Fatemeh Nazari, Ph.D. student of the Jami’at al-Zahra (a), Qum.
Du‘a, the Arabic word for prayer or supplication, is the calling of a servant to his Deity. Summoning to God is highly encouraged in Islam, as prayer is considered to be the essence of worship. But what exactly is sincere supplication, and what do we achieve from it? How do we ensure a response from God, and what prevents a prayer from being accepted?
This article explores the stages of a sincere prayer, as well as explaining its importance, etiquette, and conditions to enable one to acquire moral virtues, improve one’s self-discipline and intellect, add brightness to the heart, and above all, achieve nearness to God.
One of the most enduring manifestations of the human soul and one of the most fundamental aspects of human existence is the act and longing to supplicate and worship. While examining the remnants of mankind throughout history, we can determine that worship and prayer have always existed alongside mankind. Any differences in this worship lie in its method and the deity invoked.
In terms of the method of worship, there have been various approaches and forms. This has ranged from dancing rituals and rhythmical group movements, together with verbal expressions of admiration and reverence to the most humble submissions to the deity. In terms of deities worshipped, there have been several, both material and immaterial. Idols of stone and wood have been worshipped throughout time, as has the eternal All-sustainer, who is not bound or limited by time and space.
Worship was not innovated by the prophets. Rather, they taught mankind the best form of worship. They clarified its finest method which includes the actions to be carried out and the manner in which they should be done. In addition, they opposed the worship of deities (shirk, polytheism) other than the One God. Indeed, the Prophet Adam was a monotheist, verifying that mankind was originally monotheistic; only later did they deviate to the worship of idols.
Supplication, a form of worship, can be defined as a spiritual condition that creates a bond of attraction and intimacy between a man and his deity. It is one of the most sublime and noblest of spiritual actions that can bring a person closer to God. Manifested with a true supplication is recognizing God and being humble towards Him, while simultaneously realizing one’s insignificance. For this sincere supplication to occur, there are three stages and prerequisites briefly mentioned in the following:
The first stage is to have true belief and faith in God. The reason for this is quite obvious: if one does not believe in God, communication with Him and attempts to attain nearness to him is futile and meaningless. It is important to note here that while believing in God is necessary, this belief can have many different levels and qualities.
The second stage is that the individual should believe that he, a needy person, has the ability to communicate with an immaculate being that is absolute, needless, and entirely self-sufficient. This ability can be better understood if we take into account the fact that soul does not belong to the material world: it is essentially immaterial. Thus, for the soul to truly communicate and build a relationship with God is possible.
The third prerequisite is invoking God and having hope in Him. This happens in its true form when a person ceases to trust or hope in anything except God. The individuals and beings involved in this person’s affairs become irrelevant, and one begins to view God as the sole and absolute cause of everything.
In fact, a person views all circumstances and situations to occur because of Him and as a part of His plan. It is in this state of mind that supplication is realized in its full potential. Even if a person’s tongue is not engaged in physical prayer, the heart continues to be occupied with worship and supplication to God. To clarify, I will expand on the concept of du‘a, Arabic for ‘supplication’, which has been described as the gem and spirit of all worship. Furthermore, from the viewpoint of verses from the Qur’an and narrations, I will discuss: (a) the quality of a true du‘a, (b) the etiquette and conditions of a du‘a required for a response from God (istijabah), (c) the obstacles of istijabah, (d) the effects of du‘a, (e) the qualities and importance of du‘a, and finally, (f) its spiritual effects.
The Importance of Prayer
In order to attain spiritual peace, acquire moral virtues, improve our willpower and intellectual capabilities, and above all, achieve nearness to God, praying to Him is vital. Prayer is also imperative so as to refrain from sins and to rid ourselves of moral defects and satanic temptations. Additionally, it is essential to request for material and spiritual support from God.
During the prayer, a person calls on God and speaks to Him in a manner and wording of their choice in order to gradually receive and realize His response. It is essential to discover the response of God through His hints. There are many forms of communication beyond the conventional use of language, and these are discovered solely through empathy and intimacy.
