Why We Worship God
The Meaning behind the Islamic Prayer
You may in your casual walks across town or country every now and then come across Muslims praying in groups, in mosques or on open ground, men in front and women behind, upon dainty mats or carpets spread out on the grass. You will likely see the prayer service being led by different men at different times. Yesterday it was a wizened old redbeard garbed in a white robe and a bright red skullcap wound around with a white sheet neatly perched on his crown, and today, it’s a younger man in shirt and trousers and a scarlet Fez on his head. Tomorrow who knows it might be a black American leading a flock of mostly white men and women.
He is the shepherd leading his flock to the watering hole of God’s Good Grace. The flock would mimic him in every single detail with an almost military precision. They would stand in neat rows, one line after the other as if in some sort of army drill, only that their hands are folded across their chests. They would then bow down, their bodies bent in a right angle, their backs straight, with hands on their knees and eyes fixated on the ground below; they would then go down on their knees, on all fours as it were, placing their foreheads on the carpeted ground. They would then be seated on their knees for a short while before going down again, as if in some sort of ancient arcane rite, prostrating before some unseen force or power, for here are no idols. They would again assume a seated posture on their knees, before turning their heads to the right and then to the left. Their ritual is over for now. But they repeat it many times a day either individually or collectively, young and old, men and women, all equal in the Sight of God. This in essence is the Muslim’s Worship!
Why Worship God?
We worship God because He would have us worship Him. That’s not much to ask is it? After all, He’s our Creator and we owe all that we are to Him. Indeed, what can be more natural than the creation praising its Creator? We adore God and love Him and fear Him at the same time. In fact He tells us very frankly why He created us: “I created not Mankind and Jinn except that they should worship me”. Prayer is in keeping with the universal law which even the birds in the sky perform in flight:
See you not that it is God whose praise all beings in the heavens and on earth celebrate, and the birds with wings outspread? Each one knows its own prayer
(The Light: 41)
But there is another good reason why we should revere God and that is His Mercy to His Creation, that infinite Mercy that sustains all that exists. Again I quote from our scripture:
O ye people! Adore your Guardian Lord, Who created you, and those who came before you, That ye may become righteous. Who has made the earth your couch and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from the heavens; and brought forth therewith fruits for your sustenance; Then set not up rivals unto God when you know (the truth)
Say: who is it that sustains you from the sky and from the earth? Or who is it that has power over hearing and sight? And who is it that brings out the living from the dead and the dead from the living? And who is it that rules and regulates all affairs? They will soon say, God. Say : Will you not then show piety to Him ?
He Who has made everything which He had created Most Good. He began the creation of man with (nothing more than) clay, and made his progeny from a quintessence of the nature of a fluid despised, But He fashioned him in due proportion and breathed into him something of His Spirit. And He gave you hearing and sight and feeling. Little thanks do you give!
Although many believe in God in a vague way they are unable to appreciate all that He has done for them, and instead take them for granted when in verity they ought to use their God-given gifts of intelligence and reasoning to acknowledge these blessings and grasp the purpose of their very existence. And not just that, they even take others besides God as their saviours, which is the height of ingratitude. In contrast the pious man or woman thanks God continually for all His Blessings.
Thus prayer is an expression of our gratitude to the Almighty for all the Favours He has bestowed on us; for the Minds which we think with, for the eyes we see with, for the ears we hear with and all the other mercies, great and small, He has granted us to make our life in this world a happy one. Why is it that people, especially in the West, look to God only in times of despair and difficulty, when they should be thanking Him day and night. It is only when some misfortune strikes them, that they look to God. In other words, it is only when they are utterly helpless, beyond the help of men, that they turn to Him. Fickle, isn’t it? But nay, do not despair of God’s Mercy. He is Ever Merciful and loves those who repent.
