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GROWING IN PRAYER: reflections & lessons

This is a pre-publication DRAFT of a paper I crafted for an upcoming volume arising from one of the many "Building Bridges" Muslim-Christian seminars sponsored by The Archbishop of Canterbury.  A slightly modified version of this paper will soon be published, in the company of other worthy papers on the subject of prayer,  by Georgetown University Press later this year, in sha' allah.

Growth in Prayer:

Reflections and Lessons of a Struggler


Timothy J. Gianotti


            I often reflect that the prayer-related growth we most need within the Muslim community is an excavation of the spiritual depths and riches underlying this religious obligation.  I say “obligation” here because prayer is often presented and taught as a duty, as something we owe God, rather than as a way God – in the infinite mercy and love we believe God extends to us – has opened for us to approach and come close to the One who is the ultimate goal of all our longing and unrest.  So, in my community teaching and in my own self-coaching, I try to engender the sense that prayer is a most welcome and precious opportunity to respond to God’s invitation, sounded in the depths of our being as well as in the explicit teachings of the Qur’ān and the legacy of our beloved Prophet, may God’s blessings be ever upon him and his family.   


            Before we forge ahead with this discussion, I must frankly acknowledge that the topic of “Growth in Prayer” presents unusual challenges for the scholar in me; while tempted to approach this theoretically and professionally and with a sense of academic competence, I quickly realize that I cannot embark upon this subject without a full admission that the author writes as one who struggles greatly with prayer and who desperately seeks to grow in prayer.   Of course, this admission betrays the perspective that prayer is something we do rather than something God does within us, a perspective that dominates the way we Muslims are taught to view prayer.  As we will see in this very selective survey of Muslim discussions of prayer, however, filtered as they are through my own experience and understanding, growing in prayer seems to mean, among other things, a letting go of this somewhat materialistic notion that prayer is the product of the worshipper.  That said, there is no question in the sources (as well as within my experience) that personal growth in prayer seems to begin with personal struggle – born of a deep, personal desire for a closer walk with God.  This desire is, of course, itself a gift and so we again are faced at the outset with the ambiguity of prayer being both an act of Creator and an act of creature.


            Another ambiguity immediately asserts itself at the outset and stems from our tendency to speak of prayer as an act of worship as opposed to a process.  In the first case, when prayer is understood strictly in terms of duty and obligatory act of worship, growing in prayer might, for a Muslim, mean mastering the forms of prayer, memorizing various Arabic supplications and litanies, getting into a better habit of praying with regularity, and becoming more adept at focusing the mind and truly attending to the act of worship when we are in it.  In this sense, growing in prayer is fairly straightforward and can, to some extent, be quantitatively measured and monitored.  Growth in all of these areas is, of course, highly beneficial and meritorious, but I do not think such growth can be separated from the larger religious project of growing as a God-centered, moral being, remembering God with greater frequency and intensity and, in doing so, transforming everything in our lives into the acts of love and obedience that we associate with acts of worship.  In the prophetic vocabulary, this means making an explicit and permanent connection between our “islām” – our embodied act of surrendering – and our “iḥsān” – the psycho-spiritual and moral beautification of our dispositions and our actions in God: in other words, the act of worship, which dwells in the realm of the embodied dimension of the faith (“al-islām”), must enter into a state of constant communion with the transforming, spiritual awareness of standing within the theatre of God’s ever-presence (“al-iḥsān”).  When this link is made, prayer remains an “act” but an act that reflects a much larger process by which that closer walk with God becomes increasingly real, increasingly intimate, and increasingly transfiguring for the practitioner of prayer.  Of course, when taken in this expanded and all-inclusive sense, the idea of growing in prayer becomes much more demanding and more difficult to measure.  


In what follows, I will reflect upon seven lessons that, from my perspective as a scholar, a religious teacher, and “a kneeler in training,”[1] are essential for any Muslim who seeks to grow his or her prayer life.  Because I am presenting these lessons first and foremost to myself, I often frame these lessons in the language of the first person.


