To Understand the Significance of Prayer One Must Understand One’s Insignificance

I have often had young (and not so young) Muslims come and ask me about the significance of prayer. Often this inquiry is triggered by doubt and skepticism in their lives as the result of sins they’ve committed. But what is most curious about this line of questioning is the trajectory its taken to get here: it’s backwards. To understand the “why” of prayer, one must first understand one’s insignificance. What do I mean?

We are all sinners. While not born that way, we get to committing them with an uncanny natural talent. However, not only do we  routinely and severely underestimate God’s power of clemency but we often have no inkling of its scope. Hence, from this perspective, we can come to see a glint of God’s wisdom in prescribing five mandatory prayers on His creation. Take for example this encounter as related by Anas bin Malik:

A man came to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and said, “O Messenger of God!, I have committed a sin worthy of Divinely-ordained punishment! So execute the punishment on me”. The Messenger of God did not ask him about it  and then came time for prayer (salah). So [the man] performed the prayer with the Messenger of God صلى الله عليه وسلم. When the prayer was finished, the man stood up and said again: “O Messenger of God! I have committed a sin worthy of Divinely-ordained punishment, so execute the punishment on me”. He صلى الله عليه وسلم asked, “Did you pray (perform salah) with us?” To which the man replied, “yes”. The Messenger of God صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Assuredly God has forgiven you” (al-Bukhari and Muslim).

جاء رجل إلى النبي، صلى الله عليه وسلم فقال‏:‏ يا رسول الله أصبت حداً، فأقمه علي، وحضرت الصلاة، فصلى مع رسول الله، صلى الله عليه وسلم، فلما قضى الصلاة قال ‏:‏ يارسول الله إنى أصبت حداً، فأقم في كتاب الله‏.‏ قال “هل حضرت معنا الصلاة‏؟‏‏”‏ قال‏:‏ نعم ‏.‏ قال‏:‏ قد غفر لك‏”‏ ‏(‏‏(‏متفق عليه‏)‏‏)‏‏

We often attribute to ourselves what ought to only be attributed to God. If we took a step in the direction of trying to grasp God’s magnanimity and all-encompassing mercy, we might equally be capable of understanding our own insignificance, for who are we to adjudicate in His Place? After all, God says Himself: “And God forgives all sins” (Qur’an, 39: 53). If we could begin that process that we just might begin to get out of our prayer what we ought to be getting out of it: expiation. So pray, and let prayer do its thing.