The institution of prayer is found in all religions of the world in one form or the other. All the great religious personalities have recognised that prayer is communion with God — a link between the slave and his Master. Had there been no prayer, man’s life would have been completely rudderless and God would not have been a living force for him.
Islam added new meanings to prayer making it an article of faith and a “pillar of religion.” The inherent purpose of Islamic prayer is to realize the presence of Allah. Prayer divorced from this underlying spirit would be relegated to mere ritual. Of course, external movements are necessary for internal development of soul, but if one’s actions are incompatible with the noble precepts of religion, prayer will avail him no benefit and will not draw him near to Allah.
This unique idea in prayer teaches the worshipper to concentrate his Heart on the Almighty Allah and humble himself before him. In one of his holy traditions, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) called to mind that Allah had said, “How imprudent is he who aspires to My Gardens without working for it! How can I pour mercy on him who withholds obedience to Me!”
The importance of prayer in Islam can be gauged from the fact that it was the first religious duty (after the elements of faith) enjoined by Allah. It was ordained on the night of the Prophet’s ascension (Mairaj) to the heavens. Whereas injunctions for other acts of worship (fasting, pilgrimage and zakat) were revealed through the Archangel Gabriel, Allah spoke to His apostle about it directly with no intermediary. The holy Quran mentions of prayer at more than 100 places. The Prophet (PBUH) said, the first thing that the servant of God would be asked to account for on the day of Judgement would be prayer.
Allah has made prayer the way to success, prosperity and happiness for the believers. The Quran maintains: “The believers must (eventually) be prosperous who are humble in their prayers.” (Al-Muminun: 1&2). Humility in the above commandment implies: (1) the worshipper’s estimate of his own worth in Allah’s presence, (2) his estimate of his own power or strength unless he is helped by Allah, and, (3) the petition he offers unto Allah. These three considerations instil in him the feelings of utmost solemnity and submissiveness.
Islam is an ethical religion. Apart from humility and submission to the glory of Allah, all its laws and injuctions are also based on the most equitable and solid moral foundations. It places before us an ideal that has been an irresistible force and demands from its votaries a conduct which not only adorns an individual’s life, but also contributes to the collective well of the society at large. This is done by following the virtues of the Almighty. The Prophet (PBUH) exhorted, “Imbue yourself with divine attributes.”
Prayer performed in its true form and spirit provides us an opportunity to annoint ourselves with divine virtues which may be put into practice in our working life with the other fellow-beings. In a word, the moral significance of prayer is character-building. It endows and ennobles man with attributes like truthfulness, honesty, moderation, integrity, understanding, modesty, fairness and generosity. His moral standards are raised and he himself rises above injustice, enmity, iniquity, obscenity and defiance. It kills devilish tendencies and helps acquire the angelic ones. The holy Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said, “He whose prayer has not restained him from evil and misdeeds has only increased his distance from God.” The Quran asserts: “… Prayer restrains from indecency and evil. And remembrance of Allah is the greatest thing in life. And Allah knows the (deeds) that you do.” (Al-Ankabut: 45).
Sincere devotion is the sine qua non of prayer. Actions and intentions must be in complete harmony. No thoughts repugnant to a state of humility may be allowed to enter the mind. On the contrary, one must concern oneself only with thoughts of Allah and dependence on Him. He should concentrate on what is read. He should heed the commands of the holy Quran which was revealed by the Lord of Might and Omnipotence to His last and the choicest Messenger (PBUH). For prayer, it is only right that one should collect one’s whole mind and approach to Allah in a spirit of reverence. The Quran cautions: “O you who believe! Approach not prayer when you are intoxicated until you know (the meaning) of what you utter…” (Al-Nisa: 43)
The above commandment was revealed before the prohibition of intoxication altogether was promulgated. But, even at that time, it was at least unbecoming that people should come to prayer in a state of inebriation. According to Imam Ghazali (Ihya Ulum ad-Din), the word “intoxicated” in the above verse means not only intoxication of the senses with wine (or other intoxicant) but also the state of being distracted by the thoughts and temptations of the world, so as to be oblivious of one’s duties towards Allah. One may be unconscious of what he is uttering even without being intoxicated with a drug.
Man will be greatly helped in attending solely to the words and meanings of what he recites or listens and in realizing the spirit of prayers if he feels the reverence born of the consciousness of standing before the Divine Being, feeling of awe produced by the realization of his Divine majesty and grandeur and hope and regret generated by one’s shortcomings like rancour, hatred, envy, dissimulation, hypocrisy, etc. The believers have been told that Allah sees them and that nothing at all may be hidden from Him: “(Allah) knows of (the tricks) that deceive with the eyes, And all that the hearts (of men) conceal.” (Ghair: 19)
Thus, prayer becomes a remedy for the ills which beset the heart and corrupt the soul. It is the light which dispels the darkness of evil and sin. Hazrat Abu Huraira (RA) reported that the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said, “Inform me that if there be a river by the side of the door of any one of you where he takes bath five times a day — would any of the dirt be left?” “No,” they said. He said: “Thus are the prayers of five times. Allah blots out all sins therewith.” Just as body is washed of external impurities by bath, soul is washed of internal impurities by prayer.