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Ritual Prayer: Its Meaning and Manner

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Prayer is one of the central elements of Islamic practice and worship. Indeed, it is the second of the Five Pillars of Islam and, along with the testimony of faith, the pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting the month of Ramadan and paying the poor tax, forms the essential framework of religious life for Muslims. More than that, the observance of the ritual prayer forms the framework of each Muslim’s day, from the pre-dawn morning prayer to the night prayer that precedes sleep.

Prayer’s Importance in Islam

Prayer, in the ritual sense, is an obligation of the faith, to be performed five times a day by adult Muslims. According to Islamic law, prayers have a variety of obligations and conditions of observance. However, beyond the level of practice, there are spiritual conditions and aspects of prayer which represent its essence.

In the Holy Qur’ān, Allah says:

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ

I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me.

Thus, prayer first and foremost, is the response to this Divine directive to worship the Creator. Prayer represents the individual’s affirmation of servanthood before the Lord of Creation and submission to His Omnipotent Will. It also represents a willing acknowledgment of our weakness and neediness by seeking Divine Grace, Mercy, Abundance and Forgiveness. Prayer, then, is a willful, directed action by the believer, seeking direct, unmediated communication with Allah, for Muslims believe that every human being is of interest to the Divine. It also represents a concrete manifestation of the Islamic conception of freewill, in that the decision to pray is one that must be made by each individual. In this way, prayer is a uniquely “human” form of worship, for all other creatures submit without question to Allah’s Will and are engaged in His praise, glorification and remembrance, as the Holy Qur’ān asserts:

تُسَبِّحُ لَهُ السَّمَاوَاتُ السَّبْعُ وَالأَرْضُ وَمَن فِيهِنَّ وَإِن مِّن شَيْءٍ إِلاَّ يُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدَهِ وَلَـكِن لاَّ تَفْقَهُونَ تَسْبِيحَهُمْ إِنَّهُ كَانَ حَلِيمًا غَفُورًا

and there is not a thing but hymneth His praise; but ye understand not their praise.

Prayer, by its very nature, is a form of request or entreaty, and thus requires the full conscious participation of the one praying, with will, intellect, body and soul. The one engaged in prayer is in direct connection with the Creator Who hears everything the supplicant says and responds – though not necessarily in the affirmative – to each request. This is the concrete manifestation of Allah’s role as The Hearer, The Aware and The Responsive, which represent three of the ninety-nine Holy Names and Attributes of Allah that form the basis of the Islamic conception of the Divine.

In Islam, there are two forms of prayer. One has ritual, formal requirements and manners, which are essential to its correct observance. This is called šalāt. The other form is supplicatory prayer, and in its more general sense, represents an open-ended conversation with Allah, which may occur at any time or place, with few restrictions or requirements. It is called du¿a.

Supplication

The term du¿a is derived from the Arabic verb meaning “to supplicate” or “to call upon.” Other similar terms for such prayer are munājah, nidā, and aļ-ļaru¿a.

Munājah means “a secret conversation with Allah,” usually with the intention of seeking delivery and relief. Referring to this form of prayer, Allah says in the Holy Qur’ān:

قُلْ مَن يُنَجِّيكُم مِّن ظُلُمَاتِ الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ تَدْعُونَهُ تَضَرُّعاً وَخُفْيَةً لَّئِنْ أَنجَانَا مِنْ هَـذِهِ لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الشَّاكِرِينَ

Say: Who delivereth you from the darkness of the land and the sea? Ye call upon Him humbly and in secret, (saying): If we are delivered from this (fear) we truly will be of the thankful.

Nidā means “to call upon Allah while withdrawn from people.” The Holy Qur’ān relates the story of the prophet Zachariah who, having no son, beseeched Allah in his old age to give him a successor to inherit his prophetic knowledge and duties:

ذِكْرُ رَحْمَةِ رَبِّكَ عَبْدَهُ زَكَرِيَّا إِذْ نَادَى رَبَّهُ نِدَاء خَفِيًّا قَالَ رَبِّ إِنِّي وَهَنَ الْعَظْمُ مِنِّي وَاشْتَعَلَ الرَّأْسُ شَيْبًا وَلَمْ أَكُن بِدُعَائِكَ رَبِّ شَقِيًّا وَإِنِّي خِفْتُ الْمَوَالِيَ مِن وَرَائِي وَكَانَتِ امْرَأَتِي عَاقِرًا فَهَبْ لِي مِن لَّدُنكَ وَلِيًّا

A mention of the mercy of thy Lord unto His servant Zachariah. When he cried unto his Lord a cry in secret, Saying: My Lord!... give me from Thy Presence a successor who shall inherit of me and inherit (also) of the house of Jacob… (It was said unto him): O Zachariah! Lo! We bring thee tidings of a son whose name is John; We have given the same name to none before (him).

Aļ-ļaru¿a means “a loud entreaty to Allah for safety,” as mentioned in the Holy Qur’ān:

وَلَقَدْ أَرْسَلنَآ إِلَى أُمَمٍ مِّن قَبْلِكَ فَأَخَذْنَاهُمْ بِالْبَأْسَاء وَالضَّرَّاء لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَضَرَّعُونَ

Before thee We sent (apostles) to many nations, and We afflicted the nations with suffering and adversity, that they might submissively entreat (Him)!

Salat - Ritual Prayer

The Linguistic Root of Prayer: Salat

Ritual prayer in Islam, is called šalāt, a word whose full meaning is best understood by examining its linguistic roots. One of the origins of šalāt is the root word šilat which means “connection” or “contact.” One of Islam’s most renowned philosophers, Ibn Rushd, said:

It derives from the word “connection” (šilat) in that it connects the servant with his Creator, meaning that the prayer brings him near His Mercy and connects him to His Generosity and His Heavenly Paradise.

This word is also used in the context of close relations (šilat ar-raħim) whose connections with an individual are due to blood ties and are therefore imperishable in the eyes of the Divine. In this sense, prayer is seen as the unseverable bond between the individual and his or her Lord.

Commenting on this, another renowned Qur’ānic exegete, Al-Qurtubī said:

The word šalāt derives from the word šilat, one of the names of fire as when it is said, “The wood is burned by fire.”

Al-Qurtubī attributed six different meanings to the word šalāt in his commentary of the Holy Qur’ān:

Prayer is the invocation of Allah; it is mercy, as when one says, “O Allah, bestow prayers on Muhammad”; it is worship, as when Allah says, صَلاَتُهُمْ عِندَ الْبَيْتِ “And their worship at the (holy) House”; it is a supererogatory prayer, as when Allah says, وَأْمُرْ أَهْلَكَ بِالصَّلَاة “And enjoin upon thy people worship”; and it is Allah’s praise, as when He says, فَلَوْلَا أَنَّهُ كَان مِنْ الْمُسَبِّحِينَ “And had he not been one of those who glorify (Allah)...” Prayer is also recitation.

Salat in Shari‘ah

Ritual prayer is bound by detailed obligations and structure. It encompasses both obligatory (farļ) prayers, which are observed five times daily at specified intervals, as well as voluntary prayers, which are performed by the worshipper before or after the obligatory prayers as well as at other times.

The Obligatory Aspect of Salat

Prophet Muhammad (s) called prayer “the pillar of religion.” No fundamental element of Islam has been stressed as much as prayer in the Holy Qur’ān. Indeed, Allah mentions it in over 700 verses of the holy text. Among those that define its role in the religion of Islam are:

إِنَّ الصَّلاَةَ كَانَتْ عَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ كِتَابًا مَّوْقُوتًا

Worship at fixed hours hath been enjoined on the believers.

حَافِظُواْ عَلَى الصَّلَوَاتِ والصَّلاَةِ الْوُسْطَى وَقُومُواْ لِلّهِ قَانِتِينَ

Be guardians of your prayers, and of the midmost prayer.

وَأْمُرْ أَهْلَكَ بِالصَّلَاةِ وَاصْطَبِرْ عَلَيْهَا لَا نَسْأَلُكَ رِزْقًا نَّحْنُ نَرْزُقُكَ وَالْعَاقِبَةُ لِلتَّقْوَى

Enjoin prayer on thy people, and be constant therein. We ask thee not to provide sustenance: We provide it for thee. But the (fruit of) the Hereafter is for righteousness.

اتْلُ مَا أُوحِيَ إِلَيْكَ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَأَقِمِ الصَّلَاةَ إِنَّ الصَّلَاةَ تَنْهَى عَنِ الْفَحْشَاء وَالْمُنكَرِ وَلَذِكْرُ اللَّهِ أَكْبَرُ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ مَا تَصْنَعُونَ

Recite that which has been revealed to thee of the Book, and observe Prayer. Surely, Prayer restrains one from indecency and manifest evil, and remembrance of Allah indeed is the greatest virtue. And Allah knows what you do.

فِي جَنَّاتٍ يَتَسَاءلُونَ عَنِ الْمُجْرِمِينَ مَا سَلَكَكُمْ فِي سَقَرَ قَالُوا لَمْ نَكُ مِنَ الْمُصَلِّينَ

(They will be) in Gardens (of Delight): they will question each other, and (ask) of the sinners: “What led you into Hell Fire?” They will say: “We were not of those who prayed”

عن بن عمر رضي الله عنهما قال : قال رسول  : “ بني الإسلام على خمس : شهادة أن لا إله إلا الله وأن محمداً رسول الله ، وإقامة الصلاة ، وإيتاء الزكاة ، والحج ، وصوم رمضان

The Messenger of Allah made ritual prayer the second of the five pillars of Islam:

Islam is built on five: testifying that there is no god except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, establishing ritual prayer, paying the poor-due, pilgrimage and fasting Ramadan.

Thus, the ritual prayer is an obligation from Allah on every sane, adult Muslim.

قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم : ( أول ما يحاسب به العبد يوم القيامة عن الصلاة ، فإن صلحت ، صلح سائر عمله ، وإن فسدت ، فسد سائر عمله

The Prophet said:

The first thing about which a person will be questioned on the Day of Judgment is prayer. If it is found to be sound all his other actions will be sound as well. If his prayer is not sound all his remaining actions would be spoiled.

قال رسول بين الرجل والكفر ترك الصلات

The Prophet also said:

Between a man and unbelief is giving up of ritual prayer.

من فاتته صلاة العصر فكأنما وتر في أهله وماله

He also said:

The one who missed Šalāt al-¿Ašr, just one of the ritual prayers, is as if he has lost all his family and property.

افضل الاعمال الصلاة لوقتها،

And he said: Ritual prayer in its proper time is the best of deeds.

وكان آخر وصايا النبي قبل انتقاله إلى الرفيق الأعلى: الصلاة الصلاة وما ملكت أيمانكم

It is reported that the Prophet’s last words were:

Prayer! Prayer! And fear Allah regarding those who you are in charge of.

Abū Bakr bin al-Jazā’irī states:

Among the wisdoms in the implementation of prayer is that it purifies and welcomes the worshipper to converse with  Allah and His Messenger, and, while he or she remains in the material world, brings him or her into proximity with the Divine in the next life and wards off indecency and manifest evil.

مثل الصلوات الخمس كمثل نهر عذب غمر بباب أحدكم يقتحم فيه كل يوم خمس مرات فما ترون ذلك يبقي من درنه قالوا لاشيء قال صلى الله عليه وسلم فإن الصلوات الخمس تذهب الذنوب كما يذهب الماء الدرن

Allah’s Messenger Muhammad (s) said:

The simile of the five prayers is like a flowing river of sweet-water in front of the door of one of you, in which he plunges five times a day. What dirt will remain on him? They said, “None.” He said, “Surely the five prayers eliminate sins just as water eliminates dirt.”

عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم كَانَ يَقُولُ ‏"‏ الصَّلَوَاتُ الْخَمْسُ وَالْجُمُعَةُ إِلَى الْجُمُعَةِ وَرَمَضَانُ إِلَى رَمَضَانَ مُكَفِّرَاتٌ مَا بَيْنَهُنَّ إِذَا اجْتَنَبَ الْكَبَائِرَ

Allah’s Messenger (s) also said:

The five prayers and from one Friday prayer to the (next) Friday prayer are expiation [for what occurred between them] and Ramadan to Ramadan are expiations for the (sins) committed in between if one abstained from the major sins.

One of the primary aims of prayer is to prevent iniquity and vice.

من لم تنهه صلاته عن الفحشاء والمنكر لم يزدد من الله الا بعدا

The Prophet of Allah (s) said:

The one whose prayer does not prevent him from iniquity and vice, gains nothing from Allah except remoteness.

While the five prayers are an obligation, Muslims are also enjoined to perform other prayers in accordance with the practices of the Prophet Muhammad (s). These include:

  • Witr (The final prayer to end the day)
  • The two festival (¿Eid) prayers
  • The Eclipse Prayer
  • The Prayer for Rain

All the above are termed established traditions of the Prophet (s). Other than these are what are classified as voluntary (at-taţaww¿u) worship.

In addition, there are a number of supererogatory prayers (sunan) which were part of the normative practice of the Prophet Muhammad (s), and which remain part of the everyday worship of many traditionalist Muslims.

History of Salat

After the Prophet Muhammad (s) was commissioned with prophethood in his fortieth year, the first order he was given by Allah was to pray. It is related that the archangel Jibrīl came to him, and a spring of water gushed out from the rocks in front of them. Jibrīl then showed the Prophet how to perform the ablution that is a prerequisite of the ritual prayer in Islam. Jibrīl then showed the Prophet how to offer the ritual prayer to Allah. The Prophet (s) then went home and showed his wife Khadījā ¯ what the archangel Jibrīl had taught him.

After that, the Messenger of Allah began to pray two cycles (raka¿ts) of ritual prayer twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening. From that time forward, the Prophet never went through a day without praying. In the ninth year of the Prophet’s mission, he was taken by the archangel Jibrīl on a miraculous journey by night to Jerusalem and, from there, ascended to the heavens and the Divine Presence. During this tremendous journey, Allah commanded the Prophet and his followers to observe the ritual-prayer fifty times a day. Returning from the Divine Presence, Prophet Muhammad (s) met the prophet Moses who said, “Seek a reduction for your people can not carry it.” The Prophet did so and it was granted. After many such dialogues the command was reduced to observe five prayers, which would be the equivalent of the original command to observe fifty.  For this reason, Muslims feel a great debt to the Prophet Moses for this intercession on their behalf.

Conditions of Salat

In Divine Law (Shari¿ah), there are a number of requirements for valid ritual prayer:

  • Purification
  • Time
  • Direction
  • Covering
  • Fundaments of prayer

In addition to these essentials, there are a number of normative practices of the Prophet which are strongly recommended as part of the ritual prayer, known as sunnah:

  • Congregation/Imāmate
  • Humility before the Divine (Khushu¿)
  • Place
  • Attire

Prayer is Based on the Sunnah

The practice of the Prophet (s) is essential to understand the Holy Qur’ān. Allah said:

وَأَقِيمُواْ الصَّلاَةَ وَآتُواْ الزَّكَاةَ

Establish prayers (salat) and pay the poor-due (zakāt).

From this, it is clear both prayer and the poor-due are obligations. However, to find the necessary details to complete the prayer, i.e. the manner and timing of the prayer and upon whom it is obligatory, etc., we must turn to the practice of Prophet Muhammad (s). Islamic doctrine states that for every single event in his lifetime Allah revealed to the Prophet’s heart what to say and what to do. The Qur’ān and the Prophetic Narrations (aħādīth) both derive from revelation and are thus inseparable sources for understanding and implementing Islam’s divine guidance.

The Prophet (s) said, “Pray as you see me pray.” What is meant here is to follow the method of observing prayer, both in form and in its inward composure and states.

The Prophet (s) used to practice the ritual prayer constantly, outside the obligatory times. In doing so he was observing Allah’s recommendation:

وَاسْتَعِينُواْ بِالصَّبْرِ وَالصَّلاَةِ وَإِنَّهَا لَكَبِيرَةٌ إِلاَّ عَلَى الْخَاشِعِينَ

Nay, seek (Allah’s) help with patient perseverance and prayer: It is indeed hard, except to those who bring a lowly spirit.

According to the scholars of Divine Law recommended acts are divided into three categories: those acts whose demand is confirmed, known as the “confirmed normative practice of the Prophet” (sunan al-mu¿akkadah). According to Aħmad Ibn Naqib al-Masri, “Someone who neglects such an act ... deserves censure and blame.” Second are those acts that are rewardable in Divine Law, but the one who neglects them deserves no blame. These are called the extra sunnah (sunnah nāfilah). The third category is the superlatively recommended, “meaning those acts considered part of an individual’s perfections.” These are called the desirable acts (mustaħab) or decorum (adab).

Taharah - Purification

A precondition of ritual prayer in Islam is that the worshipper be in a ritually pure state and perform his or her prayer in a ritually pure location.

There are two levels of ritual impurity, each with its own remedy:

1) Major impurity. This occurs as a result of menstruation, childbirth and sexual intercourse or emission. Its remedy is ritual-bathing, as prescribed in the Holy Qur’ān:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ لاَ تَقْرَبُواْ الصَّلاَةَ وَأَنتُمْ سُكَارَى حَتَّىَ تَعْلَمُواْ مَا تَقُولُونَ وَلاَ جُنُبًا إِلاَّ عَابِرِي سَبِيلٍ حَتَّىَ تَغْتَسِلُواْ

O ye who believe! Approach not prayers with a mind befogged, until ye can understand all that ye say,- nor in a state of ceremonial impurity (Except when travelling on the road), until after washing your whole body.

2) Minor impurity. This occurs due to answering the call of nature, bleeding, vomiting and sleeping. Its remedy is ritual ablution. This, too, is mentioned in the Holy Qur’ān:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ إِذَا قُمْتُمْ إِلَى الصَّلاةِ فاغْسِلُواْ وُجُوهَكُمْ وَأَيْدِيَكُمْ إِلَى الْمَرَافِقِ وَامْسَحُواْ بِرُؤُوسِكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُمْ إِلَى الْكَعْبَينِ

O you who believe! When you get ready for ritual prayer [šalāt], wash your faces, and your hands up to the elbows, and lightly rub your heads and (wash) your feet up to the ankles.

عن جابر قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم مفتاح الصلاة الوضوء ومفتاح الجنة الصلاة‏.

The Holy Prophet said:

Ablution is the key to prayer as prayer is the key to Paradise.

The various schools of Islamic jurisprudence differ slightly in the precise details of ritual ablution and bathing. Emphasized in all, however, is the need to use pure water, free from all contamination, for pure water contains the secret of life and of revivifying what is dead. Allah says in the Holy Qur’ān:

وَجَعَلْنَا مِنَ الْمَاء كُلَّ شَيْءٍ حَيٍّ

We made from water every living thing,

And:

وَمَا أَنزَلَ اللّهُ مِنَ السَّمَاء مِن مَّاء فَأَحْيَا بِهِ الأرْضَ بَعْدَ مَوْتِهَا

In the rain which Allah Sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead…

If water is unavailable, extremely scarce or its use would harm the worshipper, it is permitted to perform substitute ablution using dry earth. The Holy Qur’ān says:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ إِذَا قُمْتُمْ إِلَى الصَّلاةِ فاغْسِلُواْ وُجُوهَكُمْ وَأَيْدِيَكُمْ إِلَى الْمَرَافِقِ وَامْسَحُواْ بِرُؤُوسِكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُمْ إِلَى الْكَعْبَينِ وَإِن كُنتُمْ جُنُبًا فَاطَّهَّرُواْ وَإِن كُنتُم مَّرْضَى أَوْ عَلَى سَفَرٍ أَوْ جَاء أَحَدٌ مَّنكُم مِّنَ الْغَائِطِ أَوْ لاَمَسْتُمُ النِّسَاء فَلَمْ تَجِدُواْ مَاء فَتَيَمَّمُواْ صَعِيدًا طَيِّبًا فَامْسَحُواْ بِوُجُوهِكُمْ وَأَيْدِيكُم مِّنْهُ مَا يُرِيدُ اللّهُ لِيَجْعَلَ عَلَيْكُم مِّنْ حَرَجٍ وَلَـكِن يُرِيدُ لِيُطَهَّرَكُمْ وَلِيُتِمَّ نِعْمَتَهُ عَلَيْكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ

And if ye are sick or on a journey, or one of you cometh from the closet, or ye have had contact with women, and ye find not water, then go to clean, high ground and rub your faces and your hands with some of it. Allah would not place a burden on you, but He would purify you and would perfect His grace upon you, that ye may give thanks.

Besides cleansing the body, the worshipper must also take care to ensure that his or her clothes are free from impurities that would nullify the prayer. Traditionally, shoes are removed before the prayer because of their tendency to retain impurities.

The Spiritual Significance of Tahara

Ibn Rushd states that the word for ablution, wuļū, derives from the word for light in Arabic, ļaw, signifying the resultant spiritual light that accrues to the one who performs it.

عَنْ نُعَيْمٍ الْمُجْمِرِ، قَالَ رَقِيتُ مَعَ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ عَلَى ظَهْرِ الْمَسْجِدِ، فَتَوَضَّأَ فَقَالَ إِنِّي سَمِعْتُ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ ‏"‏ إِنَّ أُمَّتِي يُدْعَوْنَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ غُرًّا مُحَجَّلِينَ مِنْ آثَارِ الْوُضُوءِ، فَمَنِ اسْتَطَاعَ مِنْكُمْ أَنْ يُطِيلَ غُرَّتَهُ فَلْيَفْعَلْ ‏"‏‏.

The Messenger of Allah said:

On the Day of Resurrection, my Community will be called “those with the radiant appendages” because of the traces of ablution. Therefore, whoever can increase the area of his radiance should do so.

عَنْ أَبِي حَازِمٍ، قَالَ كُنْتُ خَلْفَ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ وَهُوَ يَتَوَضَّأُ لِلصَّلاَةِ فَكَانَ يَمُدُّ يَدَهُ حَتَّى تَبْلُغَ إِبْطَهُ فَقُلْتُ لَهُ يَا أَبَا هُرَيْرَةَ مَا هَذَا الْوُضُوءُ فَقَالَ يَا بَنِي فَرُّوخَ أَنْتُمْ هَا هُنَا لَوْ عَلِمْتُ أَنَّكُمْ هَا هُنَا مَا تَوَضَّأْتُ هَذَا الْوُضُوءَ سَمِعْتُ خَلِيلِي صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ ‏"‏ تَبْلُغُ الْحِلْيَةُ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِ حَيْثُ يَبْلُغُ الْوَضُوءُ ‏"‏ ‏.

Abū Hurayrah ¦ related:

I heard my intimate friend (the Messenger of Allah) saying, “The radiance of the believer reaches the areas that the water of ablution reaches.”

Ablution signifies spiritual purity, which the Prophet was granted when the angels washed his heart, both in his youth and again, later, when angels washed it with the water of the holy well Zamzam on the Night of Ascension.

