Summery of 5.3 "Preparation of Prayers"
The first thing we emphasized last time was the importance of prayer and how it is the second most important pillar in Islam after the confession of faith, belief in God, and that leaving prayers out of neglect is regarded as a major sin but leaving prayers with an attitude of belittling its importance is actually a kin to disbelief and destroys the remaining line between believer and disbeliever as emphasized in the Quran. We also indicated that on the day of judgment the first thing that we are held accountable for before God is whether or not we kept regular prayers.
Prayers are not limited to the ritualistic or formal part of it but when properly understood it has a far reaching impact on the attitude, behavior and life of the believer. The second major point was to trace the history of prayers. According to the Quran all major prophets had been ordained to keep their prayers. We found evidence in the Quran about prayers being prescribed on prophets Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, Ishmael, Muhammad and there was also mention of Mary the mother of Jesus (PBUT). This shows that prayer has been a basic common belief of believers throughout history.
The third point was about the preparations for the prayers and we said that in addition to ablution or cleanliness as described in the previous program there is also a requirement to have proper coverage of the body. We described the minimum requirement for males and females. We also mentioned that the place that a person prays in is supposed to be clean and a Muslim doesn’t have to pray in a specific building or place of worship. We quoted the Prophet of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), indicating that the whole earth is like a place of worship. Of course there are Mosques where people are urged to pray but if it is time to pray and a person has no access to a Mosque then he can pray anywhere. We also said that when one prays he should direct himself towards the Kaaba. The significance of the Kaaba we describes is that it was the first house built on earth for the worship of one God. It was originally built by Prophet Abraham with the help of his son Prophet Ishmael.
The last point we discussed was the number of prayers. We said the Muslim is supposed to make five prayers every day. The first prayer is at dawn before sunrise the second is at noon, the third one is in the afternoon or midway between noon and sunset, the fourth is immediately after sunset and the fifth is the night prayer and comes about an hour and half or so after sunset and extends for the rest of the night. We ended with the call for prayer and its meaning. So we basically covered the preliminaries for getting ready for prayers.
5.4 Prayers: Form and Significance
Host: How are the movements of salah actually done?
Once one has made ablution and establishes the direction of the Kaaba one is ready o start performing the prayers. Of course both males and females need to make sure they are dressed appropriately. Each prayer is composed of a number of unites. Each unit is called raka’a. I will describe one of those unites. Before one starts the prayer they would have to think in their own heart that they now have the intention to pray before God, worshipping him, supplicating to him in full obedience and submission. Once this intention is there one raises both hands up towards the side of the head and says Allahu Akbar which means God is the greatest. Then the right hand is placed over the left hand. After this the minimum that is to be recited is the short first chapter of the Quran. For the entire duration of the prayer a Muslim is not supposed to look around or talk to other people or eat or drink. Prayer is total devotion and concentration. A person does not necessarily have to close his eyes but can look at the place on the floor where he will prostrate. After finishing the recitation one raises his hands again and says Allahu Akbar and prostrates. In this prostration a person bends himself at the waist and puts his hands on the knees and the back should be flat and the head should be at the same level as the back. There are also certain supplications that are mentioned. Then the person says Samia Allahu Liman Hamidah which means God hears those who praise Him and raises up to standing position. Then one says Rabana WaLaka Alhamd Oh my Lord all praise or thanks are due to you. After this comes perhaps the most beautiful moment in the prayer which shows complete humility and submission to God. Then one goes down onto hands and knees with the toes facing the direction of the Kaaba, the hands are by the ears as the forehead and the nose touch the ground. While in this position there is another supplication that is made. Then one sits up onto their legs from this position before repeating the same prostration again. This would be the end of the first unit called raka‘a.
Host: How many unites are required in the prayer?
It ranges between two to four depending on the time of day and which prayer is performed. For example the early morning prayer at dawn before sunrise is composed of two unites. The noon prayer, afternoon prayer and the late night prayer are four unites each. The prayer that is performed after sunset is composed of three unites. So the order of prayer in one day is 2, 4, 4, 3, 4 making a total of 17 unites.
Host: Can you go back and explain the significance of some of the movements? First of all what is the significance of raising the hands at the beginning of the prayer?
Usually as humans we use the hands as symbols of power. When we raise these hands in the time of prayer it symbolizes that one is really yielding and submitting to their Lord and that any physical, intellectual or other power that is bestowed on us is all in Your hands as You are greater than we are. In fact the very lifting of the hands is to show that one yields consciously not under pressure and that is why we use the word submission. There is another meaning also to lifting of the hands and it is that this action is like throwing the world away and that now one is going to concentrate and focus on devotion and worship to God. Like I said before one doesn’t look at people around them or talk to them or think about eating or drinking as one is only thinking about God. Then placing the hands on top of one another is like one says “in front of You oh Lord I am humble, I am week, I am nothing.” Also I said that when one raises his hands they say says Allahu Akbar or that God is the greatest and this shows again the nature of Islam where the physical movement and the utterance of the tongue are consistent, so there is full harmony between the movement and utterance of glorification.
Host: What is the wording and meaning of the first chapter of the Quran that is read in the prayer?
Well of course this is a very important chapter and it is mandatory to recite this chapter in each unite of prayer. This chapter is of great significance and is called the Mother of the Book or the Cornerstone of the Quran because short as this chapter may be it has the most beautiful supplication that anyone can think of. “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.” The significance of this is that it teaches the believer that anything he does should be done in sincerity and in the name of God. God has appointed us as trustees on this earth and anything we do by way of worship or other activities in life should be done in His name because it is by His power that we are able to do these things. This does not only apply to prayer, a Muslim should recite this first verse whenever he starts any activity.
