Chapter 1 : What is worship ibadah?

Worship [ibadah] is the purpose behind our creation. The Quran states:

I did not create the jinn and humans except that they may worship Me.[1]

If the work we are doing is for the sake of seeking the pleasure of God, then it is an act of worship. It is so even though it may be a business or professional venture, the pursuit of knowledge, marriage, service to people, or anything that is meant to meet our needs or that of society.

That which makes an action an act of worship [ibadah] is the sacred motives behind its performance and in the parlance of the Quran, it has the divine baptism [sibghat Allah] ( ).[2]

Natural disposition [fitrah] and worship [ibadah]

Some of our actions or activities are based on worship [ibadah] while others are anchored in natural disposition [fitrah]. A habit can be meritorious such as sports or not meritorious such as smoking. But if an action was anchored in natural dispositionthat is, if it was done based on the natural disposition and pure mold which God has bestowed on the constitution of every human beingthen it would always be meritorious.

The merit of natural disposition compared to worship is that time and place, gender and race, and age and condition have no effect on it, and every human being, on account of his being a human, possesses it.

An example of this is the affection given to ones child that is not true only to a particular generation and period rather, it is common for every parent to do so.[3] Issues such as form and style of dress or food are governed by habit and they vary in different times and places. In some regions, a certain thing is a custom while the same is not regarded as such in other places.

Worship and devotion are also among those actions that pertain to the natural disposition of man, and thus, the most ancient, beautiful and durable buildings constructed by man are related to worship such as temples, churches, mosques, and fire-temples.

Of course, many differences can be seen with respect to forms and types of devotion. One difference pertains to the objects of worship extending from stone, wood and idols to the Beloved Lord, and another difference is in the form and style of worship, which varies from dancing and singing to the most profound and subtle litanies [munajat] of the awliya [saints] of God.

The objective of the prophets (a) has not been to create the spirit of devotion in man but rather to reform worship in terms of its object and form.

The large sums of money spent on the construction of churches, synagogues, Hindu temples, and mosques; considering as sacred the national flags and heroes; and praising the excellences and values of individuals and even objects are all manifestations of the spirit of devotion which exists in man.

Even those who do not worship God worship their spouses, children, credentials, ideology, creed, or path and they are ready to move forward along this way even to the extent of sacrificing themselves. Worship has a deep natural root in man although he may be unaware of it, as Mawlawi (ar-Rumi)[4] says:

Just like the childrens fondness of their mothers,He regards not the satisfaction of his desire in frankincense.

God, the All-wise, has endowed man with all desires and instincts while also creating outside of man the means to satiate and meet these desires. If man ever becomes thirsty, water is created (to quench it), and if there is hunger, food also exists. If man is endowed with the sexual instinct, spouses have been created for him, and if the sense of smell is created, things to smell have been created too.

Among the profoundest feelings of man are the desire for eternity, love of perfection and the yearning for immortality. A relationship with God and worshipping Him guarantee the fulfillment of these natural inclinations. Prayer and worship are the relationships of man with the Fountainhead of Perfections, familiarity with the Real Beloved, and seeking refuge in the Eternal Power.

The root of worship

Who could recognize God with all His perpetual qualities and perfections without resorting to subservience and obeisance to Him? Through stories and historical accounts, the Quran expresses the signs of His power and grandeur.

It states that God gave a child to Maryam (Mary) without her having a husband; He split the Nile River for Musa (Moses) (a)[5] and drowned Firawn (Pharoah) therein; He made the prophets (a) victorious while being empty-handed, against the superpowers of their respective times, and rubbed the nose of the t?aghuts[6] in the ground.[7]

It is He Who created you out of lifeless clay, and your life and death as well as honor [izzah] and humiliation [dhillah] are in His hand. Is there anyone who could perceive his own weakness, impotence, ignorance, and limitation as well as predictable and unpredictable perils and mishaps, but could not sense the need for the Power of Salvation and for him to submit to it?

In various verses, the Quran reminds man of his weakness, saying: At the time of birth, you had no awareness of anything; you were utterly in a state of weakness such that after acquiring strength, you shall also be heading toward weakness again.

In every moment, you are under the threat of different types of dangers.

If the movement (both rotation and revolution) of the earth should slow down or should the day stand still, who could expedite its movement and change it?

Say, Tell me, should your water sink down [into the ground], who will bring you running water?[8]

If We wish We can make it (water) bitter. Then why do you not give thanks?[9]

If We wish, We surely turn it (plant) into chaff, whereat you are left stunned (or regretful).[10]

If We like, We can make the earth swallow them, or let fall on them a fragment from the sky.[11]

The Quran mentions these and tens of other examples so as to take man out of his negligence, obliterate his pride and invite him toward worship and submissiveness to the Creator.

The profundity of worship

Worship is an act, which we outwardly consider as a type of humility, but it has deeper profundity.

Worship stems from the soul; it springs from gnosis [marifah]; it emanates from cognition; it originates from piety [taqaddus]; it radiates from adoration; it derives from admiration; it comes from seeking refuge and assistance; and it arises from the love of the perfections [kamalat] of the Worshipped Being [mabud].

