Lecture by Abdul Nasir Jangda | Transcribed by Sameera[The following is the video and transcript of Shaykh Abdul Nasir's lecture "ṣalāh in Focus." The transcript includes slight modifications for the sake of readability and clarity.]
The title of the lecture is ṣalāh in focus – creating some focus in regards to ṣalāh. Let's go back to a time in the history of our ummah when the focus of ṣalāh was solidified. The most important period in our history is the life of the Prophet . To understand the focus ṣalāh has in our dīn (religion) and in the life of the Prophet , we have to go back to the most difficult and tragic time in the life of the Prophet : a period of his life remembered as The Year of Grief and Sorrow.
What happened during this time that makes it The Year of Grief and Sorrow? What events led to the focus on ṣalāh (prayer)? Probably the greatest personal tragedy. There were many difficult events and moments of the life of the Prophet but the greatest personal tragedy of the life of the Prophet was the passing of his beloved wife Khadījah . One common complaint that I have – and I make this complaint often to my students and my own community – is that too often, I find that particularly in regards to the sīrah, we have either a Wikipedia approach to the life of the Prophet or an entertainment-like approach to the life of the Prophet .
How so? Let me explain. When we typically talk about the life and life experiences of the Prophet , it is either a Wikipedia approach, meaning a bunch of random facts and bullet points and you just keep clicking 'Next' and scroll down the page. You read that in the 11th year of prophethood, the wife of the Prophet Khadījah died and then move down the list.
Or, it is an entertainment like approach, which means that if last week a another speaker gave a lecture on the passing of Khadījah and I show up this week and say, “Today as your guest speaker I'd like to talk about the death of the beloved wife of the Prophet Khadījah ,” right away somebody will say, “Excuse me, brother, we have already covered that and heard about it last week.”
Why do I call that an entertainment-like approach? How do we treat entertainment? If you have seen an episode of a sitcom once and then are flipping through the channels and that same episode that you just saw last week is being shown again, are you going to sit there and watch it? No, you will change the channel because you've already seen this episode. Maybe if there was nothing on and you've flipped through all the other channels and there happened to be a pretty good episode of that show, you may watch it for a second time. When it is on for a third time, you are not going to watch it. Let's just say it was a really great episode, you might watch it a third time, but at this point in time you can say the lines before they say the lines and can deliver the punch line before they do on the TV show. When the same episode is coming on for the fourth time, are you going to watch it again? Absolutely not!
If you have read an issue of a magazine once, you don't read it again. When you are sitting in the waiting room of the doctor's office and pick it up, and it is last month's issue which you have already read completely, you put it down and pick up another magazine. You don't read yesterday's paper again today.
It is either the grabbing of random information or entertainment. Unfortunately, our approach learning about the life of the Prophet has become very similar to that. “We already read that. We already covered that. We already talked about that.”
My goal here today, which is something we need to institute as a habit and practice, is that we need to really understand and grasp and put ourselves in those shoes. We need to fully comprehend, understand, and grasp what the Prophet was going through.
Context of the Revelation of Prayer
In an effort to do that, let me tell you what it means when in the 11th year of prophethood, the wife of the Prophet Khadījah dies. At this point in time, the Prophet had been married to Khadījah for more than 25 years. If you are younger than 25 years old, then the Prophet had been married to Khadījah for longer than you have been alive. 25 years is a lifetime. Grasp that.
Do you know what happens in 25 years? It is like you become one. You know each other completely. At that point in time, you know what the other person is thinking and what the other person will do before they do it. You know what they are going to say and can complete their sentences. You know everything about that person. You are intimately connected. Imagine 25 years of your most private, intimate, loving moments of your life with one person. Think about how deep that connection was and how profound and deep-rooted that love was. I know this sounds very cliché and to some people uncomfortable, but she was the love of the Prophet's life. She was his soul mate and partner in life. How do we know that? We understand this when we read and hear about the Prophet's reaction to the memory of Khadījah years after she passed away.
During the time of the Battle of Badr, which was about four years after Khadījah had passed away, he had remarried and moved to a different city. It's like we say, he had picked up the pieces and moved on with his life. Life had moved on – he lived in a different place and was remarried. So much had happened since then.
