Salat as a practice is central in the Quran, but certain aspects of it can cause confusion due to differences between what is understood in English and what the Quran means in Arabic. It is a connection, a two-way street, and as such, involves reciprocity, which itself needs explanation. But it also is something one “establishes” by its regular practice. And what does it mean to “connect with” Prophet Mohammad? These are concepts that people dispute over for issues relating to language as well as concerns over not violating monotheism, yet are absolutely crucial in Islam to understand.
Salat is a Reciprocal Connection to Allah and the Celestial Realm
First, here is an example of salat being performed by prophet Zakariya where the “chamber” is a place set aside for worship:
فَنَادَتْهُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَهُوَ قَائِمٌ يُصَلِّي فِي الْمِحْرَابِ أَنَّ اللَّهَ يُبَشِّرُكَ بِيَحْيَىٰ مُصَدِّقًا بِكَلِمَةٍ مِّنَ اللَّهِ وَسَيِّدًا وَحَصُورًا وَنَبِيًّا مِّنَ الصَّالِحِينَ
So the angels called him while he was standing (in prayer) praying (present tense) in the chamber, “Indeed, Allah gives you good tidings of Yahya (John), confirming a word from Allah and [who will be] honorable, abstaining [from women], and a prophet from among the righteous.”)Al-Imran 3:39
Here he was in the act of salat, which means “connecting” with Allah; the “chamber” infers something “established” like a place, but the true place of salat is in the heart. With his heart in this “connection place” the angels entered and called him. His salat-established receptive state in a sense gave the angels the “sacred” opening through which to enter and give him the news of a son. His subsequent conversation with them (in the aya that follows) did not violate the salat state, because they were conferring a message from Allah Himself. We are shown here that the salat itself is an opening to the celestial realm and its beings, namely angels.
The “word from Allah” is the word of creation of Yahya. Zakariya was an old man (as was his wife who was also “barren”). A number of prophets have had children in old age (itself a separate subject) or from previously barren wives, showing these children are connected to Allah’s word. With His command (“word”), obstacles to procreation are lifted. We are also informed here that this command and delivery of the news are directly ordained by Allah the Exalted.
The word for the present tense verb form of salat “praying” is in Arabic يُصَلِّي where the letter alif of the noun salat is replaced by a letter ya, the root “sawd lam” preserved in the center. Ya also attaches as a prefix denoting present tense. But it is not like “prayer” in English, where it is a one-way act from human to God with no interaction contained in the word “prayer” itself — in English, God’s response uses different words, but in Arabic uses the same exact word. As shown below:
هُوَ الَّذِي يُصَلِّي عَلَيْكُمْ وَمَلَائِكَتُهُ لِيُخْرِجَكُم مِّنَ الظُّلُمَاتِ إِلَى النُّورِ ۚ وَكَانَ بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ رَحِيمًا
It is He who confers blessing upon you, and His angels that He may bring you out from darknesses into the light. And ever is He, to the believers, Merciful.Al-Ahzab 33:43
This is the reciprocity of salat. The verb from our side, the act of praying يُصَلِّي can result in His reciprocating, as shown in the “conferring blessings” to us, from the same root in Arabic يُصَلِّ “to connect” — but here the “doer” is Allah using the same exact word يُصَلِّي but in the direction from Allah -> to you/us. Indeed, the two directions are the same word, just translated differently!
Connecting to Prophet Mohammad via Our Connection to Allah
Here in the same sura the word is used to “connect” from Allah — and His angels — to the prophet Mohammad. And then we are asked to do the same.
إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ وَمَلَٰٓئِكَتَهُۥ يُصَلُّونَ عَلَى ٱلنَّبِىِّۚ يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ صَلُّواْ عَلَيۡهِ وَسَلِّمُواْ تَسۡلِيمًا
Indeed, Allah confers blessing upon the Prophet, and His angels [ask Him to do so]. O you who have believed, ask [ Allah to confer] blessing upon him and ask [ Allah to grant him] peace.Al-Ahzab 33:56
Here is the same word in plural form (in the original literally “Allah and His angels” yusaloona) is used in the same way from Allah and His angels to humankind. Note the translation, by choosing the translate it “confers blessing,” creates a problem between giving in the same way from the angels as from Allah, where the statement “ask Him to do so” is parenthetically added to avoid conflict.