To gain the full benefit of ablution, the worshipper must perform it with the realization of its inner aspects, washing away the burdens and darkness of worldly life that distract him or her from Divine service. By removing both the physical and mental filth that accumulates through the day, one ignites and seals the latent spiritual energy of one’s being by means of the special attributes of water. The extremities washed during ablution are the primary means of interacting with the worldly life, and these must be cleansed of the taint left by that contact.

Ablution begins with washing the hands, signifying that the first level of spiritual energy is in the hands. Human hands contain a Divine Secret, for they are a reflection of the Divine Attribute of Power, which Allah has bestowed in a limited degree on humankind. They provide the means for the outward manifestations of humankind’s will to change its circumstances. Thus, hands are a source of change, control and healing. No other creature has been endowed with so great an ability to manipulate its surroundings, and the hands are the main physical instrument of that ability.

The hand can act as a receiver of positive energy. The circle of the body, so clearly illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci, is reflected on a smaller scale in the circle of the hand. Energy can be drawn in through the hands and channeled throughout the body. When one rubs the hands together during ablution, one activates a spiritual code that Allah has given us within our hands: the power of the ninety-nine Beautiful Names and Attributes that Allah has inscribed on every person’s palms. The friction between the two hands creates energy in the form of heat and rubbing them together under water locks in that energy, preventing it from escaping. The water keeps the energy that is generated by rubbing the hands together within the body, where it can be released later.

During the process of ablution the hands are used to convey the water to each other limb and organ, thereby functioning as a dispenser of that divine energy. As the limbs and organs are washed in ablution, each undergoes similar spiritual alterations based on the water, the hands and their energy, and the various movements and recitations that are part of the ablution. For the believer to benefit from the water, it must be pure and clean, otherwise its secret blessings do not reach the body.

On an esoteric level, ablution becomes a metaphor for purifying the heart. Water is always clean in its essence, so the degree of spiritual reception is dependent on keeping the water free from external impurities. If we expand the spiritual metaphor, the water symbolizes the remembrance of Allah. That remembrance is pure, in and of itself, but can be tainted by the darkness of negativity which derives from wrong intent, wrong will and wrong action.

The most powerful energy we carry as human beings is our spiritual energy. Second to that is the physical energy of creativity, which manifests during the act of procreation. In the course of physically expressing this creative energy Allah has placed within us, we enter into a state similar to the spiritual state of annihilation, but not related to the Divine Presence, on the contrary, it is related to the lower self. When this occurs, it is essential to wash the body completely, with the intention to restore the spiritual state of purity lost during the act.

Purification of the heart blocks the influence of Satan on the believer. For this reason, the Prophet is reported to have said:

Ablution is the weapon of the believer.

Ablution protects the believer from four enemies of the soul: the lower self or ego (nafs), worldly desire (ħubb ad-dunyā), lust (hawā) and Satan. However, only through the remembrance of Allah can the believer maintain this defense throughout the day. When the heart begins to beat with Allah’s Holy Name, “Allah,” Satan is prevented from entering, and the gossips and insinuations of the lower self are gradually reduced until they are no more than a whisper.

At an even higher level of understanding, ablution signifies the state of dissolving the self in the Divine Presence. According to the Sufi master Al-Jilī:

… the requirement of using water signifies that purity is not achieved except by the emergence [in the worshipper] of the manifestations of the Divine Attributes, which is the water of life, for water is the secret of life. Dry ablution (tayammum) as a substitute [for ablution with water] is the station of purity by necessity, and is thus a symbol of purifying one’s self by opposing one’s lower-self, combating the tyrannical selfish ego and spiritual exercises. However, even after someone is purified, there is still a chance for him to exist. This is what the Prophet alluded to when he supplicated, “O my Lord give my self its piety and its purity, for You are the best one to purify it.” His saying “Give my self its piety,” is an indication of [the need for] combating the lower-self by means of spiritual exercises. His saying “ …and its purity, for You are the best one to purify it,” is an indication of  the heart’s attraction to the Divine, for this [attraction] is far more effective than purifying by means of action and opposing the lower-self.

Timing

The five times of obligatory ritual prayer are:

Fajr: From dawn to sunrise;

Dhuhr: From noon until mid-afternoon;

¿Ašr: From mid-afternoon to sunset;

Maghrib: From sunset to early evening;

¿Ishā: From early evening to the middle of the night.

These times coincide with the significant temporal changes that are part of each day’s cycle on earth as this planet moves through its various stations in relation to the Sun. The Sun, which is the focal point of the solar system, thus becomes a guiding light for the worshiper, indicating the beginning and ending of each prayer’s interval. In this way, Muslims are reminded of the story of Abraham, as mentioned in the Holy Qur’ān.

In his yearning and seeking for Allah, Abraham holds a metaphorical debate within himself. His first inclination is to bow before a bright star that shines forth at night, taking it as his Lord. However, when that star sets, his intellect rejects it, seeking something greater as Lord. Seeing the Moon, he determines it to be his Lord until it too sets and he seeks something greater still. Seeing the Sun rise, he supposes it must be his Lord, but despite its blazing glory, it too sets. Finally, Abraham concludes that none of these heavenly bodies – and by inference, no created thing – could be his Lord, and thus sets himself firmly on worship of the Unseen Lord:

فَلَمَّا أَفَلَتْ قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ إِنِّي بَرِيءٌ مِّمَّا تُشْرِكُونَ إِنِّي وَجَّهْتُ وَجْهِيَ لِلَّذِي فَطَرَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضَ حَنِيفًا وَمَا أَنَاْ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ

…when [the sun] set he exclaimed: O my people! Lo! I am free from all that ye associate (with Him). Lo! I have turned my face toward Him Who created the heavens and the earth, as one by nature upright, and I am not of the idolaters.

Muslims consider the day to begin at sunset, with the evening (Maghrib) prayer. This holds tremendous significance on an esoteric, or spiritual, level. The masters of the science of Islamic spirituality, Sufism, see the cycles of prayer as symbolic of the cycles of creation itself. The sunset prayer represents the station of leaving existence. The night prayer, which follows it, represents the station of darkness and death, annihilation and nonexistence.

In some Islamic traditions, funeral prayers for those who have passed away during the preceding day are read immediately after the sunset prayer, indicating this time’s correlation with death and the afterlife.

The Holy Qur’ān says:

اللَّهُ يَتَوَفَّى الْأَنفُسَ حِينَ مَوْتِهَا وَالَّتِي لَمْ تَمُتْ فِي مَنَامِهَا فَيُمْسِكُ الَّتِي قَضَى عَلَيْهَا الْمَوْتَ وَيُرْسِلُ الْأُخْرَى إِلَى أَجَلٍ مُسَمًّى إِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ

It is Allah that takes the souls (of men) at death; and those that die not (He takes) during their sleep: Those on whom He has passed the decree of death, He keeps back (from returning to life), but the rest He sends (to their bodies) for a term appointed.

Awakening to pray just before dawn represents the return to life, the descent through the darkness of the womb to emerge into the light. Metaphorically, the worshipper moves from the station of nonexistence and annihilation back to the station of existence and rebirth. A new day has come, and with it the worshipper is reborn.

The apex of existence is marked by the noon prayer, which begins just as the Sun reaches the peak of brightness. At the zenith, two kingdoms are present and the prayer joins them: the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of earth.

The afternoon prayer takes place in a time that signifies the approach of the end, autumn and the last era of worldly life. According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad (s) and the community of believers he raised appear at the end of humanity’s spiritual history, just prior to the Day of Judgment. The coming of the afternoon prayer thus represents the approach of Judgment Day and the Divine Reckoning that it brings. With the setting of the sun, life comes to an end. The worshipper returns to Allah, taking with him an account of his deeds. With the darkness comes annihilation in Allah’s Endless Mercy Oceans. It is for this reason that Islam places a strong emphasis on the afternoon prayer.

Thus, each day is a full life cycle, from creation out of nonexistence to Judgment Day and annihilation. Each day has its birth, life and death. In similar fashion the prayer times reflect the five major stages of life: infancy, childhood, youth, maturity and old age.

Facing Qiblah

The worshipper faces the Ka¿bah, the holy shrine of Islam, as determined to the best of his or her ability by simple means. This directional focus is called the qiblah.

The Ka¿bah is the House of Allah, located in the holy city of Mecca in present-day Arabia. It is the goal of the pilgrimage, which is the fifth pillar of Islam. In Islamic teachings, the Ka¿bah is said to mark the location where the Divine House in the Seventh Heaven, beyond which stands the Supreme Throne, which angels constantly circle in praise and worship of Allah, descended to Earth after the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, were cast out of Paradise for their mistake. In the time of Noah’s flood, this heavenly sanctuary was taken up to heaven again. Millennia later, Abraham and Ishmael built the Ka¿bah in the same location, where it stands until today, the first house of worship dedicated to Allah. By facing this location in prayer, each Muslim aims and hopes to reach that holy location at some point in her or his life.

Initially, in the early days of Prophet Muhammad’s mission, the believers faced Jerusalem when they prayed, out of respect for the Temple there. This direction represented respect for the previous Divine dispensations brought by Moses and Jesus and the Israelite prophets. Later, Divine legislation altered the direction of prayer to face the Holy House in Mecca:

قَدْ نَرَى تَقَلُّبَ وَجْهِكَ فِي السَّمَاء فَلَنُوَلِّيَنَّكَ قِبْلَةً تَرْضَاهَا فَوَلِّ وَجْهَكَ شَطْرَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ وَحَيْثُ مَا كُنتُمْ فَوَلُّواْ وُجُوِهَكُمْ شَطْرَهُ وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ أُوْتُواْ الْكِتَابَ لَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّهِمْ وَمَا اللّهُ بِغَافِلٍ عَمَّا يَعْمَلُونَ

We see thee (O Muhammad) turning of thy face for guidance to the heavens: now shall We turn thee to a prayer-direction that shall please thee. Turn then thy face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque [Ka¿ba]: Wherever ye are, turn your faces in that direction.

Thus, wherever Muslims live, their prayers have a common focus: the Ka¿bah.

Because of the presence of this blessed shrine, the area surrounding the Ka¿bah is holy. These environs are called the Ħarām, literally “prohibited,” meaning a place where sins are prohibited. The Ka¿bah itself is located within the “Prohibited Mosque,” Masjid al-Ħarām. The name Prohibited Mosque was given because no one may act on bad desires there. While it is called a mosque, Allah made it more than that. In reality, it is a place where sins are utterly rejected, not only in their outward forms but also in their inner realities. There, even negative thoughts and intentions are considered blameworthy. Only pure, positive desires and good thoughts are accepted. Indeed, within the confines of that holy sanctuary, no hunting is allowed; even the cutting of trees and vegetation is proscribed.

Allah said in the Holy Qur’ān:

سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي أَسْرَى بِعَبْدِهِ لَيْلاً مِّنَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ الأَقْصَى الَّذِي بَارَكْنَا حَوْلَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ البَصِيرُ

Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who Heareth and Seth (all things).

This verse describes the important journey that Prophet Muhammad (s) made between the Prohibited Mosque in Mecca and the Temple in Jerusalem (referred to as the Farthest Mosque, Masjid al-Aqsā), a journey that in one moment bridged three divinely-revealed religions.

Significance of the Ka¿bah

One of the distinctive characteristics of Islamic ritual prayer is that the worshipper is obliged to keep his vision, both external and internal, concentrated upon the qiblah. The focus of every worshipper is, and must be, a holy place. People whose understanding is purely external believe facing the Ka¿bah is of intrinsic value.

