Mohamed Helal 253



Meaning of Worship

     The lexical meaning of ‘ibadah (the Arabic word for worship) denotes several facets, amongst which are obedience, submission, and subservience. The technical, or Shari‘abased, terminology has several definitions as well, the most comprehensive of which are subservience and love. The concept of worship, as it relates to God the Almighty, is realized through a marriage of the two characteristics. If one of the two aspects is absent, then worship loses its overarching significance and becomes something other than worship, certainly as it pertains to the Shari‘a based sense of the word. To illustrate, subservience or submission may be attained without love and it is often accompanied by hatred or dislike of the subjugator. Such a relationship between a subjugated and a subjugator cannot be constituted as worship. Similarly, the aspect of love can be realized without subservience or submission, as it is the case between an individual and their friend or child. Neither of the two aspects, for the servant, are singularly enough to constitute worship of God the Almighty. Correspondingly, Ibn Taymiyyah defines worship as the utmost degree of submissiveness to God, accompanied with the utmost degree of love for Him. He makes a point that “neither (quality alone) is sufficient for the worship of God. Rather, for the servant, God should be the most beloved and glorified in the universe. Only God deserves complete love and subservience”.[2]

     This all-encompassing definition of worship is a decisive boundary between worship in its proper context and worship as claimed by some misguided individuals who are content with love, by itself, as an expression and of their relationship with God the Almighty. As it relates to divine decree, specifically that which pertains to obligation and prohibition, these types of individuals consider themselves exempt from being bound by the letter of the law. In doing so, these individuals exclude themselves from the Shari‘aitself. They give full vent to their desires and worldly pleasures to enjoy themselves with all that God has prohibited. The scholars of Islam have declared that this behavior is not only antithetical to Shari‘abut it ultimately pushes a practitioner outside the bounds of Islam and into categories of transgression and disbelief.

The Human Need to Worship

     Worship, as it relates to its rulings in Islamic law or Shari‘ais characterized, amongst other things, by consistency and continuity of the act itself, as well as the way in which it is practiced. Acts of worship are set as cornerstones in Islam, unaffected by the change of time or varying factors of the here and now. Worship, therefore, differs from many other types of legislation that are liable to variation and readily adaptable to changeable institutions in the life of human beings. For example, acts of worship such as prayer, fasting and pilgrimage are constant and have been invariable since the era of the Prophet, peace be upon him, to the present time. Such acts of worship will remain constant, so long as there are Muslims worshipping God on the face of the earth.

     Constancy of worship entails that it meets an invariable and intrinsic need in the center of a person’s heart. It addresses this incessant desire that never subdues, irrespective of an individual’s course of cultural development and scientific advancement. Constant need of individual, social and cultural structure of man is persistence in seeking ‘god’, to whom he belongs, whose help he depends upon, and to whom he resorts in the hope to transcend one’s limited material reality. How else would man become connected with eternity and immortality? We have mentioned above that this sense of belonging is a natural disposition that God has instilled in humankind.

     Man yearning for his Creator is not fulfilled by material philosophies or pagan creeds, which present shackles and constraints that increase one’s bewilderment, paralyzes one’s insight and prevents one from performing their duties in this life. The Qur’an says,

“Do not make up with God another god, for then you will sit reprobated and abandoned.” (Qur’an, 17: 22)

     Belief in God is the only truth that absorbs and meets all man’s potential and yearning in this regard. It is the only source that reassures and gratifies man. It is a human necessity for man to know her/his rightful position in this universe and bear responsibility as God’s vicegerent on earth. The people of sects and legislations have unanimously agreed that tendency to have faith in God is an intrinsic disposition and a natural feeling in man.

     Acts of worship are the practical expression of this instinctive belief. It is the constant provision that keeps faith vital and dynamic. Worship prevents a believer from being away from God, from being materialistic and falling in the trap of this worldly life. Worship presents cleanliness of the soul’s filth and remedy of its diseases, as well as for any deviations from the divine way of life. Worship provides the kind of balance by which one becomes righteous in her/his life, allowing one to distinguish between the finite and infinite, the restricted and absolute and between requirements of a short, mortal life and those of an eternal immortal life.

