The struggle is real

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Rey is “all the Jedi” but that doesn’t mean that her mission didn’t require a test that she had to meet with extraordinary effort. Look how she struggles here. No matter what your spiritual state, who your teachers are, how much help you have, how “right” you are, how good you are, or anything else- you WILL still have to struggle and fight.

#spirituallessonsofstarwars

The Convert Spirit: “Tails” for Converts: Developing a Mature Faith

Many things bring people to Islam: Some come to Islam after years of study, and some after learning only a few key items about our faith. Some come to Islam through books, college classes, personal relationships with Muslims (including boyfriends/husbands), or even travel to Muslim-majority countries.

The parts of Islam that first “speak” to people are unique to each individual and where they are in life- some of us are first drawn to the idea of pure monotheism, some to the ritual of salah, some to the practice of hijab, some to the ideas of racial egalitarianism and social justice found in Islam, some to the idea of a rule-governed life, some to the unchanged nature of the Qur’an.

Here is an important reality to understand: Often, what brought us to Islam will not be the thing that sustains us in Islam.

Over the years, as we learn more and practice more and experience more, our faith should grow, expand, and mature. Too often, however, we close ourselves into little cardboard boxes labeled “The Very Best Muslim” where we hide from the world and ourselves. Sometimes we do this because it feels good to us. Sometimes we are convinced by other Muslims (especially husbands) that this is the Only Right Way. Usually, it’s a combination of both. However it happens, after about 10 years living cramped inside that box, many of us bust out and, feeling lost or feeling like a failure for not loving life inside that dark, narrow space, many leave Islam altogether.

Mature faith doesn’t live inside a cardboard box. A mature faith should involve all the parts of our personalities, strengths, and needs. A mature faith should have Allah as its primary focus. A mature faith should move us to be active in the world. A mature faith should grow and strengthen over time.

Eventually, our mature faith should bear little if any resemblance to the faith we started out with. It should be multifaceted, stronger, and encompass more of ourselves, more of Islam, and more of the world.

Many people lose their faith when the reasons they came to Islam no longer hold the same meaning for them, but they didn’t develop a deeper, more multifaceted faith and personality. When they didn’t explore beyond the world of the cardboard box or connect all the parts of themselves into a whole person.

The people or communities that brought us to Islam and nurtured us in our early years may disappoint us or we may just grow away from them. Ideals we developed in the early years of our faith may be challenged, or our focus may shift to other ideas or values. A mature faith takes in ALL of Islam along with the realities of our own selves and the realities of the Ummah.

I recently re-read the Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time in about 28 years. Like many converts, reading the Autobiography played an important role in my path to Islam. Yet this time as I read it, I was struck by the fact that Brother Malcolm (rahimahullah) seemed to believe that racism does not exist among Muslims as people. At the time, as a new convert, he didn’t seem to know yet that many- even most- Muslims don’t fully “live” Islam, and that there is widespread racism and colorism among Muslims around the world.

Did he become Muslim for the “wrong reasons”? I wondered. What would have happened if he had lived longer and come to experience racism and colorism among Muslims? Would this have shaken his faith? Fortunately, I learned that Brother Malcolm had a shaykh as a mentor/spiritual guide, and was working on learning and growing his faith. Of course Allah had other plans for him.

Here’s an analogy: When we travel to a beautiful place, we might ride in a car, train or airplane. The experience of travel is undoubtedly part of the memory and experience of our trip, but the core purpose of our trip is to witness beautiful mountains, oceans, forests, and waterfalls. Perhaps we will also visit unique towns, learn to communicate in new languages, or eat delicious food.

The situations, people, and ideals that bring us to Islam are the means of transportation that bring us to the beautiful destination of Islam. The excitement and meaning of that trip will never be forgotten. It was beautiful. It will always be a part of us. But the destination has so much more to offer.

If a person, community, culture, or country helped us get to this destination then we must learn to stand on our own as Muslims, and experience the deep joy, love, and growth Islam can bring us as independent individuals. This also means looking deep inside ourselves to see our own shortcomings and those of others and understanding where we need to exert more effort on improving ourselves. Spiritual development is a lifelong process. We can work to be change-makers of our own souls and in our wider world.

If a book, group, teacher, or concept of Islam helped us get here, then we must put down our binoculars (or perhaps turn off our televisions and computers!) and see the wide world of Islam and get out there and explore it. Think of Islam as a big house of many rooms. We enter Islam through the front door and stand in the foyer- then we are free to explore the many rooms of all that Islam has to offer of nourishment for our hearts, minds, bodies, relationships, and communities.

