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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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:
- 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!
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!).
- 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.