I would like to suggest that you consider my five daily prayers in this context. Perhaps you could imagine that they are little church services. Let me tell you what they entail so that you can see what I mean. When the time comes to pray, I will stand in a room facing in the direction of a building which the Prophet Abraham built with his son Ismail for the worship of God. This should not be very strange, for in the Church of England, you all face eastwards in church. Next, having made the intention to pray, I will raise my hands up to my ears and say, “God is the Greatest”. Then I will place my right hand over my left arm on my navel and say, “O God, glory and praise are for You, and blessed is Your name, and exalted is Your Majesty; there is no god but You.”
Then I will recite the first chapter of the Qur’an, the translation of which is, “All praise is for God, the Lord of the worlds, the most Merciful, the most Kind; Master of the day of Judgement. You alone we worship; and You alone we ask for help. Guide us along the straight path – the path of those whom You have favoured and not of those who earn Your anger or of those who go astray.” Then I will recite another chapter of the Qur’an, then bow down saying again, “God is the Greatest.”
While bowing, I will say at least three times, “Glory to my Lord, the Great.” Then I will stand up straight again, saying “God hears those who praise Him” and “Our Lord, praise be to You.” Then I will prostrate on the ground with the words, “God is the Greatest,” and says three times, “Glory to my Lord, the Highest.” Then I will sit up, then prostrates again with the same words, and then stands to follow the same structure again, reciting a different chapter of the Qur’an after reciting the first as before.
This time, after the second prostration, I will sit and say, “All prayer is for God and worship and goodness. Peace be upon the Prophet and the Mercy of God and His Blessings. Peace be on us and on the righteous servants of God. I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.” Then, depending upon which prayer it is, I may repeat this process again or end. Within this prayer, other prayers may be made, i.e. of the asking variety, but basically it is a prayer of worship.
So I hope that you can now see what I mean in my comparison with the Christian attendance of church. The purpose of the salah prayer is to remind us of our Creator and our purpose in life, and to cleanse us of our sins. You might consider it the way the Prophet explained it: if you were to take a bath five times a day, would you not be very clean? So think of the prayer as a bath in relation to our sins.
Now, as to your worry that praying these five prayers while working might prove detrimental to my career, there are one or two other things to note. First of all, I would not be praying all five during office hours. The first prayer is at dawn before the sun rises, the second is at midday and therefore can be performed during my lunch hour, and the last prayer is at night. So that leaves me with only two to pray during office time. Now, consider that it is a legal requirement that employees are given the right to VDU (screen) breaks if they are working on computers, to avoid eye strain. So while my boss might take a walk up the corridor, I could go and pray.
Other employees are allowed to take smoking breaks. Some take coffee breaks. This prayer actually takes no longer than ten minutes to perform. You might also consider that in the summer months, I could only be praying the midday prayer at work, for the day is longer, the mid-afternoon prayer falling later, the sunset prayer perhaps at eight or nine in the evening. So, I have to ask, is it really such a problem? The answer, of course, is no. Islam is a middle course, going to neither the extremes of ease or of hardship.
As to prayers of asking – supplication – it is true to say that we could pray whilst washing up or mowing the lawn and that it might be accepted if we are sincere, but we might expect that a prayer for which we made a great deal of effort would be more pleasing to our Creator. Think of the account in Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus is said to fall on his face and pray that God will take the “cup” away from him. Clearly there must be benefit in prostrating during prayer or else he would not have done this. Prostrating, taking upon a position of utmost humility before God, was the practice of all the Prophets and you will find that amongst some of the “orthodox” churches, some Christians pray in this manner to this day. This said, Muslims do make their supplications in different ways. Some will raise the palms of their hands up towards the ceiling, while kneeling down, and ask God for that which is on their mind.
With regards to the words of the prayer from which you quoted, this is one which Muslims are encouraged to use when forming any decision or choosing the proper course. The Prophet instructed his followers to pray for guidance in all their concerns. There is a story I would like to tell you in connection to this. During the summer before I went to Stirling, I had my ups and downs; my periods of strength in faith and my periods of weakness. Now, there was one period, just after I had listened to that tape in fact, when I decided to pray this prayer – for the first time. I had not heard from Stirling about whether I would receive a place or not, and I had no idea what to do next. So that night I prayed two units of the voluntary “worship” prayer and then I uttered those words,
“O Allah, I seek Your counsel by Your knowledge and by Your power I seek strength and I ask You from Your immense favour, for verily You are able while I am not and verily You know while I do not and You are the Knower of the unseen. O Allah, if You know this affair, that I should go to Stirling to study Publishing Studies, to be good for me in relation to my religion, my life, and end, then decree and facilitate it for me, and bless me with it, and if You know this affair to be ill for me towards my religion, my life, and end, then remove it from me and remove me from it, and decree for me what is good wherever it be and make me satisfied with such.”When I awoke in the morning, barely sparing a thought about the words I had uttered the night before, I went downstairs and saw that the post had come. When I picked the envelopes up from the mat, I discovered a letter from the University of Stirling and in it I found that they had offered me a place. So now, whenever a matter arises for me, I do pray for guidance using these words, and I feel, for example, that I can rest assured if I don’t get a job from a certain interview when I have prayed in this manner.
On some of the other things you said about your belief in God and the way He answers our prayers, I can either quite agree with you because I believe the same or I can empathise with it because I felt that way during my “searching” period. Where you wrote, “My belief is quiet and personal. I believe there is one God who knows everything about me, my thoughts, my actions, my hopes and fears…” it brings a smile to my face, because this is how I was in my agnostic phase. And, of course, it is also true of my belief today, but the difference is that at that point, that was all there was to it.