Worship is a relationship natural to the human being.  How a person establishes his (or her) link to whom or to what he chooses (or allows himself) to worship will define how well he can successfully fulfill his purpose in life.  The quality of his choices is linked to both his personal freedom and his personal slavery.  Must a person live as a “slave” in order to be truly “free”?   How does Islam define these concepts?

Worship and Freedom

The two English words, “worship” and “slavery,” are equally valid translations from the same Arabic root, < ع –  ب  – د >  or  < ‘ – B – D >.  The Arabic concept is that when you ‘worship’ someone you become committed to his ways so much so that, in effect, you behave as his ‘slave,’ his ‘devoted servant.’ This means you willingly submit yourself —through an act of considered and free will, not through compulsion— to his requirements, with the intent to please him (or her).  ‘Slavery’ is a strong word and so is the Muslim’s commitment to love and imitate Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) in his worship of God. This commitment extends to all of life in comformance to God’s Guidance, which was given through the Prophet (ﷺ) for mankind.

The human being must make  everyday, ongoing choices. He can choose to be a slave to  any of the following types of masters:

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  • His desires: He is self-induling
  • People: He tries to please people and seeks their love.
  • God: Each person has his own details of worship based on the gifts, talents, skills and abilties with which God has blessed him—in addition to the formal rituals that Prophet Muhammad modeled for all Muslims.

Freedom in Islam is designed to liberate people from being slaves to other people or to their own harmful impulses. Instead, Islam  makes people committed ‘slaves,’ or dutiful servants,’ to the one and only true Lord, who  is God, their Creator. Without this freedom from false ‘deities,’ people would be slaves to, and worshippers of,  other slaves! That is the meaning of the Islamic testmony of faith: “There is no deity except God.” We only harm ourselves if we ‘deify’ —that means, if we substitute for God—  anyone or anything other than God. The emissary of the Islamic Army meant exactly this when he said to the Persian leader Rostam:

“We have been sent by God to rid His men from the slavish bonds to their fellow men and to make them the slaves/worshippers devoted to none but God.”

The Meaning of Worship

Worship in Islam is not limited strictly to the rituals.  Worship includes all our deeds, even the proper fulfillment of  our worldly daily deeds, such as working to make a living, eating, drinking or even having sex, as long as we intend it to comply with the ways of God — because our Prophet taught that our deeds will be judged by God based on our intentions.

The Messenger of God (ﷺ) said: “Actions are [accounted] but by intentions and every man shall have but that which he intended. Whosoever has emigrated for the sake of Allah and His messenger, then his emigration was for Allah and His messenger. Whosoever emigrated for the sake of worldly gain, or a woman [whom he desires] to marry, then his emigration is for the sake of that which [moved him] to emigrate.”  (Bukhari 1: 1: 1)

It is worship, for example, when you choose to eat beef or lamb to avoid pork. It is worship when you choose to drink water, juice or milk to avoid alcohol.

Ibn ‘Abbas said, “There are 360 joints and each of them owes charity every single day. Every good word is charity. A man’s helping his brother is charity. A drink of water which he gives is charity. Removing something harmful from the road is charity.” (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad 24, 4, graded Sahih by Al-Albani)

It is worship when you choose to have sex with your wife to avoid adultery. It is worship whenever you choose to do something religiously allowed or preferred, in order for you to avoid sin.

Abu Dharr reported:

The Messenger of God (ﷺ) said: “For every declaration of the glorification of God there is a charity, every praise of His is a charity, every declaration that He is One is a charity, enjoining of good is a charity, forbidding of that which is evil is a charity, and sexual intercourse (with one’s wife) is a charity.” [The Companions] said: “Messenger of God, is there reward for him who satisfies his sexual passion among us?” He said: “Tell me, if he were to devote it to something forbidden, would it not be a sin on his part? Similarly, if he were to devote it to something lawful, he should have a reward.” Sahih Muslim 1006)

Conditions of Acceptable Worship

There are two conditions in order for worship to be valid, accepted by God, and rewarded:

  • Sincerity: The act of worship should be devoted to pleasing God. God says:

And they were not commanded except to worship God, [being] sincere to Him in religion, inclining to truth. [Surah Al-Bayyinah, 98:5]

  • Prescription: The acts of worship should be in accordance with the way which Allah has explicitly prescribed for worship, which is accomplished by following Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) in the laws and exemplary practices he has brought:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Pray as you have seen me praying.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari Book 1, Vol  1, Hadith  604)

It is clear that the Prophet’s examplary practice or endorsement was setting a precedent for his community of believers.