Those with a mystic understanding know that the Ka¿bah represents the spiritual pole of this world, around which all creation turns. Looking at photographs of the Ka¿bah taken from above, we see the worshippers moving around it in perfectly arranged concentric circles. This assembly gathers in imitation of the heavenly kingdom, for all these circles have one center regardless of their distance from it. At the spiritual level, that center is the Divine Presence. While each worshipper faces the Ka¿bah’s walls of stone and mortar, these are not the focus. If we remove the four walls, what do we find? Each person facing someone else. In this is a deep and subtle secret that we leave for the reader to ponder.

When the spiritual seeker realizes his station on the circle of the People of the Qiblah, he enters what is known as the Circle of Unconditional Lovers (dā’irat al-muħibīn). That is the circle of Muslims at the first level in the way of Allah: the level of love. Such love is not related to any desire, but is a purely Platonic, spiritual love between the believer and his or her Lord. Allah is the center of the circle, and the believers are each a point on its circumference. Each has his or her own connection to the center. That means each has his own direction, qiblah, towards the Divine Presence. As that connection becomes apparent to the believer, that radius becomes like a tunnel into which the seeker begins to step from the circumference of the circle. Upon making his first steps into that tunnel, he begins to discover countless negative characteristics within himself. As he discovers one characteristic after another, he begins to eliminate them, progressing down the tunnel to become a “seeker in the circle of lovers on the spiritual journey,” progressing ever nearer to the qiblah at the center. In the metaphysics of Ibn ¿Arabi, the renowned mystic scholar speaks of a spiritual hierarchy in which the emanations from the Divine are received by a single human receptor who is the leader of all these circles of lovers and through him spreads to the rest of humanity, each according to his or her degree or station. This individual represents the Prophet in his time as the perfect servant of Allah. Thus, under one spiritual leader, all are moving constantly closer to the Divine Presence.

In the Sufi understanding, which delves deeply into the mystic knowledge and symbolism of Islam’s outward forms, it is said the Prohibited Mosque represents the heart of the believer. Thus, the inner direction of prayer is towards the sanctified heart. What is the sanctified heart? At the first level of spirituality, the sanctified heart is the heart that is purified of all wrong thoughts, negativity and dark intent. This level is called the Level of the Secret (sirr). Once that secret is opened within the sanctified heart, the seeker moves to the heart of the heart, known as Secret of the Secret (sirr as-sirr). That is the level of purification from any attachment to worldly desires. Beyond these levels of the heart are “the Hidden” (khafā) and “the Innermost” (akhfā) levels, representing further stations of purity, in which the heart becomes ever more removed from attachments, turning away from all that is worldly to focus instead on the spiritual realm of the Hereafter. At the highest level, the heart turns away from even that and begins to focus solely on the Divine Presence.

These are levels of achievement. On the spiritual dimension, the believer’s focus is to reach a perfected level of character, to learn from it and to be enlightened from it. In order to progress beyond our state of ignorance we must strive to learn and educate ourselves. This can only be accomplished by keeping the company of enlightened individuals who have successfully traversed the Path of Allah, to Allah, and who are granted the ability to guide others.  Allah says:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ اتَّقُواْ اللّهَ وَكُونُواْ مَعَ الصَّادِقِينَ

O ye who believe! Fear Allah and be with those who are true (in word and deed).

Allah is aware of every heart. The Holy Qur’ān states:

وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ

Those who struggle for Us, We will guide them in the right ways, the ways that are suitable to them.

The polished heart of the sincere and true believer (šādiq) is a receptacle for Allah’s Heavenly Lights and Divine Blessings. Such a person is like the sun. When the sun rises, the whole world shines from that source of energy and light, the light of mystical gnosis that makes all things visible. For that reason, the Prophet said, “The heart of the [true] believer is the House of the Lord.”

Covering

The Islamic schools of jurisprudence concur that it is essential (wājib) for both men and women to cover those parts of their bodies during prayer which should ordinarily be kept covered before strangers. For men, this includes what is between the navel and the knee. For women, it is the entire body, except the face and hands.

As we have said, the purity of what covers the body is essential for the prayer to be acceptable. In one of the first revelations to the Prophet Muhammad (s), Allah says:

وَرَبَّكَ فَكَبِّرْ وَثِيَابَكَ فَطَهِّرْ وَالرُّجْزَ فَاهْجُرْ

And thy Lord do thou magnify! And thy garments keep free from stain! And all abomination shun!

The body is not the only thing that must be covered in prayer. During šalāt, the worshipper is commanded to look only at the location where he or she will prostrate, not to the left or right. In this way, one covers one’s gaze and directs oneself to the Vision of Allah, for the Prophet said:

The perfection of religion (al-Iħsān) is to worship Allah as if you are seeing Him and if you do not see Him, know that He sees you.

Thus, the gaze of the believer must be veiled at the time of worship from everything other than Allah. This derives from a spiritual understanding of the Verse of the Veil in the Holy Qur’ān, in which Allah says:

قُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَغُضُّوا مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ وَيَحْفَظُوا فُرُوجَهُمْ ذَلِكَ أَزْكَى لَهُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا يَصْنَعُونَ وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَى جُيُوبِهِنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ

Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty …

The emphasis in these verses on lowering the gaze, meaning to guard the eyes from looking at what is forbidden or impure. In the outer sense, this means to refrain from looking with lustful desire at other than one’s spouse, for the Prophet said, “The two eyes are two adulterers.”

In this regard, a renowned contemporary Sufi saint, and my teacher and guide on the spiritual path, Shaykh Muhammad Nazim Adil al-Haqqani, relates the story of a judge (qāļī), called by a woman to annul her husband’s marriage to a second wife. The judge asked the plaintiff, whose face was hidden by a face-veil (burqah), “Why are you asking me to prevent something permitted in Islamic Divine Law?” The first wife replied, “Your honor, were I to remove my face-veil you would wonder how someone married to so stunning a beauty could seek another woman’s companionship?” Upon hearing this the judge swooned. When he came to, his associates asked him what had happened. He replied, “On hearing this woman’s reply, I had an epiphany. How is it that our hearts turn to all manner of worldly interests, when Allah Himself is asking us to be with Him alone?”

The next verse says:

they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty …

calling on women to veil their beauty from other than the men in their immediate family, to protect them from men who are all too easily overpowered by desire, and to protect men from their own weaknesses.

Esoteric commentators state that “women” here symbolize attachments to the worldly life. The spiritual meaning of this prohibition then is that, when coming before the Lord of Creation, the seeker must veil himself from all distractions of the worldly life and focus on the One to Whom prayer is directed.

At an even higher level of spiritual understanding, the word “women” refers to the Divine Attributes of Beauty. Thus, the worshipper, is advised to call to mind the Divine Attributes of Majesty, and not become lost in the Attributes of Beauty, which may lead the seeker to lose his or her balance in approaching the Divine Presence.

In the Holy Qur’ān, Allah also said:

يَا بَنِي آدَمَ خُذُواْ زِينَتَكُمْ عِندَ كُلِّ مَسْجِدٍ

O Children of Adam! wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer (masjid).

Here, believers are called upon by Allah to wear their best and most attractive garments when going to pray. The call to manifest “beautiful apparel” at the “place of prayer” can be interpreted as well to be an instruction to adorn the mosques and beautify them, keeping in mind that:

وَأَنَّ الْمَسَاجِدَ لِلَّهًِا

The places of worship (masājid) are for Allah (alone).

The three major holy mosques of Islam: the Ka¿bah in Mecca, the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, are all highly ornamented with gilding, decorative calligraphy, mosaic tiles, inlaid wood, brilliant lamps and other decorations. All other mosques are connected to these for, as we have said, when worshippers stand to pray in any mosque, they must face the Ka¿bah, Allah’s Holy House.

ما وسعني سمائي ولا أرضي ولكن وسعني قلب عبدي المؤمن

Allah said, “Neither My heavens contain Me nor My earth. But the heart of My Believing Servant contains Me.”

The heart, too, then is a mosque, and for this reason it also must be decorated. The ornamentation of the heart involves removing everything that distracts one from the worship of Allah and replacing these impurities with love of the Divine, as we have described earlier. Anything that brings impurity to the heart extinguishes the light that Allah has placed there. This is a form of tyranny, for the Arabic word for tyranny (Ƹulm) also means darkness. Thus, any darkness which veils the heart from Allah’s Holy Light is a form of oppression. This darkness cannot be removed except through repentance and seeking the intercessory prayers of the Prophet. This is why the aforementioned verses about modesty are followed closely by:

‎اللَّهُ نُورُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ مَثَلُ نُورِهِ كَمِشْكَاةٍ فِيهَا مِصْبَاحٌ الْمِصْبَاحُ فِي زُجَاجَةٍ الزُّجَاجَةُ كَأَنَّهَا كَوْكَبٌ دُرِّيٌّ يُوقَدُ مِن شَجَرَةٍ مُّبَارَكَةٍ زَيْتُونِةٍ لَّا شَرْقِيَّةٍ وَلَا غَرْبِيَّةٍ يَكَادُ زَيْتُهَا يُضِيءُ وَلَوْ لَمْ تَمْسَسْهُ نَارٌ نُّورٌ عَلَى نُورٍ يَهْدِي اللَّهُ لِنُورِهِ مَن يَشَاء وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ وَاللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as if there were a niche and within it a lamp: the lamp enclosed in glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth parables for men: and Allah doth know all things.

“Allah is the Light” does not mean that Allah is light, rather The Light is His while Allah’s Essence is unknown. The created cannot know The Creator except by means of His Beautiful Names and Attributes, His Descriptions. Allah’s saying He is the Light of the heavens and earth means that whatever is found in the heavens and earth contains that light. Since we are from earth, that light is within each of us, for Allah, being the Just, bestows on all with Divine Fairness. Shaykh Ibrāhīm Hakkī (1703-1780), a renowned Ottoman scholar of Qur’ān, said:

Without a doubt the complete potential for perfection is found within every human being, because Allah the Most High has placed His own Divine Secrets within the essence of man, in order to manifest from the Unseen His Beautiful Names and Attributes.

قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏"‏ كُلُّ مَوْلُودٍ يُولَدُ عَلَى الْفِطْرَةِ، فَأَبَوَاهُ يُهَوِّدَانِهِ أَوْ يُنَصِّرَانِهِ أَوْ يُمَجِّسَانِهِ، كَمَثَلِ الْبَهِيمَةِ تُنْتَجُ الْبَهِيمَةَ، هَلْ تَرَى فِيهَا جَدْعَاءَ ‏"‏‏

Therefore, as the Prophet said, “Human beings are born on a natural disposition,” meaning each human being carries that light of primordial faith and predisposition to submission before Allah.

Therefore in Prophet Muhammad (s), being the epitome of humankind and its highest standard bearer, is found the perfect manifestation of the human embodiment of Divine grace and the corporeal manifestation of Divine Attributes. It is due to the Prophet’s utter submission, in the state of perfect servanthood, that made him the perfect receptacle for Divine Appearances. That is, the Muhammadan Reality, (al-ħaqīqat ul-Muħammadīyya) reflects the Heart of the Divine Essence, since the Prophet’s heart moves without restriction in the orbit of the 99 Divine Names and Attributes. He has been blessed by being adorned by the 99 Names inside of which is a glowing pearl which has yet to appear. Thus many commentators assert that the “Light of the heavens and earth” referred to in the above verse, is the Light of Muhammad (s), whom Allah created from His own Divine Light, and it is this light which shines in the hearts of believers, for the Light of the Prophet is the source of the light of all believers.

