Meditation is defined as “continued or extended thought, reflection… devout religious contemplation or spiritual introspection,” being derived from the Latin meditatio
As a general term, meditation linguistically refers to any and all deliberate and directed mental activities. In therapeutic or spiritual practice, different kinds of meditation have been scientifically proven to achieve mindfulness and its associated wellness in everyday life. According to the Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology
, “Meditation, regardless of the particular form, is engaged to lead to post-meditative mindfulness.”
Meditation can be done in many ways and for many purposes. For some, it is simply a means of calming relaxation and stress relief, a way of slowing down their thoughts. Others meditate by intensely contemplating an idea or focusing their attention on God or something else.
Some Muslims are understandably hesitant or skeptical about the word “meditation,” because there are so many different types of meditation, some of which are specifically associated with religious beliefs and practices that contradict Islam. The fact of the matter, however, is that our righteous predecessors practiced several forms of meditation, in the purely linguistic sense of the word, and through these meditations they achieved advanced spiritual states and enhanced their acts of worship, prayer, and remembrance. The key to reviving their practices is to examine closely how they conceptualized meditation and to emulate their practices within the framework of Islamic creed, worship, ethics, and etiquette. We can even incorporate modern insights from psychology and mindfulness practitioners as long as we remain grounded in Islamic tradition, as the Prophet ﷺ said, “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it then he has a right to it.”
Ritual prayer (salah) in modern times has been enhanced and aided by audio equipment, while in the classical period the science of architecture was utilized to enhance and aid the acoustics of reciting the Qur'an. None of these are blameworthy religious innovations (bid’ah) because they do nothing to alter Islamic creed, worship, or ethics. In a similar manner, modern insights into mindfulness, and specifically mindfulness exercises, can be helpful tools to enhance prayer and spirituality.
Ibn Al-Qayyim has provided one of the best and most concise explanations of the many meanings of “meditation” in Islam. He states that an integral part of our preparation for the Hereafter is by “reflecting (tafakkur), remembering (tadhakkur), examining (nathr), meditating (ta’amul), contemplating (i’tibar), deliberating (tadabbur), and pondering (istibsar).” Each of these words represents different shades of mental activity that can be considered forms of meditation. There is considerable overlap in meaning among all of them, but there are subtle differences as well. Ibn Al-Qayyim continues:
It is called ‘reflection’ because in that is the utilization of thought and its procurement during it. It is called ‘remembrance’ because it is the fetching of knowledge which must be considered after being distracted or absent from it… It is called ‘meditation’ because it is repeatedly examining again and again until it becomes evident and uncovered in one’s heart. It is called ‘contemplation’—taking lessons—because one takes a lesson from it to apply elsewhere… It is called ‘deliberation’ because it is examining the conclusion of matters, their endings and consequences, and deliberating on them.
All of these types of Islamic meditation involve some form of remembering or awareness of Allah, the purpose of which is to purify the heart of evil feelings and the mind from evil thoughts. Every human soul is like a mirror that is polished by mindfulness or tarnished by unmindfulness. Al-Ghazali writes:
The heart is in the position of a mirror that is surrounded by influential matters and these traits proceed to the heart. As for praiseworthy traits that we have mentioned, they will polish the mirror of the heart and increase it in brilliance, light, and radiance until the clarity of truth shines from within it and the reality of the matter sought in religion is unveiled.
By cultivating the remembrance and muraqabah
of Allah through various mental exercises and activities, we effectively “polish” our hearts and unveil the virtuous nature of the soul (al-nafs al-rabbaniyyah
), which is the pure spiritual state that Allah has created us to dwell in.
Abu al-Darda (ra) said, “Verily, everything has a polish and the polish of the heart is the remembrance of Allah Almighty.”
And Ibn al-Qayyim writes,
The heart is tarnished by two matters: unmindfulness (al-ghaflah) and sin. And it is polished by two matters: seeking forgiveness and the remembrance of Allah.
For example, reflecting upon the blessings of Allah is an excellent act of worship and mental activity (meditation) that produces gratitude in the heart and expels ingratitude from it. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz said, “Speaking in remembrance of Allah Almighty is good, and thinking about the blessings of Allah is the best act of worship.” Remembering Allah with outward words is a virtue, to be sure, but thinking of our blessings is even better because it necessarily occurs inwardly; we are not always fully mindful of the audible words we speak, even when they are good words.
