Worship – rituals and feelings

November 25, 2009 at 2:20 pm (Islam, religious experiences, religious practices)

From Chapter 2 of “Struggling to Surrender” by Jeffrey Lang:

“After the first euphoria of conversion, there comes a stage where the rituals become routine and burdensome. As I said earlier, new believers will report that they find them to be a powerful test and strengthener of will. Later, they will say, the rituals become less of a discipline and more of an experience of peace, and this becomes their primary motivator in praying, fasting, and observing other aspects. At a further stage, and this is in conjunction with their persistent daily striving to better themselves, they will say that the rituals, especially the prayers, have become a very powerful emotional and spritual encounter – a time during which they are acutely alert to God’s presence, wherein the ritual is more an act of love, a divine embrace, and it is that love that comes to dominate their lives. For Muslims, the rituals are a door to a breath of life, a life more real and meaningful than anything here on earth, and eventually this thirst for divine life and love conquers them.”

I don’t often see people discussing their experience of worship. It is much more common to focus on discussing external matters such as rules and morals.

So I thought I’d open up that door with this encouraging quote. Do you agree with it? Have you ever struggled with the feelings side of worship, and with motivation? How do you deal?

Personally it took me a little while to take on the salaah ritual and really use it as a medium to express myself. It was a bit of a “culture shock” at first. Then I started to get into it. Having had a different tradition in the past, it’s interesting to compare. I miss singing as part of worship, in a way. But then I see nothing wrong with singing to God as the Sufis do, so I think I could do that as a Muslim if I wanted. Also I could learn proper tajweed (recitation) which is quite melodic. Something that is new for me is the movements – bowing and prostrating. And I love that. I really didn’t realise physical movements and postures could be so powerful.

I like the refreshing feeling of wudu (ablution) but honestly it can be annoying when the weather is cold and I’m all bundled up in winter clothes. I can never do it without getting part of my clothing wet. I think as well that there is a deeper spiritual significance to it that I haven’t grasped emotionally. I just do it without being very mindful of what I’m doing or why.

It was when I had started to pray with so much force and khushoo that it all went down the tube for me and I was in a panic of doubt all of a sudden. Some would say this was shaytan, and I don’t know what to think. Questions came thick and fast and I felt unsure of religion, and hence, unsure of God. Praying has been more of a struggle since then.

I think convictions are important and when we have them, we should hold onto them, because feelings are fickle things that are just inclined to make us unstable. I am still forming my convictions, looking for them in amongst the mess of history and tradition. That takes as long as it takes. But I feel so vulnerable, and I am trying to hold onto God. I just pray God holds onto me.

So we force ourselves to be sensible and rational, and not get sidetracked by petty issues just because they make us feel anxious. Over time and with worship rituals we train our emotions to support what we believe. We reinforce our beliefs and we challenge our hearts, nudging them five times a day towards consciousness of God. That’s what I think it is about.

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Prayer times

November 24, 2009 at 8:51 pm (Islam, Ramadan, religious practices, science)

The calculation of prayer and fasting times based on the movement of the sun does not work universally. Even where I am in the UK, based on using an angle of depression of 15 degrees, Fajr and Isha disappear in the middle of summer. I don’t know how they calculate the times in those periods. It’s a mystery. I have tried to discover how it’s done and I have failed.

Right now, the prayer times are so close together that it’s quite difficult to get them all done on time, especially if you have appointments in the afternoon.

The prayer times are not made explicit in the Quran but they are alluded to in terms of the sun’s position. And of course it’s expressed in those terms. It could not have said “pray at 6 o’clock in the morning” because there was no such thing. There weren’t clocks! There was the sun.

That method works in that region. In extending the practice to other regions, there are two intuitive ways to go. You can keep the method the same, or you can keep the clock times calculated using the method the same (with a simple translation based on longitude). The former doesn’t work universally. I think the latter is a better way to go. It results in using the same prayer times, fasting durations etc. that the prophet and his followers used. Tried, tested and approved.

But who am I, right? I mean, I could choose to use Saudi Arabia’s times for prayer and fasting all year round, but I’d be considered a heretic. And Muslim unity would certainly be compromised if everyone just followed what they thought was best. It’s a shame though. Fasting doesn’t even feel like fasting at this time of year. And I go weak at the knees at the thought of Ramadan falling in the summer.