If ideals about relationships, social justice, or community helped us to get here, we need to learn deeply about how Islam encourages and promotes our role in promoting these things to the best of our ability, but we should not expect to find a utopian Muslim community or relationship. And before all else, our primary relationship is with God. When we draw from the deep well of this connection our ability to make the world a better place will be exponentially strengthened.

And perhaps most importantly, if Islam speaks to some parts of us or the place we are at in our lives at the time, we need to be open to discovering the ways we evolve as humans and people of faith. We all come to Islam in a given “season” of our lives. Accepting Islam does not obligate us to STAY in that season. We will continue to go through the normal evolutions and changes of life just like everyone else. We all have periods of life where we put parts of ourselves on the back burner- ESPECIALLY WOMEN find we have to do this during our childbearing years, and this often coincides with our early days post-conversion. Reviving the neglected parts of ourselves means becoming a more honest, interesting, and whole person of faith. Too often, however, we don’t know how to do this and we believe that being that whole person is incompatible with being Muslim. (More on this process in a later post.)

Mature faith grows, like a crystal, into a multifaceted jewel. We develop mature faith if we continuously learn, experience, worship, travel, interact, and take on new knowledge and wisdom.

And most of all we develop mature faith if we always keep our relationship with Allah at the center of our faith, and relate to our Lord from a place of honesty and wholeness.

To be a woman is to KNOW, OWN, and DO.

Sully, being trained by me and wearing his new “Rabata purple” saddle pad.

I’ve never been the kind of person who could just take someone else’s word for things. I have to know, for myself, from the source. I have to have deep, internal connection to source. I want to experience everything and do everything for myself.

As a young woman and a young mother, this made me want to take charge of pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, homeschooling, homemaking, making my own bread, and perfecting my own recipes for things so I don’t have to eat out.

As the years go by I’ve developed new interests in learning to make and do things. I figured out how to make yogurt quickly and easily. I now make my own pink pickled turnips. Bread eluded me for years, as did gardening. Now I can increasingly make new kinds of bread at home by hand and grow tomatoes quite proficiently. I recently got a small flock of chickens. When Pepperidge Farm stopped making a certain dessert item my family enjoyed for 30 years, I figured out how to make them myself. I also replaced several parts in my washer and dryer myself. My next thing to tackle might be cheese-making. (But probably after I graduate!)

I’m very involved in my horse’s training and development. I’m often called “very knowledgeable” about horses by fellow boarders and horse people. I find it a little strange because I don’t feel like I’m exceptionally knowledgeable, to me it feels like the learning I’ve done about horses in general, my horse in particular, and how to work with and care for him in the best way is just… natural and normal. So far I’ve still been training him on my own (although bringing a professional trainer on board is in my future plans) and it’s so much more interesting and fulfilling than just buying a completely “finished” horse and having him solely as a tool for my own pleasure or competition.

This characteristic also makes me desire deep, authentic, primary-sourced knowledge and scholarship about Islam. I HAD to learn Arabic and I am DRIVEN to study primary source texts. Stop telling me what shaykh so-and-so taught you that Scholar so-and-so said or that there’s a Hadith or a principle or a ruling or a discussion somewhere- I can’t stand it! I want to go study the whole science, in Arabic, and SEE with my own eyes where in the texts it shows me all these things and to KNOW in my bones how they work. I want it to belong to me and become a part of me- all of it.

This is a lonely way to be, as a woman. You regularly question if you’re crazy. You regularly consider giving up because the forces working against you are too great. You regularly wonder if there’s any point to doing this because nobody wants you to do it and nobody understands why you want to do it. There are hardly any women who care about these things. It might be fashionable for a woman to make her own bread or homeschool her kids but it NOT fashionable for a woman to know for herself what Imam an-Nawawi said, how the principles of usul are actually codified and discussed and applied in the texts, what the classical scholars said, what words in Arabic mean, how the 10 Qira`aat work, or anything else.

You start to get lonely because there is no one who can relate or understand. You talk about that bread and tomatoes and maybe your sewing but unless you want to become a social outcast (or worse, accused of being “ostentatious” or “self-righteous”) you keep your fiqh and your aqida and your tafseer and everything else to yourself. (And most of the horse training too!)

We’re so conditioned to take these things from someone else. ESPECIALLY husbands.

We’re so conditioned to be detached from these things. But I can’t be detached.

