The expulsion of self-conceit comes through glorifying the Almighty and recognizing our own humble status. With every Dhikr of the Perfect One that we recite, we acknowledge our own imperfection and beg His help in lessening our faults and in getting nearer to Him. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) has told us, “God Almighty said: ‘When I find a servant sincerely engaged in my invocation…and if occasionally negligence dominates over him, I prevent such occurrence. These are my real saints and heroes. If I want to annihilate all the earthly creations, it is because of their distinguished existence that my punishment does not descend towards earth.”
In Islam, we are taught to constantly improve our spiritual status so that we may gain nearness to Allah. If we perform our daily prayers, we should improve by learning the meaning of the words and actions; if we know the meaning of the words and actions, we should improve by reflecting over them; if we reflect over the meanings, we should improve by attaining a greater sense of God-consciousness. The journey continues in degrees as we understand the meaning and strive to implement what we have learned – all in the way of heightening our awareness of Allah’s Greatness.
Day after day, in each cycle of our daily Islamic prayers, we humble ourselves and bow down from the waist in the Ruku’ position (sometimes referred to as “genuflection”). In some parts of the world, it is considered an act of respect to bow down in front of another, while in other parts of the world, it is considered as an act of submission. When we go into the position of Ruku’, however, the act of bowing down is seen as a sign of both respect for and submission to Almighty Allah.
The humbling act of bowing down to our Creator is a blessed opportunity shared by all creations, and we can find mention of both angels and humans bowing in submission to Allah in the Qur’an. When Allah’s creations let go of their pride, the position of Ruku’ becomes a special mode of communication with Him.
When we lift our hands up in Takbir, testifying Allah’s Greatness before bowing down to Him, it is as if we are waving away any distractions that may be lingering in the air – all those instances of suddenly remembering where the lost car keys are or the answer to a test question are common examples of distractions from prayer. We are supposed to keep Allah in mind throughout the day and night, but particularly when standing for prayer, as that time is for us to converse with and glorify Him.
In Adab us-Salat, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini presents the single cycle of prayer as being a gradual discarding of the garment of self-conceitedness, first through the state of standing in Qiyam, then through bowing in Ruku’, and finally through prostrating as the Sujud. Imam Khomeini says that the Ruku’ is the most critical position in the cycle because that is what ensures a smooth transition to the final expulsion of self-conceit.
The expulsion of self-conceit comes through glorifying the Almighty and recognizing our own humble status. With every Dhikr of the Perfect One that we recite, we acknowledge our own imperfection and beg His help in lessening our faults and in getting nearer to Him. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) has told us, “God Almighty said: ‘When I find a servant sincerely engaged in my invocation…and if occasionally negligence dominates over him, I prevent such occurrence. These are my real saints and heroes. If I want to annihilate all the earthly creations, it is because of their distinguished existence that my punishment does not descend towards earth.” (Bihar al-Anwar) If we strive to humble ourselves and think only of His Greatness, He will help us overcome obstacles and will elevate our ranks, and yet again we return to Him as we humble ourselves because we are unworthy of this elevation and we bow down in Ruku’ – it is an on-going cycle that increases in strength with each repetition.
In this critical position of Ruku’, exactly what form of Dhikr is preferred? The answer lies in the Prophet’s experiences during the Ascension, al-Mi’raj. When the Prophet was doing his prayers and performed the Ruku’, the Almighty addressed him, saying: “Look at My Arsh.” The Messenger of Allah said: “I looked at a greatness which astounded my soul, and I went into a swoon. I was inspired to say ‘Glory be to my great Lord, and praise be to Him’ (Subhaana Rabbi al-‘Adheemi wa bi-Hamdih) because of the greatness which I saw. As I said that, I came to myself.” (Ilal ush-Shara’i)
It is that very recitation that was inspired in the heart of the Prophet which we recite everyday in our own Ruku’, followed by the adornment of a Salawat. Keeping in mind the state of awe the Prophet was in while saying those words serves as a reminder for us to focus on the Majesty of the One whom we are praising – surely we would not then let our minds wander from the privileged state of conversing with the Great Lord!
Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini, in chapter 24 of his book Self-Building, beautifully explains the combination of physical and spiritual aspects of prayer: “The invocations, recitals of Qur’anic verses, genuflection, prostration, the witnessing and the salutations constitute the face and body of the prayer while the heart’s presence and attention towards the Creator form its spirit.” Thus our prayers are to be performed wholly, meaning that we are to pay attention to both the physical actions and the spiritual focus on Allah in order for our prayers to be in their complete form.
So that we keep the intention of our prayers pure and only for Allah, we must also ensure that our physical position of Ruku’ is just for Him. This means not remaining bowed down in prolonged Ruku’ for the sake of displaying our supposed piety in front of others. This also means not going to the other extreme of barely bowing down when praising our Lord. After witnessing how a man rushed through his Ruku’ and Sujud in the mosque one day, the Prophet said of the man’s actions: “He is like a crow that would peck and go. If he departs from this world with such a state of prayer, he will not have died under my religion.” (Wasa’il ash-Shi’ah)
Once our intentions have been purified and we are ready to humbly bow down out of respect for Allah, prolonging our Ruku’ is in fact a worthy deed prescribed by our Infallibles. Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) once said: “Long Ruku’ and Sujud make Iblees angry, [who says] ‘Woe to me! With such quality of servitude, the people will no longer obey me.'” (Wasa’il ash-Shi’ah) Imam Ali (peace be upon him) also said, “Nothing can bring about proximity to Allah, Glory be to Him, except an abundance of prostration and bowing.” (Ghurar al-Hikam)
Even when we are praising the Ultimate Praiseworthy One, we are being evermore blessed by Him. Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq has also said that “A long Ruku’ and Sujud have effects on the longevity of life.” (Wasa’il ash-Shi’ah) Another benefit that Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (peace be upon him) has mentioned is that “Anyone who perfectly performs his Ruku’ will be safe from the horror of the grave.” (Ibid.) Again, to perfectly perform the Ruku’ refers to both our pure intentions and our proper positions when we bow down to Allah.
After having glorified the All-Perfect in Ruku’, our awareness of our own imperfection is heightened. Even though we have yet again reminded ourselves of our lowly status, we rise with faith and hope in Allah’s mercy towards even the lowest of creations. Therefore after reciting the Dhikr in Ruku’, we rise up again with the words “Sami’Allahu liman-hamida” (Allah hears he who praises Him) followed by a Takbir.
When we straighten ourselves up from Ruku’, it is for but a mere pause as we prepare to lower ourselves to the ground in utter submission. Without having recognized the Almighty in Ruku’, we cannot proceed to a truly sincere set of Sujud. It is for this reason that we must work on improving our Ruku’, and thereby improve the sincerity of our prostrations.
Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq eloquently sums the special physical and spiritual dimensions of the honorable position of Ruku’: “No servant bows in the Ruku’ for Allah in a true way, unless Allah adorns him with the light of His Brilliance, and shades him with the shade of His Majesty, and clothes him with the gown of His chosen friends. The Ruku’ is first and the Sujud is second. The one who performed the first is fit for the second. The Ruku’ is politeness, and the Sujud is proximity. So, the one who is not well-mannered is unfit for proximity. Therefore, perform the Ruku’ like the one who is submitting to Allah with his heart, humble and afraid under His Sovereignty, drooping to Him his limbs like the one who is afraid and grieved for what one loses of the benefit of those who perform the Ruku’… Protect your heart against Shaytan’s whispers, deceits and traps. Allah, the Exalted, raises His servants as much as they show humility to Him, and He guides them to the principles of humility and submission as much as His Greatness knows of their secrets.” (Misbah ush-Shari’ah)