Prayer (SalAt)

The fourth book is the “Book of Prayer” (SalAt).  It is the longest, with 1,398 ahAdIs divided into 203 chapters.  But in all these pages, one looks in vain for any reference to such problems as self-exploration and self-knowledge, problems of enduring concern for the spirituality of the Indian tradition.  There is not even a remote hint of different men endowed with different natures taking different paths toward a divinity differently figured.  As there is one Allah, one Guide, one Book, there is also one Prayer, caught and fixed in a single formula.

From the titles of the 203 chapters this book contains, one can see that they all relate to the externals: azAn (the call to prayer), postures like bowing, prostrating and rising, the number and times of the different prayers, the place of imAm in the system of prayers, the merits of prayers at different times, the prayer for rain, the prayer for protection against windstorms and other calamities, the prayer relating to the dead, and so on.


We are told how the institution of azAn began.  In the beginning, in Medina, people forgathered in the mosque without knowing when they were to pray.  As a means of calling people to prayer at fixed times, some suggested using a bell, as the Christians did; others a horn, as the Jews did.  Some even suggested that a fire should be lighted.  All these methods were ruled out.  To make the Muslim practice different from that of the Jews, the Christians, and the Fireworshippers, the system of the human voice was introduced.  BilAl, who was very loud-throated, and ’Abdullah b. Umm MaktUm, who later became blind, were the first mu’azzin (callers) (735, 737, 741).

AzAn is very effective.  “When Satan hears the call to prayer, he runs away to a distance like that of RauhA,” a distance of 36 miles from Medina (751).


AzAn became a great indicator.  Where it was heard, it meant that everything was not kufr (infidelity).  “The Messenger of Allah used to attack the enemy when it was dawn.  He would listen to the AzAn; so if he heard an AzAn, he stopped” (745).  This the commentator finds greatly virtuous in Muhammad.  “The greatest contribution made by the Holy Prophet in the sphere of warfare is that he elevated it from - the surface of reckless murder or slaughter to the level of humanized struggle for the uprooting of evil in society.  The Holy Prophet, therefore, did not allow his Companions to take the enemy unawares under the cover of darkness of night” (note 600).


When men hear the mu’azzin, they should repeat what he says and invoke blessings on Muhammad.  They should “beg from Allah al-WasIla for me, which is a rank in Paradise fitting for only one of Allah’s servants.  If any one who asks that I be given the WasIla, he will be assured of my intercession,” says Muhammad (747).

In a variation on this theme, if a man who hears a caller responds by testifying that he is “satisfied with Allah as my Lord, with Muhammad as Messenger, and with Islam as dIn [religion] his sins would be forgiven” (749).

In seeking blessings for himself, Muhammad does not forget his wives and progeny.  “Apostle of Allah, how should we bless you?” Muhammad is asked.  He replies: “O Allah! bless Muhammad, and his wives and his offspring. . . . He who blesses me once, Allah would bless him ten times” (807. 808).


Muslim prayer is not carried on in one tranquil posture, sitting or standing; it is accompanied by many bodily movements.  These have been codified on the basis of the practice and precepts of Muhammad.  There are many ahAdIs on the subject.  One narrator saw Muhammad “raising his hands opposite the shoulders at the time of beginning the prayer and before bowing down and after coming back to the erect position after bowing, but he did not raise them between two prostrations” (758).  Another saw his “hands lifted opposite to ears.” He also saw that the Prophet “then wrapped his hands in his cloth and placed his right hand over his left hand.  And when he was about to bow down, he brought out his hands from the cloth, and then lifted them. . . . And when prostrated, he prostrated between the two palms” (792).

Muhammad was commanded by Allah that “he should prostrate on the seven bones and he was forbidden to fold back the hair and clothing.” The seven bones are: “The hands, the knees, and the extremities of the feet and the forehead” (991).  But he asked his followers to “observe moderation in prostration” and not to stretch out [their] forearms on the ground like a dog” (997).

Originally the practice had been to put one’s hands together, palm to palm, and then to put them between one’s thighs.  But later on this practice was abrogated and the followers were “commanded to place them [hands] on the knees” (1086-1092).

Another precaution: “People should avoid lifting their eyes towards the sky while supplicating in prayer, otherwise their eyes would be snatched away” (863).