Still, I get tired and sad being the only woman in (online) rooms full of men. I’m tired and sad because the status quo of women always accepting to take our religion from secondhand or thirdhand or fourthhand sources. I’m tired and sad because wanting otherwise is “strange”.

It’s also strange that we women struggle with having complex, integrated selves with many moving parts. It’s like we don’t know how to integrate seemingly disparate parts of our personalities. I see this online a lot- a “hyperspecialization” (and only in things that are considered “normal” for women). So we become “the cooking lady”, “the hijabi fashionista”, “the homeschooling mom”, “the coffee drinker”, etc. As a convert counselor I meet a lot of convert women who believe they have to stuff away everything that makes up who they are in the quest to become The Very Best Muslim (TM). It is my belief that most convert apostasies are actually due to a failure to integrate one’s personality and life with their deen in a healthy way.

This is why Ribaat is important. At Rabata we are a group of diverse, real, honest, supportive group of women who take ourselves and each other seriously. Rabata is where we support each other in being WHOLE women of Deen, career, passion, scholarship, worship, home, family, community, and everything that makes us who we are. At Ribaat, the educational wing of Rabata, we take college-level world-class quality classes about Islam and related topics in an environment that is for-women, by-women- learning from teachers and with fellow students who are the most diverse collection of serious, curious, honest, reflective life companions one could ask for.

I didn’t start out writing this to sound like an ad, (in fact the first half of this I wrote years ago and I’m just now adding to it) I swear. I have been with Ribaat since its inception, and I want everyone reading this to know that if this resonates with you, if you feel lost and lonely because you want MORE out of your religious life, if you want to take charge and you want to feel like your religious life truly BELONGS to you, and you want to not feel like you have two heads, please consider joining us at Ribaat. Please consider donating to Ribaat for student scholarships. Did you know that the very first graduating class of Islamic Studies Teachers is going to graduate this summer?!

Check us out at http://Rabata.org/Ribaat

So here’s to all of us women who aren’t passive, and who want to OWN our lives and our religion and truly KNOW and DO things from deep within. Keep shining your light. 💜💜💜

The Convert Spirit: “Tails” for Converts. Connection, Companionship, Community, Celebration

Seasonal Reflections Part 2 of 2: Connection, Companionship, Community, Celebration.

In Part 1 we discussed ways converts can be feeling very depressed and disconnected at this “most difficult time of year”.

Allah says in the Qur’an that He made cycles of the earth specifically for those who want to remember and be in a state of thankfulness. The Qur’an is FULL of references to the natural world as a source of inspiration and confirmation for our faith. It’s natural for people to feel and observe the changes in the world around them, and connect them to the changes in themselves.

Living in the Northern Hemisphere, there are certain ways of feeling and reacting to the cycles of the natural world here that we have incorporated into our many holidays but which are actually culturally-specific ways of meeting normal human needs. We are feeling the same way everyone else feels when the days get short, dark, and cold.

Have you ever noticed that most American holidays are during the cold, dark months? We start with Halloween and Thanksgiving in the late fall, and then some observe the winter Solstice and Advent, and then we move on to Christmas (and for some more traditional practitioners, the Twelve Days of Christmas), then New Year, next up is Valentines Day, maybe even St. Patrick’s Day, and finally Easter and its surrounding holidays and observances. (Hanukkah and Passover also fall within this time period.)

It seems that our culture has put a lot of emphasis on ensuring we have close connections with God and each other during the time in which we are most likely to be deprived of them and when the difficulties of our lives demand that we be reminded of them.

And for good reason. The long winter is coming. It’s going to get cold, dark, and dangerous. Is the Polar Vortex going to come back? Are we going to lose power for days? People are going into a kind of hibernation.

In the “old days” people knew they were entering a time of forced into separation from their neighbors due to harsh weather and early sunset. Death and destruction were likely. And while we like to think that technology has made things “different now”, not much has truly changed- most of us are busy, working, stressed out, exhausted. We don’t like to go out in the cold, and if the roads are dangerous we literally cannot go out.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, low Vitamin D levels, influenza outbreaks, and overall lack of exercise and sunlight, all drag us down physically and mentally. Driving to and from work/school in the dark and in icy weather is incredibly stressful on the body and mind. Global warming/climate change is making our weather more extreme and destruction is becoming more common.

When people feel they are in a place of darkness and loneliness they are comforted by food, warm drinks, and lights (candles, lanterns, etc.) They bring little pieces of nature (or plastic imitations of that nature!) inside the home- green, orange, red, yellow- to give their lives color. They eat oranges! They turn on music that is either festive or deeply spiritual.

