If you had asked me a year ago what my daily to-do list would look like right now, the usual suspects would have made an appearance: email-related tasks, meetings, deadlines and perhaps some time for exercising. Never could I have predicted that salaah (prayer) would be at the top of the list, let alone the thing around which my day now revolves, alhamdulillah. Yet during this global pandemic I've discovered just how vital prayer is in maintaining my wellbeing.
Praying is a common act and during COVID-19, it wouldn’t surprise me if more prayers have been spoken and felt the world over. For those of us safely at home, as the days blur into one and we struggle to differentiate between the weekend and our nine-to-five, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sense that this new normal will never end. These feelings are natural and human, even if they are tinged with the privilege of being safe within our four walls.
As a freelancer who theoretically 'WFH' all the time but in reality works across myriad locations, whether co-working spaces, cafés or libraries, maintaining my five daily prayers as a Muslim used to be just another task to strike off the list. It would only take 5-15 minutes throughout the day – the equivalent of an hour of yoga, give or take – and wasn’t always prioritised when running between meetings or trying to meet a deadline. So for Muslims like me, an unexpected benefit of working from home and social distancing is being able to do the one thing which easily gets lost in a modern work life.
"Before lockdown I tried my best to pray at work but our prayer room is in the basement, which has meant that some prayers kept getting missed as it’s not possible to keep nipping away three/four times a day," says journalist Faima Bakar. "Yet now that we’re in quarantine, my office is in my room which has my prayer mat, meaning I simply pray whenever I need to pray."
From my own experience, prayers used to feel restricted – as though my conversation with God could last only five minutes before I had to rush back to my desk. Now, I can take my time – something a cosmopolitan life doesn’t often allow.
Not only has flexible working made it easier to find a clean place to pray but praying itself has become part of the structure maintaining mine and others' wellbeing. In an article published in The Professional Medical Journal, Dr Misbah Ghous discusses the physical and mental health benefits of salaah. According to Dr Ghous, the different postures in salaah – standing, bowing, prostration and sitting – stretch out various parts of the body, triggering ease in the mind. Similar to yoga, much of salaah is in the movement, which reflects the different stages we go through in life. When we stand back up and praise God, it symbolises our ability to weather the dark and that we have the tools to do so. It says that things are temporary, especially the bad. Repeating simple physical and mental acts that make you feel good and at peace, even if just for 5-10 minutes, helps to make the day more manageable and encourages both self-awareness and looking beyond yourself.
"On the days that I’m not praying, it’s harder to find a reason to get out of bed [when you don’t need to] or to even cook lunch or dinner on time," says Fahima Jilani, the founder of Mosa Mosa, a Bangladeshi food and culture platform. "I don’t have that same motivation throughout the day and can easily spend hours on the sofa procrastinating and just watching things."
"Praying breaks up the day and spiritually makes me feel lighter and more present. I can concentrate on tasks more throughout the day and generally feel productive. I don’t even feel bored as praying helps me slow down and live through each moment."
For some, praying multiple times a day may seem excessive (although it is the norm for the nearly two billion Muslims in the world). Yet as I’ve gotten older – and especially now that we’re trying to get through a pandemic – I've come to understand why humans need those five minutes every few hours. It’s an opportunity to make sure our internal and external selves are in sync and a chance to renew our intentions for the day. Duas (invocations) and prayers are ancient acts of self-care.
"I used to think that prayer was a chore and one of the most difficult parts of Islam but as I've got older, I see prayer as a grounding experience which reminds me of who I am, my values, my gratitudes and what I care about the most," says Diyora Shadijanova, a multimedia journalist and the host of Your Broccoli Weekly podcast. "Prayer also forces me to take breaks when I have really stressful or busy days. It's essentially like mindfulness meditation."
We're just starting a Ramadan that will go down in history, with the Ka’ba empty and no one going on a religious pilgrimage, attending nightly prayers in their local mosque or practising communal acts of generosity – whether that’s sharing your dinner with your neighbours or fundraising for the less fortunate. Yet funnily enough, this Ramadan spent at home might be just what we all need, inshallah.
"Some say it's a coincidence but I find that during Ramadan everything comes with a lot more ease," says Shadijanova. "My mental health is in better shape, my brain isn't jumbled with so many irrelevant thoughts – maybe it's because I can't waste energy ruminating on stuff!"
"Ramadan during quarantine will be very interesting because Ramadan for me is about slowing down and stripping everything down to basic and living life in a very humble way. We've already slowed many parts of our lives due to lockdown, so I will be interested to see if it's possible to slow down even more."
For others who may have struggled in previous years to fast while commuting daily to unaccommodating workspaces while simultaneously looking after their families, participating in Ramadan during lockdown may be easier. "I think it’s so much better doing Ramadan this way because you can really concentrate on Islam throughout this time, take the time to pray, read the Quran and leave worldly pleasures behind," says Jilani. "It’s a blessing in disguise that we get to stay at home … even if we can’t take part in iftar parties where we can try each other’s dishes and see our loved ones. We get to strip things back and experience what really matters, inshallah."