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Spiritual Meaning of Prayers (Worship) Performance of the daily prayers (Salât)

Answered as per Hanafi Fiqh by Qibla.com

Answered by Dr. Mehmed Demirci

Spiritual Meaning of Prayers (Worship) Performance of the daily prayers (Salât)

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful


Salât (performing the daily prayers) is the second pillar of Islam and is the most important one of all. Performing Salât five times a day is mandatory for every able and mature Muslim. Salât can be performed either individually or in congregation. Mosques used for the purpose of performing this basic duty are the most important constructions of Islamic architecture. The Friday prayer is performed once a week in congregation at mosques. Prayer on the occasion of the two major festivals of Eid ul Fitr (festival at the end of Ramadhan) and Eid ul Adha (festival of sacrifice) take place twice a year in congregation as well. Prayers that are performed in congregation are the most prominent examples of religious socialisation.

Prayer helps to purify a person when he or she sins. A person who performs his daily prayers can be as pure as the person who takes a bath five times a day in a river as mentioned by the Prophet (pbuh)in the following hadith: “Suppose there is a river that flows in front of your house and you take a wash five times in it. Then would there remain any dirt and filth on you after that? Performing daily prayers five times a day is similar to that which washes away sins”. This means that Salât cleans human soul and purifies man’s heart.

According to the Qur’anic statements all creatures on earth and in heaven remember and praise Allah (Isra, 17/44).

They are in a state of prayer in their own language and form of expression. Salât in this context is the embodiment of all forms of prayers performed by these creatures. Methaphsically speaking one can assert that mountains in their vertical structure, animals with their vertical posture and plants extracting nutrition from with their roots as if in a position of bowing actually pray to Allah in an act of obedience through the language of spiritual state (hâl).

Man remains vertical while on standing (qiyam) and stays horizontal while bending to his knees (ruku). He puts his head on the ground in a state of prostration. While in this position of prostration man comes closer to Allah at the utmost degree. Prostration enables man to attain a position of the nearest proximity to Allah. The more a human being grows materially smaller, the more he grows and matures spiritually. The person who raises both hands and says Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest) at the beginning of a Salât means by this as if uttering: “At this very moment I turn my back to all worldly concerns and material thoughts except Allah and I submit my will to Him.” It is for that reason that the Prophet (pbuh) declared that “Salât is a Muslim’s ascension to heaven (mirâj).” However, our beloved Prophet experienced the closest proximity to Allah at the time of ascension to heaven, it is similar to a Muslim that obtains an opportunity to be together with Allah through performing Salât. It is reminded in the Qur’an that Salât prevents from doing evil things: “… establish regular prayer for prayer restrains from shameful and evil deeds.” (Ankabut 29/45) Therefore one who does not refrain from committing immoral acts will most probably find the straight path one-day. There are numerous examples of this transformation.

The essence of Salât comprises three basic elements. It is composed of

a) Feeling of respect, reverence and awe in the heart totally,

b) Remembrance of Allah by tongue (word),

c) Showing bodily (physical) respect and reverence to Allah at the utmost degree.

These three elements may be regarded as the essence of prayers in other religions. The mute cannot perform the second act while the crippled cannot perform the third act. This means that what lies at the very centre of essence of Salât is to keep alive the sense of inclinations towards Allah as well as feelings of the endless respect and love for him in the heart.

A person who loves and respects Allah will fulfil His commands and refrain from His prohibitions. A Salât that does not deter a person from indecency is clearly a useless one and a person who performs but does not refrain from indecency is not getting anything from his prayer.

The Qur’an has the following statement for those who pray in a heedless and thoughtless manner.

“So woe the worshippers who are neglectful of their prayers.” (Al-Maun, 107/4-5)

Regarding the same the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: “There are many worshippers who perform Salât but what they obtain is nothing other than sleeplessness and distress.”

At this context the famous poet Yunus Emre’s words fit here well. He says: “If you break a heart and hurt someone what you perform is not a Salât / The purpose is not just to follow the form/ not only Muslims but also seventy-two branches of nations wash their hands and face”.

