Make your Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in your heart like that—such that his ﷺ love possesses your heart and that his ﷺ image (timthāl) is in front of your heart’s eyes always. When he ﷺ is mentioned, you find pleasure in his ﷺ remembrance and that you find his ﷺ reverence in your heart as opposed to the mention of anyone.
al-Wasiti | Qawāʿid fī l-sulūk 25-26
In this article, we take a deep dive into the concept of concentration in Salah and how the Prophetic Presence ought to be considered during the prayer, benefitting from the insights of the Islamic Scholars and Sufi Masters.
Prayer in the Muhammadan Form
Prayer (ṣalāh) is the pillar of Islam and the greatest form of obedience to Allah.
Allah Almighty says: ﴾And establish ṣalāh for My remembrance.﴿ [Ṭā-Hā, 20:14]
We perform ṣalāh for the sake of Allah alone. He is the only focus of our worship and it is only Him we intend. Every action of worship, every litany and every thought is directed towards Him. No Muslim would ever face even the slightest confusion or hesitation regarding this, for directing worship to anyone else would be to commit the unforgivable crime of shirk. May Allah Almighty protect us from that.
Ṣalāh is the primary and most superior way of drawing closer to Allah. It is also what distinguishes Muslims from those who are not. Understanding the importance of ṣalāh, someone may ask, “How do Muslims pray?” The answer to this question was answered by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ himself, who instructed: “Pray as you have seen me praying.” [Bukhari 5662] The most perfect worship therefore is an imitation of how the Perfect Man ﷺ worshipped the Perfect and Sublime Lord.
If a person performs ṣalāh contrary to how the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ prayed, then his worship would be deemed futile and void, even if he displays much sincerity and zeal. For example, fajr consists of two obligatory cycles. If a person wanted to show extra gratitude to Allah by adding a further few cycles or by increasing the number of prostrations in his prayer, then this worship of his would be rejected.
Why, a person may query, since “He is only focussed on worshipping Allah. He wants to dedicate extra units and do more to worship Him. Surely, this extra effort and single-mindedness in worshipping Allah should be commended?”
The reality is found in what Imam Saʿdī Shīrāzī (d. 691 AH/1292 CE) has said:
Khilāf-e payambar kisī rah guzīd
Hargiz ba manzil na-khawāhad rasīd
Whatever path you tread, other than the Messenger’s —
Be sure, you will never reach your destination.
Even though it is Allah alone that we worship, the expression of our worship must take the Muhammadan form. We must adhere to what the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ commanded us to do and leave what he ﷺ desisted us from1*. Only by doing so can one attain the pleasure of the Lord. We must endeavour to imitate him ﷺ as best as we can, and the closer we get to his quintessence, the more perfect our worship will be.
Having Presence in Prayer
Bearing in mind that our worship is solely dedicated to Allah, this does not mean however, that the entire ṣalāh is prayed by only doing the verbal remembrance of Allah Almighty in-and-of Himself. Ṣalāh is not prayed by a person simply saying ‘Allāh’ or ‘lā ilāha illā Allāh’ in all of its stages. Even if a person says that this is the best way that he can focus on Allah alone, this will be unanimously rejected—for yet again, it fails to adhere to the Muhammadan profile. A person must recite a portion of the Qur’an in ṣalāh, he must read the tashahhud, he must recite a transmitted prayer, and so on. Only then will his act of worship be called ṣalāh rather than something else.
Furthermore, it ought to be reiterated that the ṣalāh is not a mere physical ritual. It requires presence of body, mind and soul for Allah Almighty says: ﴾And do not be of the unmindful.﴿ [Al-Aʿrāf, 7:204] After all, the ṣalāh is established for His remembrance; and His remembrance requires attention, which in turn presupposes presence. He also described the successful believers as those ﴾who in their prayers are humbly attentive.﴿ [Al-Muʿminūn, 23:2] Intoxication has been prohibited for this very reason. Thus, when it comes to all stages of ṣalāh, one must be consciously attentive and should not suffice just on the physical movements and transitions in prayer.
