Worship in pre-Islamic Faiths
On careful examination, we see that worship and prayer are key components of all pre-Islamic religions. Indeed, without worship and prayer, faith means nothing. Yet, it seems there are too few traditions in recorded history describing the ways of worship of the prophets from the time of Adam(as) through the time of Jesus(as). There are no details of how the prophets worshipped. How did they prepare themselves for prayer, how many times a day did they pray and in what words did they supplicate on a regular basis?
Early followers of pre-Islamic faiths did not place enough importance to the form and substance of worship. Therefore, the followers of these prophets cannot seem to find the crucial significance of the form of worship today. When a prophet cannot be relied upon as an example of prayer or worship, then it is left up to his followers to decide how to go about it. Obviously, the early followers of these religions never found their prophets’ ways of worshipping to be vital to their faith. If it were important enough to the followers of these prophets, the practice of their prophets would have been recorded in detail.
Worship in Islam
Unlike other religions, Islam provides a complete description of worship and prayer; which is derived from the Sunnah (practice) of the Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa). His methods of worship are detailed clearly in documented history. This model of prayer was and is vital to the followers of Islam. By his example, Muslims know exactly when and how to pray to God.
Prophet Muhammad’s(sa) habit of praying began well before his first revelation from God, before his call to Prophethood in the Cave of Hira. Even before the angel Gabriel came to him, he would regularly visit the small cave outside of his town to meditate and pray. From this cave, the Ka’aba was visible to him, and his attention was drawn to God, yet God’s attributes had not yet been revealed to him. He was inclined to worship even before his God was defined to him.
In Islam, through the example of the Holy Prophet(sa), the form and substance for worship are clearly defined and followed. The followers of Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa) know exactly how many prayers to recite and how to recite them, know when and how to hold fasts, how to perform the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca, and so on. It is his precise example that we as Muslims can follow exactly in worshipping Allah. The Holy Prophet(sa) ensured that, by acknowledging in the Kalima (Creed) that he is a human being and a worshipper like us, he would not be worshipped as some prophets of earlier religions, who were deified.
Prayer was so important to the Holy Prophet(sa) that there never seemed to be a moment where he was not found worshipping God. He worshipped during the day and most of the night as he was commanded. Huzaifah(ra) and Abu Dharr(ra) relate that the Holy Prophet(sa) supplicated on retiring at night: “With Thy name, O Allah, I expire and return to life;” and supplicated on waking: “All praise belongs to Allah Who has brought me back to life after He had caused me to die, to Him is the return.”(1) While most people were sound asleep at night, the Holy Prophet(sa) spent his nights praying. His wife, Hazrat Ayesha(ra), relates: “One night, I missed the Holy Prophet(sa) from his bed so I cast about and discovered that he was in bowing, in prostration and was reciting, ‘Holy art Thou and Thine is the Praise and there is none worthy of worship save Thee’.”(1A)
Salat (Formal Prayer)
The first form of the Holy Prophet’s(sa) worship, salat or formal prayer, changed the world. No one could have imagined it then, but now the entire world bears witness that the form he used for prayer was a global way of gesturing humility and humbleness. For example, in salat, when we stand with our hands folded, it is a reflection of people in the Western hemisphere, who fold their hands in front of themselves as a sign of respect to others. In certain South American cultures and some Asian cultures, touching one’s ears is a sign of asking forgiveness, as Muslims do in salat. East Asians show their respect to others by bowing, as Muslims bow to Allah in their worship to Him. The way in which Muslims prostrate to God, is emulated by cultures in the Middle East and India to show humbleness and humility. The form of Islamic prayer has been clearly defined and ultimately, designed to encompass all people of the entire world.
Surah Fatiha (the opening chapter) of the Qur’an is its essence and was prescribed by the Holy Prophet(sa) to all his followers as a requisite part of salat. No prayer is complete unless Surah Fatiha is recited.
The Holy Prophet(sa) emphasized the blessings of congregational prayers, but in an effort to alleviate any undue burden, kept them short. When leading congregational prayers, he would recite a short chapter after Surah Fatihah, and instructed other imams to do the same. In his own prayers at home, however, he would often recite two or three longer surahs in just one raka’a.
