Learn the Meaning of What You Say and Do in Prayer

By Shaykh Mustafa Umar

Muslims pray five times a day. In Arabic. It is important to know the meaning behind each action and statement in the prayer so that it goes beyond being a formulaic ritual and becomes a way to really connect with God. The more you learn to focus and understand the prayer, the easier it will be to get closer to God and restrain yourself from Islamically-immoral behavior. The prayer will then be able to function as an infinite source of strength in all aspects of your life and eventually become something you enjoy rather than merely fulfill.

The following is taken from chapter eight of my book, “How to Pray: A Step-by-Step Guide to Prayer in Islam”:

Before You Pray

You perform wudū’ as a symbolic gesture of spiritually cleansing yourself before you stand in front of God.

You clean your clothes, body, and place of prayer which represents the bare minimum etiquette that a Muslim should display before meeting God.

You cover your body to display your humility and modesty in front of God. Even though He created you and is aware of everything, you show the same respect that you would to God as you would show when meeting anyone else.

You pray during certain times of the day to keep a program of discipline for yourself. Your ego would distract you away from remembering God and tell you: “don’t worry, pray later.” However, with a strict, yet flexible, schedule you learn to make time for God always.

You face Makkah because it contains the Ka’bah, the first building dedicated to the worship of the one true God. This building was made by Prophet Ibrāhīm [Abraham] and his son Ismā’īl [Ishmael]. By facing it, you remind yourself, and everyone else, that you are among the true followers of Abraham.


Before you begin the prayer, you stand with full attention before God. Your head is slightly lowered out of respect.

Raising Hands

You remove all other thoughts, worries, and images from your mind. When you raise your hands near your head, you imagine that all other thoughts in your mind are being thrown behind you. Now your prayer has really begun.

Allāhu Akbar means that God is the greatest. Literally, it means ‘God is greater’. He is greater and more important than anything else in your life. Remembering Him throughout prayer is greater and more beneficial than anything else you could be doing at the moment, and this is a reminder to yourself of that fact.

Standing for Recitation

Keeping your hands folded in front of anyone is a sign of respect and humility in front of that person. God is most deserving that you humble yourself in front of Him.

You say “I seek protection with God from the cursed Satan” before beginning the recitation of the Qur’ān. It purifies your ego and reminds you that you need God’s help so that you aren’t distracted during your prayer. It also is a sign of humility since you admit you don’t have full control over your own thoughts, so you ask God to help you avoid the whispers of Satan, both in your prayer and in your life.

You say “In the name of God, the Most Kind and Merciful” to purify your intention and make your recitation of the Qur’an purely for the sake of God, so that you can receive His kindness and mercy.

You recite the Fātiḥah, the first and most comprehensive chapter of the Qur’an. It begins by praising God, who is the Lord and Master of everything in existence. Despite that, He is kind and merciful. He will be in control on the Day of Judgment when all people will be held accountable as to how they lived their lives. Then you begin speaking directly to God, declaring that you would never worship anyone but Him and that you are in need of His help. Next, comes the most important part: the invocation. You ask God to guide you along the correct path that leads to Paradise, the way that he led you to Islam. Finding the right path is not enough, you must make sure to stay on the path and you must move forward, rather than backward, so you ask God for help. The path is further defined: that you want to follow the way of life that righteous people followed, not the way of life followed by people who deliberately rejected the truth or were misled along a wrong path.

You say “āmīn” which literally means “answer”. You ask God to answer your prayer since you just asked Him to guide you on the straight path. It is an additional request and an emphasis that you really need God’s guidance. It is also a source of optimism since you know that God answers prayers when they are done with sincerity.

You recite some verses of the Qur’an to reflect on the meaning and practice your memorization. One of the shortest, yet deepest chapters of the Qur’an is al-Ikhlās. In it, Prophet Muhammad was instructed by God to declare that God is one and eternal. He neither has children or parents. Nothing in this world can compare to God in any way because He is transcendent above all His creation.


You humble your body before God by lowering it in a bowing position. This reminds you of your place in front of Him.

You say “Glory be to my Lord, the great” manifesting your humility in front of God. The words are perfectly in line with the posture of bowing and you say ‘my Lord’ to make it more intimate and respectful. God may be the Lord of everyone but at this time you are only concerned with your relationship to Him.

Intermediate Standing

You stand up to take a break from bowing.

You say “God has heard the one who praised Him.” You remind yourself that your prayer is not in vain and that God hears the prayer of everyone who sincerely praises Him.

