Islamic Laws

What is the philosophy of prayers?

By: Ayatullah al-Uzma Nasir Makarim Shirazi
In Suratul ‘Ankabut, verse number 45, mentions an important philosophy with respect to the prayers when it says:

إِنَّ الصَّلاةَ تَنْهى‏ عَنِ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَ الْمُنْكَرِ
“Surely prayer keeps (one) away from indecency and evil.”
Since prayers remind man of two of the most powerful deterrents – the Origin and the Resurrection – it thus possesses a deterring influence with regards to indecency and evil.
A person, who stands up for prayers, recites Allahu Akbar and regards Allah to be superior to and greater than everything else. Recollecting His bounties, he praises Him and offers his thanksgiving. He eulogizes Him for His Compassion and Mercy, and brings to mind the Day of Judgment; professing his servitude, he yearns for His help, seeks the Straight Path from Him and implores Him to protect him from treading the path of the deviated ones and those, who earn His anger (the theme of Suratul Hamd).
Undoubtedly, the heart and the soul of such a person shall experience an impulse towards truth, purity and piety.
He goes into ruku’ for Allah and places his forehead on the ground in His august presence. Drowned in His grandeur, he shoves his egoism and superiority complex into oblivion.
He testifies to His Unity and the prophethood of the Noble Prophet (s.a.w).
He sends salutations upon the Noble Prophet (s.a.w) and beseeches Allah to place him amongst His righteous servants (tashahhud and salam).
All these acts create within him a tidal wave of spirituality, which is reckoned to be a strong barrier against sins.
This act is repeated several times in a day; when he rises up in the morning he gets immersed in His remembrance; in the middle of the day when he is totally engrossed in the material life he suddenly hears the muezzin calling the people to prayers. Interrupting his schedule he hastens to present himself before Him. Even at the end of the day and before sliding into the relaxing comforts of his bed he engages himself in a communion with his Lord, illuminating his heart with His Light.
In addition to the above, as he engages himself in the preliminaries of the prayers, he washes and cleans himself and keeps away usurped and forbidden things from himself after which he proceeds to present himself before his Friend. All these things effectively serve as a deterrent, preventing him from treading the path of indecency and evil.
But ultimately, every prayer shall only keep one away from evil and indecency in the same measure as the conditions of perfection and the spirit of worship, which it happens to possess. At times it keeps one away from evil, completely and wholly, whereas at other times it does so partially and incompletely.
It is impossible that a person offers his prayers but they do not have any effect on him – however superficial the prayer and however polluted the person. Obviously, the effects of such prayers are less, but had such individuals not been offering these prayers, they might have been in a much more polluted state.
Stating this more clearly, ‘refraining from indecency and evil’ possesses numerous levels and ranks, and every prayer, depending upon the conditions of the prayers that have been taken into consideration (while offering it), possesses some of these ranks
It has been reported in a tradition that a youth from the Ansar (Helpers) used to offer his prayers with the Noble Prophet (s.a.w), but despite this, he was prone to committing sins and evil deeds. When this was brought to the notice of the Noble Prophet (s.a.w), he said:
إِنَّ صَلاَتَهُ تَنْهاهُ يَوْماً
“His prayers deter him for one day (only).”[16]
This effect of the prayers is so significant that some of the traditions refer to it as a gauge for distinguishing the accepted prayers from those that that are not. As Imam as-sadiq (a.s) said:
مَنْ أَحَبَّ أَنْ يَعْلَمَ أَ قُبِلَتْ صَلاَتُهُ أَمْ لَمْ تُقْبَلْ فَلْيَنْظُرْ هَلْ مَنَعَتْهُ صَلاَتُهُ عَنِ الْفَحْشَآءِ وَ الْمُنْكَرِ فَبِقَدْرِ مَا مَنَعَتْهُ قُبِلَتْ مِنْهُ
“One, who desires to know if his prayer has been accepted or not, should observe if it has kept him away from indecency and evil, or not; the measure in which it has kept him away (is the measure of his prayer that) has been accepted.”[17]
Continuing with the verse, Allah says:
وَ لَذِكْرُ اللٌّهِ أَكْبَرُ
“The dhikr (remembrance) of Allah is superior and more virtuous.”
