The Prayer for Guidance

(Continued from “Seeking Guidance” on October 19, 2011.)

There is no sure-fire way to be 100% certain that we’re making the right decisions. However, there is a way to be confident that we’re heading in the right direction. And it’s not by seeking out signs and omens or consulting tarot cards or fortune-tellers. There is only one source of perfect advice and guidance and that is God.

Some people dislike that answer. Either they don’t believe in God, or they don’t think God speaks to us clearly enough for us to know what He really wants. Some Christians, and Muslims, too, will open their Holy Books (the Bible or the Qur’an) to a random page and let their finger or eye fall on one verse or passage. They then try to interpret what God is telling them through His Word.

In my opinion, that’s no better than superstition. It’s also lazy. Because there’s only one way to obtain God’s guidance and that’s through prayer. But not just any prayer. Muslims have a special prayer which is called “Salat-I-Istikhara” or the Prayer for Guidance. We were given this prayer by the Prophet Mohammad (swt) and the English translation goes like this:

Oh Allah! I seek Your guidance by virtue of Your knowledge, and I seek ability by virtue of Your power, and I ask You of Your great bounty. You have power; I have none. And You know; I know not. You are the Knower of hidden things.

Oh Allah! If in Your knowledge, (this matter*) is good for my religion, my livelihood and my affairs, immediate and in the future, then ordain it for me, make it easy for me, and bless it for me. And if in Your knowledge, (this matter*) is bad for my religion, my livelihood and my affairs, immediate and in the future, then turn it away from me, and turn me away from it. And ordain for me the good wherever it may be, and make me content with it.

Even if you don’t remember the exact words, you can learn a lot about how to be guided by God from studying this prayer. First, we learn that we can’t hope to know the future; only God knows that. And because He’s the only one who knows the future, He’s also the only one who can give us the best advice about how to head into our future.

Second, we learn that whatever we decide, it must be good for our religion, our livelihood and our affairs, both immediate and in the future. If we’re contemplating something that would violate that guideline, we know right there that we’re heading the wrong way.

Third, because God knows not only the future, but knows us, He alone is able to guide us properly.

However, this still leaves the problem of how God guides us. And here is where I marvel at the wisdom of the Prophet (swt). For he tells us to trust God and have faith in His ability to make those things that are good for us also easy for us, and the things that are bad for us more difficult. We are also to trust that God will influence us to the point where, if we’re really submitted to Him, we will find ourselves losing interest or confidence in those plans that are not God’s will for us.

This requires time and repeated prayer. We can’t expect instant answers. Sometimes we have to wait for a while to see if we remain enthusiastic and positive about our intentions. We also need to give God time to work in us and in our circumstances.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m an expert about seeking God’s guidance, because I’m not. But I thank Allah that He gave us this model.

Seeking Guidance

A newborn baby operates on instinct. She doesn’t decide when she cries or sleeps. He’s at the mercy of the adults in his life to make all his decisions for him. But as she grows older, she becomes increasingly independent. And part of that independence is learning to make your own decisions.

The good parent teaches his child to make decisions wisely and responsibly. This can seem like an overwhelming task because making decisions isn’t easy even for grown-ups. How do we teach our children to be wise and responsible when we so often fail at this ourselves?

Some people are very decisive while others are indecisive. I tend toward the latter. In my younger years I never wanted to make a decision because I was always afraid that I would make the wrong one. When I was asked what I wanted to do, I would say, “I don’t know; you decide.” That was my way of protecting myself from another person’s displeasure. I thought if I never made a decision, it would always be the other person’s fault if it went wrong. I also thought that no one would ever get mad at me if I never tried to push my own agenda.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. All I ended up doing was frustrating my friends and family. They felt that I was distancing myself from them, making myself inaccessible. Just because I wouldn’t say what I really wanted. They weren’t asking me to agree with them. They wanted me to reveal myself by showing what I cared about.

I was especially bad about this when it came to my boyfriends and later my husbands. Shortly before I married my first husband, I became a Christian. And rather than making me wiser and more responsible, I became less so. That was because I didn’t ask God to help me make decisions; I asked my husband to. And because I was trying to be a “good” Christian, I thought I had to defer to my husband’s leadership and to me that meant that I was to let him make all the decisions.

That’s the tricky thing about seeking guidance. If we seek it from the wrong people, we can make a mess of our lives. Bad advice makes for bad decisions. And even if the person we’re conferring with has good motives and a certain amount of wisdom, he still may not give us advice that fits us.

I discovered this when I took a course in creative writing a few years ago. I’ve always wanted to write and thought I was good at it. In class one day I told my teacher that another teacher had said that my writing was “almost lyrical.” My writing teacher’s response was, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean it was good writing.”

I was scarred by that comment, to the point where my confidence in myself as a writer was almost completely eroded. As a result, I stopped writing for a while except for in my journals. It has taken me a lot of time and effort to build back my self-esteem, and I’m still not where I want to be.

So how do we protect ourselves from people who are not really wise or empathetic enough to give us good advice? And how do we make decisions for ourselves that are the “right” ones? And, even more, how

The Shifting Sands of Doubt

I haven’t been around much lately because I was studying for the GRE (Graduate Record Exam®) I had to take for grad school. I took it on September 26th and now I’m trying to get back into my writing. I’m also trying to get back into my faith. Because the truth is, while I was focusing on the GRE, I lost my focus on everything else.

