The du’aā can be divided into 4 components. We will explore the deep spiritual themes in each component and examine their relevance to mental well-being.
1 – Oh Allāh, certainly I am your slave, the son of your male slave and the son of your female slave.
One of the most important factors involved overall well-being is having a strong sense of self-awareness. The du’aā
starts with gaining true self-awareness and understanding of one’s fundamental role in the world. Human beings understand themselves in relation to other people. We are embedded in complex social networks and play different roles based on who we are interacting with. We act and think differently when we are with our parents compared to when we are with our friends. We wear different versions of “Us” according to the situation. The process by which a person shifts their personality to correctly align with the social situation at hand is referred to as self-monitoring.
This begs the question, who is the real “You”? Is it the “friend You” or the “work You”? Perhaps it is the “family You”? We are reminded in this du’aā that the true “You” is the “Slave of God You.” This “You” is not a separate identity, it is a personality that should influence and inform all other versions of “You.”
Having said that, the shift in personality that occurs based on the social context is not necessarily a negative thing. Enacting different roles in the world generally enables us to attain what we wish to achieve. We play the employee role and can accomplish our daily tasks and get paid. We play the friend role and the positive interactions result in laughter, joy, and fun. We play the father role so we can teach our children. If you acted as an employee to your son, then it would result in a failure of parenting. If we acted as a father to our friends, then it would result in a failure of friendship. It is vital that we know what role we are meant to play for our relationships and our lives to thrive.
What happens when we don’t know what role to play? That is usually what results in the onset of anxiety. When a person is anxious about the future it is because they do not know how to act in a way that fulfills their needs. All the versions of themselves fail to work. They are unsure what role to play. As mentioned, we are guided in this du’aā to recognize that the fundamental role that permeates all our roles is servitude to God. When we act in the world as a slave of the Most High, we gain clarity on how we are meant to respond in any life situation. When we are wronged we respond with forgiveness as slaves of the Most-Forgiving (Al-Ghafūr). When there is oppression we spread justice as slaves of the Most Just (Al-Muqsiṭ). When ignorant people are vulgar with us we respond with words of peace as slaves of the Most Merciful (Ar-Raḥmān). When we are unsure what the future holds we rely on the One Who controls everything as slaves of The Disposer of all affairs (Al-Wakīl).
The Islāmic concept of servitude to God
A person may see such ideas of servitude and submission as self-deprecating or humiliating. However, servitude and surrender to God are some of the most empowering concepts in the Islāmic tradition. They constitute the source of our true freedom in this world and our escape from its shackles. As we declare our servitude to God, we declare our independence and freedom from everything else in this world. By doing so, we recognize our independence and freedom from whatever we may be grieving over. The relationships we hold dear, the loved ones we cherish, the property we own, the career we have toiled for, the respect we have earned; all of this can be lost in an instant. The Qurān references this reality with a beautiful parable,
Know that the life of this world is but amusement, diversion, adornment, boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children. The example of this is like a rain that results in plant growth, immediately pleasing the farmers. Then it inevitably turns yellow and then becomes scattered debris…
As the Qurān mentions, everything in life that we are attached to will eventually leave us. Once they “turn yellow,” we may find ourselves frozen in time. Our conception of ourselves can be so anchored to this world that when it fades, we can lose ourselves. Our attachment to God is meant to be central and our ultimate anchor in life. When we submit and surrender to God, we become content with what we have lost and free ourselves from our own psychological slavery.
Dr. Nazir Khan, a contemporary thinker on Islāmic spirituality, expounds on the various manifestations of psychological slavery in the modern age,
Beautifying one’s appearance would seem to be a healthy expression of freedom, until of course, we witness the alarming devaluation of the self that has become rampant in the modern cosmetic culture…The striking proportion of society willing to go under the knife to change themselves may represent physical freedom to some, but it may also suggest a worrying degree of psychological enslavement.
What we are supposed to want and desire is programmed and conditioned into our thoughts by a cultural and marketing tsunami that engulfs our minds right from childhood.