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Giving thanks

October 25, 2009 at 11:35 am (moral issues, personal, religious practices)

I sometimes think my attraction to religion is an attraction to an alternative me that I want to be. A me that gets up at the crack of dawn to pray, is calmly spiritual, devotedly faithful, peacefully mature. The real me has always fallen far away from that. The real me is stricken with worry, lurching from one crisis of faith to another, getting overwhelmed and losing all resolve. I am kidding myself if I think that I’m going to arrive at faith, make a commitment, and then it’ll be plain sailing. (Bear with me, there’s a positive coming 😉 )

This week for example, I don’t even know what’s happened, but after making strides with establishing a prayer routine, and even stepping out in hijab last weekend, it somehow became a real struggle. It might have something to do with other big stresses this week. I lost confidence, I lost patience. I guess I have been back at where I was when I stopped going to church – feeling like a victim and wondering why God doesn’t care. Astaghfirullah!

I need to drop any expectations of a quick fix. I am not going to get a personality transplant by starting to pray. I am not going to instantly have a deep knowledge of God. These things take practice. I really should stop thinking in black and white, stop pressuring myself, stop hating what I am. Otherwise I will be right back to resenting all religious obligations.

This is exactly applicable to other aspects of my life too. I resent work obligations, for example. I am just someone who worries about getting it right, and secretly strives and agonises, to the point of exhaustion and loss of hope and loss of care.

I DON’T WANT TO BE A NEGATIVE PERSON.

I DON’T WANT TO BE A DRAMA QUEEN.

I DON’T WANT TO BE PERPETUALLY UNHAPPY.

I know how I want to be, what the right way to be is. But perhaps I can only move towards it by first accepting what I am now.

The best idea I had yesterday was to begin by “counting my blessings” as the saying goes. It just dawned on me that by being negative and unhappy and always wanting things to change, I am being really ungrateful for the good things in my life, of which there are many. How sad would it be to get everything I wanted and then realise that I still didn’t know how to appreciate it. Life is short, too short to wait to enjoy it. Giving thanks might be the best way to connect with God and foster humility. Rather than trying to force myself to not care about the things of this life, I will work on mentally connecting them with their Source.

Just a small step to take, but small steps are probably all I can manage. I am interested to see where it may take me.

Likewise, there would seem to be many positive things about me in my work that I am completely sabotaging by being so negative. I have enslaved myself to “perfection”, disrespecting the natural characteristics God has made me with because of my fear of man’s judgment. I will try and start to remind myself of my strengths and attribute everything to God.

Any advice is appreciated… and don’t mince your words… sometimes I need a verbal slap 😉

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Mahrams and hijab

October 12, 2009 at 12:00 am (gender issues, Islam, religious practices, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I was reading Sura 24 when I came across a list of mahrams – categories of men which are forbidden for a woman to marry (or vice versa) and in front of whom she may remove her outer garment. Of course this includes the usual close blood relatives, but I was surprised to notice it also includes father-in-law and step-son.

Such men are only forbidden to marry the woman by virtue of her current marriage, i.e. once she has got married, she cannot marry her father-in-law even if she becomes single again. If she had never married her current husband, that father-in-law would never have been mahram to her.

And obviously, therefore, it is possible for the father-in-law to be attracted to her. Unlike her blood mahrams who would not be attracted to her. So I was surprised that she is allowed to discard her outer garment in front of him. What does this tell us?

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Fasting

August 5, 2009 at 1:18 pm (Christianity, Islam, personal, Ramadan, religious practices)

I am going to try and fast Ramadan this year. I’ll take a bit of time off work to make it a little easier and allow me to get more reading done.

I am looking forward to the challenge, but also knowing that there is a high chance I will fail at some point. I have fasted whole days in the past, but never more than one day in a row. I think I have to be realistic about the fact that my willpower might give out, and resolve to not get downhearted if it happens, but pick myself up and try again the next day.

When I joined the pentecostal church at 19, and I got to hear about fasting, it was so new and radical to me. I remember being in a conversation about fasting, and being brave enough to ask the “why” question – at which point an uncomfortable silence fell as their faces clocked the realisation that there was an impostor in the ranks! It had just never been a part of my prior Church of Scotland experience. Traditional church gives people a really easy ride.

I enjoyed fasting with the church. I experienced it as stepping out of my comfort zone to reach out to God. I learnt to fast off my own bat when I felt the need, too. Unfortunately my fast was always part of a supplication for something specific. I had learnt that fasting was a tool in badgering God for what I wanted, which sowed seeds of disappointment. Is fasting for the hope of a reward in the afterlife any better? I suppose it is better, but the best motivation would be just to please God and grow more conscious of God, I think.

