rakaʿa in the Qur’an

To be lowly

This article is from The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation.

rakaʿa – to be lowly

The word rakaʿa is associated by the Traditionalist with bow or bowing (specifically, to bow as part of the ritual prayer which he insists God has in mind but which cannot be found, by his own admission, within the pages of the Qur’an).

Besides the religious meaning ascribed to rakaʿa of ritual bowing, Arabic lexicons furnish other meanings such as to become lowered or abased (such as becoming poor after being rich), and to humble oneself before God. Admittedly, the latter could, conceivably mean to bow physically. I have no pre-existing allegiance to one view or the other. I simply want to know what the Qur’an means by the term.

As with so many of the Qur’anic terms to which the Traditionalist has riveted his pre-existing religious concepts, the contexts in which rakaʿa occurs are predominantly open-ended and non-specific. We only have the Traditionalist’s word for it that rakaʿa means ritual bowing. Certainly, nowhere in the Qur’an could one derive that meaning had one not been primed to expect it.

Our only course of action is to review such evidence as we have.

Happily, the Qur’an furnishes evidence at 38:24 which allows us reasonably to conclude that rakaʿa in the Qur’anic context indicates inner humility and not ritual bowing. Here is that verse from a Traditionalist translation:

[David] said, “He has certainly wronged you in demanding your ewe [in addition] to his ewes. And indeed, many associates oppress one another, except for those who believe and do righteous deeds – and few are they.” And David became certain that We had tried him, and he asked forgiveness of his Lord and fell down bowing [in prostration] and turned in repentance [to Allah]. (38:24)
[Saheeh International]

The Traditionalist knows what his object is: he wants to indicate that Dāwūd was a ‘Muslim’, that he had a form of ritual worship materially like what the Traditionalist claims for his cult. He has duly rendered the adverbial object based on rakaʿa as bowing. However, he has two problems.

Firstly, this object is preceded by kharra which everywhere means to fall down and the word prostration (which he would dearly like to be present for the same reason as he wants rakaʿa to mean bowing) is irritatingly not there. So he has added it.

The second problem he has is purely practical. How can one, in reality, fall down bowing in prostration without serious physical injury? One can fall down. One can bow. One can prostrate. But all three at once?

To begin with what we know:

We know that kharra means to fall down in every single instance: 7:143, 12:100, 16:26, 17:107, 17:109, 19:58, 19:90, 22:31, 25:73, 32:15, 34:14, 38:24. It is used of Mūsā falling down unconscious and Sulaymān falling down dead. This is not bowing, or even any kind of controlled prostration. Perhaps collapse is a good way of summarising the action in such contexts.

We also know that the context of Dāwūd’s falling down is that of asking forgiveness and turning in repentance (38:24). In such a case, is bowing a likely value in a situation where someone is falling to the floor entirely? Of course not. That would serve only to confuse a full measure by means of a half measure.

Given what we know about the possible meanings for rakaʿa and the context in the one case where a form of the word is given with factual, contextual parameters around it, the most logical claim for rakaʿa is lowliness in the sense of humility before God.

Moreover, this value fits in all cases. And on this basis I render rakaʿa as to be lowly.

All instances in the text are footnoted.


2:43, 3:43, 22:77, 77:48, 77:48.

2:43, 2:125, 3:43, 5:55, 9:112, 22:26, 38:24, 48:29.

About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and activist with professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications, and technologies. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and Realpolitik. He is founder of Quranite.com and author of The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation where his consistent, Qur'an-centric hermeneutical methodology is applied to the text of the Qur’an in its entirety. Read more...

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