A few days ago, I received a letter in which someone was expressing dismay at a hardship they were witnessing, that would not end. The letter contained the line: “…I am angry. Why didn’t Allah listen to our du’a? Why?”
I decided to write this as a response because this is an unfortunately common reaction, and it’s due to a severe misunderstanding of how du’a’ (i.e. invoking God for something) works. We tend to this of du’a’ as a panic button: you’re in a tight situation, God promised repeatedly in the Qur’an that he responds to the one who invokes Him in need, therefore, if you get all the details right (last third of the night, concentration, etc), the next day you’ll see “the answer.” And if you don’t get “the answer,” you begin to internally doubt the promise of God. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) addressed this phenomenon in an authentic hadith collected by both al-Bukhari & Muslim. The wording in Muslim’s narration is more to the point:
“A person’s invocation of God will continue to be answered – so long as he doesn’t ask for something sinful or to cut off a family member – and so long as he isn’t hasty.” He was asked: “How would they be hasty?” The Prophet replied: “By saying: ‘I prayed and I prayed, and I don’t see that I’m being answered,’ and he then loses hope and gives up invoking God.”
This is a very interesting hadith, and a deep look at it will teach you a lot about how du’a’ works, and how it doesn’t work.
Look at the Prophet’s words: “…will continue to be answered…” compare with the hasty person’s complaint: “I don’t see that I’m being answered.” At first, they may seem to contradict each other – how can a prayer ‘continue’ to be answered while the person doesn’t see an answer? Where is the answer? What happens is that there are situations where your prayers are answered in parts, such that something is happening to lead up to the answer you want to see, even if you don’t recognize these parts as a response to your prayers.
Imagine you are trapped in a room with no door, and the only way out is by breaking the window to climb out. All you have with you is a small pile of rocks. You pick up a rock and throw it at the window. It doesn’t smash, but it does cause a small crack. You throw another rock. Another crack. You throw another, then another, then another, until enough cracks form, one last rock smashes the window, and you now have a way out. This is how du’a’ works – each prayer results in a partial answer, a lead-up, and when you remain consistent and repeat the prayer over and over again, you finally get the full answer you want.
This is why in the popular hadith about the three men trapped in the cave, the first man’s prayer was enough to only move the boulder slightly. The second man’s prayer moved it just a little more, and it took the third man’s prayer to give them the answer they sought: for the boulder to move enough to allow them out of the cave. So, know that repetition and consistency is essential. Remember: the first rock will only make a crack in the glass, but enough rocks will smash the window and give you a way out.
And this will take time. The hadith says: “…so long as he isn’t hasty.” When you water a seed to grow a plant, you don’t pour thirty gallons of water on it at once and wonder why nothing sprouted from beneath the soil. Rather, you water a bit, wait, water a bit, wait, and so on, knowing for a fact that no matter how long the process, the end result will be the grown flower you desire. Likewise, you know for a fact that God will fulfill His promise to you to respond to your prayers. But instantaneous miracles are exceptions to the rule. The rule is that the process of invoking God and getting a response involves time and demands patience, as Ibn al-Jawzi said in ‘Sayd al-Khatir’ (p. 148):
“Hardships have an end whose time is known only to God. So, anyone experiencing them has no choice but to be patient until that time is up. Losing patience before that time will not help anything. Patience is a must, but it is useless without prayer. The one praying should not be hasty, and should instead engage in worship through patience, prayers, and submission to the All-Wise…the hasty one is infringing on the function of the Planner, and this is not the proper position of a servant to be in. The best position to be in is to accept your fate, and this demands patience. To beg constantly in prayer is the most reliable recourse. Opposition to fate is forbidden, and infringes on the function of the Planner. Understand these points, and your hardship will be much easier to deal with…”
But if God is able to change things instantly, why would He wait before answering your prayer? Because it is only through a prolonged struggle that you learn what your weaknesses are, are first to root them out, and replace them with strength. It’s like bitter medicine. This is why in the early days of Islam, when the Companions approached the Prophet as he sat next to the Ka’bah when they were being most intensely persecuted and asked him: “Won’t you pray for us to have victory? Won’t you invoke God for us?” his response was: “...but you are being too hasty.”
It wasn’t that God couldn’t wipe out all of the Quraysh that very instant. Rather, it was that the questioner was ignorant of the immense educational & developmental benefits that would be totally by passed had the Prophet’s supplication been answered then and there. And indeed, God saw fit that, for the most beloved people to Him, His promise would be fulfilled only after thirteen years of hot struggle in Makkah, and another ten in Madinah – a full 23 years! And by the end of those 23 years, they finally had the insight to understand that it should have happened no other way. Remember: the flower will blossom, but not overnight. You must water it over time.
Finally, understand that your prayers are answered within the framework of the natural laws of the Universe. God controls the events that occur within that framework, and He responds through that framework. Again, miracles do exist, but they are exceptions to the rule. An unmarried woman who prays for a child is unlikely to miraculously become pregnant like the Virgin Mary, and a woman at the age of 100 is unlikely to miraculously become pregnant like Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Rather, when you pray to God for a child, you know that this prayer will be fulfilled only through the process by which children are born: marriage, intimate relations, pregnancy, gestation, childbirth.
In the end, your prayer is fully answered, but only after the natural process took its course – a natural process which is itself controlled by God, and through which He alone answered your prayers. Prophet Joseph had a dream as a child in which God promised Him a position of authority over Egypt, and that promise was fulfilled. But a series of events had to occur first to get from Point A to Point B: he was taken by his brothers, he was thrown in the well, he was sold into slavery, he was thrown into prison, he interpreted the dreams of other inmates, which impressed the king, which led to his appointment as Egypt’s Minister of Finance, and thus was the promise in that childhood dream fulfilled for Joseph (peace be upon him). It had to come at the end of a series of seemingly unrelated precursors, but it came!
One more story from Egypt, and I shall close. After Sayyid Qutb was executed back in the late ’60s, his brother Muhammad and sister Hamidah were kept in prison, but were forbidden from seeing each other. The Interior Minister at the time, Sha’rawi Jum’ah, had also put a rule into place that none of the Islamists in that prison could receive fruit from visitors. After several years, Muhammad Qutb put in a request to be able to see his sister after all that time. Sha’rawi Jum’ah sent his reply: “You will not see your sister, dead or alive!“
About a year passed, and a new government suddenly came into power and threw all of the former regime members in prison. Muhammad & Hamidah Qutb found themselves free, and Sha’rawi Jum’ah found himself now occupying a cell in that same prison. One day, his wife came to visit him in prison, and brought him a basket of food. The guard stopped her, searched the basket, and found some fruit inside. He asked her who she was visiting, and she replied: “My husband, Mr. Sha’rawi Jum’ah.” The guard informed her: “I’m sorry, but I must obey the rules: no fruit from visitors.“
This is how du’a’ works. It is not a panic button that guarantees instant miracles. Rather, it involves time & depth; it demands consistency, repetition, persistence, patience, and insight. Above all, it is a process which revolves around the fact that every single second of the day, God has total knowledge & control of this entire Universe, and everyone & everything in it. So palms to the sky…
Tuesday, 6th of Rabi’ ath-Thani 1433/
28th of February 2012
Plymouth Correctional Facility
Isolation Unit, Cell # 107