The blessed months of Rajab, Shab’an and Ramadhan provide us with an opportunity to reflect upon the central theme of these months and that is supplication. These months encourage us to participate more in the act of supplication. As the value of everything sits in its understanding (ma’rifa) as the first Shi’a Imam mentions, let us focus a bit on what this phenomenon is and how this reality can be a mode by which man can reach his purpose.
Supplication (du’a) within the Islamic terminology is considered as one of the referents of the vocal dhikr (remembrance) and this transfer to and becomes a dhikr of the heart. Supplication (du’a) is also the most elementary meeting point of ‘man as such’ and ‘God as such’.
The Bible says: “to love God ‘with all our strength’”, and rightly so. This strength is the strength to realise who he (man) is and the strength to realise who He (God) is. Du’a plays this great role in making man realise that he is ‘nothing’ vis’a’vis God. As the Qur’an says, “O people who are (essentially) in need of God and He is free of all wants” (35:15). In another instances the Qur’an indicates the ‘essential need or poverty’ (faqr) of every created thing in this fashion that “whatsoever is in the heaven and earth ask (questions) God” (55:29).
Seeking, asking, and questioning point out to that existential ‘poverty’ (faqr wujudi) of creation. Furthermore, this also establishes the fact that all existence is in the state of ‘perpetual supplication’. This type of meeting brings about the true understanding (ma’rifa) of God, who He is. This type of supplication is what is considered by God and this is indeed that true ‘call’ (du’a). God in the Qur’an says, “if it was not for the supplication I would not have looked towards you” (25:77). This state of seeking and asking is the very reason of subsistence (baqa). The “not looking” of God will bring-about a state of annihilation for all creation. This theme of essential ‘poverty’ (faqr) is also one of the grand proofs of the existence elf God in the Islamic philosophy introduced by Mulla Sadra.
Prayers or Supplication (du’a)
Within Islam, prayers are usually considered as the canonical prayers, the five daily ones. Nevertheless the technical meaning of prayers as in salah actually means the du’a itself. Furthermore, the daily canonical prayers are indeed a form of ‘calling’ (du’a) as well. However traditionally speaking they are categories in a different category.
Muslims do use the sentence as ‘pray for me’ or ‘remember me in your prayers’, which actually means that you supplicate (du’a) for me or take my name in the du’a but not in the salah as such. I personally would regard them as the prescribed prayers through which that meeting does take place in that sense of reality mentioned above. This indeed is due to the fact the God out of His Mercy wants human beings to be true to their nature (fitra); the faqr.
Categorisation of Prayers and Supplication
I would like to categorise prayers into three different categories, 1) the five daily prayers, 2) the supplications which also includes the whispered supplications (najwa) and finally 3) the individual prayers were a person asks for what he or she really desires.
Daily Prayers, which are obligatory and considered as pillar of Islam by the Prophet(s) are the most common way by which man connects to God. These are prescribed in a certain fashion and certain times and indeed in them lay deep secrets. Those interested can refer to the books of ‘urafa or scholars of spiritual wayfaring, such as Adabus salah and Sirr al-salah of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Supplication and Whispered Prayers
According to Imam Ali(a) supplication is considered as ‘the key to success and righteousness’. The Prophet Abraham and Imam Ali were known to engage in supplication a great deal. There seem to be three different modes in which the supplications are undertaken; the first is known as du’a, which means a call and it seems to be quite steady in terms of its voice and pitch. Then comes nudba (wailing). This seems to manifest a desperate situation of an individual and he wails out loud. Finally there is najwa (whispering) and they seem to indicate more of a connection to a beloved; God and the lover, the individual. It is usually the case that the speech between two lovers is whispered in an intimate way even when it seems that no one is around.
What we see within all the three different modes is the ma’rifi (knowledge and understanding) aspect of God in the essence of all supplications. To know God is to attribute Him and to explain His different complexities and this can be the work of no one but those who have been purified by God. As He says, “Glory to God, (He is free from the things they ascribe to Him) except the sincere and purified ones” (Qur’an 37:159). In this respect the Shi’as are blessed to have the infallible Imams to leave behind a grand legacy of supplications.
Therefore, in the supplications of the prophets and the Imams we find a great deal of attributes being ascribed to God and some are purely in His praise such as the famous jaushan al kabir, the supplication of ‘arafa of Imam Husayn(a) or the second and third du’a of sahifa sajjadiya, and also the du’a called nudba (wailing), which is recited on Fridays.
The second pattern that we tend to see in supplications is where we seek good moral traits, and perfect qualities from God, although these seem to praise God first before seeking those perfect qualities. Thirdly we have the supplications which tend to seek worldly desires through this medium such as protection from calamities, prayers for increase of sustenance, returning of debts etc. Finally we have whispered prayers which seem to increase the intimacy between man and God.
In all these different modes, levels and categories, what is common is the explanation or description of who God is and who man is and what he must really become. Therefore, one can also suggest that supplication is a methodology of ‘being and becoming’ as well.
Sheikh Abbas Mirza holds an MA in Theology, University of Birmingham and is currently working on his Phd at the University of Exeter in Mysticism (irfan). He also lectures at Hawza Ilmiyya of England and Islamic College of Advanced Studies