Whilst speaking to people, God begins by speaking to a person’s consciousness. Imam Ali (a) has said, “In various eras, God has spoken to His servants in the depths of their conscience, and following this consistent conversation, the light of awareness emerges in their eyes, ears, and hearts.” But du‘a is not simply calling upon God; it is also an opportunity to know him. Communication necessitates at least two parties, and it is in these conversations that the intimacy and knowledge of God can be achieved. Through these exchanges, one’s soul can be purified and one’s faith can be strengthened. Furthermore, one’s heart and intellect will find peace and serenity. It is for this reason that people should go with all of their integrity before God, and forget everything else.
When God becomes more than the First Cause (of the creation of the world) in the eyes of a person, and a conversation ensues with the intimacy of a friend and beloved one, a person can finally be considered a true supplicant. It is at this moment that one is able to truly benefit from and enjoy serving God, choosing the best and most pure way to live in this world.
A du‘a in its essence speaks of a lover’s needs and hopes. It speaks of love, fear, and knowledge (ma‘rifah). It speaks of repentance and regret, benevolence, and a response (ijabah). It speaks of both worldly necessities and noble, heavenly ideals. It speaks of submission (taslim) and learning. In fact, it could be said that nothing other than du‘a contains such a vast amount of divine blessings, with so much relief and countless merciful advantages.
Communication with God is so valuable and advantageous that it is even attractive for those who desire the temporary and perishable necessities of this world. Perhaps such necessities become a tool to call upon God, and can thus be a means for return to God. In fact, they may elevate a person from inferior spiritual levels to superior ones, even if this intention does not initially exist. Thus, it is not problematic to begin du‘a with these requests in mind; however, it is problematic if one remains in this condition for an extended period of time. Du‘a may initially be a path with a certain purpose or goal in mind, and a person may seek du‘a simply desiring something else.
However, a fortunate person is someone who supersedes this basic level to the point where du‘a itself becomes the goal, as opposed to the means. Invoking God and speaking with Him becomes a person’s most substantial wish, as other desires consequently become insignificant. A real du‘a is a du‘a in which the world is deemed insignificant. This is the mystical side to supplication that gives a concrete meaning and a worthy purpose to life. Without a concrete purpose to one’s life, a person can only lead it aimlessly.
The Meaning of Du‘a
Da‘a (Arabic past tense verb for the third person masculine singular) means “he attracted someone”, “he asked for help”, or “he called (someone) towards himself”. Da‘a-hu (دعاه) means “he called him to eat”. Da‘a lahu (دعا له) means to pray for someone, and da‘a ‘alayhi (دعا عليه) means to pray against someone.1
In Minhaj al-Sadiqin, it is mentioned that the meaning of du‘a is to become detached from everything except God and to only move towards Him. It is shedding tears and asking for help that is the most sublime form of worship. Indeed, according to a hadith, “Du‘a is worship.”2
To summarize, du‘a, in a religious context, is the calling of a servant to his God. It is the communication between the servant of God and God Himself, both through one’s heart and one’s tongue, and it is the most basic part of true servitude.
In his commentary on the Qur’an Al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, ‘Allamah Tabataba’i states:
“Du‘a is is turning oneself to the Deity and calling upon God with honesty and sincerity. This occurs when the hopes of a supplicant are alienated from all other apparent causes and tools. It is when the supplicant realizes and truly believes that nobody other than God is able to solve his problems. Consequently, his hands, heart, and tongue turn together to God, and it is in this state that his du‘a is sincere and unlikely not to be answered.”
God has mentioned absolutely no conditions or prerequisites for du‘a, simply that one must “call Me in du‘a”, as mentioned in the verse:
وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ ۖ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ الدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ
When My servants ask you about Me, [tell them that] I am indeed nearmost. I answer the supplicant’s call when he calls Me. (Qur’an 2:186)
In the book Kashf al-Asrar, it is mentioned that du‘a is of two types. One is the type that contains the praise of God:
يا حي يا قيوم يا ذا الجلال والإكرام، يا رب، يا الله، ربنا لك الحمد لا إله إلا أنت
Oh the living, oh the self-subsistent, oh the possessor of glory and generosity, oh my Lord, oh Allah, oh our Lord. All praise is due to You. There is no god but You.
The other type of du‘a is one that requests something from God:
اللهم إفعل بي كذا وكذا
Oh my Lord, grant me so and so.
The word du‘a and its derivatives have been used approximately two hundred and twelve times in the Holy Qur’an.3