Salah – Just Another Obligation in a Burdensome Religion?
Salah is the 2nd pillar of Islam, and is one of the most obvious manifestation of faith in Islam. Our daily lives are supposed to be held together by these 5 daily prayers and are a part of the covenant between Muslims and God. However, important as it is, salah is also one of the most neglected aspects of Islam today. You would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim who actually regularly prays all 5 prayers everyday. For some reason the huge importance of salah is put aside and people just believe that if they “have faith” then that is enough, but they don’t seem to understand that if you really have faith, it should manifest itself in your actions and lifestyles – and salah, the second pillar right after the profession of faith, should be one of the most natural manifestations of one’s faith.
Back in the day, the Muslims used to get together and discuss things like the best way of praying their supererogatory late-night prayers, but today Muslims are usually surprised if they see another Muslim praying just the 5 obligatory prayers. It is so easy to procrastinate prayers or make up excuses for why you can’t pray right now and why that’s okay. Even with those who do maintain their prayers, sometimes it is so hard to get off the couch, wash up and pray. The hardest is probably the dawn prayer, Fajr , which requires you go wake up at least about 15 minutes before dawn.
After some thought, I think I have an idea as to why it seems so natural to feel reluctance towards salah, or at least why salah may seem like a chore to use when our religion teaches that it is something so wonderful.
If a goldfish tried to live in the Dead Sea, it wouldn’t live very long. Goldfish, in their natural state [it’s state of islam – the way God meant it to be naturally], need to live in freshwater, and to live in anything else can be severely detrimental to their health. However, you will not find goldfish in the Dead Sea because they do not have the free will (nor the intellectual capacity) to decide to migrate to the Dead Sea and try establishing a colony there. Human beings, on the other hand, do have free will, meaning even though we have a natural state of islam that is mandatory to our health and well-being, we have the option of choosing our life styles and following our whims and desires. This includes choosing to eat properly or improperly, choosing to get enough exercise or not to get enough exercise, choosing to dress appropriately to the weather or to dress inappropriately to the whether, or even choosing to skip salah when every aspect of us needs to pray and worship God Almighty. That is right – more then an obligation, salah is a human necessity, a necessity that makes its absence known on each and every atom of the human. As a matter of fact, the whole idea behind Islam is that to follow God’s revelation is our most natural state of being, our state of islam, because God teaches us how to live as he meant us to live. It is how we are designed, just as goldfish were designed to live in freshwater. Do we ever think of eating as just a burden or chore? NO! Therefore, why is salah seen that way?
However, we just don’t realize that salah is such an integral necessity. That is the trouble with free will. God Almighty knows what is best for us, and He gave us guidance that is for our own good. However, since we have the will to accept or reject, what appeals to us seems to be a favour, and what doesn’t appeal to us appears to be a burdensome command. In truth, everything in Islam is considered both a favour and a command (not a burden, though!), for God Almighty commands us to be Muslim, commands us to live up to our potential and purpose, and to achieve success in our ultimate goals. God Almighty commands us to be Muslim and press forward to please Him, fulfill our potential and achieve paradise; He commands us to do what is best for us! All the legislation in Islam, such as those concerning salah, wudhu, zabiha, sadaqah, istinja’, etc. are good for us, but sometimes we are too ignorant to figure it all out.
Here is what happens when we feel like skipping prayer. We are naturally always looking for pleasure, looking for nourishment, looking for contentment. However, our conception of salah has been misconstrued by our minds into something of a chore, of a bore, of a sort of weird series of motion. Some people pray only by actions of the body, but their minds are off somewhere else, thinking about school, work, television, etc. Some Muslims don’t know what they are saying when they pray in Arabic, nor are they even curious. They miss the whole point of salah. Unfortunately, what they don’t realize is that most of the time what we need when we are looking to do something else besides salah is, in fact, salah itself. We tend to seek the benefits that are associated with a true, complete salah elsewhere, in a more materialistic place. We rather sleep in than pray Fajr, rather eat out for lunch than pray Zuhr, busy ourselves with mundane chores rather then pray ‘Asr, go out and watch a movie with friends than pray Maghrib, and rather stay up and browse YouTube than pray ‘Isha’a. What we are looking for actually lies within salah.
[However, there are of course times when we have a genuine reason for missing or delaying salah. If you have a medical emergency, obviously you need to take care of that. If you are extremely preoccupied at the moment, like a surgeon in the middle of a complicated surgery, it is probably okay to take care of such an immediate and important need first. The prophet himself said,
“No prayer can be (rightly said) when the food is there (before the worshipper), or when he is prompted by the call of nature.” [Sahih al-Muslim, Bk.004, No.1139
Thus, Islam does teach moderation and consideration of special circumstance, and as such, one ought to use self-honesty and common sense when deciding if you actually are delaying prayer for a good reason or not.]
It gets a little more complicated, however. Scientists say that humans have a sweet tooth in order to drive us to eat fruits that provide our bodies with vitamins and minerals needed for health and simple carbohydrates for quick energy (1), but unfortunately these days we try to satisfy that need for healthy fruits with unhealthy candies, pastries, soft drinks, etc. Likewise, with salah we try to fill that gap with material things, because we are brought up to believe that all the solutions to our problems lie in materialistic things, that there is no room in the modern world for spiritual play. We become foolish, trying trust our own desires instead of the wisdom of Allah (SWT).
