Prayer and the body

Prayer and the body

[What follows is a verbatim transcript of a meeting that took place between the tailor and his friend, the neuroscientist. They were discussing prayer in relation to Islamic narrations and physically transmitted tradition.]

The Tailor: In Tailorite Sufism, the power of the sunnah derives from its provision of a conduit of Light from Prophecy to the receptive seeker’s frame of reference. We’ve discussed what might be called Symbolic perspectives on this conduit — such as the hadith of milk — that always take the form of the “milk” of Illuminated Judgement/Reading being provided to us by Prophecy. To follow the Prophetic sunnah is to read the signs of the cosmos correctly. This is the Symbolic nature of the sunnah.

There is also a physical, bodily, Real nature of the sunnah that the Symbolic is dependent upon. Prayer has a special status in terms of this dependent connection.

The form of Prayer was given by an angel to Prophecy. Prophecy then instructed the first generation of believers, who then instructed the generations that followed, all the way up to us. Instruction was given, not through Symbolic word, but through physical transmission/imitation. There is an unbroken physical instruction that provides an intimate, bodily chain of transmission to Prophecy itself, a physical chain of transmission that every Muslim participates in, though we are often unreflective.

Truly amazing when you grasp the implication of this. But to grasp this, you must understand what constitutes a body and what constitutes physical imitation … and makes up a generation! And then how these concepts of physical prayer — when conceptualised and Read — relate back to the body.

The Neuroscientist: Okay, let’s talk about your notion of Reading and physical prayer first then. The precise form of prayer — standing, bowing, prostration, etc — is significant because of its bodily connection to Prophecy. But am I right in assuming that this form is itself derived from an interpretation of hadeeth. Would the specific practice or form of prayer then not be a connection to prophecy, unless it was also read as a form of correct, Illuminated Judgement/Reading of these hadeeth?

The Tailor: My view is that prayer is a bodily connection to prophecy — and is not actually derived as such from the hadeeth. However, our understanding of prayer is intimately linked to our understanding of the hadeeth, particularly those in which it actually occurs and is described.

At any rate, I would say that a lot of us don’t yet understand the meaning of prayer. But I would not want to dismiss actions and efforts: even in ignorance, we are still praying, and prayers are effective as a connection to Prophecy, because the nature of prayer is one of evolution toward Divine understanding (as we are told in the narrations, it is a Mi’raj, an understanding that ends in complete submission to God). Evolution starts in a basic, invalid, broken state and moves toward one of perfection and Prophetic balance.

Now, with respect to the sunnah of prayer understood through hadith reading: I say that, once we read these hadith correctly, with Illumination, then we comprehend that, in fact, we are completing our prayer (prayer as a movement to understanding everything, including, self-reflexively, these hadith).

Narrated ‘Imran bin Husain (may Allah be pleased with him): I had piles, so I asked the Prophet (may Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him) about the prayer. He said, “Pray while standing and if you can’t, pray while sitting and if you cannot do even that, then pray lying on your side.” (Sahih Bukhari)

In other words, most of us have piles. So we are praying lying on our sides (and hence probably don’t “get” the Light — or Divine comedy — contained within this sunnah/hadith. We might, for example, think it is some dull regulation whose main purpose is to allow the afflicted to bring chairs into the masjid. But I say that to have such a dull view of the sunnah is to have piles (but nevertheless the effort of the believer’s sincere prayer is accepted).

The cure for piles lies in the unlocking the light contained within this hadith. To read it correctly is to recite, standing up.

Nevertheless, I emphasize that all prayer is accepted, all degrees of Illumination, because prayer is a journey toward understanding.

The Neuroscientist: So if may re-state a few things to be clear. Are you saying that the correct reading of hadiths constitutes prayer?

