As far as the concept of worship in Islam is concerned, it is misunderstood by many people including some Muslims. Worship is commonly taken to mean performing ritualistic acts such as prayers, fasting, charity, etc. This limited understanding of worship is only one part of the meaning of worship in Islam. That is why the traditional definition of worship in Islam is a comprehensive one that includes almost everything in any individual’s activities. The definition goes something like this: “Worship is an all inclusive term for all that Allah loves of external and internal sayings and actions of a person.” In other words, worship is everything one says or does for the pleasure of Allah. This, of course, includes rituals as well as beliefs, social activities, and personal contributions to the welfare of fellow human beings.
Islam looks at the individual as a whole. He is required to submit himself completely to Allah, as the Qur’an instructs the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) to do:
“Say (O Muhammad) my prayer, my sacrifice, my life and my death belong to Allah; He has no partner and I am ordered to be among those who submit, i.e. Muslims.” (Al-An`am: 162-163)
The natural result of this submission is that all one’s activities should conform to the instructions of the one to whom the person is submitting. Islam, being a way of life, requires that its adherents model their life according to its teachings in every aspect, religious or otherwise. This might sound strange to some people who think of religion as a personal relation between the individual and Allah, having no impact on one’s activities outside rituals.
Islam does not think much of mere rituals when they are performed mechanically and when they have no influence on one’s inner life. The Qur’an addresses the believers and their neighbors from among the People of the Book who were arguing with them about the change of the direction of Qibla in the following verse:
“It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East or the West, but righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the Angels and the Book and the Prophets, and gives his beloved money to his relatives and the orphans and the needy and for the ransoming of captives and who observes prayer and pays the poor-due (Zakah); and those who fulfill their promises when they have made one, and the patient in poverty and affliction and the steadfast in time of war; it is those who have proved truthful and it is those who are the Allah-fearing.” (Al-Baqarah: 177)
The deeds in the above verse are the deeds of righteousness and they are only a part of worship. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told us about faith, which is the basis of worship, saying: “It is made up of more than sixty branches; the highest of which is the belief in the Oneness of Allah, i.e., there is no god but Allah, and the lowest in the scale of worship is removing obstacles and dirt from people’s way.”
Hard work is considered a form of worship in Islam. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Whoever finds himself tired of his work at nightfall, Allah will forgive his sins.” Seeking knowledge is one of the highest types of worship. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told his Companions: “Seeking knowledge is a (religious) duty on every Muslim.” In another saying he said: “Seeking knowledge for one hour is better than praying for seventy years.” Social courtesy and cooperation are part of worship when done for the sake of Allah as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told us: “Receiving your friend with a smile is a type of charity, helping a person to load his animal is a charity and putting some water in your neighbor’s water receptacle is a charity.”
It is worth noting that even performing duties is considered a sort of worship. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told us that whatever one spends on his family is a type of charity and he will be rewarded for it if he acquires it through legal means. Kindness to relatives is an act of worship, even when one puts a piece of food in his spouse’s mouth. Not only this but even the acts we enjoy doing very much, when they are performed according to the instructions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), are considered to be acts of worship.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told his Companions that they will be rewarded for having sexual intercourse with their wives. The Companions were astonished and asked: “How are we going to be rewarded for doing something we enjoy?” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) asked them: “Suppose you satisfy your desires illegally; don’t you think that you will be punished for that?” They replied, “Yes.” “So,” he said, “by satisfying it legally with your wives you are rewarded for it.” This means they are acts of worship.
Thus Islam does not consider sex as dirty that one should avoid. It is actually only dirty and sinful when it is satisfied outside marital life.
It is clear, from the previous discussion that the concept of worship in Islam is a comprehensive concept that includes all the positive activities of the individual. This of course is in agreement with the all-inclusive nature of Islam as a way of life. It regulates human life on all levels: individual, social, economic, political and spiritual. That is why Islam provides guidance to the smallest details of one’s life on all these levels. Thus following these details is following Islamic instructions in that specific area. It is very encouraging when one realizes that Allah considers all his activities as acts of worship. This should lead the individual to seek Allah’s pleasure in his actions and always try to do them in the best possible manner whether his superiors are watching him or he is alone. And there is always the permanent supervisor, who knows everything, namely, Allah.
