Prayer in Islam: History, Types, Importance

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Islam has few rituals other than prayer, which is the second of the five pillars of Islam. There are no sacraments. Prayer consists of defined movements and recitations of passages of the Qur’an. The cycles of prayer begins after a Muslim orients himself or herself towards Mecca.

The Qur'an reads: “Verily, Prayer prevents the worshipper from indulging in anything that is undignified or indecent.” (Quran 29:46). This verse has some scholars say has two connotations — both essential for being a good Muslim — 1) prayer helps the worshipper by liberating him from sins of all types; 2) prayer educates man, refines his character and cultivates his qualities so that he is worthy of communion with God.

The Qur'an reads:“If a Muslim prays without the right attitude of mind, it as if they hadn't bothered to pray at all. Woe to those who pray, but are unmindful of their prayer, or who pray only to be seen by people.” — Qur'an 107:4-6

Websites and Resources: Islam IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline

Purpose of Islamic Prayers

Prayers are intended to be a public avowal of faith and membership of the Muslim community. According to sura 62:9-10: “O you who believe. When the call is heard for prayer on the day of the congregation, hurry to remembrance of God and leave your trading. That is better for you if only you knew. And when the prayer is ended, then disperse in the land and seek God’s bounty, and remember God much so that you be successful.”

According to the BBC: “God ordered Muslims to pray at five set times of day; All Muslims try to do this. Muslim children as young as seven are encouraged to pray. Prayer sets the rhythm of the day. This prayer timetable gives Muslims the pattern of their day. The prayer ritual, which is over 1400 years old, is not only highly spiritual, but connects each Muslim to all others around the world, and to all those who have uttered the same words and made the same movements at different times in Islamic history. The set prayers are not just phrases to be spoken. Prayer for a Muslim involves uniting mind, soul, and body in worship; so a Muslim carrying out these prayers will perform a whole series of set movements that go with the words of the prayer. Muslims make sure that they are in the right frame of mind before they pray; they put aside all everyday cares and thoughts so that they can concentrate exclusively on God. [Source: BBC, September 8, 2009 |::|]|

Muslims often ask God for his love. They pray, “Oh God! You are Peace and from you, is Peace; Blessed are you, O Lord of Majesty and Bounty.” Muslims make a sharp distinction between supplication and prayer. Supplication involves asking Allah for something, such as forgiveness, guidance, or help for a sick relative. In contrast, true prayer, or salat, is a reminder to Muslims that they are the servants of Allah and their mission in life is to worship him.. [Source:]

Shahadah: the Statement of Faith


The “shahada” is the basic statement of Muslim belief and the first of the Five Pillars of Islam. Confirming a belief in God it goes: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger." The Arabic can be transliterated into the Roman alphabet like this; 1) Ashhadu Alla Ilaha Illa Allah Wa Ashhadu Anna Muhammad Rasulu Allah.” It is often featured in calligraphy artwork in mosques. According to Sunni beliefs no person who repeats the “shahada” can be called an infidel or excluded from the Muslim community.

New convert declare the “Shahadah” as a confirmation faith. Pious Muslims repeat it many times every day. The first phrase ("there is no God but Allah”) both repudiates polytheism and declares that it is a sin for any person or creature to imply they have the powers of God. The second phrase (“and Muhammad is the messenger of God”) does not imply there was anything wrong with other prophets such as Adam. Abraham and Moses but rather than Muhammad was the bearer of the final and perfect revelation from God.

According to the BBC: “This is the basic statement of the Islamic faith: anyone who cannot recite this wholeheartedly is not a Muslim. Reciting this statement three times in front of witnesses is all that anyone need do to become a Muslim. A Muslim is expected to recite this statement out loud, with total sincerity, fully understanding what it means. When a Muslim recites this they proclaim; 1) That Allah is the only God, and that Muhammad is his prophet; 2) That they personally accept this as true; 3) That they will obey all the commitments of Islam in their life The Shahadah is written in Arabic on the flag of Saudi Arabia, the state that contains Islam's holiest places. [Source: BBC, August 23, 2009 |::|]

Sunnah Concerning Prayer

The Sunnahs are the practices and examples drawn from the Prophet Muhammad's life. Along with the Hadiths they are the most important texts in Islam after the Qur’an. They must adhere to a strict chain of narration that ensures their authenticity, taking into account factors such as the character of people in the chain and continuity in narration. Reports that fail to meet such criteria are disregarded.

