We all each now and then meet and hear about people who perform the daily obligatory prayers for a period of time then abandon it, then start again, just to stop praying after a while, and so on. The same happens with fasting. Some Muslims who do not observe the obligatory prayers still observe the fasting of Ramadan, and some of them would also observe the prayer during the holy month. But once the fasting month is over, the daily prayers immediately or shortly afterwards are abandoned.
The common way to deal with this lack of interest in the daily prayers is by reminding the non-praying Muslim, or indeed one’s self, of verses of the Qur’an and Prophetic sayings that stress the fact that observing the daily prayers is an essential element of practicing Islam. Such well-intentioned attempts often fail in achieving lasting results, because they reflect ignorance of the fact that observing the prayer is a “result” not a “cause.” There is a more fundamental issue that underlines neglecting the prayer that needs to be addressed: The lack of interest in the remembrance (dhikr) of Allah.
This same fundamental spiritual disease is also responsible for another symptom. Many Muslims observe the daily prayers more as an “’āda (habit) than “’ibāda (worship)” or because it is part of their social environment. In this case, praying means little or no engagement with the essence of the prayer, which is remembering Allah, so this kind of observance is not what the Qur’an and Sunna call for. Getting a person who does not pray to observe the prayer as a practice without full engagement with it is of little value, and often proves to be a short-term habit.
The Qur’an says that the purpose of the prayer is to remember Allah: “Observe the prayer to remember Me” (20.14). Praying is one manifestation of a broader and fundamental practice in Islam: Remembering Allah. So in order for the Muslim to wholeheartedly embrace the practice of praying, they must first develop love for remembering Allah: asking for His help and support, praising Him, thanking Him for His grace and favours, and reflecting on His creation. Only when this spark of divine love ignites in the heart of the Muslim can they start to perform the prayer properly. This is why Allah described dhikr as being greater than the prayer:
Perform the prayer; the prayer forbids indecency and dishonour; the remembrance of Allah is greater. (29.45)
The dhikr of Allah is the root, whereas the prayer is a branch; the dhikr of Allah is the cause, while the prayer is an outcome. Prayer is a specific form of the dhikr of Allah, so if the latter is not close to one’s heart, the act of praying would be detached from its source and purpose and, therefore, would be flawed. Here is another verse that reminds us that praying is just one form and result of remembering Allah:
Then, when the prayer is finished, scatter in the land and seek Allah’s bounty, and remember Allah much that you may prosper. (62.10)
So even when mentioning the Friday Prayer, Allah reminds us that it is “remembering” Him that is the cause of the success of the believers. In other words, performing the Friday Prayer without it being one aspect of one’s ongoing engagement with the dhikr of Allah means that one’s performance of that prayer lacks the essence of prayer: remembering Allah. Put differently, the person cannot remember Allah properly when praying if remembering Him is not an ongoing activity for them.
To cite one instance from the Sunna, the Prophet (ṣallā Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) is reported to have said:
After you pray, recite “subhāna Allah” thirty three times, “alḥamdu li Allah” thirty three times, “Allahu Akbar” thirty four times, and “lā ilāha illā Allah” ten times. (Tirmidhī, ḥadīth No. 410)
One interesting observation about this ḥadīth is the emphasis on dhikr even immediately after finishing the prayer. Note also the significant amount of dhikr.
Shaikh ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī says about dhikr:
Keep on remembering your Lord (mighty and glorified is He), reciting His Book and the traditions of His Messenger (ṣallā Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam), and attending gatherings of remembrance. This will quicken your hearts like the earth is revived by the falling rain. Keeping on remembering Allah is a means for the continuation of good in this world and in the hereafter. When the heart becomes sound, remembrance becomes permanent in it and gets inscribed on its sides and all over it. When the person’s eyes sleep, their heart continues to remember their Lord (mighty and glorified is He). They inherit this state from their Prophet, Muhammad (ṣallā Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam). (Purification of the Mind)
Going back to the original question of this article, the lack of interest in the obligatory prayer, or the fasting of Ramadan, must be understood in light of the fact that the prayer is one specific form of dhikr, so the underlying spiritual disease that must be cured is the failure to remember Allah much, i.e. on an ongoing basis:
O you who believe, Remember Allah much! (33.41)
So remember Me and I shall remember you. (2.152)
So to even to remember Allah for only a short period of time five times a day, i.e. to perform the daily obligatory prayers, clearly falls well short of what Allah has commanded the Muslim to do in terms of dhikr.
Even when assessing our own performance of the daily prayers, we must do that in the broader context of evaluating our performance of dhikr in general. If the dhikr of Allah is close to one’s heart and something that they engage with throughout the day and night, then their prayer would be an expression of that ongoing state of remembering Allah, as Allah designed it to be. If, however, prayer is one’s only or even main activity of remembering Allah, then it is almost certainly lacking the essence of proper prayer.