LESSON ONE:  Growing in prayer involves tests and difficulties.  I have to want it and be willing to work for it.


            Insofar as prayer forms the core of the religious life, the Qur’ān sates quite powerfully that it necessarily involves difficulty and testing.  We are to be tested in prayer and we are meant to struggle in prayer as in the entirety of our religious life.  This difficulty seems to be part of a Divinely-ordained test that is designed to awaken struggle within the truly devoted, a struggle or striving that promises to open the door of God’s blessing.  The first word of advice then given to the aspiring practitioner of prayer (and given first and foremost to myself), is to embrace the hardship; struggle and strive for God, and God will help you.  As we read the following selected āyāt (verses) in the sūrah (chapter) of the spider / al-‘ankabūt (29), struggling is a promise that contains a promise: Difficulty and struggle will definitely come to those who seek God, and Divine help will come if and when we embrace the test, the difficulty, the struggle.


Do the people reckon that they shall be left alone [after saying] “We believe” and that they will not be tested? (29:2)


We certainly tested those [who came] before them, and [thus] God most certainly knows those who are true and those who are false. (29:3)


Whosoever hopes to meet God [let him/her know that] God’s appointed time is surely coming; He is the [all] Hearing, the [all] Knowing. (29:4)


And whosoever strives [to meet God], truly he strives for [the betterment of] his own soul.  Verily God has no need of [anything within] the worlds [of creation]. (29:6)


Then, as if by design, the ray of hope – the promise of Divine help – comes at the very end of the chapter:


[As for] those who strive for Us, We shall surely guide them [along] Our paths.  God is indeed with the doers of beautiful deeds. (29:69)


            This theme of necessary personal struggle is corroborated and expanded upon by many later Muslim sources.  For example, one anonymous, thirteenth-century Persian author wrote,


No one can reach Him through performing good works, but no one has ever reached Him without them.


            What has not been allotted

            cannot be gained through effort,

            but unless you show your effort,

            you will never reach your lot.[2]


The ambiguity of this personal effort does not escape the anonymous author, who states just prior to this, “whoever supposes he can reach God through other than God has been deceived.”  So who is striving to do the work of prayer?  Is it the supplicant or God working through the supplicant?  Is there a meaningful difference? 


            A few centuries earlier, the extremely influential Sunni theologian-jurist-mystic Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī taught that the prayerful goal of remembering God incessantly in the heart begins with “a laborious effort to turn our thought, mind and concern toward God and the Hereafter.  It thus aims to reverse the tide of our whole character and to turn our central concern from this world, with which we have been familiar, to the Hereafter, with which we so far have no experience.”[3]  It is important to note here that “Hereafter” need not be understood as a time and place other than the now and here; indeed, in al-Ghazālī’s “psycho-cosmology,” this world and the next world are contemporaneous, and the human being exists in both simultaneously, even though most are unaware of their otherworldly existence until after death.[4]   In al-Ghazālī’s words, “your this world and your Hereafter” – i.e., your Heaven and your Hell – “are really just your own stations and states.”[5]  In the words of our anonymous mystic (cited above) from the century following al-Ghazālī,


Your paradise and Hell are within you,

Look inside and find

Blazing fires in your liver,

Blooming gardens in your heart![6]


            Coming back to the relevance of these points for our discussion of the difficulty of prayer, it is safe to say that the process of prayer involves a re-orienting of our perspective, indeed our consciousness, from an unspeakably cluttered, world-centered or ego-centered view to an unfragmented, Hereafter-centered – or theocentric – perspective.  In the words of one Prophetic tradition, this process entails “shunning the abode of delusion and turning toward the abode of everlasting life.”[7]  It also seems well established that this reorientation does not come without difficulty and great effort.  Growing in prayerful living thus means engaging in that effort and embracing that difficulty as something God-given, just as the desire to pray must be seen as a gift from God, who longs for us just as we long for God.


LESSON TWO: I must make my prayer personal.