Worship is an Objective, not a Means

     Worship in Islam is an end sought for its own sake. It is not just a means to a certain end, and once such an end is achieved, worship loses its justifiable reasons and becomes dispensable.

     This deeply-rooted evident principle of worship in Islam refutes the arguments sustained by those who are too haughty to worship God, and those who argue that the only significance of worship in religion is to reform the soul, refine the manners, and purge the heart and conscience. Consequently, once man could reach this level through education and cultivation, another might not be in need of worship at all! This false argument may have been justifiable if acts of worship in Islam had been only intended to purge people of ill conduct. On the contrary, the Ever-Glorious Qur’an articulately states that worship, in itself, is an end for which God has created humankind and jinn. The Qur’an says,

“In no way did I create the jinn and humankind except that they worship Me.” (Qur’an, 51: 56)

     This verse provides a conclusive piece of evidence that worship is in itself meaningful, regardless of the purification effect that it has on the soul and conscience of believers. Therefore, it is not appropriate to say that worship in Islam is a mere means to acquiring virtues, and thus if man could purge his soul through one way or another, s/he is not obliged to be committed to worship. In fact, the first objective of worship is to fulfill the right of God which we are ordained to observe. To declare worship to the Lord of the Universe, and to abide by His commandments regarding His creatures are causes of all acts of worship, including prayers, fasting, Zakat , pilgrimage, Qur’an recitation, remembrance, supplication, asking for forgiveness, adherence to the Shar’iah, and abiding by the rulings of lawful and unlawful actions.

     In a nutshell, the purpose of worship in Islam is to stick to the commandments of God through declaring our servitude and devotion to Him the Almighty, in the way He explicated in His Divine legislations revealed to His prophets.

     Does this imply that worship loses its role in refining manners and educating conscience? Of course, it does not. Although worship is significant in itself, its nature is to cultivate in the worshippers many other effects, such as education, manner refinement, accountability, commitment, self-restraint, patience with hardships, among many other virtues. There is a difference between arguing that refining manners is the cause and the end of worship and arguing that refining manners is one of the fruits that worship bears. The first argument implies that worship is a means to refining manners and that the latter is the end. The relationship between them is that between a means and an end. Once the end is achieved, there is no need for the means.

     The second argument implies that worship is in itself an end and a link that makes a servant closer to God. Performed perfectly, worship is bound to bear its fruits and create piety and fear of God in the heart of the worshipper, since having contact with or being close to God, undoubtedly, purges the soul and guides manners to their highest refined level. There are many Qur’anic verses to that effect. The Qur’an says,

“O you humankind, worship your Lord Who created you and the ones that were before you, that possibly you would be pious.” (Qur’an, 2:21)

The Qur’an also says,

“O you who have believed, prescribed for you is Fasting, as it was prescribed for the ones who were before you, that possibly you would be pious” (Qur’an, 2: 183).

Categories of Acts of Worship

     In terms of its relationship to the servant, acts of worship in Islam are divided into the following categories:

  • Physical acts of worship
  • Financial acts of worship
  • Combined Physical and Financial acts of worship,

1. Physical worship is of two kinds:

A- Those acts of worship which are related to the heart of the servant. They are like faith in and devotion to God, loving Him, loving for His sake, and fearing Him, etc. This kind of worship incorporates all kinds of acts of worship performed by the heart such as contemplation on God’s creatures and wonders, purification of the heart, education of the conscience, purge of the soul and all other inner acts that are performed by the heart and that revolve around having virtues and abandoning vices. There are many Qur’anic verses to that effect. The Qur’an says,

“Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of the night and the daytime there are signs indeed for ones endowed with intellects. The ones who remember God, upright and seated and on their flanks, and meditate upon the creation of the heavens and the earth: ‘Our Lord, in no way have You created this untruthfully. All Extolment be to You! So protect us from the torment of the Fire!’” (Qur’an, 3: 190 – 191)

The Qur’an also says,

“Will they then not contemplate the Qur’an? Or are there locks upon their hearts?” (Qur’an, 47: 24)

B- Those acts of worship which are related to the servant’s body, limbs, and body parts. They are acts of worship performed by the tongue, such as declaring faith in God and His messengers, reciting the Evert-Glorious Qur’an and remembrance of God, enjoining the virtue and forbidding the vice, being gracious in addressing others, abstaining from backbiting, lying, perjury, hurting people, speaking ill of them.

C- Those acts of worship which are related to both hands and legs. They are like prayers’ movements, helping others, giving charity to the poor, walking to the mosques and workplaces, and pursuit of doing good.

D- Those acts of worship which are related to ears and hearing. They are like listening to the Ever-Glorious Qur’an, refraining from hearing calumnies and everything that God forbids.

E- Those acts of worship which are related to eyesight. They are like looking in the Qur’anic text, looking at the Ka’bah, aversion of the sight from prohibited things and abandoning following others’ blemishes. [3]

2. Financial Acts of Worship

     This kind of worship is related to a Muslim’s wealth as it relates to its acquisition and spending. Such acts of worship include paying the obligatory Zakat , lending money, paying charity, avoiding usury, abstaining from exploiting others, greed, and accumulation of wealth. It also includes observing adequate expenditure on family and others who are needy and deprived. Those financial acts of worship also incorporate the rulings for selling, purchasing and other kinds of commercial transactions explained in jurisprudence books in chapters on “sales”.

3. Combined Physical and Financial Acts of Worship

     Inclusive as they are, these acts of worship are related to both body and wealth. Examples of such acts of worship are Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and Jihad (fighting in the cause of God). Based on devoting intention for the sake of God, Hajj is considered a physical act of worship relating to the believer’s heart. Focusing on its actions, rituals, and observances such as circumambulation around the Ka’bah, hastening between Safa and Marwa, throwing stones at posts representing the Devil, and attending Arafat mount, Hajj is then a physical act of worship related to the body parts. Taking the expenses of animal sacrifice and charity into consideration, Hajj is considered a financial worship.

     Jihad is also an act of worship, some parts of which, namely good intention, fighting and travel are related to both the heart and the body; whereas some other parts of Hajj, such as spending money are naturally related to wealth.

Classification of Acts of Worship

First: Common Acts of Worship

     Any act done by a Muslim is generally considered an act of worship, under the conditions that it is performed with the intention of its being for the sake of God the Almighty, and that one seeks the fulfillment of its legitimate objectives and ends. A Muslim can transform any action in everyday life situations into unlimited patterns of worshipping God, seeking His pleasure and drawing near to Him.

     Establishing the meaning of worship, Islam does not distinguish religious acts of worship as prayers, fasting, Hajj, and Zakat from worldly acts of worship, once they are accompanied by good intention and seeking benefit for oneself and others. Within this framework, any permissible action develops into an act of worship, deserving reward from God. The Qur’an says,

“It is not benignancy that you turn your faces around in the direction of East and West; but benignancy is in the one who believes in God, the Last Day, the Angels, the Book, and the Prophets; and brings wealth in spite of need for it or offers it out of love for Him to near kinsmen, orphans, indigents, wayfarers, and beggars; it is to ransom the necks of captives or slaves, keep up the prayers, and pay the Zakat ; it is also in those who fulfill their covenant when they have covenanted, the patient ones in misery and tribulation, and while in violence and those who act sincerely during fighting; those are the pious ones.” (Qur’an, 2: 177).

