What is Worship? - An Islamic Perspective

The dictionary defines worship as:
  • Reverent honour and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.
  • The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object.
  • The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed.

Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary describes it as:
  • Homage rendered to God which it is sinful (idolatry) to render to any created being (Ex. 34:14; Isa. 2:8). Such worship was refused by Peter (Acts 10:25,26) and by an angel (Rev. 22:8,9).

The above noted definitions apply to religious practices in general; Islam, however, is an exception. In fact, Islam does not have the word worship in its vocabulary. Instead, it has the concept of ‘Ibaadah, which is usually translated into English as “worship” for lack of a comparable word.

‘Ibaadah has a much more comprehensive meaning than “worship”. The essence of ‘Ibaadah is servitude, slavery, obedience and submission that is enthusiastic, unconditional, unreserved and eager, emanating from the heart and soul of a person because of one’s ardent love, reverence and devotion for Allaah, the exalted and Glorified. This is basically the reason this religion is called Islam -- obedience, submission and peace. Islam, thus, is the religion that brings peace to a person and to human society and its environment through obedience and submission to Allaah, the Infinite Creator and God of the universe.

Briefly, then, the pursuit of comprehensive peace through voluntary, enthusiastic and unconditional slavery, servitude, obedience and submission to Allaah out of love, reverence and devotion for Him is called ‘Ibaadah.

Islamic ‘Ibaadah has the following distinct features:

It is two dimensional – covering both the commissions and the omissions: A person performs ‘Ibaadah by doing good actions and by refraining from bad behaviour. Examples of the former are being honest, truthful, kind, charitable, giving, forgiving, helping others, etc. Examples of the second kind are keeping away from lying, cheating, breaking promises, drinking, gambling, being harsh, unkind or uncooperative, etc. Conversely, a sin is doing a bad action or not doing a good action.

It covers every aspect of life throughout one’s life: Islam considers the whole life as one unit. It cannot be broken down into secular and religious or carnal and spiritual segments. To perform Islamic ‘Ibaadah, people must do good things and avoid bad behaviour in every aspect of their life. Every good action is an ‘Ibaadah, every bad action is a sin. For example, earning livelihood by legal, honest and fair means is ‘Ibaadah, while acquiring any assets or resources through improper means is a sin. Similarly, normal love and sexual intimacy between duly married spouses is a good act and thus an ‘Ibaadah, but any act of sexual nature between non-spouses is a bad act and thus a sin. Or, enjoying nutritious food in moderation is ‘Ibaadah, but consuming harmful substances, wastage or exceeding limits is sinful. Or, removing things from people’s path that may hurt them or cause inconvenience is ‘Ibaadah, while throwing something on the way that may inconvenience people or cause hurt to a living entity or environment is a sinful action. Or, voting for the best, most deserving candidate is ‘Ibaadah, while supporting an undeserving or improper candidate is a sin. Those who do not vote will be considered supporting an improper competitor by default because their lack of support for the right candidate translates into helping the wrong candidate.

The act of ‘Ibaadah (doing good actions and refraining from bad actions) must be done for the pleasure of and in obedience to Allaah, the exalted and glorified. If it is done with some ulterior motive, it is considered a sin, not an ‘Ibaadah. For example, if charity is given for the pleasure of Allaah, it is an ‘Ibaadah; but if it is given to show off, to boast or to get some personal advantage out of it, it loses its value.

All actions must be goal oriented: The two primary goals of life for every Muslim are: to pursue personal excellence; and to establish peace, justice and magnanimity or excellence in the society. So whatever Muslims do must be congruent to these goals. Even the ritual acts of ‘Ibaadah must be goal oriented. For example, the goal of fasting is to help people develop and maintain ability of controlling oneself and one’s desires, resisting temptations and practising restraint. The goal of five-time daily worship (Salaah) is to remember Allaah so that He is in one’s conscious mind, which helps people avoid doing anything bad or indecent. The goal of compulsory charity (Zakaah) is to promote social justice in the society. Even the mundane actions of daily living must be goal oriented. They must be fulfilling one’s duties and obligations either to other human beings or to one’s own self. In others words, they should either be beneficial for the well being of others or one’s personal well being. If an action is not geared towards the betterment of anyone, it must be avoided because, in that case, it is a wastage of precious time. For example, playing a game for the benefit of exercise and developing motor skill is ‘Ibaadah but watching game on TV is a wastage of time.

Thus, everything done to fulfil Allaah’s plan for people (excelling in personal behaviour and establishing a viable, peaceful, fair and excellent human society), including moderate fulfillment of ‘carnal’ needs according to Islamic guidelines, is ‘Ibaadah. This summarizes the Islamic concept of ‘Ibaadah, which is usually translated as ‘worship’ for lack of an equivalent term in English.

One may ask: Do Muslims practise or understand this concept of ‘Ibaadah? The answer for the majority of Muslims is: No. The Muslims of today are like contemporary Christians, Jews or members of any other faith. The majority of people do not care to understand or practice their religion. But we are here to describe the concepts of the faith, not the actions of those who happen to claim the faith.

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