Remember that God is totally independent of us while we are totally dependant on Him for our every need. God does not need food for sustenance or sleep for rest to refresh Himself, nor does He need our prayers. As He Himself says:
O mankind! You are the ones who need God, God is free of all wants, worthy of all Praise
(Originator of Creation:15)
So when we pray to God it is for our own good. If you do not obey God, it is to your loss for you cannot harm God’s Design in any way. It is therefore for our good that we serve Him and worship Him. God says of the Children of Israel even after He gave them shade and food from the heavens in their wanderings after their captivity in Egypt:
And We gave you the shade of clouds and sent downto you manna and quails Saying:“Eat of the good things we have given to you” (But ye rebelled). To Us they did no harm, but they harmed their own souls
What God says of the rebellious Children of Israel: To Us they did no harm, but they harmed their own souls applies equally to all of us who disobey Him. God does not need us, it is we who need him.
How Prayer benefits us
Prayer benefits us. It benefits our souls and makes us better human beings. Just as food is the remedy for hunger and water for thirst, prayer is the nourishment for the soul. This is why you will find the true believer approaching prayer like a thirsty man in the desert does an oasis of crystal clear water. Why, because his soul needs prayer just as the body needs water. God consciousness brings out all that is best in man and banishes all that is worst in him. Just as an exposed stone gathers moss or a piece of iron gathers rust, so does the heart of man become hardened with the grit and grime of this worldly life.
The answer to this is constant prayer which cleanses our hearts like a polish, removing the dross of the world. And believe me, it is so very liberating, so very irresistible, so very beautiful, when we experience the divine through repetitive ritual. We feel so free, unattached to the world, the greatest liberation of all. All the more so when such prayer is directed to a Single Deity. True devotion when directed to a Singular Divinity has a certain purity about it that is favourable to instilling religious awe and piety in man. This stress on one divinity gives rise to a single mindedness of thought in whom all our affections may be focused; this fountain-head of all good whose most venerable nature may pervade our thoughts and bring it out in word and deed. This is the kind of fervour that drove Robert Grant to Sing of God:
Our Shield and Defender – The Ancient of Days
Pavillioned in Splendour, and girded with Praise
Prayer helps us to constantly remember God and bring to mind the good things He has blessed us with, to adore Him for what He is – Our Creator, Sustainer, Cherisher. Remembrance of God is, after all, the life-sprit of faith. Without it, faith becomes meaningless, like a vast desert without a single oasis to to give one renewed life and vigour. This , the best way to keep alive the faith is to constantly remember God through prayer and this what Islam calls for.
The Muslim prayer I must say at the outset is not like the usual prayer which people in the West engage in seeking favours from God for petty material things. Rather ours is a more profound, selfless adoration of God acknowledging His Might and submitting to His Will.
As the Prophet used to pray:
O God! My prayer, my worship, my life and my death are all for you. My return is to you alone!
(Al Bidaya, Ibn Al Kathir)
Islamic worship is thus a single-hearted, undivided devotion to God with none and nothing else sharing in the adoration, when one separates from the world to bond with God in Holy Communion, when one retreats from the profane and mundane to the sacred and the sacrosanct in these moments of supreme spiritual bliss.
Connecting with God
The Arabic word used for the Islamic prayer is salah, meaning ‘connection’ (with God). So the prayer is one that establishes a connection with God. So intense is this communion with God that you do not even feel the world around you. It all melts away in the supreme joy of ecstatic adoration for your Creator. This connection with God gives you a direction, and a whole new meaning to the purpose of life. This connection with God is direct. We need no intermediaries to pray to God. Once a Bedouin asked the Prophet whether God was indeed close to man or far away. He promptly received the revelation from God Himself:
When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close to them. I listen to the prayer of every servant when he calls on Me. Let them also, with a will, listen to My Call and believe in Me, so that they may walk in the Right Way
God declares in a Hadith Qudsi or Sacred Tradition revealed through His Prophet:
I have waged war against the one who is hostile to those whom I have befriended. My Servant draws nearer to Me with nothing more pleasing to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him, and continues to draw nearer to Me with supererogatory devotions until I love him; and when I love him, I become his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks, so that by Me he hears, by Me he sees, by Me he strikes and by Me he walks. Should he ask Me I shall surely grant him his request; should he ask Me for protection, I shall surely protect him. Never do I hesitate in anything as I hesitate in taking the soul of My believing servant; he dislikes death and I dislike to displease him (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).