Adornment

Allah says in the Holy Qur’ān:

يَا بَنِي آدَمَ خُذُواْ زِينَتَكُمْ عِندَ كُلِّ مَسْجِدٍ

O Children of Adam! wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer…

قُلْ مَنْ حَرَّمَ زِينَةَ اللّهِ الَّتِيَ أَخْرَجَ لِعِبَادِهِ وَالْطَّيِّبَاتِ مِنَ الرِّزْقِ

Say (O Muhammad): “Who has forbidden the adoration with clothes given by Allah, which He has produced for His devotees?”

Nafi¿ related:

¿Umar ¦ entered upon me one day as I was praying in a single garment and he said, “Don’t you have two garments in your possession?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “In your opinion, if I sent you to one of the people of Madina on an errand, would you go in a single garment?” I said, “No.” He said, “Then is Allah worthier of our self-beautification or people?”

An adjunct to proper covering is proper physical appearance. The most direct method for establishing one’s identity as a traveler upon the path of self-purification is to adopt the correct outward appearance, abandoning the dress of the worldly life and putting on instead the apparel of the hereafter. This is an outward indication of rejecting servitude to the material world (¿abd ad-dunyā) and asserting one’s true identity as a servant of the Divine (¿abd Allah).

The dress most conducive to spirituality is the garb of Prophet Muhammad (s), the traditional clothing worn by all the prophets and messengers of Allah. For men, this includes wearing the turban, the cloak (jubbah) and a ring, and using perfume and a tooth-stick (miswāk). For women, it involves wearing loose clothing, covering the hair, arms and legs, with white clothing being the most preferable. Such is the honored dress of the ascetics and lovers of Allah and His Prophet (s), those who reject the illusion of the material world and will settle for nothing less than the perfection and truth of reality.

Fundaments of Prayer

The first and foremost fundamental part of the ritual prayer is intention (niyyah).

As in all Islamic worship, the worshipper intends the prayer as a fulfillment of Allah’s Order done purely for God’s sake. The Prophet Muhammad (s) established this as a paramount rule of worship when he said, “Verily all deeds are based on their intention.”

The prayer is initiated by the consecratory magnification of Allah (takbīr), followed by multiple cycles, each of which follows the same series of postures and recitations: first standing, then bowing, brief standing, prostrating, a brief sitting, a second prostration, and in the even cycles, sitting after the second prostration. Each of these positions also involves specific recitations. While standing, the first chapter (Sūratu ’l-Fātiħa) and other portions of the Holy Qur’ān are recited, either silently or aloud, depending upon the time of prayer.  In bowing, the brief standing, prostration and the brief sitting, Allah is glorified and praised in short formulas. While sitting, the testimony of faith (tashahhud) is recited, along with greetings to and prayers for Prophet Muhammad (s), Prophet Abraham and their families. In addition, there are a variety of supplemental invocations and recitations that are traditionally part of the practice of most worshippers. The basic essentials of ritual-prayer number about fifteen, depending on the school of jurisprudence followed.

Each obligatory prayer has a prescribed number of cycles to be observed. These are:

Prayer# of cycles
Maghrib (sunset) 3
Isha 4
Fajr 2
Dhuhr 4
Asr 4

The Stations of Salat

The movements of the prayer identify the one praying with all other forms of creation, for the prayer’s postures are designed to remind the worshipper of mortality and the traversal through the different stages of life. They also resemble the rising and setting of the celestial bodies, as well as the rotation of the planets upon their axes and the orbits of the moons, planets and suns. These are signs which demonstrate the hierarchical nature of creation and its submission to Divine regulation at every level, for as the Holy Qur’ān states:

وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ اللَّيْلُ وَالنَّهَارُ وَالشَّمْسُ وَالْقَمَرُ لَا تَسْجُدُوا لِلشَّمْسِ وَلَا لِلْقَمَرِ وَاسْجُدُوا لِلَّهِ الَّذِي خَلَقَهُنَّ إِن كُنتُمْ إِيَّاهُ تَعْبُدُونَ

Among His Signs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. Adore not the sun and the moon, but adore Allah, Who created them, if it is Him ye wish to serve.

Allah further draws our attention to their submissive nature, saying:

أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّهَ يَسْجُدُ لَهُ مَن فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَن فِي الْأَرْضِ وَالشَّمْسُ وَالْقَمَرُ وَالنُّجُومُ وَالْجِبَالُ وَالشَّجَرُ وَالدَّوَابُّ وَكَثِيرٌ مِّنَ النَّاسِ

Hast thou not seen that before Allah prostrate whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is on the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the hills, and the trees, and the beasts, and many of mankind...?

The postures of prayer, then, are symbolic of humanity’s relationship to the Divine, moving as they do from standing in assertion of existence and strength, to the bowing of humility and servitude, to prostration in the face of Allah’s overwhelming Magnificence and Power and the corresponding realization of one’s own utter nonexistence. From this station of utter abasement, the worshipper returns to the intermediate position, between annihilation and independence, to sit between the hands of the Prophet Muhammad (s), greeting the one who is the intermediary between the Divinity and His creation. The Prophet stands at the Station of Perfect Servanthood and is the ultimate exemplar of the condition of servanthood to Allah. Unlike all other creations, Prophet Muhammad (s) was divested of all selfhood, dissolved in the Presence of Allah.

وَلِلّهِ الْمَشْرِقُ وَالْمَغْرِبُ فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّواْ فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللّهِ إِنَّ اللّهَ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ

Whithersoever ye turn, there is the presence of Allah. For Allah is all-Pervading, all-Knowing.

The Peak of Prayer is Sajdah

ما تقرب العبد إلى الله بأفضل من سجود خفي

The Prophet (s) said, “Nothing brings the servant of Allah nearer to the Divine Presence than through his prostrations in secret(al-khafī).”

مَا مِنْ مُسْلِمٍ يَسْجُدُ لِلَّهِ سَجْدَةً اِلَّا رَفَعَهُ اللَّهُ بِهَا دَرَجَةً اَوْ حَطَّ عَنْهُ بِهَا خَطِيئَةً‏.

The Prophet (s) said, “There is no Muslim who prostrates himself but he will be raised one degree by Allah or one sin is taken from him.”

As for what that degree consists of, know that it is not something small, for each heaven might consist of one degree. For that, the Prophet (s) said about the Last Days:

‏...حتى تكون السجدة الواحدة خيرا من الدنيا وما فيها‏

One prostration will be better than the world and all that is in it.

For these reasons, many among the pious observe extra voluntary prostrations to Allah after completing their obligatory prayers. Whenever they encounter a difficulty, whether spiritual or worldly, they seek refuge in their Lord through prostration to Him.

One must cut down self-pride and make the inner-self prostrate, for one who truly submits to his Lord can no longer submit to his or her self. Once that state is reached, prayer is purely for Allah. That is why the Prophet (s) said:

الا اخبركم بما هو اخوف عليكم عندي من المسيح الدجال‏؟‏ قال قلنا‏:‏ بلى، فقال‏:‏ الشرك الخفي ان يقوم الرجل يصلي فيزين صلاته لما يرى من نظر رجل‏.

“Shall I inform you of what I fear for my Community even more than the Anti-Christ?” They said, “Surely!” He said, “Hidden polytheism.”

He feared for his community not the outward polytheism of idol-worship, for he was informed by Allah that his community was protected from that forever, but the secret polytheism, which is to do something for the sake of showing-off.

حَدَّثَنِي رَبِيعَةُ بْنُ كَعْبٍ الأَسْلَمِيُّ، قَالَ كُنْتُ أَبِيتُ مَعَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَأَتَيْتُهُ بِوَضُوئِهِ وَحَاجَتِهِ فَقَالَ لِي ‏"‏ سَلْ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ فَقُلْتُ أَسْأَلُكَ مُرَافَقَتَكَ فِي الْجَنَّةِ ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ أَوَغَيْرَ ذَلِكَ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ قُلْتُ هُوَ ذَاكَ ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ فَأَعِنِّي عَلَى نَفْسِكَ بِكَثْرَةِ السُّجُود

A man came and asked the Prophet (s), “O Prophet of Allah, pray for me to be under your intercession on Judgment Day and grant me to be in your company in Paradise.” The Prophet replied, “I will do so, but assist me in that.” The man asked, “How so?” The Prophet said, “By frequent prostration [before God].”

The Prophet (s) related that, on the Day of Judgment, as the believers emerge from their graves, angels will come to them to brush the dust from their foreheads. However, despite the best efforts of the angels, some of that dust will remain. Both the resurrected believers and their angelic helpers will be surprised that this dust cannot be removed. Then a voice will call out, “Leave that dust and do not try to remove it, for that is the dust of their prayer-niches, thus will it be known in Paradise that they are My [devout] servants.”

This Prophetic Tradition indicates the spiritual value of the prostration of the believers, making as it does even the dust touched by their foreheads hallowed. The power of prayer has a similar effect on the place of prayer itself, as exemplified in the story of the Virgin Mary, as mentioned in the Holy Qur’ān:

فَتَقَبَّلَهَا رَبُّهَا بِقَبُولٍ حَسَنٍ وَأَنبَتَهَا نَبَاتًا حَسَنًا وَكَفَّلَهَا زَكَرِيَّا كُلَّمَا دَخَلَ عَلَيْهَا زَكَرِيَّا الْمِحْرَابَ وَجَدَ عِندَهَا رِزْقاً قَالَ يَا مَرْيَمُ أَنَّى لَكِ هَـذَا قَالَتْ هُوَ مِنْ عِندِ اللّهِ إنَّ اللّهَ يَرْزُقُ مَن يَشَاء بِغَيْرِ حِسَابٍ

Whenever Zachariah went into the prayer-niche where she was, he found that she had food. He said: O Mary! Whence cometh unto thee this (food)? She answered: It is from Allah. Allah giveth without stint to whom He will.

It was there, in the Virgin Mary’s hallowed sanctuary, where she used to find her daily provision in the form of fruits out-of season, that the Prophet Zachariah went to prostrate himself before Allah and beseech Him for a child, and it was there that Allah granted his request.

The places where a Muslim prostrates will bear witness to his or her devotion on the Day of Judgment. It is for this reason that one often sees Muslims changing the location of their prayers, praying the obligatory cycles in one spot and then moving to another area to observe the voluntary cycles (sunan).

Ibn ¿Abbās ¦, a cousin of the Prophet (s) and the greatest early exegete of the Qur’ān, said:

When Allah commanded Adam to descend to Earth, as soon as he arrived, he went into prostration, asking Allah’s forgiveness for the sin he had made. Allah sent the archangel Jibrīl to him after forty years had passed, and Jibrīl found Adam still in prostration.

He had not raised his head for forty years in sincere and heartfelt repentance before Allah.

The Holy Qur’ān tells us that, after Allah created Adam, He ordered the angels to prostrate before the first man.

وَإِذْ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ اسْجُدُوا لِآدَمَ فَسَجَدُوا إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ أَبَى

When We said to the angels, “prostrate yourselves to Adam", they prostrated themselves, but not Iblis [Satan]: he refused.

Imām al-Qurţubī, one of the great commentators on the Holy Qur’ān, writes in his exegesis, at-Tadhkira, that one of the four Archangels, Isrāfīl (Rafael), had the entire Qur’ān written on his forehead. Allah had given Isrāfīl knowledge of the Holy Qur’ān and wrote all of it between his eyes, and he is the angel who inscribed the destinies of all things in the Preserved Tablets before they were created. Rafael’s name in Arabic, which differs from his Assyrianic name Isrāfīl, is ¿Abd al-Raħmān, servant of The Merciful. This theme of mercy pervades Islamic thought, for it was through Allah’s Mercy that the Holy Qur’ān was sent down to the Prophet, about whom The Merciful said:

وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ إِلَّا رَحْمَةً لِّلْعَالَمِينَ

We sent thee not but as a Mercy for all creatures.