Psychological slavery also manifests in an obsession with entertainment, illusion and fantasy. Two decades ago, one author noted that the average American child watched more television by the age of 6, than the amount of time one speaks to one’s father in an entire lifetime.
Neurophysiology of Worship
Interestingly, the freedom and relief that comes with surrendering one’s will to God has been found to have profound effects on our brain biology. Some preliminary work that has focused on investigating the neurophysiological effects of ṣalah
By conducting neuroimaging of Muslims performing both actions, the researchers demonstrated that they were associated with a decrease in frontal lobe activity, as measured by cerebral blood flow. The prefrontal cortex is thought to play a role in executive functioning, which includes willpower and decision making. The authors suggested that the act of surrendering to God found in Islāmic practices may underlie the decreased frontal lobe activity found in this study.
One of the most fascinating features of this investigation was the comparison of prayer performed in an automatic manner without khushu’
(spiritual concentration) versus prayer performed in a deliberate manner with khushu’
. The automatic manner of performing prayer had minimal effects in altering the pattern of brain activity and was comparable to daily activity. It was only when the individual performed prayer in a deliberate focused manner, internalizing the feelings of surrender and submission to God, that a profound neurophysiological change was witnessed with hypo-frontalization (decreased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain), as well as increased activity in the basal ganglia (involving the brain’s reward system) and the anterior cingulate gyrus. With respect to the latter, the researchers commented, “The anterior cingulate is involved with emotional regulation, learning, and memory, and plays a major role in lowering anxiety and irritability, and enhancing emotional and social awareness.”
Figure 1: Radionuclide brain imaging (using Technetium-99m exametazime) provides a precise snapshot of regional cerebral blood over five minutes of uptake during Islamic prayer (salah). On the left, the brain activity when ṣalah was performed in an automatic rote manner without khushu’ (spiritual focus), and on the right with khushu’. Activity decreases in the frontal cortex and increases in the anterior cingulate gyrus and basal ganglia. Image from Newberg et al. 2015.
The feeling of submission produced by dhikr
is significant to our discussion on mental health because of its association with hypofrontality. The transient hypofrontality hypothesis developed by Arne Dietrich in 2006 asserts that decreased activity in the frontal regions can produce a therapeutic effect in certain mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The prefrontal cortex is associated with attentional and emotional responses. Thus, hyperactivity in this region can be correlated with hyper awareness and hyper vigilance, leading to an increased level of anxiety. The theory asserts that decreasing activity in the prefrontal region can provide symptom relief. This same model can be used to explain depression and OCD.
It is quite fascinating that this prescribed du’aā by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ starts with very strong themes of surrender. Badr-Ad-Deen al-‘Ayni (d. 855 AH) in his explanation of this du’aā comments on its unique emphasis on submission,
And in this [statement] is the perfection of submission, humility, and gnosis through [the expression of] servitude to God. This is because it was not simply stated ‘I am your servant,’ but it was further emphasized through ‘son of your male servant and son of your female servant.’ This indicates a hyperbolic emphasis on submission and servitude to God. This is because the solitary servant is not the same as a servant, whose father is also a servant.
Spiritually, submission produces strong feelings of relief and reliance on God (tawakkul
). Biologically, this correlates to a decreased blood flow in the frontal region, resulting in the suspension of one’s will to control and manipulate their environment. The neurological study on ṣalah
also showed a correlation with increased blood flow in the caudate nucleus.
This region is implicated in the reward system of the brain.
This may be associated with the pleasure that is felt by believers when they submit their will to God. Thus, ṣalah itself can represent a strong form of therapy as indicated in the following narration about the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ:
Ḥudhayfah said, “When the Prophet ﷺ would be in an overwhelming situation, he would pray ṣalah.”
