Prayer in the Qur'anic Sense
Do you recall when was the last time you prayed?... Readers' answers may vary, but what is common to all is that most people pray, at one time or another. Indeed, people can pray to Allah, our Lord, at any time and in any place they like, for anything they wish. Allah calls attention to the fact that people can pray and remember Him anywhere they wish:
Those who remember Allah, standing, sitting and lying on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying]: "Our Lord, You have not created this for nothing. Glory be to You! So safeguard us from the punishment of the Fire. Our Lord, those You cast into the Fire, You have indeed disgraced. The wrongdoers will have no helpers. Our Lord, we heard a caller calling us to faith: "Have faith in your Lord!' and we had faith. Our Lord, forgive us our wrong actions, erase our bad actions from us and take us back to You with those who are truly good. Our Lord, give us what You promised us through Your Messengers, and do not disgrace us on the Day of Rising. You do not break Your promise." Their Lord responds to them: "I will not let the deeds of any doer among you go to waste, male or female…" (Surah Al Imran: 191-195)
In the Qur'an, Allah describes the kind of prayer He most likes, which we will explain below.
Praying Humbly, Without Loudness of Voice
When you are in distress or feel desperate and thus feel the need to pray to Allah, where would you like to pray? Surely, the solitude of one's own room at night or a very tranquil place that will give you the sense of Allah's nearness would be the place you are looking for.
While worshipping, spiritual integrity can best be attained in a time and place that offers secure undivided attention. A person who feels the need to pray to Allah for the correction of his or her mistakes prefers to be alone and pray in secret. The Prophet Zakariyya's prayers, through which he asked for a descendant, is an example of secret prayer:
When he called on his Lord in secret and said, "My Lord, my bones have lost their strength and my head is crowned with white, but in calling on You, My Lord, I have never been disappointed." (Surah Maryam: 3-4)
As stated above, prayer is "accepting one's weaknesses and limited power before Allah's infinite might and asking for help from Him." For this reason, prayer demands absolute consciousness and acceptance of one's weaknesses and destitution before Allah. In this sense, there is no doubt that one will fail to attain such consciousness if one is insincere. In the Qur'an, Allah recommends believers to pray humbly and secretly:
Call on your Lord humbly and secretly. He does not love those who overstep the limits. (Surat al- A'raf: 55)
Remember your Lord in yourself humbly and with awe, without loudness of voice, morning and evening. Do not be one of the unaware. Those who are in the presence of your Lord do not consider themselves too great to worship Him. They glorify His praise and they prostrate to Him... (Surat al-A'raf: 205-206)
In the Qur'an, Allah calls our attention to solitary prayer that is performed with a deep feeling of dire need. In this sense, the place, the sophistication of the outward performance, the number of participants, or the supplicants' loud voice can by no means be the criteria for a successful prayer.
One must be aware that a loud voice in prayer is not an element that makes it heard by Allah. As already mentioned, Allah, the All-Knowing, knows even our inner thoughts and He is closer to us than our jugular vein. In this sense, it is needless to raise our voice so as to be heard by our Lord Who is close to us. One can either pray secretly or in a tone of voice audible only to oneself.
From the verses below we understand that both while praying or going about our daily business, a person needs to use his or her voice at a moderate level:
Be moderate in your tread and lower your voice. The most hateful of voices is the donkey's bray. (Surah Luqman: 19)
Say: "Call on Allah or call on the All-Merciful, whichever you call upon, the Most Beautiful Names are His." Do not be too loud in your prayer or too quiet in it, but try to find a way between the two. (Surat al-Isra: 110)
As the verses reveal, the form of worship described in the Qur'an is far from ostentation. It is not performed to impress people: the sole purpose is the due fulfillment of one's duty towards the Creator. The Qur'an emphasizes this point strongly. In verses related to prayer, there are strong references to "calling on Allah, making one's religion sincerely His," which means, performing one's prayer to earn Allah's good pleasure alone and not seeking any other purpose. We can see this from verses such as the following:
He is the Living—there is no god but Him—so call on Him, making your religion sincerely His. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of all the worlds. (Surah Ghafir: 65)
So call upon Allah, making your religion sincerely His, even though the disbelievers detest it. (Surah Ghafir: 14)
Say: "My Lord has commanded justice. Stand and face Him in every mosque and call on Him, making your religion sincerely His. As He originated you, so you will return." (Surat al-A'raf: 29)
The religion belongs to Allah alone. All forms of worship are performed to earn Allah's good pleasure. The only way to attain this goal is to perform our worship in the form Allah describes.