You say “Our Lord, you are deserving of praise” Thereafter, you praise Him one more time to express your certainty about what you just said and prepare for the most important part of the prayer.


This position is the most humbling experience where you put your face, which represents your honor, on the floor in front of God. It reminds you that God’s guidance must remain above man’s own inclinations and desires.

You say “Glory be to my Lord, the highest” manifesting your humility once again. However, this time, you contrast your lowly, humble position with the lofty, highness of God.

Intermediate Sitting

You sit up to take a break from prostrating.

Prostration #2

You prostrate once again, revealing the importance of this humble position in front of God.

Final Sitting

After completing all the units of prayer, you sit in a comfortable and relaxing position after having stood for a while.

You say “Greetings, prayers, and all pure things ultimately belong to God. May the peace of God be with you, Prophet, as well as God’s mercy and blessings. May the peace of God be with us and with all of God’s righteous servants.” All of the respectful greetings and praise that people give to idols, kings, and rulers actually belong to God, because He is deserving of them. The same is the case with all forms of prayer as well as any other pure action, since God is pure and only accepts that which is pure. You send peace on the Prophet because he is your guide chosen by God. You then send peace on yourself and on all other righteous people, praying that you become one of the righteous whom God is pleased with.

You say “I declare that no one deserves to be worshipped except God and I declare that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.” This declaration identifies you as a Muslim and you reaffirm it during every prayer. You reaffirm that nothing else in life is worth obeying except for God and that the only way to worship and obey Him properly is through the Messenger of God. You raise your right index finger while saying this to signify that God is one.

You say “God, bless Muhammad and his family, just as you have blessed Ibrāhīm and his family. You are the praiseworthy and glorious. God, favor Muhammad and his family, just as you have favored Ibrāhīm and his family. You are the praiseworthy and glorious.” The messages of Prophet Muhammad and Ibrāhīm are directly linked, which is why you face the Ka’bah. You ask God to bless and give success to the last and final Prophet the same way that Ibrāhīm and his descendants were blessed.

Finish the Prayer

You say “May the peace and mercy of God be with you.” It is befitting to close the prayer with a call for peace and mercy because that is what Islam tries to accomplish. It brings peace in the life of the Muslim as well as in the society, so you turn your head in both directions while saying it so that it is directed towards everyone around you, even if no one is there.


The bare minimum purpose of prayer is to take you away from your daily activities, for a few moments, to remember God. If you can accomplish at least this, the prayer will have some benefit. However, the ultimate goal should be to worship God with such concentration that it is as if you are standing directly in front of Him. Even though you cannot see God, He can see you. This may take a lifetime to achieve, but it is a goal that every Muslim should have in their life.

Can a Prayer or Khutbah [Sermon] Be Done Virtually?

Advancement of technology can bring about new issues that cause us to revisit our understanding of religious rules and guidelines. The ability to transmit voice and video over long distances has led people to ask whether it is permissible or valid to participate in congregational prayer if a person were at a considerable distance from the imam [the prayer leader]. The same question has been asked regarding listening to a khutbah [sermon] through a radio, telephone, or computer broadcast and having it count as if the person was physically there.

History of the Issue

The question regarding praying a faraway distance from the congregation began with the introduction of microphones which could broadcast sound at a far distance. Some Muslims inquired whether they could remain in their homes or at their workplace and follow the imam without having to physically travel to join the lines of people behind him. With the introduction of radio broadcast, people living miles away could tune in to a masjid broadcasting the prayer and potentially follow in prayer while listening to the sound from the radio. This concept developed even further with the advent of video streaming, and it will certainly reach another level with virtual reality, where a person may feel like they are actually a part of a physical congregation. The question is whether this individual’s feeling of being part of the congregation may be considered, in the sight of Allah, as actually being part of that group. Is such a prayer valid, and if so, will it count as a group prayer rather than an individual one, and will it therefore take on the rulings and rewards associated with congregational prayer?

The Ruling

No recognized legal school nor scholar has ever allowed a person at a very far distance from the physical congregation to be considered as being part of that congregation. Scholars of Islamic Law [fuqahā’] have differed whether short distances due to potentially necessary barriers such as a building, a river, or a street would be a valid excuse for keeping a distance between the rows of worshippers. However, none of them has ever permitted or validated anyone to consider themselves as part of a group prayer when at a much further distance with no necessary obstructions. This is a matter of nearly complete consensus among scholars and schools, both past and present.[1]

The Underlying Wisdom

The reason for invalidating such an action is because it contradicts the entire purpose of congregational prayer in the first place. Muslims physically gather in one place for prayer to strengthen emotional connections and interact with each other before and after prayer. This is simply not achievable without being physically present. The same wisdom applies to other physical acts of worship such as the Pilgrimage to Makkah [Ḥajj] which cannot be performed even if a virtual reality headset made a person feel as though they were walking around the Kaʿbah, and even if they were actually physically walking while going through the virtual experience. The lack of physical presence precludes such a virtual Ḥajj from being considered valid in the sight of Allah.