Sa’d b. Ibrahim reported:

I asked Qasim b. Muhammad about a person who had three dwelling houses and he willed away the third part of every one of these houses; he (Qasim b. Muhammad) said: “All of them [the willed away parts] could have been combined in one house [and been beneficial];” and then said: “‘A’isha informed me that God’s Messenger (ﷺ) said: ‘He who did any act for which there is no sanction from our endorsement, that is to be rejected.'”  (Sahih Muslim 1718 b)

For example, making a living is considered as rewardable worship if your work is something allowed in Islam, accompanied by a good intention, performed with excellence, and it does not keep you away from practicing your religious obligations, such as prayer and fasting.

Complementary Brands of Worship: Ritualistic and Practical  

So, worship in Islam is of two different types: ritualistic (legislated) and practical. Ritualistic worship is how to respond to your Creator through prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage.  (While these practices are prescribed in the Quran and spelled out for us by the example and instructions of the Prophet, it is not our purpose to elaborate on these here.) Practical worship is how to respond to yourself and the whole creations in general—in honesty, justice, mercy, integrity, tranquility, chastity, virtue … etc.

Figure  1  compares these two complementary and mutaully dependent modes of worship.

Worship in Islam
    Ritualistic (Legislated)  Practical
 How to respond to your creator. How to respond to yourself and to other creations,   including animals and all life forms.
 Prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. Honesty, justice, mercy, integrity, tranquility, chastity,   virtue … etc.
 Needs the practical worship to be valid   and accepted. Needs  correct and sincere intention in order to be valid   and acceptable.

(Figure 1)

 The Great Worth of Practical Worship

God is worthy of worship and humans are the benefactors when they worship their Creator.  In fact, as we accumulate its promised rewards, like compounding credit to our account, we come closer to our Lord.

How to ensure that we receive the maximum benefits of our worship? Practical worship is not valid and will not be accepted without proper intention, and ritualistic worship is not valid and will not be accepted unless the practical worship is valid and accepted.  This is because your rituals have no meaning if they are not translated into your daily life. Practical worship is about how to handle yourself and your fellow creations. . Practical worship is very dear to God; the lack of it is just as repulsive to Him.

Narrated Ibn `Umar:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “A woman entered the (Hell) Fire because of a cat which she had tied up, neither giving it food nor setting it free to eat from the vermin of the earth. ”   (Sahih al-Bukhari 3318)

Actually, bad character, the Prophet said (below), spoils a deed just like vinegar spoils honey. As with the example of Abel’s treatment of  Cain in the Quran—  God does not accept the deeds of the non-righteous.

Indeed, God accepts only from the righteous. [Surah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:27]

As the prophet taught us, God is good and does not accept other than what is good. So he will not accept your worship if you continue to make a living from  sinful means, or if you do refuse to develop a wholesome source of earning a living.

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:

O people, God is good and He therefore, accepts only that which is good. And God commanded the believers as He commanded the Messengers by saying: “O Messengers, eat of the good things, and do good deeds; verily I am aware of what you do” (23:51). And He said: “O those who believe, eat of the good things that We gave you” (2:172). He then made mention of a person who travels widely, his hair disheveled and covered with dust. He lifts his hand towards the sky (and thus makes the supplication): “O Lord, O Lord,” whereas his diet is unlawful, his drink is unlawful, and his clothes are unlawful and his nourishment is unlawful. How can then his supplication be accepted?  (Sahih Muslim 1015)

Nor will your prayer be valid or accepted if you curse, steal, shed blood, or harm others.

Abu Hurairah (May God bepleased with him) reported:

The Messenger of God (ﷺ) said, “Do you know who the bankrupt is?” They said: “The bankrupt among us is one who has neither money with him nor any property”. He said, “The real bankrupt of my Ummah would be he who would come on the Day of Resurrection with Salat, Saum and Sadaqah (charity), (but he will find himself bankrupt on that day as he will have exhausted the good deeds) because he reviled others, brought calumny against others, unlawfully devoured the wealth of others, shed the blood of others and beat others; so his good deeds would be credited to the account of those (who suffered at his hand). If his good deeds fall short to clear the account, their sins would be entered in his account and he would be thrown in the (Hell) Fire.”  (Sahih Muslim 2581)

Your charity will not be valid or accepted if you humiliate the poor.

