What does mainstream Islam offer to someone who wants a deep, meaningful and permanent connection with God? When it comes to Islamic mysticism, Sufism is often treated as its main and perhaps even only outlet. But the truth is that it is quite possible to have deep, mystical practice as a Muslim without going through Sufism. While Sufism’s organized and communal nature makes it deeply beneficial and meaningful to some people, it does not fit my temperament and way of thinking.
But in a different sense I am a Sufi. The teachings of Ibn al-Jawzi and Ibn al-Qayyim regarding developing a close relationship with God have always deeply touched me, and these are teachings derived from the lives and sayings of many early Muslim ascetics who are now considered Sufis (despite having little to do with today’s organized Sufism). Like those ascetics, I do desire a close relationship with God, as close as is humanly possible. Different people enjoy different forms of worship. For some, communal forms of worship are the most uplifting. For me, the worship I enjoy the most is reading (or listening to) the Quran. The problem, however, is that it is not easy to integrate Quran-reading into one’s daily life. It requires a great deal of willpower to arrange a specific time bracket in which you read the Quran for 30 minutes or 60 minutes every day. It can be done, and sometimes I have been able to keep it up for a week or two, but something always happens that wrecks my routine and suddenly I realize that weeks have passed by without reading any Quran.
What I have realized is that a certain physical practice is needed to integrate the Quran with my daily life. Sitting down on a couch to read the Quran every day cannot be done for any length of time (except perhaps for a very small minority of people). If you think theoretically it should be possible to do it, I challenge you to try it, and you are practically guaranteed to stop after a few days. The reason is that we humans are not disembodied intellects. We have a flesh and blood part that has its own desires, its own habits and routines, its own nature that gets in the way of the intellect. While intellectually we may desire that we should read the Quran every day for a certain amount of time, in the physical reality of human life, this desire alone is not sufficient. There is a missing ingredient; we need something to subdue the body to make it come along for the ride, every day.
As I discovered, Islam’s formal worship, the ṣalāh, is exactly what is needed to make both body and mind comply with routine, daily Quran reading. You cannot keep up daily Quran reading on the couch for any length of time, but you can keep up Quran reading indefinitely once you integrate it with the ṣalāh. Eventually I realized that the Islamic practice of tahajjud, the nightly voluntary prayer, is practically designed with these concerns in mind; it enables us to maintain daily Quran reading/listening indefinitely. Like the various rituals of Sufism that are designed to bring the seeker closer to God, tahajjud is the great Islamic mystical ritual that enables us to always remain close to God, to renew our relationship with Him daily, to get our sins forgiven (as in the Catholic confession), and to re-orient ourselves away from the worldly life’s pull and stress and toward the far simpler and blessed realm of walking with God through life.
Tahajjud for the Modern World
Sūrat al-Muzzammil (chapter 73 of the Quran), our Prophet is commanded to stay up half the night, more or less, in worship that involves reciting the Quran. This generic term for this type of worship is known as qiyām al-layl, which literally means “to stand or to keep a vigil at night”. When people refer to qiyām al-layl, they could be referring to tahajjud, or to other forms of worship such as reading the Quran outside the prayer, performing dhikr or performing duʿāʾ (supplication), or more commonly, a mix of all of these. The worship commanded in chapter 73 is generally understood, as by the Mālikī scholar Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1148 CE) in his Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, to be mainly the recitation of the Quran during the ṣalāh, i.e. the performing of tahajjud.
A modern Muslim reading Sūrat al-Muzzammil may see in it a prescription for permanent sleep deprivation. We have work lives that would be unmanageable if we were to stay up half of the night in prayer. And if you work in an intellectually demanding field (such as computer programming or academic research), your work performance will seriously suffer if you do not get the necessary eight or so hours of undisturbed sleep. The last verse of Sūrat al-Muzzammil, which says “recite as much of the Quran as is easy for you…”, is understood to have replaced the earlier commandment of spending half, more or less, of the night in worship.
Unfortunately for many of us “recite as much of the Quran as is easy for you…” completely overshadows the earlier part of the sūra, so that we think it acceptable to ignore tahajjud unless we really feel like doing it, such as during Ramadan.
