Let us try to understand the diversity of forms, significance, and meaning of “Worship and Prayer in Islam”. What is the notion of “worship?” Worship is man’s fundamental and unique relationship with his Creator. In Islamic context, the word ‘worship’, or ‘Ibadah means serving the Divine as His servant. The concept of ‘Ibadah, as seen in the Qur’an, is a rich multi-dimensional expression encompassing the ideas of obedience, submission, praise, ethical conduct, gratitude, responsibility, reflection, and search.
‘Prayer’ is an expression of worship. It is a form of intense human communication with the Divine through words, actions, and intentions. It is a form of intimate dialogue with the Divine. This ranges from a humble petition for His barakah for rizq, that is livelihood and sustenance, success in worldly matters, a supplication seeking to relieve oneself or others from pain and suffering, alleviation of problems, worldly and spiritual success and to an all-consuming yearning for Allah. Ultimately, the act of prayer, as a means of communication with the Divine, should be such that it encompasses body, mind, and feeling/spirit altogether.
Our Imams have constantly emphasized the necessity of prayer as central to our well-being. In his Memoirs, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah (Aga Khan lll) (a.s.) says: “Prayer is a daily necessity, a direct communication of the spark with the universal flame. Prayer is the only medium through which our souls can be uplifted.” Mawlana Ali (a.s.) in one of his sermons, stated: Pledge yourself with prayer and remain steady on it; offer prayer as much as possible and seek nearness of Allah through it… Certainly, prayer drops out sins like the dropping of leaves of trees, and removes them as ropes are removed from the neck of cattle.”
Prayer has the potential to purify and bring about the moral and spiritual transformation of man. It is the means through which man can purify him/herself to get closer to God.
The Meaning and Definition of Prayer
Reflecting on Prayer as an act of submission and its relationship with our actions. Prayer is action, a text and act of communication with God – as it involves physical gestures, mental attitudes, motivations, and intentions. Further, prayer could have a formal and defined structure or it could be informal.
Our Imam guides us on our understanding of the nature and meaning of Prayer. While re-emphasizing the importance of attending Jamatkhana regularly and fulfilling our ritual prayer, our Imam’s guidance also deepens our understanding of the broader dimensions of prayer.
The concept of niyyah, or intention, is very significant in our efforts to understand the meaning of prayer. Whilst prayer is a required duty that needs to be fulfilled, one’s intention is a necessary prerequisite for prayer. The Holy Qur’an says:
“Neither their flesh nor their blood reaches Allah; it is your piety that reaches Him” (22:37)
In a tradition, the Prophet (pbuh) has said: “Verily, actions shall be judged solely with reference to their intentions, and a man is entitled only to that which he intends.” Closely related to this is the necessity of concentration and understanding the meaning of prayer-words. The Prophet is reported to have said:
“It is not a sixth nor a tenth of man’s devotion which is acceptable to Allah, but only such portion thereof as he offers with understanding and true devotional spirit”.
Once we have understood the wider definition of Prayer, we are taken beyond the specific notion of prayer to an all-embracing notion which includes all acts that constitute prayers and consequently brings us closer to God.
Diversity and Expressions of Prayer
Let us expand upon the concept of prayer by situating prayer within the broader understanding of Worship and Prayer in Islam. Worship in Islam incorporates all efforts of man’s life to draw closer to the Divine. Within this context, it is expressed through various forms of prayer ranging from formal ritualistic prayers to personal and intimate expressions of faith and piety, including, recitation of Qur’anic Ayah, Naa’t, Hamd, Ginan and Qasidas, etc. Worship also includes engaging in a variety of rituals and specific Tariqah practices such as the ones performed within communal prayer halls. These include Tasbihs and Zikr-e-Ilahi.
Performance of these acts serves to continually remind us about God’s existence, our relationship to Him and above all, how to bind us to the ultimate reality. Based on this definition, worship also encompasses pious actions such as the writing of calligraphy, preaching sermons, ethical or pious acts such as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, being compassionate, sharing, and caring. Thus, these ethical acts also reflect the broader definition of worship and prayers.