Truly, what we desire outside of salah can be acquired in the highest quality inside of salah. That is why when you chase after materialistic solutions, you are always left wanting. As the hadith says:
“…If the son of Adam (AS) had one valley of money he would wish for the second. If he had two valleys, he would wish for the third. So, nothing except soil can fill up the bellies (hunger) of the son of Adam (AS) (i.e. dying and returning from the earth from whence we all came)…” (Sahih al-Bukhari Vol.8 Bk.76 No.446)
We will never satisfy ourselves by the materialism prevalent all around us. With all honesty, the satisfaction of a completed salah for the sake of Allah (SWT) is indescribable, a feeling everyone should experience, a feeling that is so subtle and yet overwhelming, that one becomes addicted to it. The more you realize that feeling, the more you want of it, but this time, you want more not just for your pleasure, but for the connection between yourself and Allah (SWT). The more you worship and love Him, the more you want to worship Him, because that is how we are designed, how we are meant to be. This is similar to how more people work out, the more they want to exercise and work out because our bodies enjoy and crave what is naturally good for it (the “sweeth tooth” equivalent for working out comes in the form of the endorphin rush during exercise that make an individual enjoy the physical experience).
Worship is our natural state (Surah adh-Dhariyat, Qur’an Ch. 51 v.56). Even outside of salah, things like zakat, sawm, hijab, du’a, etc. may at first seem like Islam focuses too on the material and not on the spiritual, especially to non-Muslims who may have the false notion that Islam is a religion of only works. However, it is all about the intention, efforts and experience, and when someone experiences Islam, they see all of it as opportunities to establish a connection and communicate with God. We Muslims should love praying, giving charity, fasting, etc., but some Muslims in this day and age are getting secularized.
The feeling you get after a complete, honest, intensive and focused salah – the mute silence of your mind, the adoration in your heart, the submissiveness of your will, the sense of fulfillment that you feel enveloping your body, the joy of accomplishing what your Lord Almighty has prescribed for you for your own benefit, the total and personal relationship/communication and warm affinity you feel with Allah Almighty, the hope/fear for the acceptance of your salah by God and of the atonement/mercy that you know very well you don’t deserve but God Almighty graces you with anyways, and the heartfelt confirmation of the reality of Islam, the reality of Allah in our lives as our Rabb, our Lord/Caretaker, and the relief you have wash over you, flowing up and across you after you realize that everything is now in Allah’s hands (so please stop stressing out and take a chill pill) – that feeling…once you experience that unmistakable experience, you will know salah is just what you really need, not sleep, or an extra hour of television, nor an extra snack, etc. All those things aren’t necessarily bad in themselves, but are only dangerous when Shaytan uses them as a distraction from your real goals. At times, you might mess up here and there, miss a prayer or two, but as you get more into keeping your salah you will feel much sorrow and regret when missing just one prayer.
Some might say that deeds like salah just create more feelings of self-righteousness, pride and arrogance. This is true if one doesn’t fully understand salah or if he/she is praying for the wrong reasons. If you just look at a translation of of salah, and if you understand the meaning behind the concept of salah then it should lead to humility, gratitude and repentance. Salah makes you remember just how imperfect you are, and how much more work your Islam needs. Even if you start feeling righteous and proud, putting things in proper context usually dissolves such unwanted feelings.
People also may complain about how salah is mostly scripted instead of allowing the Muslim to say what he or she wants. The thing is, the scripted portions are mandatory because they basically summarize our condition to us, and the more you study those scripted portions the more you realize just how perfect of a prayer they really are. Regular prayer where you just raised you hands up anywhere you are (though actually you don’t really have to raise your hands or even make an audible prayer – mental prayers are better than nothing) and talk to God is called du’a and is highly encouraged and loved by God, but sometimes we pray too much for what we want and what we think we need. The salah teaches us what we really need in the long run and serve more to a benefit for us as a constant reminder of Islam throughout the day. God doesn’t need our prayers, but we do, and the physicality of the salah unites our bodies’ submission with out mental focus on the prayer to God and the spiritual warmth and integrity to form one rather powerful and incomparable experience.
The more we try to satisfy our need of prayer with materialistic things, the more that empty hole, that desire, that yearning, will grow, and left unabated, it will tear you up without you realizing it. It is only on the musalla (prayer mat) that we truly rediscover our purpose and passion, our love and our life, our relationship with Allah Almighty (SWT). That is why our deen is called Islam, peace through total submittal to God Almighty, and why our obligatory prayers are called salah – a word which when taken also by its etymological meaning may ultimately refer to the warm intensive connection between us and Allah (SWT).
– Farhan R.
(1) – Bramen, Lisa. “The Evolution of the Sweet Tooth”. Smithsonian.com <http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2010/02/the-evolution-of-the-sweet-tooth/> February 10, 2010. Last Accessed September 21, 2011.