Prayer is supremely important for Muslims and the first thing I would like to consider is precisely the manner of understanding the matter of its meaning. All too many of us, I am afraid, are prone to offer our prayers much as we shave or eat lunch-in other words as a habit: as something we do-if we do it-automatically, mechanically, without much thought, getting through it as quickly as possible.

Yet by doing this we are, in a sense, committing sacrilege, because we are doing much less than justice to one of the institutions of the greatest .religion’ in the world. So, I think that the word .,understanding” in the title is most important, because what the Muslim world needs-indeed what the whole world needs-at the present time is more understanding.

I think that it would be true to say that in this highly sophisticated, technological age we know more and more and we understand less and less. In a true sense one of the ways one might describe talking these days is to say one is using ‘jargon’. And I am afraid far too many of us hide our lack of understanding and our lack of concern with true meaning behind one kind of jargon or another. It is very easy to invent words- high-sounding scholarly words-to describe things and events and experiences. it is another thing really to understand the meaning of the things one is talking about or the things that one experiences.

Our affair, then, is a matter of either being carried along in the current of life, performing actions automatically almost mechanically, or actively swimming in the current. Swimming either with the current that is swelling around us or perhaps even to try and swim against the current if we do not think that the current and life around us are in keeping with what we would consider proper and right.

However, this would require very considerable mental effort, of course. It would require a daily renewal of mental effort, and most of us are not inclined to make daily renewals of mental effort unless it happens to suit our particular purposes, Certainly few of us are inclined to renew mental effort from day to day when religion is involved, because religion these days has become one opinion among many. It is no longer the bastion of truth in the sense that it was, and certainly not in the Western world, in the sense that it used to be. Therefore, part of the ‘message’ of this article is that as Muslims we must make a fresh attempt to understand the ‘rites’-the arkaan (lit. “pillars”-Ed.)-of Islam, so that they are not simply semi-meaningless parts of our semi-meaningless lives.

If they are not so, then we might as well stop praying and stop calling ourselves Muslims. One of the great characteristics of our day-or perhaps one should say two of the great characteristics, for it has two aspects-are firstly, a desperate search in the individual for significance, and especially in the individual within society. Much of the violence, much of the antagonism, much of the ‘doing-one’s-own-thing’ that happen in our time are attributable to this desperate search for individual significance: a desire to be a something in this increasingly anonymous and dehumanising social environment. Secondly, the other side of the coin, as it were, of this search for significance, is the desperate fear of Finding out that we are really nothing; that we are really nothing worth being -that our lives are meaningless and that the lives we are living are really a lie. In order to’ prevent ourselves finding that out too quickly (for many of us find it out sooner or later) we take refuge in a desperate struggle for personal assertion of one kind or another.

I think that the prayer of Islam as a rite has many things to teach us about ourselves and about Allah. One assumes that as Muslims, most of the readers believe that la ilaha ill’Allah; there is no god but Allah and that Allah is in fact The Truth. If we do not believe that, then anything one says about Muslim prayers will be failing on deaf ears. Now before one were to consider Muslim prayer itself, one ought first to say something about that of which Muslim prayer is a part.. ‘ibaadah. The Arabic word ‘ibaadah is usually translated as “worship”, but it is worship in a sense different from that implied by the usual meaning of the English word. The Arabic word ‘ibaadah tells us a lot more about ourselves and our relationship to Allah. ‘Ibaadah comes from the simple root verb ‘abada which means precisely to be a servant, to be a slave: to be a slave of Allah in other words (lit. “he was a slave, tie slaved, etc’ “- Ed.).

Therefore all the ‘ibaadaat, all the acts of worship, all the arkaan of Islam (the prayer, the fast of Ramadaan, the Hajj-the “pilgrimage”- zakaah, shahaadah) and all the other things, are intended to remind us of our ‘uboudiyyah, of our ‘servanthood”. Because according to Islam man is made in a reflection of Allah’s qualities he shares in the Divine Freedom of Allah, he shares in a sense in the Divine Nature. Man has thus this sense-unfortunate in some ways, fortunate in others-of his own importance in the scheme of creations.

