Communicating with Allah: Rediscovering Prayer (Salah)

Communicating with Allah: Rediscovering Prayer (Salah)

by Bassam Saeh


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780860377153
Publisher: Kube Publishing Ltd
Publication date: 12/18/2018
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 1,304,932
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x (d)

About the Author

Dr. Bassam Saeh holds a BA in Arabic literature from Damascus University, Syria, and an MA & PhD in modern Arabic poetry from Cairo University. He has been Head of the Arabic Department in Tishreen University, Syria (1977) and has taught in a number of other universities, including: Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Oxford. He was the founder and principal of Oxford Academy for Advanced Studies (1990 2005). He has been presenter of several radio and TV programs and author of several books, the latest: Muslims Facing Islam, Christians Facing Christianity (Legacy Publishing, 2008).

Read an Excerpt

1: An Appointment with God

‘Prayer management?!’ he asked in astonishment. ‘Is prayer something one “manages”?’ I responded, ‘Take the case of people who study business management and finance. They do so in order to make the best material investments, to realise the highest rates of return, despite profits being temporary lasting for the duration of their life only. So, why shouldn’t we manage our spiritual affairs in the same vein, that is make the best investments in this life to reap the greatest profits in the hereafter, especially when we know the rewards of the hereafter to be eternal, and never depleted? Could there be anything worthier of a person’s investment and proper management than a singular activity like Salah (canonical prayer) that is intended to serve the good of both this world and the next?’

One day during the month of Ramadan the Saudi Students’ Club at Oxford invited me to give a lecture right before the breaking of the fast. I accepted and decided to speak on the topic of ‘Salah management’. At the scheduled time I went up to the pulpit. In my hand was a piece of paper on which I had jotted down two verses from the Qur’an and two sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) on Salah. After delivering the accustomed greeting, I unfolded the piece of paper and hurriedly read its contents, so fast in fact that the audience could hardly understand a word I had said. Within one minute I had finished and was heading for the door. On my way out I blurted, ‘Pardon the rush, but I have an appointment to keep with people a lot more important than you are. Goodbye!’ As I made a beeline for the door, I glanced out of the corner of my eye and noticed the faces of my tongue-tied listeners registering a mixture of protest, bewilderment, disbelief, and just possibly, offence and disapproval.

An understandable spontaneous human reaction given my impolite conduct towards people I had agreed to meet with. So, taking this a step further, what do we suppose the reaction would be if I conducted myself in the same manner towards God?

A few seconds later I returned and apologised to the students for my behavior, saying, ‘Are you angry with me? Well, I have acted this way towards you once, and now I have come back to apologise. But the fact is, we act this way towards God an average of five times a day, yet without a single pang of conscience, and without a single word of apology!’

What a great opportunity, what a sweet rendezvous we miss out on when we scrimp on the time we give to God and offer our prayer in the same hurried manner with which I addressed the students – if, that is, it deserves to be called ‘prayer’ at all.

You will also notice that rather than reciting the Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet to the audience from memory, I simply read them out from a piece of paper. But which would have had more impact on the listeners – reading from a piece of paper, or speaking contemporaneously? Ordinarily we perform Salah in the same way, that is, as if we are reading from a piece of paper, and as such, the words come out of our mouths, and not out of our hearts.

The Almighty has presented us with a tremendous gift, a vast investment project served on a platter of gold, yet we spurn it in contempt. As a result, we end up with nothing but what we might reasonably expect, namely, rejection and possibly even chastisement, for responding to God’s gift with such ingratitude.

We need to realise within us the value of this gift and teach it to our children. That is, if we want our children to go beyond memorisation and imitation and join the ranks of true thinkers and innovators, we need to rediscover both ourselves and our forms of worship. Then we need to teach our children a way of thinking that will help them to rediscover everything around them, including the array of awe-inspiring inventions at their disposal.

I remember once in the late 1940’s, as a child of seven or eight years old, my mother coming home from a visit to a Christian family in Lattakia telling us of an amazing ‘radio’ that their son had brought back from France on completion of his studies there. This ‘radio’ she informed us had a window in the front through which you could see the person who was speaking! I could not sleep that night for excitement, my child’s imagination thinking of the poor radio announcer who I envisaged stuffed into the little box. How had they managed to get him inside it? They must have had to find somebody with a body tiny enough to fit. But then, my child’s mind wondered, how would he be able to get out to go to the bathroom? Scores of questions of this sort hounded me all that night. Years later, I realised of course the device my mother had been talking about was a television!

