Muslims and the Purpose of Prayer – Salaat (Dr. Mansoor Alam, Ohio, USA)

[A plea to the reader: Please read this article with an open and objective mind. The driving force behind this presentation is meant to cause us to think about our present approach to prayer. The Qur’an says that the Prophet (PBUH) asked people to develop the habit of thinking (34:46). So, every one of us should think with our own minds and not accept anything blindly about Islam from past or present. This is an order of Allah to every one of us (and not just few scholars) regarding His Book (4:82, 47:24) and His verses (25:73). It was not possible to give the translations of all the verses quoted here. Please see the translation from Yusuf ‘Ali or any other translator. But always think with your own mind.]

“The division of mankind into sects, nations, and tribes, according to the Qur’an, is for purposes of identification only. The Islamic form of association in prayer, therefore, besides its cognitive value, is further indicative of the aspiration to realize its essential unity of mankind as a fact in life by demolishing all barriers which stand between man and man.” [The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, page 75, second edition: Jointly published by Iqbal Academy Pakistan & Institute of Islamic Culture, 1989.]

Thus ends Allamah Iqbal the third chapter entitled, “The Conception of God and the Meaning of Prayer,” of his internationally famous monograph. What he is pointing out above is the basic Qur’anic message of creating the unity of humankind as a vital fact in life by removing its differences (16:64). This unity is realized by following the laws of Allah. The practical implementation of these laws in individuals as well as in society is done through what the Qur’an calls Aqeemus Salaat. In other words, Aqeemus Salaat must lead to unity in practice what the Qur’an demands it in theory. The meaning of the term and the essence of Aqeemus Salaat was discussed in an earlier article [Monitor, Sept./Oct. 1998, and pp. 6-10]. We are now ready to discuss practical aspects of Salaat and its impact on individuals as well as society. But first let us analyze and look somewhat closely as to where we, Muslims, are at present.

The Qur’anic Reality, Our Illusion

The Qur’an reminds us that, originally, humankind was one Ummah, but this unity was broken by various differences which the human beings created among themselves (10:19). It emphasizes the fact that the main purpose of sending God’s message through various Prophets is to restore back the balance and unity (of humankind) which once existed in the earliest period of human history (2:213, 57:25). The Qur’an warns us not to differentiate among Prophets (2:285, 4:136) because all of them came from the same source, Allah. But the followers of the Prophets (Peace upon all of them) not only created differences among the Prophets but they also created divisions among themselves within the following of a single Prophet. As other people, we, the followers of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) have also created divisions among ourselves. We have done this in spite of the very clear order of Allah to hold on to His rope together in unity and not be divided among ourselves (3:103).

As a matter of fact, we mostly follow the illusions built by our emotions (25:43) and the ways of our ancestors (2:170) rather than the Qur’anic reality. This is because whenever we are confronted with the Qur’anic verses which clearly forbid differences and divisions among Muslims, we find a scapegoat and reply that we are not divided but we only have several schools of thought. In reality though, these are not “schools of thought” but are “schools of action.” Only a few examples will suffice to support this argument: differences in what is forbidden and what is allowed by various schools as far as food is concerned; differences in forms of prayer; differences related to marriage and divorce etc. Everyone will agree that these differences whether major or minor are not just in thought but very much in action also. Majority of Muslims, though, likes to believe in ignoring these religious differences and divisions and carry on with their lives. However, our religious scholars are more interested in maintaining these differences by creating a sense of virtual unity that hides their sectarian differences. They prefer not to work for real unity because it exposes their differences. In fact, they are more interested in practicing virtual Islam rather than the real Islam our Prophet (PBUH) and Sa’haabaa (R) practiced. This makes every one feel satisfied…, more or less.

Secular Muslims … Satisfied

Many Muslims (especially of influence in society) think that the idea of unity of humankind is an unrealistic goal and therefore, should be abandoned. According to them, this may be a romantic or an exotic idea but it is an unattainable goal. They think that Muslims waste their time in talking about the unity of humankind when they themselves are badly divided. They catalog a long list of such divisions from (Muslim) history. Wars fought (and continue to be fought) amongst themselves and (millions of) Muslims killed by Muslims are given as proofs from past and present history to support their claim that Muslim unity is not possible, let alone the unity of humankind. How can then one talk about Muslim unity when their past history has been so divisive, they are quick to remind everyone?