All of us (whether we admit it or not) really, secretly, deep down consider ourselves the centre of the universe. We consider that all the other things in the universe revolve around us more or less satisfactorily, but usually, rather unsatisfactorily. We think of the rest of the world in terms of ourselves. In a way, therefore, each of us is in danger of pretending, or trying to pretend, that we are gods. This is the permanent danger against which Islam is permanently preaching the notion of ‘ibaadah. It means precisely that we are not God or even ‘semi-gods’; we are servants of God.

To the extent we take upon ourselves our proper function which is khilafah or the vicegerency of Allah in the world, to the extent that we recognise our servanthood and His Omnipotence and His Supreme claim to the be Self par excellence, then to that extent we share in His Freedom and are ‘something’.

The great Muslim theologian and sufi Hujjatu-l Islam Imam Abu Hamid al Ghazzali, may Allah be pleased with him, said, every thing has two faces-its own and the ‘face of Allah’. And with regard to its own face it is really nothing; with regard to the ‘face’ of Allah it has reality. This then is the basic notion of prayer-to remind us: it is a dhikr.

In order to consider it, I will divide Muslim prayer in the first instance into three “types” and say something about them, and then divide the whole concept of prayer into four “ideas” taken in pairs. Muslim prayer in its ternary aspects have these main features.

Firstly the salah (the canonical prayers)-the prayer of the congregation, the prayer of the Muslim community as a whole, not just the individual

Secondly there is the du’a, the prayer of the individual Muslim, the prayer of each one of us to Allah by himself.

And thirdly and most important, that which underlies the whole concept of Muslim prayer, dhikr-in other words the remembrance or recollection of Allah.

Quite clearly the whole object of prayer in Islam is precisely this; the remembrance of Allah by us, for He does not need our prayers. How many times does He say in the Qur’an

wa-dhkurullaaha kathiiran la’allakum tuttihoun: “and remember Allah much that perchance you may be successful”.

Salah is perhaps the most well-known aspect of Muslim prayer. It is certain ayats from the Qur’an, a certain cycle of movements in each rak’ah, it is offered at certain times of the day and has certain legal conditions of which ritual purity is one.

But of course attention to Allah is another condition: Imam al Ghazali once said that if you stand on your prayer- carpet (sajaadah) and say Allahu akbar (Allah is Greatest) and you are thinking about anything else at all you are a liar. So attention is also necessary.

I think that, especially nowadays when established religion is for various reasons becoming “non-u”, people tend to decry it and think that it is not necessary. The canonical prayer-the Salah-the prayer which is given to us rather than one that we formulate as such, is however of great importance, precisely because the canonical prayer is not of our own composing: the author of the Salah is Allah Himself.

When we are offering the Salah we are not just praying as individual Muslims: it is

iyyaka na’budu, “we worship Thee”

-we are praying as a whole community, as the whole body of Muslims. In the salah, Allah then is the author and we pray for all Muslims. Furthermore, salah is both simple and full of authority, not only of the Qur’an itself, but the centuries of Muslim usage: this is something which unites us to countless millions of Muslims everywhere in the world and down the ages, both good and bad.

Of course it also unites us paramountly and permanently to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him. This is, therefore, the prayer of Man as such, and not the individual: this is the prayer I offer as Man, not as ‘Omar Austin but as a human being.

The du’a on the other hand, the second “type” of prayer, is something very personal. It is an expression of the individual’s particular state- is a confession of his personal problems, his personal difficulties vis-a-vis his relation with Allah, or his relationship with the world, or his relationship with himself. This is a supplication.

This is a type of prayer which can be said, of course, in any language. You can say your du’a in Turkish, Persian, English, French, Modern Arabic, or Malay, or whatever other language you like, which highlights the personal aspect, the personal character of this particular type of Muslim prayer,

One thing which is very interesting about the du’a is that it is very closely associated in a sense with the Prophet himself, peace and blessings be upon him. The Prophet is the Model for all of us and quite often du’a consists of pouring down blessings upon the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), of pouring down the blessings and greetings of Allah upon him who is al’uswatu-l hasanah, the Best Exemplar.

