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Meaning and Essence of Prayer

(Dr. Mansoor Alam)

By admin | November 11, 2007


Human beings have been praying for as long as humanity has existed. Rich or poor, literate or illiterate, the urge to pray is equally present in all. A well-known author has best described this as follows:

“In wandering over the earth, you can find cities without walls, without science, without rulers, without palaces, without treasures, without money, without gymnasium or theatre, but a city without temples to gods, without prayer, oaths and prophecy, such a city no mortal has ever seen and will never see.” [Humanity and Deity, p. 15, by W.M. Urban]Since the urge to pray is universal in character and crosses racial, cultural and religious boundaries, we might wish to investigate it further by asking some important questions:

What is the essence of prayer?

What is the meaning of prayer?

What is the purpose of prayer?

Does prayer have any effect on individuals who pray? If so, in what way? And

Does prayer have any effect on society? If so, in what way?

Prayer Involves the Mind

Answers to the above questions are more important than the form of prayer itself. When we pray, what really happens to us? The prayer normally consists of reciting some words and possibly some body movements. This is true in all religions—only the forms may be different. Do the words have any effect on the individuals who pray? From the study of Psychology, we know that words have powerful effect on individuals as well as people. But for that to happen, it is necessary that words are clearly understood and their meaning and context fully comprehended. This ensures that the mind actively participates in the prayer also along with the body. Without this, the prayer will become a somatic routine, regardless of how much piety is attached to it from outside.Thus we see that prayer has a very deep connection with the mind. But this mind-body connection, although made sincerely, should not be superficial that only produces a placebo effect. This has to be real. And a real connection can be established only when the power and the meaning of prayer activate the mind’s cognitive faculty. The so called doctors of religions, on the other hand, have perpetuated a myth which keeps people satisfied by performing the act of prayer without trying to establish this mental cognitive connection.

Religious Leaders and Prayer

Most religious leaders fool people into believing that the very act of prayer gives them plenty of rewards. That is, they exploit the placebo effect experienced by the people. But the placebo can never be a substitute for the real pill. As expected, very often, the promised rewards do not happen in this world. So, they brainwash people into believing that the rewards will come in the other world. Many religious institutions have exploited and continue to exploit this situation.

Religious leaders, of course, never admit that they are exploiting anybody. Instead, they represent themselves as the people of God, supposedly preaching God’s message to the masses. (Remember! The placebo looks exactly like the real pill. The moment people become aware of the truth, it looses its effect.)

As far as prayer is concerned, religious leaders are very particular to mention—and rightly so, that it occupies a central place in religion. But their emphasis is more on the act of prayer rather than its spirit and purpose. Performing the act of prayer is an end in itself to them. They do not emphasize the fact that prayer is a means to achieve some concrete goals in life. This aspect of prayer is normally overlooked and consequently the prayer becomes a soulless ritual done primarily to please God and for individual personal salvation in the hereafter. In other words, they do not want people to find out the true essence and meaning of prayer in order to revive it.

How can we Truly Revive Prayer?

The question then is how to inject the soul back into the mummified body of our prayers. We will discuss the meaning of Aqeemus-Salaat (translated as “establish prayer”) later but one thing is clear: This is not possible without a critical evaluation of our present approach to prayer.

The best way to start this evaluation is to pose fundamental questions pertaining to the importance of prayer in our way of life. This is what we have done earlier. Answers to these questions will, hopefully, provide the necessary knowledge that will help us in our quest to find the meaning and essence of prayer. To do that, however, we must, first of all, establish a frame of reference. Without this absolute frame of reference we won’t be able to find The Truth about prayer.

An Absolute Frame of Reference is Required

In order to deal with the above questions, we will have to find a permanent and an absolute reference that transcends the barriers of space, time and circumstance. This is because these questions are important to life here-and-now as well as to life in the hereafter. The only reference that can satisfy these conditions is a Book from God. [Books of humans, no matter how great, can never satisfy the above conditions.]

Earlier Books of God (including the Bible) no longer exist now in their original, unadulterated form. [Proponents of these books admit this.] The Qur’an, revealed to Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), is the only Book of God which exists now exactly as it was revealed about 1400 years ago. This fact is borne by Muslims as well as non-Muslim scholars who have done an objective, historical or linguistic analysis of the Qur’an [See Maurice Bucaille’s excellent book, “The Bible, The Quran, and Science”]. Therefore, the Qur’an will be our frame of reference. But it might be helpful in our search for the essence and meaning of prayer if we first analyze the reasons why people pray.

Why Do We Pray?