In addition, thinking about the Hereafter in a balanced and informed manner ought to lead to positive psychological outcomes, contentment with one’s place in the world and rejection of materialism. Abu Sulaiman said,
Thought upon the world is a veil over the Hereafter and a punishment for people. Thought upon the Hereafter produces wisdom and life in the heart. Whoever looks to the world as his protector will come to accept its delusions.
On the other hand, thinking about the world and its displeasures more often than is necessary will lead to unhappiness and an impure heart.
A person cannot think about Allah and the world at the same time; it is one or the other. Too much unnecessary thought upon the world weakens our overall mindfulness, particularly by diminishing the hope in Allah that encourages us to do good deeds and the fear of Allah that compels us to avoid sins. Al-Nasrabadhi said, “Hope motivates you to acts of obedience and fear distances you from acts of disobedience, and muraqabah
leads to pathways of truth.” Accordingly, we should make a quiet time for reflection upon Allah and the Hereafter every day, as a means of increasing our mindfulness of His presence, gratitude for His many favors, and to prepare for the life to come.
Reading the Qur'an itself, which has been named “the Remembrance” (Al-Dhikr
), is one of the most powerful and rewarding forms of meditation, as Allah said, “This is a blessed Scripture, which We have sent down to you, so that people may think about its messages and those with understanding take heed.”
Al-Ghazali recommends for us to engage in four distinct daily spiritual practices (al-watha’if al-arba’ah
): supplication (dua’
), remembrance (dhikr
), recitation of the Qur'an (qira’at
), and contemplation (fikr
). The variety of these acts of worship will prevent a worshiper from becoming too bored with a single act, while also nourishing the heart and mind in different and complementary ways. Just as a balanced diet relies on different food groups for nutrition, a balanced spiritual life depends upon different acts of worship and meditations for complete sustenance.
One of the spiritual practices described by Al-Ghazali is quite similar to modern mindfulness practices but within an Islamic theological worldview. For him, it was simply another form of dhikr. The worshiper should sit in seclusion, empty their heart of all concerns, and “not scatter his thoughts with the recitation of the Qur'an, nor pondering over its explanation, nor with books of hadith, nor anything else; rather, he strives to let no thought enter his mind besides Allah the Exalted.” The worshiper does so to instill “presence of the heart” until “his heart is diligent in remembrance.” Consequently, Al-Ghazali continues:
If his intentions are true, his concerns are in order, and his diligence is improved, then he will not gravitate to his base desires and will not be preoccupied with idle thoughts related to the world. The reality of the Truth will shine in his heart.
Each form of Islamic meditation has its place and function, and often they overlap and blend together. For the purposes of attaining mindful self-awareness, as discussed, we are interested in the act of inward ta’amul, to continuously examine and observe our inner life in silent seclusion until the realities of our mental and emotional states (“conceptual frameworks”) become clear to us. This is a specific technique for cultivating awareness of our inner states, to notice our thoughts bubbling to the surface at their very inception rather than being taken away on a train of thought before we even know what happened.
To become more mindful of what is happening within us, we need to understand how our thoughts progress through stages into actions. According to Al-Suyuti, the first stage of a thought is al-hajis
, a sudden and fleeting thought that comes and goes before one can consider it. We may not even notice it was there at all. The second stage is al-khatir
, a thought that we give attention and consideration. At this stage we have a choice to continue down this train of thought or to ignore it. The third stage is hadith al-nafs
, our inner dialogue or “talking of the self” as we pursue the thought and seriously consider acting upon it. The final stages are al-ham
, the decision and determination to put the thought into action. Of course, when thoughts are good, we can and should pursue them. The trouble comes from bad thoughts. How do we learn to ignore them, especially when they feel at times so powerful and overwhelming?
Mindfulness exercise in this context is not about suppressing thoughts, but rather simply becoming aware of them and learning to let them pass. As we become more cognizant of our thoughts, we begin to perceive a distance between ourselves and our thoughts. We disassociate and disidentify ourselves from our thoughts; our involuntary thoughts are just “happenings” (hadath
) and do not necessarily reflect who we are. Initial thoughts (al-hajis
) can originate involuntarily from the self, as Allah said, “We created man—We know what his soul whispers to him.”
Thoughts also originate from an external source, the whisperings (al-waswasah) of a devil or an angel. The Prophet ﷺ said:
Verily, Satan has influence with the son of Adam and the angel has influence. As for the influence of Satan, he promises evil and denies the truth. As for the influence of the angel, he promises goodness and affirms the truth. Whoever finds this goodness, let him know that it is from Allah and let him praise Allah. Whoever finds something else, let him seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Satan.
