Salat in the Qur’an

Duty

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

ṣalāt – duty

Introductory comments

The Traditionalist’s position, in summary, is that his non-Qur’anic literature tells him that the value for ṣalāt is equal to x (a certain number of daily rituals, at least five but sometimes more) and that since he does not find x in the Qur’an, he (and we) should understand that the Qur’an requires his non-Qur’anic literature to be understood or implemented.

One might assume, given the Traditionalist’s high dudgeon and energetic presentation, that there exists a single statement in his supposedly reliable non-Qur’anic literature where the form and content of the complete ritual he calls ṣalāt is clearly set out. But one would be mistaken. He has constructed a ritual out of little pieces carved out of the corpus of the ḥadīth literature and claimed the result to be of divine origin. Nowhere does any single ḥadīth which he claims to be reliable contain a full explanation of the ritual he claims to be the central – if not the defining – characteristic of his religion.

This is problematic for the Traditionalist. His theology is predicated on the idea that the supposed sources for his stories had superlative memories and were the best Muslims that ever existed. Yet not one of the stories attributed to any one of his sources provides a single instance where one of the best Muslims who ever existed proved capable of doing what any child of only average intelligence and perhaps less-than-average piety brought up in a Traditionalist Muslim household can today do with ease, namely: list the received daily prayers and summarise their exact format.

Again, the Qur’an itself nowhere says that the value for ṣalāt is equal to x. The Traditionalist assumes a value of x and then attacks those who are sceptical of his claims for not finding his claimed value for x in the Qur’an – a value he himself cannot find within it nor yet cut of whole cloth within that vast library of external sources which he claims to be canonical.

We are men and not children. We are called to use reason and to seek knowledge, not to satisfy ourselves with assumptions – no matter how widespread such assumptions have become, how long they have persisted, or how useful they might be to ruling elites and their religion-touting quislings. Perhaps we can do better than the Traditionalist if we ignore him and answer the Qur’anic imperatives to consider the Qur’an with care and to use reason.

The treatment of ṣalāt in the Qur’an

As ever, whenever there does not exist a clear Qur’anic definition, as here, the first port of call in our investigations is the established Arabic language.

The core, non-religious dictionary meaning of ṣalāt is that part of the rump or tail bone of a lead horse to which a second horse adheres when following the lead horse closely. Both the Traditionalist and I regard this value as historical or vestigial. But if the Traditionalist were to take this meaning as the literal one and then to treat it the way he does his actual understanding of the word ṣalāt he would need to say something like: the correct way to perform ṣalāt is to follow the rump of a lead horse at a distance of exactly eighty centimetres, to be facing in a north-easterly direction, to lead with the right hoof, to be travelling at exactly twenty miles per hour, to be saddled using an Arabian short saddle with the stirrups strapped high, and for the rider to be wearing Arabian garb of the seventh century CE.

A comparable case is that of patience. There is no precisely correct way to have patience. One either has patience or one does not have it. And while it is true that in some cases a man may grit his teeth and clench his fists while having patience, that does not mean that the gritting of the teeth or clenching of the fists define patience in any way, let alone exhaustively.

There is no precisely correct way of following a horse. One either follows a horse or one does not follow it. There is no precisely correct way of having patience. The precise circumstances and method will differ in each case.

I have referred to patience here for a reason:

And seek help through patience and ṣalāt […] (2:45)
[Saheeh International – with ṣalāt left untranslated]

Since the Qur’an links these words by the same verb it is reasonable – in fact, necessary – to assume them to be of the same type. It is not reasonable that a single verb would connect an abstract noun with a concrete one. Abstract nouns may be joined – hope and fear; concrete ones may be joined – burger and milkshake. However, it is hard to envisage a situation in which a single verb can sensibly treat both fear and burger because they are made of different conceptual stuff. And since we know – and it is uncontested by the Traditionalist – that ṣabr means patience (or a synonym thereof), and since we know that patience is an abstract noun and not a concrete one, the inescapable implication is that ṣalāt is, likewise, an abstract noun.

Here we must hold the Traditionalist’s feet to the fire. He will claim – as evinced by his translations – that ṣalāt means prayer. And the unwitting Western reader will assume on that basis prayer to be an abstract noun. But this is because he has been wrong-footed by means of a disingenuous presentation.

Of course, prayer can be viewed as an abstract thing – an ephemeral communication of the soul with God – and if that is how we mean it, then is abstract. But this is not how the Traditionalist means the word – at least, not all the time. He generally means by it a very precisely prescribed formula of washing, standing, bowing, prostrating and sitting in which prayer (in the abstract sense in which we have just used the term) may or may not be present. This second, prevalent sense in which the Traditionalist uses the word ṣalāt is comparable to a specific martial arts kata (concrete) in which improvement (abstract) may or may not take place.

