A Clockwork Doll in Salah

 I put off one of my daily prayers to write this.

I might as well be brutally honest about it. I steered clear of writing about this topic for months because I knew it would mean facing up to something I’ve been trying to avoid for a long time.

This isn’t the ideal way to start. I was hoping to write something bright and breezy about overcoming obstacles and the like but I’m just not in a space to do that. Frankly, I’ve been stuck in a spiritual rut for months.

I suppose I was quite naïve to think that my initial fervor as a convert would last, to think that I’d always have the same levels of motivation as I did when I took shahadah. For a while now, my particular stumbling block has been hitting the 5-a-day target of salah. As with all things, religious practices can easily fall prey to over familiarity. If we don’t keep an eye on them, they become a mundane routine that loses any real sense of meaning or purpose. And that’s what’s been happening to me.

Up, down, up, down, head to the left, head to the right. It slowly dawned on me that my movements in salah had begun to bear more resemblance to a clockwork doll on a music box than to someone in sincere prayer. My lack-lustre salah just wasn’t up to scratch and so it was hardly surprising that I eventually stopped praying altogether. The number of prayers dwindled, times slots merged, and the gaps between them grew until they were sometimes days apart.

By then I was a pro at making excuses. It’s too cold to roll out of bed. It’s too hot to put on a prayer shawl. I haven’t got a mosque where I live. And the mother of all excuses: I’ll do it later. There’s also the added complication that most women are sidelined to the bench once a month and are therefore exempt from salah during their period. Getting back into a regular salah rhythm can be tough when it hasn’t featured in your daily routine for up to a week or more.

But never mind, I told myself, Ramadan is coming and that will sort everything right out. Uplifting as that Islamic Game of Thrones motto sounds, it doesn’t hold much water as a feasible solution to ongoing prayer issues. Experience has taught me that one’s spiritual life seldom synchronises with annual religious festivals. Knowing Ramadan is coming doesn’t guarantee our imaan will be punctual in meeting the Holy Month when it rolls up at our door, especially if we haven’t laid the groundwork for it beforehand.

Even if Ramadan were the answer, it’s still months away and hardly helps in the here and now of winter. I felt like I had moved from being private about my faith to being secretive about it. Everyone has the right to keep their faith to themselves should they wish. That’s privacy. But hiding problems or denying that they exist? That’s secretive. Unfortunately, when you find yourself in a prayer drought, the last thing you feel like doing is admitting it. And you certainly don’t want to put it down on paper. Or in this case, online. I went out of my way to avoid mentioning my prayer issues to anyone. I was embarrassed that I’d be called out as a hypocrite, especially since I spend a vast chunk my time talking or writing about faith.

But secrets are also potentially harmful. Keeping my struggles to myself meant that I had no idea how many others are in exactly the same boat as me. It was also exacerbating the situation. Currently unmosqued, I sometimes feel as though I am doubly disconnected, both from a personal day-to-day communication channel with Allah and from a welcoming faith community who could potentially offer support. So I started to write.

In doing so, as it happens, I got the urge to pray. The moment I raised my hands, my eyes lost control of themselves. Big ploppy tears rained down everywhere, making a huge soggy patch in the spot where I was meant to be resting my head in sujood. I felt overwhelming relief and a rush of gratitude as I reeled off a list of things I wanted to thank God for.

My new-found fervour lasted several days, but my prayer life is still not living up to the ideal I envisage for myself. At the time of writing, I’m still only praying about twice a day. This is hard to admit. For many, if you’re not praying regularly and fervently or if you’re questioning your faith, you’re simply not Muslim. This creates a hush-hush attitude towards spiritual problems which exacerbates any feelings of guilt. It promotes worry or fear of being judged or excluded. After all, praying five times a day shouldn’t be difficult. Yet for some of us, the biggest challenges are the seemingly simple everyday ones like salah (prayer) or even perhaps imaan (belief) itself.

It’s imperative we create spaces and foster relationships where we have ample opportunity to talk about these issues. We readily talk about hijab and what’s halal or haram, but we’re often less able or comfortable having conversations about the fundamentals of faith – belief, prayer, and day-to-day spiritual well-being. Prayer droughts and even questioning faith are bound to happen in life.

How we deal with those critical moments is what most defines our relationship with God and those around us. It’s in precisely those moments that we discover what it means for us to be Muslims, what it means to be a person of faith.

In the end, I am learning that there isn’t a quick fix to spiritual dips. We need to recognize that Muslims struggle, just like everyone else on the planet. We need to admit that teens, adults, reverts, activists, and imams all fall into occasional prayer droughts and spiritual drain. As such, we should make all the more effort to encourage each other. We need to reach out, connect, and stay connected. We need to develop a network of friends who support and encourage without judgement. In some cases, we just might need to share our secrets.

Image from Creative Commons