The following are some elaborate conceptual, reflective and practical tips for a better experience of salat.
They aim to help us enhance the quality of our physical, spiritual, intellectual and emotional relationship with our salat. That in turn will enhance our affiliation with Islam as a whole. It will make us better Muslims.
It is Salat, Not Prayer
At the outset we commit a cardinal mistake. We translate salat as prayer, which is inadequate. We rob thereby salat of much of its substance.
A prayer is generally defined as “a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God” or “a religious service at which people gather to pray together”.
There are several other interpretations of the concept, all of which, however, revolve around the same core. They accommodate the conceptions and practices of all religions, revealed and non-revealed, pertaining to deliberate communication and interactions with God and any other deities. They are in the forms of various invocations, supplications, chants, thanksgivings, praises and meditations.
The English word “prayer” is derived from Old French “preier” (in Modern French it is “prier”), which was based on Vulgar Latin “precari”. In both cases, the word means “ask earnestly, beg, and pray earnestly to a god, deity or saint” (etymonline.com).
Undoubtedly, the word originated in pagan religious milieus, and was advanced as well as refined with the maturation and spread of Christian theology. It therefore unmistakably oozed the latter’s rationale and fundamental nature.
That is expected because language is generally understood to be an instrument of thought and a conduit for ideas.
Language and thought exist as an integrated whole. Language is thought, and thought is language. They operate in a reciprocal relationship. Irrespective of which one exactly is the cause and which one the effect, language and thought are fated to rise and decline together.
Incompatibility Between Salat and Prayer
Thus, to equate the Arabic (Qur’anic) concept of salat, which is an exclusive and inimitable heavenly gift to mankind as part of God’s final monotheistic revelation to man, with the English concept of prayer, which originated and evolved in the midst of pagan and Christian religious propensities and practices, is plain wrong.
The quintessence and souls of the two are incompatible and unable to get along. Salat personifies truth and its actualization, whereas prayer personifies truth’s desertion, distortion, or just a desperate quest for it.
Moreover, salat is an act (process) of internalizing and enjoying what was attained, whereas prayer is an act of endless seeking and probing, and of miscalculated results. Salat enriches and boosts faith, while prayer often quizzes, obscures and even unsettles what people regard as their personal and institutional faiths.
It follows that the concept of salat has no linguistic counterparts not only in English, but also in any other language. Hence, the best thing would be to adopt the Arabic (Qur’anic) term and assimilate it as such in other languages.
It was on account of this that some visionary Muslim scholars called for what could be dubbed an “Islamization of English”.
The reason is that a great many key concepts and ideas of Islam, when arbitrarily and inaccurately translated into English, are rendered imprecise.
That contributes to the misrepresentation of the image of Islam and Muslims in the eyes of the world. It also makes the prospect of teaching the pure and authentic Islam, both to Muslims and non-Muslims, all the more difficult.
One of those visionary scholars was Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi, who wrote a book titled “Toward Islamic English”. The book represents a segment of the author’s profound philosophy of “Islamization of knowledge”.
Salat as an Institution and a Way of Life
Salat is one of those key ideas that can easily be misunderstood. Translating it as prayer is unfair. It alters its compass and diminishes the scale and intensity of its meanings.
For example, salat is generally translated as prayer, and so is dua. However, in the Qur’anic (Islamic) vocabulary, the two concepts are fundamentally different. Thus, translating them in the same way makes neither of them clear. Both of them get garbled.
Salat is much more than prayer. It is an act of exemplary piety, of the affirmation of absolute truth, of holistic worship, of direct communication with, and of total submission to the authority and will of Almighty God alone.
Salat is not a single, or isolated, act. It is not a mere ritual, rite, or a religious ceremony either. Rather, salat is a complex and enduring process. It is an inclusive institution (establishment). Its cumulative meanings and effects connote a way of life.
The five periods of a day, when the five prescribed prayers (salats) are performed, are five points in time when the energies and elan vital of the physical and metaphysical realms come closest to each other. They almost converge in the consciousness and spiritual state of a believer who performs salat.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that a person is closest to his Lord when he is prostrating in his salat. And since salat is a form of communication and conversation with God, the Prophet (pbuh) advised:
So say a great deal of du’a (prayers and supplications) (while in the state of prostration). (Sahih Muslim).
That may result in making the prostration lengthy, which is every so often advisable.
The Five Major Aspects of Every Life Circle
According to Fakhruddin al-Razi, every aspect of existence – including the lives of people – features a full circle that consists of five major stages, or points.
First is the stage of birth and joining the phenomenon of existence (after which growth inevitably follows).
Second is the stage of attainment of perfection, which remains so for a while.
The third stage is one of elderliness and maturity, when serious defects start emerging.
Fourth is the stage of death, and fifth is the post-death stage when some faint signs and traces of a formerly living thing are still perceptible. However, very soon they too disappear, leaving nothing conspicuous whatsoever about that thing.
The cycle thus becomes complete. It starts with death (nothingness), exhibits successive phases of life, and ends with death (nothingness) again. Everything returns to its original primordial state.
This cycle applies to the day as a unit of measurement of time as well, with the sun as God’s major sign in creation and its rising and setting as the main events.