God is firm about the prayers we offer Him. He asks that we be constant in our devotion to Him. He addresses the believers in the Qur’an:
Guard strictly the prayers, especially the middle prayer. And stand before God devout
(The Heifer:238 )
Prayer has also been very strongly stressed by our beloved Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) such as when he said:
Between a person and disbelief and association (of partners with God) is the leaving of the prayer
(Saheeh Muslim )
The covenant which is between us and them (the disbelievers) is the prayer, so whoever leaves it, then indeed he has disbelieved
All this shows that the prayer is an obligatory duty of every Muslim, man or woman. And why not? Prayer purifies the soul, brings peace to the heart and wards away evil thoughts. Ask any Muslim, and he’ll tell you that his greatest pleasure is in prayer.
The Story Behind Our Prayer
The Islamic prayer is very simple, but needs some practice as it comprises of cycles of standing, bowing and prostrating before the Almighty. We worship God at least five times a day, at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening and at night. You may wonder why we are required to pray five times a day. But there’s a nice story to it which I shall relate to you. This hallowed event is known in Islamic tradition as the Mi’raj or Night Journey.
On this holy night, Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens with Gabriel while mounted on a white animal known as Al-Buraq smaller than a horse. Leaving Mecca, they first visit the Temple in Jerusalem where the Dome of the Rock now stands and from there ascend to the seven heavens before coming to the presence of God Himself. When they come to the gate of the first heaven, Gabriel seeks permission to enter. The gatekeepers ask: “Who is it?” and Gabriel replies: “It is I, Gabriel”. The gatekeepers then ask who is accompanying him and when they are told it is Muhammad, they ask if he had been given his mission to guide all of mankind to the worship of One God. Gabriel answers in the affirmative, and so the angels welcome the Prophet. Here he sees father Adam and greets him with the greeting Assalamu alaikum (May Peace be Upon You). Adam returns the greeting and expresses his faith in Muhammad’s prophethood. He calls him his son, for after thousands of years, Adam is able to see Muhammad, the greatest of his descendants and Muhammad in turn is able to look into the eyes of the father of mankind.
Then they ascend to the second heaven and there the Prophet beholds the two cousins, John and Jesus and exchanges greetings with them. In the third heaven they meet Joseph, in the fourth heaven Idris, in the fifth heaven Aaron and in the sixth heaven Moses. At the gate of the seventh heaven, the angels declare their pleasure at meeting the Prophet Muhammad and he enters it accompanied by Gabriel. Here he meets his forefather Abraham. Both Prophets exchange greetings and Abraham too expresses his faith in Muhammad’s mission. He then moves to the realm beyond the uppermost boundary, the Sidrat al-Muntaha and stands in the presence of God Almighty. The Prophet could however not see him as He is veiled by light.
Here the Almighty enjoins on His Prophet and his followers the daily prayers. It is the only command which God ordains in the heavens. .God first enjoins 50 prayers and as Muhammad descends he passes by Moses who inquires about God’s Commandment.
When Muhammad explains that he had been ordered to prayer 50 times a day, Moses is astonished and says “Go back to your Lord and ask for a reduction”. When God had prescribed 50 prayers, Muhammad accepted it without demur, but Moses, having been a great prophet himself, knew from experience what men were capable of performing when it came to their religious obligations and was certain that the followers of Muhammad would not be able to perform that many prayers. Muhammad accepts the advice in good faith and returns to the presence of God, asking for a reduction. God reduces it to forty prayers. Muhammad descends again and Moses asks him what happened. When he hears that the reduction is only ten,
Moses sends him back to ask for a further reduction. The exchange continues until the number of obligatory prayers becomes five. Moses suggests a further reduction saying, “O Muhammad, I know people, your nation will not be able to handle it, go back and ask for the burden on your people to be relieved” Muhammad answers “No.” He feels ashamed to ask for another reduction and says he is satisfied with the five daily prayers. A voice rings out: “The prayers have been reduced to five but they will be rewarded as though they were fifty”. It becomes clear from this that there are those to whom even five prayers a day can be difficult, but those that long to meet their Lord will find it easy.