When it comes to reciting the Qur’an then, a person must be purposely mindful of what he is reading. In fact, the very objective of reciting the Qur’an is to dive into the oceans of the Divine Meanings and not the mere movement of the tongue itself. [Iḥyā’, 1:621]
Being attentive to the Hereafter, Heaven and Hell, as well as the stories of the Prophets then is integral to the Qur’an, and the ṣalāh by extension, of which it constitutes a core integral part. As aforementioned, even though our worship is directed to Allah alone, it does not solely consist of pure and simple remembrance of His Majestic Name (ism-i jalālat) and His Attributes (ṣifāt). It is mediated via His Revealed Word which contains manifestations and manifold appearances which aid towards contemplating and knowing Him.
For example, if one becomes deeply engaged in the thought of the ordeal that awaits profligates in the Hereafter and begins to weep fearing his own state, that too is not considered as something extrinsic to the remembrance of Allah. It is not a deficiency in his ṣalāh. Rather, his focus thereof ornaments it, for the reason that it induces more submissiveness and solemnity (khushū’) in his prayer, which in turn enhances his worship of Allah. As a result, it is deemed praiseworthy.
On the other hand, if a person began to weep audibly due to some pain or affliction that he felt, then that will nullify his ṣalāh per the Hanafi school, whereas weeping audibly and making sounds due to the above-mentioned absorption in the Qur’anic depths will not since it complies with the essence of the prayer. [Radd al-muḥtār, 2:377-378]
We have now seen that (a) ṣalāh is worship which is directed towards Allah alone; (b) ṣalāh is only valid when conducted in the Muhammadan form; (c) The content of the ṣalāh requires presence and (d) this presence may be mediated by focussing on entities such as the Qur’an and its Message without it being considered an imperfection in worship.
The Type of Presence Solicited
Now, let us hone in further on the type of presence that is sought.
Imam al-Ghazali (d. 505 AH/1111 CE) in his aptly named Revivification of the Religious Sciences explains by stating that the inner-dimensions of ṣalāh have many expressions, such as reverence (taʿẓīm), awe (hayba), hope (rajā’), shame (ḥayā’) and so forth, but they are all contingent and sprout forth from the fundamental tenet which is the presence of the heart (ḥuḍūr al-qalb).
This presence of the heart is a condition (sharṭ) for the prayer according to the Spiritual Masters, without which it is lifeless and dead. It is akin to mere exercise. As such, this presence has been likened to its animating spirit.
By it, what is meant is that the heart of a person is cleared from everything else except for what he is engaged in. His thought (fikr) does not wander into extraneous things. Once his thought is redirected back, that his heart is aware and not heedless at all, this presence of heart is attained. In sum, it is a sense of single-mindedness towards the object of concern which is not distracted by anything else.
Al-Ghazali then ventures a level deeper. He states that the presence of the heart is caused by having deep concern (himma). The heart follows this concern; without it, it is not present—and the heart is only present in what it has solicitude for**. He writes, “There is no way-out and no cure for the presence of the heart [in ṣalāh] except through directing one’s determination (ṣarf al-himma) towards ṣalāh.” [Iḥyā’, 1:600]
To simplify, we only pay attention to what we care to pay attention for. If we do not care for something, we will not think of it. But if we do care for something, then our hearts will turn towards it even if we would not like it to. So, to have the presence of heart, we should magnify the solicitude we have for the desired entity and consciously direct and devote our concentration towards it so that our hearts are present with it. And by presence here, we mean such that the heart is not concerned with anything or anybody else whatsoever in that moment. It is the active intentional drive that allows us to have this focus and presence.
Shah Wali-Allah al-Dihlawi (d. 1176 AH/1763 CE) writes: “As for al-himma, then it is an expression used to refer to the gathering of one’s thought and making firm one’s resolve in the form of a wish and desire, such that the person does not think of anything except for that thing, like a thirsty person’s desire for water.” [Al-Qawl al-jamīl, 113-114]
Speaking on the spiritual stations, Shaykh al-islam al-Harawi (d. 481 AH/1088 CE) says that “The himma is what propels a person to pursue the intended only.” [Manāzil al-sā’irīn, 379] Meaning, when a seeker reaches this station in his wayfaring, he is not concerned with other things, like the prospect of reward, punishment, mundanities, flaws, deeds, and even spiritual states. He is only focussed on the Divine Essence.