During the Battle of Badr, one of the prisoners of war was his son-in-law, the husband of his eldest daughter Zaynab . The policy that the Prophet had instituted at that time was that the prisoners would be released if they were literate and taught 10 Muslim children how to read and write or if they couldn't do that, the family could send some amount of money to secure their release, and then they would be released back to their home, family, and people.
The son-in-law of the Prophet was a prisoner. The daughter of the Prophet sends some jewelry – a necklace – to secure the ransom of her husband. The Prophet had so much going on, he doesn't realize, and the ṣaḥābah say, “The next prisoner in question is so-and-so. This necklace has been sent to secure his ransom.” The moment the Prophet looked at the necklace, tears began to stream from his eyes. He was overcome by sadness. The ṣaḥābah asked the Messenger of Allāh, “O Messenger of Allāh , did we bother you? Did we disturb you? Is everything ok?” The Messenger of Allāh said, “Everything is fine. This necklace used to belong to my wife Khadījah . She gave it to our eldest daughter Zaynab, and Zaynab has sent it today as ransom. Just looking at the necklace reminds me of the old days with Khadījah. I can't control myself” The Prophet was so concerned about Zaynab being able to hold on to this lasting memory of her mother that the Prophet requested permission from the ṣaḥābah: “If you don't mind, can we release my son-in-law to go back to his wife, my daughter, with the necklace? I don't want my daughter to lose this memory of her mother.” That's how strong the memory of Khadījah was in the heart of the Prophet .
Years later, the year before the passing of the Prophet when convoy after convoy was coming to Madīnah to accept Islam, one of the convoys that came from Yemen had a beautiful, expensive garment like a shawl, which was sent by the leader as a gift for the Prophet . When the Prophet received this very exquisite gift, he took the gift and called one of the young ṣaḥābah in the community who would run his errands and said, “Take this garment to the house of that old woman who lives next to so-and-so.” One of the wives of the Prophet doesn't know this woman and is puzzled. She says, “Who is this random old woman that you sent such a nice gift to? I know she is not related to you because I know your family.” The Prophet responds by saying, “She is one of the old buddies of Khadījah. Until today, I like to thank and remember and send gifts to Khadījah's friends to thank her for the years of friendship she gave to my late, beloved wife Khadījah.” That was the memory of Khadījah in the heart of the Prophet .
One of the younger ṣaḥābah who never saw the era of Khadījah and never benefitted from her asked the Prophet , “O Messenger of Allāh, we hear a lot about our mother Khadījah but did not have the pleasure and honor of meeting, seeing, and knowing her. What was she like? Describe her to us.” The narration says, “Innaha kānat…wa kānat (She was…)” As an expression, what this means is that he is saying, “She was…she just was. I don't even know where to start. Where do you want me to begin? I cannot even put into words how amazing she was.” That was how strongly the Prophet felt. He had just lost the love of his life – his wife and she was the mother of his children. Can you imagine having to look your children in the eye and telling them that their mother is not coming home? Can you imagine how heartbreaking that would be?
I was telling this story in the khuṭbah a few years ago. A brother comes up to me afterward. People generally have some feedback for you after a khuṭbah. This brother says, “Brother, you know what you talked about today? It personally really moved me.” Sometimes somebody comes up to you and says something and they just have that look in their eyes like they have a story to tell. This brother had that look, so I asked him, “Brother, if you don't mind, can you share with me how the khuṭbah personally relates to you and how it personally hit home for you?” He sits down with me and tells me, “I know was born and raised Muslim, grew up in a good Muslim family – ṣalāh, masjid, Qur'ān, dhikr. It was a part of our lives as a family, but today was the first time I have prayed in almost a year.”