Takbir of prayer

The Sunnah reads: “Angels come among you both night and day; then those of the night ascend to heaven, and God asks them how they left his creatures: they say, We left them at prayer, and we found them at prayer. The rewards for the prayers which are performed by people assembled together are double of those which are said at home. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 11-32]

“Ye must not say your prayers at the rising or the setting of the sun: so when a limb of the sun appeareth, leave your prayers until her whole orb is up: and when the sun begins to set, quit your prayers until the whole orb hath disappeared; for, verily she riseth between the two horns of the devil. No neglect of duty is imputable during sleep; for neglect can only take place when one is awake: therefore, when any of you forget your prayers, say them when ye recollect.

“When any one of you goeth to sleep, the devil ties three knots upon his neck; and saith over every knot, "The night is long, sleep." Therefore, if a servant awake and remember God, it openeth one knot; and if he perform the ablution, it openeth another; and if he say prayers, it openeth the other; and he riseth in the morning in gladness and purity: otherwise he riseth in a lethargic state.

“When a Muslim performs the ablution, it washes from his face those faults which he may have cast his eyes upon; and when he washes his hands, it removes the faults they may have committed, and when he washes his feet, it dispels the faults toward which they may have carried him: so that he will rise up in purity from the place of ablution.

Prayer in Islam

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad wrote: “Worship is common to all religions. What differs is only the manner and style of worship. That which is unique in Islamic mode of worship is that it contains features from the mode of prayers found in other religions. Some people pray to God in a standing posture and some in a sitting posture. In some religions people remember God by kneeling to Him, while others bow down to Him. Some stand before Him with folded arms and others with arms hanging at their sides. In short there is no single mode of worship common to all religions as a whole. It is fascinating however to note that Islam instructs its followers concerning the manner of prayer so comprehensively that all the postures of worship found in other religions are symbolically represented in the Muslim prayer. Another step forward in the direction of ushering in an era of universal religion, it seems. [Source: Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IV, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community]

“The institution of Islamic prayer is a most highly developed system, covering every human requirement. It should be remembered at the outset that the purpose of worship is not just bowing to a Superior Being and paying homage to His greatness, as if God created man only for satiating His egotistic desire of being praised. All the purposes mentioned in relation to the philosophy of worship and the manner in which a Muslim is required to conduct his prayer, makes it manifestly clear that the benefit of prayer is drawn by the worshipper himself and in no way can it be taken as a favour to God. The Holy Quran declares that God does not stand in need of men’s praises. He is so great in His nobility and so sublime in His character that the praises of His creatures do not add anything to His magnanimity and majesty. The Holy Prophet(sa) of Islam once mentioned that if the entire mankind had turned away from God and committed the worst possible sins, one and all, they would not diminish His universal grandeur even as much as when someone dips a sharp needle into a vast ocean; the water one finds adhered to the surface of the needle would be far more than the sins of the entire mankind could take away from the glory of God.

“So, worship in the Holy Quran is only prescribed for the sake of the worshipper himself. It is a vast subject and we can only illustrate a few points in relation to this as mentioned in the Holy Quran and the traditions of the Holy Prophet of Islam. Remembrance of God and pondering over His attributes during the prayer helps man in refining his spirit, bringing it more into harmony with the nature of God. This is central to the Islamic prayer. Man was made in the image of his creator and he must ever strive to gain closeness to Him. This is a lesson in nobility which is ultimate. Those who train themselves to think like God and to act like Him within the limitations of the human sphere, constantly improve in their relation to all other human beings and even other forms of life.