So the prayers are five – Subah (Dawn prayer), Ẓuhr (Noon prayer), Asr (Afternoon prayer), Maghrib (Evening prayer) and Isha (Night prayer). The prayer times are fixed but not rigorous except for the Subah or Dawn Prayer which ought to be prayed before sunrise. Thus Ẓuhr could be offered anytime before Asr or Maghrib before Isha. Also whenever the need arises such as when travelling, one could combine the Ẓuhr and Asr prayers or the Maghrib and Isha prayers. So Ẓuhr and Asr could be offered together anytime after the time of the Asr prayer while Maghrib and Isha prayers could be combined together and offered anytime after the time of the Isha prayer.
When you read the Bible you will find that the Children of Israel also had fixed prayer times. In the Psalms (113:3) you will read: “From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same the Lord’s name is to be praised.”. The middle prayer or Asr is particularly stressed in the Qur’an: Guard strictly the prayers, especially the middle prayer. And stand before God devout” (The Heifer:238) and likewise we find it so in the days of Jesus:: One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer — at three o’clock in the afternoon. (Acts 3:1). On Fridays however in lieu of the midday prayer we have the Jumu’a or congregational prayer for the males of the community. The prayer is preceded by a sermon and attended by a large gathering. It is in a sense the equivalent of the Sunday service of the Christian Churches.
Islamic Prayer cycle
Basically the Islamic prayer comprises of cycles of physical acts known as rakats involving standing, bowing and prostrating before the One True God. Before commencing the prayer one must come before God in a pure state by washing the exposed parts of the body in a specified order, firstly the hands, then the face, then the forearms to the elbows, then a little bit of the hair of your head and finally your feet. This freshens and invigorates the body for prayer and you will feel a sense of purity when you stand before the Pure One. And when you do, you stand firm and upright and do not sway to and fro. The Prophet made this very clear when he told his followers: “Whenever one of you stands to pray, let every part of him remain still and in deep reverence. Let him not sway back and forth like the Jews” (Ruh al-Ma’ani of Al-Alusi).
A very important part of the prayer is the recitation while in the standing position of what is known as Sooratul Fatiha which is the equivalent of the Christian Lord’s Prayer which it closely resembles. Also known as Umm-ul-Qur’an ‘Mother of the Qur’an’ or Saba Al-Mathani ‘The seven repeatedly recited verses’ it runs like this:
In the name of God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. Praise be to God, the Lord of the Worlds. The Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. You (alone) we worship and You (alone) we ask for help. Guide us to the straight path, the path of those upon whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not of those who have earned Your Wrath, nor of those who have gone astray
This is followed by Ameen which is exactly the same as the Amen uttered by the Christian at the end of his prayer. Like Christians, when we say Ameen, we affirm our agreement with the words of our prayer we had just made.
See how much we have in common. The bowing position is also one to do with reverence to God, The good Muslim prays when bowing: ‘Glory to my Lord, the Supreme,, adding to it if he wishes Perfect and Holy, Lord of the Angels and the Spirit’. The bowing posture is an important aspect of worship in which the creation worships its Creator. As we read in the Psalms: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Psalms 95:6). Besides, it has its physical benefits, like thinning down the belly, for no aspect of the prayer can be bereft of physical benefit.
Then comes the prostration, an indispensable part of our prayer which also has Biblical antecedents, for as God says: “To Me every knee shall bow” (Isaiah 45:23) while in Daniel we read: “He kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God” (Daniel 6:16). This is something modern Christians no longer practise, but did in the past, for did not Jesus (Peace Be Upon Him) do the same in the Garden of Gethsemane, when in the words of Matthew (26:39): Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed. It is the same that Abraham did when he fell on his face (Genesis 17:3) and Moses and Aaron did when they fell upon their faces (Numbers 20:6).
Indeed. The prostration occupies a very important place in the Muslim prayer. It involves going on one’s knees and placing the forehead on the ground, a posture of utter submission and humility before God while reciting: Glory be to my Lord, Most High, adding to it if one wishes O God, unto you I have prostrated and in you I have believed and unto you have I submitted. My face falls prostrate before He who created it and fashioned it, and gave it hearing and seeing. Blessed by God, the Best of Creators.
