The Essence of the Muslim Prayer
by Ahmed Arafat
Islamic Studies Teacher, Universal School
In the Quran, Allah unequivocally says: “And aqim [perfect] your prayer; indeed, prayer guards against immorality and evil.” (29:45) The ayah promises a moral, victorious life for those who perfect, not just say, their prayers. The pressing question now is how can I perfect my prayers? Well, I think there are three main factors that affect the level of perfection in our prayers: (1) feeling the presence of Allah, (2) understanding the sayings and Athkar of Salah and (3) recognizing the rationale beyond the movements of Salah. In this article, we will explore the spiritual benefits of Sujud, the most crucial movement of the Muslim prayer.
1- Learning Humility in Practice
By putting our foreheads on the ground, we are reminded of the origin of our creation: the dust. This position is sufficient for us to leave no room for arrogance or vanity. By putting our forehead on the ground, we admit the Holiness and Perfection of Allah. The natural response to this acknowledgement must be true humility. The more we recognize Allah’s greatness and our human weakness, the more we are broken of pride and self-centeredness. Accordingly, Sujud has a clear message for every Muslim: all people are equal in the sight of Allah, regardless of their color, race or language. Interestingly, I heard a Muslim Preacher saying: “Look at your nose during your Sujud and you will learn the true humbleness!”
In actuality, learning humility through Sujud is more practical and effective than reading or listening to plenty of lectures on the same topic. Moreover, we are trained to practice humility five times a day as a religious obligation and as many as we can for voluntary acts of worship. That is why a practicing Muslim is not expected to be a racist or an arrogant person; otherwise, his prayer will be a witness against him. However, a Muslim is given at least five chances to fully nurture his humility and achieve moral maturity and spiritual transformation.
2- Renewing our Covenant of Obeying God
In Sujud, we admit the supremacy of Allah and our complete submission to His Will. Hence Sujud, as perceived by the great encyclopedist Muhammad Farid Wajdi, is “the maximum sign man could show to prove his obedience and servitude to the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth.” In other words, Sujud represents an implicit commitment to obeying Allah and a serious promise to stay away from the haram. So when make Sujud, we remember our sins and shortcomings and plead for renewing our covenant of obeying Allah. Accordingly Sujud is like saying: “Oh Allah, I am sorry for the sins I committed; so, forgive me.” That is why Sujud is associated with crying when the Quran talks about how the righteous servants of Allah perform their Sujud. Allah described the righteous people when they hear the Quran: “They fall down on their faces in tears.” (Mariam: 58)
Accordingly we should deal with Sujud as a means of ‘daily repentance’—something that really helps us to be protected against the Devil’s attempts to make us despair of Allah’s mercy or to dissuade us from maintaining the level of Ibadah we have, especially when we are trapped by our sins and mistakes. So Sujud helps us weaken the hold of sin on us.
In a more detailed manner, a practicing Muslim who always keeps up his daily Salah and recognizes the significance of Sujud will never be defeated by Satan. If a Muslim committed a sin after Thuhr, he has an appointment with Allah at ‘Asr to wash away his sins and renew his covenant with his Lord. If the same person committed a sin after ‘Asr, he will get rid of it at Maghrib and start over a new relationship with Allah. This actually happens five times a day. In other words, Allah gives us five main, obligatory chances to start a brand new life and follow His Way and avoid the paths of the Devil. Thus through Salah, and particularly Sujud, you have the chance to wash away your past sins and embrace a new beginning every day.
In this way, Salah should be considered as the fountain of hope for everyone who tries sincerely to overcome Satan’s whisperings and to nurture his spirituality. The late sheikh Muhammad Mutwalli Ash-Sha’rawi, one of Al-Azhar prominent scholars, once said—with some modifications and additions—: “Can you imagine that your car might break down if your mechanic checks it out five times a day? Most probably it will not, simply because if the mechanic noticed a problem, he would fix it right away. By the same token, continues the Sheikh, a Muslim presents himself five times a day to check the level of his Iman and character and cleanse the dirt of sins.”
Imam al-Bukhari and Imam Muslim reported, on the authority of Abu Hurayrah, that the prophet once asked his companions: “What do you think if one of you had a river running past his door and he bathed in it five times a day, would there be any trace of dirt left on him? They said: “No trace of dirt will remain on him.” Upon this the prophet replied: “This is the case with the five daily prayers, through which Allah washes away our sins.”
Actually, turning back to Allah, through Sujud, makes the distinction between a Muslim who keeps up his Salah and a Muslim who abandons his Salah very clear. In practice, a Muslim who may commit sins but observes his Salah will not be considered as ‘insisting on committing sins’ since he frequently renews his covenant of obeying Allah. The Quran instructs us: “And perfect your Salah; indeed, Salah guards against immorality and evil.” (Al-‘Ankabut: 45) Of course this ayah applies to those who concentrate on and understand the purpose of their Salah movements and sayings.
