rest of Dr. Fareed’s article, Spirituality Without God, here.

What do you want to get out of all of this? A reminder on what this course is about. When trying to evaluate this, think of this quote::

إنما يعرف فضل الشيء بثمرته

“The excellence of thing is known by its fruit.” — Ibn al-Jawzi.

What are desires/Hawa and how do they direct our actions?:

اعلم أن الهوى يدعو إلى اللذة من غير فكر في عاقبته

“Know that desires call to rapturous delight without any consideration of its consequences.” — Ibn al-Jawzi.

كم شهوات سلبن صاحبها * ثوب الديانات والمروءات

“How many passions snatched from their companions – the garments of religion and virtue?” — Unknown poet.

Practical approach to improving our iman and spiritual nature – excerpts from The Willpower Instinct:

There is one way to immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath— slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges. Kelly McGonigalThe Willpower Instinct.

It’s a good idea to practice slowing down your breath before you’re staring down a cheesecake. Start by timing yourself to see how many breaths you normally take in one minute. Then begin to slow the breath down without holding your breath (that will only increase stress). Kelly McGonigalThe Willpower Instinct.

Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. Kelly McGonigalThe Willpower Instinct.

Green exercise is any physical activity that gets you outdoors and in the presence of Creation. The best news is that when it comes to green exercise, a quick fix really is enough. Shorter bursts have a more powerful effect on your mood than longer workouts. You also don’t have to break a sweat or push yourself to exhaustion. Lower-intensity exercise, like walking, has stronger immediate effects than high-intensity exercise. Kelly McGonigalThe Willpower Instinct.

McGonical’s insights on “green exercise” reminded me of many of the verses that God talks about in the Qur’an in reference to God’s majesty and power as Creator which often comes in the form of reflecting on God’s Creation:

إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ وَالْفُلْكِ الَّتِي تَجْرِي فِي الْبَحْرِ بِمَا يَنْفَعُ النَّاسَ وَمَا أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مِنْ مَاءٍ فَأَحْيَا بِهِ الْأَرْضَ بَعْدَ مَوْتِهَا وَبَثَّ فِيهَا مِنْ كُلِّ دَابَّةٍ وَتَصْرِيفِ الرِّيَاحِ وَالسَّحَابِ الْمُسَخَّرِ بَيْنَ السَّمَاءِ وَالْأَرْضِ لَآيَاتٍ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْقِلُونَ

“In the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and day, and the ships which sail the seas to people’s benefit, and the water which Allah sends down from the sky – by which He brings the earth to life when it was dead and scatters about in it creatures of every kind – and the varying direction of the winds, and the clouds subservient between heaven and earth, there are Signs for people who use their intellect.”Qur’an, 2: 164.

“So I`ll leave the ways that are making me be what I really don’t want to be, leave the ways that are making me love what I really don’t want to love.” — Nick Drake.

Spiritual Remedies with the Drexel MSA Week 2

A note on texts and “tradition”:

“When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.” — John Dewey, from Art As Experience.

A reminder on what this course is about:

إنما يعرف فضل الشيء بثمرته

“The excellence of a thing is known by its fruit.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

What are desires/Hawa?:

الهوى ميل الطبع إلى ما يلائمه ولا يذّم هذا المقدار إذا كان المطلوب مباحا

“Passions are the inclination of one’s natural character or disposition to whatever pleases it, and should not be vilified in as much as what is being sought is permissible.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

وإنما يذم الإفراط فيه, فمن أطلق الهوى فلأن الغالب فيه ما لا يحل أو يتأول المباح بإفراطه

“However, that being said, passions should be disparaged when one is excessive in following desires. Things being what they are, when passions are criticized, it is either because the object or action is impermissible, or because people often interpret lawful means to excessive (unlawful) ends.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

Virtues and Components of the Mind:

واعلم أن النفس منها جزاء عقلي فضيلته الحكمة

“Know that part of your soul possesses the virtue for wisdom.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

ورذيلته الجهل

“And likewise possesses the capacity for ignorance.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

Are you ever amazed at yourself, both in your capacity of good and bad, for intelligence and stupidity, for morality and depravity? Ibn al-Jawzi points to what God has said in Surah al-Shams:

ونفس وما سوها فألهمها فجورها وتقوها قد أفلح من زكها وخاب من دسها

“And (swearing) by the soul, which He made balanced: He inspired its depravity and its morality. The one who succeeds is the one who purifies it and the one who fails is the one who covers it up.” – Qur’an, 91: 7-10.

