Lower your head
We have now begun the prayer, and thus we should lower our heads in reverence of Allah subhana wa ta’ala (glory be unto Him). When the Prophet ﷺ would pray, he would lower his head and keep his gaze on the ground towards the place where his head would fall in sujood, in humility to Allah (swt). Ibn Al-Qayyim said that a sign of a lover when he meets the beloved is he looks down, out of shyness and reverence- and this is exactly how we should be. The Prophet ﷺ said:
“When you pray, do not turn here and there because Allah (swt) directs His face to the face of His servant, as long as he does not turn away.” (Tirmidhi)
The Prophet ﷺ also said:
“Allah (swt) does not cease to turn to a servant in prayer as long as he does not turn away.” (Abu Dawud)
And what if we turn away? The Prophet ﷺ said:
“… If he turns away, Allah (swt) turns away from him.” (Abu Dawud)
And remember, to ‘turn away’ has two meanings: 1) turning away in your heart, which means getting distracted and thinking of other things, and 2) turning away with your sight, so looking up or left and right.
If you think of meeting a king or someone of high status, you wouldn’t dart your eyes left or right, nor would you look directly into his eyes. Allah (swt) said about the humility of the Prophet ﷺ, when Allah (swt) raised him to the heavens during theIsra’ wal Mi’raj (the Night Journey and Ascension):
“The sight [of the Prophet] did not swerve, nor did it transgress [its limit].” (Qur’an, 53:17)
Ibn Al-Qayyim said that this action is the height of adab (good manners). Amr bin Al-Aas radi Allahu anhu (may Allah be pleased with him), before he became Muslim, said that he really disliked the Prophet ﷺ. After he became Muslim, he said that his eyes never got enough of seeing the Prophet ﷺ but if he was told to describe him, he would not be able to as he never looked at his face directly – this was his adab in front of the Prophet ﷺ.
Do not think that when you humble yourself before God, you are bringing yourself down. The Prophet ﷺ said:
“Whoever humbles himself to God, Allah will raise him.” (Muslim)
As for raising your eyes in the prayer, that is forbidden according to the Prophet ﷺ. Some people ask, do I keep my eyes open or should I close them? Closing the eyes is not from the sunnah, but Ibn Al-Qayyim says that if you absolutely cannot have khushoo‘ with your eyes open, then it is okay to close them.
Position of the hands
Once we have said the takbeerat al-ihram (the starting of prayer with Allahu Akbar) and lowered our gaze in humility to Allah (swt), we place our right hand over our left hand, or grasp our left wrist with our right hand. There is some legitimate difference on where to place the hands; either below the navel, as taught by the Hanafi school of thought, or above the navel as taught by the Shafi`i school of thought. It is also fine, as some hold, to place the hands on the chest, or even to drop them to the side, as is held by some scholars of the Maliki school of thought.
What is the reason for placing our right hands over the left? Imam Ahmad was asked the very same question, and replied “In humility to Allah. If you were to enter a palace, and saw people with their heads raised and hands on their waists, and then saw others, with their heads lowered and their hands clasped together on their chest, and you were asked ‘Who are the kings and who are the servants?’ you would immediately be able to point them out.”
Du`a’ al-Istiftah – the Opening Du`a’
This is the opening du`a’ that is said when greeting our Lord. Whenever you meet someone, especially one you revere, you ensure that you greet them appropriately. In Arabic, there are different ways of addressing different people. . For instance, when saying good morning to someone whom you love, you say, “Sabah al-khayr!” (good morning) or “Sabah al-ward!” (fragrant morning). In the prayer, the opening du`a’ is a sunnah (optional) act, but since we are here trying to make the most of our prayer, let us encompass all of its aspects and pray as the Prophet ﷺ prayed.
If someone whom you loved asked you to do something and you didn’t do it, and then they called you, you most likely wouldn’t answer out of embarrassment for not fulfilling the request.. This should always be our state with Allah (swt); how many commandments have we forsaken? How many prohibitions have we failed to avoid? So when we commence prayer, we sometimes have this discomfort. This is why the Prophet ﷺ taught us some beautiful words, in one of the openingdu`a’:
Allahumma baa’id bayni wa bayna khataayaaya kama baa’adta bayna al-mashriqi wa’l-maghrib. Allahumma naqqini min khataayaaya kama yunaqqa al-thawb al-abyad min al-danas. Allaahumma ighsilni min khataayaaya bi’l-thalji wa’l-maa’i wa’l-barad.
“O Allah, put a great distance between me and my sins, as great as the distance You have made between the East and the West. O Allah, cleanse me of sin as a white garment is cleansed from filth. O Allah, wash away my sins with snow and water and hail.” (Bukhari)
In the first part, we are asking Allah (swt) to keep us far from the sins we have not committed yet. In the second part, we are asking Allah (swt) to cleanse us of those sins we did commit. And the third is greater, because we are asking Allah (swt) to purify us. The choice of the words “snow and water and hail” signifies being washed of our sins. The snow and the hail have a cooling effect, like the forgiveness from Allah of our sins.
There is another du`a’ of istiftah that the Prophet ﷺ used to say:
Subhanaka Allahuma wabi hamdik, wata-baraka ismuk, wa ta’ala jad-duka wala ilaha ghyruk.
“Glory be to you, O Allah, and all praises are due unto You, and blessed is Your name and high is Your majesty and none is worthy of worship but you.” (Sahih Jami`)
When you say “subhanaka Allahuma wa bihamdik” you are saying that Allah is above everything and free from imperfections and all praise is to Him; “tabarak ismuk” signifies that whenever Allah’s name is mentioned with something, it blesses that thing and increases it; “wa ta’ala jadduk” is exalting Allah’s majesty; and “la ilaha ghayruk” is a natural result of everything that we mentioned before – how can there be another deity worthy of worship when we have just mentioned all of these attributes?
From how beautiful this du`a’ is, the Prophet ﷺ said that it is one of the most beloved words to Allah (Sahih al-Albani). Some scholars have said that the first du`a’ is said in the fardh (obligatory) prayers, and the second in the nafl (voluntary) prayers.
Starting with these du`a’ clears the mind, humbles us and thus removes the barrier before we start reciting the Qur’an,insha’Allah.