Why Pray?

In his discourse on prayer in An Elementary Study of Islam, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh) quotes from chapter 29, verse 46 of the Holy Qur’an:

“Verily, Prayer prevents the worshipper from indulging in anything that is undignified or indecent.”

He then goes on to explain the verse as follows:

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad

“This verse has both positive and negative connotations, both highly essential for creating ideal human conduct. Thus in its negative connotation, it helps the worshipper by liberating him from sins of all types. In its positive connotation it educates man, refines his character and cultivates his qualities to such sublimity as to make him worthy of communion with God.” (1)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to pray is

“to make a request in a humble manner; to address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanksgiving.” (2)

The first part of this definition means the person put himself subordinate to a higher being. Why the emphasis on humble manner? The worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) explained in a Friday Sermon that on one occasion while outlining the philosophy of prayer, the Promised Messiah (as) said that when a child cries and wails due to hunger, the milk floods into the mother’s breast. The child doesn’t even know the meaning of prayer, and yet its cries draw the milk. Similarly, when a person prays, it is like a baby who cries for milk from his mother’s breast. The breast milk is generated purely on account of the mother’s natural instinct when she hears the innocent cry of the hungry baby. Thus when a person supplicates sincerely and with humility, even cries, he is yearning for help from the Creator, just as the helpless baby is crying for breast milk. (3)

In Islam, prayer is one of the foremost pillars of faith. The Holy Qur’an states:

“Recite that which has been revealed to thee of the Book and observe Prayer. Surely, Prayer restrains one from indecency and manifest evil, and remembrance of Allah indeed is the greatest virtue. And Allah knows what you do.” (4)

This verse contains three key commandments, that is, preaching and reading of the Qur’an, observance of Prayer and the remembrance of Allah. The purpose of all three is to help deliver man from the bondage of sin and to help him to rise morally and spiritually which is the supreme objective of all Divine Books. (4)

Islam teaches that prayer is the most direct way to commu- nicate our needs to the Creator because, in Islam, God is a living God. Islam lays down conditions for that state when the heart is filled with awe of God and the very soul of the person offering the prayer is drawn to God in complete submission and utter humility. When a person attains this state, he may be assured that the door to acceptance of prayer is opened.

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh) states that another area which is highly important in this regard is the role that worship plays in developing one’s soul. According to Islam, each human soul’s connection to the carnal human body can be likened unto a child in the uterus of the mother. To give birth to a healthy child requires so many influences that are constantly transferred from the mother to the embryo and the child at a later stage. If the mother’s influ- ences on the embryo are unhealthy, the child is born as congenitally ill; if they are healthy then the child is born enjoying perfect health. Of all the influences that work towards the making and modification of the human soul, prayer is the most important single factor. (5 )

Furthermore, from a health standpoint, prayer is the most widespread alternative therapy in America today. Over 85 percent of people confronting a major illness pray, accord- ing to a University of Rochester study. That is far higher than taking herbs or pursuing other non-traditional healing methods and increasingly, the evidence is that prayer works. (6)

It does not matter if you pray for yourself or for others, pray to heal an illness, or for peace in the world, or simply sit in silence and quiet the mind — the effects appear to be the same. A wide variety of spiritual practices have been shown to help alleviate stress levels, which is one of the major risk factors for disease. There are also powerful ways to maintain a positive outlook and successfully weather the trials which come to all of us in life.

Over the past four decades, the relationship between prayer and health has been the subject of double-blind studies. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiovascular specialist at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in the field of mind / body medicine, discovered what he calls “the relaxation response,” which occurs during periods of prayer and meditation. At such times, the body’s metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and our breath becomes calmer and more regular. (7)

This physiological state is correlated with slower brain waves, and feelings of control, tranquil alertness and peace of mind. This is significant because Benson estimates that over half of all doctor visits in the U.S. today are prompted by illnesses like depression, high blood pressure, ulcers and migraine headaches, that are caused at least in part by elevated levels of stress and anxiety. (8)

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a study of Tibetan Buddhists in meditation and Franciscan nuns in prayer which showed comparable decreased activi- ty in the parts of the brain that are associated with sense of self and spatial orientation in both groups. He also found that prayer and meditation increase levels of dopamine, which is associated with states of well- being and joy. (9)

The effects of spiritual practice appear to be more than just the result of enhanced focus and concentration. Ken Parge- ment, of Bowling Green State University, instructed one group of people who suffer migraines to meditate 20 minutes each day repeating a spiritual affirmation, such as “God is good. God is peace. God is love.” The other group used a non-spiritual mantra: “Grass is green. Sand is soft.” The spiritual meditators had fewer headaches and more tolerance of pain than those who had focused on the neutral phrases. (10)

In one National Institute of Health-funded study, individuals who prayed daily were shown to be 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure than those without a regular prayer practice. Research at Dartmouth Medical School found that patients with strong religious beliefs who under- went elective heart surgery were three times more likely to recover than those who were less religious. A 2011 study of inner city youth with asthma by researchers at the University of Cincinnati indicates that those who practiced prayer and meditation experienced fewer and less severe symptoms than those who had not. (11 )

What science can tell us is that people who pray and medi- tate tend to be statistically more healthy and live longer than those who do not. Whether these boons are merely unintended side effects of still deeper spiritual benefits remains a matter of faith.