I believe that any Muslim who desires a close connection with God should take tahajjud very seriously and should try to follow all of chapter 73, as much as is possible, rather than ignoring it as most of us do. While our modern lives do not permit us to randomly stay up at night without suffering negative consequences the next day, we can integrate tahajjud into our daily routine by spending half or so of our nightly free time to perform it. If the ʿishāʾ prayer is at 9 PM and you go to bed at 11 PM, you have two hours of nightly free time in which you can perform tahajjud. Half of that free time is one hour. I believe that any fair-minded reading of chapter 73 should make a Muslim feel very strongly pushed to spend that hour in tahajjud.
There is something special about tahajjud, as the Quran tells us:
And perform tahajjud during parts of the night, as an extra worship, so that your Lord may raise you to a praiseworthy position.1
The phrase “praiseworthy position” is used only once in the Quran, in the above verse. I have searched in the Quran for the best ways of worshiping and pleasing God, and I have not found anything else described in a similar way. God promises the believers rewards for their good deeds throughout the Quran, deeds like performing the obligatory prayers and paying zakat. But there is no good deed, available to almost every Muslim every day, that is praised like tahajjud. The verse above tells us that those who pray tahajjud will be raised by good to a special status, beyond the status of His ordinary believers (provided, of course, that one’s relationship with God is not marred by sinful activities).
The verse above can be said to be offering to make a trade with us: Do tahajjud, God will raise your status to a praiseworthy position.
Zen Buddhists have meditation as their special mystical practice. Sufis have various forms of dhikr. Catholics have rosaries. Mainstream Muslims have tahajjud, this is the special part of our practice that we can use to connect with God and spend long hours in His presence. Tahajjud is how we comply with God’s command when he says:
And for part of the night, prostrate yourself to Him, and glorify Him long into the night.2
Think about it. Who is this command for if not for us who read the Quran and believe in it? Why should it be so easy for us to think that this command does not apply to us personally? By thinking it does not apply to us, we are telling God that we do seek that “praiseworthy status” that He promises us if we perform tahajjud (note that, technically, verse 76:26 is not a binding command but a strong recommendation, i.e. I am not claiming that 76:26 establishes a new obligatory prayer, but that, for a person who wishes to be the best believer they can be, it is almost a command, it cannot be ignored).
How to Perform Tahajjud
It is often recommended that one sleep for a while then get up to pray tahajjud. I could never do that without disturbing my sleep schedule and productivity, due to lifelong sleep problems I have had. Therefore the way I pray tahajjud is to pray the ʿishāʾ prayer then immediately move on to tahajjud.
Tahajjud is performed in units of two rakʿāt, like the morning prayer. The number of times these units of two should be repeated is not agreed upon. Some recommend eight, others twenty, others thirty six. This is one of those areas of fiqh upon which endless argument is possible. The best opinion I have seen is that any number is permissible, starting from as few as two rakʿāt and going up to any number one can get up to.
There is another type of ṣalāh known as witr that is recommended to be performed after tahajjud. This prayer is in odd numbers and can be made up of just one rakʿa.
Integrating the Quran with Tahajjud
The most important point of tahajjud for me, as mentioned, is that it allows me to read the Quran consistently as part of my daily routine. There a number of different ways of integrating Quran reading with tahajjud:
Reading Quran after Every Taslīma
In this method, every time you say the salām after praying the two rakʿāt, you would pick up a book of Quran and read a certain amount, let’s say two pages. Then you get up to pray another two rakʿāt. Then when you are done with that you sit down again and read some more Quran. Then get up and pray some more. And so on until an hour or more passes and you are ready to go to bed. Instead of reading it, you could listen to the Quran (perhaps using a smartphone app and headphones). This is what I do since, due to my eye sensitivity at night, I cannot use my eyes to read at that time. If I am especially tired or have pain, I pray, then sit back or lie down to listen to 10 minutes of Quran, then get up to pray two more rakʿāt, then sit or lie down again, and so on.
If you do not speak Arabic, you can use a book of Quran that has both the Arabic and a translation and use this as an opportunity to improve your Arabic.
