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OurIndonesia – An email came to me with questions that have led to this reflection. The first question is very important and sharp: is shalat (prayer ritual) obligatory? Can I join the prayers whatever I like without the motive of journey (safar) or rain (mathar)?

My answer was that in Islam, shalat has many categories. Some are wajib (obligation), sunnah (meritorious), makruh (avoided), and others are haram (forbidden). Islam teaches about the division of prayer times according to the cosmic orbit of dawn (subuh), midday (zuhur), afternoon (ashar), sunset (maghrib) and evening prayer (isya).

I also answered that the above categorization is fikh (Islamic jurisprudence) categorization. The fukaha (experts in Islamic jurisprudence) made those divisions of time and the number of prayers. They categorized shalat as “wajib,” “sunnah,” and “makruh.” These technical terms were never recognized in the time of the Prophet. This definition of fikh was developed by ulemas in the second and third century of Hijrah.

The discipline of fikh helps us to understand those complex religious activities and matters. Various religious events have different intensities and natures categorized into wajib, sunnah, haram, halal and so on. As a matter of simplification, fikh is very helpful.

However, shalat is not only a matter of fikh. As the activity of ubudiyah (worship), shalat does not relate to fikh. It is closer to tasawuf (mysticism) emphasizing the spiritual dimension or the human esoteric dimension. The core of shalat is not the number oaf prayers (two, three or four times) nor the time (subuh, zuhur, asas etc). One who always calculates the number of prayers, the Prophet say, is offering the trader’s prayer.

The substance of prayer is the closeaa relation between humans and God who created him. Here, Sufis are the ones who understand most about the meaning and function of shalat. What I mean as a Sufi is a “philosopher” who is seriously seeking the truth. People like Ibn Arabi, Jalaluddin Rumi, al-Suhrawadi, Mulla Sadra, and Muhammad Iqbal, are the real Sufi.

Muhammad Iqbal, Sufi as well as poet, has written an article under the title “The Conception of God and the Meaning of Prayer”. An article that afterward becomes a chapter in his masterpiece, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, is the most genuine explanation on the function and meaning of prayer.

To Iqbal, shalat is the “medium” (agency) for a human to reflect upon his awareness of the existence of God. As agency, shalat has limits. Everyone, Iqbal said, has different awareness of the effect from the prayers. The best is the one who create the agency within himself, so that he will always be in a state of awareness where God does not need to be invited to be present.


The Indonesian version of this article was published in IslamLib.