Scrolling through your social media feed, it’s very likely that you will come across a number of posts by Muslim pages, groups and individuals encouraging the despairing, the suffering, and the heartbroken to turn back to Allah by establishing our salah, calling out to Allah in dua, and softening our hearts with dhikr. We seek emotional boosts through these acts, a spiritual pick-me-up, that will numb our pain. But is the aim of worship to provide an emotional high to escape from our turbulent realities?
In one of the essays in her collection, Trick Mirror, American writer and editor Jia Tolentino, recounts her experience growing up in a conservative Christian town in the US, and compares the sublimity of feeling a connection to God through religion and acts of worship, to the sublimity that she could attain through taking recreational drugs, specifically, ecstasy. She writes:
‘I have always found religion and drugs appealing for similar reasons. (You require absolution, complete abandonment, I wrote, praying to God my junior year.) Both provide a path towards transcendence – a way of accessing an extra human world of rapture and pardon that, in both cases, is as real as it feels.’ – Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror
Tolentino goes on to describe her journey away from Christianity, explaining how she concluded that if ecstasy could make her feel ‘like divinity…feel healed and religious…feel dangerously wild… [like] a child of Jesus’ but without the associated effort that is needed to perform acts of worship, why go on believing?
There is an assumption here that equates religiosity to an emotion, that the pain of this world is there to help push us towards Allah and to raise our ranks in the afterlife, manifesting in increased quantity and quality of worship. Connecting to Him during these times may give us an emotional high, and bring comfort and tranquillity to the heart as it is provided with its spiritual nourishment in realigning with our true purpose. However, even after we engage in these acts, many of us are left not feeling that boost of ‘high imaan’, questioning our own self-worth, our thoughts spiralling with self-hate, wondering why we can’t just attain that feeling? Some of us even wonder if we’ve gone past the point of redemption? At times, when our efforts do not achieve that transcendence that Tolentino describes, we may give up on the act of worship itself, or find that we can’t perform acts of worship until we feel that iman boost rushing through our mind and body.
In response to a question on this topic posed to Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi (of the Muhaddithat fame, collecting forty volumes worth of material on some of the great female scholars of hadith over the last 1400 or so years) was quoted saying:
‘People complain that they don’t have the feeling of Imaan. Who told you that you need a feeling? You are looking for the wrong thing. This religion has not come to give you feelings. Iman is to obey Allah. He promised you paradise through obedience’.
It is worth clarifying here that, the what Shaykh Akram Nadawi is referring to is not khushoo, focus, awe, and humility in salah, but rather that hit of dopamine you get after listening to a motivating Islamic reminder or performing a good deed. Feeling good and grateful after an act of worship is a natural thing, for example on the topic of fasting, the Prophet ﷺ said:
‘…There are two occasions of joy for one who fasts, joy when he breaks it, and joy when he meets his Lord’ – Sahih Muslim, Book 35, Number 2567.
The joy after completing the fast is a fruit that Allah grants as a gift, but it is not the aim and purpose of the deed in the first place, which can be found in the Qur’an:
‘You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God’ (Qur’an 2:183).
We can seek relief in our acts of worship, but the primary aim and focus of our intentions is to attain Allah’s Love and Pleasure. In seeking the high, our intentions may be skewed from seeking Allah to reaching for a balm for the heart. Emotions are internal messengers signalling invisible wounds made to the heart and mind; they were made to tended to, demanding our attention and care. This task of tending to those wounds can be in many cases overwhelming, especially in cases of trauma, or if we have never seen those close to us modelling how to sit and cope with our emotions – our mental health deserves and requires self-love, which can be in the form of speaking to a counsellor or a doctor who can be an incredible source of help and support.
So, for those who are struggling to find something in your worship that would take the pain away, know that you will not find it, not because of any deficiency within you – rather that the purpose of these acts is something else entirely. Having said all this, whilst our intentions during salah and other acts of worship need to be directed towards Allah, dua is a blessing provided by Him that allows us an outlet for our pain through speaking to Him and is a means of asking for relief.
Worship is centred around praising Allah and showing Him gratitude and asking for forgiveness. When we slip, worship cannot be used to temporarily boost our imaan, but rather it is something that is used to build it like the firm foundations of a home, one brick at a time, forming a shelter that is solid and strong and unshakeable.
A medic and a self-admitted book-worm with an interest and love for Mental Health and the holistic growth and development of women. IG: shaheens95