Salam Dear Siraj,
Thank you for your valued question and for contacting Ask About Islam.
In order to comprehensively answer your question, I would like to make a small detour, which I think is central to the context involved. I would like to raise another question which I believe will eventually bring a solution home.
What if there is no scientific proof for the benefit of prayer?
In fact, what I am getting at is an even more essential and related to a second question:
Why there has to be a scientific proof for a religious practice, or belief?
To attend to the first question, one’s faith should not be conditional at all on whether there are scientifically measurable involved. Of course, a valid religion naturally does not contradict science.
That is not to say that science is not important but rather that—despite a relational attitude of Islam towards science—the two are two different entities that could naturally meet at points and depart at others.
I assume that what you mean by finding a proof is that a proof of the benefits, in this case, physical benefits of prayer. For that, my (rhetorical) answer would be, what if there is no scientifically known benefit for prayer? Should we stop doing it?
The upshot here is that the heart of all religions, and Islam is no exception is that the spiritual benefit involved. The inner being of one is the objective.
In fact, to be sincere, what I learned from many pious, illuminated and knowledgeable scholars is that the ultimate point of religion is not even the human. It is God, majestic in His praise. Yes, we worship Allah because He deserves to be worshipped. All the rest of religion comes secondary to that.
If there is no scientifically proven benefit in an religious act, that does not mean anything. If the reward is only spiritual then religious commitments must be performed, still.
The Benefit Is Always There
Despite all that I argued earlier, there is not a single religious act, or even a belief, which does not benefit us, in one way or another. After all how can we benefit God, Almighty, with any acts that we can do?
Religion is to benefit us on all fronts; psychological, emotional, social, existential, physical, moral, intellectual, economic, collective, in this world or the hereafter. Our religion’s ultimate goal is perfection whether individual and universal.
Now, but why people are quick to ask for a scientific proof for everything? More importantly, why is that especially us Muslims always ask this question, where is the scientific proof?
The sad truth is that as the modern civilization broke from its pre-modern dark ages, and rationalism and scientism became prominent values of modernity. Not that scientific thinking and rational thinking are bad endeavors in themselves, but they are not the ultimate yardstick to measure and verify life.
Now with the Muslim world living a different historical experience, of course we can benefit from Western culture through a genuine and self-respecting approach of selection and synthesizing, not blind importation.
So, if science is the ultimate criterion for the West which had a historical experience that is different from ours for its intellectual and civilizational identity—why do we have to toe the same line?
This is an important and complex topic for which I recommend that you read the following piece by Seyyed Hossein Nasr on Science and Civilization in Islam.
In fact, it is due to blind fascination with the West that we experience attempts by Muslims to use bad science in relation to creationism, or to overstretch a scientific reading of a verse of the Quran in order to fit a scientific agreement process which is termed ‘Bucaillism’, named after author Maurice Bucaille.
It is not that there are no scientific miracles in the Quran. To the contrary, of course, if the Lord, the Creator of the world talks to us about His creation, there will be things that transcend any knowledge of any nature that created humans can discover or produce about God’s creations.
Simply, because science is an enterprise, it changes, shifts. It is affected by funds, political and social interests. I highly recommend that you read a bit on the Thomas Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift. Five hundred years ago the most advanced of scientists thought that the world is flat. Science – by nature – changes. Belief – by nature – does not. Still there is an indispensible relation between the two.
Why We Pray This Way?
As for why we pray this way, there two levels for the answer. First, with regard to why we use our bodies to pray as a symbol of complete submission of all human being; body, soul, and mind. And as it is the case with all other forms of worship of Islam. It is normally the case to use the body both to affect and to accompany the heart in its acts of obedience.
Why Bowing and Prostration?
As for why those acts, meaning prostration and bowing, there are few answers which are given by insightful scholars. Some scholars held the view that these movements, bowing, standing and prostration in prayer, mirror the way angels worship God, Most-High.
Other scholars view that these acts directly symbolize humiliation. While others see that by prostration, the body is structured in such a way that the head, carrying the brain, is in a point below the heart, a symbol of the superiority of the latter.
I highly recommend that you read the chapter on the Secrets of Prayer from the work of Imam Al-Ghazali’s ‘Ihya’ `Ulum al-Din (The Revival of Religious Sciences), to know some more about the secrets and real benefits of prayer.
I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.