The second verse says “Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds.” First of all it says that thanks are due to God and this reminds us that one of the purpose of prayer is thanks giving. God has given us boundless benefits and bounties which are innumerable. He gave us health, property, food and everything that we have on this earth we owe to God. As humans when someone gives one a bar of chocolate or piece of candy one says thank you, so what about He who created the whole universe and the original giver of all of those bounties. The second part of the verse is a beautiful reminder of the universality of Islam and that there is only one God and one humanity and God is not the Lord of certain people but of the entire humanity and universe. This in a way is a revolution against all types of false barriers that people establish between human beings. The barriers that are based on geographic locations, nationalistic orientation, differences between races and the sexes based on wealth or social status does not mean anything for the Muslim because there is only one God and one Brotherhood that is the entire humanity.
The next verse says “Most Gracious, Most Merciful.” These are two words that reflect the mercy of God. Al-Raheem means Merciful; Al-Rahman is a beautiful word that does not have an exact equivalent in English it is usually translated as Beneficent (in this case Gracious). In Arabic Al-Rahman could mean the source of Mercy, not only is God Merciful but he is the source of all Mercy, He is Mercy Himself. This is very important because it shows the orientation of the Muslim. Even though there are so many divine attributes of God that appear in the Quran but the most cherished quality of God as the Quran emphasizes (the evidence is found in this chapter which is repeated by every Muslim at least seventeen times everyday) is The Beneficent, The Merciful.
The next verse says “Master of the Day of Judgment.” It reminds us that our life here is not senseless and aimless as there is a Day of Judgment where we will stand before God and that He will be the sole Judge.
Then it goes on “Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.” This flows logically from the previous verses because if we acknowledge God as the Lord of the universe and the ultimate Judge then it follows that He is the only One worthy of worship and devotion and the One who should be sought after to fulfill our desires and needs and to remove our anxieties.
The next one is “Show us the straight way.” This is a kind of supplication and what is a better supplication than asking to be guided. All things will follow and fall in place once one is guided on the right path. Then it describes that path in the following verse as “The way of those on whom Though hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.” This makes the distinction between the only strait path (we know that mathematically that the shortest distance between two points is a strait line) which is clear and concise with no complexities, as it is a strait man to God relationship which is distinct from the path of those who earned the anger of God or totally rejected God or of those who might have believed but then were mislead. Then it ends with the word “Ameen” which is equivalent more or less to the English word Amen.
If one really reflects on the meaning of this short chapter in the Quran one can say safely that it is perhaps the most beautiful, concise and universal supplication which can strike cords with any believer anywhere and at any time.
Host: When the individual or the Muslim recites this as part of the salah or prayer does he or she actually feel that God is listening and responding to this?
Absolutely, this is one of the main characteristics of Muslim prayers. There is no intermediaries, even prophets are not regarded as intermediaries. A person prays directly to God. The best way to explain this is to quote a saying of Prophet Muhammad in which he says that God said that he divided this chapter into two parts one for us and one for Him. Then he continues that when we say “praise be to God the Lord of the universe,” God would respond “My servant thanked me.” When a person says “Most Gracious, Most Merciful” God will say “my servant praised me.” When the believer says that God is “Master of the Day of Judgment” God would respond “my servant glorified me.” When we recite “Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek,” God will respond “whatever my servant asks he will get.” This means that the remaining verses in the chapter about guidance onto the strait path is already accepted by God.
Host: You had mentioned that the recitation of this chapter was the minimum for each unit of prayer, are there any additional things that may be added or are required to be added?
The bare minimum is the recitation of the first chapter of the Quran. Before reciting this after one says Allahu Akbar at the beginning of the prayer there are various supplications that were suggested by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and one can select any of them. Let me quote part of one “I turn my face to He who created the heavens and earth, submitting uprightly to Him and I am not of those who associate other deities with Him, verily my prayers, my rituals, my life and my death are al for God Lord of the universe there is no partner with Him. So I am ordained and I am of those who submit to the will of God.
In addition to this after a person recites the first chapter of the Quran it is desirable to recite an additional portion of the Quran. This pare could be a short chapter or a portion of a longer chapter depending on the time and circumstances of the individual. An example of this would be one of the very short chapters in the Quran (112) the translation is “Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.” There is a great deal of flexibility as one can make the prayer in a few minutes or in a longer amount of time.
Host: Why do prayers include so many movements? What significance do the movements have?
Prayer reflects the whole philosophy and attitude of Islam towards life. A human being is composed mainly of spiritual, intellectual and physical aspects. Islam doesn’t see these elements as conflicting parts but that they should be harmonized together and brought together in submitting to God. In the prayer first of all one feels that he is in the presence of God. He cleansed himself before hand and finds a clean place to pray, devotes his attention and thinks only about God when he prays. This is one of the greatest experiences of spiritual ecstasy, nobody can really describe it or know what it is like unless one really tastes the feeling that one is directly communicating with God. Now beside the spiritual part a person’s mind is not absent because he is required to think about what he recites. Like I said before one recites from the Quran which is full of wisdom and knowledge and one should always think about what he recites, so that the intellect is participating in the prayer as well. The physical and material is not excluded as the body itself is in harmony and complete synchronization with the spiritual and intellect is also participating in the expression of humility and submission.