O you who have believed, do not invalidate your charities with reminders of your generosity or by injury as does one who spends his wealth [only] to be seen by the people and does not believe in God and the Last Day. His example is like that of a [large] smooth stone upon which is dust and is hit by a downpour that leaves it bare. They are unable [to keep] anything of what they have earned. And God does not guide the disbelieving people. [Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:264]

And your fasting will not be valid or accepted if you lie.

Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “If one does not stop lying and false conduct, Allah has no need that he should abstain from his food and his drink.”   (Al-Bukhari 5,684)

But on the other hand, your practical worship could be the reason why God would forgive your sins.

Narrated Abu Huraira:

God’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “A prostitute was forgiven by God, because, passing by a panting dog near a well and seeing that the dog was about to die of thirst, she took off her shoe, and tying it with her head-cover she drew out some water for it. So, God forgave her because of that.”  (Sahih al-Bukhari 3321)

God forgives people in response to their praiseworthy practical worship because good manners are the goal and the purpose of the Islamic message.

Yahya related to me from Malik that he had heard that the Messenger of God (ﷺ) said,

“I was sent to perfect good character.” (Muwatta Malik, 47, 8)

Prophet Muhammad gave us examples of these good character traits in the following statement:

‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr bin Al-‘as (May God be pleased with them) reported:

A man asked the Messenger of God (ﷺ): “Which act in Islam is the best?” He (ﷺ) replied, “To feed (the poor and the needy), and to greet everyone, whether you know [him] or you do not.” (Al-Bukhari 6,1 and Muslim).

Also, being characterized by practical worship is the definition of the believing Muslim. The Prophet did not define the believing Muslim as the one who prays, gives charity, fasts, or performs pilgrimage. Rather,

It was narrated from Abu Hurairah that:

The Messenger of God (ﷺ) said: “The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe, and the believer is the one from whom the people’s lives and wealth are safe.” (Sunan al-Nasa’i 4995, graded Sahih  by Darussalam)

Over all, practical worship is the best way to invite people to Islam, because a Muslim can be an advocate of Islam without speaking a word. People are much more affected by seeing deeds than by hearing words. That is why Prophet Muhmmad considers the best person to be the one most beneficial to others, and the best deed to be the deed that causes happiness to others, such as helping and supporting the sad, the debtor, and the hungry. These practical forms of worship are  better even than the worship for one month in the second holiest mosque… the mosque of Medina, where Muslims pay thousands of dollars to travel and pray there just for few days!

On the authority of Ibn Umar who said:

‘A man came to the Prophet  (ﷺ)  and said: ‘O Messenger of God! Which of the people are the most beloved to God and which of the actions are most beloved to God?’  The Messenger of God  (ﷺ) said: The most beloved people to God are those that bring the most benefit to other people, and the most beloved of deeds to God —be He Exalted and Glorified— is bringing happiness upon a Muslim or removing a worry from him, or paying his debt, or removing his hunger. For me, to walk with a brother in order to assist him is more beloved to me than to stay in this mosque [Masjid al-Madînah] in worship for a month. Whoever holds back his anger, God will cover his faults. Whoever suppresses his rage, even though he is in a position to satisfy his anger, if he wished, then God will secure his heart on the Day of Resurrection. And whoever walks with his brother to fulfill his need until he secures it for him, God will secure his feet for him on the day when feet are unsteady. And bad character will spoil a deed just like vinegar spoils honey.”  (Taken from Silsilah Ahadîth Al-Sahîhah of Shaykh Al-Albaani. No. 906)

(Collected by Abu Ya’lah. Source: al-Muʻjam al-Awsaṭ 6192, graded Sahih  by Al-Albani)

Faith and Practical worship

Your faith is not an empty word. It has its own ‘right’ to be applied in your life. It has conditions that must  be fulfilled in order for it to be valid before your Creator.

Prophet Muhammad  (ﷺ) said: “Whoever says, ‘I believe that there is no deity except God’ [and gives this affirmation] its due right will enter paradise.” The Companions asked him: “What is its due  ‘right’?” He said: “To keep away from what God forbids.”

Practical worship is the condition for faith to be accepted as valid; this means that your faith is not valid unless  your practical worship is valid. That is why the prophet told his Companions that they should do good deeds if they really believe.

On the authority of Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him), that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said:

“Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent.”

“Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should honor his neighbor. “

“Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should be hospitable his guest.”

