Worship and Devotional Life: Muslim Worship

views updated


The nature of Muslim devotional life in Islam is rooted in its basic theological presuppositions. The three primary fundamentals of religion (uūl al-dīn ) are tawīd (belief in the unity of God), nubūwah (belief in prophets), and qiyāmah (belief in the Day of Judgment). The acceptance of these three beliefs is required of all Muslims. Collectively, they constitute the essence of the Islamic worldview.

Tawīd is the core concept of Islam. The sovereignty of a monotheistic God, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and simultaneously transcendent and immanent, is Islam's definitive tenet. For Muslims there is one and only one true God, who is identical with the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. The necessity of obedience to God's will is thus the foundation for all devotion in Islam. Every human being should aspire to live as a servant (ʿabd) of God. For this reason, the required ritual acts of worship are referred to collectively as ʿibādah, which can be translated as either "worship" or "service." According to the concept of nubūwah, God communicates through prophets (nabīs ) and messengers (rasūls ). Thus, human agency is essential to the process of revelation. The centrality of this concept can be seen in the fact that the first human being, Adam, is also the first prophet, as humanity should never be without divine guidance. It is through the prophets in their roles as messengers and models of behavior, especially the final prophet, Muammad, that humanity learns how to live in obedience to God's will. Devotional life in Islam rests simultaneously upon the worship of and obedience to God, and allegiance to and veneration of the Prophet Muammad, who serves both as a teacher and an exemplar.

The doctrine of qiyāmah asserts that there will come a time when all human beings will be judged according to their beliefs and actions. Thus, whether interpreted literally or figuratively, qiyāmah asserts that human beings are fully responsible before God for their actions. Despite the apparent logical contradiction between an omniscient and omnipotent God and human free will, Islam clearly asserts that, however this contradiction is resolved, individuals must act as if they had free will and fulfill their ritual and ethical obligations with clear intention.

Within this theological context, acts of devotion and worship serve two interrelated purposes. The first is as the fulfillment of God's commandments. As such, they are evidence of obedience to God in preparation for the Day of Judgment. But devotional actions also serve to transform the worshipper, bringing him or her into greater conformity with the divine will. Devotion in Islam is not simply an end in itself; it is also a means for facilitating proper ethical behavior. God calls on humanity not only to follow commands related to the proper performance of ritual, but also to live lives devoted to justice (ʿadl) and ethical behavior (akhlāq ). One who lives his life in the constant remembrance of God will develop the virtue of ihsān (beneficence) and become a more perfect human being. Devotional actions within Islam are thus simultaneously evidence of obedience to God and mechanisms for the spiritual education of believers.


The most obvious form of worship and devotion within Islam are those actions commonly referred to as "the Five Pillars of Islam." These are: the confession of faith (shahādah ), ritual prayer (alāt, or namāz ), the fast (awm ) during the month of Ramaān, the ajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and the paying of alms to the needy (zakāt ). These are the minimal required devotional practices of exoteric Islam. Collectively, they are referred to as ʿibādah because they indicate and affirm the worshipper's status as a servant (ʿabd) before God. All of these actions require the worshipper to first make an intention to perform them (nīyah ), thus affirming the doctrine of human responsibility inherent in the doctrine of qiyāmah. All of the actions of the ʿibādah result in thawāb, or spiritual benefit, for the worshipper.

It is through the recitation of the Shahādahalso called the kalimah, or word of beliefthat one becomes a Muslim. The Shahādah contains two declarations, which must be recited publicly in Arabic. The first, "ashhadu an lā ilāha illā Allāh " (I bear witness that there is no god but God), is an affirmation of tawīd. The second, "ashhadu an Muammadan rasūl Allāh " (I bear witness that Muammad is the Messenger of God), is an affirmation of nubūwah. This public recognition of the unity of God and the spiritual authority of Muammad, made with proper intention, is sufficient to make one a member of the Muslim community.


is the daily ritual prayer. Many Muslims consider prayer to be the most important of all Islamic devotional actions. Each prayer consists of a sequence of prescribed actions coupled with the recitation of devotional phrases in Arabic and short sūrahs from the Qurʾān. Each of these sequences is referred to as a rakʾah. Sunnī Muslims are required to pray five times a dayafter dawn, at noon, in the afternoon, at sunset, and in the evening. Each of these prayers consists of between two and four rakʾahs. Twelver Shīʿī Muslims pray the same number of rakʾahs each day but combine their prayers into three sessions. The fact that prayer punctuates the day at regular intervals affirms the importance of the Qurʾanic concept of dhikr, or the remembrance of God. Generally, within Islam the root of human disobedience and sin is seen as forgetfulness. Prayer at regular intervals encourages Muslims constantly to remember the presence of God.

