Prayer: Spirituality & Diversity
Prayer. Is a term we use frequently, but what is prayer and why do we pray? This may seem like a deceptively simple question, when in fact it is a very profound one. We all pray, and yet the experience of prayer is one that is difficult to describe. At its core, prayer is communication with Allah. It is interacting with the Divine. In the Ismaili Muslim tariqah, prayer takes such forms as the du’a or the tasbih. However, prayer is much more than just recitation. Our rites and rituals are also prayers including asking God for forgiveness for our shortcomings and errors committed.
Since we often pray together, it is easy to forget that prayer is a personal act. That it is an individual response to the Divine. And while prayer can happen when we are together, when we repeat Allah’s names in our zikr or partake in other traditional means, what we feel while praying should be something intimate and individual. It is immediate and sensory. It is personal and moving. When a tasbih or hamd-o-naat in form of a ginan or qasida is recited with a melodic voice and with genuine intent, our souls are lifted in a way that is indescribable, but unmistakably elevated.
As individuals, we acknowledge that we are all unique, and despite any shared understandings we have as Ismaili Muslims, we also understand Allah and the Imam in our own individual ways. This inevitably results in different forms of prayers and while repeating phrases in languages such as Arabic or in our own regional languages is one way to pray; but by no means the only way. Individual prayers and communication with the Divine does not have any boundaries of language or place. How many of us ask for support and guidance because we know that Allah and the Imam are our source of strength and courage? How many of us share our innermost secrets, worries, hopes, and desires with God, and ask Him that which we can ask no other?
In a munajaat, a whispered prayer, believed to have been composed by Imam Ali (a.s), he reaches out to God in his own words, yearning for support and strength. After reciting verses of the Qur’an, he asks of his Lord:
“My Master, O my Master, You are the Creator, and I am the created, and who can have mercy on the created except the Creator?
My Master, O my Master, You are the Tremendous and I am the insignificant, and who can have mercy on the needy except the Needless?
My Master, O my Master, You are the Giver, and I am the beggar, and who can have mercy on the beggar except the Giver?”
The Persian poet Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi once called all of God’s creation “Muslim”. Not in the sense that God’s creatures have a religion, but rather implying that they all submit to God’s will. According to Rumi, in the way that grass bends when it encounters wind, or how flowers and plants move their petals to follow the sun, are forms of submission and also forms of prayer in that they are obeying God’s command. In this way, Rumi suggests that all of God’s creation has within it, a soul, a connection with the Divine that is ingrained in every single cell of their bodies, in each and every atom of their being.
The difference between human beings and animals, as we are often reminded, is that human beings have both a soul and an intellect. And with that intellect comes the ability to make decisions; not just regarding what is right and wrong, but how and in what ways to submit to God. We know from our personal experiences, that there is more than one way to pray. And while we may associate prayer with sound and recitation, in fact prayer always involves the body and bodily action. When we recite something, our mouths and vocal cords are involved. Even when we pray in silence, we close our eyes, and count on our fingers or use a tasbih. When we bow in sajda, we stretch our backs and direct our foreheads towards the ground.
We also see this variety in nature. There are so many different ways in which God’s creation shows its submission to Him. Each of our rituals, in one way or another mimics or takes its inspiration from the natural world. In our zikr, when we repeat God’s names and attributes over and over again, we echo the beautiful songs of a bird in search of its beloved, but not knowing where to find it. When we engage in sajda, we are following the path of raindrops who bow their heads to the vast ocean as they fall, before returning to the clouds. As we think of God, we are nourishing our souls with God’s bounty and mercy, just as the watering hole nourishes and sustains the rest of God’s creation.
We find prayer everywhere in nature. We also find whispers of each of those prayers in the rituals of our own tariqah. Through our rituals and in our prayers, we see not only diversity, but a rich tapestry of ways by which we can communicate with the Divine. All of our actions have the potential to be prayers if we have the right intention.
Prayer has the potential to transport us into a different state of mind and being. It can lead to an inner, spiritual happiness and peace. Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah (a.s) (Aga Khan lll), 48th Ismaili Muslim Imam, in his Memoirs (1954), defined “spiritual happiness” as being “in harmony with God.”
“First, I would place spiritual happiness. A man must be at one with God. This may sound old-fashioned to some people. A few may think that they do not believe in God, and some others that it matters little to the individual in his daily life how he stands with regard to Him.
Ruling out the atheist, with whom a believer can no more argue than he can discuss color with a blind man, it is surely strange that a believer in an Omnipotent and Ever-Present Deity should fail to realise that how we stand this instant and every instant toward Him matters to us more than anything else in the universe.
That is the fundamental question: Are you in harmony with God? If you are – you are happy.”
However, in order to be in “harmony with God”, and therefore spiritually happy, we must speak and listen to Him. We must know what God wants from His creation. As we enter into the month of Safar (second month of the Islamic calendar) and engage in intense prayer, let us take a few moments at our home in privacy, when there are moments of stillness around us, to speak to God in our own words – to strive to be in harmony with God and to aim for spiritual happiness.
Let us make sure that in the midst of the material world, we do not forsake our spiritual lives. With God’s bounty and grace, we have a variety of ways in which we can fulfill our spiritual duties and demonstrate our love and devotion to God.