The Esoterics (Batin) of Prayer

From Salah to Du‘a’

~Ismaili Gnostic

This post will address the exoteric (āhir), the esoteric (in), and the reality (aqīqah) of prayer (alāh) and their relationship to the rituals of the sharī‘ah, the practices of the arīqah, and the realities (aqā’iq) of universal spirituality.  In specific, the esoteric relationship between the formal alāh and the Ismā‘īlī Du‘ā’ will be addressed in great detail.

After walāyah, the most important Pillar of Islam is prayer (ṣalāh).  Prayer has been enjoined upon the believers for their own spiritual benefit.  According to the Prophet Muḥammad, “The prayer is the mi‘rāj of the believer.”

The word ṣalah may be derived from the root waṣalah (“to connect, to arrive”).  Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw explains that the word ṣalāh means “to follow”, since the word muṣallī refers to a horse that follows its leader (sābiq).  Both these meanings become relevant in explaining the esoteric meaning (bāṭin) of ṣalāh.

The Qur’ān uses the term ṣalāh in a wide variety of contexts (the prayers of the believers, the prayer of the Prophet, the blessings of the Prophet, the blessings of God and His Angels, etc) and the word ṣalāh (plural: ṣalawāt) in the Qur’ān did yet not have the specific connotation of the daily ritual Ṣalāh (see below) which is practiced by Muslims today.

Ṣalāh: The Exoteric Prayer (ẓāhirī ṣalāh)

The exoteric dimension (ẓāhir) of prayer is called Ṣalāh (note the capitalized ṣ) or Namāz – and this is the daily ritual prayer practiced by most Muslims in present times.  This Ṣalāh consists of the following stages:
1)      takbīr (glorification)
2)      qiyām (standing)
3)      qirā’ah (recitation of Sūrah Fātiḥah and another surāh)
4)      rukū‘ (genuflection)
5)      sujūd (prostration)
6)      tashahhūd (testification)
7)      salām (salutation)

This exoteric prayer, Salāh, is prayed in the direction of the exoteric qiblah – the Ka‘bah in Makkah.  The purpose of these bodily gestures is ‘ibadah – the worship or servitude of God.
According to the sharī‘ah – as interpreted by the majority of Muslim schools of law (including the Fātimid Ismā‘īlī law codified in the Da‘ā’im al-Islām) – there are five daily times for the Ṣalāh or Namāz: fajr (just before dawn), ẓuhr (noon), ‘aṣr (afternoon), maghrib (just after sunset) and ‘ishā’ (at night).  The major congregational Ṣalāh during the week is the Friday Ṣalāh in which the ẓuhr (noon) and ‘aṣr (afternoon) prayers are often combined.
In the Ṣalāh, the central emphasis is upon the performance of the above actions – in which there is complete uniformity amongst worshippers.  The question of which Qur’ānic surahs are actually recited varies from person to person – there is no set programme of recitation (although there are recommended sūrahs).  But there is no difference when it comes to the bodily actions performed in the Ṣalāh – this is because the Ṣalāh, as the exoteric prayer, is a worship primarily performed by the physical body.


The Ta’wil (Esoteric Interpretation) of Salāh:

In its earliest period, the Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Ṭarīqah of Islam was simply known as the Da‘wah – a word meaning “calling”, “summons”, or “convocation”.  The Ismā‘īlī path of Islam defined itself as a path which “summons” humanity to the recognition of tawḥīd – the absolute oneness of God – through the recognition of the Imām.  It is the essential role of the Imām to summon human souls to tawḥid as stated on a Fāṭimid coin:

The Imam Ma‘ad [al-Muizz] summons to the tawhid of God, the Absolute.

To recognize the walāyah of the Imām and give one’s bay‘ah to him is to “respond” to the “Calling” (Da‘wah) and begin a spiritual journey towards the recognition of tawḥīd.  The spiritual journey within the Da‘wah includes many levels of initiation, purification, and realization up to the recognition of tawḥīd.  It is in such a context that we now turn toward the ta’wīl and bāṭin of the Ṣalāh.
The bāṭinī ta’wīl of the Ṣalāh is explained by Sayyidnā Qāḍī al-Nu‘mān in his Asās al-Ta’wīl as follows:
“The outward (ẓāhir) blessing of salat is in performing it outwardly, including all its genuflections and prostrations, compulsory and permissible [components].  Correspondingly, the hidden (bāṭin) blessing lies in establishing the Summons of Truth (da‘wat al-ḥaqq) in every generation, day and night, as is done in performing the visible salat.  In establishing the Da‘wah there is benefit for this world and the next and benefit for the worshipper.  The Messenger of God – God’s prayer and peace be upon him – said: “I derive pleasure from prayer”, meaning in its ẓāhir and bāṭin.”
- Sayyedna Qāḍī al-Nu‘mān, (Ta’wīl al-Da‘ā’im, Vol. 1, 176)

