Acts of Worship : Prayer (Salah) 

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“And be steadfast in prescribed prayer (salah) and regular in poor-due (zakah ), and whatever good you send forth for your souls before you, you shall find it with God. Verily, God sees all that you do.” (2:110)

“O you who believe seek help in patience and prescribed prayer. Verily, God is with those who patiently persevere.” (2:153)

“What stands between a human being and disbelief is the abandonment of prescribed prayer.” (hadith)

The second act of worship which Islam prescribes is the performance of prescribed prayers (salah) within certain established time periods five times a day.

Why have prayers been prescribed for Muslims five times a day? it may be asked. Would not once or twice, or whenever one happens to feel like it, be sufficient? In answering these questions, it must first be pointed out that the Islamic prayers (salah) are somewhat different from “prayer” as used in the Christian sense, although personal supplication and glorification of God (known as du’a) are also a very important part of the Muslim’s worship in addition to prescribed prayer. Actually, the word “worship” in Arabic conveys the meaning of salah much more accurately than “prayer”; accordingly we have retained the word salah wherever possible in order to maintain this distinction.

Basically salah consists of recitations from the Holy Quran and glorification of God accompanied by various bodily postures. The five times of worship correspond to the five periods of the day: daybreak, noon, afternoon, the close of day, and night, corresponding to the organization of the human being’s time around various activities. Keeping all this in mind, we can now proceed to answer the above question of “why?”

Salah is a multi-faceted act of worship. Performing it regularly serves as a repeated reminder to the Muslim during the day and night of his relationship with his Creator and his place in the total scheme of Reality. Its purpose is to keep him from ever forgetting that he belongs, not to himself or even to the people who are closest to him, but to God, and that he is His servant, obedient to His command. The remembrance of Him and glorification of Him for a brief, concentrated period in the midst of his daily activities keeps this perspective always clear and intact. No matter
how faithful or conscientious an individual may be, such reminders are essential, for a person’s involvement in his human concerns and activities is so engrossing that it is very easy to lose sight of one’s relationship with God, his place in the total scheme of things, his responsibilities, and his ultimate goal. The world around us is full of examples of persons who while they may be well-intentioned, have clearly forgotten who they are in relation to the total Reality and what their ultimate destiny will be.

This is achieved in part by the recitations from the Quran which are a part of every prescribed prayer. [As stated previously, Muslims always recite the Quran in Arabic during salah, whether they are Arabic-speaking or not. A new convert to Islam who does not know Arabic may recite verses in translation in his/her own language until able to memorize at least two short passages in Arabic which is generally fairly easy for most people to do] These bring to mind not only the basic Islamic teachings concerning God, the human being, the universe and the hereafter, but they also recall
the Muslim to his obligations to God, to other people and to himself, for as the Quran says,”Salah restrains from shameful and unjust deeds.” (29:45) This continuous reminder keeps the conscience alive and functioning in a proper manner without the reconditioning it undergoes by the regular performance of salah, it is likely to become estranged from its Source, inactive and easily corrupted. It will be obvious that prayer once a-week or even once or twice a day simply does not fulfill this purpose and is moreover only a partial and very inadequate expression of the human creature’s relationship with his Sustainer Who, in the words of the Quran, is “nearer to him than his jugular vein.” (50:16)

In addition to this, through the bodily postures of the prescribed prayer, which consist of standing, bowing, prostrating and sitting, repeated a specified number of times in each prayer, the Muslim expresses submission, humility and adoration of God Most High with his entire being. The heart which is filled with the love of God, the consciousness of its own creatureliness and God’s greatness and beneficence, indeed has an urge to express all these feelings in physical as well as verbal form. By means of salah, which enlists the participation of the human being’s total nature, Islam provides the means of expression in an extremely dignified and moving form, for these needs and feelings.

Indeed, the self-discipline which is needed to perform salah regularly and at the proper times – to perform the ablution which precedes the prescribed prayer, and to carry on these prayers in the early morning when sleep is so attractive, during the busy daylight hours when one is preoccupied with work, family and other activities, and at night when one is tired and wants to relax or sleep – reaffirms the human being’s total dependence on his Creator and his position as His servant. Salah is truly the complete expression of the human being’s voluntary submission to Him. Salah is so important in maintaining this attitude of submission that it is obligatory even during any type of illness (certain modifications have been permitted to those who are ill, traveling or fighting in battle). And it is to be performed with strict concentration, attention and presence of the heart, not simply as a mechanical verbal and physical exercise. Salah and its significance to the devout Muslim are best described in the inimitable language of the Quran:

“Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day there are signs for people of understanding—those who remember God standing and sitting and lying on their sides, and ponder over the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying): ‘Our Lord, You have not created this in vain. Glory be to You! Then save us from the punishment of the fire. Our Lord, indeed the one whom You admit to the fire You cover with shame, and for the wrongdoers there will be no helpers. Our Lord, we have heard the call of one calling us to faith: ‘Believe in your Lord,’ and we have believed. Our Lord, then forgive us our sins and blot out from us our iniquities, and take us to You among the righteous.

Our Lord, grant us what You did promise us through Your messengers, and do not shame us on the day of judgment; for indeed, You did not fail in Your promise.— (3:190-194)

A Muslim is required to pray at the prescribed times wherever he may be – whether in a mosque, in his home, at work, or in any other clean environment indoors or outside – but it is preferable and more meritorious to pray in congregation with his fellow Muslims if possible. In such a congregational prayer, in which Muslims stand in straight rows shoulder to shoulder as one body united in the worship of the One God, the elements of discipline, orderliness, brotherhood, equality and solidarity are very strongly exemplified. Non-Muslims who are seeing Muslims pray in congregation for the first time are often very much struck by this living expression of brotherhood, equality and discipline.

Because of all these aspects, salah is the principal means whereby the Muslim keeps his life in correct perspective, having always before his mind the limited, finite nature of this world’s life, with all its allurements and involvements, pleasures and pains, and the certainty of death and the life-to-come, attempting to maintain a sense of balance and proportion between the needs and claims of this world and the hereafter. Through worship at regular, fixed intervals marking the periods and divisions of the day, the individual voluntarily affirms the relationship existing between himself, the servant, and his Master, God Most High, acknowledging and maintaining God’s rights and claims on him in the midst of his involvement with his worldly affairs.

“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass; the glass is as it were a shining star, kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil is almost luminous although no fire has touched it. Light upon Light! God guides to His Light whom He wills, and God draws up parables for mankind for God is the Knower of allthings. In the houses in which God is exalted and in which His name is remembered there are people who glorify Him at morning and evening—people whom neither merchandise nor trade takes away from the remembrance of God and constancy in salah and payment of zakah, who fear a day when the hearts and the sight still be overturned: that God may reward them with the best for what they have done and increase the reward for them out of His bounty, for God provides for those whom He wills without measure.” (24:35-38)

Author : Suzanne Haneef

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