Towards the end of the Prophet Muhammad’s life (pbuh), his wife Aisha asked him, curiously: Has there ever been a day more difficult on you than the day of Uhud?.
As you and I might have expected, the answer should have been an emphatic NO! After all what day could have been more taxing than the one on which the Prophet (pbuh) and the believers experienced defeat for the first and last time, lost 70 of their companions, including the Prophet’s own uncle Hamzah, and the day on which the prophet was so severely injured? And if physical trauma wasn’t enough, there was no shortage of psychological pain, when he felt the assault of his own people while he’s just trying to invite them to the path of the One God!
But to her surprise, and ours, the Prophet’s answer was in the affirmative! There was a day in his life that caused him more pain than the day of Uhud! With open eyes and raised eyebrows she vigorously inquired: Which one was it? He said (pbuh): “the day of Aqabah, after my visit to Ta’ef!”. Understandably. The Prophet (pbuh) spent 10 days trying to get the people of Ta’ef to be his allies and to soften their hearts for Islam. Rather, he was met with mockery, insults and physical attacks until his feet bled, (pbuh). But still, why was that a more injurious day to the Prophet (pbuh) than the day on which he lost 70 of his friends, including his uncle?
The answer may require some elaboration.
It was a crossroads in the Prophet’s journey. Seven years have already passed with little yield. At that point only about 40–50 Meccans have accepted Islam, mostly poor, women and slaves. Not a great return on investment. No major territory has been breached, and no major success garnered. The Prophet, in his heart, worries greatly that it was his fault. May be he’s not eloquent enough he thinks. May be he’s not resourceful enough. May be he’s not sincere enough! Should I have worked harder? Preached harder? Communicated better? Exerted more? How many opportunities did I miss? How many things I shouldn’t have done? Thoughts that devastated him and were reflected in a heart wrenching prayer, in which he spoke to the Lord and said: “Lord, I confide in you alone about the weakness of my ability, the limitation of my reach, and my dispensability among my people….”.
But it wasn’t just his grief about past events that agonized his heart. It was also his anxiety about what the future bears. What will become of the community he’s trying to build? What about the believers that trusted and followed him and paid dearly, some with their very lives? What about Mecca that mustered its power and might to extinguish the burgeoning light of Islam? Will he ever prevail? Will he succeed or fail in his mission? Will there ever be a safe haven for the believers? All piercing questions that rocked his being like thunder.
Like many of us, the Prophet (pbuh) was locked in a cycle of mental gloom, teetering between pains of the past and anxieties of the future. It was not a good place to be, and for that, he needed an intervention.
Allah (swt) from above seven heavens, gave the Prophet (pbuh) the greatest gift imaginable: A tour of heavens and a special audience with the Almighty himself, in what came to historically be known as Issraa’ and Mi’raj, or Nightly Journey and Ascension. The Prophet (pbuh) was transported instantaneously from Mecca and Jerusalem in which he led other Prophets in prayer, and then he ascended to heaven to see heaven and hell and meet Allah (swt) himself. The journey certainly restored the Prophet’s confidence and directed his attention to the possibilities of the present, as opposed to the pains of the past or the uncertainties of the future.
But of all the wonders the Prophet experienced during that journey, it was the Five Daily prayers that was the crown jewel, and the real divine gift to the beloved. While all acts of worship in Islam were relayed to us through Jibreel (as), the five daily prayers were mandated in a private encounter the Prophet (pbuh) had with Allah himself. What an honor! To be given the most handy tool to communicate with your Lord and beloved on a regular basis. Nothing can match that!
But how did the five daily prayers enable the Prophet (pbuh) to break away from the sullen cycle of negativity, swinging from past pains to future apprehensions?
That’s why I decided to write this essay.
Psychologists attempt to understand the relative lack of happiness in the modern world. It seems like there is an epidemic of dissatisfaction. No one is happy, and when they are, it’s short-lived and ephemeral. Young and old, white and black, wealthy and poor, male and female, believer and non-believer are all complaining. According to Reuters, We are less happy than we were 30 years ago. Technology, comforts, conveniences, breakthroughs, consumerism, none of it made us happier. In fact, we are a lot more miserable than we were years ago.
