The Islamic Concept of Worship

By Mustafa Ahmad al-Zarqa 

The Islamic Concept of WorshipWorship, according to Islam, is a means for the purification of man’s soul and his practical life. The basis of ibadah (worship) is the fact that human beings are creatures and thus bond-servants of God, their Creator and their Lord, to Whom they are destined to return.

Thus, Man’s turning towards God, in intimate communion, reverence, and in the spirit of devotion and humble submission, is termed ibadah.

Worship is an indispensable part of all religions, including the idolatrous ones. It is motivated, however, in each religion by different objectives, assumes different forms and is performed under a different set of rules.

In some religions, worship is a means to develop in man the attitude of asceticism and isolation from life.

In these religions, it seeks to develop a mentality which anathematizes the enjoyment of the pleasures of this world.

Then, there are other religions which consecrate certain places for the sake of worship and prohibit its performance at any other place. There are also religions which are of the view that worship can be performed only under the leadership of a particular class of people – the ordained priests.

People may, therefore, perform worship under the leadership of priests and only at the places consecrated for it. Thus, the nature as well as the forms of worship differ from one religion to the other.

As for Islam, its conception of worship is related to its fundamental view that the true foundations of a good life are soundness of belief and thinking, purity of soul, and righteousness of action. Through belief in the unity of God, Who is invested with all the attributes of perfection, Islam seeks to purge human intellect of the filth of idolatry and superstitious fancies.

In fact, polytheism and idolatry which are opposed by Islam degrade man to a level which is incompatible with his dignity.

Islam fights against idolatry and polytheism in whichever forms and to whatever extent they might be found. In its concern to eradicate idolatry Islam takes notice even of the imperceptible forms of idolatry. It takes notice even of those beliefs and practices which do not appear to their adherents as tainted with idolatry.

One of the manifestations of this concern is that Islam does not permit the performance of ritual prayer in front of a tomb, nor does it permit man to swear in the name of anyone except God.

All this is owing to the uncompromising hostility of Islam to idolatry. When Caliph Umar saw that people had begun to sanctify the tree beneath which the Companions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had pledged to lay down their lives in the way of God on the occasion of Hudaybiyah, he feared that its sanctification might corrupt the beliefs of the people. He, therefore, had it cut down.

By destroying everything which might blur the distinction between the creature and the Creator, Islam brought man out of the darkness of superstition and ignorance to the full daylight of realities.

Coming back to ‘worship’ in Islam, it serves as a means to purge man’s soul and his practical life of sin and wickedness. It has been so regulated as to suffice for the purpose of this purification, provided it is performed in earnest and if sufficient care is taken to preserve its true spirit.

Distinguishing Features of Worship of Islam

The characteristic features of worship as propounded by Islam may be stated as the following:

(a) Freedom from Intermediaries

First of all, Islam has liberated ‘worship’ from the bondage of intermediaries between man and his Creator.

Islam seeks to create a direct link between man and his Lord, thus rendering the intercession of intermediaries unnecessary. Religious scholars in Islam, it may be pointed out, are neither intermediaries between man and God nor are they considered to be entitled to accept or reject acts of worship on behalf of God.

Instead, they are equal to ordinary human beings in the sight of God. Rather, they have been burdened with the additional duty of imparting knowledge to those who lack knowledge. They will be deemed guilty if they hold it back from the seekers after knowledge. In other words, the Islamic Shariah does not impose the domination of religious scholars on the rest of the people.

The function of these scholars is merely to guide people in the right direction. This is amply borne out by what Allah said to the Prophet: ‘Remind them, for you are but a remembrancer; you are not at all a warder over them.’ (Al-Ghashiyah 88: 21-22)

Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) also addressed the following words to his own daughter Fatimah, which show that all human beings stand on a footing of complete equality before God: ‘O Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad: I shall be of no help to you before Allah.’

(b) Not Confined to Specific Places

Secondly, Islam has not only liberated man’s ibadah from the bondage of intermediaries; it has also liberated it from confinement to specific places. Islam regards every place – whether it is one’s dwelling place, the back of an animal, the board of a vessel on the surface of the sea, or a mosque specifically built for worship – as pure enough for the performance of worship.

Wherever a man might be, he can turn towards his Lord and enter into communion with Him. Prophet Muhammad has expressed this idea beautifully: ‘The (whole of the) earth has been rendered for me a mosque: pure and clean.’

