Worship, 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 Allah, their Creator and their Lord, to Whom they are destined to return. Thus Man’s turning towards Allah, 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 Allah, 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 (salat) in front of a tomb, nor does it permit man to swear in the name of anyone except Allah. 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 the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) had pledged to lay down their lives in the way of Allah on the occasion of Hudaybiyah, he feared that its sanctification might corrupt the beliefs of the people. He, therefore, had it cut down.
Later during the 12th century AH (18th Century) the great reformer Sheikh Muhammad Ben Abdul Wahhab, in Najd, central Arabia, with the support of Al-Saud Amirs rejected all forms of heresy which was prevalent in the Muslim world at the time. He called for pure and absolute monotheism. He rejected all innovations in religion and opposed such things as building domes or mosques over graves, the celebrations of birthdays of Awliya (Saints) and other Sufi commemorations. He encouraged people to do good deeds and insisted that they fulfil their religious obligations. By destroying everything which might blur the distinction between the creature and the Creator, Islam brought man out of the darkness of the 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.
The characteristic features of worship as propounded by Islam may be stated as the following:
- 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 Allah nor are they considered to be entitled to accept or reject acts of worship on behalf of Allah. Instead, they are equal to ordinary human beings in the sight of Allah. 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 Shari’ah 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 Holy Prophet:
“ So remind them (O Muhammad ) – you are only one who reminds. You are not a dictator over them.( Surah 88 : verses 21 – 22).
The Prophet (peace be on him) also addressed the following words to his own daughter Fathimah, which show that all human beings stand on a footing of complete equality before Allah:
‘O Fathima, daughter of Muhammad; I shall be of no help to you before Allah’.
- 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 offer his prayers to Him. The Holy Prophet (p.b.u.h) had expressed this idea beautifully:
‘The (whole of the) earth has been rendered for me a mosque; pure and clean’.
- 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 Allah 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 Allah: 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 Allah. In fact, if one does all that with the above mentioned intention, one’s action would be in harmony with the following saying of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him): ‘A believer who is possessed of strength is better and dearer to Allah 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 Allah by virtue of the purity of his intentions, and owing to his having yoked himself completely to the service of Allah. It will enable him to remain perpetually in the state of submission, obedience and devotion to Allah – 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 contact 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 Qur’ân says:
“But seek with that (wealth) which Allah has bestowed on you, the home of the Hereafter, and forget not your portion of lawful enjoyment in this world; and do good as Allah has been good to you , and seek not mischief in the land. Verily, Allah likes not the Mufsidun (those who commit great crimes and sins, oppressors, tyrants, mischief-makers, corrupters).” (Qur’ân, 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 Allah continually and to direct all his attention in seeking divine pleasure. For he knows well that this devotion to Allah does not necessarily mean abandonment of worldly life, misery and wretchedness.
What does good intention lead to ? It will prevent man from forgetting Allah because of excessive self-indulgence. The Holy Prophet 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 fulfill the purpose of living together with love and affection, the purpose which, as the Qur’ân says is the raison d’être of family life.
“And among His Signs is this, that He created for you wives from among yourselves, that you may find repose in them, and He has put between you affection and mercy. Verily, in that are indeed signs for a people who reflect“.(Qur’ân, 30:21).
It 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 pleasure 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 Allah. 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 regards 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 Allah 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 Holy Qur’ân has said:
“ …… “while those who disbelieve enjoy themselves and eat as cattle eat; and the Fire will be their abode. “ (Qur’ân,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 man to a place which befits his dignity and status.
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.
In short, all your activities are ‘Ibadah if they are in accordance with the law of Allah and your ultimate objective is to seek the pleasure of Allah. Thus, whenever you do good or avoid evil for fear of Allah, in whatever sphere of life and field of activity, you are discharging your Islamic obligations. This is the true significance of ‘Ibadah, that is, total submission to the pleasure of Allah, the molding into patterns of Islam one’s entire life, leaving out not even the most insignificant part, or intention.
It is clear, from the previous discussion that the concept of worship in Islam is a comprehensive concept that includes all the positive activities of the individual. This of course is in agreement with the all inclusive nature of Islam as way of life. It regulates the human life on all levels. The individual, the social, the economic, the political and the spiritual. That is why Islam provides guidance to the smallest details of one’s life on all these levels. Thus following these details is following Islamic instructions in that specific area. It is a very encouraging element when one realizes that all his activities are considered by Allah as acts of worship. This should lead the individual to seek Allah’s pleasure in his actions and always try to do them in the best possible manner whether he is watched by his superiors or he is alone. There is always the permanent supervisor, who knows everything namely, Allah.
However, despite the wide concept of worship in Islam – i.e. the incorporation of all acts which are performed with intention of complying with the laws of Islam – there are certain rituals which are decreed by Allah as obligatory upon Muslims. This type of worship has been decreed and established by the Divine Legislator in both essence and form. They have not been left to man’s options and choice. Allah has directed the acts of worships and the ways they are to be observed. This category comprises the pillars of Islam in application as exemplified in Salat (prayer), Zakat (obligatory charity), Sawm (fasting the month of Ramdan) and Hajj (pilgrimage) to the Holy places in Makkah and performance of their rituals, (see below). It should be stressed here that Islam does not teach mere rituals. It emphasizes intention and action.