11.2 Salat (Prayer)
Salat is translated mostly as ‘prayer’ by Yusuf Ali and as ‘worship’ by Pickthal. There is also the word ibadat (pl.) which means acts of devotion or religious observances. This has often been used synonymously with the word ‘salat‘. We should note that the word ibadat is derived from the root word ‘abada‘ which means to serve, to worship, to devote to the service of Allah etc. In the Qur’anic context, the word ibadat means obedience to the laws of Allah as contained in the Qur’an, and thus, it has a much wider significance than salat. The word salat can be regarded as one of the duties contained by the word ibadat, a term which itself includes all the duties.
In the Qur’an the very first occurrence of a derived word from the root abada is found in the fifth verse of the first sura Al-Fatiha, in nabudu. There are as many as 94 verses in the Qur’an in which a derived form of the root abada is used. The word salat occurs 67 times in the Qur’an and in the context of the verses which contains the word salat, the nearest English word that can be used for salat is either prayer or worship. The Qur’an however has used the plural sense for salat, indicating that this function, in its entirety, is meant to be carried out collectively. We need to examine further what the Qur’an has to say regarding the practice of salat in the sense of prayer and worship. We can then look at the position of the Hadiths on this issue in the light of what the Qur’an has to say. A few of the relevant Qur’anic verses are quoted below:
(2:43) […]and bow down your heads with those who bow in worship.
(2:149) […]turn thy face towards the inviolable place of worship.
(5:6) O ye who believe, when ye rise up for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands up to elbows, and lightly rub your heads, and wash your feet up to ankles, and if ye are unclean purify yourselves[…]
(11:114) Establish worship at the two ends of the day and some watches of the night[…]
(17:78) Establish worship at the going down of the sun (sunset) until the dark of night, and (the recital of) the Qur’an at dawn. Lo! (the recital of) the Qur’an at dawn is ever witnessed.
(24:58) O ye who believe! Let your slaves, and those of you who have not come to puberty; ask leave of you at three times: Before the prayer of dawn (Salat-ul-Fajr), and when ye lay aside your raiment for the heat of the afternoon, and after the prayer at night. (Salat-ul-Isha)[…]
(62:9) O ye who believe! When the call is proclaimed to prayer on Friday (the day of the Assembly), hasten earnestly to the remembrance of Allah, and leave business.
(4:43) O ye who believe! approach not prayers with a mind befogged, until ye can understand all that ye say, nor when ye are polluted, except when journeying upon the road, till ye have bathed[…]
(17:107, 108) […] fall down prostrate on their faces, adoring, and saying: Glory to our Sustainer! Verily the promise of our Sustainer must be fulfilled.
(25:64, 65) And who spend the night before their Sustainer, prostrate and standing, and who say: Our Sustainer! Avert from us the doom of hell; Lo! The doom thereof is anguish.
(17: 110, 111) […]Neither speak thy prayer aloud, nor speak it in a low tone, but seek a middle course between. And say: Praise be to Allah, Who hath not taken unto Himself a son, and who hath no partner in Sovereignty, nor hath He any protecting friend through dependence. And magnify Him with all magnificence.
It may be noted that verse 24:58 mentions Salat-ul-Fajr and Salat-ul-Isha by name. Verse 11:114 on the other hand states, that salat is to be performed at the two ends of the day which, logically speaking, are the Fajr and the Magrib prayers. Also verse 17:78 states that salat is to be performed at the going down of the sun (or sunset) until the dark of night. This again indicates the Magrib and Isha prayers. It is also interesting to note that in verse 24:58 when one lays aside one’s clothes for the heat of the afternoon, there is no mention of the Zuhr prayer. Futher, according to verse 17:110, prayer is not to be said silently (this obviously implies salat as used in the Qur’an, i.e. in a congregational prayer, or salat in the plural sense). In contravention of this clear directive, Muslims perform Zuhr and Asr prayers silently.
