Introduction to Islam
by Dr. Zahid Aziz
“Your Lord says: Pray to Me, I will answer you.” (The Holy Quran, 40:60)
“Surely prayer keeps (one) away from indecency and evil.” (The Holy Quran, 29:45)
“And seek assistance through patience and prayer, and this is hard except for the humble ones.” (The Holy Quran, 2:45)
What is prayer?
It is to put ourselves in touch with God, remind ourselves of His greatness, goodness and beauty, think over how we can develop the qualities He has placed in us, remember the goal He has put before us, and ask for His help in enabling us to do good and refrain from evil. Prayer also makes us see our lives, with all the successes and disappointments, in their true perspective, and makes us pause for a moment to see what we are doing in the light of what God wants us to do.
Is prayer necessary?
Just as the body requires food, cleansing, and exercise to make it fit for everyday living, the spirit or soul has spiritual needs for its development, so that one’s character and conduct remains good and healthy. The needs of the spirit are provided by acts of worship and devotion, the most important and frequent of which is prayer. Not supplying these needs weakens the highest part of man, damaging his ability to do good and refrain from evil, just as not having enough food makes his body unfit to work and prone to disease.
What are the most important points Islam teaches about prayer?
Among many other important points about prayer, the first is that a person should say his prayers “as if he is seeing God”, or at least be conscious that he is in God’s presence. This means that prayer should be said with full attention, concentration of mind, and feeling of heart, just as if we were talking to someone in front of us. Another very important point Islam teaches is that a main purpose of prayer is to lead one to do good, to refrain from evil, and to behave better towards others. If prayer does not have this effect on a person’s daily life and conduct, it means that he or she is not performing prayers properly, in the way required by Islam.
How does one pray in Islam?
Prayer, of course, is a general turning towards God. Islam has prescribed a particular form of prayer in order to make it systematic and to enable the whole community to pray together. The details of the Islamic prayer are available separately in many books. Briefly, certain bodily postures are adopted (standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting on the ground) in each of which some prescribed prayers and other words extolling and praising God are said. This is the regular prayer known as Salat, and is said in congregation (if possible) at five fixed times of the day. Apart from Salat, one can just address a prayer to God at any time, in any situation, using any words one chooses.
What is the significance of the various postures during Salat?
It is to give greater force and feeling to the words of prayer that are being said, and in fact to address God with the whole of oneself and not just the tongue. This is just as when people talk to each other they move their hands, head, etc., to stress what they are saying. The standing posture is as if to say to God that we are ready and keen to obey Him. Bowing down and prostrating is to express the inner feeling that we want to bow to God’s commands in our daily lives and submit to Him completely, with humility. The words that are said in these two positions mean that
“God is flawless and the Most High”,
i.e., we, who are imperfect, humble ourselves before the Perfect Being so that, through contact with Him, our defects may be removed.
What prayers does one say during the Salat?
First of all, there are a few short prayers and expressions that must be said in particular positions during the Salat in Arabic. The main such prayer is the Fatihah, the first chapter of the Holy Quran consisting of seven short verses, which is really the heart of the whole Salat. In addition to the compulsory words of prayer, we may say any prayer we like, in any language we prefer, at any stage in the Salat. The Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet Muhammad’s Sayings contain a large number of apt and beautiful prayers for various situations. We must, of course, know the full meaning of any prayer we say, Arabic or otherwise, and it must be said with the full presence of mind and sincerity of heart.
Please explain briefly the meanings of the Fatihah?
This is the fundamental Muslim prayer, which illustrates the basic aim of the worshipper:
- All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the worlds,
- The Beneficent, the Merciful,
- Master of the Day of Judgment.
- You (O Allah) are the one we worship, and You are the One Whose help we seek.
- Guide us on the right path,
- The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favours,
- Not those who incur wrath or those who go astray.
What are the important points to be noted about this prayer?
We pray to be guided on the right path all the time, so that we progress along it constantly and develop the good qualities that God has placed in every person. This “right path” is that on which the righteous persons of all times have walked, whose lives show that God graced them with His spiritual favours. While praying for this, we recall that we are weak, and so we also pray that we may avoid wrongdoing as well as wrong beliefs. This makes one feel humble while walking on the right path, and prevents arrogance, selfrighteousness, and complacency.
Why are parts of the prayer said in Arabic?
The main reason is that, when the Salat is performed in congregation, some words and passages are recited aloud by the man leading it, so that the assembly is praying in concert and harmony, as a single body. Since Islam is an international religion and Muslims praying in a congregation may well come from different countries (as often happens in prayer-meetings in the West), using Arabic, the original language of the Holy Quran, means that they can pray together. The Arabic prayers and expressions necessary for a Muslim to learn are very short and easy, and can be learnt by a child in a few days. Using Arabic also enables the people gathered for Hajj (in Makka, Arabia), from every part of the world, to worship together in step.
Does this mean that a purpose of Salat is to bring people closer together?
Yes. Besides taking man closer to God, the other main purpose of Salat is to bring people together and teach them equality and brotherhood. The worshippers stand in rows, shoulder to shoulder, without any distinction of race, nation, colour, wealth, family, status, etc., and all pray together as one body. They feel humble before God and brotherly among themselves. The Salat ends with the worshippers turning their faces to the right, and then left, and in each direction wishing peace and God’s mercy upon those in that direction. They are really wishing peace and the mercy of God upon the whole world. The purpose of the prayer, therefore, is to train people to acquire such qualities and character that they bring peace to the world.