February 13, 2012

Basic Concepts Regarding Prayer and Worship in Islam

Recently I got into a discussion about the differences between prayer and worship in Islam, followed by an additional conversation about whether the concepts of "bless," "exalt" and "worship" in Islam were distinct. I've rearranged my commentary somewhat to improve the flow of thought in this brief essay.

Prayer itself is categorized into two forms within Islam: salah (pl. salat) and dua (pl. du'wat). The former is the formal, ritualized prayer that is performed five times per day, and is what non-Muslims see on the TV when they see Muslims praying. The latter, however, is perhaps even more commonplace. These are the prayers Muslims make under a wide variety of situations. For example, the prayer the proverbial student makes before doing a test is a dua.

Dua: informal and voluntary; salah: formal; may be either required (fard; the five daily prayers) or voluntary (sunnah).

Worship, on the other hand, encompasses both salat and du'wat but also includes other acts. I would define Islamic worship as any act or thought that is made with the intention of trying to please Allah (swt). Thus, working at one's job, farming, taking care of children, all could be considered a form of worship, the key being intention.

The question your post raises is whether bless, exalt, and worship are distinct.

In Islam these three concepts are semi-distinct. Worship I described above; it is a very broad concept and can encompass acts that might seem mundane to an outside observer.

With respect to "bless," most Muslims use this term (barakah) in a specific manner: that Allah (swt) blesses mankind. We do not refer to ourselves blessing Allah (swt), nor do Muslims bless each other. (The Wikipedia article will talk about barakah flowing from "saints" and other people and objects to those who seek barakah, but that is a Sufi concept to which I don't subscribe.)

The concept of "exalt" in Islam is a little ambiguous. First, most translators don't necessarily use "exalt" but "glorify." To glorify Allah (swt) may take several forms. One way is to do additional sunnah prayers (salah), especially at night (e.g., tahajjud, witr). Another way is to do what is known as tasbih, which comes from the same root as "glorify" (sin ba ha). Tasbih may be done at any time of day, but the "canonical form" (as mentioned in the Wikipedia article) is frequently done right after salah.

Now, when I said that the three are semi-distinct, to me, barakah is distinct from worship and glorifying, whereas to glorify Allah (swt) is a subset of the greater set of "worship."

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