بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Salah from the Quran
How can we know how to pray?
When making the statement that the Quran is the only message delivered by the prophet (6:19), a book that is complete and fully detailed (6:38,114,115), the most common question that tends to get asked is, “Then how can we know how to pray?” This question has perplexed traditionalists1 and some Quranists/Quranites2 alike. The common assumption behind asking this question is that God cannot give a command He expects us to already know, and simply “hear and obey”. Or use a word to command something that, by His leave, is already known. ‘Just Do It’ as the Nike slogan goes. Without splitting hairs or arguing incessantly about it. Asking endless irrelevant questions, like Moses’ people did when they were asked to slaughter a heifer (2:67-71).
The expectation is as if the Quran should have been accompanied with a video clip or detailed annotated sketches on how to pray.3,4 Extending this logic, should we need the Quran to be accompanied by a documentary on pigs to know what animal species a khinzeer is?
To spill the beans … the Quran does not come with such a video clip. Nor a taxonomy chart for classifying khinzeer. Nor a globe pinning the location of the Masjidil Haraam. Nor a dictionary or lexicon for the meanings of common Arabic words. There is knowledge that God has inspired humanity with, and God expects us to use common sense to access this knowledge, whenever the Quran references them.
So, how can we know how to do the salah? Salah has always been learned by imitation, from live demos of people doing it. That is how a child learns to do the salah. This is how the salah has been “recorded” for us, and works just as perfectly as a video clip or annotated sketch could. The Quran, as we shall see below, has all the details to confirm the different aspects of salah, and correct the practices that violate God’s commandments.5
Was the salah introduced by Muhammad?
The Quran teaches us that Abraham and his descendants Isaac and Jacob were inspired to observe the salah (21:73). Abraham and Ishmael laid the foundations of the House, which was built as a place for salah, with bowing (ruku’) and prostration (sujood) (2:125-127). The mushriks of Makkah used to observe salah at the House (8:35, 9:54). And they had masajid, but they also called upon others besides God in them (72:18-19). The religious practices like salah, zakah, fasting, hajj etc. existed before Muhammad, and came from the millat [religion] of Abraham (22:78, 2:183). Muhammad himself was inspired to follow the millat of Abraham (16:123). We are all commanded to follow the millat of Abraham (2:130,135, 3:95, 4:125, 6:161-162). So salah was not a ritual instituted by Muhammad.
They never asked …
The Quran describes many little things that the community of Muhammad asked him, and the responses that God commanded Muhammad to give to them.
- They ask you about the waxing cresents (2:189)
- They ask you what to give (2:215,219)
- They ask you about the sacred month, and fighting therein (2:217)
- They ask you about intoxicants and gambling (2:219)
- And they ask you about the fatherless (2:220)
- And they ask you about menstruation. (2:222)
- They ask you what is lawful for them (to eat) … (5:4)
- They ask you about the Hour … (7:187, 79:42)
- They ask you about voluntary work. (8:1)
- And they ask you about the Spirit, (17:85)
- And they ask you about Dhil-Qarnain. (18:83)
- And they ask you about the mountains; (20:105)
But they never once had to ask him anything about salah, or had any query about it. They never felt any need to ask about it. If they were commanded to something they were not already doing and did not very well what it was, they should surely have been brimming with questions.
Contact prayer in special circumstances
The descriptions of the form of the contact prayer in the Quran mostly specify exemptions and exceptions for special circumstances. The contact prayer under normal situations is neither introduced or described as a new commandment. The prescriptions for special circumstances are described, expecting it to be understood in the context of prior knowledge of what the contact prayer is. For example, 2:238 permits performing the contact prayer walking or riding, under situations of insecurity. This confirms that there is a form under normal circumstances, that can be relaxed in this special circumstance. Once we are secure, we commemorate God with the normal form, which we are already expected to know. Similarly 4:101 permits shortening the contact prayer when there is a threat of physical harm. 4:102 describes the form of the prayer in this special circumstance. This confirms that contact prayer in normal circumstances should have a length and a form, that we should already know about.
These verses also highlight the importance of regularly observing the contact prayer. When the contact prayer is so important that it cannot be skipped even under the special circumstances of war, insecurity or fear, the responsibility of upholding it under normal situations is all the more critical.
Purpose over Form
The Quran description of salah emphasizes the essentials of the contact prayer – the purpose, objectives, priority, and the state of mind and spirit with which to approach it – over the form. Yet, there are descriptions of the form that confirm to us what are the correct practices in the contact prayer transmitted to us, and what are the practices that violate its essentials. The essentials and form of the contact prayer are discussed in the sections below.
- The traditionalists pose the question in an attempt to appeal to sources and authorities besides God and His messenger.
- The Quranists/Quranites, as they often refer to themselves, on the other hand have written elaborate treatises dissecting words and verses of the Quran and hair splitting Arabic words in an attempt to expound the meaning of the word salah. Salah has been woven into cryptic descriptions like in the examples listed below. The fuzzier it gets the greater the ease of wriggling out of the obligation of having to do anything about it. In the end they have lost the ritual of connecting with our Creator, which is the plain, simple, evident meaning of the word salah in the Arabic language. Some examples are below.
- sujood is some incomprehensible entity, not the simple invitation from God to fall prostrate to become close to Him (96:19), when they were whole and able (68:42-43, 7:206,77:48,25:60, 27:25).
- the performance of some unspecified duty
- some form of commitment, the details of which are absent
- a utopian establishment of divine system, based heavily on anti-Persian and anti-Zoroastrian bigotry.
- a treatise on what salah is not, but sparse on what it is (that ends on the theme that this specific commandment actually means do whatever you feel like).
- And it is worthwhile noting that the sources and authorities (hadith literature or the classical jurists) that the traditionalist tries to validate by asking this question do not have the elaborate descriptions he pretends to expect in the Quran. The only details the classical sources have are the source of contradictions over which different sects and schools of jurisprudence disagree about (like where to tie your hand, whether to raise your hands during takbir etc.).
- And the Quranite, by pretending to be ignorant of the meanings of simple Arabic words, was forced to spin fanciful theories on what he thought salah is, that are not evident from the Quran. And fancier conspiracy theories on how the present day ritual of salah came to be. Figments of his own imagination, these theories are devoid of any detail that can be found in the Quran, which was ironically the reason he claimed for disregarding the traditional meaning of the word in the first place.
- But the premise that the Quran tried to introduce a new ritual/practice during the life of Muhammad, whose followers were expected to hack the verses of the Quran to decode what it was, is a very faulty one. Based on this premise, those that tried to treat the Quran like a cookbook to reconstruct steps of salah, after discarding the knowledge of salah we already have, ended up on a very slippery slope. And many have managed to go off the deep end. We have to ask God to teach us how to pray, not try to teach God how we think He should have taught it.