The apparent meaning of the above sentence appears to mention a more important philosophy for the prayers. It mentions another effect of prayers – an effect that is even more important than ‘keeping one away from indecency and evil’ – and that is, it causes man to remember Allah – this being the basis of every goodness and the foundation of all felicities. In reality, its superiority and importance is due to the fact that it is the cause for it (keeping one away from indecency and evil).
Basically, remembrance of Allah keeps the hearts alive and sets them at rest, and no other thing can be likened to it in significance and importance.
أَلاَ بِذِكْرِ اللٌّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ
“Surely by Allah’s remembrance are the hearts set at rest.”[18]
Essentially, the soul of every act of worship – whether it is a prayer or something else – is remembrance of Allah. The preliminary acts of the prayer, the recitations and actions in it, the supplications after the prayers – all of these – serve to revive the remembrance of Allah within a man’s heart.
Worthy of attention is that an allusion has been made to this fundamental philosophy of prayer in Surat Taha, when Prophet Musa (a.s) is addressed as:
أَقِمِ الصَّلاةَ لِذِكْرِي
“And keep up prayer for My remembrance.”[19]
In a tradition, Mu’adh b. Jabal states: No deed of man, for protecting him from divine chastisement, is greater than ‘remembrance of Allah’. When he was asked: Not even Jihad in the way of Allah? He replied: No (not even Jihad), for Allah has said:
وَ لَذِكْرُ اللٌّهِ أَكْبَرُ
Although the philosophy of prayer is not something that is hidden from anyone, a more careful study of the text of the Qur`an and the traditions guide us towards some more subtle points in this regard:
1. The spirit, foundation, objective, result and ultimately the philosophy of prayers is remembrance of Allah – the same ذكر الله, which, in the above verse, has been referred to as the optimum result. However, it should be a remembrance that brings about ‘reflection’, and a ‘reflection’ that leads to ‘deeds’. In a tradition Imam as-sadiq (a.s), interpreting the sentence:
وَ لَذِكْرُ اللٌّهِ أَكْبَرُ
ذِكْرُ اللٌّهِ عِنْدَ مَا أَحَلَّ وَ حَرَّمَ

“Remembrance of Allah at the time of performing a lawful or a forbidden act.”[20]
It means to remember Allah and seek that which is permitted and refrain from that which is forbidden.
2. Prayers are a means for washing away the sins and achieving divine forgiveness since they invite man towards repentance and rectification of the past. Hence we read in a tradition that once the Noble Prophet (s.a.w) questioned his companions: If there flowed, at the doorstep of one of your houses, a river with pure and clean water and if the owner happened to wash himself in it five times a day, would there be any dirt or uncleanness on his body? The companions replied: No. The Noble Prophet (s.a.w) then said: The prayer is similar to this flowing water. Whenever one offers a prayer, the sins committed between two prayers get washed away.[21]
Thus, by means of the balm of prayers, the wounds that get inflicted upon man’s soul as a result of sins get healed and the rust that forms on the heart is eliminated.
3. The prayer is a barrier against future sins. It strengthens the spirit of faith within man and fosters the seedling of Taqwa (piety) within his heart. We know that faith and piety are the strongest barriers against sins and this is exactly what has been referred to in the verse as ‘keeping one away from indecency and evil’. Similarly, we read in numerous traditions, that when the state of affairs of some sinning individuals was brought to the notice of the A`immah G, they said: “Don’t worry! The prayer shall reform them” and it did!
4. The prayer does away with heedlessness and negligence. The greatest tragedy for those journeying the path of truth is that they tend to forget the purpose of their creation and get drowned in the whirlpool of this material world and its ephemeral pleasures. But the prayer- since it is offered at regular intervals and five times a day – repeatedly warns man and causes him to bring to mind the purpose of his creation and reminds him of his place and position in this world. This, in itself, is a great bounty because man has in his possession a device which alerts him strongly, several times in the course of a day.
5. The prayer serves to shatter pride and egotism. In the course of a day, man offers seventeen rak’at and in each of them he places his forehead on the ground twice before Allah, considering himself to be a tiny entity before His greatness – rather, a zero in the presence of Infinity. He tears apart the curtains of arrogance and egotism, and shatters his pride and superiority complex.
