What is the Point of Worship, and Why Does it Have to Be Done in a Certain Way?

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Questions and Answers

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Consider our position in this universe. We are neither omnipotent nor self-sufficient, and so have needs, many of which we cannot satisfy. We are weak and vulnerable, and subject to worry, illness, and other negative events. When we look at the sheer abundance of animate and inanimate things around us, as well as their tremendous harmony and order, we cannot help but reflect on our own frailty and relative insignificance. This realization awakens a deeply embedded need to acknowledge the Divine and to worship the great mysterious power that controls everything. Since whatever we can see and touch is both transient and dependent on something else, it is unworthy of our worship, for logic dictates that behind them is a Supreme Being, a Transcendent Will guiding and controlling everything. This Being, therefore, must be the goal of our worship.

Reflecting more carefully on existence, we see the all-encompassing lawfulness and order of things and events, as well as their uniformity, regularity, and obedience to an All-Powerful Will. We thus become aware of the fact that everything has a part in that lawfulness and order. That part is its purpose or duty. As we realize that each one of us is also just a part, we conclude that each individual's existence cannot be a purposeless accident; rather, each individual has a specific purpose and duty to fulfil.

In aesthetic terms, we can never emulate the beauty of creation. From our own form to the vigorous and lively beauty of the innumerable forms and colors surrounding us, not to mention the those of the stars and planets, everything causes a strong desire within us to know the Creator. It is as if everything were designed and produced elsewhere and then simply placed before us so that we could marvel at them while using and benefiting from them. The world is presented as a richly laid table of foods and ornaments for our use. As we reach for any item, we inevitably sense the Giver's presence, and so experience an even greater joy and wonder.

In religious terms, such sentiments and conceptions aroused in human consciousness, as it were by nature, are a stage in acknowledging the Beautiful Names and Attributes of the Creator making Himself known through His creation. Every blessing, excellence, and beauty speaks of the one who made it possible. Every system, balance, and order indicates the one who established and sustains it. In sum, we naturally feel grateful for what God has provided and so worship Him in response to His making Himself known.

Based on this, the Mu'tazilis and (to some extent) the Maturidis, [1] say that even in the absence of Prophets or guides, we should be able to gain some knowledge of God by observing the universe and then act accordingly. There is some evidence to support this argument. Before Islam, many people, including Muhammad, were born and lived in Makkah, the heartland of Arab paganism and idolatry. No one showed them the way to God or spoke to them of the Oneness of God (tawhid). And yet history records the remarks of a desert nomad of that time: "Camel droppings point to a camel's existence. Footprints on the sand tell of a traveler. Heaven with its stars, the Earth with its mountains and valleys, and the sea with its waves—don't they point to the All-Powerful, Knowing, Wise, and Caring Maker?"

If even a simple bedouin could understand this much, what about others? What about Muhammad, who one day would be appointed to deliver God's final Revelation? Long before the Revelation began, he understood the world's reality, perceived the Truth (al-Haqq) in the grand Book of the Universe, and began to search for it. Taking refuge in Hira cave, he devoted himself to worship. 'A'isha, narrating directly from Khadija, said that he gave himself up to prayer, only occasionally coming home for provisions. [2] This might indicate that we can reach some degree of knowledge and so worship God.

Zayd ibn 'Amr, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab's uncle, reached a similar understanding. Although he died before Muhammad's Prophethood, he intuitively felt the truth of Islam in the air, as well as the meaning and significance of Prophet Muhammad's coming. As he lay dying, he called his family members and said: "The light of God is on the horizon. I believe it will emerge fully very soon. I already feel its signs over our heads." Addressing God, he continued: "O Great Creator! I have not been able to know You thoroughly. Had I known, I would have put my face upon the ground before You and never raised it in quest of Your pleasure." [3]

Evidently, a pure conscience free of any traces of paganism and polytheism can understand its own station and duty when it seen creation's splendor and harmony, and thus seek to serve and please the One who created and ordained all things.

Knowing God entails worshipping Him. As he provides everything for us, we are obliged to serve Him. One of these blessings is that of prayer. God tells us how to pray so that we will do it correctly and effectively.

God told the Prophet how to pray, and we are told to follow his example. There are certain rules to follow. Before beginning, we must purify ourselves with the proper ablution. Depending on our circumstances, this can be ghusl (full ablution), wudu' (regular ablution), or tayammum (ablution in the absence of water). Then we say Allahu akbar, meaning that nothing is greater than God. Standing in a peaceful, respectful stillness, with hands joined together on our chest, indicates our complete surrender. Concentrating as fully and deeply as possible allows us to experience, based upon our level of spiritual development, the Prophet's ascension in our spirit.

Rising up inwardly, we bow down physically to renew our surrender and express our humility. As we do so, we experience a different stage in our servanthood and so prostrate in fuller reverence and humility. According to the depth of surrender there, we enter into different realms. Hoping for further progress, we raise our head, say a few words, and then lower it again for the second prostration. After this, we may experience the meaning of the hadith in Muslim's Sahih: "The servant is never closer to God than when prostrating in worship. Make more supplications while prostrating"; and the meaning of: Who sees you when you stand and your movements among those who prostrate themselves (26:218–19).

Praying in the manner taught through Divine teachings and guidance is the best worship, for it flows from the love, awe, and submission to God that belief in Him and knowledge of His Divine Being engender. Following the method prescribed by God and His Prophet please Him further and benefit us the most.

We are in constant need of help, guidance, and counsel. Imagine that a successful business owner gives you sound and free advice on how to run your business. Would you refuse such advice? If we pray according to the revealed method, we avoid the pitfalls of excess and impropriety, and obtain advantage and blessings beyond our imagination. Maybe saying Allahu akbar releases the Divine Mercy and inspires our soul to undertake a journey like the Prophet's ascent to heaven. Maybe reciting the opening chapter of the Qur'an opens the way to the highest mystery. With every word, gesture, movement, and pattern, we may be opening hidden doors and secret locks leading to hidden realms and eternal bliss.

Prayer straightens all ways and opens all doors. God hears our recitals and supplications, and angels gather around us when we prostrate with sincerity. No one can claim that such things do not happen—rather, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad confirm that they do. This is why the most accepted pattern of worship is the one prescribed by God.

When we buy something, do we make up our own instructions concerning how to use it, or do we use the instructions provided by the manufacturer? As the Creator knows what will cause us to prosper in this world and the next, we should follow what He has revealed and how His Messenger practiced it in his daily life. It is we who need to worship God; not God who needs to be worshipped—He is free of all need.

[1] Two schools of thought that appeared in the early years of Islam. The Mu'tazilites used the techniques of Greek logical argument to attack orthodox Muslim theology. The Maturidis used the same techniques and argument to defend it.
[2] Bukhari, Sahih, Bad' al-Wahy, 3.
[3] Ibn Sad, Tabaqat, 1:161–62; Ibn Hajar, Al-Isaba.