Concluding from the verses quoted above, we find that the Qur’an clearly indicates establishing salat in the morning, evening and at night i.e. three times. For the day it says: “Lo! Thou hast by the day a chain of business” (73:7). The exception for this is Friday, when one must lay aside all business and rush to the mosque. On this occasion, mentioned ‘as the day of the Assembly‘, important issues and topics should become part of the sermon, followed by the prayer; not the traditional sermon to which we have sadly become accustomed, which has no relevance to present-day society. As far as the ritual part of the prayer is concerned the Qur’an mentions the standing, bowing, prostration, direction, and the glorification of Allah in the state of prostration. However, Allah says in many verses (e.g. 5:7, 11:5), that He knows what is in our heart, and this implies that the method or the ritual part of the prayer is not of primary importance to Him. This is further confirmed in verse 4:43 which states that we must understand what we say in our prayer.
In some translations of the Qur’an, particularly by Yusuf Ali and M. Asad, the verse 17:78 has been interpreted to mean that it confirms the practice of five daily prayers. Yusuf Ali in note 2275 states:
The commentators understand here the command for the five daily canonical prayers, viz. the four from the declination of the sun from the zenith to the fullest darkness of the night, and the early morning prayer, Fajr, which is usually accompanied by a reading of the holy Qur’an. The four afternoon prayers are: Zuhr, immediately after the sun begins to decline in the afternoon; Asr, in the afternoon; Magrib immediately after sunset; and Isha after the glow of sunset has disappeared and the full darkness of night has set in. There is difference of opinion as to the meaning of particular words and phrases, but none as to the general effect of the passage.
However Yusuf Ali carefully avoids naming the word or phrase in which there are differences of opinion, as it would then have been difficult for him to interpret the verse without coming into conflict with the tradition of five daily prayers.
The confusion arises in the translation of the phrase duluk-as-shams in the verse. Yusuf Ali translates this as ‘sun’s decline’. M. Asad translates it ‘as the time when the sun has passed the zenith’. M. Pickthall translates the phrase as ‘going down of the sun’ and N.J. Dawood as ‘sunset’. The Arabic-English Dictionary by Hans Wehr states duluk as: to set, to go down (sun). It also defines the whole phrase duluk-as-shams as ‘sunset’.
Yusuf Ali and M. Asad obviously want to interpret this phrase in a way that confirms what is stated in the Hadiths (i.e. the daily five times prayer). If the real meaning is accepted from the Arabic, then the verse 17: 78 ‘Establish worship (salat) at the going down of the sun (or sunset) until the dark of night[…]’ implies the Magrib and Isha prayers and not the Zuhr, Asr, Magrib and Isha prayers as has been suggested. Yusuf Ali also misinterprets verse 20:130 in his note 2655, and 50:39 in his note 4978, where the word Hamd has been interpreted to mean salat, instead of its correct meaning as ‘praise’. All we can do is to try to keep to the words as used in the Qur’an within the bounds of the Arabic language â€“ rather than stretching the sense to meet our own expectations.
11.2.1 The Hadiths on prayer (salat) and on the origin of prayer
Hadith literature is often concerned with the ritual part of our prayers i.e. the method, the times and the number of prayers. However, we must remember that any statement by the Hadiths on this issue must not contradict the Qur’an.
According to the Hadiths the method and the times of prayer were revealed to the Prophet in the same way as the Qur’an was revealed (that is, as a direct revelation from Allah). Moreover, it is maintained that Gabriel (Jibreel)A1 demonstrated to the Prophet the method of praying at stated times by leading each of the prayers himself (Bukhari Vol. 1, No. 500 and Vol. 4 No. 444). This immediately raises the question: if the method or the ritual part of the prayer was a revelation, why was it not, then, included in the Qur’an? Do we then accept that the Qur’an is incomplete? On the other hand, if we accept the view that the Qur’an, as the Final Revelation is complete and has remained intact, word for word, and that Allah has taken it upon Himself to protect it, then the above Hadiths must be false. In other words, Gabriel (Jibreel)A1 did not demonstrate to the Prophet the method of the prayers, as stated in the Hadiths.