So now, I simply intend on breaking my enslavement to satiety; experiencing in a renewed way my fragility and utter dependence on sustenance; rediscovering gratitude for the simple fulfilment of a simple need. God knows I take so much for granted.

I want to choose the path of hope and enlightenment. I don’t want to be told I can’t do it by anyone, not even the voice in my head.

I want to choose the path of hope and enlightenment. I tried, I had setbacks, I get bogged down with worries over the details of religion… but I’m still trying.

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Religion and family life

June 20, 2009 at 4:35 pm (Islam, religious practices, society)

“And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind…” Qur’an 2:142

Muhammad Asad’s footnote explains that what is meant by this is “a community that keeps an equitable balance between extremes and is realistic in its appreciation of man’s nature and possibilities, rejecting both licentiousness and exaggerated asceticism”.

I have written before about how I feel a keen absence of a middle way in western Christianity. Traditional church demands little of its adherents besides standing up to sing hymns and bowing one’s head in prayer. Fundamentalist church, on the other hand, holds as its ideal a world in which everyone is consumed by passion for Jesus 24 hours a day. I no longer saw beauty in the world when I held this ideal.

While I know that Muslims can certainly veer off to these two extremes too despite the above verse, what I saw of family life in my husband’s country bore a definite resemblance to Asad’s footnote description. The first time I went in 2004, I was stunned to see one of himself’s family members praying right in front of me and others, rather than going into another room. My sister-in-law was fasting, and again this was accepted as perfectly normal. In my own traditional (well, now mostly secular) family, these things don’t happen! I loved the way religious practice was woven into family life, but in such a way that I, as an outsider, didn’t have to feel remotely uncomfortable. It was routine; unremarkable. It was also individual. This surprised me. Hardcore Christian families pray and worship and attend church together and so an outsider would probably feel awkward.

The second time I went, later in 2004, we went to a funfair in the evening. It was fun. Just like any other funfair. And yet somehow it surprised me to see all these women in hijab enjoying themselves on funfair rides, laughing with their kids. As if like nuns they should be sober and sedate, with their minds on the spiritual at all times. In a quiet corner of the funfair there was a prayer area, with a handful of people doing their prayers; right there in amongst all the family fun, God was being remembered, and it really touched me.

It’s little things like this that have really softened me towards Islam over the years. I am so impressed at both the efforts people make with prayers and fasting, and the calm, mature sense of normalcy with which they go about it. It does not seem “weird” or pie-in-the-sky, and yet sincere devotion is apparent. I can’t help but feel that it’s a brilliant thing.

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Prayer times and latitude

June 18, 2009 at 7:09 pm (Islam, Ramadan, religious practices, science)

I’ve been doing a little research to try and understand how the Islamic prayer times are defined. It’s been surprisingly hard to find this information, but I think I’ve basically got it now. Here is what I’ve understood.

The five prayers are, in order, Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha. Dhuhr (just after noon has passed) and maghrib (just after the sun has set) are straightforward to calculate astronomically – by which I mean, using mathematical equations. Asr is between these two, and seems to be also straightforward, except that its time depends on the school of thought; the two I’ve come across are that it occurs when an object’s shadow is equal to one or two times the object’s length plus the length of its shadow at noon. Fajr and Isha occur before and after sunrise and sunset, respectively, and their starting is determined by the time of appearance or disappearance of refracted sunlight (twilight). These are the two that are not straightforward.

The reason they are not straightforward seems to be that there is no universal algorithm that predicts the appearance or disappearance of twilight based on astronomical conditions such as the depression of the sun beneath the horizon. It seems that the timing of this occurrence varies with geographical location in a non-trivial way. There are methods in place that use a depression angle, and methods that add or subtract a fixed time period after/before sunset/sunrise. These methods are each restricted to particular geographical zones, and have presumably been verified against observations for at least some locations within their respective zones.

As we all know, some latitudes do not ever get really dark during summer, and in some places the sun doesn’t even set. Even where darkness does occur, there can be an extremely short interval between isha and the next fajr. Clearly this poses a juristic challenge, because the early Muslims did not travel to such latitudes and so there is no traditional guidance. This also has implications for fasting during Ramadan, which is performed between fajr and maghrib. Should there be an upper limit to the length of a fasting day, and if so, how should it be defined?

