The Prayer of the Heart

Monday, February 20, 2017 - 5:29 am

The Prayer of the Heart

The Prophet Muhammad was once asked what was the one essential quality for prayers to be valid. Many in the community thought they knew the right answer. Some thought the Prophet would say proper recitation of Arabic. Others thought the answer would be lovely memorization of Qur’anic chapters. Yet others expected the answer would be perfect ritual observation of prayer.

Muhammad’s answer was: Presence in the heart.

What is this presence?

It is not so much presence of God.
God is always present.
It is we humans who are absent from our own heart.

Presence means to have the fullness of who we are with us.

What does it mean to pray with this Presence?

So much of our lives are spent in a fractured state of heart.
We are, too often, scattered.

We speak about being scatterbrained. The truth of the matter is that the scatteredness is much more systematic. We are scattered at every level: body, soul, mind, spirit.
We do this to ourselves.
We throw ourselves to the past, often clinging to a past pain and trauma.
Or, we hurl ourselves towards the future, attaching ourselves to a hope for the future, or fear of losing something.
We are in the past, or in the future, everywhere but here.

To pray with the heart, to have presence in the heart, is a remedy.
It is a healing, an un-scattering.
Presence is simply to have our heart be where our feet are. 

This starts with a mindfulness, with an awareness of the breath.
When we monitor our breath, simply observe the breath enter into the heart, and emerge from the heart, our breathing slows down.
The heart rate slows down.
Here is where we become whole: our body, our breath, our spirit become One.

When we become one, The One is Here with us.
Here and Now.

In that moment, in this breath, we are healed, and whole.
And what a prayer there is in this breath.
What Presence.
God has always been present, waiting for us.
We ourselves become present, meeting God.
This is the Prayer of the Heart.

This is the Eternal Now (waqt), where Muhammad is to have said:

“I have an Eternal Now with my Loving Lord.”

This is the reason why mystics are Children of the Moment. 
To pray the prayer of the Heart we cannot be anxious about the past, or hopeful/fearful about the future. 
We have to be Present to our own heart’s state. 

The Prayer of the Heart starts with us where we are: broken, fractured, and dis-united. 
It takes us by the breath, and moves us along to unity, wholeness, and healing. 

This is ultimately the very promise of Islam, and of every spiritual tradition. 
To speak about Oneness is not about God. God is One, and has always been One. 
As the Bible says, even the Devil knows that God is one:

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.

God is One, and has always been One. 
It is we humans who have to become One. 

This is when we realize that tawhid (Unity) is not just about God, but about our own hearts becoming One and unified. 
We have to become One, become united. 

Our inner division, being disconnected from our own bodies, our own breath, our own heart is only one part of our lack of unity. 
That inner division is reflected in how we as a human community are divided. When we are not one with our own heart, we cannot see the full humanity of others. 

The inner and the outer are reflected in each other. 
When we are internally divided, we will be externally divided. 
If we wish to be united as a human community, we have to strive for unity and healing at the heart level. 

We need the prayer of the heart. 
By whatever form we pray, we need to become whole. 
May it begin one breath at a time. 
May it begin with me.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • Joshua Smith

    On living in the present, I heard Deepak Chopra say, “now is the moment that last forever.” Also from another spiritual guide – Richard Rohr – in his book Everything Belongs he is challenging me to embrace each moment in all its beauty and mess, knowing that the moment here and now belongs.

    I am working on this as a friend, father of four, husband, and human being. I am writing a out it at

    Thanks for the reflection

  • Marilyn Holloway

    Beautiful, thank you!

  • Beth Patterson

    Just what I needed today, thank you!


    What a lovely meditation. Thanks for the simple prescription: Presence is to have the heart be where the feet are 🙂

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  • Paul

    Thanks for this. 🙂