The ritual of Ṣalāh is thus an outer symbol (mathāl) for the Da‘wah which is its inner meaning (bāṭin).  Thus, Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw writes that: “The ta’wīl of the Ṣalāh is the Da‘wah.”  Dr. Farouk Topan expands on the relationship between the Salāh and the Da ‘wah as follows:
Ṣalāh has been made obligatory to all Muslims as it is one of the channels through which God showers His bounties on human beings.  However, according to the Qur’an (31:20), mankind receives God’s bounties both in the realm of the ‘seen’ (ẓāhir) and the ‘unseen’ (bāṭin).  Ṣalāh encompasses both.  Its texts, gestures and even canons constitute the ‘seen’.  On the other hand, the bounties in the realm of the hidden, the esoteric and the ‘unseen’ relate to the principles of the Ismā‘īlī Ṭarīqah (path) and its practices.  The bounties in that realm are channelled through the institution of the Da‘wah, an organization whose basic aim was to ‘call’ or ‘invite’ selected people to an understanding of the inner meaning of faith.  Just as, on a wider level, all Muslims are called to prayer through the Adhān, so, in a more restricted way, the Da‘wah calls on particular individuals and invites them to receive the esoteric knowledge of the Ṭarīqah.”
- Dr. Farouk Topan, (Swahili and Ismaili Perceptions of Salat, published in Islamic Prayer across the Indian Ocean, by David J. Parkin, Stephen C. Headly, 108)

This also means that each of the seven stages of the Ṣalāh symbolizes one of the stages of initiation in the Da‘wah.  This is proven by the etymology of the word ṣalāh which means “to follow”.  Therefore, the esoteric meaning of ṣalāh is to “follow” the Da‘wah of the Prophets and the Imāms.   Each stage of the Ṣalāh has ta’wīli meaning which is the corresponding bātinī reality in the Da‘wah:


1) The ta’wīl of takbīr is to take the bay‘ah and enter into a covenant (‘ahd, mīthāq) with the Imām of the time.  During the takbīr the worshipper remains silent and raises his hands to his ears.  This symbolizes the fact that when the murīd pledges the bay‘ah to the Imām, he agrees to “hear and obey” the Imām. The late Shaykh Martin Lings has explained this from a Sufī perspective:
“In the takbir, which opens the Ṣalāh, the hand placed on the ear is a ritual enactment of the words ‘we hear and obey’ which follow the Qur’anic credo (2:287).  The hand here symbolizes the free will, which man alone of all earthly creatures possesses and which makes him alone capable of deliberate obedience, unlike animals which are bound to follow their instincts.”
- Martin Lings, (A Return to the Spirit, 167)

2) The ta’wīl of qiyām (standing) is that the murīd stands by the promises of his covenant (mīthāq) with the Imām.
3) The ta’wīl of the qirā’a (recitation) is that the murīd listens to the wisdom-filled discourse of the dā‘ī.  The actual recitation of the Qur’ānic sūrahs is the tanzīl (exoteric revelation) of the Qur’ān while the discourse of the dā‘ī contains the ta’wīl of the Qur’ān.
4) The ta’wīl of ruku’ (genuflecton) is the murīd’s recognition of the Bāb (the person who serves as the “proof” or “gate) of the Imām in the Minor Cycle and the Bāb of the Enunciating Prophet (Nāṭiq) in the Major Cycle.
5)  The ta’wīl of sujūd (prostration) is the murīd’s recognition of the Imām in the Minor Cycle and the Enunciating Prophet (Nāṭiq) in the Major Cycle.
6)  The ta’wīl of tashahhūd is the recognition of the dā‘ī who summons to the recognition of the Imām.
7)  The ta’wīl of the salām (when the worshipper turns to his right and his left and salutes the persons next to him) is that the murīd has now attained to the knowledge and wisdom to speak and teach others in the Da‘wah.
Each stage of the Da‘wah forms a part of the gnostic or psychic worship (‘ibādah ‘ilmīyyah wa nafsīyyah) which gives life and meaning to the bodily or practical worship (‘ibādah ‘amalīyyah) of the Ṣalāh.  The seven stages of the Ṣalāh collectively symbolize the Minor Cycle of Seven Imāms through whom the Da‘wah is sustained in every age.  Just as the Ṣalāh is performed in the direction of the exoteric qiblah, the murīd journeys through the stages of the Da‘wah in the direction of the esoteric qiblah – as stated by Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw:
“The exterior meaning of ritual prayer is the worship of God with the body by advancing towards the qiblah of bodies, which is the Ka‘ba, the house of God (the exalted) in Mecca.  The esoteric interpretation (ta’wīl-i bāṭin) of the ritual prayer is the worship of God with the rational soul by turning, in the quest for knowledge of the Book and the Law (sharī‘at), towards the qiblah of spirits, which is God’s House, which is a house in which God’s knowledge resides – the Imām of Truth.”
- Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw, (Between Reason and Revelation, 272)