The Qur’an refers Salât as invocation which means remembrance (zikr) of Allah and it is also given a meaning which is to remember or recollect Him: “Recite what is sent of the book by inspiration to you and establish regular prayer: for prayer restrains from shameful and evil deeds; and remembrance of Allah is the greatest thing without doubt..” (Al-Ankabut, 29/45) The value of Salât is in commensurate with the degree of his remembrance of Allah. A Salât which is established in a neglectful manner is far from being a real/actual is payer, it is merely an act worship in form and in appearance. However remembrance of Allah even for a short instance/moment and to feel being in his presence is a successful act. Man should try to achieve at least such state of tranquillity while performing his Salât. Such an achievement is bring significant happiness. It is easier and more appropriate to capture and enter this state of mind at the time of uttering Allahu Akber (God is Great) at the beginning of the Salât.

A valid/real Salât is the prayer that can transform to the status of ascension (miraj). Our daily salutes are regarded just as imitations of this real prayer. One should continue to spend efforts through sincere worship and humility to attain the desired form of real Salât. It is undesirable to remain constantly fixed without making any progress on the path of Allah. As said, “one whose two subsequent days are equal is in loss” for missing the opportunity to make a progress in the second day.

Now let’s look at the meanings of the movements during Salât more closely. Ibrahim Hakki Bursevi describes raising of both hands together to say Allahu Akbar (God is Great) at the beginning of a Salât as follows:

“The thrust of the matter is this: The right hand represents the hereafter while the left hand represents the world. Raising hands on the other hand means to leave the concerns of both the hereafter and the world behind and dissociate self from such affairs. It also means to eradicate and wipe out unpleasant pride and arrogance derived from these two concerns.” The same author consider ablution (ritual washing – wudu) parting from (renouncing) all that is other than Allah. He considers Salât, on the other hand, reaching and attaining communication with Allah.

The first prayer recited at the beginning of the first unit (rakah) is called “Subhanake” which means “O Allah I remember You and affirm your Divine Transcendence, you are the greatest and most powerful”. Person turning to Allah with these thoughts in mind tries to feel and experience Allah’s spirituality in his inner life.

After completing the recitation of “Subhanake”, the fist chapter of the Qur’an “al-Fatiha” is recited. Here there is communication and conversation with Allah. First he is offered to Allah who is master of the day of judgement. Then it is declared that Allah is the Lord of the worlds and the master of all creatures. In the recitation the person says: “Only to You we worship.” This refers in Sufism to the spiritual state/station of “separation from Allah” (farq). Then one recites “Only from you we seek aid”. This refers to state of “unification with Allah” according to mystical understanding. This means that the one who enables and empowers a person to be a servant is You (Allah).” While at this spiritual station a person utters “O Allah, I take refuge in Your power and grace” and asks “Guide us to the straight path.” (al-Fatiha, 1/6)

It is related that in a Sacred hadith the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) made a statement that Allah the Exalted had said: “I have divided the prayer into two halves between Me and My servant, and My servant will receive what he asks. When the servant says: Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the universe, Allah the Most High says: My servant has praised Me. And when he (the servant) says: The Most Compassionate, the Merciful, Allah the Most High says: My servant has lauded Me. And when he (the servant) says: Master of the Day of judgement, He remarks: My servant has glorified Me. And sometimes He would say: My servant entrusted (his affairs) to Me. And when he (the worshipper) says: Only to You we worship and only from You we ask help, He (Allah) says: This is between Me and My servant, and My servant will receive what he asks for. Then, when he (the worshipper) says: Guide us to the straight path, the path of those to whom Thou hast been Gracious not of those who have incurred Thy displeasure, nor of those who have gone astray, He (Allah) says: This is for My servant, and My servant will receive what he asks for”.

Ruku during Salât means bending to the knees bowing. It is the physical form of expressing respect for Allah and indication of acceptance of his power and might. A human is a valuable being with dignity. It does not suit him to bow before other creatures. Those who are well aware that a human being can only be a servant to Allah would never bow anybody other than Allah. As said “ Real emancipation and freedom lies in being a servant to Allah.” Those who aspire to become servant before the presence of Allah will succeed in keeping themselves free from becoming servants and slaves of other human beings, money, power, positions and fame. Material concerns and worldly affairs would not enslave those who dedicate themselves to the true path of Allah. While at the position of bowing (ruku) worshippers makes a supplication referring to the power and might of Allah and while rising back into the standing position the following supplications are recited: “Allah hears him who praises Him” and “Our Lord all praise belongs to you.” According to a prophetic tradition Allah hears all of what is said during prayer.

