بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Saying ‘Salawat’ upon Muhammad
- What is the context of 33:56?
- Does salloo refer to a unique ritual for Muhammad?
- What did Muhammad really teach?
- Why do we need to tell God to salli ‘ala Muhammad?
- How does God mention Muhammad’s name?
- Does God teach us to how to mention the prophets?
Islamic tradition advocates that it is incumbent upon Muslims to recite ‘salawat‘ upon prophet Muhammad. It is practiced in many ways, like reciting ‘sallallahu alaihi wa sallam‘ [usually translated as ‘Peace and Blessings be upon him’], every time he is mentioned or referred to. It is often abbreviated as PBUH or SAW in text and print, immediately after his name. Or it is practiced as a durood – ‘allahumma salli ala Muhammadin wa ‘ala aali Muhammad’; translated as “O God, send Blessings upon Muhammad and upon the family of Muhammad” – recited during the contact prayer (salat) [which is intended for the commemoration of God alone (72:18, 20:14, 29:45, 6:162)] and other occasions to praise and commemorate Muhammad.
Verse 33:56 is usually cited as the Quranic basis for this practice …
إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلائِكَتَهُ يُصَلُّونَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا صَلُّوا عَلَيْهِ وَسَلِّمُوا تَسْلِيمًا
Surely, God and His angels support the prophet. O you faithful, you shall support him and offer peace, a total peace offering. (33:56)
The word salloo translated above as support1, is traditionally understood as “sending blessings” upon the prophet2. This interpretation is used to justify the commemoration and praise of the prophet day and night. To such an extent that when somebody mentions God without reciting additional words of glorification or praise, nobody would particularly care. Yet if somebody mentioned Muhammad’s name without reciting additional ‘salawat‘, then some would react with shock and dismay. Let us examine the merit of this traditional understanding in the light of the Quran, and the meaning of the word that we can infer from the Quran.
What is the context of 33:56?
The context of 33:56 will help us confirm the real meaning of salloo in the verse. Much of sura 33, and particularly the verses preceding 33:56 describe the interaction between Muhammad and his community when he was alive. 33:53 has similar instructions and etiquette, addressed to “O you faithful”, on how to have interacted with the prophet. For instance, not forcing their way into the prophet’s home without invitation. Not lingering behind after the meal, when invited. Giving the womenfolk in the house their privacy, addressing them from behind a barrier, and refrain from viewing them with lecherous intentions. As is obvious, these instructions were specific to the companions of the prophet, on how they should have interacted with him, without harassing him, when he was alive and they were alive. They were not guidelines on how to interact with him after he was dead. The word salloo comes from the root meaning to connect or contact (same as in salaat – the contact prayer). In the context of interaction between human beings, salloona ‘ala or sallu ‘alaihi would mean to support, to encourage, etc. Or the antonym of harass, as the context further clarifies – the subsequent verses instructed the community not to harass or slander the prophet and the faithful men and women, like Moses was harassed during his lifetime (33:57-60,69,70). So the verse essentially told them to support him instead of harassing him, when the way they treated him was becoming an impediment to his mission. And not asking them to chant an incantation whenever they heard his name.
Does salloo refer to a unique ritual for Muhammad?
Just 13 verses before 33:56, God reveals that God and the angels sallee upon the faithful in 33:43, just like upon the prophet in 33:56. So it is not a special privilege or status that has been accorded to Muhammad, or a unique ritual instituted to commemorate him, in the manner that 33:56 is usually understood.
هُوَ الَّذِي يُصَلِّي عَلَيْكُمْ وَمَلائِكَتُهُ لِيُخْرِجَكُمْ مِنَ الظُّلُمَتِ إِلَى النُّورِ وَكَانَ بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ رَحِيمًا
He is the One who supports you and so do the angels in order to take you out of the darkness into the light. And He is All Merciful towards the faithful. (33:43)
Similarly, the prophet was instructed to salli upon his followers in 9:99,103. So it describes a mutual bonding between Muhammad and his community during their lifetime.
What did Muhammad really teach?
And in the verses immediately preceding 33:43, that Muhammad taught with his own lips, we learn ….
