We all remember being little kids in khane, sitting quietly, staring at the designs on the wall or making shapes out of our tasbihs on the carpet (my favorite was the fish!) when we get smacked in the knee. We looked over to see our parent, with their hands up and glaring at us because it’s du’a and we need to do all the actions. So of course we did, raising our hands when we were supposed to, bowing down when we were supposed to (the original “face down, butt up”) and everything else. But what does it all mean?
In the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth, parts of du’a (as well as in all the tasbihs) we raise our hands up. Some people raise them hands together, some hands apart, some overlapping. However you do it, the meaning is pretty much the same. And if you think about it, the meaning is pretty obvious:
That’s right, when you’re raising your hands up during du’a or tasbih, it’s because you’re asking God, Ali, Hazar Imam, etc for something. For example, in part two, you’re asking for peace. And in the tasbihs, you’re asking for anything from strength, to blessings for the dead.
At the end of each part of the du’a we say: “God, to you is my prostration and obedience” and we bow down to the ground. Prostration is a form of bowing, in fact it’s the deepest form. We bow, of course to show respect and demonstrate our own insignificance when compared to God. By lowering ourselves completely to the ground, we’re showing that we’re pretty much worthless, at least in comparison to a higher power.
In some religions, when they prostrate, they go all the way down: laying completely flat on the ground to show their devotion. Meanwhile, we also have a slightly different form of half-bowing (in the namaaz, but a lot of people do during tasbih, too). This is still the same intent but to a lesser degree, where you keep your dignity, but still show respect.
Toward the end of the du’a, we shake hands and say a simple phrase: “Meet the king” (“Shah jo Deedar”). While the phrase itself is straightforward, its meaning is multilayered. First of all, it’s a wish: you’re hoping that the person that you’re shaking hands with will get an opportunity to meet the “King”. King (شاه “shah” in Persian) in this case, refers to the Imam. But it’s not an oblique reference: Imam Hasan Ali Shah was given the title of “Elder King” by the King of Persia in the 19th century. He was also awarded the status of “Prince” by the British Government after the Anglo-Afghan War. So, at least in England and Iran, the Imam is considered honorary royalty. Additionally, the title Shah has been applied to the final Imam in Alamut, as two other hidden Imams before Imam Hasan Ali Shah.
The “meeting” (दीदार “deedar” in Hindi) referred to has multiple meanings. We use the same word to describe when the Imam physically meets with his congregation, usually with lots of pomp and circumstance. But it also has the esoteric meaning of connecting spiritually with the Imam, as in fulfilling the guidance and being pious, etc. When you’re shaking hands with the person next to you, both meanings are there as an earnest wish to your fellow prayer.
Going along with the idea of submission to a higher power, we have this action of holding our hands together. When you think of prayer in any religion, this is probably what comes to mind. However, it’s meaning is a little less obvious than the actions we talked about already. Turns out, in ancient Rome, this action was a sign of surrender at a time of war. Practically speaking, putting your hands together in front of you like this is a great way to get your hands tied together. And that’s exactly what this gesture is: a surrender to a higher power.
Even today, when people are handcuffed (when it’s in front of them, at least) they’re forced into the same pose, showing that they’re at the mercy of whoever cuffed them. In this case, we’re offering ourselves to the mercy of God.
There’s a couple different ways that we touch our faces throughout Jamatkhana ceremonies, and unfortunately: I don’t have names for them. This first kind is done at the mention of important people: prophets, imams, pirs, etc. (usually with the accompanying phrase: peace and/or blessings be upon him/her/them). It usually involves covering the face with the right hand and then touching the mouth.
This motion is supposed to symbolize kissing the feet of the revered person in question. Actually, it’s touching the feet of the revered person and then kissing your hand. If we’re being literal, it’s touching the floor because the revered person isn’t actually in front of us, and then kissing the hand that didn’t touch the feet. The point is: it’s symbolic.
face touching 2: electric boogaloo
Another time that we touch our faces is during the Declaration (“I declare there’s no deity, except God” etc). This one involves touching the ground and then running your hand across your entire face. This symbolizes the action of placing earth on one’s face.
By rubbing this imaginary dirt on our faces, we’re showing that not only were we created the earth (according to Abrahamic creation), but we will return to the earth. This action fortifies our temporal existence, and well as reaffirms the ties our bodies have to the world around us.
When the “great phrase” (تَكْبِير “takbir” in Arabic; i.e. “God is greatest”) is recited on special occasions (and in normal prayer for other sects of Islam), we raise our hands up behind our ears. In some traditions, women only raise their hands to their chest, if they participate at all. When I was young, I was taught that this was because men were supposed to wear a special fragrance found on Mount Hira behind our ears, and by lifting our earlobes, the scent would spread out. I haven’t found any sources that confirm this, and most sources just say it’s a traditional practice that follows what the Prophet Muhammad did during his prayers.