The Five Pillars of Islam


2. Prayer (Salat)

The fact that Muslims pray often, early and earnestly has elicited the admiration of many who, ignorant of the real character and content of Muslim prayer, judge it from a Christian point of view. Muslims claim to ‘derive therapeutic and spiritual benefits from the ablution and prayer sequence’ and ‘moderate physical exercise particularly to every muscle in the body.’

The Call to Prayer

The call to prayer is made in Arabic by the Muezzin and it is expressed in the following way: “God is most great, I testify there is no God but Allah! I testify that Muhammad is God’s Apostle! Come to prayer! Come to security! God is most great! There is no god but God!” (Each clause is repeated at least once). In the call to early morning prayer the words “prayer is better than sleep!” are added twice after the call to security.

The Direction of Prayer

Prayer must be made in the right direction i.e. towards the Kaa’ba at Mecca. In every mosque there is a semi-circular recess called the mihrab which indicates the correct direction the worshipper must face.


Another necessary preliminary to every Muslim prayer is legal purification: “O ye who believe! when ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; Rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles. If ye are in a state of ceremonial impurity, bathe your whole body.” (Al Maidah 5:6a)

Ritual purity must be restored before each prayer session. It is absolutely necessary that the clothes and the body of the worshipper are clean, and the place of prayer should be free from all impurity. Whole books have been written on this subject, describing the occasions, method, variety and effect of ablution by water, or in its absence, by sand: “and ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands” (Al Maidah 5:6 b).

Although one can perform the salat on one’s own it is best done in a community. The mosque is the recommended place of assembly. One should go to the salat quietly. It is considered meritorious to take ones place some time before the commencement and to wait sometime after its conclusion (Ahmad b. Hanbal). Narrated Abu Salama bin ‘Abdur Rahman: Abu Huraira said, “I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, ‘The reward of a prayer in congregation is twenty five times greater than that of a prayer offered by a person alone.” (Bukhari Volume 1, Book 11, Number 621)

In Muhammad’s time women attended public prayers but there is a tradition that it is better to pray at home. According to al-Nawawi there is no obligation on women to attend the mosque for prayer and it is even not recommended for them.

The Proper times for Prayer

The five times of prayer are:

Fajr (dawn) an hour after sunrise. It is forbidden to say morning prayers after the sun is risen.
Zohar (early noon) When the sun begins to decline
Asar (two hours before sunset) Afternoon prayer.
Maqrab (evening prayer) immediately after sunset.
Isha (night prayer) to which most merit is attached.

The Regulated Official Prayerthe Salat

The Arabic word for the regulated official prayer is Salat (Namaz is the Persian/Hindustani word). The term salat seems to have come from the Aramaic root –sl‘ which means to bend, bow, stretch. The term dua corresponds more to unregulated prayer.

The salat is nowhere described or exactly detailed in the Quran. Its various components consist of the standing position, the inclinations (ruku’) and the prostrations (sudjud). It is to be spoken in a moderated tone (Al-Isra 17:110) and is frequently mentioned alongside the zakat (Al Baqarrah 2:83, 110 and 277).
The salat was bound up with the recitation of the Quran from the earliest times. The Quran calls for some form of prostration at the time of the reading of the Quran but it is not explained in detail: “And when the Quran is read to them, they fall not prostrate.” (Al-Inshiqaq 84:21)

In popular Islam little connection is made between prayer and ethics. Although in theory it is mentioned, in practice moral purity as a preparation for prayer is never mentioned, nor does the Quran allude to it.

A person will be rewarded for the prayer: “Those who believe, and do deeds of righteousness, and establish regular prayers and regular charity, will have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (Al-Baqarrah 2:277) “And be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity: And whatever good ye send forth for your souls before you, ye shall find it with Allah” (Al-Baqarrah 2:110)
The prayer is a continual acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God rather than communion: “those who humble themselves in their prayers” (Al-Mu’minun 23:2). It is a duty not a privilege.

The obligation to perform the salat is upon every Muslim apart from the sick; omitted salat’s must be made up: “The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: ‘Whoever forgets a prayer or sleeps and misses it, let him pray it when he remembers it, for there is no other expiation for it than that.’”

The salat in Tradition

The salat as a cleansing: The following tradition from Malik Kasr al-salat fi’l-safar allegorically describes a cleansing: “The salat is like a stream of sweet water which flows past the door of each one of you; into it he plunges five times a day; do you think that anything remains of his uncleaness after that?”

Muhammad’s dedication towards the salat : Ahmad b. Hanbal (3.128 bis, 285) relates that Muhammad said: “Of worldly things women and perfume are dearest to me and the salat is the comfort of my eyes.”