But most importantly, people want to feel the presence of God and know that they have other people, other hearts to connect with in times of need. We NEED other people to provide physical help during times of crisis, and provide heart-to-heart support when distance and darkness become overwhelming. And we need other people to help remind us and reconnect us to God. Even when we can’t physically connect with others, we can connect through shared memories, because sometimes simply the knowledge that there is someone who cares for us, shares our hopes, believes in us, reminds us of God, and prays for us, can carry us through a time of darkness.

Let’s make an action plan for winter!

Connections:

We want to observe the connections between the changes in the natural world and the changes in ourselves.

I personally have no problem with bringing non-religious seasonal decorations into the home such as gourds, leaves, or pine branches to bring color and a sense of energy. Then we want to use this time to discover ways we can increase our connection to God. We are encouraged to take advantage of the long nights and that extra seclusion by making sure to spend time in worship during the night. If fajr has been difficult, late sunrise provides an opportunity to taste the benefits of not missing a prayer and to even try going to the extra step of getting up before fajr and tasting the benefits of regular tahajjud. We can enjoy the beauty and ambiance of this time by lighting pretty candles and lanterns to “light up the night”, and by greeting this time with warm drinks and the sound of you reciting Qur’an or doing some quiet dhikr.

Connecting to the natural world and oneself can also mean enjoying times by the fireplace, spending time outdoors with family, friends, and animals, or participating in winter sports. I’ve always felt something special about the feeling of perseverance that comes from spending time outdoors in the cold, and the deeper level of comfort coming in from the cold invokes. Braving the cold to spend time with the horses or shovel snow or just to walk around makes me feel strong and capable, and makes me feel closer to God and the important things in life. In this way I find winter to be a very spiritually enriching time.

Companionship and Community:

We want to honor our need for community and companionship, and find ways to stay connected and supportive of each other. Invite each other over for hot chocolate and warm soup. Or deliver some. Join communities of sisters who are supporting each other in keeping and expanding knowledge and practice of faith. We don’t have to be alone during the winter, and we can continue to live in the shelter of each other.

Celebration:

We want to celebrate each other and plan ahead for the celebration of our faith when the time comes. For converts, we can remember what we loved about the holidays growing up and use our memories as a foundation to create our own magical holiday traditions for Eid. Clip those cookie recipes for future use and buy decorations that fit for Eid when they go on sale 75% off!

In the meantime, Look for any opportunity to celebrate meaningful things and gather with people who share your goals and joys, especially if you feel a sense of loneliness and loss at this time of year. Celebrate each other- graduating, “shahadaversaries”, hijab beginnings, Qur’an accomplishments (memorized your first sura ever? HAVE A PARTY), and salah goals alongside the usual baby showers and weddings. Or start a book club, discussion group, or halaqah, even if it is small. Or just have a gathering for its own sake and weave into the gathering something that feeds us in all of these elements of “Connection, Companionship, Community, and Celebration.”

Finally, take care of your mental and physical health!

Another winter-related issue that commonly affects converts is that we often confuse normal life changes and issues with a crisis of faith. This can include mental health issues and normal life transition emotions. So if you find yourself feeling heavily depressed at this time of year, do make sure to get checked out by a doctor. Seasonal Affective Disorder caused by lack of natural light, depression, lack of exercise, and Vitamin D deficiency among other things can affect us during the dark, cold months as well. Anxiety and depression are endemic worldwide as well, and Muslims are not immune from the challenges of our times.

Tell us how you are finding Connection, Companionship, Community, and Celebration this winter!

The Convert Spirit: “Tails” for Converts. It’s the Most Difficult Time of the Year

Seasonal Reflections Part 1 of 2: It’s the Most Difficult Time of the Year

In my years of convert counseling and support I’ve noticed that converts can become kind of crabby or depressed around the holiday season, especially in online forums. It’s a time when we can feel the loss of the holidays we used to celebrate, the close connections to family and community that we don’t yet feel we have in Islam and Muslim communities. We may be missing Christmas. We may be experiencing extra stress with our non-Muslim families at this time of year. We may be feeling left out of the community feelings around us.

Many of us miss the fun and community we felt during the Christmas season. Perhaps we haven’t yet found a way to make the Eids match what we used to feel before. We may feel sadness and loss because we feel or have been told that we can no longer participate in any of the seasonal activities we used to enjoy. We are surrounded by things that trigger strong nostalgia- even the grocery stores are decked out for Christmas and playing Christmas music on the radio. We wonder if we are “bad Muslims” because we crave a turkey dinner with all the fixings, want to make pie with our non-Muslim families, or still secretly love Christmas trees.

