What is Salah? 

Salah is a form of worshipful, ritualized prayer that is performed five times a day during prescribed time periods. Salah is an imperative practice for Muslims. Salah is designed to include physical, mental and spiritual aspects of worship. The purpose of salah is to remember Allah and to be fully present to him.

Before engaging in Salah, the worshiper must undergo purification, in particular, ritual absolution, or Wudu. In order to understand the fullness of the Five Pillars, it is important to understand the place of purity associated with all acts of worship in the Islamic faith. 

Why is purity important in Islam?
Our beloved Prophet once explained, “Purity is half of faith (īmān). If you try your best to remain pure at all times, Allāh will love you; “Allāh loves those who purify themselves.
— The First Steps in Practising Islam, Imam Omar Subedar

Outer, physical purification takes two different forms, bathing (ghusl) and ritual ablution (wudu).

Ritual ablution (wudu) is a prerequisite for ritual prayer, salah. Without it, the salah is unacceptable to Allah. These are the obligations for performing wudu:

  • to wash the entire face - technically the face is vertically from the point where the hairlne normally begins to the bottom of the chin, and horizontally from earlobe to earlob
  • to wash the arms up to and including the elbows
  • to wipe a quarter of the heat with a moist hand
  • to wash the feet up to and including the ankles

There are further details here as well, if one wishes to perform the ritual ablution as did the Prophet Mohammad.

Bathing, (ghusl)  is required when you are in a state of major ritual impurity. This occurs when you have been engaged in sexual activity, and for woman, when she is at the end of menstrual cycle or at the end of her postnatal bleeding. Bathing consists of:

  • gargling the mouth
  • cleaning the nose with water
  • washing the entire body so not a single hair is left dry

These are the three bathing activities required by the Muslim scriptures. There are further details suggested, but not required, that reflect the manner in which the Prophet Mohammad performed his bathing. 

Ritual ablution begins with an intention:
Say bismillāh, In the name of Allah.

Ritual ablution ends with this recitation:

شْهَدُ أَنْ ل َّإِلٰهَ إِلَّ اللّٰهُ وَحْدَهٗ لَ شَرِيْكَ لَهٗ وَ
أَشْهَدُ أنَّ مُحَمَّدًا عَبْدُهٗ وَرَسُولُهُ. اَللّٰهُمَّ اجْعَلْنِيْ
مِنَ التَّوَّابِيْنَ واجْعَلْنِيْ مِنَ المُتَطَهِّرِيْنَ.

Ash′hadu allā ilāha illallāhu waḥdahū lā sharīka
lahū wa-ash′hadu anna Muḥammadan ʿabduhū
wa-rasūluh. Allāhumma jʿalnī min at-tawwābīna
wa-jʿalnī mina l-mutaṭahhirīn.

I testify that there is no god but Allāh, who
is One and without any partner. I testify that
Muḥammad is Allāh’s servant and messenger. O
Allāh, make me of those who repent often and
make me of those who keep themselves pure.
— The Five First Steps in Islam, Imam Omar Subedar

What are the Pre-Conditions of salah? There are several, but all collecting around purity - of thought and of body - and intention and focus.

  • you must be ritually pure from major and minor ritual impurities
  • you body and clothes must be free from impure substances(urine, faecal matter, seminal fluid, blood, wine saliva of dogs, pigs, predatory animals
  • Your private areas must be covered
  • the place where you will perform salah must be clean
  • you must ensure that the time of salah has begun
  • you must face the ritual prayer direction
  •  You must make an intention to perform a particular salah prior to beginning that slah
  • you must perform your previously missed ritual prayers before performing the current salah, provided that the number of your missed ritual prayers is less than five and there is enough time for ou to perform them all before the time of the current salah runs out. 

The physical aspect of the salah consists of starting in a standing position, then bowing, then prostrating oneself, and then sitting. The mental aspect includes the memorizing and repetition of scriptures from the Quran. And the spiritual aspect of the salah consists in the intention for purity and devotion before Allah.

There are five different sets of these prayers: dawn, mid-morning, afternoon, sundown, late evening/early night. The importance of the prayers is that they are done regularly, punctually and with concentration and care. The prayers may be done anywhere, provided the conditions of cleanliness and intention are met. But it preferred that they are done communally in a mosque when possible.

There are numerous rules that boundary salah, all of them eliminating distractions: no noise, sneezing, observing others, wiping sweat or dust from the face etc. The salah is completely focused on the task before it – which is to concentrate on God, and God alone.

وَتَعَالٰى جَدُّكَ وَلَ إِلٰهَ غَيْرُكَ
Subḥānaka Allāhumma wa-bi-ḥamdika wa-ta-bāraka
smuka wa-ta ʿālā jadduka wa-lā ilāha ghayruk.
Glory be to you O Allāh with Your praises.
Your name is exalted and Your significance is
transcendent. There is no god besides You.

أَعُوْذُ بِاللّٰهِ مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ الرَّجِيْمِ.
Aʿūdhu billāhi mina sh-Shayṭāni r-Rajīm.
I seek Allāh’s protection from the
Satan who is banished.

بِسْمِ اللّٰهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ.
Bismillāhi r-Raḥmāni r-Raḥīm.160
[I begin] with Allāh’s name who is the
Most Merciful and the Ever Merciful.
— Opening prayers in the salah, The Five First Steps in Islam, Imam Omar Subedar

Sana Ullah, a Muslim American is the creator of an Instagram photo series, “Places You’ll Pray” She began it in January 2015 in response to negative feelings that had been expressed towards Muslims praying in public places. See below, both a link to her beautiful Instagram collection and an interview with her about it.