The Second Pillar of Islam: Salat, The Daily Prayers
Prayer takes astonishingly different forms in the world’s diverse religious traditions. In Jerusalem, one can see black-hatted Jews rocking back and forth while reciting prayers at the wailing wall, and just a short distance away, see Muslims standing and bowing in deep contemplation of God. In the same city, Christians can be seen in their churches, sometimes on their knees, sometimes with their hands raised high, praying and singing praises of God. All are expressions of a deep-seated desire to give voice to the longing to be heard and acknowledged by a Higher Power.
Most of the world prays regularly. According to a Pew Research Center, “In the average country across 105 surveyed, about half of adults (49%) say they pray every day, including majorities in sub-Saharan Africa (75%), the Middle East and North Africa (70%) and Latin America (62%)”[i]
Seeing the universality of prayer across all areas and cultures, respect and tolerance is of paramount importance. This tolerance for all forms of religious worship is amply expressed in Islam.
Of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), Islam appeared last, being revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (sa) in seventh century Arabia. During his life, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) had ample interaction with Jews, Christians, Pagans and others. His practice, in line with the teachings of the Holy Book of Islam, the Qur’an, demonstrated that all forms of worship are to be respected. The Qur’an tells us that we should not argue with each other about the form of prayer in our respective religious traditions (22:68)[ii]. On one occasion, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) even allowed a Christian delegation to offer their prayers in his mosque, facing towards the East (presumably towards Jerusalem) rather than towards Mecca.[iii]
Islam teaches various forms of prayer. There are formal, informal, obligatory, and voluntary prayers. Some are offered in congregation, others in private. Some are silent, others out loud. Though all have their place and importance, it is the formal, obligatory daily prayer, known as Salat, that forms the bulk of the prayers for the average Muslim.
Salat is the second of the five pillars of Islam. The pillars of Islam are those basic actions and deeds that are all Muslims are obliged to fulfil. Of the five, the Salat is the one that is practiced most frequently. It has both a physical, outer form that functions to channel and highlight an underlying spiritual reality. Every aspect of the Salat thus has a deep philosophy that is based on divine wisdom.
Salat is practiced five times a day. The timings of the five daily prayers follow the movement of the sun. The first prayer (Fajar) is offered before sunrise, the second (Zuhur) after solar noon, the third (Asar) after midday, the fourth (Maghrib) at twilight, and the final (Isha) at nightfall. Each prayer is to be offered within its specific time-period. In cases of necessity, such as travel or work, certain prayers can be shortened or combined.
Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam (as) was the awaited divine reformer, sent to revive the true teachings of Islam. His various writings highlight the importance and philosophy of the Salat.
He explained that the timings of the prayers reflect, through the imagery of light and darkness, the various stages of trials that one goes through that affect one’s well-being.
The first stage of trial is where a person comes to know of a problem that he must face, and his happiness begins to decline. For example, when he receives a summons to appear before a judge. He begins to worry and automatically begins to search for reassurance and a way to be secure from his problem. This is represented by the prayer known as Zuhr, as it is offered after the sun begins to set from its zenith.
Likewise, the next three prayers (Asr, Maghrib and Isha) represent further states of anxiety coinciding with the further declining of the sun. These can be compared to the same person being presented in court, being declared guilty and ultimately, being thrown in jail. The final stage in a trial is of liberation and ease – when a person is finally released from jail, and his happiness knows no end. This state is represented by the Fajar prayer, which is offered at the coming of the dawn.[iv]
Four of the five daily prayers thus represent our natural states of fear and necessity in life. The final prayer at dawn represents the trial of well-being – some remember God during difficult times but forget Him when their difficulties have passed. A true believer remains steadfast during trials and is grateful during times of ease. The daily prayers remind and reinforce within us the principle that in every stage, we should always remain attached to God. It is only when a person remains steadfast under all conditions that his sincerity and effort are demonstrated to their highest degree, upon which he comes worthy of receiving the highest levels of blessings from God. The Holy Qur’an tells us:
وَلَنَبْلُوَنَّكُم بِشَيْءٍ مِّنَ الْخَوْفِ وَالْجُوعِ وَنَقْصٍ مِّنَ الْأَمْوَالِ وَالْأَنفُسِ وَالثَّمَرَاتِ ۗ وَبَشِّرِ الصَّابِرِينَ  الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُم مُّصِيبَةٌ قَالُوا إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ  أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَيْهِمْ صَلَوَاتٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ ۖ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُهْتَدُونَ
[2:156] And We will try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives, and fruits; but give glad tidings to the patient
[2:157] Who, when a misfortune overtakes them, say, ‘Surely, to Allah we belong and to Him shall we return.’