Ergo, it is established that a person needs to possess this inner solicitude, drive and determination for the intended thing or object to have presence of heart with it. Otherwise, the heart will not have the resolve to remain concentrated upon it. It will be fragmented and scattered instead. The presence of heart which is resultant of this concern allows a person to be unoccupied with everything else and wholly engaged with what is sought to be focussed on. The rest of the inner-dimensions of ṣalāh are a result of this presence, thereby underscoring its importance.
Presence in the Muhammadan Meaning
We have touched on the type of presence which we should seek to have above. Now, let us explore what the object of this presence should be.
In other words, let us ask, to what or whom should our hearts be present with—such that we direct our solicitude towards it or them in order that we have complete consciousness thereof, and that we are not distracted by anything else?
Well, Imam al-Ghazali provides us with generous answers for every condition and integral part of the ṣalāh. At the call to prayer (adhān) for example, he says that one’s heart should be present and reminded of the Call on Judgement Day. When purifying ourselves in ablution, we should be conscious of washing away our sins. When standing, we should be present before the Almighty King. When reciting, we should be present towards the Qur’anic meanings, and so on. Consult the Iḥyā’ for more detail.
It is not our concern here to detail every aspect here, but only to provide a brief glimpse for the sake of our argument. In brief, during ṣalāh, the presence of heart (which follows himma as explained before) is brought forth for a multitude of things, relations and entities, as al-Ghazali explores, and neither does the bringing forth of these meanings necessitate a blemish in the purity of the prayer.
From the entities which require presence is none other than the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ himself. This presence with him ﷺ in ṣalāh may be brought forth by the recital of verses that make mention of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Or, in even more explicit terms, it is required when reciting the tashahhud at the end of every two units of prayer when one sends peace and salutations upon him, our Master and Guide to the Lord of the Worlds.
Presence in Recital
Let us first take a cursory look at being present with the Messenger of Allah ﷺ at the recital of verses that make explicit mention of or allude to his noble personage ﷺ. Indeed, one can cite endless exegeses that speak on Qur’anic verses that are about him ﷺ. And no doubt, it can be argued that the entire Qur’an is an ode to the one upon whom it was revealed, but we have chosen to cite an interesting passage which relates a spiritual station to the theme.
Imam Murtada al-Zabidi (d. 1205 AH/1791 CE) in the most-renowned commentary of the Iḥyā’ speaks clearly about the ascending ranks of gnosis in ṣalāh. Every succeeding stage of closeness to the Divine encompasses the prior. He uses this lens to analyse the presence of the heart when reciting the Qur’an, using the following verse as an example: ﴾Guide us on the straight path.﴿ [Al-Fātiḥa, 1:6] Other than the completely negligent, from those who are ‘present’ are those whose reflections are mired only in the exterior of what they are reciting. They focus on the grammar of the verse, the linguistic analysis, morphology of words, conjunctions and so on. Those who transcend and surpass this stage begin to delve into the inner-mysteries. It is not the point here to detail what he says in full. However, a pertinent section will be quoted hereunder:
“And from amongst them [the People of Inner-Realities (ahl al-bāṭin)] are those who understand ‘The Straight Path’ meanings beyond that, and say, that ‘The Straight Path’ is the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ; and we have been ordered to follow him ﷺ and tread his ways. Indeed, it is he ﷺ who has been described with perfect steadfastness and the one addressed in His saying: ﴾Be steadfast as you are commanded.﴿ [Hūd, 11:112] There is no following more noble than following one in their spiritual states (aḥwāl) after following their words (aqwāl).
