Today we live in a hyper-connected world where we are continuously distracted by our thoughts and technological comforts. It is rare for one to have their mind in the present 100% of the time. In fact, on average we spend 41% of our time with our mind lost in our thoughts – thinking about the future and the past – but rarely the current moment. Additionally, the social-feed gadgets we have – from our cell phones and computers to the television(s) we keep in our living rooms and bedrooms add to distract us from focusing on the present. Do you know that a single distraction can take more than 21 minutes to delink its effect from the immediate task at hand? This continuous bombardment of information or distraction hinders us from being productive and getting the most out of each moment.
How can we be more in control over our wandering minds and be focused? How can we become more mindful in all aspects of our lives - spiritual and temporal? That is where the practice of exercising mindfulness (or in the Islamic context - muraqabah) can help train our minds to become more disciplined and can thereby enhance our productivity whether it is with daily worship or other activities.
Mindfulness linguistically means “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something,” and more specifically, “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment.”
According to the American Psychological Association, numerous peer-reviewed studies show that mindfulness practices (such as relaxation or meditation) help to reduce stress, boost memory, enhance focus and concentration, decrease emotional reactivity, and improve personal relationships. Mindfulness practices also promote empathy and compassion [Justin Parrott, An Exercise in Islamic Meditation, Nov. 2017].
In Islam, the five compulsory daily prayers are meant for taking the time out from busy schedules, thus freeing the mind from worldliness and all its worries and concerns, thereby putting the trust in Allah (God) as the Rabb (Lord) that He would take care of his/her needs and problems. A Muslim in a state of muraqabah knows that Allah is Aware of him or her, both inwardly and outwardly. It is a complete state of vigilant self-awareness in one’s relationship with Allah in heart, mind, and body. The basis of muraqabah is our knowledge that Allah is always watching us at all time and, as a consequence, we develop greater attention and care for our own actions, thoughts, feelings, and inner states of being. As Allah says, “Remember that God knows what is in your souls, so be mindful of Him.” [Qur’an 2:235]
Imams Ibn Al-Qayyim and Al-Ghazali both have chapters in their books about the merits and realities of muraqabah, which is the realization of the supreme character trait, spiritual excellence (al-ihsan). As the Prophet (S) defined in the famous hadith of Gabriel, spiritual excellence “is to worship Allah as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He certainly sees you.” [Bukhari]
The fruit of muraqabah, aside from the reward of eternal Paradise in the Hereafter, is a state of tranquil calm (al-sakinah) leading to contentment in this life.
The Virtue of Silence and Seclusion
A famous proverb says, “Silence is golden.” Silence (al-samt) is the preferred default state of being, according to the saying of the Prophet Muhammad (S), “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, let him speak goodness or remain silent.” [Bukhari]
Silence has an important effect on our hearts and character.
Silence is related to muraqabah in that observing silence in seclusion for a regular period of time cultivates presence, the mind’s quiet awareness of here and now. Abu Bakr al-Farisi was asked about the silence of one’s innermost being (samt al-sirr) and he said, “It is to abandon preoccupation with the past and the future.” [Al-Risālah Al-Qushayrīyah, 1:247.] Only during silent reflection or mindfulness exercise can one be present in the moment without worrying about what is past or future or elsewhere in creation. It is an opportunity to nourish presence before Allah the same way we are required to be in ritual prayer. There is an appropriate time to think about the past or the future—to learn from our mistakes, to plan action, to live daily life, and to reflect on our fate. However, the point of learning to be present in silence is to limit our thoughts on the past or future only to what is necessary and beneficial – otherwise we risk living excessively in a time other than the now.
In this regard, let us be reminded by some wise sayings:
The Messenger of Allah (S) advised Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA), “Young boy, let me teach you a few words and Allah, the Most Exalted, will bless you if you would live up to them. (1) Constantly be mindful of Allah, and you will find Him Omnipresent. (2) Recognize Allah’s blessings when you are in comfort, and He will provide for you when you face hardships. (3) If you were to ask for anything, then ask only of Allah. (4) If you needed a helper, seek only the help of Allah. (5) The divine pen of destiny has already dried up after it has written the divine decree confirming the divine primordial knowledge of what will happen. The world is an abode of affliction and trial, not a place of rest and repose. Hence, even if the entire creation assembles to give you something that Allah did not allot for you, they cannot give it to you. (6) Similarly, even if the entire creation assembles to prevent you from receiving something that Allah has allotted for you they cannot withhold it from you. (7) Therefore, devote your deeds solely to Allah and offer them with contentment, full conformity and conviction. (8) Understand that there are ample benefits if you can exercise patience towards what you dislike. (9) Victory comes with perseverance in patience. (10) The gateway to safety and comfort is wide open during adversities. (11) And finally, realize that ample access to happiness is present even during most difficulties. [Hilyat’ul Awliya Wa Tabaqat’ul Asfiya: Al-Zuhri (R)]
“Where is the room here for joy and gladness?