[2:158] It is these on whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy, and it is these who are rightly guided.
The daily prayers consist of cycles of physical postures (standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting) as well as verbal supplications in each position. These too have underlying wisdom. The Promised Messiah (as) explained how the postures of the Salat represent different stages of humility before God:
Of all the things which take a man to God, there is nothing more potent than prayer. When a person stands [in prayer] he adopts a path of humility. When a slave stands before his master, he always stands with his hands clasped together. A person falls into prostration when he brings himself to the stage of Fana (self-negation before God). It is a pity that the uninformed and those given up to the world desire to change the form of the prayer. They object to the various positions of the prayers, such as the prostration and the bowing, while these are in fact things of the highest excellence. The truth is that until a person does not experience that state where prayer reaches its climax, he remains clueless as to its truth…the prayer is a combination of all excellences and it removes evils. (Malfuzat, vol. 5, pg. 94)[v]
The supplications in the Salat are to be offered in Arabic, after which one is encouraged to offer prayers in their native tongue as well. Arabic is the religious language of Islam. It is the language in which the Qur’an, the sacred scripture of Islam and word of God, is preserved. It was also the native tongue of the prophet Muhammad (sa). To date, the words of the Qur’an have been perfectly preserved in their original language, and to a great extent the words of the prophet Muhammad (sa) as well.
It was not a coincidence that Arabic was chosen as the language of Islam. The Holy Qur’an explains that as the message of Islam is universal, so too is the language in which it was revealed. It is for this reason that Arabic is believed to be the original language of the world from which all others are derived[vi].
Moreover, knowledge of Arabic binds together Muslims from all parts of the world, regardless of their culture, and enables access to the original teachings of the faith.
Each prayer is preceded by ritual cleansing, known as Wudu, or ablution. This cleansing, which consists of washing the bodily extremities and rinsing out the nose and mouth, is an important part of the physical hygiene of a Muslim. It also has a spiritual dimension – the physical cleansing is a foreshadow to the spiritual purification through the prayer that is to follow. Indeed, ablution done with proper intention is itself a means of forgiveness. The Prophet Muhammad (sa) stated:
When a Muslim believer washes his face (in course of ablution), every sin he contemplated with his eyes, will be washed away from his face along with water, or with the last drop of water; when he washes his hands, every sin they wrought will be effaced from his hands with the water, or with the last drop of water; and when he washes his feet, every sin towards which his feet have walked will be washed away with the water or with the last drop of water with the result that he comes out pure from all sins. (Sahih Muslim, The Book of Purification, Chapter: Sins exit with the water of wudu’, Hadith # 244)[vii]
Although some may view offering prayers five times a day impractical and tiring, millions of Muslims do so without it hindering their other activities. Far from causing stress, the daily prayers act as a cushion against the daily pressures of life by providing a ready mental and spiritual oasis and refuge through quiet contemplation, meditation and above all, connection with God.
The supplications in the daily prayers revolve around the praise and glorification of God, along with humble petitions for His help and blessings. A sense of overwhelming gratitude before God for all that one has received is a hallmark of the daily prayers. The daily prayers thus rejuvenate and refresh the mind and soul, much like eating and drinking physical food throughout the day refreshes the physical body.
True satisfaction comes when one’s day revolves around the remembrance of God. As the Qur’an states:
أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ
[13:29] … Aye! it is in the remembrance of Allah that hearts can find comfort;
The Prophet Muhammad (sa) once remarked, “my highest delight and satisfaction has been granted to me through my Salat”[viii]. Moreover, the discipline that the daily prayers instill is an invaluable character trait that can help to regulate other aspects of life as well. In the words of Louis XIV, King of France, “There is little that can withstand a man who can conquer himself.”
Though itself beneficial, the physical aspect of salat acts only as a conduit and frame to channel and realize its underlying spiritual benefits.