When Allah ordered the angels to make prostration to Adam, Rafael was the first to obey, making prostration and placing his forehead, containing the entire Qur’ān, on the earth, out of respect and honor for Adam, for he perceived the whole of Qur’ān written on Adam’s forehead. Other commentators say the angels fell prostrate before Adam for they perceived the Light of Prophet Muhammad (s) shining from his form. There is in reality no discrepancy here, for Allah said in the Holy Qur’ān:

يس وَالْقُرْآنِ الْحَكِيمِ

Yasin, By the Qur’ān, full of Wisdom.

The Prophet Muhammad (s) said that YāSīn, the thirty-sixth chapter of the Holy Qur’ān as well as one of his own blessed names, is the heart of the Holy Qur’ān, the very Qur’ān that the Prophet was carrying in his breast. Thus, the light that shone forth from Adam was the Light of the Prophet within him, who in turn was blazing with Allah’s Holy Words.

The Hidden -Meanings of the Stations of Salat

Shāh Walīullāh al-Dehlavī said:

Know that one is sometimes transported, quick as lightning, to the Holy Precincts (of the Divine Presence), and finds one’s self attached, with the greatest possible adherence, to the Threshold of Allah. There descend on this person the Divine transfigurations (tajallī) which dominate his soul. He sees and feels things which the human tongue is incapable of describing. Once this state of light passes away, he returns to his previous condition, and finds himself tormented by the loss of such an ecstasy. Thereupon he tries to rejoin that which has escaped him, and adopts the condition of this lowly world which would be nearest to a state of absorption in the knowledge of the Creator. This is a posture of respect, of devotion, and of an almost direct conversation with Allah, which posture is accompanied by appropriate acts and words... Worship consists essentially of three elements: (1) humility of heart (spirit) consequent on a feeling of the Presence of the Majesty and Grandeur of Allah, (2) recognition of this superiority (of Allah) and humbleness (of man) by means of appropriate words, and (3) adoption by the organs of the body of postures of necessary reverence…

Still greater respect is displayed by laying down the face, which reflects in the highest degree one’s ego and self-consciousness, so low that it touches the ground in front of the object of reverence.

Al-Jīlī says:

The secrets and inner-meanings of prayer are uncountable so what is mentioned here is limited for the sake of brevity. Prayer is a symbol of the uniqueness of the Divine Reality (al-Ħaqq), and the [position of] standing in it is a symbol of the establishment of the uniqueness of mankind in possessing something from the Divine Names and Attributes, for as the Prophet said, “Verily Allah created Adam in His Image.”

Then the standing towards the Qiblah is an indication of the universal direction in the quest of the Divine Reality. The intention therein is an indication of the connection of the heart in this direction. The opening magnification of God’s Greatness (takbīr) is an indication that the Divine Proximity is larger and more expansive than what may manifest to him because nothing can limit its perspective. Even so, it is vaster still than every perspective or vision that manifests to the servant for it is without end.

The recitation of the Opening Chapter, al-Fatihah, is an indication of the existence of His Perfection in man because man is the opening of creation, for Allah initiated creation by him when He brought from nothingness the first creation.

What al-Jīlī is referring to here is the Light of Muhammad (s), known also as the First Mind, the Universal Man, and the Microcosm of the Macrocosm. He continues:

Then there is bowing, which is an indication of acknowledging the nonexistence of all creation under the existence of divine emanations and power. Then standing in the prayer is an indication of the station of subsistence (al-baqā). Therefore, one says in his prayer, “Allah hears the one who praises Him,” … an indication of subsistence in that he is the Vicegerent of the Divine Reality. In this way, God relates about Himself by Himself by relating on hearing its truth through the praising of His creation. The prostration is an expression of pulverization of the traits of humanness and their extermination before the unending manifestation of the sanctifying essence. The sitting between the two prostrations is an indication of obtaining the realities of the Divine Names and Attributes. This is because the sitting is being firmly positioned in a place as indicated by the verse where Allah says:

الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَى

The Merciful was established on the Throne

The second prostration is the indication of the station of servanthood and it is the returning from the Divine Reality to creation. The salutations [upon the Prophet] are an indication of the attainability of human perfection, for they are an expression of praising Allah, His Messenger and His righteous servants. This is the station of perfection, for the saint is not complete except by his attainment of the Divine realities, by his accord with the Messenger and accord with all of the servants of Allah.

The two sections of the testimony of faith are Lā ilāha il-Llāh, “there is no diety except the one God” and Muħammadun rasūlullāh, “and Muhammad is the Prophet of God.” Scholars say that Lā ilāha il-Llāh represents the Creator and Muħammadun rasūlullāh symbolizes the entirety of creation.  The prayer is considered a dual communication: one is between worshipper and Allah, the second is between the worshipper and Allah’s perfect servant, Prophet Muhammad (s), the archetype of all the prophets and messengers. Thus one part of the prayer is a communication with the Divine, by means of Allah’s Holy Words revealed in the Qur’ān and through bowing and prostration, reciting Allah’s glorification, magnification and praise. The other part is the salutation on the Prophet, in which the worshipper addresses the Prophet personally and directly, as leader of the worshippers and the believers, followed by invoking the Lord’s blessings on him and on his family.

These realities in fact reflect the doctrine of the Prophet’s having attained the zenith of servanthood (¿ubūdīyyah) to Allah, and thus the entirety of prayer in itself is built around his person. For the Words of Allah recited are the words revealed to the Prophet and the remainder of the prayer is acknowledging his leadership and spiritual primacy in both this life and the next. Thus scholars assert that even the positions of the prayer are an indication of the Muhammadan Station, for the physical positions reflect the shapes of the letters of the Prophet’s heavenly name, Aħmad, where the first letter Alif is represented by the standing position, Hā by the bowing stance, Mīm in the prostration and Dāl in sitting for salutation.

Salat in Daily Life

One may pray individually or communally, in the home, outside, at the mosque or in virtually any clean place. However, observing the prayers at the mosque and in congregation is strongly encouraged. In addition to the regular daily prayers, there is a special Friday noon prayer, called Jum¿ah. It, too, is obligatory, and must be performed in a mosque, in congregation. It is accompanied by a sermon (khutbah) and replaces the normal noon prayer.

Since ritual prayers are performed throughout the waking cycle of the day, they influence the rhythm of the entire day in many Muslim nations. Although it is preferable to worship together in a mosque, a Muslim may pray almost anywhere, such as in fields, offices, factories and universities. Visitors to the Muslim world, where the call to prayer, adhān, is made publicly from every mosque at the onset of each prayer time, are often struck by the centrality of prayer in daily life.

Traditionally, the call to prayer is the first thing a newborn baby hears after birth, as the father or a person of piety recites the prayer-call in the infant’s right ear and the call to start the prayer (iqāmah) in the left.

Mosques

Allah says in the Holy Qur’ān:

قُلْ أَمَرَ رَبِّي بِالْقِسْطِ وَأَقِيمُواْ وُجُوهَكُمْ عِندَ كُلِّ مَسْجِدٍ وَادْعُوهُ مُخْلِصِينَ لَهُ الدِّينَ كَمَا بَدَأَكُمْ تَعُودُونَ

Say: “My Lord hath commanded justice; and that ye set your whole selves (to Him) at every time and mosque, and call upon Him, making your devotion sincere as in His sight: such as He created you in the beginning, so shall ye return.”

When performed in congregation, prayer provides a strong sense of community, equality and brotherhood. All Muslims are welcome in every mosque, regardless of their race, class or nationality. There is no minimum number of congregants required to hold communal prayers. Traditionally, mosques were the centers of their communities, where believers gathered five times daily or, at minimum, once a week. There, the poor found food and assistance; the homeless, shelter; the student of religion, learning. Because of the centrality of prayer in Muslim religious life, mosques are often the dominant structures in Muslim villages, towns and cities. Traditionally, great attention was paid to making these houses of worship more than just halls for prayer. Governments, individuals and communities invested huge sums to make their mosque the visual focus of its neighborhood. In particular, the great mosques, in which the Friday obligatory congregational prayer was held, often became magnificent examples of architecture and art.

The faithful take off their shoes before entering the house of worship out of respect for its sanctity and in keeping with the commandment to the Prophet Moses, when he entered the hallowed ground around the burning bush:

فَلَمَّا أَتَاهَا نُودِي يَا مُوسَى إِنِّي أَنَا رَبُّكَ فَاخْلَعْ نَعْلَيْكَ إِنَّكَ بِالْوَادِ الْمُقَدَّسِ طُوًى

When he came to the Fire, a voice was uttered: O Moses! I am thy Lord, therefore put off thy shoes, for thou art in the sacred valley of Ţūwā.

Sincere Salat

Ibn ¿Ata Allāh, a renowned Egyptian Sufi scholar of the 14th century wrote:

The ritual prayer is the focal point of heavenly discourse, the source of purity by which the avenues of secrets expand and the gleams of lights radiate. So, if you want to know yourself, it is all by the prayer how you would weigh it. If it causes you to desist from worldly influence, then you know you are one who is given happiness. Other than that, you should be aware of what your feet have dragged along to your prayer, and then you will know that you have not obtained the secrets of prayer. Have you ever seen a lover that does not desire whom he loves?

This is what you take from the prayer of discourse with Allah: when you say:

‎إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ “You alone do we worship, and from You alone do we seek assistance” – and from the discourse with the Messenger, when you say in your prayers, “Peace be upon you, O Prophet, and the Mercy of Allah and His Blessing.” You say this in every prayer, whereupon you are cleansed of your sins, only to return to them yet again after receiving the blessings with which the Lord has favored you, which is meeting with your Lord, the highest of blessings.

If one wishes to know his reality and to see his state with his Lord, let him look at his prayer. Either it will produce humility and tranquility or heedlessness and hastiness. So, if your prayer is not of the first type, then seek to throw dirt on your head out of neglect and sorrow. The one who sits with a perfume maker is given the fragrance of his perfume. The prayer, therefore, is the association with Allah, so when you attend it and you do not obtain from it anything, it indicates a sickness that resides in you, which is either pride or the absence of proper manners. Allah says:

سَأَصْرِفُ عَنْ آيَاتِيَ الَّذِينَ يَتَكَبَّرُونَ فِي الأَرْضِ بِغَيْرِ الْحَقِّ

I shall turn away from My revelations those who magnify themselves wrongfully in the earth.

It is not desired that one rushes from the mosque after his prayer. Rather, he should remember Allah after it and seek His forgiveness from his shortcomings in doing so. For perhaps his prayer is not in a state for it to be accepted. But if you were to seek Allah’s forgiveness, thereafter it will be accepted.

Ibn ¿Atā Allāh’s warning not leave the mosque too quickly after performing the ritual prayer also has an esoteric meaning. The mosque, in the symbolism of Sufism, signifies the heart, while prayers signify the connection between the worshipper and the Divine Presence. Thus, Ibn ¿Ata Allah here calls on the faithful to maintain that connection with the Divine Source in the heart and not be too quick to push it aside to return to worldly concerns. This means one should strive to keep that connection with the Divine Presence that has been built up through remembrance and prayer, and not fall into heedlessness.

