The Symbolism of Prayer

Peace, one and all…


Questions.  There are always questions.  Here are some that have been occupying me of late:

  • What is prayer?
  • What does it mean to pray?
  • Why has the Islamic tradition strctured prayer in the way it has?
  • What does it symbolise?
  • What does it signify

Indeed, these questions have occupied me ever since I first became openly, publicly Muslim, some 9 years ago.  These questions are still unanswered.  That is, my answers are still provisional, still being worked out.  I am a work in progress, and so too are any conclusions that I may have come to.  Indeed, how could one as passing and limited as I ever truly reach certainty, as though I could ever hope to truly conclude something?  At any rate, I’ve been trying to write this post for a long time now.  In fact, it has been brewing ever since the Threshold Society Retreat in August. 

It also seems that others have been asking similar questions lately, from both within and beyond the Islamic tradition:

Prayer is many things, it seems.  To pray is to ask God for something.  It is to plea for aid, for understanding,  for grace.  To pray is to commune with the Almighty.  It is to stand before God and struggle to open one’s self to Him.  To pray is to express need, to express desire, to express hope.  Prayer is a formal act, it is a spontaneous reaction to life.  Prayer is conversation and belonging.  Prayer is intention and meaning.  Prayer is gratitude and prayer is struggle.  Indeed, prayer is a way of life and an orientation to the world.

Subhan Allah!  God is indeed subtle beyond all understanding!  I didn’t realise I had been pondering these issues quite so intensively until I attended the summer retreat.  Shaykh Kabir touched on the symbolism of the ritual prayer (salah, namaz).  I’d read such things before, but it wasn’t until he explained and demonstrated it that I felt a door opening within me: ‘Yes!  That’s what it means!’  Because I believe in sharing what I learn and experience, I wanted to share Shaykh Kabir’s comments with the wider world.

To understand something is to know its meaning.  To learn more about the meaning of prayer is to learn how to commune with God more fully, and that is a beautiful thing. 

The opening act of the prayer (known as the takbir, or magnification – that is, to say ‘Allahu Ackbar’) involves raising the hands, palm outwards.  There are differences in practice between Muslims, though the Hanafi school of law (which I follow) raises the hands to the ears.  At any rate, by doing this you are symbolically sweeping away the outside world, as you remind yourself and others that only God possesses true greatness.  It is also a symbol of throwing everything else behind you, putting it to one side, as you face the Almighty.

Next comes the standing posture (during which portions of the Quran are recited).  Shaykh Kabir referred to this as the ‘posture of human dignity’, as we stand upright, calmly, with hands folded in front of us.  This is the natural position for a human being and as such, this is how we should approach God, in a dignified manner, in full adult awareness of what we are attempting to do.

Once this part has been completed, we then bow (ruku’), whispering ‘Glory to my Sustainer, the Almighty’.  This is the ‘posture of service’, which flows naturally from a true orientation to our innate human dignity.  It is from this position, willingly entered into, that we are reminded that God requires us to act, to serve.  Indeed, the word for worship (`ibadah) is also the same for service.  It is to say: ‘here I am God, ready to serve You’ (labbayk Allahumma labbayk).

After rising from this position, the Imam then says ‘God hears the one who praises Him’ (Sami` Allahu liman hamida), and the congregation respond with ‘Our Sustainer, for You is our praise’ (Rabbana wa lakal hamd).  That is, on a symbolic level, we are reminded that our service is for God’s praise, and not for our own whims and desires.

From here we move to the most crucial moment of the prayer, the prostration (or sajda), in which the face is placed upon the ground.  As we do this, we utter ‘Glory to my Sustainer, the Most High’ (subhana Rabbi al-`Ala).  This is the ‘posture of submission’, where all that we are, all that we think, all that we do, is laid before God.  It is said that the closest we come to God in this life is in this moment.  This is the place and time where our most intimate prayers can be whispered into the Beloved’s all-hearing ear.

We then rise to a sitting position, where God’s forgiveness is traditionally sought through a number of prayers.  Then a second prostration follows.  This is particularly important.  Shaykh Kabir referred to it as the ‘surrendering of our surrendering’.  In other words, we surrender all of our misconceptions, all of our misunderstandings, all of our surrenders to God.  It is as though it offers us a chance to surrender our human limitations.  And it is in this space that I ask Allah to forgive all my dry, agnostic prayers, all my self-wrought delusions, all my weak and faulty service to Him.  This moment of intimacy concludes one unit of prayer (or rakat).

I still have questions to explore, for example: why does each prayer have a particular number of rakat? What is the symbolic meaning behind this?  I still have much to put into practice, because a description is not a reality.