He is ‘the man’, in a sense ‘the individual’, par excellence. in saying the du’a we share with him as an individual. When we are offering the salaah we are sharing with him not as an individual but as the Prophet of the community: in the salah we are praying behind the Prophet, he is the Imam.

When we pray du’a we get closer to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in the sense that we become individuals with him, and we share with him the confession of the frailty of the human state. All of us, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) included, are human beings. This is one of the glories of Islam. The Prophet was not and is not considered to be divine like the Christians have done without authority to ‘Isa ibnu Maryam, peace be upon him and his mother. He is very much one of us: he has a very special place in the scheme of things, but, nevertheless, he is one of us as far as he was an individual human being.

Du’a is the occasion for us to approach Allah directly in our own feeble, miserable state, pouring out our hearts to Him about our own particular problems. It relieves pressure on the Soul and it loosens the many knots that bind us from day to day of our particular worries.

The third “type”, dhikr, is the very essence of all Muslim prayer. One could call it a facet of Muslim prayer but I think that we must also recognise that dhikr, whether in a formalised sense (e.g., ‘sufi’) or in its very ‘Qur’anic’ sense, Is the real meaning of all prayer, for the overall object of prayer is to remember Allah.

It can be said that, following on from the example of the Prophet himself (peace and blessings be upon him) and the majaaliisti-dh dhikr, the mulasawwifoun (“sufis”) have kept alive the formalised group performance of dhikr as an outward expression, and have thus made a substantial contribution to the devotional and spiritual life of Islam, capturing for us as ordinary Muslims (themselves included) the essential purpose of Muslim prayer.

Allah is always enjoining us in the Qur’an to remember Him; often He mentions also that the prayer removes evil and sorts of badness in us.

Wa ladhikrullaahi akbar,
“and certainly the remembrance of Allah is greatest”.

Now if we fail to remember Allah we, in a sense, deny ourselves, because without Allah we are nothing. Without Allah we are simply meaningless reflections, part of the natural scheme of things. If we remember Allah we remember also that we share to some extent in the Divine Nature; and it is this which makes us Human Beings.

There is all the difference in the world between the cleverest monkey and the stupidest man, and that difference is, at least, the gift of self-consciousness – self-objectivity so to speak. This is something which reflects in us the Supreme Consciousness, the Supreme Identity, of Allah Himself.

Paradoxically, however, it is just this very gift of self-awareness which persuades us all too often that we are little gods in our own right, and this can be something which is constantly cured and corrected by dhikrullahi(remembrance of Allah).

Before considering prayer and the four “ideas”, let one isolate a polarity in the prayer- I mean prayer as a whole, not the separate identities of salah, du’a, or dhikr.

There could be two main themes (poles) if one wanted to think of prayer in terms of duality rather than the three or the four. Let us think then of purification and sacrifice on the one hand, and of orientation and focus on the other. The prayer is at once a purification and a self-sacrifice. In other words, to one’s ‘uboudiyyah, to one’s `servantness’ and recognition of one’s real state before Allah, it is a purification; but not that of going to a tap and washing oneself with water.

The real purification is to purify oneself of one’s mistaken notions of one’s own self- importance before Allah. On the other hand one has orientation and focus. In other words, the prayer takes one away from the world and, like a compass needle, points one in a particular direction. That direction ‘outwardly’, of course, is Mecca. ‘Inwardly’ that direction is the heart- qalb; the inward heart-where dwells, in a sense, the reflection of Allah. The direction is thus Godwards, not world-wards; therefore, you have here a notion of consciously orientating oneself to a different direction.

Of course both the purification and the re-orientation of the Muslim prayer require, in the very nature of the case, a deliberate self purification, a deliberate re-orientation.

Let us consider prayer under the four notions of sound, movement, space and time. The Semitic peoples, the Arabs in particular, are very concerned with life as it is expressed in a .’sound” way. The ‘Word’ (Logos; Kalimah) in Islam is not a person, it is a sound: it was not ,`made flesh’, it was made book-that is to say it was made the Qur’an*.