Muslim prayer is mostly group prayer.  It should be led by an imAm.  Muhammad enjoins that “when there are three persons, one of them should lead them” (1417).

Muhammad exhorts his followers to follow their imAm.  “When he prostrates, you should also prostrate; when-he rises up, you should also rise up,” he tells them (817).  He also forbids them to bow and prostrate themselves ahead of the imAm: “Does the man who lifts his head before the imAm not fear that Allah may change his face into that of an ass?” (860).  Also, those who are being led in prayer are required to keep pace with the imAm and are forbidden to recite so loudly as to compete with him.  When someone once did this, Muhammad told him: “I felt as if [you were] disputing with me . . . and taking out from my tongue what I was reciting” (783).  The imAm is authorized to appoint anyone as his deputy, when there is a valid reason for doing so, just as Muhammad appointed AbU Bakr during his last illness (832-844).


Somebody asked Muhammad which was the mosque “first set up on the earth.” He answered that it was the Ka’ba.  The second one was the great mosque in Jerusalem (1056, 1057).

In the beginning, when Muhammad was trying to cultivate the Jews, he prayed facing their temple in Jerusalem.  But later on, the direction (qibla) was changed to Mecca.  One tradition says: “We prayed with the Messenger of Allah towards Bait-ul-Maqdis for sixteen months or seventeen months.  Then we were made to change our direction towards the Ka’ba” (1072).  The followers had no difficulty and adjusted to the new change with alacrity.  Some people were praying their dawn prayer and had recited one rak’ah.  Someone told them that the qibla had been changed.  “They turned towards the new qibla in that very state” (1075).

The translator assures us that “this was a change of far-reaching importance. . . . It strengthened the loyalty of the Muslims to Islam and the Prophet” (note 732).  It must have made a strong appeal to Arab nationalism.


While giving his opinion of the first mosques, Muhammad makes some interesting disclosures.  He does not deny that the Jews and the Christians also had their prophets but adds: “I have been given superiority over the other prophets in six respects: I have been given words which are concise but comprehensive in meaning; I have been helped by terror (in the hearts of the enemies); spoils have been made lawful to me . . . ; I have been sent to all mankind; and the line of prophets is closed with me” (1062).  The whole earth is also made a “mosque” for him and given to him as a legitimate place of prayer for him and his (1058).  This is the idea of the world as a “mandated territory” bestowed on the believers by Allah.

We see here that European imperialism with all its rationalizations and pretensions was anticipated by Islamic imperialism by a thousand years.  In Islam we find all the ideological ingredients of imperialism in any age: a divine or moral sanction for the exploitation of the barbarians or heathens or polytheists; their land considered as a lebensraum or held as a mandate; they themselves regarded as the wards and special responsibility (zimma) of the civilizing masters.

Another hadIs mentions Muhammad’s power of “intercession” on the Day of Judgment, which other prophets lack (1058).  Other ahAdIs mention other points.  “I have been helped by terror.1 . . . . and while I was asleep I was brought the keys of the treasures of the earth,” says Muhammad.  This wealth the followers of the Apostle “are now busy in getting them,” adds AbU Huraira, the narrator of this hadIs (1063).2


Women can go to the mosque but they “should not apply perfume” (893), a privilege not denied to men who can afford it.  They were also told not to precede men in lifting their heads from prostration.  The translator explains that this hadIs relates to a period when the Companions were very poor and could not afford proper clothing.  The instruction was meant to give them time to adjust their clothing before the women lifted their heads (hadIs 883 and note 665).

Muhammad commanded the believers to “take out unmarried women and purdah-observing ladies for ’Id prayers, and he commanded the menstruating women to remain away from the place of worship of the Muslims” (1932).  But in a footnote explaining the standpoint of the Islamic sharI’ah with regard to women joining men in prayer, the translator says: “The fact is that the Holy Prophet deemed it preferable for women to say their prayers within the four walls of their houses or in the nearest mosque” (note 668).


There are many dos and don’ts.  For example, to wear shoes while praying is permissible (1129-1130), but clothes having designs and markings on them are distracting and should be avoided (1131-1133).  The Prophet commanded the believer that while praying “he should not spit in front of him, for Allah is in front of him when he is engaged in prayer” (1116).  According to another tradition, he “forbade spitting on the right side or in front, but it is permissible to spit on the left side or under the left foot” (1118).