We may also experience an escalation of difficulties with our families. Grandma wants to know why we’re not going to Mass with her. Mom and Dad won’t have Thanksgiving without wine. The family discusses international politics after dinner and Islamophobic statements are made. Aunt Betty can’t stop asking you why you became a Moz-lehm anyway. Your family just can’t understand why you’re so “distant” right now. And when you do call them or get together with them, the atmosphere is tense.

I believe that many of us may be feeling a lot of stress, sadness, loss and confusion at this time of year and sometimes, deep down, we feel this threatens the foundation of our faith.

(Sometimes, in an effort to make ourselves feel more “solid” we try to prove ourselves to ourselves and others that the path we have chosen is the correct one by forcing ourselves on others on the internet. So on internet forums in particular, I see an increase in “aggressive” posting and haram-policing.)

At this time of year it’s important to talk to each other about how we’re feeling and what we’re going through.

And it’s also important to talk about our assumptions and what we have been told about being The Very Best Muslim. Many of us have been led to believe that in order to be The Very Best Muslim we need to discard everything about ourselves from before Islam including our personalities, lifestyles, jobs, families, and cultures.

The discourse in the Muslim community is still mainly one of “Eastern Muslims” feeling threatened by “Westernizing” globalization and immigrants in the West feeling threatened by the loss of their cultures and the introduction of things that are foreign to them. Their knee-jerk reaction to all things “American” or “Western” is often portrayed to be a religious issue when it often is not. In the meantime, those of us who have converted to Islam are often left feeling that everything about our lives, our personalities, our culture, and our lifestyles must necessarily be un-Islamic.

Many of us, out of our love for Islam and our desire to be The Very Best Muslim, almost completely gut ourselves into empty shells, and squish ourselves into a little cardboard box we call “Islamic lifestyle”. Over time we start to become cramped and depressed. We become exhausted from always being on guard, on the defensive. And for too many of us, often around the 10 year mark, we break. And because we thought that we were doing what we had to do to be that Very Best Muslim (TM), we believe we are bad Muslims because we couldn’t sustain it, and some of us even decide that they can’t be Muslim anymore.

So this holiday season, let’s make sure that we are living in the shelter of each other. Let’s have sensitive and intelligent discussions about our challenges. Let’s refrain from jumping to tell others that something is “haram” or “bad”. Let’s talk about all the ways we can “know ourselves” and gently bring our whole selves to Islam. Let’s support each other in finding ways to be whole, healthy Muslim women who have strong faith, are confident in their knowledge, practice life-giving worship, and engage in active service to the community and the world all with an eye toward gaining the love and pleasure of Allah and His Messenger (S) and those who love them and are loved by them.

Continued in Part 2… “Connection, Companionship, Community, Celebration”

Tajweed Tails: 1

The raw “sound” of verses of the Quran is often related to their meaning, making it possible to connect with the meanings even when we don’t necessarily understand the words. Finding these connections is one of the many joys of memorization.

Yesterday I was listening to one of my girls recite this page and, as is typical, she was not clarifying the hamzas. Instead of pronouncing the hamzas clearly, from the makharij, she would run them together with the alifs. (“Immaaaan tulqiya waaimmaaan…” Instead of ‘immaa ‘an tulqiya wa ‘imma ‘an”).

To motivate her to pronounce them clearly and strongly I suddenly realized the connection: this whole page is about how Musa and the magicians were strong and clear about their faith in the face of the cruelty and violence of Pharoah. And to properly recite this page there are lots of hamzas to pronounce with clarity and strength, sitting up straight and being in control of one’s breath and voice. Say it with strength, certainty, clarity and pride:

!إنك أنت الأعلى!….إنا ءامنا بربنا

A grand passion

“Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of Solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole and, once it has done so, he will have to accept that his life will be radically changed.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

No perfect time

There’s no such thing as the “perfect time” to be who you want to be.

In fact, if you sit around waiting for the “perfect” time, you might have many “right” times pass you by.

Because there’s a difference between a perfect time and a right time.

There will always be challenges and obstacles and struggle. Don’t think there will be a time without struggle.

Life is like driving a snowplow. In order to move forward you have to keep pushing that snow out of your way. The alternatives are stand still (and get buried) or back up (likely to find more snow has fallen and you have to plow that too). Backsliding and running away from your goals in search of the “safety” of a clear path free of obstacles usually backfires because that path isn’t clear anymore- more snow has fallen, and there’s new stuff to overcome when you get back there.