The question then arises as to how these methods or rituals originated. Before answering this question (section 11.2.ii), it would be useful to discuss the question of the five daily prayers. Bukhari gives us an example of the kind of narration we are expected to swallow regarding this issue in Vol. 1, No. 345, Vol. 4, No. 429 and Vol. 9 No. 608. According to him, the matter was so important that the Prophet was taken by Gabriel (Jibreel) to see Allah to settle this issue. According to him, Allah initially ordained fifty prayers a day. However, after a lot of bargaining, in which the Prophet Moses acted as an adviser to the Prophet, Allah relented and reduced the burden to five times a day. What is most surprising is that the Qur’an does not mention such an important journey whatsoever, whereas it mentions historical incidents of much lesser importance. The one Qur’anic verse which, it is claimed, refers to this journey is in Sura 17:1 given below:
(17:1) Glorified be He Who carried His servant by night from the nearest mosque (The Kaba) to the farthest mosque, the neighbourhood whereof We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our Signs!
There seem to be four different interpretations on this verse:
(i) The majority of commentators take this night to mean that the Prophet was transported by Gabriel (Jibreel)A1 from the nearest mosque (Masjid-Al-Haram) in Mecca to the farthest mosque (Masjid-Al-Aqsa) in Jerusalem, (which did not exist at the time), so presumably they mean the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem or whatever existed there at that time.
(ii) The Hadith literature goes further by stating that the Prophet was taken to see Allah from Jerusalem by GabrielA1, and that at that meeting the five daily prayers were sealed.
(iii) The whole journey was spiritual, possibly in a dream.
(iv) That it refers to the flight of the Prophet (Hijra) with Abu Bakr from Mecca (where the nearest mosque – the Kaba – was) to Medina, where a mosque (the farthest mosque i.e. Masjid-Al-Aqsa) was established before Muhammad’s arrival there. In support of this there is historical evidence that a delegation of 73 people from Medina came to see the Prophet while he was at Mecca and that the Prophet sent Musab-bin-Umair with the delegation to conduct prayers and help the people in Medina to enter the brotherhood of Islam. The Medinans, therefore, must have built the mosque before the arrival of the Prophet.
The last interpretation seems the most logical since Medina was more conducive to his mission, and was thus a neighbourhood blessed by Allah to be used for the later part of the Prophet’s mission. Some indication of this can be found in in the following verses:
(93:4,5) And verily the latter portion will be better for thee than the former, and verily thy Sustainer will give unto thee so that thou will be content.
11.2.2 Format or method of prayer in the Hadiths1,2
Bukhari does not give the methods of prayer in a coherent form. One has to go through a lot of his quoted hadiths to form some sensible idea. According to Bukhari (Vol.1 No. 346) when Allah enjoined prayer, it was two rakatsA4 in every prayer, both when at home or on a journey. Then the prayers offered on journey remained the same, but the rakats of the prayers for non-travellers were increased. For example in Hadith (Vol. 1, No. 474), the Prophet leads the prayer with 2 rakats for Zuhr and 2 rakats for Asr. In Hadith (Vol. 1, No. 518) the Prophet prayed 8 rakats for the Zuhr and Asr and 7 rakats for Magrib and Isha in Medina. In Hadith (Vol. 1. No. 566) Allah’s messenger never missed 2 rakats before Fajr prayer and 2 rakats after Asr prayer. In fact, the number of rakatsof the compulsory prayers i.e. 2 rakats for the Fajr, 4 rakats for the Zuhr, 4 rakats for Asr, 3 rakats for Magrib and 4 rakats for Isha, are not specified in Bukhari at all. And the same applies for the sunnat prayers that we perform today. It is only after searching through a large number of hadiths that we can find what perhaps we are meant to say while performing the set of postures from standing to bending and then in prostration but only, it should be emphasised, after a wide search, and not without variations and contradictions. So one can quite clearly see that Hadith does not give any organised or co-ordinated methods of prayer that can be followed universally. This is an interesting point when you consider how easy it would be for any even moderately educated Muslim to give a precise list of the mechanics of all the daily prayers as prescribed by the ‘scholars’. Another important point that comes out is that although at-tahiyatu in the sitting position is mentioned in Bukhari, the darud we recite after at-tahiyatu is not.