We have mentioned earlier that the position of prostration (Sajda) is the closest position to Allah and the sign of complete humility to Allah. After the prescribed number of rakahs for the particular prayer being performed there is a sitting position in which there is a formula which must be recited. This is called Tashahud. Allah is glorified and praised in this recitation. There is an interesting view about reading the formula. According to this interpretation this form of prayer (Tashahud) reflects a memory between Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Allah at the time of Ascension (Miraj). During this happy moment the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) says that: “All praise, beauty and prayer belongs to Allah.” In reply to that Allah says: “O Muhammad, My peace, mercy and blessing be on you.” Upon hearing this reply the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) finishes his prayer as follows: “May this peace and blessing be also on good and obedient servants of Allah.” Then he ends his prayers by uttering the shada: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.”

We already pointed out that the Salât is the ascension (Miraj) for a believer. A person who performs Salât, having this thought in his mind and feeling in his heart, tries to understand the meaning of Tashahud prayer. Then he attempts to reach a similar mindset and enliven his heart with meanings derived from what has been recited. And thus communicates with his Lord. It is reported in a hadith that: “Allah is between the worshipper and Qýbla (direction facing Ka’ba in Mecca) during the performance of Salât.” Here, of course, there is question of attributing Allah a material quality such as being in a place. A person who contemplates the meaning of verses and other supplications that he recites, should try to feel a proximity to Allah as if he is face to face with Him and having a conversation with his Lord at the time of performing Salât.

If one is unable to attain this level of proximity with Allah, this does not necessarily require him to give up performing Salât. Regarding this issue one a Sufi said the following: “You should knock on the door to get the reply which you are waiting for. If one leaves the door when he does not get the reply, it does not mean that he is not needy. If he leaves the door, the master of the house will not show any interest in what he does. Similarly if one gives up performing Salât for not getting any reply he will have considerable spiritual losses.”

A person who is not aware of being in the presence of Allah is preoccupied with his commercial and trade affairs or constantly thinks abut other matters while performing Salât, he is not considered to have established his prayer properly. As an example of spiritual and intellectual isolation from the material considerations and concentration on Salât the case of Ali (Muhammad’s cousin and his son is law) is mentioned. It reported that when his friends wanted to take an arrow that was stabbed in his leg out, Ali started to perform a Salât in order not to feel the pain. It is narrated that the arrow was withdrawn when he was praying with utmost concentration. It is a reality indeed that when the mind is concentrated and completely focused on a serious matter, physical pain is usually not felt.

From this perspective, Salât has a different characteristic than that of other types of prayers (ibadaat). One who performs Salât is not allowed to deal with any other affairs while in a state of establishing prayer. One who performs fasting or making pilgrimage however can also carry out some other activities such as shopping while fasting or completing pilgrimage. It is not possible to do such extra things while performing prayer for they prevent a worshipper from fully concentrating on the meaning of prayer and distract his attention. As Yunus Emre, the famous poet said: “A dress can not be clean unless a stain on it is washed away / (Similarly) a Salât is not regarded to have been performed truly unless stains and rust is cleaned off the heart.”

With reference to five daily prayers performed at different times of the day Ismail Hakký Bursevi offers the following explanation enumerating five prayers in order according to their required performance time. He says:

Morning prayer (fajr) at dawn possesses “secrecy/mystery” because morning prayer is established at a time near to darkness of the night and therefore it is a mystery (non-manifested – ghayb) compared to prayers at other times. Thus “secrecy” is a mystery/non-manifested in comparison with other forces and faculties.

Noon prayer (dhur) performed half way between sunrise and sunset, says Bursevi, is the share of the spirit (ruh) because there is a complete manifestation in accordance with the degree of spirit’s manifestation. Spirit is a manifestation from the world the Creator. Though it is not visible one can observe its existence through its manifestations in faculties and organs of the body.

The afternoon prayer (‘Asr) performed half way between noon and sunset is the share of heart for it is a prayer being established in the heart. For that reason it is said that: “whenever the heart is in a healthy and good state the whole body will be healthy. On the other hand whenever the heart is in unhealthy and bad state, the body will also be unhealthy.”