We can understand why ‘Ali (a.s), in that popular tradition in which the philosophy behind the various acts of worship of Islam have been explained, immediately after referring to faith, speaks about prayers and explains:
فَرَضَ اللٌّهُ الإِِيْمَانَ تَطْهِيراً مِنَ الشِّرْكِ وَ الصَّلاَةَ تَنْزِيهاً عَنِ الْكِبْرِ
“Allah made faith obligatory in order to purify (the people) of polytheism, and the prayer, in order to clean (them) of pride.”[22]
6. The prayer is a tool for the development of moral excellences and attaining spiritual perfection. It hauls man out of the limited confines of this material world, invites him towards the spiritual realms and places him in the company of the angels. Man, without sensing the need for any intermediary, observes himself in the presence of his Lord and engages in communicating with Him.
The repetition of this act several times in a day with special emphasis on the attributes of Allah – His Compassion, Mercy and Greatness – especially by way of reciting the various chapters of the Qur`an after Suratul Hamd, which itself is one of the best inviters towards good actions and pure deeds, has an appreciable effect in the development of moral excellences within man.
The Commander of the Faithful (a.s), mentioning the philosophy of the prayers, said:
الصَّلاَةُ قُرْبَانُ كُلِّ تَقِيٍّ
“The prayer is a means for the pious ones to attain nearness to Allah.”[23]
7. The prayer imparts value and significance to the other deeds of man, since it revives the spirit of sincerity within man. This is because the prayer is a collection of sincere intentions, pure speech and genuine deeds, and a daily repetition of these aspects sows the seeds of other good acts within the soul of man and strengthens the spirit of sincerity within him.
We find that the Commander of the Faithful (a.s), in his testament after being fatally injured on the head by the accursed b. Muljim, said:
اللٌّهَ اللٌّهَ فِي الصَّلاَةِ فَإِنَّهَا عَمُودُ دِينِكُمْ‏
“Fear Allah so far as the prayers are concerned for they are the pillars of your religion.”[24]
We know that when the pillars of a tent break down, the ropes and nails that are around it – however strong they may be – are of no use, Similarly, when the connection between the servant and Allah, which is established by means of prayers, were to get severed the other deeds too would lose their effect.
In a tradition, Imam as-sadiq (a.s) said:
اَوَّلُ مَا يُحَاسَبُ بِهِ الْعُبدُ الصَّلوٌةَ فَإِِنْ قُبِلَتْ قُبِلَ سَائِرُ عَمَلِهِ وَ إِنْ رُدَّتْ رُدَّ ساَئِرُ عَمَلِهِ
“The first thing that a servant shall be reckoned for (on the Day of Judgment) shall be his prayers. If they are accepted, all his other deeds shall be accepted too and if they are rejected, the other deeds shall be rejected too!”
Perhaps, the reason for the above could be that the prayer is the key towards establishing a connection between the Creator and the creation, and if offered correctly, would generate within him sincerity and the intention of attaining nearness to Allah – the two factors that are the means for the acceptance of deeds. But if not, then all his other deeds become tainted, and thus drop from reckoning.
8. The prayer, (not taking into account its contents, for the present) in the light of the conditions necessary for its correctness, invites towards purifying one’s life. It is evident from the requirement that the place where the prayers are offered, the clothes of the person offering the prayers, the carpet upon which the prayers are offered and the water and the place utilized for performing Wudu or ghusl should not be usurped or obtained as a result of trampling the rights of others. How can one, who is polluted of transgression, injustice, usury, usurpation, selling short of weight, taking bribes and earning wrongful income, manage to fulfil the preliminary conditions of the prayers? Thus, repetition of prayers, five times a day, is itself an exhortation towards exhibiting consideration with respect to the rights of others.
9. In addition to the ‘conditions for correctness’, the prayers also have ‘conditions for acceptance’ which, in other words, are referred to as ‘conditions for perfection’; these, if taken into consideration, also act as an effective factor in abandoning many sins.