The meaning of ﴾Guide us on the straight path﴿ [Al-Fātiḥa, 1:6] is thus: Guide us [O Lord] in following the inner spiritual states of this noble Prophet ﷺ. The one who occupies this station is the most strict in the pursuance of the inner-dimensions and the most honoured of them in terms of loyalty (al-wafā’) to the [Prophetic] pledges. And this station is called ‘Annihilation in the Prophet ﷺ’ (fanā’ fi l-rasūl)—and it is the [Qur’anic] reflection of the Folk of the Fourth Rank from the People of Inner-Realities. [Itḥāf al-sāda, 3:120]
What this shows is that being deeply reflective over the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in prayer (and that too, specifically in the recital) is a tremendous rank that only few can reach. It is a lofty station which is only succeeded by the final and fifth rank, in which a person sees the ‘Unicity of Existence’ (waḥdat al-wujūd) in all that he reads. Nevertheless, in order to even arrive at this stage – nevermind traversing it – one needs to comprehend and encompass the preceding stages (baʿda iḥāṭa bi-mā sabaq), including the one of annihilation in the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. al-Zabidi states that although he has focused on just one verse, the hierarchy of gnosis is applicable to them all. [Ibid, 3:120]
Presence in Tashahhud
After having taken a brief look on presence with the Prophet ﷺ in ṣalāh vis-a-vis the recital of verses, let us now take a look at presence with the Prophet ﷺ in the tashahhud. For the unaware, the tashahhud is read at the end of every two cycles of prayer in the sitting position, after the prostrations have been completed.
Imam al-Ghazali explicitly states: “Make present in your heart the Prophet ﷺ and his ﷺ noble personage. And say, ‘Peace be upon you O Prophet, and the mercy of Allah and His blessings.’ Let your hope be firm that it will reach him ﷺ and that he ﷺ will respond to you with what is more perfect than it. [Iḥyā’ , 1:628]
In order to observe worship like the sincere and realised bondsmen of Allah, it is not enough that you just recite the tashahhud, or that you understand its words, or that you passively perform this station in prayer. Here, Imam al-Ghazali is using the command form of the verb. That is, actively direct your attention towards the Prophet ﷺ in tashahhud – (which is in ṣalāh, lest one forgets) – as though his esteemed personage is present in front of you.
Imam Murtada al-Zabidi explains: “[Make present in your heart the Prophet ﷺ] ie. his pure spirit [and his ﷺ noble personage] according to the degree of your knowledge (maʿrifa) of him ﷺ and your reverence (taʿẓīm) for him; and those most knowledgeable of him ﷺ are the servants of his blessed hadith for they become acquainted with his ﷺ blessed states and pristine shamā’il more than others, so their evoking of his ﷺ presence is far stronger (aqwā) and more firm.” [Itḥāf al-sāda, 3:158-159]
What is made clear is that inducing the spiritual image of the Prophet ﷺ in the ṣalāh is not only good, but that people are of differing degrees in this. Those who are acquainted with the Messenger of Allah ﷺ more and of his esteemed status (which yet still supersedes our limited understandings) will be able to do so in a more complete and firm manner. Everyone should thus strive to increase in their knowledge and veneration of the Prophet ﷺ in order that they can be more present in this station of the ṣalāh. No part of the ṣalāh should be conducted with lack.
Do not think that this is a ‘distraction’ – Allah forbid! – from the cognisance of Allah. The Andalusian Grand-Master (shaykh-i akbar) Ibn ʿArabi (d. 638 AH/1240 CE) illuminates in this regard: “Saying ‘Peace be upon you O Prophet’ in tashahhud […] makes it known that the bondsman has proceeded from witnessing (mushāhada) his Lord from the perspective of the Absolute (al-iṭlāq) or in terms of a particular matter – which was in his prostrations – to witnessing the Truth (al-ḥaqq) in the Messenger ﷺ and since he has appeared to him, he sends peace upon him specifically by addressing the Prophet.” [Al-Futūḥāt, 2:77] On the same page, he speaks about the person in prayer, that: “He expends every capacity of his in his ṣalāh.” [Ibid, 2:77] Accordingly, even in this witnessing, one applies himself to the utmost.
Here, the point about directing contemplative activity towards ourselves, our sins, our souls, the angels, the cosmos, and even the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ are not dismissed as diverting us from the main objective and our attention from Allah. Instead, they are seen by the sages and scholars to be augmenting thereof. Rather than corrupting the ṣalāh, and far from being polytheistic, for the Masters, directing the heart’s focus towards the Prophet ﷺ in prayer serves as an experiential event for a believer. He witnesses the Divine reflections that are manifest in the Muhammadan personality. Then, he addresses the Prophet ﷺ directly, since the Prophet ﷺ has been spiritually unveiled to him. May Allah grant us these openings of proximity.