     God's Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him, says, “There is a compulsory sadaqah (charity) to be given for every joint of the human body (as a sign of gratitude to God) every day when the sun rises. To judge justly between two persons is regarded as sadaqah, and to help someone ride an animal or lift his luggage on to it is also regarded as sadaqah; (saying) a good word is also sadaqah; every step taken on one's way to offer the compulsory prayers (in the mosque) is also sadaqa and to remove a harmful object from the road is also an act of sadaqa.[4]

     God's Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him, says, “How wonderful is the case of a believer! There is good for him in everything; and this applies only to a believer. If prosperity attends one, s/he expresses gratitude to God and that is good; if adversity befalls one, s/he endures it patiently and that is good too.”[5]

Second: Purely Religious Acts of Worship

It is “the religious acts that are ordained purely for worship, that is, for showing submission to God and commitment to His decrees. This kind of worship is the most well-known to all people. It is also known as worship in all other religions.”[6] Special worship has several types given in the Ever-Glorious Qur’an and explicated by the Honored Sunnah (Tradition of the Prophet Muhammad). The following are some of these cases.

1- Remembering God and Reflecting On His Creatures

2- Reciting the Ever-Glorious Qur’an

3- Supplication

4- Prayers

5- Poor’s Due Money (Zakat)

6- Fasting

7- Pilgrimage


Characteristics of Worship in Islam

1- Worship is for God Only

     Since worship is the highest degree of glorification and submission, it is deserved only by God. The Qur’an says:

“Your Lord has decreed that you should not worship any except Him.” (Qur’an, 17: 23)

“In no way were they commanded to worship anyone except One God; there is no god except He; all extolment be to Him. He is above whatever they associate with Him.” (Qur’an, 9:31)

     Directing worship exclusively to God the almighty entails prohibiting shirk, i.e. associating other gods with the True God, which is deemed the gravest kind of injustice and an act of going astray. The Qur’an says,

“Surely associating others with God is indeed great injustice.” (Qur’an, 31: 13)

     However heinous they are, sins may be forgiven by God. The only sin that God never forgives is shirk. The Qur’an says,

“Surely God does not forgive that anything be with Him associated; and anything apart from that He forgives to whomever He wishes. Whoever associates anyone with God, then s/he has fallen into deep error.” (Qur’an, 4: 116)

     Furthermore, God does not accept any act of worship from a polytheist. The Qur’an says,

“Indeed in case you associate other gods with God, indeed your deeds will definitely be nullified and indeed you will definitely be among the losers.” (Qur’an, 39: 65)

“Whoever associates with God anything, then it is as though s/he had collapsed from the heaven, so the birds snatch her/him away or the wind sweeps down with her/him into a far-off place.” (Qur’an, 22: 31)

     Therefore, Islam prohibits any action that can be understood to suggest worshipping humans. It also refuses any behavior that can lead to associating the worship of God with that of others. However, we should not be confused by similarities between worship-related terms, such as dependence on God, supplication, and forgiving sins, on the one hand and other terms such as love, obedience and responding to needs, on the other. The Qur’an says:

“O, you who have believed, respond to God and to the Messenger when he calls you to that which enlivens you.” (Qur’an, 8: 24)

“O, you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger, and the ones endowed with the command (i.e. those in power) among you.” (Qur’an, 4: 59)

     Istighfaar (asking for forgiveness) is an Arabic term that may perplex some laymen who could not differentiate between ghafara “to forgive” and istaghfara “to ask for forgiveness”. The Arabic verbs ghafara and yaghfir “forgave”, “to forgive” respectively, must be ascribed to God as the agent of these verbs. Istighfaar means to ask God for forgiveness. One can ask God to forgive oneself or to forgive others. We can ask a righteous person to pray to God for us, and to ask Him to forgive us. This is obvious in the following verses:

“I will soon ask my Lord to forgive you.” (Qur’an, 19: 47)

“They had come to you and asked forgiveness from God, and the Messenger asked forgiveness for them.” (Qur’an, 4: 64)