A simple, conventional answer may be that we pray because our forefathers have been praying and told us to pray, just as we tell our children to pray. Or that we pray because God has asked us to pray. But for many people who are sincerely searching for a more meaningful answer, this may not be satisfactory. First of all, God has given us freedom of choice for everything, including prayer. So we do not have to pray if we do not want to. In fact, in good times, most of us don’t. Only when some personal tragedy strikes (or when we reach old age) that many of us start praying regularly.

For example, consider a plane full of people about to crash. In this helpless situation, every one will be praying for life and survival. If the situation seems completely hopeless, and they realize that they are going to loose their lives, people will be praying for God’s mercy, forgiveness, His pleasure, and personal salvation in the hereafter. But nevertheless, everyone will be trying his/her best to survive until the very end.

This instinct of self-survival is inherent in every living being, including humans. Other beings have defense mechanisms given by God for their survival. But humans find themselves helpless and defenseless against many living beings and natural catastrophes. Naturally primitive man tried to pray to them, as he had not developed tools for self-defense. He prayed to various natural objects that threatened or benefited his survival. When human beings developed tools for self-defense and gradually advanced in science, they tended to drift away from religion. They found security in science (rather than prayer) because science gave them control over the forces of nature. [Priesthood considered this attitude as an attack on religion itself. This led to a continuous battle of religion with science. History bears ample testimony to this continuous struggle. A classic example of this is the battle of creation versus evolution. But this is a whole new topic.]

Thus we see that there seems to be no single reason as to why people pray. Everyone can come up with his or her own answer and feel satisfied. In fact, this is what we normally do. But as we mentioned before, the answer that transcends space, time, circumstance and human emotion can only come from God (which means His book, the Qur’an.). This brings us to the following question.

Why was the Qur’an Given to Us?

So, let us ask: what does the Qur’an have to say about this question? But before that, we might ask a related question: why was the Qur’an sent to humanity?

Allah says that the Qur’an was sent to Prophet Muhammad (P) to lead humanity out of darkness and into light.

“A Book which we have revealed unto you in order that you might lead mankind out of darkness into light” (14:1)

Various examples can be given to explain this verse. Liberating people out of slavery into freedom is an example of leading them from darkness into light (14:5). Prophet Moses’ (P) liberation of Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom, and Prophet Muhammad’s (P) migration to establish an independent Muslim (community) state in Medina are historical examples of leading mankind from darkness into light.

Removing ignorance, superstition and blind beliefs with knowledge, reason and understanding is another example.

Allah also says that the Qur’an was sent to remove conflict and differences among human beings.

“And We sent down the Book to you (O Muhammad (P)) for express purpose, that you should clear to them those things in which they differ” (16:64)

So, the Qur’an removes differences and conflicts which divide human beings and eventually creates unity of mankind.

Prayer and the Qur’an

Prayer, being an integral part of the Quranic system, must lead towards the above goals. It is important to remember that prayer is neither independent nor mutually exclusive of the overall goal of the Qur’an. That means we can not separate it from the other commands of the Qur’an and practice it in isolation in the hope of getting rewards in the hereafter.

Let us explain this with some concrete albeit simple examples. Various parts of a car have to work together in a coordinated fashion for it to run properly. If we take out the wheels or the engine, it is not going to move. Similarly, if we separate the various parts of a computer and focus our attention on the individual components, the computer is not going to work until all the components are connected properly and synchronized. The same thing applies to the functioning of the human body. No human organ can survive outside the body. In a similar way, prayer can not survive outside the living body of the Qur’anic system driven by its laws.

With this brief background we now come to the main question.

What Does Prayer Mean?

The Arabic word Salaat is normally translated as Prayer in English. [It is translated as Namaaz in Urdu and Persian. “Namaaz” is an old Persian (Pahlavi) word which the Zoroastrians (fire worshippers) used for their prayer. It should be translated as Pooja in Hindi! However, no Muslim of the subcontinent would dare say that he is going to do Pooja but he feels perfectly satisfied and honored in saying that he is going to do Namaaz!!] Since no translation of the word “Salaat” could fully reflect its meaning, we have to first understand what Salaat means.

The root meaning of this word is “to follow someone closely.” For example, in a horse race, if the second horse follows the first horse so closely that its head is always overlapping the first horse’s body, then it is called Al-Musalli, and the first horse is called Saabiqun. [Taj-al-‘Urus, vol. 10, page 213; Lisan-al-‘Arab, vol. 7, page 398.] Therefore, Salaat means to follow Allah closely. The only way we can follow Allah is to follow His Book, Al-Qur’an, to remain within the limits imposed by it, and never to transgress these limits. This implies that we have to establish a system so that we lead our lives according to the Code enshrined in the Qur’an. Establishment of this system is referred to as Aqeemus Salaat by the Qur’an. This is quite different from theocracy where religious leaders rule in the name of God using their own version of ‘shari’ah’ rather than the ‘Shari’ah of God’, the Qur’an. “Woe to those who write the book with their own hands and then say, “This is from Allah” - 2:79″, so says the Qur’an about them.

