In the following extract taken from his monograph explaining the virtues and merits of dhikr – God’s remembrance and invocation, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751H/1350CE) takes us through the ascending degrees of prayer (salat):
‘With respect to prayer (salat), people are of five levels:
The first [degree] is of he who wrongs his own soul [35:32]; who is negligent [concerning it], and who falls short in his ablution as well as in the times, limits and essential pillars of the prayer.
The second is he who safeguards the times, limits, outward pillars and ablution, but is taken away by the devil’s whisperings and by stray thoughts, which he lacks the inner strength to resist.
The third is he who keeps the limits and essential pillars, and inwardly strives to repel the whisperings and stray thoughts. This person is occupied with striving against his Foe [the Devil], lest he rob him of his prayer. In prayer, he is engaged in jihad.
The fourth is he who stands in prayer, perfecting its rights, limits and pillars. His heart is engrossed in safeguarding its limits and rules, lest he miss any of them. Indeed, his entire focus is on performing the prayer as it ought to be performed; completely and perfectly. By this, concern for the prayer and devotion to his Lord absorb his heart.
The fifth degree is he who stands in prayer and establishes it as the fourth does, but along with this places his heart before his Lord. With this, he beholds his Lord (naziran bi qalbihi ilayhi), is vigilant before Him, and is filled with His love and glory; as if he sees and witnesses Him. Thus all whisperings and stray thoughts vanish, as the veil is lifted between him and his Lord. The difference between this person in his prayer and everyone else is as vast as the distance between heaven and earth. For he is occupied solely with his Lord, in which he finds his source of sheer delight.
[Of the five], the first kind of person is punished; the second admonished; the third redeemed; the fourth rewarded; and the fifth drawn close to his Lord, for his source of delight has been placed in prayer. Whoever is delighted by the prayer in this world, will be delighted by nearness to his Lord in this world and the next. And he who finds delight in God, delights and gladdens others. Whoever does not, leaves this world a loser.’1
1. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 55-6.