Even in battles, he worshipped, offered his prayers, and remembered Allah in different ways. He set up a system whereby one group of Muslims could offer their prayers while another group sat on watch for enemy attacks. Once the first group concluded their prayers, these groups would trade places so that the latter could have their prayer time. One time during the Battle of Khaybir, the enemy attacked at the time of the Asr (afternoon) prayer. The attack was so vicious that it was impossible to take even one moment for salat. As the sun set, Asr time came to an end. The Holy Prophet(sa) felt awful about missing his prayer time. As soon as the attack was over, the very first thing he did was to offer the Asr prayer in congregation.
Hazrat Huzaifah(ra) relates that one night he had the opportunity of offering salat alongside the Holy Founder of Islam(sa). Prophet Muhammad(sa) started reciting Surah Baqarah, which is the longest chapter in the Holy Qur’an. Hazrat Huzaifah(ra) assumed that he would recite only 100 [of the 287] verses, but he continued past that mark. He then expected the Holy Prophet(sa) would finish the entire Surah, which he did. However, upon reciting the entire Surah, he continued on with the next surah, Al-Imran, and after that, he completed reciting Surah Al-Nisa. These three surahs alone make up more than 5 parts of the Holy Qur’an, which has 30 parts in all. Furthermore, as much time as he took to recite all 3 surahs, he spent equal amounts of time in Ruku (bowing) and Sajda (prostration). Hence, the Holy Prophet(sa), when not offering salat in congregation, chose to recite as many surahs – no matter how long they were – as he wished.(2)
While Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa) stressed the importance of formal prayer, he also established the importance of moderation in worship. Hazrat Anas(ra) relates that three persons inquired from the wives of the Holy Prophet(sa) about his practice in the matter of worship. When they were informed, they felt that amount of time spent worshipping would not suffice in their own cases, saying, “There is no comparison between the Holy Prophet(sa) and us. He has been forgiven in advance.” (They meant that they would need to worship more than the Holy Prophet(sa).) One of them declared, “I shall always spend the whole night in voluntary prayer.” The second announced, “I shall observe a fast every day without interruption.” The third said, “I shall keep away from women and shall never marry.” The Holy Prophet(sa) arrived and asked them, “Did you say this and this? Now, I fear God more than you do and am more mindful of my duty to Him than you are, but I observe a fast and also abstain from fasting, and I perform voluntary prayer at night and also sleep, and I consort with my wives. He who turns away from my practice is not of me.”(3) The Holy Prophet(sa) was saying that even though he spent an ample amount of time in worship and prayer, he did not spend every waking moment praying. Although there were days that he would fast, there were also days when he did not keep a fast. There were parts of nights that he prayed and others when he slept. He pointed out to his followers the need to observe his teachings on moderation and not to completely abandon living life for religion. It is noteworthy that in spite of the fact that he performed much worship, whenever he prayed, he always praised Allah and asked for forgiveness. Hazrat Ayesha(ra) relates that in his bowing and prostration, the Holy Prophet(sa) recited repeatedly, “Holy art Thou, O’ Allah our Lord, and Thine is the Praise. Forgive me, O Allah.”(4)
Another method of worship that the Holy Prophet(sa) practiced was fasting. During the holy month of Ramadhan, Holy Prophet(sa) adhered to fasting the entire month and devoted his time to prayer. Hazrat Ayesha(ra) relates that the Holy Prophet(sa) never offered more than eleven raka’as at night during Ramadhan or at any other time. He would offer four raka’as long and perfect, and then four of the same type and then three. She asked him, “Messenger of Allah, do you sleep before offering Witr [a voluntary prayer]?” He answered, “Ayesha, my eyes sleep but my heart does not.”(5) What the Holy Prophet(sa) was trying to say was that even though his eyes were closed, his heart was still worshipping. Take, for example, when something is bothering us, during our sleep, our subconscious is continuously thinking of that problem. Even during sleep, our mind is focused on this problem. The Holy Prophet(sa) said that even though his eyes were closed, his mind, heart and soul were continuously worshipping Allah.
Ramadhan was not the only time of the year that he would fast. He would fast throughout the year for a different number of days. Yet, he never fasted for an entire month unless it was during Ramadhan. Hazrat Ayesha(ra) relates that the Holy Prophet(sa) would not fast during a month till we began to think he would not fast in this month, and he would go on observing the fast till we thought he would not omit fasting at all during the month; and if one wanted to see him offering prayer at night one could do that; or if one wanted to see him at sleep at night one could do that as well.(6)
There is a long spectrum regarding fasting amongst the pre-Islamic religions. Some religions feel that just refraining from meat on a particular day is considered fasting, while others, such as Hindu gurus and monks of different faiths, fast for long periods of times. The Holy Prophet’s(sa) method of fasting established the middle ground from previous religions. He never allowed 24-hour fasting, as do certain other religions. He required people to wake up and eat breakfast and to break the fast at the prescribed times. Once again, when he stressed the importance of moderation in worship, it was reflected in fasting as well.
The third form of worship is Zakat, or almsgiving, in the way of God, which was prescribed by the Holy Prophet(sa). He established a prescribed method of Zakat. By stating exactly how much and how to give, Muslims know the correct way of worshipping in the form of charity. However, there is no record of him ever paying Zakat. From this information, some have inferred that the prophets of God are not obligated to pay Zakat. The fact is, however, that Zakat is required only on the property that a person keeps for more than a year. But anything that came into the possession of the Holy Prophet(sa) never remained in his hands for long. He always gave it away to the needy, therefore, not obligating him to pay Zakat.
One of the meanings of Zakat relates to Sadqa, or charity. In that respect, the Holy Prophet(sa) was unique in a sense that he gave away everything that was given to him and even accelerated his giving in the month of Ramadhan. He was very conscious that no money or wealth should be kept in his house. On one occasion, extraordinary money came to him from one of the battles. Distribution of the whole sum could not take place by that evening. So that night, Prophet Muhammad(sa) stayed in the mosque and did not enter his house until Hazrat Bilal(ra) came and told him that the work was complete and all monies had been distributed.
His desire to give charity to the needy, widows, and orphans is well recorded and cherished by Muslims. One day there was goat meat that was to be distributed. Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa) had left home and later returned. He asked Hazrat Ayesha(ra), “How did the distribution of the meat go?” She replied by saying, “Nothing could be saved except for one leg.” The Holy Prophet(sa) said, “No, Ayesha, you should have said ‘all of it was saved except one leg’.”(7) He was trying to show that the meat that was given away to the needy was actually the part that was ‘saved’. It was that distributed meat that would be his and Ayesha’s reward with Allah. The leg that was left for them to eat would not reward them. It would be consumed in this world and would not be saved.
Pilgrimage to Mecca was another form of worship that was established by the Holy Prophet(sa). There was no record of how many times he performed Hajj prior to the advent of Islam. It is recorded in history that the Tribe of Quraish in Mecca used to perform Hajj every year. Therefore, it can be assumed that the Holy Prophet(sa) also performed Hajj once a year, but the exact number is not known.
During his thirteen-year stay in Mecca after the call, he performed two pilgrimages. He also performed Hajj during his tenth year in Medina. It is also confirmed that he performed Umra (voluntary, Hajj-like pilgrimage performed outside the prescribed calendar dates for Hajj) four times during the time he lived in Medina. He showed everyone precisely how to perform the circuit and what prayers to recite. This is the example and model that pious Muslims follow to this day.
One extremely significant role of Hajj is its display of citizens from all nations worshipping together in one place. People of all different backgrounds, color, and nationalities come together for one purpose and are all equal in the sight of God.