However, using the word “connect” gives us the important sense that both Allah and His angels are doing the same salat action to prophet Mohammad as one who “performs salat” does toward Allah Himself. And that is connect. This word has no connotations of higher or lower status. To “connect” in and of itself does not imply “worship” or “confer blessing.” The use of these translations prevents us from seeing what salat as an Arabic word actually is or does. It is a reflexive word, a two-way connection, like the connection of a phone call. In and of itself, the “connection” of the phone call does not imply what is being said by whom toward whom. But the call/connection can be initiated by either of two parties. This is very much what yusallee means, to connect. Just as we connect to Allah at specific times, Allah and His angels connect to the prophet or to us.
The second half of this aya tells us to do the same, ie saloo (connect) to the prophet (Mohammad), and it is here that we see where the translation’s use of “confer blessing” is to clarify how can it be that we connect to the prophet without “worshiping” him, which would be shirk or a violation of tawheed, monotheism. In this case, it says we ask Allah to confer blessings and peace on the prophet. Thus Allah is in this case whom we ask to “connect” us with the prophet by asking Him to ”confer blessings and peace“ upon him, who now is with Allah in a dimension of which we have no knowledge (except what Allah has expressed in the Quran). This is the opposite of what Christians do in their connection to Jesus in relation to God: they may go through Jesus as an intermediary between them and God, because they consider him as “part of” or “one with” God, violating monotheism or tawheed by this way, whereas Muslims go through the connection with Allah as a “channel” between us and prophet Mohammad.
So we are not “establishing” here a connection with the prophet but rather using the connection established between us and Allah to connect, even after his death, with the prophet, something Allah the Exalted is actually telling us to do. We are thus enjoined to connect with the prophet and his example for humanity just as we connect with people, but through our faith in Allah alone, a faith shared with all believers and prophets, but as the prophet and messenger of the Quran, the ultimate message, Mohammad has a special honor or maqam (place/status) with Allah who Himself, in this aya, established for us this connection.
What it means is that for us, prophet Mohammad is still a living prophet, but no longer among us. So although we cannot “reach him” in person, we have this “line”/channel through which to express our appreciation for him and from which to derive an understanding of human potential if one chooses to follow in his footsteps. Prophet Mohammad then exemplifies our potential exaltation in the celestial realm with Allah’s chosen servants. He does not intercede for us; rather, Allah the exalted exhorts us to honor him and hold him in the highest status as we would hold those people most dear to us, which itself is a “good deed” counted for us on Judgment Day. Thus Allah Himself connects us to him, as we would wish to be re-connected with our own families after death, or even more so. And how do we know prophet Mohammad is in the celestial realm?
وَلَا تَقُولُواْ لِمَن يُقۡتَلُ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ أَمۡوَٰتٌۢۚ بَلۡ أَحۡيَآءٌ وَلَٰكِن لَّا تَشۡعُرُونَ
And do not say about those who are killed in the way of Allah, “They are dead.” Rather, they are alive, but you perceive [it] not.Al-Baqarah 2:154
وَلَا تَحۡسَبَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ قُتِلُواْ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ أَمۡوَٰتًۢاۚ بَلۡ أَحۡيَآءٌ عِندَ رَبِّهِمۡ يُرۡزَقُونَ
And never think of those who have been killed in the cause of Allah as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provisionAal-e-Imran 3:169 (emphasis mine)
These two ayat refer to those who died in the cause of Allah; how then would it be for prophet Mohammad, who dedicated his life to Allah’s cause and only Allah protected him from death? And if salat takes place ultimately in the heart, consider the heart upon which the Quran was sent for a moment. The Quran, about which Allah said, “If We had sent down this Qur’an upon a mountain, you would have seen it humbled and coming apart from fear of Allah” (59:21), was actually sent upon the heart of Mohammad, a human being, to have received something so powerful it would cause a mountain to fall apart from fear of Allah. So certainly such a prophet would be in the celestial realm wherein the martyrs reside “receiving provision” from their Lord, and this is the same realm to which salat “opens” access. And Allah knows as humans we need a human ”role model” and ”inspiration.” What better person to fulfill that role than prophet Mohammad (pbuh)?
Establishing the Connection: What It Means
The Quran uses the term “establish” the salat — yuqeemuna assalat — like one establishes a connection. Here as with “establish,” this is not a one-off or a one-time thing but rather a practice for us, that is, a regular, daily, “set up” occurrence. It’s in a sense more like building the infrastructure needed to make phone calls than “dialing” the number. But that “infrastructure” is not some physical apparatus or cell towers or electricity, but rather more astronomical: we go at specified times, wherever we are, and “make the connection.”
