The following is an excerpt from And Then I Gave Up: Essays About Faith and Spiritual Crisis in Islam by Umm Zakiyyah:
I think most of us know how it feels to struggle in our faith. We know from personal experience the ups and downs in spirituality, so it comes as no surprise that a characteristic of emaan itself is that it increases and decreases. But the problem is, for many of us, our faith decreases more than it increases. Or more precisely, it keeps plummeting, and we feel powerless to stop it. For many of us, this problem has reached the point that our daily prayers are suffering. So we rarely pray with concentration, we rarely pray on time, and we often miss prayers.
Or we no longer pray at all.
What’s the Solution?
Most likely, you’ll hear a lot of conflicting advice on what to do if you’re Muslim and no longer praying— some Muslims going as far as to tell you to not pray until you’ve worked on “more important things” first. But the reality is that, when it comes to one who has abandoned the prayer, there’s nothing more crucial than reestablishing the prayer itself.
The only exception to this is regarding the one who has abandoned the prayer due to shirk (associating partners with Allah) or kufr (disbelief in Islam). Naturally, if a person is worshipping other than Allah or disbelieves in Him or any other article of faith (His angels, His books, His messengers, the Last Day, or predestination), then there is no benefit to reestablishing the second pillar of Islam (prayer) until the first pillar (belief) is once again in place.
However, for Muslims who still believe in the fundamentals of Islam, then there’s absolutely nothing to work on before praying again—except to start praying again.
Nevertheless, as you resume your prayers, you definitely must address what led you to abandon the prayer in the first place. This requires spending time in sincere du’aa through supplicating to Allah and asking Him to help you overcome this spiritual trial. It requires engaging in honest self-reflection such that you identify those aspects of your lifestyle (and mindset) that are pulling you away from Allah. It requires reacquainting yourself with the fundamentals of Tawheed (the Oneness of Allah). It requires reflecting on the magnificence and greatness of Allah and learning His beautiful names. It requires setting aside time—alone—to reinvigorate your heart with heartfelt dhikr (remembrance of Allah). It requires reading and reflecting on the Qur’an such that Allah’s words become divine guidance with practical implications specific to your life. It requires educating (and reeducating) yourself about your purpose in life and the reality of your affair in the Hereafter.
And it also requires taking an honest, objective assessment of from where and from whom you are learning your faith and of what you are being taught about Allah’s religion. Because sometimes our spiritual crisis is a sign that we are in the wrong crowd, literally.
But regardless of the source of your spiritual crisis, if you’ve abandoned the prayer, then your first priority must be to reestablish it again.
What’s the Point?
“I stopped praying because, I mean, what’s the point?” someone said to me. “I wasn’t getting anything out of it.”
This was the first time that I realized that some Muslims see the benefit and purpose of prayer as rooted in human feeling. Have we strayed so far that we no longer believe in the Unseen? I asked myself. Do we really imagine that we can determine spiritual reality based on human perception? And if you’re Muslim, is it even possible to get absolutely nothing out of prayer? I wondered.
The truth is this: If the only thing we gain from standing in prayer is that the angels have recorded that we stood in prayer, then that’s something. And no matter how “pointless” you imagine those perfunctory movements to be, they are quite monumental to Allah—even if you’re not always focused or in a state of concentration during prayer. Allah says,
“Never will I allow to be lost the [good] work of any among you…”
And what good work is more important than doing what is minimally required in worshiping your Creator?
Prayer Is the Point
All good deeds are not equal, and when it comes to our faith, the importance of prayer cannot be overemphasized. After declaring the Oneness of Allah and His sole right to worship, prayer is the single most important act of a Muslim. However, prayer is not only the second pillar of the Islamic faith, it is also the second pillar of your faith.
In other words, unlike the vast majority of good deeds (i.e. wearing hijab, not drinking alcohol, or avoiding adultery and fornication) without prayer, you are treading the path to kufr—leaving Allah’s religion.
“And they were not commanded except to worship Allah, [being] sincere to Him in religion, and to establish Salaah [five daily prayers], and to give zakaah [obligatory charity]. And that is the correct religion.”
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him said), “Islam is built on five [pillars], testifying that nothing has the right to be worshipped except Allah alone and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, performing the [five daily] prayers, paying the zakaah, making the pilgrimage to the House, and fasting in Ramadan” (Bukhari and Muslim).
Just as a physical structure cannot stand without its foundational pillars, your Islamic faith cannot stand without the foundational pillar of Salaah. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Between us [the believers] and them [the disbelievers] is the prayer, and whoever leaves it falls into kufr” (Al-Tirmidhi, saheeh). The Prophet also said, “What is between a person and committing shirk (associating partners with Allah) and kufr (disbelief) is abandoning the prayer” (Sahih Muslim). He said further, “The first matter that the servant [of Allah] will be brought to account for on the Day of Judgment is the prayer. If it is sound, then the rest of his deeds will be sound. And if it is bad, then the rest of his deeds will be bad” (Al-Tabarani; saheeh, Sahih al-Jami).