The hadiths in Muslim do not give any clear indication of the methods of prayer either. The number of rakats of the compulsory prayer is not given in the format as performed at the present time.The only similarity between Bukhari and Muslim is in the set of postures from standing to bending and then the prostration and pronouncements in these positions. Muslim mentions at-tahiyatu in the sitting position, and the darud. However, the latter is not mentioned by Bukhari at all. Muslim is very clear about the recitation of Al-Fatiha in every rakat, the main confusion lies in the number of rakats, particularly for the compulsory prayers. For example, hadith 1017 states that the Prophet performed two rakats for Zuhr and two for Asr prayer. This appears to contradict hadith 911:
(911) Abu Said al-Khudri reported: The Apostle of Allah used to recite in every rakat of the first two rakat of the noon (Zuhr) prayer about 30 verses and in the last two about fifteen verses, and in every rakat of the Asr prayer of the first two rakats about fifteen verses and in the last two half of the first ones.
The above hadith seems to contradict hadith 909 also which states that in the last two rakats the Prophet would recite sura Al-Fatiha only, and that he would sometimes recite loud enough to make the verses audible. This is at variance with the present-day practice whereby Zuhr and Asr are performed silently.
Regarding the Witr prayer, we see a clear contradiction between hadiths nos. 1602, 1604, and 1607, which mention one, five, and three rakats respectively.
Concerning the sunnat prayers, there seems to be no clear indication. These are prayers which according to ‘traditional Islam’ are recommended over and above the compulsory prayers. For example, hadith 1579 states that a house will be built in Paradise for anyone who prays twelve rakats in a day and a night.
It is a disturbing fact that, according to the Hadith, the Prophet appears to be wholly occupied with prayers â€“ day and night â€“ as if that were the only thing Allah required of us. The prayers mentioned include his forenoon prayer of four to eight rakats (no. 1549); additional prayers at home after leading the compulsory prayers in the mosque; night prayers (Tahajjud) after Isha leading to the morning prayer (no. 1584; etc.). Hadith nos. 927 and 928 state that the Prophet used to recite 60 to 100 verses in the morning prayer. One begins to wonder how the Prophet managed to carry out all his other duties, including the compilation of the Qur’an, the guidance of the people, state activities, plus his many other duties, not to speak of his personal and family life.
The point that can be taken from all this is that the format of all our prayers underwent substantial changes before it was finally established in its present form, and that most of these changes took place well after the death of the Prophet. There is nothing wrong in this as long as we accept that the ritual part of the prayer did not require any revelation. It was purely a common sense way of developing the rules within the boundary conditions (see verses on the salat) specified in the Qur’an, and if the Prophet had not done so, a proper Islamic State would have. The point we must remember is that rituals are only important when we place them in the context of many important duties which Allah has asked us to perform. Otherwise they become just forms without any substance or value.
It has already been stated that the method or the ritual part of the prayer cannot possibly a revelation as it is not in the Qur’an. Yet, a standard question is always raised: as the Hadith gives the method of prayer how could we learn to pray if we ignored the Hadith? We have already shown that Bukhari does not give the format of the prayers that we perform today and that the format of all our prayers underwent substantial changes before it was finally established in its overall present form, and that most of these changes took place well after the death of the Prophet. Besides, there is a gap of about 250 years before the Hadith literature appears (see section 10.1 for discussion on Hadith). So how did the people pray during this time? Obviously, the Prophet must have established a method, by taking into account the principles in the Qur’an and by consulting his companions. There is no difference in this matter than in establishing any subsidiary laws within the bounds of the fundamental principles (see Section 13.5).