Discussing non-ritual worship in Islam first does not mean undervaluing the importance of the ritual ones. Actually ritual worship, if performed in true spirit, elevates man morally and spiritually and enables him to carry on his activities in all walks of life according to the Guidance of Allah. Among ritual worships, Salah (ritual prayer) occupies the key position for two reasons. Firstly, it is the distinctive mark of a believer. Secondly, it prevents an individual from all sorts of abominations and vices by providing him chances of direct communion with his Creator five times a day. In prayer he renews his covenant with Allah and seeks His guidance again and again: Allah Almighty says: “You alone we worship and to You alone we turn for help. Guide us to the straight path.” (Al-Fatihah: 5-6)
Actually Salah is the first practical manifestation of Faith and also the foremost of the basis conditions for the success of the believers: “Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their prayers.” (Al-Mu’minun: 1-2)
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) emphasized the same fact in a different way, saying: “Those who offer their Salah with great care and punctuality will find it a light, a proof of their Faith and cause of their salvation on the Day of Judgment.”
After Salah, Zakah is an important pillar of Islam. In the Qur’an, Salah and Zakah mostly have been mentioned together many times. Like Salah, Zakah is a manifestation of faith that affirms that Allah is the sole Owner of everything in the universe, and what men hold is a trust in their hand over which Allah made them trustees to discharge it as He has laid down: “Believe in Allah and His Messenger and spend of that over which He made you trustees.” (Al-Hadid: 7)
In this respect Zakah is an act of devotion, which, like prayer, brings the believer nearer to his Lord.
Apart from this, Zakah is a means of redistribution of wealth in a way that reduces differences between classes and groups. It makes a fair contribution to social stability. By purging the soul of the rich from selfishness and the soul of the poor from envy and resentment against society, it blocks the channels leading to class hatred and makes it possible for the springs of brotherhood and solidarity to gush forth. Such stability is not merely based on the personal feelings of the rich; it stands on a firmly established right which, if the rich denied it, would be exacted by force, if necessary.
Siyam (fasting during the day in the month of Ramadan) is another pillar of Islam. The main function of fasting is to make the Muslim pure from “within”. By such purity he responds to what is true and good and shuns what is false and evil. This is what we can perceive in the Qur’anic verse:
“O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may gain piety.” (Al-Baqarah: 183)
In an authentic hadith, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said in a qudsi hadith: “He (the fasting person) suspends eating, drinking, and gratification of his sexual passion for
My (Allah’s) sake.”
Thus his reward is going to be according to Allah’s great bounty.
Fasting, then, awakens the conscience of the individual and gives it scope for exercise in a joint experience for all society at the same time, thus adding further strength to each individual. Moreover, fasting offers a compulsory rest to the over-worked human machine for the duration of one full month. Similarly fasting reminds an individual of those who are deprived of life’s necessities throughout the year or throughout life. It makes him realize the suffering of other less fortunate brothers and sisters in Islam, and thus promotes in him a sense of sympathy and kindness to them.
Lastly, we come to Hajj (pilgrimage to the House of Allah in Makkah). This very important pillar of Islam manifests a unique unity that dispels all kinds of differences. Muslims from all corners of the world wearing the same dress, respond to the call of Hajj in one voice and language; LABBAIK ALLAHUMMA LABBAIK (Here I am at your service O Lord!). In Hajj there is an exercise of strict self-discipline and control where not only sacred things are revered, but even the plants and birds are made inviolable so that everything lives in safety.
“And he that venerates the sacred things of Allah, it shall be better for him with his Lord.” (Al-Hajj: 30)
“And he that venerates the waymarks of Allah, it surely is from devotion of the heart.” (Al-Hajj: 32)
Hajj gives an opportunity to all Muslims from all groups, classes, organizations, and governments from all over the Muslim world to meet annually in a great congress. It is the One Allah who has set the time and venue of this congress. Invitation to attend is open to every Muslim. No one has the power to bar anyone. Every Muslim who attends is guaranteed full safety and freedom as long as he himself does not violate its safety.
Thus, worship in Islam, whether ritual or non-ritual, trains the individual in such a way that he loves his Creator most and thereby gains an unyielding will and spirit to wipe out all evil and oppression from the human society and make the word of Allah dominant in the world.”
Excerpted, with slight modifications, from an Article by World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).