In a paper published by the recently launched Ayaan Institute, titled Creating a New Civilisation of Islam written by Jahangir Mohammed, the author offers a 12-point plan with practical working principles required to work towards the formation of an Islamic civilization. The very first principle mentioned is the idea of uniting through connectivity. The author says:
Unity cannot occur if Muslims remain isolated and distant from each other in separate groupings, or if little or no effort is put into changing this situation. Practical ways and means must be found in which Muslims across countries can become more connected to each other. This applies locally as well as internationally and is the overarching principle which cuts across all others. This is also about getting to know one another and appreciate each other’s history, culture, and good values.1
A few months ago while looking into the role of the congregational prayer in the Prophetic community, it became more and more apparent that the central pillar and point of union of any united cohesive Muslim community has to be the Ṣalāt. In other words, the congregational Ṣalāt was that divine legislation that motivated the Muslims to gather together, allowing them to remain in touch with one another and to learn more about one another during their journey in this world. To give some context, recall that the Islamic ethos informs us that acts of servitude and worship (‘ibādah) make up the essence of human spirituality, and through them, we fulfill our purpose of creation:
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ ٱلْجِنَّ وَٱلْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ
[51:56] I did not create the Jinns and the human beings except for the purpose that they should worship Me.
Without worship, there is no spiritual progress and the purpose of life is not fulfilled. This is particularly true for obligations, such as the Ṣalāt and Ṣawm. Obligatory acts of worship keep us upright and prevent us from crumbling down, while the recommended acts of worship serve as a means to further beautify and excel in achieving our purpose in life. If our obligations are not being fulfilled properly, or if one is not strong in performing them, yet one keeps adding on recommended acts of worship, the ability to perform obligations generally becomes weaker and shakier, as they were not built on strong foundations to begin with. In fact, the foundation may even break and all that may remain is the rubble of recommended acts without any structure to hold them up and give them direction. This is also why many obligations have a qaḍa, because the essence of man is dependent on them, and if they are missed, humans become shaky in their foundations. The qaḍā is there to ensure that does not happen.
The most important act of worship in Islam is Ṣalāt. Its practice can be traced back to the very beginning of the Prophet’s (p) mission after having been sent revelation. Multiple reports inform us that the Prophet (p) would pray in the vicinity of the Ka‘ba alongside his wife Khadija (s) and Ali (a), making it, one of the only few major obligations upon the Muslims during the Makkan period. The Ṣalāt is such an important act of worship, that some reports mention that if it is accepted, other acts are accepted, and if it is rejected, other acts are rejected.2 It is similar to a pole holding up a tent.3 It prevents one from falling into indecencies, [29:45] …establish Ṣalāt. Surely Ṣalāt restrains from shamelessness and evil – if it is strong, its effects will also be strong as it removes these evils from humans. The better you perform these prayers the better its effects.
When we look at the history of the Ṣalāt during the lifetime of the Prophet (p) we find three important contexts. The very first context was the fact that the Ṣalāt was meant to be performed by all Muslims when they did not have any power and authority. They were the minority, vulnerable and oppressed. Though there are scholarly disputes as to when the five daily Ṣalāt were actually made obligatory upon the Muslims, a vast majority believe it was made obligatory after the Mi‘rāj of the Prophet (p). There is no consensus on when the Mi‘rāj occurred, opinions ranging from anywhere between three years after the declaration of the Prophet to one year before the migration.
Reports that speak of the Prophet (p) praying before the incident of Mi‘rāj are either explained away as an obligatory duty for the Prophet (p) only and a recommended act for the few companions who followed along, or it is said that the Ṣalāt was obligatory upon all Muslims before the Mi‘rāj, but it was only 2 units, once in the morning and once in the evening. Some have cited the following verse as evidence for this explanation:
فَٱصْبِرْ عَلَىٰ مَا يَقُولُونَ وَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ قَبْلَ طُلُوعِ ٱلشَّمْسِ وَقَبْلَ ٱلْغُرُوبِ
[50:39] So, bear with patience what they say, and proclaim His purity along with your Lord’s praise before sunrise and before sunset.