These are mostly the feelings of the secular (liberal or progressive) minded Muslims. This feeling gives them intellectual satisfaction and a sense of psychological security.

Conservative Muslims … Satisfied

The conservative minded Muslims are no different. In fact, they put a religious and a sacred twist to the differences among Muslims. From every religious pulpit they announce that the differences and divisions among Muslims are the blessings of Allah. Remember, the Qur’an does not support this (3:103). In fact, it warns Muslims not to create divisions (30:32). But religious leaders thrive (and in fact exist) on these differences. So, they perpetuate the existence of these differences and divisions by sanctifying them. This opens the door for any group to call itself “Naji” and therefore on the way to Heaven and the rest destined for Hell. So, in the end, it turns out that, every group can (and does) claim that it is going to Heaven. (In layman’s terms they want to have both ways: have the cake and eat it too! What can be more wonderful than this?) This gives individuals in each sect emotional satisfaction and a sense of self-righteousness.

So, we see that Muslims in both camps (secular as well as conservative) feel satisfied with their respective positions – but for totally different reasons. Secular Muslims feel satisfied because of their intellectual analysis of Muslim history. Religious ones, on the other hand, feel satisfied based on clerical edicts and blind faith. Thus both groups in a way feel satisfied with the perpetual disunity of Muslims in the world.

Passive Muslims … Satisfied

There are many Muslims though who simply want to move with the times and leave Islam to the Mullahs. They believe in the adage: Do in Rome as the Romans do. But a vast majority of Muslims practice passive Islam (that was passed on to them by their forefathers in the name of Islam) and go about doing their daily businesses. They feel fed up with all the controversies created by the secular and conservative Muslims but at the same time they do not want to spend time and effort to find out the truth for themselves. They feel satisfied (as they have been told by their parents) that God will forgive all their sins simply because they were born in Muslim families and that the Prophet (PBUH) will save them from Hell fire no matter what. In other words, they feel satisfied by being ignorant about Islam.

Some Muslims … Not satisfied

These must be the moments, when Iqbal’s aching heart yearning for Muslim unity, must have felt acute pain causing him to express his intense cry to the Prophet (PBUH) as shown by his following words:

“Shiraazaa hu-waa millat-e marhoom kaa abtar

Ab tu hi bataa teraa Musalmaan kidhar jaa-e”

“An already dead millat is being torn down further,

O Prophet! Tell me where should your Muslim go” [Author’s translation]

What Iqbal asks the Prophet (PBUH) in this lamentation is: Where should a plain Muslim go in this prevailing sectarian environment dominated by the Sunni and Shi’ia Muslims and their scholars; liberal Muslims on the left and the conservative Muslims on the right. Obviously, the only hope for a plain Muslim is in the Prophet (PBUH) because he was neither Sunni nor Shi’ia. He was neither Maliki nor Hanbali. He was neither Shaafai’i nor Hanafi. He was neither liberal nor conservative. He (PBUH) said to the people: I am Muslim. (So did all the Prophets before him.) He preached unity and lived by unity. The Qur’an does not attach any sectarian qualifications and adjectives with the word Muslim. So, a Muslim, according to the Qur’an, is simply a Muslim. Period.

Muslims and the Prophet (PBUH)

What have we done in the name of the Prophet (PBUH)? We have split him in our lives (based on our own sectarian emotions and desires). We even establish family connections with the Prophet (PBUH), based on blood relationship and family trees, although he (PBUH) demolished all tribal, racial, and societal barriers and chains (7:157). We, on the other hand, have put each of these chains back, one by one, around our necks. [Those who claim family connection with the Prophet (PBUH) and feel proud about it forget that they will also be then linked to Abu Jahal and Abu Lahab.] Our deeds do not reflect the message of unity that our Prophet (PBUH) lived and died for. Contrary to the teachings of the Qur’an (2:48), we continue to believe that our beloved Prophet (PBUH) will intercede on our behalf despite our differences and divisions. And that he (PBUH) will plead with Allah to send us to Heaven even if we deserve to go to Hell.