My own feeling, not based on any scholarly opinion, is that when prayer times are too widely or closely spaced, they do not punctuate the day the way I understand they should. If the point of having prayer times is to remember God throughout the day, having enormous intervals between some of the prayers (which is the case during both winter and summer far from the equator) would not seem to achieve this.

I read somewhere that one ruling had suggested that prayer times for latitudes above 45 degrees should be the same as those calculated for a location directly south at 45 degrees latitude – they should follow that timetable all year round, as I understood it. This makes some sense to me because the prayers are then not too widely spaced during summer and not too close during winter. Also, admittedly, it makes the prospect of Ramadan less completely terrifying! Around the time of the longest day, where I am, fajr is around 2:30-3:30am depending on the calculation method, and maghrib after 10pm!

But this rule seems not to be in widespread use judging by prayer timetables I’ve seen. Understandably no-one wants to introduce or endorse a new rule unless they have to; hence, the norm is to calculate the times in the standard way where possible, and the prayers that disappear using this method at high latitude are added in using additional rules, rather than changing all the timings for that location. I can understand it, but I don’t really like it.

Any thoughts? or information? 😛

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Ritual cleanliness

June 17, 2009 at 1:25 pm (Islam, religious practices, science)

There is a psychological link between physical cleanliness and moral purity, apparent in the common vocabulary we use to describe these two (clean, pure, washing away of sins, etc). Whether this is inherent in humans, or the result on our shared consciousness of a long tradition of spiritual cleanliness rituals, I don’t know. But I am happy with the idea of a cleanliness ritual on this basis.

In Islam, the rituals of prayer – presumably including cleanliness – are a continuation of a pre-existing tradition. I was fascinated to learn this a few months back. This tradition includes Aramaic Christians as well as Arabs, and like the ritual of pilgrimage to the Kaaba, may extend back to Abraham. The Qur’an-only Muslims explain the absence from the Qur’an of instructions for prayer and pilgrimage in terms of the pre-existence and widespread practice of these traditions.

Western Christianity is unique among the monotheistic traditions in not having a concept of ritual cleanliness. This is probably because – as recorded in the book of Acts – the decision was made, when the early Jewish Christians took Christianity outside of Judaism, to impose only a limited few of the Jewish rules onto new converts. This perhaps anomalous absence of ritual in my own tradition makes the idea of ritual cleanliness a little challenging.

I know more about Islamic cleanliness rituals now than I do about Jewish ones, and so it’s these that I’ll focus on as I state the things that I don’t understand, bearing in mind that these issues are not limited to Islam. Firstly, why is a pure state broken by the expulsion of waste from the body? Secondly, why is it broken by lawful sexual activity? Thirdly, if periods come under the bracket of expulsion of waste from the body and so a pure state is impossible during them, doesn’t it take away from a woman’s spiritual nourishment if she is unable to pray for say one week out of every four?

My first two questions arise from the possible misunderstanding that ablution is to “wash away sin”, i.e. improve one’s moral state. Perhaps it’s about a clean body being conducive to a clean, relaxed, focused mind?

Your thoughts, feelings, insights welcome!

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Worship, emotion and stability

June 14, 2009 at 9:37 pm (Christianity, religious experiences, religious practices)

A lot of people seem to be very excited at Chris Moyles apparently bigging up Christianity.

Here is the link to the youtube page itself so you can see the comments from proud Christians about how much fun and how exciting this type of service is. I think it’s clear that the last thing they want anyone to think about Christianity, is that it’s boring. Funny… I probably used to be just the same way.

My old church is having a mission week, and we just got a flyer through the door for it this evening. They are putting on a range of activities, including “special guests from Boston, USA [who] will perform music and street theatre to convey the relevance of God for the world today.” I’m not sure it’s appropriate to talk of the relevance or otherwise of the creator of the universe, but the relevance of church is clearly an ongoing concern.

I certainly found this type of church compelling, as I’ve described before (I won’t repeat myself). I have to admit that watching the video was a bit of a blast from the past for me; it reminded me of going weak at the knees, wanting to give in to the emotion of it all and join in with gusto. With my rational hat on now I can see that it’s all too easy to be swept away on a feeling, and for those who are inclined to believe in God and are a bit emotionally vulnerable, this type of worship is a very effective lure.