Interestingly enough, the verb dassa/دسّ can mean to cover up but it can also mean to poison something (دسّ السمّ لفلان).

وجزء غضبي فضيلته الحدة

“Another aspect is anger, of whose virtue is keenness.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

For “al-hiddah”, we see the meanings of keenness, sharpness, but also of fury and irascibility.

ورذيلته الجُبن

“And its depraved attribute is cowardice.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

وجزء شهواني فضيلته العفة

“And to that part which is lustful, its virtue is chastity.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

ورذيلته إطلاق الهوى

“And its depraved attribute is unbridled passion.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

فالصبر عن الرذائل فضيلة للنفس, بها يحتمل الإنسان الخير والشر

“And its depraved attribute is unbridled passion.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

A note on “sabr”:

Sabr is commonly translated as “patience.” And while it certainly includes that component, the verb sa-ba-ra encompasses much more than that. Like many verbs, its meaning is reflective of its circumstance: To tie, to fetter, to shackle; to put up with. It also conveys the meaning to withstand something which you have no power to remove. In the Muslim context, it also means to show and express praise (hamd) and gratitude (shukr) in trials and adversity.

وَإِذْ قُلْتُمْ يَا مُوسَىٰ لَنْ نَصْبِرَ عَلَىٰ طَعَامٍ وَاحِدٍ فَادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُخْرِجْ لَنَا مِمَّا تُنْبِتُ الْأَرْضُ مِنْ بَقْلِهَا

“And when you said, ‘Moses, we will not be tied down to just one kind of food so ask your Lord to supply to us some of what the earth produces – its green vegetables’…” – Qur’an, 2: 61.

أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ اشْتَرَوُا الضَّلَالَةَ بِالْهُدَىٰ وَالْعَذَابَ بِالْمَغْفِرَةِ ۚ فَمَا أَصْبَرَهُمْ عَلَى النَّارِ

“Those are the ones who have sold guidance for misguidance and forgiveness for punishment. How steadfastly they will endure (or shackled to) the Fire!” – Qur’an, 2: 175.

وَلَمَّا بَرَزُوا لِجَالُوتَ وَجُنُودِهِ قَالُوا رَبَّنَا أَفْرِغْ عَلَيْنَا صَبْرًا وَثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَنَا وَانْصُرْنَا عَلَى الْقَوْمِ الْكَافِرِينَ

“When they came out against Saul and his troops, they said, ‘Our Lord, pour down steadfastness upon us, and make our feet firm, and help us against this kafir people’.” – Qur’an, 2: 250.

This last verse shows that sabr is something real and not simply an abstract notion, as God is asked to “pour” steadfastsness on to them.

A note on “habituation”:

  • Habit – the habits we have and the habits we’d like to form.
  • What affects the formation of our habits, in both positive and negative ways? What about the impact of technology?
  • “We become habituated to what we have and eventually not so interested, and soon dissatisfied, once again.” Bruno Cayoun, Mindfulness-Integrated CBT.
  • Piety can be habituated. Sin can be habituated as well.

Other Readings

  • The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal.
  • The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.
  • Mindfulness-Integrated CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) by Bruno Cayoun.

Play Like Roy Rogers and Slow Down

The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said: “do not become angry/لا تغضب.” While we’re often given prophetic advice, we’re seldom given practical steps on how we might achieve it. Here’s a small exercise that I have been working on myself: slow breathing.

Slow your breathing down. See if you can attain somewhere between four to six breaths per minute. Start out with a 5-minute exercise and slowly increase the time (10 minutes, 20 minutes). This will be much slower than how you normally breathe. You should, with practice, feel your adrenaline rush curb and start to gain control over your actions and emotions. As Kelly McGonigal says,

“Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode.”

As a matter of fact, you can apply this technique to any number of situations in which you need to master your impulses and urges. As God says in the Qur’an,

وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِ وَنَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنِ الْهَوَى

فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ هِيَ الْمَأْوَى

“But as for him who feared the Station of his Lord and forbade the lower self its appetites, the Garden will be his refuge.” Qur’an, 79: 40-41.

Recommended reading: Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It.