كان الرسول صلى الله عليه وسلم اذا سلم من الصلاة قال: “استغفر الله ، استغفر الله ، استغفر الله ، اللهم انت السلام و منك السلام تباركت يا ذا الجلال و الاكرام “

After the Messenger of Allah (s) used to pray, he would seek Allah’s forgiveness three times. This was related by Thawban, who said:

When he finished from prayer, he would seek Allah’s forgiveness three times and say, “O Allah, you are the peace and from you is peace. Blessed you are, O Owner of Greatness and Honor.”

Ibn ¿Atā Allāh also wrote:

The simile of some who had performed his prayer without tranquility and humility of heart or presence of contemplation is like the one who presents to the king one hundred empty boxes. Thereafter, he deserves the admonishment of the king because of his lack of intelligence and thought, which the king will utter about him when ever he is mentioned. But the one who prays with tranquility and presence of heart is like the one who presented the king with boxes of precious jewels, for surely the king will delight in that and will return the favor on him and he will always mention to others about the gifts he had received from him. This is because the one who gave has purity of heart, perfection of thought and high aspiration.

I say to you, O servant of Allah, when you enter prayer you are conversing with your Lord and speaking with the Messenger of Allah in the Witnessing, because you are saying, “Peace be upon you, O Prophet, and Allah’s mercy and blessings.” It is not said, “O you,” or, “O so and so,” in the language of the Arabs, except to someone who is present in the assembly. So, in your prayers, you should summon in your mind his greatness.

If you wish to know how you will traverse the Bridge on the Day of Judgment, then look at your state in proceeding to prayer in going to the mosque … for in this world, the prayer is the bridge of uprightness that is not seen by the eyes, but by the enlightened hearts and clear vision. Allah says:

وَأَنَّ هَـذَا صِرَاطِي مُسْتَقِيمًا فَاتَّبِعُوهُ وَلاَ تَتَّبِعُواْ السُّبُلَ فَتَفَرَّقَ بِكُمْ عَن سَبِيلِهِ ذَلِكُمْ وَصَّاكُم بِهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

This is my straight way, therefore follow it.

So, the one for whom the path is enlightened follows thereon, but the one for whom his path is darkened does not see where he is stepping and is not able to travel the way; therefore, he will remain in his place standing and bewildered.

يدخل فقراء المسلمين الجنة قبل الأغنياء بنصف يوم، وهو خمسمائة عام

Abū Hurayrah ¦ related that the Messenger of Allah (s) said:

The poor of the Muslims will enter Paradise before the rich by half a day, and each day is five hundred years.

This is because they were foremost in the world in worship and constant in the Friday prayer and the congregation.

Nawafil - Voluntary Worship

In addition to the fixed, obligatory ritual prayers (fara¿id as-šalāt), Muslims consider supererogatory prayers of great importance. Great emphasis is placed on observing the prayers that the Prophet, upon whom be peace and blessings, used to observe in addition to the five prescribed prayers.

In addition to the obligatory prayers, the Prophet observed certain sets of supererogatory ritual-prayers just before and after them. These confirmed sunnahs are well-documented. In addition to these, the Prophet would add on additional prayer cycles known an-nawāfil. Each of the schools of Islamic jurisprudence classifies these cycles slightly differently, but all agree on the merit of performing these supplemental acts of devotion. Finally, the Prophet would pray additional ritual prayers independent of the obligatory ones. These include:

Prayer just after sunrise (ishrāq)

From four to twelve cycles in the forenoon (duħā)

Six cycles after the evening prayer (awābīn)

The night vigil (tahajjud or qīyām al-layl).

أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم صلى حتى انتفخت قدماه فقيل له أتكلف هذا وقد غفر الله لك ما تقدم من ذنبك وما تأخر فقال أفلا أكون عبدا شكورا

When asked why he used to pray so much, to the point that his feet were swollen, the Prophet replied, “Should I not be a thankful servant of Allah?”

In saying this, the Prophet expressed the essence of supererogatory worship, to show gratitude to the Lord and thus to draw nearer to the Divine Presence. The Prophet related regarding the words recited in every prayer from the Opening chapter of the Holy Qur’ān, الْحَمْدُ للّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ “Praise is to Allah, the Lord of the universe,” that Allah responds by saying, “My servant has praised Me.”

Qiyam al-Layl - Night Vigil

One of the most important supererogatory prayers is that of the Night Vigil (Qīyām al-layl). The ideal time for voluntary prayer, and indeed for spiritual endeavors in general, is at night—preferably after midnight. This is the time when the world is asleep, but the lovers and seekers of God (al-¿ibād) are awake and traveling towards reality and their divine destinations. It is under the veil of the night that the plane of consciousness is clear from the chaos of worldly affairs (dunyā), for it is a time when the mind and heart operate most effectively.

Prayer before midnight, whether supplicatory or ritual, is very slow; after midnight, it is very fast.

In one of the first revelations, Allah ordered His Messenger:

قُمِ اللَّيْلَ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا نِصْفَهُ أَوِ انقُصْ مِنْهُ قَلِيلًا أَوْ زِدْ عَلَيْهِ وَرَتِّلِ الْقُرْآنَ تَرْتِيلًا

Stand (to prayer) by night, but not all night, half of it or a little less. Or a little more; and recite the Qur’ān in slow, measured rhythmic tones.

وقال صلى الله عليه وسلم “ركعتان يركعهما العبد في جوف الليل خير له من الدنيا وما فيها ولولا أن أشق على أمتي لفرضتهما عليهم"

The Messenger of Allah said:

Two cycles of prayer in the late hours of the night are more valuable than all the riches of this world. But for fear of overburdening my followers, I would have made these obligatory.

And:

عليكم بصلاة الليل ولو ركعة واحدة

The Prophet said:  Pray the night prayer, if only one rak¿ah.‏

Salman, a renowned Companion of the Prophet, in describing the observance of the night vigil said:

The man who considered the darkness of night and people’s unmindfulness a boon, stood up and said the prayer till the morning, he is a man for whom there is all gain and no loss… adopt those medium-type of supererogatory prayers (nawāfil) which you may put up with perpetually.

عَنْ حُذَيْفَةَ، اَنَّهُ رَاَى رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يُصَلِّي مِنَ اللَّيْلِ ... ‏"‏ ‏.‏ فَصَلَّى اَرْبَعَ رَكَعَاتٍ فَقَرَاَ فِيهِنَّ الْبَقَرَةَ وَالَ عِمْرَانَ وَالنِّسَاءَ وَالْمَائِدَةَ اَوِ الاَنْعَامَ شَكَّ شُعْبَةُ ‏.‏

Hudhayfa related that he saw the Prophet’s pray the night vigil and I used to stand with Allah’s Messenger throughout the night... He prayed four cycles (raka¿ts) and he would recite Sūrat al-Baqara, Sūrat Āli ¿Imrān and Sūrat an-Nisā, Sūrat al-Mā’idat and Sūrat al-Ana¿m in them (i.e. the five longest chapters of the Qur’ān).

It is related that the third caliph, ¿Uthmān ibn ¿Affān, would recite the entire Qu¿ran in one prayer during the night.

So much stress did the Prophet put on the importance of the night vigil (šalāt al-layl) that if he missed it he would make it up.

عن سعد بن هشام أن عائشة قالت كان رسول الله -صلى الله عليه وسلم- إذا صلى صلاة أحب أن يداوم عليها وكان إذا شغله عن قيام الليل نوم أو مرض أو وجع صلى من النهار اثنتي عشرة ركعة هذا

The Prophet’s wife ‘Ā¿ishā said that the Prophet if he initiated any prayer he loved to be constant in it and if his something kept him from the night vigil, sleep or illness or pain, then he used to pray twelve cycles (raka¿ts) during the day.

A renowned contemporary Sufi saint, and my teacher and guide on the spiritual path, Shaykh Muhammad Nazim Adil al-Haqqani, says:

The last third of the night is the best of times to pray at night because Allah the Most High is looking therein at His servant. Our master ¿Abd-Allāh ad-Dāghestānī, may Allah always elevate his stations, used to invite me to his association during the last third of the night because it is the time of heavenly manifestation. He would say that, in this time, there is no veil between Allah and His servant. So, each of you should awake in the third part of the night to pray and be present in the hour of heavenly manifestations. O Allah, make us among those who stand in prayer at night, seeking the vision of Your Face.

There is no possibility to receive sainthood without the night vigil. The night vigil is ordained for the Prophet, also for the Friends of Allah it is considered obligatory and, as related to the community, it is a strong practice (sunnah). Without a doubt, the servant will not receive the station of sainthood if he is not connected to Allah. And a token of the one who is connected with the Lord Almighty is the night vigil. This is the greatest means of sainthood, by which Allah adorns His servant with the secret of sainthood during the last third of the night. Therefore, be awake at this time of the night, whether engaged in your prayer or in something else, so that nothing will obstruct you from being present in this time for which you will obtain this special mercy.

The renowned Egyptian Sufi Ibn ¿Atā Allāh as-Sakandarī said:

Two cycles of ritual prayer before Allah during the night is better than thousands of cycles of prayer during the day.

عن أبي أمامة الباهلية عن رسول الله -صلى الله عليه وسلم- قال عليكم بقيام الليل فإنه دأب الصالحين قبلكم وهو قربة لكم إلى ربكم ومكفرة للسيئات ومنهاة عن الإثم

The Messenger of Allah (s) says:

Keep to observing the night prayer for it is the devotion of the righteous before you, it brings you closer to your Lord and it wipes away offenses, replaces sins and removes sin.

Without a doubt you do not pray two cycles in the night except that you will find its rewards on your scales on the Day of Requital. Is a servant purchased for any reason other than to serve? Do you see a servant who is purchased merely to eat and sleep, who does not perform his duties? You are nothing more than a servant that Allah has brought into existence for His worship. He created you for His obedience; your purchase is for His service:

إِنَّ اللّهَ اشْتَرَى مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ أَنفُسَهُمْ وَأَمْوَالَهُم بِأَنَّ لَهُمُ الجَنَّةَ

Lo! Allah hath bought from the believers their lives and their wealth because for them is Paradise.

We conclude this section with the words of Shaykh ¿Abd Allāh al-Fā¿iz ad-Dāghestānī, may God preserve his sanctity, who said about the night vigil:

Even if a servant rises in the time of heavenly manifestations and he is a non-Muslim in faith, and he does something in that hour, because of that he too would obtain the level of belief before passing from this life. He will be guided and safe because he was awake during the hours of heavenly manifestations, and he would consequently receive that special mercy. It is not possible for anyone who receives even a drop from that mercy, to remain wretched or to remain in unbelief. He is safe even if a tyrant; in time he will turn back to Allah, and if he is a sinner, he will repent. There is no ambiguity that this mercy will change his state.

The Perfection of Salat

In reality, šalāt is a state of heedfulness that must be kept constantly and perpetually throughout the day. Those committed to this path seek to maintain a state of mindfulness in each breath, not forgetting their Lord for even a single moment.

The perfection of prayer means to be aware of Allah’s Presence, “as if you see Him,” and to demonstrate one’s devotion and servitude to Him. Allah said:

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ مَا أُرِيدُ مِنْهُم مِّن رِّزْقٍ وَمَا أُرِيدُ أَن يُطْعِمُونِ

I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me. No Sustenance do I require of them, nor do I require that they should feed Me.

Allah initially commanded Prophet Muhammad’s follower to observe fifty prayers a day, but with His mercy this obligation was reduced to five.  In the Divine Balance, the five prayers are thus considered as fifty.  Calculating the time required to observe fifty prayers, it would require all of a worshipper’s waking hours, less time to eat and make ablution. Thus those who observe the five prayers perfectly, with complete submission to Allah and complete presence before Allah will be in fulfillment of the above verse. For those, Allah provide sustenance without their needing to work, for they are fulfilling the Divine Directive properly.

