A Commentary on the Traditional Salat (Prayers)

The traditional ritual prayers is most visible practice in Islam. It is known to Muslims and also to the world at large and easily recognized as an indicator of Muslim presence. In the UK, Muslim immigration in the 1960ies is often measured through the presence of makeshift masjids which is mainly used for prayers. The salat-prayers is said to be ‘imad ad-deen’ (the pillar of the faith). Traditionalist-Quranists (Quranists who embraces the traditional practices in Islam) also accept this practice as a divine mandate.

While QG acknowledges that this practice can be immensely beneficial for disciplining the self and creating cohesion in society, claiming it is a divine mandate is quite another matter entirely. Quran does not forbid us from performing cultural practices but to make something essential (part of the human essence), we would require a divine mandate. The following are the arguments Traditionalist-Quranists make as well as our responses:

  1. The Quran mentions various acts such as standing, bowing, prostrating and sitting.

While Quran does mention terms like ‘aqimoo’ (stand) , ‘arka’oo’ (bow), ‘asjudoo’ (prostrate), it never mentions them sequentially. If indeed Quran meant to teach a system of ritual prayer, it would not rip the ritual into several pieces and scatter them all over the text. Please consider verses such as 2/282, 24/58 and 5/106-107. These verses clearly explain various rules in a sequential way. Why are they not scattered as well? If they can be articulated in one straight reading, why does the salat prayer need much cutting and pasting?

  1. The Quran mentions taking ablutions before prayers.

There are two verses are said to be about ‘ablutions’, 5/6 and 4/43. The contexts of these verses do not mention any sort of prayers at all. 4/43 begins a passage for those who have believed in Allah’s system of peace (beginning in 4/1). 5/6 begins a passage dealing with those who wish to establish Allah’s inviolable system (also beginning in 5/1). As such, reading them literally as ‘ablution’ verses would not fit context at all.

  1. By claiming ‘salat’ meanings something other than prayers, you are changing the language of the Quran.

It is true that in the Arab world, ‘salat’ commonly means ritual prayers but what does this indicate? That we should copy wholesale what Arabs say without actually checking Quran itself? It should be remembered that Quran is al-furqan, not Arabic language. Arabic can feed us meanings (as can any language as they too bear human experience) but ultimately, we must check the contextual use to see if our meanings fit. Here are a few reasons why salat cannot mean ritual prayer:

  1. The word ‘salla’ which is a close cousin of the word ‘salat’ shows a basic meaning of connecting, bonding with something. It is the opposite of the word ‘tawalla’ (75/31-32) which is to turn away from something.

In 33/43 and 33/56, Allah and His angels ‘yusalloo ‘alaa’ (yusalloo upon) the believers an nabi respectively. In doing so, they experience positive results. Here ‘yusalloo’ shows a positive connection. Allah and His angels cannot be seen to be ‘praying’ upon the believers and nabi!

  1. The word ‘salaat’ is always used in the relative form (as-salaat) as well as the form attached to pronouns (salatuka, salatuhum). The relative form shows that the meaning is related to context. For example, the ‘salaat’ in 2/43 is related to the receiving and belief of what is sent down (2/40-42) thereby establishing a connection with revelation

The form attached with pronouns show the personal nature of ‘salat’. In 23/2 and 23/9 which give the first ‘salaat bracket’, the word ‘salatihim’ (their salat) is used and what is within the brackets is very telling –the personal relationships and conduct of a person. No two people have the same ‘salaat’. This is confirmed by 24/41 which teaches that ‘each’ knows its ‘salaat’ and ‘tasbeeh’ (means of harmonizing itself with the universe) and this amounts to its ‘habit’ (fi’l from the word ‘taf’aloon’ in the aya).

  1. If we say that ‘salaat’ means prayers, it would contradict its usage in at least three places. In 9/5 and 9/11, the idolators are to be given a state of peace if they return to peace, establish salaat and bring zakaat’. If ‘salaat’ means prayers (a religious practice) then giving them peace on the condition they practise it is compulsion and Quran prohibits compulsion (10/99-100). ‘Salaat’ in these two places refer to the bond between people which leads to peace.