Remembrance of God
The last form of worship is the remembrance of God as practiced by the Holy Prophet(sa). Hazrat Ayesha(ra) relates that the Holy Prophet(sa) remembered Allah every moment of his life. There was never a moment where he would not pray to Allah. He was the personified example of the Qur’anic verse:
“My prayer and my sacrifice and my life and my death are all for Allah, the Lord of the worlds”.(8)
Every aspect of his life was focused on God. There are literally countless incidents of the Holy Prophet(sa) remembering God. He prayed at the time of eating, going to sleep, waking up, riding on a horse, entering a house, putting on new clothes, entering and leaving the mosque, looking in the mirror, and so on. The times are countless. Even while traveling he was known to pray. Hazrat Anas(ra) relates: We returned from a journey with the Holy Prophet( sa) and when Medina came into view he began to repeat, “We are returning safe, turning to our Lord, worshipping Him and praising Him”; and he kept it up till we entered the town.(9) He was also known to worship before going to sleep. His wife, Hazrat Ayesha(ra), relates that when the Holy Prophet(sa) came to bed, he would cup his hands and blow upon his palms and recite the last two chapters of the Holy Qur’an and then pass his hands over his body.(10) Talha ibn Ubaidullah(ra) relates that, on seeing a new moon, the Holy Prophet(sa) would supplicate, “Allah, do Thou cause the appearance of this moon to be a harbinger of peace, faith, security and Islam for us. Thy Lord, O’ moon, and my Lord is Allah. May this be a moon presaging guidance and good.”(11)
On every Friday and every Eid celebration, the very last sentence of the Prophet’s(sa) sermon was about the remembrance of Allah. The final portion of the Friday sermon, which is recited in Arabic just prior to the Jumah Salat (Friday prayer), are the words:
“Remember Allah so that He will remember you and pray to Him and He will accept your prayers and remembrance of Allah is the greatest virtue.”
This is how he finished his sermons every Friday and on Eid, which are the occasions of gathering of the largest groups of Muslims in a city or a particular neighborhood. It was of great importance to him, and he continuously implanted this in the minds of every Muslim.
Establishment of Worship
In addition to being a perfect model, Holy Prophet Muhammad’s(sa) greatest accomplishment was the establishment of continuous worship of God throughout the world. To underscore how profound this accomplishment is, let us reflect on one single day on earth: The time that a Muslim rises for Fajr prayer in New York is between five and six o’clock in the morning. While the Muslims in New York are still offering their Fajr prayer, the time for Fajr has come in Chicago and Muslims there are waking to offer their prayers. Next, Muslims in Arizona will rise for Fajr prayers while people in the Midwest are concluding their prayers. Once again, while they are still praying, Muslims on the West Coast are beginning their prayers. This obviously continues through Hawaii, Japan, and further west. When the time for Zuhr prayer (noon time) arrives, the same process starts all over again. So for 24 hours a day, there are human beings always offering prayers to God somewhere in the world. No other prophet or religion accomplished this. Other religions, whether they have weekly or even daily services, cannot achieve the 24-7 worship of God around the world. Furthermore, this is only the required salat and does not consider the voluntary prayer that Muslims offer.
Another way to look at this is on a worldwide scale. At any one moment, at various places in the world, it is time for one of the five daily salats. So the five daily, formal prayers are being offered in the world without any break whatsoever.
According to the instructions of the Holy Prophet(sa), prayers are taught to Muslim children between the ages of 7 and 10. He established among his followers that children aged 7 should learn prayers. By the age of 10, they should be obliged to recite their prayers every day. This reflects the importance of worship for his followers. That is why it begins in the early years of life and not in adulthood.
The primary substance of these prayers is also prescribed by the Holy Prophet(sa), in addition to whatever a person wants to pray for. In formal prayer, all Muslims first recite the same words in Arabic, after which, they are allowed to ask for whatever personal guidance they need. Prescribed prayers are the ones that appeal to Allah and that is why He taught them. A Muslim is following a perfect script as taught and practiced by the Holy Prophet(sa), but can also offer any other prayers that personally appeal to him or her.
