By Mishaa Khan
Prayer, or salat, the third pillar of Islam, is an obligation prescribed by Allah (SWT) upon every Muslim to seek Allah’s pleasure. However, it may be from among Allah’s blessings and signs that he has put other benefits in prayer besides spiritual salvation. Evidence from numerous studies suggests that prayer has multifaceted effects on mental wellbeing by increasing relaxation, improving coping strategies, helping with depression and anxiety, and as a preventive health care measure amongst the elderly population.
Whenever we take time out of our day for prayer, we are focusing on the relationship between us and our Creator. By doing this, we are able to temporarily change our perspective from this world to the hereafter. Modern technology has made it possible to measure and more clearly observe what effects this engagement elicits in our brains. Doufesh, Faisal, Lim & Ibrahim (2011) used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain waves of individuals using the four prayer postures: standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting. They measured alpha waves, which are waves which indicate cortical inactivation and relaxation, and they appeared to be present in a greater magnitude. The greatest magnitude of alpha waves was during prostration. This study shows that prayer — and particularly prostration, which is said to be the point at which one is closest to Allah spiritually — has a significantly relaxing effect on people.
A second study by Doufesh, Ibrahim, Ismail, & Ahmed (2014) also used EEG and ECG when Muslim men were praying and they came to the conclusion that the alpha waves detected indicate relaxation, decrease in tension, increased focus and stability between the mind and body. Additionally, the parasympathetic (part of the nervous system used when a person is relaxed) system’s activity increased while the sympathetic (psychological fight or flight switch) system’s activity decreased. In the fast-paced turmoil of the modern era, prayer gives us the opportunity to rise above the worldly chaos and turn our attention upon our Creator, regaining a sense of perspective and peace. Relaxing can improve mental health because it allows a person to step back from their worries and be present in the moment.
Hardships and trials are a fact of life and are often difficult to deal with. By using prayer to rely on Allah, it can ease the difficulty one is facing. For example, one study found the act of prayer as having a notably positive effect on Bosnian war veterans (Pajević, Sinanović, & Hasanović, 2017). The participants were 100 Sunni Muslim front line soldiers who were between the ages of 24 and 45, were mentally healthy and had completed secondary school. They were divided into two groups: those who prayed five times a day and those who did not pray at all. After using the Minnesota Multiphase Personal Inventory (MMPI), Profile Index of Emotions (PIE), and Life Style Questionnaire (LSQ) to evaluate personality profile, emotional profile and defense orientation, they discovered that those who prayed had lower levels of depression, histrionic, psychopathic and paranoia compared to those who did not. The results also indicated that those who prayed were significantly more incorporating and self-protecting. Their counterparts, on the other hand, performed greater in levels of uncontrollability, opposition, and aggressiveness. The researchers concluded that “those who prayed were more sociable, affectionate, obedient, cautious and shy.” Religious principles are believed to provide a coping mechanism when dealing with painful emotions because they forbid actions which can bring harm. This indicates that prayer can be helpful to deal with mental trauma as can be indicated by the Quranic verse “O you who believe! Seek help with patience and prayer; indeed Allah is with the patient.” [Al Baqarah, 2:153]. Another reason the Bosnian soldiers who prayed regularly were more likely to be resilient is because they were most probably more religious than their counterparts. In Islam, patience and reliance on Allah are qualities that are encouraged and thus, those who practice these ideas are more likely to be God-conscious. Eliminating negative stimuli and increasing dependence on Allah during hardships can lead to a better ability to stave off issues such as depression and anxiety. Further studies support the conjecture that praying helps create overall better mental health.