While these discussions do not concern us in this paper, what we can acknowledge is that the Muslims nevertheless still engaged in some form of Ṣalāt on an individual level in Makkah. This is despite the constant torture and oppression they were encountering. There are reports which speak of the harassment of the Prophet (p) and as well as some of the companions during prayers in Makkah. A report in Tārīkh al-Tabarī records the following event:
“I said to ‘Abdullah b. ‘Amr, “Tell the worst thing which you saw the polytheists do to the Messenger of God.” He said, “Uqbah b. Abī Mu’ayt came up while the Messenger of God was by the Ka‘ba, twisted his robe around his neck, and throttled him violently. Abū Bakr stood behind him, put his hand on his shoulder, and pushed him away from the Messenger of God. Then he said, ‘People, would you kill a man because he says, My Lord is God? … ‘ to the words ‘God guides not one who is prodigal, a liar?”‘4
A report in the Sīrah of Ibn Isḥāq reports how Abū Jahl came very close to killing the Prophet (p) with a rock while he (p) was praying:
“…the leading men of every clan of Quraysh – ‘Utba b. Rabī‘a, and Shayba his brother, and Abū Sufyān b. Ḥarb, and al-Naḍr b. al-Ḥarith, brother of the Banū ‘Abd al-Dār, and Abū al-Bakhtarī b. Hishām, and al-Aswad b. al-Muṭṭalib b. Asad and Zama‘a b. al-Asad, and al-Walīd b. al-Mughīra, and Abu Jahl b. Hishām, and ‘Abdullah b. Abū Umayya, and al-‘Āṣ b. Wā’il, and Nubayh and Munabbih, the sons of al-Ḥajjāj, both of Sahm, and Umayya b. Khalaf and possibly others – gathered together after sunset outside the Ka‘ba. They decided to send for Muhammad and to negotiate and argue with him so that they could not be held to blame on his account in the future. When they sent for him the apostle came quickly because he thought that what he had said to them had made an impression, for he was most zealous for their welfare, and their wicked wat of life pained him. … When the apostle had gone Abū Jahl spoke, making the usual charges against him, and saying, ‘I call God to witness that I will wait for him tomorrow with a stone which I can hardly lift,’ or words to that effect, ‘and when he prostrates himself in prayer I will split his skull with it. Betray me or defend me, let the Banū ‘Abd al-Manāf do what they like after that.’ They said that they would never betray him on any account, and he could carry on with his project. When morning came Abū Jahl took a stone and sat in wait for the apostle, who behaved as usual that morning. While he was in Makkah he faced Syria in prayer, and when he prayed, he prayed, he prayed between the southern corner and the black stone, putting the Ka‘ba between himself and Syria. The apostle rose to pray while Quraysh sat in their meeting, waiting for what Abū Jahl was to do. When the apostle prostrated himself, Abū Jahl took up the stone and went towards him, until when he got near him, he turned back in flight, pale with terror, and his hand had withered upon the stone, so that he cast the stone from his hand.”5
There are also reports that describe how the companions of the Prophet (p) had to conceal their Ṣalāt from the polytheists in fear of repercussions. Consider the following report from al-Tabaqāt of Ibn Sa‘d:
“Muṣ‘ab heard that the Prophet was inviting people to Islam in the house of Arqam b. Abī Arqam, he went to the house where he accepted Islam and believed in the Prophet. After leaving the house, he kept his conversion a secret for fear of his mother and his family. He frequently visited the Prophet in secret but ‘Uthmān b. Ṭalḥa once saw him performing Ṣalāt and informed his mother and family about it. They therefore captured him and kept him jailed until he finally managed to migrate to Abyssinia with the first group of Muslim immigrants. He later returned to Makkah with the other Muslims but his condition had changed because he lived a difficult life. His mother then stopped rebuking him.”6
Despite the troubles the Muslims were going through, the Ṣalāt was kept up by them as an individual duty. This is the very first initial context for the Ṣalāt in the Prophet’s (p) biography and before the formation of a Muslim community.
