Ahmadi Muslims stand for humility, yet bow their heads in prayer

On a warm Sunday in February, over 200 women, many accompanied by young children, gathered in the women’s prayer hall at a mosque in Queens. They fell to the carpeted floor during prayer, folding in their knees, sitting on their heels, and lowering their heads until they touched the ground.  Some held their hands slightly in front of them, together, pinkies touching, with palms facing up. Some interlaced their fingers, criss-crossing, pressing their hands against their face. Most—except for small children—wore scarves of various colors, partially or fully covering their hair. All sat in a particular, curved, almost upright fetal position in complete silence for several minutes, before slowly unraveling at the collective utterance: “Ameen.”

It was a synchronized moment of prayer and devotion that plays out regularly in this fashion among the men, women, and children of the Ahmadiyya community at Bait-uz-Zafar Mosque located at the intersection of McLaughlin Avenue and the recently-renamed Ahmadiyya Way in the Hollis section of Queens, New York.

Islam’s sect of Ahmadis see prayer as a holistic experience that involves not just the spirit, but the body as well. This “conversation with God,” as they see each of their moments of worship, is communicated through not only what is said from the mouth (like Qur’anic verses) but also what is conveyed without an utterance, through the mere stance in one’s body as they commune with their higher power, Allah. Thus, posture, in itself, is also a form of worship for Muslims.

Imam Mahmood Kauser, the head imam of the Ahmadi sect in New York City at their headquarters in Queens, described the concept of prostration before God. “We Ahmadis believe that the body and soul are connected, and when your body has a certain gesture, it affects your soul.”

Kauser is young, lightly bearded, and sports a karakul hat, which he says is of traditional Indonesian design. Before assuming a high religious position in the Ahmadiyya community, he studied at an official Ahmadi university in Canada.

The prostrations during prayer serve as a metaphor or a reflection of the mind, he explained. “If you have this very arrogant stance, it will depict what you actually feel deep down inside,” said Kauser.

“There’s all kinds of science behind it. Sometimes you say you agree, but your head instinctively moves left and right. Scientists and psychologists will say that that indicates that you’re actually disagreeing, but with your mouth, you are trying to agree. When you speak with your father and pump out your chest, you display that you are prideful.” Thus, bowing, in the eyes of Muslims, it is the greatest level of submission and humility. Carl Jung’s book “Psychology and Religion” speaks of a similar concept, though Jung adds that the act of bowing may be a sign of acknowledging greater power and seeking appeasement or “propitiating.”

“We believe that when you are in prostration, it doesn’t matter how arrogant you may be, your soul feels a sense of humbleness,” said Kauser. “You could be the most arrogant man in the world, but the moment you are prostrating in front of somebody, that all goes away. It’s the most intimate posture you could possibly be in our form of prayer.”

This physical state coordinates in tandem with the meaning of the prayers that are recited, silently or aloud, in that position of humility.

“In that prostration, you are literally in the lowest state that you can be in. But what’s interesting is that in that moment, you are reminded to say: ‘Oh God, you are holy and the most high.’”

A significant piece to this posture of submission is also in the hands. “When in a posture of absolute prostration, your hands are asking,” Kauser states, referring to the open hands, palms up, covering the face, as previously mentioned. “We hold our hands as if we are beggars.”

“But we only beg to God,” Kauser adds.

This is something the Ahmadiyya sect particularly emphasizes. “We have exclusively kept this position only for God. As a Muslim, we don’t prostrate in front of anybody else. It doesn’t matter if he is a king or ruler or whatever. We prostrate before God alone.

In other religions, worshippers bow, kneel, prostrate, recite, and show reverence through their hands when communicating with God, but in this one fluid Ahmadi ritual of bodily gestures, Kauser notes, Muslims encompass all those acts within their daily prayers.

(Photos courtesy of Radha Dhar.)