Answered by Ustadh Salman Younas
Question: I was taught that when we say “assalamu alayka ayyuh al-nabi” it should be with the intention that our prayer is being conveyed by angels to the Prophet.
(a) Is it permissible to believe that we are directly addressing the Prophet in the sense that his soul is present before us?
(b) Can we say it while picturing the Prophet before us?
Answer: assalamu `alaykum
I pray you are well.
(a) Leading scholars of the Hanafi school have stated that the formula “ayyuha al-nabi” is not uttered merely to recount an event wherein God sent blessings upon the Prophet (God bless him). Rather, it is stated with the intention that one is addressing the Prophet (God bless him) with blessings. [al-Shurunbulali, Imdad al-Fattah (304)]
The outward purport of the formula “ayyuha al-nabi” implies such an address from the one praying to the Prophet (God bless him) himself. As Imam al-Nawawi stated, “and the one praying addresses him (God bless him) with his statement, ‘ayyuha al-nabi.” [al-Nawawi, Rawda al-Talibin (2:453)]
(b) If one wishes to “picture” the Prophet (God bless him) when stating this formula, this would be acceptable. In fact, some scholars have stated that prophetic practice itself may have entailed extracting an image of his person and addressing it with the formula in question. [al-Shirwani, Hashiya (2:48)]
As for the idea of the “soul being present before us”, then if this is in the manner of picturing or imagining described above, it would be permitted. Similarly, the belief that angels will convey the blessings is also valid and textually established.
Regarding the more controversial belief that soul of the Prophet (God bless him) is present before one when uttering such formula, all that can be said about it is that it is a matter that is possible as numerous scholars have stated. Indeed, the meeting of the various prophets (God bless him) during the Prophet’s (God bless him) night-journey to Jerusalem textually attests to this, in addition to the fact that the mind does not preclude its occurrence.
Does this entail that it is an actual occurrence for each and any individual? Not necessarily although people admittedly have different understandings when it comes to this “presence”, such as the Prophet (God bless him) being “effectively present” on account of being shown our deeds by God [al-Bazzar, Musnad (1:397)], or “present” in a barzakhi sense that is beyond the physical laws and limitations of this worldly realm and of which we possess limited knowledge.
In the end, what counts is the mindfulness and love that imbues our hearts when we utter this formula and all other statements in our prayer. The manner in which the Prophet (God bless him) is made aware of these blessings is ultimately inconsequential and should be of little concern to us; we know he is made aware and we know that his existence is (and, of course, has always been) unlike our own. Most things beyond this are distractions that become an excuse for individuals to engage in pointless polemics.
Please see also: Why do We Send Prayers of Peace & Blessings Upon the Beloved Prophet of God?
And Allah alone knows best.
Checked & Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani