Q: What is the basic purpose of worship or prayer from the Islamic perspective?
Answered by Waris Mazhari
God made this beautiful planet Earth and settled human beings on it as His heirs. Scientific research tells us that it took millions of years for the Earth to become habitable for plant, animal and human life. This clearly indicates that there is definitely some grand purpose behind human beings having been placed on Earth. In the Quran (51:56), God tells us that this purpose is to worship God:
I created the jinn and mankind only so that they might worship Me
The question then arises as to what the purpose of worship itself is.
The basic purpose of worship is to remember God, to express our love for Him and to come closer to Him. Thus, in the Quran (20:14), God says:
I am God. There is no deity save Me; so worship Me alone, and say your prayers in My remembrance.
According to a hadith report, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
Love God for what He nourishes you with of His Blessings (at-Tirmidhi)
According to another hadith report, the Prophet said: “Whenever anyone of you offers his prayer he is speaking in private to his Lord” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
This indicates the closeness that we acquire to God through prayer and other forms and acts of worship.
In Islam, the different forms of worship (prayer, fasting, zakat, haj) that have been made obligatory are not an end in themselves. This is because from the Prophet Adam to Prophet Muhammad, the external forms of worship kept changing. The actual purpose of these means of worship is the strengthening of our relationship with God and so that the distance between God and us, His servants, is overcome.
That is why in the Quran (2:186) God says:
When My servants ask you about Me, say that I am near. I respond to the call of one who calls, whenever he calls to Me: let them, then, respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may be rightly guided.
Further, God says (50:16):
We created man — We know the promptings of his soul, and are closer to him than his jugular vein
While worship is a means to strengthen our relationship with God, it is also a means to strengthen our relationships with our fellow human beings. And so, zakat, an action that entails transfer of material wealth to those in need, is also included in the category of worship.
According to a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have remarked that all creatures are like a family of God and that God loves the most those who are the most beneficent to His family. From this we learn that in order to have a good relationship with God it is necessary for us to have good relations with His creatures. It is precisely because of this that in many cases where the commandment of prayer is mentioned in the Quran, zakat is also mentioned as a commandment. Prayer is the most significant symbolic expression of our relationship with and love for God, while zakat symbolizes our relationship with fellow human beings, our concern for their well-being and our sharing in their sorrows and difficulties.
Prayer is one of the pillars of the Islamic way of life. Prayer is a hallmark of a person of faith. By bowing down to God in prayer, we express our submission to Him.
Regular prayer has many benefits, for both our individual life and our collective life. Prayer is basic to our spiritual life and growth. It signifies and expresses our consciousness of our being slaves of God. The Prophet Muhammad said that between disbelief and faith is abandoning the salat (at-Tirmidhi). He is also reported to have said: “If a person had a stream outside his door and he bathed in it five times a day, do you think he would have any filth left on him?” The people said, “No filth would remain on him whatsoever.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) then said, “That is like the five daily prayers: God wipes away the sins by them.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
Prayer also has immense emotional and psychological benefits. It provides the heart with peace and comfort. In prayer, you appear before your Creator, who knows all your sorrows and who has the solution to all your problems. When you offer dua or supplication to God, sometimes with tears rolling down your face, the heavy burden that lies on your heart is lifted. The Quran (2:45) tells us:
Seek help with patience and prayer; this is indeed an exacting discipline, but not to the humble
Prayer teaches us humility and helps remove pride from our hearts.
Regular prayer helps us develop duty-consciousness as well as punctuality. It also helps us to be time-conscious and to use our time in a proper manner. The Muslim form of prayer also has great physical benefits. It helps us become more particular about the cleanliness of our clothes, while the various postures in this form of prayer also provide our body with physical exercise. Performing ablutions before prayers removes accumulated physical dirt and provides freshness.
The Quran tells us (29:45):
Recite what has been revealed to you of the book, and pray regularly. Surely prayer restrains one from indecency and evil and remembrance of God is greater.
From this we learn the benefits of prayer at the social (in addition to the individual) level, for immorality and wrongdoing lead to social breakdown and are a huge obstacle to social progress. Praying together with others, in a congregation, helps foster the feeling of brotherhood and fraternity.
While prayer in a prescribed manner is one of the pillars of Islam, prayer itself is not something that God ordained only for Muslims. Rather, God prescribed prayer for different communities even before the advent of Prophet Muhammad. The Quran tells us that prophets were sent to all the nations of the world. Different prophets, it says, called on their communities to worship God. The structure and form of their method of worship were different from those practised by Muslims, but their spirit was the same—and that is, the praise of God, the remembrance of God, and dua, or beseeching God for help.
(Waris Mazhari graduated from the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband. He did his Ph.D. from the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and he now teaches in the same Department. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)
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