In summary, vagueness on the part of the Traditionalist translator is assisted by the fact that prayer for the average English speaker is an abstract rather than concrete concept, and thus translations which use prayer manage to slip a conflation of noun types past the attention of the non-specialist reader.

Noun types

A little information on the grammatical terms we are discussing is in order. There are three basic ways of describing the character of nouns:

Proper nouns vs common nouns: a proper noun names one specific person place or thing (Woofy, Mount Everest), whereas a common noun names a class or group (dog, mountain).

Concrete nouns vs abstract nouns: a concrete noun refers to a material object (the table, a dog), whereas an abstract noun refers to something intangible (love, art).

Count nouns vs noncount (or mass) nouns: A count noun identifies something that can be preceded by many or fewer and can become plural with the addition of –s: fewer coins, many rivers. A noncount noun designates something that cannot become divisible, such as money, tuberculosis, or happiness. […]Often abstract nouns are noncount nouns as well: honour, duty, authority, love.*

*From Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference, Gary Lutz, Diane Stevenson.

There are multiple layers of confusion and inconsistency to the Traditionalist’s understanding – and therefore treatment – of this noun. It is as well to begin by identifying the noun type of the value which, by default, he ascribes to ṣalāt (namely, a set number of actions performed at particular times).

While he does not always capitalise the noun, he still treats it as a proper noun, i.e. the Prayer. Like Mount Everest in the grammar section above, by the Prayer he means something known and recognised as a discrete thing. Yet the Traditionalist shifts around to other values for ṣalāt as we shall see:

  • Default: the Islamic ritual (proper noun)
  • Prayer as an abstraction (abstract noun)
  • The Jewish prayer (proper noun)
  • Blessings – most commonly: blessings sent by the believer upon the dead prophet  (abstract noun)
  • Blessings – from God toward men (abstract noun)
  • Synagogues (common noun)

We must remind ourselves at this point that the Qur’an treats ṣalāt together with ṣabr, and that ṣabr is uncontested as an abstract noun.

It is an interesting characteristic of abstract nouns that once one knows what they are one needs no further instructions. To date, no Traditionalist has tried to justify to me his preference for non-Qur’anic sources on the basis that the requirement to have patience cannot be understood without them. A man knows if he has patience or not. The same holds true for hope or love or fear. Not only are these things for which the Qur’an does not provide exhaustive definitions, they defy any sort of exhaustive definition by virtue of what they are.

Since ṣalāt is fundamentally of the same stuff as patience – i.e. it is an abstract noun – once identified, it will require no more external information to be comprehended than does ṣabr (patience).

If we accept that ṣalāt is an abstract noun – and for me no alternative view has any Qur’anic justification given the way ṣalāt is joined with a proven abstract noun value – it still remains to establish how we can identify ṣalāt in the Qur’anic context and, if we should achieve a value which seems reasonable, how we can demonstrate that we are correct

To take the second point first, I suggest here what I hold to elsewhere, namely: that what is right will fit – and will fit across all contexts. A hand and a glove enjoy a correlation which a foot and the same glove simply do not enjoy no matter how one pushes. And what the Traditionalist has does not fit. It neither fits in terms of word meaning nor in terms of noun type. He is forced to render ṣalāt in multiple ways in his translation in order to maintain his underlying assumptions. And none of these meanings has anything in common with the non-religious sense of ṣalāt as that part of the tail bone of the lead horse to which a following horse adheres.

I assert that the correct value will fit all parts; it will be consistent in terms of word meaning; it will be consistent in terms of noun type; and it will bear some clear relation to the original and prosaic sense of the word.

Concerning the first point – how correctly to identify the meaning of ṣalāt from the Qur’anic context – we should first recognise the difficulty inherent in any attempt to infer the exact meaning of any abstract noun in circumstances in which the meaning for such a noun is not given. If we use ṣabr (patience) as an example: had the meaning of ṣabr been lost, it would be more difficult to reconstruct this value with confidence from context than, for example, the meaning of horse, foot or water, by virtue of the difference in type between abstract and concrete concepts.

In our favour we can count the fact that ṣalāt features significantly in the Qur’anic narrative. The noun occurs 83 times and the ṣ-l-w root a total of 99 times. It is reasonable to hope that the very incidence of contexts which reveal the fault lines in the Traditionalist’s claim for ṣalāt will also provide a sufficient pool of contexts from which to derive a reasonable thesis and, having measured that thesis across the set, to be sure of our findings if and when our thesis fits all contexts.