Yes, worship is outwardly a simple act, but if it is other than the above, worship will not be entertained by man. Worship means emptying the heart of material things, letting the spirit fly, and allowing the feet to make steps beyond the seeable and hearable things. Worship guarantees the love of man whose politeness in relation to his Lord is sometimes expressed through eulogy and adoration; at other times through glorification [tasbih] and sanctification [taqdis]; and yet at some other times, through gratitude and gestures of submission.

Indifference toward worship

H?adrat[12] Ali (a) says:


May I get blind if after having passed so many years of my life (and with the possession of all talent, capabilities, facilities, intellect, knowledge, and inspiration), I now turn into an animal in human form!

Yes, civilization, technology and the progress of new instruments have made life more comfortable, bestowing comfort and welfare as a gift (to us), but does the perfection of man lie in attaining such material comforts?

If this is so, then the animals are more advanced than man in food, clothing, habitation, and the satisfaction of carnal desire!

In terms of food, they eat better, are more comfortable, and have no need of cooking and preparion!
In terms of clothing, they have no need for sewing, washing and ironing!

In terms of carnal desire, they satisfy it without difficulty and predicament.

In procuring a place for habitation, there are so many birds and insects whose technique in making nests and dens astonishes man.

In essence, has this technological advancement brought about progress in our humanness as well?

Have individual and collective corruptions lessened?

Has this comfort also brought tranquility?

In any case, just not placing the hand of man in that of the infallible and just leaders would be an injustice to humanity, if the heart of man is not linked to God, an insult would have been made to the station of humanity.

The pleasure of God as the axis of worship

Just as heavenly bodies and the earth always have a fixed axis though they make diverse rotations and revolutions, worship, with all its various forms and appearances, is also anchored in a fixed axis, which is the pleasure of God. This is in spite of the fact that spatial and temporal as well as individual and collective circumstances determine the type of movement along this axis.

For example, travel makes (a four-cycle [rakah]) prayer a two-rakah prayer; illness may necessitate changes in the form of the prayer. Yet, the two-rakah or shortened prayer is still a prayer and it is based on the axis of remembering God, seeking His pleasure and performing His command.

And maintain the prayer for My remembrance.[13]

The spirit of worship

Worship is the nourishment of the soul and the best food is that which is absorbed by the body. Similarly, the best act of worship is that which is internalized by the soul; that is, if it is performed with enthusiasm and presence of heart. Eating too much food is not beneficial. What is important is eating useful food.

The Holy Prophet (s)[14] said to Jabir ibn Abd Allah al-Ansari:

Indeed this religion is firm. Therefore, act moderately in relation to it (and when you have no spiritual readiness for worship, do not impose it on yourself) so that the worship of Allah would not be detested by you.[15]

In another hadith, we also read that the Holy Prophet (s) said:

Blessed is he who loves worship and is always fond of it.[16]

Moderation in worship

The spirit of worship and devotion remains alive when man is moderate in its performance. This has been narrated in the books of hadith under the heading, bab al-iqtisad fil-ibadah [section on moderation in worship].[17]

Man is healthy when there is proportionality in his bodily limbs, and if a certain body member is bigger or smaller than the normal size, it is considered deformed (or defective in general). In spiritual affairs, man should also harmoniously nurture all that is valuable in himself. It was reported to the Holy Prophet (s) that under the pretext of worship, a group of his ummah [community] had abandoned their spouses and children and had secluded themselves in the mosque. The Prophet stated in a loud voice: This is not my way and method. I myself am living with my spouses and reside in my house. Anyone who acts contrary to this does not belong to me.[18]

Imam as-sadiq (a) narrates the story of a Muslim who had a Christian neighbor that embraced Islam. That Muslim had awakened the former Christian during the first dawn (prior to the time for the dawn prayer [salah as-subh]), brought him to the mosque and said to him: Perform your supererogatory night prayers [tahajjud] till the time for the dawn prayer and thereafter, engage in supplication [dua] till the sunrise. Then, read the Quran up to the time for the noon prayer [salah az-zuhr]. In this manner, the Muslim urged the former Christian to engage in prayer, recital of the Quran and supplication day and night. When the new Muslim returned home, he abandoned Islam and did not go to the mosque anymore.[19]

Yes, such extremism and lack of moderation in worship will drive people away.

The martyred professor, Murtada Mut?ahhari,[20] narrates that Amru ibn al-as had two sons. One was a votary of H?adrat Ali (a) while the other was a supporter of Muawiyah. One day, the Prophet (s) said to the good son of Amru ibn al-as (named Abd Allah): I have heard that you spend your night in worship and your day in fasting. He said: Yes, O Messenger of Allah. The Prophet (s) said: This way is not acceptable to me.[21]

We read in the traditions:

Indeed, there is inclination and disinclination in the heart (of man).[22]

You have to take advantage of wherever it inclines and leans to. And whenever it is not ready, do not exert pressure on it otherwise it will unconsciously show a negative reaction.

In the Islamic instructions it is mentioned that you have to divide your time into four parts, and allot time for entertainment and enjoyment, for if you do so, you will also have enthusiasm for other activities.[23]

The Holy Quran gives the title of violators to the Jews who engaged in work and went fishing during the Sabbath Day:

And certainly you know those of you who violated the Sabbath.[24]

In any case, keeping zeal and ardor in worship is a principle which comes into being through moderation.