A few years ago I made a writerly discovery that to me has been the most immense source of spiritual bliss, the place where writing and faith began to merge for me.
Before going for hajj
in 2002, I attended a talk in which the speaker encouraged us to make a list for things to pray for. That’s when I first planned my duaas
in the form of a list. Studies. Health. My family’s well being. Success in my academic and professional pursuits. A decent husband. Kids who are not emo. (Yes, at sixteen I was already worried about that.) Forgiveness for my past sins. Death in the best state of iman
. All that jazz.
But lists are boring. Lists are bland. You make a list to shop for groceries. But when it comes to making duaas: a list? Does that really suffice? When one looks down at each entry, can they call upon the emotions associated with each item as they pray for it?
A duaa is not just a tangible thought. It is also made up of the emotions associated with that thought.
During a dark time when I was writing out my thoughts to try and understand my situation, I suddenly pressed indent and typed:
An unbridled narrative unfolded. I laid an exposition. Took on the responsibility for all the things I knew I was accountable for. Tried to understand the sources of anxiety, all the while stressing that, like Yusuf’s father, I wanted to complain to no one else. Once I finally had the calm that begins to settle after a cathartic release, I built up to a plea, based on everything I had laid out. I mapped out the ways in which the thing I was requesting could make me a better servant, daughter, sister, friend. I continuously injected the understanding that I cannot know what is best for me, but that I ask only what I think is best for me, given what I know.
All of this while asking for just one thing, and one thing alone.
It’s not like lists aren’t important, and a comprehensive list of things to pray for can be invaluable. But a list is nothing more than a collection of reminders. There is more to duaas than just acknowledging them. To me, the perfect duaa is the one that is fashioned from emotion. And emotions often visit with no more than a moment’s notice.
Writers are told that when something hits them, they must drop everything and write. Same goes for duaas. One might be sitting on a bus. In the middle of a social gathering. In the middle of an enormous project, even. But can he afford to not give in to the sudden well of emotion, the need to address what makes his heart heavy, to the divine?
It’s one thing to pray for my parents’ physical and spiritual well being. It’s another thing to revive memories of crisp autumn evenings in Pakistan that my father spent teaching me how to ride a bike. When one remembers something like that, the duaas grow in themselves. With those memories, the yearning to take care of him and be good to him and never cause him any pain is so overpowering that there is no need to look for the words to ask for them.
Perhaps duaas don’t even have to put in words. Perhaps they’re just memories and feelings and images. Memories of the past, feelings of hope, and images of an ideal future that optimizes the best of deen and duniya.
Ramadan is drawing to a close, and very soon I will no longer be in a position to ask for something in the same way I am at the iftar
table or during Laylat Al-Qadr
. When the emotion is there, I draw it in and fashion it into an original duaa
with as much ardor as I can. When it isn’t, or when I am pulled away by other things like serving iftar
and bonding with my family, I say: “Dear God. I’m not really feeling it right now. But remember that whole spiel I gave You about my parents and how amazing they are and how I never want to upset them? Please accept that, emotions and all, as if I am asking for it in this blessed moment.”
May Allah make us more ardent and eloquent in our asking Him. And may we never tire of asking Him.