Reading Quran Inside the Prayer
In this method, you would recite or read a the Quran once you are done with reciting al-Fātiḥa during every rakʿa. A person who has memorized the Quran would recite it from memory, while a person who has not can read it from a book, holding it while standing in prayer. Reciting the Quran in a non-Arabic language during the prayer is not permitted by the majority of scholars, therefore it should be avoided.
Another option would be to listen to Quran inside the prayer. While this is unusual and unprecedented as far I know, since there is no evidence to forbid it and since there can be a great benefit in it (especially for those who cannot use their eyes due to eye problems or blindness), then I consider it acceptable to do during the voluntary prayers. It can be thought of as merely reading with one’s ears, one receives the information via the ears rather than the eyes. I am an avid listener to audiobooks and use an Android app called Listen Audiobook Player to listen to them. This is a great app because it keeps track of where I am in the book I am listening to, it can speed up playback without causing the sound to be distorted (essential for me, since I like to listen to audiobooks at 2.5-3x playback speed), and it has a sleep timer so that if I fall asleep while listening to an audiobook it automatically stops the playback after a certain amount of time.
I use this app to listen to the Quran with earphones on while performing tahajjud, whether I do it inside the prayer or outside of it. When listening during the prayer, I use the pause/play buttons on my earphones to start playback when I am done reciting al-Fātiḥa, and five minutes later, the app’s sleep timer automatically pauses playback. At this point I perform rukūʿ and sujūd, then get up to repeat the performance. I set the playback speed at 3x, meaning it goes extremely fast. Listening to this fast playback will sound shocking to someone not used to it, but if you are used to audiobooks, you will know why it is needed. Adjusting playback speed helps sync the playback with your mind’s receptive ability, which is very important because if playback is too slow it is easy to “zone out” for many minutes at a time. But by having the playback at a speed you find comfortable, the information enters your mind at the right speed to keep you interested and engaged. And the strange thing is that fast playback, whether of an audiobook or the Quran, quickly becomes the new norm for the brain, so that it does not feel fast anymore, it just feels right. Slowing the playback down to the normal speed makes it sound grindingly slow if you are used to fast playback. I do not play the Quran fast because of hurry, since I plan to be doing this for an hour or more every night for the rest of my life anyway. I do it because it helps me pay full attention.
At any rate, through tahajjud and Quran-listening, I end up finishing a complete reading of the Quran (known as a khatm) two or more times a month, which is what I have always wanted to do.
Contemplating the Face of God
What is the point of reading the same book so many times in the course of the year when you could instead be doing something more “productive”, such as reading a new book or learning something? That is an intellectual’s question. The point is not intellectual benefit (although I believe there will be much intellectual benefit), the point is to spend an hour or more every day standing in the presence of God, listening to His words. What better way to connect with God?
Other meditative practices often involve speaking to God, asking of Him, or calling His name. Tahajjud, on the other hand, changes the direction of the communication from human-to-God to God-to-human during the Quran recitation, while there is human-to-God communication during the prostrations, in which we ask of Him and pray to Him and praise Him. Tahajjud is two-way communication between the human and God, and this two-way nature of it is a great cure for our inherent narcissism. When trying to perform any mystical practice our egos have this desire to make it all about me, me, me! Satan comes between us and God and wants to make us focus on chasing a spiritual “high” in which we feel connected with something transcendent without facing up to the moral demands that the transcendent makes of us. By listening to God rather than just talking and talking at Him, we are forced to quiet our minds down and truly listen to thr transcendent. The Quran, as many Christian converts to Islam have said, is a scary book in that it does not take any nonsense from the human. It looks deep inside you and sees every one of your faults and weaknesses and exposes them to you. There is no hiding from the eyes of the God of the Quran. He sees everything, He offers us forgiveness, but He requires that we be morally upright in return.
What the Quran absolutely does not accept of us is to be spiritual hippies who hold themselves to low standards by the supposed virtue of wanting to connect with the infinite. In the Quran, the Infinite talks back at you and tells you that He is not buying any of your nonsense. You are only as good as the effort and sacrifice you put into serving Him. Just because you feel “spiritual” does not mean anything to Him, how you feel changes from hour to hour and day to day. What matters to Him is your virtue, your uprightness, your truthfulness to yourself and to Him.