Those who do not make their prayers or any other form of worship sincerely Allah's, that is, those who seek "ostentation," are in great delusion. As Allah says:
So woe to the praying ones, Who are unmindful of their prayers, Who do [good] to be seen. (Surat al-Maun: 4-6)
Feeling Allah's Existence While Praying
One of the essentials of prayer is having firm faith in Allah. In situations in which one feels desperate, people feel no doubt about Allah's existence and His help. Yet a person ought also to feel Allah's existence, might and grandeur while praying during times of ease. In fact, not only during prayer, but at every instant of daily life, a believer should retain this awareness. At every moment he must feel Allah's existence and closeness and pray, for only someone who is cognizant of Allah's existence acknowledges the meaning and importance of prayer. Prayer is an intimate and personal bond between people and Allah. Through prayer, people express all their troubles and wishes to Allah and implore Him to assist them. In return, Allah answers His servants' prayer.
As said earlier, prayer in the Qur'anic sense can by no means be limited to a few rituals. As the verse "… remember Allah standing, sitting and lying on your sides." (Surat an-Nisa: 103) maintains, one can bring Allah to mind and pray to Him at any time and under all conditions, without necessarily performing any particular ritual or ceremony. That is because what matters is not the outward performance but one's sincerity.
Misunderstanding this strips prayer of its actual meaning and causes it to be perceived as a form of magic or spell. We can see this by the superstitious practices of some ignorant people such as fastening clothes to trees or blowing into water. It is well to remember that superstition is the opposite of the Qur'anic rationale. Instead of directly turning to Allah and asking for their needs from Him, these ignorant people devise some superstitious rituals or symbols and pray through these means. Meanwhile, they are unaware on whom they call. They attribute supernatural power to those objects they pray to, yet they fail to describe the nature of this power. This includes the superstitious practice of visiting tombs and praying to the dead to ask for help, whereas visiting tombs should be to remind us of death and the power of Allah.
A believer who complies with Allah's command which says, "Remember the Name of your Lord, and devote yourself to Him completely." (Surat al-Muzzammil: 8) turns to Allah alone, and submits and pleads to Him.
Striking a Balance between Hope and Fear While Praying
In the Qur'an, Allah refers to Himself as, "... the Most Merciful of the merciful..." (Surat al-Anbiya': 83). It is also stated that, provided that one asks for repentance, anyone who does evil will find Allah forgiving. (Surat an-Nisa: 110) For this reason, people must reflect upon this attribute of Allah and pray with hope. No matter how serious an error a person may have committed, and is in deep remorse over it, it is not a reason for him or her to despair of Allah's forgiveness. Thus, the state of mind caused by erring and committing a sin must never become an impediment for a prayer of hope for forgiveness, for Allah states in the Qur'an that only disbelievers lose hope in Allah's mercy:
"... Do not despair of solace from Allah. No one despairs of solace from Allah except for people who disbelieve." (Surah Yusuf: 87)
In addition, no one is immune to punishment in Hell. Indeed Allah warns people against this, saying, "No one is safe from the punishment of his Lord." (Surat al-Ma'arij: 28) For this reason, everyone must fear Allah as much as he or she can. Human beings, whose life is a test, are always vulnerable to Satan's cunning deceptions and are thus very likely to go astray and turn away from the righteous path. Nobody is guaranteed a place in Paradise. This makes a person fear failing to attain Allah's good pleasure, while hoping for Allah's mercy.
Indeed, one of the attributes of a true believer that distinguishes him from all others is his fear of Allah, since a disbeliever doubts even the existence of Hell. Believers, however, are fully cognizant of Hell's existence, and they see it as a very serious threat. Having an unswerving faith in the Day of Judgment, they feel the greatest fear. Only a person who has faith in Allah and avoids arrogance is influenced in her conduct by this fear: she feels no doubt about the existence and severity of the torment of Hell, and never assumes an attitude or behavior that may involve the risk of being thrown into it. She only aspires to the life in the hereafter that abounds with infinite beauty and makes every effort to distance herself from torment. The fear a believer feels for the hereafter manifests itself in his or her prayer.
