The command to pray appears again and again in the Qur’an. Ritual prayer or salat is indeed one of the cornerstones of Islamic practice and has been enshrined as one of the five pillars of Islamic worship. It therefore comes as no surprise to read God repeatedly adjuring his people to “be steadfast in prayer. Give Zakah and bow down your heads with those who bow down in worship” (002:043). Of all man’s duties before God, prayer is perhaps the most important and the most beneficial. He who prays regularly, prostrating himself before God, stands in God’s estimation far above the one who offers no worship to God. God reminds man that, “Prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds; and remembrance of God is the greatest thing in life without doubt” (029:045). However, through the Qur’an God is equally fervent in His commands that prayer be offered as He wills – that is, with full submission and faith in God. Proper intent is at the core of right prayer. Prayer without faith, without the sincere intent or niyya of submission to God’s will becomes meaningless words.
For Him alone is prayer in Truth. Any others that they call upon besides Him hear them no more than if they were to stretch forth their hands for water to reach their mouths, but it reaches them not, for the prayer of those without Faith is nothing but futile wandering in the mind. (013:014)
In case there is any doubt as to whether or not God actually listens to the prayers of the faithful, He clarifies this point in the Qur’an. God is always listening, not only to our prayers, but to our ordinary speech as well; nothing is beyond God’s awareness. He therefore hears whenever someone speaks ill using the names of God, and so the Qur’an warns us to speak properly the names of God: “The most beautiful names belong to God, so call on him by them; but shun such men as use profanity in his names. For what they do, they will soon be requited” (007:180). The faithful must therefore guard their speech, and be assured that God hears them.
When My servants ask you concerning Me, I am indeed close to them. I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calls on Me. Let them also, with a will, listen to My call and believe in Me, that they may walk in the right way. (002:186)
And your Lord says, “Call on Me; I will answer your prayer. But those who are too arrogant to serve Me will surely find themselves in Hell – in humiliation!” (040:060)
A reasonable question arises – when and how often should Muslims pray? The most common indication in the Qur’an which responds to this question is that Muslims should pray regularly. As a guidance to the believer, God reminds us that Abraham himself prayed to God, “O my Lord, make me one who establishes regular Prayer, and also raise such among my offspring, O our Lord, and accept You my Prayer” (014:040). Apart from the injunction that man establish regular prayers, the Qur’an offers sometimes vague, sometimes detailed descriptions for the faithful concerning the correct form, type, and number of prayers, as well as when the faithful should pray. One verses identifies the righteous as “those who spend the night in adoration of their Lord prostrate and standing” (025:064). How long is this prostration meant to last? The vagueness of this verse is typical of many verses related to prayer in the Qur’an. While the text does not say straight out that Muslims must pray five times a day, for example, it does refer to prayers to be performed during certain times of the day, which together seem to add up to five, although the verses below could also be interpreted to refer to three or even four daily prayers. These times, as in the following verses, seem to coincide with early morning “when you rise,” afternoon or late afternoon, early evening or dusk, and evening “when the day begins to decline.”
And establish regular prayers at the two ends of the day and at the approaches of the night. For those things that are good remove those that are evil. Be that the word of remembrance to those who remember their Lord. (011:114)
Establish regular prayers – at the sun’s decline till the darkness of the night – and the recital of the Qur’an in the morning prayer, for the prayer and reading in the morning carry their testimony. And pray in the small watches of the morning. It would be an additional prayer or spiritual profit for you. (017:078-079)
Patiently, then, persevere, for the Promise of God is true. And ask forgiveness for your fault, and celebrate the Praises of your Lord in the evening and in the morning. (040:055)
Of all prayer times, only one prayer is addressed by name in the Qur’an – the Friday Prayer. Friday is distinguished by God as the Day of Assembly, and the following verse suggests that public attendance at the Friday Prayer deserves special attention, as is true in Muslim countries today. The faithful are urged to leave off their current business in order that they may attend the Friday Prayer, which thereby becomes not only an act of obedience to God, but also an act of worship which binds the community together in common belief and practice.
O you who believe, when the call is proclaimed to prayer on Friday the Day of Assembly, hasten earnestly to the Remembrance of God, and leave off business and traffic. That is best for you if you but knew! And when the Prayer is finished, then may you disperse through the land, and seek of the Bounty of God. And celebrate the Praises of God often and without stint, that you may prosper. (062:009-010)
An important issue which arises in the Qur’an concerns the direction of prayer for the Muslim community. It is clear that, while God initially directed the early Muslims to pray facing Jerusalem, he later tested their faith by redirecting their gaze to the Ka’ba or Sacred Mosque at Makkah.
Thus, have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced, that you might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves. And We appointed the Qibla to which you were used only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels from the Faith. Indeed it was a change momentous except to those guided by God. And never would God make your faith of no effect. For God is to all people most surely full of kindness, Most Merciful. (002:143)