The five pillars of Islam: Salaat - Prayer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The five pillars of Islam: Salaat - Prayer

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Muslim in prayer inside the Sehzade mosque, Istanbul, Turkey.

In this Entry we will be looking at Salaat - 'prayer' in English - and hopefully by the end we should have a better understanding of Salaat and have an opinion on the Islamic way of life. Before getting started on Salaat, it would be worth mentioning that Salaat is considered the second pillar of five that makes up the key things Muslims belief in and do. The five pillars are:

  • Imaan - Faith

  • Salaat - Prayer

  • Saum - Fasting

  • Zakat - Charity

  • Hajj - Pilgrimage


Prayer (Salaat) is the most important pillar of Islam, as it is the dividing line between belief and disbelief. Prayer is compulsory for every Muslim who has reached puberty and is of a sound mind. In Islam, prayer is considered the primary method of worship. In fact, prayer is deemed so important that intentionally missing one is a sin. It is a sin because, in Islam, Muslims believe that not praying is not only against God but also against human nature itself - as such it is considered an act of crime to a person's soul.

There are many verses in the Qur'an that tell Muslims to observe prayer regularly.

Guard the prayers strictly, especially the middle (asr) prayer.
Verily, the prayer is enjoined on the believers at stated times.

The Prophet Mohammad constantly reminded people of the importance of prayer. Here are a few hadith (words and sayings of the prophet) on the subject.

The Prophet Mohammad asked his companions: 'Tell me, if one of you had a river at his door and took a bath in it five times a day, would any dirt remain on his body?' The companions replied 'No, no dirt would be left on his body.' The Prophet then said 'This is an example of the five prayers by which Allah washes away the sins.'

In another hadith, Abdullah bin Mas'ud narrated:

I asked the prophet: 'Which of these actions is the best?' He replied 'Prayer at its stated time' I said 'What comes next?' He replied 'Kindness to parents.' I further asked 'what comes next?' and He replied 'Struggle in the cause of Allah.'

Why prayer?

Muslims believe that prayer is the best way to cultivate a sound personality and to set a person's aspirations on a mature path of development. To neglect prayer is to suppress the good qualities of human nature and to deny the soul's right to love and worship, the right to excel in goodness and to achieve noble aims. Though it is incumbent for all Muslims to pray, it is not done because God requires prayer - God is free from all wants, needs and desires. God is only interested in mankind's prosperity and wellbeing as any good we do is for our own benefit, and whatever offences we commit are against our own soul. As such, prayer is not only a form of worship in Islam, but also a reminder that we will be judged for our own deeds and helps Muslims doing bad deeds as they is more aware of their actions. Muslims also believe that there are many other benefits brought to you by prayer; here are a few of them:

  • It strengthens belief in the existence and goodness of God and strengthens this belief in man's heart.

  • It makes this belief constructive in the practical course of life.

  • It helps a person realise their own natural aspirations to high morality, excellence and virtuousness.

  • It purifies the heart and helps to develop the mind.

  • It helps Muslims suppress any evil and indecent inclinations and raises the good qualities of man.

  • It removes the sins we may have committed.

As we can see, Muslims believe that Islamic prayer is not simply a sequence of physical movements and recital of the Qur'an. To Muslims it is a method of spiritual devotion, moral elevation, intellectual meditation and physical exercise. For Muslims, prayer is a lesson in discipline and willpower and be a practice in devotion to God. It is a reminder of God's greatness and an aid to help against indecency, evil, deviation and a way to in which to increase faith. To Muslims it is also a source of patience, courage, hope, confidence, inner peace, stability, equality, unity and an expression of thankfulness to God, all rolled up into one package.

Fard, Sunnah and Nafl

In Islam there are three different types of prayer a person can perform. The first type of prayer is Fard, or obligatory prayer. It is made up of the five daily prayers.

The funeral prayer is also a Fard prayer, but it is a collective obligation on the whole Muslim community. In other words, once one or more of them perform it, it is not then necessary for everyone else to.

The Sunnah prayers or supererogatory prayers are extra prayers that should be undertaken though it is not an actual sin not to perform them. It is considered harmful negligence and reproachable conduct to intentionally miss one when you have time to perform it. These prayers are mainly made up by those accompanying the five daily and two Eid prayers, such as the noon congregation on Fridays (Jummah), the Hajj prayer (Tawaf) and prayers that have become necessary due to a vow or oath.

The last type is the Nafl or optional prayer and as its name suggests is made up of voluntary prayers. Voluntary prayers basically come in two types:

  • Prayers an individual performs purely because they want to.

  • Prayers to catch up on missed prayers and for guidance.

The five daily prayers

The most important of all the prayers are the five daily prayers normally referred to as just Salah. These must be undertaken by all Muslims, unless there is a valid reason not to, which will be discussed later.

These five prayers individually are:

  • Salat al-fajr, the dawn prayer which consists of two rak'ahs. A rak'ah is one cycle of standing, bowing and prostration.

  • Salat al-zuhr, the noon prayer consisting of four rak'ahs except for travellers travelling more than 48 miles (77Km) from their homes, in which case it is two rak'ahs.

  • Salat al-'asr, the afternoon prayer also consists of four rak'ahs unless travelling.

  • Salat al-maghrib, the evening prayer is three rak'ahs for all people regardless of travelling or not.

  • Salat al-'isha, the night prayer is again four rak'ahs and two for travellers.

