Contemplative Practices in Islam

“The World Is Too Much with Us,” by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
…For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

In 1807, Wordsworth recognized a source of discontentment in the world. I’m not sure exactly what he was complaining about.  But I too was distracted by our world and all that was going on. The world made my spiritual life seem shallow and insignificant. I was wearing my religion like a paper-thin coat, to protect me from getting wet.

My heart was like an impenetrable fortress.  By this time, I had been practicing my religion for more than 15 years.  Instead of evolving to find peace and contentment, I was falling back on my superficial self, feeling impatient, short-tempered, and discontent.  Despite my efforts, being the best person I could be remained elusive.  Whatever I knew about the virtues of Islamic practice was coming from my head, not my heart.

When I turned to the Qur’an, it referred to discontentment as “a sickness of the heart” (2:10).  It was St. Augustine’s proposed remedy for discontentment that helped me to understand the Qur’an. He wrote: “True contentment is felt only in the presence of God … Our whole business then, in life, is to restore the heart to health so that God can be seen or felt.”

I embraced Augustine’s remedy and set out to restore my heart to health, hoping it would bring me closer to God.  At first, I thought about avoiding the world altogether and becoming an ascetic. But I was too sociable a creature for that. I knew a little about Buddha. I had seen him sitting under a tree, seemingly detached from the world.  I envied his expression of serenity and peace. I had marveled at Christ, suspended above the world on a cross, wearing a similar expression.  Their faces did not betray the pain and suffering of the world around them. I just wanted to be them.

My first experience in meditation was a course in Transcendental Meditation that I took back in the early 1970s. When I tried to practice, I learned that self-discipline was critical, for meditation to be effective.  Another challenge was the time commitment meditation demanded. I couldn’t picture myself stepping away from the world and sitting in the lotus position for hours. So far, I had learned that contemplative practices that required self-sacrifice and discipline were not so compatible with my personality or capabilities.

I wanted to learn more about the contemplative practices of my own tradition, if there were any.  I started by analyzing the practices in Islam known as “pillars.”  The five pillars of practice in Islam are familiar to every Muslim.  But since I had only known them to be called “obligations,” I had never connected them to Zen Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation. But once I decided to view them through the lens of contemplative practice, I discovered many similar characteristics and challenges.

The first pillar is the core belief in the oneness of God. I would call it the uppermost in a hierarchy of contemplative practice in Islam, because the belief implies a presence of mind that demands a heightened awareness of God.  In other words, when every action is infused by this heightened awareness, every act becomes a form of worship, in the broadest sense.  Islam teaches how to achieve this mindset through a concept known as tawheed, which is to intentionally enter into an exclusive relationship with God.

The relationship has two features. It excludes whatever attracts us in the world, and it recognizes no other authority −not parents, teachers, lovers, or friends‒ only the one God. When I tried to achieve this, I felt empowered. There were fleeting moments when I had no fear of anyone’s disapproval or authority. I thought, well now, this might be a path to contentment.

The second pillar or practice is praying five times a day. There are many similar elements between Islamic prayer and meditation. For instance, both require disengaging from the world −five times a day, every day.  But how could I do that?  At first, I tried to squeeze my prayers into my busy life. “Squeezing” being a euphemism for everything going on in my life was more important than a “time out.” Do I inform my boss that I’m taking a break to pray? Can’t I watch the rest of my favorite TV program? Can I stop working, or checking my email or phone one more time? Can I excuse myself from a gathering of friends? But then, these questions get to the heart of the spiritual quest for contentment. I must either remain captivated by the world, or take the time to commune with God.

My lack of self-discipline reared its ugly head once again. That is, until I read an oft-repeated command in the Qur’an that says “establish prayer” in your life. I had read this same phrase in many passages, but this time, I understood something new, that I hadn’t understood before. I realized that in order to go to work, I had to arrange my life around the “established” schedule of the commuter train. Since the prayer times follow a schedule, based on the movement of the sun, from dawn to evening, I realized that the prayer times could be as important as any “established” schedule.

To arrange my life around the prayer schedule wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. It meant going out to lunch with my sister after prayer time, instead of before or during. It took some sacrificing to leave a fun gathering of friends or family, but the prayer time is only about ten minutes (it was an, I’ll be right back).

In practice, I found that the desire to take time out of my day was not inconvenient at all. My former practice had been to run non-stop, all day, from task to task, and I knew it was exhausting and ungratifying.  But now, I am addicted to taking time out; for like any life-consuming addiction, submitting to it is easier than not doing it. More importantly, taking time out to commune with God five times a day gives me a sense of contentment. When I succeed at praying 5 times in a day, I have a new sense of accomplishment. It’s like catching that train, right before it pulls out of the station. Or, sometimes, I am already waiting for the train to come in.

The biggest challenge remains, however. How to keep the demands and worries of the world at bay, during prayer or meditation? When I studied Transcendental Meditation, the Yogi had a method to protect the meditation from inevitable worldly intrusions.  He gave us a mantra (which cost $450). To train the mind, he told us to repeat the mantra and release the intruding thoughts into the air as “thought bubbles.”  But the bubbles I pictured multiplied faster than I could burst them.