Because the formal Islamic act of prayer involves memorized Arabic supplications and the recitation of memorized Arabic verses or “signs” (āyāt) from the Qur’ān, it is vitally important for the worshipper in training to work toward a point of understanding and even “feeling” the individual words and verses involved, even if the worshipper knows no other Arabic. This need not mean a memorization of a particular translation; but it does mean allowing oneself to feel and experience the meanings in a way that becomes intensely personal.  This is also true for the various postures involved in prayer; the worshipper should listen to her body in the act of prayer and strive to “hear” the whispered mysteries of each movement and posture.  This intimate personalization of the words and movements helps us to experience prayer as an intensely personal, intimate moment of communion, or at least communication, with our Lord, who has promised – right in the prayer – that “God hears the one who praises Him.”  


LESSON THREE: The quality of my prayer has to be given priority over the quantity of prayer cycles or length of recitation.  Sometimes, less is more.


            We can sometimes be swept away by the somewhat disturbingly widespread, popular emphasis upon the quantity of prayers and the rewards that many believe come from quantitative performance.  The antidote for this spiritual positivism or materialism is the teaching of our spiritual sages regarding the necessity of mental presence (ḥudūr al-qalb) or mindfulness in prayer and humility or lowliness (khushū‘) in prayer.   In his Book of Knowledge, al-Ghazālī describes this mindfulness as a state in which


The heart is empty of everything other than that which the person has undertaken and concerning which he is speaking.  Awareness must be joined with word and deed, and thoughts must not wander in other than these two.  When the person’s thought leaves aside everything but what he is busy with, when his heart remembers [dhikr] what he is concerned with, and when he is heedless of everything else, then he has actualized the presence of the heart.[8]


Regarding the sense of humility or lowliness in prayer, the thirteenth century mystic-poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, gives bold expression to this when he imaginatively captures a moment when God is reprimanding Moses, who has been theologically critical of a shepherd’s simple prayer:


It’s not me that’s glorified in acts of worship.

It’s the worshippers! I don’t hear the words

they say. I look inside at the humility.


That broken-open lowliness is the reality,

Not the language!  Forget phraseology.

I want burning, burning.[9]


One of the ways in which we grow in prayer, then, is by getting in touch with our longing, our burning, and understanding that this burning is nothing other than God calling us to prayer.  Only then, in the words of Rumi, can we “be friends” with our burning and approach God with an acute and consuming awareness of our need for God.   This awareness, driven by our longing and harnessed by our rapt attention and mindfulness to the prayer as-we-utter-and-enact-it, can make a single cycle of prayer more efficacious than a thousand cycles performed with partial awareness or no awareness at all.


LESSON FOUR: growing in prayer means making my entire life a theatre of remembrance.


            Addressing the very common and constant challenge of keeping one’s mind and heart fixed upon God in the act of ritual prayer, al-Ghazālī and others advise an interconnected hierarchy of remembrances: remembering in the first instance that one is conversing with God in prayer; (if that by itself does not work) remembering with gratitude everything bestowed upon one by God (including the knowledge of how to pray and the promise that “God hears those who praise Him”); remembering one’s own poverty and great need of God; remembering one’s imminent death[10] and one’s great vulnerability and peril before God.  All these “lesser” remembrances are taught with the hope of training the servant to be mindful of God and fixed upon God in the act of ritual worship.  We thus find that the practical pedagogy of prayer often employs a hierarchy of remembrances, all employed as helpful supports for the higher goal of being absolutely mindful of the Hereafter and God.  While al-Ghazālī makes reference to an ultimate level of prayer where all such supports fall away, the supports are treated as essential, potentially life saving practices for seekers in the earlier stages of formation and possibly even for selected moments in the prayer lives of more cultivated and advanced practitioners.  


