The Shaytan is our enemy, and one of the aspects of his enmity is his whispering insinuating thoughts or waswaas, to the worshipper at prayer so as to take away their khushu and confuse them in the prayer.
Waswaas is a problem that befalls everyone who turns to Allah with dhikr and other kinds of worship; it is inevitable, so one has to stand firm and be patient, and persist in the dhikr or salaah, and not give up. Sticking to it will ward off the Shaytan’s plots.
“… Ever feeble indeed is the plot of Shaytan.” (Surah al-Nisaa’ 4:76)
Every time the slave wants to turn their thoughts towards Allah, thoughts of other matters come sneaking into their mind. The Shaytan is like a bandit lying in wait to launch an ambush: every time the slave wants to travel towards Allah, the Shaytan wants to cut off their route. For this reason, it was said to one of the salaf: “The Jews and Christians say that they do not suffer from the problem of waswaas.” He said, “They are speaking the truth, for what would the Shaytan want with a house that is in ruins?” (Majma’ al-Fataawa, 22/608).
This is a good analogy. It is as if there are three houses: the house of a king, filled with his treasure and savings, the house of a slave, containing his treasure and savings, and an empty house with nothing in it. If a thief comes to steal from one of the three houses, which one will he choose? (al-Waabil al-Sayib, p. 43).
When the slave stands up to pray, the Shaytan feels jealous of them, because they are standing in the greatest position, one that is closest to Allah and most annoying and grievous to the Shaytan. So he tries to stop them from establishing prayer in the first place, then he continues trying to entice them and make them forget, and “…making assaults on him with his cavalry and infantry” (cf. Surah Al-Isra’ 17:64), until they think of prayer as less important, so they start to neglect it, and eventually gives it up altogether. If the Shaytan fails to achieve this, and the person ignores him and starts to pray, the enemy of Allah will come and try to distract them, by reminding them of things that they did not remember or think of before they started praying. A person may have forgotten about something altogether, but the Shaytan will remind them of it when they start praying, so as to distract them from their prayers and take them away from Allah. Their heart will no longer be in their prayers, and they will lose out on the honour and reward of Allah turning toward him, which is only attained by the one whose heart is really in their prayer. Thus they will finish their prayer no better off than when they started, with their burden of sins not reduced at all by their salah, because prayer only expiates for sins when it is done properly, with perfect khushu, and the person stands before Allah in body and soul. (Al-Waabil al-Sayib, p. 36).
The Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, taught us the following methods of combatting the wiles of Shaytan and getting rid of his waswaas:
Abu’l-‘Aas, may Allah be pleased with him, reported that he said, “O Messenger of Allah, the Shaytan interrupts me when I pray, and I get confused in my recitation.” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said, “That is a Shaytan whose name is Khanzab. If you sense his presence, seek refuge with Allah from him, and spit [dry spitting] towards your left three times.” [Abu’l-‘Aas] said: “I did that and Allah took him away from me.” (Reported by Muslim, no. 2203)
The Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, also told us about another of the Shaytan’s tricks and how to deal with it. He said:
“When any one of you gets up to pray, the Shaytan comes and confuses him – i.e., mixes up his prayer and creates doubts in his mind – so that he does not know how many [rak’ahs] he has prayed. If any one of you experiences that, he should do two prostrations whilst he is sitting.” (Reported by al-Bukhari, Kitaab al-Sahw, Baab al-Sahw fi’l-Fard wa’l-Tatawwu’).
Indeed, his tricks may be very strange indeed, as the following hadith makes clear. Ibn ‘Abbaas reported that the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, was asked about a man who thought that he had broken his wudu when he had not done so. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said:
“The Shaytan may come to any one of you when he is praying and open his buttocks and make him think that he has broken his wudu when in fact he has not. So if this happens to any one of you, let him not end his prayer unless he hears the sound of it with his ears or smells the odour of it with his nose.” (Reported by al-Tabaraani in al-Kabeer, no.11556, part 11, p. 222)
There is another devilish trick which Khanzab plays on some worshippers. He tries to distract them by making them think of acts of worship other than the prayer that they are performing, by making them think of some issues of da’wah or knowledge, so that they start to think deeply about those matters and stop focusing on the prayer they are performing. He even confuses some of them by suggesting to them that ‘Umar used to make plans for the army whilst he was praying. We should let Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah explain this matter and set the record straight:
“With regard to what was reported, that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab said, “I make plans for the army whilst I am praying,” this was because ‘Umar was commanded to engage in jihad and he was the leader of the believers (Ameer al-Mu’mineen, i.e., the Khaleefah), so he was also the leader of jihad. So in some respects he was like the one who prays the prayer of fear, salat al-khawf, whilst also watching out for the enemy, whether or not there is actual fighting. He was commanded to pray, and also to engage in jihad, so he had to carry out both duties as much as he could. Allah says: ‘O you who believe! When you meet (an enemy) force, take a firm stand against them and remember the Name of Allah much, so that you may be successful.’ [al-Anfaal 8:45]. It is known that one cannot achieve the same peace of mind during jihad as at times of peace and security, so if it happens that a person’s prayer is lacking because of jihad, this does not mean that his faith is lacking.
For this reason, standards may be regarded as being slightly relaxed in the case of prayer at times of danger as compared with times of peace. With regard to prayer at times of danger, Allah says: ‘… but when you are free from danger, perform al-salaah. Verily, the prayer is enjoined on the believers at fixed hours.’ (Surah al-Nisa’ 4:103). So the one who is commanded to establish prayer at times of peace is not commanded to do so in the same manner at times of danger.
Moreover, people are of varying levels in this regard. If a person’s faith is strong, he will have the proper presence of mind when he prays, even if he thinks of other matters. Allah had caused the truth to reside firmly in ‘Umar’s heart, and he was al-muhaddith al-mulham (‘the inspired speaker’), so there is nothing strange in a person of his calibre making plans for the army whilst performing the prayer. He was able to do this, whilst others are not, but undoubtedly when he did not have these concerns to think about, his presence of mind in prayer would be greater. And no doubt the prayer of the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, at times of safety was even more perfect that at times of danger, in terms of external appearance. If Allah has made allowances with regard to some of the external movements of the prayer at times of fear, how then about the internal aspects?
In conclusion, therefore, if a person who is pressed for time thinks about some obligatory matter whilst he is praying, this is not the same as a person who is not pressed for time thinking during prayer about some matter that is not obligatory. It may be that ‘Umar could not give thought to making plans for the army except at that time, because he was the leader of the ummah with many obligations and responsibilities. Anyone could find himself in a similar situation, according to his position. People always think during prayer about things that they do not think of at other times, and some of this could come from the Shaytan. A man told one of the salaf that he had buried some money, but he had forgotten where he had buried it. He told him, ‘Go and pray,’ so he went and prayed, and he remembered where it was. It was said [to the salafi], ‘How did you know that?’ He said, ‘I know that the Shaytan will not leave him alone when he prays without reminding him of something that matters to him, and there is nothing more important to this man than remembering where he had buried his money.’ But the good slave will strive to attain perfect presence of mind in prayer, just as he strives to do everything else properly that he is commanded to do. And there is no help and no strength except in Allah, the Most High, the Almighty.”
(Majmoo’ al-Fataawa, 22/610