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


Allahu akbar

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


وَهُوَ الَّذِي أَرْسَلَ الرِّيَاحَ بُشْرًا بَيْنَ يَدَيْ رَحْمَتِهِ وَأَنزَلْنَا مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مَاءً طَهُورًا

لِّنُحْيِيَ بِهِ بَلْدَةً مَّيْتًا وَنُسْقِيَهُ مِمَّا خَلَقْنَا أَنْعَامًا وَأَنَاسِيَّ كَثِيرًا

[Al-Furqan: 48-49]

It is He who sends the winds as heralds of good news before His Mercy. We send down pure [purifying] water from the sky. (48)

So that We can revive a dead land with it, and We give it as a drink to many animals and people We have created. (49).

[Trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem with addition from Pickthall]

“Bad farming”

A couple of years ago, someone who should know better-someone I should feel encouraged and not criticized by- looked at my messy garden and called it “bad farming”. 

This hurt me and has unfortunately stuck with me ever since.

It’s true that my garden is often a mess.  I’m not always prompt at weeding, staking, tying, and general maintenance.  Plus. my overall gardening abilities are in their early stages of development and the result is that things grow out of control.  

My humble garden is a triumph for me.  I’d tried and failed in the past to establish a functional garden.  It was something I had always wanted to enjoy and be good at. Along with bread making, it is a task I have revisited several times throughout my life in an effort to succeed and find the joy I know is waiting for me.  And after a number of failed attempts, I finally found it!

Even in its messy state, when I look at the garden, it makes me happy just to know that I’m trying.  It makes me feel alive, moving, and growing.

There is an addictive quality to planting seeds and watching them grow into large plants, and then to watch those plants provide you with food.  Eating something you grew yourself is miraculous and special in a way that even your local CSA or farmer’s market can’t touch.

Here’s the thing:  This miracle is provided, in most cases, even when we don’t do everything “right” or “perfectly”.  My “bad farming” has provided us with our family’s entire tomato needs from August through October every year for the past 3 years.  And it has given me a feeling of competence and blessing that has evaded me for so long.

My “bad farming” is a miracle, a blessing, and an experience I savor every summer.  It is a reminder that I can still learn things, do things, and find joy in places I thought were closed off to me.  A reminder that even at 40 years old I am still growing and becoming and I am good and worthy of all the miracles that come with growth.


I’ve never been a makeup wearer so I have been able to keenly observe the changes in my face over the years.

When I look at pictures of myself when I was young my face looks fresh, flat, light, and smooth. 

In recent years my face has suddenly developed a bright red glare.  The dermatologist tells me it’s rosacea. I’m not 100% convinced it’s not an autoimmune disease rash.  My blood work is inconclusive. I have lots of symptoms but nothing diagnosable. So I push forward in life- with pain, with exhaustion, with odd symptoms, and with a bright red face. 

There is some speculation that autoimmune diseases tend to pop up in middle aged women due to stress.  If you’re stressed, the body produces a lot of cortisol and iif your body is producing a lot of cortisol, eventually it convinces your body that something needs to be fought back against, so it mounts an immune response against nothing which becomes an immune response against itself.

The red face, the butterfly rashes, the slapped-face look, seem to speak of the internal workings of so many of our middle aged bodies and hearts:  We are burning internally, a constant simmering rage at all that is wrong with the world, all that is wrong with us, and all that went wrong in our lives. 

We are also bleeding internally from so much heartbreak and loss and grief and grinding exhaustion.  Our hearts gave and gave and gave until the hands bled from the strain.

There is a huge temptation to get out the makeup to cover up that red face, but as I’ve never worn makeup before and I find the entire concept of makeup to be boring and annoying, I’m not starting. 

So I go forward with my red face. 

I go forward 

Moving Water

There is something about moving water that uniquely stirs and soothes the human mind and soul.

Civilizations were built next to moving bodies of water:  rivers, the ocean… in school we were taught that this was for utilitarian purposes like transportation and trade but maybe it was really for something more: an innate, spiritual, human need.  

