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People have many questions about salaat or namaz, the Islamic form of prayer. Some of them are: What is adhan or azan (the call to prayer)? What is its significance? Why does one direct his or her face towards the Kaaba while praying? What is the purpose of intention (niyyah or niyyat) in prayer? Is it compulsory to say prayers only in Arabic? What is the wisdom in the fixed number of rakahs (prescribed units of prayer) for each of the five time daily prayers?

By Waris Mazhari

Azan literally means “to call”. It informs people when it is time for prayers so that they can gather at the mosque to pray. The purpose of iqamah (the second call to prayer, which is uttered immediately before the beginning of the obligatory prayer) is similar to this, and is meant to summon the people who are already in the mosque to come together and join the prayer in congregation.
The azan functions similarly to the practice in some Christian communities where church bells are rung for the same purpose, i.e. summoning the faithful to prayer. It is analogous, in a way, to the custom at some schools or students’ camps, where a bell is rung to call the students to assemble in a certain area or to announce that class time has started or finished.
The objective of azan may look very ordinary or simple, but it has to be achieved through a form of worship that contains the praise and glorification of God. And that, indeed, is the spirit of worship.

Azan is a Reminder
Azan is a method to call people to come together in congregation to worship God. Apart from this, the azan serves to remind the Muslims, five times a day, of certain basic Islamic beliefs, such as the Oneness and greatness of God and the Prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh). But azan is not a precondition for prayer. Prayer can be performed at any place without calling azan or iqamah. Prayer can be offered in a wilderness or jungle even without azan or iqamah. The Eid prayers require neither azan nor iqamah because Muslims already look forward to these prayers.
The Kaaba in Makkah is the qiblah, or direction in which prayers are offered by Muslims. Facing this qiblah is a prerequisite for performing prayers in Islam. In the early phase of Islam, Muslims were ordered, according to some scholars, to offer prayers directing their face towards the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, with the aim of winning the hearts of Jews and to express solidarity with them (in the sense that Muslims and Jews share many basic religious beliefs, including worshipping the same God’),but, as the Quran(2:144) suggests, the Prophet was keen that the Kaaba, the symbolic House of God, should be approved as qiblah for Muslims.
Nonetheless, the Quran says: ‘The East and the West belong to God. Whichever way you turn, there is the Face of God. God is all pervading and all knowing.'(2:115) According to Islamic scholars, this verse was revealed before the verse which commands: ‘turn your face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque'(2:149), or else that it applies to a person offering his prayers in the darkest night when he is not sure of the qiblah, the proper direction of prayer, or is riding a vehicle which changes its direction rapidly, in which case even if he faces a direction other than the qiblah, his prayer would be considered proper. This indicates that the qiblah is not attached to the core of the prayer, even though it is considered necessary.

Purpose of the Qiblah
What, then, is the purpose of the qiblah? It is an intrinsic demand of human nature that if someone loves or bows down to some entity, he wants it to be present and visible before him. But with regard to God, this is entirely impossible in this physical world. That is why in place of Him, His symbolic house, the Kaaba, was declared as the qiblah.
The qiblah is the central point of the worshipper’s attention towards God while in prayer. It is a way to put one’s whole concentration on God, feeling as if God is watching us while we pray, as the Prophet has asked his followers to do.

Making the Intention
Making the intention (niyyah or niyyat) to pray is a precondition for prayer””that is, making the intention, in one’s heart, of offering prayer. Uttering the intention of offering prayers by one’s tongue is not necessary. Every act requires an intention by heart. No work can be accomplished in proper manner without it. Any act not done with a proper intention can be only hypothetically attributed to the related person. Making the intention for prayer means that one is devoting oneself to God for some time, while cutting oneself off from the whole world for that period. This helps in building concentration and focusing on God, while one is engaged in prayer.
Language of the Prayer
With regard to the language in which prayer is to be offered, some Muslim theologians, such as Abu Hanifa, the founder of Hanafi school of jurisprudence, opined that the prayer could be performed in other languages, like Persian. Later, Abu Hanifa changed his opinion and adopted the common view of the Muslim scholars. But from this point it might be inferred that language has a secondary role in prayer. Primarily, what is required in prayer is submissiveness (khushu) and the awareness that God is watching one always. In principle, it seems logical and in keeping with spirit of the religion that a person should remember his/her Creator in his/her own language, comprehending what he/she recites or utters in the prayer. Prior to Prophet Muhammad, different prophets and their communities used different languages in worshipping God. They glorified God in their own languages, not necessarily the same as what Muslims use in their worship and supplication to Him. For instance, in the Jewish and Christian traditions ‘Jehovah’ and ‘Eli’ were used as names of God respectively. According to the Quran (35:24), there is no community to which a prophet has not been sent. In the light of this, it means that God must have sent one or more prophets to India too, who must have worshiped and glorified God in an ancient Indian language or languages. There is not a single verse in the Quran or any Prophetic tradition that makes the Arabic language obligatory for prayers and supplications. It can be deduced from this that Arabic language is not a basic precondition for prayer. Yet, in spite of this, it is required that the prayer be offered in the language used by the concerned prophets because along with the spirit, the words and form in which the prophet used to perform worship are also required to be followed.
Forms and Practices
The form is also an inevitable part of religion because religious belief reflects itself through certain forms and practices. Without a particular form, the religion will become a mess. That is why in almost every religion, the key words that are part of the rituals and chants are pronounced in the very same language used by and inherited from their founder or key figure.
Another important point to consider in this regard is that translation, no matter how good, cannot be a substitute for the words of the original text, especially when the text is a revealed scripture, because the original words of the text have, apart from its meaning, a certain spiritual significance, efficacy and blessing (barakah) as well, as religious experience and human intuition suggest.
As for the fixed number of rakahs in the Islamic prayer, this is entirely in accordance with what was revealed to the Prophet from God. Human beings cannot satisfactorily perceive the wisdom behind this provision. The Prophet was taught by the angel Gabriel the manner and method of prayers, and that is what he asked his followers to do. He said: ‘Offer the prayer as you have seen me offering it.’ (Sahih al-Bukhari)
(Waris Mazhari graduated from the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband. He did a Ph.D. from the Dept. of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and he is presently teaching in the same department. He can be reached at [email protected])