To be mindful of God in every condition is then the key to salvation.”
- Khwajah 'Abdallah Ansari (R) [Intimate Conversations with God (Munajat), tr. Wheeler M. Thackston, Paulist Press, NY (1978)]
Seclusion for worship is the close companion of silence. Seclusion, properly practiced, is ultimately a cure for bad feelings in the heart, as Ibn al-Qayyim said, “In the heart are disorders that cannot be remedied but by responding to Allah, in it is a desolate feeling that cannot be removed but by intimacy with Him in solitude (khalwah).” [Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah, Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr. Madārij Al-Sālikīn Bayna Manāzil Īyāka Na’budu Wa Īyāka Nasta’īn]
Meditation in Islam
Meditation can be done in many ways and for many purposes. For some, it is simply a means of calming relaxation and stress relief, a way of slowing down their thoughts. Others meditate by intensely contemplating an idea or focusing their attention on God or something else.
Ibn Al-Qayyim has provided one of the best and most concise explanations of the many meanings of “meditation” in Islam. He states that an integral part of our preparation for the Hereafter is by “reflecting (tafakkur), remembering (tadhakkur), examining (nathr), meditating (ta’amul), contemplating (i’tibar), deliberating (tadabbur), and pondering (istibsar).” Each of these words represent different shades of mental activity that can be considered forms of meditation. There is considerable overlap in meaning among all of them, but there are subtle differences as well. Ibn Al-Qayyim continues:
It is called ‘reflection’ because in that is the utilization of thought and its procurement during it. It is called ‘remembrance’ because it is the fetching of knowledge which must be considered after being distracted or absent from it… It is called ‘meditation’ because it is repeatedly examining again and again until it becomes evident and uncovered in one’s heart. It is called ‘contemplation’—taking lessons—because one takes a lesson from it to apply elsewhere… It is called ‘deliberation’ because it is examining the conclusion of matters, their endings and consequences, and deliberating on them. [Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah, Miftāḥ Dār Al-Sa’ādah, 1:182]
All of these types of Islamic meditation involve some form of remembering or awareness of Allah, the purpose of which is to purify the heart of evil feelings and the mind from evil thoughts. Every human soul is like a mirror that is polished by mindfulness or tarnished by being unmindful. A person cannot think about Allah and the world at the same time; it is one or the other. Too much unnecessary thought upon the world weakens our overall mindfulness.
Accordingly, we should make a quiet time for reflection upon Allah and the Hereafter every day, as a means of increasing our mindfulness of His presence, gratitude for His many favors, and to prepare for the life to come.
Reading the Qur’an itself, which has been named “the Remembrance” (Al-Dhikr), is one of the most powerful and rewarding forms of meditation. Imam Al-Ghazali recommends for us to engage in four distinct daily spiritual practices (al-watha’if al-arba’ah): supplication (dua’), remembrance (dhikr), recitation of the Qur’an (qira’at), and contemplation (fikr). [al-Ghazzālī, Iḥyā’ ’Ulūm Al-Dīn, 1:337]
Dhikr is certainly genuine mindfulness, because it is mindfulness of the Divine (Allah), who is the One, the True Reality. It is through the struggle for abundant and plentiful dhikr that that heart or qalb gradually becomes fully involved in dhikr. Allah says: Truly, it is with Allah’s remembrance that hearts find their tranquility (13:28)
As to dhikr, Imam Ghazzali advices that the worshiper should sit in seclusion, empty his/her heart of all concerns, and “not scatter his thoughts with the recitation of the Qur’an, nor pondering over its explanation, nor with books of hadith, nor anything else; rather, he/she strives to let no thought enter his mind besides Allah the Exalted.” The worshiper does so to instill “presence of the heart” until “his heart is diligent in remembrance.”
Allah said, “We created man—We know what his soul whispers to him.” [Surat Qaf 50:16] Thoughts also originate from an external source, the whispering (al-waswasah) of a devil or an angel.