Our children are being born into a world filled with televisions, radios, smartphones, computers, iPads (tablets), CDs, satellites, aeroplanes, cars, and other remarkable devices. As a consequence, they rarely think about how great these inventions really are. Nor do they give any thought to the greatness of the individuals who invented and developed them, or the thrill that must have accompanied their first introduction into people’s lives. We need to train our children to be aware of the greatness of these things, since this will help them rediscover the greatness of creation, both within themselves and around them, and the greatness of God in the act of creation. This in turn will lead them to rediscover their religion and its forms of worship. Rather than leaving them buried beneath a stultifying layer of familiarity, habit, and repetition, they can learn to appreciate them anew as though they were becoming acquainted with them for the first time. Many verses of the Qur’an likewise train us in the art of rediscovery:

‘Hallowed be He who has created seven heavens in full harmony with one another: no fault will you see in the creation of the Most Gracious. And turn your vision ‘upon it once more: can you see any flaw? Yea, turn your vision ‘upon it again and yet again: ‘and every time your vision will fall back upon you, dazzled and truly defeated…. (al-Mulk 67:3-4)

Have they, then, never beheld the birds above them, spreading their wings and drawing them in? None but the Most Gracious upholds them: for, verily, He keeps all things in His sight. (al-Mulk 67:19)

Say ‘unto those who deny the truth: ‘What do you think? If of a sudden all your water were to vanish underground, who ‘but God could provide you with water from ‘new unsullied springs?’ (al-Mulk 67:30)

People raised with an attitude of awe and wonder inspired by the Qur’anic approach to the world, will find themselves in a never-ending state of ‘rediscovery’, both of themselves and their surroundings. As a consequence, they and their society will enjoy a continuing state of cultural and spiritual growth and development. Every morning we are called upon to look at ourselves and the world around us through new eyes as though seeing them for the first time. Once we do so, we will see how much closer we are to God.

Our schools, institutes and university departments have seen the rapid spread of disciplines and curricula that concern themselves with the study of the best means of managing industrial, commercial, agricultural and construction projects, and of investing everything that has the potential of achieving profit and benefit in our lives both public and private. But who has ever thought of introducing a discipline or course of study that deals with the management and investment of something more valuable, more beneficial, more enduring, and more guaranteed to yield results both in this world and the next than all the aforementioned enterprises combined, namely, our various forms of worship, and first and foremost, Salah, which is, in essence, an appointment with God? In fact, such a field of study would contribute to the success of our transient worldly enterprises.

Salah is an encounter that occupies first place among the various forms of Islamic worship, which might be thought of as worldly-otherworldly investments. Hence, it should come as no surprise to learn that Salah (to perform prayers during their specified time periods) takes first place, ahead of the command to honour one’s parents even:

‘Abd Allah Ibn Mas’ud said: ‘I once asked the Messenger of God (pbuh), “Which, of all actions, is the most pleasing to God?” And he said, “Performance of the prayers at their specified times”. “Then what?” I asked. “Honouring one’s parents.” “Then what?” I asked. “Engaging in struggle (jihad) on God’s behalf”.’

This is a remarkable Hadith, although most of us pass over it without much thought. Looking closely, the classification of placing Salah before honouring one’s parents and jihad not only illustrates the great value of Salah, but also points to the importance of our loyalty to, and relationship with, parents, societies and in fact the entire world. We are to honour the world and make it a better place through struggle (jihad) for justice and human rights. Although the term’s ethos is a noble one, tragically in our time it has been widely abused and misrepresented, hijacked and falsified by political and religious groups to justify their savage acts of terrorism and murder, when the Prophet of Islam was sent only as a mercy to all the world. For Salah to surpass by far even jihad in importance, virtue and reward is something that truly calls for reflection. It is even described by God Almighty as ‘a hard thing’ (kabirah) for all but those who are ‘humble in spirit’ (al-khashi’un). For such individuals, Salah poses no burden or difficulty because, by virtue of their humble reverence, they find it to be a source of enjoyment, tranquility and peace of mind, as well as a bulwark of protection in their lives. In fact, given a commitment to humble reverence and to deliberateness and patience in one’s recitations, movements, reflection and imagination, prayer serves as a spiritual school that trains the believer in patient endurance, mental concentration, attention, modesty, acceptance of others and the ability to listen to them, calm nerves, careful, deliberate decision-making, moderation in one’s attitudes, avoidance of impetuous, hasty or extreme judgments, and wisdom in dealing with other people and life situations. Hence, it should come as no surprise that in more than one passage of the Qur’an, God Almighty links prayer with patience and endurance:

And seek aid in steadfast patience and prayer: and this, indeed, is a hard thing for all but the humble in spirit. (al-Baqarah 2:45)

And bid your people to pray, and persevere therein. (TaHa 20:132)

2: ‘And this, indeed, is a hard act…’: But Why?