The time of each prayer is announced by the adhān or "call to prayer." Each adhān is recited in Arabic and includes declaration of the Shahādah and the takbīr the affirmation that "God is Greater" (Allāhu akbar). Recited by the muʾadhdhin publicly from a minaret, the sound of the adhān has become one of the defining characteristics of living in a Muslim environment.

As with all acts of ʿibādah, the act of prayer begins with the making of proper intention or nīyah. This is followed by wuūʾ, or ablutions, as one must approach God in a state of physical purity. One prays facing in the direction of the Kaʿbah in the holy city of Mecca. This directional focus is called the qiblah. Within a mosque, the qiblah is marked by a niche called the mirāb. Thus, Muslims in communal prayer throughout the world stand in straight lines, except in the sacred precinct surrounding the Kaʿbah itself, where it becomes apparent that Muslims in prayer are actually arranged in concentric circles facing the Kaʿbah and each other.

The act of alāt in Islam is a physical performance. Worshippers use their bodies and their voices to physically express obedience to God. The performance of prayer calls for the worshipper to engage in a series of postures culminating in complete prostration as physical evidence of submission and obedience to God. The language used in alāt is not the vernacular of the individual worshipper but rather the Qurʾanic Arabic of the time of the Prophet. In performing alāt individual believers repeat actions initially performed by the Prophet Muammad. Whenever Muslims engage in prayer they form a chain of piety back to the very origins of Islam and affirm a single ritual community with all other Muslims both spatially and temporally. It is an affirmation of tawīd and nubūwah, which links together all Muslims into a common devotional community.

Prayer can be either individual or communal. On Fridays the congregational prayer may take place in a special building called a masjid, literally a "place of prostration." Prayers are said behind an īmām khaīb, who stands at the mirāb and leads the community through the actions of the alāt. At these Friday prayers the īmām khaīb delivers a sermon called a khubah, which generally takes the form of a commentary on a Qurʾān verse, exhorting believers to lead more devout and ethical lives. It should be noted that the khubah can also be used for political purposes. For this reason, Muslim rulers have generally attempted to maintain a degree of control over the content of the khubah.

Along with the five daily prayers and the Friday congregational prayer, there are special prayers associated with religious holidays and funerals. There are also prescribed superogatory prayers, which, while not required, are recommended and can be performed at other times of the day. Finally it should be noted that alāt, the ritual prayer in Arabic, is not the only form of prayer in Islam. While the term duʿāhamza has a variety of meanings, it most commonly refers to personal prayer recited in one's own language. The saying of duʿāhamza is an essential aspect of piety of Islam, which affirms the personal relationship of individual believers with God.

While literalist traditions within Islam have seen the act of alāt as the simple fulfillment of a divine command, Muslim mystics and esoteric interpreters have noted that there are both exoteric (āhirī ) and an esoteric (bāinī ) dimensions to alāt. For them, prayer is a mystery that imprints upon the bodies and the souls of worshippers and assists in their spiritual transformation.

RamaĀn and ZakĀt

Muslims fast during the lunar month of Ramaān, abstaining from food, drink, and sexual intimacy from sunrise until sunset. They should also attempt to avoid negative and hostile emotions. The fast is incumbent upon all adult Muslims, although the sick, the aged, pregnant and nursing women, and travelers are exempt from its demands. The Ramaān fast acts to remind believers of their dependence upon God and affirms their servitude before the divine will. According to some Muslim commentators, it also helps to build an attitude of self-discipline and patience (abr ) and nurtures a sense of empathy and compassion for the sufferings of the poor.