It was made the sound we hear when we hear the Qur’an: the sound which was first heard by the Companions of the Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him, when the Qur’an was being revealed. The question of sound and thus of language, is very important throughout the world of Islam, for we are required to offer our salah in Arabic, to recite the Qur’an in Arabic, and if possible to read it in Arabic as it is impossible to translate it into any other language satisfactorily.

It is thus most important that we resist the suggestions to go vernacular-to ‘translate’ the Qur’an into modern Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, etc., except for the purposes of understanding and study. For use, for the purposes of ritual, we must retain the language of the Qur’an, the language of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), the language of Paradise, because the language of the Qur’an is full of meaning as language, as sound. It is not just Arabic words strung together as in the work of any author. It is the Revelation of Allah.

It is not the Arabic of Al Ahraam (a newspaper), which is something completely different from the Arabic of the Qur’an. The one is shallow, transient, and will pass away tomorrow, the. other is Eternal. So the notion of sound, Allah’s sound, is very important in Muslim prayer.

Movement is similarly an important feature, particularly viewed in terms of orientation and focus. There are in the Salah a series of movements and a series of pauses. The first thing that the Muslim does after having performed wudu’ (ablution) is to state his intention to pray-the niyyah. The performance is thus structured to persuade him to make a conscious re-orientation: “I intend to offer the prayer for Allah”.

In other words, one is intending to do something totally different from what one has just been doing. Then in order to establish the salah, one raises one’s hands and pronounces the takbiratu-l ihraam, saying that Allah is Greatest. One must bear in mind what Imam al Ghazali said, that one must also mean “Allahu Akbar”.

The name of this particular takbir at the beginning of the salah (takbiratu-l ihraam or takbiru-tahrim) is interesting and deeply significant. It is through the pronouncement of that utterance of the supremacy of Allah which makes haram everything around you and inside you.

We don’t only live in an outer space; we live also in an inner space of our own, which is crammed full of the most appalling rubbish much of the time. So the takbiratu-l ihraam should force us to make ihraam: in other words to clean ourselves of all unnecessary trivia, inside as well as outside, on the prayer-carpet.

It makes pure the area around us, and it should also make pure the space within us in our hearts and in our minds. The next thing that most do is to perform tawajjuh, or orientation precisely:

“I have faced my face to He Who created the heavens and the earth as a hanif and a Muslim and I am not of the mushriks. Truly my salah and my devotions and my living and my dying are for Allah the Sustainer of the Worlds, there is no partner with Him, and with this I am entrusted, and I am of those who have submitted.”

We turn our faces to Allah, and this action is symbolised by facing the Qiblah of Mecca. This again is a conscious reorientation away from the world to something which is more real than the world, if we could but perceive it.

Then one performs the qiyaam (standing upright), ruku’ (bowing from the waist), sujud (prostration) and julous (sitting): in between these various movements of bowing and prostration there are all the takbirah, Each time one performs a movement in the salah, one says “Allahu Akbar” (except in qiyaam, when one says Sami’ Allahu liman hamidah- Allah listens to he who praises Him). That is to say that as soon as you as an individual begin to do something in the salah physically, Allah intervenes and says; No, no, no, it is not of your initiative that you are doing this- Allahu akbar.

So that “Allahu akbar” in a sense reminds us immediately we move that this is not our initiative, this is not our movement, this is not part of our own scheme of things.

This is His movement; that is why we say at each movement in the salah, “Allah Akbar”. Otherwise, the notion that we are only too ready to adopt of our own initiative-that of our self-centred self importance-will creep back into what is haram, into what belongs to Allah.

The takbir sanctifies and de-individualises the whole salah. It makes us Man rather than the single transient individual. The gestures of salah are important because they all teach us something about ourselves and about Allah; for example, the sujud is pre-eminently a symbol of our ‘uboudiyyah.

Jalaaluddin Rumi, may Allah be pleased with him, once said that each time you stand in prayer and say “Allahu akbar”, Allah presses you down-‘What business have you to be standing?’-then you get up again, and again He presses you down even further-‘What business have you to be standing in My presence?’ in other words. These things we ought to bear in mind.