It is at this point in prayer that we are closest to God, this posture of utter humility before the Almighty where we humble ourselves as much as we can, placing the very pinnacle of our bodies, our heads, to the ground beneath our feet while at the same time declaring that God is Most High. Indeed, the Arabic term for mosque masjid itself means ‘a place for sajdah or prostration’. So essential is it to the Muslim prayer. It is also a most pleasurable experience as it results in a surge of blood to the head, with the blood flowing in the same direction of earth’s gravity, leading to a pleasure one cannot experience otherwise, not to mention the sense of spiritual fulfilment you get when you immerse yourself in this sea of rapturous bliss.
Prayer for both body and soul
The Muslim prayer is not just one of silent contemplation, but one of action and motion as well, cycles of devotion that engage the attention of the devotee throughout, keeping his or her mind focused and body in a constant state of activity, each aspect of it a form of worship. This beautiful blending of inner and outer, the spiritual and the corporeal, mental concentration and bodily movements gives man a certain harmony between mind and body not found in any other faith. Expressing the prayer in both body and mind simply shows we need to approach God through the sum total of all the faculties He has blessed us with. What better prayer than this?
Although there are special places where prayers are commonly offered known as mosques, or in Arabic masjid ‘Place of Prostration’, prayers can actually be offered anywhere, except in unclean places. The Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) told us:
The whole earth has been made a Mosque and Pure for me
Yes, we don’t need a temple built with human hands to offer our prayers.Prayer can be offered anywhere in this wide spacious earth created by God, anywhere under the vast expanse of the heavens so that we are not constrained in any way in worshipping God when the time for prayer comes. Prayers may be offered individually or collectively, though it is preferable to offer them as a congregation in neat rows like a well disciplined army standing before God, like an earthly shadow of the luminous angelic host in heaven falling before their Lord.
This is why you see mosques throbbing with life daily, a hive of activity devoted to harvesting the honey of God’s Good Pleasure, so unlike churches or synagogues that are mostly vacant except for one day a week when they suddenly burst with life to celebrate the Lord’s praises. Mosques also have a very peaceful atmosphere as you can see around you. There are no distracting idols of any sort, no music or loud chantings or sacrificial rituals. Here you are at peace to quietly contemplate the universe around you. Here your soul can find peace through self-effacement in the face of the greater reality that is God.
All our prayers are prayed facing the Kaaba, the cube-shaped temple in the holy city of Mecca built by Abraham and his son Ishmael (Peace Be Upon Them) many thousands of years ago. The early Muslims used to pray towards Jerusalem like Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets of old did, till they were ordered by God to turn towards the Sacred Mosque of Mecca built by Abraham which was even older than the temple of Jerusalem built by Solomon by a thousand years, thus signifying a return to the original faith of Abraham, the forefather of both Arab and Jew:
We see you turning your face to the heavens (for guidance).
Now shall We turn you to an orientation that shall please you.
Turn then your face towards the Sacred Mosque.
Wheresoever you be, turn your faces towards it
So if one is to its East he or she faces West while if one is to its West he or she faces East. The one to its South faces North and the one to its North faces South. In this manner the prayers of the faithful are all oriented towards one spot which we Muslims call Baitullah – The House of God.
This direction the worshipper faces at least five times a day takes him back to the cradle of his faith and the trials of his Prophet and the overthrow of the idols that sullied that holiest of holy places on earth while impressing on him or her that he or she is part of a larger community united by faith praying towards that self same spot over and over and over again. It gives a sense of unity and belonging to the community. All their worship being directed to one place, to one God. It recalls the Prophet Isaiah’s words: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and His Praise from the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 42:10) which can only apply to the prayer of a universal faith, in other words, the prayer of Islam, for it is only in Islam that God’s praises are uttered in all parts of the earth, five times a day when Muslims say their prayers in a single tongue.
The very words ‘new song’ seems to refer to another language distinct from the Hebrew of the ancient Prophet who uttered these words. And the phrase ‘(Sing his Praises) from the ends of the earth’ certainly cannot apply to the Jews, a single people of little numerical strength living in a very few parts of the world like Palestine and the United States. In contrast Muslims are a widely dispersed racially diverse group found in all corners of the world – from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the rugged hills of Morocco in the West to the little sun-kissed Islands of the Philippines in the East.