What is the Essence of Prayer?

The Qur’an uses the term Aqeemus Salaat quite often which is usually translated as “Establish Prayer.” This translation does not fully convey the meaning of the original concept. The root of Aqeemu comes from ‘qaa-ma,’ which means to stand, to be balanced, to have a just, fair and long-term strategy for dealing with problems, and to be steadfast. Therefore, Aqeemus Salaat means “to establish Salaat” as a permanent and balanced system in which human beings can follow the Divine Code in all aspects of their lives individually, as well as collectively. This obviously requires an independent and sovereign land in which the Divine Code can be enforced as a living constitution. This is the essence of prayer and, in fact, an essential requirement for the establishment of Salaat. The Qur’an is very specific on this point when it says:

“These are the people who, when they will have power in the land (24:55), then they will establish Salaat…” (24:21). [This is exactly the reason why Allama Iqbal suggested the idea of Pakistan, normally referred to as Pakistan ideology.]Is Salaat a Ritual?We have seen that according to its root meaning, Salaat is a system and not a ritual. Prayer (performed five times a day) is only a component of Salaat. Within this system, prayer is a powerful and effective means of achieving the Quranic goals mentioned earlier. Outside the system, however, it becomes a soulless ritual repeated solely for getting rewards in the hereafter. The difference between prayer being part of a system and a ritual can better be explained by the following example.


Soldiers within an army perform many duties and responsibilities. They lead their lives according to the various codes (or shari’ah) prescribed by the army. Every aspect of their lives is governed by these codes and violators are dealt with according to the “shari’ah” of the army. Along with other important activities, the soldiers are required to perform daily drills as well. These drills have their own codes (e.g., dress, haircut, schedule etc.) and every soldier has to follow them. The soldiers are also required to obey the orders of their commander-in-charge. Thus the drill is a component of the system and within the army system it produces its desired result.

Now, suppose the soldiers go home and perform their drills in their home streets exactly as before. These drills are now being performed outside the army system and therefore would not produce the same results as before. Nevertheless, if the soldiers keep on performing their daily drills like this, then this will be called a ritual because these drills are being performed outside the command and control of the army system.

The question then is how to establish this system of Salaat referred to by the Qur’an as Aqeemus Salaat.

How to Establish Salaat?

According to the Qur’an, it can not be forced (10:99) on an unwilling or ignorant people (10:100). First, the message has to be presented to them (62:2). Then, they have to be educated (2:151) so that they can understand this message (12:108). Only when a group of people have willingly accepted, understood, and been convinced of its truth with deep conviction (Iman) and want to lead their lives by this Divine Code, that this system of Salaat can be implemented. This is the process our Prophet (P) followed and therefore, is his Sunnah. The Prophet (P) and the Sahaba (R) did not pray for their personal salvation or just to please God. Their entire life was devoted to fulfilling the goal of establishing the system of Salaat in the society. ‘Aisha (R) is reported to have said that the Prophet (P) was a “walking Qur’an”. This means that he was leading his life by the Qur’an. He also made certain that his companions were living by it as well. The Quranic way of life can not be led individually or alone. It must be done collectively as an Ummah under a system driven by the Divine Laws. The only way to do this (according to the Qur’an and shown by the Prophet (P)) is to replace the old system based on lifeless and soulless rituals with a new one based on the Quranic concept of Salaat. Conclusion

Praying five times a day is only one part of Salaat. When we finish our prayers in the Masjid, we are not done with Salaat. It is not something to do and finish. It involves every aspect of life, keeping it within the guidelines of the Divine Code twenty-four hours a day. And this has to be done within a system under a central authority according to the Qur’an. This system was originally established by our Prophet (P) and the Sa’haba (R). Five times a day our prayers are meant to renew and reinforce our commitment to steadfastly enforce the system of Salaat ordered by Allah and practically shown to the humankind by the Prophet (P). This renewal boosts our psychological energy to come together and support each other towards the goals of the Qur’an. Salaat is the mechanism by which the Qur’an is implemented in mankind. This is how Allah’s laws can be engrained within us; this is how the Prophet (P) and the Sa’haba (R) found it so natural to follow the Qur’an, and the results they produced within 30 years speak for themselves. Needless to say, our prayers are not producing the same results although we have been praying for more than a thousand years in ever increasing numbers.


What is the purpose of Salaat and its effect on individuals and the society? In what way does it transform the society in the long term? These will be discussed in a future article.

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