The evening prayer (maghrib) performed immediately after sunset is the share of the soul (nafs) because light sets and disappears at this time. The soul is in darkness and black when it is at the level of ammara (passionate soul) which incites man to evil. When it progresses to the level of Nafs al-lawwamah which refers to the blaming soul, the stage in the development of the soul -where the soul begins to understand its own faults and blame itself for its shortcomings, its darkness fades. When it is at the level of ‘mülhime’ (inspired), it begins to get enlightened. Finally when it reaches to the level of ‘nafs-i mutmainnah (the soul at peace and resting in certitude) the soul resembles the case of a human at the time sunrise.

The night prayer (‘ýsha) performed 60 to 90 minutes after sunset and more is the share of the nature because this period is a time for sleeping which is one of the characteristics of nature.

Our Sufi interpreter resembles the times of prayer to the wings of birds and asserts that he flies with them in the world of meanings. For those whose body can not transcend to heaven, prayer is prescribed to reach and benefit from spiritual ascension (miraj). Spiritual wings are more powerful and more effective than physical wings. Although movements during performance of a Salât that require the involvement of several physical organs seems to be material, these movements and their results are definitely spiritual.

The main importance concerning the establishment of Salât is its performance in two units (rakah). This refers to Allah’s two divine attributes, i.e. His Beauty and Majesty. One or two more units were added after these two units in the Salât. When it is dark, the night points out to the level of His Majesty (Zati Celal) which the level of “non-manifestation” (La-taayyun). The light during daytime however points out to the real level of Beauty which is the level of “Manifestation“ (Taayyun). The unity of these two times points out to His Perfection (Kemali Zat-i).

The evening prayer is the reverse/opposite of the morning prayer because the first unit points out to Majesty, the second points out to Beauty while the third points out to perfection of all (Kemal-i Camia). The night prayer with its four units points out to the stage of “non-manifestation”. Here one can mention four elements of manifestation (taayyun): zat (person/essence, names, attributes and acts. The noon prayer also points out to these four manifestations with its four units at the level of the beauty of the sacred. The afternoon prayer points out to the beauty of the cosmic existence (cemal-i kevni) because time undergoes change and variation. In this classification there is also an implicit mention of the features of prayer times.

Our writer records the following comment on turning one’s head first to the right shoulder and then to the left shoulder (salaam) when completing the Salât: “The person who performs a Salât begins his prayer by raising both hands and saying Allahu Akber (God is great) knowing that ecstatic union with Allah only possible with this. The person ends his prayer with two salaams as a sign of separation. When he enters unity/oneness (tawheed) he enters the world of union with Allah. Here one can understand the spiritual benefits driven from the physical form of the prayer. It is for that reason that the Prophet (pbuh) asked Bilal “Comfort us, o Bilal!” despite his constant mode of ascension (miraj).

According to Sarraj (d. 378/988) while standing during salat one should be in the consciousness/awareness of being at the presence of Allah. While reciting verses from the Quran one should feel as if God were listening to him. The position of bending to the knees during prayer requires the person to praise Allah and see develop a complete humility. When he begins to rise back into a standing position he should be aware that Allah hears the supplication “Allah hears those who praise Him” (Sami-Allahu liman hamidah). The rules of prostration (sajda) require a person to feel close to Allah.

Hujwiri (465/1072) makes the following comments on the conditions of Salât: “complete Salât whose rules are fully respected means to get cleaned off outwardly from material filth. It also means spiritually getting cleaned from lust and inferior desires. It outwardly means to keep the clothes clean and spiritually means to acquire this dress in a lawful manner. Outward direction during Salât is Ka’ba, the direction of mystery (sýr) is the contemplation and observation. Resisting and fighting against the demands of ego is like a standing position in a Salât (qiyam).

Constant remembrance is like recitation during a Salât. The condition of pious reverence and concentration during the performance of Salât is to attain state of being not aware of those around either on the right or the left.”

Prof. Dr. Mehmed Demirci

This answer was indexed from Qibla.com, which used to have a repository of Islamic Q&A answered by various scholars. The website is no longer in existence. It has now been transformed into a learning portal with paid Islamic course offering under the brand of Kiflayn.