SubḥānAllāh, what happened? He tells me, “About a year ago I was at the point in my life where all of the pieces of the puzzle were coming together. You know what I'm talking about? You've been working for some time towards certain goals and you're at the point in time when it seems like the master plan is coming together. I was about 30 and nearing the end of my medical residency and had a young wife and two little kids. We lived the life of a student and resident in a small little apartment. We had one beat-up, old, used car. Life was tough, but we made it through school and residency. I was nearing the end of my residency and fielding very lucrative offers from doctors, groups, clinics, and hospitals. Things were looking up. We had gone to look at some nice new houses where my kids could run around and have a backyard to play in. We went minivan shopping at the dealership and were looking at nice schools where we could send our kids. The whole nine yards. Everything was looking up.
“One day I came home a little bit earlier than I normally would from the hospital. I walked in and said salām, and nobody responded. I realized that it was the time when my wife would usually put the babies down for a nap, and she would take a nap herself, so I decided I won't wake them up. I went and ate some food and started reading and passed time. An hour or so went by and I heard the kids from the bedroom. They had woken up. I could hear them being fussy in the room and got excited. I went to the room and opened the door, and the babies were sitting there awake on the bed and crying because they just woke up, but my wife is lying there motionless and not responding. I went in to take a look at her. When I checked, I realized that she was dead. She passed away.
“At that moment, my world just fell apart. My life unraveled. The first couple of days were a blur during the janāzah and funeral proceedings. Once the funeral was done and reality set in that my wife was gone, the mother of my children was gone, for two weeks I did not come out of my bedroom. I locked myself in my room with the lights off and just laid there. I barely ate; I barely slept. During those two weeks, I didn't even hold my own children in my own hands. I didn't know what to do with myself. My life didn't make sense. What had happened? What am I supposed to do?
“Finally, I started to recover and get my life back on track and went to work and reconnected with my kids and tried to put the pieces back together. I eventually got back to work and trying to take care of my kids the best that I could. I had some family I could lean on. There was one issue that hadn't been solved: my īmān. I didn't know what I believed in anymore and felt like my heart had a hole in it. I had lost my īmān. I didn't know what I believed in because why did this happen and what am I supposed to do? My brother who has been supportive had been there and taken care of my kids when I was incapable of taking care of them. My brother kept encouraging and motivating and telling me, 'You need to pray. If you pray, things will start to make sense again. You need to talk to Allāh and reconnect with Allāh.' I kept resisting and resisting.
“Finally today I woke up in the morning and my brother came to me and said, 'I'm not taking no for an answer. You are coming with me to the masjid. You are going to come and listen to the khuṭbah and pray in a large congregation. Today is the day you get back on the horse.' He brought me to the jumu'ah, and I wasn't really hopeful of the outcome or result. From the minbar, when you talked about the Prophet losing his wife and his children losing their mother, I found the answer to my problem. I realized that my Messenger Muḥammad has gone through what I'm going through. He understands my pain. He felt my pain. I felt connected to him and realized that if he could go on, so can I.”
Sometimes when you try to understand the story and can't really grasp it and really truly can't appreciate what the Prophet went through unless you went through that yourself – may Allāh protect all of us. Sometimes Allāh brings someone to you so that you can get a better understanding. You can look into the eyes of another human being and at least get some idea of what that pain was.
SubḥānAllāh, two years after this conversation with this brother, when the memory starts to fade and the story starts to become old for you in your mind and heart, Allāh sends somebody else. I was giving this lecture at a community and a brother walks up to me after and said, “Brother, what you talked about, the same thing happened with me five years ago. I came home. My sons were 10 and 12 years old. I said salām and my sons were playing games and doing what boys do. I go into the bedroom and find my wife collapsed on the ground. I check her and she had passed away. Five years later, my boys are now 15 and 17 years old, and I feel that just now we are starting to put our lives back together after losing the most important person in our lives – the glue that held our family together.”
The Prophet lost his wife and the mother of his children. On top of all of that, he lost his firmest and strongest supporter. Who was the first person who accepted Islam? Khadījah . She was a woman of strength. When the Prophet came home with this message, he is nervous and she puts his concerns to rest and says, “Allāh will never leave you out to dry. Allāh will never put you in harm's way because you are such an amazing person.” He says, “Fine, Khadījah. I understand that and believe that, but who will accept this message?” She said, “You are worried about somebody accepting this message? I bear witness that there is no one worthy of worship but Allāh and I bear witness that you are the Messenger of Allāh.” She was the rock and strength of the Prophet . Imagine the pain and anguish of losing the Prophet .