The revelatory context of the tashahhud is found in the Ascension (miʿrāj) of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to the Heavens and beyond. It is here that these words we read in ṣalāh were first spoken. It is no wonder then that we find that these words are necessary (wājib, as per the Hanafi school) in ṣalāh, which has been termed the Ascension of the believers.
The great gnostic Shihab al-Din ʿUmar al-Suharwardi (d. 632 AH/1234 CE) writes in his acclaimed work: “The ṣalāh contains the secret of the Ascension for it is the Ascension of the Hearts. The tashahhud is the place of Arrival (al-wuṣūl). Let him send salutations upon the Prophet ﷺ whilst imagining him to be present in front of the heart’s eyes; and send peace upon the pious servants of Allah.” [ʿAwārif al-maʿārif, 2:343]
Notice that these luminaries are not suggesting that one just mention these words but are instructing an active process of deep thought and spiritual evocation; a reality of directly addressing the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ which befits due adab upon mentioning his blessed name ﷺ.
Shaykh Muhammad al-Bakri (d. 994 AH/1586 CE) is said to have alluded to this with his statement: “When he ﷺ is the means for this momentous blessing, it is appropriate that the person praying ṣalāh makes his ﷺ personage present in his mind, and then address him with the second-person ‘kāf’ pronoun [i.e. peace be upon you] as is used for someone present (al-ḥāḍir). [Al-Futūḥāt, 2:217]
Just as how weeping audibly in ṣalāh does not break the prayer if done out of genuine presence of heart and submission – as opposed to weeping audibly due to an extrinsic pain – similarly, directly addressing the Prophet ﷺ in the tasahhud does not break the ṣalāh, whereas addressing anybody else would do so.
Mevlana Khalid-i Baghdadi (d. 1242 AH/1826 CE), the eponymous founder of the Khalidi-Mujaddidi branch of the Naqshbandiyya and spiritual guide of Ibn ʿAbidin al-Shami (d. 1252 AH/1836 CE), says: “Addressing someone other than him ﷺ in ṣalāh is a nullifier of it—whilst bringing present the form (al-ṣūra) of, and sending salutations upon the Prophet ﷺ is from the exclusivities (khaṣā’iṣ) of the Spirit of Existence (rūḥ al-wujūd) and the Master of the Praised Station (maqām al-maḥmūd) ﷺ. [Taḥqīq al-rābiṭa, 8]
In a deeply spiritual extract, the commentator of al-Nawawi’s (d. 676 AH/1277 CE) ‘Riyāḍ al-ṣāliḥīn’ and ‘Al-Adhkār’, Ibn ʿAllan al-Dimashqi (d. 996 AH/1057 CE) writes: “It is possible to express this according to the way of the People of Gnosis (ahl al-ʿirfān), that the Worshippers, when they seek permission to open the door of the King with earnest salutations (taḥiyyāt), they are graciously granted entry into the Sacred Precinct of the Ever-Living One who doth not die. Thus, their eyes are soothed with fervent supplications and they realise that this is only due to the Chosen One (al-muṣṭafā) ﷺ, and by the blessings of following him. They turn around, and behold, the Beloved [Prophet] ﷺ is present (ḥāḍir) in the precinct of the Beloved. So they approach him, saying, ‘Peace be upon you O Prophet, and the mercy of Allah and His blessings.’” [Al-Futūḥāt, 2:217]
The sentiment gleaned from these prominent Spiritual Masters that have been echoed by jurists too, even though this binary itself is questionable. They state that the tashahhud is not just a simple re-telling of a conversation that occurred in the past. al-Haskafi (d. 1088 AH/1677 CE) writes: “[One should actually intend the words of tashahhud] that is, the meanings of the words are intended as [a prayer] as though he is truly proclaiming the sublimity of Allah and sending salutations upon the Prophet, his own self, and His saints [and not informing] of that.”
Elucidating on this, al-Shami says: “[And not informing of that] ie. he does not intend reporting what transpired in the Ascension from him ﷺ and from his Lord – Sublime is He – and from the Angels, upon them be peace.” [Radd al-muḥtār, 2:219]
Hitherto, we have been shown instructions from the Masters that intentional concentration upon the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in ṣalāh is something recommended, whether in the recital or the tashahhud. For the perfection of one’s prayer, one should not ‘skim’ over his ﷺ noble mention out of negligence or fear of shirk. They have also stated that the strength of one’s resonance is commensurate with a believer’s proximity to him ﷺ and Allah Almighty.