Conditions for prayer

As mentioned earlier, prayer must be performed by all Muslims unless they have a reasonable excuse. Prayer is not obligatory for:

  • Insane and irresponsible people.

  • Children who have not reached puberty - that's up to around 14 years of age. However, children should be encouraged to pray by their parents from the age of about seven years onwards and strongly urged to by the age of ten.

  • If a person is weak from illness or, in the case of women, weak from menstruation or confinement due to childbirth (around 15 days usually), or is nursing a child (40 days approximately), then they are not required to pray, as they may feel drained of energy and be physically weak. This gives them the chance to regain their strength and energy, and in the case of childbirth and nursing, it also gives the women time to adjust to life with a baby. Missed prayers do not have to be made up for after that time.

    In the case of childbirth, if there is still a bleeding of any kind after the stated amount of days, women do not have to pray but should make up for any prayer missed when bleeding has stopped.

Requirements of Dress in Salah

Another requirement for valid prayer is that proper clothing should be worn. The conditions for proper dress in prayer are:

  • Clothing must be loose-fitting for either sex, and must not be made from transparent material.

  • The clothing should be clean.

  • The clothing must not be unlawful; ie, you cannot pray in a garment that was stolen or bought with illegal money.

  • Clothing must not be made from animals that were not slaughtered. It is best not to wear any clothes made from animals for prayer.

  • Clothing must not be made from an animal whose flesh is Haram (forbidden) or unlawful and must not contain any animal hair or moisture from such animals, such as dogs and pigs.

  • Men must not wear gold or silk while praying, but it is permissible for women to wear both.

Along with these conditions, there is a 'minimum requirement' for the amount of clothing that should be worn. For men this is something that covers the navel to the ankles and for women the whole body and hair except the face, hands and feet. Though men can pray bare-chested, it should not be done and it is preferred for a man to cover his whole body as well. It's optional for men to cover their hair.

While on the subject of clothing, it should be mentioned that there are instances where it is permissible to wear unclean clothing. If a person has an abcess, wound or cut which is bleeding, and cleaning the blood away could be harmful, then it is permissible to pray. However, if the blood spreads to an area immediately close to the wound it must be cleaned away. Blood from the mouth, nose or due to haemorrhoids does not invalidate prayer as long as blood is cleaned away at the start of prayer.

In situations such as the above, if there is some compulsion to pray, then prayer is allowed.


In Islam it is a must that a person performing prayer is in a pure clean state. So to make sure of this purity Muslims perform an ablution before prayer. There are two types of ablution called wudu and ghusl. If someone has done wudu or ghusl and has not done anything to make themselves impure then they do not have to repeat it before each prayer.

Wudu is essentially what Muslims do before each prayer if they have done something to make themselves unclean. It involves cleaning the hands up to the wrists three times and arms up to the elbow, cleaning the mouth and nose, face and neck three times and cleaning the feet up to the ankles three times. Wudu must be done when someone does one of these things:

  • Discharging urine, stools or anything from the genitals.

  • Discharging of gases.

  • Vomiting.

  • Fainting or falling asleep.

  • Laughing aloud.

  • Flowing of blood or matter from any part of the body.

Ghusl on the other hand involves the washing of the entire body. Ghusl must be performed if someone has intercourse or ejaculates or following menstruation, childbirth, touching a corpse, washing a corpse or when someone converts to Islam.

Muslims should also remove underarm and pubic hair at least once a month. This is because these two areas are seen to sweat a lot. It is considered unclean to have long hair in those areas, as the hairs soak up the smell of perspiration.

Intention to pray

Before a Muslim starts to pray, it is important for them to make intention. This involves either them saying or thinking that they are going to perform whatever prayer they intend to perform facing the Qibla for the sake of Allah. For example before praying fajr a Muslim would think to himself, I am now going to perform a two rak'ah prayer of fajr facing the Qibla for the sake of Allah.

The Qibla is the direction a Muslim faces while praying. This Qibla is not a set direction but changes from country to country. The Qibla indicates the direction of Mecca as all Muslims pray facing towards the Kabah in Mecca. Though it is important to face the direction of the Kabah during prayer it is not essential if someone does not have the means to find out which direction the Qibla is in. For instance, someone who is travelling and wishes to pray at a train station but who does not know which direction to pray in, will simply pray in the direction he thinks is right.

There are many reasons why a Muslim must make intention before prayer, but the main reason is because prayer should be for the sake of Allah and not for any other reason. For example, someone who prays in public because he wants people to think better of him, rather than out of worship of Allah, is praying for the wrong reasons. Making intention reminds Muslims that prayer should be focussed on the worship of Allah and not for personal goals in this world.

The place of prayer

Muslims do not always have to pray in a Mosque. Still, in these circumstances, the following rules have to be observed:

  • The place should be lawful - ie, those praying should have the owner's permission to be there. This does not apply at airports and other public spaces. In workplaces and peoples' houses, for example, a Muslim must have the owner's permission.

  • The place should be clean, particularly at the point where the forehead touches the ground. The area should also be level.

  • Muslims should always pray facing the Qibla; if this can not be found out then Muslims should use their best judgement in deciding which direction to pray in.

Of course, for Muslims, the best place to pray is inside a Mosque, as there is more reward in praying in Mosques - especially in congregation.

Hopefully this article has helped you understand why Muslims pray and the requirements that go in to it. For Muslims, a prayer is a very serious and important thing, as it is the main difference between belief and disbelief.

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