The Ultimate Role Model
Allāh made the Prophet the ultimate role model. About three to six months after the passing of Khadījah , another tragedy befell the Prophet : the death of his uncle Abu Ṭālib. We need the context to understand what this means. When you hear about the death of an uncle, it is sad and tragic, but does it destroy your life and crush you? It's someone you saw at the most two or three times a year. Even if it is a closer uncle, it's not like losing your mom or dad. This is where it is important for us to understand who was this uncle and what did he really mean to the Prophet ? This wasn't the type of uncle that he met twice a year at 'Īd.
The father of the Prophet died before he was born, and his mother died when he was 6 years old. He then went into the care of his grandfather 'Abdul-Muṭṭālib, and when he was 8 years old, his grandfather passed away. Connect the dots and grasp this. By the age of 8, this child never knew his father, had lost his mother and his grandfather, and he had no biological siblings. At the age of 8, this child was basically alone in this world. He didn't have any immediate family. At that point in time, his uncle Abu Ṭālib took care of him.
Typically when we hear a story like this, we say he treated him like one of his own. Abu Ṭālib didn't treat him like one of his own, he treated him better than he treated his own children, as impossible as that sounds. I have children and know that sounds impossible. How can you love someone else's child more than your own child? Abu Ṭālib proved that it is possible. The books of sīrah and history said that the people of Quraysh testified that they would see the Prophet in the lap of Abu Ṭālib more than they would see his own children. Abu Ṭālib would never let the Prophet out of his sight. He was always worried about the Prophet . He raised him and was his parent and family. This was the man who raised him from the age of eight until adulthood. All of his family was this one man Abu Ṭālib. He was everything to him growing up.
The Prophet had just lost him. This is like losing your mom and dad together all at once. Imagine how painful that must have been six months after his wife had passed away. Imagine how emotionally difficult this time must have been for the Prophet .
There was another tragedy embedded within the death of Abu Ṭālib. There is a ḥadīth that paints the entire picture. Abu Ṭālib was a very old man and had been sick for some time. When the Prophet received the news that it looked like this was it and that it was time to say goodbye, he rushed to his bedside and fell down by the bed of Abu Ṭālib and held his hand with tears in his eyes. He is losing this man that he loves so much.
He holds his hand and says, “Uncle, please, you have done so much for me. Please just one time say the kalīmah. Just once.” The narration says that Abu Jahl and other leaders of Quraysh were there at the same timeand didn't want him to accept Islam before he passed away. The narration says that Abu Jahl yelled and screamed like a wild animal on the top of his lungs, “Abu Ṭālib, don't leave the religion of your forefathers! Abu Ṭālib, don't leave the religion!” Over and over he is yelling loudly because he is already an old man and sick and ill and in the pangs of death. With somebody screaming at the top of their lungs, Abu Ṭālib couldn't even hear what the Prophet was saying.
Abu Jahl didn't even want Abu Ṭālib to hear the Prophet , so he is yelling and screaming as loud as he can over and over again. Abu Ṭālib looks over at his beloved nephew who he raised as his own and said, “Dear nephew, I can't hear what you are saying.” The narration describes that the Prophet touched his mouth to the ear of Abu Ṭālib and whispered into his ear so that he could hear him clearly. He said, “Uncle, please. Just once whisper those words into my ear. Those fools don't have to hear it. Whisper it into my ear. I'll be your witness on the Day of Judgment. Abu Ṭālib looked at his nephew with love in his eyes and said, “Beloved nephew, you know how much I love you, but I can't do what you are asking me to do.” He passed away without accepting Islam.