            The wider, more generic religious consciousness of which prayer is a part can also be supported and cultivated by such supports, including a comprehensive remapping of one’s daily experience of the world.  This remapping is similar to the practice of allegorical exegesis (al-ta’wīl), whereby literal meanings are “turned” toward allegorical referents, which are believed to be the true foci of the words and images of a particular passage.  Korjiro Nakamura reflects upon this aspect of al-Ghazālī’s teachings: “to those whose sole concern is the Hereafter, everything in this world can be a reminder of, and a lesson in preparation for, the eschatological events.”[11]  Therefore, if one wants to be such a person, one must train the mind to see things as such people do.  Reminders of Hell and Paradise are everywhere, and so the mind is continually turning its perceptions and experiences of this world to the anticipated visions and experiences of the Hereafter.  For example, extreme heat and hunger and thirst all conjure images of separation from God (Hell), whereas moments of ease and shade and satiation conjure images and foretastes of the Gardens of the blessed.  In both cases, God is remembered, and the ultimate concern of one’s existence is placed before our eyes.  One’s sojourn through this world effectively becomes inseparable from one’s eschatological journey into the next world.


            Frequent supplication, Qur’ānic study and recitation, oral recitation (also dhikr) of mantra-like Qur’ānic verses or Divine names, and nashīd hymns and qasīdah poems, celebrating God or memorializing the virtues of the Prophet, all support this mental reorientation and help make it more stable and permanent.  The daily exercises of a supplicant seeking to grow in prayer, then, involve a combination of all of these, in additions to the five-times daily prayer, and so they all can be considered “prayer” in a sense.  Of course, the saturation of the senses with tokens of remembrance also aids in this reorientation, and this is why we see, even at the very popular level, calligraphic representations of Qur’ānic verses and phrases in homes, shops, taxis, buses, on jewelry, etc.  We can also hear verbal “remembrance” in our linguistic conditioning, which turns everyday, mundane exchanges into moments of remembrance: such as when we are asked about our condition and automatically say, “al-hamdulillah” (praise be to God) or when declare an intention to do something followed by the pious caveat, “in shā’ allāh” (“if God wills”). 


            As I write and mention these everyday aids to Divine remembrance and their possible impact, memories of weathered taxi drivers firing up even more weathered vehicles assert themselves; I sit next to them again as they turn their key and breathe out, “I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God.”  In such moments, I have observed that remembrance is no less natural than breathing, and I wonder if this is the point.  I wonder: if “prayer” is the proper word for the act of reorienting of our consciousness from a world-centered or ego-centered state to a theocentric or Hereafter-centered state, is it possible to separate such aids to prayer from prayer itself?


            Another way to speak of the process of prayer within our traditions is to speak of cultivating an ongoing “friendship” or intimate companionship with God.  In a modest but evocative chapter on “Friendship with God in al-Ghazali and Aquinas,” David Burrell writes that al-Ghazālī


presupposes that God’s love can bring creatures to a greater and greater proximity to the Creator.  The point of encounter is the human heart, and the Divine action is invariably described as “removing the veil from one’s heart, in order that one can see with one’s heart, to be elevated to God’s own self along with those who are already near to God. The progressive stations are then described as successive unveilings of the heart, and the dynamic is summarized as follows: ‘in this way the love of God for His servants brings them closer to Himself, removing their negligences and sins from them by purifying their inner self (bāṭin) from the filth of this world.  God removes the veil from their hearts, in such a way as they contemplate what they see in their hearts.’  He proceeds to distinguish this transforming love of God from the servants’ response, which consists in “the desire which animates them to seize hold of the perfection which they lack.”  There lies the lack of symmetry in the two loves: while God’s love is transforming, ours seeks transformation; yet the dynamic of “the way” is to bring us to the point where our response is a perfect reflection of God’s initiating love: “the one who has entered into intimacy with God is one who acts with the very action of God.”[12]


In this ever-deepening friendship, we become increasingly aware that our desire for God – for happiness, completion, fulfillment, perfection – is a response to God’s love, and then we turn to the practice of prayer (and the prayerful life) as a way God has opened for us to progress toward that goal.  In intimate friendship, God’s love and our response become the inseparable partners of an eternal dance; this is, perhaps, Rumi’s intention when he writes, “lovers pray constantly.”[13]  Our anonymous, 13th century  mystic adds, “until now, the lover travelled by means of the Beloved, but from now on, the Beloved will travel in the lover.”[14]


LESSON FIVE:  My prayer is never complete until and unless it indiscriminately reaches out in mercy to the needy in my midst.  To grow in prayer thus means to grow in mercy and in active response to the needs around me. 


