Just assume, a company manager loves an assistant very much and likes his presence at the office. He offers him extra-pay if he will check in and talk with him five times a day, 10 minutes each time. The assistant agreed, so accordingly he would come to the office at the scheduled time and would talk with the manager, but without ever looking him in the eye! The assistant fulfilled his responsibility, didn’t he?
Now let’s assume the manager is Allah ﷻ —the manager of everyone and everything, the Lord of the Worlds. He appointed us to be His servants, mandated that we communicate with Him on a set schedule and offered us rewards for doing so. We establish that routine schedule, but without any particular attention to Him, and even without acknowledging [to ourselves] His Presence.
How Do We Learn to Keep Up Eye-Contact with Our Lord?
Allah ﷻ said:
“…establish Prayer for My remembrance” [Surah Ṭâ Hâ, 20:14].
From this statement the 11/12th century Islamic scholar Imam Abu Hamid Ghazali explicates its obvious meaning in his most celebrated book, Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din: that the absent mind is in opposition to the state necessary for remembrance. So then, he asks, how can the Prayer of an inattentive one be qualified as remembrance of Allah?
“…and do not be among the heedless.” [Surah Al-A’râf, 7:205]
This, too, asserts the necessity of attentive humility (Khushu’) in ṣalât. The term Khushu’ includes the meaning of reverence, mindfulness and more —to be discussed below.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
“There are many performers of the Prayer gaining nothing from it except fatigue and effort.”[i]
The mind’s endless engagement in worldly matters distracts it from the remembrance of Allah ﷻ. Many find that distractive thoughts overwhelm the mind when they commence ṣalât, and sometimes one realises that his Prayer is over only when he hears the imam saying Taslim!
“If one’s Prayer didn’t shield him from evil, then nothing has increased for him but [his] distance from Allah.”
Thus, did Rasulullah ﷺ already warn us. Now that we are aware of our frequent lack of full attention and humility before Allah during ṣalât, what to do about it?
Imam Al-Ghazali is a renowned scholar, one who promoted the practice of tasawwuf along with Islamic jurisprudence, and, in so doing, he advocated a different method for understanding the world. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din is one of his most remarkable books. Many scholars suggest reading this book in order to make a self-transformation —for there is much thought-provoking advice, which has been found of great benefit to Muslims of the modern era. Studying Hadiths is encouraged, because these substantiate to us that the performer of ṣalât is intended to communicate with Allah. We all know how a communication will fail if the speaker is lacking presence of mind. A ṣalât performed with the absence of mind is mere physical movement; therein is no attentive humility, no remembrance, nor is there a successful communication event contained within it.
So, Does This Lack of Attention Mean that Ṣalât is Invalid (batil)?
The least requirement of attentive `humility in order to validate ṣalât is the one present at the time of the opening takbir (takbirat ul–ihram). It must be said, though, that some scholars are of the view that Khushu’ is not necessary for the validity of salat. This is one approach to jurisprudence (fiqḥ), but the mystic (tasawwuf) approach, by contrast, advocates for the presence of attentive humility throughout the entire ṣalât in order for the Prayer to be valid. This fiqḥ view is better —closer to the intention of ṣalât — especially if one wants a benefiting reward in the Hereafter, rather than the minimum result of escaping the hellfire.
So, we see that —in all approaches to jurisprudence— at least some attentive humility (Khushu’) is essential for the validity of ṣalât. However, the same is not the case with regard to any other form of worship. The purpose of each type of worship varies. For instance, fasting [ṣiyâm], even if one is inattentive to his Lord throughout the fasting period, one’s struggle of thirst and fatigue through avoiding food and drink gains him its reward because of his undergoing its hardship. Likewise, in ḥajj, the toil for circumambulation, standing at ‘Arafat and other physical efforts are the purposes of it. Spending a portion of one’s assets —the due of zakât— for the poor and needy rewards him (in the Hereafter) even when he literally had no attentive presence in his act. The validity of one’s mindless giving of zakât is in the fact that he did it in spite of economic or mental strain, insha’Allah with the intention of complying with God’s requirements. But in one’s ṣalât, the purpose is that of sustaining his remembrance of Allah ﷻ by communicating with Him.
Learning how to develop attentive humility (Khushu’) can unfold before us a new world, free from mental strain; in fact, a properly done ṣalât can give us more health and courage, in addition to its rewards.
Haven’t you thought about why the reward for the ṣalât of a scholar is way higher than that of a common believer? In fact, a Muslim doesn’t need to consult a counsellor or a mental therapist whenever hard situations clutch at your heart. A mindful two rak’ah ṣalât can be your best remedy, a source for all the satisfaction you need. Imam Ghazali, رحمه الله , has taught us the meaning of Khushu’ and how to gain it.
Entering into the Soul of Salât
If one successfully explores how to experience the pleasure of ṣalât, he will end up realising that he needs to know Khushu’ before his Creator. This can best be understood through studying the six elements of the soul of ṣalât which Imam Ghazali has explicated in Ihya ‘Ulum Al-Din. As he explains the innermost meaning which perfects the soul of ṣalât, he names the following six elements:
- Mindfulness (hudur al-qalb) is to have the heart free of everything except the task at hand: what one is verbalizing in his ṣalât or what he is reciting —so as for his thought not to deviate into anything other than what it ought to be focusing on. In order to gain this purposeful state of mind, the performer of ṣalât can clear his mind from all earthly thoughts of past or future events before the opening Takbir. If it takes a few minutes to establish Khushu’, so be it. These extraneous thoughts won’t benefit him; they only block out the sought after focused attention to Allah; such wandering thoughts hinder attaining the Prayer’s full reward.