The fast has both individual and social dimensions, as individual believers experience the fast in the context of community. Families tend to wake collectively to prepare breakfast before sunrise. The breaking of the fast at sunset, called ifār, is the occasion for shared meals with family and friends. It is not unusual for people to gather in the evening to listen to recitations of the Qurʾān. The Qurʾān is, in fact, traditionally divided into thirty equal portions, each called a juzʾ, so that the entire text may be recited over the month-long period of the fast. The end of the Ramaān fast is marked by the festival of ʿĪd al-Fir. This is a day for giving charity, exchanging gifts and cards, and visiting one's friends and relatives. The sense of a shared ritual duty helps to create the sense of a single community bound by common practice and belief.

Zakāt refers to the payment of a percentage of one's wealth as alms to the poor. The giving of zakāt may appear to be an ethical rather than a devotional act. It is, however, almost always mentioned in the Qurʾān in tandem with alāt. The giving of zakāt cleanses one's wealth and renders it legitimate. The giving of zakāt, like alāt and awm, affirms the notion that humans are not autonomous beings but rather servants of God. One's wealth is in fact only an amānat (trust) from God, who is the real owner. Therefore, while almsgiving is an ethical action designed to support the community, it is also an affirmation of tawīd.

The ajj

At least once in a lifetime Muslims should, if possible, make the pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of Dhū al ijjah to perform the rites of the ajj. There is a lesser pilgrimage called the ʿumrah, which can take place any time, from which a believer also gains thawāb ; but it is the collective and communal action of the ajj that is required (wājib ) by Islamic law.

In no other ritual context are the doctrines of tawīd, nubūwah, and qiyāmah so clearly apparent. The ajj takes place in the city of Mecca and its environs, where the religion of Islam was born. Having faced all of their lives in the direction of the Kaʿbah for prayer, worshippers now travel to the site of the qiblah. Here they encounter the structure containing the room that once housed the polytheistic deities of the Arabs, until cleansed of them by the Prophet Muammad and left empty to symbolize the unity of Godthe essential symbol of tawīd. The most common image associated with the ajj is the circumambulation of the Kaʿbah, called the awāf. As they circle the Kaʿbah seven times, each pilgrim recites the talbiyah, proclaiming in Arabic, "Here I am. O my Lord, Here I am."

However, the central act of the ajj takes place on the ninth day of Dhū al-ijjah at the Mount of Mercy, on the plain of ʿArafāt, where the Prophet delivered his farewell sermon. This event is called the wuqūf (standing). Having previously entered into a state of ritual sanctity known as irām, the pilgrims stand draped only in two seamless pieces of white cloth. Dressed identically, all traces of worldly hierarchy are eradicated and each stands equally before God, awaiting divine mercy. This action is not only an affirmation of tawīd ; it is also an evocation of the qiyāmah, when all believers will stand at their graves dressed in their funeral shrouds to await the judgment of God.

The events of the ajj are also evocative of nubūwah. Because Mecca is the birthplace of Muammad, wherever one looks one is confronted with the remembrance of the Prophet. Although it is not technically part of the ajj, most pilgrims travel to the city of Medina to visit his tomb. Elements of the ajj also evoke the memory of other prophets as well, especially Ibrāhīm. Near to the Kaʿbah is the maqām of Ibrāhīm, where he stood to lay its cornerstone. The well of Zamzam marks the place where Hagar and Ismāʿīl were rescued from thirst by the angel Jibrīl, who struck the earth with his wing to bring forth water.

On the tenth day of Dhū al-ijjah, pilgrims sacrifice an animal in memory of Ibrāhīm's sacrifice. This is the feast of ʿĪd al-Aā, the second major festival in Islam after ʿĪd al-Fir. On this day Muslims throughout the world make their own sacrifices, sharing the meat with their own families and giving a portion to the poor.