An individual’s desire to feel like they are part of the group is noble. Despite such a feeling, virtual participation does not actually make them part of that group, nor does the group that is praying together feel the same about that person since they are not present. Virtual prayers, according to both common sense and the latest research on the harmful effects of technology on socialization, would cause harm to the idea of community that Islam tries to foster through practices such as group prayer.

Alternative Solutions

There are three major cases where people may want to join a group for prayer or khutbah from a distance, and in all cases, there are permissible alternatives to achieving some connection and ‘feeling’ of being part of the group.

  • Daily Five Times Prayers: Many masjids around the world broadcast their daily prayers via radio to households living in that area. This is a way to bring about a connection to the masjid even when one is not able to go. While a person may not follow the imam of the masjid in prayer through a radio broadcast, they can listen to the adhān [call to prayer] and iqāmah [call to commence] and then perform prayer with their family and neighbors in their house or at work. Even though you are not part of that congregation in the masjid, starting at the same time provides a sense of solidarity with the community.
  • Jumuʿah Prayer: The Friday Prayer, which is obligatory upon adult males and optional for others, consists of two sermons and two units [rakʿas] of prayer. For those performing it, Jumuʿah prayer is a substitute for the Ẓuhr prayer. A person who is not physically present cannot join and must pray four units of Ẓuhr instead. There are two options:
    1. People unable to attend Jumuʿah Prayer for a valid reason can listen to a broadcasted khutbah. It will not count as a khutbah for them, but as a general lecture to benefit from the knowledge and admonition. After the lecture is over, they would pray Ẓuhr, either individually or collectively. Since the broadcasted khutbah will not actually count as a khutbah for them, they cannot pray two units of Jumuʿah prayer, even if they are a large group.
    2. If they are able to gather a few people together, one of them can perform two short khutbahs so they can pray Jumuʿah instead of Ẓuhr prayer. Performing a khutbah is not that difficult and can easily and quickly be learned by someone with a foundational knowledge of Islam. A khutbah does not have to take much effort to prepare and can be as short as a minute. According to the Ḥanafī school of jurisprudence, a minimum of four people (including the imam) is needed for a valid Jumuʿah Prayer.[2] This makes it relatively easy to gather a few nearby Muslims and pray Jumuʿah, since it can be prayed almost anywhere and is not restricted to a masjid. It should be noted that Islam strongly encourages very large gatherings of Jumuʿah prayer, and the type of small gatherings discussed here should only be leveraged in cases of necessity.
  • Tarāwīh Prayer: In the month of Ramaḍān there are recommended night prayers known as Tarāwīḥ, usually consisting of eight or twenty units. Muslims usually gather in the masjid and pray in a group with the imam reciting aloud. In many masjids around the world, imams complete recitation of the entire Qur’an during Tarāwīḥ Prayer over the course of the month. People often have a commendable desire to participate as the reciter usually has a beautiful voice, and listening to and reflecting upon the entire Qur’an can be a beneficial as well as spiritual experience, and an individual praying at home may only have a small portion of the Qur’an memorized. Since a person is not allowed to join a group prayer remotely, they have the option to sit down and follow along with a live broadcast (or even a recording) as the imam recites verses from the Qur’an in prayer. This can be done with or without looking at a copy of the Qur’an. This allows a person to still benefit from listening to a beautiful recitation of the Qur’an and reflect upon its meaning. A person may also perform Tarāwīh Prayer at home by themselves, even if they repeat a small number of verses over and over (due to only having a small portion memorized). This is the best method as it fulfills the tarāwīh prayer along with listening to and reflecting upon the Qur’an (during the prayer).

[Shaykh] Mustafa Umar

Mar 20, 2020 – Anaheim, CA


Edited by [Shaykh] Umer Khan

[1] I have come across two exceptions. The first is the book Al-Iqnāʿ bi-Ṣiḥḥati Ṣalāti l-Jumuʿah fī l-Manzil khalfa l-Midhyāʿ and the other is the argument offered by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl.

[2] This means four people who are obligated to perform Jumuʿah such as adult males.