- Comprehension (al-tafahhum) One can be mindful on the words of the ṣalât whilst being inattentive to the meaning it conveys. Similarly, one who knows their literal meaning could be way different from a scholar who knows its deeper meanings. To be precise, presence of heart along with comprehension of the meanings of the words is what ṣalât is intended to achieve. The degree of comprehension fluctuates from one performer of ṣalât to another according to his level of knowledge and experience.
This element suggests that studying the meaning of the Surah Al-Fâtiḥah, adkars, and other supplications is very useful for gaining humility. Imam Al-Ghazali said,
“How many subtle meanings does the performer understand in his ṣalât which he never knew before? In this way the ṣalât is a shield from evil and bad deeds.”
- Veneration (al-ta’dîm) Even if the performer of ṣalât has the mindfulness and comprehension we mentioned, his communication with Allah ﷻ the Most High, can happen without the respect due to the Lord of the Worlds. So veneration, or honour, goes beyond the previous two elements, and is critical to achieving fully appropriate attention to the Almighty in ṣalât. In remembering Allah, one should never lose sight of who He is.
- Reverence (al-haiba) is a by-product of veneration. It can be felt when one has deep respect along with the fear (taqwa) of Allah ﷻ. A phobia, a fear of earthly harm, is not reverence; a fear of snakes cannot be considered as al-haiba. But al-haiba is a fear that comes out of deep respect for the All-Powerful and Merciful Lord.
- Hope (al-raja’) is in addition to the previous elements. Imam Al-Ghazali says:
“How many people respect a king and fear his authority but do not hope for anything from him? But it is very necessary for a servant to be hopeful of the reward of Allah ﷻ, the Glorious, [in response to his praise and supplications in ṣalât] as much as he is fearful of His punishment for [the servant’s] faults.”
- Modesty (al-haya’) can be a consequence of the other five elements in that it is formed out of admitting his faults and having sorrow for his sin. Alternatively, the other elements can work in the absence of consciously deep-felt modesty, like having deep respect without admitting his own faults and feeling shame for them.
How to Acquire these Six Elements by which to Enter into the Soul of Ṣalât
Acquiring these six qualities together makes a believer fit for experiencing the pleasure and satisfaction of ṣalât.
Mindfulness is mostly relevant to what personally matters to the performer of ṣalât: If his mind is mostly occupied with business or family, then his heart must learn to settle onto what ṣalât is meant for, totally leaving aside–during Prayer times— the worldly matters. If Allah ﷻ matters to him more than any other concern, then his heart can never be completely overtaken with such temporary issues of this short life. Clearly, it is essential to free up the mind before commencing ṣalât by reminding himself that such worldly things are not going to benefit him in the Hereafter. This is possible only when he or she firmly believes what Allah said:
“…while the hereafter is better and more enduring” [Surah Al-A’lâ, 87:17]
and that mindful ṣalât is the way to the best Hereafter.
In order to comprehend the meaning of what one says whilst one is in ṣalât, he has to study and remind himself of the phrases of his ṣalât and their meanings and defend himself against whatever breaks his concentration. The deeper one knows the Prayer’s meanings, the better he comprehends and understands the function of his ṣalât.
Veneration, Imam Ghazzali said, is formed out of admitting these two facts: The Majesty and Power of Allahﷻ and the worthlessness of the self without the help of Allah.
Reverence is a feeling of deep respect, tempered with fear (Taqwa), which takes birth in the mind when one develops more understanding of Allah’s Power and Prestige; and when he perceives His Mercy, Grace and Kindness and an assurance of the promise of Heaven for establishers of ṣalât, he feels hope.
And finally, Modesty is felt when one realizes his own faults and his negligence of Allah’s ﷻ rights whenever he finds himself engaging in something not meant for him. Then he feels grief and regret for what he did, and shame on the self —which eventually can be transformed into modesty.
Defend Yourself Against the Enemies of Attention.
Thwarting the forces pulling one into distraction —then resulting in absence of the mind— is the one and only shortcut to bringing about Khushu’.
The distractive factors can be classified into two: external and internal.
- The five sensory organs could most often be responsible for intercepting concentration. These are the external One can close his eyes or perform ṣalât inside a dark room to avoid such interruptions.
Here one needs to prevent all distractions. For instance, the design of the carpet (Musalla) or a window which is open to street noise can suck in one’s attention. Rasulullah ﷺ once asked his Companions to return a variegated print garment to Abu Zaham, who had gifted it to Him, because it diverted His attention in ṣalât.
- On the other hand, Imam Al-Ghazali says, the internal causes are harder to tackle. Worldly matters are not confined to in a single arena; a wandering mind takes us from one extraneous thought to another, which connects to still another. To prevent this wandering of the mind, it is necessary for the performer of ṣalât to stick to the meaning of what he is saying in his Prayer —after first removing all other thoughts.
If a believer can perform ṣalât with all the above-mentioned elements, thereby obtaining the kind of attentive humility [khushu’] needed to perfect his Prayer, then, and only then, can he expect to experience something that was unknown to him before his standing for ṣalât in the proper way.
Indeed, ṣalât —performed as intended—is a spontaneous stream of knowledge.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
“Nothing is written [as reward] for a performer [of his required ṣalât] except what he understood from his Prayer.”
[i] All hadiths cited here are reproduced from Ihya Ulum Al-Din.