What is the point of worship, and why does it have to be done in a certain way?
Consider our position in this universe. We are neither omnipotent nor self-sufficient, and so have needs, many of which are beyond our power to obtain. We are weak and vulnerable, and subject to worry, illness, and other negative events. When we look at the sheer abundance of animate and inanimate things around us, as well as their tremendous harmony and order, we cannot help but reflect on our frailty and relative insignificance.
This realization awakens a deep need to acknowledge the Divine and to worship the great mysterious power that controls everything. Since whatever we see and touch is transient and dependent on something else, it is unworthy of our worship, for logic dictates that behind them is a Supreme Being, a Transcendent Will guiding and controlling everything. This Being, therefore, must be the goal of our worship.
Reflecting on existence, we see the all-encompassing lawfulness and order, the uniformity and regularity of things and events, and their obedience to an All-Powerful Will. We become aware that everything has a part in that lawfulness and order. That part is its purpose or duty. As we realize that each us is also a part, we conclude that each person’s existence is not an accident; rather, each individual has a specific purpose and duty to fulfil.
In aesthetic terms, we can never emulate the beauty of creation. From our own form to the vigorous and lively beauty of the innumerable forms and colors surrounding us, not to mention the stars and planets, everything causes a strong desire to know the Creator. It is as if everything were designed and produced elsewhere and then simply placed before us so that we could marvel at them while using and benefiting from them. The world is presented as a richly laid table of foods and ornaments for our use. Reaching for an item, we inevitably sense the Giver’s presence, and so experience an even greater joy and wonder.
In religious terms, such sentiments and conceptions aroused in human consciousness, as it were by nature, are a stage in acknowledging the Beautiful Names and Attributes of the Creator making Himself known through His creation. Every blessing, excellence, and beauty speaks of the one who made it possible. Every system, balance, and order indicates the one who established and sustains it. In sum, we naturally feel grateful for what God has provided and so worship Him in response to His making Himself known.
Some scholars argue that even without Prophets or guides, we should be able to gain some knowledge of God by observing the universe and then act accordingly. There is some evidence to support this argument. Before Islam, many people, including Muhammad, were born and lived in Makkah, the heartland of Arab paganism and idolatry. No one showed them the way to God or spoke to them of the Oneness of God. And yet history records a simple nomad’s remarks: “Camel droppings point to a camel’s existence. Footprints on the sand tell of a traveler. Heaven with its stars, the Earth with its mountains and valleys, and the sea with its waves- don’t they point to the All-Powerful, Knowing, Wise, and Caring Maker?”
If even a simple bedouin could understand this much, what about others? What about Muhammad, who one day would be appointed to deliver God’s final Revelation? Long before the Revelation began, he understood the world’s reality, perceived the Truth in the grand Book of the Universe, and began to search for it. Taking refuge in the Hira Cave, he devoted himself to worship, only occasionally coming home for provisions. This might indicate that we can reach some degree of knowledge and so worship God.
Zaid ibn ‘Amr, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s uncle, reached a similar understanding. Although he died before Muhammad’s Prophethood, he intuitively felt the truth of Islam in the air, as well as the meaning and significance of Prophet Muhammad’s coming. As he lay dying, he called his family members and said: “God’s light is on the horizon. I believe it will emerge fully very soon. I already feel its signs over our heads.” Addressing God, he continued: “O Great Creator, I have not been able to know You thoroughly. Had I known, I would have prostrated before You and never raised it in quest of Your pleasure.”1
Evidently, a pure conscience free of any traces of paganism and polytheism can understand its own station and duty when it seen creation’s splendor and harmony, and thus seek to serve and please the One who created and ordained all things.
Knowing God entails worshipping Him. As he provides everything for us, we are obliged to serve Him. One blessing is prayer. God tells us how to pray so that we will do it correctly and effectively. God told the Prophet how to pray, and we are told to follow his example. There are certain rules to follow.
Praying as taught by Divine teachings and guidance is the best worship, for it flows from the love, awe, and submission to God that belief in Him and knowledge of His Divine Being engender. Following the method prescribed by God and His Prophet please Him further and benefit us the most.
We are in constant need of help, guidance, and counsel. Imagine that a successful business owner gives you sound and free advice on how to run your business. Would you refuse such advice? If we pray according to the revealed method, we avoid the pitfalls of excess and impropriety, and obtain advantage and blessings beyond our imagination. In fact, every word that we recite from the Qur’an might be opening hidden doors and secret locks leading to hidden realms and eternal bliss.
Prayer straightens all ways and opens all doors. God hears our recitals and supplications, and angels gather around us when we prostrate with sincerity. This is why the most accepted pattern of worship is the one prescribed by God. When we buy something, do we make up our own instructions concerning how to use it, or do we use the instructions provided by the manufacturer? Similarly, the Creator knows the best way for us to operate so that we can prosper in this world and the next. Therefore, we should follow what He has revealed and how His Messenger practiced it in his daily life.
It is we who need to worship God; not God who needs to be worshipped-He is free of all need. May He grant us the favor and honor to worship Him rightly and with sincerity.
1 Ibn Sad, Tubaqat, 1, 161-2; Ibn Hajar, al-Isaba.