“In human terms it can be better understood with respect to a mother’s attitude towards her children. For the one who truly gains nearness to a mother, all that is dear to the mother will naturally become dear to him as well. Acquiring the attitude of the creator is like acquiring the attitude of an artist to his works of art. It is impossible for one to be near God and distance himself from His creation. Again, the term used for worship in the Quran is derived from a word which is so significant and different from terms used in other religions. Ain, Be, Dael (‘A’, ‘B’, ‘D’) are the three root letters which have the basic meaning of slavery. Like a slave who loses everything to his master and follows him in all respects, the worshipper in Islam must do the same in his relation to God. The infinitive used for worship has the connotation of following in the footsteps of someone. That is the ultimate in the imitation of God’s attributes. The Quran also says:

Qibla compass
“Another area which is highly important in this regard is the role that worship plays in developing one’s soul. According to Islam, each human soul in relation to the carnal human body can be likened unto a child in the uterus of the mother. To give birth to a healthy child requires so many influences that are constantly transferred from the mother to the embryo and the child at a later stage. If the mother’s influences on the embryo are unhealthy, the child is born as congenitally ill; if they are healthy then the child is born enjoying perfect health. Of all the influences that work towards the making and modification of the human soul, prayer is the most important single factor.”

Mosque Worship

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Public worship for the average Muslim consists of going to a mosque (masjid ) — normally on Fridays, although mosques are well attended throughout the week — for congregational prayers led by a local imam, following the public call to prayer, which may be intoned from the top of a minaret (minar ) at the mosque. After leaving their footwear at the door, men and women separate; men usually sit in front, women in back, either inside the mosque or in an open courtyard. The prayer leader gives a sermon in the local regional language, perhaps interspersed with Arabic or Farsi (sometimes called Persian or Parsi) quotations, depending on his learning and the sophistication of the audience. Announcements of events of interest that may include political commentary are often included. Then follow common prayers that involve responses from the worshipers who stand, bow, and kneel in unison during devotions. [Source:Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Often only men pray in the mosques. Women, who are sometimes not allowed in mosques, pray mostly at home and sometimes attend ceremonies conducted in a home by female religious leaders. When entering the mosque, some of the faithful discard their canes in hope that the prayers will heal them and make them young again. The act of writing prayers is consider important. The idea behind it is similar to Buddhist concept of earning merit. Sometimes Muslims sway and bob their heads when they pray or recite passages from the Qur’an. This is not all that different from what Jews do when they recite passages from the Torah and what some shaman do before they go into a trance.

Mosques and the Social Aspects of Prayer

Istiqlal Mosque in Indonesia

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad wrote: ““All mosques are frequented five times a day, a task which appears to be over-much demanding to a casual observer. This aspect should be further elaborated to build a more comprehensive picture of the role of congregational prayers in the Muslims’ way of life. Of course in an ideal Muslim society, where mosques are provided within reach of almost every citizen, the five time congregational prayer becomes a routine way of all Muslims’ life. The Midday Prayer, which ordinarily is more problematic, is performed in Muslim societies during the midday break from work. Thus it is not only a lunch break, but is slightly extended to accommodate the performance of prayer as well. The next prayer after the midday prayer is the Afternoon Prayer, which is performed almost immediately after return from an ordinary day’s work. Then no prayer is permitted until after sunset. The time between the two is spent in outdoor activities like sports, shopping, walks, visits to friends and relatives etc. It is a period of relaxation in which prayers are practically forbidden, except for the quiet remembrance of God which becomes a constant feature with some believers. At sunset, the night of the believer begins with the Sunset Prayer, after which there is again a time for relaxation, dining, and so on. The night is capped before retirement with the last prayer which is called Isha. It is discouraged to stay awake after Isha in wasteful occupations of gossip and vain talk etc. [Source: Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IV, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community]

“The Muslims are encouraged to acquire a habit of early to bed and early to rise. The day, next morning, begins routinely in the small hours before dawn. The prayer which is performed at the end of the night is called Tahajjud. It is not obligatory, but is a very highly emphasised optional prayer. The dawn ushers in the time for Morning Prayer, which is called Al-Fajar.Optional prayers are not recommended between Fajar and sunrise, for obvious reasons. Then till Zuhar, the midday prayer, only two optional prayers are mentioned; otherwise the pre-Zuharperiod is expected to be spent in normal day to day activities.