Muslims and the Masaajid

Muslims are badly divided; the irony is that they all claim to be following the Prophet (PBUH) and his Sunnah. The prayer, which was once a symbol of real unity and strength, has now degenerated into a symbol of disunity and weakness. Mosques, which should be exclusively for Allah (72:18) and thus a sign of unity, instead have now become a symbol of our group identities. We guard these identities very jealously and zealously. We need only look around our neighborhoods (and not go far away) to get a real glimpse of this situation.

Appreciating the Importance of salaat

After analyzing the state of Muslims (unpleasant though it may have been), we have, nevertheless, come to a point where it is now possible to start an effective analysis and discussion of the importance and purpose of prayer in Islam. Without this we won’t be able to appreciate the importance of Salaat in our lives. After all, one can not appreciate light unless one knows what is darkness, one can not appreciate pleasure unless one knows what is pain, and one can not appreciate life unless one knows what is death. In the beautiful words of Ghaalib:

“Lataafat be kasaafat jalwaa paydaa kar naheen saktee”

“Pleasant feeling can not reveal its shine without unpleasant feeling”

So, let us see what the Qur’an has to say about the purpose of prayer. It tells us in the very beginning to establish the order of Salaat (2:3). This is repeated in so many verses throughout the Qur’an, it is difficult to list here. From this, one can easily realize the extreme importance of Salaat in Islam.

Establishment of the Order of Salaat

But the establishment of Salaat is not possible without going through the root cause of all our problems mentioned before. The root cause of all our evils is that, in our daily lives, we are following man made Shari’as rather than the Shari’a of Allah, the Qur’an. According to the Qur’an, this is a great sin.

“Woe to those who write the book with their own hands and then say, ‘This is from Allah’”(2:79)

This is why, rather than helping us, our Prophet (PBUH) will complain against us to Allah on the day of judgement that we left the Qur’an (25:30). So, what are we supposed to do under these conditions? The only way is to go back to the Qur’an – there is no other way. This is the only revealed Book that Allah has personally taken the responsibility to protect (15:9). No one can change it (6:34, 18:27, 10:64). It is complete (6:115). Nothing essential has been left out of the Qur’an (6:38, 6:59, 10:61, 34:3). There is no doubt in it (2:2, 10:37, 32:2). And those who do not judge by what Allah has revealed (i.e., Al-Qur’an) are Kafirs (5:44).

The Qur’an guarantees that it has the universal constitutional power to guide humanity (2:185, 3:138, 4:174) and eventually unite humankind by solving its problems (4:105, 10:57, 10:108, 14:1, 14:52, 16:44, 17:89, 18:54, 39:27, 39:41, 45:20). But it advocates that people committed to its entire message, its ideals, and its overall goal (without any human interpolations) should start this process. This is what the Prophet (PBUH) did (43:43, 6:50, 6:107,7:203, 10:15, 10:109, 33:2, 27:92, 45:18, 46:9, 75:18, 76:24). And so, Muslims should do the same thing; this is the Prophet’s (PBUH) sunnah (6:155, 7:3, 39:18, 39:55).

Salaat is Supposed to Create Unity at All Levels

Salaat serves as the foundation for everything else to follow. The purpose of Salaat therefore is to create unity at all levels in society and not just during prayers. The congregational prayer is just one part of Salaat reflecting the unity among Muslims in the act of prayer inside the mosque. As opposed to individual prayers, the congregational prayer demolishes the physical barriers (such as material wealth, family status, language, tribe, etc) that divide Muslims. But the goal of Salaat is to also demolish these barriers in the society outside the mosque as well. The Qur’an does not allow a dualistic way of life – in fact, this type of life is declared Shirk by the Qur’an. It says:

“… Establish Salaat and do not become among the Mushrikun. That is those who split up their Deen and become sects, each sect rejoicing in that which is with itself.” (30:31-32)

Creating groups or sects is so serious that it is considered worse than idol worship by the Qur’an (20:94). And the Prophet (PBUH) has nothing to do with those who are divided into separate sects.