But where to start?

aqīmū al ṣalāt wa ātu al zakāt

As anyone familiar with the Qur’an in the Arabic will know, the object of our inquiry (ṣalāt) forms part of that frequent Qur’anic imperative: aqīmū al ṣalāt wa ātu al zakāt. This, I would suggest, is the most significant and visible of all Qur’anic refrains, and it was with this that I began my investigation.

It occurred to me that looking at the verb used with ṣalāt here (aqāma) in other contexts might shed some light on its meaning, both in combination with ṣalāt in this formula, as well as on ṣalāt where it occurs with other verbs.

The Traditionalist claims aqāma means establish (and synonyms) where it occurs with ṣalāt. However, the form IV verb aqāma occurs 54 times (multiple instances of which are not connected with ṣalāt) and I looked at them all.

I noticed that the verb aqāma takes ḥudūd allah (the limits of God) as a direct object. Here, the Traditionalist is forced to render aqāma as to keep to, to observe, to uphold (in the sense of to implement).

But this is not what he means by aqāma when he talks of ṣalāt.

The ḥudūd allah (the limits of God) – even by the Traditionalist’s yardstick – are not mere habit or custom or the execution of a ritual requirement such as he assumes ṣalāt to be, but clear directives in the business of life and meant to be upheld and implemented as such.

The ḥudūd allah (the limits of God) can be thought of as banks maintaining those rivers upon which the believers may choose their own course. The extremities are out of bounds; anything which is between those extremities is permissible. What the Traditionalist’s own rendering means here is to observe, uphold, implement, adhere to the ḥudūd allah. It means it in the way that one might tell someone to observe traffic laws. So what aqāma means in comparable contexts is: adopt a course of action in keeping with known criteria. This is the only possible meaning.

But this value cannot be applied, properly speaking, to a ritual of any kind. One may make a ritual a habit. One may repeat a ritual. One may do a ritual. But the ḥudūd allah provide a believer with practical limits which impact his actions and which must be observed. A ritual prayer, per se, impacts nothing.

To summarise at this juncture:

  • We have seen the Qur’anic contextual evidence supporting ṣalāt as an abstract noun
  • We have seen the Qur’anic contextual evidence supporting ṣalāt as an abstract noun
  • We have seen that abstract nouns are generally readily understood (we know what have patience means; we do not require substantive instructions on how to have it)
  • We know – because the Traditionalist never tires of making the point – that the Quran has no instructions regarding ṣalāt; but unlike him we take this as no more significant than the absence of specific instructions on the subject of patience
  • We know that the imperative used regarding the ḥudūd allah (the limits of God) is the verb most commonly used with regard to ṣalāt
  • We know that the ḥudūd allah denote circumstance-dependant obligations which allow a man latitude within set range of permissible action

On the basis of the above, I began to consider the possibility that the ḥudūd allah (which require a man to uphold certain principles) and ṣalāt might substantively be the same thing – since they share a verb in common – and that while ḥudūd allah are principles (the details of which are known and should be applied) illustrative of that from which one should stay away, the question arose: could ṣalāt be characterised by those principles to which one should adhere?

Next came the question of how best to render such a value in English. The abstract noun which to me best describes the concept of striving to adhere as closely as possible to something is duty.

This line of thought brought me back to that etymological base upon which the ṣ-l-w root is formed. The analogy fits perfectly. A lead horse dictates a particular path dependent upon circumstances and the second horse stays as close to that first horse as possible. Whatever the lead horse does represents the following horse’s duty.

The duty of the faithful man, one can justifiably reason, is to please God by believing in him alone and keeping his commandments. The following horse knows what his duty is by looking to the horse in front. A faithful man knows what his duty is by looking to the commandments of God.

The next step was to test duty as a value across all instances in the text. It fits in every case. It fits like a hand in a glove, not a foot in a glove. There are no overlaps or unclear instances. Gone are blessings sent upon a dead prophet, Jewish synagogues and all the rest of the workarounds to which the Traditionalist has had to resort in order to maintain his pre-existing allegiance to a religion found nowhere in the Qur’an. The reading flows and is unproblematic throughout, including in those instances such as 9:84, 9:103, 11:87, 19:59, 24:41, 33:43, 33:56, 35:18 and 58:13 where the tension created by the surrounding context is so great that the Traditionalist is generally forced to abandon his preferred value in order to complete the verse with a straight face.

Importantly, gone also is any need to hop from one noun type to another.

