What is Salah and Why Do We Pray?
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What is Salah?
The salah is a special form of worship that is the second most important pillar of Islam after the shahada (testimony of faith). It is an obligatory form of prayer performed five times a day that was revealed in the Holy Qur’an and taught to us by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
There are many verses in the Holy Quran which Allah tells us about the importance of prayer. Here are two such verses:
But those who hold fast to the Book and establish prayer – indeed, We will not allow to be lost the reward of the pious.
Qur'an - Chapter 7, Verse 170
Recite, [O Muhammad], what has been revealed to you of the Book and establish prayer. Indeed, prayer prohibits immorality and wrongdoing, and the remembrance of Allah is greater. And Allah knows that which you do.
Qur'an - Chapter 29, Verse 45
The salah involves a number of physical movements – standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting. It also involves the recitation of verses from the Holy Quran in Arabic along with a number of dua (supplications).
The Muslim will face the direction of the Kaba, the Sacred House of Allah in Makkah, whenever they perform their prayer. These physical movements, recitations, and supplications are all done to show humility and submission to Allah.
Why do Muslims Pray Salah?
The reason why Muslims pray at all relates to what Islam considers to be the purpose of life – to worship Allah alone. Shortly after Muhammad became a Prophet, the performance of salah (worship) was one of the first commandments given to him by Allah.
Allah Almighty tells us in the Holy Qur’an that mankind was only created for one reason: to worship Him.
And I (Allah) created not the jinns and humans except they should worship Me (Alone).
Qur'an - Chapter 51, Verse 56
The salah is the second pillar of Islam and it is a critical part of a Muslim’s faith. One of the biggest differences between a Muslim and a non-Muslim is the salah. Our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
“Between a man and polytheism and disbelief there stands his neglect of the prayer.”
Why Do Muslims Pray 5 Times a Day?
This question is quite common and many people do not know the real reason of where the number five came from. When Muhammad (peace be upon him) became a Prophet at the age of forty one of the first things he was taught was how to pray. Allah sent the angel Gabriel (Jibreel) to teach him how to make wudu and perform the salah.
Some 11 years after the beginning of prophethood a miraculous journey took place in which the angel Gabriel took Muhammad (peace be upon him) to the first heaven. It was during this event that Allah commanded him and the Muslims to specifically pray five times a day. This event was recorded in the Holy Qur’an and we also have authentic narrations from the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself that he undertook this journey.
The full story of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven is known as Isra and Mi’raj. It is a lengthy story for which we will not go into detail. However, the last part of the story will be shared; the part where the commandment to pray specifically five times a day was given. Up until that point in history the Muslims would perform salah, but there was no specific number of times that was legislated.
The Story of Isra and Mi’raj
Exalted is He who took His Servant (Prophet Muhammad) by night from al-Masjid al-Haram (In Makkah) to al-Masjid al- Aqsa (Jerusalem), whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.Qur'an - Chapter 17, Verse 1
The last part of the Isra and Mi’raj story begins at the moment the angel Gabriel (Jibreel) brings Muhammad (peace be upon him) from Makkah to Jerusalem, and then to the gates of the first level of heaven:
When I reached the nearest heaven. Gabriel said to the heaven gatekeeper, ‘Open the gate.’ The gatekeeper asked, ‘Who is it?’ He said, ‘Gabriel.’ The gatekeeper asked,’ Who is accompanying you?’ Gabriel said, ‘Muhammad.’ The gatekeeper said, ‘Has he been called?’ Gabriel said, ‘Yes.’ Then it was said, ‘He is welcomed. What a wonderful visit his is!’ Then I met Adam and greeted him and he said, ‘You are welcomed O son and Prophet.’
Then we ascended to the second heaven. It was asked, ‘Who is it?’ Gabriel said, ‘Gabriel.’ It was said, ‘Who is with you?’ He said, ‘Muhammad.’ It was asked, ‘Has he been sent for?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ It was said, ‘He is welcomed. What a wonderful visit his is!” Then I met Isa (Jesus) and Yahya (John the Baptist) who said, ‘You are welcomed, O brother and a Prophet.’
Then we ascended to the third heaven. It was asked, ‘Who is it?’ Gabriel said, ‘Gabriel.’ It was asked, ‘Who is with you? Gabriel said, ‘Muhammad.’ It was asked, ‘Has he been sent for?’ ‘Yes,’ said Gabriel. ‘He is welcomed. What a wonderful visit his is!’ (The Prophet added:). There I met Joseph (Yusuf) and greeted him, and he replied, ‘You are welcomed, O brother and a Prophet!’
Then we ascended to the 4th heaven and again the same questions and answers were exchanged as in the previous heavens. There I met Idris and greeted him. He said, ‘You are welcomed O brother and Prophet.’
Then we ascended to the 5th heaven and again the same questions and answers were exchanged as in previous heavens. There I met and greeted Aaron (Harun) who said, ‘You are welcomed O brother and a Prophet”.
Then we ascended to the 6th heaven and again the same questions and answers were exchanged as in the previous heavens. There I met and greeted Moses (Musa) who said, ‘You are welcomed O brother and a Prophet.’ When I proceeded on, he started weeping and on being asked why he was weeping, he said, ‘O Lord! Followers of this youth who was sent after me will enter Paradise in greater number than my followers.’
Then we ascended to the seventh heaven and again the same questions and answers were exchanged as in the previous heavens. There I met and greeted Abraham who said, ‘You are welcomed O son and a Prophet.’
Then I was shown al-Bait al-Ma’mur (i.e. God’s House). I asked Gabriel about it and he said, This is al-Bait al-Ma’mur where 70,000 angels perform prayers daily and when they leave they never return to it (but always a new group comes into it daily).’
Then I was shown Sidrat al-Muntaha (i.e. a tree in the seventh heaven) and I saw its Nabk fruits which resembled the clay jugs of Hajr (i.e. a town in Arabia), and its leaves were like the ears of elephants, and four rivers originated at its root, two of them were apparent and two were hidden. I asked Gabriel about those rivers and he said, ‘The two hidden rivers are in Paradise, and the apparent ones are the Nile and the Euphrates.’
Then fifty prayers were enjoined on me. I descended till I met Moses who asked me, ‘What have you done?’ I said, ‘Fifty prayers have been enjoined on me.’ He said, ‘I know the people better than you, because I had the hardest experience to bring the Israelites to obedience. Your followers cannot put up with such obligation. So, return to your Lord and ask Him (to reduce the number of prayers).’ I returned and asked Allah (for reduction) and He made it forty. I returned and (met Moses) and had a similar discussion, and then returned again to Allah for reduction and He made it thirty, then twenty, then ten, and then I came to Moses who repeated the same advice. Ultimately Allah reduced it to five. When I came to Moses again, he said, ‘What have you done?’ I said, ‘Allah has made it five only.’ He repeated the same advice but I said that I surrendered (to God’s Final Order)'” God’s Apostle was addressed by Allah, “I have decreed My Obligation and have reduced the burden on My servants, and I shall reward a single good deed as if it were ten good deeds.
— Sahih al-Bukhari, volume 4, Book 54, Hadith number 429