Thus, establishing prayer is the point.
Shouldn’t I Work On My Heart First?
One of the most widely spread—and spiritually destructive—myths amongst Muslims today is the idea that we should purify our hearts before reestablishing the prayer or doing any good deed. Some Muslims go as far as to say that the only spiritual motivation for prayer is love of Allah; thus (they say), if our hearts are not filled with love of Allah, then we shouldn’t pray until it is.
However, our Creator tells us that submission comes before even emaan (true faith) itself; and certainly, it is impossible—logically or spiritually—to have a heart filled with love of Allah unless it first has true emaan.
“The bedouins say, ‘We have believed.’ Say [to them], ‘You have not [yet] believed; but say [instead], “We have submitted,” for faith has not yet entered your hearts.’ And if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not deprive you from your deeds of anything. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”
Thus, a Muslim can never know, let alone declare, that true faith has entered his or her heart. The most we can hope for as Muslims is that, through our submission and obedience to His commands, Allah will love us, forgive us, and have mercy on us—in this life and in the Hereafter. But the only way to attain this love is through fulfilling our religious obligations, the first of which is establishing the prayer. This method (and only this method) is the means of drawing closer to Allah.
In a famous Qudsi hadith, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said that Allah says, “My servant draws not near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the [obligatory] religious duties I have enjoined upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him…” (Bukhari).
“Work on Your Heart” Myth
“The problem with most advice on salah is that it looks at things from a reactive point of view instead of a proactive point of view. Not praying? Well, just start. Or better yet, take one salah at a time and keep building until you reach five. Good advice, no? No. It doesn’t address what leads a person towards salah to begin with…We pray because of one simple reason: We love Allah.”
The author goes on to tell us what we should do instead of prayer so that we can put this love of Allah in our hearts: “I always tell people who aren’t praying to begin first with dhikr. Say SubhanAllah 100 times each day.”
From a literal standpoint, it is unclear how saying specific dhikr as a response to abandoning the prayer is any less reactive—or any more proactive—than saying prayer in response to abandoning the prayer. Both the recitation of dhikr and the reestablishment of prayer are responses (i.e. reactions) to the crisis at hand, yet both offer something proactive (i.e. doing an actual good deed) as a solution. But what is clear is the major difference between the reactive/proactive deed of dhikr and the reactive/proactive deed of prayer: Only the reestablishment of prayer actually addresses and solves the problem at hand.
However, it remains unclear why an optional deed should ever take precedence over an obligatory deed, especially given that our Creator tells us the exact opposite (“My servant draws not near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the [obligatory] religious duties I have enjoined upon him…”). But the author assures us that inversing the order of Allah’s commands will give us the same result. She says, “You’re not praying (yet) but be mindful that you are getting closer.”
But aren’t you also getting closer to death? I thought to myself. And what if you die during this pre-prayer dhikr stage? Is this really okay?
After sharing a series of moving stories from the past, inspirational hadith, and heart-touching quotes, the author assures us that this is definitely okay. She says,
“So begin by walking towards Him. And be mindful that when you do your dhikr, you are taking a step. Another good step is to begin learning His Names. When you KNOW Him, really know Him, you can’t help but attach your heart onto Him. Knowing Allah’s Names will draw your heart closer to Him. And as it does so, you will remember Him more… Over time, your desire to please Him and turn back to Him will increase.. And this, my friends, is what will fill you up. This is what will take away the hollowness.. THIS is what will make salah easy. THIS is where the advice, ‘take it one salah at a time’ will be beneficial. When you get to this place, it won’t be such a giant leap to contemplate standing up for one prayer. And slowly, one will become two.. And so on.”
When I read this, I was moved by the power and truth of these words because reciting dhikr, getting to know Allah, and learning about Allah and His beautiful names will certainly assist us in removing the emptiness and hollowness we often feel in prayer (and at other times). However, again, I couldn’t understand why the one act that brings together all of these things (Salaah, prayer itself)—and represents the most basic and most proactive form of dhikr and getting to know Allah—should be put on hold in an effort to engage in the very things that prayer establishes for us.
But the author says that “before you begin building your prayers, take the time to build your foundations, just as they early Muslims did. Start with baby steps, like doing dhikr or learning His Names.”