2- Worshipping God is Only through the Way He Specifies

     One of the characteristics of worship in Islam is that it is a divine, devotional matter. In its patterns, aspects and manifestations, worship is dependent on the way that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) transmitted from his Lord. Regarding prayers, he (PBUH) says, “Offer your prayers in the way you have seen me offering my prayers”.[7]

As far as Hajj is concerned, the Prophet (PBUH) says. “Learn your rituals and observances from me.”[8]

     The Prophet (PBUH) warns of change and innovation in worship, either by addition or by subtraction. He says, “If anybody introduces a practice which is not authenticated by me, it is to be rejected."[9] It is contended that no Muslim scholar, however eminent in Islamic disciplines has the right to innovate a new act of worship in the religion of God. No one is entitled to add anything to an old act of worship. We cannot change the way in which an act of worship was performed during the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH). God alone is the source of worship; the Prophet is the one who has conveyed these acts of worship from God to people; we are only worshippers.

     In Islam, any form of religious innovation is forbidden and disapproved due to its consequences that can, with the passage of time, cause some variations or differences in worship patterns among Muslims, and can eventually lead to disagreement among Muslims themselves. Thus, some jurists disapprove observing, habitually and consistently, some innovated good deeds, such as continual fast of six days of Shawwal, lest people should think, with the passage of time, that this fasting was obligatory and that those six days complemented the month of fasting, Ramadan.. As long as worship acts are divine, they should not be associated with certain causes or ends. In other words, wudu’ (ablution), for example, should not be considered justifiable due to cleanliness, or prayer’s obligation be attributed to its physical fitness effect, or fasting to its health benefits. However true, all such benefits and effects are not in themselves the reason behind ordaining any act of worship. We perform those acts of worship to demonstrate our compliance with God’s commandments, submission to Him, and fulfillment of His ordainments. We perform acts of worship to declare our subservience and humility to Him, as He is the Sovereign Ruler.[10]

3- There is no Intermediation in Worship

     Islam does not have a theological or priesthood system, i.e. it is unlike some other religions that have a religious class that claims to have the right to intercede between man and God. Islam does not have clergymen in the literal sense of the word. Rather, it only has a group of scholars and jurists who acquire their status and respect through mastering their specific areas of study. Islam appreciates the value of knowledge and the status of scholars. It gives them due homage and credit. However, it does not ascribe any form of sacredness or holiness to them. It does not consider them a certain group entitled with any divine or spiritual authority. It esteems them within the framework of knowledge and education of Shari‘a rulings. Scholars are subject to the criteria of right and wrong in opinion and legal reasoning in the same way as laymen are.

     To Islam, the function of the prophets and messengers is to convey and explain to people what God has revealed to them. Never has it been known that the prophets or messengers ascribed to themselves any special role by which they perform the job of intermediation between man and his Lord. The Qur’an says,

“Say, ‘I do not possess any benefit or harm for myself except that which God wishes; had I known the Unseen, I would indeed have gained plenty of the most charitable things, and in no way would odious times then have touched me. Decidedly I am nothing except a constant warner and bearer of good tidings to people who believe.” (Qur’an, 7: 188)

     Bearing this view in mind, a Muslim turns to his Lord directly without intermediaries. Whatever degree of piety, devotion or closeness to God a human being might have, s/he cannot intermediate between one’s fellow humans and their Lord.

4- The Criterion of Worship is Purpose and Intention

     The meaning of worship cannot be achieved only by taking into consideration its external form or manifestation. The external form of worship should be equal to and parallel with its internal make-up. Otherwise, worship turns into a hollow spiritless act. It is true that if one performs worship in its external form, they are considered to have fulfilled that act of worship and is thus not under any obligation.

     However, acts of worship do not bear their desired fruits unless they are wholeheartedly performed by the worshipper and touch one’s heart in a way that is internally sensed. The first quality that the Ever-Glorious Qur’an ascribes to the believers is that they are submissive in their prayers. (Qur’an, 23: 2) Similarly, submission is the real asset of sacrificing animals for the sake of God. The Qur’an says about those sacrificed animals,

“Their meats will never reach to God; nor will their blood; but piety from you will reach Him” (Qur’an, 22: 37).

