This essay will discuss the concept of attachment in relation to our daily need for spirituality. Also, the daily prayers in Islamic tradition will be the focal point of the essay as the expression of daily spiritual connection. The following lines will mostly be an attempt and an exploration of such a topic: attachment theory. The essay will just share personal explorations and discoveries around the topic as much as possible rather than making a very concise and assertive conclusion. Also, some ideas and connections between our daily faith practices, religious concepts and findings of the psychology and modern sciences will be examined.
In most of my writings and presentations about Islam, when I discuss spirituality and daily faith-related practices, such as prayers, I like using analogies for their explanatory power. Since I too am a student, I really like using the analogy of the relationship between an adviser and the student to shed light on nurturing nature of spiritual practices. As the anology suggests, one of the best parts of a PhD program, if you are fortunate enough, is the long-lasting nurturing and guiding connection between you and your adviser. Especially when you meet regularly with your advisor on a weekly basis, it helps you focusing, finding your and the resources that you need. The adviser supports you and cares for you as much as possible, which is one of the most crucial elements for finishing a PhD program successfully.
Analogically speaking, each one of us is a student in this world. We come to this world and every life occasion becomes like a class through which we get some knowledge, experience and education. We complete these courses throughout the course of our lives and when we are ready, we graduate from this school and leave with many knowledge, experience and wisdom. Throughout this study experience, our best advisor is our Creator who send us here for a purpose. If we meet with him regularly with good questions, findings to share and reflections of our readings of life occasions, we can get a lot of wisdom, necessary guidance, nutrition, support and care through these meetings. The shortcoming of this analogy is that you meet with your adviser occasionally or once in every week and not every day or “five times” a day, as the Islamic daily prayers suggest, and sometimes even more with the additional nafila prayers. That would be too much for our analogical example. So, there is a missing component to this analogy. The other missing component is, in terms of its weekly structure, a meeting with a PhD adviser cater mostly intellectual needs. The meetings with the ultimate Advisor, on the other hand, is not merely intellectual but also emotional or spiritual at many different layers. That is to say, there is a more intense and sophisticated need behind the daily prayers as meetings to be held.
Let’s try to find other analogies to better understand the nature of these meetings with the Creator. Another analogy that I enjoy using is the analogy of nutrition and basic needs.
Many people are familiar with the comparison that the faith is like water, air, food or light, things that are essential to our life. When we do not have faith and spiritual connection to a divine source for guidance or lose it, it feels like losing your inner compass. We get lost and encounter many difficulties in our lives. The question to ponder here is: if prayer -the spiritual connection with our merciful and compassionate Creator and being at the presence of an Almighty- is a major need like food, air, water, then, sometimes, why don’t we feel that need clearly and pursue it, as we do for our above mentioned basic needs? Why is this the case if this is an innate need that we are created upon?
When I am hungry, no one tells me to go and find food. I just find food and eat. When I am asleep, I just go to sleep. So, when it comes to meeting a “need”, there is a mechanism that drives by itself. As a result, my body communicates with me and I just follow these urges to meet my basic needs. But when it comes to the prayers, I don’t feel the need to pray as intensely or at least not like I feel the need for food and sleep.
“When we do not have faith or lose it, it feels like losing your inner compass. We get lost and encounter many difficulties in our lives.”
Regarding the challenge above, Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” or the “theory of motivation” is a significant study to explore in terms of understanding the human needs and how the mechanism of these needs works, especially for our case of spiritual needs. According to this study, there are many types of needs at various levels. This theory of motivation talks about physiological needs, safety needs, love, belonging, self-esteem and so forth. When someone meets these needs step by step from bottom up, eventually he or she reaches to the point of self-actualization, to a level of maturity and finishes and finalizes this life course more successfully by actualizing the given potentials. But if we are thwarted in our basic needs, then we cannot go to the level of self-actualization or at least cannot prioritize this need over the thwarted one(s). Even if we do, the lack of addressing the basic needs overshadows everything else. If someone is hungry, let’s say, you cannot really talk with this person about art. If someone doesn’t feel secure, you cannot invite them to go out and to have some fun. So, one needs to follow and meet these needs step by step. Following this analogy/theory, if spirituality and prayer -connecting to someone who is bigger than us, finding meaning in our lives and finding that ultimate support, sustenance, care through the Creator- is a need, then why don’t I address and follow this need as I do with other needs?
Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”
When we carefully examine how people deal with these basic needs, we see, also, other cases in which people do not meet these needs even in desperate conditions. They are unaware of them, forget about them or just postpone them. Anorexia nervosa is an example. People with this problem abstain from eating. Their bodies start to fail and eventually some of them die. These people actually know that they need to eat. A problem most common among females, it happens when people convince themselves not to eat because of their perceived image. Their body tells them “I need food! I need food!” but they just stop listening to it and say “No! I don’t want hear you because I have some other priorities, other things that I need to satisfy first and therefore I will neglect your voice!” Another example is bulimia nervosa. It is a similar eating disorder characterized by binge eating followed by purging and vomiting. Social isolation is also another example. While socialization is a need, there are some people prefer to live alone and not to interact with other people, ignoring that basic need. Addiction as a concept is also intriguing for understanding how people do not always care about their basic needs. A person knows consuming a lot of alcohol is harmful in terms of basic needs like health, safety and security, but he or she might continue to use alcohol. While health is a need, these people don’t listen to its natural voice, and don’t follow it as they do the opposite. What causes them to ignore what their natural mechanisms direct them to and why do they not listen to it? To give one more example, safety is a basic need and we naturally want to be safe and secure but some people decide to commit suicide. They do the opposite of their basic need of life and security.
Understanding these cases in which people do not meet their basic needs can be helpful when we talk about why some people do not listen to and satisfy their spiritual needs. There are similarities to why, sometimes, people ignore their basic needs, what they were created for and what their body demands. The voice that says, “I need to connect with my Creator, I need to find someone who is going to care for me, someone who is going to hear me, someone who is going to embrace me, give a meaning for me and sustain me” is an expression of a basic need, however, we might choose to say “I don’t want to listen to this voice. I don’t need to connect to a Creator” or we might just block this voice right away as demonstrated in the cases above.
“The voice that says, ‘I need to find someone who is going to care for me, hear me, embrace me’ is an expression of a basic need.”
When we look at the history, we see that different traditions and cultures have proposed different ways to meet the needs of spiritual nutrition, connection, care, peace, belonging, meaning and purpose. Some people prefer far eastern practices, such as yoga, to meet the need of inner peace. Some others find this peace in the nature, as it provides order, majesty, serenity, awe and admiration in relation to its Maker. God, as the Creator, manifests and reveals himself in the nature. Nature is a major and important book where we can feel the presence of God as the active author by observing, discovering, and listening to it. That is, nature is another platform we connect with our Creator and to the spiritual power whose guidiance and presence we need in our lives. People might also find that presence among other people. As the saying goes in the Islamic tradition “the hand of God; the power, the care or the support of Him, is over the jama’ah (congregation).” When people come together for the purpose of studying and remembering the works of God, God’s “assuring and comforting hand” will be upon them. Through this, people might feel the presence of God in a community, in togetherness, more than in any other condition. When they are together with other people and praise God altogether, they feel that presence, connection and meaning even more.
Different traditions have different ways of meeting this need. In Orthodox Christianity, let’s say, there are icons in front of which people prostrate to show their respect for the Creator. In the Jewish tradition, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, inherited from the times of Solomon, is a place where people pray and build a connection to their Creator through remembering their history and the presence of divine within this historical context. We can see similar practices in Hinduism. In Islam, there are many parallels to these practices in terms of the body postures. For example, putting the forehead on the ground at sajdah, prostration, during the prayer, one feels ‘one of the closest moments to the Creator’, showing respect and finding the meaning of his or her existence. In another example, reading the word of God and having a conversational connection with divine wisdom and perspective, our understanding of life enlarges and expands beyond our limited view. The need to connect has been manifested in different cultures and traditions across the centuries. Throughout the human history, we see that this need is met through different means, forms and practices.
How do we, as adults, meet our need for spiritual nutrition, connection, care, peace, belongingness, meaning and purpose? How do we act when we need care, connection, and a higher purpose? And, how do we answer when we ask the questions of ‘Who am I? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? What is the meaning of my life?’ In order to understand what we do in the face of these needs and questions as adults, it is crucial to understand how we did or did not meet these needs when we were a child. There is a strong correlation between these two life stages. Also, to understand this correlation, it is important to define the essence of the prayer as seeking spiritual nutrition, connection, care, inner peace, belonging, meaning, purpose, rather than just a ritual with external qualities, shapes and forms. Beyond its external ritualistic qualities, our daily prayers provide us above mentioned basic spiritual needs.
