‘Sujud-lillah’ (prostration to God) and Acquiring ‘Adab’ in the Fight Against Covid-19
COVID-19 Friday Nasiha,
Claremont Main Road Masjid, 3 April 2020
Today’s Friday nasiha (advice) follows up on last week’s nasiha by Imam Dr Rashied Omar on ‘seeking solace in salah with khusu’, i.e. prayer with humility and sincere devotion.
Prayer with humility is exhorted by Allah (SWT) in the Qur’an in surah Mu’minin (The Believers), 23, Verse 1 and 2;
Truly, to a happy state shall attain the believers: those who humble themselves in their prayer. (Q23, 1-2)
The physical distancing that we are currently practising amid the COVID-19 pandemic presents a convenient time for meditation and sincere devotion.
Praying with humility and tranquillity is founded on observing each posture with pause and poise and reflecting on the inner meanings of the oral liturgies that we recite during the salah.
We are advised to enter the salah with full reverence in communion with Allah, with our hearts and minds fully present, mindful of our shortcomings, and appealing to Allah for the ability to improve our weaknesses and refine our behaviour.
The salah is an essential ritual resource to align our body, mind and heart to ethical behaviour, the adab, required in these challenging times. This reminds us of a beautiful hadith, attributed to prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in which he explains that;
My Lord has instilled etiquette in me and so made my etiquette most excellent.
I wish to dwell on this hadith as a means of explaining the cultivation of refined or adaptive behaviour by applying Islam’s ritual or spiritual resources such as the salah with humility in our daily lives.
My learned friends taught me about this hadith. It is generally believed that the substance (matn) can be attributed to the Prophet SAW, which allows us to say that the meaning conveyed is true.
There are several other hadith reports that convey a similar meaning. One is when Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) asked the Prophet, “how come you are the most eloquent among us but it is known that you never left our community to acquire this linguistic eloquence?” The Prophet replied: “the Arabic language of Ismail, Ibrahim’s son, had completely disappeared so therefore Jibril taught me this”. Adab on this version refers to the acquisition of language and eloquence taught by Allah to Muhammad (PBUH).
Another report is of Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) who tells the Prophet that: “you and I descend from the same (grand)father, but you speak a version of the Arabic language of which most Arabs don’t know”. The Prophet replied: “My Lord taught me etiquette and excelled in my moral formation”.
Adab thus means both language and etiquette or ethics. The prophetic example combines language with etiquette or moral behaviour. How a person speaks is a reflection of one’s inner moral commitments.
Islamic ethics is thus intent on cultivating the human body to adapt to changing contexts in which moral languages circulate. As our language evolves and adapts, so do we have to adjust our moral meaning-making systems to changing circumstances.
We are required to carefully cultivate adaptive spiritual, religious and other resources to reinvigorate our meaning-making and symbolic systems. There is now a necessity to align the symbolic intent of our ethical practices to changing circumstances.
The Coronavirus COVID-19 can be described metaphorically as a dhulm, a darkness, an out -of-wackness of the world, in respect of which our everyday existence has rapidly become dislodged and re-arranged.
The pandemic has travelled across the globe, affecting economic, political and social arrangements. It also affects the psychologies, anxieties, and mental well-being of individual people and distressed communities.
It is clear that this pandemic will stay with us for many months. Various attempts are in play to produce a vaccine over the next 12 months. The transmission of the virus through person to person contact has necessitated the World Health Organisation to call for physical distancing as the primary measure to ‘flatten the curve’, i.e. to slow down the spread of the disease.
Allah (SWT) explains in Surah Baqarah,
And most certainly shall We try you by means of danger, and hunger, and loss of worldly goods, of lives and of [labour’s] fruits. But give glad tidings unto those who are patient in adversity. (Q2, 155).
This is an important aayah. It speaks to several issues that have come to afflict humans in light of the coronavirus, and it points to the virtue of patience and perseverance in the face of adversity. The emphasis in the aayah is on how situations change rapidly, and how such change throws our livelihoods entirely out of whack, putting our very survival as communities and a species under the spotlight.
Furthermore, As Allah explains in surah An-’Am;
And, indeed, We sent Our messages unto people before thy time, [O Prophet,] and visited them with misfortune and hardship so that they might humble themselves. (Q6, 42).
The pandemic is a catastrophe (musiba) described in this aayah as a misfortune (ba’saa) and a hardship (dharraa) which brings about confoundment and humility. Indeed, misfortunate and hardship are part of the teaching toward developing adab.
The pandemic enters a world that has recently been experiencing several epidemics such as the SARS, Avian flu and MERS pandemics. We are told that because of intense global interconnection, viruses such as the coronavirus will be travelling the globe on a much more regular basis than what has hitherto been the case.
COVID-19 enters a world unprepared to deal with it, a world of deep inequality between and within nations and communities. The South African government has acted early via calling a state of disaster, followed by the current lockdown, and the intensification of screening, testing and tracing.