The “connection” is “built” by du’a (prayer) and thikr Allah (invoking and remembering Allah) and tasbih (glorification) — the “contents” of our worship as “building materials” but of a higher nature — all of which are given to us in the Quran and in particular found in Al-Fatiha, aptly named “the opening.” In Arabic, the word used for “to turn on” a light or any electrical device is from the root of fat’h or to open, the same root of the name Al-Fatiha, so one often finds an Arabic speaker who’s learning English using the expression “open the light,” literally the Arabic sense and usage. This helps us see that an electrical connection where two wires, for example, are connected to bring electricity to a device and thus make it work, is a kind of “opening,” an opening of a “line” between two previously disconnected things. In the same way, when we go to sallee or “perform salat” we are actually “opening” the “established” (as a routine or a daily regular practice) connection by literally reciting the Opening, Al-Fatiha, and thus the connection is “made.” The contents we input into that connection are, as mentioned above, our du’a (prayer), tasbih (glorification), and thikr (remembrance and mentioning Allah), all of which are also included in Al-Fatiha. We can also bring our own private du’a into salat, of course.
And there’s genuine multi-faceted physicality to it as well: the astronomically-determined real-time “prayer times;” the body language of submission in bowing and prostration, as well as the body language of standing in respect; and the qibla, the physical, earth-bound direction of salat. All these are part of the “infrastructure” established in salat. Even the words we say include Quran recitation, if possible in our universal language Arabic (although any language is acceptable), because by learning that language people of multiple cultures and languages can share a common language for worship and can also engage more directly with the Quran. Which, like any profound book, is best in the original. And learning a language in this way can stimulate and expand our minds as well.
When we invoke Allah’s name in this context, He responds and reciprocates. He hears us and knows what we bring to the salat and what we are doing. But salat is not done only for its own sake or in a vacuum, but must translate into action; to “purify” ourselves from our “worldly” or ego-based life by acts of charity, zakat meaning “purification” by giving to the poor from the “excess” of our wealth. This is another part of its “establishing,” in a very real way. We cannot merely “perform” this salat. It is not merely bowing and prostrating or facing a direction or reciting Quran or du’a. Its acceptance and establishment is contingent upon our developing an attitude of compassion or at least acts of compassion and charity. Hence the constant linking of salat and zakat (charity) in the Quran.
And so salat is not really pray to as is used in English because pray as used in English means, like du’a, “supplicate,” which in English is exclusively thought of as worship from people to God, whereas for God to “pray” to us would be blasphemous in the English usage. Here the word du’a is closer to the meaning of “prayer,” and indeed to “call upon” (the translation of du’a) other than Allah is considered blasphemous, or a violation of the covenant to be monotheist.
لَهُۥ دَعۡوَةُ ٱلۡحَقِّۖ وَٱلَّذِينَ يَدۡعُونَ مِن دُونِهِۦ لَا يَسۡتَجِيبُونَ لَهُم بِشَىۡءٍ إِلَّا كَبَٰسِطِ كَفَّيۡهِ إِلَى ٱلۡمَآءِ لِيَبۡلُغَ فَاهُ وَمَا هُوَ بِبَٰلِغِهِۦۚ وَمَا دُعَآءُ ٱلۡكَٰفِرِينَ إِلَّا فِى ضَلَٰلٍ
To Him [alone] is the supplication of truth. And those they call upon besides Him do not respond to them with a thing, except as one who stretches his hands toward water [from afar, calling it] to reach his mouth, but it will not reach it [thus]. And the supplication of the disbelievers is not but in error [i.e. futility].Ar-Ra’d 13:14
It’s a Gift Only You Can Open
By the statement in bold, it is made clear the reason for monotheism itself: only one Supreme Power/God can exist in truth. To call upon anyone else is fruitless and futile. Because they are not actual gods, because there’s only one actual God, any du’a directed to other than Allah does not get a reply or get reciprocated because one is calling upon something that doesn’t exist in that capacity. So many arguments regarding monotheism do not take this into consideration. Allah is Truth, Reality. He promised in His own words, the Quran, to reciprocate and respond to anyone who calls upon Him. Had the Pharaoh called upon Allah when he was alive and in power, Allah the All-Knowing would have responded. But he, like all those whose arrogance blinds them to Allah’s power and mercy, refused.
So just as salat is “opened” like a door or window opening into the light, or a “connection” we have to “turn on”/open ourselves, it’s opposite is refusal, keeping it closed, also called “denial,” refusal to even consider that there is an opening or light and all we have to do is initiate the words or ”flip the switch.” And this is the one door/connection you must open yourself. Here it is, we’ve all been told it’s there. But it won’t open automatically or by inertia, although it’s very easy to open and is never locked until we lock it ourselves. On the contrary, we have to make an effort to keep it open because there are those who want us to keep it closed. They are always trying to convince us it doesn’t even exist. But other than Allah, the ultimate Reality, everything else comes and goes. And this is one connection, one gift, no one can afford to lose.