That is why we find the concepts of fear and hope side by side in the Qur'an. If a person fails to fear the torment of Hell while praying, this is due to an essential failure of thinking and comprehension. Just as how eagerly a person prays to attain Paradise, so must he, for avoidance of Hell. In other words, through fear of Hell, he hopes to attain Paradise. Some of the verses that mention this are as follows:
"Düzene konulması (ıslah)ından sonra yeryüzünde bozgunculuk (fesad) çıkarmayın; O'na korkarak ve umut taşıyarak dua edin. Doğrusu Allah'ın rahmeti iyilik yapanlara pek yakındır." (Araf Suresi, 56)
"Onların yanları (gece namazına kalkmak için) yataklarından uzaklaşır. Rablerine korku ve umutla dua ederler ve kendilerine rızık olarak verdiklerimizden infak ederler." (Secde Suresi, 16)
As is seen, fear and hope are the two essential feelings that are proper to prayer as described in the Qur'an. In fact, a careful scrutiny of the Qur'an reveals the vital importance these two concepts represent for all forms of worship and in every instant of one's life.
We must remember that prayer is both an important duty towards Allah and a means that will help us attain our next lives, for in the Qur'an Allah states that the end of those who fail to offer prayers to Allah will be the eternal torment in Hell.
Your Lord says, "Call on Me and I will answer you. Those who are too proud to worship Me will enter Hell abject." (Surah Ghafir: 60)
Remembering the Names of Allah While Praying
It is Allah's names that introduce Him to us. Allah is ar-Rahim, All-Merciful. He is al-Haqim, the One Who holds everything under His control. He is al-Razzaq, the One Who provides for people… Human beings acknowledge better Allah's greatness, nearness and might, by addressing Him by these names. For instance, when asking for provision, one can address Allah by His name al-Razzaq. Indeed, in the Qur'an, Allah states that we can pray to Him by any of His names:
Say: "Call on Allah or call on the All-Merciful, whichever you call upon, the Most Beautiful Names are His." (Surat al-Isra: 110)
To Allah belong the Most Beautiful Names, so call on Him by them and abandon those who desecrate His Names. They will be repaid for what they did. (Surat al-A'raf: 180)
A person who is knowledgeable about Allah's attributes does not attempt to conceal his mistakes from Allah, aware that He knows everything whether he conceals them or not. Aware that hiding one's wrongdoings brings a believer nothing but harm, she repents and seeks His forgiveness for all her sins. Indeed, the Prophet Ibrahim's prayer begins as follows:
Our Lord! You know what we keep hidden and what we divulge. Nothing is hidden from Allah either on the earth or in heaven. (Surah Ibrahim: 38)
A believer knows that, no matter what his or her wish may be, everything is under Allah's control and that He needs only to command "Be" and it is. With this in mind, he feels no insurmountable barrier to attaining Allah's blessings, and overcomes any hardship and obstacle through prayer.
Aside from asking for help from Allah and expressing one's needs, prayer is a means to remember and exalt Allah. The Qur'an gives us examples of exalting Allah by uttering His names in the prophets' prayers. Some of these prayers are as follows:
He (Sulayman) said, "My Lord, forgive me and give me a kingdom the like of which will never be granted to anyone after me. Truly You are the Ever-Giving." (Surah Sad: 35)
"Our Lord, do not make our hearts swerve aside after You have guided us. And give us mercy from You. You are the Ever-Giving." (Surah Al Imran: 8)
He [Musa] said, "My Lord, forgive me and my brother and admit us into Your mercy. You are the Most Merciful of the merciful." (Surat al-A'raf: 151)
Then and there Zakariyya called on his Lord and said, "O Lord, grant me by Your favor an upright child. You are the Hearer of Prayer." (Surah Al Imran: 38)
Avoiding Standard Expressions While Praying
Prayer is remembering Allah, confessing one's wrongdoings to Him and expressing one's needs. A heartfelt sincerity is essential for prayer to be meaningful in these ways.
People repeat standard expressions while praying because, rather than being a sincere act of worship, people consider prayer as a sort of ritual, habit or custom. One who grasps Allah's greatness, fears His punishment, and desires to earn His good pleasure, will turn to Him with heartfelt sincerity and honesty. Similarly, one who submits himself to Allah, and takes Him as his only friend and helper, will admit his troubles and distress to Him. As in the case of the Prophet Ya'qub (as), who said "… I make complaint about my grief and sorrow to Allah alone…" (Surah Yusuf: 86), he will admit his sufferings and requests to Allah, and ask for help and good from Him alone.