The question now becomes how we asked, as a child, as an infant, these things and how they were provided to us by our caregivers. And, how the manner in which we were provided these needs in our early stages of life has been affecting our approach to spiritual Caregiver through prayer when we need it today. This is also a very important question to explore whether daily prayer is just a religious obligation to fulfill without relating to it and feeling it deeply or a natural need felt and addressed on a regular basis in our lives like other basic needs.
Let’s focus a bit more on the relationship between the child and the caregiver and try to understand how an infant meets his/her basic needs through this relationship. Understanding these dynamics is important because kids will carry on these characteristics later in their lives when relating other individuals, authority, and God for meeting these needs. Also, examining how a child does meet these needs is examining our authentic nature. This nature is not yet disturbed when we are children. For example, a child doesn’t lie especially when he or she is an infant, they tell it like how it is. But as adults, we sometimes disturb and disrupt that natural way of speaking, distract others, use indirect ways for expression. Based on this authentic nature, whenever we seek for comfort as kids, like we do as adults in the prayer, we hug our parents, feel comfortable and stop crying. This is how we meet this need as children. When we are happy, we share that happiness with someone who would reflect that happiness to us, someone whom we can trust. We don’t share happiness with everyone but only with the ones we feel comfortable around. When we are scared, we find our parents and seek refuge in them. We do the same when we are hungry.
“Dua literally means ‘to call out’ or ‘to summon’.”
This is how a child makes dua in his/her own way. What is the meaning of dua? Dua literally means calling out someone, it means “invocation”. When we make this application, we call God to help us, to be with us, feed us, care for us and support us. The natural way of doing this, as we observe in children’s behaviors is to call without hesitation. “Mom, I am hungry, feed me.” When a child is hungry, he or she just expresses it. Someone comes and cares for them. When children are happy and peaceful in the hands of the caregiver, they reflect that happiness to them.
In a functional family, it is expected that when we ask our caregivers’ support, they will hug us, feed us, take care of us which will help us to build a secure attachment with them. But what happens when we don’t have a proper channel to meet these needs? Let’s say, as a child, you make those calls and show those expressions, but no one comes and meets your expectations and needs. Or maybe it gets so much interrupted for so many times that you are not sure if someone will come when you cry and call for others. Or let’s say when they do show up, they are angry for some reason and you don’t feel secure. There can be such a variety of negative responses from your caregiver. Then the fact that there are interruptions and that the caregivers are not very attentive to your needs affect you later in life when you seek comfort, peace, support, help, safety and care from other individuals or God as the ultimate Caregiver.
I would like to introduce two set of concepts, I believe, at force here. One is the concept of wahid-i qiyasi. Wahid-i qiyasi is a hypothetical bounding line that works as a unit of measurement. The term is originally used to explain the function of the ego. What is the purpose of the ego? For example, as a human being, I hear a limited range of voices but God Almighty hears every single voice in the universe. As a human being, I can see up to a certain distance but God sees everything. As such, ego gives you hypothetical lines that you can use to compare between the individual and God and understand his majesty in so doing. This comparison is called wahid-i qiyasi. Similarly, the family and the parents are infant’s world. Everything the infant observes in this small unit as a model will be later reflected in life. So, if it is a negative model then the child will perceive life as negative, if it is positive then the child will perceive life as positive.
Similarly, as a child, we compare everything in life to our initial environment, to that small unit. The caregivers in this unit represent “God” later in our lives, so to speak. Like a metaphorical god, we regard our parents as a sustainer, comforter, caregiver. All these attributes we expect from our parents as an infant, we later expect them from God. As a child, if my perception of my parents is negative, interrupted and not nurturing, then, I might later reflect that negativity to my understanding of the attributes of God in practice but not necessarily in theory and doctrine. So, wahid-i qiyasi works as a measurement unit by which I make comparisons later in my life.
“How we fill the emptiness in times of separation from God is directly connected to the type of relationship we had with our caregivers in our early developmental years.”
Another set of concepts I would like to introduce here is haqiqi and majazi. God is the haqiqi, the real and authentic caregiver, provider. Our parents, on the other hand, are majazi, a metaphoric and finite one. They are an introduction to the belief in real, authentic caregiver, sustainer and creator. God gives us a chance to observe a simple and small case to understand the bigger one. Our experiences in this small unit later affects our lives.