In fiqh studies one learns that the acts of wudu and ghusl and istinja must be done with “flowing” water, not simply water that touches.

In his book “Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Styles” M.A.S. Abdel Haleem points out in his chapter on Water in the Qur’an that the water in jannah is always described as flowing, never stagnant.  

In Maine, the house we stayed in had no TV, radio, or WiFi.  It was at the end of the street nestled in the woods on a small cliff overlooking the river, situated out on a point stretching into a large saltwater marsh where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean.  In addition to being a moving river, it was also affected by the ocean tides so there were times of high and low tides when the river grew larger or smaller and the mud flats covered with small white snails and inhabited by underground clams were exposed or submerged.

We also spent considerable time at the nearby beach on the ocean, at both high and low tides; watching the waves in times of calm and times of wind; during rising, setting, and Noontime sun; on rocks and on beach sand; in solitude and alongside tourists, or locals walking dogs; pure and empty, and with sailboats and lobster boats anchored nearby.  We even watched a large group of baby ducks ride the waves.

Moving water demands your attention.  When it captures you, you no longer miss or feel the need to pick up your phone or turn on the TV.  It may seem like there is nothing that changes about the non-stop flow of a river or the ebb and flow of the ocean but it only takes a few seconds for shadows, glints of light, changing currents, newly revealed rocks or shapes underneath, a leaf, a stick, a handful of flower petals, a bird, a new wave, a gentle lapping sound, a gust of wind, a bubble, or a receding or creeping shoreline to direct you to something new and intriguing.

Moving water is addictive in a way that soothes rather than drains.  Like the flowing water of a wudu or a ghusl, it has a way of softening the gaze, purifying the mind, whispering to the soul, and cooling the heart.

I have seen many attempts to capture these effects with tabletop fountains or artificial ponds with sprayers attached to pumps.  I suppose these are better than nothing but they are nothing in comparison to a real river or ocean.

Perhaps the cure to what ails us is found in the very thing that Allah has told us is an integral part of the beauty and mercy of Jannah.  Perhaps we need to spend more time alongside rivers, streams, and oceans.

Horses: Abundant in the Remembrance of God

عن معاذ بن أنس ، عن رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم : أنه مر على قوم وهم وقوف على دواب لهم ورواحل ، فقال لهم : ” اركبوها سالمة ، ودعوها سالمة ، ولا تتخذوها كراسي لأحاديثكم في الطرق والأسواق ، فرب مركوبة خير من راكبها ، وأكثر ذكرا لله – تبارك وتعالى – منه” . رواه أحمد ، وإسناده حسن .

“On the authority of Mu`adh ibn Anas, from the Prophet (S) that he (S) passed by some people sitting on their riding animals and he (S) said to them: ‘ride them safely and leave them safely and do not take them as chairs for your conversations in the streets and in the markets. It may be that the one that is ridden is better than the one riding it and more abundant in remembrance of God Most High than him (the rider)’. -Narrated by Ahmad and its isnad is Hasan

Wrinkles in my Prayer Rug

The books of Fiqh I’ve studied so far generally mention at some point that it’s considered makrūh (disliked) to try to smooth out the ground or remove rocks and otherwise pure dirt or inconveniences from the place where one will pray salāh. This is explained as ensuring one’s humility.

These days we rarely pray on such “raw” ground. We are used to praying on perfectly smoothed manmade surfaces designed for our comfort. However, I do notice that my prayer rug gets wrinkled up a lot, just in the place where I need to make sajda. Usually I flatten out the rug before I pray. And sometimes I forget. And sometimes it gets this way after I’ve started. I’ve also noticed that in a crowded masjid in Ramadan, I somehow end up making sajdah on someone’s purse strap.

And I think to myself that there is an āya (a sign) to me in this. A sign to bear inconveniences. A sign to recall that they could be-and are not- so much more.

A sign to stay humble. A sign to me that my standing here is not by my own power and goodness, nor on my own terms, but instead my standing here is a GIFT, a privilege that I have done nothing to deserve but have been graciously, generously blessed with.