The QurʾĀn as an Object of Devotion within Islam

Devotional piety within Islam is not restricted to the ʿibādah. For example, the veneration of the Qurʾān is a ubiquitous form of piety. As the concrete presence of the word of God the Qurʾān is not only a source of knowledge, it is also a focus of devotion and veneration. As God's word it must be treated with respect. One should not handle it while in a state of ritual impurity. It is a violation of religious etiquette to place anything else, even another book, upon the Qurʾān. Devout Muslims wrap the Qurʾān in silk and store it as the highest object in the room. The recitation of the Qurʾān is an act of piety; professional reciters of the Qurʾān are considered great artists, whose recordings are popular throughout the Muslim world.

Phrases from the Qurʾān are used in numerous formulaic ways throughout the day. For example, the opening sūrah, al-Fātiah, is recited on numerous occasions, such as when visiting the tombs of ūfī saints. Pious Muslims will often evoke the phrase bismillāh (in the name of God) before initiating any activityespecially at the beginning of a journey. One should not speak of future actions without saying inshāʾallāh (God willing), affirming thereby that only God is the true author and knower of future events. The evocation of God's word is, in a very real sense, the evocation of God, and as such it facilitates dhikr. Such actions are thus invocations of tawīd.

Vernacular Traditions within Islam

Because Arabic is the language of the Qurʾān, and because alāt is performed in Arabic, Islam's rich vernacular devotional traditions are often overlooked. In the South Asian musical tradition of qawwālī, the Prophet Muammad and ūfī saints are praised in Urdu and Panjabi. The Shīʿī tradition has produced moving poetry of mourning for Imām usayn in Urdu and Persian called marsiyeh. The Ismāʿīlī tradition includes the recitation of devotional poetry called gināns. There is a rich tradition of devotional poetry in Swahili connected with the birthday of the Prophet. Among the Alevis of Anatolia there is a profound musical tradition called nefes in which songs about the Twelve Imāms and the great pir Haci Bektash Veli are sung in Turkish to the accompaniment of the saz. While ʿibādah provides evidence of the unity underlying the world of Islam, these vernacular practices are examples of its rich diversity. Much of this vernacular literature is connected with that aspect of Islamic piety that involves devotional allegiance to persons.

The piety of devotional allegiance

Many of the most popular forms of Muslim devotion are those associated with devotional allegiance to holy persons, especially the Prophet Muammad. The person of the Prophet is as important as the Qurʾān in Islamic piety. As one Shīʿī scholar has pointed out, when the earliest Muslims accepted Islam there were only a few verses of the Qurʾān. At that time the fundamental action of accepting Islam was to give allegiance to the Prophet. This is the root of the piety of devotional allegiance.

Certain radical reform movements within Islam, most notably Wahabism, have been critical of devotion to the Prophet, seeing it as a form of shirk (associating partners with God). But for most Muslims, devotion to Muammad follows instinctively from their love for God. If all Muslims should love God, what better expression of that love can there be than to love the one whom God loves best? And that person is Muammad, who bears the title abībullah, the beloved of God.

There are a variety of expressions of devotion to Muammad. In many places the birthday of the Prophet is celebrated as a holiday (ʿĪd Mīlād al-Nabī), with special vernacular poetry recited for the occasion. Naʻt, the a cappella recitation of devotional verse about the Prophet Muammad in Arabic and vernacular languages, is especially popular in South Asia. Another important form of devotion to the Prophet is the recitation of durūd, the formulaic blessing of the Prophet recited in Arabic. Muslims often recite durūd in conjunction with pilgrimage (ziyārat ) to the tomb of the Prophet or ūfī saints. It is commonly believed that if one recites durūd at the tomb of the Prophet in Mecca he will actually hear it. The recitation of durūd is also thought to produce spiritual effects, such as the appearance of the Prophet to the devotee in a dream.

One of the central beliefs associated with this concept of devotional allegiance is the belief in the continuing spiritual existence of the Prophet Muammad. Although the Prophet died a physical death like any other human being, most Muslims believe that he is still available to his devotees as a spiritual presence. He is said to be "present and watching" (hār-o nāir ). Despite the fact that radical groups like the Wahabis firmly reject this notion, its supporters point to adīths that state that the Prophet is a manifestation of a preexistent lightthe prophetic nūr. Thus the Prophet is not merely a model of behavior, he is also an object of veneration.