If we do not personalize and engage ourselves deeply in the process of prayer, we run into the danger of falsifying, betraying, or belying our religion.  Thus, prayer is only transformative if we go beyond treating it as a duty, if we begin to listen to what God is saying to us when we say our prayer.  Again, turning to the Qur’ān, this time to the sūrah of  “basic assistance” / al-mā‘ūn (107), we read,


Have you seen the one who falsifies religion?
That is the one who treats the orphan harshly
and does not urge [others] to feed the destitute.
So woe to the worshippers
who are heedless of their prayers,
those who are seen [to be performing acts of piety],
while withholding basic assistance [to those in need].


LESSON SIX:  There is no meaningful difference between growing in prayer and simply growing as a moral and religious person. 


Prayer is what and who I am as well as what I do.  There is thus no difference, within the religious context, between the perfection of oneself and the perfection of prayer.  Turning again to al-Ghazālī, some of the inner virtues associated with the gradual perfection of prayer include longing, humility, gratitude, thinking well of God, unconditional praise, hope, pleasure with whatever God decrees, a sense of servitude to God, and total trust in God’s generosity, in which supplication eventually disappears.  This culminates in the highest stage of remembrance (dhikr) and affirmation of Divine unity (a-tawḥīd), a state in which one sees only God.[15]    While not a substantive union between Creator and creature for al-Ghazālī, this stage is nevertheless a momentary experience of perceived union (waḥdat al-shuhūd) and is, according to him, the very pinnacle of prayer in Islam.

Reflecting upon this, our aforementioned, anonymous, 13th century Persian mystic writes,


You won’t become Him,

but if you strive,

you will find a place

where your you-ness will leave.[16]


            Prayer is thus as much about who and what we are as it is about what we do, or – better said in the company of the mystics and sages of prayer in Islam – what God works in us and through us.  The more effaced we become before God and the more God’s attributes become manifest within us, the more perfect our prayer becomes.  Here, our spiritual poverty or personal emptiness in prayer becomes the sine qua non of experiencing or manifesting the fullness of God’s presence.


LESSON SEVEN (optional): The end of prayer


            For al-Ghazālī, the ultimate end or goal of prayer is contemplative: reaching a state wherein the worshipper is completely absorbed in God.  This “unitive state” is not believed by al-Ghazālī to be substantive or ontological; rather it is a “unity of perception” (waḥdat al-shuhūd) by which the servant sees only God without any remembrance of self.  This “forgetting” of self is, for him and others within the mystical traditions of Islam, the pinnacle of remembrance (dhikr), but it is not easy to attain.  In order to enter into such a contemplative state, he explains that a worshipper must become completely detached from everyone and everything connected to the world and be able to behold everything with equanimity, wherein existence and nonexistence are the same.  It must be granted here that the cultivation of such a state may not be possible or even advisable for worshippers fully engaged in the world, but it nevertheless stands as the ultimate end of the process we have here described as prayer.  In al-Ghazālī’s words,


Then, let him seclude himself a zāwiya, devoting himself to the religious duties, both obligatory and superogatory, and then sit with the heart empty and the attention concentrated, without scattering his thought by reciting the Qur’ān, nor by considering its meaning, nor by reading the books on Tradition, nor by anything else.  Rather, let him see to it that nothing but God enters his mind.  Then, as he sits in solitude, let him keep on saying continuously with his tongue, “Allāh (God), God” and keep his heart attentive until he comes to a state in which his effort to move his tongue drops off and it looks as if the word flows on his tongue [all by itself].  Then, let him persevere in this until any trace of motion is removed from his tongue and he finds his heart persevering in the dhikr.  Then, let him still persevere in this until the image of the word, its letters and its shape are effaced from his heart and there remains the idea of the word alone in the heart, clinging to it, as if it is glued to the heart, without separating from it...[17]


