Yesterday I wrapped up my month of Islam. It went by a lot quicker than I thought it would, which surprised me because this was the month I was most nervous about. Judaism and Catholicism were religions that are fairly integrated into American culture, which makes it relatively accessible. Islam is still in the process of figuring out how to assimilate into American culture without losing itself (or so it appears to me).
Here’s what I learned from my Islam month:
Praying 5 times a day is really inconvenient
Salat is designed to span the entirety of your day. During my Islam month, I had to wake up at 5 AM (not such a big deal) to pray, then I had to pray at 1 PM, 5 PM, 8:30 PM, and then 9:30 PM.
The 1 PM prayer, Dhuhr, was the most inconvenient because I was usually at work. This meant I had to purify myself in the company bathroom, find a conference room, disguise my activities so no one thought I was a weirdo, and then rush through the prayer.
I often had to miss this prayer because I was in a meeting or something and had to skip it.
But, I think the “inconvenience” is really the whole point of Salat. It’s a reminder that your day-to-day activities are not nearly as important as taking time to remind yourself that your life is not completely your own, that it belongs to something greater than yourself.
It also occurred to me that maybe it’s not that praying is inconvenient, it’s that modern life is inconvenient. The irony is that modern life is very efficient and “convenient” in superficial ways. If you have a few bucks, you can buy a good cup of coffee within a few minutes of wherever you are. You can drive or take the metro to work instead of walking for miles and miles. I can communicate with anyone in the world from my cell phone.
But how is that I can do all that, and yet it’s still difficult to find time for prayer and solitude and reflection? Why do I feel weird about booking a conference a room to pray for a few minutes in the middle of the work day?
If we’re not careful, I think modernity will absolutely crush our ability to develop a spiritual life. We’re in danger of living profane lives that will ultimately lead us into despair.
Islam is smart because it makes Salat mandatory, regardless of the cultural context you live in. If you take the ritual seriously, it will force you to inject a little bit of spirituality into your daily life, saving you from the profane.
Salat is an effective moral reminder
I don’t know if I believe in God, so you’d think that the prayer wouldn’t have much of an effect on me. If I don’t believe in God, I must also believe there aren’t any consequences to my actions (in the afterlife), right?
What surprised me the most was how irrelevant my agnosticism was when I prayed. The simple fact that I took praying five times a day pretty seriously over the past month forced me to consistently reflect on my thoughts and actions , and whether or not they would please Allah.
For example if I had just prayed or was about to pray and one of my co-workers said or did something that irritated me, I would become aware of the irritation and think, “Am I being humble? Is it an act of arrogance to think I am better or know more than this person?”
It was similar to the effect Stoicism had on me. During my Stoicism month, when someone irritated me, I would think “Why should I be irritated by this person? They’re just saying words. It’s only my perception of these words that annoy me.”
The primary difference is that instead of playing defense with Stoicism (trying to remain tranquil), with Islam, my goal was to behave and think a positive way (be more humble).
The physical ritual of prayer helps reinforce this thinking process. Before each prayer I had to purify myself (Wudu). It only takes a minute, but it gives you time to “purify” your mind.
The danger of secular, modern life is that we think we don’t need physical rituals to be good people. Perhaps its true, but they are incredibly helpful. It’s easy to “forget” to be good if your morality is only in your head. Tying something physical to a value is a good way to reinforce good behavior and attitudes.
I’m still not humble
Despite the fact that prayer helped me be more cognizant of the ways I behave and think poorly, I still didn’t achieve a pure state of humility. I’m still aware of the many ways in which I am arrogant, and arrogant emotions and feelings still exist within me.
But the beauty of religion is that it is a lifelong practice. If everyone could be cured of the dark sides of their nature in a 30 day period, all religions would only need to be adopted for a short period of time and then could be abandoned
That’s why Islam doesn’t say, “pray 5 times a day for 6 months and then you’ll be perfect.” It is a life long commitment. Islam acknowledges that people will always struggle with their baser instincts. They even have a term for it: Jihad.
Contrast Islam with modern solutions to problems. We are always looking for 30-day programs that will help us lose weight, build confidence, become a pick-up artist, etc. Not only are some of the goals of these programs misguided, they seduce you into thinking that everything is solvable in a defined and short period of time.
We need to learn to play the long game when it comes to personal development. When you have this attitude, you learn that sometimes you will fail, that you will struggle, and that you are doing something inherently good. You will see improvements, but you will never attain perfection and that’s ok.
I’m encouraged by the recent proliferation of habit-based self-improvement programs, as that promotes a long-term view of self-development, but there’s something about religion that makes these types of things more compelling.