She also says, “Allow yourself to be in a state where you know you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to, but you’re taking steps to get there. One of the tactics of Shaitan [Satan] is that he leads you to believe that it’s all or nothing. Either you’re praying, or you’re sinfully not. So when we’re not, a dark cloud of guilt hovers over us, leaving us in darkness, unable to move forward.”
Myth vs. Truth
The “work on your heart first” myth is rooted in several erroneous beliefs about emaan (Islamic faith) and numerous misunderstandings of the prophetic message and Islamic history. Below is a list of some of the more serious errors and misunderstandings connected to this myth, followed by the correct Islamic point of view:
Myth: The good condition of the heart (emaan) is separate from the performance of obligatory deeds (hence the requirement to fill the heart with love of Allah before praying).
Truth: In Islam, the good condition of the heart is dependent upon the performance of obligatory deeds. In other words, your heart will never be filled with love of Allah (as defined by Allah) except after or during doing what He has commanded.
Myth: Purification of the heart is a static, sustained reality (hence, again, the requirement to have a pure heart before praying or doing other good deeds).
Truth: Purification of the heart is an ever-changing, action-based struggle that forms the very essence of jihaad al-nafs (the soul’s ongoing battle against the self for the purpose of obeying Allah). Just as the physical purification of the body requires daily cleansing and consistent good hygiene; the spiritual purification of the soul requires daily prayer and consistent good deeds. Thus, it is impossible for your heart to be in the static state of sustained purification such that you can now move on to something else. This is because your heart is always in need of purification, so you can never move on to something else. In fact, why would you need to when that “something else” (i.e. prayer) is purification itself?
Myth: The human being has accurate, measurable knowledge of the spiritual state of his or her own heart (hence the alleged ability to know when your heart is spiritually pure or full of Allah’s love enough to start praying).
Truth: Only Allah knows the state of our hearts, so we can never declare that we know or love Allah on any meaningful level except to the extent that we know we are Muslims and not disbelievers. However, Allah does give us signs regarding the state of our hearts, but those signs are primarily external rather than internal. In other words, the closest we can get to having an accurate idea of what is going on in our hearts is through looking at how we live our lives, especially regarding our religious obligations. But even then, the only spiritual state that we can conclude with any level of certainty is our heart’s spiritual corruption, not its purity. For example, if we believe in Allah and know how to pray, yet we are not fulfilling this basic Islamic obligation, then we can be almost 100% sure that our heart is in one of the most spiritually corrupt, diseased states possible—even if we are engaging in dhikr, reflecting on Allah and His names, and taking the other “baby steps” the author listed in her article. However, if we are praying all our prayers, and to the best of our knowledge and ability, we are fulfilling every religious obligation Allah has required for us, then we can hope that our heart is in a state of spiritual purity and love of Allah, but we must bear in mind that these good deeds might be rooted in arrogance (the belief that we are better than other Muslims) or riyaa (doing good deeds for a purpose other than pleasing Allah).
Myth: Except for the first pillar of Islam (testifying to the Oneness of Allah), the pillars of Islam are not foundational to a Muslim’s emaan, (hence the advice, “before you begin building your prayers, take the time to build your foundations”).
Truth: The five pillars of Islam are not only foundational to your emaan; along with the six articles of faith, they form the very essence of your emaan. Without them, you have no faith. This is because in Islam, emaan is both belief and action. Although some obligatory deeds are not foundational to our faith (i.e. wearing hijab, not drinking alcohol, or avoiding adultery and fornication), the five pillars of Islam most certainly are. In fact, the very meaning of the Arabic term arkaan (pillars) indicates something that is so foundational that, without it, whatever is built will collapse and be of no use or benefit.
Myth: It is obligatory to know and declare (to yourself) the pure state of your heart (hence the requirement to fill your heart with Allah’s love before praying, thus necessitating both knowledge and declaration of spiritual purity).
Truth: It goes against the guidance of Allah to express knowledge of the Unseen or to ascribe purity to yourself. Allah says, “…So ascribe not purity to yourselves. He knows best him who fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him” (Al-Najm, 53:32).
Myth: Intentionally disobeying Allah is an acceptable path to ultimately obeying Him and drawing closer to Him (hence the instruction to continuously abandon the prayer as you takes “steps” to pray one day).
Truth: Obeying Allah and constantly repenting for our sins is the only acceptable path to obeying Allah and drawing closer to Him. Just as shirk can never be an acceptable path to Tawheed or worshiping Allah alone, disobeying Allah can never be an acceptable path to drawing closer to religious obedience. In Islam, the path to worshiping Allah is worshiping Allah. The path to obeying Allah is obeying Allah. The path to Tawheed is Tawheed. The path to following the Sunnah is following the Sunnah. Nevertheless, this does not negate the fact that a person might commit shirk then ultimately repent and live a life of Tawheed and worshiping Allah; and a person might consistently disobey Allah then ultimately repent and live a life striving upon obedience to Him. However, these are not human-initiated realties, they are Allah-initiated realities; and that is no small distinction. As a human being, you must focus on the only reality that Allah has asked you to initiate: striving your level best to worship and obey Him at all times, most especially regarding the foundations of your faith, of which Salaah is one.