Devotional allegiance in Shīʿī Islam

For many Muslims the piety of devotional allegiance extends beyond the person of the Prophet Muammad to include those who are identified as his legitimate representatives and successors. Once again, if one is to love the Prophet, should one not express that love by loving those whom he loved? Within Shīʿīsm this love focuses on the ahl al-bayt (the family of the Prophet; literally, "the people of the house") especially the Shīʿī imāms. The first imām, ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, Muammad's cousin and son-in-law, is especially venerated. He is identified as Mushkil Kusha, the remover of obstacles. It is not uncommon in Asia for MuslimsSunnīs as well as Shīʿahto say "Ya ʿAlī Madad" ("Oh ʿAlī, help me") when attempting a difficult task. Not only is the tomb of ʿAlī in Najaf in Iraq a center of pilgrimage, but his purported tomb in Mazār-I Sharīf in southern Afghanistan is also a major pilgrimage site for Muslims.

The Prophet's grandson, Imām usayn, also has a major role in Shīʿī devotional life. As the martyr of Karbalāʾ, killed by the Caliph Yazīd on the tenth of the lunar month of Muarram, he has a special place in the hearts of Shīʿī Muslims. While the Shīʿah believe that all the imāms share in the same spiritual light, Imām usayn was the last of the immediate ahl al-bayt who lived with the Prophet in Medina. This immediate familyconsisting of Muammad, his daughter Fāimah, her husband ʿAlī, and their two children, asan and usaynare often represented iconographically by the image of a five-fingered hand. In South Asia these five persons are venerated as "the five pure ones" (panjatan pāk ). As the final surviving grandson of the Prophet, usayn's murder is an axial event and has deep spiritual significance.

During the first ten days of Muarram, Shīʿī Muslims enter into a state of ritual mourning. People dress in black and recite mournful poetry. They also gather in mourning assemblies to hear the retelling of the story of Karbalāʾ. It is commonly believed that Fāimah attends these assemblies and gathers the tears of the mourners to present them before God on the Day of Judgment. The day of ʿĀshūrāʾ on the tenth of Muarram is a particularly fervent day of devotional activity, when the community gathers to mourn and share food.

The precise nature of mourning for Imām usayn varies from region to region. In Iran there are stylized taʻziyah plays, which depict the events of Karbalāʾ. In South Asia there are processions culminating in ritual funerals for the imām. But for Shīʿī Muslims everywhere, participation in these events is a crucial marker of religious identity. There is a famous aphorism: "Every day is ʿĀshūrāʾ, every place is Karbalāʾ." The events of Karbala are not seen as mere historical events. Beneath the appearances of ordinary reality the eternal struggle between "Good and Evil" that took place paradigmatically at Karbalāʾ is always reoccurring. Humanity is always being asked to choose between the path of Imām usayn and the path of Yazīd, the path of light and the path of darkness. The ritual recreation of the events of Karbalāʾ during the month of Muarram is a way of preparing for participation in the eternal spiritual struggle between "Good and Evil."

It should be noted that devotion to ʿAlī and his descendants extends into the Sunnī community as well. For example, the day of ʿĀshūrāʾ is commemorated by many Sunnīs. More importantly, the great majority of Sunnīs who accept the validity of the ūfī tradition accept ʿAli as the master of the esoteric sciences. He is venerated as Shāh-i Awliyāʾ (King of the Saints). Within the ūfī traditions, devotional allegiance extends to include the various awliyāʾ (sing. walī ; saints) of the Islamic mystical traditions. Like the Prophet, they are simultaneously models of behavior and objects of devotion; and, as with the Prophet, people seek their intercession. Within the worldview of Sufism it is believed that the awliyāʾ, who trace their spiritual lineage back to the Prophet through a chain of spiritual transmission, have achieved a state of annihilation in God. For those who practice it, devotion to the awliyāʾ is intimately connected to notions of tawīd and nubūwah.

Devotion to ūfī saints takes a variety of forms. Some people visit living saints to formally become their disciples (murīds ) on the ūfī path (arīqah ). Those on this path practice specific devotional exercises. Chief among these is dhikr, which involves the individual or collective repetition of the names of God in order to produce an altered state of consciousness called āl or wajd. But many people visit the awliyāʾ simply to seek their blessing or to request some material benefit, such as the birth of sons, better jobs, or successful marriages.