In contrast, abandoning Salah which has the protective Sujud will result in being easily trapped by the Devil and following our whims and desires. Reading the Quran carefully, we will find a close connection between abandoning Salah and following our lusts and desires. Allah says: “There came after them an evil generation that neglected their prayers and followed the whims; so, loss awaits them—except those who repent and have Faith and do good deeds. Such will enter Heaven and will not be wronged at all.” (Mariam: 59-60) In his Tafseer, Imam al-Razi compared between this ayah and the one before it (Mariam: 58). He said: “Neglecting Salah was mentioned in contrast with ‘fall on their faces’ and ‘following the whims’ was mentioned in contrast with ‘in tears’ because weeping indicates fear while following the whims indicates lack of fear.”
3- Attaining Closeness to God
Why does Sujud make us closer to Allah? It seems that there are three main reasons. First, there are two main things that usually move people away from Allah: sin and pride. We just learned how Sujud teaches us repentance and humility. That is why the more Sujud you make, the closer to Allah you will be. Second, Sujud draws us near to Allah, because through it we express our ultimate submission to Allah and declare our absolute humility. Third, in Sujud we express our need of Allah. It is always when you feel weak and needy, you will be closer to Allah, simply because at moments of need and hard times you can easily recognize Allah’s sovereignty and greatness and your inability and weakness. That is why the prophet taught us that there are types of people that Allah answers their prayers: the fasting person, who usually feels hungry and thirsty; the patient person, who usually feels feeble and weak; the oppressed person, who usually finds hope in none but Allah; and the traveler, who usually suffers from tiredness and fatigue.
Not only is the supremacy of God clearly acknowledged through the physical act of Sujud but also through a verbal act. In each Sujud, we must say: “سبحان ربي الأعلى ” “Holy be my Lord, the Highest.” It is best to repeat this statement slowly and thoughtfully, with frequent periods of silence, allowing the meaning to sink in and take hold.
It is because Sujud marks a moment of feeling very close to Allah, the prophet recommended frequent prayers or du’as during Sujud. The prophet said: “Nothing brings you closer to Allah than Sujud; so, offer more du’as.” Therefore do not make your sins a barrier against saying more du’as. Sufyan-uth-Thawri said: “Do not let what you know of your sins impede you from saying du’as since Allah answered the prayer of the Devil, the worst of all creations, when the latter said: “My Lord, grant me respite till the day when they will be raised up. He [Allah] said: ‘You are granted respite till the appointed Day.” Moreover, the Quran tells us that Allah answered the polytheists’ prayer; yet, in the Hereafter, they will have no rewards. “And when they sail in a ship they purely pray to Allah alone [to save them]. However, when He brings them safe to land, they quickly commit Shirk [ascribing partners with Allah].” (29: 65)
It is interesting to mention here some of the du’as the prophet taught us to say during Sujud. " اللهم اغفر لي ذنبي كله دقه وجله وأوله وآخره وعلانيته وسره " which means: “My Lord, forgive me all my sins: small and great, first and last, apparent and hidden.” One more du’a the prophet used to say is " اللهم لك سجدت ، وبك آمنت ، ولك أسلمت ، سجد وجهي للذي خلقه وصورة ، وشق سمعه وبصره ، تبارك الله أحسن الخالقين " which means: “My Lord, before You I prostrate, in You I believe and to You I submit. My face prostrated before the One Who created and fashioned it, made its hearing and sight. Blessed be Allah, the best of the creators.”
4- Enjoying the Gift of Stopping
You need some moments every day to pause to stay away from the noisy world in which we live. We need to embrace silence by devoting time for prayers five times a day to refresh our inner thoughts, recharge our spirit to be continuously connected with Allah. Understanding Salah in this way will help us get rid of the stress resulting from work, home, relations with others and all the challenges and expectations that we face on a daily basis. We are not only a body like a machine! We have a soul that needs to be spiritually nurtured. Salah, especially Sujud, helps you make the balance between the requirements of the body and the soul. Actually your Salah is not a waste of time; it is the spiritual energy and the commitment to excellence you get five times a day to renew your mind, relax your brain and refresh your moral responsibilities and thereby help you manage the pressures of life.
