We are often perplexed by prayer. How it is that the mechanics, incantations, and supplications of Salat are to result in our spiritual ascension? What are the secrets enfolded within the dictates of postures, or the relationship between whether the Qur'an is read silently with the presence of the sun, or aloud in the dark? Before all of that, and prior to stepping out drenched from your local mosques wudu area (a water conservation post will come later) we all do something to enter into the prayer.
We all take off our shoes. Why? And is it possible that by giving import to this seemingly mundane act we can be better at imbibing meaning to each act of prayer and possibly life?
A decisive moment is recorded in the Qur'an in Surah Ta Ha verse 12, as well as in the book of Exodus, Chapter 3, of Moses in front of the burning bush. This is the first Qur'anic account of this major Prophet (peace be upon him) [Surah Taha 10-48]. According to Ibn Ishaq, Moses, while traveling with his family in Midian, is desperately trying to make a fire while his wife is in the midst of labor pains. He is attracted to a fire (nar). Moses tells his family to stay behind while he goes to investigate the fire. He adds that he hopes to bring a brand from the fire, and to find guidance there. When he arrives at the fire, a voice calls to him:
“Moses, I am your Lord; take off your shoes; you are on the holy ground of the valley, Tuwa. I myself have chosen you; so listen closely to what is inspired. Truly I am Allah; there is no god but I; therefore serve me, and perform the prayer of my remembrance.” (Surah TaHa, 12-14).
God says two things to Moses at the outset, and by extension to you and me and everyone seeking to enter the mystery of Living Prayer, “The Prayer of My Remembrance”:
1. Take Off Your Shoes
An early sage stated that shoes, typically made of dead animal skin, are a symbol of the deadness of repetition, of spiritual monotony, enslavement to boredom and trivial mechanics. Hence taking off your shoes is a means to open our eyes, or what the Greeks call nipsis, and what we would term Muraqaba, watchfulness and awakening vigilance with sobriety. Another scholar noted that shoes are symbolic of our worldly lives, and the need to move about, whereas prayer is literally and spiritually "standing still". Our problem is not that we are deliberately lazy in worship, but more often that we are bored. We grow fragmented and disperse throughout the day, not utilizing our spiritual resources. We are running on low gear and not fully present in the here and now. Prayer is meant to bring about stillness.
2. You are on the Holy Ground
When we walk barefoot we become sensitive and vulnerable with the earth under our bare feet becoming alive. We feel the texture of grains of dust, the plushness of grass, the coolness of stone, and warmth of carpet. We renew our sense of awe and wonder in nature and its Creator. We should apply all of this to our prayer. To pray is to stand in front of the “burning bush”— to awaken our senses to the fact that the world around us is holy, and feeling that God is near.
To take off our shoes is to strip ourselves from deadness, and experience all things as fresh and new. It is to know that God is immediately present before us and within us. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) expanded on God’s speech to Moses at the fire (in Surah TaHa, verse 11): “I am with you, in front of you, behind you, and totally encompass you. I am closer to your than your very self.”
How can we attain a prayer that is living and not mere words, a prayer that resides in our deep selves? The answer given by most spiritual authorities is the remembrance of God, terse yet personal invocations, and recitation and reflection on revelation outside of prayer. In fact reflecting on and meditating on the supplication of entering the Mosque of our Blessed Prophet, Our Master Muhammad ﷺ is an amazing way to approach prayer even in our homes:
“O Allah, place within my heart light, and upon my tongue light, and within my ears light, and within my eyes light, and place behind me light and in front of me light and above me light and beneath me light. O Allah, bestow upon me light.”1
Or the more famous supplication, whose inscription graces the blessed doorway to the Mosque of the Prophet ﷺ in Madina:
"In the name of Allah, and prayers and peace be upon the Messenger of Allah. O Allaah, Forgive My Sins and Open the gates of Your mercy for me."
So the next time you approach a shoe rack, cloistered pairs spread outside a hall, or the foyer of your home, reflect and imbibe the meaning of “Take Off Your Shoes”.
1. From Fortification of the Muslim.