Salat is the ritual worship of the Muslim community; as worship through prayer, and it is distinguished from du’a, personal prayer or supplication by an individual or group. The words of salat are always in Arabic. It is derived from Syriac, or from Aramaic, where the root si’ means to bow or bend, the Arabic verb salla, to perform the salat, is derived from the noun.
The salat, one of the five pillars of the faith, is mentioned in the Qur’an as a duty performed by believers who give the Zakat, or alms. The times and regulations for the salat are given in detail in the hadith, and were eventually fixed at five times: Dawn, Noon, Afternoon, Sunset, and Night. According to tradition, Muhammad was given these instructions by Allah on the occasion of his Isra, Night Journey, to heaven.
The salat should be said in common in a mosque, especially the Noon prayer on Friday, jum’a. However, the Muslims may pray individually or in small groups, when one member is chosen as the Imam; and this may be in any ritually clean area, marked off by sutra. A prayer mat, sajjada, is commonly used. The salat must be performed facing the qibla, the direction of Mecca, which in a mosque is indicated by the mihrab.
Ritual ablution (wudu’, ghusl or tayammum) precedes the salat as appropriate. Ablution is divided into distinct movements, followed by formula. First, in a standing position facing the qibla, is the pronouncement of the my(y)a, intention, to perform the salat; then the takbir followed by the Fatiha and a verse or two from the Qur’an.
The movements then are ruku’, bending till the palms are level with the knees; kneeling; a prostration, supid, back again into a julus, between sitting and standing, another sujud, At most movements, the takbir is repeated.
This set of movements, from the standing position to the end of the second sujud, constitutes one rak’a, the number is fixed for each prayer time. After the final rak’a, in a sitting position, the worshipper pronounces the tashahhud (profession of faith, shahada); the prayer upon the Prophet Muhammad; finally the taslima, greeting, Al-Salam “alaykum” (Peace be upon you), even when the person is alone. Extra rak’as may be added by the individual. The ritual may vary slightly according to the madhhab, direction as to thought or teaching.
The salat, as an obligation upon all Muslims and a sign of submission and humility, and adherence to the Islamic community, is held to be a sign of the true believer, who thus, for his devout and conscientious regular worship, will gain admittance to paradise. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 843