In a second context, we find that the Muslims also eventually began praying in a congregation – whether these congregational prayers were being performed with all their rules and conditions as observed today or just as a group of Muslims gathering together to perform their individual prayers is not clearly known, but at the very least we know there were instances the Muslims would gather to pray alongside one another. This second phase also occurs in the Makkan phase and depicts the extent to which the Muslims went to ensure the prayers were being performed, not just individually, but also as a group.
One incident that shows how the Muslims would gather to pray together is in fact a well-known event that has been used by some critics of Islam to argue it was the Muslims who initiated violence and aggression against the polytheists. The report is mentioned in Tārīkh al-Tabarī as follows:
“When the Messenger of God’s Companions prayed they went to the ravines and concealed themselves from their fellow tribes-men. Once while Sa‘d b. Abī Waqqās and a number of the Messenger of God’s Companions were in one of the ravines of Makkah, a group of polytheists suddenly appeared before them as they were praying, expressed their disapproval and reproached the believers for what they were doing. Finally, they came to blows and Sa‘d b. Abī Waqqās struck one of the polytheists with a camel’s jawbone and split his head open. This was the first blood shed in the time of Islam.”7
The group of Muslims had gone to the outskirts of Makkah to engage in worship and the Ṣalāt and the report shows that it was infact the polytheists who went out of their way to harass the Muslims. Another version of the above incident is also recorded in the Sīrah of Ibn Isḥāq as follows:
“When the apostle’s companions prayed they went to the glens so that their people could not see them praying, and while Sa‘d b. Abū Waqqās was with a number of the Prophet’s companions in one of the glens of Mecca, a band of polytheists came upon them while they were praying and rudely interrupted them. They blamed them for what they were doing until they came to blows, and it was on that occasion that Sa‘d smote a polytheist with the jawbone of a camel and wounded him. This was the first blood to be shed in Islam.”8
It would not be far-fetched to assume the insistence on the Ṣalāt as a congregation, even in Makkah in a context where the Muslims were persecuted, was due to the encouragement revealed in the Qurānic verses. Despite the persecution, it is well known that Muslims did not have permission to fight back the polytheists physically. Yet the Ṣalāt was not abandoned in both these two contexts in Makkah – individually or congregationally. A verse of the Qurān highlights the sentiment that some Muslims wanted to fight back, but were told if you wish to fight back, you must first prepare and ready yourself; this preparation has to be done through patience, and patience entails establishing (iqāmah) the Ṣalāt. The Qurānic expectation appears to be that if congregational prayers are established, this will eventually lead to a congregational movement. We read in Surah al-Nisā’:
أَلَمْ تَرَ إِلَى ٱلَّذِينَ قِيلَ لَهُمْ كُفُّوٓا۟ أَيْدِيَكُمْ وَأَقِيمُوا۟ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ وَءَاتُوا۟ ٱلزَّكَوٰ
[4:77] Have you (O Prophet) not seen those who had been told, “Do not fight! Rather, establish prayer and pay alms-tax?
This second context is crucial, particularly as it pertains to Muslims engaging in worship in congregation where they are not yet in power. In many places we have prohibitions and limitations to an extent where we cannot easily spread the message of Islam in the most ideal manner, and the Qurān considers this to be a period of patience. Yet in this context of patience, the Islamic injunctions have asked us to establish prayers in a congregational format, and the historical data shows that this what the persecuted Muslims did as they are asked to observe patience by establishing the Ṣalāt and paying the zakāt. It is also important to note that establishing prayers is different than performing the prayers. Establishing prayers implies the coming together in the hope that Muslims would arrive at a unity and eventually form into a cohesive community. Where one is a minority and in a vulnerable position, such that they cannot fight back nor establish a government, Islam considers the establishment of congregational prayers tantamount to fighting back.