How do we reflect this pattern later in life to our spiritual habits and practices? If my relationship with my caregivers is negative then my relationship with God might become negative too. When I cry out loud “I need food!” as an infant and no one comes to help which makes me feel abandoned and neglected frequently, can I sincerely pray to God “Please help me!” and expect him to come when I am an adult? Because no one came in the former case, I may probably think no help will arrive in the latter either. If, as a child, I need to be comforted but no one comes to comfort me, can I really mean it when I call God for comfort? Do I really expect that such comfort will arrive, that someone will care for me, ordo I just do the calling as a mere habitual ritual?
These are all negative cases of course. The question is “Can we easily return to God as the source of comfort when we face challenges as we did in the first place with our caregivers? Is our relationship with God that natural? When I need something, do I just go pray like how a baby goes to his mom and cries for help?
In the Islamic tradition, cutting off relationship with one’s parents without any proper reason and disrespecting them are considered as grave sins. Why is there so much emphasis on keeping our connection with those main caregivers and how is this correlated to our relationship with God? In chapter al-Isra verse 23, God says in Qur’an “Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but him” and, right after this verse, it says “and that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life say not to them a word of disrespect nor shout at them but address them in terms of honor.” Interestingly, relationship with our parents is mentioned right after our relationship with God. When we maintain or restore this relationship with our parents or at least change it in a positive way, then this somewhat affects our subconscious world too, because, in our subconsciousness, they represent caregiving, sustaining and very similar attributes we expect from God. In cases of dysfunctional upbringing and negative image of caregivers, the broken relationships may be restored later in life and, thus, the relationship and spiritual connection with God might improve parallel to this restoration.
Now let’s come to the attachment theory. As one might guess, the attachment theory is concerned about our attachment to our parents. It is a psychological model that attempts to describe the dynamics of long-term and short-term interpersonal relationships between humans, and in our case between man and God. It also describes how human beings respond within relationships when they are hurt, separated from the loved ones or perceive a threat. As human beings, how do we reach out to someone and ask for their help in these cases? What is our respond in times of need and to situations such as threat and separation from the loved ones? How do we respond when we get hurt in our human relationships? The attachment theory studies these and related questions. A child, for example, seeks proximity with a family member or caregiver when they are alarmed with the expectation that they will receive protection and emotional support from them. This is a natural expectation of the child in attachment. Our attachment patterns in early childhood affect our relationships with our partners, suppose, friends and God later in life as adults. This fact that has been supported by many research.
As an extention of this theory, here, we want to focus on how it affects our relationship with God rather than how it does with others. I want to take this relationship phenomenon and see how it shapes how we perceive the daily prayers, which is an expression and channel for the relationship with God. How do we perceive and approach to prayers, supplications and other devotions when we stand in front of God?
Different types of attachment
Let’s examine the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and a few other Islamic concepts with regard to this matter. As is known, tawba is translated in English as repentance. In Arabic, the word literally means “to return”. For example, a working mom leaves her child at home and when she comes back after a short “separation”, the child runs to mom and hugs her. This is the moment of “returning” for the child, a moment of unification with the main caregiver after a time of separation. Similarly, while tawba is often practiced as confession of one’s sins, it is not just that. Tawba is a joyous moment of returning to God like the moment a child reunites with his or her parents after a brief separation. Thus, trying to return to and find one’s main caregiver can metaphorically be called tawba. From this perspective, considering the child/caregiver relationship, the biggest source of anxiety for us, then, is the separation from our real caregiver, namely God.
When we desire to reunite with someone we love after a brief separation, we express these feelings to them explicity or implicitly. A good example I see in my life is when my kids want to call and hear their mom’s voice and affirmation to come home soon when she is away. This desire to feel the presence of our caregivers in infancy or childhood, reflects the authentic desire to reunite, tawba, with our real caregiver and sustainer again and again after brief separations through regular prayers in our case.