Then the Prophet ﷺ recited the verse, “Satan threatens you with the prospect of poverty and commands you to do foul deeds; God promises you His forgiveness and abundance.” No matter where thoughts originate, involuntarily from the subconscious self or externally from angelic or satanic suggestions, mindfulness teaches us to better perceive the zone between us and thoughts as they happen and before they progress into voluntary, conscious thoughts.
We are not bad people for having bad thoughts; we all have bad thoughts no matter how righteous we are. It is harmful and counterproductive to burden ourselves with guilt because we experience bad thoughts. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Verily, Allah has pardoned my nation for their bad thoughts within themselves as long as they do not speak of them or act upon them.” We are only held accountable for our thoughts if we consciously choose to act upon them. By training ourselves to become more aware of thoughts, this gives us some space between ourselves and our thoughts so that we have time to react properly, to ignore what is bad and to pursue what is good.
Consider bad thoughts from Satan or your ego as if they were a dog who is ultimately under the control of Allah. Ibn Taymiyyah said, “If the shepherd’s dog troubles you, do not busy yourself warring and defending against it. You must appeal to the shepherd to direct the dog away from you.”
Do not try to combat evil thoughts by engaging them or trying to suppress them. Instead, turn your attention back to mindfulness and remembrance, as Allah said, “If Satan should prompt you to do something, seek refuge with God.”
This is why exerting great effort to suppress a bad thought—and thereby giving it more attention than it deserves—often ends up backfiring and making things worse. We end up talking to ourselves about the evil thought (“I’m so bad for thinking that!” “I shouldn’t think like that!”) which then feeds right back into it and gives it oxygen to keep it alive.
For another point of view, consider your mind as if it were a still pond and your thoughts are ripples and waves in this pond. We cultivate mindfulness by becoming aware of the ripples and learning to ignore them or engage them at will. A bad thought is like a ripple in a pond. If you touch it, or engage it, it only makes the waves stronger. You cannot beat back the waves with a club; you must learn to let them float away. Through silent mindfulness exercise, we let the waves and ripples simply dissipate. Notice them, acknowledge them, and let them pass on their own as you direct yourself back towards muraqabah with Allah. This is the practice of mindfulness exercise, in a nutshell.
Mindfulness exercise is not about experiencing spiritual ecstasy, even though sometimes the practice leads to pleasurable feelings. Many people attempt to meditate or engage in mindfulness practices only because they want to feel a spiritual high, but the feeling is not the point. It is about practice—training (riyadah)—in the same way we exercise our bodies; sometimes exercise feels good, an added bonus for sure, but the main purpose is to accumulate health and strength. Similarly, mindfulness exercise is a means of accumulating mental strength and, in conjunction with an Islamic framework, spiritual strength.
Mindfulness exercise is not about supplanting our regular primary acts of worship either. Among other benefits, it functions as a type of preparation for the main acts of worship, similar to how some Muslims prepare for Ramadan by eating less on non-fasting days.
Think of mindfulness exercise like basketball practice and ritual prayer (salah
) like the basketball game; we strengthen our muraqabah
through exercise and practice so that when we put muraqabah
into action, in salah
, we are in top mental and spiritual shape. The salah is the performance, the mindfulness exercise is the rehearsal.
In the following section, we present an easy way to practice daily mindfulness exercise in an Islamic context. To be sure, there is no specific prescribed method of mindfulness exercise in Islam like there is for the daily ritual prayers. This exercise is a voluntary activity that complements the obligatory acts of worship, although it incorporates acts of worship including remembrances (dhikr) and supplications (dua’). Regular practitioners will find that they can build upon their exercise, to adapt and customize it to their particular preferences, in the same way individuals can use common fitness principles to design their own personal routine in the gym. Every human soul and situation is different—there is no one-size-fits-all way to engage in mindfulness exercise—so each person has to discover what works best for them.
Mindfulness Exercise in Islam
To begin, choose a time of the day when you can be in a quiet place alone. Some Muslims prefer the time before the dawn prayer (fajr) or another prayer, before or after work, at lunch break, or even before bed. A quick exercise right before prayer is particularly beneficial as mental preparation for prayer. It is good to pick a regular time for daily exercise, but it can be done at any time of the day to suit your schedule. It can also be done for as long as you want, an hour or even five minutes a day. Beginners who want to advance their practice should commit to at least five minutes every day, to solidify it as a long-term habit, and gradually increase it over time as they see fit. As you begin to see the cumulative positive effects of the practice, and learn to enjoy silence and stillness and simply being present, you may eventually want to do the exercise for longer.