(Al-Bukhari; Muslim;  40 Hadith  of Nawawi, 15)

But on the other hand, practical worship is not rewarded by God if you did not intend it specifically to please God, to be in confority with His ways. Thus, without faith an act of worship is not valid and is not acceptable to Him.

The example of those who disbelieve in their Lord is [that] their deeds are like ashes which the wind blows away forcefully on a stormy day; they are unable [to keep] a [single] thing from what they earned. That is what extreme error is. [Surah Ibrâhîm, 14:18]

 The Human Need for Worship

God tells us in the Quranwhy He created us.

And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me. [Surah Al-Dhâriyât, 51:56]

So, worship is the aim of our existence, the goal of our creation and the purpose of our life. But why? Does God need our worship? Of course, not. He is self-sufficient, so it is we who need Him, not Him who needs us.

I do not want from them any provision, nor do I want them to feed Me. Indeed, it is [Me,] God who is the [continual] Provider, the firm possessor of strength. [Surah Al-Dhâriyât, 51:57-58]

So, why did God create us and tell us to intend all our deeds for Him and to do everything intentionally for Him? Why does He want us to do that?  And, by the way, which is it?  Did God create us to worship Him?  Or to be His representatives?

Now, behold! Your Lord said to the angels:   I am placing upon the earth a [human] successor [to steward it/be My representatives.]   [Surah al-Baqarah, 2:30]

Actually, there is no conflict between the two purposes:  God wants us to intend all our deeds for Him so as for us to be good representatives of Him, good stewards for Him on this earth. In the following verse, God explained His purpose in requiring our ritualistic and practical worshipping directed to Him as being our resulting righteousness:

O mankind, worship your Lord, who created you and those before you, that you may become righteous. [Surah al-Baqarah, 2:21]

If you are a representative you should intend everything you do for the one you represent, not for your own interests. The representative is obligated to submit himself to the one who is being represented.  In the case of Islam, submission to God is an  obligation, once a person has answered the call to follow his Creator’s way of life.. Islam is an Arabic word, which means “submission.” Islam is a religion whose followers submit themselves to their Creator… God and His Guidance..

Figure 2 shows graphically the purposes of our existence as a sequence of stages.

We are created by God…To worship God in a manner prescribed for us…So as to make us righteous…Thus qualifying us to represent God.

The Purpose of Man’s Existence

(Figure 2)


The representative should be closely connected with the one he represents;   worship is that connection between the representative and his Creator. The Arabic word for prayer is ” alat” which means ‘connection.’ So then, alat is your direct, authentic, daily re-connection with your Creator.

When Prophet Muhammad defined what excellence (iân) is in Islam, he said:

“It is to worship God as if you see Him, and although you cannot see Him, He is constantly watching over you.”  (40 Hadith, Nawawi)

Staying Mindful of God

So to sum up the meaning of worship (‘ibâdah) as prescribed in Islam:  Islamic worship —both ritualistic and practical— is designed to  make us mindful of God.  Our devotion (willful ‘slavery’) to pleasing God results in our pure intention to meet His standards of ritualistic acts of worship AND His standards of practical acts of worship, which benefit ourselves and others. By the two forms of worship (intentional self-“slavery”) working together, we are purified and made righteous before God, qualified to truly represent our Lord in this earthly life.  Both are defined for us through the Quran and the Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ).

Does our continual attention to worship mean we cannot have any interest in the worldly life? No. Of course, we can enjoy our worldly life, which topic we discuss elsewhere.

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Ayman Refaat

Ayman Refaat hails from Alexandria, Egypt and now resides in the United States of America, where he teaches as Adjunct Instructor of Arabic Language at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He also serves as Islamic Spiritual Guide at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth. Mr. Refaat holds several university degrees: Bachelors (1994) in Arabic Language and Literature, as well as in Oriental Language and Literature, from the University of Alexandria; Masters (2015) in Curriculum and Instruction, from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Among his publications in Arabic are several articles regarding Arabic and Hebrew Literature; also two books on Arabic grammar and rhetoric. English language publications include a set of three primary level books for learning Arabic starting with the alphabet. Forthcoming works: Liberate Islam: A Modern Rational View of Islam in its Original Sources; The Bell Curve of Civilizations - with focus on Islamic Civilization; The Purpose of Life in Islamic Spirituality. Also, he has given presentations on the theme of his book, The Bell Curve of Civilizations, at several churches in his area. Mr. Refaat is available for small group talks on Islamic subjects and may be contacted at ayman_refaat72@hotmail.com

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