In the case of 5/106, believers are told to find ‘others’ if they are unable to find fellow believers to witness the ratification of the will and testimony. These people are to be detained after the ‘salaat’ to confirm their witnessing. Here is the ‘salaat’ obviously refers to the bond made during the ratification of the will and testimony. There is no religious element to this at all.

  1. The Quran is a confirmation of practices of ‘previous books’ which has ritualistic practices like prayers.

If the Quran were to confirm something, there must be actual statements actually confirming said practices. Merely containing words which are similar is not confirming. Claiming words mean ‘prayers’ when they have a variety of meanings (like connection, bond, relationships) is simply circular logic. Of course the most fundamental problem with this argument is saying that the Bible (usually cited as ‘previous revelations’) is the actual thing to be confirmed here. We should note that Quran does not identify these ‘previous revelations’ nor even has the phrase ‘previous revelations’! This argument is unfortunately ‘spherical logic’ (i.e circular logic to higher dimensions!).

  1. The salaat is a continuous practice by Muslims and Allah told us to take the practice from Ibrahim’s standing position.

The cultural group in the world known as ‘Muslims’ have a whole set of practices which are not recognized by the Quran. Why accept salaat, sawm and hajj and reject the rest? They are also traditionally inherited practices. Why make fish of one and fowl of the others?

The argument that we are to take our salaat ‘format’ from the standing position of Ibrahim comes from a portion of Quran 2/125 (wa attakhidhoo min maqami ibrahim musallan). At best, it is a tenuous reading of 2/125. The word ‘musallan’ is in the usual adverb form which means that it modifies the command to take from ibrahim’s standing position. It would more accurately taken to mean ‘take from ibrahim’s standing position as one who is committed or bonded or focused’. In this sense, it is like 25/33 which says that for all the examples, Allah brings the truth and something most beautiful as a tafseer (wa ahsana tafseeran).

If we read 2/125 as a whole verse, it begins with that Allah placed ‘the house’ as a rewarding place for mankind and a safe place. At present, this has little or nothing to do with the present day Makkah in Saudi Arabia. Makkah does not let in people other than those of the Muslim faith and many have been harmed in there. If we also read from 2/124, it talks about ibrahim fulfilling the commands of his lord and being made a model for humankind. This is his standing position which is mentioned in 2/125. Merely creating a footprint in the mosque in Makkah does not make it his standing position!

In summary, it is very difficult if not impossible to force the meaning of ‘ritual prayers’ upon the Quranic term ‘salaat’. Rather, let us accept that there is a reason that Allah did not detail a ritual prayer. He left it up to us to find ways to connect to Him. This corresponds to the varieties of cultures and human experiences.

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About Farouk A. Peru

I am a human being in the world, blogging my existence. My thought systems may be found in my website: www.farouk.name
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5 Responses to A Commentary on the Traditional Salat (Prayers)

  1. Naveed Bari says:

    My Dearest Brother Farouk,

    Assalam Alaikum,

    You have written a very nice article about Salaat, which seems well thought-out and raises some good points. Being a “Traditionalist-Quranists”, I have some disagreements with your analysis  , which I will state here. Please don’t mind the length of my response, since many of the points you have brought up require a detailed reply.

    First, it seems to me that you are using circular reasoning for translating 5:6 and 4:43. Here are how these verses are translated in a traditional way:

    “O YOU who have attained to faith! When you are about to stand for salat , wash your face, and your hands and arms up to the elbows, and pass your [wet] hands lightly over your head, and [wash] your feet up to the ankles. And if you are in a state. requiring total ablution, purify yourselves. But if you are ill, or are travelling, or have just satisfied a want of nature, or have cohabited with a woman, and can find no water-then take resort to pure dust, passing therewith lightly over your face and your hands. God does not want to impose any hardship on you, but wants to make you pure, and to bestow upon you the full measure of His blessings, so that you might have cause to be grateful.” (5:6)