Myth: You can sin without being guilty of sin (hence: “One of the tactics of Shaitan [Satan] is that he leads you to believe that it’s all or nothing. Either you’re praying, or you’re sinfully not).
Truth: Sin is sin, so if you are knowingly not doing what you were commanded to do, then you are in sin. Unless you have a circumstance in which you are no longer held accountable for your deeds (i.e. total loss of your mental health or full possession by jinn), then there is no way to abandon prayer and not do it “sinfully.” However, Allah is All-Forgiving and Merciful to believers who turn to Him in repentance; but in order to repent, we must first recognize that we are in sin in the first place, and then leave the sin (i.e. return to prayer) in order for our repentance to be accepted. But it is true that one of the tactics of Satan is leading you to believe that it’s all or nothing—and this is precisely why it is important to always pray, even when you feel hollow or empty inside. It’s okay if you don’t feel the love of Allah in your heart during Salaah. It’s okay to work on building your love and knowledge of Allah as you continue to pray. In fact, in Islam, this is the only correct way to address this spiritual crisis. However, Shaytaan will lead you to believe that the best remedy for your hollowness and emptiness during prayer is to continue to not pray. He’ll lead you to believe that it’s okay to allow yourself to be in a state of continual disobedience as long as you are “taking steps” to fix problem. And while it’s true that we must be patient with ourselves as we work to fix our spiritual deficiencies (i.e. We must continue to pray as we work on addressing the hollowness and emptiness we feel during worship), Shaytaan will have us believe that fixing the problem involves a method that, quite literally, turns Allah’s instruction on its head: optional before obligatory vs. obligatory before optional (or vs. obligatory and optional). Meanwhile, Shaytaan keeps encouraging you in this “taking steps” stage as he eagerly awaits Allah seizing your soul while you are in a state of major sin (and perhaps disbelief).
Myth: But this is the same step-by-step method used by Allah and His Messenger during the early stages of his prophetic mission. Rules and regulations like prayer and hijab were mandated much later.
Truth: No, this is not the same method. Under no circumstance—in the early or late stages of the prophetic mission—did Allah or His Messenger permit or condone intentional disobedience of Allah, let alone the continuous abandonment of a foundational pillar of Islam for the purpose of instilling in the early Muslims’ hearts knowledge and love of Allah. In fact, formal prayer was one of the first “rules” established during this “instilling in their hearts knowledge and love of Allah” stage of the prophetic mission; but it involved the night prayer, as the establishment of the five daily prayers came later (during Israa’ and Mi’raaj). However, it is true that most rules and regulations were revealed during the latter stages of the prophetic mission, but it is also true that whoever accepted Islam during this latter stage was expected and required to follow all of the rules and regulations of Islam revealed up to that point. Thus, the lesson we draw from the prophetic mission’s step-by-step approach is that we must learn (and teach) Islam based on spiritual priorities—and without a doubt, the foundational issues of Tawheed and prayer must always be our highest and most urgent priorities.
Myth: Actions are by intention, so if I intend to pray one day then Allah will record that for me.
Truth: Actions are by intention, so if you know you are supposed to pray and you intentionally don’t pray, then Allah has recorded that for you.
You Won’t Always Want What’s Good For You
“But as for him who feared standing before his Lord, and restrained himself from impure, evil desires or unlawful inclinations, then Paradise will be his abode.”
It is true that a good deed is only counted as a good deed if it is done for the sake of Allah, but it is not true that a good deed can’t be for the sake of Allah if you don’t want to do it in the first place. In fact, one of the distinguishing traits of the people of Paradise, as we see in the above ayah, is their tendency to do good deeds even though their hearts are inclined toward something else.
Yes, we should love praying. Yes, we should derive joy, peace, and satisfaction from prayer. And, yes, we should want to pray. But the reality of the human condition is that, more often than not, what should be and what is are two very different things. This why the greatest gift that Allah gives believers is His mercy and forgiveness, despite how we continuously transgress against our souls through continuously falling into sin.
“Say, ‘O My servants who have transgressed against their souls, do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.”
But don’t let Shaytaan rob you of this magnificent opportunity for Allah’s mercy and forgiveness by leading you to believe that a foundational pillar of your faith (i.e. prayer) can be abandoned, even if only short-term, as a path of obedience and drawing closer to Allah.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. Join UZ University to learn how you too can find your writing voice and share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com
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