Salah as a mindfulness practice


According to the Quran, salah – ritual prayer – is supposed to “prohibit immorality and wrongdoing” – إِن الصلاة تنهى عن الفحشاء والمنكر – Quran 29:45. Growing up, I always wondered how this works – I knew plenty of people (as everyone probably does) whose prayers are little more than a habit or compulsion instilled in childhood, and whose religious expressions do little to instil any kind of moral character. But recently I’ve been reevaluating everything I thought I knew about salah, and considering whether we even understand how it works.

As Hassan Farhan al-Maliki asserts, Muslims today primarily teach salah as a ritual of physical motions. We study the ritual requirements and the traditions of the Prophet’s prayer to minute detail, but only devote a cursory glance to its purpose – instilling dhikr according to the Quran, though nobody has a good idea what that means – or the mechanisms by which it’s meant to function. We’re taught the importance of khushu’ (variously translated as focus, humility, presence or submission of heart etc) at a young age, but there’s little discussion of what that means in detail and no guidance on how to achieve it.

Salah was described as having incredibly deep emotional and spiritual effects on early generations of Muslims. The Prophet had a practice of praying when angry, anxious or distressed, and described it as قرة عيني (his comfort, or the coolness of his eyes). Others described it as a relief for even physical pain – Urwah ibn al-Zubayr reportedly requested that his leg be amputated whilst he was in salah. Salah was also described as not being easy – one of the second generation stated that he struggled with it for 20 years, before being blessed with it. None of this matches my experience, or that of anyone I ever met, with the ritual I was taught.

Physical rituals aside, there seem to be strong parallels between the internal aspect of salah – ideas of dhikr and khushu’, and meditative practices from far-eastern traditions. Khushu’, if described as the stilling of inner turbulence, is concentration meditation. Recitations of the Quran can be stilling mantras, as those used to assist in entering a meditative state. Other ideas such as the link between physical positions of ritual prayer and internal states, the practice of observation and disciplining of the mind (muraqaba, as it is known by Sufis), and the applicability of dua as both a gratitude journal and as vision board seem to be other areas where contemporary mindfulness and spirituality practice seem to easily and naturally fit onto traditional Muslim spiritual practices.

Mindfulness, the quality cultivated by meditation, makes you more deeply aware of your situation in the moment, more conscious of your choices and more lucidly aware of what really matters. This increases your ability to act against social norms, culture and other forms of conditioning when they push you towards actions that are immoral or amoral. This ability to break out of your default programming and make active moral choices, gives you more moral ownership of your actions, as well as strengthening your focus and willpower. If salah prevents fahsha and munkar by increasing your awareness and moral agency, then mindfulness is inseparable from salah – to the extent that its cultivation must be considered one of its objectives.

Lots of questions arise from this – how much more backing is there for this theory? And how much of a Muslim spiritual tradition is still extant, and excavatable? How do we study and teach it? How far does the analogy between salah and eastern meditation go, and which schools of meditation is it most similar to? What are the differences? Was salah once taught as a meditative tradition, of which Sufi traditions and techniques (such as muraqaba and dhikr) are a remnant? How do we study and practice salah today, and how do we teach it?

Spirituality is almost impossible to learn other than experientially, which is why it’s so esoteric. If meditative schools of salah existed and were passed down orally, then many disruptive cataclysms (such as the Mongol invasion, the crusades and the colonial era) could explain our spiritual impoverishment today. In these morally and spiritually challenging times, we have an even greater responsibility to recapture and build on what was lost.