The five times of Ṣalāh as mandated in the sharī‘ah likewise have an esoteric meaning.  Since Ṣalāh as such symbolizes the Da‘wah, the five prayer times symbolize the five Da‘wahs of five great Speaker-Prophets (Nāṭiqs) of God who preceded the Prophet Muḥammad: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.  The Prophet Muḥammad instituted the five daily times for Ṣalāh as an allusion or symbol for their respective Da‘wahs.  Whenever a Prophet or Imām is commanded to “establish the Ṣalāh” (aqīmū’l-ṣalat) in the Qur’ān, the inner meaning is “establish the Da‘wah of the True Religion”.  Sayyidnā Ja‘far ibn Manṣur al-Yaman explains that:
The five [Nāṭiqs] institute the Da’wah for the Sixth Nāṭiq (Prophet Muḥammad), the seal of the Messengers, the last of the Prophets, because after him there will not arise a prophet or messenger, as he said to his wasi: Ali is to me as Aaron was to Moses, except that there shall be no prophet after me. So they allude to him and spread the good news about him and therefore the duty of prayer was prescribed five times every day and night.  In its true reality, salat is the Da’wah.” - Sayyednā Ja‘far ibn Mansūr al-Yaman, (Ta’wīl al-Zakāt, 69-70)
Du‘ā’: The Esoteric Prayer (bāṭinī ṣalāh)

The word du‘ā’ simply means “call” or “supplication” and can refer to any informal or personal prayer.  However, in this context, the word Du‘ā’ refers to the daily ritual prayer of the Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Ṭarīqah of Islam.  To understand the context and the nature of the Ismā‘īlī Du‘ā’ and why it differs from the exoteric Ṣalāh, it must be remembered that the gestures and actions of the Salāh symbolize the stages of initiation in the Da‘wah.
The Ismā‘īlī Ṭarīqah is an esoteric branch of Islam and therefore its ritual practices belong to the bāṭinī realm of the tarīqah in contrast to the ẓāhirī realm of the sharī‘ah.  This is most evident in the layout of the Ismā‘īlī Du‘ā’.
The Ismā‘īlī Du‘ā’ consists of six parts.  Each part contains a Qur’ānic verse (or verses), a supplication (du‘ā’), an affirmation (ithbāt) of the Imām of the Time, and prostration (sujūd).  The overall meaning of the Ismā‘īlī Du‘ā’ can be seen by simply noting the themes and order of the Qur’ānic verses recited through the six parts:

Part 1: Sūrah al-Fatiḥah whose main theme is the ‘ibādah (worship) of God
Part 2: Sūrah al-Nisa (4:59 – “O you who believe, obey God, and obey the Messenger and the holders of authority amongst you”) and Surah Yasīn (36:12 – “And We have encompassed all things in the Manifest Imām”) whose main themes are obedience (tā‘ah) to God’s representatives.
Part 3: Sūrah al-Mā’idah (5:67 – “O Messenger, proclaim that which has been revealed to ou by your Lord…”) whose main theme is the declaration (tablīgh) of the Imamat.
Part 4: Sūrah al-Fath (48:10 – “Verily, those who give their bay‘ah unto you( Muhammad), they give their bay‘ah unto God Himself…”) whose main theme is bay‘ah/mithāq (covenant).
Part 5: Sūrah al-‘Anfal (8:27 – “O you who believe, do not betray God and His Messenger and do not betray your trusts (amānāt) while you know”) whose main theme is trust (amānah).
Part 6: Sūrah al-Ikhlāṣ (112 – “Say: He is God, the Unique.  God is Independent.  He did not beget nor was He begotton.  And there is none like unto him”) whose main theme is the recognition (ma‘rifah) of tawḥīd.