If one remains and perseveres in this state, he says, one will experience the “light of Truth” shining in the heart, an experience that is both, according to him, noetic and transient, even though it may endure for some time and even though its impact upon the seeker may be indelible for eternity.  The end of prayerful remembrance is thus the inner annihilation of the vessel of remembrance and transfiguration of that vessel and all it contains.  Perhaps for this reason, we find references in the Islamic traditions to great mystics, such as al-Ḥallāj, who reportedly experienced difficulty coming out of this unitive state in order to perform the obligatory prayers, which require a conscious recognition of the separateness of the worshipper and the worshipped.  That said, after experiencing such a unitive experience, the prayer mat becomes a radically different place, where the worshipper joins God when “God bears witness that there is no god but He.” (3:18)



[1] I take this beautiful phrase from the diaries of Etty Hilesum, a relatively unsung Jewish spiritual luminary whose life ended tragically and brutally in 1943, in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.  See An Interrupted Life; the diaries 1941-1943  (NY: Owl Books, Henry Holt & Co, 1996), p. 74.
[2] From the treatise, “The Rising Places of Faith,” in Faith and Practice of Islam: Three Thirteenth Century Sufi Texts, William Chittick, trans. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 57. 
[3] Paraphrased by Kojiro Nakamura, in his Ghazali and Prayer (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2001), p. 63. 
[4] See the fifth chapter of my Al-Ghazālī’s Unspeakable Doctrine of the Soul, where I explore the simultaneous “worlds” of the here (al-dunyā) and the Hereafter (al-ākhira) in some detail.  For a more basic introduction to his view on this simultaneous or parallel habitation, see his chapters on the “Knowledge of Self” and the “Knowledge of the Next World” in the Alchemy of Happiness, Claude Field, trans. (London, UK & Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1991),  pp. 3-14, 33-43.
[6] See the treatise, “Clarifications for Beginners and Reminders for the Advanced” in Faith and Practice of Islam, p. 100 and following.
[7] Ibid., p. 82.
[8] As cited by Chittick in the Faith and Practice of Islam, pp. 239-240.
[9] From the poem, “Moses and the Shepherd” in The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks, trans. (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1997), p. 166.
[10] Al-Ghazālī closes his famous, forty-volume compendium, Reviving Religious Knowledge, with an entire book on the importance of the practice of remembering death and the next world; see Timothy Winter’s translation of this book under the title, The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1989).
[11] Ghazali and Prayer, 64.
[12] David B. Burrell, Friendship and Ways to Truth (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), p. 79.
[13] Essential Rumi, p. 80.
[14] “Clarifications for Beginners” in Faith and Practice of Islam, p. 84.
[15] See Ghazali and Prayer, pp. 63-78; For a primary-text reference, see his Kitāb al-tawḥīd wa al-tawakkul in Iḥya’ ‘ulūm al-dīn  (Beirut: dār al-khayr, 1993), vol. 5, p. 118 and following.
[16] “Clarifications for Beginners” in Faith and Practice of Islam, p. 85.
[17] Ghazali and Prayer, 71.

REFLECTING on the dynamic principle of hijrah (migration)


"...anyone who has fled from a dangerous or threatening situation to a place of safety has made hijrah. Anyone who has courageously said "no more" or "not today" to a destructive, unhealthy habit or relationship or situation and begun a journey toward something better has made hijrah. Anyone who has broken free from a cage of restriction and entrapment, where all possibilities are closed and the light of hope has been all but blocked, and set out in search of a new place of hope and possibility and freedom has made hijrah. Hijrah is the dynamic principle that animates the very foundations of lived Islam, for it represents the daily migration to a better place, a better state, leading ultimately to a blessed reunion with the one who made us and opened up the prophetic pathways for us to come home."

from T.J. Gianotti, In the Light of a Blessed Tree: illuminations of Islamic belief, practice, and history (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011), 101-102.