The Companions and the Prophet ﷺ in Prayer
One may wonder if there is a precedent of the Companions in directing their attention to the Prophet ﷺ in ṣalāh.
Of course, it is a given that the Best of Generations would have had an intense presence of heart in prayer. Hence, they reflected over the meanings of the Qur’an when they were recited, and these examples are far too enumerable to cite here. That being said, there are a plethora of explicit instances also where the Companions had their attention directed towards the Best of Creation ﷺ aside from the recitation in prayer. We shall cite only a few here below.
Sa’id b. Mu’alla said: “I was praying ṣalāh whilst the Prophet ﷺ called me but I did not respond to him. Later, I went and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah ﷺ! I was praying.’ He said, ‘Did Allah not say: ﴾O you who believe! Respond to Allah and to the Messenger when he calls you to what will bring you life.﴿’’ [Al-Anfāl, 8:24] [Bukhari 4474, 4647, 5006, Abu Dawud 1458, Nasa’i 913 ]
Abu Hurayra reported that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ came out to Ubayy b. Ka’b. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “O Ubayy!” whilst he was praying. Ubayy turned but did not respond to him. Ubayy prayed but he quickened it and then he went to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and said, “Peace be upon you O Messenger of Allah ﷺ!” The Messenger of Allah ﷺ replied, “And peace be upon you. What stopped you, O Ubayy, from responding to me when I called you?” He said, “O Messenger of Allah ﷺ! I was in salah.” He ﷺ replied, “Did you not find among what Allah has revealed upon me: ﴾O you who believe! Respond to Allah and to the Messenger when he calls you to what will bring you life.﴿?’’ [Al-Anfāl, 8:24] He said, “Of course, and I will not do that again, Allah-willing.” [Tirmidhi 2875]
al-Nasafi (d. 710 AH/1310 CE) in explaining the verse, says: “[Allah] has made the [‘he’] pronoun singular, because responding to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ is like responding to Him. The meaning of ‘responding’ is obedience and compliance.” [Madārik, 8:24] The exegetes further remark that the clause “to what will bring you life” is not to be understood as a restrictive one, but it is to notify that his ﷺ calling is not unto anything but goodness and what brings life to our souls. This means that whatever it is that the Prophet ﷺ calls towards, one must respond to it without hesitation. [See Al-Taḥrīr wa l-tanwīr, Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, et.al, 8:24]
In these above scenarios, the Companions were engaged in the worship of Allah in ṣalāh, and yet when the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ called them, it was not enough that the Companions were worshipping, or that they heard his call, or were mindful of it, or even hastened in their prayer as a consequence. Nor did the Prophet ﷺ commend them for being so engrossed in ṣalāh and having a single-mindedness that led to a delay in their answering of him ﷺ. Rather, the imperative was and is to attend to him ﷺ immediately.
Ṣalāh did not serve as a valid reason for not responding to the Prophet ﷺ or responding to him late. If there ever was a reason, then being present in the worship of Allah would be it. However, this demonstrates that the call of the Messenger ﷺ is not at contradictory odds with the worship of Allah and His obedience; nay, it suggests that to be in attendance in his honourable court takes priority over even being in prayer. In fact, upon returning from his ﷺ blessed presence, one does not restart his ṣalāh but continues it as per since it is not considered to be broken in the first place! This immediacy and desire to be with the Messenger ﷺ is the solicitude that is intended.
In addition, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “Do you see my face is towards the qibla? By Allah, neither your submissiveness nor your bowing is veiled from me. Indeed, I see you from behind my back.” [Bukhari 418, 741, Muslim 424]
The Prophet ﷺ is addressing his Companions. He is telling them that he ﷺ is aware of the quality of their worship behind him in prayer, as well as their tranquillity and presence therein. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ informed them that he is able to see behind himself just as he is able to from in front which is a miracle bestowed to him by Allah. What is relevant for our purposes here is why the Messenger of Allah ﷺ mentioned himself rather than Allah in reminding the Companions. The Prophet ﷺ could very well have apprised them that Allah is watching you. He – Glory be to Him – knows the states of your hearts and the solemnity by which you pray. However, he ﷺ mentioned himself. Why?