The third context of the Ṣalāt occurs after the migration of the Prophet (p) to Medina. In this context we see that the Ṣalāt is being performed by Muslims after gaining authority and power. This is the third stage and the Qurān also describes what is expected from those who are granted such authority in Surah al-Ḥajj:
ٱلَّذِينَ إِن مَّكَّنَّـٰهُمْ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ أَقَامُوا۟ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ وَءَاتَوُا۟ ٱلزَّكَوٰةَ وَأَمَرُوا۟ بِٱلْمَعْرُوفِ وَنَهَوْا۟ عَنِ ٱلْمُنكَرِ ۗ وَلِلَّهِ عَـٰقِبَةُ ٱلْأُمُورِ
[22:41] ˹They are˺ those who, if established in the land by Us, would perform prayer, pay alms-tax, encourage what is good, and forbid what is evil. And with Allah rests the outcome of all affairs.
In other words, even after being granted authority and the power to govern, establishing prayers is one of the first duties that has to be fulfilled. In fact, the success of the now developed community depends on its establishment. Given these three contexts found in the Prophet’s (p) sīrah, we can extract three functions for the Ṣalāt:
1) The Ṣalāt is a requirement for the survival of man’s essence, and Muslims were individually expected to pray, initially as a highly encouraged act and eventually as an obligation. This was to be carried out even in the most severe circumstances and not to be given up on.
2) In a vulnerable position when one has no authority to fight back physically nor have a government at their disposal, it was still highly encouraged to engage in Ṣalāt, but in congregation. The Ṣalāt was the reason why Muslims would congregate even if it meant going on the outskirts of Makkah. Eventually this congregational worship would lead to a stronger congregation and a congregational migration.
3) Once the Muslims gained power in Medina and the government was at their disposal, the congregational Ṣalāt was still one of the most fundamental duties performed because even the essence of a righteous government and the success of a community depended on it.
In all three contexts we can observe the primary importance of the prayers, while other activities appear to be secondary and only to be sought once the Ṣalāt was established.
A Fundamental Identity of a Community
What we can extract from the life of the Prophet (p) is that congregational Ṣalāt was an observable identity of a Muslim individual and as well as the community. When we speak or refer to a Muslim or an Islamic community today, and we cannot identify them with the practice of congregational prayers, it would indicate that said individual or community at large is being negligent towards a very basic and fundamental matter. Such negligence would be considered a very significant flaw in the way the congregation and community are set up. Prioritizing and being excessive in secondary activities in the absence of such a fundamental matter is similar to the example alluded earlier, regarding the rubble of a demolished structure. As per the sīrah, the Ṣalāt is the most basic, and yet the most prioritized duty that had to be performed at all costs, given that the physical and spiritual existence and success of the community was dependent on it.
In a very profound narration, Imam Riḍā (a) sheds some light on the role of Ṣalāt in the early Prophetic community. He (a) says:
إِنَّمَا جُعِلَتِ الْجَمَاعَهُ لِئَلَّا یَکُونَ الْإِخْلَاصُ وَ التَّوْحِیدُ وَ الْإِسْلَامُ وَ الْعِبَادَهُ لِلَّهِ إِلَّا ظَاهِراً مَکْشُوفاً مَشْهُوراً لِأَنَّ فِی إِظْهَارِهِ حُجَّهً عَلَى أَهْلِ الشَّرْقِ وَ الْغَرْبِ لِلَّهِ وَحْدَهُ وَ لِیَکُونَ الْمُنَافِقُ وَ الْمُسْتَخِفُّ مُؤَدِّیاً لِمَا أَقَرَّ بِهِ یُظْهِرُ الْإِسْلَامَ وَ الْمُرَاقَبَهَ وَ لِیَکُونَ شَهَادَاتُ النَّاسِ بِالْإِسْلَامِ بَعْضِهِمْ لِبَعْضٍ جَائِزَهً مُمْکِنَهً مَعَ مَا فِیهِ مِنَ الْمُسَاعَدَهِ عَلَى الْبِرِّ وَ التَّقْوَى وَ الزَّجْرِ عَنْ کَثِیرٍ مِنْ مَعَاصِی اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَ جَلَّ.