In a prayer that lacks such sincerity—and thus is perceived as an obligatory ritual or magic spell—the use of stock expressions are unavoidable. In such a case, the prayer is performed by uttering some standard phrases without thinking about their meaning. Prayer, however, is a person's sincere bond with Allah. Every one has their own problems, requirements, wishes and state of mind. In this sense, what matters during prayer is not the words but the state of mind.
Indeed, the prayers referred to by the Qur'an possess an unaffected style. When we look at the prophets's prayers in general, we come across frank and heartfelt expressions reflecting their genuine state of mind.
Avoiding Hastiness While Praying
Man is impetuous by nature, a fact which is also stressed in the verse, "Man is a creature of haste. I will show you My Signs so do not impatiently urge me." (Surat al-Anbiya': 37). When this hastiness surfaces, a person may well behave without considering the consequences of their behavior. Indeed, this hastiness usually reveals itself in the desire to attain worldly blessings.
People feel an inner desire for Paradise and Allah's blessings. One of the reasons why these blessings have their counterparts in this life is to ensure a better grasp of Paradise and thereby the desire for it. However, people, out of their hastiness and desire to attain these blessings, want their wishes to be granted immediately. This hastiness may sometimes reveal itself in prayer too. People expect an immediate answer to their prayers. When a person feels their prayer is not answered, they may wrongly conclude that it is not accepted. In time, impatience turns to hopelessness, even to the point of abandoning prayer. Our Prophet (saas) also drew attention to this point saying, "Your supplications will be answered as long as you are not impatient by saying, 'Ihave supplicated to my Lord but He has not answered.'" (Al-Bukhari)
We must bear in mind that it is Allah Who knows best what is good for us. The Qur'an states this with the verse, "… It may be that you hate something when it is good for you and it may be that you love something when it is bad for you. Allah knows and you do not know." (Surat al-Baqara: 216) This is why, when the servant asks for something from our Lord, he must be pleased with Him, whatever the outcome, aware that the decision rests with Allah alone. Not everything we wish for may be good for us. Therefore, Allah answers the prayer, not in the way we necessarily expect, but in the way deemed by Him to be most just. It may well be that, in order for a believer to grow in wisdom, Allah may not answer his prayer in the way he wishes, or until He prepares his character so he is ready for it. It may also be that Allah will replace his wish with something that is better, meanwhile, testing his patience and loyalty. Indeed, Allah recommends us to be steadfast in prayer:
Seek help in steadfastness and prayer. But that is a very hard thing, except for the humble.(Surat al-Baqara: 45)
In the Qur'an, Allah advises us to be resolute in prayer. Prayer is an act of worship and patience in prayer is important for the supplicant. A resolute prayer during times of adversity is a sign that one sorely needs an answer for that prayer, and more importantly, it draws one closer to Allah. It makes a believer grow in wisdom, will and character. A believer persevering in prayer receives an answer to his prayer in the form of a soul that is close to Allah, and this is an answer much more precious than many of the things one may ask for.
In some cases, many prophets prayed to Allah persistently for long years and their prayers were ultimately answered: the Prophet Ya'qub's (as) meeting his son (the Prophet Yusuf (as)) after years; the Prophet Yusuf's release from the prison where he was held for years and his being made the head of the Treasury and the way Allah eventually removed the severe afflictions from the Prophet Ayyub (as) who had suffered uncomplainingly, are all significant examples of patience.
Allah responded to these noble people's prayers only after some time for a specific purpose: He made them grow in wisdom; grow strong in character, patience and sincerity; and made them servants worthy of Paradise.
For this reason, being hasty in receiving an answer to one's prayer is not becoming to a believer. The sole responsibility of a Muslim is to be Allah's servant and be pleased with what has been ordained for him. In this sense, a true believer must perform his prayer as a part of this responsibility.
One Does Not Pray Only for Worldly Blessings
While praying, should we ask for mundane blessings, or turn solely to the life of the hereafter?
Allah considers both kinds of supplications good for sincere believers. No doubt, the life of this world is a short one that is doomed to end. Allah gives each blessing to human beings so that they can feel grateful to Him and draw nearer to Him. A blessing brings Paradise to mind, and makes a believer remember Allah's names and glorify Him. For these reasons, Allah recommends that believers pray both for this life and the next. Meanwhile, He warns them against turning all their attention to the temporary lure of this life. As the Qur'an says:
… There are some people who say, "Our Lord, give us good in the world." They will have no share in the hereafter. And there are others who say, "Our Lord, give us good in the world, and good in the hereafter, and safeguard us from the punishment of the Fire." They will have a good share from what they have earned. Allah is swift at reckoning. (Surat al-Baqara: 200-202)
A person asks for things that concern his own world. His pursuits and interests in life determine the way he prays. In addition, those devoted to Allah also reflect in their prayers their desire to fulfill His obligations.
