Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Is there a personal interaction with God in Islam?

In the Name of Allah, The Most Kind The Most Merciful

An email exchange.

The question

Does Islam teach anything that corresponds to the Christian concept of a personal interaction or relationship to God?

The answer

There are a number of ways in which practicing Islam leads to a personal interaction with God.
First and foremost is the daily ritual prayers. As you may be aware, muslims are enjoined to pray to God 5 times a day. The very first prayer is before sunrise, which is before the time people usually get up. In this way, the very first thing a muslim is supposed to do when he wakes up is turn to God and pray to Him. The other times of prayer are at noon, in the middle of the afternoon, at sunset, and then at night. As you can tell, this allows a muslim to turn to God many times during the day continually, and helps to make a muslim always mindful of God.

The prayer itself is a very personal interaction between God and the devotee. Prayer has been described as having a conversation with God. Let me try and describe some of the actions in the prayer. A devotee is in different positions in prayer, and recites different things in these positions. The prayer starts with the devotee reciting the first Chapter of the Quran, which is called 'The Opening'. This is as follows.

In the name of God, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful.
Praise and Thanks be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful;
The Master of the Day of Judgment.
You alone we worship, and Your help alone we seek.
Guide us to the straight path
The path of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace,
Those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who do not go astray.

This chapter is a prayer in itself. As you can, it is split into two parts. First, the devotee acknowledges, praises and glorifies his Creator and Sustainer. He does this by referring to God in the best words, as God has taught him. He thanks and praises God. He acknowledges God as being the only Creator and Sustainer of all mankind. He glorifies God by declaring the endless mercy of God. He acknowledges that on the day of judgement, when all of mankind is resurructed and judged, God alone will have sovereignty. The devotee then mentions the relationship he has with God: he worships God, and God alone, and asks God only for help. The second part is a supplication to God. A supplication for guidance. Guidance to the path which will lead to the pleasure of God, and not to his displeasure. Guidance to find the straight path, and to be able to stay on it. This is an admission from the devotee that without God continually guiding him, he cannot and will not be guided.

As you an imagine, when this is recited from the heart, the devotee feels very close to God, and feels the assurance of God answering his supplication and guiding him. Throughout the day, within the five prayers, the devotee recites this 17 times.

Now another aspect of praying is bowing down. Why do we bow down? In bowing, the devotee renews his submissiveness and humility, striving to refine his inner feeling thru a fresh awareness of his own impotence and insignificance before the might and grandeur of God. In this position the devotee uses his tongue to glorify God and testify to His supreme majesty, both outwardly and inwardly. The words which are recited in this position are 'Glory to my Lord, The Most Great'.

Another position is that of prostration, when the devotee falls down with his face to the floor. This is the highest level of submission. The devotee brings the most precious part of his body, namely his face, down to meet the most lowly of all things: the dust of the earth. At the same time the devotee renews his inner awareness of God's majesty by glorifying him, reciting the words 'Glory to my Lord the Most High'. In this position, one should be confident of hoping in God's mercy. God's mercy flows towards weakness and lowliness, not towards arrogance and vanity. This is also the best position to supplicate, make a personal prayer request to God, because this is the nearest that a muslim can get to God.

Outside the ritual prayers, there are other acts of worship which a muslim can make involving a personal interaction with God. One of these is supplicating to God, asking him of something. In the Quran, it is written that God is close to his devotees when they call on Him. Supplication is a very important aspect of worship for a muslim. When a muslim supplicates, he does so in a manner where he feels that God is listening to Him, and God is ready to give him whatever he asks for. In supplication, a muslim opens his heart and asks God for whatever he feel he needs. As we see from above, a muslim can ask for guidance, can ask for God to make him a better muslim. He can ask God for good health and for sustenance. He can supplicate to God for his parents, his/her spouse and children. He can ask God for help with his career, exams, school work, etc. He can ask God for any specific need he has, be it big or small. He can ask God to help others. When a muslim is supplicating, he should think of it as an opportunity to converse with God. A muslim should supplicate with absolute trust in God, that either his prayer will be accepted, or God will give him something even better.

A beautiful example of supplication was shown to us by the Prophet Muhammed. He was sent initially to the idol worshippers of Arabia to call them back to the oneness of God. He suffered great hardship in this, and on one occasion he was driven out of a town, being pelted with stones. His shoes were full of blood, wounds were all over his body and he been insulted, ridiculed and abused. In this state, he made the following beautiful, amazingly intimate supplication to God:

"O God! I complain to You of my weakness, my scarcity of resources and the humiliation I have been subjected to by the people. O Most Merciful of those who are merciful. O Lord of the weak and my Lord too. To whom have you entrusted me? To a distant person who receives me with hostility? Or to an enemy to whom you have granted authority over my affair? So long as You are not angry with me, I do not care. Your favour is of a more expansive relief to me. I seek refuge in the light of Your Face by which all darkness is dispelled and every affair of this world and the next is set right, lest Your anger or Your displeasure descend upon me. I desire Your pleasure and satisfaction until You are pleased. There is no power and no might except by You."

One final thing I will mention, and that is asking for forgiveness. As I have indicated in my original email, a muslim can attain salvation, even after committing sins, by turning to God in repentance. This act of repentance is another very personal act, solely between the devotee and God. There are many prayers for asking for forgiveness, and this one here is one of my favorites.

O God! Separate me from my sins as you have separated the East and West. O God! Cleanse me of my sins as white cloth is cleansed from dirt. O God! Wash me of my sins with water, ice and snow.

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