    “O YOU who have attained to faith! Do not go near salat while you are in a state of drunkenness, [but wait] UNTIL YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE SAYING; nor yet [while you are] in a state requiring total ablution, until you have bathed – except if you are travelling [and are unable to do so]. But if you are ill, or are travelling, or have just satisfied a want of nature, or have cohabited with a woman, and can find no water – then take resort to pure dust, passing [there¬with] lightly over your face and your hands. Behold, God is indeed an absolver of sins, much-forgiving.” (4:43)

    You have assigned the meanings of “Allah’s system of peace” and “Allah’s inviolable system” without stating why instead of the traditional meaning of “ritual contact prayer” you are choosing to assign these new meanings? The verses strongly indicate that salat is a ritual as it requires an act of ritual purification. You seem to have just dismissed this claim by assigning a new meaning to the word salat without dealing with the specific ritual nature of these verses. 4:43 states that we should not go near salat until we know what we are saying – i.e. the ritual of salat requires some words that we need to utter.

    The ritualistic nature of salat at specific times is further indicated in the following verses:

    “Establish Salat from the time when the sun has passed its zenith till the darkness of night, and recitation at dawn: for, behold, the recitation at dawn is indeed witnessed. And stay awake during part of the night [as well] , as an additional offering from thee, and thy Sustainer may well raise thee to a glorious station [in the life to come].”(17:78-79)

    Here we see that the Prophet is instructed to establish Salat at specific times. In addition, he is told to wake up during the night for Tahhajud, which is a special and additional Salat for the Prophet.

    Then the ritualistic nature of salat is further emphasized in the following verses:

    “AND WHEN you go forth [to war] on earth, you will incur no sin by shortening your Salat if you have reason to fear that those who are bent on denying the truth might suddenly fall upon you: for, verily, those who deny the truth are your open foes.” (4:101)

    Here the Qurán instructs the believers that during war, they are permitted to shorten their Salat. This indicates that Salat is a ritual form of contact, which has a prescribed length, which could be shortened during times of danger.

    “Thus, when thou (the Prophet) art among the believers and about to lead them in Salat , let [only] part of them stand up with thee , retaining their arms. Then, after they have finished their prostrations , let them provide you cover while another group, who have not yet made their Salat, shall come forward and make Salat with thee, being fully prepared against danger and retaining their arms: (for) those who are bent on denying the truth would love to see you oblivious of your arms and your equipment, so that they might fall upon you in a surprise attack. But it shall not be wrong for you to lay down your arms [while you pray] if you are troubled by rain or if you are ill; but [always] be fully prepared against danger. Verily, God has readied shameful suffering for all who deny the truth!” (4:102)

    This very next verse makes it clearer as it ties Salat with some kind of a ritual that has to be done under the leadership of one person (in this case, the Prophet) while others watch over the ones making Salat. This verse also ties the act of prostration with Salat, i.e. that prostration is part of Salat.

    “And when you have finished your Salat, remember God – standing and sitting and lying down; and when you are once again secure, observe your Salat [fully]. Verily, for all believers Salat is indeed a sacred duty linked to particular times [of day] .” (4:103)

    This next verse ties Salat with particular times of day, which again indicates that it is a ritual. Once the believers are safe, they can now perform Salat fully (as opposed to the shortened version during a battle).

    In summary, from the above verses we can conclude that Salat is a ritual, which has a specific length and is to be performed at specific times during the day. The Prophet is to offer an additional Salat called Tahhajud, which he prayed during the middle of the night.

    You are correct in stating that salat is related to the word ‘salla’, which means “connecting, bonding” with something. In this regards, I agree with your interpretation of 33:43 and 33:56.

    You are also partially correct in stating that salat is always used in relative form, which could mean that it is related to the context in which it is mentioned. However, that is not the only interpretation of the relative form. When the definite article “al” is prefixed to any verb, it also indicates a proper noun. For example, several of the names of God are just that, i.e. names, which do not depend upon the context necessarily, but are intrinsic attributes of God. For example, in the beginning of Fatihah, it says, “alhamdulillahi Rabbil álameen al-rahmaan al-raheem”. Both Rahmaan and Raheem are intrinsic attrubute’s of God, and hence are also used as proper nouns for God. The same is the case with other attributes of God, and in fact, it is a general rule of the Arabic language. Therefore, al-salat can be interpreted as a proper noun – i.e. ritual prayers (that establish connection and bonding with God).