I have trouble switching from one activity to another, especially in the course of one day. If I try to make myself “turn off” one mindset and “turn on” another, I find that my brain just won’t co-operate. I feel befuddled (which means “very confused and unable to think clearly”) or dazed and disorientated. It’s like when you have something in the back of your mind that you keep thinking about even when you try not to. If I try to write, or study, or even pray when I’ve just been doing something else, I can’t seem to clear my mind and allow it to focus on something new.

I’ve been diagnosed with ADD (or Attention Deficit Disorder), which is another way of saying that my mind works differently than most peoples’. I’m terribly disorganized, I tend to hyperfocus on one thing at a time, but I also need constant stimulation or I get bored and tune out completely. I tend to jump from one enthusiasm to another and become totally obsessed with each one, but give me a week and I’m on to something else.

Lately I’ve been feeling out of touch with my faith. I keep missing prayer times, I haven’t been reading the Qur’an and I don’t wear my hijab as much as I used to. I’ve been worried that my enthusiasm for Islam has run its course, that it was only a temporary interest and now I’m over it. But when I think about God, and how I see my relationship with Him, I know that Islam is the only religion that makes sense to me.  My problem has more to do with my inability to stick with things rather than with my lack of interest.

I realize now that I can’t grow in my iman (faith) unless I feed it. The problem is, I’ve been getting most of what I know about Islam from the wrong sources. Islam emphasizes the importance of knowledge but it has to be the right kind of knowledge. When I pay more attention to Muslims who are trying to push their own agenda instead of to Mohammad as revealed in the ahadith, I’m bound to become confused and disillusioned.

I’ve decided that there is a hierarchy in learning. The most important things to learn are what Allah says about Himself and what Mohammad says about Allah. Next on the list are the things we need to do to be righteous in Allah’s eyes. But even there, our most important sources are the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Whenever I get confused about what Allah wants of me, I need to turn to these resources, not to the opinions of other Muslims.

However, the best kind of knowledge is that which is gained through experience. Book learning is not enough. I need to be in an active relationship with Allah if I ever want to overcome my tendency to lose interest. This is where prayer enters the picture, as well as our attitudes toward prayer. If I feel that prayer is something I have to do, I avoid it or do it grudgingly. But when I feel that prayer is something that I get to do, I pray willingly and with joy.

There’s a story in the Bible about the foolishness of building one’s house on shifting sand instead of on solid rock. Other people’s opinions are like shifting sand; Allah is the solid rock. Whenever I feel myself slipping in my faith, I should look at where I’m building my “house.” If it’s not on Allah and His word, then I shouldn’t be surprised if I don’t feel secure in my faith.


Identity Crisis

I’ve been struggling lately with the question: Who am I exactly? I thought I had a pretty good handle on that before I converted to Islam. Now I’m not so sure.

Becoming a Muslim has turned me into something  “other.” Before my conversion I belonged to the majority group: I was a white Protestant American. Now some people seem confused about my ethnicity and question whether or not I’m still an American. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked where I’m from. (By Muslims and non-Muslims alike.) It’s as if there’s this unspoken belief that if you’re a Muslim, you must be a foreigner. And if you’re a foreigner, you’re obviously not an American.

The odd thing is, I’ve always been a person who likes to fade into the background. Or so I thought. But there is also a part of me that wants to be special. I want to stand out from the crowd in some way. I couldn’t do that by being white or Christian. White Christians aren’t exactly rare in America. I couldn’t change my race, but I could change my religion.

That’s not why I converted, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that belonging to a minority appealed to me. I’ve always been appalled by prejudice and there’s no worse prejudice in this country right now than that against Muslims. Becoming a Muslim meant that I was casting my lot in with other Muslims. Being proud to be a Muslim (which I am) is my way of saying that I support Muslims and think the world of Islam. You could say it’s “putting my money where my mouth is.”

When I first converted, I wanted to tell everyone. And I made the mistake of doing just that. I remember telling my hairdresser, of all people, and having her react almost in horror. “What are you going to do about Jesus?” she demanded. “He’s the Son of God.” I didn’t bother to tell her that Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet; I could tell she wouldn’t react well to that. To her Jesus was God and to believe otherwise would be to damn yourself to Hell.

I started wearing the hijab a few months after my conversion because I wanted to “tell” people that I’m a Muslim without having to say a word. I thought that it would spark conversations about my faith. But I’ve found that besides asking me where I’m from, hardly anyone asks me about Islam or why I converted. Sometimes I feel like I’m the elephant in the room that no one will talk about. It’s as obvious as the nose on my face that I’m a Muslim, but most people are afraid to ask me about it.

The result is, I often feel alienated, especially when I’m the only hijabi in the group, which I usually am. I feel it the most in groups of white Christian Americans. But I also feel it when I’m with born Muslims. They have trouble believing that a born American, especially a white one, could have converted to Islam. So I’m an outsider in both groups.

It’s not that born Muslims don’t accept me; when it finally hits them that I’m a Muslim, they’re delighted. They love Islam so much and it makes them proud and happy when they discover that someone else does, too, especially when it’s someone who once knew nothing at all about Islam, or was even once prejudiced against it.

It doesn’t help that I rarely go to the masjid. Since women aren’t encouraged to go, and sometimes are even discouraged from going to the masjid, it’s easier to just pray at home. The Muslim friends I became the closest to when I first converted have all moved away. I know I need to make new friends who are Muslim. Because until I do, I’m going to continue to wonder where exactly I fit in.