The importance of regular prayer is emphasized repeatedly in the Quran. Prayer or salat is the essence of faith. It is the primary pathway to God consciousness. However, a remarkable fact is that the Quran does not prescribe a format for prayer. The Quran insists that people should pray but consistently avoids prescribing a method for doing it. On the contrary, the Quran points out that insistence on particular prayer rituals are misplaced:
“Goodness is not in turning your face to the east or to the west——“. [2:177]
The Quran teaches instead that God is always with us and asks us to speak to Him directly:
“And if My servants ask about Me—behold I am near, I respond to whoever calls on Me, whenever they call, let them then respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may benefit.” [2:186]
It is ironic that teachings in the Muslim tradition have taken a totally opposite view. Adherence to format is considered an absolute must for prayer. Children are introduced to Islam in homes and in mosques throughout the world by indoctrination about form and rituals of body postures. Converts to Islam are advised by clergy that they must learn the Arabic words, the correct pronunciation, the body postures and their sequences, with frequent reminders that any departure from the prescribed routine makes the prayer defective and unacceptable to God. Non-Arabic speaking people are told that it may be better for them to know the meaning of the Arabic words, but it is not necessary; what matters to God is that you utter the words with correct Arabic pronunciation. For Arabic-speaking Muslims also it is not much better because all the importance is given to rote learning of the words and their delivery in the right sequence in the required number of rakaa. With such an emphasis on outward correctness, people when praying often find their attention focused on their own behavior and performance. There is hardly any room left in their awareness to connect with God or to speak to Him with an authentic personal voice or with deep feeling. This emphasis on outward correctness has now been programmed into Muslims for so many generations that prayer is commonly described as an ‘obligation’ and a ‘duty’. The idea that prayer could be spontaneous or joyful is almost heretical. Men and women who have been performing the ‘duty’ of prayer for many years inevitably become bored and uninspiring people. Their personalities contradict the promise of the Quran at the beginning of Sura Al-Muminun:
”Successful indeed are the believers, who are sincere in their prayers “( 23:1-2).
Historically, the great emphasis on the canonical format is based on the Prophet’s saying “Pray as you see me pray”. Our scholars have totally missed the point here by insisting that the outward form is the essence of prayer. They have failed to recognize that the Prophet’s prayer was spontaneous and variable. His method of prayer and his words differ significantly among the many Hadith. It is ironic that the different sects teach different forms of prayer based on particular Hadith but they each insist on total conformity with the method they have chosen for themselves.
It is not the question of whether we should follow Hadith or not, or whether particular Hadith are authentic. It is the defective understanding of generations of scholars in focusing on the mechanical aspects of the Prophet’s prayer habits, and not knowing that attitude and feeling are much more powerful than physical movement. This resulted in the prevailing teachings about prayer that contradict Quran’s wisdom in de-emphasizing ritual and conformity. It is time to reform teachings about prayer such that we give primary importance to its inner dimensions. We should teach how you can experience feelings of love, gratitude and closeness to God in prayer.
The value of any practice is to be evaluated by the results it produces. The main point is that for Prophet Muhammad and his companions the prayer was a means for achieving God consciousness. Their prayer rituals were effective and source of strength for them. For example, it is narrated that, whenever, Prophet Muhammad faced a situation that caused him anxiety he prayed two rakaa, and this released his stress and restored his usual state of resourcefulness. The question to ask is this: “Is my prayer a source of strength for me? Is my practice making me grow in awareness? “If not, “how can I modify my prayer to make it more effective?” It is the results in your life that measure the success of prayer, and not the outward form.
Prophet Muhammad’s postures of prayer, the standing, the bowing, prostrations etc., were borrowed from the customs of the pre-Islamic Meccans, with some modifications. They represented the continuity of the prayer-practice of that region and now through the influence of Islam have spread all over the world. It is very likely that this particular structure of prayer helped many people establish Divine Contact in the past, and suits many people today. But it is common observation that many Muslims who pray in this format do not find it meaningful. Such people should know that there is nothing wrong with them, and there is nothing wrong if they change their way of prayer to try to make it more personally meaningful and fulfilling.
There are others who find it impossible to carry out the prescribed routines of the canonical prayer for practical reasons such as work or availability of private space. People in such situations should be encouraged to pray in a form that is convenient for them.
The Quran wants us to know that God is always near and responds to us without limitations of ritual or procedure.