    This brings me to the point of Arabic language. You are correct in pointing out that Qurán is the Furqan, but is the furqan in what? Is it the firqan in mathematics? Is it the furqan in physics? `The answer is No! The Qurán is the furqan for what is right and what is wrong when it comes to our moral guidance. The Qurán assumes I know what number 12 means. When it says,

    “AND, INDEED, God accepted a [similar] solemn pledge from the children of Israel when We caused twelve of their leaders to be sent ….” (5:12)

    Nowhere in the Qurán do we find a definition of the phrase, “ithnay AAashara”, but we look at the Arabic language and the numbering system to determine what this phrase means. It doesn’t mean the Qurán is not the Furqan, but it simply means that it assumes that we understand the Arabic language and the usage of this term in the Arabic language.

    Further, the Qurán emphasizes again and again that it is revealed in the Arabic language (12:2, 13:37, 16:103, 20:113, 26:195, 39:28, 41:3, 41:44, 42:7, 43:3, 46:12)and that God always sends a messenger in the language of the people:

    “AND NEVER have We sent forth any Apostle otherwise than [with a message] in his own people’s tongue, so that he might make [the truth] clear unto them; but God lets go astray him that wills [to go astray], and guides him that wills [to be guided] -for He alone is almighty, truly wise.” (14:4)

    The goal is to give people a message that is clear to them, so that they don’t have any excuses that the message was given in a language that was alien to them. As such, the Qurán uses their own terminology to guide them to God. In all the classical Arabic Dictionaries, the word “salat” is translated as “prayer”, often citing pre-islamic sources of the usage of this term. To discard the meaning of the word “salat” as understood by the Arabs, and to introduce a completely new meaning (system of God) is to violate the principle of the Qurán that it is revealed in pure Arabic language to the people who understood this language well.

    The context of the verses 9/5 and 9/11 is that of war, and it is not applicable to all people. The context has to do with the Qur’anic law of “itmam al-Hujja” (completion of proof). As you probably are well aware that one key difference between a Nabi (Prophet) and a Rasul (Messenger), according to the Qurán, is that while a Nabi only brings God’s revelation, a Rasul, along with God’s revelation, also brings God’s judgment to the people:

    “NOW every community has had a Messenger ; and only after their Messenger has appeared [and delivered his message] is judgment passed on them, in all equity; and never are they wronged.” (10:47)

    “Whoever chooses to follow the right path, follows it but for his own good; and whoever goes astray, goes but astray to his own hurt; and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden. Moreover, We would never chastise [a community] before We have sent a Messenger [to them].” (17:15)

    “[We sent all these] Messengers as heralds of glad tidings and as warners, so that people might have no excuse before God after [the coming of] these Messengers : and God is indeed al¬mighty, wise.” (4:165)

    A Rasul, therefore, creates a mini day of judgment for his people on earth to demonstrate the ultimate proof of the Day of Judgment for others to witness. After he has delivered God’s message clearly to his people, and after the people have seen clear signs of his truth and have had enough time to think and reflect and make a decision (which in many cases takes several years), the judgment of God arrives, and those who have believed are rewarded, while those who have rejected, are punished and destroyed. This destruction could be either through natural disasters or at the hands of people. The Qurán contains many examples of that.