Why pray?

Why should we cancel our appointments, put aside the work we are doing, interrupt our business, and put everything else in our daily lives on hold, no matter how important it happens to be, in order to turn to prayer? Why did the Messenger of God identify prayer as the factor that distinguishes a believer from an unbeliever? Why was it prayer in particular that the Prophet reminded his community of, from upon his deathbed, saying, ‘For the sake of God, do not abandon prayer!’

Was prayer originally established in Muslims’ lives as a punishment, or as a reward? What aspects of it are difficult, and what aspects of it enjoyable, if we do, in fact, find any enjoyment in it? Why are we instructed to pray at these particular times, with these particular movements, and this particular number of bows and prostrations? Why are we to utter these particular words and do these particular recitations? Why is prayer found in all religions? How is it that God and His Messenger place even greater importance on prayer than they do on jihad?

I have to confess that I had been praying for a full fifty years before I discovered that in prayer, God Almighty had bestowed on me the greatest commercial enterprise anyone could hope to possess, and that if I chose wisely how to manage and run this enterprise, I would stand to reap the richest harvest and experience the fullest enjoyment anyone on Earth could dream of.

Suppose you happen to witness a battle between two groups of ants over a tiny lump of sugar: One ant pounces on its opponent’s back, another digs its little claws into its enemy’s leg to prevent it from getting to the lump of sugar, and still another charges at this or that member of the enemy camp. You will probably stand there chuckling at this peculiar battle between the two little armies. And over what? Over a tiny piece of sugar that, in human terms, would be considered of no value at all.

Now suppose you performed a truly perfect prayer, one that left you feeling as though you had been lifted out of the earthly realm and straight to the throne of God. If you then looked down on the world from those lofty heights, you would see everything in it, no matter what its size, as so minute as to be hardly visible with the naked eye. You would see that the miserable piece of sugar that the ants have been warring over is none other than our trifling life on Earth, and that the foolish little ants in mortal combat over a piece of sugar represent you and whatever group or groups of people you are at odds with over that piece of sugar.

3: From Duty to Privilege

Indeed, Salah in our Islamic tradition may start out as a duty. As the Prophet is reported to have said that children are to be positively encouraged to pray when they are ten years old.2

Similarly, the Prophet stated, ‘Nothing stands between a man and unbelief but the neglect of Salah.’ 3 Ideally, however, when children reach the age of discernment and comprehend the nature and dynamics of Salah, they will discover the importance of this hotline to God for themselves, and the concept of ‘duty’ will gradually be replaced by that of ‘privilege’ or ‘right’.

When our children are young, we have to force them to take their medicine. But as they mature, they go from seeing medicine as an affliction to be endured to seeing it as a right to be enjoyed or appreciated, since they realise that medicines can restore them to health and even save their lives.

Imagine that you are about to sign a lease on a large house. You are enchanted by its beauty, its spaciousness, its lovely location and its elegant furnishings. But when you sit down to negotiate the rent with the landlord, he surprises you by saying, ‘In lieu of the rent, I require you to eat five delectable meals a day at my expense. That’s what I require – no more, no less.’

What an offer that would be! And in fact, it’s the very offer we have received from God Almighty in return for our living on this Earth of His, enjoying its bountiful blessings and helping to populate it and build it up. This being the case, don’t we wrong ourselves by not giving our daily prayer ‘meals’ the time and attention we devote to the meals we take into our bodies? Why do we begrudge our spiritual nourishment the time we give so freely of to our physical nourishment? Which of them do you suppose is more important for us?

Have you ever heard of a major prize whose donor stipulates that before receiving it, the winner must first accept another major prize? What kind of a prize might that be? The prize I am referring to is Salah. We will not receive our great reward from God unless we first collect the wonderful spiritual prize He has given us by enjoying its performance as a right and privilege rather than merely enduring it as a duty or burden.

‘If a servant of God rises to pray, all his sins are brought and placed on his shoulders, and as he bows or prostrates, they fall away.’ 4 Similarly, ‘Any Muslim who performs a thorough ablution, then sets out to pray, being aware of what he is saying, will revert to being as pure as he was on the day he was born.’ 5 So as you begin your prayer with the words,

‘God is greater!’ (Allahu Akbar!) imagine the angels bringing all the sins you have ever been guilty of and piling them on your shoulders so that as you bow or prostrate, they come tumbling off.