Ṣalah is a practice that allows the human being to enter into the presence of the divine with full submission and to spiritually leave this world. The system of ṣalah itself includes expressions of independence from the world and surrender to God, as it is recited, “You alone we worship and from You alone we seek aid.” It includes a prayer for the light of guidance to bring a person out of the darkness, “Guide us to the straight path.” Ibn al-Qayyim in his book, Asraar as-Ṣalah (The secrets of the ṣalah) explains how the postures of the ṣalah are physical manifestations of its impact on our spirit. It is a system that aligns the tongue, the limbs and the spirit in perfect harmony. The bowing and prostration are physical manifestations of our spiritual submission to and reliance upon God. Our standing represents the strength that we gain from God, when we turn to Him. This harmony of the body and spirit through submission relieves the stress of the mind and allows individuals to truly recognize their purpose in life and connection with all existence. When one stands in front of one’s Lord, one can truly see oneself as interconnected with the rest of creation, all as servants of the Most Merciful.
Fundamentally, the theme of submission permeates the entire belief and behavioral system of the Islāmic spiritual tradition. It is the linguistic meaning of “Islām” and the foundation of worship. This powerful concept can be both protective and therapeutic in the context of mental health.
2 – My forehead is in Your Hand. Your Judgment upon me is assured and Your Decree concerning me is just.
In addition to continuing the theme of submission in the previous section, this part of the du’aā
invokes the concept of Divine Destiny (qadar
). Destiny is a powerful concept in Islām that allows a person to truly move on from the mistakes they have made and the calamities that have befallen them. This phrase of the du’aā
reminds the individual that everything that has occurred in one’s life is by the decree of God. Necessarily, whatever God decrees is Wise, Just, and Compassionate. Al-‘Ayni explains, “Everything You judge concerning me is necessarily just, because justice is Your attribute.” One particular Prophetic narration also speaks to this reality,
Ṣuhayb reported: The Prophet ﷺ, said, “Wondrous is the affair of the believer as there is good for him in every matter, and this is not true for anyone but the believer. If he is pleased, then he thanks Allāh and there is good for him. If he is harmed, then he shows patience and there is good for him.”
We are comforted that our pain is not in vain, and that it is all part of the plan of God in our lives. This crucial belief in Divine Decree provides us with the ability to shift our cognitions away from the agitating questions of “Why me?’ “What did I do to deserve this?” which only serve to create more distress in our lives. Instead, we recognize that the One who decrees with Wisdom and Justice has decreed it and so there is meaning and purpose in what is occurring and what has occurred. We shift our cognitions towards discovering “What can I learn from this?”, “How can I use this to grow?”
The ability to find meaning in adversity is a key quality that protects against depressed mood and anxiety during intense trials. Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor of an Auschwitz concentration camp outlines the meaning-based psychotherapeutic approach that helped him and others cope with the horrors they experienced in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning
The realization of truth and development of virtue is the method by which a person perseveres through hardship and finds meaning in it. The Islāmic stories of resilience in the face of adversity capture this reality. When Prophet Yūnus (as) was thrown into the middle of the vast ocean in the darkness of the night, he called out, “There is nothing worthy of worship except you, Exalted are You! I have been of the oppressors.”
When Prophet Ibrahīm (as) was being catapulted into the pit of fire, he called out, “God is sufficient for me and the Best Disposer of Affairs.”
When Prophet Ādam (as) was expelled from paradise, he called out, “Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves, and if you do not forgive us and have mercy on us, then we will be lost.”
It is intriguing that in such dire circumstances, there are no requests made in any of these du’aās. In all of these incredible situations, the prophets were able to realize the truth in the face of calamity. From these stories, we learn about truths we are meant to recognize in our own life experiences. The realization that this life is chaotic and pointless unless one submits to the Divine as seen in the story of Yūnus (as). The realization of God’s Perfection is stirred when we are in the most intense states of vulnerability as witnessed in the tremendous courage of Ibrahīm (as). And our extreme destitution and neediness before God are realized in our worst failures as shown in the story of the fall and rise of Ādam (as). It is through these realizations and expressions of truth that we are delivered from darkness into light.
3 – I ask You by every Name that you have named Yourself with, revealed in Your Book, taught any one of Your creation or kept unto Yourself in the knowledge of the unseen that is with You.
Charles Snyder, a leading positive psychologist in the study of hope, defines hope as “a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful agency and pathways.”