“Looking at the institution of prayer in Islam from another angle, it is intriguing to note how well organised, disciplined and comprehensive it is. There are certain prayers of congregation in which recitation of the Quran is done in a loud, audible voice, in a semi-singing tone, which does not exactly conform to the concept of singing, but which has a rhythmical tone that is deeply penetrating. The Holy Prophet(sa) also advised that there should be a shadow of sadness in the tone in which the Quran is recited; this makes it more touching, with the meaning of the verses sinking deeper into the recesses of the heart. In some prayers, particularly the two afternoon prayers, there is no loud chanting; this goes well with the general mood of the time. Even the birds cease to sing during the early parts of the afternoon and there is a general air of silence covering the hubbub of normal work. The Morning Prayer, the prayer after sunset and the prayer after the fall of night all include periods where chanting of verses is the routine practice.

Shia prayers

“The prayer can be further divided into two categories. As against congregational prayers, individual prayers are also highly emphasised. In congregational prayers, society pays homage to God collectively and openly. In individual prayers, emphasis is laid on privacy and there should be no effort to display such prayers to anyone. Similarly the late night prayer is performed in perfect privacy. Members of the same house try to find their own niches and even husband and wife try to say their prayers separately, so that communion with God becomes a highly personal affair.

“It has been observed that the institution of the five time congregational prayer has worked very well, for over fourteen hundred years or so, for the protection and preservation of this holy institution. The mosques have been the mainstay in keeping this noble institution alive. They also serve as education centres for young and old and throughout history they have played the most prominent role in religious teachings and instruction.

The places of worship in Islam, whether congregational or private, are kept meticulously clean. Everyone is expected to take his shoes off before entering such places. Although in every prayer the worshipper has to touch the floor with his forehead, sometimes briefly and sometimes for longer periods, it is surprising that no skin diseases have been transferred from forehead to forehead in the Muslim society. Some may attribute this to the high standard of cleanliness and some to the blessings of God, but this is a well observed fact.

Types of Prayers

“As far as the contents of the prayer go, they are of two types: A formal routine recitation of verses of the Quran and other prayers which are done essentially in the language of the Quran, which is Arabic. All worshippers are expected to know the meaning of what they are reciting, otherwise they will deprive themselves of the immense benefit which they may draw from the meaningful recitation. It will make this discussion too lengthy if we were to go into the details of the contents, but such readers as are interested in further study can always consult the relevant literature. [Source: Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IV, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community]

Tuareg praying in the desert

“To the second category belong the individual prayers in one’s own language in which one is free to beg as he pleases. This second category is controversial in the sense that many a school of jurisprudence disallow such practices and insist on the recitation of only the prescribed form, irrespective of whether the worshipper understands that or not. However, they do appreciate the need for private and personal prayers, so they suggest praying in one’s own language after the formal prayer has ended and not during its course. We, the Ahmadi Muslims, recommend and practice the former option of praying to God in one’s own language as one pleases during the formal prayer.

“As we have amply demonstrated above, the institution of Islamic prayer is a highly developed one, where the individual is required to pray five times a day, both individually and in congregation with others. Islamic prayer thus plays an important role in the life of a Muslim and in the spiritual and moral upbringing of the individual.

The most commonly used phrase by Muslims is “Allahu Akbar”, meaning "God is greater." The sentence is left incomplete because Allah is infinite and unknowable, and therefore greater than anything that could be named.

Written and Spoken Muslim Prayer

Most prayers are passages in Arabic from the Qur’an that Muslims know by heart. One Islamic scholar told Newsweek, the act of saying prayers in Arabic “is to experience the presence of God with the same kind of intimacy as Catholics feel when they receive Christ as consecrated bread and wine at mass.” Some non-Arabic-speaking Muslim have no idea what they are saying when they recite some Arabic passages.

The most basic and essential prayer is the shahada. It goes: "La ilaha ill Allah; wa-Muhammad rasul Allah"—“There is no god but God; and Muhammad is the Prophet.” These are the first words that are whispered into Muslim baby and the last words a person hears when he or she is on her deathbed. They are also the words Muslims say when they are praying or are in a great deal pain.

First Surah of the Koran

During prayers time the faithful say:
"God is Great
God is Great
God is Great
God is Great
I attest that Muhammad is the Messenger of God
I attest that Muhammad is the Messenger of God
Rise up to Worship
Rise up to Worship
Rise up to Well Being
Rise up to Well Being
God is Great
God is Great
There is no God if not God Himself"

“God’s mercy be upon him” is a common Muslim blessing. All the chapters of the Qur’an, except Chapter 9 begin with the words: “In the name of Allah, the Merciful and the Giver of Mercy.” This is often recited whenever an activity is begun. The end of the first chapter of the Qur’an?"Guide us on the straight path, the path of those you have blessed...not those who have gone astray”---is often recited.