A second term here is awwabin. Awwabin is an additional nafila prayer made right after the evening prayer. Interestingly, the word awwabin and the word tawba come from the same root. Therefore, awwabin also means returning to someone. It is the prayer for people who wish to reunite and return to God habitually and excessively. When a child wants to be with his or her parents so much, he or she constantly hugs them, plays with them; wishes to feel the peace in their presence. Similarly, when five daily unifications don’t feel enough for a person, he or she says “I want to see you more! I want to be with you more!” and increases the times of meeting through the additional prayers like awwabin. As is known, the term nafila works for the same purpose in general. It is when meeting five times a day with God is not enough and you add extras, create excuses to meet with the loved one, your main Caregiver.
Another example is the call to prayer. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) once said to Bilal ibn Rabah, the first muezzin: Arihna bissalah, ya Bilal! (bring us rest and comfort with prayers, O Bilal) when he wanted him to make a call to the prayer. Instead of merely saying “make a call to the prayer”, the Prophet said “comfort us”. This denotes that this is a time of meeting with our Caregiver, our main Sustainer. Like the happiness of a child when he meets with his parents, the prayer brings comfort for those who had been waiting for that moment. The Prophet demonstrated this through praying for hours. When we consider the five daily prayers only as an obligation, it is hard to understand why someone would spend long hours and nights to pray.
When the Prophet was asked ‘why he prays so much when he has not sinned and there is nothing left to be forgiven’, he emphasized that it as an inner peace and need that should be met more and more in the presence of the Caregiver. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) refers to the prayer as “the light of my eyes.” This reminds us the happiness we see in people’s eyes when they become happy as a result of meeting their loved ones.
In contrast, we feel emptiness and anxiety in times of separation from the divine presence, just like a child feels anxious when he or she is away from the parents or main caregivers. Rumi mentions a similar feeling in his “The Reed Flute’s Song” or “The Song of the Reed”:
Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
how it sings of separation:
Ever since they cut me from the reed bed,
my wail has caused men and women to weep.
I want a heart that is torn open with longing
so that I might share the pain of this love.
Whoever has been parted from his source
longs to return to state of union.
As is seen, he links the sad, deep sound of the reed flute to being separated from the reedbed. The reed is separated from its origin, its “country”, its “friends” and when we blow it, it just makes that sad sound as a sign of this longing. When we are separated from God, we express our longing through sadness, cries, and anxieties as we wish to reunite with the beloved, someone we dear the most. What do we do in times of stress and how do we respond to that urge emerging from the bottom of our hearth? How we fill that emptiness is directly connected to the type of relationship we had with our caregivers in the early developmental years.
The pattern of unification and the successive inner peace is also reflected in the finalizing words and closing salams of the regular Islamic prayers: “assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah” (peace and God’s blessings, which I am bringing with me, be upon you). These phrases and part of the prayer suggest very deep, meaningful and relational dynamics to consider. It suggests that the person just reunited with the source of peace through prayer and returned from that jouyous moment to share inner peace and contentment with rest of the creation. At that moment, analogically, he or she feels like a child who just met with his or her caregivers after a moment of separation. Hugging, kissing, and being comforted by them, as joyous and confident as he or she could be, the child then returns to the playground to play with friends happily and peacefully again. While playing, the child knows and is confident that the parents are there and going to care for him or her when needed, and that there is no need to worry. In that presence, the child spreads around peace, happiness that can be observed in his or her eyes and manners. Similary, in a prayer, we spend some quality time with God. When we leave his presence, we conclude the prayer by saying “assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah” (peace and God’s blessings be upon you). This means that “I am bringing peace to you, I am very peaceful and happy now because of this meeting. With my manners, attitudes, words right now, as if, I am the embodiment of that peace to you.” My temporary separation from the presence of God with joy and peace is analogous to the separation of the child from the presence of the parents who are watching and caring for him constantly from a distance and reassuring him or her by their presence.
In conclusion, spiritual connection and nutrition through meaningful and regular prayer is a basic need for our well-being and self-actualiziton. Feeling the presence of Divine and real Caregiver and Sustainer through five daily prayers or other additional prayers, devotions, supplications is a need like food, sleep, safety, air, water and self-esteem. It is not merely an obligation. There is a strong correlation between the mode of our relationship with our parents and relationship with God through prayers. We can restore and deepen our relationship with God by restoring and deepining our broken relationships with our parents. We can examine the effects of our attachment styles in our current family, friendships, and spiritual life by using the models suggested in attachment theory. It is an ongoing challenge and task to detect all the correlations in this big spectrum and to reconstruct a healthy relationship with God.