Why? Because our minds are always consumed by two things.
First, most of our time is lost into the past. What we did and what we didn’t do. What we said and what we didn’t say. Lost opportunities and missed goals. We always say things like: I wish I did this, or if only I did that. Had I invested in that company I would have made a ton of money in the stock market. Had I been admitted to that school I would have had a better career. Had I received the raise I needed, I would have been a lot happier. It would have been nice if I married that person, or, if I left that person! Paying so much attention to the past will deliver nothing but regrets and remorse. That’s probably why the Prophet (pbuh) taught us to avoid saying the word “If only”, because it opens the doors of shaytaan!
Second, the rest of our time is lost into the future. What will happen and what won’t. What can and what cannot. Will I achieve my goals? Will I have enough? Will my kids be okay? There is always that erroneous assumption that my happiness is attached to some event that will occur in the future. Once it happens, I will be happy! If I marry that person I will be happy; if I get that job I will be happy; if I make that much, or own that house, or travel to that place, I will be happy. Even in the short term we make a similar assumption. If I get through this upcoming meeting I will be happier. If I can finish my project before the deadline I will be happy, etc. It gradually becomes crippling. We start developing a worse attitude: I cannot have fun right now because my mind is occupied with planning that thing. Once I finish [insert goal or ambition here] I will be happy! The sad reality is that this never ends well. That future event will occur, and what do you think will happen when the long anticipated event actually takes place? Nothing! You are the same person, you’re still not happy, and your mind is now filled with 10 other things and you continue to obsess about the future.
What happens when our minds are either consumed with the past or obsessing about the future? What happens is that we miss out on the most beautiful gift we have ever been given: the present! The past has already happened, and the future is still in God’s hands. The only moment I can actually control is Now! We are unhappy because we pay no attention and give no heed to the present moment; to the Now!
But why is missing the Now so bad and makes us unhappy? Well..
Imam al-Hassan al-Bassri once said: Every new day makes a statement every morning and says: “Sons and daughters of Adam! I’m a new day, and will be a witness to your deeds. Take advantage of me, for I won’t return until the Day of Judgment!”. The concrete reality that many of us graze over and fail to see is this: every moment in the past used to be “Now” at some point. And every moment in the future will eventually become “Now”! If I live my life missing out on all the “Nows”, I will effectively miss out on life itself, because there will be nothing left to enjoy! The idea is that whatever we do presently deserves our full attention! If you’re having dinner with family, enjoy it! If you’re taking a walk in the park: enjoy it! If you’re listening to some classical music, enjoy it! If you’re greeting your friends at the masjid after prayer, enjoy it! Treat your present activities as if you are free of all worries, and give them your fullest attention. If you achieve that, you will up your quality of life in folds, and you will be on a sure trajectory to being happier!
At this point you might say: This is all nice and dandy! But how can we cast aside all our worries and concerns and focus on the “Now”?
I’ll say that this is where the five daily prayers come in handy!
Back to the Prophet (pbuh) after Ta’ef. In the midst of the most difficult crisis in his life by his own admission, one that is borne out of deep regrets concerning the past and great anxieties about the future, Allah (swt) provides him with the most handy tool to bring his attention to what really matters: Now! That tool was the five daily prayers. A system that is designed to compel us, at least 5 times a day, to divert our attention from regrets and anxieties into the moment we experience. Allah tells you: stop worrying about past and future, and give me your attention. If you show me that respect, I will show you mine! If you want to make an audience with me, I will make one with you! If you make me your focus, I will give you my undivided attention! This is a paradigm shift, compelling us to focus on the here and now! And while it starts with prayer as an act of worship, it can carry over to other activities in our lives as well, and if it did, we might actually achieve the most elusive goals of all: happiness!
Indeed prayer is, as the beloved (pbuh) said, Noor!
One question remains: This all makes sense, but how can we remove ourselves from our busy schedules, our past regrets and future concerns, and bring ourselves to completely and utterly focus on our prayers?
Well, It would be way too ambitious to attempt to answer this question here. Another essay is in order, inshaa’ Allah!