The ṣaḥābah said that when the Prophet walked out of the room, he was crushed and so saddened. His grief was unlike anything they had ever seen. Imagine the anguish of not only losing this man that is your family, but on top of that you are the means of delivering the message, īmān, and guidance to everyone, but the man that raised you and who did so much for you didn't accept Islam. The narration says that the Prophet was questioning himself and wondering what more he could have said or done. That's when Allāh revealed the āyah of the Qur'ān from Sūrat'l-Qaṣaṣ: “You most definitely cannot guide those whom you have loved. Rather, Allāh guides whomsoever He wills.” We always understood this āyah as Allāh rebuking the Prophet . Absolutely not – when you put it into the context, you understand that this is Allāh consoling the Prophet . “O beloved, don't doubt yourself. Don't question yourself. You can't give guidance to the people that you love. There was nothing more you could have done because guidance was not yours to give. You can't give guidance to the people that you love, rather Allāh gives guidance to whom He wills. This was Allāh's decision. Don't doubt and question yourself.”
Imagine the pain and anguish of the Prophet . A lot of us who are sitting here and whose parents are Muslim can't understand that pain. Talk to somebody who accepted Islam on their own whose parents have not accepted Islam yet and ask them what du'ā' they make every night before sleeping and the first du'ā' they make after waking up. They will tell you it is “O Allāh, let today be the day.”
I have old friends who accepted Islam whose parents had not accepted Islam yet. Whenever they are about to go visit their parents or spend the day with their parents, I always get a text message that morning saying, “Bro, please make du'ā' that today is the day.” Imagine the pain and the anguish of the Prophet .
I told you about that brother who went through one of these tragedies and literally could not get himself to wake up in the morning and could not face the world the next day. He felt like he couldn't move on with his life. He didn't know what to do with himself. Imagine the Prophet went through not just one of these tragedies but two tragedies like this and there were tragedies embedded within these tragedies.
The question is: how did the Prophet continue? How did he wake up the next day? We talk about getting back to work and going back to our jobs. The Prophet had the biggest job of any human being: “O Messenger of Allāh, you have been sent to all of humanity.” He had the most important, pressing, and demanding job of any human being. How did the Prophet continue and work harder? What gave him the energy and healed his wounds? What allowed him to recover? Where did he draw the energy and emotional fortitude from?
After these two tragedies occurred, Allāh took the Prophet on the miraculous journey that we refer to isrā' wa'l-mi'rāj – the travel by night to Jerusalem and then the ascension to heaven. At that time, Allāh granted a gift to the Prophet : the five daily prayers. This was his strength and allowed him to recover and healed his wounds and allowed him to continue on with his life and pick up the pieces. When we look at it from this perspective, this is the historical significance of ṣalāh and the purpose and benefit of the prayer. When you look at it from this perspective, it makes total sense what the Prophet meant when he said, “The coolness of my eyes has been put in the prayer.”
What does 'coolness of the eyes' mean? It is in the Qur'ān, du'ā's, supplications and aḥadīth. What does it truly mean? With any figure of speech, to understand what it means and alludes to, you have to put yourself in the mindset and understand it from the perspective of the people who used it, or it won't make sense. The ancient Arabs used this phrase qurrata a'yun. Imagine being in the desert where it is 120+ degrees outside. There is burning, scorching heat. The hot winds blow the hot sand into your eyes. Imagine how dry your eyes get and how much they burn. There are no sunglasses to wear and no Visine drops. The eyes burn, itch and scratch to the point that it feels like they are on fire. While you are walking around and feel like you just want to rip your eyes out, you find some cool, clean water. When you take that cool, clean water and splash it into your eyes, how cool and refreshing does that feel? How good and amazing does that feel? This is what the phrase means. The Prophet says that when he prays, this is how he feels.
Anything can be going on, and the world could be falling down all around you, but when you stand up and say “Allāhu akbar,” you feel refreshed and healed and a burst of energy. It takes away your worries, sorrow, grief and pain. It heals your wounds. This is the effect of prayer. This is the effect of prayer we are all looking for and desperately in search of.
This leads to the question: I pray five times a day and have been for many years, but I have yet to experience what you are talking about. My prayer doesn't feel like that. What is missing? The key missing ingredient to bring about these fruits and benefits of prayer and make the prayer the coolness of your eyes is khushū'. The Qur'ān and the Messenger of Allāh call it khushū'.
