Prayer (Salat)



Prayer is the second of the five pillars of Islam and follows clearly spelt-out guidelines. Christian prayers are more spontaneous. We can share with our Muslim friends how we pray and how it is different from them.

Number of times of obligatory prayer

Every Muslim is required to pray at least five times a day. The prayers have to be made at stated times.

Surah 4:103. 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.

The five daily prayers are:

FAJR               between dawn and sunrise

ZUHR              between midday and mid-afternoon

ASR                 between mid-afternoon and sunset

MAGHRIB      just after sunset

ISHA               between nightfall and daybreak

In well attested tradition of both Sahih Al Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, we read that Muhammad pleaded with God to reduce the number of times of obligatory prayer from fifty to five times. According to Muslim belief, this happened when Muhammad was caught up into Paradise where he met the prophets that were sent before him.

Then I passed by Abraham and he said, ‘Welcome! O pious Prophet and pious son.’ I asked Gabriel, ‘Who is he?’ Gabriel replied, ‘He is Abraham. The Prophet added, ‘Then Gabriel ascended with me to a place where I heard the creaking of the pens.” Ibn Hazm and Anas bin Malik said: The Prophet said, “Then Allah enjoined fifty prayers on my followers when I returned with this order of Allah, I passed by Moses who asked me, ‘What has Allah enjoined on your followers?’ I replied, ‘He has enjoined fifty prayers on them.’ Moses said, ‘Go back to your Lord (and appeal for reduction) for your followers will not be able to bear it.’ (So I went back to Allah and requested for reduction) and He reduced it to half. When I passed by Moses again and informed him about it, he said, ‘Go back to your Lord as your followers will not be able to bear it.’ So I returned to Allah and requested for further reduction and half of it was reduced. I again passed by Moses and he said to me: ‘Return to your Lord, for your followers will not be able to bear it. So I returned to Allah and He said, ‘These are five prayers and they are all (equal to) fifty (in reward) for My Word does not change.’ I returned to Moses and he told me to go back once again. I replied, ‘Now I feel shy of asking my Lord again.’ Then Gabriel took me till we ” reached Sidrat-il-Muntaha (Lote tree of; the utmost boundry) which was shrouded in colors, indescribable. Then I was admitted into Paradise where I found small (tents or) walls (made) of pearls and its earth was of musk.” (Sahih Al Bukhari Volume 1, Book 8, Number 345)

Dialog: Christians can inform their Muslim friends that they do not have a fixed number of obligatory prayers or “salah”. Christians are instructed to be praying regularly.

(Luke 18:1 NIV)  Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.

Praying without ceremonial purity renders the prayer void

Surah 5:6. 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. But if ye are ill, or on a journey, or one of you cometh from offices of nature, or ye have been in contact with women, and ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands, Allah doth not wish to place you in a difficulty, but to make you clean, and to complete his favour to you, that ye may be grateful.

Even in the hadiths, we see the importance of performing ablution well so that prayers can be effective.

Sahih Muslim Book 2, Number 0474:

Narrated Umar ibn al-Khattab:

A person performed ablution and left small part equal to the space of a nail (unwashed). The Apostle (peace_be_upon_him) saw that and said: Go back and perform ablution well. He then went back (performed ablution well) and offered the prayer.

Volume 1, Book 8, Number 466: Narrated Abu Huraira:

The Prophet said, “The prayer offered in congregation is twenty five times more superior (in reward) to the prayer offered alone in one’s house or in a business center, because if one performs ablution and does it perfectly, and then proceeds to the mosque with the sole intention of praying, then for each step which he takes towards the mosque, Allah upgrades him a degree in reward and (forgives) crosses out one sin till he enters the mosque. When he enters the mosque he is considered in prayer as long as he is waiting for the prayer and the angels keep on asking for Allah’s forgiveness for him and they keep on saying: ‘O Allah! Be Merciful to him, O Allah! Forgive him, as long as he keeps on sitting at his praying place and does not pass wind.

Dialog: The important verse on ablution has textual variants. How do Muslims resolve that because if ablution is not performed as prescribed by God, all the prayers will not be valid?

Extracted from “The Meaning of the Quran, Vol 1 page 21,  by Syed Abul A’la Maudoodi

There are other indicators that other external things that are deemed unclean can make a person’s prayer invalid.

Narrated ‘Aisha: The things which annul the prayers were mentioned before me. They said, “Prayer is annulled by a dog, a donkey and a woman (if they pass in front of the praying people).” (Sahih Bukhari Volume 1, Book 9, Number 490)

There are other external factors that can render the ceremonial washing and hence the prayers void:

When one touches with the palm of the hand the private parts of any human being, including his own.
When one’s bare body touches the bare body of a person of the opposite gender.