And may Allah draw us all closer to Him in humble prayer.

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

24 thoughts on “The Symbolism of Prayer

  1. This is a really helpful opening up of this topic of prayer. I, perhaps like most people, do struggle to make it always be as meaningful as it should be. Often times, you do it almost mechanically. It’s doubly difficult when you have a limited knowledge of Arabic and thus can easily “tune out” of what you’re saying. On the flip side, you do then have to actively cultivate intention and performance more sincerely.

  2. Thank you for a most illuminating post, Abdur Rahman. It is interesting that a number of us have been thinking about this most central of religious practices. Last night, my wife and I tutored a further session of our study circle, once again focusing on prayer. To begin, we and our group expressed our devotion to God by reciting a few of the beautiful prayers that Baha’u’llah has given us. We then went on to speak about the Baha’i daily prayer – we refer to it as the Obligatory Prayer, since it is a spiritual religious obligation to recite one of the three prayers Baha’u’llah has revealed for this purpose – and discussed why this is such an important part of our lives as Baha’is.

  3. Salaams Shiraz bhai,

    I know exactly what you mean, which is why I find the 2nd prostration so meaningful – we surrender all our phoney surrenders!

    Ya Allah!

    Abdur Rahman

  4. Salaams Umm Yasmin,

    Allah load your hands with baraka always.

    Thank you. We all seem to have been thinking about prayer of late. Maybe Allah is trying to tell us all something?! 😉

    Ma’as salama,

    Abdur Rahman

  5. I loved reading this. I’ve been working on a post about prayer as well (especially discussions about prayer with people who don’t believe/know about God).
    thanks for this…it really was illuminating.

  6. Salaams
    Respect to your fantastic web pages,I sent an email but i am not sure if i sent it to the right place.
    I am atracted to the mevlevi sufi way ,i love the way and style of kabir and camille heminskis teachings down to earth and profound.
    I have attended dhikr circles for sometime recieving much love and barakah ,unfortunatly there is no mevlevi circle near to me in brum.
    Hope you are well ,Salaams Ali

  7. Salaams Abdur Rahman Bhai,

    Jazaak Allah for this enlightening post! i am so grateful that you shared Shaykh Kabir’s enriching perspective and insights regarding Prayer. May Allah reward him immeasurably. Ameen
    This post is really an eye-opener as we learn about the deeper significance of every act in prayer.

    MashaAllah! your expression, though powerful, is simple enough to even help children understand. i read this to my 11 year old and inshaAllah, will keep reminding myself and her in the future.

    a spontaneous thought……… Bhai, its time to add a much-needed children’s corner……they’ll love it and it would be a great source of guidance! i know you have your hands-full now……….but maybe sometime in the future, inshaAllah!

    Ma as salaama,

  8. Salaams Commonplacer,

    Thank you for your kind thoughts. Allah bless you always. I look forward to reading your own thoughts on prayer. Insha Allah, I will add the link in the main text. 🙂

    Abdur Rahman

  9. Salaams Ali,

    I haven’t received an e-mail directly I’m afraid. If you reply to this, I will get an automatic e-mail and then I’ll e-mail you personally insha Allah.

    Welcome again to my online home.


    Abdur Rahman

  10. Salaams SF,

    You are most welcome. Allah bless you. Shaykh Kabir’s insights regarding prayer were given in an almost off-hand way, which is what made them so effective!

    A children’s corner? I hadn’t really thought of that before! I am too busy myself at present. But, why don’t you write one? If you don’t want a blog yourself, you could send them to me and I’ll post them. You could even be a guest writer if you wanted to.

    At any rate, Allah bless you.

    Abdur Rahman

  11. I’ve like to share something interesting that I read somewhere about the number of rakaats that we have to pray and the link to each hour of our life in a day: If u combine all the rakaat of the obligatory prayers in a day ie. 17 rakaats in is a protection for each hour of our life awake (the other 7 out of the 24 hours of our daily life is the medical average number of hours a person needs to sleep in a day)…fascinating isn’t it?

  12. Salaams

    Thanks for this information. I would like to know the following and thought you might be able to shed some light on the topic.

    Why do we perform the salaahs at the 5 specific times prescribed. There must be some meaning to this and would like to know what it is…


  13. Salams Fayros,

    Welcome to my online home. Allah bless you always.

    There must be a deeper meaning to the prescribed times but, as yet, I haven’t discovered it. Insha Allah, it will become clear, as this is something I am deeply interested in myself.

    At any rate, welcome again.

  14. Salam AbdurRahman,
    Sri Ramakrishna saw deep meaning in the postures of Islamic prayers,as I read in the blog Mystic Saint.He was not born to the tradition!
    Srinivas Rau

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