One's wishes pertaining to this life may come true. Yet, as is said earlier, these may not turn out to be good for him. He asks for money, but that money may lead him astray, for in an environment where material values are idolized, almost everyone surrounding him will behave in a manner opposite to the tenets of religion.
The wish in question is a mundane one and it may well be granted in this world. But in the hereafter, what he encounters may not meet his expectations. Some of the lures of this world are related in the following verse :
To mankind the love of worldly appetites is painted in glowing colors: women and children, and heaped-up mounds of gold and silver, and horses with fine markings, and livestock and fertile farmland. All that is merely the enjoyment of the life of the world. The best homecoming is in the presence of Allah. (Surah Al Imran: 14)
Of course there is some benefit to attaining these goals in this life, but each one of these mundane benefits may ultimately turn out to be a loss in the hereafter. However, as the examples of prophets show us, when asked for with the right intention, worldly benefits can also be a gain in the hereafter.
These noble people asked for the temporary gains of this world such as material goods, children and an enviable status in society only to earn Allah's good pleasure. None of the prophets asked for children to enjoy the privilege of the continuance of their names: they only wanted children so that their children could become leaders to people of faith after them.
Meanwhile, if someone desires many children as a way to show off, to satisfy his or her ambitions or for feelings of superiority, Allah may grant this wish. But because of the ostentation and arrogance of this wish, a person will be distanced from Allah, and will have no reward in the hereafter for this desire.
So, a prayer that is oriented solely to mundane blessings is not only unbecoming to a believer, but also a form of insincerity on his behalf. A believer's main goal is Paradise. In their prayers, believers must not forget their real abode and devote all their attention to the life of the hereafter. They must ask for things for the sake of both this world and beyond.
Rather Than Being Personal, Prayers Must be For all Believers
In societies of ignorance, people crave the best of everything: they want to have the best car, the best house, lots of money, a beautiful spouse and so on. It is not uncommon to see them quarrelling jealously with their close friends or relatives.
Those who live by the Qur'an's values, however, share what they have with others. Believers understand that they do not really "own" their blessings in this world, rather that they are from Allah, so when they can, they share them with others. Indeed in the Qur'an, Allah calls our attention to this point while making mention of believers' attributes:
... [Those who] do not find in their hearts any need for what they have been given and prefer others over themselves even if they themselves are needy. It is the people who are safe-guarded from the avarice of their own selves who are successful. (Surat al-Hashr: 9)
This fondness believers feel for one another, and the significance of their striving for one another's good is mentioned in many other verses:
The men and women of the believers are friends of one another. They command what is right and forbid what is wrong, and establish prayer and pay alms, and obey Allah and His Messenger. They are the people on whom Allah will have mercy. Allah is Almighty, All-Wise. (Surat at-Tawba: 71)
The community of believers also manifests itself in their prayers, as is demonstrated by the fact that while addressing Allah, believers often say "we" rather than "I". That is, while asking for anything from Allah, a believer asks not only for him or herself, but also for all other believers. No doubt, one may also call on Allah for personal reasons. One may ask for Allah's help in attaining all sorts of blessings, in repentance or in avoiding the torment in Hell or being degraded on the Day of Judgment. However, asking for these things also for other believers is an attribute praised in the Qur'an. As the following verses relate :
… Our Lord, do not take us to task if we forget or make a mistake! Our Lord, do not place on us a load like the one You placed on those before us! Our Lord, do not place on us a load we have not the strength to bear! And pardon us; and forgive us; and have mercy on us. You are our Master, so help us against the disbelieving people. (Surat al-Baqara: 286)
Our Lord, do not make our hearts swerve aside after You have guided us. And give us mercy from You. You are the Ever-Giving. Our Lord, You are the Gatherer of mankind to a Day of which there is no doubt. Allah will not break His promise. (Surah Al Imran: 8-9)
Our Lord, we have faith in what You have sent down and have followed the Messenger, so write us down among the witnesses. (Surah Al Imran: 53)