It’s worth exploring whether or not the benefits of salat to mental health hold true on a more regular, everyday basis. Ijaz, Khalily, & Ahmad (2017) found that 13% of the variance in mental health was due to mindfulness and perception of salat education. Their results indicated that those who offered salat regularly had better mental health than those who did not. This shows that regardless of whether an individual has suffered from a traumatic incidence, like the Bosnian war veterans, salat can still improve mental health. The reason behind this may be that salat can be used as a coping strategy to deal with anxiety and depressed moods. Because of the positive effects it has, Henry (2013) believes that prayer can be used during psychotherapy (curing of psychological diseases without medication) because it provides intimacy with Allah, inspiration, solution for problems, subjective well being, humility, interpersonal sensitivity, forgiveness from Allah, and decrease in stress. This is because it provides a connection with Allah and with the influence of faith, the benefits are augmented and diverse. Mental and physical health are tied to each other, so it is not altogether surprising that the health benefits of salah extend even beyond the aforementioned conclusions.
A study (Bai, Ye, Zhu, Zhao, & Zhang, 2012) conducted on Hui Muslims aged 60 and over who did not have any serious health conditions (including a history of neurological and psychiatric conditions) showed that praying had a similar effect on cognition as exercise. It is well established in the scientific community that exercise has been shown to improve both mental and physical wellbeing. The same holds true for prayer, according to this study. The researchers reached this conclusion after providing the participants with a physical activity questionnaire to assess the duration of physical activity and salat followed by a commonly used metric for cognitive function in older people (SCFOP) to evaluate the effects on cognition. The results indicated that there was a significant association between regular prayer and/or exercise and good cognitive functioning. Reza et al. (as cited in Pajević, Sinanović, & Hasanović, 2017) studied the musculoskeletal benefits of salat and concluded that salat provides muscle tone, improved circulation, and acts as a preventive measure for developing osteoarthritis. It also appears to improve cerebral circulation. Since salat and physical exercise have a similar effect on the body, they may also have a similar effect in the brain. Pajević, Sinanović, & Hasanović(2017) suggested that salat can increase a growth factor in the brain, which protects it by enhancing brain plasticity and the formation of new neurons, similar to one of the roles antidepressants play.
It is important to note that while scientific investigation has shown many benefits to salah, this is not the primary reason for our prayer, and nor are these benefits necessarily the reason Allah has prescribed prayer for us. We pray as submission to Allah and to seek his pleasure. We should take this information as encouragement and to feel a sense of wonder and appreciation for His wisdom and mercy, to be inspired with hope against adversity. We ask Allah to make us steadfast upon our prayers and grant us understanding of the miracles He has wrought in His creation.
And Allah knows best.
Misha’a Khan is a Behavioural Neuroscience student at SFU. She is an international student who who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, but is originally from Pakistan. Her academic interests include public policy, mental health, criminal rehabilitation, neuroplasticity and health care. In her free time, she likes to read, work out, hang out with friends and family, and explore nature.
You can read more of Mishaa’s writing here.
Bai, R., Ye, P., Zhu, C., Zhao, W., & Zhang, J. (2012). Effect of Salat Prayer and Exercise on Cognitive Functioning of Hui Muslims Aged Sixty and Over. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal,40(10), 1739-1747. doi:10.2224/sbp.2012.40.10.1739
Doufesh, H., Faisal, T., Lim, K., & Ibrahim, F. (2011). EEG Spectral Analysis on Muslim Prayers. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback,37(1), 11-18. doi:10.1007/s10484-011-9170-1
Doufesh, H., Ibrahim, F., Ismail, N. A., & Ahmad, W. A. (2014). Effect of Muslim Prayer (Salat) on α Electroencephalography and Its Relationship with Autonomic Nervous System Activity. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine,20(7), 558-562. doi:10.1089/acm.2013.0426
Henry, Hani M. “Spiritual Energy of Islamic Prayers as a Catalyst for Psychotherapy.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 54, no. 2, June 2013, pp. 387–398., doi:10.1007/s10943-013-9780-4.
Ijaz, S., Khalily, M. T., & Ahmad, I. (2017). Mindfulness in Salah Prayer and its Association with Mental Health. Journal of Religion and Health,56(6), 2297-2307. doi:10.1007/s10943-017-0413-1
Pajević, I., Sinanović, O., & Hasanović, M. (2017). Association of Islamic Prayer with Psychological Stability in Bosnian War Veterans. Journal of Religion and Health,56(6), 2317-2329. doi:10.1007/s10943-017-0431-z