(c) All-Embracing View

Thirdly, Islam has also considerably widened the scope of worship. In Islam, worship is not confined to specified prayers and litanies which are to be performed on particular occasions. Rather, Islam considers every virtuous action which has been sincerely performed and with the view to carry out the commandments of God and in order to seek His Pleasure, an act of worship for which man will be rewarded.

The fact is that even eating, drinking, sleeping and enjoyment of innocent recreation, even those worldly actions which satisfy man’s physical needs and even yield sensuous pleasures, become acts of worship provided they are performed with true religious motives.

Yes, even those acts become acts of worship if the intention underlying them is to comply with the will of God: that is, if one tries to satisfy one’s needs within legitimate means so as to keep oneself in check against indulging in things which are prohibited.

It is also an act of worship to try to strengthen one’s body by providing it with its due of nourishment and sleep; by making it undertake exertion as well as giving it rest and recreation so as to enable it to shoulder the responsibilities which have been placed on man by God.

In fact, if one does all that with the above-mentioned intention, one’s action would be in harmony with the following saying of Prophet Muhammad: ‘A believer who is possessed of strength is better and dearer to God than a believer who is weak.’

In short, it is simply by purification of motives that the actions which are part of worldly life become acts of devotion and worship.

Thus, it is possible that a man should advance spiritually even while he is fully enjoying the pleasures of worldly life. The reason is that during all this enjoyment his heart will be in communion with God by virtue of the purity of his intentions, and owing to his having yoked himself completely to the service of God.

It will enable him to remain perpetually in the state of submission, obedience and devotion to God – even during his working pursuits – and this is the very essence of worship.

For Islam, unlike other religions, does not anathematize gratification of man’s instinctive bodily appetites. Islam does not even consider abstention from the satisfaction of these desires to be in any way an act of greater piety and virtue than satisfying them.

Islam wants man to enjoy the pleasures and good things of life provided he does not transgress the limits of legitimacy or the rights of others, nor trample upon moral excellence, nor injure the larger interests of society.

There is a profound wisdom and an important reason for this extension of the scope of worship. The reason is that Islam wants man’s heart to remain in perpetual communion with his Lord.

Islam also wants that man should observe ceaseless vigilance over his desires so that his life may become a source of his welfare in the life to come as the Quran says: ‘Seek the abode of the Hereafter in that which Allah has given to you and neglect not your portion of the world.’ (Al-Qasas 28:77)

Now, when a person knows that even his enjoyments and pleasures can become acts of worship merely by virtue of purity of intention and motive, it becomes easy for him to render obedience to God continually and to direct all his attention in seeking Divine pleasure. For he knows well that this devotion to God does not necessarily mean abandonment of worldly life, and misery and wretchedness.

What does good intention lead to? It will prevent man from forgetting God because of excessive self-indulgence. Prophet Muhammad has said that (even) when a person affectionately puts a piece of food in the mouth of his wife in order to strengthen bonds of matrimonial love, he is rewarded for it.

This is understandable for he is trying to fulfil the purpose of living together with love and affection, the purpose which, as the Quran says is the raison d’être of family life. ‘And of His signs is this: He created for you your partners that you might find rest in them and He ordained between you love and mercy.’ (Ar-Rum 30:21)

Intentions and Motives

The Islamic Concept of WorshipIt is because of this basis that Muslim jurists and scholars have proclaimed that good intention changes acts of habit (adah) into acts of worship (ibadah). Good intention creates a world of difference in human life. It is owing to the absence of purity of intention that there are people who eat and drink and satisfy their animal desires and while so doing they simply live on the same plane as the animals do. The reason for this is that their actions are actuated by no other motive than the gratification of animal desires.

On the contrary, there are also people who are, apparently, similar to the aforementioned people in so far as they also satisfy their desires and enjoy the pleasures of life.

Nevertheless, thanks to the noble intention which motivates their actions, even their physical self-fulfillment becomes an act of worship for which they merit reward. The reason is that the motive behind all their actions is to live in compliance with the Will of God.

Their sublimity of motive becomes manifest in their conduct in day-to-day life in so far as it reflects the fact that they distinguish between good and evil.

On the contrary, those whose lives are shorn of good intentions are liable to be overwhelmed by their lusts and are likely to slide into a life of sin and moral decadence.

