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  • Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

The Essence of Religion

The only true religion in God’s sight is complete submission to God.

And those who were given the Book disagreed only out of rivalry, after knowledge had been given to them—he who denies God’s signs should know that God is swift in His reckoning.

—The Quran, 3:1


What God most earnestly desires from human beings is worship. The Quran says: “I have not created jinn and mankind except to worship Me.” (51:56) There are numerous such verses in the Quran which elaborate on how the prophets were sent for this very purpose, that is, to warn or to remind man of this responsibility. (16:36). This is so important a matter that if a man cannot find opportunities for worship in his own country, he is enjoined to leave it for some other place (4:97).

The dictionary defines worship as bowing before someone and humbling oneself. “The essence of worship is fearfulness and humility,” says Lisan al-Arab. The dictionary meaning of the word is also its canonical meaning. Abu Hayyan says: “Prayer means humility: this is the consensus of religious scholars” (Al Bahr al Muhit, Vol. 1, p. 23). That is why the Quran uses the word “arrogance” as the antonym of worship. It says, “Those who are too arrogant to worship Me will certainly enter Hell.” (40:60).

Although worship’s real connotations are humility and fearfulness, when the word is used in relation to God, it also includes the concept of love. Ibn Kathir writes: “According to the dictionary, worship stands for lowliness. In the Islamic Shari‘ah it is used to express a condition of extreme love coupled with extreme humbleness and apprehension.” (Tafsir al Quran, Vol. 1, p. 25). Ibn Taymiyah says: “The word worship expresses a mixture of extreme humility and extreme love.” (Pamphlet on Ubudiyah, p. 28) Ibn Qayyem also writes:

“There are two components of worship: extreme love and extreme humility” (Tafsir Ibn Qayyem, p. 65).

The essence of worship then is the adoption of an attitude of humility before God. In the Quran, this is expressed by different Arabic words, such as Khashiyyah, Tadhurru, Ikhbat, Inabat, Khushu, Khudu and Qunut, etc. Enshrined in each of these words is the concept of God-consciousness. To worship God means utter prostration of oneself before Him. The Being before whom the act of worship is performed is no tyrant or tormentor but an extremely kind and compassionate Being, to whom we owe limitless blessings. So this expression of lowliness before Him is necessarily tinged with love.

The relation of man to God is the relation of extreme humility with an extremely beloved Being. At the very moment when man is shivering in awe of God, when his eyes fill with tears at the thought of Him, his best feelings are even then reserved for his Lord, and he draws closer to God in great attachment. Man, then, finds himself rapt in a love of the greatest poignancy. Though his humility in the presence of God is undoubtedly the result of fear, this fear is not of the kind produced by the sight of a fearful object. It is a feeling which no single word can properly convey. It is a mixed feeling of extreme hope and extreme apprehension, and man is never able to decide which of the two is to be preferred—hope or apprehension.

It is a situation of love and fear in which man runs towards the very Being he fears, hoping to receive from Him His divine blessings. It is a state of mental anguish, yet at the same time it is a state of complete solace.

Thus we learn that prayer is basically a psychological experience rather than an external event. Man, in the last analysis, is a sensitive thinking being: so in its definitive form, prayer in relation to man, is the expression of an inner state rather than of an external happening. The Prophet has clearly stated that “righeousness is a thing of the heart.” According to the Quran, the essence of worship is to be God-fearing. This finds expression in a hadith. Once the Prophet observed pointing to his heart, ‘The fear of God lies here,’ (At Taqwa ha huna) (Bukhari).

The Quran states: ‘O men, serve your Lord Who has created you and those who have gone before you, so that you may guard yourselves against evil’ (2:21).

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