     Directing intention in worship to God alone and a feeling of submission to Him is of great significance. If devoid of intention and submission, acts of worship turn into fruitless efforts. Prayers without submission are pointless movements that do not provide any trace of conduct refinement. Likewise, if remembrance of God is a mere senseless tongue movement, it becomes a futile murmuring. In short, the desired fruits of worship acts are wasted once those acts are devoid of good intention or submission.

5- Easing and Removing Difficulties

     Worship in Islam is characterized by easing things and removing difficulties that may face al-mukallaf (i.e. an adult person who is eligible to fulfill God’s commandments). The Ever-Glorious Qur’an makes clearly the point that God the Almighty does not burden people with more than what they can bear. The Qur’an says,

“God does not charge any one to do anything except within capacity.” (Qur’an, 2:286)

God wants ease for people and He relieves them of any overbearing difficulty; the Qur’an says:


“God wills for you ease, and He does not will difficulty for you.” (2: 185)

“God wills to lighten things for you, as man was created weak.” (Qur’an, 4: 28)

     One of the most prominent attributes of the Prophet (PBUH) is the fact that “whenever he was given a choice between two matters, he would always choose the easier of the two, so long as it was not sinful to do so; but if it was sinful, he was most strict in avoiding it”. [11]

The Prophet (PBUH) also says, “The religion (of Islam) is easy, and whoever makes the religion rigor, it will overpower her/him. So, follow a middle course in worship”.[12] The Prophet (PBUH) criticized extremists and invoked destruction for them, since they deprive Islam of its merits and deviate from the way God has chosen for it, that is ease and alleviation. Al-Ahnaf Ibn Qays reported that Abdullah reported God's Messenger as saying, “Ruined were those who went to extremes and indulged in hair-splitting. The Prophet (PBUH) repeated this thrice.”[13] The Prophet also says, “Don't take upon yourselves except the deeds which are within your ability.”[14]

     Some manifestations of enjoining ease in worship for Muslims involve a legitimate license of permitting alternatives of difficult acts of worship, to suit various occasions, circumstances, and cases. A traveler has the right to break her/his fast, and to shorten and combine prayers; a pregnant or nursing woman may break her fast. A disabled person, who cannot stand in prayers, can sit down while praying. A person who is vulnerable to diseases if s/he uses water for ablution may resort to dry ablution by using clean sand or earth. There are many other examples of legitimate licenses that ease difficult acts of worship; these are explicated by juristic schools and explained in detail in books of jurisprudence.

[1] Prof. Aḥmad Muḥammad Aṭ-Ṭayyeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, “Essential Features of Islam”, Al-Azhar Center for Translation (ACT), 2017, p. 107.

[2] Ibn Taymiyyah (1400 A.H.) Al-‘Ubudiyyatu fi l-‘Islam. Cairo: Al-Matba’atu S-salafiyyah, p. 6

[3] Al-Bayanuni (1984): Al-‘Ibadah. Cairo: Dar us-Salam, pp. 49 – 40.

[4] Saheeh ul-Bukhari, vol. 4, Book 52, Number 232. It is narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayrah.

[5] Saheeh Muslim, 8: 277.

[6] Al-Mubarak, 1981: 171.

[7] Al-Bukhari, Book 78, Hadith 39.

[8] An-Nasa'i, Sunan, 3062, 3: 24, Hadith 3064.

[9] Al-Bukhari, Book 1, Hadith 169.

[10] Al-Mubarak, pp. 187 – 188

[11] Al-Bukhari, Book 1, Hadith 641.

[12] Al-Bukhari, Book 1, Hadith 145.

[13] Muslim, Book 47, Hadith no. 1.

[14] Al-Bukhari, Book 81, Hadith 54.



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