Books of jurisprudence and traditions mention numerous things that act as impediments towards the acceptance of prayers – one of them being consumption of intoxicants. It has been reported in the traditions that:
لاَ تُقْبَلُ صَلاَةُ شَارِبِ الْخَمْرِ أَرْبَعِينَ يَوْماً إِلاَّ أَنْ يَتُوبَ‏
“The prayers of one who consumes intoxicants, shall not be accepted for forty days, except if he repents.”[25]
In several traditions we read that an unjust and oppressive leader is one of those persons, whose prayers are not accepted.[26] Some of the traditions explicitly state that the prayers of one, who does not pay the zakat, are not accepted; other traditions state that unlawful food, vanity and egotism are of the impediments that prevent one’s prayers from being accepted. The extent of the constructive effect of endeavouring to fulfil these ‘conditions of acceptance’ is only too plain and obvious!
10. Prayers strengthen the spirit of discipline within man since they have to be offered at specific times – any advancement or deferment of which would only serve to render them invalid. Similarly, there also exist rulings with respect to intention, qiyam[27], qu’ud[28], ruku’, sujud and the like, which, if taken into consideration, instill within man a sense of discipline, thereby enabling him to include this factor in the other affairs of his life, with absolute and total ease.
All the above are the merits that exist in individual prayers without taking into account the issue of congregation, for if we are to consider the merits of praying in congregation – which is, in reality, the soul of the prayers – there would be innumerable additional benefits, explanation of which falls beyond the scope of this book but which are more or less known to us.
We conclude this discussion on the philosophy and secrets of prayers by presenting a comprehensive tradition, reported from Imam ‘Ali b. Musa al-Riza (a.s).
The Imam (a.s), replying to a letter in which he was asked about the philosophy of prayers, stated: “The prayers have been legislated for acknowledging and attesting the Lordship of the Lord, combating polytheism and idolatry, standing in His presence with utmost humility and modesty, confessing to one’s sins, seeking forgiveness for the past disobediences and placing the forehead on the ground, everyday, for the purpose of glorifying and venerating Him.
It is also intended that man always remains alert, his heart does not get clouded by the dust of forgetfulness, he does not become arrogant and heedless, but instead humble and submissive, and becomes more desirous of worldly and religious bounties.
In addition to this, the regular remembrance of Allah throughout the day, achieved as a result of prayers, causes man not to become forgetful and heedless of his Lord, Sustainer and Creator, and he is not overcome by the spirit of rebelliousness. It is this attention towards Allah and standing in His presence that restrains man from disobedience and prevents corruption and depravity.”[29] and [30]
7. Why should we offer prayers at prescribed times?
Some people say: “We do not deny the philosophy behind the prayers and nor do we refute its importance or its educative effects, but what is the need for it to be offered at prescribed times? Would it not be better if the people were left free – each one to perform this obligation as per his leisure and opportunity, and his mental and spiritual preparedness?”
Experience shows that if educative issues are not regulated by means of strict discipline and stipulations, many individuals tend to become forgetful of them and their very foundation becomes shaky and unstable. Such issues ought to be governed by means of strict discipline and specific timings so that no one possesses any excuse for abandoning them. It is particularly so in view of the fact that the performance of these acts at prescribed times and more especially, when performed in a congregation, possesses grandeur, magnificence and effect, which cannot be denied. They are actually a huge lesson for human development.[31]
[16] Majma’ al-Bayan, under the discussion regarding verse 45 of Suratul ‘Ankabut.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Suratul Ra’d (13), Verse 28
[19] Surat Taha (20), Verse 14
[20] Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 82, pg. 200
[21] Wasa`il ash-Shia, vol. 3, pg. 7 (Chapter 2 from The Chapters (regarding) the number of (obligatory) prayers, tradition 3)
[22] Nahj al-Balagha, saying 252
[23] Ibid., saying 136
[24] Ibid., letter 47
[25] Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 84, pg. 317 & 320
[26] Ibid., vol. 84, pg. 318
[27] Standing in Salat. (Tr.)
[28] Sitting in Salat. (Tr.)
[30] Tafsir-e-Namunah, vol. 16, pg. 284
[31] Ibid., vol. 4, pg. 105

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