Keep moving forward.

Things that Return

As autumn returns, we once again find ourselves gazing at the trees, breathing deeply the aroma of wood stoves and spiced cider, delighting in the taste of pumpkin and the sounds of crunching leaves and the wind in the cornstalks.

Why do we love to watch the sunset, the moon rise, gaze at the ocean, and feel the turn of the seasons day after day and year after year, even though they are mostly the same every time?

The things that truly fulfill our hearts and nourish us emotionally and spiritually are the things we return to over and over again. We all generally recognize that there are books we like to re-read, movies we can watch over and over again, and songs we like to hear or sing repeatedly even for a lifetime.

As modern people we have become conditioned to always desire “newness”. So when we get tired and emotionally/spiritually drained, we start looking for something “new”- we go shopping for new stuff, download a new song, flip channels on the TV, find a new series to follow, go on a Netflix binge, etc. We lock ourselves in a vicious cycle this way- searching for something that will fill our voids, soothe our wounds, build our strength but instead becoming more exhausted and drained and looking for yet something else.

We can ONLY be fed and fulfilled, nourished and sustained by what *returns*.

Nature is traditionally the thing that humans return to over and over again and never get tired of observing, appreciating, and deriving lessons and signs from. In many places in the Qur’an Allah asks us to spend time observing nature and reflecting on the signs it holds for us. The Prophet (S) and his companions also did these things. They understood well, as Allah has taught us, that nature is a place where we can and must always return to be renewed and reminded.

Often, it is only a fleeting moment: the quick flit of a bat through the dusky sky, the way a leaf drifts to the ground and comes to rest in just the right place, or the seafoam that encircles your feet and pulls the sand grains from under them as you stand at the edge of the great sea. That small moment is a gift. You didn’t cause it, you didn’t work for it, and you couldn’t have predicted when or how it would occur.

Now think: Salah is also something that returns. We often feel disconnected from salah and see boredom in routine and ritual, but in salah there will also be “gifts”. Spend enough time observing, waiting, and keeping your heart open- just like you do when you watch the sunset or the moon rise, study the autumn leaves trembling in the wind or the waves breaking on ocean- and you will find something to nourish your heart.

Many people don’t know what gifts to look for in salah- Start by thinking of the same gifts you are given in nature- The way the sound of a certain part of the Qur’an brings refreshment to your heart like an unexpected breeze (and whether you understand it or not); the way your feet and palms and forehead feel placed gently on the soft, tahir prayer carpet like walking on a sandy beach or dewy grass; the beauty of the clothes you cover yourself with and the way they comfort you like a sweater in autumn. These gifts are given to anyone who enters the world of salah. We don’t need to feel “deep” in the same way that we don’t need to unlock the mysteries of dark matter when we contemplate a sunset. But when you step into this beautiful world 5 times each day- the world you are invited and welcomed to no matter who you are or what you have done- you can also feel connected to the One who created you and who obligated you to stop and stand before Him because you are worthy to partake of all the beauty and love and miraculous joy and connection that await you there.

Salah is your garden, your forest, your sunset, your moonrise, your ocean, your life-giving spring, your awakening breeze, your endless expanse of stars and galaxies to lose yourself in. It all belongs to you and you belong to it.

Allahu Akbar

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.

And again.

And 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. 

Try it!



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. 

SubHaan Allah

Al-Hamdu li-laah

Laa ilaaha illa Allah

Allahu akbar

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.  

Further Reading: 

SubHan Allah

http://www.virtualmosque.com/islam-studies/subhanallah-flawless/

Alhamdulilah

http://www.virtualmosque.com/islam-studies/alhamdulillah-the-perfect-praise/

Allahu akbar

http://www.virtualmosque.com/personaldvlpt/reflections/allahu-akbar/

http://www.virtualmosque.com/personaldvlpt/reflections/dont-say-i-have-a-big-problem-say-i-have-a-big-god-al-kabeer/

Hamd and shukr

https://studioarabiya.com/blog/between-praise-and-gratitude-the-meanings-of-hamd-shukr-1

Sajdah of Tilawa

http://www.quranreading.com/blog/significance-method-and-regulations-of-sajdah-prostration-tilawat/

Footnote:

*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

https://www.academia.edu/6017195/Wird_of_Imam_an-Nawawi_d._676_AH_

https://musafurber.com/2015/01/07/the-litany-of-imam-al-nawawi/