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Ramadan 02: Introducing Muraqabah
Meditation for Muslims: Mindfulness--of monotheism.
Every Ramadan, we all try to take our Muslim life up a notch.
In this series, I share how we do Ramadan. In addition to fasting, we focus on praying, du‘a, listening to something with a deeper spiritual value, taraweeh (at the mosque when possible), and specific exercises that elevate our worship—together.
For the previous post in this series, click here.
If you’re new to Sunday Schooled, here’s a short description of the different posts I’ll be sharing. And here’s why I’m writing Sunday Schooled in the first place: To help Muslim parents raise thriving kids who love and live their faith.
Doing More With Less: This Ramadan, We’re Rethinking Our Halaqas
A few days back, I shared why our first family halaqas didn’t stick. One reason was time: The halaqas took so much more than I had—and required more than the kids had. This Ramadan, my wife and I pursued a reset. We rebooted our halaqa on Friday night, before maghrib and the start of Ramadan, with a short talk connecting intentions (niyyah) to actions (a‘mal). You can read it here.
Key upgrades: Make it fifteen minutes. Twenty tops. Make it more casual, warmer, more inviting—a nice family chat, with less emphasis on all the many things you’ll be expected to know, and more emphasis on the bigger picture. So, instead of calling on the kids, asking them to repeat the opening du‘a, we recite it together. If we do that kind of thing often enough, inshallah it becomes second nature.
And while I can’t be sure if those tweaks did it—still, something clicked. There was less fidgeting. Less bickering. Less stress. Less pressure on them. Us, too.
We decided that because the next day was a Saturday, it’d be good to get in our second halaqa before school started up. But we planned that, for this second one, we’d do an exercise. Instead of learning vocab, quizzing them on history, or asking them to apply some critical thinking skills to big concepts—and there’ll still be room for that—we’d teach them a (spiritual) life skill with multiple benefits.
It’s called muraqabah, and maybe you’ve heard of it before. And on reflection, writing after the fact, I think everyone appreciated it.
It was certainly a side of Islam they’d not had that much experience with.
We started when ‘asr prayer came in, at 5:30 and finished by 6:00, prayers included. I gave a quick talk about muraqabah, explained how to do muraqabah, and then we actually did it.
But before I share how that actually unfolded (giving you a template you can use), I need to pause and give the adults in the room some helpful context, to explain what muraqabah is not, because that will be quite important to how you teach it.
And what you hope to communicate through it.
Activities Are By Intentions: Everything Begins and Ends With God
Many of us are familiar with mindfulness meditation. On the surface, what I describe below might seem to be a slight variation on the same theme. But there’s a significant difference—and this is immensely significant, for you, and for those you’re teaching, theologically, spiritually, morally, and in many other ways besides. And I do not say this to dismiss mindfulness meditation.
In fact, for a very significant few months of my life, I did it too, and found it to be enormously helpful during that exceptionally difficult stretch of my early thirties.
But like any practice, it contains inbuilt assumptions and pushes certain outcomes. Broadly speaking, mindfulness meditation is often described as an exercise that helps us be present in the moment, to still the stream of thoughts that clutter our mind, prevent us from being at rest, deny us the chance to live more fully, and often distract us from pursuing what we most need.
While muraqabah is an exercise that resembles meditation—as you’ll see below—the intent, the niyyah, of muraqabah is to cultivate not an awareness of the present moment itself so much as an intense and constant awareness of the Divine, a consciousness that God is always there, with us, beyond and behind the noise of everyday life. It is a means of cultivating taqwa.
Because to me the task is not to quiet the mind for the sake of quiet (though that is also good), but to quiet the mind to become more conscious of the actual nature, order, and purpose of the universe, which includes us and everything we do. It is to become increasingly sensitive to the dependence of all on the Divine, the origin of all with the Divine, and the return of all as superintended by the Divine.
Oh—and if you think taqwa means fear, you’ve been taught wrong.
Practicing Muraqabah: Strengthening The Monotheism Muscle
In the name of God, who loves all and is merciful to each. All praise, gratitude, and thanks are due to God, Lord of all the universes, and prayers and peace be upon our master and teacher, Muhammad, the final Messenger.
Yesterday, we talked about a hadith, a saying, of the Prophet Muhammad: “Actions are by intentions.” I talked about how God judges us not based on what the outcome of an action is so much as the reason we engaged in the action beforehand. But I also talked about how actions reveal our intentions. For example, if you say you care about school, but you never study—how much do you really?
You can say you love someone, but nobody believes declarations of love absent evidence. If someone says they’re your best friend, and gets you a birthday gift you didn’t like, you might be a little annoyed, but it’s okay. It’s the thought that counts. But if they totally forgot your birthday, you’d probably be a little concerned—unless maybe they had a very good reason. Does that make sense?
Words have to line up with actions. Actions confirm words.
This Ramadan, we should frequently ask ourselves: How does the time we spend reveal our intentions? Our priorities? Our values? Some people spend all their energy on shallow things. They want to be popular, or famous, or rich, as if these things are by themselves good. But some people spend lots of energy—and maybe this is worse—for no reason at all. They just float aimlessly, bouncing from one thing to another.
They don’t have clear goals or defined ambitions, because they don’t have a purpose.
They’re kind of just there.
To be clear, you can’t be a Muslim and then have zero ambition. You can’t be a Muslim and have no purpose. Well, not a thriving Muslim, at least.
Because every Muslim should be constantly motivated to work on themselves, be active in the world, and committed to those around them—we are not couch potatoes: To learn, to act, to serve, to worship, to improve, to ask forgiveness, to do better the next time.That’s what we do. We don’t just wander through life. We ask ourselves, in everything we do, is this what God wants us to do?