The example of the Holy Prophet(sa) praying all night until his feet became swollen, praying while traveling, and taking part in expeditions, sends a forceful message to his followers regarding the worship of God. There should never be a moment where a Muslim forgets God. Not just through prayer, but through our actions as well. Worship is also prescribed in other forms, such as almsgiving, pilgrimage, and fasting. Remembrance of Allah is vital to being a true Muslim.
In the eyes of Muslims, there can be no human being more perfect than the Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa) but his humbleness and humility are noteworthy. He always seemed to be asking for forgiveness for himself. Aghirr Muzani(ra) relates that the Holy Prophet(sa) said, “Sometimes I perceive a veil over my heart and I supplicate Allah for forgiveness a hundred times in a day.”(12) It is amazing that a man as flawless as the Holy Prophet(sa) could keep asking for forgiveness and be constantly praying and worshipping Allah, while most Muslims need to be consistently reminded to pray. In fact, the Holy Prophet(sa) prayed so much, that it could not even be recorded how often or how much he prayed. Abu Umamah(ra) relates the Holy Prophet(sa) made many supplications which we were not able to retain in our memories. So we said to him, “Messenger of Allah, you make many supplications of which we do not remember any.” He said, “Shall I tell you something which shall comprehend all of them? Supplicate in these words: ‘Allah, I beg of Thee of good all that Thy Prophet Muhammad(sa) begged of Thee and seek Thy Protection against all the evil against which Thy Prophet Muhammad(sa) sought Thy protection. Thou art the One who is asked for help and it is for Thee to convey the guidance. There is no strength to resist evil, nor power to do good, except through Allah’.”(13)
The Promised Messiah(as), the Holy Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, has summed up beautifully the result of the worship, prayers and supplications of the Holy Prophet(sa). In his opinion, whatever happened in the beginning of Islam was the result of the supplications of the Holy Prophet(sa), which he had submitted to God Almighty with his tears in the streets of Mecca. All the grand victories which changed the entire aspect of the world were the result of his prayers.
The Promised Messiah(as) writes:
“Have you any notion what was the strange event that occurred in the desert country of Arabia when hundreds of thousands of the dead were revived within a brief period and those who had been misguided through generations put on divine color, and those who were blind obtained sight, and those who had been dumb began to speak of the understanding of the Divine, and the world underwent a revolution which had never been seen or heard of before? It was the supplications during dark nights of one who had lost himself in God which raised a clamor in the world, and manifested such wonders as appeared impossible in the case of that unlearned helpless one. Send down Thy blessings and peace, O’ Allah, on him and his people according to the number of his grieving and sorrows for his followers and pour down upon him the lights of Thy mercy forever.”(14)
Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa) was a great model of worship for his followers. He praised God so much, and it is a mark of the excellence of his worship that Allah responded to him with such kindness, the like with which He had not done in the past. God Himself declared:
“Allah sends down blessings on the Prophet, and His angels invoke blessings on him. O’ ye who believe, so you also invoke blessings on him and salute him with the salutation of peace.”(15)
Under this commandment, all over the world at every hour of the day, there are believers who join Allah and His angels in sending the salutations and blessings on this Prophet( sa).
1A. Ibn-e-Maaja Kitabuddua Wassalat, Chapter 3
- Bokhari Kitaabud Dawaat, Chapter Ma Yaqool Wa Anaam
- Abu Dawood Kitaabus Salat Hadith 153
- Bokhari Kitaabul Iman Chapter 11
- Bokhari Kitaabus Salaat Chapter 40
- Bokhari Chapter Sayyam Shehr Ramadhan
- Bokhari Kitabus Saum Chapter Saum Sha’baan
- Tirmadhi Book 37, Hadith 2658
- Holy Qur’an 6:163
- Bokhari Kitaabud Da’waat, Dua Iz Irada Safar
- Bokhari Book 66, Hadith 39
- Tirmadhi, Kitaabud Da’waat, Baab Ma Yaqool Inda Rowyatul Hilal
- Bokhari Kitaabud Da’waat chapter 3
- Tirmadhi, Kitaabud Da’waat chapter 89
- Blessings of Prayer, Page 7, Islam International 2007 Edition.
- Holy Qur’an 33:57