Summarizing the reasons behind why the daily prayers have been made obligatory, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) in one place writes:
It is also worthy of note that the prayer which has been made obligatory upon Muslims in the Holy Word of God has been prescribed for four reasons. (1) The first is, so that by turning to God Almighty at every time and in every condition, one should be firmly established on the Unity of God, inasmuch as supplicating Him is to acknowledge that God alone bestows one’s objective upon one. (2) The second is, that faith might be strengthened by the acceptance of prayer and the achievement of the objective. (3) The third is, that if Divine favour is bestowed in any other way, knowledge and wisdom might he increased. (4) The fourth is, that if one is informed of the acceptance of prayer through a vision or revelation which is fulfilled, the understanding of the Divine might be promoted and understanding might grow into certainty and certainty into love and through love there might be deliverance from every sin and a cutting asunder from everything beside God, which is the fruit of true salvation. [Ayyam-us-Sulh, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 14, p. 242][Essence of Islam, vol. 2, pg. 210]
Such are the blessings of the daily prayer, and so closely are they linked with the entire essence of Islam, that the Prophet Muhammad (sa) explained that to abandon Salat is a sin and tantamount to disbelief[xi]. It is the first action about which a Muslim will be questioned about on the Day of Judgement[xii]. Once, an Arab tribe accepted Islam and sought permission to forego the daily prayers. The Prophet Muhammad (sa) replied: “There is no good in a religion that does not have bowing (i.e. Salat)”.[xiii]
The daily prayers in Islam are thus a fundamental practical demonstration of devotion to God. From its timings, to its physical postures to its verbal supplications – each aspect is based on deep wisdom which fulfils, highlights, and develops our different spiritual faculties. It provides a framework for spiritual discipline and at the same time, a means for profound meditation, quiet reflection, and deep contemplation. In our ever busy, material, and connected world, the daily prayers provide us with precious moments where we can disconnect from all that is worldly and focus on what which will truly help our well-being – a wholesome, loving and intimate relationship with God.
[i] Pew Research Center. “The Age Gap in Religion Around the World”. June 13, 2018. pg. 57
لِّكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ جَعَلْنَا مَنسَكًا هُمْ نَاسِكُوهُ ۖ فَلَا يُنَازِعُنَّكَ فِي الْأَمْرِ ۚ وَادْعُ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكَ ۖ إِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ هُدًى مُّسْتَقِيمٍ
[Al-Hajj 22:68] To every people have We appointed ways of worship which they observe; so let them not dispute with thee in the matter; and invite thou to thy Lord, for surely, thou followest the right guidance.
قَالَ ابْنُ إِسْحَاقَ: وَحَدَّثَنِي مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ جَعْفَرِ بْنِ الزُّبَيْرِ، قَالَ: قَدِمُوا عَلَى رَسُولِ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وآله وسلم المدينة، فَدَخَلُوا عَلَيْهِ مَسْجِدَهُ حِينَ صَلَّى الْعَصْرَ، عَلَيْهِمْ ثياب الحبرات جُبَبٌ وأردية في جَمَالِ رِجَالِ بَنِي الْحَارِثِ بْنِ كَعْبٍ، قَالَ: يقول مَنْ رَآهُمْ مِنَ أَصْحَابِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وآله وَسَلَّمَ: مَا رَأَيْنَا بَعْدَهَمْ وَفْدًا مِثْلَهُمْ، وَقَدْ حَانَتْ صَلَاتُهُمْ فَقَامُوا فِي مَسْجِدِ رَسُولِ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وآله وَسَلَّمَ يُصَلُّونَ، فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وآله وَسَلَّم: «دَعُوهُمْ»، فَصَلَّوْا إِلَى الْمَشْرِقِ (تفسیر ابن کثیر، سورة آل عمران ۳:۶۲)
Ibn Ishaq said, “Muhammad bin Ja`far bin Az-Zubayr said that, `The (Najran) delegation came to the Messenger of Allah in Al-Madinah, entered his Masjid wearing robes and garments, after the Prophet had prayed the `Asr prayer. They accompanied a caravan of camels led by Bani Al-Harith bin Ka`b. The Companions of the Messenger of Allah who saw them said that they never saw a delegation like them after that. When their worship time came, they stood up to perform their worship in the Prophet’s Masjid. Messenger of Allah said: “Let them (worship)” and they prayed towards east. (Tafseer Ibn-e-Katheer, under Surah Al-e-Imran 3:62)