What I’m getting from this is that the precise form of prayer is not critical: i.e. sajdah, rukuh, etc. What’s important is that one actions evolve toward Divine understanding and our current received forms of prayer may be one of them. Could it be said that I’m praying or have a bodily connection to prophecy when I do something that evolves my understanding of the Divine – like writing comments on this blog, or riding my bike – but does not conform to our received rituals? What I’m asking is that, is it the mi’raj which is the bodily connection or for example the sajdah? Put another way, is the sajdah only praye, if it evolves our understanding of the Divine, but not otherwise?

Could I say that that the ideal forms of prayer may be fluid, changing from time to time and from person to person and place to place. It must be so, if for example I’m to pray on the moon or something. I can’t imagine that one has to be on Earth to be close to the Divine. But the form of my prayer must change – I don’t have a sense of maghrib/fajr etc. If I have piles today but tomorrow I’m cured then I must go from lying to sitting to standing? Or from sajdah to something else…

The Tailor: You asked “Are you saying that the correct reading of hadiths constitutes prayer?” The correct reading of all life (including the Qur’an and hadiths) is constituted exactly by the components of prayer (sajdah, rukuh, etc).

Prayer is correct reading (remember, after all, we are reciting Qur’an and making dua, all of which are meant not so much to change the world, but to change the way we relate to the world).

The problem with the popular current reading of how these components are understood in the sunnah, the popular reading of the hadiths relating to prayer for example — is that it treats them as simple aspects of a ritual taught to prophecy by an angel and ordained for us.

In which case, though it seems as though we are moving through niyat to recitation to ruku to sudjood etc — in actual reality, we are doing something quite destructive to ourselves (worst case)… or else (better case) we lying on our sides with piles, having only begun with niyat. We are still in prayer here, however, because that hadith notes that lying on our sides with niyat is sufficient — are are still in prayer, because we’re on the right path to evolution of understanding.

If prayer is correct reading of the world, then I would also like to say that the components of prayer are invariant: they are not fluid, irrespective of whether we are on earth or on mars, human or alien … correct reading always begins with intention, and recitation on two feet leading to prostration. These components are exactly what must be passed through if we are to understand any ayat put in front of us (from television news, to buying a bottle of milk from a shop, to reading hadiths).

Of course, your question remains: how about “actual” ritual of prayer … maybe discussing this stuff with me or riding a bike could allow us to move through components of this “metaphysical” prayer I am talking about . I would agree on this point.

Nevertheless, the best prayer is the Islamic salat, when conducted in this mode of complete understanding, constitutes the most profound confluence between the “metaphysical”, “true” prayer of understanding and the nature of our bodies — in this confluence we have the possibility to completely embody the metaphysical truth of gnosis. Gnosis made flesh, so to speak.

In other worlds, instead of just reading the text of life with correct understanding as an observer, a subject, the “actual” prayer is a technology that allows us to be that correct understanding.

The Neuroscientist: I’m missing something. The general question is: How do we know how to pray? And why is this the best way to do it. My ignorance is being exposed here.

Are you saying that the components of niyat, recitation on two feet and sajdah are antecedent to the interpretation of ayats? I always imagined that someone, somewhere has interpreted some ayats to come up with this practice, but we are questioning the interpretation of ayats (hadiths), so shouldn’t we also question the precise practice of prayer, which is based on ayats.

Since we don’t have complete understanding, can we claim that this is the best form of prayer? The perfect form of prayer (the correct reading of the world) maybe invariant, but shouldn’t both understanding and form co-evolve towards the Divine, towards this perfection?

How does this speak to the differences in the ways muslims pray? How far can we stretch these differences before we can stop calling it prayer or before it is no longer best practice?

The Tailor: Okay, let me try to oversimplify my position first, and then gradually obfuscate to get to what I mean precisely — sometimes that order helps.

1) There is the physical ritual prayer and then non-physical prayer.

The physical ritual already has minor variations within the ummah — and then if we go further out, to Christian and Jewish practice, even more greater variation (everyone has a similar way of doing dua, and standing and bowing, but generally only we and possibly the Buddhists do a form of sujud … )

There is no best form for this physical ritual prayer prayer because in all cases it is based on interpretations of ayat (either hadith or other religious instructions).