“Verily, those who divide the Deen and break up into sects you (O Mohammad) have nothing to do with them in the least.” (6:159)

Salaat and Social Justice

Salaat is also supposed to demolish societal barriers because Allah has given equal honor to all human beings (17:70). So, there should not be any social differences among people because they lead to superiority and inferiority complexes in their personalities. Adherence to the laws of Allah (Taqwaa) should be the only criterion for judging any one. The most honored in the society should be the one, who is the best in conduct of Taqwaa (49:13).

Salaat is also supposed to stop “Al-Fa’hsha and Al-Munkar” from the society (29:45). The Qur’an uses this term in a general sense for all kinds of bad things prevalent in the society especially these days. The source of Al-Fa’hsha is perverted and corrupted thought and the source of Al-Munkar is selfish and greedy thought, according to the root meaning of these words. All barriers (mentioned previously) that separate human beings spring up from these two sources of evil thoughts. Salaat is supposed to attack the very sources that create barriers in society. Although prayer is extremely important in Islam, nonetheless, Allah condemns those who pray but do not try to alleviate the human sufferings (107:2-4) from the society.

But removing societal barriers and human sufferings and misery can not be done by sermons alone. This has to be done under a system that has the constitutional power to enforce these injunctions of Salaat. This does not mean that religious scholars and Mullahs (representing different sects in Islam) should have this authority. No. Not at all. This is quite clear from the verses quoted above (30:31-32 and 6:159). How can the Qur’an allow those who represent sectarian divisions in Islam (remember, being divided into sects and being happy about it, is worse than idol worship in the eyes of Allah), to have the authority to enforce its injunctions?

Salaat and Economic Justice

Salaat must also lead to a just and equitable economic condition. This means we can not do whatever we want with our wealth in order to satisfy our selfish physical and psychological emotions. Remember Al-Munkar means using our intelligence for selfish and greedy ends. So, Salaat should stop this type of mental attitude. When Prophet Shu’ayb (PBUH) asked his people to perform Salaat, they thought that he wants them to pray in a certain way, and that’s all. They got the shock of their lives when he told them that Salaat could not let them spend their wealth as they wish.

“They said: “O Shu’yab! Does your Salaat command you that we leave the ways which our forefathers practiced, or that we leave off doing what we like with our wealth?” (11:87)

Two things are clear from this: that we can not separate Salaat from the economic system, and that we can not blindly follow what our ancestors have transmitted. So, thinking of Salaat as simply prayer is not right. In fact, Allah says that those who do that, belie His Deen:

“Have you seen him who belies THE DEEN? This is he who repulses the orphan and the lonely (harshly). And urges not the feeding of the poor. So, woe unto those performers of prayers; who are oblivious of the purpose of prayer, and are only interested in external appearance (i.e., mechanical aspects) of prayer. They put barriers and stop the flow (of God given resources).” (107: 1-7)


Thus it is clear from the Qur’an that Salaat is not just prayer but also encompasses both social and economical aspects of life. It must lead to the unity of Muslims not just inside the mosques but outside as well. Therefore, it can not just be a ritual. It must be implemented as a system where everyone closely follows Allah. Are we not supposed to submit to the Will (Laws) of Allah as Muslims? (This Will is not linked or dependent on any human being, not even the Prophet (PBUH)). Our illusions will carry us no where. When the time comes to face Allah on the Day of Judgement, it will have become too late. It is better to wake up now and face the Reality of the Qur’an when we have plenty of opportunities rather than to wake up after death having lost all opportunities. Then we would have really lost – because Allah will not give us any more opportunities even if we plead with Him (14:44).

It’s time to stop wasting our time and effort on unimportant and non-serious things: cyclic discussions, purposeless actions, and short-term benefits. The Qur’an warns us not to waste our time in these things which it calls lahva and la’ab (47:36, 43:83, 52:12, 70:42).

It’s time that all of us start seriously thinking about the real purpose of prayer in Islam. We can continue on our present illusionary course or we can try to correct it using the Qur’anic compass. The choice is ours.

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