What Does Islam Really Mean By Worship?
The Qur’an says: Have you not seen that God has made subserviant to you whatever is in the heavens and earth, and immersed you in His graces, seen and unseen. [31:20]
This realisation, that we are immersed in God’s bounties, should inspire within us a profound and abiding sense of shukr or gratitude to God. This gratitude must be the dominant emotion in the lives of those men and women who acknowledge God’s love and honouring of them through the gifts, material and spiritual, He has conferred upon them.
As gratitude to God deepens in a believer’s soul, it turns into loving praise. A new flux is then set-up in the universe: God’s outpouring to man in the form of His favours and graces is now met with man’s corresponding praise of Him. But this praise is not easy. For no matter how strong the impulse behind it may be, it is hard to express ourselves in a manner worthy of addressing God. Just as when an ordinary man addresses some dignitary, or royalty, he expresses his respect most completely using certain protocols. Likewise, when we turn to God, we must find some way of presenting what we feel in a way befitting the presence of our Maker and Cherisher, who has given us all that we possess. This protocol we call “worship”. Whilst we may devise many ways of worship which grants us some satisfaction, the most devotional and reverent forms cannot be dreamed up by man; they are best granted directly by God.1
In classical Arabic, the word for worship is ‘ibadah – which is culled from the phrase, tariq mu‘abbadah – “a path that has been flattened and subdued [by being constantly walked over].” From here we get the notion of worship as an expression of subduing the soul in love and humility to God, manifesting itself in a wholehearted submission to Him.
Al-Qurtubi stated: ‘The injunctions of the Sacred Law (shari‘ah) are termed ‘worship’ because one does them by way of submitting and humbling oneself before God.’2
In essence, worship is a state wherein a person subdues their soul and surrenders it to God in loving obedience, hopeful expectation and healthy fear of His displeasure. Ibn Rajab says: ‘It must be known that worship is based on three fundamentals: fear, hope and love of God. Each one is essential, and intergrating the three is obligatory. This is why the pious predecessors (salaf) rebuked those who worshiped God with only one of these traits, ignoring the other two.’3
1. Consult: Shalabi, Islam: Religion of Life (USA: Starlatch Press, 2001), 47-8.
2. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 1:157.
3. Al-Takhwif min al-Nar (Beirut: Maktabah al-Mu‘ayyad, 1998), 26-7.