The Prophet (S) recited the verse, “Satan threatens you with the prospect of poverty and commands you to do foul deeds; God promises you His forgiveness and abundance.” [Surat al-Baqarah 2:268]
Ali (RA) said, "I have selected twelve teachings from the Book of Allah, and I remind myself with these thrice every day. These are: Allah says, 'O men:
(i) You should never fear either Satan or any ruler, as long as you live under My dominion.
(ii) You should never worry about your rizk (provisions) as long as you find My world full of such provisions. And truly My provisions never end.
(iii) Whenever you are in need, you will always find Me, because it is I who provide everything, material and spiritual.
(iv) I have befriended you. So befriend Me.
(v) Do not be unmindful of Me as long as you have not crossed the bridge…’”
[For the entire quotation, read this author’s book: Wisdom of Mankind, available in amazon.com]
Justin Parrott suggests the steps below that one can follow towards ‘Mindfulness Exercise in Islam’.
- To begin, choose a time of the day when you can be in a quiet place alone. Some Muslims prefer the time before the dawn prayer (fajr) or another prayer, before or after work, at lunch break, or even before bed.
- Next, choose a posture that you find comfortable.
- Now, begin by focusing awareness on your natural breathing. Progressively relax the muscle tension throughout your body: your arms, your legs, your core, your jaw. You can close your eyes or simply lower them. As you start with relaxed breathing, feel for a sense of your state of heart and mind in this moment. What are you feeling? What are you thinking? Is your mind racing or calm? Try to settle your mind by bringing awareness to your natural, relaxed breathing, simply feeling the life and energy Allah gave you throughout your body. Feel a deep sense of gratitude to Allah for your breath, your living and being in this moment.
- As you settle into stillness within your inner space, begin to perceive the feeling of muraqabah with Allah. Know and feel that He is watching you, “He is with you wherever you are. (57:4)” He knows everything going on inside you right now and at all times. Focus on the feeling of muraqabah in this state of inner silence (samt al-sirr). Try to stop talking to yourself (hadith al-nafs) or pursuing trains of thought. Silence your inner dialogue as much as you can and simply focus on being present with Allah in the moment.
- When your mind starts to wander off—and it surely will—you want to bring your awareness back to the center of your being, and to your presence in this moment before Allah, by quietly reciting remembrances of Allah. “Two words are beloved to the Most Merciful, light on the tongue but heavy on the scale: Glory and praise to Allah (subhan Allahi wa bi hamdih), and glory to Allah Almighty (subhan Allahi al-‘Athim).” [Bukhari] And again, “The best remembrance is to declare there is no God but Allah (la ilhaha illa Allah), and the best supplication is to declare all praise is due to Allah (al-hamdulillah).” [Sunan al-Tirmizi] Seeking the forgiveness of Allah (al-istighfar) was one of the Prophet’s (S) anchors, so nothing could be better. Your anchor could also be just one of the beautiful names of Allah that elicit remembrance and awareness in your heart, or you could use all of the above in combination.
- The best mindfulness exercise session is the one you completed, period. No matter how long your mind spent in being unmindful, every time you brought it back to muraqabah, it became stronger and stronger.
Fruits of Mindfulness Exercise
If you make this simple practice a regular habit, you will see positive results that accumulate over time. You will notice that having presence in prayer becomes easier and more natural than before. You will be able to better relieve stress and attain calming relaxation, better focus your attention when needed, have an easier time dealing with life’s difficult moments, and experience more compassion with others. Your anchor (remembrance or supplication) in the exercise can be used at any time to bring you back into a state of muraqabah, wherever you are and whatever you are doing.
One of the most important results of the practice will be in the way we gain a measure of control over our thoughts and emotions. As we become more aware of our feelings, we become more aware of our negative triggers in order to avoid them, as well as putting a buffer zone between us and our feelings that gives us time to react in the right manner, such as remembering to seek refuge in Allah when angry, instead of reflexively shouting at others or doing something rash that we will regret later.
Furthermore, we will inevitably experience desires and urges to commit sins. But the more mindful we become of our inner states, the better we will become at disassociating ourselves from our lower desires and instead acting upon our virtuous, higher desires. The habit of referring back to our anchor (remembrance or supplication) gives us just enough breathing room to confidently say “no” to the self’s or the devil’s evil suggestions.
Mindfulness in Islam (al-muraqabah) is a conscious state of comprehensive awareness of Allah and our inner states in relation to Him. In its complete form, it is the highest spiritual state attainable—the perfect realization of excellence in faith (al-ihsan). Modern science has demonstrated the efficacy of mindfulness exercises in procuring several health and wellness benefits, even in a non-religious context.
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