The Pinnacle of Worship

Ritual prayer is known as the “pinnacle of worship,” for it contains the essential aspects of all five pillars of Islamic worship: the testification of faith, prayer itself, charity, fasting and pilgrimage.

The first pillar, the testification of faith is observed in each ritual prayer, when one bears witness to the Oneness of God and the Prophethood of Muhammad (s) during the sitting phase (at-tashahhud).

Charity (zakāt), the third pillar consists of giving 21/2 percent of one’s wealth to the needy for the sake of Allah. Ritual prayer encompasses this pillar in the sense that the most important thing that one possesses is the body and spirit. In ritual prayer one give one’s whole person and time to Allah.

The fourth pillar, fasting (šawm) is accomplished immediately on entering the prayer, for one must withhold from all worldly actions, including eating, drinking, relations with others, and, even more stringent than the ritual fast, one may not converse except with the Lord.

The last pillar of Islam pilgrimage (hajj) is encompassed when the worshipper directs himself or herself to the Ka¿aba the focal point of the pilgrimage.

Prayer is Ascension to the Divine

الصلاة معراج المؤمن

It is said: “Ritual prayer is the ascension (mi¿rāj) of the believer.

The Prophet therefore had, according to Islam’s Gnostic scholars, not just one, but 24,000 ascensions during his life.

When the worshipper begins a sincere prayer, saying “Allah is Greatest,” the ascension begins. If one is truly observant of the rights and duties of the prayers with their perfection, this will be apparent for as soon as you enter the prayer inspiration of Divine knowledge will begin to enter you heart along with increased yearning for the Divine Presence. If these secrets are not coming to you, it signifies your prayers are not ascending to the Divine Presence, and that that you are falling into Satan’s traps.

Sayyid Ħaydar ¿Amūlī writes:

His [the Prophet’s] words, “I have been given coolness of the eye in prayer,” refer to nothing else but the contemplation of the Beloved by the eye of the lover, who draws near in the stillness of the prayer… On seeing the Beloved, the eye too becomes stilled and it ceases to look at anything other than Him in all things.

Thus the worshipper attains the state, related in the Holy Tradition:

عَنْ اَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏"‏ اِنَّ اللَّهَ قَالَ مَنْ عَادَى لِي وَلِيًّا فَقَدْ اذَنْتُهُ بِالْحَرْبِ، وَمَا تَقَرَّبَ اِلَىَّ عَبْدِي بِشَىْءٍ اَحَبَّ اِلَىَّ مِمَّا افْتَرَضْتُ عَلَيْهِ، وَمَا يَزَالُ عَبْدِي يَتَقَرَّبُ اِلَىَّ بِالنَّوَافِلِ حَتَّى اُحِبَّهُ، فَاِذَا اَحْبَبْتُهُ كُنْتُ سَمْعَهُ الَّذِي يَسْمَعُ بِهِ، وَبَصَرَهُ الَّذِي يُبْصِرُ بِهِ، وَيَدَهُ الَّتِي يَبْطُشُ بِهَا وَرِجْلَهُ الَّتِي يَمْشِي بِهَا، وَاِنْ سَاَلَنِي لاُعْطِيَنَّهُ، وَلَئِنِ اسْتَعَاذَنِي لاُعِيذَنَّهُ، وَمَا تَرَدَّدْتُ عَنْ شَىْءٍ اَنَا فَاعِلُهُ تَرَدُّدِي عَنْ نَفْسِ الْمُؤْمِنِ، يَكْرَهُ الْمَوْتَ وَاَنَا اَكْرَهُ مَسَاءَتَهُ ‏"‏‏

…My servant shall continue to draw nearer to Me by performing the supererogatory acts of virtue until I love him; when I love him, I become his ears with which he hears, his eyes with which he sees, his hands with which he grasps, and his feet with which he walks; if he were to ask of Me, I will grant his request, if he were to seek refuge in Me, I will protect him…

As to the Messenger’s state during prayer, his wife ‘Ā¿ishā reported:

He would weep continuously until his lap became wet. He would be sitting and keep weeping until his auspicious beard became drenched. Then he would weep so much the ground became wet.

Abū Bakr aš-Šiddīq, the first caliph of the Prophet, would stand in prayer as if he were a pillar. Commenting on this, one of the early transmitter of traditions, Mujahid, said, “this is the fearfulness (khushu¿) in prayer.”

صلوا كما رأيتموني أصلي

The Prophet said, “Pray as you see me pray.

He did not say, “Pray as you have heard I prayed,” nor “Pray as I taught my companions.” This hints at something very profound. The vision of the Prophet (s) is something that is true, and this is witnessed by countless Friends of Allah.

قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏"‏من رآني فقد رأى الحق‏"‏‏

Thus, the Prophet’s saying, “Who saw me in a vision, in truth saw me,” to the Sufi commentators carries the meaning, “Whoever saw me in a vision will see me in reality.” For Sufis, the first level of witnessing (mushāhadah) is to sense the Prophet present before them. The final stage of witnessing, which is “to worship God as if you see Him,” was achieved by the Prophet during the Ascension when he was brought to the station of nearness (qurb), “two bow’s lengths or nearer,” to the Divine Presence. The Sufis affirm that true prayer brings the worshipper to the state of witnessing Allah and His Prophet, thereby attaining true unity with the Beloved. For this reason, prayer is compared to the union of marriage, wisal. Indeed, they explain the two salutations of peace, made to end the prayer, as a return from extinction, to greet the world as a new person.

It is said of the Prophet’s fourth successor, his cousin ¿Alī  ibn Abī Ţālib ¦, that when he prayed, he was utterly oblivious to his surroundings. Once he was injured by an enemy arrow, which penetrated his foot. It could not be removed without causing immense pain. He said, “I will pray, at which time remove it.” They did as he directed. Upon completing the prayer he asked his companions, “When are you going to remove the arrow?” ¿Alī ibn Abī Ţālib ¦ used to say, “Even if the Veil were lifted, it would not increase my certainty,” referring to his state of Witnessing the Divine Presence.

We conclude with a story, related about the great Sufi master Shaykh Abū ’l-Ħasan ash-Shādhilī.

The scholars of Alexandria came to him to test him and he read what was in their hearts before they spoke and said, “O pious scholars, have you ever prayed?”

They said, “Far be it from any of us to leave prayer.”

He then recited the verse:

إِنَّ الْإِنسَانَ خُلِقَ هَلُوعًا إِذَا مَسَّهُ الشَّرُّ جَزُوعًا وَإِذَا مَسَّهُ الْخَيْرُ مَنُوعًا إِلَّا الْمُصَلِّينَ

Lo! man was created anxious, Fretful when evil befalleth him, And, when good befalleth him, grudging, except those who (really) prays.

“So,” he asked, “do any of you all pray like this?” They were silent. Then the shaykh said to them, “Then, none of you has ever prayed!”

The real prayer is performed purely for the pleasure of Allah, conversing with Him in variations of delight, humbleness and awe which is void of hypocrisy and repute. No doubt it brings about the remembrance of Allah and the heart inherits awe of Him.

Conclusion

Salat as Divine Service

While the ritual prayer we have just examined in detail is one of the five pillars of Islam, in reality all of Islam is essentially a form of prayer. For the meaning of prayer is worship and the essence of all worship is to seek Allah. Seeking the Face of Allah is the goal and the means are the Divinely-prescribed forms of action as well as voluntary forms of bringing the worshipper closer to the Divine Presence.

Allah says:

وَلِلّهِ يَسْجُدُ مَن فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ طَوْعًا وَكَرْهًا وَظِلالُهُم بِالْغُدُوِّ وَالآصَالِ

And to Him prostrate all that is in the heavens and on earth; willingly or by compulsion.

وَلِلّهِ يَسْجُدُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الأَرْضِ مِن دَآبَّةٍ وَالْمَلآئِكَةُ وَهُمْ لاَ يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ

And He says: and to Allah prostrate all that is in the heavens and the earth.

And He says: and there is not one thing except that it glorifies with Allah with His praise.

These verses indicate that all of creation, regardless of form or substance, are in fact in a state of prayer, for prostration and glorification are the essence of prayer. They cannot be in other than that—even those who disobey, in their disobedience—are in fact submitting to the ultimate Holy Will of Allah and the Destiny prescribed for them.

However the key to the Lord’s Bounty is to seek Him and submit willingly with one’s entire being. To become a Muslim means to accept saying, “O Allah! I admit that You are the Creator and I am your slave.” This is the first level of submission, slavery, but it is not servanthood.  Servanthood is higher.

True servanthood of Allah means to become obedient. The servant has no will of his or her own, but is subject to the will of the master at all times. Islam does not ask human beings to serve a cruel and whimsical master, but rather the Creator of all things, Who is the Aware, the Subtle, in His all-encompassing knowledge of both the needs and desires of His servants.

One who attains this level of submission in Islam becomes ¿abd, servant to the Lord. In Islam this is considered the highest achievement—the state of servanthood, known as ¿ubudīyyah. For that reason the Prophet said:

عَنْ خَيْثَمَةَ بْنِ عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ، عَنْ أَبِيهِ، أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ إِنَّ مِنْ خَيْرِ أَسْمَائِكُمْ عَبْدَ اللَّهِ وَعَبْدَ الرَّحْمَنِ‏.

The names dearest to God are ¿Abd Allāh (servant of God) and ¿Abd al-Raħmān (servant of the Most Merciful).

Allah says:

سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي أَسْرَى بِعَبْدِهِ لَيْلاً مِّنَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ الأَقْصَى الَّذِي بَارَكْنَا حَوْلَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ البَصِيرُ

Glory to (Allah) Who did take His Servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs.

Allah specified Prophet Muhammad (s) in this verse with the title “servant,” ¿abd, and again, relating to Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to the Divine Presence, when He says:

فَأَوْحَى إِلَى عَبْدِهِ مَا أَوْحَى

So did (Allah) convey the inspiration to His Servant- (conveyed) what He (meant) to convey.

لَقَدْ رَأَى مِنْ آيَاتِ رَبِّهِ الْكُبْرَى

… For truly did he see, of the Signs of his Lord, the Greatest!”

Of the station Prophet Muhammad (s) attained in that rapture, Imām Nawawī, one of the great scholars of Islam, says, “Most of the scholars say that the Prophet saw his Lord with the eyes of his head.”

The unique greatness of Allah’s Messenger, Muhammad (s), is that he saw the Lord of Creation, thus making him the perfected monotheist (muwaħħid). Prophet Muhammad’s grasp of Divine Unity, tawħīd, was perfected by ascension to the Divine Presence. Everyone else’s understanding of Divine Unity falls short of the Messenger’s. Despite this, the Prophet maintained absolute humility, never seeing himself as important, but rather as a servant, honored by the Master of masters.

It is related that when the Prophet reached the highest levels and most distinguished stations Allah revealed to him, “With what shall I honor you?” The Prophet said, “By relating me to You through servanthood (¿ubūdīyya).”

Thus true prayer is nothing less than Ascension to the Station of true Servanthood, which is the Station of Submission. In that station, Divine Unity becomes manifest, and there, the servant reaches the state where he hears what no ears have heard, sees what no eyes have seen and tastes the reality of Divine Oneness. In this state of witnessing, the servant perceives only the Lord. He sees all existence through His Existence and the realization that all proceeds from the One. That is known as the station of annihilation, in which the servant no longer sees herself or himself, no longer sees anything, but only sees, feels and is immersed in the Presence of the Lord without any partner and with no likeness.