It involves a whole discussion to explain the meaning of khushū'. I'll summarize the meaning of khushū' in one word: quality. You have to have quality in your prayer. Unless and until we have quality in our prayers, we won't be able to achieve and realize the full benefits of the prayer.
That leads to the million-dollar question, and the question that all of us have asked at one point or another: How do we get quality in our ṣalāh? How do we get khushū' within our prayers? We've heard a thousand lectures about the importance of khushū', but we are here to find out how do we get khushū'? How do we get that quality in our prayers?
How to Get Quality in Our Prayers
There are lots of things we can do. Books are written by the scholars which list dozens of things we can do to bring greater quality and implement khushū' in our prayers. To keep the conversation flowing and brief and concise, I would like to group the things that we can implement into three areas of improvement.
1. A change of lifestyle.
What that refers to is really very simple. We can't expect to live our lives however we want (lying, cheating, backbiting, cussing) and then expect that when we stand up to pray and say “Allāhu akbar”, magically we have khushū'. There is no instant khushū'. The way I live my life outside of the prayer and the way I conduct myself normally throughout the day will affect and impact the quality of my prayers. If I want more quality in your ṣalawāt, then I have to lead a better life, a more honest and truthful life. I have to cut some of the sins out of my life in order to improve the quality of my prayers.
2. Make ṣalāh an event.
Treat ṣalāh like an important part of your day. Let me give you an example.
You have to be at work or school at 8 am, and you live about 10 minutes away from work, so you try to leave your house at 7:45 am so that you can drive there, park your car, and be at your desk at 7:59 ready to roll. If you leave your house at 7:45 am, do you wake up at 7:40 and roll out of bed and get ready? No – don't do that! Typically, if you have to leave your home at 7:45 am, how much earlier would you wake up? The average answer is 45 minutes. Some people take a little bit less and others a little bit longer. Why do you wake up 45 minutes before? You would say it is your job and is important. You have to wake up and brush, shower, clean and comb, eat something, pack your stuff and dress nicely. You have to take it seriously. That is why you invest the time and give it importance and treat it as something important.
How you prepare for it shows the importance. It is an event and you prepare for it. Compare this to ṣalāt'l-fajr. I realize that is the most drastic comparison. Let me explain to you the proceedings of ṣalāt'l-fajr. First, before you sleep you have the route from your bed to the sink completely mapped out so that you can get do it with your eyes closed. Why? When you wake up for fajr, you don't like to turn on all of the lights because it takes the sleepiness away and you want to pray fajr and go to sleep. You make it to the sink and have perfected the art of the 15 second wuḍū' – it is like a magic trick. You make your way back over to your bed, and you pray next to your bed and then engage in a procedure I like to call: stop, drop and roll over. You would pray on your bed if possible.
How sad is that? That is the condition of our prayers. I'll give another example from sports. When we watch a game, what is the quality of our prayer? First of all, it's a blessing if somebody actually prays during the game. Even if they do pray during the game, what is the quality of that prayer? We wait for a time-out or a commercial and then hurry. We leave the volume a little bit on so that we can hear if something big happens during the game. That is how we pray, unfortunately.
I joke just to keep it light, but we have to realize what a tragedy it is we pray like this, especially compared to how we seriously we take everything else. The second area of improvement to gain quality in the ṣalāh is to treat ṣalāh as something important. Make ṣalāh an important part of your day.
What that involves is to prepare and get ready. Make wuḍū' properly – it is an act of worship that leads you into the prayer and puts you in the right mindset. Pray when it is the time of the prayer. Don't keep putting it off. Dress appropriately. Don't pray in your pajamas. Like we have work clothes, the Prophet had clothes for the masjid. When he would come home, he would take them off and hang them up nicely. When it was time for the prayer, he would put them on.
There is a chapter in the Sunan of Abu Dāwūd which describes the preparation of the Prophet for prayer: The Chapter of the Diligence the Prophet in regards to Prayer. The Prophet was very casual and friendly and loving at home. It describes how when the time for prayer would come and the adhān would be called, the Prophet would become a stranger to his family.