In Islamic prayer, it is also necessary to protect the mind from worldly intrusions. The method is similar but different (and there is no charge for it).  To begin each prayer, the devotee makes a conscious choice to enter into that exclusive relationship with God (tawheed). The key phrase for beginning is reciting, “Allah who akbar” (God is great). Next, the mind becomes engaged by quietly reciting Arabic prayers from memory. The prayers are in Arabic because it is the language of the Qur’an. But for most people who do not understand Arabic (like me), the sounds are really more like mantras than meaningful words. It can also help engage the mind to learn translations of the prayers in English.  Between those thoughts and the easy flow of Arabic sounds, the mind is partially preoccupied and protected from worldly thoughts. I’d say, on a good day, the mind is about 80% protected, like Medicare.  I have rarely experienced totally preoccupation. But the gratifying part of the experience is a sense participating in a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m doing the “right” thing for myself, and I’m not such an undisciplined person any more. I’m better and that makes me feel good.

Another similarity to meditation is the physical aspect of performing prayer in Islam. The body transitions into three different positions during prayer.  Keeping track of the choreography of those movements also helps me to stay focused. The time out is taken up with remembering God and forgetting the world.

Another pillar of Islam is the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food, water, and sex, during the daylight hours. Christians and Jews are familiar with fasting and how it can change a daily life. But fasting from dawn to sunset for a month is arduous. It changes your whole lifestyle and schedule. Oftentimes, this change will include sleep deprivation as well.

But it is during Ramadan when I have felt closest to God. The extreme thirst and depletion of energy is overwhelming, especially in the late afternoon, when there is still 3 to 4 more hours left of daylight remaining. When I am at my lowest, I have to ask myself:  Why am I doing this? To ponder and come up with a truthful answer, I reach deep down inside my heart. I need to know the depth of my sincerity. I need to reassess my relationship with God. Is this true love, or just more infatuation?

This low period in the day is a test of my relationship with God. To pass, I remind myself that I chose to fast of my own free will and promised God to complete the fast on this particular day. Once I consciously reiterate my intention and renew my relationship with God, I experience the joy of an undeniable closeness to my Creator.

Once I heard a Methodist minister explain that it’s not the suffering that gives an act meaning; it’s that the relationship with God holds up under the suffering.  It seems that the opportunity to renew my relationship with God does not present itself very often in my daily life, when there is generally little suffering.  So, when the month of Ramadan is over, the opportunity is over, and I miss that. Yes, I do; for about a week or two. Then, it’s back to the joy of coffee for breakfast and lunch with my sister.

Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) is another pillar of Islam. Prior to my departure in 2011, I received a lot of advice. Experienced pilgrims told me, “It will be a test of your faith.” During an orientation program, our religious leader, the imam, said, “You will be out of your comfort zone.”

That was an understatement. Unlike Ramadan, when your life returns to normal each night, as you indulge in food and drink. On Hajj, there is no return to normal. The pilgrimage is two weeks of discomfort and relentless physical and mental demands. I would compare it to a long-term illness that must be endured with incalculable patience and perseverance. Like Ramadan, it must be taken one day at a time, with no guarantees that it will heal you.

Leaving my loud comfortable world and traveling to a distant, loud uncomfortable world was an adventure, where I awoke each day wondering, is this really me? I was challenged to relate to the land and the different people I met, and by the rituals that were beyond my comprehension and physical capacity; and, perhaps beyond my faith.

Someone once wrote that every religion asks us to abandon comfort and familiar ways. We get up early to pray, we fast, hone our virtues, and purify our intentions, with the hope of achieving some sort of Divine union.  For the faithful, faith is diligence, without assurance, and such was the pilgrimage to Mecca. Like Abraham, we were asked to perform unparalleled tests of faith, without any assurances.

Every day, all that was familiar to me receded further into the past. Not only that. It lost much of its significance as well. Inexplicably, the further removed I became from my ordinary life, the closer to God I came. There is no easy explanation, but in many ways, the suffering, the self-discipline, and the separation from my worldly comforts, made the pilgrimage to Mecca the quintessential contemplative practice. I was only mindful of making a choice to go to Mecca. But while I was there, I had no further choices, except to put my relationship with God above all else. My memories of the Hajj remind me of the magnitude of that relationship in my life.

While contemplating contemplative practice in Islam, I also considered Sufism. I am not an expert on Sufism, but I learned that it is not some new spiritual fad.  Rather, it is steeped in the Islamic tradition. Sufism is a spiritual science that sits at the far end of the contemplative-practice continuum.  By turning, whirling, praying, chanting, and fasting, the ascetic Sufis claim to reach the goal of Divine union.  And while most people eschew suffering and sacrifice in life, in order to pursue the path of happiness, the Sufis accept that the path will be a difficult one.

In the following quote, one of my favorite Islamic mystics, the Persian poet, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, describes the spiritual journey this way:

“Do not imagine that the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow the unusual road, for it is very long…. One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping…”

See more articles written by Mary Lahaj at: