When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, I had a course in religion and literature that really changed how I viewed both topics. The course had a long reading list and the professor (Thank you, Dr. Ellen Weaver!) had us read many books of both fiction and source non-fiction.
One of those books was The Wisdom of the Sufis which is printed in many different forms. I learned about things that were totally new to me: prayers and legends of the Sufi mystics, dervishes and how this mysticism grew out of medieval orthodox Islam.
In class, we learned about the Latifa prayer and tried it as a group in the classroom in a spiritual, not religious, way. This ancient Sufi prayer is meant to connect us with the essence of our being. At one time, this prayer was secret knowledge meant only for initiated disciples because it was considered to be a very holy and powerful practice.
I use the word “prayer” because that is the word used in translations and because it does come from a religious tradition, that is a loaded word to use for non-Sufis or non-religious people. You could call this a meditation if that makes more sense to your practice. I have tried to use it as a morning practice.
It is a simple prayer but one thing that makes it different from other prayers is that the words are accompanied by hand movements. The words are connected with a specific body part.
Non-Sufi believers now use the prayer as a guided meditation and I have seen yoga centers that use this much like the chakras in Indian spirituality.
The Latifa prayer was once a secret prayer only for initiated disciples, but the prayer is out there now. I’m not sure this pleases the Sufi followers or if they are gladdened to see their practices being more widely understood.
The prayer is a succession of seven themes:
I am prepared
But then, the movements…
When you say, “I exist,” you place your right hand on your left hip with the help of your left hand while thinking about why you exist.
With your left hand, place your right hand on your right hip and say to yourself: “I desire” while thinking about the things you desire and how they influence your life.
“I hope” is connected to your right hand on your left lung aided by your left hand. Think about what you are hopeful about and how that feels.
Move your right hand to your right lung and say “I believe and I trust.” Trust comes out of hope and trust makes you stronger.
Now, your right hand goes to your neck as you say “I let go.” Think about what you need to let go of – maybe sadness or anger.
Move your right hand to the center of your chest and tell yourself “I love.” Think of a love that is strong and pure and try to feel that radiate through your body.
To finish the prayer, your right hand goes above your navel, and you place your left hand on top of it. Now, say “I am prepared” – to face the world and to know your own voice within.
Something else that separates this from what you may know as prayer is that it is for inner peace and self-affirmation. That may not be what you associate with prayer since many people pray for things. We pray for the material things we want, things we want to happen or not happen, things we want to change. The Latifa is about finding things in yourself, not outside.
The Sufi parables in those books of wisdom were short and reminded me of Zen parables.
An old man accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life.
Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive.
“I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl, and this is how I survived.”
There are many Sufi parables online and in books if you’re interested in reading them. Many have been translated in modern English versions but are rooted in classical Sufis, such as Rumi, Attar, or S’adi.
A video of someone doing the Latifa and showing the movements with the words would be very helpful, but I couldn’t find one. I did find a guided version of the prayer, but it doesn’t show the movements. If you find a good video of this, please leave a comment here for others.
Since religion can be divisive and even political, I will mention here that Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes the inward search for God and shuns materialism. Though it has produced some beloved literature (such as the love poems of the 13th-century Rumi) it has also come under attacks by other modern-day Islamists because Sufis cherish tolerance and pluralism – which are not qualities that in many religions unsettle extremists.
An earlier version of this post appeared at One-Page Schoolhouse