Like any collective activity, the Muslim congregational prayer (salāt al-Jamā’a) must have its rules, so that all participants can perform it in the same way. The Qur’an does not give details about how the prayer, whether individual or congregational, should be physically performed, but there are hadiths and narratives about how the Prophet prayed and ordered the Muslims to pray. But being a form of worship that the Muslims from the time of the Prophet performed on a daily basis, it is logical to conclude that the main details of this practice must have been perfectly preserved.
One agreed rule of the congregational prayer is that the praying Muslims must stand in straight rows behind the imam, emulating how Prophet Muhammad conducted the prayer with the first generation of Muslims. But as is the situation with almost every religious practice, there are various other smaller details of the practice that are subject to difference of opinion among scholars and jurists, because of the absence of documentary and historical evidence that is accepted by all. Such details include whether the praying Muslims should stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Another detail is whether the feet of those standing next to each other should touch.
It is not an uncommon experience for someone joining a praying congregation to be asked before the start of the prayer by the person standing next to him to bring his foot closer to the foot of that person, at times to the point of making contact. It is also common to see someone continuing to spread his feet apart to make sure that they are as close as possible to the left foot and right foot of the two people on his right and left, respectively. Anyone who has participated in congregational prayers would have heard such advice from people standing next to him. This is a familiar experience for those who regularly join congregational prayers.
There is no problem with people trying to line up in the prayer row in the way they believe it should be and encourage others to do the same, even though there is no consensus on such details. But there is a very serious issue that can be revealed by asking this question: how many times has anyone had the experience of being advised before the start of the prayer to focus his thoughts on the prayer and avoid being distracted by the many things that occupy his head most of the time? The answer is none. This exclusive focus on the physical details, including minute ones, and the complete neglect of the spiritual, non-physical aspects of the prayer is extremely significant.
People would have no difficulty placing their feet anywhere they think they should be. It is just easy. But the overwhelming majority of praying Muslims find it very difficult to be focused during the prayer. Even when we are praying individually, it is often difficult to properly focus on the prayer and the prayer alone, even though it does not take more than a few minutes. Of course, our state of absentmindedness can be better or worse at times, depending on our personal circumstances.
Yet which one is more important to get right when praying, whether individually or congregationally, working out the right place of the feet to the nearest centimeter or keeping one’s thoughts focused on the words of God that he/she reads in the prayer? Widespread practice says the former, but the Qur’an as well as reason and common sense clearly and unequivocally point to the latter. For instance, before drinking alcohol was explicitly and completely banned in the Qur’an, God prohibited Muslims from praying while they are drunk:
O you who believe! Do not approach the prayer while you are drunk until you know what you are saying. (4.43)
Note that the ban was not because of the person’s failure to stand in a particular position or spread his feet at a certain distance from each other, but because of his inability to focus on what he says. In other words, he cannot have the state of mind that would allow him to properly focus on and think of the verses that he would recite and how he would address God.
It is no coincidence that the Qur’an gives hardly any details about the physical aspect of the prayer and other acts of worship but repeatedly instructs the Muslim about the spiritual side of his/her life. The latter is what all forms of worship are designed to address. Note that the prayer is a specific form of the remembrance of Allah, as seen in Allah’s following words to Prophet Moses:
And perform prayer for My remembrance. (20.14)
What matters about “remembering” Allah, as the term itself suggests, is being able to focus on and experience what one is saying, otherwise it would not be remembrance. If I keep on mentioning Allah or reciting His words but I am thinking of other things, then I am not actually remembering Him or reciting His words. If this state of obliviousness happens while I am praying, then I am not truly praying.
Following the accepted general guidelines of how the prayer should physically be performed is necessary for a number of reasons, not least because such obedience is another form of expressing one’s submissiveness to God:
Those who are humbly submissive in their prayer. (23.2)
But achieving this surrender requires having awareness and attentiveness during the prayer so that one’s mind and heart are affected by and interact with what he/she says during that solitude with God.