I’ve spoken before about Christians using this “exciting” worship style as a selling point, and how I feel that when they do this, they are trying too hard to attract converts for the wrong reasons. Calling people to the worship of God should not be reduced to the level of selling an experience. So I guess the point of this post is just to show some illustrative examples that have come to my attention this week.

Also, to think a little bit about worship and expression of emotion. I strongly believe in participating in worship on a heart level, which naturally involves the emotions. I believe the feeling of surrender to God can bring peace, and happiness, and that heartfelt praising of God can move one to tears. I also believe, now, that it should be based on knowledge and understanding.

My pentecostal adventure was characterised by emotional highs and lows: the ups and downs of my khushoo (I can’t think of an English word that works as well for that) in the twice-weekly congregational worship; my intermittent ability to think of things to pray about, and to dare to try; the fluctuations of my faith level depending on what sermon I had heard or who I had spoken to; and most of all, the meandering search for the voice of God.

I understood the power of music to affect one’s mood and thinking, and I fully agreed with its use within worship to provoke and express feelings. And yet there were times, after the first year, where I just wanted to go back to the calmer, simpler traditional format I had grown up with. It just all felt too intense, too introspective, too complicated. It didn’t feel grounded enough in reality. Because I guess for me, it wasn’t.

I now want to be on a more even keel. I want stability. I don’t want to let my zeal exceed my maturity. And so for me, spirituality now requires a bit more discipline, rationality, and long-term investment, and a bit less demonstrative loudness. I want to develop the soothing constancy of an intrinsic spiritual rhythm.

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Islam and Christianity

May 26, 2009 at 10:09 am (Christianity, God, Islam, personal, reflections on my journey, religious practices)

Don’t worry, I’m not about to attempt a comprehensive comparative analysis of these two faiths in a single post. 🙂 I just wanted to say a few things from a personal perspective that hopefully address the question, “why did I lose my commitment to Christianity?” Not that anyone has asked me this question, but I felt as if someone might after the last couple of posts.

In a nutshell, the answer is that there was no good reason, but perhaps there’d been no good reason for the commitment in the first place.

I went through some disappointments. A lot of what I’d taken on board from sermons and books turned out to be wrong. There is a lot of what I now call “cause-and-effect theology” in radical Christianity. It goes along the lines of, “if we do X, God will do Y” and for the life of me I don’t know what they base their predictions of God’s behaviour on. Because of my lifelong spiritual hunger, I guess, I swallowed it all up, gripped by the idea that God can intervene in our lives in spectacular ways. Eventually I saw it for the smoke and mirrors it probably was.

But does that mean that the fundamentals of Christianity as stated in the New Testament are automatically untrue? No, of course not, and I never intended to stop being a Christian even when I first took a hiatus from church. Does it mean that my decision to date and then marry a Muslim was rational and sensible? No! I have never made a reasonable relationship decision, and this was certainly a pretty rash move on paper.

When you are steeped in a particular mindset such as a religion, opening your mind and learning about something else can be scary. To be honest, I’m not even sure whether it’s always beneficial to do so. I would like to think ideally that every religious person has thought it all through and considered alternative perspectives, but realistically, many choose the nearest or most convenient path to God without giving it much cross-examination. I’m inclined to think that sometimes it’s actually better for them to do that than to confuse themselves with endless questions.

But in my case, it so happened that I opened my mind and learnt about something else. How it happened may not have been admirable. By lacking dedication to my faith. Melting when the heat was on. Chucking it all in, then trying to justify it to myself later. But this is perhaps what happens when you have been over-zealous and naive. Perhaps that initial bad decision sowed the seeds of all of it. In any case, it happened… and I am happy it did, on balance.

And I haven’t ruled out Christianity yet. I’ve got a much clearer view of it now than before. Aside from the divinity of Jesus, I don’t see any really significant theological differences between it and Islam. Even the “saved by grace” thing has parallels, just without the human sacrifice element. I suppose I am coming towards the idea that perhaps it doesn’t really matter what religion you belong to. Perhaps it is all the same journey of faith with all the same perils and pitfalls.

I do think most of the differences between faiths and faith groups are about implementation. And this is where Islam is one up for me. I’ve already said that I like the ritual element. I generally find the approach to worship and to morality much more practical and sensible. Actually it makes Christianity look completely bonkers: drinking, but only in moderation; dating, but no sex; and the expectation of complete mental self-control?

I guess it all boils down to two tasks:

  • working out what I think was the nature of Jesus and Muhammad
  • taking the long road towards a mature faith, whatever religion (or none!) I settle on.

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