“Narrated Abdullah ibn ash-Shikhkhir: ‘I saw the Apostle of Allah peace be upon him) praying and a sound came from his breast like the rumbling of a mill owing to weeping.'” (Abu Daud Book 3, Number 903)

The salat and the Former Prophets

Muhammad believed the salat was practised by Abraham, Ishmael, the children of Israel and the former prophets:

The former prophets: “And We made them leaders, guiding (men) by Our command, and We sent them inspiration to do good deeds, to establish regular prayers, and to practise regular charity; and they constantly served Us” (Al-Anbiya 21:73):

Ishmael: “He (Ishmael) used to enjoin on his people prayer and charity, and he was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord.” (Maryam 19:55)

Abraham: “O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring to dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Thy Sacred House; in order, O our Lord, that they may establish regular Prayer” (Ibrahim 14:37)

Children of Israel: “And remember We took a covenant from the Children of Israel (to this effect): Worship none but Allah; treat with kindness your parents and kindred, and orphans and those in need; speak fair to the people; be steadfast in prayer; and practise regular charity.” (Al-Baqaarah 2:83).

The development of the regulation to pray five times a day

It is remarkable that there is only one passage in the Quran which enjoins prayer for the five periods. Tradition shows how the five times a day prayer was eventually inaugurated into Islamic practice.

Prayer two times a day in the QuranThe Meccan practice was regulated as follows:

“And establish regular prayers at the two ends of the day and at the approaches of the night” (Hud 11:114)
“Establish regular prayers at the sun’s decline till the darkness of the night, and the morning prayer and reading: for the prayer and reading in the morning carry their testimony” (Al-Isra 17:78)
Prayer three times a day in the Quran
Suddenly the middle prayer is mentioned in a Medinan sura. It was probably added to follow the example made by the Jews: “Guard strictly your (habit of) prayers, especially the middle prayer; and stand before Allah in a devout (frame of mind).” (Al-Baqarrah 2:238)

Prayer five times a day in the Quran

“So (give) glory to Allah, when ye reach eventide (masa) and when ye rise in the morning (subh); Yea, to Him be praise, in the heavens and on earth; and in the late afternoon (asr) and when the day begins to decline. (zuhr)” (Ar-Rum 30:17)

All commentators are agreed that masa includes both sun-set and after-sunset; and therefore, both the maghrib and ’Isha prayers.

Prayer five times a day in the Hadith

How and when the five salats were fixed is difficult to ascertain but the number five is found in numerous traditions and the schools of jurisprudence are all agreed on the matter.

According to tradition the five times daily observance of salat occurred on Muhammad’s ascent into heaven (Al Bukhari Volume 1 Book 8, Number 345) but another widely disseminated tradition states that Gabriel came down five times on one day and performed the salat in Muhammad’s presence and he imitated Gabriel on each occasion.

The Mandatory Stages of Prayer

Posture is of prime importance and the series of prostrations and genuflections are more easily imitated than described. Very briefly there are seven stages to the salat technically known as 1) Niyaah (the intention to pray), 2) the Takbir (the opening of the Islamic prayer) 3) Qiyam – in the standing position, 4) Ruku (bowing in prayer.) 5) the Sajdah or (prostration to Allah), 6) the Tajlis in the sitting position 7) the Taslim which means “to give peace.”

It is classified as a regular ordinance of religion: “When ye pass (congregational) prayers, celebrate Allah’s praises, standing, sitting down, or lying down on your sides; but when ye are free from danger, set up regular prayers: For such prayers are enjoined on believers at stated times.” (An-Nisa 4:103)

The salat should be performed in the same way that Muhammad performed it with all its rules and regulations i.e. standing, prostrating, sitting etc; the least departure from the rule in purification, posture or method of prayer nullifies its effect and the worshipper must begin again.

The words repeated during this exercise consist of Quranic phrases and short chapters, which include praise, confession and a prayer for guidance. Often the chapters chosen have no connection with the topic of prayer. Personal private petitions are allowed after the liturgical prayers.

It is laid down that the Imam should be copied exactly: Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “The Imam is (appointed) to be followed. So do not differ from him, bow when he bows, and if he prostrates, prostrate and if he prays sitting, pray sitting all together, and straighten the rows for the prayer, as the straightening of the rows is amongst those things which make your prayer a correct and perfect one.” (Bukhari Volume 1, Book 11, Number 689)

Special prayer is obligatory at an eclipse of the sun or moon and on the two Muslim festivals. It has been calculated that a pious Muslim repeats the same form of prayer at least seventy-five times a day.

Forming the prayer Rows

Stress is made on the prayer rows being closed and well ordered when the Iqama had been pronounced and the prayer begins. In early Islam everyone used to put his shoulder alongside the shoulder of his companion and his foot with the foot of his companion. The places in the front row were said to have special advantages: Narrated An-Nu’man bin ‘Bashir: The Prophet said, “Straighten your rows or Allah will alter your faces.” (Bukhari Volume 1, Book 11, Number 685, 686, 690, 692 c/f Bukhari: Volume 1, Book 11, Number 612 and 624)





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