Importantly, the Prophet did not record either the method of prayer, or his own sayings and practices. We can only infer from this that he realised that this would have created confusion between the recordings of his own sayings and practices, and the recordings of the Qur’an. However, a ritual once established, and practised regularly by the Muslim communities of that time was unlikely to have fallen apart, even though it was not written down. Thus, the contention that without the Hadith the practice of salat could not be carried out does not hold water. It is a curious fact that, Bukhari has successfully avoided people’s outrage on the many denigrating hadiths he quoted regarding the Prophet, by means of the simple and yet effective contention that without his investigations and writings on salat the practice today would have been impossible – which is evident nonsense. The truth is that a practice which survived for 250 years without the influence of the Hadith, would have continued to survive simply by virtue of its regular practice – passed from generation to generation.
Moreover, the rapid expansion of Islam within a few decades, gave the added resilience to the practice of salat. During the Abbaside period, some changes came in the methods and practices of prayer, caused by the four schools of law i.e. Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanbali. Further changes, particularly in the number of rakats to be performed during each prayer time, must have taken place over time due to human interference. Some changes also came due to cultural differences in various parts of the world and one doesn’t have to travel too far to see these variations. How do we explain these? And where is the common consensus regarding our methods of prayer?
Note: In this study we have restricted salat to its most commonly understood sense of ‘the ritual prayer’. The Qur’an uses the word salat in a much wider sense than that of simple prayer. We also observe that in the Qur’an the word salat is used in the plural number. We have concentrated here on the general meaning of ‘prayer’ in order to bring out some of our confusion and preoccupation, regarding this everyday practice.
11.2.4 Conflicts between the present-day prayer and the Qur’an â€“ a personal view
The verses recited must be relevant to the prayer. At present, apart from the first sura (Al-Fatiha), many of the verses we recite have no relevance to our prayer; that is, we do not know what we are saying or whether it is meaningful for the purpose. For example, in reciting sura 112 in our prayers we say: ‘Say: He is Allah, the One![…]’ In other words we are telling Allah: ‘Say: He is Allah, the One![…]’ – a scenario which is ridiculous. Prayer is a supplication of the believer to Allah, and so verses which do not fulfil this purpose are inappropriate. We need to choose what we say – that is, choose verses and doas of which there are many – which convey the sense of our supplication to Him. Failing this, it would be better to perform the bowing and prostration immediately after the recitation of the first sura. The utterances we use in the position of bowing and prostration conform to sura 17:107, 108, i.e. the Glorification of Allah in those positions. However there are words in both at-tahiyatu and the darud, recited in the sitting position, which go against Qur’anic guidance. For example, the words in at-tahiyatu translate as:
All reverence, all worship, all sanctity are due to Allah. Peace be on you O Prophet! and the Mercy of Allah and His blessings. Peace be on us and the righteous sevants of Allah. I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.
The inclusion of ‘peace be on you, O Prophet’ addresses the Prophet in the second person vocative – a grammatical construction which assumes the person addressed is still alive. This is completely wrong, and doubly so since the Qur’an forbids us to make any distinction between the Prophets. The appropriate phrase would be ‘Peace be on all the Prophets’ as this would conform with the Qur’an (37:181). For explanation on the final part of ‘I bear witness…’ see section 11.1.
The following verses give further relevant points on prayer.
(72:18,19) And the places of worship are only for Allah. So invoke not anyone along with Allah: And when the slave of Allah (the Prophet) stood up in prayer to Him, they crowded on him, almost stifling.
(72:20) Say (unto them, O Muhammad): I pray unto Allah only, and ascribe unto Him no partner.
We need to understand that the form of prayer we use is a ritual, although this ritual performed in congregation is important as it helps to bring people together. But the function of the mosque must be more than just a place for performing the congregational prayer. The Imam or the person who leads the prayer should be a scholar well versed in the Qur’an so he can use it meaningfully and be able to arrange lectures or seminars on the Qur’an. It is important, too, that the mosque be open for community and social functions beneficial to the society, instead of being kept empty except at prayer times (see section 11.2.v).