A sign about my life, and the need to face the wrinkles that come. To recognize obstacles and inconveniences and things going wrong as signs for me to learn from. To recognize the wrinkles in my nafs that are preventing me from entering this sajda completely.

This salah is a gift. This place is a gift. Any obstacles or inconveniences I face on this road are gifts. I need them. I have to gratefully accept them and feel their imprint upon me.


For a practical article on inconveniences in the masjid in Ramadan, here is an excellent piece by Ustadha Shazia Ahmad called “Ramadan and Ruffled Feathers”

Ramadan and Ruffled Feathers


Ramadan is here! Or almost here!  Or… What?

This is the time of year that Muslims often jokingly (or not) call “Moonfighting”. Some people get intensely involved in the debate over the moonsighting and have very strong opinions about the right way to do it. Some people get very upset about the fact that different communities or countries are starting and ending Ramadan at different times and wish that everyone could start and end on the same day.   

Instead of starting Ramadan with stress and anger, I hope to provide a different perspective that will help make this time feel better for us, ease confusion, and actually strengthen our faith.  

Let’s imagine for a moment that Ramadan was determined by the Gregorian (solar) calendar and it was always in December, like Christmas. We would always know exactly which day Ramadan was starting and ending. No more disagreements about the moon.

But what else would happen?

Here in North America it would always be in the winter and our days would always be very short and our nights very long. Fasting would be much easier than it is now and we would have long nights to eat and eat… and eat some more. We would never experience the long fasting days of the summer and we would never experience the short nights that force us to be more mindful about our eating.  When Ramadan falls in the summer we have to be more careful about healthy eating, and learn to “eat to live” instead of “live to eat.”

The idea of fasting in the short, cool days of winter sounds great, but what would Ramadan be like if it was always during the cold and snowy time of year?  Getting to the masjid in some places would always be difficult or impossible due to severe weather, ice, wind, and dangerously cold temperatures. We’d have to shovel snow and struggle to keep warm while fasting. It could get expensive to light and heat buildings during the long nights.   This would have been especially true in the days before electricity existed. Think also about trying to get water or take care of your animals when everything is frozen, or have sufficient food for iftar when nothing is growing and food is scarce!

Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, in places like Australia, Ramadan would always be in the summer. They would never get a break from the long summer days of fasting or the rush to eat and pray in the short nights. It would always be hot. Water might be scarce.  We know from our recent experience how difficult this is.

There’s more… Meanwhile, in another part of the world, Ramadan would always be during the harvest season. Year after year without a break the people of that country would have to face the burden of bringing in their harvest while fasting.

And in yet another part of the world, Ramadan would always be during a season known for difficult weather such as monsoons or hurricanes. Year after year without a break the people of that land would have to face disasters while fasting, and they would struggle to observe Ramadan and Eid in joyful and spiritually enriching ways because the time would often be cut short by crisis.  

Our religion’s observances on the lunar calendar are a very powerful proof of Islam. Allah designed Islam for all times, all people, and all places on a spherical globe with a Northern Hemisphere and a Southern Hemisphere and an immense variety of communities with different climates, lifestyles, needs, and challenges.   

The lunar calendar means that our spiritual year (“liturgical calendar” as its called in religious studies) moves backwards by about 11 days each year, and in the span of about 30 years we have experienced our religious observances and our sacred times in every season. Each individual can experience all of the seasonal variations as many as 2 or 3 times if Allah grants us a long life.  

Don’t worry about when is the “right time” or the “right way” to start and end Ramadan. It’s okay if people start and end at different times. It’s not our job to determine the right opinion, it’s only our job to follow the local community that we will be praying and fasting with. In fiqh, the principle in this matter is that the leaders of the community take on this responsibility for the congregation and as long as we are following the community our Ramadan is valid and we are rewarded.

Islam is the Truth. Islam is the final revelation given to the world, and everyone in it until the end of time. This is what we should understand from the moonsighting and the lunar calendar. Every aspect of our religion, with its points of ease and points of challenge, are signs and opportunities for us.

So relax, enjoy this time, and reflect on its incredible blessings.  Ramadan Mubarak!