The intention is to flatten the curve of the spread of the virus. One key anxiety is how the virus will behave once it enters impoverished communities where physical distancing is difficult, and where many people’s immune systems are weak as a result of high rates of co-morbidities such as tuberculosis, HIV / Aids and diabetes.
We have thus far seen remarkable civic responses. Ordinary communities, neighbours, NGOs and religious congregations have been responding with informal counselling and support, addressing food hunger, supplying sanitary packs, and looking after the infirm and elderly. These are based on having imbibed the lessons of developing the appropriate adab or behavioural responses.
In the religious realm, congregations are mobilising to offer support and assistance, and congregational services have been called off. The religious ruling for cancelling jumu’ah and other congregational prayers was informed by medical opinion about the spread of the virus and the need for physical distancing.
Cancelling congregational prayer has left many confounded. It brought into stark relief the role of ritual prayer in the absence of jama’ah, causing us to consider how to understand what kind of proposition the salah and other ritual practices make on us when we adjust and respond with active agency to the ravages caused by the pandemic.
During such a time it is apposite that we re-examine this gift of salah. Allah (SWT) declares in Surah Ta Ha;
Verily, I – I alone – am God; there is no deity save Me. Hence, worship Me alone, and be constant in prayer, so as to remember Me! (Q20, 14).
And salah as an illumination of the Heart, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) is reported to have said;
The prayer of a person is (in reality) a light in his heart, so whoever desires, can illuminate his heart (by means of prayers).
It is clear that as the backbone of Islamic moral law (’imad al-din), the salah establishes a relationship between belief and action. As Muhammad Iqbal explains, the posture of the body in salah determines the musallee’s attitude of mind, his or her consciousness in everyday practices.
According to Shaykh Prof Khaled Abou al-Fadl, salah is the direct manipulation of the space around us, which affects our aura as human beings.
Bringing us into the metaphorical presence of Allah, salah turns space into virtuous space. Our volition or will to act amid such virtuous space allows our behaviour to become righteous, compassionate and comfort-bearing.
Salah thus imbues the body with the norms of virtue, compassion, mercy and love. Acquiring adab, what emanates from virtuous space is our volition to opt for moral practices, those practices that bring comfort to the self, one’s family, neighbours and the community.
We enter salah in a symbolically purified state, a state of taharah, we rise up and stand in front of Allah, readying ourselves to receive the rahmah of God’s grace, opening our bodies to virtuous norms, to becoming good.
The body is readied to imbibe these norms during our acts, movements and utterances during prayer. The salah offers a promissory note; that is, it enables us to combine body, heart and consciousness to adopt the appropriate adab or virtue ethics.
The choice is ours, yet the practice of salah with humility facilitates such a choice in the direction of virtue.
Salah with humility (khusu’) connects the physical form of its bodily postures with the norms of responsive and virtuous behaviour. These norms enter the body, soul and consciousness of human being.
The sujud or prostration is the bodily and conceptual climax of the salah. As Allah (SWT) explains in surah al-Hijr,
extol thou thy Sustainer’s limitless glory and praise Him, and be of those who prostrate themselves [before Him] in adoration, (Q15, 98)
The act of prostration to God, sujud lillah, is the ultimate act of submission. Sujud opens our heart to the divine covenant. It allows us to claim our dignity. It is an act of humility and accountability.
In contrast, Iblis’s refusal to prostrate is an act of rebellion, as explained by Allah in surah al-Baqarah,
And when We told the angels, “Prostrate yourselves before Adam!” – they all prostrated themselves, save Iblis, who refused and gloried in his arrogance: and thus he became one of those who deny the truth. (al-Baqarah: 2:34)
The refusal to prostrate is an act of rebellion, a refusal to become virtuous, a refusal to submit to God’s command, in other words, a refusal of adab. Such refusal is borne of arrogance, hubris and egotistical self-idolatry.
Living life based on a demonic human disposition is corrosive and steeped in inertia. It closes us off from a life of virtue in service of others which is so desperately needed in our responses to COVID-19.
Sujud-lillah trains and disciplines the nafs (ego). Salah transforms the body from a disposition of inertia to a state of activity. It transforms demonic or evil space into space of comfort, compassion and care.
Salah with humility enables us to develop an inner spiritual and psychological state which impacts our behaviour, i.e. our adab, connecting an internal state of humility to outward behaviour.
Salah opens the body to responding productively to our changed circumstances, and thus helps us to figure out how best to adapt and respond to the needs of others.
As we find new ways of communing with others in this current state of physical isolation, the salah is Islam’s key spiritual resource which enables us to work out how to engage in practices of compassion and care.
It provides us with the spiritual resources for securing human life amid re-arranged living circumstances associated with the virus pandemic.
We offer a duah for peace and stability in the world inshallah.
We pray for Allah’s grace in our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We ask Allah to imbue us with a spirit of productive co-existence, compassion and care.
And we ask Allah to imbue our salah with humility that connects our inner selves to good practices and adab that will secure and preserve life, inshallah, Amin.