There are many Qur’anic verses relevant to prayer. I have selected a few, including some from the verses of prayer which the Prophets performed during their lifetimes.
(2:286) […]O our Sustainer! condemn us not if we forget, or fall into error. O our Sustainer! Lay not on us such a burden as Thou didst lay on those before us! Impose not on us that which we have not the strength to bear! Pardon us, absolve us and have mercy on us! Thou art our Protector, so grant us succour against those who reject Thee. (A general prayer verse)
(2:127, 128) And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the House, (Abraham prayed): Our Sustainer! Accept from us (this duty). Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Hearer, the Knower. Our Sustainer! and make us submissive unto Thee and of our seed a nation submissive unto Thee, and show us our ways of Prayer, and relent towards us. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Relenting, the Merciful.
(7:155) And Moses chose seventy of his people for Our place of meeting; when they were seized with violent quaking. He prayed: O my Sustainer if it had been Thy Will Thou couldst have destroyed, long before, both them and me: wouldst Thou destroy us for the deeds of the foolish ones amongst us? This is no more than Thy trial: by it Thou causest whom Thou wilt to stray, and Thou leadest whom thou wilt into the right path. Thou art our Protector: so forgive us and give us Thy mercy; for Thou art the Best of those who forgive.
(5:118) If Thou punish them, lo! they are Thy slaves, and if Thou forgive them (lo! they are Thy slaves) Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Mighty, the Wise. (Prayer of Jesus)
(23:97, 98) O our Sustainer! I seek Thy protection against the incitements of the rebellious ones and I seek Thy protection, lest they should approach me. (Prayer of Muhammad).
Other instances of verses of in the Quran which we can use in our supplication to Allah are: 2:127,128,201,286; 3:8,16,26,27,38,53,191,192,193,194; 4:75; 5:83,84; 7:23,126; 11:45; 12:101; 14:40,41; 20:25,2,27,28,29,114; 21:83,87,89,112; 23:28,29,93,94,97, 98,118; 24:65,61; 25:74; 26:83,84,85; 27:19; 37:100.
Finally, we must remember that Allah is always near (2:186). He will listen to us and help us if we pray to Him, provided we are following ‘the straight path‘. If, instead of glorifying Him andpraying for our guidance, we tell Him what is in the Qur’an by reciting verses which have no relevance to our prayers, then I cannot see how He can benefit us. We can reach Him, but only by hearing His call and His guidance – all of which involves good deeds.
(2:186) When My servants ask you concerning Me, tell them that I am always near. I hear the prayer of the suppliant whenever he calls out to Me. Therefore, let them hear My call and put their trust in Me, that they may be rightly guided.
11.2.5 The role of the mosque:
At present we have magnified the importance of the five daily prayers out of all proportion to our other duties specified in the Qur’an. Let me explain this by means of an example: in the U.K. the Muslims have established over 700 mosques, almost exclusively for the purpose of prayers. It is impossible to use these mosques for any sensible discussion on the Qur’an or for issues which face Muslims in this country, unless our views are in conformity with those of the governors and the Imam. The result is that these mosques are totally underused. Enormous sums have been spent in their construction, but the Muslims can hardly use them except for prayers. The only sermon that one gets from the Imam is before the Friday prayer and in that the topics are mostly based on the Hadiths and are hardly understood by the younger generation. So little is invested in the education of the younger generation that with the demise of the older generation the mosques will suffer the same fate as the churches in this country i.e.they will either remain empty or become bingo halls. Moreover, continual in-fighting for the control of the mosque is so common that people are moving away in disgust. Hence, unless we are able to put well-educated Imams in the mosques, Imams who have been brought up in this country, who can communicate with the younger generation, who are able to organise seminars on important issues and are able to organise some sensible teaching of the Qur’an for the younger generation, the future looks extremely bleak for Muslims in this country. People who are interested in organising lectures or education for the benefit of the community are not able to use these mosques. Instead, they have to use a church hall or some other rented hall and thereby incur unnecessary expenses.