The Arabic word Salah, or Salat, is derived from the root word “sa-la-wa” meaning to pray or worship. It broadly means prayer, blessing, or grace of God, reflecting the idea of supplication. In principle, the term Salat denotes the act of bowing to the Divine in submission, devotion, and adoration. While Salat is also represented by the Persian word Namaz, has come to generally being applied as a term used for the ritual prayer, a much broader understanding can be seen in the Qur’an. This reflects Salat as prayer or blessings and grace of God and as well as communication with God. Thus, Salat is referred to as prayer in general; representing a variety of forms of prayers as explained above. This generic sense of Salat is reflected in many verses of the Qur’an, of which some examples are in 33:43 which says:
“It is He (God) Who confers the Salat (blessings) over you, and His angels, that He may bring you forth from the darkness into the light” -here the term Salat reflects the blessing of Allah. We also see this range of meaning reflected in Hazrat Abraham’s prayer as stated in Surah 14, Ayah 40, which says:
“Oh my Lord, make me establish Salat… And Oh Lord, accept my prayer.”
Diverse Forms of Piety and Places of Worship
There are various forms of piety in places and practices of worship within the Muslim Ummah. Piety is defined as ‘duty to God’, ‘dutiful conduct’ or ‘devotion to religious duties and practices’. In Islam, piety is expressed in various ways within places and spaces of worship. In a speech made at the Foundation Laying Ceremony of the Ismaili Center in Dubai, on 13th December 2003, Aga Khan lV explained that Mosques and other spaces of worship, including Jamatkhanas, have historically co-existed simultaneously. He said:
“At this juncture, perhaps, it would be appropriate to situate one of the functions of the Ismaili Centre in the tradition of Muslim piety. For many centuries, a prominent feature of the Muslim religious landscape has been the variety of spaces of gathering co-existing harmoniously with the Masjid, which in itself has accommodated a range of diverse institutional spaces for educational, social, and reflective purposes. Historically serving communities of different interpretations and spiritual affiliations, these spaces have retained their cultural nomenclatures and characteristics, from Ribat and Zawiyya to Khanaqa and Jamatkhana. The congregational space incorporated within the Ismaili Centre belongs to the historic category of Jamatkhana, an institutional category that also serves a number of sister Sunni and Shia communities, in their respective contexts, in many parts of the world. Here, it will be space reserved for traditions and practices specific to the Shia Ismaili tariqah of Islam.”
Historically, a similar co-existence is also witnessed in various practices and expressions of faith, whose purpose is to bring believers closer to the Divine.
The Meaning and Significance of Tasbihs
Now we will reflect upon the meaning and significance of Tasbihs. Salat-i Tasbih means a prayer in glorification and praise of Allah, one significant Tasbih is Hazrat Bibi Fatima (a.s.)’s Tasbih using such praises as God’s greatness – Allahu-Akbar; and praise Him – Al-hamdu li’llah and extol Him – Subhan-Allah. Tasbih is also a term used for prayer beads or rosary, since a tasbih refers to the act of reciting praises while counting the beads.
Throughout history, our Imams have emphasized the importance of Tasbih, the Names of Allah represent His qualities or attributes, for example ar-Rahman, ‘the merciful’, represents His quality of Mercy. The Qur’an refers to these as “al-Asma’ al-Hasna” meaning the beautiful names of Allah. Allah is worshiped through His Names. The remembrance of His Names is a true source of peace because His Names are blessed. Continuous remembrance of the Names of Allah or constant Zikr Tasbih is a vehicle through which we can connect and unite with the Creator. This is the essence of spiritual search.
The supplicatory Tasbih, is undertaken on a daily basis as an integral part of our prayer. However, the Giryazari Tasbih undertaken during some calamity, struggle and/or during times of hardship signifies an occasion for undertaking intense supplication for a period of several days. During times of extreme hardship and difficulty, this increased supplication strengthens awareness and understanding. Prayer in this manner brings about humility, generosity, harmony, and unity. In our Tradition, it is believed that intense and collective prayers of the congregation during such difficult times provide the participants with strength, courage, and patience to bear and overcome spiritual and material adversities.
In this article we have discussed the theme of ‘Worship and Prayer in Islam’, which covered the significance, meaning and diversity in which prayer is understood in the Muslim world, with particular reference to our tradition. This article is aimed at enhancing our awareness and understanding of the diversity of prayers and forms of piety, giving us a perspective of what worship and prayer means. Most significantly, it is hoped that we may have absorbed the importance of constant and continuous performance of free and personal prayers in the form of Tasbihs, Zikr, names etc. It is through constant remembrance and communication with the Divine that our issues and problems are resolved; and we are able to achieve inner-peace, happiness, spiritual success, and enlightenment, and above all, closeness to the Divine.