To eat onion or garlic is not harAm (forbidden), but Muhammad found their odors “repugnant” (1149) and therefore forbade coming to the mosque after eating them, “for the angels are harmed by the same things as men” (1145).


It is meritorious to build a mosque, for “he who builds a mosque for Allah, Allah would build for him a house in Paradise” (1034).  But it is forbidden to build mosques on graves and to decorate them with pictures.  ’Aisha reports that when the Prophet “was about to breathe his last . . . he uncovered his face and said in this very state: ‘Let there be curse upon the Jews and the Christians that they have taken the graves of their Apostles as places of worship’ ” (1082).


This rule may seem to lack piety but in some ways it is realistic.  The believer is told to prefer supper to prayer.  “When the supper is brought and prayer begins, one should first take food,” says Muhammad (1134).  First things first.


According to Muslim jurists, there are different forms of prayer for sixteen specific dangerous situations.  For example, during a war, one group prays while the other one fights (1824-1831).


Friday is a special day.  “On it Adam was created, on it he was made to enter Paradise, on it he was expelled from heaven” (1856).

Every ummah was given the Book before the Muslims.  But though Muslims “are the last,” they “shall be the first on the Day of Resurrection.” While the Jews and the Christians observe Saturday and Sunday as their respective days, Muslims were fortunate to have Friday as their day, the day prescribed by Allah Himself for them.  “We were guided aright to Friday, but Allah diverted those who were before us from it” (1863).

An interesting story is reported in this connection.  One Friday, when the Prophet was delivering a sermon, a caravan with merchandise from Syria arrived.  People left the Prophet and flocked toward the caravan.  Then this verse was revealed: “And when they see merchandise or sport, they break away to it and leave you standing” (1877; QurAn 62:11).


JAbir b. ’Abdullah draws for us a pen-portrait of Muhammad delivering a sermon.  He reports: “When Allah’s Messenger delivered the sermon, his eyes became red, his voice rose, and his anger increased so that he was like one giving a warning against the enemy and saying: ‘The enemy has made a morning attack on you and in the evening too.’ He would also say: ‘The Last Hour and I have been sent like these two,’ and he would join his forefinger and middle finger Gust as there is no other finger between these two, similarly there will be no new Prophet between Muhammad and the Day of Resurrection) and would further say: ‘The best of the speech is embodied in the Book of Allah, and the best of guidance is the guidance given by Muhammad.  And the most evil affairs are their innovations; and every innovation is error’ ” (1885).

There are other eyewitness accounts of Muhammad’s sermons.  One report says: “Allah’s Messenger stood up [to pray] and we heard him say: ‘I seek refuge in Allah from thee,’ Then said: ‘I curse thee with Allah’s curse three times,’ then he stretched out his hand as though he was taking hold of something.” When asked to throw fight on this unusual behavior, he replied: “Allah’s enemy IblIs came with a flame of fire to put it in my face.” But even though cursed, he did not retreat.  “Thereafter, I meant to seize him. I swear by Allah that had it not been for the supplication of my brother SulaimAn he would have been bound, and made an object of sport for the children of Medina” (1106).


’Aisha reports: “The Messenger of Allah came in my apartment while there were two girls with me singing the song of the Battle of Bu’As.  He lay down on the bed and turned away his face.  Then came AbU Bakr and he scolded me and said: Oh! this musical instrument of the devil in the house of the Messenger of Allah.  The Messenger of Allah turned towards him and said: Leave them alone.  And when he became unattentive I hinted them [the girls] and they went out, and it was the day of Id” (1942).  Muhammad added: “AbU Bakr, every people have a festival and it is our festival [so let them play on]” (1938).

This is the only hadIs that can be construed as an instance of Muhammad’s approving of music.  In a large measure he was indulging his child-wife ’Aisha, but the sufi schools of Islam, in which music plays an important role, make the most of this hadIs.

On the same occasion, Muhammad, with ’Aisha’s head resting on his shoulder, was watching some Abyssinians engage in a mock armed fight.  ’Umar came and wanted to drive them away by throwing pebbles at them.  But Muhammad told him: “ ’Umar, leave them alone” (1946).