This definition essentially states that hope involves possessing agency and pathways. Agency refers to the belief that a person can affect the future, and pathways refer to the belief that one has the resources to obtain one’s objectives. In the previous sections of the du’aā
, we sought strength in our agency through the Power of God. We surrendered our will and capacity to God’s Decree. In this section, we realize the pathways that are available to us to change our situation. The Names and Attributes of God represent the solutions to all of our problems. When we are overcome with grief and remorse for what we have done in the past, we recognize that God is Al-Ghafūr
(The Eternally Forgiving). If we are on the brink of losing our home, unable to provide for our family, we call out to Ar-Razzāq
(The Provider). When we can’t seem to put our life together after being hit with calamity after calamity, we recognize our strength lies in Al-Qadīr
(The One with Ultimate Power). When we just feel like we are at the bottom of a pit, we never lose hope in the mercy of Ar-Raḥmān
(The Most Merciful).
Hopeful thinking has been associated with higher levels of academic success, physical and psychological health.
It provides people with a powerful tool to move through life at times of adversity. One of the strongest spiritual states in the Islāmic tradition is rajā
(hope) in God’s Mercy. It is described by Ibn al-Qayyim as one of the wings of the believers, “Fear and hope [in God] are like two wings of a bird that are used to fly.”
Hope allows a person to transcend the current situation and live for a better future. Thus, when our backs are against the wall and we feel alone in our fight, we realize that the person who has no one else has Allāh.
This part of the du’aā
emphasizes the Names and Attributes of God that evoke powerful feelings of awe. As the various epistemic and ontological categories of Names are described, a person is guided to ponder on the majesty of God. This strong feeling of awe also plays a positive role in mental health. Dr. Jonathan Haidt investigated the significance and reality of awe and described it as involving a two-step cognitive process. The first step is experiencing vastness. Vastness is anything experienced or brought to the mind that is larger than one’s self or one’s ordinary level of experience. The second step is accommodation. When a person experiences vastness beyond what that person’s current mental structures are capable of processing, the mind accommodates. There are adjustments made to one’s mental structures that allow them to accommodate truths never known or experienced before. In times of hardship, existing knowledge structures are not sufficient. Experiencing awe allows a person to experience rebirth and enlightenment, learning new knowledge that can be used to solve the crisis at hand.
This relates to our previous discussion on truths realized during hardships. As people call upon the Names and Attributes of God, pondering upon their manifestations in their lives, their chests expand through the awe they experience. This expansion provides them with insights and wisdoms that aid them on their journey away from struggle into felicity.
4 – To make the Qurān the spring of my heart, the light of my chest, the banisher of my sadness and the reliever of my distress.
As our hearts were once filled with sadness and distress, we seek to eliminate these feelings with the illumination of the Qurān. The Qurān is God’s guidance for humankind. It is through the light of this guidance that all things are made clear in our lives.
And We have sent down to you the Book as clarification for all things and as guidance and mercy and good tidings for the Muslims.
It is through this light that the darkness of our distress is vanquished and all that remains is the radiance of faith.
A book which We have revealed to you so that you might bring humankind out of darkness into the light by the permission of their Lord to the path of the Exalted in Might, the Praiseworthy.
A regular relationship with this book of guidance further enables our maladaptive thought patterns to transform into a cognitive worldview of optimism, hope, and meaning. There are stories in the Qurān of unimaginable tragedy and hardship that we can resonate with. There are powerful expressions of the power and mercy of God that engender strength and hope. And there are vivid descriptions of the next life that help us realize the temporal and insignificant nature of this world compared to the next. The Qurān is the rope that we can pick up after we have fallen.
The positive spiritual and emotional states that were produced in the first parts of the du’aā are meant to be continued through a relationship with the Qurān. Feelings of surrender, reliance, and hope can become imprinted on us during difficult times through the words of the Qurān. Our belief structures are also built by the Qurānic narrative. This informs us of how to look at the world and how to act in it. It rejuvenates our hearts, inspires us with wisdom, and vanquishes our sorrow.