How easily a right can come to feel like a duty, possibly even a burdensome one that we want to be freed from as quickly as possible. This is the experience of those who feel as though they are ‘losing’ or ‘wasting’ the precious time they spend performing a few cycles of prayer. Duty is something we invariably associate in our minds with a burden, something that weighs on us. As such, we see it as something that impoverishes us rather than enriches us, since it deprives us of time or rest we see ourselves as being entitled to. With this perception a distortion begins, and for many people, prayer begins to be transmuted into a burden that they are anxious to be relieved of. Quite to the

contrary, however, the Messenger of God portrayed prayer as something that brings rest and relief. Did he not say, ‘Give us repose through ‘prayer, O Bilal!’?6

So, rather than asking ourselves, ‘Have I prayed?’, however critical this question might be, let us instead ask, ‘When I prayed, did I receive the prize that had been designated for me? Did I truly enjoy it as I pondered the earthly blessings it brings me, and did I savor the thought of the riches I am saving up for the life to come?’

Let your prayer be a free ticket to a pleasant journey, not simply around the world, but around the universe, one in which you gain access to the King and Absolute Ruler of the cosmos.

Duties vs. Rights

Duties in our lives are often confused with rights to the point where we don’t know where one ends and the other begins. For example, the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah, is a duty that requires determination, travel, expenditure of energy and monetary outlay. It may even involve some danger and risk. But when we think about the reward that awaits us for every step we take along the way, the sense of duty will begin to evaporate and be replaced by an awareness of the pilgrimage as a right and a privilege.

Similarly, the giving of charity is a duty that involves effort and expense. But when we undertake it with willing hearts, and with a realisation of the reward we can anticipate along with the happiness we have given to the people we have helped, we will be showered with peace and tranquility for having pleased our Lord and for the protection, warmth and safety we made possible for someone in need.

Fasting, too, is a duty, an obligation that requires us to endure hunger and thirst and to exercise patience and self- control. But with every minute that passes, we anticipate the enjoyment of God’s promised reward and the pleasure of drawing near to God as we obey His commands and heed His prohibitions. The reward is not limited simply to the fast- breaking meal that follows a long day of hunger and thirst. Rather, it includes the satisfaction of having triumphed in a battle with our egos’ cravings and added to our lasting store of Divine approval.

The same principle applies to the Islamic categories of permissible (halal) and forbidden (haram). God Almighty only forbids things to us in order to protect us from some harm, whether or not we realise the nature of the harm involved. Similarly, when God declares something permissible to us or commands us to perform a given action, it is for the sake of some benefit. Hence, we might speak of halal and haram as ‘beneficial’ and ‘harmful’ respectively, whether in the realm of economics, psychology, medicine or whatever else.

How easy it is for the rights we enjoy to turn into duties. However, it is just as easy for the duties we have been given to turn into rights. If we were to win a large monetary award from some institution and were asked to travel somewhere to receive it, wouldn’t we rush off happily to collect our prize, sacrificing our time and effort and making light of whatever difficulties we might encounter on the way? If so, then is not the prize of prayer worth the same effort, and even more? After all, how can the value of prayer even be compared to a reward that originates in this ephemeral earthly realm, however great it may happen to be?

God is the One who provides the birds with their nourishment. But they still have to spread their wings and fly to where it is. How would we ever know what a fruit tastes like if we never reach out to pick it off the tree? How can we enjoy restful sleep unless we make sure we have a suitable mattress and enough blankets, and that the atmosphere is calm and the room quiet and dimly lit?

Table of Contents


1. An Appointment with God
2. ‘And this, indeed, is a hard act...’: But Why?
3. From Duty to Privilege
4. The Satisfaction of Waking up Early for Prayer
5. The Joy of Patient Perseverance
6. Why Do we Pray?
7. The Rhythm of Prayer and the Rhythm of Life
8. Variety: The First Lesson in Civilisation
9. The Call to Prayer and its Ten Wonders
10. The Two Ritual Ablutions
11. Communal Prayer:The Key to Advancement and Civilisation
12.The Friday Khutbah (Sermon): A Course in Development
13. The Five Lines of Prayer
14. Red Key No. 1: ‘God is Greater’
15. Reading, Reciting and Chanting
16. The New Language of the Qur’an
17. Open Language and ‘Fertile Spaces’
18. The Role of the Fatihah
19. Red Key No. 2: ‘You alone do we worship, and unto You alone do we turn for aid’
20. The Centrality of Bowing and Prostration
21. Red Key No. 3: ‘Blessed Greeting to God’
22. Red Key No. 4: ‘Peace be upon us…’
23. A Session for Supplication and Private Worship
24. Computing Profits and Losses
25. Let Your Whole Life be a Prayer

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