I'll be honest with you because these types of discussions are meant for that type of honest talk and heart to hearts. When I first read that, I didn't know how to understand it. What does it mean that he became a stranger? It's kind of harsh. Then you realize when you are responsible for something what that means. When you have to go to work in the morning at 7:45 am and you have little kids when they aren't old enough to be at the age when they want you to go to work but at the same time are old enough to know you are going to work and don't want you to go. What do they do when you try to leave? They start to pick up on the signs – the picking up of the briefcase and the keys rattling – and they cut you off at the door. What happens when you try to leave? It's like a scene from an epic movie and the most epic cry of all time. “No, baba, don't leave!” They cry and scream like it's the most tragic moment in the history of humanity. I'm going to ask a very serious question now. What do you do? You put them aside and tell your wife to come and get him and then go out the door. Does that mean you don't love your child? You are doing this for the benefit of your child. He doesn't grasp and understand it, but you are doing it for his benefit.
Just like we take work that seriously because we understand the benefit in our jobs and work, the Messenger of Allāh when it was time for the prayers, he became a stranger to his family. If I don't maintain this, then the same family for whom I would leave that prayer would eventually probably crumble and fall away. I have to take care of my ṣalāh. It is for me and my family. The Prophet would become a stranger to his family. Everything else was secondary. Work has to wait, the phone call has to wait. He would make wuḍū' properly and put on nice clothes and go to the masjid early. To bring quality and khushū' into our prayers, we have to treat ṣalāh like an event and important part of our day. We have to learn to do this.
Ibn Kathīr (raḥimahullāh) says, “Khushū' will be achieved by the person who empties his heart for the prayer.” One tip and recommendation the scholars that scholars would give and would practice – which is especially important for our times, which is the age of distraction where your one phone has 18 different types of tones to it; a text message alert sounds different from a phone call and an e-mail, Twitter alert, and Facebook update – when you are getting ready to pray ṣalāh, put away all of your distractions. Turn off the television and turn off your computer screen. Put your phone on silent and put it away. Put everything away for 60 seconds or even 30 seconds and sit down and be quiet. When you do this, you feel like your mind is clear and not as cluttered. Then say, “Allāhu akbar” and then see the quality of your prayer. Put everything aside and free up your mind.
The third area of improvement, and this is the most important and most drastic in terms of change and effect is:
3. Understand the basic structure and technicalities of prayer (fiqh), which will give you the outline of the ṣalāh. The most important thing, which is actually the life and spirit of the prayer is when you understand what you are reading and saying in your ṣalāh.
Ṣalāh is about reflection and pondering. It is about comprehending and understanding. It is about feeling what you are saying and then delving into it and being absorbed by the experience of the ṣalāh. This can only be done when you truly appreciate and understand what you are saying in the ṣalāh.
I'm going to give you an example. I've been speaking for an hour. Most of you have been listening and paying attention. There's a very simple reason why you have been listening and paying attention and why I have been able to continue speaking with so much energy for an hour. I don't feel tired or exhausted, and you have been listening attentively for an hour. There's a simple explanation of that: I am enjoying talking about this because I understand, feel, and believe what I am saying. It's from my gut and I believe in it. You are listening to what I am saying for an hour because you understand every single word that is coming out of my mouth. You grasp it and understand it and know what I'm saying and are able to comprehend and digest it fully.
Imagine if instead of speaking in a language that I understand and you understand, I had been reading something off a piece of paper or reciting something I memorized in a foreign language, let's say Chinese. Imagine if I had been reciting Chinese poetry to you for an hour, how long before you would stop paying attention? 10, 20, 30, 60 seconds? Only a generous person would even listen for 60 seconds. You wouldn't be able to pay attention or focus, let alone conceptualizing and processing it and reflecting on it and pondering it. You wouldn't even be listening to what I was saying.
If I was the one reading it to you and had spent months memorizing 30 minutes of Chinese poetry, I would start reading it but if I don't understand it, in about 3-4 minutes I would think it's the most pointless thing I've done in my life.