The notion of space in Islam, too, is important and relates in the salah to conscious orientation: the Qiblah, the direction of the Ka’bah in Mecca, indicated in the mosque by the mihraab (‘prayer niche’). One might say that there is an interesting parallel between the salah and the Hajj (‘pilgrimage’), because when we turn towards Mecca we are, in a sense, about to undertake an inward Hajj-this is the intention of the prayer.

Most of us, regrettably, fall very far short of it. When we go on the Hajj itself we make a journey to a particular place at a particular time situated at a particular spot in the world. When we turn towards the Qiblah we are about to make, or should be about to make, an inward journey towards Allah, away from the world. The mihraabs in Syria and Egypt are shell-shaped, and the shell is traditionally associated with the echo.

So when we utter the words of the salah towards the mihrab (which has this echoing shape) we are, in a sense, having the words of Allah cast back at us, They go out and come in again, and thus we have the whole notion of reverberation, of echoing of the word of Allah. It is also, of course, the Mishkatu-l anwar, the niche of lights, which houses and reflects the inner light, The mihrab too is associated in a direct way with the Lady Maryam, may Allah be pleased with her. Quite often around the mihraab is inscribed the ayat from Surah Aal ‘Imran which tell of Zakariyyah, peace be upon him, going to Maryam in the mihraab and finding her provisioned by Allah.

The Lady Maryam, may Allah be pleased with her, epitomises the symbol of the soul in its best relationship with Allah-tawakkul (entrusting one’s affairs to Allah). She was completely submissive to Allah, and Allah provided for her. Indeed without our being completely submissive to Allah (or as near completely as we can within our capacity), Allah is not going to work in us. He is going to leave us alone. When in the Qur’an He says

adallaalahumu-Llah (“Allah suffered them to go astray”)

He doesn’t mean really that He made them go astray, but that He left them to their own devices. This would be the most terrible thing that could happen to a Muslim: that his Islam should be so feeble that Allah should simply leave him to his own devices. Because he is not a ‘god’and because Allah is Real, he must slip further and further, deeper and deeper into his own nothingness which will create a compensating reaction of trying to be even more and more ‘god’-like (takabbur: self-exaltation), in order to restore equilibrium to his life. But of course the thing would be futile.

So the symbol of the Lady Maryam, may Allah be pleased with her, is the symbol of submission and tawakkul and is thus a symbol of what we are and what we can be. Our perfect Exemplar is Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and it is through his Sunnah that we are able to discover the means of this submission and approach to Allah.

The fourth point or notion to consider is Time. Time is of course a paramount feature of Muslim prayer. We offer five prescribed prayers a day, and the timings of these five follow the sun across the sky, starting with the Maghrib prayer (just after sunset) and moving through the night and the day which follows it.

The rhythm of the old Church calendar in the West) was prayer-a year of prayer. The rhythm of the Muslim’s day is prayer-a day of prayer. Every day is a day of prayer, a day when a day full of worries, business and domestic trouble, and all the other things that go to make up our hurried lives, should be punctured by these moments when the world is forgotten.

Many psychiatrists, I think, would say that such a dropping out of the world at regular intervals during the day would be most therapeutic-if, of course, we really do drop away from the world when we pray. The prayer-times puncture ,ordinary’ time with Eternal Time, because alah is the supreme opportunity to be with Allah, to be before Allah. For Allah there is no time. Allah is Omniscient, Allah is Omnipotent.

The time that we can conceptualise is rolled up for Allah into the smallest micro-instant. So the prayer of the Muslim each day presents him with a very precious gift-the opportunity to extricate himself from devouring time: the time which brings us to the grave eventually at the appointed time, the time which puts us into hospitals, the time which wears us down little by little until we look back more or less sadly over our lives in regret-this is time in the ordinary sense. Time for the Muslim, “Muslim Standard Time”, is something very different.

It enables us to get away from our tiny, minute perspectives if only for a few minutes, at regular intervals: it is prayer. Prayer is something which we do when time-bound which provides for us, in some sense, when time will have ceased.

Wa dhakru-Llaahi akbar, “and certainly remembrance of Allah is greatest”.


Dr. Austin is a Lecturer in Arabic at the School of Oriental Studies in the University of Durham,

The Muslim
October-November 1973