    Since, never will we find any change in the ways of God , the people of Prophet Muhammad’s times faced the same judgment as he was sent to them as a Rasul. The context of Surah Tawbah (chapter 9) of the Qurán makes it very clear that after he had demonstrated the signs of God clearly to the people, and after they had had enough time to either reject or accept, it was time for this Sunnat of Allah to take its course. The punishment was delivered through the companions of the Prophet:

    “And a proclamation from God and His Messenger [is herewith made] unto all mankind on this day of the Greatest Pilgrimage: ‘God disavows all who ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and [so does] His Messenger. Hence, if you repent, it shall be for your own good; and if you turn away, then know that you can never elude God!’ And unto those who are bent on denying the truth give thou [O Prophet] the tiding of grievous chastisement.” (9:3)

    And here is the chastisement:

    “And so, when the sacred months are over, slay those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God wherever you may come upon them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place! Yet if they repent, and take to salat, and render the zakat, let them go their way: for, behold, God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.”(9:5)

    A similar warning and chastisement was announced for the People of the Book

    “[And] fight against those who – despite having been vouchsafed revelation [aforetime] -do not [truly] believe either in God or the Last Day, and do not consider forbidden that which God and His Messenger have forbidden, and do not follow the religion of truth [which God has enjoined upon them] till they [agree to] pay the exemption tax with a willing hand, after having been humbled [in war].” (9:29)

    Why would you make an exception for “forced salat” only in 9:5? Isn’t “forced zakat”, and actually “forced submission” (or death), also in violation of the Quránic principle of “no compulsion in religion”? The fact is that these verses, as the context makes it very clear, do NOT apply to us – they have to do with the law of “Itmam al-Hujjah” and were part of the chastisement of God in accordance with His Sunnah.

    My final disagreement with you has to do on the basis of historical documentation and historical evidence. There is not a single incident in Islamic history where there was a controversy regarding the meaning of salat as contact prayer. When a historical tradition or event is challenged, the burden of proof is on the challenger to show evidence of when the alleged change/controversy took place. For example, we have documented evidence that Jesus official status as Son of God became the prominent status after the council of Nicea in 325. We have documented evidence that prior to that there were factions – some of which believed Jesus was just a Prophet; we also have documented evidence that after the council of Nicea those who held the belief that Jesus was just a Prophet were persecuted and killed. So, even though the majority of Christians today believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we can challenge that belief and provide DOCUMENTED evidence of that controversy. Similarly, today, the majority of Muslims believe that Ahadith books are sacred texts; but we can challenge that and provide documented evidence that the Prophet himself forbade people from writing down his Ahadith, and after him there is also documentation from the first 2 centuries of Islam that many people were opposed to the writing of Ahadith. Yet, we find absolutely no documentation of any controversy or conspiracy when the people changed the meaning of salat from “system of God” to “ritual prayer”. When did that change take place after the Prophet? Did people stay silent when such a huge change took place? Was there no one to oppose it? Where is the documented evidence for such a controversy?

    But in the end, I hope we can continue to discuss these issues. We are all human, and none of us has the absolute claim to the truth. We all follow what makes sense to us, and in the end only God knows what the reality is. InshaAllah, I hope to see you soon and continue to benefit from your knowledge and wisdom.

    Wasalam,
    You brother, Naveed

    • Mahboob Nawaz says:

      Salaam brother Naveed. Further to your post above. Can I refer you to ‘Truth About Salaat’
      by Dr Qamar Zaman.

      Brother Mahboob.

  2. The answer is too long to articulate. Do visit the blog mentalbondageinthenameofgod.wordpress.com for a lenghty writeup. In a nutshell , wa-aqeemu solla wa atuzakka means ‘and uphold your comittments and keep them pure. Our comittments to God, to others, to humanity, to the environment etc etc. Solla from the root SL as in solli which is ‘link’ as in the horse’s rein.

  3. moby65M says:

    Brother Naveed has referred to the concept of Itmam al-Hujjah. Brother Joseph Islam writes:

    “……It is to be appreciated that when deriving concepts from the Quran, they must remain fully compatible with all the verses of the Quran and offer no tension with other basic Quranic concepts.

    For example, the rule of complete religious freedom is completely established by the Quran. This is a fundamental Quranic concept which cannot be circumvented or breached. Even the Prophet was strongly advised not to grieve over those that would not accept his calling…”

    It would be worth our while to look at this concept from another angle in a short article here:

    http://www.quransmessage.com/articles/itmam%20FM3.htm

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