On the contrary, the purity of intention and high thinking are likely, with regard to people of the second category, to stand in the way of their slipping into degradation. And thanks to the positive attitude of Islam towards life, all this is ensured without depriving man of a wholesome enjoyment of life.

The real basis of this difference lies in the fact that while the one is always mindful of God and remembers Him, the other is altogether negligent. It is this that makes the former a pious, worshipful being, and the latter a heedless, self-indulgent animal.

It is for the people of this kind that the Quran has said: ‘. . . Those who disbelieve, take their comfort in this life and eat even as the cattle eat, and the Fire is their habitation.’ (Muhammad 47:12)

Then, what a great loss indeed do people suffer by not rectifying their orientation of life and purifying their intentions. For it is this alone which transforms even their pursuits of pleasure and enjoyment into acts of worship.

What a tragedy that people spoil the prospects of their eternal life although they could have been attained so easily, without necessarily losing their share in this world. This is the Islamic philosophy of worship.

Without saying ‘no’ to any of his legitimate physical needs and desires, Islam seeks to elevate humanity to a place which befits its dignity and status.

Positions of Specific Rituals

The wide jurisdiction of worship – i.e. its incorporation of all acts which are performed with the intention of complying with the Will of God, including fulfilment of legitimate pleasures, is sometimes utilized as a pretext to support the erroneous view that the obligatory rituals of worship such as prayers, fasting, zakat and pilgrimage can be dispensed with; or that they are not very important. The truth, however, is quite contrary to this.

In Islam, they are the chief means for strengthening man’s attachment with God. Thus absolutely misconceived is the view of those who are given to laxity in religious matters with regard to the obligatory acts of worship, and imagine that true faith does not consist of salat (prayers) and sawm (fasting); that the basis of true faith is merely purity of heart, goodness of intention and soundness of conduct. This constitutes misrepresentation of Islamic teachings.

So far as the intention to live a life of righteousness is concerned, it does not lend itself to external observation. Hence the intention to do good alone does not mark off the true men of faith from the rest.

Religion, after all, has an external aspect in the same way as it has an internal aspect. This attitude of deliberate disregard of ritual obligations is destructive of the very foundations of religion.

For, were that viewpoint to be adopted, everyone, even those who are in fact opposed to religion, could claim to be the devoutest of all worshippers!

The prayers and all other prescribed forms of worship for that matter, serve to distinguish the ones who do really have faith and wish sincerely to serve God from those who are content with lip-service. So important indeed is prayer that the Prophet has said: ‘Salat (prayer) is the pillar of the Islamic religion and whosoever abandons it, demolishes the very pillar of religion.’

A Practical Ideal

The real purpose of Islam in declaring that ibadah embraces the total life of man is to make religious faith play a practical and effective role in reforming human life, in developing in man an attitude of dignified patience and fortitude in the face of hardships and difficulties and in creating in him the urge to strive for the prevalence of good and extirpation of evil.

All this makes it amply evident that Islam, the standard-bearer of the above-stated concepts and ideals, is opposed to those defeatist and isolationist philosophies which scholars have termed as asceticism. This is that erroneous kind of asceticism which is based on world renunciation, on resignation from the resources of life, on withdrawal from the life of action and struggle, on sheer stagnation and decadence.

These things have nothing to do with Islam. Rather, they are the symbols of defeatism and escape from the struggle of life.

For life requires strength, material resources and active habits. The role of Islam in the struggle of life is a positive one. It is through this attitude that Islam ensures the channelization of man’s powers and resources in such a manner as to lead eventually to general good.

The Islamic system of worship is a means to ensure this soundness of orientation. An event may be narrated here to illustrate the Islamic attitude to the question under discussion, and to disabuse minds of wrong notions of spiritual life.

It is reported that Aishah, the mother of the faithful, once saw a person walking with his body stooped down and his back bent with weakness, appearing as if he were not fully alive, attracting thereby the glances of those around him. She inquired about him and was informed that he was a saintly person. Aishah denounced this kind of saintliness and said: ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab, was the saintliest of people. But when he said something, he made himself heard; when he walked, he walked fast; and when he beat, his beating caused pain.’

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Source: This article is taken from the book of Islam: Its Meaning and Message, edited by Khurshid Ahmad, and published by the Islamic Foundation, third edition, 1999.

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