2) The non-physical prayer is invariant because it is understanding-as-evolution, and that understanding-as-evolution is, in a way, the only thing that is invariant to our existence. The curious thing is that the modes by which that non-physical understanding does evolve takes exactly the “forms” that are described in the hadith regarding physical prayer.

That is, the discussion we have right now — a back and forth dialectic and exchange of signs to negotiate a common spiritual understanding — is exactly what I think of as taking the form of “standing on two feet”. One of our voices takes the form of a left foot, the other takes the form of a right foot. And we recite, communicate signs. If you and I are part of the “Body of the Ummah”, then this blog discussion constitutes a recitation of that Body — but has yet to reach a moment of ruku, and … further down the evolution of that Body … to sujud.

So, in this way, we are both occupying a “form” of this invariant, non-physical prayer. But we could, equally well, be Christians or Buddhists having a similar discussion, still occupied with a similar type of spiritual discussion, while perhaps not actually physically perform the ritual of Islamic prayer. That would be ok — such Christians or Buddhists will still be standing and reciting, occupying that particular form of the invariant, non-physical prayer as part of the greater Body of Humanity.

3) And here is where the actual two things meet. And here the Islamic prayer (in whatever form) is privileged. Because if we now take our physical ritual and comprehend that its forms actually mirror the greater forms that govern the very process of comprehension itself (including, self-reflexively, this comprehension of prayer’s meaning) — then 1) we haver reached ruku (in its non-physical, invariant form) and 2) have a possibility of reaching sujud and actually completing our (invariant) prayer!

4) I’ve used this term Body of the Ummah — and I mean it quite literally as a body. So the thing I have called a non-physical prayer above is, for me, the Real physical prayer — let’s call it a bodily transformation — while the ritual that I have called physical above is, in fact, for me, a purely symbolic entity (just like the rest of our lives). What people normally consider their bodies in prayer is in fact pure imagination, while this particular Symbolic understanding I am promoting, when upheld, is embodied in the Real body, of which most know nothing though we all inhabit it. When that Real body is in prayer, then we enter (physically) a garden of boundless delight.

The Neuroscientist: It’s good to know that I may have actually prayed while standing at some points in my life (in the context of the hadith).

I’m not quite there with (3) and (4) yet, so allow me to press you a little more. Tasting prayer stood up, I’m perhaps over-eager to try and see if I can go for a rukuh. To clarify and slightly crudify: I should understand that in some similar way to which you describe in (2), the ritual process of prayer mirrors the non-ritual (greater?) form? That when the ritual is performed with a greater understanding (non-ritual), it is itself Divine understanding, or can evolve to it?

The confusion is that you say there is no best form for this ritual because it’s based on ayats. Yet in your previous answer, when relating to the possibility that riding my bike could be prayer, you said that best prayer is the Islamic salat … You mean the salat I’ve been taught is still the best one – it seems like you meant the ritual. Why is it that this ritual ‘constitutes the most profound confluence between the “metaphysical”, “true” prayer of understanding and the nature of our bodies’?

If it’s the best one, I’m trying to get at the reason why, if it isn’t, then I feel like it should it still be possible to apply the idea of our voices taking the form of our left and right feet, etc, to other activities, like riding our bikes, perhaps. Would it be possible that as I evolve along the path to Divine understanding, my every act may become an act of prayer because I act or choose not to, with precisely this understanding? Gnosis made flesh, as you put it so nicely.

Or this the point at which I can only understand by doing it?

The Tailor: Right! Get thee to the masjid! I could say a little more: when every act (Symbolic act) becomes an act of prayer, then you understand (Sophia descends upon you) and your body is transformed from being of Matter into being of Light, pure Gnosis made flesh. This is the Real, physical prayer taught to Abraham. This all appears to be a kind of metaphor for spiritual understanding — but that is precisely not what it is — it really is your Real Body moving, via the agency of recitation and speech, into physical prostration to Hu.

And the meaning of life is submission.

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