There are prayers for rain, prayers for protection against windstorms or terrible dark clouds, prayers to be recited at the time of a solar eclipse (1966-1972).  However, Muhammad had no friendly eye for nature.  He regarded clouds and winds with terror.  “When there was on any day windstorm or dark cloud its effect could be read on the face of the Messenger of Allah, and he moved forward and backward in a state of anxiety,”  ’Aisha tells us.  She further says: “I asked him the reason of this anxiety and he said: I was afraid that it might be a calamity that might fall on my Ummah” (1961).

Muhammad deals with the problem with the help of an incantation.  ’Aisha tells us: “Whenever the wind was stormy, the Apostle of Allah used to say: O Allah! I ask Thee for what is good in it, and the good which it contains, and the good of that which it was sent for. I seek refuge with Thee from what is evil in it, what evil it contains, and the evil of that what it was sent for” (1962).


There are also prayers for the dead and the dying.  The dying must be treated to a bit of theology.  “Exhort to recite, ‘There is no god but Allah,’ to those who are dying,” says the Prophet (1996).

When you visit the sick or the dead, supplicate for good, because “angels may say amen to whatever you say.” Umm Salama tells us: “When AbU Salama died, I went to the Apostle of Allah and said: Messenger of Allah, AbU Salama has died.  He told me to recite: ‘O Allah! forgive me and him [AbU Salama] and give me a better substitute than he.’ So I said this, and Allah gave me in exchange Muhammad, who is better for me than him [AbU Salama]” (2002).

Umm Salama was the widow of AbU Salama, to whom she had borne many children.  He died at Uhud, and Muhammad married her four months later.


Muhammad discouraged weeping over the dead: “The dead is punished because of his family’s weeping over it” (2015).  He also taught haste in the disposal of dead bodies.  “If the dead person was good, it is a good state to which you are sending him on: but if he was otherwise it is an evil of which you are ridding yourself” (2059).

Muhammad himself wept over the death of his loyal followers.  Weeping over the dying Sa’d b. UbAda, he said: “Allah does not punish for the tears that the eye sheds or the grief the heart feels, but He punishes for this [pointing to his tongue], meaning loud lamenting” (2010).  Muhammad also sobbed aloud, according to certain traditions, over his expiring child, who was only eighteen months old.  His followers tried to comfort him by reminding him of his own exhortation not to weep.  Muhammad replied: “It is not this that I forbade, but loud wailing and false laudation of the dead.”3


Muhammad tells us: “I sought [Allah’s] permission to beg forgiveness for my mother, but He did not grant it to me.  I sought permission from Him to visit her grave, and He granted it to me” (2129).  This was a fine gesture on Muhammad’s part after sending his mother to hell in fulfillment of the demand for theological consistency.


1That is, my enemies hold me in such terror and awe that they surrender without fighting.  This resulted from Muhammad’s terroristic methods: his assassinations and killings and the constant marauding raids by the Muslims.  For example, the beheading of eight hundred members of the tribe of Quraiza in cold blood in the market of Medina must have sent a chill of terror down the spine of everyone, foe or friend. 

2AbU Huraira should know.  He lived long enough (surviving Muhammad by twenty-five years) to see the nascent Muslim state grow into an empire and the tribute pour into the coffers of Medina.  Immediately after Muhammad’s death during the two years of AbU Bakr’s caliphate, the share of every Meccan and Medinan Muslim in the tithes received was only 9 dirhams for the first year and 20 dirhams for the next year.  But within two decades everything changed, thanks to the enormous revenues received from the outlying colonial regions in the neighborhood of the Arabian peninsula.  The diwAn, or Civil List, established by ’Umar specified that each of Muhammad’s widows was to receive 12,000 dirhams a year; each of the more than three hundred veterans of the Battle of Badr, 5,000 dirhams a year; everyone who had converted to Islam before that date, 4,000 dirhams a year, and their children, 2,000 dirhams a year.  Every Muslim had a place in this classification.  Officers of the Arab occupation armies in the different cantonment areas of the empire received yearly from 6,000 to 9,000 dirhams; and every boy born in these military quarters received from his birth 100 dirhams annually.  For a fuller account of the Civil List, refer to the TArIkh TabarI, vol. II., pp. 476-479.

3TirmizI, vol. I, hadIs 912; also William Muir, Life of Mahomet, vol. IV, p. 165.

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