The congregational prayers were only legislated so that sincerity, oneness of Allah, submission and the worshipping of Allah become obvious, known, apparent & common, because the apparent manifestation of it will complete the proof [of Islam] upon the people of the East and West. [They were legislated so] that it will make the hypocrite and the one who belittles [the teachings of religion] humble and respectful to that which they have apparently confessed to, and cause them to express their Islam and submit to it.
[They were legislated so] that the testimonies of people regarding the Islam of one another become lawful and possible. Moreover, it becomes the [cause of] cooperation & coworking of them upon good acts and piety and their taking distance from the plenty of evil acts forbidden by Allah.9
Imam Riḍā (a) explains that the Ṣalāt is meant to be prayed congregationally not just because it is a way to show servitude to Allah (swt), but because that is how the community’s religious identity is meant to manifest. This is important for us as it gives an opportunity to reflect whether when outsiders look at our communities and our year-long gatherings, regular programs and functions, would they easily be able to identify us with the Ṣalāt or not? Or is it that they would perhaps predominantly identify us with other aspects, or perhaps they will realize that we do not even identify ourselves with the Ṣalāt, rather through matters which are either less prioritized in the teachings of Islam, or are meant to be prioritized at a later period once a cohesive community is truly established, or perhaps through matters that have no religious significance at all?
The Prophetic sīrah alongside the Qurānic verses show us the priority and role of the Ṣalāt in three very different contexts. This was the foremost priority for the Muslim community, and the Qurān speaks about this in about 50 places – the notion of establishing the Ṣalāt. As Muslims, we would need to really ask ourselves: are we really imitating the sīrah of the Prophet (p) when it comes to community building? There is generally a lot of talk about community, making them strong, the future of our communities, purchasing large buildings, doing fundraisers to open new centers, etc. — but can these projects really turn into anything substantial and meaningful without the presence of regular congregational prayers as a prerequisite? Are we truly building communities and a congregation or are we merely facilitating the gathering of people for different occasions year long?
The attitude of holding a congregational prayer just because some coincidentally happen to gather on a Thursday night program or during some program commemorating the birth or death of a religious figure does not seem like an accurate attitude to maintain. In other words, the sīrah seems to be indicating the centrality of the congregational prayers and in being the primary reason for congregating. The former attitude results in a degree of negligence towards the congregational prayers as they are seen as secondary, while the sīrah expects us to congregate on the basis of the Ṣalāt and then use that as a stepping stone for secondary matters.
The Prophet (p) came and ensured this act of worship becomes the most prominent sign by which a Muslim and the community of Muslims is identified with. Part of the wisdom behind its legislation is that it leads to spiritual strength and refinement of the Muslims, which would then facilitate productive contemplative activities by the community and translate into something on the level of praxis and action. There are some significant points to reflect on, such as how much priority do we give it in our ‘communities’? Is this even a matter of discussion? In fact, if this is not a priority for a community and not considered as a central variable when making decisions to purchase and run a community centre, and if individuals do not prioritize their presence in a congregation, then according to the sīrah of the Prophet (p), it appears we have very misplaced priorities and our perceptions towards the teachings of Islam have been skewed.
- Creating a New Civilisation of Islam, by Jahangir Mohammed, pg. 57.
- Wasā’il al-Shī‘a, vol. 4, pg. 108
- Ibid., vol. 4, pg. 27.
- The History of Al-Tabari: Muhammad at Mecca, translated by W. Montgomery Watt, volume VI (6), page 102 – 103.
- Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah – The Life of Muhammad, translated by A. Guillaume, page 133 – 135.
- Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, by Ibn Sa’d, volume 3, page 82.
- The History of Al-Tabari: Muhammad at Mecca, volume VI (6), page 88 – 89.
- Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah – The Life of Muhammad, page 118.
- ‘Ilal al-Sharā’i, by Shaykh Ṣadūq, pg. 97.