Sheik Urges Muslims to Pray Less, Work More

A respected cleric said ten minutes of prayers is sufficient and Muslims should pray less and work more. Jefferey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The call to prayer is pervasive, comforting echo across the Middle East, but a prominent Islamic cleric has urged Muslims to spend less time prostrating and more time working .Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi said people often prayer to slip away from their jobs longer than they should. “Praying is a good thing...10 minutes should be enough," according to a fatwa, or edict, posted on Qaradawi's website. The sheik's opinion is shared by many clerics and highlights the predicament between economic productivity and religious devotion in a part of the world where piety is prized.

Devout Muslims pray five times a day during set time periods, two of which fall during working hours.They kneel in mosques or unfurl prayer mats in offices, clogging aisles and bringing work to a halt. The time for ablution — washing face, arms and feet — and a prayer can take 10 minutes, but many Muslims spend as many as 30 minutes on the ritual. Companies and store owners have been complaining for years about lost labor minutes and inefficiency. The problem goes well beyond prayer time.A recent government study found that Egypt's six million govt. employees,a massive platoon of bureaucracy, are each estimated to spend only 27 minutes a day working.

If frustrated citizens or customers ask to speed things up,they are met with a sigh,a roll of the eyes and the centuries-old reply: "Inshahallah" (God willing).

History and Development of Islamic Prayer

Haïm Z’ew Hirschberg wrote in the “Encyclopaedia Judaica”: Pre-Islamic Arabs did not observe an obligatory daily routine which could be seen as an inspiration for the Islamic prayer. It is therefore significant to observe that alat ("prayer") is an Aramaic loan word which means bowing or prostration. Nevertheless, prayer is mentioned as an obligation of the believer already in the Meccan period of the Qur’an (Qur’an 108:1–2; 107:4–5) while Muhammad was alive and before he went to Medina. It seems that in the first stage of the development, the Prophet spoke of two daily prayers: in the evening and at dawn. Qur’an 17:80 enjoins the Muslims to "perform the prayer at the sinking of the sun to the darkening of the night and the recital of dawn (Qur’an alfajr)…." [Source: Haïm Z’ew Hirschberg, “Encyclopaedia Judaica”, 2000,]

Later developments in this field are not very clear, but it appears that after the hijra to Medina an additional prayer, called the "middle" one, was added when the Qur’an says: "Be watchful over the prayers and the middle prayer…" (Qur’an 2:239). The "middle prayer" is variously explained as the noon or the afternoon prayer. Naturally, no congregational prayer was held before the hijra in Mecca because of the precarious position of the few Meccan Muslims in that period. Though there are some references to the jumʿa prayer in Medina before the hijra, it is clear that the jumʿa prayer acquired its central standing in Muslim ritual in the Medinan period of the Prophet's career.

If we assume that the prayers mentioned in the first part of the verse are the two prayers which had been referred to in the Meccan period, we reach the conclusion that after the hijra the number of prayers reached three. Though there is no hard evidence to substantiate this notion, some scholars tend to speculate that this happened under the influence of the Jews with whom the Prophet came into contact in Medina. The number of the Muslim prayers eventually reached five, but we do not know exactly when this development took place. There is some evidence to suggest that during the Umayyad period in Syria the number of the obligatory prayers was not generally known, and at the time of the Umayyad caliph Umar (r. 717–720 A.D.) the proper time for prayer was not known either. As for the reasons why the Muslims eventually decided on the number of five daily prayers, these are not clear. Goldziher maintains that the number was influenced by the Zoroastrian tradition which had five daily prayers. Islamic tradition connects the establishment of the five prayers with Muhammad's miraculous nocturnal journey to heaven (israʾ, miʿraj). According to this tradition, Allah intended to impose on the Muslim community 50 daily prayers, but after some negotiations (which Muhammad conducted with Allah in compliance with the advice of Moses), the number was reduced to five. The tradition maintains, however, that these five prayers have the value of fifty.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources:Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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