Pictures taken at Dar al-Islam in Abiquiu, New Mexico during the Ribaat retreat
In at least one of the books of fiqh I’ve studied, an interesting point was made regarding the takbeer of salah.
When you say “Allahu akbar” (Allah is the Greatest), your intention should be one of dhikr and not one of “announcement”.
If you think about this for a minute you realize that this is way, WAY harder than it sounds. Next time you are praying your salah, start just with the first/opening takbeer and focus on the meaning of what you are saying and connect this meaning to what you are about to do.
Now do it again.
We do this a total of six times per rak`ah.
It becomes very hard to break that old habit, to click out of “autopilot”. It is incredibly easy for “Allahu akbar” to become an announcement (to self or others) of “I’m moving now” and not an expression of the heart.
Since learning about this and attempting to apply it I’ve realized that this is actually the cure for the state of “I am not feeling anything in my salah and I’m only going through the motions”.
Allahu akbar is our reset button. Even if we are slipping in our attention and khushuu’ in every other part of the prayer, even if we are not Arabic speakers and don’t understand the other parts well enough (yet) to connect the words in our hearts, this little phrase can connect to all hearts.
And when we connect in a moment of Allahu akbar, the stage of the prayer that follows it will be elevated.
I also talk with my Qur’an students about how they way we use our voices affects our spiritual connection. Part of this is about speed and volume. Slowing down, feeling the pronunciation of each letter carefully, and giving our real, authentic voices to our recitation also help to engage our hearts. So while we are used to Allahu akbar as something pronounced quickly, loudly, and even with aggression we can soften and s t r e t c h our pronunciation to connect the sound and the feel of this dhikr with the meaning that should emanate from our heart.
On the meaning of Allahu akbar
This is a phrase we don’t think about very much. Perhaps because we think the meaning is so simple and obvious. And of course it has been unfairly demonized and misused.
In the wird (collection of prayers and meditations) attributed to Imam An-Nawawi this phrase, Allahu akbar, is repeated frequently. It’s one of the things that distinguishes Imam An-Nawawi’s wird from other commonly recited ones. It opens with repetition of Allahu akbar three times followed by “I say this upon myself, upon my deen, upon my family, upon my children*, upon my companions, upon their deen and upon their wealth.”
And he uses a phrase I find helpful in framing “Allahu akbar” for myself.
Allahu a`izzu wa ajallu wa akbaru
Min maa akhaafu wa aHdhar
Allah is more powerful and sublime and greater
Than what I fear and avoid
All of us have things we fear and avoid. And these days, anxiety and depression and stress are endemic. Whatever may be troubling us in the forefront or in the background, we carry it to our prayer rugs like stones on our backs or in our hearts and stomachs.
Even when things are going great, Allahu akbar reminds us that these good things come only from Him and that He is greater than anything we achieve and experience. We shouldn’t become full of pride and we should remember always “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
There is another way of looking at this I discuss frequently with my Qur’an students when we discuss the sajdah of tilawah- when there is a sajdah (prostration) in the passage of Qur’an you are reading but for whatever reason you can’t make a physical sajdah we are taught to say this dhikr 3 or 4 times.
Laa ilaaha illa Allah
Why is this dhikr equivalent to a verbal sajdah or a sajdah of the heart? And why do we say this dhikr in this particular order?
First: you make an observation- you could behold something in nature, in a person, in your life, and you are moved in the moment to make an emotional declaration. “Wow, God is amazing”. That’s SubHaan Allah.
NEXT, your emotion leads you to express praise and thanks to Allah not for anything other than for simply Being and for allowing you to witness something He has made. Remember, “Hamd” is the praise that we give in good and in bad circumstances. We could be observing or experiencing something beautiful or something challenging. It’s all the same. Alhamdulillah (`alaa kulli Haal – in all circumstances)
THEN, your mental and logical instincts kick in. By observing HIs power and thanking Him for His signs we are reminded and confirmed in our certainty that truly, there is no god but Allah.
And finally, with the certainty of that recognition, that personal experience of Allah, we can declare with conviction, that Allah is the Greatest over all things. Allahu akbar.
This is the reality of a personally experienced submission, hence I call it a sajdah of the heart.
Allahu akbar is the expression of that certainty, that comfort, the calmness and assurance that come from observing His Signs, appreciating and acknowledging His Oneness and finally feeling His greatness and ability. Let it calm you, let it stabilize you, and then let it move you.
Hamd and shukr
Sajdah of Tilawa
*Imam An-Nawawi never married, did not have children, and died relatively young. This line is often cited by people who question the authenticity of the attribution of this wird to Imam An-Nawawi. My personal theories include that he is either referring to the children of his extended family, with whom he was very close, or this may have been an addition by one of his students and Allah knows best. Either way, this wird is considered sound for use by whoever feels it speaks to their heart.
Wird of Imam An-Nawawi with Arabic, transliteration, and English translation