More common than visitation to living spiritual masters is pilgrimage (ziyārat ) to the tombs of deceased awliyāʾ. The gravesites of important ūfīs have, over time, become the locations of major tomb complexes. Such ziyārats are found in nearly every corner of the Islamic world. The tombs of such major figures as Amad Yasavī in Central Asia, Amad al-Badawī in North Africa, Muʿīn al-Dīn Chishtī in India, and Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī in Anatolia are not only local but regional and even international centers of pilgrimage. It is commonly believed that, like the Prophet, the awliyāʾ continue to exist as spiritual presences at their tombs. As with visits to living awliyāʾ, pilgrims come to seek both spiritual and material blessings. Pilgrims may make vows in connection with their requests, which they later fulfill by performing pious action. ūfī shrines have thus become centers for the feeding of the poor, as pilgrims often fulfill their vows by feeding the less fortunate.

There is a general air of piety and devotion within the precincts of a ūfī tomb. The awliyāʾ are the true rulers of this world, and one approaches them as one does a monarch, with humility and respect. There is thus a proper etiquette (adab ) for interacting with the awliyāʾ, whether as living masters or at their tombs.

In many parts of the world the death or birth anniversary of the awliyāʾ is celebrated with religious festivals that at first glance may seem to conflict with the piety inherent in ziyārat. In South Asia, for example, these celebrations, called ʿurs, include fairs (melas ) and carnival attractions, as well as pious devotions. Not surprisingly, aspects of these manifestations of the piety of devotional allegiance are frequently attacked by Muslim reformers, who see in them, at the very least, a form of popular innovation, and at the worst a kind of shirk that violates tawīd. Defenders of these traditions, however, have argued that those who take part in these popular expressions of piety are ultimately expressing their devotion to God and his Prophet. As such, their actions are within the proper purview of Islamic piety.

See Also

Attributes of God, article on Islamic Concepts; Dhikr; God, article on God in Islam; Islamic Religious Year; Kaʿbah; Pilgrimage, article on Muslim Pilgrimage; awm; Shahādah.


Calverley, Edwin Eliot, trans. and ed. Worship in Islam (1925). 2d ed. London, 1957. Reprint, Westport, Conn., 1981. Translation of the Book of Worship from the great Sunnī scholar and proponent of Sufism al-Ghazzālī's Iyaʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, an important book dealing with the esoteric dimension of ʿibādah. Al-Ghazzālī's book has been widely translated and remains popular in the Muslim world.

Cragg, Kenneth, and R. Marston Speight, eds. Islam from Within: Anthology of a Religion. Belmont, Calif., 1980. A useful anthology of Islamic sources containing a variety of important texts on devotion and worship.

Currie, P. M. The Shrine and Cult of Muʿīn al-Dīn Chishtī of Ajmer. Delhi, 1989. This book provides fascinating insight into the role of the awliyāʾ and pilgrimage to their tombs in Islamic piety.

Denny, Frederick Mathewsen. An Introduction to Islam. 2d ed. New York, 1994. Although this is a textbook it provides detailed and accurate descriptions of ʿibādah.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, vol. 1, The Classical Age of Islam. Chicago, 1974. The chapters "The Sharʿi Islamic Vision" and "Muslim Personal Piety" are still among the best commentaries on Muslim piety.

Kassam, Tazim R. Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance: An Anthology of Hymns by the Satpanth Ismāʿīlī Muslim Saint, Pir Shams. Albany, N.Y., 1995.

Peters, F. E. The Hajj. Reprint, Princeton, N.J., 1995.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975. Excellent overview of the ūfī tradition.

Schimmel, Annemarie. And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985. Rich source on the role the Prophet in Muslim devotional life.

Schubel, Vernon James. Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam: Shiʿi Devotional Rituals in South Asia. Columbia, S.C., 1993. Provides a detailed account of Muarram rituals in South Asia in the larger context of Shīʿī piety. Includes a lengthy explanation of the concept of the piety of devotional allegiance.

Vernon James Schubel (2005)

About this article

Worship and Devotional Life: Muslim Worship

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article