Ibn Hajar al- ʿAsqalani (d. 852 AH/1449 CE) explores this question: “It was asked, what is the wisdom (al-ḥikma) in warning the Companions of deficiency in ṣalāh by informing them that the Prophet ﷺ sees them without warning them of Allah Seeing them — which is the Station of Excellence (al-iḥsān): “Worship Allah as if you see Him and if you do not see Him then know that He sees you”? — so I say in response: The reason that his ﷺ seeing of them is mentioned is as an exhortation (tanbīh) towards Allah’s Seeing of them. For when they perfect their ṣalāh because of the Messenger ﷺ seeing them, that will alert them towards being vigilant of Allah Most High – along with the hadith comprising of a miracle for him ﷺ – and because he ﷺ will be raised as a witness over them on the Day of Judgement, so when they know that he ﷺ sees them, they will perfect their worship so that he ﷺ can be a witness for them on the excellence (ḥusn) of their prayer.” [Fatḥ al-bārī, 3:196]
Observe how the Prophet ﷺ mentioned himself to his Companions. He ﷺ said this to inform them that he is aware of them in their very prayers and so they should be extra diligent in them. The recognition of the Prophet ﷺ being a witness over them was not considered to be in opposition to tawḥīd but it rather elevated the Companions’ presence in ṣalāh. It was the Messenger of Allah ﷺ himself who alerted the Companions to this; establishing that being cognisant or even deliberately reminded of him ﷺ is not considered a flaw in prayer. Otherwise, he ﷺ could have simply reminded the Companions that Allah is Omniscient and All-Knowing.
The awareness of the Prophet ﷺ in ṣalāh as increasing one’s own submission towards Allah is echoed by Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d. 973 AH/1566 CE) when he writes on the tashahhud: “He ﷺ has been directly addressed as if it is an indication (ishāra) that He Most High unveils for him the worshippers from his umma such that he ﷺ is like someone present with them; that he ﷺ may witness for them the most virtuous of their deeds and that the remembrance of his ﷺ presence (ḥuḍūr) is a cause for greater reverence and submission. [Fatḥ al-ilāh, 4:56]
Let us take a look at another narration.
Anas b. Malik, the servant and Companion of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, narrates: “Abu Bakr would lead the Companions in prayer during the Prophet’s ﷺ final illness which ultimately led to his passing away. When it was Monday, and whilst they were stood in rows during the ṣalāh, the Prophet ﷺ unveiled the curtain of his house [which was annexed to the Mosque] and started looking at us whilst he ﷺ was standing; and it was as if his ﷺ face was a page of the Qur’an. Then he ﷺ smiled and laughed, and we were put to test due to sheer elation upon seeing the Prophet ﷺ. Abu Bakr moved back to join the row thinking that the Prophet ﷺ would join the prayer. However, the Prophet ﷺ gestured to us to complete the prayer and drew the curtains. It was on that day that he ﷺ passed away.” [Bukhari 680]
In this hadith, we are told that the Companions were gazing at the radiant countenance of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ whilst in ṣalāh and he ﷺ was also looking at them. Moreover, it was not a fleeting glance, for they looked to the extent that they described it as shining like a page of the Qur’an—unparalleled in beauty. They also noticed his heavenly smile and beautiful laughter and did not immediately look down and focus on Allah. Note that the Prophet ﷺ did not reprimand them either for looking at him ﷺ in prayer. He ﷺ did not say words or gesture by frowning a message to the effect of, “Focus on Allah alone! Do not look at me whilst in ṣalāh! You will be distracted, and Allah-forbid, may even fall into shirk for honouring me in your hearts! It is better for you to think of something uncouth instead!” Far from any censure, the Beloved ﷺ smiled in kindness, further increasing the Companions in joy – to the extent that they wished to break the ṣalāh out of happiness! – and displayed his own delight upon seeing his Companions united in prayer, together as one.