Christians can also explain to their Muslim friends that we do not need to perform ablution before prayer, as the prophets in the Old Testament or even Jesus never practiced ablution before prayer. He taught that it is not external uncleanliness that we should be concerned about but rather internal cleanliness.

(Mark 7:1-15 NIV)  The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and {2} saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. {3} (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. {4} When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) {5} So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” …{14} Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. {15} Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.'”

The Bible teaches that it is not external uncleanliness that makes a person’s prayers invalid. It is the internal uncleanliness or sins in a person’s heart that makes his prayers invalid.

(Psa 66:18 NIV)  If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened;

(Isa 59:1-2 NIV)  Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. {2} But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.

Praying in Arabic only

The fact that prayer can be acceptably offered only in the Arabic language removes from all elements of intelligent participation, unless the worshipper knows that language. But only a small proportion of Muslims are familiar with Arabic. The Arabic prayers comprise quotations from the Quran and expressions of adoration and devotion.

Christians can tell their Muslim friends that we do not pray in a memorized manner in either Hebrew or Greek. We always pray in a language we understand.

Jesus taught that our prayers cannot consists of words that are meaningless to us.

Mat 6:7  “When you pray, do not use a lot of meaningless words, as the pagans do, who think that their gods will hear them because their prayers are long. (Good News Bible)

Ritualistic prayer

A Muslim performs the “raka” during prayer. “Raka” is a round of ritual actions and sacred phrases that is repeated several times during each prayer session. It includes standing, bowing, prostration and sitting.

Standing (qiyam), worshipper declares his intention (niat) to perform salat. Raise hands to ears, palms opened and thumbs touching ears, says “Allahu Akbar”. Lower hands to sides or hold them to chest (right hand resting on left), repeats Fatiha (the first chapter in the Quran), and perhaps another portion of Qur’an.
Bending over (ruku), puts hands on knees, says “Allahu Akbar” and certain other expressions if he likes, before returning erect.
Prostrates himself (sujud) with toes, knees, palms of hands and forehead touching ground. This is known as worship.
Sitting position (julus), feet underneath him and hands on thighs. After a few moments, a second prostration, then stands erect.

This completes one rak’a. Two rak’as in early morning, 3 in sundown, and four in others. When each rak’a is completed, certain expression are repeated, after which the worshipper turns his head to his side, saying “Salam ‘alaikum” (peace be to you). This finishes the salat (ritualistic prayer).

External actions are immensely important to a Muslim during his prayers. Prayer is void if he does any three distracting actions in succession e.g. scratching three times.

We can share with our Muslim friends that when Christians prayer, the exact posture is not fixed. Any posture is fine as long as one is in a posture of worship towards God. In the Bible, there are examples of people who prayed standing (Neh. 9:5), prostrated (Num. 16:22), kneeling (Ezra 9:5), sitting (1 Chro 17:16-27), hands uplifted (1 Tim 2:8), etc.

It is the heart that we have to get right before God and not our external actions.

Prescribed prayers

A Muslim must recite Al-Fatiha. Otherwise prayers are invalid.

Surah 15:87. And We have bestowed upon thee the Seven Oft-repeated (verses) and the Grand Qur’an.

Sahih Bukhari Volume 1, Book 12, Number 723:

Narrated ‘Ubada bin As-Samit:

Allah’s Apostle said, “Whoever does not recite Al-Fatiha in his prayer, his prayer is invalid.”

The surah consists of the following verses.

Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;

Most Gracious, Most Merciful;

Master of the Day of Judgment.

Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.

Show us the straight way,

The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

Christians can ask their Muslim friends about the textual variation in this verse. One reading has “Master of the Day of Judgment” while another has “Sovereign of the Day of Judgment”.

The hadiths tell us that Caliph Uthman was the one who standardized the Quran. Even Uthman’s copy of the Quran is different from the one that Muslims use today. Muhammad Hamidullah in the preface to his French translation of the Quran tells us that there are “variations coming from the fact that for the first 150 to 200 years after the Hejira, the handwritten copies of the Quran were written in Arabic Kufic, without vowel marks, and without dots to distinguish between different letters written in the same way.”

There is an early manuscript of the Quran that can be found in the British Museum in London. (A photograph of the manuscript is shown below.)

Notice that there are no vowel marks above or below the consonants.) The manuscript contains verses 34 – 36 of Surah 24, the Surah of Light (Al-Nur). Compare this with the present Quran and you can immediately see the difference. According to experts this Quran is from the end of the eighth century A.D. or about 150 A. H.

The absence of vowels in the original Uthmanic Quran, which later appeared in today’s Quran, means that at some point in time, people added vowel points to the Quran as they thought best what those vowels should be. This led to variant readings.

Notice that there are no vowel marks above or below the consonants.) The manuscript contains verses 34 – 36 of Surah 24, the Surah of Light (Al-Nur). Compare this with the present Quran and you can immediately see the difference. According to experts this Quran is from the end of the eighth century A.D. or about 150 A. H.