Getting bogged down in minute details about how the prayer should be physically performed is nothing but a misunderstanding of this act of worship. How much one spreads his feet or whether or not his foot touches the foot of the person standing next to him in the congregational prayer has no effect on the act of remembering God which is the essence of the prayer.
Remembering Allah is a broader activity than the specific case of prayer:
Recite what has been revealed to you of the Book and perform prayer. Prayer prohibits indecency and what is wrong. The remembrance of Allah is even greater. (29.45)
One can, and must, remember God at different times and anywhere. They could be standing, lying down, walking, or running. They can, and must, remember Him at home, on the street, at work, and even when taking a shower. So remembering God has actually no specific movements or rule. Prayer is one specific kind of remembering God that has rules, so while these rules are necessary they are not what make it proper and complete.
Focusing on minutes physical aspects of the prayer and forgetting its essence is just one of numerous examples on how Islam has been misunderstood and trivialized by many Muslims. It is nothing short of trivializing Islam to argue, dish out advice, and criticize others about things such as the supposed legal length of man’s trousers and beard, whether a few hairs can escape the woman’s headscarf, and so on. Misunderstanding Islam, which often involves trivializing it by reducing it to a set of rigid rules about tiny things, is the biggest predicament that a Muslim can have, and this is the main plight of Muslims today. It is true that Muslims in various places are the subject of various forms of discrimination and aggression, but the biggest source of the suffering of Muslims is fellow Muslims who have spectacularly misunderstood the religion they claim they belong to.
Islam is not about how we look from outside but what we are made of inside. It is a religion of the spirit, soul, mind, and heart — the essence of being a human being. Significantly, if any Muslim, regardless of their level of religious education, is asked about the meaning of “Islam,” they would always derive it from “surrender,” as I do, or “peace” and related concepts. These meanings are about the internal state of mind and heart of the Muslim and his/her relationship with God, including the way this relationship is expressed in his/her interaction with society and the environment. None of these meanings has anything to do with one’s appearance or how a particular ritual is exactly performed.
All Muslims also agree that “Islam” refers to the core message of the one religion that was revealed to all Prophets:
The true religion with Allah is Islam. (3.19)
It is the message that there is one God and that He sent messengers to teach people that they should worship Him, believe in the Day or Resurrection, and do good works as He defined them. In other words, Islam is about combining “sound faith” and “good works.” This combination is referred to many times in the Qur’an, as in this verse:
Those who believe and do good works are the people of Paradise in which they will stay forever. (2.82)
Islam is not about one specific ritual or how it is performed. It is unlikely that the Muslim followers of Noah performed their daily prayer in exactly the same way as the Muslim followers of Moses or Muhammad. The same applies to fasting. God commanded all believers to fast:
O you who believe! Fasting has been decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you that you may become pious. (2.183)
The followers of Muhammad were commanded to fast Ramadan because it is the month in which the Qur’an was revealed:
The month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was revealed. (2.183)
Clearly, God would not have made the followers of previous prophets fast that same month. Devotional practices change for various reasons but God’s message remains the same.
Islam is a religion of the heart and mind. Yet misunderstanding it has turned this great religion in the eyes of many of its believers, consciously or not, into a rigid legal system that consists of a set of laws that deal exclusively with external aspects of the life of the Muslim. This is why for some Muslims building an Islamic society has come to mean bringing back the caliphate or forming some kind of Islamic state whereby all aspects of life is governed by “shari’a.” The latter is yet another misunderstood Islamic concept, as I have discussed in detail in my book Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law, pp. 224-232. Shari’a is not a fixed set of laws but a living legal framework that can produce evolving legal rulings for any time and circumstances.
It is about time that we started thinking, talking, and reminding each other about what the Islam, including the prayer, means for our hearts and minds. We must raise the focus of our eyes from our feet to our hearts. We need to forget a little our feet and remember more our hearts.