March 06, 2013


This is the second in a series of posts about the Five Pillars of Islam. The first diary, about shahadah, can be found here.

Salat (sing., salah) are the formal prayers that are required of Muslims five times per day. In addition to these required (fard) prayers, Muslims often perform additional prayers that are optional (sunnah); these latter prayers are not required, but Muslims are encouraged to do them.

Before any salah is performed, fard or sunnah, the person must be in a state of ritual purity. This is done through two different forms of ablutions known as ghusl and wudu. Ghusl is the full-body ablution that is performed less frequently than wudu. Ghusl is required under certain circumstances. For men, this is most commonly after sexual activity; for women, it includes after sexual activity, after menses, and after childbirth. Wudu, on the other hand, is normally done after certain bodily functions; for example, urination, defecation and passing gas. Because of the frequency of these bodily functions, it is not uncommon for Muslims to perform wudu several times a day. Both wudu and ghusl require various parts of the body to be washed in a prescribed order: both hands, a rinsing of the mouth, rinsing the insides of the nostrils (by snuffing up a small amount of water - especially helpful if one's had a recent bloody nose), washing the face, washing the forearms up to the elbows, rinsing the hair, washing the ears and, finally, washing the feet up to the ankles. For all of the above, with the exception of rinsing the hair, everything is performed three times (for the hair, one passes his or her wet hands over his or her hair once). For the hands, forearms, and feet, the right side is always washed first (three times), then the left side. Ghusl, on the other hand, is the same as wudu, except that the entire body, including all of one's hair, must be washed three times after the feet are done. Obviously, ghusl requires the use of a shower to perform, whereas wudu may be done at a footbath or even a sink.

Prior to every communal prayer is the adhan, or call to prayer. There are actually several different versions of the adhan, although the one most commonly used is the one non-Muslims may be most familiar with. This version of the adhan reads as follows in English (although it is always recited in Arabic):

God is most great, God is most great.
God is most great, God is most great.
I testify that there is no god but God.
I testify that there is no god but God.
I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.
I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.
Hurry to prayer, hurry to prayer.
Hurry to success, hurry to success.
God is most great, God is most great.
No god but God!

For the dawn (fajr) prayer, an additional line is spoken after the second "hurry to success"; that is "Prayer is better than sleep, prayer is better than sleep."

After the adhan is recited, salah does not begin immediately, but people are usually given about five minutes to get to the prayer hall. When salah is about to begin, a second recitation of the adhan is done, called the iqama. The iqama is a shorter version of the adhan. It is essentially the adhan halved with the addition of "Stand for prayer, stand for prayer" added after "hurry to success." Once the iqama is said (in a normal voice, not in the sing-songy version that is most people are familiar with), the prayer will begin as soon as everyone is ready. (It should be noted that individuals doing their prayers alone do not have to recite the adhan or iqama, although to do so is sunnah (recommended but not obligatory). Small groups of Muslims praying together may also recite the iqama only, especially if the communal prayer for that time period has already been done.)

When the Muslim is ready to pray, either individually or collectively, he or she speaks quietly his or her niyat, the intention behind the prayer. In Islam, all deeds are judged by their intentions, and salat is no exception. Are you praying a fard prayer or a sunnah prayer? A special prayer (discussed below) or trying to make up for a prayer that was not done at an earlier time? And so, for the niyat, we will briefly state which prayer we are performing at that time.

To actually describe how salat is performed would take some time to do, so I'd rather put in a video that demonstrates the steps involved in performing salat (see below). However, several points should be made. First, due to the number of body postures involved, furniture is not normally used. (For those who need furniture, like the elderly or handicapped, salat may be done as much as possible either sitting or even lying down.) Secondly, each prayer is divided into a number of cycles, called raka'at (sing., raka'ah). Three of the five fard prayers involve four raka'at each, although the dawn prayer only has two and the evening prayer three. Sunnah prayers can be either two or four raka'at in length, two raka'at being the absolute minimum number for any prayer. Moreover, sunnah prayers may be done either before or after (or both) the fard prayers (with the exception of the dawn and late afternoon prayers, in which case no sunnah prayers are allowed after the fard prayer).