Positioned on the seat of Shaykh al-azhar, Imam al-Bajuri (d. 1276 AH/1860 CE) writes: “The people were close to moving due to the extreme joy thinking that the Prophet ﷺ had become better, such that they intended to break their ṣalāh hoping that he ﷺ would come out and lead them, and so they would make way for him ﷺ to walk towards the miḥrāb. Some were even nudging one another due to their immense jubilation.” [Al-Mawāhib, 647]
The verb used in the hadith is ‘naftatin’ which is derived from the word ‘fitna’ — which is to say, the Companions were faced with a ‘test’ of love whilst in ṣalāh with the beauty of their Beloved ﷺ. Glory be to Allah! Even in ṣalāh, at a time when the Companions were worshipping Him and Him alone, their eyes instinctively turned to rest their eyes upon the Prophet ﷺ whom they had not seen for a while and could not help but be overcome with merriment and sweet bliss. In another narration, they speak of this incredible spectacle: “We had never seen a sight more delightful to us than the noble face of the Prophet ﷺ when it appeared to us!” [Muslim 419]
Recall that this was the day in which the Messenger of Allah ﷺ left this mundane world. If there ever was a time to reproach ‘excessiveness’ – such that his followers turned to look at his honourable presence in ṣalāh itself, at a time when they are worshipping Allah, the Lord of the Worlds – then the Prophet ﷺ would have sternly warned his Companions here. No ambiguity would have been left. Revelation would have been sent cautioning this alleged pull towards shirk. But this did not happen, for it was not the case, and nor is it the case. In truth, he ﷺ waved them on telling them to continue their ṣalāh. One may prima facie assume this was a tacit approval for their actions but in fact, the gesture implies an explicit approval for the soundness of their prayers.
Thus far, we have seen that ṣalāh requires attention. We have also seen that true and sincere presence requires a prior concern or drive that is directed towards the intended objective. Thereafter, it has been established that amongst many meanings, the ṣalāh requires us to be present with the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ; whether implicitly, in that we pray according to the Muhammadan form, or explicitly, when he is mentioned in our recital, or when we convey greetings of peace upon him in the tashahhud, or send salutations upon him and his Family in the final sitting.
Self-evidently, focus upon the Prophet ﷺ is done with complete veneration and total respect. Anybody who says otherwise has committed disbelief. Reverence is not to be equated with worship or the assumption that the one being greatly honoured is believed to possess exclusive qualities of Divinity. It has also become abundantly clear that multiple Spiritual Masters instruct us to deliberately and actively evoke his ﷺ spiritual image in our hearts in ṣalāh. Not a single one mentioned that such purposeful and conscious reverential presence of heart is polytheistic, or that it seizes one towards it, or provocatively asserted that it is far better to engross oneself in the concentration (istighrāq) of crude objects than doing so with the Best of Creation ﷺ. The plethora of quotes from the Sufi Masters should make it clear that any ‘spiritual discourse’ which suggests so is far removed from adab and real taṣawwuf.
There is no objective other than Allah and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is its greatest means.
The Akbarian Chishti Master of the Punjab, Pir Mehr ʿAli Shah (d. 1356 AH/1937 CE) was asked about visualising one’s spiritual guide in ṣalāh. He responded to the query by saying:
It is not possible to resolve this issue with bookish references. The tongue of the Religious Law (sharʿ) is ostensibly silent on explicating [the issue of] visualisation. Upon verification (ʿinda l-taḥqīq), no religious abhorrence is entailed from it, especially when it is a veiled visualisation. Meaning, that after abandoning one’s own individuation, you wear the [image of the] shaykh over yourself like a veil, such that in this scenario the one being individuated [ie. yourself] and the point of individuating the image of the shaykh is that he will be the worshipper (ʿabid) and not the one being worshipped. For this reason, even in juxtaposition, per ﴾Be with the truthful﴿ [Al-Tawba, 9:119], it will be togetherness (maʿiyyat) and companionship, and not [visualised] as a worshipped entity. [Mehr-i munīr, 480]
*Precisely how to worship Allah is something that we cannot know through reason alone, hence why we need Revelation to teach us—that is, even if we can know that God exists with our minds, or are tasked to as per the Maturidi Masters, how to express the incumbent gratitude due to the Creator however is something that we are informed of by His Messengers.
**The Arabic from al-Zabidi reads, “fī-mā taṣarrafa himmatak” which is rendered into Urdu as “ṣarf-e himmat.” [Zabidi, Itḥāf al-sāda, 3:122]
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