Next, choose a posture that you find comfortable. You can sit up in a chair, on a comfy cushion, or even laying on your side or back in bed, as Allah praises those “who remember God standing, sitting, and lying down.”
The aim is to find a posture that is relaxing and comfortable, but not so relaxing that you will fall asleep. As a side note, meditative remembrance of Allah in another context—when laying down for sleep—can help ease us into sleep. Ibn Al-Qayyim writes, “The Prophet ﷺ would sleep when it was warranted, upon his right side and remembering Allah until sleep overtook his eyes.”
Now, begin by focusing awareness on your natural breathing. Progressively relax the muscle tension throughout your body: your arms, your legs, your core, your jaw. You can close your eyes or simply lower them. As you start with relaxed breathing, feel for a sense of your state of heart and mind in this moment. What are you feeling? What are you thinking? Is your mind racing or calm? Try to settle your mind by bringing awareness to your natural, relaxed breathing, simply feeling the life and energy Allah gave you throughout your body. Feel a deep sense of gratitude to Allah for your breath, your living and being in this moment.
As you settle into stillness within your inner space, begin to perceive the feeling of muraqabah
with Allah. Know and feel
that He is watching you, “He is with you wherever you are.”
He knows everything going on inside you right now and at all times. Focus on the feeling of muraqabah
in this state of inner silence (samt al-sirr
). Try to stop talking to yourself (hadith al-nafs) or pursuing trains of thought. Silence your inner dialogue as much as you can and simply focus on being present with Allah in the moment.
When your mind starts to wander off—and it surely will—you want to bring your awareness back to the center of your being, and to your presence in this moment before Allah, by quietly reciting remembrances of Allah. The Prophet ﷺ would use supplications to bring him back into a state of muraqabah
if he had become distracted. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Verily, at times there is fog over my heart, so I seek the forgiveness of Allah one hundred times in a day.”
Al-Nawawi explains this hadith
, saying, “It is said that it means he had periods of inattention and unawareness of the remembrance of Allah, which was his normal state of affairs. When he had a period of inattention, he would consider that a sin and seek forgiveness for it.”
Even the Prophet ﷺ would sometimes experience short periods of forgetfulness, so he would seek the forgiveness of Allah (he would say “astaghfirullah
”) as a way to bring himself back into the state of muraqabah. If that was his condition, then how much more can we expect our own minds to wander?
In this exercise, the supplication or remembrance acts as an “anchor” for your muraqabah
. An anchor is a phrase that you say inwardly when your mind wanders, which helps bring your mind back to the center of being and awareness. It is not necessarily an object of intensely focused concentration, repeated over and over again. Rather, it is a calming phrase that your mind will come to associate with the state of muraqabah
, both inside and outside of the exercise. It is best to pick an anchor from one of the numerous authentic supplications in the Sunnah
, “Two words are beloved to the Most Merciful, light on the tongue but heavy on the scale: Glory and praise to Allah (subhan Allahi wa bi hamdih
), and glory to Allah Almighty (subhan Allahi al-‘Athim
And again, “The best remembrance is to declare there is no God but Allah (la ilhaha illa Allah
), and the best supplication is to declare all praise is due to Allah (al-hamdulillah
Seeking the forgiveness of Allah (al-istighfar) was one of the Prophet’s ﷺ anchors, so nothing could be better. Your anchor could also be just one of the beautiful names of Allah that elicit remembrance and awareness in your heart, or you could use all of the above in combination.
As you are present in this moment before Allah, the mind will wander off again and again into unmindfulness and distraction due to emerging thoughts. That is okay, there is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is completely normal. But every time you use your anchor (remembrance or supplication) to come back into a state of muraqabah, it is like doing a mental push-up or a sit-up. Through continued practice you will strengthen your mental and spiritual muscles. Do not blame or censure yourself when your mind wanders off, just bring it gently back to silent awareness with your anchor. This is the act of ta’amul, repeatedly bringing yourself back into the state of muraqabah, with Allah and with your inner self, until it becomes a natural and comfortable habit to be in this state.
Sometimes our minds race and race during the exercise, wandering off again and again until we feel that we have not achieved anything from our exercise. That would be a mistaken notion. The best mindfulness exercise session is the one you completed, period. No matter how long your mind spent in unmindfulness, every time you brought it back to muraqabah it became stronger and stronger. And every time you mentioned the name of Allah inside you or silently nurtured gratitude for His giving you life and energy and breath, it was written down by angels in the record of your good deeds and it polished away some of the rusted spots over your heart.