In addition to the sunnah prayers mentioned above (those that may be performed just before or after the fard prayer), there are a number of other sunnah prayers that may be done at different times of the day. For example, there is the witr prayer. Witr is a sunnah prayer that is performed at night after the Isha (night) prayer, before going to bed. Unlike the fard prayers, where there is a maximum of four raka'at, the witr prayer always has an odd number of raka'at, anywhere between one raka'ah and eleven raka'at. While witr is not fard, it is considered wajib (necessary) and is especially recommended for those Muslims who fear they may die in their sleep.

Other special prayers include Jumu'ah, Eid, the prayer for the mosque, and the prayer for the dead. Jumu'ah is the Friday congregational prayer held every week in the early afternoon. It is an obligatory prayer for men to attend, but optional for women. (Here in Singapore, women don't attend jumu'ah because there is literally no room for them at almost all mosques. In fact there's often no room for all of the men who attend jumu'ah. While most mosques here can normally hold several thousand people, the crowds of men frequently spill over outside the buildings.) Jumu'ah consists of a khutbah (sermon), followed by set prayers spoken by the imam, followed by a two raka'at salah.

Eid prayers are held early in the mornings of the two Eids, Eid ul Fitr (on the day after the end of Ramadan) and Eid al Adha (to commemorate the end of that year's Hajj). Because everyone in the Muslim community is encouraged to attend Eid prayers, these are frequently held in very large places where thousands of Muslims can be accommodated. As a result, I personally have done Eid prayers on the floor of a convention center and in the middle of a football field (while it was sprinkling), as well as other locations. Eid prayers are also a little unusual in that the salah happens before the khutbah, when it is normally the other way around.

The prayer for the mosque is normally done when one enters the prayer hall of a mosque. It is a two raka'at prayer one makes on behalf of the building. Muslims believe that on the Day of Judgment, everything, regardless of whether it is animate or not, will be given a voice to speak out its testimony for or against a person. (This includes body parts, such as one's eyes, ears, and skin; see the Qur'an, verses 41:19-23.) So Muslims pray for the mosque, which, insha'allah, will testify on behalf of those Muslims who have prayed at that place.

One other prayer to mention is that for the dead, Salat al-Janazah. The steps by which the funeral prayer is done is completely different from how regular salah is performed. However, what makes this prayer distinctive is that it is fard kifayah, meaning that there is a collective obligation upon all Muslims within a community to do this prayer upon the death of a fellow Muslim. This is not to say that all Muslims within a community must do this prayer when someone dies, but as long as some Muslims perform the prayer, then the collective obligation will have been fulfilled. If the body of the deceased is present, then the body will be placed in front of those Muslims performing the prayer; otherwise, the prayer may be performed elsewhere, such as at a mosque. (For my late father-in-law, we did his Salah al-Janazah in the living room of his home before we took him to be buried. For many Muslims who die in Singapore, a Salah al-Janazah is often performed after Jumu'ah has concluded. Personally, I often line up to perform the funeral prayer even though I may not have known the deceased, my thought being that I hope others will do the same for me when I die, insha'allah.)

Salat is very important in Islam. On the Day of Judgment, when every soul is assessed as to whether it should go to Jannah (heaven) or Jahannam (hell), the first thing to be judged will be the number of times a person has prayed:

Narrated Abu Huraira that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said, “First of the deeds for which a slave will be called to account (on the Day of Resurrection) will be his (obligatory) prayers. If they are complete (he has prospered and succeeded), otherwise Allah (swt) will say (to the angels): ‘See whether there are any (voluntary) prayers of My slave.’ If any, Allah (swt) will say: ‘Complete his obligatory prayers with them.’”

The number of times a prayer may be rewarded depends upon whether the prayer is done individually or collectively, and on the location. Let's say that one prayer done by an individual earns a reward of one unit. If one prayer is done by two or more persons together, the reward is 27 units. (The exact number rewarded for collective prayer varies from hadith to hadith, usually between 25 and 27, but the most commonly reported number seems to be 27. And God knows best.). However, should one pray at the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah, one prayer is equivalent to 1,000 prayers elsewhere; if the prayer is performed at al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah, that prayer is equivalent to 100,000 prayers elsewhere. However, regardless of the number of rewards earned, it is always best to pray and often.

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