The absence of vowels in the original Uthmanic Quran, which later appeared in today’s Quran, means that at some point in time, people added vowel points to the Quran as they thought best what those vowels should be. This led to variant readings.

​​Extracted from “The Meaning of the Quran, Vol 1 page 21,  by Syed Abul A’la Maudoodi

Dialog: There are two different ways to recite the Al-Fatiha according to hadiths. How do you know which is the right way and what happens if you recite wrongly. Will all your prayers not be heard?

There are examples of prescribed prayers in the Bible but most Christian prayers are spontaneous prayers. The Christian prayer can be compared to the “dua” in Islam, which can be performed individually and spontaneously.

Facing a specified direction when praying

Surah 2:144 (PICKTHAL) We have seen the turning of thy face to heaven (for guidance, O Muhammad). And now verily We shall make thee turn (in prayer) toward a qiblah which is dear to thee. So turn thy face toward the Inviolable Place of Worship, and ye (O Muslims), wheresoever ye may be, turn your faces (when ye pray) toward it. Lo! Those who have received the Scripture know that (this revelation) is the Truth from their Lord. And Allah is not unaware of what they do.

Christians do not need to face a specific direction when we pray because Jesus taught that God is Spirit and He is everywhere.

(John 4:21-23 NIV)  Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…  {23} Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

The Quran also states that Allah is everywhere. So why can’t we pray any direction? Why is there still the need for a prescribed Qiblah (direction of prayer)?

Surah 2:115. To Allah belong the east and the West: Whithersoever ye turn, there is the presence of Allah. For Allah is all-Pervading, all-Knowing.

Volume of prayer

Surah 17:110. Say: “Call upon Allah, or call upon Rahman: by whatever name ye call upon Him, (it is well): for to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names. Neither speak thy Prayer aloud, nor speak it in a low tone, but seek a middle course between.”

When a Christian prays, the volume is not important. Even prayers made in the heart are as effective. Jesus taught that God knows what we are going to pray even before we prayed it.

Mat 6:8  Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him. (Good News Bible)

Detailed system of rewards

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “The prayer offered in congregation is twenty five times more superior (in reward) to the prayer offered alone in one’s house or in a business center, because if one performs ablution and does it perfectly, and then proceeds to the mosque with the sole intention of praying, then for each step which he takes towards the mosque, Allah upgrades him a degree in reward and (forgives) crosses out one sin till he enters the mosque. (Sahih Al Bukhari Volume 1, Book 8, Number 466)

Narrated ‘Imran bin Husain: I asked Allah’s Apostle about the praying of a man while sitting. He said, “If he prays while standing it is better and he who prays while sitting gets half the reward of that who prays standing; and whoever prays while Lying gets half the reward of that who prays while sitting.” (Sahih Al Bukhari Volume 2, Book 20, Number 216)

Dialog: Explain to your Muslim friend that the Bible does not teach a detailed system of rewards associated with prayers. Prayer is just a method of approaching God and talking to Him.

Prayer for the dead

In the Quran, the believer is asked to pray for blessings on behalf of the Prophet.

033.056 YUSUFALI: Allah and His angels send blessings on the Prophet: O ye that believe! Send ye blessings on him, and salute him with all respect.

Today Muslims continue to pray to Allah for blessings upon Muhammad and the other prophets, even though they are dead. Blessings are pronounced upon Muhammad at least five times a day.

In Islam, there is also the practice of praying for the dead. Muslims believe that when a person dies, he continues to benefit from the prayers of those still living.

According to the teaching of Muhammad, it is the duty of all true Muslims to pray for the dead (Durru ‘l-Mukhtar pg 135). See also Mishkat, book 5 chapter 3.

God most certainly exalts the degree of a virtuous servant in Paradise, and the virtuous servant says, “O my Lord, from whence is this exalted degree for me? And God says, “It is on account of your children asking pardon for you.”

A dead person in the grave is like one over his head in water, who calls to somebody to take him by the hand. For he has hope that his father or mother, or his brother, or his friend will pray for him. For when the prayer reaches the dead person, it is more esteemed by him than the whole world, and all that is in it; and verily God most certainly gives to the dead, on account of the prayers of the people of the earth, rewards like mountains, for verily the offerings of the living for the dead are asking forgiveness for them. (Source: Dictionary of Islam)

The hadiths also confirmed that Muhammad practiced praying for the dead.

Narrated Samura bin Jundab: The Prophet offered the funeral prayer for the dead body of a woman who died of (during) delivery (i.e. child birth) and he stood by the middle of her body. (Sahih Al Bukhari Volume 1, Book 6, Number 328)

If even a dead person can benefit from the actions of another person, it should not be difficult for a Muslim to accept that we can benefit from what Jesus had done for us.

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