Count noun

The only difference between ṣalāt and ṣabr in the terms we are looking at here is that ṣalāt is both a count noun and a non–count noun, whereas ṣabr is a non-count noun only. This point is in alignment with both Qur’anic usage and normative Arabic since ṣalāt has a plural and ṣabr does not.

Since ṣalāt is a count noun there are times when the duty is exactly what is meant. Unfortunately, there is no difference in form (the noun takes the definite article in most cases) whether duty or the duty is meant. There is a clear difference in the function (one treats of duty in general, the other of a particular duty) yet that difference is not indicated in the same way as it would be in English by the absence or presence of the definite article.

Context and usage are our guide.

Connotations of duty

My investigations have led me to the conclusion that ṣalāt has three connotations:

  • the duty (in the sense of the primary duty pertaining to a man)
  • duty in general
  • specific (context-dependent) duty

The three are connected and overlap, but it is as well to understand them.

The first use of the word ṣalāt occurs at 2:2-3. Here is the present translation:

That is the covenant about which there is no doubt
Guidance for those of prudent fear:
Those who believe in the unseen
And uphold the duty
And spend of what we have provided them (2:2-3)

Our part of that covenant is found at 1:5:

Thee alone will we serve
And from thee alone will we seek help. (1:5)

This, then, is the duty (ṣalāt). It is to serve none but God and to seek help from him alone. This is the core of true monotheism and is in no way the exclusive preserve of those who call themselves Muslims.

The two remaining connotations of duty are either general (i.e. duty as a concept) or context specific (i.e. indicating a particular duty arising from and implicit in the context).

The attempt to turn this abstract noun into something specific and concrete is to apply to the word a quality which the Qur’an itself denies it.

To summarise: ṣalāt has the following connotations:

  • Our primary duty to God (i.e. 1:5)
  • Duty in as a general concept (cf. hope or patience)
  • A context-dependent duty (i.e. something clear from the context that we should do)

Clearly, there is some crossover between the three as there is in the English use of the word duty.

Worship

Given the pounding that ṣalāt has undergone in more than a millennium I need to say a few words about worship.

There are instances in the Qur’an which treat of worship in the context of ṣalāt (duty). Clearly, worship was a duty upon the messenger. If we choose to follow the messenger, we make worship a duty upon ourselves also.

For myself, I regard worship as a ṣalāt (duty). But it is no more a duty than is the writing of this book or any other of the obligatory activities in which I am engaged. And as there is no objectively correct way to perform any duty so long as it conforms to the general principles in the Qur’an, so there is no absolutely correct way to worship – and to claim there to be one is to ascribe a lie to God.

I am quite comfortable conforming to the preferred forms of worship of the Traditionalist in the mosques but I do not see them as binding or exclusively correct – rather, I see any claim that such-and-such a method is the one correct method as anathema to the spirit and letter of the Qur’an.

My view is that to criticise a man for his form of worship is as foolish as criticising him for driving on the left instead of the right. The question for me is not which side of the road he drives on, but whether he is fulfilling the duty of getting to his destination safely and responsibly in the local context.

As a final word, Qur’anically speaking, nothing more sectarian or ‘Islamic’ can be claimed for ṣalāt than can for ṣabr.

All instances in the text are footnoted.

References

ṣallata
3:39, 4:102, 4:102, 9:84, 9:103, 33:43, 33:56, 33:56, 75:31, 87:15, 96:10, 108:2.

muṣalīn
70:22, 74:43, 107:4.

ṣalāt
2:3, 2:43, 2:45, 2:83, 2:110, 2:153, 2:157, 2:177, 2:238, 2:238, 2:277, 4:43, 4:77, 4:101, 4:102, 4:103, 4:103, 4:103, 4:142, 4:162, 5:6, 5:12, 5:55, 5:58, 5:91, 5:106, 6:72, 6:92,6:162, 7:170, 8:3, 8:35, 9:5, 9:11, 9:18, 9:54, 9:71, 9:99, 9:103, 10:87, 11:87, 11:114, 13:22, 14:31, 14:37, 14:40, 17:78, 17:110, 19:31, 19:55, 19:59, 20:14, 20:132, 21:73, 22:35, 22:40, 22:41, 22:78, 23:2, 23:9, 24:37, 24:41, 24:56, 24:58, 24:58, 27:3, 29:45, 29:45, 30:31, 31:4, 31:17, 33:33, 35:18, 35:29, 42:38, 58:13, 62:9, 62:10, 70:23, 70:34, 73:20,98:5, 107:5.

muṣallan
2:125

About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and speaker 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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