5- Trusting Allah in Hard Times
Since genuine Sujud reflects our faith in Allah’s worthiness to be worshipped and trusted, Salah can be a good means for alleviating our pains, removing our worries and developing our trust in Allah and His decrees. For righteous people, Salah was always a true refuge from all the trials and problems of our daily life. To face the polytheists’ mockery and persecutions, Muhammad was instructed in the Quran: “Nay, never obey them. Prostrate and get closer.” (Al-‘Alaq: 19) In another position, the Quran comforts the prophet: “We do indeed know how thy heart is distressed at what they say. But celebrate the praises of thy Lord, and be of those who prostrate themselves in adoration.” (Al-Hijr: 97) [Yusuf Ali] That is why it is reported that whenever the prophet faced a difficult time, he would rush to Salah and say: “Give us comfort through prayer, Bilal”
6- Harmony between Muslims and the Whole Universe
One of the greatest teachings of Islamic Faith is embodied in the word Islam itself which is derived from the root SLM which means ‘submission’ and ‘peace’. The Quran teaches that all righteous people and prophets were Muslims in the sense that they totally submitted their will to the One same God: Allah. Moreover, the Quran teaches that the whole universe submits to Allah and follows His commands. In the Quran, we find countless ayat talking about the universe submission and Sujud. The Quran provides: “Have you not seen that before God prostrate whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is on the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the hills, and the trees, and the beasts, and many of mankind…?” (Al-Hajj: 18) It is only humans who were given a free will to obey Allah or disobey Him bearing the consequence for their decisions. However, when humans submit to Allah, they form a universal Sujud along with the whole universe. A true Muslim does not feel alone when he worships Allah, even if all people abandoned him; he actually shares the whole universe of worshipping the true God.
7- Teasing the Devil
Sujud differentiates between faithful man and the Cursed Satan. When Allah asked him to make Sujud for honoring the new Adam, the Devil refused out of arrogance. That is why Satan was cursed till the Day of Judgment. Consequently, when the believers accept Allah’s call to pray and prostrate, Satan stays away and start weeping and say: “The son of Adam was ordered to make Sujud, and he did; so, for him will be Heaven. However, I was ordered to prostrate, and I refused; so, for me will be hell.” Unfortunately, those who abandon their Salah are following Satan’s way and rejecting Allah’s command.
8- Raising our Level in Heaven and Removing our Sin on Earth
Imam Muslim reported, on the authority of Ma’dan ibn Abi Talhah, that he said: “I asked Thawban to tell me of something divinely beneficial. Upon this Thawban said: “I heard the prophet saying: ‘Whoever makes a Sajdah [prostration] for Allah, Allah will surely elevate his degree in Jannah one more level and wipes away one of his sins.’”
Moreover, Ibn Hibban reported on the authority of Abi-l-Muneeb, that ibn Umar saw a young man making his Salah long. So ibn Umar asked: “Who knows this man?” “I know him,” answered a man. Upon this ibn Umar said: “Were I to know him, I would tell him to make his Ruku’ and Sujud long, for I heard the prophet saying: “Whenever a man rises up for Salah, all his sins would be placed on his shoulders and, thereby, fall down whenever one kneels or prostrates.”
9- Gaining the Companionship of the Prophet in Heaven
Imam Muslim reported, on the authority of Rabi’ah ibn Ka’b al-Aslami, that the latter said: “I used to stay with the prophet and bring him the water for Wudu’. Then the prophet once asked me: “Make a wish!” “I wish I would be in your company in Heaven.” “Nothing else?” asked the prophet. “That is [all that I need].” Then the prophet said: “Assist me in that by your frequent Sujud.”
10- Experiencing the Joy of Freedom
When you choose to be a slave of Allah, you decide to be free. Failure to making this essential choice will cause us to fall into the trap of being slaves to many other objects; such as, money (by seeking it without distinguishing between its legal and illegal ways), women (by following our lusts and desires immorally) and our own selves (by being selfish and self-centered). The Quran gave a parable to compare between a person who has many, conflicting bosses and another who has one, pure boss. Of course the first person who got many conflicting bosses cannot please all of them. Such is the case with that who refused to be a slave of Allah. Such a person will lead a confusing, frustrating life as he fails to please the many bosses or objects he submitted himself to. In contrast, the second person who got one pure boss will be able to please Him. Such is the case with the person who chooses to be a true slave of Allah. Check (Az-Zumar: 29).
To conclude, understanding the spiritual values of Sujud will make a big difference in improving our Salah and kindling our hearts. Moreover, this new understanding of Sujud can turn Salah from being a burden into a tool that contributes to our spiritual growth and enlightenment. “It is reported that birds used to stand on Abdullah ibn Az-Zubayr while making Sujud as if he was an unmovable rock. This indicates two things: he was still, and his Sujud was long, simply because if his Sujud was long but he was moving or his was short even if he was still, then birds would not be able to stand on him!”