Submission to God is incredibly appealing
I got a taste of this during my Catholic month, but there is something incredibly stirring about submitting to something greater to yourself. Focusing on the self is frankly, exhausting. However, when you adopt the mindset that you are serving the divine, something noble and sacred, you become simultaneously humbled and excited.
I was once (and still am to an extent) a fan of the extreme Ayn Rand individualist philosophy. What is exciting about her philosophy is that it glorifies the potential of man and his ability to manifest his desires, his ability to create.
But this idea runs into a few problems when we encounter our own weaknesses, our flaws, our inability to make ourselves happy. How can we be super humans if we suffer in so many different ways?
Religion, particularly Islam, gets it right. It says that most of our problems come from following our own desires and not God’s desires for us. The word Islam means “submission to God’s will,” and Islam has very clear ideas of what it means to follow God’s will. Islam doesn’t say to “lose 10 pounds in 30 day,” it says to fast once a year for 30 days and to reflect on what it means to be hungry and how good you have it. Islam doesn’t say to build a lifestyle business so you can travel whenever you want, it says to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, once in your lifetime to remind yourself that this world is “an illusion of sorts, and that we are merely travelers here, so we shouldn’t get too comfortable”
Islam asks us to submit to a greater power for our own good, and it’s an incredibly attractive message, even to an agnostic like myself.
Unfortunately, Islam makes daily life seem meaningless
After learning the basics of Islam and doing Salat for 30 days, I was “sold” on the value of this particular religion. It is beautiful and meaningful and worth adopting.
The big downside, however, is that day-to-day life seems so mundane. Why bother going to work when I can read the lessons of Muhammad and the promise of the after life? What’s the point of dealing with all of life’s trivial nonsense that I never wanted to do anyway?
The religions I’ve studied so far always attempt to strike a balance between teaching that there is something greater than your regular life, and the idea that you still need to be an active participant in worldly affairs. From what I can tell, none of them advocates a permanent withdrawal from society (though many religions have rich ascetic traditions).
This is difficult for me, as I’ve always had this sort of existential depression and lack of meaning hanging over my head; Islam (or other religions) seems like a wonderful solution to this depression.
But it’s hard to reconcile that with doing very normal things, like going to work. Living as a recluse in the woods to study religious texts and pray and reflect seems farm more appealing.
So in some ways, Islam exacerbates my existential angst in daily affairs. I don’t really know what the solution is, but I suspect it’s just something I will have to struggle with for a long time.
Final thoughts and Recommendations
Praying five times a day and studying Islam is not a permanent fix to negative character traits. It does a good job of exposing some of your negative traits, giving you the opportunity to struggle and improve yourself.
Should you do what I did?
Hard to say. I think it’s a worthwhile experiment, and I think you’ll find some beauty in Islam that will make you feel for more positively about religion in general.
If you do the prayers though, I highly recommend picking up a few books to complement your practice:
- The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam: This gives an excellent overview of Islam, and offers surprisingly deep insights about the religion. This was my primary reference text
- The Heart of Islam: This isn’t really so much a book as it is a collection of aspirational quotes from various Islamic sources (Quran, Rumi, etc.). It offers good food for thought, and places an emphasis on Sufi values.
- The Illuminated Prayer: The Five-Times Prayer of the Sufis – Very poetic guide to Salat. It helps you see the deeper significance of Salat.
Note that the actual Quran is missing from this list. I checked out a copy form the library, but never looked at it. Honestly, I wouldn’t know where to start. I found the three books above to give me everything I need for the 30-day experiment. However, I bet there is lots of good stuff in there so feel free to take a stab at it.
Another resource I found helpful was the Muslim Pro iPhone app. I used it to remind me when it was time to pray and to tell me the direction of Mecca (it uses the iPhone compass feature). Very nifty.
I also bought this travel prayer mat for use at work and during my camping trip. It’s cheap, but it serves its purpose. I used a yoga mat when I at home because it was bigger, so if you have a yoga mat you want to use at the office, feel free to do so. I just didn’t want to be conspicuous, so I used the pocket sized travel mat at work.
For prayer instructions, I printed out this webpage. A Muslim friend taught me the actual motions, but these instructions helped me recite the correct words, since I did not memorize them.
I also recommend going to a mosque on Friday afternoons if you can get out of work and if there is one near where you live. It’s an interesting experience. I only attended Jummah prayers twice, but it was cool to be in sync in your prayer motions with other Muslims.
If you watch the news, you’ll get the impression that Islam is a backward religion that is incompatible with modern, liberal values. I think in many ways this is true, but I think that it is modern, liberal values that are often wrong, at least from a personal development standpoint (Note: I’m not commenting on political values).
Studying and practicing Islam for a month will force you think about where modern life falls short, and help you appreciate the “backward” traditions of religion.
Assalamu Aalaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatu
(May the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be upon you)