The point of tahajjud and the Quran we recite in it is for us to remain on the Straight Path consistently. Just a few days away from the Quran is sufficient for all kinds of laziness to grow within us; we start to hold ourselves to lower standards, we start to think that we are better people than we really are, our thankfulness for the blessings we have evaporates, we stop seeking God’s forgiveness with heartfelt sincerity because we start to feel good in ourselves as if we are sinless. We start to think that our blessings will last forever, forgetting just how easy it is to lose everything we have. Practicing tahajjud daily helps us remain mindful of our blessings and our reliance on God.
And then there is another benefit, which is the simple fact of standing mindfully in God’s presence. It is the most meaningful experience of our lives to connect with our Creator, and through listening to the sound of His words and worshiping Him standing and sitting, we stretch out our arms towards Him, striving to be with Him. And this striving places us in a different relationship with everyone and everything around us. By being with God, the Constant, the Never-Changing, we acquire a firm foothold in a world that constantly changes and that never lives up to our expectations. The cares and concerns of this world are lifted from our shoulders, to be replaced with nothing but longing and striving for Him and nothing besides Him. Our attachment to the worldly life is weakened, our greed and ambition is checked, so that we end up realizing that pleasing God and obeying Him are more important than anything this world can offer. We become the type of people who can never justify evil for a supposed greater good, because God is our only striving, everything else is ephemeral and secondary. We try to see the world the way He might see it, and act in the world the way He wishes us to act, as His servants and agents on earth, rather than as independent, evil-doing creatures following our own desires and running amok.
Trading with God
The Quran uses the metaphor of trade in a number of places to describe the human relationship with God:
Those who recite the Book of God, and perform the prayer, and spend of what We have provided for them, secretly and publicly, expect a trade that will not fail.3
And among the people is he who sells himself seeking God’s approval. God is kind towards the servants.4
It is said by some mystics, such as Augustine of Hippo and Rābiʿa, that the true mystic should seek God for His own sake alone, neither seeking His rewards nor fearing His punishments. But the Quran does not support that kind of thinking:
And do not corrupt on earth after its reformation, and pray to Him with fear and desire. God’s mercy is close to the doers of good.5
So We answered him, and gave him John. And We cured his wife for him. They used to vie in doing righteous deeds, and used to call on Us in desire and fear, and they used to humble themselves to Us.6
Their sides shun their beds, as they pray to their Lord, out of fear and desire; and from Our provisions to them, they give.7
Above, the Quran describes the appropriate state of the human in the presence of God as awe of His greatness and desire (for His forgiveness, mercy and rewards). I believe that love is something that naturally develops when we feel connected with someone or with God, and I think it a rather wasted effort to try to get beyond fear and desire in order to serve God out of love alone. Desire, fear, and love, are all ways of relating to God. It would be rather unnatural for a person to have a close relationship with God but to only serve Him out of greed for His rewards and fear of His punishments, without any love existing. I doubt that such a human can even exist. Love is a natural byproduct of relating to God through awe and desire.
To think that loving God for His own sake without fear and desire is to make an unfounded assumption about God; it is to think that God appreciates love more than fear and desire. God wants us to fear Him and desire of Him just as He wants us to love Him. He demands all of these modes of relating to Him, because all of these affirm His attributes. It is a rather wasted effort to try to shut down certain parts of our human nature (fear and desire) in preference to other parts that we have arbitrarily decided as superior (love). The balanced way, the Quranic way (which I have found to always provide the balanced approach to every form of extremism and deviance), is to relate to God in appreciation of all of His attributes, and that means to fear Him, to desire of Him, to take refuge in Him and love Him. It can in fact be argued that it is a dereliction of duty to only love God and refuse to fear Him and desire of Him.
One day when I felt really down, as if everything I had ever done had been a failure, feeling stuck in my situation and unable to progress, this thought came to me:
The worship you do is how you pay for God's services to you. If what you have been getting is lowly, maybe what you have been paying has been lowly.
Hearing that thought, everything seemed to start to make sense and I started reading the Quran in a new way. I then ran into this verse:
Remember Me and I will remember you...8
And I realized the thought that had come to me was simply the above verse rephrased. If we want God to remember us, we have to remember Him! If we want God to give us special treatment, we have to give Him special treatment. If we want to have blessed and successful lives, we have to look at ourselves and ask: What payments are we making to God for these things?