Research published in the journal ‘American Sociological Review’ found that religious people are more satisfied with their lives because of the strong social networks formed among people of faith. Little wonder, then, that people who follow a spiritual path report higher levels of happiness than those who don’t. (12)

But prayer is not only beneficial to mind and soul. It does a body good, too. For many people, sitting in a quiet, meditative state—the very essence of prayer—causes blood pressure to decrease, stress hormone levels to fall, pulse rate to slow and immune systems to get a boost. This is according to numerous studies, including many conducted by Dr. Koenig as well as Herbert Benson, MD, at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, author of The Relaxation Response:

“The evidence of concrete health benefits is overwhelming,” says Dr. Benson. Even better, these positive health effects can continue after the prayer time is over. Research from the University of Wisconsin–Madison has found that being in a meditative state can produce lasting positive changes in how the brain and the immune system function. Just as physical exercise builds our muscles, spiritual practice seems to rewire our brains to make us more resilient in the face of both physical and mental difficulties. (13)

Dr. Christina Puchalski

“Spiritual practices, such as prayer or meditation, give you the ability to buffer stress, not just when you’re doing it, but in the rest of your life as well,” says Christina Puchalski, MD, Professor of Medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and executive director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health. (14 )

To sum up, Islam elucidates the deep philosophical meaning of prayer, and the act of prescribed prayer in Islam, especially in congregation, continues to prove its countless physical and spiritual benefits. The Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Promised Messiah and Imam Mahdi, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), describes beautifully what prayer can do for and to a person:

“The prayer which produces a sweetness and a zeal for more of worship and which strikes a communication with God and is offered in all humility brings about a change in the life of the man. And this change is instantaneously perceived by the one who prays like this. This change makes him realize that he is not what he was before.” (15 )

{This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue.}

  References:

  1. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(rh), An Elementary Study of Islam, Surrey: Islam International Publications Ltd. , 1985. alislam.org. Web. Pg.34.
  2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prayer
  3. Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), The Power of Prayer, Friday Sermon, Jan. 26th, 2018. alislam.org. Web. https://www.alis lam.org/friday-sermon/2018-01-26.html
  4. Farid, Malik Ghulam, The Holy Qur’an Arabic Text with English Translation and Short Commentary, The Oriental and Religions Publishing Corporation Ltd. 1969.
  5. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh), An Elementary Study of Islam. Surrey: Islam International Publications Ltd., 1985. alislam.org. Web. Pg.35.
  6. Schiffman, Richard, Why People Who Pray Are Healthier Than Those Who Don’t. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-schiffman/why-people-who-pray-are-heathier_b_1197313.html. Jan. 18, 2012.
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. Neurotheology: This Is Your Brain On Religion. npr.org https://www.npr.org/2010/12/15/132078267/neurotheology-where-religion-and-science-collide
  10. ibid
  11. Prayer Health Benefits, https://stason.org/TULARC/health/alternative-medicine/Prayer-Health-Benefits.html#ixzz1hYB5ggZH
  12. Poloma, Margaret and Brian F. Pendleton, The Effects of Prayer and Prayer Experiences on Measures of General Well-Being, Journal of Psychology and Theology, 1991. Vol. 29, No.1. Pg. 71. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Brian_Pendleton/publication/232566447_The_Effects_of_Prayer_and_Prayer_Experiences_on_Measures_of_General_Well-Being/links/54c148880cf25b4b8 071f182/The-Effects-of-Prayer-and-Prayer-Experiences-on-Measures-of-General-Well-Being.pdf
  13. Schiffman, Richard, Why People Who Pray Are Healthier Than Those Who Don’t, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-schiff man/why-people-who-pray-are-heathier_b_1197313.html. Jan. 18, 2012.
  14. Puchalski, MD, MS, Christina, The role of spirituality in health care, Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent), Oct. 2001. https://www.nc bi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1305900/
  15. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), Five Daily Prayers (Malfoozat vol. 6, pg. 378). https://www.alislam.org/library/malfoozat/five-dai ly-prayers/

Last modified: January 2019

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