When most people think of “Islamic prayer,” they picture rows of worshippers bowing and prostrating in unison, usually inside a mosque, facing Mecca (Makkah). But the act of worship pictured is salat, a specific act of worship with geophysical as well as body-language physical protocols, requiring a ritual ablution, preferably in water, prior to its performance. The word du’a, on the other hand, is equivalent in meaning to the English word “prayer,” which is simply “supplication.” To refer to salat as “prayer” is convenient, because there is no English equivalent, but inaccurate.
Some have simply used the Arabic word transliterated as “salat,” as I have done, or “salah,” which could be misread as having an “h” or “hah” sound or even “heh” sound (Arabic has two letters for two different sounds that English can only haplessly call “h”), which would give it a different meaning and pronunciation. But it is so central to worship in Islam that the distinction between salat and du’a should be further elucidated.
Du’a means, literally, supplication, as we have said above. It has no protocols, and can be said at any time without wudu'(ablution), qibla (specific direction), or body language. One expresses one’s needs to the Almighty with du’a, any time, any place, without restriction. Often du’a is expressed within one’s salat. It is an individual act, a personal, public or private, prayer. It perfectly matches the English meaning of “prayer.”
Of the two, however, salat is the most important in Islam, a form of worship that is both individual and communal. Salat is an act of worship that must be “established.” It is physical, and bound to physical, time-and-space perimeters. Salat must be performed at specific times of day, be performed in a specified way and include specific physical acts. These acts are standing, bowing, prostration, and kneeling——all strongly configured body language of submission or surrender, the true meaning of Islam.
The “establishment” of salat in the lives of Muslims requires taking time off from whatever one is doing to remember and worship Allah alone. It literally and physically pulls us out of the real, but transitory, world we live in, regardless of how intense or important to us, and puts us in the real, but eternal world of the Most High, making a connection with Allah directly, a connection He enjoined us to make. This connection of salat also involves recitation of passages from the Quran, notably Al-Fatiha, but also other passages of our choosing, usually recommended to be relatively short.
The recitation of Quran should also remind the worshipper of the sourcebook for Islam, a book sent to confirm the same religion of the Torah, the Gospel (Injeel), and the Psalms (Al-Zaboor). And all God’s books sent to humankind. The Quran mentions specifically this fact to remind us that He is one God and had the same essential message, and did not send separate religions to fight and kill one another in His name. But also to correct mistranslations and misinterpretations in His books, that led to idolatry (Jesus-worship and self-worship, among other things) and misunderstanding of the message.
Even so, salat itself is a unifying force in Islam, and should make Muslims kind and tolerant to one another. That they are not reflects on their own mistaken notions, often due to ignoring the actual words of the Quran, or believing part and ignoring another part. Muslims should in fact be kind and tolerant as a basic rule, but strong and aggressive towards those who aggressively attack them first, or who work tirelessly to destroy what they think is Islam and Muslims, their lives and religion. In other words, no turning of the other cheek, except in cases where one forgives an act whose basis was not criminal intent, or from which the perpetrator has repented and shown proof of his/her change of heart. I should say, no collective turning of the other cheek.
Since all salat can be performed collectively (together, in unison), this helps to further bring Muslims closer at heart and in heart to each other. Again, to increase compassion.