In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
Last week, in my Essentials of Islam class, we covered the inner dimensions of prayer from Muhtar Holland’s excellent book, The Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship. I prepared for my weekly live session with the students by reading what Imam Ghazali had to say about presence of heart in prayer in his famous work, Ihya’ `Ulum al-Din. While preparing, I stumbled across the following thought-provoking passage:
… Powerful, overburdening desires, however, cannot be soothed into silence. Instead, they will engage you in a tug-of-war that they will eventually win, and you will be busied throughout your prayer in the contest.
This state of affairs can be compared to a man under a tree who wants to concentrate his thoughts on a particular matter, but the chirping of sparrows keeps distracting him. He shoos them away with a stick and returns to his thoughts, but the sparrows keep coming back, and he keeps having to get up and shoo them away.
It would be said to this man, “This is like the movement of watering-camels: it will never come to an end. If you want to put an end to the matter, then chop down the tree.”
Such is the tree of desires [in the heart of the worshipper]: whenever its branches spread out, distracting thoughts are attracted to it just like sparrows are attracted to trees, and just like flies are attracted to garbage …
There are many such desires, and few a worshipper is entirely free of them. They all spring from a single root, namely, the love of this world, which is the source of every misdeed, the foundation of every loss, and the wellspring of every corruption. Whoever finds that his heart contains love of this world, such that it inclines to any worldly matter, not to use it as a provision or as an aid to the next life [but as a goal in itself], then he should never hope that the delight of intimate conversation with the divine should open up for him in prayer … (Ihya `Ulum al-Din, 4 vols, Beirut: Dar Sader, 2000, 1.223-24)
Besides being a beautiful and insightful account of why many of us are unable to focus in prayer, this passage also teaches us a number of seemingly unrelated lessons, one on how to measure one’s sincerity, and another on the importance of treading the spiritual path. More on that in future posts, Allah willing.