I apologize if I offend anyone for what I am about to say. This is the part that stings. As silly and ridiculous and preposterous as that example was, how different is our ṣalāh from that example? We stand up in ṣalāh day after day and ṣalāh after ṣalāh and read through our prayers not understanding, not appreciating, not reflecting, and not pondering on a single word. How are we supposed to focus in that type of a ṣalāh? Where is the focus magically going to come from? It won't.
The most important thing we have to do to grasp some quality in our prayers is to begin to understand what we read and say within our prayers. I don't just mean read translations but reflect and ponder. Fully grasp what we are reading, saying, and reciting in our prayers. When we do that, the entire experience of ṣalāh changes. It's a different game altogether.
Examples of Understanding Statements in Ṣalāh
I'll end here by giving you at least one example of how that changes.
“Allāhu akbar” is typically translated as “Allāh is the Greatest.” We are going to tweak that just a little bit. The word 'akbar' is the comparative and not the superlative. Those are technical grammatical terms. Let me break it down simpler than that. For instance if you were to say, “Zayd is faster than Khalid, but Ahmed is the fastest,” 'faster' is comparative and 'fastest' is superlative. Akbar is the comparative and not the superlative, so “Allāhu akbar” doesn't translate to “Allāh is the greatest,” it translates to “Allāh is Greater.”
To fully understand this example: If I was to say, “Zayd is faster than…”, you are waiting for me to continue and finish it. When we say, “Allāhu akbar,” we are saying, “Allāh is greater than ___.” The purpose of the blank is a rhetorical function and part of the balāghah of classical Arabic. It is very commonly found in the Qur'ān where there is a statement that demands an object and that object is intentionally not provided and a blank is left for you. The purpose of that blank is that you are supposed to fill in the blank for yourself with whatever it is that is distracting you from your ṣalāh at that moment.
Allāh is greater than everything and anything, but the reflection and thought process at that time is: Allāh is Greater and more important than whatever is distracting me from my prayer at this very moment. If my phone is ringing, Allāh is Greater than that phone call. If my friend is waiting for me outside in the car, Allāh is Greater and more important than my friend waiting for me in the car. If the restaurant is about to close in 20 minutes, Allāh is Greater and more important than the food in the restaurant. If the game is on the television, Allāh is Greater and more important than the game on the television. Anything and everything that could be distracting me from my prayer at that moment, Allāh is Greater and more important than that thing.
If you ask somebody what the reflection on “Allāhu akbar” is, they may say it is how they start their prayer. We are realizing that even “Allāhu akbar” has a reflection built into it. You are even supposed to think about something when you say “Allāhu akbar”. There is a focus and khushū' to “Allāhu akbar.” The next time you stand up to pray and say “Allāhu akbar” and go through the mental process of thinking that Allāh is Greater andmore important than those things distracting you, then see the quality of saying “Allāhu akbar” and how long it takes you to just say “Allāhu akbar”. It will change your life.
Because you guys have been so good to me, I'll share one quick little example for you.
Subḥāna Rabbi al-a'la
What position do we say this in? Sujūd. How absolutely perfect is my Lord, my Master, who is al-a'la. Al-a'la is superlative because of the “al” and means “the highest, the most exalted.” Reflect on this fact. Typically when we make sujūd, we rush the words. What does it mean? How absolutely perfect is my Lord who is the highest and most exalted.
What is the reflection here? What position do you say this in? Sujūd, when you are putting the most respected part of our body (the face) on the ground where somebody was standing with their feet. This is the lowest position possible for a human being. We put ourselves in the lowest position possible and say, “Allāh is the Highest and Most Exalted.” The next time you make sujūd, reflect on this and see the quality of your sajdah.
This is a small sample of what happens when we appreciate the meaning and understand what we are saying within our prayers.
As a closing note, I want to pose one question to everybody. The answer to this question will give you the answer on whether or not you have to make some type of an effort to improve the quality and focus of your prayers. Ask yourself: When is the last time you experienced the ṣalāh? That when you prayed, you felt like it changed your life and solved your problem and gave you the answer to your question. When was the last time that happened? If the answer isn't something that's very good or something that you like, then don't you think it is about time we make some drastic improvement in our prayers?