وَسَبِّحُوهُ بُكْرَةً وَأَصِيلا οيَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اذْكُرُوا اللَّهَ ذِكْرًا كَثِيرًا
O you faithful, remember God, a frequent remembrance.¶ And glorify Him constantly day and night. (33:41-42)
This is the true teaching of Muhammad, to commemorate God and glorify Him frequently and constantly. Not to commemorate himself frequently and constantly. Interestingly the exhortation to commemorate God frequently also appears two more times before this in the same sura (33:21, 33:35). That makes 3 of the 6 times it is mentioned in the whole Quran, in this sura.
Why do we need to tell God to salli ‘ala Muhammad?
The Quran, in 33:56, instructed the companions of Muhammad to do exactly what God and the angels did (i.e., support the prophet). It did not instruct them to tell God to do what He already did instead. The way it is practiced, is as if the verse read … “God and His angels send blessings upon the prophet. O you faithful, tell God to send blessings upon the prophet”. Why do we need to tell God to salli ‘ala Muhammad, when the verse informs us that God already did so? Does God need to be reminded? And telling God to follow the instruction is not the same as doing it themselves; then why is this incantation understood as a fulfilment of this verse?
How does God mention Muhammad’s name?
God mentions Muhammad by first name four times in the Quran (3:144, 33:40, 47:2, 48:29). Never did God append this incantation to his name. Since we know from 33:56 that God did salloo upon the prophet, the meaning of salloo cannot mean the offering of such an incantation as tradition asserts. If it did, then when God when mentions Muhammad’s name, we should expect this incantation to have been included too.
Does God teach us how to mention the prophets?
God teaches us exactly how to ‘say’ the name of prophets. He commands us to ‘say’:
قُولُوا آمَنَّا بِاللَّهِ وَمَا أُنْزِلَ إِلَيْنَا وَمَا أُنْزِلَ إِلَى إِبْرَهِيمَ وَإِسْمَعِيلَ وَإِسْحَقَ وَيَعْقُوبَ وَالأسْبَاطِ وَمَا أُوتِيَ مُوسَى وَعِيسَى وَمَا أُوتِيَ النَّبِيُّونَ مِنْ رَبِّهِمْ لا نُفَرِّقُ بَيْنَ أَحَدٍ مِنْهُمْ وَنَحْنُ لَهُ مُسْلِمُونَ
Say, we believe in God and what is revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes and what was given to Moses and Jesus and what was given to the Prophets from their Lord; we make no distinction amongst them, and to Him we offer peace. (2:136)
So we should ‘say’ Abraham, Moses, Jesus etc. without reciting anything after saying their names. Since God did not add anything for us to ‘say’ after their names. Now this verse does not mention Muhammad’s name explicitly. But it instructs us not to make any distinction between God’s prophets. So when we similarly ‘say’ Muhammad’s name, we should not be reciting anything with it either.
Muhammad’s message was simply to commemorate God frequently, not commemorate himself (33:41-42). God, and his angels support all of the faithful (33:43), including the prophet (33:56). The faithful were similarly instructed to support the prophet during his lifetime, who was in turn instructed to reciprocate (33:56, 9:99,103). So this is not a unique status accorded to Muhammad or a reference to some unique ritual to be performed for Muhammad. Contextually, 33:56 is in a passage that also instructed them about other etiquette for interacting with the prophet and providing him and his family their rightful privacy (33:53-58). It had nothing to do with chanting incantations when mentioning his name, even when he was alive, and makes even less sense to do so after he died. It makes no sense to say that this verse required his followers, who knew him all his life and who were very comfortable addressing him by first name, to suddenly start making such incantations whenever they referred to him. The example of Muhammad throughout the Quran is one of immense humility. It is an insult to his legacy to accuse him of making such an egotistical demand. God mentions Muhammad’s name in the Quran without appending any salawat. So salloo cannot refer to such an incantation, since God did salloo upon the prophet. Further, God clearly instructs us how to say the names of prophets, without exceptions – namely using their first names without other salutations or glorifications (2:136). Commemorating God alone is the essence of the message delivered by Muhammad and his good example; not commemorating Muhammad instead, day and night, against his will.
Say, I am no more than a human being like you; I have been inspired that indeed your god is one god. Hence, whoever seeks the meeting of his Lord; shall lead a righteous life and never set up any one as a partner in worshiping his Lord. (18:110)
- See translations from Rashad Khalifa, Ali Fazely.
- See orthodox translations.