Answered by Shaykh Abdullah Anik Misra
When a hadith says that Allah responds to someone, how are we supposed to understand that? For example, in the Hadith Qudsi about sura Fatiha, which mentions “…When the servant says, ‘All praise is due to Allah the Lord of the worlds,’ Allah says: My servant has praised Me…”, we know Allah doesn’t change. He is not subject to time, so Allah is not literally waiting for his servants to recite and then respond. How are we supposed to interpret/imagine this, especially during prayer?
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
When a hadith says that Allah responds to someone or says something, we affirm the meaning and purport of that which is being said according to how Allah intended, while ruling out the literal meaning for created beings using physical vocalization of sounds and letters, or starts and stops.
According to the theology of orthodox Islam, Allah is exalted far beyond physical and temporal associations like creation in any way. This is the general method that the scholars used to understand any report of a physical act ascribed to Allah Most High: to go to the final implication without affirming a temporal process in the act while consigning the reality of the meaning to Allah’s knowledge. [Bayjuri, Tuhfa al-Murid]
Allah Most High is utterly dissimilar to His creation because they are contingent (dependant) beings subject to other temporal contingencies, while Allah is free of need entirely and free of association with the temporal factors which He has created. Therefore, it is correct to say that Allah does not change, nor is He subject to time and space, among other things. [Ibid]
How to Apply This Hadith in Prayer
The way to imagine this hadith during prayer is not to wonder about any physical or mechanical action, as this is not the point of being told this. Instead, we feel the spiritual benefit in understanding the significance of why we were told this: that we are in direct communication and discourse with Allah Most High when we pray.
Firstly, see the narration found in Sahih Muslim, where Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) says, after some comments on reciting the Fatiha in prayer:
“… I heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) say that Allah the Exalted said: I have divided the prayer into two halves between My servant and Me, and My servant will receive what he asks. When the servant says: ‘Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the universe,’ Allah the Most High says: ‘My servant has praised Me…’
And when he (the servant) says: ‘The Most Compassionate, the Merciful,’ Allah the Most High says: ‘My servant has lauded Me.’ And when he (the servant) says: ‘Master of the Day of judgment,’ He remarks: ‘My servant has glorified Me.’ Sometimes, He would say: ‘My servant entrusted (his affairs) to Me…’
And when he (the worshipper) says: ‘Thee do we worship and of Thee do we ask help,’ He (Allah) says: ‘This is between My servant and Me, and My servant will receive what he asks for.’ Then, when he (the worshipper) says: ‘Guide us to the straight path, the path of those to whom Thou hast been Gracious not of those who have incurred Thy displeasure, nor of those who have gone astray,’ He (Allah) says: ‘This is for My servant, and My servant will receive what he asks for.’ [Muslim, Sahih]
The hadith scholars focused on the purpose and meaning of this hadith and the beauty of Allah responding to the worshipper. They did not delve into the theological implications of the divine acts implied. We, too, should benefit from knowing that Allah hears our recitation line by line and focus on the fact that His good pleasure and appreciation accompany it.
Imam Munawi says while commenting on this narration:
“Some of the Knowers of Allah [Al-‘arifin] said, ‘…the Divine Reality (Allah) is not discoursed with (by the servant) through pronounced words, but rather through the presence of heart…” [Munawi, Fayd al Qadir]
Hence, we too should not be focusing on the idea of our words discoursing with Allah, but our very being and spiritual state of presence with Allah “speaks” more. So if our calling out to Allah with our state is beyond our words, then what of Allah’s response to us? Even the realization that we have been told Allah responds should fill us with love and reverence. Imam Zurqani comments on this hadith, saying,
“Some of the Sufis said, ‘And who is ‘the servant’ really, such that Allah Most High said, ‘The servant says such-and-such’ so Allah says such-and-such’ [ie. how do we deserve that?] If it were not for the divine concern and lordly largesse, there would never be a sharing in this intimate discourse [between Allah and us].” [Zurqani, Sharh al Muwatta]
Finally, the great scholar Shah Waliullah Dihlawi was quoted to have said in the commentary of this hadith, “The essence of prayer is the presence of the heart with Allah, which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)] alluded to by saying, ‘Spiritual excellence [ihsan] is that you worship Allah as though you see Him, and if you don’t see Him, then indeed He sees you.’ Then [the hadith mentioned above of Allah responding to the servant in each line of the Fatiha] shows us how to train our soul to do that [ie. worship “as though we see Him”]… and it is an instruction to realize the divine responses in every phrase recited, for it makes [the servant] become alert with presence of heart in a great way.” [Usmani, Fath al Mulhim]
[Shaykh] Abdullah Anik Misra
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Abdul-Rahim Reasat
Shaykh Abdullah Misra was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1983. His family hails from India, and he was raised in the Hindu tradition. He embraced Islam in 2001 while at the University of Toronto, from where he completed a Bachelor of Business Administration. He then traveled overseas in 2005 to study the Arabic language and Islamic sciences in Tarim, Yemen, for some time, as well as Darul Uloom in Trinidad, West Indies. He spent 12 years in Amman, Jordan, where he focused on Islamic Law, Theology, Hadith Sciences, Prophetic Biography, and Islamic Spirituality while also working at the Qasid Arabic Institute as Director of Programs. He holds a BA in Islamic Studies (Alimiyya, Darul Uloom) and authorization in the six authentic books of Hadith and is currently pursuing specialized training in issuing Islamic legal verdicts (ifta’). He holds a certificate in Counselling and often works with new Muslims and those struggling with religious OCD. He is an instructor and researcher in Sacred Law and Theology with the SeekersGuidance The Global Islamic Seminary. Currently, He resides in the Greater Toronto Area with his wife and children. His personal interests include Indian history, comparative religion, English singing, and poetry.