I realized that I am willing to spend hours doing work I do not like just to get money. What a great insult to God that I am not willing to spend even a single hour a day working for Him. If I truly have faith in God, then I should be willing to spend an extra hour a day worshiping Him no matter how unproductive it feels. It is, in a very small way, a sacrifice, a payment. I pay God an hour of my labor, He pays me back. How I feel about it is irrelevant, what matters is that I should sacrifice an hour (or more) of my day every day solely for God. Not because it makes me feel good, not because I learn things during it, but because God deserves to be worshiped, because throwing away an hour of my day for God’s sake alone is a way of thanking Him for His blessings and paying Him for future blessings in this life and the next. It is similar to the way the ancient Israelites used to slaughter some of their livestock then set fire to it, letting its meat “go to waste” in the fire, a sacrifice meant for God alone that they themselves did not benefit from.
And it is through tahajjud that I make that sacrifice. I do not always feel inclined to spend an hour of my evening praying and listening to the Quran. On some days I just do not feel spiritually motivated and the verses I listen to do not touch my heart. On such days what motivates me to continue is the idea of the sacrifice. Even if I do not get anything from the tahajjud, the fact that I was willing to throw away one hour of my life for God’s sake has a very important meaning, and I trust in His ability to appreciate it and reward it.
Avoidance of Sin
One of the most important benefits of tahajjud is that if I spend an hour or more of the previous night in tahajjud, today the idea of even the most minor sin becomes unthinkable. The effects of having been in God’s presence the night before linger into the present day, making it feel like a great betrayal to do anything that might possibly displease God. It is not that my “willpower” for avoiding sin is strengthened. Avoiding sin no longer requires any willpower. It becomes an automatic response, the way one avoids poison. The attractions of sinful things no longer “register” in the mind. Enjoying something sinful feels like working to demolish something I spent an hour last night trying to build, it feels as irrational as trying to destroy anything else you have worked hard to build.
Worship versus Activism
One of Satan’s main methods for making us avoid worship is his telling us that we should instead be doing something productive for God’s sake. Instead of spending an hour or more going through a book we have gone through a dozen times before, we could be learning something new, or helping people, or working to earn money so that we can give it away in charity, or working to help Islam or humanity in some way.
The problem with that thinking is that it assumes God needs favors from us. He does not. What He wants from us is piety, perfection of character and worship before any other good deeds. There is a minimum amount of daily worship necessary to keep us on the straight path. Every day we stray away from this path, because the worldly life and its attachments are constantly pushing in various directions and away from God. A Muslim activist who neglects worship in the name of activism, despite their good intentions, can slowly become corrupt and misguided in their eagerness to achieve worldly success. We see this in certain Islamist politicians who use questionable and unethical means in order to supposedly support Islam and Muslims, or in Muslim writers and journalists using biased arguments to promote Islam. God has zero need for that type of action.
Unfortunately losing our away is the easiest thing in this world if we do not hold tight to God’s guidance and remembrance. There are so many people who have fallen into sinful and scandalous things while doing religious work because their focus on their work and eagerness for success made them neglect God. We need to seek balance, and that means spending sufficient time with God daily to purify our hearts, correct our mistakes and renew our dedication to Him.
An easy way of determining whether you have been doing sufficient worship or not is to see how easy it is for you to engage in extremely minor sins. If you are a man and you run into an advertisement in the street that portrays a half-naked woman, do you wait to admire it? Is it difficult to look away from it? Does it feel like a loss or wasted opportunity to not admire it? If any of these are true, then you have not been doing sufficient worship. If you are a woman, you can come up with a different test that is more relevant to your daily experience.
Before you try to fix the world, you have to fix yourself. If you do not bother to develop and maintain a close relationship with God, then neither God nor the world have any need for your favors. God can create a million people like you in an instant, and He can solve all of the world’s problems in an instant if He wanted. What He wants from us is to strive to perfect ourselves then to go out in the world and be His agents for good. If we try to serve Him while our hearts are still corrupt and sinful, we will actually harm His cause. People will see our weaknesses and insincerity and will know that we do not have a good relationship with God.