There’s an Arabic word called “taqwa,” which you might have heard of before. Some people translate it as fear, but it’s not that. I believe it was the Imam Ja‘far Sadiq, a blessed descendant of the blessed Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who once said something along these lines: Taqwa means you’re always where God needs you to be—and never where God doesn’t want you to be.
At this point, I turned to R, who’d had his first baseball practice that morning.
Earlier today, I watched R’s baseball practice for a bit. One of the exercises they did was sprints. Of course, there’s no sprints by themselves in baseball, like you don’t step out onto the diamond and just run thirty feet thirty times. But you practice sprints to be ready to catch a ball that’s flying overhead—or to get to or to steal a base. The point is, the exercises prepare you for the game. They’re not the game itself.
What we’re going to do next is kind of like that. It’s an exercise, to build taqwa. It’s not worship itself, but it makes you better at worship. And better at all of life, speaking from a Muslim perspective. Because the more you do it, the more you’ll be aware of God, the more you’ll bring that awareness into your worship, and the more you’ll be able to resist when the outside world tries to distract you.
It’s called muraqabah, which comes from an Arabic root that means watching or examining something very closely.
What we’re going to do next is watch ourselves closely.
We’re going to spend a few minutes in an exercise of muraqabah, which means we’re going to train our minds to think of God.
At this point, one of our two wonderfully ridiculous cats trots in, generating oohs and aahs and all kinds of excitements. That actually worked out perfectly, because I’d planned to use the cats as examples. And voilà, there was a cat, right there before us.
Above: Lolo Cat. Ahead: Explanation.
I asked Z, middle child and design guru, to help me with Sunday Schooled. I made myself feel better by telling myself this was good stepparenting, giving her creative input and agency, but it was also an admission I am bad at these things and have been outclassed by a not-yet-high-school-freshman.
When I showed Z the post, and told her I needed a picture to take it up a notch, she told me it had to be Lolo Cat—and then she took the picture, too. When I asked her why this picture, she said, “I like this because that’s the chair you sit on to lead the halaqa.” She was also clever enough to include the Qur’an stand, which I never would’ve.
Sometimes they are so cute you just want to eat them. Kids and cats.
Unfortunately, and there is consensus on this ruling, neither is halal.
Doing The Muraqabah: Be Alone With God
Because this was not a class alone but also a spiritual exercise, we did this in a very quiet room at a very quiet time, seated in a kind of irregular circle. I spoke slowly, softly, and gently, stretching out my sentences, to create as serene and calm an atmosphere as possible.
I want everyone to find a comfortable position. But your feet should be on the ground, because I don’t want you to fall asleep. I’m going to ask you to close your eyes and keep them closed. You’ll go through an exercise, with me walking you through it, but it’s not an exercise that’s about feeling bad about yourself. It’s actually about being very nice and kind to yourself.
So that you can keep your heart centered on God.
Does that make sense?
Now, I want everyone to make sure they’re comfortable. Gently close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and let yourself relax. Pay attention to the random sounds of the house and just outside, accept that they’re just part of the scenery, and keep breathing slowly and comfortably. (I waited about ten seconds after this.) Now, keeping your eyes closed, follow my lead.
I want you to think of someone you love. It could be a family member. A friend. It could be the cats. Or you can think of something you love. Like a sport. Or a place. Or a food. That helps because we’re all hungry. But it should be something that makes you feel really warm and wonderful. Think about what or who you chose, why they make you feel so good, and then focus on that feeling of good.
Rest in that embrace. Hold that feeling, sit with that feeling and then, with your eyes still closed, keeping that feeling deep inside you, think about God.
Whatever or whoever you picked—that’s from God. And I want you to turn to God, to think about God, and then to think that right now, while you’re thinking about God, God is also thinking about you. He’s aware of you right now, of course, but He’s always aware of you, perfectly and intensely, at every single moment. And if your mind wanders, if you get distracted, if you think about something else, it’s okay.
Just smile at yourself and think about God again. And anytime it happens, that you drift off, just drift back. And sit in that, in His presence, for a little while, your eyes closed, feeling love, and feeling the Source of that love, and just be here. Like that.
I waited sixty seconds.
And now, very softly, open your eyes, and come back to the world.
And take a deep breath.
I waited fifteen seconds.
That feeling of intense closeness with God, that feeling of piercing awareness, of intense intimacy, is something we can try to feel in all of our worship and at every moment of our day, so that we’re more mindful—not of the present moment by itself, but of the fact that there is no place, no time, and no feeling at which point God is not also entirely and fully there and Aware. He is with us, wherever we are.
However we are.
Whenever we are.
Whoever we are.
We can do it when we’re stressed out. We can do it regularly, to build our taqwa. And we can transfer this discipline into our worship. Doing this doesn’t fulfill our obligations to God. But it shows God we are serious about improving ourselves, too.
At this point, the aforementioned cat—let’s call him Lolo—is not only fast asleep but very loudly purring, tucked between the edge of a loveseat and Z’s leg. It was a good way to end.
And just so you know, this level of intense awareness, of closeness and connectedness, that we briefly glimpsed, is how Lolo is all the time, completely and totally connected to God, even when he’s chasing dental treats or fighting to a draw with the bath mats.
May God give us the taqwa of cats.
We do however fill pastry with potatoes, fry it, and serve it, often at Iftar time. It is called a samosa and it is proof God loves us and wants to be happy.
Because I’m trying to be more focused and efficient, when I mention historical figures or events, I might briefly explain their relevance, but I quickly move on. I’m trying to keep us on the object of the lesson, and not get lost in the footnotes. Of course, as these names are mentioned more and more often, perhaps they’ll become more familiar. All while I pray that one day, on their own initiative, they might research these on their own. Inshallah.